Category Archives: Ancestor Work
I’ve been watching this genealogy show for the past couple of hours and thinking hard on some of the knots and tangles in my own ancestral lines, as i watch the people on the show sort through their own. I’m watching these folks visibly rocked as they find out about the poor choices some of their ancestor made, decisions that impacted generations and it occurred to me, so strongly it was like the clang of some great bell reverberating through my soul: sometimes our ancestors made a poor choice to avoid making the worse choice. I suspect we do the same and when we’re looking at and learning about our ancestors and their foibles, and sometimes their terrible sufferings, I think that’s important to remember. We have the benefit of hindsight but I wonder which of our choices our descendants will look back upon thinking “what the hell were you thinking? WHY would you do that?” Like us, I think our ancestors do the best they can with what they had and what they knew. Life is hard. It’s something to remember when we come upon those things with our dead that are so very hard to comprehend or forgive. Sometimes they made a bad choice to avoid making one worse.
EDIT: A reader contacted me with the concern that what i write here might cause misunderstanding, that it might make people feel they must forgive abusive ancestors or feel guilty for not engaging with them. I fear that is a valid concern so I want to address it here briefly. This is not my intention at all. There ARE those ancestors whom one may well decide — and rightly so–not to honor. This is a personal choice and it may be that this is what will bring the most cleansing and healing to oneself and one’s line. There is no need ever to feel guilty for that or to apologize for that. There are some people who are truly evil, whom one should not, for one’s own health amongst other reasons, honor. I want to be clear that I’m not referring to those ancestors in what I write above in my original post, but to the average jane or joe who screws up, sometimes hurtfully so, but not usually with the intention to harm. That’s a far different thing.
Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death and I woke from nightmares of the moment I found out she was dead. Ironically yesterday I was reading Catullus 101 with my students, a poem in which he mourns his brother as he’s returning his brother’s ashes home for funeral rites and grief just washes through the words. When I woke, that is what immediately came to mind, that and the moment I learned she had died, the uncertainty and grief in the eyes of those around me, the moment my heart died.
Catullus talks about crying out to the mute ash of his brother and bids him hail and farewell but ash is not mute, our dead are not gone. I awoke with the knowledge that in having Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza as an adopted mom, and as a deep and dear friend, in my life at all i had experienced something of profound grace, something unspeakably sacred. The world is poorer for her corporeal absence now and so am I; but the echoes of who and what she was, of her holiness, of her devotion remain like ripples on a pond and continue to work their magic. I am the daughter of a sancta and I can only hope and pray that my own soul and character were in some way formed by her.
Some of you have wondered over the years why I never post pictures of her. The answer is simple: she *loathed* having her photo taken and if she did not know how important it was for me to have pictures of her, would have asked that they all be burnt when she died. One day she will have a prayer card — numerous people who venerate her as a sancta have asked for one — but only once she agrees and I know it without a doubt through my own divination. She would always prefer that anything of that sort go to Sigyn. So I’m going to end this with a prayer she wrote for Loki, for Mutti was a fervent devotee of both Sigyn and Her Husband and carried Their blessings with her wherever she moved. When I honor her, I honor Sigyn too because she would have it no other way. Today I remember both my beloved mother and the Gods she loved best. Ave, Mutti. as we always used to say: ich habe dich unendlich gern auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
I love You powerful, and I love You powerless.
I love You young as flame, and I love You
decrepit as the dying ember.
I love You in Your greatness, and I love You
in Your meanness.
I love You in Your beauty, and I love You
in Your hideousness.
I love You changing, and I love You changeless.
I love the force that drives You, and I will love
You if You lose it.
I love You famous; and I love You unknown.
I love You kind, and I love You cruel.
I love You sane, and I love You mad.
Because I love You, show me how to love You.
Once a year, usually around Yule, I like to get my Lithuanian ancestors one of their traditional treats: Lithuanian Tree Cake (Sakotis). I have no idea how to make this in my oven, so I usually purchase from this shop, and they’ve been consistently wonderful to deal with for the purchase. The cake is a traditional wedding cake, but it’s also served at special occasions, particularly religious holidays. It seems appropriate to give them for Yule.
For those who are wondering, it tastes a little bit like Pizzelles (Anise cookies).
So, my order came today and I was contemplating waiting till Dec. 6 (Oski’s Day) to give it to them, but I can never hold off on gift giving to living or dead, so they got their sweet today. On the sixth, I have a bunch of treats (lebkuchen, pfeffernuesse, chocolate cognac balls, marzipan cake, etc.) for my German and Swiss line. Anyway, here’s a picture of a small part of my ancestor shrine with the cake.
Called Remembrance Day in the UK and Veterans Day here, today is a day to honor those who died in WWI and, in the US, all those who served (within the US, it has become a day to honor veterans of all our wars). Generations of men and women were lost. Even more came home destroyed. WWI utterly transformed our world and we are the children of that devastation.
There are no veterans alive anymore from WWI (or very, very, very few). Each year there are fewer and fewer veterans of WWII alive. We’ve never paid heed to our veterans from Vietnam, and Korea is all but forgotten. Then there are our more recent wars. It is our duty and obligation to speak for our dead, our honor and privilege to listen to our living. We can, at the very least, give them one day, if nothing else.
Today, I remember particularly my cousin Wesley Heffner. He was part of Pershing’s Expeditionary Force, part of the first American forces to go to Europe in WWI. He was eighteen when he enlisted and never returned home. He died from wounds taken on a bloody field in France. He never made it to twenty. He enlisted out of a deep sense of patriotism and desire to do good in the world.
This is perhaps the only extant photo of Wesley. I’ve visited his grave, in a cemetery where I”m related to at least 98% of the dead lying there, and I’ve left offerings. I wonder what the world of our family would have been like had he returned, had he lived. With each person dead, a whole universe was obliterated, and the generations they would have touched. The least we can do is to remember them.
Today is also the birthday of my favorite WWII general, George S. Patton. He fought in WWI. He designed a sword, nearly medaled in the Olympics (and would have by modern scoring rubrics), was a brilliant tank tactician, and he saved the world. He was largely responsible for Allied Victory during the Battle of the Bulge (Patton and this Third Army).
So hail them. Pour out offerings. Visit their graves. Take your living veterans out to lunch. Remember them and their sacrifices throughout the year. Look for opportunities to honor them. We have built our world on their blood, bone, and suffering.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918
Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est
1. DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.
2. Flares – rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)
3. Distant rest – a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4. Hoots – the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5. Outstripped – outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle
6. Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7. Gas! – poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8. Helmets – the early name for gas masks
9. Lime – a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10. Panes – the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11. Guttering – Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12. Cud – normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew usually green and bubbling. Here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13. High zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14. ardent – keen
15. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – see note 1 above.
These notes are taken from the book, Out in the Dark, Poetry of the First World War, where other war poems that need special explanations are similarly annotated. The ideal book for students getting to grips with the poetry of the First World War.
Taken from this site.
One of the things that I’ve been noticing this year is an increased awareness of the role the medical corps played in military life and combat. I’ve seen a lot more recognition of nurses and doctors this year in remembrance pieces than at any other time and I think that is good and necessary. When I honor my military dead, I try to honor those doctors and nurses and other medical people who served too. They all too often get forgotten and they shouldn’t be.(1)
One group of veterans that often get completely forgotten in WWI history is African American (or other nationality) nurses. I will admit to never having really thought about this myself (and I should have. I typically parse out military groups like the Tuskeegee Airmen in my veneration, for special recognition, because of how hard they had to fight just to be permitted to fight!); then I started seeing this movie coming up on my amazon and Netflix suggestions feed: “Searching for Augusta: the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne” about a Belgian, bi-racial nurse during WWII, and I thought: why the hell are we forgetting these women?(2) It occurs to me this happens to female military veterans in general…even now.
I don’t think that those of us who honor the military dead necessarily consciously think to include medical personnel, yet they are veterans too, every bit as much as non-medical personnel and they are the ones working on or near the front lines in many cases, to get our soldiers home, and they suffer every bit as much as any other soldier. They should be remembered too. They should be honored.
Here are a few good articles:
Here are a couple of places that I often donate to, often as an offering to Asklepios or other Healing Deities (like Eir or Hygeia) that I honor, or sometimes for the military medical dead in general:
And here is a whole list of military charities, most of them in some way connected to medical care.
Here is the documentary I noted above — definitely worth the watch!
- Nurses especially take the brunt of this when they showed every bit as much valor as the men (and sometimes women – there were always women who fought one way or another, even if they had to disguise themselves to do so) who fought. They saw daily the results of combat and in many cases, like Vietnam, nurses were damn near on the front lines unarmed. In Vietnam, my understanding is that they weren’t issued weapons of any sort and it is not unknown for medical encampments to be targeted.
- I see it happening in my first career field too, ballet. There were African American ballet dancers with Balanchine’s first company for instance, and one of them, Raven Wilkenson was truly extraordinary. They too often get erased from ballet history which leads to the bullshit that I have heard often in my career “well, no one will want to watch a [black, Asian, etc.] Swan in Swan Lake,” or “ballet doesn’t really want [insert minority of choice] dancers” and it’s utter bullshit. Tell it to Misty Copeland, Maria Tallchief, Jose Manuel Carreno, Carlos Acosta, Yuan Yuan Tan, Evelyn Cisneros, and Shiori Kase to note a few. Talent is talent. Period. This of course has nothing to do with WWI or WWII history or the military dead, but I’ve been thinking about this recently and the erasure really pisses me off. When I was training as a dancer one of the most incredibly gifted women I had the privilege of working with was an African American girl (We were young when we trained together in the first company with which I worked). Even then, I occasionally overheard the parents of other dancers saying things like “she’s the best dancer there” – she really was. Claire, to this day I envy your extensions! – “ but don’t you think it would look strange to have a black ballerina?” No, bitch, I don’t. STFU. It’s called ‘acting’ and ‘performance’ for a reason and the only prerequisite is talent. Fortunately, our director wasn’t amongst those who thought in this backward way, but I wonder at how many people were encouraged out of the field (and art and music too) by such nonsense, how much talent and genius and artistry we’ve lost because of our stupidity.
(apologies for any typos. I have a bitter migraine right now. I’m sitting here waiting for the migraine meds to kick in…)
(While I can’t find a definitive source for this image, I see it listed repeatedly as combat nurse Valya Gribkova retrieving a wounded soldier from the battlefield, WWII)
In Flanders Fields
by Major John McCrae, MD
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I’ve been consistently impressed with the work of the British Legion, both in furthering remembrance of those who died in WWI and in providing for current veterans. One of the ongoing projects they have is “Every One Remembered,” which allows contributors to learn about a particular soldier, nurse, or other combatant from WWI, contribute to various programs, and set up digital memorials. I get lost in this site way too often and way too much, but if you’re wondering where to start in honoring the military dead, I think this is a good place to go. Here is the link to that site and here is the link to their poppy shop.
I have heard Pagans say “that which is remembered lives” and there is truth in this. We should carry our dead with us, tell their stories, learn from them. WWI has passed out of living memory (in that we have almost no one who lived through it or fought in it currently alive) and WWII will, within a few years, a decade at most likewise no longer rest in living memory. I think this is a very dangerous place for us to be. I think we need to carry the weight of that remembrance, to carry the grief, the horror, the hope, the humility of two wars that effectively destroyed our world. It’s dangerous to forget, a grace and protection to remember.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve gained insight into the process of ancestor elevation. I used to do it because it needed to be done, but I would do it rather by rote. There’s a Baltic proverb that says the work will teach you how to do it, and I think that definitely happened with me. After over two decades of doing ancestor elevations I finally feel like I have some sense of what it takes to do one well. It finally occurred to me last night, that I should write about this. I receive an awful lot of questions about elevations and sometimes a practice gets so ingrained or even routine that one forgets that not everyone may be aware of some crucial bit.
Firstly, here is a link to both an online shrine to the ancestors and an article on elevation that I wrote some years ago. Ancestor elevation comes to us originally through 19th century spiritualism and was adapted almost immediately by the ATR, but can be done by anyone. The ritual is meant to be flexible and fluid. It is meant to be adapted to the needs of one’s specific ancestors. That is how it was designed. Ancient polytheisms had their rites and rituals for tending and healing the troubled or hurting dead, but since we no longer have access to those rites, this will do. It’s a powerful ritual when done well and it really does help the dead. It’s also quite accessible to just about anyone.
Here’s the thing though that I don’t think I’ve ever really articulated: you can’t do this type of work alone. When we decide to do an elevation – something I always confirm with divination—we are the living keystones here, in the corporeal world. We are letting our ancestor-in-need know that someone living remembers them and cares about them and is deeply concerned for their welfare. We should not be the only ones doing the elevation though.
It is crucially important that we bring our other ancestors and perhaps even our Gods into this practice. Think about it, rather than one person praying for grandma Jane, if you invoke and petition the aid of your entire ancestral house, there are thousands upon thousands (even if some of your dead choose not to participate). Grandma Jane doesn’t stand a chance! Ask your ancestors to participate in the elevation right along with you. You are not doing this ritual alone but rather it’s a group effort; and just as it is right and proper for us to elevate our dead, so too is it proper for our ancestors to participate. This is a family ritual.
In fact, other ancestors will suggest that a certain Deity be called upon. When I was praying last night, about half way through a nine-day elevation for my great grandmother, I got the strong sense whilst I was chanting the Oration, that I should petition Asklepios too, which I did. When I started, one of my dead asked that I pray to Mary. If you can, take their suggestions. It can transform an elevation).
Also, elevations can be exhausting and grueling on a deeply spiritual level. If one’s ancestor is carrying deep wounds or has committed terrible deeds (I usually elevate ancestors who were hurting badly during their lifetimes, but sometimes that led to them making damaging decisions), the process of elevation can really take the moxie out of one. There can be intense resistance on the part of the ancestor being healed, and a lot of emotions like fear, anger, desolation, despair, outright terror, shame, grief can come up in that ancestor bombarding the person doing the elevation. This is normal, but it really can have significant repercussions on the ancestor worker. It’s a heavy weight to bear and sometimes, as the ancestor is fighting for their healing, or in their damaged state, fighting healing, the person working the elevation faces moments where they are shouldering the weight of that damage. It’s a good and holy thing but it is extremely difficult. If the ancestor is actively resistant to healing (but divination and the Gods have indicated it is time to begin, or the ancestors as a group have requested the elevation for the same reason), then it can be that much more difficult to get through.
This is why it’s important to always begin this process clean and to take special care with purification during the nine days of the rite. Depending on the reasons for elevating one’s ancestor, a great deal of miasma and pollution may be released during the ritual and that will need to be dealt with or we’ll end up mired in it. When I begin each night’s prayer cycle, I usually start by taking a cleansing bath, and then I use a scent diffuser (I’m not sure what they’re called: there’s a bowl and underneath a candle. The bowl has water in it in which one may place a few drops of oil before lighting the candle—what are those things called?) in which I use Van-Van oil or Blessing oil or something similar to help prepare the space. I asperse with khernips (myself, my shrine, the space where I’m doing the elevation). Then I go through a cycle of two ancestor songs, one for fire before I kindle any candles, and one for my ancestors in general. I refresh all the offerings (usually just water at this point. Water is important in an elevation because it refreshes the dead) on my main ancestor shrine and make offerings to whatever Deities I’m going to be petitioning too. Then I prepare the elevation shrine, refresh the offerings there, talk to that ancestor a little bit, invite my other ancestors (and Gods) to participate and begin the nightly prayer cycle for the elevation. Afterwards, I cleanse myself again and throughout those nine days, I try to be more mindful of cleansing practices than perhaps I normally would. During an elevation it’s important to neglect nothing. There are times, I will admit, when we can let protocols slide a tiny bit, skirt by, cut corners. This is not one of those times.
It’s also really, really important not to start one’s ancestor practice with an elevation. Before even thinking of performing an elevation ritual, take the time to develop a working, devotional relationship with your dead. Set up an ancestor shrine, make regular offerings, pray to them and for them. Don’t just plop down one day and decide to do an elevation. This ritual is part of a healthy, ongoing ancestor practice, not the beginning of one. It’s one possible part of getting right with one’s ancestors, not generally the appropriate place to start an ancestor practice.
After you’ve spent some time building up a proper ancestor practice, then perhaps consider your first elevation, but don’t begin with the latter. Finally, to reiterate, invoke the Gods and most importantly of all, invoke your ancestors and have them doing the elevation with you. YOU alone are not doing it. It’s a group effort.