The season of Autumn is upon us whereby the once vibrant energy of life in Nature, begins to dwindle with the impending winter season in much of our Northern Hemisphere. It is a time in certain spiritual communities, when the focus turns from more active to receptive practices. From the magick of the day, we turn unto the night. As communing with our ancestors is a rather quiet and receptive affair, it tends to be highlighted at this time of year.
Ancestor veneration is not a cultural anomaly. Throughout many centuries and cultures the practice of Ancestor Veneration has been a natural part of life. It seems in modern times in our Western world, we have all but forgotten the importance of our blood-ties. Think about where we would be without our ancestors and perspectives become very clear. The power that resides within our very DNA we can thank them for, as our traits and talents have been passed down genetically through the ages. Are they not worthy of our honor and gratitude? And for those of that believe in an afterlife, why not reach out to the ancestors?
Some believe that we are able to connect with our ancestral spirits to provide guidance and even protection in our daily lives. This was and still is, a standard belief amongst so very many world cultures in all areas of Asia, Europe and Africa.
Ancestor veneration is very prominent even today in Japan (Shintoism, Buddhism with emphasis on the Bon festival), Asia (especially in Taosim as well as the ancient Chinese Confucianism ), and even North American Indigenous peoples. It is also practiced widely amongst European Celtic, Eastern European Slavic, Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) revival traditions as well as very specifically in Palo Mayombe, Haitian Vodoun and other, African diasporic religions. Within the African diaspora, ancestor worship is a core practice as one’s ancestors in these traditions are thought of as powerful supernatural spirits that aide the family in everyday life.
There are even observances in Hindu traditions such as the ritual of Shraddha. This ritual is performed for the recently deceased, particularly for parents, to honor them. Also, there is a 16-day lunar calendar day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors.
With regards to Christianity and other Abrahamic religions there are the observations: “All Saints Day” in Catholicism as well as the “Day of the Dead” festival observed by Catholics in Latin America. This festival has its origins actually rooted in an Aztec tradition and when Catholicism came from European settlers in Mexico and South America, the old Aztec festival of the Dead, an original two-month celebration during the Autumn harvest time with which the Goddess of the Dead and Underworld, Mictecacíhuatl, also known to the Aztecs as Mictlán, presided over.
Specific ancestor veneration rituals or festivals are typically not practiced in most other forms of Christianity however, nor modern-day Judaism. However, there is proof that there was ancestor veneration in ancient Israel. When we consider the entire world’s cultures as a whole past and present, we find that ancestor veneration is actually very prominent practice unto this very day!
Yet, so many do not engage in honorary practices. It seems the majority in the communities around typical Western civilization do not, or else they just do so extremely privately. Personally, I have been questioned and criticized just as much as praised for engaging in ancestor veneration practices. It just makes sense for me to do so. Being a Kemetic Aset Shemsu, a Thelemic Gnostic, Traditional Witch and Ceremonial Magician, my praxis of beliefs and practices lends itself well to more intensive ancestor veneration. And, as someone who studies genealogy, particularly my own ancestral lines that go back several centuries, it makes sense to be heavily steeped in these practices.
Ancestors pass on spiritual “currents” and information which can only be accessed via tapping into one’s ancestral lines and communing with the deceased. I highly recommend both finding out as much information as possible regarding one’s family roots and getting a DNA analysis done. This will aide you in connecting with your more distant ancestors as well as help to understand perhaps a little bit of what it was like to live in their time. With this knowledge as well as that which is occulted, create more a cognizant bond with one’s ancestors.
Dealing with occult forces on a regular basis can give one easier access to communicating with one’s ancestors more directly. The unseen by the naked human eye is part of my daily existence and well-integrated into my mundane life. Those of us who are not strangers to these tend to accept such practices with more ease than perhaps those that are not and thus more comfortable with the concept of dealing with the deceased after they have left physical existence.
But, ancestor veneration is not really some practice limited to the occult at all! Anyone can practice ancestor veneration. How deep one decides to go with however, is strictly based on choice. There are many flavors of practice, from the more well know and “safe” exoteric religious traditional holidays to the realm of necromantic magick & sorcery. Many cultures as well as religions welcome the wisdom of the ancestors. Rites of propitiation and sacrifice were conducted by the Ancient Celtic and Norse pagans as well as those in Slavic areas. Taoism is also an excellent example as ancestor veneration plays a key role.
Within some cultures, ancestral spirits are actually considered as “lesser gods” such as deities . Thus they are consulted being more accessible and closer to us having lived on earth before, than an omnipotent Spirit that many call “God”.Personally, I view “God” or “Spirit” as an abstract force, just like the Kether on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, or else Netjer, the all-encompassing Supreme God of the Ancient Egyptians by which all other Deities are part of. Netjer was considered to be as a nameless Force and thus was represented in hieroglyphs as a blank “flag” glyph or else a type of simple staff covered with cloth shaped like a flag at the top or with fronds . All the Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses were/are considered part of Netjer as emanations, or facets with personas that we humans can identify with divinity better. The Gods and Goddesses are considered in monolatry (soft polytheism) to more accessible and personified than “God”.
However, our ancestors, having lived on Earth, are considered in some traditions to even more accessible to humans than deity (ies)in terms of guidance. Even the Ancient Egyptians believed that ancestral spirits could provide protection to the living. So, in exchange, they provided appropriate burials, and fed the ka’s of the deceased and perpetuate their names. The “ka” is a part of the spirit which is the “astral double” of a person that carries the life force. If a person lived a good life and had achieved “ Ma’at Kheru” (becoming a justified one as Osiris /Ausir/Wsr) in the Hall of Dual Manifestation, after death they could become an “akh”.
Akh also can be translated as “Shining one” or “Blessed Dead” in the afterlife. The akh is the transfigured soul of the deceased, one that is vindicated in the Hall of Judgement before the Lord of the Dead, Osiris ( Ausir/Wsr). The Akhu could return to influence events in the world of the living. In ancient Egypt, there was a 70 day mourning period after a person’s death called a “senem”. This corresponds mystically to the helical rising of Sopdet, the glorious Star of the Goddess Isis (Aset). Also, there would even be day ritual fasting periods called “heqer’ib”.
However, despite a very sophisticated, complex cult and observances of the dead, ancestor veneration in Ancient Egyptian culture appeared to be most important to its royalty, and the pharaohs and other family member were often deified as “state akhu”, such as Imhotep. It is said according to the belief in ancient Egyptian culture, that the more an image or name of the deceased is seen and uttered, the more likely of the immortalization of the deceased! Perpetuation of a name was very important in becoming an immortalized being. Certain pharaohs that were unpopular to the priesthood such as Akhenaten had their names “erased” from monuments to ensure they would NOT become immortal. Imagine that!
To some, ALL of these cultural and religious examples may seem to be merely a cornucopia of superstition surrounding the deceased. I am sure there are plenty of skeptical readers here as the paradox “respect the ancestors, yet don’t get involved” has presented itself to me more than one occasion:
“Why honor the deceased? They are gone from here” and “Why not just let the dead rest?”
These are comments I have received from people, who are puzzled as to why I would want to bother to honor my beloved dead and consult them as either:
A.They longer exist at all.
B.They don’t want to be bothered wherever they are with living human affairs.
Perhaps it should be considered that there are those of us that believe in both an afterlife and even an “in-between” place, those liminal spaces not quite here nor there, whereby we can commune with our ancestors. Also, that just because they no longer possess a flesh and blood vehicle to house their spirit force does not mean they don’t exist. How can we just “assume” that our own family wants nothing to do with those of us still in our meat suits? I suggest that if there is doubt, try it out!
There are many reasons for communicating with the dead, ranging from a preference of remembrance to actually wanting to connect with the spirits and include deceased family in our lives. Intervention in daily affairs to seeking to “cool” or appease them as deities and everything in between. Some believe that if the spirits are not appeased, they could wreak havoc in one’s life. Others believe ancestors to have great power in aiding in the protection of the home and family and are evoked for those reasons. I for one, do not make offerings to constantly appease or “cool” my ancestors, unless it is a special honorary day and/or I ask for a favor. Sometimes a specific offering is required by who I am asking. Most often, I find my ancestors quite accommodating. They are after all, family!
I have a fairly elaborate family shrine, called an “Ahku shrine”, which of course means “Shrine of the Blessed Dead” plural of “Akh”. However, I have my own set of unique practices interwoven being a Traditional Witch of European descent who also is also a practitioner of Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) revival religion . Needless to say, my ancestor veneration practices are eclectic, yet simple.
To give somewhat of a description of my shrine and an outline of practice: I have pictures and even objects belonging to some of my deceased family members up to 4 generations back. My Mother’s large urn also rests there in a place of high honor in the center, along with some of her personal items and many pictures. So many that I need to expand and add some shelving at some point! Having a home full of shrines, altars and even a Temple room, has left me a bit space-challenged at the present time. Also, on the shrine are placed certain symbolic items that would pertain to the cultures of my ancestors that go historically much further back. I even have one ancestral “line” alone that is traceable to around the year 1030 A.D!
Doing research on genealogy and on family name history has it’s benefits spiritually. I highly recommend it to anyone seriously interested in establishing an active, intensive practice with their ancestors. The more knowledge we have, the easier it will be to understand and fortify our personal connection to our ancestral lines.
There are items and icons placed there that correspond to deities specifically associated with the dead and liminal spaces between the worlds of the living and the dead such as the Egyptian Gods: My spiritual Father or “Beloved” the Ancient Egyptian God Osiris, Anubis, Nephthys, as well as the Greek/Thracian Hecate. I felt Hecate was an appropriate choice of Goddess not only to my unexpected calling to honor Her some years back, but also due to the mingling of culture with my ancestors in some of the areas she was worshipped, just as the Goddess Isis (Aset) was. Being the Goddess of the Crossroads of the realms of the spirit and of the earth, Hecate holds a special significance indeed! I call upon others as well, which I choose to not divulge here. Items with the Christian Mother Mary and Saint Michael are also included. I have family members which felt very close to them and I honor that with my love as well! This is after all, THEIR shrine, not “mine”.
Practice is done year-around, yet when the light of the year begins to fade in the 3rd and 4th quarter of our Gregorian calendar year, focus on my ancestral practices increases. There is the Ancient Egyptian Wag festival in late August, the Mysteries of Osiris in November and of course the Gaelic festival of Samhain on October 31st which marks the transition from the season of the harvest to the dark half of the year. This day is also called Allantide in Wales and also is considered “The Witch’s New Year”. As I am part Gaelic descent, as well as a witch, it makes sense to celebrate this day with my ancestors.
Making offerings and lighting candles for my family regularly on special days such as birthdays, cultural a family observed holidays and even other times that either I know were special to the deceased AND when asking for advice and intervention are important. These always commence however after dark and it is preferred to do any workings with the deceased after midnight. The veil between the worlds is actually thinnest between the hours of midnight to about 4:00am. This is a sort of microcosmic cycle to that of the year on a daily basis. Every 24-hour period has an energetic rhythm. The Ancient Egyptians, having a distinct solar-based as religion, were very aware of these cycles.
The darkest part of the night is akin to the Ancient Egyptians barque of Ra traveling through the deepest, darkest part of the Duat (Otherworld) with the threat of the evil serpent of uncreated Chaos, Apep, destroying the barque and thus creation itself, before emerging back into the seen world at sunrise. Be warned though, working with any spirits of the chthonic type during the dark thicket of the night is very, very potent. Getting in touch with one’s own chthonic aspects and associated deities is something I recommended before doing extensive night rites. Once that introduction to the night-side is made however, many truths that lie concealed hidden from the light of day, may be revealed in such workings. I have found my night-side work to be absolutely invaluable and the balance of my day-side work. And my ancestors provide aide to me, day or night.
Offerings to them are typically either items of food and drink that I know recently departed family enjoyed in life or else that which I am advised on by the older spirits. Sometimes the most ancient of spirits from my ancestral lines get roused. When this occurs, it usually has to do with my life’s purpose or else as protection from something nefarious in the unseen worlds. I must say, I have some pretty fierce ancestors! Some have even offered their names when before “contact” they were nameless to me.
Once, early in my practice, an ancestral spirit had tried to “jump” me and under no uncertain terms I made it known that I will not tolerate that sort of thing from them! It was most unpleasant and I kicked the spirit out before he put his proverbial hooks in me. I was not completely open which was a good thing, yet being partially receptive as I was left enough open for him to try and overstep my spiritual boundaries. “He” did give me his name when I asked for it. I addressed him by it and let him know that it was not appropriate to use me as a vessel and to find another way to communicate with me, offering some suggestions. Which brings me to another point. That of using specially consecrated “Spirit Vessels”.
There was a lesson to be learned from my getting “jumped” by an ancestor spirit. At the time early in my ancestor practices, I had a very simple set-up and not any items other than a candle on the altar with a few pictures. For those who choose to actively work with ancestor spirits in a more necromantic fashion, this was a big mistake. Why? Simple. There were no objects for the spirits to really use as grounding points. Lessons learned. I ended up putting skulls, keys, a small mock sarcophagus box with miniature Ancient Egyptian 4 Sons of Horus canopic jars around it and other items on the shrine as well as the candle and use of skrying bowls and my black mirror if need be. Much better! No more incidents. Clearer channels, easier access, no restless spirits trying to use me as a vessel!
Using spirit vessels or “spirit homes” are a suggested, common practice among practitioners of Traditional Craft and even Haitian Vodoun. In Vodoun a vessel called a “govi” is used. A govi is a jar which is used to capture, or rescue the “gros-bon-ange”, translated from French- “The big good angel” spirit of the deceased from an underwater place, in a ceremony one year and-a-day after the death of the family member.
In other traditions the spirit vessel is akin to a little house, such as in the Italian Etruscan Witchcraft tradition of Stregheria, the household honored spirits are called “Lare” and shrines called lararium are built for them that appear a bit like little houses. As this is an old tradition, some remains of old shrines can be seen in Italy. They are quite beautiful, with little colonnades reminiscent of Ancient Roman architecture.
More typical spirit vessels are boxes, urns, vases used to give a spirit a temporary home, attracting and allowing the ancestor spirit to be able dwell on our plane of existence longer than if one does not exist. The vessels are specifically consecrated for use only as temporary spirit dwellings. I find personally I don’t always need a specific box or urn proper as my entire shrine has many objects that already provide some nice choices for my ancestors to temporarily possess if they choose. I also have skulls that can act as vessels as well. I do not try to deliberately summon a spirit into a vessel. I offer choices instead and let the spirits decide.
Specifically summoning an ancestral spirit into such a vessel make work well for others, but when working with my ancestors, I like to keep things more fluid. They make their presences known in many other ways and are grounded temporarily by such items I have listed on the ancestor altar for the purpose of allowing the sprits to be drawn to the familiar or symbolism while they walked the earth. If one wants to add to making a very potent connection to a specific ancestor, collecting graveyard dirt from the place of their burial can also be used for more necromantic workings. I personally have not used it myself as I do not know where all of my relatives are buried, some were cremated and some are in cemeteries buried several hundreds and thousands of miles away. Someday, I plan on making a pilgrimage to those areas and will be sure to collect some soil while there!
As a rule, I try not to ask for much from the “ka’s” (Ancient Egyptian word for spirit) of my ancestors. I believe than in order to convene with the living from the other side, it takes a great deal of energetic force. In other words, work for them. Therefore, I keep things simple to be considerate. They aid when they choose, which is the same way help comes from a deity. We can certainly make the call or open the door, but they are not obligated to respond. About a good 95% of the time when I do call however, they do respond. Perhaps this is because I am not demanding.
Most issues of course can be resolved here in Malkuth, our manifested physical reality, by just using one’s own personal resourcefulness and intelligence first on that level. Magick and petitions, are secondary options. And when asking for help, offering to do one’s part is essential. Most likely an ancestor will show you how deal with something, provide advice rather than intervene directly. Ancestors have lived on this plane of existence before once, or perhaps many times so they carry a great deal of wisdom.
So, perhaps you are interested in setting up an ancestor shrine, but need some ideas? Here are some to get started:
CREATING ANCESTOR SHRINE
Setting up your own ancestor shrine can be as simple or as complex as you would like it to be. Here are just a few items you will need to get started:
- A shrine altar. This can be anything from a small table to a cabinet with many compartments and shelving.
- The shrine altar should be placed in either a quiet area of your home away from heavy foot traffic with a dedicated space being ideal…
- Place the altar an area where your family convenes to socialize. Some ancestors may want to be part of family daily life. My own shrine & altar sits in a nook in our dining room in space between the main living room and dining area next to an heirloom cabinet that I inherited from my Mother when she passed. Since dinner events have always been popular with my family, it made sense to place the family shrine there.
- Add photographs of the deceased as well as items that may have been either personal to them or of particular significance.
- Add items or icons of spiritual/religious significance. I add those both from my own personal beliefs AND those that are traditional in my family. Some of these differ. It is wise to remember that this is THEIR shrine honoring THEM, not yourself, so even if you happened to cringe sitting in that pew on Sundays in church as a child with your family, adding something pertinent to family religion(s) is should be important!
- Add candles and perhaps a bowl of water in a vessel appropriate for use. You may want to consecrate these. Candles are lit whenever you want to make a connection, honor an ancestor or just invite your ancestral spirits to “hang out” with you.
- Scent attracts spirits. Adding a bottle of perfume and/or Florida water is also a nice touch. It can be used to also purify the shrine and the area around it. Choose scents you know the deceased enjoyed in life or at least ones that are pleasant.
- Add items and offerings you know your deceased family members enjoyed in life. These can be food and drink, flowers, etc.
- For those seeking to intensify the connection, graveyard dirt from the area your deceased loved ones are buried can be collected and placed in a small container on the altar. It serves as a grounding point for ancestral spirits.
Blog article and personal shrine photographs in slideshow Copyright © 2016 Leigh-Ann Rose Grace. All Rights Reserved.
“Becoming Osiris: The Ancient Egyptian Death Experience” – by Ruth Schumann-Antelme & Stephane Rossini- Copyright © 1998, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.
“The Ancient Egyptian Prayerbook” – by Rev. Tamara Siuda- Copyright © 2005, Azrael Press
“Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Days”- by Raven Grimassi Copyright © 2011, Weiser Books