A Week’s Worth of Questions
Over the last week, I’ve had quite a few questions hit my inbox. Normally, I answer these things privately but some of the questions are things that I get asked frequently, so I figured it was time to write something here (and I welcome the questions so don’t ever worry about emailing me. I might be slow – I am in grad school and perennially running behind in email – but I’ll answer as soon as I can). So settle back, because this is going to be a rather long post as I try to cover the questions I’ve been receiving. I’ve tried to group them by topic, so most of them deal with ancestor veneration. I put those first.
Question 1: Most of my ancestors were Protestants not Polytheists. Can I still venerate them? Will it make them angry?
Death is a great equalizer. I have very, very rarely found religion to be a problem with non-polytheistic ancestors. Nine times out of ten, being reunited with one’s ancestral house, freed of the difficulties and pain of corporeality, is very healing and liberating for our dead. Quite often, many of the prejudices and narrowness that define our living experience simply fade away (I suspect that it is partly due to actually encountering the Powers directly). There are exceptions to this, mind you, but for the most part I have found that what you’re most likely to encounter is happiness that you’re reaching out, a little confusion about how the whole thing works (as we learn to work with our dead, I think they learn to work with us too), and a willingness to communicate.
Sometimes, depending on the religion that your ancestors might be coming from, they may not have a working knowledge of how to DO ancestor work, how to engage with the living so there may be some negotiation there but for the most part, barring the occasional bitter or damaged ancestor, you’re rarely likely to encounter hostility because of your religion. There might be curiosity, and in that case, just explain what you do and why.
Sometimes really damaged or wounded ancestors will require healing and if one is willing, elevations can help enormously with that. I advise people to just start honoring their dead – start where you’re comfortable starting—and then deal with any issues that come up as they arise. It’s a learning experience (on both sides) and there will be a little fumbling along the way just like in any other relationship. That’s ok. Consistency is the key.
If you have ancestors who were especially devout in their tradition, one thing you can do is find out what ways that tradition has of honoring the dead. For instance, my grandmothers were both Catholic. I often have masses said for them or will go and light candles at Marian shrines in various Churches for them. They seem to like it.
Question 2: I know you honor dead that aren’t related to you biologically. How does that work? Is there ever any conflict between your blood ancestors and these spiritual ones?
Oooh yes and yes. I struggled for many, many years to develop a working relationship with my ancestors and I sometimes think they get a little jealous of how much more easily my relationship with non-blood related groups (especially the castrati and/or the military dead) developed. There’s more ease there with those that aren’t related to me even now. I feel often as though I have more in common with them. But, like anything, it’s a work in progress and if I didn’t honor my own dead properly then I wouldn’t be in any position to take up honoring specific groups of unrelated dead. One aspect of veneration feeds into and strengthens the other for me.
I have certain dead in each group, including my blood ancestors, who kind of help keep things organized and will step up to solve any problems that arise between the various groups and that helps immensely. Beyond that, divination is always a go-to when larger problems arise, though I can’t think of the last time that happened. For the most part, we all manage to work together well 99% of the time.
For those who wonder which non-blood related ancestors I honor, I specifically venerate the military dead, the castrati and also as a work-lineage, ballet dancers (I was a dancer for the first working third of my life so that was a lineage of which I was part. It shaped me and contributed to the way in which I approach my spiritual work. I honor them as a spiritual lineage). I also honor my spiritual lineage ancestors (spirit workers, vitkar, priests, etc.). This latter is one of the areas where I find my spiritual ancestors and blood ancestors overlapping since I have several theologians in my line (most notably Jakob Boehme, who is my 11th great grandfather on my maternal side).
Question 3: If you pay ancestor or hero cultus to a celebrity, say a famous dead musician for instance, how is that different from fandom?
I think the purpose in venerating them is different. You are basically asking that this particular dead person become an honorary part of your ancestral house. Why would you do to that for someone not related to you? Well, maybe they are part of your work-lineage. Say you are a musician. Honoring a famous musician who inspired you fits into “lineage.” Or, you are asking that person to become a patron, as in ancient Roman patron/client relationships. This is analogous in many respects to hero cultus. In ancient Roman polytheism, or instance (and one sees this in other polytheisms too, but Roman comes to mind as I write this) one might pay cultus to a local hero because he or she was extraordinary in some way. Herakles for instance, received extensive hero cultus. Why does one do this? I equate it to Catholic saint cultus (which I think evolved partly from a combination of ancestor veneration and hero cultus that was pandemic in the pre-Christian world): one petitions these holy people to intercede with God in Catholicism, or to lend their holy might, their power to prayers for us. Well, we can do that with our heroes too. They can be models of excellence (much like saints are models of holiness), they can be petitioned for help or intercession, or for protection in our work, or a dozen other things as well. The important thing is, we’re not just going ‘rah rah rah’ and swooning over their work. We are recognizing their importance in their field and their impact on us personally, honoring them for that, in the hopes that they will inspire us, open doors for us, and that we may tap into their fire on a spiritual level and be made better through that (along with our own hard work). The purpose is different from fandom.
Question 4: What if you have an ancestor who did something particularly egregious (serial killer, Nazi murder, communist, or just plain asshole in the family). What the hell do you do with them?
This is a good, really good question. The answer: It depends. This is the answer for a lot of complicated questions in ancestor veneration: it depends. It depends on your relationship with that person, whether their actions directly impacted you (if you’re a generation or two removed, you can be a bit more objective in many cases). It depends on whether that person showed any shame or regret or desire to make amends in life. It depends on whether one senses that after death. It depends on what they did and how deep the poison runs.
Often it’s healthier to at least perform the occasional elevation for a wicked ancestor, even if you decide not to honor them in any other way, than to allow their poison to go untreated in the line. An elevation is a ritual to heal a damaged ancestor. It can be very hard to do and I always recommend asking one’s entire ancestral line to pray with you as you do what is a nine-day rite. Why would you do this for an evil ancestor? Well, nothing goes away. If an ancestor is hurt or damaged, wounded or wicked, or any other thing good or bad, it bleeds into the entire ancestor line and that has long term, inter-generational consequences. Sometimes it’s better to face that and find a way to deal with it via ancestor work. This can actually help heal multiple generations. I would do this in consultation with a diviner steeped in your own religious tradition. I like to say that it’s statistically impossible that every one of your ancestors was an asshole. It’s also statistically impossible that every single one was an angel. We all have that one ancestor though, so the deeper one goes into ancestor veneration, the more likely it is that we’ll encounter something that requires careful consideration.
I was telling my housemate the story of Beate Klarsfeld (b. 1939) last night. Klarsfeld was German and was very small when WWII ended. She was part of the generation that wasn’t really taught anything about the war or the Holocaust in school. She went to France as a young woman and when she found out what really happened during the war, she was filled with a deep shame and a deeper rage. That rage filled her with a fury that remained unabated her entire life. She became a ferocious Nazi hunter. Among other Nazi war criminals, she and her husband were instrumental in bringing Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, to justice. She wasn’t perfect. She cooperated with East German Stasi to gain information on West German officials’ past activities, but her life was largely dedicated to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. THIS is one way of beginning to repair an ancestral line tainted by such a terrible thing as a Nazi ancestor.
One doesn’t have to work publicly like Klarsfeld but if you have an ancestor like this, finding a way to give his or her victims a voice and to help them can in turn help repair your own ancestral line. This is not self-serving. An ancestral line that is poisoned and out of balance brings nothing but pain, hatred, and violence into the world. Healing your own ancestral line shuts a door that evil can otherwise use to further damage Midgard.
So, what do you do if you have an ancestor who was a Nazi, a serial killer, a Stalinist, etc.? Or what about just an abusive, violent bastard? Or what if you have a murderer or a rapist? On a small scale, it depends, and saying that can be like bitter ash in the mouth. Still, it’s the truth: it depends. Consult a competent diviner within your tradition. Your other ancestors who were directly harmed by this person may have serious pain and trauma. I usually suggest doing elevations for THEM first before anything else. Then sit down and see what they want? What you are comfortable with? Take your time and consult your elders and diviners. The damaged ancestor may be coming forward in order to try to make amends, to try to fix the damage he or she wrought. (This is not always the case. Sometimes they’re every bit the bastards in death that they were in life, but just as often, they are filled with shame and want to do what they can to repair things. That’s one of the things to figure out. Then, you have to make a decision weighing the pros and cons. I usually suggest an elevation or maybe a series of elevations either way, and then after that, you can decide if you want to work with that person further. If you don’t, there are other rites one can do to cut them out or separate them from the rest of your dead and shun them. If you do, that can be negotiated. It really depends and this is determined on an individual basis. It’s a family thing too: do this in consultation with your other ancestors. Honoring the bad ancestor doesn’t mean you forgive him or her, or that you approve of that person’s choices and behavior. It doesn’t mean that you like that person. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t angry or hurt or [insert emotion here]. It means that you’re making the best choice possible for your spiritual health and that of your ancestral line. Sometimes that choice is to slowly begin elevating, healing, and honoring a particular ancestor. Sometimes it’s to block that person out of your life and line.
There’s no pat answer here. It’s complicated and difficult and often quite challenging.
Question 5: Can pets be included in ancestor veneration?
Absolutely. They are little lives that intersect ours and often make us better people. I have seen animals pray. I absolutely include my deceased pets on my shrine.
Question 6: Can I be heathen even if I don’t have Scandinavian or Germanic ancestors?
Absolutely. The Gods call whom They call. End of story.
Some people are drawn to Heathenry because they have Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry and that becomes a powerful point of connection. That’s ok. Most people find it easier to honor their ancestors first than to approach the Gods (ancestors are concrete. We knew grandma. Gods are harder to conceptualize at first, unless we are blessed with the capacity to sense Them in some way. Not everyone is and that’s ok too). This doesn’t mean that you *have* to have any particular ancestry to honor the Norse Gods (and, as far as ancestor veneration goes: everyone has ancestors. The point is to honor them. It’s not about where those ancestors are from. It’s all good).
Now, the traditions that make up Heathenry are connected to specific lands and cultures. But in the world of our ancestors, that wasn’t as restrictive as we today would make it. What mattered was being respectful and honoring the Gods in ways appropriate to the tradition or cultus. Being part of a community was a matter of sharing that veneration, sharing the same language, customs and laws. It was about acquiring those things, not blood.
It’s cool if one has Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry. That’s great. It’s going to allow one to connect in a particular way to our Gods. But if one doesn’t have that ancestry, that’s ok too. That’s also going to allow for a unique connection and both are equally good. Our sacred stories tell us that our Gods travelled everywhere, engaged with all manner of people, intermarried, had children. They returned home and shared what They had learned. There’s a lesson there that maybe we should take to heart.
I’ve never been a folkish Heathen. There are generally two points on which we disagree theologically: one is veneration of Loki (most folkish Heathens I have met are against His veneration. I fought for 20+ years to normalize His veneration within Heathenry. Those youngsters on tumblr who bitch about how terrible I am would do well to realize that for a very long time I was a lone voice in the wilderness advocating for this God we all love, and without my work, they might find their own veneration of Him a much more difficult thing publicly. But that would be respecting one’s elders and we can’t have that now can we? *sarcasm*). The other is ancestry. I don’t think it matters at all what one’s ancestry is. We’re always going to discover things we find really cool about our ancestry and also things that we don’t like. None of this has any bearing on whether or not one can honor the Norse Gods.
Folkish Heathens think ancestry matters here, and that only those with Norse or Germanic ancestry can honor the Gods (or those adopted or married into the “tribe” so to speak). While I don’t think that Folkish Heathenry equals racism (it doesn’t and eliding the complexities here serves no one), I just don’t agree with them here.
So, if you are not of Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry and feel a pull toward the Norse Gods, go for it. Set up your shrines ,pour out your offerings, pray, develop those devotional relationships and know that you are in perfectly good company. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You belong just as much as anyone else. Honor your ancestors too. That is our strongest foundation of all.
Finally, I don’t usually receive political questions, but two people emailed me questions the week before last (they were polite, at least the first was, so I took the time to answer):
Question 7: “Why do you hate Marxism so much?”
History. (I could have stopped there, to be honest).
I think it seduces people by pretending to offer a solution to all their woes and then cannibalizes the very people who placed their hopes in it. I think it leads inevitably to socialism and, if left unchecked long enough, communism. I think it is dehumanizing and degrading. It inevitably attacks the family structure, destroys the economy, and leaves little room for individuality or human excellence. I also think it is completely incompatible with any religious or devotional life. Like Nazism (two sides of the same bloody coin in my opinion), I think it is evil.
Our country has many problems to be solved, among them, failing infrastructure, contempt for the aged, lack of medical care, stifling educational debt, racism and misogyny that continue to bubble up to the surface, a poor and broken educational system, to name but a few. The solution isn’t to go to the other extreme to fix the problem. Extremes never work but only cause more damage. Rather than focus on Marxism, we should consider that we have a worthless Congress that has something like an 8% approval rate by its citizens. They control the purse strings and they really don’t care about the human lives that put them in office and allow them the privilege of staying there. Marxism is a misdirection that will never fix the actual problem. It will make everything worse and the very people so ra-ra-ra for it, will – if history is any predictor—be the first against the wall should their Marxist “utopia” ever become reality.
This, btw, is why I am not a supporter of BLM or Antifa. It’s just Marxism under another name. Of course, when one points out that Marxism/Socialism/Communism have never successfully worked (and always have a horrific body count) modern interlocutors will go on about how that wasn’t *real* Marxism. That wasn’t *real* socialism. That wasn’t *real* communism. Theirs, of course will be different. Right. I’m not willing to bet my life on it.
Question 8: Are you a Nazi? (yes, someone actually emailed me and this one sentence was the entire email. Such eloquence. I am astounded *sarcasm*).
No. Read my work. I despise Nazism every bit as much as I despise communism. It was and is evil and destructive. People who resort to calling me a Nazi are doing so because they are too small minded to actually engage with my work, and they want to make sure that no one else takes the time to read what I’m actually saying as well. People that throw this term around don’t like that I’m not pro-left (I’m not actually pro-right either) and they use shock-language to scare people away. Never mind that in doing so, they’re showing tremendous disrespect to those who died under Nazism, and are making light of one of the worst and most horrific expressions of hatred in the 20th century.
Read my work and decide for yourself. You are all capable of doing that. From the beginning of my public writing I have always maintained, without exception, a strong stance against this bullshit when it creeps into our communities. This is precisely why I am pro-free speech.
Finally, someone asked me a question I’d actually never been asked before. That alone prompted me to answer it:
Question 9: Who are your personal heroes?
I had to really think about this. I’ve been lucky to have had extremely good devotional models in my life and the one that stands out the most is my adopted mom Fuensanta. Without her, I don’t think I’d even be alive right now. She taught me more about devotion and honoring the Gods and behaving with integrity than anyone else in my world so if we’re talking personal heroes, she tops the list.
After that, it depends on which area of my life we’re discussing. There are people who have inspired me, but very few that I would honor as heroes or saints. That’s such a special category. I need to think about this question more because it really depends on which “hat” I’m wearing. Are we speaking artistically, academically, spiritually, personally? There are many who inspired me (in ballet for instance when I still danced, I looked to women like Anna Pavlova, Olga Spessivtseva, Marie Taglioni, etc. to teach me the grace and value of sacrifice, pain, and discipline) and often they are honored as part of my work-lineage on my ancestor shrine (as the women I just mentioned are), but I don’t pay them the type of cultus that I would give a “hero” or “saint.” It gets complicated – what, with ancestor veneration doesn’t? I have a lot of historical figures I deeply admire, but hero cultus is something else.
I think that’s it for today. I have a couple more questions but they can wait for a later post. I’ll try to do get that post out in a couple of days. If you’re interested in learning more about ancestor veneration, check out my book here. Or, check out the tags ‘ancestors’ and ‘ancestor work’ here on my blog.
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