Making right: connecting to ancestors

I apologize for my recent absence. Last week I wrote about work troubles, and Friday last I tried to make amends, to put myself in right relationship with the ancestors and the spirits. This I intended to write about -, but then on Saturday my work contract was terminated about which I was informed though a casual e-mail. I had to mull things over before I could write about it, plus I had a festival on Sunday for which I needed to prepare. On the upside, I have a lot of free writing time at present.

Last Friday, at dawn, I visited the local burial mounds on the heath to honour my ancestors. I cleared the site from plastic and other trash, and I pored milk in the deep blue pools. And I prayed to the gods, fervently.

Bronze age burial mounds at Regte Heide
Bronze age burial mounds at Regte Heide

For the first time in a long while I felt truly at peace. I spoke the following words of the SDF’s morning devotional, and they felt truer than they ever did before.

And may the day unfold in peace,
And may this peace be born within,
And may my heart be set ablaze,
That I might shine into the world.

A stark flew 6 feet above me, which is a rare sight. And on my way back home I came across three deer, rabbits, and birds of prey. And it was as if those animals confirmed that I had restored my connection to the sensuous world and my ancestors. I had reclaimed my place within Wyrd.

Ancestor-worship has often seen as the first step of modern pagan practice, because our ancestors are supposed to share and thus understand our human experience of the world. Yet I have never experienced them as standing closer to me than the supposedly grander gods. And thus ancestor-worship does not have a prominent place in my life. Whenever I do something small for them it is out of duty, not out of a sense of connection, and even less a personal need. I honour my line of descent. Through the ancestors, I honour the cycle of time.  In short, I honour the ancestors as an anonymous group. And thus my relationship to them remains rather abstract.

I have lit candles for my grandmother –  the one I never knew and of whom family members say that I resemble her a great deal -, but I never tried to connect to any other specific ancestor. To be frank, in my mind, these people are gone. I honour their memory by remembering them, learning about them, and in in this way their wisdom or energy travels with me. I also have developed a keen interest in my genealogy. As the spirits connect me to place, the ancestors connect me to the cycles of time. However I still do not believe they as individuals are still here to be met with.

I believe we all leave an imprint on Wyrd, and I entertain the possibility there is something intangible that survives our bodies somehow. I do not however, believe in individual separate souls that either hang about or transfer to an Otherworld. It follows that I do not believe that they can come down to advise me or support me in any literal way. And how can I connect to something or someone, when I deny those to whom I intend to connect to?

There is little logic in my problem. I am not certain of the objective existence of the gods at all, and somehow this bothers me a great deal less than this small ontological uncertainty concerning the ancestors. I have come to accept that the gods exist even if I do not know how they come to be in existence. I am not even seeking for naturalistic explanations any more. The gods exists somehow, and that is enough. Yet my ancestors have walked on this earth, that much is certain, and thus logically, they were very objectively ‘real’  at some point.

Still, I am in need a new concept, a new idea of who the ancestors are. Or at least what they are or could be to me. I open the anthology This Sacred Earth and find, to my surprise an essay by David Abram whose book Spell of the Sensuous I mean to purchase when I have the funds to do so. In this essay called “The Ecology of Magic”, Abram argues that it is a mistake to interpret shamanistic encounters with the gods as either supernatural, or as happening in realms entirely “internal to the personal psyche of the practitioner”.

“It is not by sending awareness out beyond the natural world that the shaman makes contact with the perveyors of life and health, nor by journeying into the personal psyche; rather it is by propelling awareness laterally, outward into the depths of a landscape at once sensuous and psychological, the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk and the spider and the stone silently sprouting lichens on its coarse surface.”

In short, in oral, tribal cultures, the gods still dwell in the sensuous world itself. And this, says Abram, also holds true for the ancestors.

“Ancestor-worship” in its myriad forms, the, is ultimately a another mode of attentiveness tot non-human nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence towards human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness tales when it is no in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.

This helps me. It helps me to think of the ancestors out of the human box. It’s ok that I do not know the ancestors as persons. And somehow, the ancestors feel far closer to me when I stop trying to put familiar human faces on them. They are not the ghosts of Christmas past, appearing shortly before returning to their Otherworld. They are here. Ever living being carries them.

And suddenly, I see them in many faces, but many are not at all human. The ancestors are only faceless because they are shape-shifters: the personification of metamorphosis. But even then, it is not their faces that matter most, it’s that I dare show them my true face.

Source quote: David Abram. The Ecology of Magic. In R.S. Gotlieb (Ed.), This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, pp. 476-491. You can find some of his other essays for free here:


3 thoughts on “Making right: connecting to ancestors

  1. It’s very interesting to read about your experiences with and thoughts on connecting to ancestors, as my own experiences have been almost the opposite.

    To me, the ancestors are the most “human” and in some way knowable (even if they are honored as a semi-anonymous group) of spirits, when compared to the myriad of “nature spirits” and other kinds of spirits out there.

    And in some way, the feeling/belief that the ancestors still have influence in this world is what rationalizes the even greater power of the gods to me.

    But the world is complex place, isn’t it? I’m sorry about your work situation. I hope you find something better!

    1. I have come to understand the ‘humanness’ of the ancestors better the last couple of days. The main problem for me, is that I have a hard time knowing them as individuals. So when I address my ancestors, I am not thinking of my grandmother or my aunty, just those who have gone before me in general. And then there is the issue of what happens after death … I prefer not to concern myself with that to much, but it is hard to avoid when I want some kind of relationship with my ancestors (apart from, or exactly like the obvious, literal one of course ;)).

      And thank you for your kind well-wishes.

  2. I hear you about the ancestor thing. The only ancestors who I speak to with any regularity are the ones I knew in life and who have passed on, but left me behind. I feel connected with them because I have a personal relationship with them, like specific gods who I have a personal relationship with. Both these gods and these loved ones who’ve passed on feel like family to me.
    My ancestors feel as distant to me as loose acquaintances of my close gods within the same pantheon. (For instance, Thor is to Loki what my other ancestors are to my grandfather).

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