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Ancestor Worship & Dealing with the Dead

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Ancestor worship has become a popular topic in the Pagan community, but it is worth noting that it is not universal, or necessarily normative. It can also lead to some problems. . .

In my pastoral role, one of my responsibilities is to examine the doctrines of our religion, no matter how beloved, and subject them to reflection and critical analysis. Ancestor worship is today’s topic.

Ancestor Worship is a developing form within our community and when we compare it with contemporary modes in Asia and Africa, for example, we can see that it has some maturing to do. It has many forms, only some of which are biological. In Japan, for instance, practitioners of the Tea ceremony know who founded their lineage and exactly where he is buried. The schools that come off of him take turns offering tea at their primary facilities. Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, particularly ordained ones, can give the names of who taught who from the founder to their own teacher. This is a degree of specificity we have yet to achieve, although there are some traditions like the Gardnerians, where this kind of detail can be known. For most of us, our ancestors have been Christian for many generations and so our connections to them are mostly biological. Blessings upon those who also received good spirituality from their families.

Not everyone deals with the Dead. The Golden Dawn tradition developed during the great age of Spiritualism and rejected the idea of passive mediumship in favor of volitional skrying. It also discouraged any contact with the shades of the dead as mere shells of the formerly living, echos of their passions and bad habits. What we speak to would not be the blessed and intelligent soul, usually thought by those Victorians to be reincarnating or possibly passed on to their reward, and so not available for conversation.

My own situation is peculiar. GD trained, I generally give no thought to ancestors or even lineage (although some GD folk think that is important). However, as a priest of Hermes and Hekate, Themselves funerary deities, I deal with the Dead, but I am in service to them and do not ask anything of the Dead. My role is to make wide the Gate and make It easier to find for the Dead, so that they do not wander lost in the World of the Living. I’m trying to help them go where they need to go, and not delay them with questions or requests. Frankly, to do so would not occur to me.

However, those Dead whom folks are invoking and making offering to might better be considered the Honored Dead or Mighty Dead, not just whoever has recently crossed over (just because they are dead, doesn’t mean they are wise). Like the Heros worshiped in ancient Greece, these Dead are remembered and worshiped because for their superlative excellence. They are considered powerful and so are worth asking for help.

‘Ancestors’ generally implies a sort of biological connection. Last December at Between the Worlds, I attended a Christopher Penczak workshop on connecting with the Ancestors. He used a solid guided visualization technique to lead us back to our biological ancestry but also widened it out to include all those who inspire or empower us. It was powerful and effective but again, thinking of them as ancestors is not something that would occur to me.

For me, those who empower or inspire from the past are just that, the past. At the beginning of every ritual I ‘Take Refuge’ as the Buddhists call it, invoking the causal influence and beneficent intent of all those who have gone before me to bless and empower the work to come. It is a very powerful way to start a ritual and at times I even consciously include my ancestors as ‘those from whom I have learned’. But, most of the time, they are just part of the Divine Host that I call upon for aid and support. Likewise, when working a spell or blessing, I attune to the causal stream of everything that has lead to the moment of the working, essentially all of the Past, feel it as a wavefront building up ‘behind’ me and then bring it to bear on the intent being worked. I guess my ancestors are part of all that but I’m usually just concentrating on the time-stream and using my lived-moment like a lens to focus the past into the present to make an effective now and thereby change the future. Why wouldn’t I focus all the the past, animate and inanimate, material and immaterial, not just that part that is my ancestors? You might say that I’m working with my ancestors, but from within the frame of a much larger set of ‘resources’.

One last concern I have regards something I’ve heard rumored with respect to practice: that folks are performing practices such as seasonal rituals ‘because their ancestors did them’. Seriously? How is that in this day and age meaningful motivation? Leaving out the more egregious items like slaughtering slaves at the burial of a prominent leader (not hearing too many calls for these), doing something just because those in the past did it can hardly be a good enough reason to do that thing. Our ancestors performed their rites and practices, not simply because the Past did them, important though that was, rather the Past did them because they saw them as effective. When we do what was done simply because it was so done, we are just a copy. We then degenerate our rituals to mere performances, set pieces for the tourists to watch and then go buy our trinkets. They would have no inner or spiritual value. Our focus should not be on exactly reproducing the rites of our forebears (as though we could) but on reproducing their effect. Our rites should be powerful. They should challenge and change us and all who participate in them. Our critical focus when we review our rites should be did we move people? Did they see/feel in a new way? Was our ritual effective? Without this we are just a repeating meme, of no more value than a needle skipping in a groove. We then give the past no respect and dishonor our Ancestors. We can do better.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    Mr. Webster,

    Great post, food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

    I have a small shrine to my biological ancestors, and whenever I light the candle I speak to my departed father. Truth be told, though, I believe in reincarnation and it's quite possible that I'll be someone of a completely different race, ethnicity, and national origin the next time around.

    I also appreciate that you have shared your knowledge of other cultures' ancestral veneration rites.

    Extra points for ending with a 20th-century reference to vinyl record players!

  • Elizabeth Creely
    Elizabeth Creely Thursday, 10 October 2013

    Food for thought. I'm an ancestor observer/venerator. I have a small shrine with pictures of my biological family, and believe that at least on one occasion, I was visited by one.
    But I don't think I'd ever try to engage them in dialogue or directly connect with them: they have left, for better or worse. For some, it was a welcome release from physical weariness.
    My loss, as it were, should not be a tether binding them to a place they once occupied.
    I do miss my father very much but understand that he is dispersed and general throughout. (to partially quote Joyce.) He is somewhere much bigger than his body, or the state of California.
    And I'm happy with that.

  • Elizabeth Creely
    Elizabeth Creely Thursday, 10 October 2013

    One more thing...what is the title of the picture accompanying the article and who is the artist?

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 10 October 2013

    Hermes-Souls on the Banks of the Acheron
    by Hiremy Hirschl 1898
    Thanks for asking!

  • Elizabeth Creely
    Elizabeth Creely Thursday, 10 October 2013

    Thank you - it's quite something!

  • Phaedra Bonewits
    Phaedra Bonewits Thursday, 10 October 2013

    I think the custom of naming our spiritual and intellectual influences as "ancestors" is an artifact of not having ancestor reverence as part of our culture. A lot of people have issues with their biological ancestors and never got the idea ingrained that, yeah, you may hate their guts, but without them, you wouldn't be here. Cultures with entrenched ancestor reverence accept that you can deal with the ancestors even if the ones you knew you didn't particularly like.

    I don't think it's bad per se to say we are doing a rite because our "ancestors" did it. The sense of continuity, "they did it, now I'm doing it, after me someone will continue to do it" adds a very powerful element to ritual.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 10 October 2013

    I think the problem lies in when we do a thing only because those before us have done that thing. Perhaps that is a hook for some, and well attested as a value in ancient Greece, for instance, but it can also empty out the effective value of the rite, making repetition more important than impact.

    While we can see some clues of this happening in the ancient world, one of the main causes of the rejection of ritual in the west comes with the Protestant criticism of the mere formalism of the Catholic mass. Then, as now, the mass can be merely rote behavior, having no impact on priest or worshiper, except as an obligation fulfilled.

    We can, and I feel must, do better.

  • Shodo Hathos
    Shodo Hathos Thursday, 10 October 2013

    When you have no ancestor practice or training in ancestor work to then give advice on ancestor practice seems presumptuous at best.

    In cultures that have active ancestor veneration, there is a huge difference between the "restless dead", ancestors and heroes or mighty dead. The ancestral soul, the soul that is cultivated through every action you take in your life is different from the "immortal soul" that gets re-incarnated in these belief systems as it is also different from the shell that might get left behind.

    When ancestor workers work with their dead through libations, offerings, divination and mediumship they are generally working with those who have crossed into the ancestral realms where they can then give advice and sustenance and support to the living. Often times in that work dead who have not successfully crossed over or been elevated show up as well, so part of ancestor work is also tending to these people and providing them with healing when possible to reweave the broken threads of our lineages. We then must do the painful work of clearing the patterns that we are living in our lives based on their unresolved issues. Ignoring these dead does not make those patterns go away. Engaging with them skillfully or working with an ancestor worker potentially can.

    If we look at indigenous cultures with unbroken lineages, ancestor work is not tradition specific, but a basic human requirement for health and spiritual adulthood.

    If you want to see how this might look in practice in an an unbroken lineage that has kept it's traditions despite colonization, read Malidoma Some's works on the Dagara people, Of Water and Spirit and Healing Wisdom of Africa. A great resource for starting an engaged ancestor practice is Laura Patsouris' Weaving Memory.

  • Neil Pitchford
    Neil Pitchford Friday, 11 October 2013

    There is one aspect of ancestor interaction that you haven't raised here (possibly because you are not familiar with it) and that is interactions with ancestors associated with areas of the land. Whereas the practices you highlight here are very much based on lineage, if your practice (as mine ) is based upon interactions through the medium of the land, lineage tends to be "lost" because you tend to be dealing with the continuing consequences of interactions that were, and continue to be, made on and through the land. So any sort of hierarchy based upon biological or cultural lineage is a side issue (in my experience). Plus there is the tricky issue if one believes in re-incarnation, that any actions or biological remains may be of an earlier incarnation of the self and those actions taken when in that incarnation may not be "favourable" when viewing using the lens of todays culture.

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