ancestors · the pagan experience

Ancestors – The Pagan Experience

No, I haven’t been doing TPE so far, no I probably won’t be writing something for all of the prompts remaining. I wanted to do this, though.

I’ve said before that I haven’t always been great about ancestor devotions. They are one of the first things I let slide when everything starts to pile up, and they really shouldn’t be. My ancestors have been good to me, consistently and without prompting. They don’t give me things I ask for, or help me to reach goals I set for myself – they drop things into my lap that I would never have thought to ask for, and help me to reach goals I don’t dare set, goals that seem unattainable. More importantly, they give me excellent and honest advice when I need it (and when I think I need it, which two are not always the same).

When I talk about my ancestors I almost always mean family ancestors – the people whose names appear (or should appear) on my family tree, some of whom I knew while they were alive. I know some of their stories from my family members, but there are huge gaps in my knowledge.

Several of my male ancestors died fighting in the World Wars – I visited the grave of one of them on a school trip to France and Belgium. All of us were told that if we knew of any family members buried in certain war cemeteries we could visit them, and so a handful of us did. This was years before I began any kind of ancestor devotions, just as I was starting to explore paganism, and it was still a powerful experience. I talked to him, and it truly felt as though he heard me. It’s interesting how these things can begin before we even know to consider them.

My ancestor devotions are not complicated. I have a small shrine to them and once a week (give or take) I sit down and talk to them. I’ll tell them how I am, what’s happening in my life; I’ll tell them about my family members and anything that’s going on in their lives. One of them in particular likes to be kept up to speed with everything that happens in her side of the family. And then I’ll sit with them for a while. I’ll share a drink with them – we’re (mostly) British, so it’s almost always tea – and light a candle for them. I might share cake or biscuits with them if I have any. I’ll ask them if there’s anything they’d like me to do for them, and as I don’t always hear them very well they’ll usually send me signs if there is something. If I feel the need I might ask them for advice.

I thank them. Stripped down, my ancestor devotions are about thanking those without whom I would not be here. I thank them for my life. I did that even when my life was not something I valued, and I did it then and now because I felt in my bones that it was the right thing to do. I am often wrong, but I do not think that is the case here.

I thank them, and I let them know they are remembered. It is a powerful thing to do for the long-neglected dead. Protestant Christianity isn’t concerned about the dead, and many of my ancestors haven’t had any notion that they are remembered for centuries. In medieval times, when England was Catholic, parish bells were rung on All Souls’ Day to comfort the dead and let them know they were remembered. What do the dead have now but a few stray Pagans and Polytheists? Little wonder that even the Christian dead often respond positively to those of us who approach them – they have been ignored and forgotten, sometimes for more than a thousand years.

But returning to the topic at hand, I’m going to get slightly evangelical: this is the best time of year for ancestor work. If you’ve been thinking about it but not sure where to start then this is a really good time to sit down, light a candle, and just talk. The important thing is to start. If you don’t know who your family ancestors are (if you were adopted, for example) that doesn’t matter. Your ancestors know you even if you don’t know them. You don’t need to use their names, you can just call to “my ancestors”. It is enough. And in the case of people who were adopted you have another set of ancestors. The ancestors of your adopted family are yours.

I have a lot of feelings about ancestor veneration and this is partly because it took me so long to start doing. I wish I had started years earlier than I actually did. I wish I hadn’t given up the first few times because ancestor devotions didn’t feel powerful in the way that deity devotions do. I wish I had loved them better.


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