I’m very glad Beth chose to share this post when she did. This subject has been on my mind for a little while and the words finally fell into place today.
For a long time, ancestor work simply wasn’t a big part of my practice. It was really almost non-existent. I knew it was important but I simply didn’t get any feeling from them. They didn’t seem present or accessible the way that other people seemed to experience their ancestors. When I graduated and finally moved out of the dorms, I had the space to set up an ancestor altar and so I did. I still didn’t have a strong sense of who my ancestors were but I figured that they did. I prepared a hospitable space and sent out an invitation.
The ancestors that showed up were a particular segment of the transsexual and gender variant dead and a handful of old women. The gender variant dead who settled in were all sex workers on what we’d now refer to as the MtF spectrum. They were quite responsive to the liquor and cigarettes I had on the altar. The old women were less distinct; I simply saw them sweeping a floor, endlessly. They were less responsive but always there.
These members of my ancestral altar are very dear to me but I suspect they’re part of my extended spiritual and cultural tribe rather than my blood relations (and whatever, I’m happy to offer hospitality; my ancestral altar is set up for that sort of thing). The idea of having a strong relationship with my ancestral forces was still complicated, no doubt because I don’t really have a firm idea of who I am. I don’t know how I fit into my greater family tree and I don’t know how they have brought me to the point I am today. I have no doubt that my ambivalence about ancestral work is related to my ambivalence about my ancestry and about how that ancestry shapes my place in the world today. This is a big subject and not really what I want to talk about right now.
Last fall my ancestral altar was a little more elaborate than usual and I made an extra effort to really call out. I still didn’t know exactly who might show up – but when I saw them, I knew who they were.
There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them, walking steadily together over the western mountains through the night sky towards me. Their long road opened up across my salt desert valley and they stepped into my home. I had so little and they were so many. I’m still quite speechless at the memory of that sight.
These experiences have helped me feel more connected to ancestor work but a connection to *them* still eludes me. The boozy sex workers are less present than they used to be and those who visited during their long walk moved on after just a few days. However, in the last little while I’ve gotten some very clear signals that my paternal grandmother is now a spiritual force in my life.
This is strange. To start with, I don’t expect her to be here. I expect her to be off in the blessed arms of Jesus. I don’t expect her to be hanging out with a failed transsexual spirit worker who gets itchy inside churches. I don’t expect her to be spending time with a pierced and tattooed weirdo who’s surrounded with chaos n death. I really don’t expect her to be taking an active and personal interest in me. I don’t get it; nothing about myself fits with what I know about her or her life or her faith.
I expect my grandmother’s spirit to be the same as her body. I expect her afterlife to be based entirely on her physical life. I expect her spiritual path to be fundamentally incompatible with mine. I expect her Powers to be at odds with mine. Above all, I expect that her Catholicism is bad, icky, gross, contaminate, and not-Pagan.
Most polytheists seem to be on board with the idea that our ancestors have the power to influence our lives. Further, there’s the frequent half-stated assumption that if they weren’t some variety of pagan/polytheist, then they wouldn’t want us praying with/to them. In any discussion of ancestor veneration there’s the question of “well, what if they were’t polytheist? What if they were some kind of icky Christian? Do we really have to venerate them, too?” Well, no, we don’t. You don’t have to do anything. There’s no polytheist pope or piety possum gonna bite your nose if you don’t. You’ll just be missing out, is all.
I had a long hot bath with myself and wondered – really, really wondered – what precise harm would be done by allowing my dead gramma’s Catholicism to influence my life. Because it is, no doubt about it. I’ve been bonked on the head with Blessed Virgin Mary stuff for, uh, long enough that I’m finally starting to pay attention and connect it with this particular relative. It’s really only been 10 months or so but the incidents are pointed enough that I kinda have to pay attention.
As a polytheist – and more importantly, as a spirit worker – I can’t really say that one Power’s influence is better than another. If anything, having a big team cheering you on and helping out is for the best. There are no doubt Powers that I get along better with, Powers who I find most compatible with my goals, and Powers who I find challenging to work with – but none of that actually has anything to do with them and their value. All of these judgment calls are about me.
So – What am I so afraid of? What about these new contacts is negative? Well, nothing really. Powers do not belong to the tradition(s) that honor them; traditions are built by humans (with the help of some divine inspiration). Traditions therefore are part of human-level concerns. I can’t really attribute the problems of dogma, theology, and practice to the deities themselves anymore than I can blame Loki for hanging out with people who are sometimes asshole troublemakers. Human-level problems.
This is what happens when you play with ancestors. Your shit is called in a very obvious, very direct way. You are forced to grow past the artificial limits you’ve created for yourself. You are offered relationships that require the release of prejudice, preconceptions, and assumptions. And all of these things are very good things.
In a recent Immersive Reading I did for a client regarding a problematic spirit relationship, one of the potential solutions that came up for dealing with her situation was to appeal to her ancestors and the gods of her bloodline for assistance. Since she had questions about this, I’m thinking other people out there might, too.
Yes, I know the topic of ancestor work can be a controversial one in the pagan community, because so many of us have deceased family members we wouldn’t call on if it was the last option open to us. For example, if your late Uncle Mort was a child molester, chances are you don’t really want to be inviting him into your home. Also, as many of us are first generation pagans in monotheistic families, we might feel alienated by some of our immediate ancestors, feeling that they can’t possibly share very much with…
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