This is the second post taken from the book I started to write.
I can’t think of any Pagan or Heathen path that doesn’t place great importance on ancestors in one way or another and I mean Pagan in the widest sense here. Often there are different categories of ancestors that are honoured and remembered in ways appropriate to the individual path. The three types of ancestors spoken of the most often within Druidry which is where my path began are those of blood, those of place and those of spiritual path or line. These types of ancestors are not confined to Druidry by any means and other paths in my experience will have similar descriptions for ancestors. There are other groups of ancestors that are important to think about too such as the military dead, the ancestors of skills you may practice or want to develop, the ancestors who fought for rights of the indigenous or those who were enslaved or women or LBGT; this list could easily go on. Where you have a group that comes together to share something be it a skill, an art form, a science or a philosophy you will have ancestors of that group too. Ancestral practices are important and there’s a lot of different ways in which you can start and progress with ancestral devotions.
My own ancestral devotional practice is mainly focused on my family ancestors and has built up over several years. One thread to a family ancestral practice is finding out who your family were through genealogical research. This is something that my mum did and while I have supported her efforts in some ways over the years this was very much her speciality and what I have learnt about my family has been thanks to her efforts for over three decades. Another thread to ancestral devotions is some form of prayer or ritual activity. One of the more common suggestion is to have an ancestral altar space and that is something that I have gradually developed. The first incarnation would have been about twelve years ago now I think and was just a small part of a shelf with a single photograph. I didn’t spend any regular time in prayer or ritual focused on my ancestors at that time. This small beginning remained as it was for a while of years before I began to do more.
The next stage of development took place after the deaths of my maternal grandparents. Their photos were added to the space I had and I began to sped some regular time communing with them. I developed a practice of brewing a fresh pot of tea, pouring a cup for my ancestors and a cup for me and sitting in silence drinking my tea and thinking about my family. I would think about the things I would like those who had died to know about and how they would have loved to hear about some of the things my children were doing now. It was around 2009 that I started to link this practice with the moon. At first I chose the full moon but not long after I moved to using the dark moon as it just felt more apt to me. Just as in the dark phase of the solar year we honour ancestors so I began to honour them in the dark phase of the lunar cycle.
From there my ancestral altar area has grown again into two dedicated shelves with pictures of different ancestors representing different branches of my family. It’s in a place I see and walk past several times a day and often I’m thinking of different aspects of my family life each of them might appreciate. I have a goblet there that I use to make libations of alcohol and I still make tea. About four years ago my regular dark moon tea making lapsed for around eighteen months to two years. Part of the reason for that is that I developed changes in other aspects of my devotions, part was a gap in having a lunar calendar available and part of it stresses and strains of life in general. It wasn’t the first time I’ve lost focus with some aspect of my practices and it probably won’t be the last. I often find that when I do get through these phases where I have lost focus in some way when I come through the other side my practices then become deeper and more meaningful in some way. In this case I feel that my family ancestors have a bit more patience with me that some deities might.
Not long before I first drafted these words two years ago I began to move forward with my ancestral devotions again. My first step to picking up my ancestral devotions was to re-arrange the shrine area. At that time I arranged the photos from my maternal line on the top shelf with a tea-light holder and room for offerings. On the second shelf I arranged photos from both my paternal line and my husbands line with a couple of other items that I feel are appropriate. I added an oil burner that has an androgynous figure seated cross legged before it looking down at a crystal ball, to me that figure symbolises my ancient and polytheist ancestors. My intentions were to light a candle and make an offering at my refreshed ancestral shrine each week. I was hoping to develop a more conscious relationship with my polytheist ancestors. I admit that was partially in the hope that having that relationship would help me in my other practices too but it is also because I wouldn’t have the gods I do have in my life had those ancient polytheists not walked those paths first.
I kept those practices and arrangements until my mum died on 23 May 2018. After she died the shelves were rearranged again and I now have photos and items from my maternal line on the bottom shelf with everything else on the top shelf. Central to the bottom shelf are photos of my mum. I still make offerings at my ancestral shrine each week and while I do make efforts to develop my relationship with my ancient polytheist ancestors I now have a much closer Pagan ancestor in my mum. Sometimes my devotions are more about sharing stuff with my mum than going back any further in my line.
The simple reality is that we would not be alive if not for the lives of all those from who we are descended. That doesn’t mean we have to like all the family ancestors we know about but we should respect the fact that without them we would not be. I prefer using the term family ancestry to blood ancestry because there is so much more to a family than blood. Many families have members that are not linked by blood, this isn’t something new to the modern age, fostering and adoption are very old traditions. Our blood is only one part of who we have come to be as a person, the purely genetic aspect, but we may have been brought up, shaped and influenced by those who have no blood tie. Those people, those incredibly wonderful people, are a vital part of our family ancestry even without genetic links. There are also people in any family line that we have difficulty in respecting or honouring, there are some that we simply will not want to develop more of a relationships with and that’s fine. Our ancestry spreads out into the mists of time and we can connect more strongly with different branches at different times depending on our own interests and experiences.
I feel I have to make something crystal clear here. Regardless of what your blood and family ancestry is if you are drawn to a particular Pagan path then as far as I am concerned you should be made welcome. Ancestors, gods and other spirits call who they will regardless of ancestry.
Ancestors of place are, in my path, those who have lived and worked the land in a particular area, usually an area of significance to you. There might be overlaps between family ancestry and ancestry of place for some of us. I live and work in Glasgow. As far as I know I have no ancestral family ties to Glasgow, I do have links to Paisley but that’s not the same place. I choose to honour those who have made Glasgow what it is today. That also means acknowledging that part of Glasgow’s former wealth was made on the backs of slaves, there are buildings I walk past and admire that would not be there if not for wealth gained from trade in goods dependant at one time on slavery. That is a much more painful reality to the place I call home and one I struggle with at times but I will not turn a blind eye to it. There are other places that are special to me and I honour the ancestors of those places too.
There are various ways of working with ancestors of particular places and the most obvious is to learn something of the local history. If you have family or good friends with generations of links to a particular area then talking to the older members among them is probably a good first step. Local libraries often have information on local history, there might be a local history society and of course, there’s the internet. As with any research look for collaborating evidence for any stories you come across. Maybe you’ll find that there is a history of a particular craft associated with your area and you can include that knowledge in your ancestral practice by getting a symbol of that craft or even learning to do it yourself. Maybe you’ll find out about local people accused of witchcraft in the middle ages and decide to honour them or maybe you’ll find out about a more famous figure, an inventor or social leader. I live not far away from the area where William Wallace was betrayed and captured 1305 for example. Once you find these things out then you might chose to include something connected to that in your practices. Other ways of working with ancestors of place could include doing something practical to care for some aspect of the place such as helping to preserve or keep tidy a particular area. Sharing what you have learnt with others is another way to do something practical.
If you are learning more about a place and spending time there you may find that the line between spirits of place or local wights and ancestors of place becomes a bit blurred. ‘Wight’ is more commonly in use in Heathen practices and I’m rather fond of it because it encompasses a wide range of beings.
” ‘Wight’, by the way, simply means ‘being’, but is usually used for those people who are neither Goddesses nor gods, nor human people.”
For some this blurring doesn’t matter, for others it does. Either way respect for those beings you develop connections with is vital. Sometimes, as humans, we can get caught up in ideas of human ancestry but when you are working with ancestors of the land it may well be that you need to put those ideas to one side and think about the influences of plants and animals, rivers and hills and the wights that come with them. Whether we acknowledge it or not we are connected with and influence many aspects of existence about us and what we do, how we behave, can have repercussions we are barely aware of. If you are learning about the ancestors of a place it may well be that the non-human ancestry will have a larger impact than any human ancestry might. Helping to keep an area clean of human rubbish is an activity that may well mean you strengthen those non-human bonds more than the human ones.
Ancestors of spiritual line or path can include some that are common to many and others that are very individual. For example Ross Nichols is a key ancestor for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Without his work and teachings the Order wouldn’t exist as it does today. Beyond him there is a lineage of figures associated with the revival and development of what has become modern Druidry. Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente and Alex Saunders are key ancestors for the Wiccan path among others. Some Heathens may well consider Snorri Sturluson an ancestor of their path purely for his work in preserving so much of the Old Norse lore but there will be other ancestors that mean a great deal. Each path will have figures that are honoured well beyond their lives and should be thought of as ancestors of path or line. Practical crafts and skills can have very similar lineages that can be honoured as ancestors. In addition to these wider known figures smaller groups and individuals may have others they think of as ancestors.
For me personally there are currently two people in particular that I honour as ancestors of my own path. As time passes there may well be other names that join them for varying reasons but for now there are two. I choose to name them here and share something of why they are important to me, they are Chris Turner (aka Coifi) and Insa Theirling. Both of these played a significant part in the development of my path as it is today although neither they or I knew it at the time. Both died in 2001 and I was honoured to have a role in the passing rites for each of them.
Coifi taught me to draw a labyrinth. I might have learnt it at some stage from someone else but as it happened I learnt it from him. Like many I find walking a labyrinth a wonderful thing to do drawing together physical movement with spiritual purpose. Thanks to Coifi I can draw a labyrinth in the sand of a beach using a staff or even by dragging my foot along, then I can walk it with purpose and later watch as the ocean clears all signs of it away. I don’t think I can easily convey in words what that has meant for me over the years. I have other memories of Coifi too but that bit is the most special and significant to me.
Insa’s gift to me was an introduction to the Scottish Cailleach through some of the folklore Insa studied at that time. When I first met Insa she was studying for a PhD at the University of Glasgow on Supernatural females in Gaelic Scotland and naturally enough the Cailleach featured. Insa had joined the Druid group I ran at that time and gave us a couple of talks based on some of her research. She also wrote at least one article for the Tooth and Claw magazine run by the British Druid Order if I remember correctly. Insa was a beautiful young woman. I have a wonderful memory of her playing her harp in the dappled spring light of the place our grove met for rituals in Pollok Park. Sadly she developed an aggressive form of cancer and after months of fighting she died. I would probably have learnt of the Caillach at some stage without Insa but without her struggle I may never have made such a heart felt prayer to the Cailleach which I believe was the first seeds of the relationship I have with Her today.
Hopefully in this section you have seen something of my stumbling journey in developing ancestral devotional practices. I share these things with you so that you can see where I’ve faltered and know that if you occasionally struggle in your journey you are not alone in doing so. If you are hesitating about beginning ancestral practices please just take that first step. Your ancestors of many kinds are waiting for you to reach out to them.
Blain, J. (2016) Wights and Ancestors: Heathenry in a Living Landscape Prydein Press