Category Archives: Ancestor Work
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.
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.