Who Are the Ancestors?
Samhain is particularly ripe with talk of the ancestors and honoring the dead and often is an integral part of the celebration. The term “ancestor” is used in different ways depending on the intention and your personal perspective. Today’s post is about who the ancestors are.
Generically, the term ancestors has come to mean those of your lineage, either biologically or culturally, who were at one time incarnate human beings. These are those from whom we claim a legacy in some way and if familial in nature, share the common thread of family history as well. These souls would also be known as ghosts or spirits of the departed. For this writing, this is how I will use the term ancestor.
The practice of honoring our familial ancestors has been around for aeons in one form or another. Sometimes that honoring spread out to be inclusive of an entire tribe or clan, each and every individual considered to be a familial ancestor; so deeply embedded was the energy of collective community and shared experience.
Every culture has its own ways of celebrating the departed, such as Dia de Los Meurtos in Mexico or Central America, Ari Muyang in Malaysia, Chuseok in Korea; Pitru Paksha in India or Obun in Japan. In each the central theme is one of remembering the legacy left to the living and setting aside a special time from the mundane and routine tasks to gift their ancestors with blessings, food, gifts and more. Some are single day events, others last for days on end and many of these practices are part of the funerary rites and extend into the daily activities; seeing the departed as always present in spirit.
These celebrations are joyous and reverent events that not only celebrate the human life of the individual, but often incorporate the journey of the Soul in its non-corporeal form. Masks, lanterns to light the way for the ancestors and grave side feasts are all part of thinning the veils between the living and dead and demonstrating that the dead have not been forgotten and are ever important to family and friends who benefitted by their life.
For many in the pagan community, Samhain offers opportunity to reach across these veils and sit in the company of their ancestors. These are some components that you may wish to incorporate into your Samhain celebrations:
* Setting up an altar that contains pictures and things that were special to your beloveds in life. Perhaps a favorite cigar, candy, perfume, piece of jewelry, etc.
* Wearing something that belonged to your beloved, such as a piece of jewelry, favorite sweater, etc…
* Going to a special location that our loved one enjoyed such as a park, restaurant, museum, etc..
* Setting a plate for your loved one at the table and offering a toast to their joining you for your Samhain meal. A more elaborate version of this is the Dumb Supper. Our coven has had Samhain celebrations that incorporated the Dumb Supper in it. All brought tokens of their loved ones and a picture. The picture was placed where each individual was seated. Drink was offered up to each loved one and the food was blessed in their honor. The entire meal was eaten in silence, listening to the conversations and words of the dead as they graced us, and when finished all left in silence carrying the memory of the experience out into the mundane world with them. It was a very powerful ritual and one that can easily be done for a family or just yourself and your loved one.
* Dedicating a new experience or way of being to your loved one such as: being more mindful of your health in the coming year because that was a concern of your loved one for you or having a more positive attitude in honor of the beloved who always seemed to have a smile and kind word for you.
You may find that after trying some of these things during this season that you will want to keep a small (or larger) ancestor altar in your home in a special place. This becomes a place to interact with and routinely honor your ancestor year long. Whatever you choose to do, remember that we are who we are in part because of those who loved us (whether biological family or not). So don’t limit the thought of an ancestor only to those of biological heritage. That is only one piece of a more complex puzzle that is our human existence. And, at some point when that existence loosens its hold, we will become the most honored ancestor of those we love.
An excellent resource for learning more about the distinction between ghosts, Ancestors, the Mighty Dead and more:
Pictures, Ideas and More
Today’s post follows yesterday’s about Samhain and ways to honor our beloved departed ancestors. As promised, I have pictures of various ancestor altars to inspire you. Begin by realizing that whatever you decide upon as the space of holding your ancestors near and dear will become sacred space dedicated to them. Whether this becomes a permanent fixture or an annual event the intention and simply the act of constructing a space of honoring is an act of devotion. The creation of sacred space and what I described as an act of devotion are all things we are familiar with in terms of our interactions with Deity or celebrating a Sabbat. The same is true, and in my opinion, even more so, because we are calling the memory of our deceased loved ones in a dynamic way of engagement that transcends the separation of planes of existence.
The pictures I’ve selected are a very few samples of what this sacred space could become. The picture below gives you a sampling of items that could be incorporated into how you set-up your altar.
The important piece to creating a scared space in offering to your ancestor is intention. The size of the altar does not really matter. Making use of furniture surfaces can be a space saver…
For some, incorporating pictures placed on the wall and then adding to this is a nice way to have more than what could be accommodated simply on a table alone….You can also add to what is existing and permanent by including feast foods….
A temporary space will serve as well, such as a small end table that can be decorated in accord with the season, the beloved’s birthday, anniversary of death or any other time that you wish to do a little more….
Simplicity does not mean lack of care. Some of the most meaningful ways I have honored my grandmother and mother have involved very little “stuff”, but were abundant in the love that moved through my memories and was returned in reciprocity by the nearness and reach of connection and gratitude I felt.
A mantle or a book shelf can be decorated and dedicated to your ancestor..
It’s always a nice idea to add food as part of the celebration. Sitting and having your meal with the beloved’s place set affirms that they have not been forgotten, nor have the times when talking while enjoying a good meal were treasured times together…
And, always remember that the most precious of altars you dedicate to your ancestors is yourself. You carry all that is needed by them and yourself to honor them with every breath, step and action you take. Be mindful and grateful for those intangible, yet very palpable, gifts they have left as legacy to you. Call up the image of them often and surround that image with love, just as you may have done with a hug in physical life. Audibly say “thank you” when the seeds of inspiration or the solution to a problem seems to appear “out of thin air”. It may have been a beloved gently whispering encouragement.
All journeys lead back to the source of their origins. In this case, that source is all who came before you, just as you will become the source for those who follow..
The gorgeous image used for this post is a piece of sculpture by Italian sculptor, Antonio Corradini! If this is not otherworldly, I don’t know what is…