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Waking the Dead: Ancestral Practices beyond Reverence
My mind shifts at this time of year from the thick-blooded heat and lethargy of summer into a fervor of magical practice. In my part of the United States, we tend to have lingering heat even into October and November, but it is tempered by the crispness of evening air. When the darker days come, I feel energized, renewed, and eager to work magic and tap into the current of enchantment which emerges when summer has been left behind. And while the greenery of the floral world retreats, a different kind of stirring seems to happen below the soil. The Dead are waking up.
It seems everyone has a festival of the dead in autumn. Of course, Halloween is probably the dominant cultural paradigm for those of us living in the United States and Canada, but Hispanic folks have Dia de (los) Muertos, people of Asian ancestry have holidays like the Ghost Festival or the Chung Yeung Festival, and Catholics have All Souls’ Day. While some cultures do not seat their ancestral reverences in autumn, so many do that working with the dead during the cooling months comes naturally to a lot of folks, myself included.
Developing an ancestral practice is, in my opinion, important to those practicing spiritual systems centered on land, folklore, history, etc. It creates a sense of family and timelessness, while acknowledging the mortality that binds every living thing together. It keeps tradition alive, while allowing for new growth and understanding as descendants adapt their practices to the era in which they live. In many cases, I’ve heard people explain that they do not work with ancestors because their predecessors would not have approved of their lifestyle, or there might be a history of abuse or harm, or perhaps they simply are not close to their family in general. However, I would argue that honoring the Dead does not necessarily mean honoring blood relatives. That may be the simplest method—and often it proves rewarding even when some family relationships have a history of bitterness in them—but it is not the only method. Why not work with deceased teachers from within your tradition? Or even culture heroes, like Black Hawk in the hoodoo traditions (a teacher-ancestor) or Johnny Appleseed if you happen to be in the Ohio Valley area (a regional/land-based ancestor)? I am not here to tell anyone how to live their spiritual life or which ancestor(s) to work with, but I do want people to understand that the Dead go beyond blood-bonds and share other ties with the living, and they are eager to work with us, especially at this time of year.
Working with ancestors does not need to be a highly formalized affair. They are family of one kind or another, after all. Basic reverence—offering water or candles, a ritual prayer of some kind, etc.—is one of the best ways to begin such work, but if every time you call your dead great-grandmother you have the exact same conversation, it’s going to get boring for both of you very quickly. So we come to the crux of this post, which is to say that this is the time of year to have a little fun with your ancestors, whether they are rooted to your bones or your spirit (or both). So what are some of the ways in which we can have a little fun with our honored and beloved Dead?
Food: One of the most universal methods for interacting with spirits is to feed them. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good meal? Making food that the dead enjoyed eating is a great way to bond with them, apples for John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed), for example. Some share a symbolic meal with them, as in the Red Meal (Housle) of Traditional Witchcraft. Others make the meal more ceremonial, as in a Dumb Supper. And some simply leave food as an offering, perhaps on china or in cups once owned by the deceased. One common belief found throughout folk cultures says that when you do prepare a meal for the Dead, you should avoid using salt if at all possible, as it makes it unpalatable to them. My experience generally has been that if I am offering food which I’ve made for myself or other living people but which I share with the dead, the salt rule can be suspended (though I would not add extra salt to anything I offer them). If I prepare food exclusively for consumption by the Dead, I do try to avoid salt.
Games: A friend of mine, Papa Toad Bone, once told me about something he does when he visits a graveyard. He brings a pack of cards and starts playing a game of blackjack with the resident of the grave. He uses his intuition to “feel” when the member of the Dead wishes to have another card, and when they want to be done. Playing games with the Dead may seem a little strange (and anyone watching you attempt to play Twister on a grave is likely to call the local psychiatrist on you), but it’s a great way to build up the relationship between you and the deceased person (or people). Games which involve dice or dominoes are great because they used to be made from bone (and sometimes you can still find sets that are made that way), so they have a deep connection to the land of the Dead already. Other suggestions: checkers or chess (use a pendulum to determine which piece they want to move to which square), Yahtzee! (dice & cards combined), and any game where chance can play a significant role. Save Twister for the ritual possession parties, though.
Music: This is a highly underrated offering, in my opinion. Whether you play it on an instrument or an iPod, music seems to be so universally loved that it surprises me how seldom it is shared. My father was a composer & professor of music, and one of his favorite composers was Igor Stravinsky, so playing The Firebird is one of the best ways I can think of to share space with him. My mother, who was of Irish descent, loved listening to the Chieftains, so that’s one of the ways I connect with her. Music can be a wonderful offering in place of something like incense if you have a sensitivity to smoke or scents, and it can even become a touchstone of communication between you and your beloved Dead. If you hear a song you know one of your ancestors enjoyed randomly on the radio, it might just be their way of patting you on the back and saying “hello,” for instance.
Stories: Sharing stories of your ancestors is a major way of enlivening their memory. I personally have a theory that every time their names are spoken, especially in the context of story, they grow a bit stronger and come a little closer to you. Even beyond the directly personal stories about the deceased which you might use to spread their memory, you could simply tell stories that they once told you, or which come from a cultural paradigm that they enjoy. Similarly, reading books that you know they loved means that your minds are sharing that story together, and thus creating a link. I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling, whether spoken or written, and I tend to think the Dead like stories, too.
These are just some examples of how living with Ancestors and the Dead can become something more than “habitual ritual,” and move into a meaningful lifestyle. And when the Dead are a part of your everyday life, you have a tremendous set of friends and allies upon which to draw. After all, you never know when your work with Ancestors will lead you to some new magical discovery or bit of enchanted history you had overlooked before.
What I love about ancestral practice how connected it makes me feel. I can sense myself as a thread in a very large web, a member of a distinguished group to whom I am obligated, but who are also obligated to me in a way. The sense of family that the Dead bring into my life is hard to quantify. I lost both parents to cancer before I was old enough to legally drink, and most of my predecessors at this point have died. Through my regular ancestral reverence, however, I get to keep them around and interact with them. I pay homage to the ancestors of my bloodline and my magical practice on a weekly basis, but when the opportunity comes in fall to really ramp it up a notch, I get excited. When the Dead wake up, I cannot wait to greet them.
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