From our earliest origins we as a species have kindled a sacred relationship with our dead. Fueled by a belief in the continued existence of the soul and the ability of the dead to influence the lives and events of the living, the cult of the ancestors arose as our most primordial and universal tradition. Our ancestors are our strongest allies, teachers, and guides unconditionally looking over us on the spiritual plane. They are our blood-link to the land and to the realm of the unknown, to the rhythms of nature and to the world of spirits and gods, they petition on our behalf and are there to welcome us once our mortal journey has come to an end. Through devotion and offerings we invite them back into our lives and uphold our responsibility to thank, honor, and empower them. Ancestor veneration is both our duty and our privilege. This is an ancient and visceral path, one that taps into the very essence of who we are, and from where we came.
Unfortunately, many of us today live in a society that is far removed from the traditions of the ancestor cult and the veneration of the dead. Sure, household practices have sprinkled into the modern west via the African diaspora and indigenous folk traditions; however, they are for the most part absent from the mainstream. Modernity has birthed a culture that is so hellbent on defying nature and extending youth that it has developed a repulsion to aging and death. Rather than being part of the natural cycle of spiritual existence – a new beginning as understood by countless traditional societies, death is viewed as a finality, a tainted and unclean evil that is detested and feared.
Our dead are rushed away to cold sterile facilities where they are stored until a method of disposal is agreed upon. Any contact with them is deemed unsanitary. Any attempt to communicate with them is considered odd at best, insane at worst, or even illegal. The only ‘healthy’ interaction with the dead is an occasional visit to a cemetery during operating hours or the keepsake of a cremation urn tucked away in some remote corner of the house. Out of sight, out of mind, this is the healing methodology we have inherited… a process that hinges on the ability to ‘let go’ rather than to welcome in.
This mentality has infected and hindered modern western occultism and our reconstructed magical traditions from Wicca to Ceremonial Magick. Rather than embracing the dead and our ancestors as our closest connection to the spirit world, we have all but forgotten them. Necromancy – and yes, this includes working with the ancestors – is considered too taboo, too dangerous and too “black magic” for many neopagans and occultists. The aspiring magician or witch is left searching the tomes of grimoires and the wilds of nature seeking unfamiliar spiritual allies rather than first opening up to the ancestral spirits; those who have always been there to protect and empower us. We run headfirst into the world of spirit without first learning how to walk. However, all is not lost, the esoteric mindscape is changing and every year more material is being published discussing the importance of the dead and the ancestors in western tradition.
Ancestors & The Mighty Dead
So who are the ancestors? Well, the most obvious ones are our immediate family, our parents who have passed, our grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth. These are the ones that first come to mind when thinking about ancestor veneration as their photos adorn the ancestral altars and shrines around the world. We reach out to these familial spirits first because they retain the strongest connections with the living and are the most concerned with our wellbeing and success. Yet, we do not honor them because of what they can do for us, but rather because of what they have done for us, and what we can now do for them.
These beloved dead are just embarking on the next stage of their spiritual journey, and we CAN help them. Through our offerings and prayers we empower them on this path of spiritual evolution as they join the ranks of our most ancient and elevated dead. They are the continuity between us – the living- and that primordial ancestral thread at the heart of all spiritual traditions.
The other group of ancestors are the generational and communal ancestors who have risen to this state through heroic deeds or as progenitors of a lineage – biological or spiritual (as in an initiatory lineage). In antiquity these were the great heroes and heroines celebrated in the stories of myth and lore. Some of these were even elevated – or evolved– to the status of deity. These mighty dead are the shared ancestors of a tribe, ethnic group and even a genetic pool. The most ancient of these are nothing less than the ancestors of all mankind! A truth irrefutably written in our DNA.
Indeed, the latest genetic research traces the origin of all modern humans to a small tribe in eastern Africa some 70,000 years ago. This handful of brave souls – ancestors to us all – endured and survived against all odds and literally every single person alive today contains a portion of their DNA. It is truly awe inspiring and humbling to think in such vast timelines, and the more we explore our remote past, the more amazing our ancestral story becomes. We simply would not be here had our distant australopithecine ancestors not stood on two legs and ventured across the African savannah, 3.5 million years ago. Or had homo habilis not bequeathed the gift of tool making, or homo erectus not passed down the promethean gift of fire.
Whether viewed from a mythic or evolutionary perspective, the story of our species is one wrought with innovation, heroism, and bravery. We have inherited this gift of humanity, this legacy of consciousness and enduring spirit, from our prehistoric ancestors. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or culture without these truly mighty dead, none of us would be here today!
Working with our immediate ancestors can open this window to explore our deepest ancestry and what it means to be human. Here we uncover a spiritual thread that has weaved through the fabric of time and pushed us forward as a species. Our ancestors link us to this ever-present source of inspiration and fortitude – this thread of blood and spirit that reaffirms our sense of place and belonging; here, living and dying upon this earth.
Honoring the Ancestors
Ancestor veneration is not an isolated practice or a special ritual we start and stop by lighting a candle and saying a few prayers. It is not tied to a specific season, month or reclaimed pagan holiday. It is a lifestyle we maintain, an invitation for our ancestors to come forth and take an active role in our lives. We respect, honor and care for them at all times and they in turn protect, teach and guide us.
The Ancestral Shrine
Nearly every tradition requires that there be an established place for leaving offerings and communing with the ancestors. The details will depend greatly on one’s tradition and available resources. A simple shelf, table, dresser or even a corner on the floor will do fine. It just needs to be a dedicated space set aside for the sole purpose of honoring the dead. Needless to say, it should be thoroughly cleaned and consecrated as sacred space.
At very least we need a tablecloth, a candle, a glass of water and a bowl to leave offerings. Generally we use white candles and a white tablecloth. Pictures of deceased relatives, idols of saints or deities, and other decorative symbolic elements that link to one’s ancestors or religious beliefs are common additions to the altar or shrine. These are a matter of preference and tradition, but there are three key elements to remember: 1) a place for fire, 2) a place for water, and 3) a place for offerings.
My family has always used white votives and the glass encased seven-day candles. Occasionally, during the holidays, my grandmother would light those vigil novena candles with the portraits of saints. In my practice I use three candles. Two white small tea lights for ambient light and a white seven-day candle for the spirits. I recommend getting an additional glass bowl and filling it partially with water and then placing the seven-day candle inside. This is not *just* a safety measure for leaving the candle burning while away, but the union of fire and water produces a very pleasant and powerful energy that is attractive to the spirits.
Fresh water must always be available for the ancestors. Again depending on tradition, there are variances in the ideal number of glasses. Some claim a minimum number such as three, seven or nine, while others insist on having one glass for each ancestor honored at the shrine. I keep at least three large glasses. One for the ancestors of my father’s side, one for those of my mother’s and the third for the generational ancestors. If I am working with specific ancestors, I will offer them a glass individually. I fill these with fresh spring water since springs are traditionally linked to the underworld and the spirits of the dead (see PGM IV. 154-285: Lecanomancy). And yes, I do purchase bottled spring water.
Any bowl or plate will work as a place to leave offerings. It should be clean and once dedicated to the ancestors only used for the ancestors. As a child I learned that anything that goes onto the ancestral shrine is consecrated to death, so understandably I don’t mix my offering bowls with my kitchenware.
One element that is indispensable in my practice is a beautiful life-size bronze skull that sits atop a granite slab. This is the focal point of my ancestral shrine, and I bring it to my working altars to call forth the ancestors in magical rites. I do not bind the ancestral spirits to it, to do so would be incredibly disrespectful and stupid. Rather I invite them to inhabit the skull as a temporary home – a ‘comfortable’ place for them to ground their energy and facilitate communication. The inside of the skull is attuned to receive my ancestral spirits as it is filled with dirt from the homelands and graves of my family and other symbolic items and relics. While by no means a requirement, such spirit vessels are common in many traditions for working with the ancestors and the dead.
Speaking to the Ancestors
Once we have an established location to honor the ancestors, we need to start speaking to them and invite them to come forth. We speak to them as we would a homebound elder. Tell them of the world around us, the weather, the date, the happenings of other family members. If we just talk and bring them into our world, they will listen and eventually bring us into theirs. At first this might seem odd or difficult, and if one is having trouble speaking verbally – to quote the late Peter Paddon – “just sit there and let the genetic material do the talking.” Eventually, they will talk back.
The key is to make ourselves open and accessible to the ancestors. To let them know that we want them in our lives and to invite them to visit us in visions and dreams. And always, we should be sure to thank them for all they have given us. After all, we have the opportunity to experience life because of them and the path they have forged upon this earth.
Daily or weekly offerings nourish and empower the ancestors. A simple rule is that the more we interact and work with them (i.e. asking for help or guidance), the more we should feed them. The best offerings will be those that they enjoyed while living or that the spirits ask for themselves.
Depending on who we ask or what we read there are numerous rules regarding what is acceptable and what is not. I find that there is a lot of conflicting information, but generally speaking I go with my gut. It is easy to tell if an offering has been accepted. Anything that rots or spoils was not accepted, simple as that. I offer whatever I feel my ancestors would enjoy. The only ‘rule’ I follow is avoiding foods with high salt content. I use salt to banish and keep spirits out, so it doesn’t make sense to feed salty foods to those spirits I want to invite in. My staple offerings are cornmeal, tobacco, rum, wine, black beans, honey, bread, coffee (grounds and brewed) and pomegranates.
We should honor the ancestors daily. This forges and strengthens our connection to the dead and establishes a continuity between us and them. Even if it is just a few minutes before work or prior to running errands or before going to bed.
Every morning after making my coffee, I sit at my ancestral shine and while lighting the white candle say:
I light this candle in honor of my ancestors, those of my blood and those of my spirit. May its light be their light; and may their light continue to guide me.
I then pour out a little coffee from my own mug into an offering bowl and drink with my ancestors. Sometimes we speak, but most of the time just the comfort of enjoying a cup of coffee in a moment of silence surrounded by my beloved dead is an ideal start to the day. If I need to put out the candle, I say:
Even as this flame is extinguished, may the fire of Spirit continue to burn brightly, and may the light of the ancestors remain within me.
Of course I will embark on more involved rituals and prayers over the course of the week, but this short and simple rite maintains the bond day in and day out.
Below is a list of essays and books by modern practitioners, anthropologist and scholars whose work – I believe – is bringing the cult of the dead and our ancestors back into the foreground of western traditions. I am always open to suggestions, and will be updating this list periodically.
- Thomas A. Abercrombie. Pathways of Memory and Power. (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).
- Carla M. Antonaccio. An Archaeology of Ancestors. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Inc., 1995).
- Starr Casas. The Conjure Workbook: Volume I Working the Root. (Los Angeles, CA: Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
- Martin Coleman. Communing with the Spirits. (Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation, 2005 ).
- Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvol. Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood and Bones. (Scarlet Imprint, 2011).
- Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvol (ed). Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft. (Scarlet Imprint, 2014)
- Rocky Geis. Ancestor Veneration: Honor and Respect. (2015).
- Peter Grey. Lucifer Princeps. (Scarlet Imprint, 2015).
- Peter Grey (ed). At the Crossroads. (Scarlet Imprint, 2012).
- Sarah Iles Johnston. Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2013).
- Sarah Anne Lawless. Ancestor Worship in Modern Witchcraft. (2009).
- Sarah Anne Lawless. Ancestral Altars & Rituals. (2010).
- Aaron Leitch. The Lost Secrets of Western Magick Revealed. (2015).
- Aaron Leitch (ed). Ritual Offerings. (Timmonsville, SC: Nephalim Press, 2015).
- Brother Moloch. Annual Ancestor Time. (2011).
- Brother Moloch. WHY Would I Want To Work With My Ancestors Anyway? (2015).
- Daniel Ogden. Greek and Roman Necromancy. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
- Peter Paddon. A Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk: A Practical Guide to Witchcraft on the Crooked Path. (Los Angeles, CA: Pendraig Publishing, 2012).
- Peter Paddon. Visceral Magick. (Los Angeles, CA: Pendraig Publishing, 2010).
- Jake Stratton-Kent. Geosophia: The Argo of Magic. vol. I (Scarlet Imprint, 2010).
- Jake Stratton-Kent. Geosophia: The Argo of Magic. vol. II (Scarlet Imprint, 2010).
- Chris Stringer & Peter Andrews. The Complete World of Human Evolution. (London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2012).
- Spencer Wells. The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. (New York, NY: Random House, 2003).
- Spencer Wells. Deep ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. (Washington, D.C: National Geographic, 2006).
- Mike Williams. Follow the Shaman’s Call. (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2013).