This post is a little late in the making, but it’s something I definitely wanted to bring up after my earlier post on ancestor veneration 101. If you missed out on that post or forgotten about the basics of working with your ancestors, take a look at that old post before reading this one. Who knows, you might have some new insights along the way, even if you did read it before!
So, when you get right down to it, everyone’s got ancestors, and ancestor veneration practices are available to everyone in pretty much any way. Every culture has some way to recognize ancestors, whether it’s nothing more than praying for the dead or culminating in a week of offering full burnt sacrifices at their tombs. For magicians, priests, and other spiritual practitioners, working with our ancestor is a powerful practice that we can adapt to our own cultures and traditions that can yield huge blessings, often without much of the fuss or hassle that other rituals might demand of us. After all, the dead live on through us, and we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us; working with our ancestors can often be mutually beneficial. Before any god or goddess, our ancestors should be and often are our first go-to spirit allies for defense, prosperity, and succor, and their insights can help guide us throughout our lives in so many ways, including teaching us new methods of working or simply easing things in difficult times.
But…well, there’s always gonna be some hitch or difficulty inherent in a practice, innit? Of course there is. When it comes to ancestor veneration, sure, there’s always the issue of doing rituals inappropriately or offering them things taboo to them within the culture, or desecrating their memories, or any other obvious-as-hell mistake you can make, but there’s one issue that we’re all (quite literally) familiar with: that one damn relative we just don’t get along with. Or two. Or a dozen. Or quite a bit more. While we can often ignore these troublesome relatives when they’re alive, putting up with them politely once or twice a year when we have to endure their presence for holiday dinners, it’s a little more tricky when they’re dead and hanging out at your ancestor shrine.
So, what can happen when a particular ancestor is acting up and causing problems? What sorts of problems can they make? Honestly, the effects can be as varied as the number of ways they can make your life better; they can interfere with your personal relationships among the living, cause health issues, stymie progress in the things you’re working forwards, or other things all the way to causing actual mayhem and chaos which can result in your injury or death. They might not do anything, of course, depending on how patient they might be with you or based on the type of relationship you have with them, but they might also just ignore your pleas for help when you actually need them to do something, or they can turn your other ancestors against you as well. It depends on the specific ancestor’s temperament, how badly they’re offended, and how badly they want to bring your attention to the offense, but in general, when the dead are upset, it can cause any number of issues in your life. Untended and ignored, the ancestors can become overwhelmed by wrath and anger and turn into truly fearsome beasts of spirits, potentially even becoming enemies of their own family that can cause untold trouble across multiple generations; it’s not uncommon for familial curses to be rooted in an upset ancestor that, essentially, curses their own bloodline. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen; in such cases, the way to break the curse is to appease that ancestor or remove them entirely from the situation. Essentially, upset ancestors can be a pain, and it really is best to deal with that pain as soon as you can so you can avoid more pain down the line.
There are lots of reasons why we might find a particular member of our ancestors to be a pain in the ass. To rule out the most obvious case, there’s always a chance we could have done something to offend one of them. For instance, if we promise a particular ancestor something, such as giving them a cooked meal or refraining from doing a particular thing, it’s not uncommon or unlikely that they’ll take offense to our having neglected or broken our promise, and we’d need to work it off and mend the relationship we have with them. This goes for any kind of spirit you have a relationship, of course, which is why we can bring this up and set it aside first; as I’ve said before, try to refrain from making vows unless you absolutely need to, but even if you make a small promise of payment, a promise is a promise, and you’d best keep your word.
One of the most common issues for beginners that can result from ancestral work is the fact that, once they start to realize that you’re reaching out to them, they often flock to you like moths to a flame, especially if you have the ability to see, hear, and speak with spirits as opposed to simply making offerings and prayers in their name. Not only can this happen with our own ancestors, but it can also happen with any passing spirit of the dead, whether or not we’re related to them by blood, tradition, or culture. In short, some ancestors want attention, sometimes for an actual reason and other times because they miss being tended to or cared for. This isn’t as much a problem in cultures where ancestor veneration is common, but in modern Western societies where we hardly ever tend to our family graves or make offerings to our dead, it’s increasingly a problem that we tend to forget our dead, and when they have problems, they can cause problems for us. The simple approach here is to simply work with them as much as you’re able, not overextending yourself or draining yourself dry, but working with them as you can to make sure their needs are met. In the process, you often learn more about your heritage and ancestry, you learn specific ways and workings from and with your ancestors that can make things easier for you and them, and you find newer ways to make your ancestor work more efficient and effective. This can take any number of forms, but one major caution I’d recommend is that you set boundaries with your spirits; they may not be able to get everything they ask for, even if it’s just attention (especially if it’s just attention), and many of us can’t tend to our ancestry all day every day. After all, we living have needs, too, and if the ancestors make big demands, then they need to give big assistance. If all they want is attention, tell them (kindly, politely, yet firmly) to back off and enjoy what they have, and if they have a specific need, make sure you understand why they need it or if they just want it. This sort of problem can develop or undevelop depending on the spirit, and sometimes it can be useful in situations where you need to pass along messages to the living in order to keep the living from coming to future harm. Just take it easy, so long as you take your relationships seriously and take your work further as best suits you.
There can often be a problem where it’s not so much with our relationships with our ancestors as with the fact that we simply don’t know who we are. Unless you’re big into genealogy or have good connections in your family with genealogists, we simply may not know who it is we descend from, especially in our modern age when keeping up ties with the extended family is becoming more and more difficult, as well as more and more uncommon in Western culture. While I won’t say that everything’s fine, this won’t necessarily cause you problems; if you know even one name of your ancestors, such as a grandparent you vaguely knew who passed away, that can be your key to learning more about the rest of them. That particular ancestor can act as a gopher and go-between that can bring you in touch with the rest of your ancestral family. Working with this single ancestor can open up the door to working with all the rest of them and bring you into a closer relationship with those whom you might have forgotten or never knew about. Genealogical research is only a boon in this case, and I highly recommend everyone be able to trace their ancestry back at least a few generations if not further; this may not always be the case due to records that were lost, destroyed, or suppressed, but information is information, whether you get it through historical research or spiritual investigation.
A special case of this is were someone is adopted and has no ties with or knowledge of their blood family. In this case, hope is not lost; for all practical purposes, the ancestors of your adoptive family become your own ancestors. Although kin is primarily determined by blood, it is also determined by name; being adopted means being made part of the family into which you were adopted, and being accepted into a family means that they accept you from now all the way back into time. It can often be a painful shame for those who are adopted and truly have no means of connecting with their blood family, but again, just as with the other case of not knowing who your ancestors might be, you’re not bereft of ancestors just because you may not know who they are. Family is family, either way; ancestors of the adoptive family can just as easily bridge the gap between you and your blood family just as a known blood ancestor can connect you with your unknown blood ancestors. As above, information is information, whether you get it through historical research or spiritual investigation.
One particular issue with our ancestors that often arises is that we simply might not like them or agree with them on important philosophical, spiritual, or political views. For instance, it’s a common issue where many outcasts in our day and age are cast out by their own family for any number of reasons, such as converting to another religion, being queer of some sort, differences in views on human decency and bigotry, or other relationship-breaking things that can cause us suffering in life when dealing with them personally as well as in death when we have to deal with them spiritually. I can attest to some of these things myself; coming from a European American family with roots going back to the founding of the country, I have proud slaveowners and slavedrivers in my lineage, and not all my ancestors from those lines care for the fact that I’m initiated into an African diasporic religion and affiliate myself so closely to the faith of those that they subjugated and thought subhuman; other of my ancestors find the fact that I’m gay to be confusing and problematic for them, if not disrespectful to their notions of tradition and righteousness. It’s unfortunate that they think this way, but in general, once people die and get used to being an ancestral spirit, I have noticed that their viewpoints tend to soften somewhat; they might hold on to particular strongly-held views, but they do tend to be more accepting in death than they were in life. At points, however, these issues can be difficult to overcome; in those cases, I work with other of my ancestors who do like and accept me to either facilitate relationships and communications with them, or simply pay my respects to the ancestors who dislike me and move on.
That’s one of the core methods of working with troublesome ancestors, by the way; even if you don’t like them or if they don’t like you, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still their kin and descendant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as supportive as anyone else about the whole “blood doesn’t determine family, your love determines your family” notion that’s common among the youth of today, but there’s still something to be said for blood ties that really does matter spiritually and physically that Platonic or romantic bonds alone cannot approach or approximate. All ties to your ancestry are indelible and unalienable, and no matter what you might think of your ancestry or heritage, whether you’re proud or ashamed of it, you cannot change the fact that they lived and did whatever they did. No human alive or dead was wholly good or wholly evil, and all of humanity of the past, present, and future has a particular dignity that we need to recognize and appreciate. For the mere fact that their works contributed to the world we live in today, for good or for ill, and that their lives contributed to the possibility of your own, I claim that your ancestors should be honored across the board and unconditionally. I consider it to be an obligatory form of filial piety that crosses the boundaries of life and death. In my case, of course I despise the fact that my ancestry played a direct role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and supported the inhumane institutions of slavery, and I am ashamed of it and for their propagation of racism that still blights my country today; however, I cannot help but honor the fact that I am related to them, and without them I would not and could not live, and that even amongst their works that I consider evil and baneful to the happiness and health of humanity, there are also good works that encouraged those same things. In seeing the good in them, I can help bridge what might otherwise be an unsurpassable chasm that would only cause problems, and perhaps swing their viewpoints to see how their actions caused both harm and help in their time and in my own, maybe even remediate them to help correct what I see as negative. If not, oh well; I pay my respects to them all the same for what can be respected, and ignore the rest of what can’t, and move on to the spirits that don’t cause me such conflict.
It can be exceptionally difficult for some people who tend to their ancestors, however, who were abused by them in life or were close to those who were abused by them. Consider the case where a young child was abused by their grandmother they lived with, or where someone was raped by their uncle; having grown up and with the abusive relative now dead, how might the person approach this situation? It’s difficult, I admit, and I feel somewhat at a loss to discuss this particular topic because I haven’t been the victim of family or domestic abuse; in lieu of or in addition to my own thoughts which I offer here, I bow to the guidance and advice of those who can better speak to such a situation. The pain from being emotionally, physically, sexually, or spiritually abused can often never be forgiven nor forgotten, and I don’t suggest that the abused should simply move on with their lives and pretend that everything is hunky-dory A-OK now that their relative is dead and hopefully enlightened; I know some people who would sooner condemn their parents to the bottom pits of hell with bell, book, and candle before uttering a single good thing to their name for all the abuse they put them through. There are different approaches you could take in this case, depending on where you are emotionally and spiritually. If you’re at a point where you can offer forgiveness or are looking for closure, then you could do exactly that; you might not work with that ancestor as an ally or treat them as you might your trusted, close-knit dead, but you could offer them forgiveness and acceptance for who they were and what they did, and work with them so as to bring to them the pain they brought you so you both can work towards bringing it to an end so that you don’t have to carry it anymore as a burden in your life. Alternatively, if you’re not at that stage yet, simply don’t work with them, don’t call on them, and don’t try to give them attention if doing so brings you more pain than peace. If such an abusive ancestor starts acting up and demanding attention, have your other ancestors cut them off and protect you or to help you figure out how you might placate them at arm’s distance so that, if nothing else, you aren’t pained by them any more with their wants when they didn’t do a damn to help you. In other words, if you find that you can’t work with them in a good mutually-beneficial way, don’t work with them at all. Even if all humanity has good and bad in them, if all you can see is the bad, then not only should you refrain from attempting to work with them for good, but you’re rendered unable to do so because of the hurt that you’re still healing from. Take your time; you’re not responsible for the abuse they gave you in life, and you’re not responsible for their amelioration in death, either. Work with abusive ancestors only as much as you’re capable of doing so, and work with your other ancestors instead to help you with your own healing as well as working on your behalf to isolate, remediate, elevate, or otherwise correct the patterns of abuse that might be present in your ancestry.
If you’re in a relationship like a marriage or otherwise long-term arrangement, especially where you’re living with a partner, there’s a particular issue that can crop up that might not otherwise be expected. It can sometimes be the case where you and your ancestors get along great, as do your partner with their ancestors, but your two ancestral courts have a feud or other issue between them. Think like what would happen if the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys of American fame got together, or if Shakespeare’s Juliet of the House of Capulet and Romeo of the House of Montague got married instead of killing themselves overdramatically; even if the living descendants of these families made up and ended their feuds, the dead ancestors of these families might still have beef between them. Such problematic ancestors might cause issues for the living couple in ways that might threaten to break up the relationship, if not start the feud anew or prolong it in dangerous ways for the couple or their respective families. Breaching such a problem can often take the involvement of both you and them, as sometimes trying to convince the ancestors in question to make up and play nice can be trying at the best of times, especially if the beef is one-sided and you happen to be on the opposite side (and therefore considered an enemy). Protection works can help, as can getting your ancestors who do play nice with the other side set a good example for facilitating peace between your different courts of ancestors; other magical works similar to happy marriage or peaceful home workings can be done on your ancestries much as you might get two quarrelsome people to play nice in life. If the feud was caused over a particular event or item, it might be good to repair that breach in familial relationships by giving in to the demands made of the offended party, whether symbolically or in actuality; for instance, if the feud was started over a stolen horse, giving a representation of a horse to the offended spirit or dedicating a horse’s growth and training in that ancestor’s name can often repair the feud and break any further hostilities.
You might start to see see something of a trend with all these solutions to these problems, dear reader. All the problem-solving, diplomatic, political, and interpersonal tactics and strategies we might use in life among the living to solve problems are often the most realistic, approachable, and effective ways to deal with sorting out problems with the dead. Our ancestors, after all, were human just like us, and just because they’re dead doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve forgotten how to act like humans, because in almost all cases, they still are. That said, we’d still need to approach them how they might expect to be approached; I wouldn’t approach my ultra-Orthodox Jewish Ukrainian ancestors from way back who died well before my parents were born the same way I might approach my more recently-deceased bacon-eating gentile cousins whom I knew personally and familiarly, and those who come from radically different cultures will often find that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Still, once you understand the rules and nuance of culture, the problems often present solutions of their own accord. Treat your ancestors as human with human wants and human needs, and you’ll often figure out that the best way to deal with problems is an extrapolation of how you’d deal with the living, just in the realm of spirit.
This can’t always be done, however; there are times when problems get too big to handle for simple solutions, such as when the spirit of an ancestor degrades or transforms into something much more wrathful and dangerous than a powerful human spirit, when an honest-to-God generational curse is involved, when whole branches of the family declare you an enemy to your own kin, or in other particular situations. There are ways to deal with these, but these go well beyond what might be expected for simple solutions, and often require investigation, divination, and multi-pronged approaches that bring in other entities of your spiritual courts for direction, protection, elevation, or isolation unique to the particular situation you’re in. Every problem has a solution, of course, and it’s rare that an issue caused by an ancestor is a predicament and not a problem. Just as your ancestors should be your first line of defense and line of aid because of their once-human status, it’s often the case that the best way to approach and work with them is as humans, both in times of peace and in times of conflict.
Do you have any particular stories of working with troublesome ancestors? Are there any techniques, tips, or tricks you’d like to share when figuring out or fixing up problems with them? Is there any advice you might like to offer to know when a problem might occur and how best to deal with it? Let us know in the comments!