Monday, November 1, 2010

Getting Started with Ancestor Veneration

Our Dia de los Muertos ofrenda here honoring our ancestors over 3 nights - Oct. 31, Nov. 1, and Nov. 2

Honoring one's ancestors is a very important aspect of conjure practice, and from having the experience of what it can do for you, I would say that would be a very important element in nearly ANY spiritual practice. Unless you come from a culture where the dead are very taboo spirits not to be worked, like you find in many Native American belief systems, there is much value to be found in beginning a practice of venerating one's ancestors.

Even though it is a very simple thing to do, it often seems a strange and overwhelming, and sometimes downright difficult or impossible practice to begin when you are coming from a more secular culture that sanitizes death and then ignores the dead completely once they are buried (as many Western and certainly North American cultures do nowadays). The fact that once you start researching ways to honor your dead you find many very contradictory instructions and perspectives just complicates things further.

I will admit to being a magical practitioner that came pretty late to the ancestor veneration game. I had a lot of baggage surrounding the idea of "family" (oh heck, let's be honest, I still do have that baggage) stemming from the fact that the vast majority of my family was extremely dysfunctional and abusive. I divorced myself from all but my very immediate family when I was 17 and have not looked back - doing everything I can do stay out-of-touch and spiritually out-of-reach of my maternal relatives. I also never knew my father growing up (I only just tracked him down and got in touch with him within the past year), and so only had one half of the normal amount of family to start with. I loved my maternal grandmother and grandfather very much, and my mother did a truly excellent job considering all the difficulty she dealt with - other than that is was a big pile of family fail.

I was never beaten or molested or anything that horrible, and I never went hungry or without proper clothes, and always had a roof over my head - so I guess compared to very many people my childhood family life was fantastic. And I appreciate that and am grateful that I was never subjected to anything of that nature. Even so, life with my mother and her parents was far from perfect - proper communication was rarely present with screaming being the mode of choice as soon as conflict arose, and order through fear or emotional blackmail was fairly standard practice, and drama generally ran high. But between the drag-out fights and hurtful words, there was a pleasant family dinner each and every night, and unconditional support and nurturing of creative and intellectual pursuits. So there was a heavy dose of good with the bad. In my immediate family.

Outside of that the same unhealthy patterns existed, but without the checks and balances that existed in the home I lived in. Emotional abuse was vicious and downright twisted, and physical abuse was common as well. When the relatives visited or when we visited them, I got a taste of hell. My relatives seemed to sense that I had not been conditioned through abuse to the extent that they were used to, and so would do their best to inflict what they could on me while I was around.

To make matters worse, strong spiritual gifts run in our family line, and some relatives link their energetic capabilities with their abusive dysfunctions to make a powerful malevolent brew. They not only do emotional, mental, and (if you're were unlucky enough to live in their households) physical damage - but deep, lasting psychic damage as well. The worst psychic attack I have even endured and had to heal from came from a relative that visited to help care for my grandmother when she was very ill. I couldn't stop shaking for almost 12 hours, and it took months for me to recover. I still have the occasional nightmare about the incident even 16 years later.

So "family" is not one of my most favorite things. I have a pretty bad taste in my mouth about it. Honoring the people in that line seemed very counter-intuitive to me. I dragged my feet BIG TIME in starting an ancestor practice. I liked the idea of it, just like I liked the idea of "family". But it seemed like something I didn't really want to invite any more of into my life - family presence, because that had always meant drama and unpleasantness. I wanted to honor my grandfather and grandmother (my mother is thankfully still here and we have a very close relationship), but I wasn't thrilled about inviting anyone else to the party. I also didn't know how my grandmother would feel about it, as she was a very fear-based conservative Christian that didn't go in for anything "occult" or "ritualistic". My grandfather had never seemed to have much of an opinion either way, for him church was more about community than God it seemed - so I was fairly sure he'd be open to things.

But still I procrastinated. I felt confused over how to start. Some sources said you had to tend an ancestor altar every single day, and that if you didn't they'd get mad and then you'd have all kinds of spiritual trouble. I didn't want that. Other sources said you tended it weekly, and that seemed more feasible. But which one was RIGHT? Did I need 7 glasses of water, or was it 9, or would 1 do? Were the candles supposed to be white, or red? What do I do about my whole father's side of the family that I knew absolutely nothing about except for a name? And once those relatives that had attacked me passed, would I be required to put them on the altar - because I was NOT cool with that. Some sources said that without exception all ancestors go on the altar, other sources said you could omit abusive relatives. More than anything else, it was probably that last concern that kept me from beginning my ancestor practice the longest.

You may think that with so many issues, why would I bother honoring my ancestors at all? Because when I stopped getting into the nitty-gritty of what was wrong with all of the individual people that I knew of, there were also some pretty amazing things to be proud of to that all played into who I am today. My maternal family line has been continuously present in New Orleans since at least the mid 1800's (the trail goes cold around 1850, and I can't find anything else to note where they may have come from previously) with a family crypt that is still used in Lafayette Cemetery. That's pretty amazing and I'm very proud of that. I get a feeling of "home" when in NOLA that is deeply profound. Despite all the madness and dysfunction that runs in the family there are significant spiritual gifts and an extraordinary creative spirit that also flows through the bloodline, and I am a beneficiary of those spiritual inheritances. There is also a powerful connection to nature's plant and animal life which was also imparted to me. These are all things which are very important to me and are very significant in my life. It is an ancestral heritage which very worthy of recognition and veneration.

This cumulative ancestral energy is what started resonating within me stronger and stronger, until I really couldn't ignore it any longer. I began crafting a small shrine that represented my family lines - the patron saint of Germany (as my maternal line was all strongly German), and the Virgin of Guadalupe for my Mexican paternal line. I just started with that on a white cloth, and I would burn a candle once a week. That went on for about a year. Even though I did not feel any specific instances of my ancestor spirits being around, I will say that many very significant positive changes occurred in my life during that year.

It wasn't until fairly recently that I've felt a very palpable presence from my ancestors, and it's mainly my grandmother and grandfather that I knew and loved so well in life that explicitly make themselves known. On one occasion, when I had called to them strongly for some protective spiritual work, I have had the unique experience of feeling my entire home filling up with ancestral spirits, all linked together, and linked to me by my grandmother and grandfather. That feeling was so overwhelming - to feel that I had such a vast number of spirits that cared for me and were willing to come to my aid - that I had to stop my ritual and just have a good cry. (I also realized later than night that that day had been my grandmother's birthday.) That was a huge turning point for me.

I now look forward to tending my ancestor altar - changing the water glass once or twice weekly and adding a drop of Florida Water to scent it, and burning white candles dressed with Ancestor oil for them. Putting pictures and personal articles from my grandparents on there, and also finding items that represent specific groups of ancestral spirits (like the NOLA ones, who have 2 items now that I come to think of it, and Marie Laveau has started bringing her energy through them as well). It is becoming more and more a place of power, and a place where I enjoy spending time. I also pray for my ancestors every night, and as spoken of in my previous article on Praying for the Dead I have expanded that practice to pray for the dead in general.

Whenever I have need of something, I ask my ancestors first, telling my needs as I set a candle on the altar for them. More often than not my need is met without me needing to resort to any more complicated spiritual work. When I do perform spiritual work, I always ask for their blessing and aid, and I have noticed my work being more potent than before. Overall it has deepened every aspect of my conjure practice, and strengthened my connection to the Divine. I am very grateful that I found a way to approach ancestral veneration in a way that worked for me and allowed me to connect to my familial current without all the drama and baggage I had been anticipating and dreading.

So how can YOU start an ancestral practice? I certainly don't claim to know the One True Way to do it, because there isn't any one particular way that is any better than others. If you are working within a tradition that has specific established practices, then you're ahead of the game as you already have a system and elders to look to for guidance. Many however are just independent eclectic spiritual practitioners and, like I was, are confused as to how to get started. They may have issues with their family, or may have been adopted and not know their bloodline, or they may just be overwhelmed with all the options they have come across online and in books.

I like the technique laid out by Martin Coleman in his book Communing with the Spirits. It's simple and straight-forward, and if you want to read it in all the details I suggest grabbing a copy of that book. The Lucky Mojo Hoodoo Radio Hour archives has an episode on working with the ancestors with Mambo Angel that is very informative. There have also been several podcasts recently on 5 Star Spells, and Momma Starr's Old Style Conjure that also talk about ancestor work - so you may wish to look those up and give them a listen.

I will outline how I practice, which is still pretty simple and easy, and is a mesh of Coleman's instructions, a prayer inspired by the one Sallie Ann Glassman gives in herVodou Visions book, elements from The Magical Power of the Saints by Ray Malborough, and bits and pieces I found resonated with me that other practitioners spoke of. I initially began by doing this practice once a week. As the connection strengthened it became natural to increase the frequency of my ministrations. I currently burn candles and change the water about 2 to 3 times per week (basically whenever I feel the message to change it, I do), but I spend a few minutes at my ancestor altar every day communing with them. Mainly I talk to my grandmother and grandfather, as I did not personally know anyone else, but I do greet the entire line.

You will need:

*white altar cloth
* pictures of ancestors who have passed, or other representations of your ancestral line
* list of known ancestors names (if available)
* glass of water
* white candle
* oil for dressing candle (can be an appropriate condition oil, or holy oil)
* Florida Water
* print out of any prayers that you would like to say (optional)
* incense (optional)
* fresh flowers (optional)

1) Start by cleansing the space where you will establish the ancestor altar. Dust the area, and wipe it down with Florida Water.

2) Put down your white altar cloth and then arrange your photos &/or other items in a way that is attractive to you. There are no real rules for this, besides not putting pictures of anyone that is still living onto the altar. Just make it appealing to your eyes.

If there are ancestors that were abusive to you, do not feel obligated to place them on your altar or name them in your rituals until you feel comfortable doing so (if at all).

If you are adopted, or otherwise in a situation where you do not have specific pictures of biological ancestors, you can use pictures of people who took the role of family for you who have passed, and in honor of your biological ancestry you can use a general symbol of that culture. If you are even unsure of your biological cultural background, you can use a symbol that you find strongly represents "Ancestor" to you - perhaps a picture or reproduction of a very ancient statue or rock carving of a goddess or god, or a Tree of Life-type glyph.

3) When you are ready to begin, fill the glass of water with cool clear water and add a very few drops of Florida Water to lightly scent it, but not affect the clarity of the water (too much will make the water cloudy). Place that on the altar.

4) Dress the candle - a tea light is fine - with the oil while praying that it bring the light and presence of the ancestors into your life and be a blessing to them. Light that candle and place it on the altar.

5) If you are using incense, light that now as an offering to the ancestors.

6) Once the offerings are all on the altar, I say the following prayer:

I honor my ancestors, who have made me who I am.
I honor the ancestors that I have known and loved in life,
(Call those ancestors by name 3 times each. If you do not have any names, simply skip to the next appropriate line of the prayer)
I honor the ancestors in my mother's line,
(Call those ancestors by name 3 times each)
I honor the ancestors in my father's line,
(Call those ancestors by name 3 times each)
(alternatively you could say, I honor the ancestors in my adopted line)
I honor the ancestors' names who have been lost to time,
and I honor the ancestral spirits which are yet to come.
I thank you for your contribution to who I am,
and I invite your presence into my life and at this altar.
Enjoy this light and water and be you blessed in the hereafter.

7) If you have specific prayers for the blessing of your ancestors that you would like to say, you can say them now.

8) Spend a few minutes speaking from the heart to them. If you have no words to say, then just spend a few minutes of quiet contemplation on your ancestral lines.

9) When you are ready, say a farewell, and leave the candle to burn itself out.

10) Change the water at least once weekly, and also burn a candle at least once weekly. If you are placing fresh flowers on this altar, make sure to tend to them and remove them if they wilt, replacing them when necessary.

The first few weeks or months that you undertake this practice, it's best not to go with requests or petitions. Just go with the intent of establishing a connection with your ancestors and to honor with, without expecting anything in return. Wait at least 8-12 weeks of a regular practice before petitioning your ancestors to work on your behalf.

If you have some ancestors that would have been very strongly opposed to your spiritual practice on religious grounds, and you begin to feel uncomfortable about them being on your altar, you may follow that intuition and remove them. While some spirits seem to leave behind many of their earthly prejudices when they pass over, other cling to them. Even if you loved them in life, honor their choice to not be included in your altar if they make it apparent they feel that way. Also, if an ancestor had an addiction problem in life, do not offer any of that substance on the altar where they are included.

Some people get discouraged if they don't start getting dream visits from their ancestors, or other dramatic communications from them. While you do hear plenty of stories like this from practitioners, it is not a requirement that you have such palpable contact with your ancestors for a powerful connection to be successfully made. Some may never "hear" or "see" the presence of their ancestors directly, but will instead reap the benefits of a positive connection by noticing a generally more harmonious life then prior to establishing a practice and by having their needs fulfilled when putting those petitions before the ancestors. Even though I am fairly sensitive to spirits, I have only had one very concrete moment of obvious and extraordinary contact with my ancestors. Most times I am simply "praying to the air" and being able to trust that my needs are being heard and taken care of.

I hope this encourages some of you that have been thinking of starting an ancestral practice to give it a go. It doesn't have to be as complicated as it may sometimes seem. Simply open your heart and mind in gratitude, and see what manifests.

Blessings upon you and your loved ones this All Souls Day!


  1. This is a beautiful article and I"m going to post a link to it on my site so others can read it too. It took me years to develop and engaged ancestral practice, largely because so many of my living relatives were um... let me be kind...unpleaseant people. My ancestors were patient though and now, having recently lost my adopted mother, whom i dearly loved, I find that the practices i worked so hard to develop are even stronger and more resilient. It really is a foundational thing, getting one's ancestral house in order.

    your description of having a house of spirits, linked one by one through your grandparents to you moved me to tears.
    thank you!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the article Galina. Even though I always heard others talk of how profound an ancestral practice is, it's hard to understand just how profound until you experience it for yourself. I hope others who may be curious, but on the fence, may choose to at least do a 6 month experiment to see if they feel a change in their lives and in their spiritual path when undertaking to honor one's ancestors.

  3. I love your articles they are so well written and useful. I did have a question though. Altho i dont have an ancestral altar just yet, ive been wanting to do one but just dont have the time to properly honor it. The question is: I do have a few relatives that have passed on that well we didnt get along because they didnt really approve of my lifestyle. Should i add them onto my altar for just the sake of them being my grandmother and aunt or would it be just perfectly fine to leave them off of it?

  4. It's a question that only you can decide. If they have been very maliciously hurtful to you, or abusive in any way, then I would personally leave them off.

    If they just disagreed with your way of life and you bumped heads over that in a frustrating but non-traumatic way, then you may wish to try honoring them on your altar, but perhaps not necessarily call on them to work on your behalf unless they show an interest in doing so.

    So, do you believe they were people worthy of honor, or not? Some people are just not worthy of honor or attention or acknowledgement at all! Then others were honorable, but simply had different opinions that us.

    But it's really up to you and what you comfort level is. You don't want to feel upset or awkward when at your ancestor altar.

    Obviously, if you do decide to honor them, and you start feeling uncomfortable about having included them - remove them. It could be that they are uncomfortable with being there, too.

    Just listen to your heart and to what Spirit tell you. Your practice will grow and change over time, so just go with what works and what you are guided to to.

  5. Your article was incredibly well written and flowed nicely! But I do have a few questions, you mentioned that if your ancestor's had an addiction problem not to include this as an offering does this include cigarettes? My PopPop really enjoyed his tobacco but always discouraged me from smoking, do you think it wrong of me to offer him up a cigarette? Can you put your animals on the altar? And can you put your dead friends on the altar or only family because my friends are like family. She may not have been that close to me but I still liked the chick very much and she died way too young and I would like to honor her memory. What do you think?

  6. If your PopPop struggled to overcome his cigarette addiction, then I would not include it. But if he never found it a hinderance, then you can certainly give him some cigs from time to time.

    I don't personally have any issue including animals (they ARE family), or very good friends and mentors.

  7. This is a great articule, it was very informative.
    While I was reading it something accured to me. People who have been abusive to us and we didn't like in life need prays as well. As much as i want to say FU to some of them I try and include them on my prayers. Almost like if I don't pray for them noone will. I mean i'm still really new to this, but I kind of feel some times like if it wasn't for 'them" I wouldn't be the person i am today.
    Hmm maybe its to much therapy talking.

  8. There's also a big difference between praying for the welfare of a relative that was not a great person, and inviting them to take part in your spiritual life. I actually wrote a whole separate article on praying for the dead prior to writing this one.

  9. I am creating a shrine where people can go to light virtual candles for their ancestors. May I link to this page (on my shrine's 'link' page)?

    please email me at tamyris at earthlink dot net.
    many thanks,

  10. Devi,
    I just found part of your talk on MC+C on this and you talked about "the fact that you were not christian and anything related to it left a
    bad taste in your mouth. Well, that is where I
    am now. I wanted so much to work with my Ancestors. But my shackles and hair stand right
    straight up. I just toss bathwater baby, soap, pan and all out the window and it has been way more than 10yrs. Papa Toad Bone has given me so
    fat to chew on and at least I am chewing but how
    am I going to get past this Christianity thing.
    Ever since a Past Life Regression of being burn
    at the Stake as a Witch by the Catholic Church and I still have nightmares about it. I can't move on. A Witch for 500 Years at HEART.

  11. Thank you for the inspiration to include my darling kitties who are no longer in this life in my honoring of the dead in my family.

    I have also had severe family issues. For me, the way to heal the remnants of those within myself has been to open myself to feel all the negative emotions from those times (the hate, the anger, the sadness) and then mourn for what happened then. Once my emotional baggage is emptied out (and this is in my experience a time consuming undertaking), I am then ready to see the good things that are there and honor them.

    I hope this helps someone.