Getting into the nuts and bolts of ancestor work – a note.
Today on twitter someone expressed the sentiment that he kept ‘thinking about ancestor veneration and what that would look like in practice but was concerned about how one would hold the ancestors accountable.’ I tried to find the comment again so I could quote it exactly, but I couldn’t and I’m too tired to hunt anymore. The comment stuck with me though and the more I thought about it over the course of my afternoon, the more annoyed I became.
Firstly, who are we to think we have the right to hold our ancestors, en masse, accountable for anything? (1) Who are we to think that we are better or more evolved than they? There is a certain degree of hubris in the initial comment, and I think we need to remember always, that modernity does not equal progress. Our ancestors made their mistakes, so have we. The purpose of ancestor veneration is not to express agreement with any choice a particular ancestor has made. Our ancestors were people and none of them were perfect. We aren’t perfect either, and holding up our standards as the apex of moral rectitude has its prideful dangers (not the least of which is that our own descendants may look upon us with horror for the choices we make today). There ARE rites and rituals to call particularly problematic ancestors into account, to bring them healing, to restore them and help them become valuable and contributing members of our respective ancestral houses. Ancestor “elevation” is one such rite (which can also be done for perfectly healthy ancestors as an act of devotion) (2).
Ancestor work isn’t about projecting our own morality anachronistically onto the dead (though we can and should learn from their actions, both good and bad). It’s about honoring family – as far back as we can go, in all its complicated variations.
Acknowledgment, appreciation, veneration, and respect are the watchwords of ancestor work.
When someone says, “how do we hold our ancestors accountable for xyz),” I want to ask in return: what have you accomplished? Have you painted a great masterpiece? Have you saved a life? Have you given life and raised a family successfully and well? Have you farmed a field and fed your village? Have you served your country? What have you done that will make you worthy of honor when you too become an ancestor (and one does not need to have children to be an ancestor). Will you have contributed and left the world better, or will you have sought only to tear down customs and traditions that create civilization and that have sustained families and communities for generations? Sort your own house out and be grateful for the help of your dead (3).
- As an ancestor worker, I will call out the generation of ancestors who willingly abandoned their ancestral traditions, converting to Christianity. I have flat out said that they have an obligation to their descendants to join the work to make things right and I will commit them to my other ancestors so they can be sorted out productively. This is my one exception to what I note above. Even there, I give the opening for productive restorative work to occur.
- Really toxic ancestors, those who want to prey on the living, or who remain vicious and abusive can be sequestered and isolated from veneration. There are rites for that too, though they’re not to be done lightly. Often ancestors abusive in life, once the burden of their own life-pain is removed, once they experience the Gods, once they are brought to their own ancestors for healing realize the devastation they created in life and want to make amends.
- Many of them are well aware of their mistakes and they often work off that debt by helping us become better human beings. We complicate this generally by resisting them.