The Ancestors, in the most general sense, are the ones who came before you. And ancestor veneration is the practice of honoring your ancestors (vs worshipping). While I generally write about Indo-European Neo-Paganism, ancestor veneration is one of the oldest, and the most global, spiritual practice among all people.
Why? I’m no sociologist, but it’s clear that people long for a connection to the ancestors, either to the family and friends they loved, or the named and unnamed generations who created their existence. There is duty and grief and love in this practice, which can make it intensely emotional and personal.
While I have listed some central aspects of ancestor veneration, this is not an exhaustive article. But I hope it can help you either start or deepen your practice.
Types of Ancestors
John Drum Pagano has an excellent article on the different types of ancestors that you can read here. I have used his three types of ancestors, but I have tried to specify additional types of people for each category.
The Ancestors of Family are your direct bloodline, as well as your broader family tree. This category also includes the people who raised you, adopted parents or children, family friends, and your chosen family. If you consider them important in either your childhood upbringing or your close adult bonds, then they are your family. A pagan group may also share a communal ancestor box (see more below), and any ancestor in that communal box is also an ancestor of the members of that group.
The Ancestors of the Heart are cultural ancestors. People belong to many different ‘sub-cultures’ today, so these ancestors also vary widely. Martin Luther King, Jr. could be considered an ancestor for activists, Black Americans, and/or Americans. Even people who are more legendary characters can be ancestors: Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and King Arthur. A famous witch, cunning-person, or magical practitioner — from Morgan Le Fey to Marie Laveau to Scott Cunnigham — could be an ancestor. Marie Curie and Bouadica could be ancestors for you. It just depends on who you want to venerate at your altar.
The Ancestors of Bone are the people whose bones are buried where you live. If you live in North America, that means Indigenous Americans fall into this category of ancestors. This also includes people buried at your local graveyard. Therefore, the people buried at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn and the Indigenous Lenape and Canarsie who have died here are part of my ancestors. And the mass graves on Hart Island — the final resting place of Union soldiers, infants, AIDS victims, the homeless, and unclaimed bodies who died from COVID-19 — are my ancestors. This category is less about who you choose to be an ancestor (like the previous two), and more about the duty to honor those who came before you in the local landscape.
Problems Honoring the Ancestors
Many people have bad history with the ancestors whom they knew in life. Others don’t know many — or any — of their ancestors. Even when you do know many of your ancestors by name, it is likely they were people of their time who would not hold the same values you might. (Let’s be honest, everyone’s great-great grandpa was probably racist and sexist.) So what do we do with ancestors we are uncomfortable venerating?
John Beckett has a wonderful article on this. His own family lines, and his cultural upbringing, go back to the US South. He suggests that pagans walk a certain line between completely erasing troublesome ancestors and whitewashing their negative actions. At the very least, you owe your blood kin for your existence. However, the balancing act is to not ignore the harm they caused you or others.
Rehabilitating Ancestors in Your Practice
First and foremost, heal yourself if your recent ancestors did you harm. You don’t have to venerate anyone if you don’t want to. You don’t have to include them on your altar or ever speak their name. However, I encourage you to try to understand who that ancestor was and why they did what they did. Again, this isn’t for them — this is for YOUR healing. When you can come to terms with why this ancestor hurt you, then perhaps add a recognition of them to your veneration. It can be as simple as saying: To those of my direct line, I thank you for my existence.
Beyond individual harm, we need to look at rehabilitating our ancestral lines. What can we admire about our ancestors and what should we condemn? History is not pretty my friends, and there is no time or place I can think of that isn’t tainted by values we find problematic today.
If you know nothing of your ancestors except what country they came from, take that country’s history as both what you might admire and condemn. For instance, with England, you can admire how the English advanced technology or how the culture keeps nature (even today) in high esteem. At the same time, you can condemn their history of colonialism around the world.
You can apply this model to a historic individual or or unknown ancestors connected to a historical event. For example, I know have ancestors who signed the Mayflower Compact. While I don’t know much about them otherwise, I know the history of the Puritans, and I can condemn the murder of Native Americans as well as their still-relevant obsession with ‘purity.’ At the same time, I can appreciate those ancestors for my existence.
Rehabilitating Ancestors in The World
Knowledge is half the battle, but the other half is action. Rehabilitating ancestral lines is not just condemning our family’s past actions or a country’s oppressive past actions. It is also using right action to create healing and loving actions and to alleviate the inequalities our ancestors produced.
As Beckett put it: “Discontinue hurtful family practices and begin helpful ones. Disempower and dismantle harmful institutions.” We can and should work to mend familial discord, violence, or lies. We should bring up these issues in our families and show what the alternatives look like. We can and we should mend our society against harmful institutions and untrue beliefs. We should donate, volunteer, and speak out publicly against societal inequalities.
And most importantly, we can do all these things in the name of rehabilitating our ancestors and our ancestral lines. This is how we truly respect and honor our ancestors while acknowledging their failures and the harm they caused.
Ancestor Veneration: Common Practices
Shrines and Practice
The single most common practice is also the most intimate: photographs. Many religions which practice ancestor veneration use photos of the deceased at their altars. Part of the grieving process could include adding a picture of them on an ancestor altar or in the ancestors’ space in your home. And once you have a shrine or altar set up, then you have a set place to talk to them. Holidays like Día de los Muertos are annual celebrations for the ancestors. Again, ancestor veneration is one of the oldest and most global spiritual practices.
There is some other common iconography. I particularly like the use of skulls on my ancestor altar. For the Indo-Euopean polytheists, skulls were magical and symbolic of the ancestors. The dead could speak if you had their skull. You can also take this symbol as the wisdom of the ancestors, or their status as otherworldly beings.
Some modern pagans like to keep an ancestor box. This can contain photos or specific items that belonged to several ancestors. Some groups keep the ancestor box closed until just before the end of October (Samhain/Winternights, etc). At this time, new ancestors’ items are added to the box. And during ritual new ancestors can be formally added and members tell stories about any ancestors who are in the box. In the podcast Druids in Cars, Going to Festivals, Jan Avende talks about how all the ancestors in her grove’s ancestor box — even though they are not her blood kin — are part of her ancestors.
You can also do a Dumb Supper. Dumb Suppers are generally part of Samhain celebrations, but anyone can do it. Essentially, you make a family meal and add a plate for the ancestors. You give the ancestors food and eat in quiet reflection (hence the “dumb” in Dumb Supper). However, I personally think an ancestral supper should be a time to talk about the ancestors as a family or a group.
Special Days for Pagans
Certainly Samhain is the most popular pagan holiday to celebrate the ancestors. The Heathen community has a celebration called Winternights, which is also popular. Different Indo-European polytheists had different times of the year that they honored the ancestors. While you can check out my article about how these ancient polytheists practiced, here are two other times of year you can honor your ancestors.
New Year’s Eve. I think it’s only appropriate to take a look back when we take a step forward. The new year was a common time to honor the ancestors, particularly those who recently passed on. You can add a small ritual to your December 31st celebrations, celebrate with family recipes, and so on.
Birthdays and Deathdays. The ancient Roman’s celebrated the birthdays of their ancestors. I also think honoring an ancestor on the day they died is appropriate. You can honor a specific ancestor who you knew with small rituals on these days. You can even tailor your offerings to the food and drink they loved.
Of all the beings modern pagans typically worship, from a well-known goddess like Brigid to a local spirit in your neighborhood, the ancestors are the most difficult to come to terms with. There are many pagans with unaccepting families. And many of us have family lines that make us uneasy.
But I encourage you to regularly talk to your ancestors. They are also the grandmother you loved or a proud homesteader you’ve heard stories about. They are the people who brought you into existence. From the moment you’re born, the ancestors are invested in your well-being. And they are the only ones who know what it’s like to be human and live a human life. They’ve done it before.
Talk to your ancestors. Celebrate and honor them. If you grew up with harmful family, heal yourself and your family moving forward, but do not give up on the ancestors whole-cloth. The work of rehabilitating lineages is the good work we can do now. It is the work to a better future AND a stronger bond to your ancestors.
All articles access October 2020.
John Drum Pagano. “Building a Devotional Practice with the Ancestors.” Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/fromacommonwell/2019/08/building-a-devotional-practice-with-the-ancestors/
John Beckett. “Honoring Our Troublesome Ancestors.” Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2015/06/honoring-our-troublesome-ancestors.html
Mainer74. “Troubling Ancestors, and ancestor worship.” https://mainer74.wordpress.com/2018/08/08/troubling-ancestors-and-ancestor-worship/?fbclid=IwAR1QZ2d_-ltaKqp1r0AmOcbZKWFAZFZ-vVFLIDCD5TEj1WBsXCROwRjOfss
Eric Alcorn. “Household Rituals.” Japanese Religions. https://jpnreligions.weebly.com/household-rituals.html
Daizy. “A Veneration Prayer to Invoke the Ancestral Spirits.” The Afro Mystic. http://www.theafromystic.com/blog/2017/11/4/a-veneration-prayer-to-invoke-the-ancestral-spirits
“Dia de los Muertos.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/dia-de-los-muertos/#:~:text=Dia%20de%20los%20Muertos%20has,Dia%20de%20los%20Muertos%20rituals.
H. R. Ellis Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse University Press. 1988. Pages 71–78; 106–122.
Jan Avende and Michael J. Dangler. “Episode 60: Honoring Your Unknown Ancestors.” Podbean. https://druidsincars.podbean.com/e/episode-60-honoring-your-unknown-ancestors/
Native Land Digital. https://native-land.ca/
“Hart Island.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hart_Island_(Bronx)#Cemetery
Dave Mosher. “Over 1 million unclaimed bodies are buried on a little-known island in New York City — a mass graveyard where some coronavirus victims will go to rest.” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/story-of-potters-field-on-hart-island-2016-6