Category Archives: Ancestor Work
Honoring one’s ancestors isn’t just a metaphor. It isn’t about chanting their names and pouring out libations (though these things are good in and of themselves as a place from which to begin). At its core it means shouldering their debt, digging into it, eating their pain and spitting up their bitterness and finding a way out and through—for them and for yourself—to healing, reparation, and wholeness once again.
We have no humanity without our ancestors and we carry their sufferings in our flesh, in the scarred skin of our minds, in every strand of our DNA, in the rough deep well of our memories collective and unconscious. It marks our bones, twists our marrow and in the end it lifts us up. Through it all, they elevate us just as we through our rites and prayer and the grace of remembrance seek to elevate them. We carry our dead with us always and they too bear us upon their backs. It begins and ends with our dead and they can carry us to our Gods as well. They have sacrificed themselves for our enfleshment. We can shoulder the weight of their lives.
yesterday was the anniversary of my adopted mom’s death. I was sick and didn’t have the chance to post about it, but I want to do that today. She was the nucleus of my heart. She knit me together with love and care, taught me devotion and humility before the Gods, taught me to be a person of worth. What I am, i owe to her and I truly believe that but for her care, I would not be here now. I am so incredibly blessed and lucky to have had her in my life. Sometimes people ask me if i believe in miracles and I can only say yes, because I lived one. Hail to you, Mutti, Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. As Sigyn is to Loki, you are my north star guiding me still. Auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
Vandals in London have desecrated a memorial to WWII RAF fighters. This is in wake of a black studies professor calling these heroes war criminals (you know, the men who fought actual nazis. I guess they’ll give PhDs to anyone these days). This is the result of people who have zero respect for the dead, and who see western identity as a problem to be solved. I hope they catch the criminals. I would like to see them drawn and quartered, though of course in these ‘civilized’ times such punishments are no longer given. Pity. One who desecrates the military dead deserves nothing else.
(photo “Lest We Forget” by G. Krasskova)
This semester I participated in the Medieval Music group run by Fordham’s Medieval Studies and Music departments. I’d never sung in a group before (as a female tenor, it’s complicated) but did this as an act of devotion for the castrati, whom I honor as part of my spiritual ancestor house. I think it went well, we all had a good time, and performed to a full house on Nov. 29. Here’s an article I wrote with pics.
What a powerful act of remembrance. If i were in the UK, I’d definitely see this. Let us remember our dead, let us remember our dead, let us carry them with us always in heart, mind, and spirit. May our fallen warriors be honored and may they find peace.
(my image of the WWI memorial statue in Rhinebeck, NY)
November is a very special month for me. It’s a time where Odin looms particularly large in my world and I start a ritual process that culminates in an intensive series of Yule rituals wherein Odin is the focus. It’s not that He’s absent at other times of the year — He in no way is – but November is special. A large part of the reason for this isn’t just the seasonal shift, something to which I’m particularly sensitive in general (probably thanks to my old and achy bones!), but also that Veteran’s Day /Remembrance Day is in November. As someone who has an extensive practice in honoring the military dead, this is a powerful time.
That may be what is so unique for me at this time with Odin: He doesn’t usually come to me in my devotions primarily as Lord of Hosts. I know He is a battle God. I resonate very strongly with that, but it’s not how He usually chooses to engage. As November rolls around, that changes and suddenly when I reach out to Odin, it’s as the Battle God, wise in weapons, Lord of the Einherjar, Sigtyr, the Victory God that He comes. The charge of that presence really calls me to step up my honoring of the military dead at this time.
This year as always, a significant part of my focus vis-à-vis the military dead is WWI dead. Partly that’s because I have a cousin [Wesley Heffner] who went over with Pershing’s Forces and never returned. He died on a field in France. He is in my thoughts a lot at this time of year. Then, moving away from WWI, my father’s birthday was November 1 and he was a veteran of WWII and Korea, so that also colors my practice. I feel sometimes like they take my hands and lead me into deeper understanding of what this practice of veneration entails. Usually I post something honoring the military dead every day in November. I’m not doing that this year, but I am going to be donating all November proceeds from my etsy store to Paralyzed Veterans of America. I think they do good work. (There are a couple of other organizations that I tend to gravitate to as well, including the British Royal Legion — I like that they provide retraining programs for vets. I’d welcome suggestions of other charities too from my readers).
Some years the military dead are more present than others and this year they seem particularly present. I wish we could learn from them, to cherish that which we are given, to value their lives, our lives, and the lives of our children, to understand that the consequences of any war, no matter how large or small it may be, reach far, far beyond the generation involved. They have powerful lessons to teach and I’m grateful to Odin for pointing me on the path of veneration.
During WWI, poet Wilfred Owen, quoting a line from Horace, wrote a poem called Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori. The title translates as “sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country” and it was published in 1920 after his death – Owen died in the trenches and is generally considered to be the greatest of the WWI poets. Whereas the original Horatian Ode may be read as a rather sweetly sentimental exhortation to the valor so essential to proper Romanitas, Owen flips the equation on its head, summoning the brutal bleakness of the trenches, the stench and horror of war, and with bitter hollowness damning that sentiment as an ‘old lie.’ I think both are correct. Civilization is built on the backs of its warriors, on the viscera of those willing to lay down their lives in its defense and we are defined by those sacrifices. Yet, we waste lives so blithely, often so pointlessly for leaders’ egos and greed. It is a corruption with a terrible cost. We owe those who fought and most of all we owe them the gift of learning from their mistakes.
As November begins, moving me inexorably into the deepest, most intense time of year for my practice, may I remember them well.
Part of my work spiritually, as an ancestor worker, involves honoring not just my own ancestors but several specific groups of the dead. One of those is the military dead. I maintain an extensive shrine to them at which I make regular offerings and I’ve gone on pilgrimage to honor them several times. I also keep an eye out for things that they may like, at flea markets, at antique stores, and so forth. While I was at Villanova last week participating in a theology conference, I took some time out to do a bit of antiquing. I was traveling with my friend Allen, who has a real gift for finding just the right thing that one might want or need (he’s really amazing at it). As we were hunting around one store, he picked up this bright, brass box and showed it to me. I was quite taken with it immediately and thought it might be Trench Art from WWI. When I spoke with the proprietor I found out that it wasn’t, instead it was a Mary Box.
In the last year of WWI, Britain’s princess Mary raised money on her own to create and send these boxes to every single soldier serving in the British forces, from highest to lowest (officers received silver boxes, enlisted brass). They were typically filled with tobacco or sometimes, if the soldier wasn’t a smoker, candy and sweets. They’re rarely in such good condition, because they were carried and used by these men. I was really, really lucky to find one – thanks to my friend Allen – in pristine condition. Of course, I bought it.
I decided that I would dedicate it to the military dead and use it as my cigarette case. That way, every time I smoke, I would be making an offering to them. So far, it’s been working beautifully and every time I hold it or open it, I’m reminded to give thanks for them, and to reach out to them, pray to and for them. Such a small thing has made me more intensely mindful and I am grateful. Most of all, I’m grateful that the Gods have guided me wisely in this practice of honoring this group of dead. May I learn from them and may I honor them well.
Temple of Athena asked:
“I also have a lot of guilt calling on my ancestors because I know that I’m not going to have children. I’m not going to continue their bloodline, because I’d be a horrible parent and I have no wish to risk continuing the cycle of abuse. My brother very much wants to get married and have a family, so in a way I am relieved that carrying on the line will not be my responsibility. I’m not sure if it’s my own fear of my ancestors being upset about this attitude that is blocking my ability to do ancestor work, or if it’s a legitimate concern of theirs. Do you have any thoughts on this subject?”
I think that we tend to forget that for all of our ancestors, there are often collateral lines (cousins, siblings, etc.), so if we are not doing x, y, or z, one of our distant relatives may be and it all works out. Not every single person needs to physically carry on the line. There are many, many other ways that we contribute and that we can become good ancestors ourselves. It’s really not a problem if you do not plan to have children. If certain ancestors fret, explain it to them. It’s natural for them to want the line to continue, but you’re not obligated and I have never found that to be a serious issue when honoring the dead. Also, as you note, your brother will likely fulfill that function.
ToA also wrote, “Also, I have a strong urge to work with a specific, long-deceased relative that I have never met. However, most of my other family members do not remember him favorably, and some claim he was downright abusive. But you know some of the details of my family – my living family members are sooo abusive and messed up that I don’t know if their perceptions are trustworthy, and when they die, there is NO CHANCE AT ALL that I will honor their names or work with them. But I’m quite impressed by things that my great-grandfather accomplished; he was the son of immigrants, worked on sawmills and farms from a young age to support his mother, sisters, and eventually wife and children; and created and grew several businesses from NOTHING. I feel like I could benefit from a relationship with him, but I am so hesitant because of other stories that I have heard that paint him in a less than flattering light.”
If you’re feeling pushed to honor him, do it. He may have been abusive, but sometimes spirits find healing amongst their own ancestors and then want to make amends with the living. If you are feeling called to do so, give him the chance. It may be, of course, that your family stories of him are not accurate too. I would deal with him as an individual and see where it goes. Just like relationships between grandparents/grandchildren can be radically different than parents/children, so too is each ancestral relationship its own thing. Peole grow and learn and change and as they heal and learn better, they often try to do better. At the very worst, that may be what is happening here. At the best, perhaps your family stories are mistaken. If you are feeling pushed to honor him, go for it.
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.