Today is the feast day for one of our most beloved Sanctae, most beloved to me at least, because she was my adopted mom. She was also the most devout and pious person I have ever known. As her daughter, I can say that she centered me in reverence and piety, helped me to be a better devotee of my Gods, and helped me to become a better person, and she taught me a renewed joy in the grace of sacred service to Them. I know she helped others too and has continued to do so, as is the way of a saint, after her death. I usually write something about her on this day and on her birthday. I’ve been thinking about her a great deal over the last few weeks especially, though every day I ache for the loss of her.
As is my custom, this evening I made offerings at her shrine. There are prayers that I said, and prayers that I wished to make, many too personal to be shared here. Love and reverence, piety, and a very quiet discipline, that of doing what needs to be done even when it is inconvenient…those are the gifts I feel she poured into my heart and hands and I am deeply grateful. To be loved in this way, and to be challenged is a very precious gift. I know that the Gods placed me into her care and were They to do nothing else for the rest of my life, that gift, that tremendous gift would be enough. That They do more, always is a blessing beyond measure. She taught me to recognize the blessings of the Gods as they come, large, small, or in-between.
On this, her feast day, I offer this prayer:
May Fuensanta and all our sancti and sanctae be honored. May they be remembered. May we ever learn reverence at their feet. May we cultivate the discipline of piety. May we wrap ourselves in veneration, until our love of the Holy Ones becomes a fire that nothing may quench. Hail to Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza, devoted servant of Sigyn and Loki, and Hail to all our Gods. What is remembered, lives.
One of my readers, Coastal Pagan asked a very good question about Ancestor Elevation. It wasn’t one that I’d thought to discuss initially but it’s actually a very good question. Also, when we understand the rituals that we do more fully, we can put more into them, perform them more effectively and that is all to the good.
So, Coastal Pagan asked:
“I’m probably drastically overthinking this, but is there a specific reason why you and others suggest using books for the physical raising parts of Ancestor elevations? I’ve never been thrilled with the idea for a variety of reasons. It’s probably either OCD or scrupulosity on my part, but I worry about the books picking up miasma if the elevation goes poorly or even good contagion if it goes well. I use my books regularly, so either of those things could cause problems. I also have visual processing problems galore, so admittedly the idea of having to figure out if several books are approximately the same size stresses me out a bit, lol. I’ve been thinking of buying several bricks and using them exclusively for Ancestor Work, especially specifically for elevations. I have several Ancestors who were bricklayers or related jobs, and one who was a stonemason but switched to bricklaying when he came to America because there wasn’t much call for stonework here. I have no experience with brickwork myself, but it struck me as way to help my Ancestors be more closely involved in the process by using a medium some of them are familiar with, and struck me as similar to the practice of giving the Ancestors tools or other items to help and work with. I also like the idea of the symbolism of bricks being used to build things, including strong foundations. But then, a lot of the nuts and bolts of religious practices seem innocuous, but in reality, aren’t at all. Is there a reason why books are best?”
I was really thrilled to get this question because while it may seem simple, it’s actually touching on a significant part of the elevation process. So, here is my answer:
Hi Coastal Pagan, Ok. for those not familiar with what you’re asking about, ancestor elevations are an open rite that comes originally from spiritualism, one that has been adopted wholesale by the Afro-Caribbean religious community – a testimony to how effective a ritual it is— but also by ancestor workers in general. l learned it at two separate times from Lukumi practitioners. It is a sequence of prayers done nine nights in a row while working a special type of shrine. You can learn more about the ritual itself here. A caveat about the whole process may be found here. While seemingly straightforward and even simple, this ritual has the capacity to heal, strengthen, and “elevate” an ancestor, helping them to do the work they need to do to become better human beings, better keepers of their line, as well as personally healthy and whole and work like this can actually transform an ancestral line, not just extending that healing forward, but allowing it to flow back in the line as well. That is a very, very powerful process.
Now, as part of the elevation, a shrine to a particular ancestor, the focus of the elevation, is set up on the floor. This shrine should include an picture of the ancestor in question, or names written out on paper if you don’t have photos, or something representing him or her. Prayers are given for nine nights and each night, the picture, name, or token of the ancestor being elevated is physically raised up a little bit more, usually by putting a book or brick under it, adding one more each day.
I firmly believe that the raising up of the picture is there as a visual representation for both the dead and for us of what is happening in the elevation. It sends a powerful psychological message to us, our ancestral house, and most importantly of all the ancestor for whom the ritual is being done, one that really drives home the prayer and devotional process being put into play.
Your question about miasma is also an important one. I cover the books with a white cloth so there is a barrier. Furthermore, I handle that by ritually cleansing everything afterwards. Because I usually use books, I will rekan them with mugwort (smoke them by lighting some mugwort or other cleansing incense and let the smoke run over the books). When I elevate, I use one book each night, usually one that’s about an inch thick. I think using bricks would be absolutely brilliant, not only because that solves the problem of variant sizes, but most especially I think it would be potent for you personally Coastal Pagan, because you had ancestors who were bricklayers, so that’s a nice bit of continuity and connection. Also, it is a perfect representation of a foundation that supports.
I use books because I learned this from two urban Lukumi practitioners and for years I lived in a small NYC apartment. ^_^ I had books. I actually really like the idea of using bricks. It doesn’t matter what you use, so long as the image is visually being elevated daily. Don’t stress if they’re not all exactly the same width and size. The important thing is the actual act of raising up the image or token of your dead. Good question and I’m really glad you asked it!
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Senneferet asked me a really potent question in the comments section of one of my ancestor posts: “How do you cope when finding out bad information about someone you had previously loved and respected? I know everyone has their flaws, but I feel a bit foolish. (I adored my grandfather and assumed he had a deep love for my grandmother. I recently found out how violent and cruel he was to her and their children. His photo has been relegated to a drawer in my shrine room for the time being.)”
This is such a good question, and I’ll bet that an awful lot of people are in this situation and don’t know what to do. I certainly know that for myself, it was so much, exactly like this, that tripped me up in learning to honor my ancestors when I started out. That’s why I decided to parse this question out and answer it in a separate post. Hopefully, it will be useful to many of you starting out in your ancestor work.
Firstly, I want to say that if this is the situation in which you find yourself, there’s no reason to feel foolish. People are complicated. The person (your grandfather) you may have dealt with either in life or during ancestor veneration is not the person your grandmother endured. Think about how parents can have very difficult and damaging relationships with their own parents, but those self-same parents will watch their own children having wonderful and loving relationships with those [grand]parents. It’s ok to love someone who was flawed, damaged, and even damaging. One can love without supporting the terrible behavior.
In fact, as another ancestor worker once told me: it is categorically impossible to have ancestors who were all wonderful people. Sooner or later, you’re going to encounter one that leaves you aghast. It’s likewise categorically impossible that they were all assholes. Your ancestral house is a mixed bag but they’re yours. I’m also going to say something that probably isn’t popular: just because an ancestor was a complete dick in life, doesn’t mean A) they can’t change and continue to grow when they’re dead and B) doesn’t mean they don’t have your back. That’s…uncomfortable but it is a reality of ancestor work.
I dealt with this situation with my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac H. He had a horrific childhood, which at least helps me understand his later behavior (though it doesn’t excuse it). He also tried to make amends later in life to his children. He was physically and emotionally abusive to my grandmother and his five kids. She divorced him in the fifties when, in the small town in which they lived, this was not common. I remember her telling me once (it’s odd the ancestral stories we carry – my brother, twelve years younger than I, doesn’t know any of this) that for a while after they divorced, he lived rough in the woods near her home and she was always afraid he’d come back. A police officer at the time, frustrated because in the 1950s in rural Maryland there were absolutely no laws on the books that protected domestic abuse survivors, told my grandmother, who herself was a crack shot with a rifle, that if he came back to go ahead and shoot him, but to make sure he was inside the house and facing her when she did. That was the best he could do. Fortunately for all concerned, it never came to that. There was a time, about ten years ago, when I started sensing my grandfather’s spirit strongly, along with the sense that he wanted to help and be an active part of my ancestral house. I also sensed my grandmother was still scared of him. Much divination later, I worked this out. It’s this experience that taught me, more than just knowing theory ever would have done, that it is possible for our dead to continue to heal and grow and that we can be part of that if we wish. So, what did I do?
As an ancestral spirit, Roland was always fine with me and supportive, so acknowledging his behavior to his family and making sure he understood the full weight of the damage he caused, I explained what I was doing and then moved his image to a separate and physically lower place on my ancestral shrine – as far away from my grandmother (his wife) as possible. I did a series of healing elevations for her. Knowing the situation within Roland’s life that contributed to his damage, I then did a series of elevations for him, and then started working doggedly with his mother. That took several years to begin to untangle. I also visited my grandmother’s grave and did venerative work there. I bought a gravestone for Roland, whom I discovered had none, visited his grave and also made offerings to heal and refresh his soul. I tried my best to find where my great grandmother (Roland’s mom) ashes were buried but was unsuccessful so I had memorial masses offered for her (she was Presbyterian but they are kind of low church so I had Catholics do it. Not the best solution probably, but she also wasn’t particularly religious). I visited Roland’s father’s grave and had it out with him too, but also made offerings. (to him and to his mother and father. I really like the way his mom’s spirit feels). I acknowledged them ALL as significant parts of my ancestral line.
Now I could do this because Roland wanted to make amends. If he had still been violent and abusive, I would have cut him off from any veneration, offerings, or acknowledgement. I would have called on my Disir, my ancestral guardians (there always seem to be a couple of female ancestors who step forward to order one’s ancestral house) to assist with this. I would also have called on the rest of my male ancestors to help here as well, because his behavior in life was not honorable as a man. A real man doesn’t work out his emotional damage by beating his wife and children.
No one is obligated to work with an ancestor that was abusive in life. When this comes up, it’s really very situational and I would definitely go to divination. I’d also, however, take one’s own feelings into account. Sometimes, they’re not relevant. We, as adults, often have to do things that are uncomfortable because they are the right things to do. This is called having character. There are many times I don’t feel like making the offering or prayer I said I would for whatever reason, but I gave my word and it is my obligation and privilege to get off my butt and do so, even my body may not be cooperating that day. I do the best I can. This isn’t necessarily one of those situations. The thing is, as long as this lies unaddressed and unacknowledged in one’s ancestral house, the damage keeps on happening. It doesn’t go away – there is no magical place called “away.” Sooner or later, ancestral damage needs to be dealt with and we as ancestor workers, have some small capacity to contribute to the healing of our lines. How that healing is accomplished (whether by prayer, elevation, and engagement or by cutting someone out of the line) really depends on the who, what, when, and why of the situation and on the potential for further harm to the living.
Some spirit workers will talk about ‘ancestral curses’ and yes, these are a thing. They can have many, many causes, but one of them is unresolved trauma and hurt. So, an ancestor worker’s willingness to engage via elevation can retroactively and proactively both, help the entire ancestral line. For most though, this is not an obligation. It is a choice and sometimes, for many reasons, the choice will be to not engage because more damage to the living family, or to their own hearts might ensue. Sometimes even in this case, an ancestor worker will choose to engage rather than allow that to pass on to their children. It’s complicated and messy. Wading into something like this can tear open pain for living family members. I’ve talked before about how really getting into proper ancestor veneration has the corollary that often one’s ancestors (whether one can hear/sense them or not – some develop that sensitivity, some don’t. it’s not a pre-req for ancestor honoring) will push one to deal with one’s living relatives, heal rifts, bring concord and healing there too. Multiply that a thousand-fold where something like abuse is involved. Make the best choice for you and your family living and dead and don’t let anyone make you feel badly about it. Each situation is different and needs to be handled carefully and respectfully by any spiritworker or diviner who becomes involved.
Also, know that no choice you make with regard to honoring or not honoring a particular ancestor is immutable. There may come a time where you change your mind and decide to engage. Perhaps the situation with living relatives has changed. Perhaps a living relative has died. Perhaps other ancestors are requesting it. Perhaps healing has occurred to a degree with the ancestors that were harmed and now thread of wyrd are open that will allow you to cleanly work with the abusive one for his or her healing. No decision you make no is necessarily impossible to change at a later date.
Ancestor work, healthy ancestor work is a balance. There are multiple sides to this process. You’re balancing the needs of the living and the needs of the dead as well as the needs of those who will eventually come into the line. You’re working with your values and ethics and familial loyalties through the lens of your own experience and sometimes deep hurts that have been caused as a direct result of a particular ancestor’s behavior and choices. That’s not easy. It’s never easy though it does become easier with more engagement (partly, I think, because other ancestors will eventually feel empowered enough to step forward and help).
I also wouldn’t assume that an abusive ancestor didn’t love the ancestor he or she abused. I would say instead that maybe that person loved to the best of their ability but were crippled by their own damage. Maybe they just had poor character and were in capable of loving properly. Maybe they were a dozen other things, but I wouldn’t assume that one facet of their nature, good or bad, was all they were. That too, is deeply uncomfortable, even as I sit here typing it. It’s true though. Whatever else they are, good, bad, or indifferent, people are complicated.
So, to finally answer this question, I would go to divination. We’re polytheists and our religions are religions of diviners. This is how it was in the ancient world. This is how it is with unbroken polytheistic traditions, and this is how it can be for us as well. I would seek out someone who understands this sacred art. I don’t think I would do the divination myself because in such a situation I would not be unbiased, and this could make it difficult to read accurately. Strong emotions and involvement skew our readings, and also confirmation bias is a real thing. I would pray to my Gods and healthy ancestors about this and ask for clarity and insight. I would probably (provided this person was also an ancestor rather than a living relative!) begin elevations for the ancestor who was hurt by the abuser. What happens next would depend on a number of factors outlined in this post. There isn’t any hard and fast rule.
For more about ancestor veneration, check out my book “Honoring the Ancestors: A Basic Guide” available here. This book was born out of an online class I taught several times, designed to teach people the basics of good, solid ancestor work. I’m also happy to answer any further questions here.
Again, I’m still playing catch up, so these will be short and sweet vignettes. Once I get caught up, I’ll start writing longer meditations on my ancestors again but the spring term just kicked my butt, what with the transition to online classes and a heavy course load.
Week 25 (June 17-23): Unexpected
One of the things that stood out to me, really smacked me in the face, as I was delving into my maternal line, was the number of clergy and religious rebels. It’s almost like theology and pissing people off go hand in hand in my line. Ha ha. I’m upholding the family tradition.
Just off the top of my head, there’s Rev. Alexander Underwood (1688-1767), my seventh great grandfather. He was a Quaker and instrumental in helping to build the Quaker community in PA. I had the pleasure of visiting a Quaker meeting house in Warrington, PA, that he helped to build with his own hands. I wrote about that previously here.
My favorite is my eleventh great grandfather Jakob Boehm (or Boehme), the sixteenth century Swiss mystic and theologian. Apparently, his written work was considered scandalous. He had a tremendous influence on German Romanticism, theosophy, even Hegel. He also wrote about angels, alchemy, and some of what he wrote in “De Tribus Principiis” seems to anticipate themes that we see again in the 19th and early 20th century occultists (though I’m sure he would never, ever have defined himself thusly). I had no idea what a big deal he was in early modern theology (I’m a medievalist focusing on early Christianity) until he came up in conversation with a Protestant colleague and I mentioned, ‘Oh, he’s my 11th great grandfather’ and the poor guy’s jaw hit the floor. That was kind of cool. One of the difficulties in beginning a practice of ancestor veneration is finding commonalities and points of connection with our dead. I’m no exception to that. It was immensely satisfying to find theologians in my line, even if they do belong to a religious movement that I don’t follow. They were pious and thoughtful and their devotion to their God guided their lives and I can appreciate that, and it gives me a way to further my reverence and veneration of them.
Of course, I also had Mennonites, some of whom were clergy, and Hueguenots – all of whom came to this country to escape persecution in their own. I might disagree with their religious positions, but I appreciate their commitment and devotion. They were tough, stubborn, and deeply committed to living their faith. I hope I have inherited half their grit!
Week 26 (June 24-30): Middle
This one is particular difficult topic. The obvious thing to write about is middle child, but with each foremother having upwards of a dozen plus children, who constitutes the middle? Lol. Dr. Henry Gates, Jr, who hosts a popular genealogy show on PBS said once in an episode, ‘Genealogy giveth, and genealogy taketh away.” He’s so, so right. I grew up thinking that I was the eldest child in my family. Through genealogy work, I’ve discovered that I have two older sisters, one of whom I believe is deceased, and then of course I always knew I had a younger brother (we grew up together). Suddenly I went from being the eldest child, to being the middle child. Ha ha. I do not have the stereotypical temperament for a middle child. I’m definitely just a little type A. LOL
Week 27 (July 1-7): Solo
I had to stare at this week’s topic for a long time before I decided what to write. I’m still not completely satisfied with my choice because it highlights for me how much I don’t know about the ancestors on both sides of my family. I really wish I had their stories, particularly of personal challenges met and overcome. It makes me all the more grateful for those living relatives to whom I can speak, tease out their stories, and talk to them about their challenges. My aunt, LBH (she’s very private so I’m not going to use her name here) for instance. She left a small town of Conowingo when she was 18 and moved to DC to start working at the Pentagon. She worked there for forty years and loved every minute of it (except for 9/11. She was in the office that was hit. She said she’d gone out to deliver some papers and came back, saw the plane flying low and thought, “that’s way too low. Something’s wrong.” She turned on her heel and walked out and so was out of that office wing when the plane hit. Thank the Gods she trusted her gut!). But she was eighteen when she moved to Washington. That was a huge culture shock for a backwater young woman who ‘d grown up in a very poor family. She had courage. My bio mom was supposed to go with her, the plan being they’d both start working at the Pentagon but at the last minute backed out. She worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground where she met my father instead. I appreciate that courage. I remember when I moved to New York to dance. I closed the door to my shoebox of an apartment that first night thinking, “What have I done?” It’s a terrifying thing to leave everything you know behind and then the experiences you have, outside the expectations and experience of family that you left, ensure you’ll never be able to comfortably fit at home again. Maybe if one never fit really before, that’s no big deal but I imagine it was a tremendous sacrifice to some and I want those stories. In the meantime, I honor them, doing my best by those living, and telling the stories of those dead.
Week 28 (July 8-14): Multiple
My great grandmother (my bio mother’s maternal grandmother) Lucinda Alice Shoff (nee Heffner) had seventeen children. That included several sets of twins and at least two sets of triplets. One set was stillborn, and I grew upon land where they were buried. I know only two things about them – and I count them as honored ancestors: firstly, when they were born dead, they were named Faith, Hope, and Death (no joke. This is what my grandmother told me about her siblings). Secondly, they were buried in a corner of property that had once belonged to my grandfather but eventually was sold off. By chance, the house that I grew up in, that my parents bought when I was maybe a year old, rested on land that held the bones of these three little ancestors.
I never used to think about the hard work involved in making sure that your children reached adulthood until someone said to me (about my third great grandmother Elizabeth Runkle, nee Oberlander 1824-1900), “Oh that is amazing: she had sixteen children and they all lived to adulthood.” (I have to add that I love how she listed her profession on census records as “keeping house.” There is something quaint and yet proud about that phrasing, an acknowledgement of the essential and fundamental work that she was doing). She married at sixteen – not unusual for the time and place and in which she lived—and I am here because of her, because she kept sixteen children alive, keeping house, maintaining a farm, and raising them up right. Respect.
That’s all for now. I think, mirabile dictu, that I may be caught up so next week look for a longer account of one of my dead. If any of you are participating in this challenge, or if you just want to talk about one of your ancestors, if one of the prompts inspires you, please please feel free to so in the comments.
Oh my Gods, I am so very far behind in this challenge. The end of term, especially moving to working from home in the wake of Covid really kicked my butt. This is going to be one of my quick and dirty catch-ups, really more of a brief pastiche for each week’s ancestor than a full blog post for each. I’m too far behind to be picky! So… * deep breath * here goes.
Week 14 (April 1-7): Water: my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac Hanna (1903-1991)
For all of his faults, and according to family lore they were many, my maternal grandfather was also an autodidact. He taught himself how to play the violin and could pick up any melody by ear. He was also a self-taught civil engineer in a day and age where that was still possible. Let’s just say that the math gene skipped both his children’s and my generation lol. Anyway, apparently, he was so good his employers wanted him to move to Brazil to work on high end projects there, but my grandmother refused to go. I placed him with water because he helped build the Conowingo dam and Hydroelectric station. Bridging Cecil and Harford counties in Maryland and crossing the Susquehanna, it was quite impressive when I was a small child and my childhood home (where my younger brother now lives with his family) was less than five minutes away.
(Conowingo Dam, Conowingo, MD)
Week 15 (April 8-14): Fire : my fifth great maternal grandfather James Hanna (1725-1798)
James Hanna fought in the Revolutionary War as a private in captain John Graham’s militia company, 1stbattalion from Chester County, PA. He was from Ulster, Ireland and died in Lancaster, PA having survived the war by at least fifteen years. I put him under ‘fire’ because he’s descended from the Scottish Hannay clan and they were, from what I could find historically, hellions. Lol. Apparently, they were kicked out of Scotland for feuding whereupon many of the clan went to Ireland. It seems to me like fighting and war are pretty fiery pursuits and I know this line had its temper (which I seem to have inherited in spades). The clan motto is ‘Per ardua ad alta’ (‘through difficulties to the heights’).
Week 16 (April 15-21): Air: Rev. John Bachman (1790-1874)
I’m still connecting the dots with this particular ancestor, but I believe I’m related to him (4thgreat uncle) through my mother’s paternal line. He was a Lutheran minister and naturalist. He worked with Audubon and had several animals named after him including a bird, Bachman’s Warbler. I thought that last was pretty cool. I’m still trying to fully confirm the genealogy – we have Bachmans all over that particular line but I’m 90% sure at this point.
Week 17 (April 22-28): Land: Johann Georg Haeffner (1698-1775)
My 7thgreat grandfather was born in Eberstaedt, Germany on October 17, 1698. He was one of my “immigrant” ancestors, meaning he was the first in a given line to immigrate to the US. He immigrated, I believe in 1749. His wife was named Maria Barbara Orstel (1698-1756) and they probably married in 1721 (I need to confirm this – I don’t trust it till I’ve seen the documents). I could have chosen any of my immigrant ancestors for this particular week’s posting, I suppose, but I settled on my Germans and Swiss because they were fairly well off. They were tradesmen or in the case of a couple threads of my German ancestry, gentry yet they chose to give that up to come to the US. I always found that surprising. I suppose it shouldn’t be. The more I research, the more I realize that for some, it was religious freedom (I have quite a few Mennonites, Quakers, and Hueguenots in my maternal line) and for others, they didn’t want to fight and die for someone else, and I’m sure I’ll discover still more reasons as I stumble across more genealogical records. I really wish I knew more about them as people (and this is doubly so for the women. Sometimes I don’t even have their full names!). All I have in many cases are dates, names and nothing more. As an interesting aside, Johann and my husband share the same birthdate.
Week 18 (April 29 –May 5): Where there’s a Will: my maternal great grandmother (my mother’s paternal grandmother): Edna Baldwin (ab. 1879-1944).
Edna Baldwin was willful as fuck. I don’t know her, but just from what has come down to me through family accounts, I think it’s safe to say she had a very strong will. She was self-made and ruthlessly so. She left her small town in Hardy, WV and moved to Baltimore (though apparently she and her first husband moved around. My grandfather as born in Alabama!). She was an opera singer for a time, and later in life, during the depression, worked as a seamstress. She lived by her own rules and took very little crap from anyone.
Week 19 (May 6-12): Service: 1stcousin twice removed private S. Wesley Heffner (30 April 1898-June 1918).
He was a young man who went to France with Pershing’s troops to fight in WWI and didn’t come back again. This may well be the only surviving photo of him. It’s odd looking at it because he bears a very strong resemblance to my brother. Wesley lived in York County, PA and is buried in a cemetery where he is related to nearly everyone there. His mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, great-grandmother and great-grandfather and a passel of other ancestors lie nearby. I do not know if his body lies in the grave or if it is just a headstone. He is very much remembered and honored.
Week 20 (may 13-19): Travel: my adopted mom Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza (1950-2010)
For someone who was born in Paris, grew up partly in Venezuela, partly in Italy, and travelled all over the world from the time she was small pretty much until she died, my adopted mom hated traveling. She always told me that she loathed it and always had, even though I think she counted herself very lucky to have had the opportunity and experience. She liked to be in her home, tending her shrines, working in her garden, in relative solitude the best. Still, it was through her that I was able to travel a bit and I am likewise grateful for that. She opened the world to me.
Week 21 (May 20 – 26): Tombstone: 3rdgreat grandmother Rachael J. Bobo (1824-1908)
This is my Appalachian 3rdgreat grandmother, directly descended from Gabriel Bobo, my Huguenot immigrant ancestor who came to VA in 1681 fleeing religious persecution. She is listed in the census as illiterate but she made damned sure her children got an education and her grandchildren entered the professions. She was born and died in West VA (Hardy County) and there is no indication she ever left it. I have no idea where her grave lies but oh, I wish I did so I could go, touch her stone, kneel on the soil and pay my respects.
Week 22 (May 27 – June 2): Uncertain: paternal grandfather Karalys (Karl) Dabravalskas (1882-1973)
I never met my grandfather as he died when I was less than a year old. For all that his last name seems unique to American eyes, I’ve not had much luck researching his line or that of his wife (Ursula Blazis). I have been told by a cousin that Karalys’s parents were named, no joke, Adam (Adomas) and Eve (Eva). LOL. I would love to know if this is true.
(Ursula Blazis Dabravalskas, Julia Dabravalskas (Standing), John Dabravalskas (small boy standing between his parents), Karalys Dabravalskas)
Week 23 (June 3-9): Wedding: Ursula Blazis and Karalys Dabravalskas
I heard this story about my paternal grandparents from both my mom and my dad. Apparently, Karalys had an arranged marriage with the eldest Blazis daughter. He came over to the US to get himself settled, started his dairy farm, etc. etc. and sent for his bride-to-be. She, however, decided she didn’t want to leave Lithuania and, without telling him first, the family sent the younger daughter Ursula. Well, she gets off the boat and what is the man to do? In those days, you didn’t send her back! So, he married her. They fought like cats and dogs apparently, according to my bio-mom but had three children, one of whom was my dad John Paul.
Week 24 (June 10-16): Handed Down: my maternal great grandmother Lucinda Alice Shoff nee Heffner
One of the things that I am always fascinated with is the handing down of names. It’s such a deeply personal connection with one’s ancestor. My family apparently bickered over what to name me. May aunt wanted to call me Victoria (which I would have liked). I was nearly named Ursula after my paternal grandmother. I ended up with a name I disliked deeply and changed it at eighteen – good riddance. When my second niece was born, my brother asked me if there were any girl’s names really common in our maternal line and I told him: Catherine, Mary, Lucinda, Alice. There are other names too, of course, but those are probably the most common, followed closely by Elizabeth. No one can ever accuse any of my maternal lines of being particularly creative with their names (the Hanna line in particular is all James, John, and Stephen. Like, mix it up guys. Give me a George, a Robert, anything else! Y’all are a naming nightmare for your descendants who are genealogists lol). (image of Hugh Shoff and Lucinda Alice Heffner Shoff).
My great grandmother’s two names were passed down to her grandchildren and I think Alice is a lovely name, with a sweet, quaint charm. My relative hated it though, so much so that for her privacy I won’t say which relative it is. Fortunately for her, in those days, when confirmed as a Catholic, one could take one’s confirmation name in place of one’s middle name so she did that. Still, I the names carry the memory and as they pass down through the family accrue layers of memory. My aunt, also named after her grandmother remembers Lucinda Heffner Shoff as a deeply religious woman, kind, loving, firm. My aunt absolutely adored her namesake and the feeling was mutual. She told me that she always felt warm and loved and safe when she was with her grandma and that when Lucinda Heffner died, it was devastating. Lucinda Alice had seventeen (17) children, including several sets of twins and triplets and most of them lived to adulthood. One of them was my grandmother Linnie May.
I would love to hear the stories of the names that have passed down in each of your families, of your own name, and the names that you yourself have gifted to your children. The stories are important.
I’ll stop here for now. I still have a couple of weeks to catch up on but boy am I tapped out. This was like ancestor stories lightning round! This will teach me to procrastinate. Ha ha. Feel free to share your own ancestral stories in the comments. It’s always a good day to remember our honored dead.
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“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
–G. K. Chesterton
I don’t often write about movies but I watched this one recently with my housemate (my husband having fled to his office the moment we put it on, ha ha) and it led to a rather extensive discussion about how elements of pre-Christian religious belief, ancestor veneration, and proper protocol for engaging with all manner of spirits are often embedded in fairy tales. Cinderella is no exception to that. Now I’m not a Disney fan. I’m definitely not a live action Disney princess movie fan but my friend Tatyana talked me into watching this one against my better judgment and I actually found it quite lovely. Then Tat. read me a couple of the negative reviews and I thought, ‘God damn it. Now I have to write something.’ So, here you go.
Our stories are important. They tell us who we are. They distill the most essential qualities of our lived experience, the best of who we are as a people. Fairy tales are even more a condensation of certain eternal and essential truths, all wrapped up in magic, beauty, and sometimes terror. They inspire us to be and do better. A story like Cinderella is, under its many, many layers, the story of the power of our ancestors to see us through the most difficult and challenging of times, and a story about the importance of remembrance (1).
I never liked the Disney cartoon of Cinderella (except for the cat, Lucifer. He was awesome. In fact, my only complaint about the live action movie with Lily James is that Lucifer the cat didn’t have a larger part). She always seemed like such a doormat. Having read several of the reviews of the recent movie, I know I’m not the only one to feel that way in general about this story. But, also having read several versions of the story (I like the most gruesome ones the best, no surprise there), and now having watched the live action movie, I’ve revised that opinion (2).
Please note, there will be spoilers below.
I think there are qualities of nobility of character, loyalty, and goodness in Cinderella’s nature that are really highlighted in the Lily James movie (hereafter whenever I refer to “the movie,” I will be referring to this version alone). Cinderella’s mother dies when Cinderella is a child and her last words to the girl are “have courage and be kind.” Several reviews of the movie criticized this, but it’s excellent advice for developing character and personal virtue, especially because the two complement and balance each other. An excess of one or the other isn’t good, but if you balance them true strength can take root. Cinderella lives by this rubric as best she can and in the movie, articulates why she chooses to remain in the home later, after the death of her father, when her stepmother and stepsisters behave so foully to her. It is her home. She feels a connection to the land, a responsibility, and wants to honor that, and the memory of her parents in their home. She makes a conscious choice to stay – maybe not the choice I might make (definitely not) but it’s her choice, made from a position of strength and integrity. She could, after all, have left and found work anywhere given her kind nature and domestic skills, and this is evident throughout the movie. In fact, a friend urges her to do just that. She chooses to stay for her own reasons, and the dismal treatment doesn’t touch who she is inside. This is also an important lesson.
In one review that my friend read, the writer complained vociferously about what a poor example this was setting for her daughter but I do not think ‘have courage and be kind’ is a bad example, nor is the hospitality and courtesy that Cinderella maintains throughout the movie. It’s tested several times too: when she receives news of her father’s death and again when her step mother tears up her mother’s dress the night of the ball and the fairy godmother comes to help. Cinderella doesn’t take her pain out on those around her, but does her duty (hospitality and courtesy, kindness) as she perceives it to those outside the family first. There is nobility of demeanor, which has nothing to do with blood or wealth, but in the world of fairy tales like life, everything to do with character.
What we see is that no matter what one’s circumstances, even if those circumstances are terrible and outside of one’s control, one may still choose how to respond. It doesn’t have to make one cruel or bitter, or twist one out of true. That’s an important lesson, I think. We have a choice in how we respond to hardship. That means we have agency and control, maybe not over externals, but certainly over ourselves.
I think this is something fairy tales really bring home: personal agency and responsibility. Yes, Cinderella is couched in the story of a sappy romance, but the real story is what happens before and around all that. The romance is just part of the social trapping to make it palatable to children and childlike adults. Hospitality and courtesy recur repeatedly as important themes and life lessons and inevitably in these stories are rewarded in some way by non-human forces. There is duty and protocol, right action and right relationship external and immutable to anything happening in one’s life. Doing those things under duress is a sign of good character in the world of fairy tales and fairy godmothers.
We can learn from these stories if we’re willing to take them as they are. Too often when modern writers decide to twist them out of true to accommodate modern “values” and mores, they lose the essential wisdom embedded in these tales. Like so many of the stories we read, there are doorways to very sacred things contained in some of these children’s stories. They’re meant to imprint an awareness of what is right behavior in those listening or reading, to help us learn to choose wisely that which will shape us as adults. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s a very, very good thing. We need those stories, now more than ever.
What are your favorite fairy tales and why?
- In the original version of the story, Cinderella plants a tree on her mother’s grave and goes there, making offerings and praying every day to the spirit of her dead mother. It’s her mother that helps her, not a fairy godmother. It’s really interesting how often ancestors and the fair folk are elided, especially in Northern European lore, but that’s an article perhaps for another day.
- It’s been a while since I’ve read the original Grimm version of the story but I believe the stepsisters cut off toes and mutilate their heels to fit into the slipper and at the end, ravens peck out their eyes.
I’ve put off writing about this because it’s such an ugly story and had such terrible consequences for my grandfather, and by extension his children, and by further extension me. I will preface this by saying that I respect my ancestors. They were imperfect, often wounded human beings, flailing about in the anguish of their humanity. I get that. I don’t judge them, or at the very least I try hard not to do so. I am no better when I am in pain. That being said, brace yourselves.
I don’t know very much about my great great grandmother Edna Baldwin. She was an opera singer, played the piano (I’ve been told both professionally in Baltimore) but she was a cypher. I know she had a vicious temper (hey grandma, me too), was very volatile, and tried to hide her background. I’ve found outright lies on her children’s birth certificates about where she was born. It reads like she is trying to hide her origins and I have no idea why (suspicions, but no clear proof). Her marriage (if they were actually married…) to my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna was passionate, violent (on both sides), and short lived. He had a penchant for alcohol and both for physical violence and she for the latter (she went after him with a knife once, and family stories point to both of them being equally ill-matched) She apparently had two children with him, my grandfather Roland Isaac Hanna and his older brother Van.
When Roland was six and Van nine, Edna took them to a local park. She told her sons that they should wait a moment and she’d be right back. Then, with no explanation, she left. She never came back. Both boys were adopted out to separate families. Roland was used as farm labor, living in conditions close to brutal, indentured servitude. He was brilliant – and since I’m sure I’ll talk about him later during this project, I won’t go into too much detail about him now save to say that this destroyed him. I don’t think he ever recovered emotionally. Later, as a teenager, he sought out his mother and showed up at her door. When she answered, he told her, “I’m your son, Roland.” She closed the door on him with the words, “I have no son Roland.” While Van detested her, Roland never stopped trying to win her love.
That one act: her abandonment of her children, damaged three generations. Roland grew up into a harsh man, a brilliant polymath married to a woman who could no way match him intellectually (my grandmother, was a very devout woman, but they were not well matched intellectually in any way, shape, or form). He was so abusive to his wife and children, that one uncle told me, “Every night he’d beat us with a coal shovel until we pissed or bled” and my aunt remembers her deep fear coming home from school every day, wondering if they’d find their mother dead on the floor. My bio-mother was his least favorite child and he was the harshest with her. This left her cold, contemptuous, depressed, and angry. She was not physically abusive, but she was unloving, emotionally abusive, and mean (to me, not to my brother – he thinks she was the most amazing mother in the world and it’s a point of contention between us that I don’t agree. I do think that she did the absolute best she could and for that, she has my respect). I was blessed to have an adopted mom, and to have made peace with my bio-mom before she died. I understand why she was as she was: it was a deep, deep pain and sense of being unloved. Her father and mother divorced in the 50s and before he died in the 90s, he tried to make peace with her, but she was having none of it. The wounds were still too fresh. He destroyed her trust in the world and her ability to believe herself worthy of happiness, as his has been destroyed the day his mother left him in the park.
Years ago, I remember standing in front of my ancestor shrine and meditating on Edna Baldwin and I said aloud, “I just don’t understand your choice” (i.e. to abandon her children). Clear as a bell ringing through my mind and heart I heard her voice, “You assume I had one” (a choice.). I pray for them all, honoring them amongst my dead, doing regular elevations. There are stories there that I do not know and pain I cannot fully understand and my job is to hold it, honor them, and do what I can by way of our ancestral techniques (like elevation, story-telling, prayer, etc.) to heal what I am able to heal, for the living and the dead.
Hurt and pain echoe through generations continuing to do their damage. Nothing goes away. It must be faced, acknowledged, wrestled with, dealt with, and ultimately – hopefully with the grace of our Gods – healed. Disasters happen but I think we are made, forged and honed in how we meet them. We happen too, we become, even in the midst of generations of ancestral pain and that is an opening for the glory of our Gods.
5 years ago today my guide book on honoring the ancestors first released. 💀💀💀
To many polytheists ancestor work is crucial to having healthy, deeply engaged, productive spirituality. It provides a foundation, a protection, and a vital source of personal luck and power that positions one to better withstand the challenges of engaged, devotional living. “Honoring the Ancestors: A Basic Guide” takes the readers through all the necessary dos and don’ts on their way to establishing a richly textured, consistent, and powerful ancestor practice. Born out of an eight week online course offered by the author in 2013-2014, this unique book provides all information readers need to get started honoring their dead.
So I woke today to news that a prominent leader in Anglo-Saxon Heathenry and Theodism had converted back to Christianity.(1) Knowing what a completely vile and unethical human being this particular person is, part of me was relieved (good riddance to rubbish) and part of me disgusted. It’s not enough that a generation of our ancestors committed apostasy and spat upon our Gods, this asshole has to do it too? Why? Not getting enough pats on the head recently from the community? I think something like this just shows that one was involved in Heathenry not for the Gods but for the indulgence of one’s own ego – nice to be a big fish in a small pond, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing, if one loves the Gods and has a devotional commitment to Them, if one is committed to restoring our traditions, if one is in alignment with one’s ancestors, then abandoning them for the faith of those that conquered our ancestors and crushed our traditions is unthinkable. (2) Devotional work, faith, even praxis can be really difficult, particularly when our communities are spread out across the country, contentious, and often problematic. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to prioritize the Gods and ancestors first and foremost over any reified, fetishized idea of ‘community.’ If one’s faith is based on human concerns then it will crumble eventually, as soon as one isn’t getting one’s ego stroked, or as soon as one encounters the problems that every human group (probably from time immemorial) has had to face. Yes, it’s necessary to build community, but not at the expense of devotional integrity. (And don’t tell me this has anything to do with theology, because there is nothing inherent in Heathenry or any polytheism that says one can’t also venerate Jesus, Mary, etc. while keeping true to our Gods. This is someone who found it too tough and like a coward ran).
Granted, our communities as they are really need to do better. I’ve run across several people who nominally converted (though not in the depth of their hearts) to Christianity so they could have support as they aged. Think about that. This says that our communities aren’t doing anything to help their people, support their people, tend their aging and that is a violation of every ethical standard our ancestors held.
Any Heathenry that isn’t founded on reverence for the Gods, honoring the dead, and respect for our elders is utter shit and isn’t something that will or even should survive. I hope many more in the community follow this guy’s example because if you’re not willing to help, get the fuck out of the way while the rest of us work to restore and perpetuate these traditions. It’s time to choose sides and I know where I stand.
- No, I won’t say whom as I don’t know if this person has gone public yet to the community.
- I read today’s wild hunt article with some concern. Apparently honoring the ancestors is viewed by some Heathens (particularly in the Troth) as a stepping off point for racism. One of the comments mentioned that it was even banned in Heathen groups in Austria. What the fuck is wrong with you people? Ancestor veneration is a core component of every polytheism I can name and if you allow contemporary politics to strip that from your devotional world than you’re a fool and Heathenry is better off without you. If you take it into a racist place, then you’re also a fool. Why is it so difficult for people to get basic concepts through their heads, like you know, maybe honoring (as one commenter also said) those without whom one would not actually BE? I’d like to say this is just more of the Troth making an issue where there isn’t one, but apparently, this is a thing in various groups. Gegen Dummheit kämpfen die Götter selbst vergebens.