To be Heathen is to be an animist, meaning that in addition to worshipping the Gods and Goddesses, we also honor our deceased ancestors as well as the land wights. But while most people coming to our religion have some concept of how to honor a deity… when it comes to honoring the ancestors they are stymied as to where to even begin to work with them.
I find that a great place to begin is to set up an altar for your ancestors. All you need to do is find space: part or all of a bookshelf, part or all of some sort of counter space, or the top of a piece of furniture. Back in my college dorm days when space was at such a premium, I even used a small basket (a little smaller than the size of a12 oz soda can) and used that for my ancestral altar, placing items like photos and ancestral jewelry inside to represent the ancestors, and I also placed offerings like chocolate, and tobacco inside.
So what do you put on an ancestral altar?
Most of us have family photos of our ancestors, and these become great items to proudly display on the altar. Unfortunately, we just don’t have photos from all of our known ancestors (and even if we have many we don’t have the space to display them all) but a great way to still include other known ancestors is to have some sort of small trinket box where on slips of paper you write out the name of your various ancestors. I can go back to the early 1200’s so far in some branches for my family. Along these lines, including scrapbooks, photo albums, or binders full of genealogy information is also appropriate.
The altar is also a great place to display ancestral pieces and family heirlooms: great-grandmother’s silver candlesticks, grand-father’s pocket watch, and yes even the family bible. Even if a bible is a symbol of Christianity, if it’s part of the story of your ancestors and family history then yes it still does belong on a heathen ancestral altar. The benefit of a family bible, is they were used often to record births, marriages and deaths and therefore become a great depository of family genealogy.
Ultimately altars symbolize our connection with our ancestors, so not everything needs to be such a direct derivative as listed above, you can also include items that you feel symbolize them. Maybe you come from a long line of horse ranchers, and so you have a small figurine of a horse on your altar as a ‘nod’ to that portion of your ancestry. Perhaps your family is from Ireland, and as a result you have framed photographs of natural landscapes incorporated into your altar, or rocks taken from the famously green island. Perhaps you are fortunate and able to visit cemeteries where some of your ancestors rest… rubbings of tombstones can also be framed and used for display on your altar.
If you don’t know your own ancestral story, you can also include a mirror. For we are the physical embodiment of generations of ancestors. As someone else has said we are our ancestral lines walking. Our very physical make up, the color of our eyes, bone structure, the way we move or tilt a head are physically present in us. Our ancestral legacy is on our very faces.
An altar isn’t a stagnate thing and as such should be cleaned and worked with regularly. After all, if you had family coming for a visit you wouldn’t want them sleeping in a guest bedroom crawling with spiders and roaches, and coated with inches of dust. If you are fortunate in that you have many items you’d like to use on the altar, but not the space to display them all, you can opt to rotate items out. Incorporating offerings of cut flowers, burning incense or candles, and laying out offerings of food and drink are also a great way of connecting with your ancestors via the altar, and in working with them. You don’t need to do this daily, but try to get into the habit of making an offering to them at least weekly.
My uncle when he was alive tended to enjoy a Mr. Goodbar and a Diet Coke daily. So when I want to lay out something special just for him, I’ll put those items on my altar. You can also opt to include a portion of any meal, and even more specially meals cooked from old family recipes. If you’re like me though and paranoid about bugs, when I lay out food and drink offerings I tell my ancestors to dig in, because in an hour I’m cleaning up.
In my backyard there’s a cutting of a ‘burning bush’ that originally had grown in my Grandmother’s garden. Every year it is the very first item to bloom in the spring weeks before any other plant. During that time I take cuttings of the branches, place them in a vase and lay them out as offerings to my ancestors.
Ultimately so long as you approach your ancestors with respect there’s no wrong or right way to construct an altar, at the end of the day you need to build the altar around things that are meaningful to you as being representative of the ancestors who came before you. As you grow more and more accustomed to working with them, don’t be surprised if you start being inspired or prompted by them to include other items.
The ancestral altar then becomes a place where you can ‘talk’ to the ancestors. I know of many who work on family genealogy research near their ancestral altars, or create scrapbooks or organize photo books near them, or when agonizing over difficult decisions will meditate on the problem before them in the presence of their ancestral altar.
Why do we work with our ancestors?
In the Heathen worldview, each individual is part of a vast tapestry, that connects and interweaves them to their Gods, the land wights, and yes the ancestors. Our personal fates are influenced by the ancestors that came before us, specifically by what is known as hamingja (ancestral luck). That is not to say that we are ‘fated’ to a certain destiny, but rather that we have inclinations to certain things. If we inherited ill luck, by working with the ancestors we can overcome those items and change the influence of those threads upon us. A real world example of this is that studies show that children who were sexually abused by their parents, tend to grow into abusers themselves. But this isn’t always the case, and someone of a strong mind and determination and perhaps aided by others can overcome this inclination and never be an abuser at all.
Recent medical studies point to the existence of an epigenetic inheritance that survives in the DNA of the descendants of those whose ancestors underwent a traumatic ordeal, such as European Jewish ancestors who lived in Europe during the height of the Nazi genocide and holocaust of their culture and race.
By knowing the wyrd (that which has come before) and how it has affected your hamingja (ancestral luck), you can then work on turning the orlog (the current threads of your fate) to your favor. Just because alcoholism runs in your family, you can work hard to make sure that you yourself do not succumb to it. Part of how you can turn the orlog to your favor comes about by being both willing to do the work on your end, but also in turning to one’s Gods and Goddesses, ancestors, and living friends and family for help.
So how do you work with your ancestors? Or does anyone have any questions or things that have stumped them while working with one’s ancestors?