Many different forms of Paganism and Polytheism put some level of emphasis on honoring and/or working with Ancestors. This can be problematic for those whose parents/guardians were less than honorable in their parenting skills, whether that mean abuse, alcoholism/addiction, neglect, or abandonment. It is also difficult for those who were actively or passively “kicked out” of their family – whether their family has explicitly told them to go away and never come back, or if repeated attempts to connect with family show that they have no interest in connecting with you. Having a family whose identity is strictly bound to a certain religion or faith tradition that is incompatible with your life choices and/or spiritual beliefs may also complicate matters or make them impossible. Children of adoption may not have any knowledge about their blood lineages and may feel disingenuous trying to work with their adoptive lineage. In short, many Pagans may find it difficult or impossible to understand why Ancestor veneration is considered a meaningful and important part of spiritual practice.
At first, I made a fiat decision that I wasn’t going to include Ancestor work in my practice. I only know shreds of information about my paternal bloodline, and my father was abusive and neglectful. I felt very close to my mother (and still do in some ways), but my maternal family has never felt very comfortable with me, nor I with them. I also know that my father’s family was Catholic and my mother’s is as WASPish as they come, so attempting to integrate them into my wacky Northern Tradition Pagan-inspired practice seems disrespectful of their beliefs. Also, when I attended rituals that encouraged us to “look back and greet the Ancestors”, I heard nothing but crickets. No long-lost great great great uncles or nieces came lunging through the darkness to guide me in jack shit. So I would stand in respectful silence until that part of the ritual ended.
Later on, at a Samhain ritual, the priest used a phrase that changed the way I thought about Ancestral work entirely.
“You are the product of a million hopes and dreams whispered into the darkness; the yearnings of hearts longing to be remembered for their life’s work and the marks they left upon the Earth, among the people you stand with today.”
I wrote this down and spent a long time thinking and toying with this idea. I spoke about it to other Pagans who had similar reasons to disconnect from the traditional thoughts about Ancestor veneration. The more I tried to deconstruct the concept of “Ancestor”, the more I got an energetic sense of “Yes! You’re on the Right Path! Keep Going!”
So I started to play a game. I thought about what was happening in the world at approximately around the time I was born. Although I am sure in some ways I am the product of my birth parents’ hopes and dreams (and maybe Loki too), they are only three out of millions. So if I am the product of millions of hopes and dreams, who was doing the hopin’ and dreamin’?
The first and most obvious leap was to the early Gay Liberation movement. The mid-70’s was a time where many gays and lesbians were starting to come out both personally and politically. I’m sure that being able to live life as a queer trans* man without being locked away (in a psych ward or a jail) is something the gay liberators desperately hoped for the children born around them. Instead of taking on the whole movement, I looked for specific members that I personally resonated with – ones whom I thought would be honored and pleased when their names came from my heart and lips. Even before she passed in 2008, I considered Del Martin someone who would be pleased to see her struggles made manifest into pleasures in my life. I also felt compelled to find a genderfucker that I could connect with, and when I approached Divine in a meditation and asked her if she would be my ancestor, she gave me a giant hug.
I did this with many other outlier groups: I particularly felt drawn to working with those who died in “insane asylums” or other mental health facilities, especially those who were abandoned by their families (and possibly erased from those family’s trees). I also reached out to some who were working with ecstatic states of worship, regardless of their religious tradition. There are a few who died via suicide because they were lonely and forgotten. There are also some who died because their illness was not diagnosed or treated in time.
Before I knew it, I started having a pretty respectable list of those who have passed, who may have dreamed that someone like me would have the kind of life I have now. Doing this has made me incredibly thankful and gracious about the freedom and acceptance I enjoy, and I am painfully aware that many people laid down their lives for that freedom and acceptance.
As time has passed, I have had many close friends and family members, most recently my mother in early December, who have gone on to become my Ancestors and Beloved Dead. These days, I laugh a little when I remember how I used to think I had no ancestors to work with; now I never know who is going to show up when I make space for them in my altars and during my rituals.
I encourage you, regardless of how close you feel to your lineage, to play the same game. Think about who you are today, and whose dreams you are fulfilling. Do some research into what the world was like when you were born, and who has been forgotten or overlooked that you can identify with. Maybe even go to a local cemetery and find a grave that is in desperate need of tending; spend some time there and see if you feel some sort of permission to groom their grave and leave small offerings. See if your local historian society has an idea who that person was, what their life was like.
There are millions of dead who want only to be remembered, and they may not care whether you’re related to them via blood or not. And remembering someone is not very difficult, and can bring you a sense of connectedness and continuity in your life.