(Ten years ago today, I gave the opening prayer at a conference held at the “Breaking the Silence: Beginning the Healing” conference held under the auspices of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and which was a part of their year-long focus on the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery. I was likely the only Heathen there, and I was asked to open the gathering with a prayer to our collective dead. This is the prayer I gave, and while some of the language rings much differently today (to the point that were I writing this prayer today, I would rephrase certain elements to avoid association with the left), the core message stands).
Let us begin our work today by calling upon our ancestors.
Let us call upon the Algonquin, the Wappingers Confederacy, and all other Native peoples who walked this land and whom this land remembers.
Let us begin by calling upon the mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers of our lines, all the way back to the time our respective peoples began.
Let us begin by reaching into the past, to the strength and wisdom of our forebears, for guidance, as we seek to transform our present.
I call now to our collective ancestors, women and men who laid down their lives, who faced conquest, struggle, potential obliteration, who stood strong and proud so that each of their descendants might have a chance at survival, at life, at continuance. I call to those men and women whose joys and sacrifices, struggles and successes culminated in each one of us sitting here today. Hear us, oh honored dead.
Those of you who came before us, living lives rooted in your own ancestral ways, be with us here today. Be with us as we come together in dialogue and peace. Inspire us that from here, buoyed by the strength of our collective passion, our collective words, our collective insights, we might go forth and transform our oh-so-damaged world. Root us, oh Ancestors, in our respective indigeny. Root us in the knowledge that indigeny is about celebrating the dignity of every living being on the planet; indigeny is about recognizing that we are indisputably connected to the earth, the land, and most of all to each other. Oh ancestors, let our work today honor that awareness with grace.
Our mothers, our fathers, our foremothers, our forefathers all the way back to the time of the beginning are calling us to action. I know you all hear that call. May our warrior ancestors, who never, ever went gently into the good night of conquest, who fought and laid down their lives sometimes en masse for the survival of their traditions, our traditions, be with us, let us call upon them now. Defiant Ones, proud and enduring Ones, men and women both. Give us the strength to reject that which would poison and corrupt our connections to our ancestors, our Holy Powers, this land upon which we live, and each other. Give us the wisdom to know in our bones that sustainability does not come from disconnected governments and avaricious corporations but from the belly of our ancestors and the traditions they called their own, traditions that are our birthright, our inheritance.
Oh Ancestors, give us the courage to confront privilege – our own most of all – to actively engage with ideas and concepts that may be painful, to engage with mindfulness, respect, and authenticity.
Most of all, let us never give up, never surrender, never step back from this fight, no matter what hostility or pressure we might face. We too are warriors in a struggle that has spanned generations. Stand with us, oh our beloved dead. Grant us a measure of your strength. We carry the medicine of our ancestors. Oh Ancestors hear our vow: no one here will be legislated, educated, starved, murdered, shamed out of existence. We will not allow our traditions – whatever those ancestral traditions might be, for here we sit from all corners of the globe united by a common purpose – to be forgotten. We will not allow the land that cradles the bones of our foremothers and forefathers to be devasted. Many things can be lost or taken by the rushing press of dubious progress, or through the violent devastation of conquest, but indigeny is not one of them. It flourishes in each of us. It is in the soil upon which we walk. It is hidden in our skin and blood and bones, in the connection from parent to child to grandchild and beyond. Oh our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, help us stay consciously rooted in that knowledge.
May we hold strong. May our ancestors sustain us.
It will take both sides, living and dead, to right the balance of this world.
May we hold strong and never bow our heads in fear.
We are each our ancestral lines walking. The time is now and I call upon our ancestors: give us ears to hear and eyes to see and the courage to go fearlessly wherever we must go, to do whatever we must do, to protect and heal our broken world.
With the blessing of the ancestors – all of our collective and honored dead – may we be given strength and may we always remember: we do not do this work alone. We are our ancestral lines walking. We come with nations of our ancestors at our back. May they be honored. May they be hailed. May they be remembered. May they inspire us.
In a recent discussion on a previous post of mine here, the subject of “family” came up. I don’t often talk about family, but this is a blog in part about things relevant to contemporary polytheisms, to their restoration, and their longevity, and to the nurturing of devotion. As such, “family” is an important topic, one which, in my ham-fisted way, I’m going to touch on it here just a little. I spent most of my twenties hostile to the whole idea of “family.” My own experience with my birth family had been less than pleasant (1). It took having a deeply devout adopted mom to help me sort all of that out and learn to cherish this idea of “family” as something good and necessary to healthy communities.
When I say family, I do not necessarily restrict that to father-mother-children. In fact, while I believe there should be male and female role models in the family to help guide and nourish the children, I think restricting that to just the parents is deeply divisive, stressful, and destructive. It puts a tremendous pressure on the parents while providing little to no resources or accountability. We need our extended family, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and more; and on top of that, we need to situate all of this in an awareness of our ancestors – that there is that family going back as far as we could ever imagine, of which we too will be a part one day. The nuclear family is an aberration. If you look just throughout the world today, and most certainly throughout history, it was and is more common to have extended family living together and helping each other out, instilling intergenerational virtues and building up functional, healthy, pious adults (2).
It’s become the vogue today, especially amongst those who consider themselves “woke,” who draw a good deal of their rhetoric and raison d’etre from Marxism, to dismiss the family as a wicked and patriarchal institution that serves no purpose but the abuse of those within its confines. What nonsense. Yet, this nonsense is gaining traction in our communities. Mind you, I’ve yet to see a workable alternative presented, because there isn’t one. Family is fundamental (especially when you expand the definition of family beyond the nuclear. (3)). Of course, “family” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within a culture, a society, a community that may or may not reinforce the values of one’s kin. In our modern world, family can be a fortress in which piety may be nourished and allowed to grow, a curative and medicine for the spiritual pollution infecting our world (4).
Personally, I’ve come to believe that family is an absolute essential building block of any sustainable tradition. It is the way that a proper …I’ll use a Roman term and if that hurts your brain, too bad …pax deorum begins: first in the individual, then the family, then the community, then the city and outward in ever larger circles. It is a sacred thing, something to be cherished and nurtured. “Mother” and “Father” are sacred titles and should carry with them an awareness of the power and responsibility of those roles. What is it that Swinburne wrote? “Mother is the name of God on every child’s tongue…” (5). Family is the best means of passing a religious tradition on to the next generation, and the best way of rooting it as a long-term societal presence. A healthy family is also the best way of correcting societal ills; it starts at home.
- For a number of reasons, mostly having to do with intergenerational trauma; happily though, in my thirties I was able to heal some of those rifts and make peace with my biological family.
- If you’re not pious I don’t think you’re actually healthy. That piety may look different in each person depending on tradition/gods/etc. but part of raising a healthy child is exercising their spiritual muscles and teaching them what it means to be in right relationship with the Gods, i.e. passing on your tradition.
- Sometimes we make our families. Envision it how you want and create it but understand it’s an essential building block for sustainable polytheistic communities or indeed any community.
- No, I don’t think that we should keep children confined and away from any interaction with the world at large. What I think is that we should be providing them with protection – emotionally and spiritually- from the forces of uncreation. We should be nurturing them in ways that allow them to develop strength and courage, devotion, and goodness. We should be making space for them to bring their questions and to share what they are receiving from the world at large and how and why that may or may not accord with our values.
- Which is why child abuse of any sort is absolutely anathema. Healthy communities, religious or otherwise, root that shit out assiduously. There is no room now or ever in our communities for someone who would sexually or physically assault a child or a spouse.
It’s a delicious zero degrees outside and I am loving it. Every morning, when I get up (after I have tea and sort myself into a grumbling consciousness), I go outside and greet the Gods and spirits. Because it was so cold today (and because I’d started the laundry, so all my warm pants were being washed), I put on (over thin leggings so I’m not breaking my taboo against dresses) a thick woolen skirt. It’s actually period clothing, made in the style of the 18th century, so in truth, it was a woolen petticoat. I only put one on (women would often layer them), and then warm woolen socks and Lobben boots (what my god-daughter once called my “troll shoes” – she’s fascinating by the slightly upturned toes lol), a flannel shirt, and a hat. I gathered my gear (incense, lighter, cup of water, and drum) and went out to work. The whole rite takes about 15 minutes, and I was perfectly warm. I could have stayed out there with no trouble for hours.
All of this got me thinking about the way we dress. My ancestors, and certain ancestral groups that I honor, often ask me to incorporate aspects of how they dressed during their lives, into my daily garb. It’s comfortable and not an issue for me for the most part, plus, it allows a means by which I can better connect to my dead. It’s like I’m wrapping myself in their attention and blessings. But I’ve learned some very practical things through this as well.
My usual at-home gear tends to be very, very simple: black pants of a light, synthetic fabric (1), a ratty camisole top or t-shirt, and felted wool house slippers. That’s it. I’d live in it if I could. When I teach of course, I dress professionally (but I’ve started trying to replace any clothing made of synthetics with bespoke clothing of natural fabrics – it’s expensive but it lasts so much longer). One thing that I realized is that it’s only due to central heating and air that we can dress as we do (2). I don’t think it ever really hit home before that so much of how both men and women dressed was a matter of keeping the body’s core warm when, even inside, temperatures were much, much colder than what we are generally used to today. Here’s a fascinating video that shows all the parts to an upper-class Dutch woman’s dress circa 1665 (working class women would wear most of the same underwear bits and stays, but the quality of fabric and the number of layers would be less than what we see here).
Up through the turn of the 20th century, there was no central heating. I spent a very cold and snowy January in a house without central heating a few years ago, getting up in the morning to light the huge wood stove, the only source of heating in the place. I’m going to be very blunt: it sucked (though not as much as having to trek through knee high snow to the outhouse or haul water). The way one managed was by layering one’s clothing and of course, there were chores to be done throughout the day (including cutting wood and keeping the fire going) that helped to keep one warm. It was a really good lesson in physically comprehending a tiny bit of how our ancestors lived. These experiences build—at least for me– respect for how our ancestors lived, survived, and even thrived. I always through the way early modern women dressed – in multiple petticoats and stays– was foolish but you know what? Those petticoats keep one perfectly warm (probably warmer than the men, given that the style, at least in the 18th century, was for men’s pants to stop at the knee. Calves on a dude were viewed as sexy. Lol. So, they wore white stockings and showed that shit off) and the stays, and later corsets that women wore protect the core, adding a significant layer of warmth. What I’d dismissed as frippery and foolishness had a very practical purpose. This is also the case with head coverings. Yes, modesty for women was one of the reasons hair and head were covered, but there was also the question of warmth. Both men and women tended to keep their heads covered and both wore nightcaps. I’d always thought this absolutely ridiculous but when there’s no central heading, and the weather can drop to zero or below, covering the head makes perfect sense for keeping body heat in.
It reminded me yet again that our ancestors knew things. They were smart. They engaged with their world in practical and insightful ways. They understood their world and how to make the technology and crafts to which they had access work for them. In some ways, they understood better than we do today (3). They moved in their world in ways that made sense to them, and that took into account the available technology, the climate, and the work that they had to do. I think there’s a tendency to think that we are better than our ancestors, that they were somehow less sophisticated than we are now. This is a mistake, and this is where living history (in ways large and small) can teach us to reconsider how we treat our dead, how we approach them, and how beneficial it can be to approach our ancestors with a willingness to learn all the lessons they have to teach.
- I’m moving away from wearing any synthetics. Most of them are made of plastic and they are terrible for the environment, pick up body odor much faster than natural fabrics, and don’t last. They’re garbage fabrics. I have a colleague who, like many spirit-workers, has clothing taboos. In her case, she’s not permitted to wear synthetic fabrics. While that’s not one of my taboos (I have certain color taboos, and I’m also not generally permitted to wear skirts or dresses – unless it counts as ritual garb), I’ve started copying her because the fabric is just so much better. Silks, cottons, woolens, even rayon (which is made from plant fibers), linens, hemp, bamboo all allow for a broad choice of clothing.
- This was further brought home to me when my assistant and I were traveling back from a funeral at which I’d officiated. I was dressed in an 18th century men’s suit (but with long pants), and she was in a sun dress and sweater, since this happened in the spring. I’m not usually sympathetic when women complain about office temperatures and such being too cold. My attitude, since I tend to run hot – my ideal house temp is 68 F—is put on a sweater. I’ve never worked in an office or classroom that I didn’t find swelteringly hot. My friend had a sweater on though but still begged me to turn down the ac in the car (I did). I was perfectly comfortable though – in three layers around my core: linen shirt, wool vest, wool jacket. It really got me thinking about male versus female garb – it’s not all bad though, as I note above in my article.
- As a complete aside, I have a theory about why women’s clothing today tends to lack pockets. I don’t think it’s simple female vanity (I know some of the problem is concern over the line of more form fitting dresses, but I don’t think that’s the only thing happening here). Until the early 19th century (??) women would wear pockets as a separate part of their attire. You could have huge pockets, but you tied them around your waist, underneath your petticoats. They were accessible via openings in the sides of the petticoats. They could be as large or small as you wished. You were in charge of your pockets. In the 18th century, panniers were …. ginormous pockets. I seriously wonder if the dearth of pockets in modern female clothing isn’t some unconscious holdover from this earlier, multi-century trend. Here’s an article on decorating pockets. Here’s a site that shows traditional pockets on a mannequin.
This week (especially today, tomorrow, and Nov. 1) are holy days in my tradition and my House. We honor our dead of both blood and spirit. I’m not going to be writing much, because I still have to finish cleaning the ancestor shrine room for tonight’s ritual, but I wanted to wish everyone a blessed time of the ancestors. There are a number of holy tides that fall at this time, including Samhain and Dias de los muertos. Honor your dead as your culture and tradition suggest. May you be blessed in your devotions at this time.
I did want to share one cool thing pertaining to a group of the dead that I regularly honor: the castrati. My friend E. went to Sienna, Italy and brought me dirt from the grave of Senesino (1686-1758), a contralto and one of the favorite voices of Handel. His birthday is Oct 31 and the dirt arrived just a few days ago — just in time. Now granted, his actual grave was bombed in WWII so that was that, but my friend got as close as she could to where it would have been located. I’m delighted and he’s getting extra offerings tomorrow.
Or, our ancestors were perceptive and we shouldn’t forget the folklore that they have passed down to us.
I”m having a lovely discussion with a friend about Appalachian folklore. We both have Appalachian ancestry (for me, it’s my maternal side) and there is a whole slew of folk sayings and beliefs, weather omens, charms, ways to protect the home, protect the land, keep oneself safe that were passed down. I never thought about most of it before. These were just things tucked away in my memory, some of which I put into play in my regular life as a matter of course. Unless otherwise noted, these are Appalachian or PA Dutch (the places where my bio mom’s line is from).
I’ll give you an example. My grandmother used to keep Dannon yogurt cups of red vinegar around the house. I’d come across a cup sitting on a bookshelf, or on top of a cabinet. (That it was in Dannon yogurt cups was not important. I note it only because as a three or four year old, I drank one, thinking it was a weird kind of yogurt and got very sick). It wasn’t until I was an adult and many years into my own practice that I discovered this was a 19th century spiritualist’s trick to keep the home free form negative spirits. I realized my grandmother must have learned it from her aunt Catherine, who was known for being able to clear a home of anything malignant or foul and who was deeply ensconced in spiritualism.
I was eating out with a friend the other day and I put my keys not the table and she quietly put a napkin under them. I looked at her and she said, “it’s a Ukrainian folk custom. Putting keys directly on the table is bad luck.” ok. filed under things to remember. Keys have certain connotations in Norse practice. I won’t be putting them on the table again. I might not understand why these things came into being, but it costs nothing to be careful. Keys represent luck and wealth after all.
When walking with a friend avoid letting any post or pillar separate you. It can cut the friendship–to cure this, say to each other “Hello for a hundred years.” Similarly, if someone gives you a gift of a knife, give them coins in return or it can cut the friendship.
From my Jewish friend Hal: the first person to visit your home on New Year’s Day should, before entering, toss a handful of coins across the threshold so that your coming year will be filled with luck and wealth.
If you are traveling and just cannot find your way, and you’ve been going in circles and it almost seems like something perverse is misleading you: turn your clothes inside out. It makes you invisible to any fair folk who might be messing with you. (I’ve done this and it works).
From my Ukrainian friend again: pin safety pins on your clothes somewhere. It wards off evil. (probably functions in the same way the nails in a witch’s jar do to pierce and attack evil spirits).
Someone told me that dreaming of bees was a sign of good luck. I’ve never dreamed of bees though.
Red Sky at night: Sailor’s delight; Red sky in the morning: Sailors take warning. (No idea where I learned this).
If someone praises your baby, esp. your baby’s beauty, spit on the baby. It wards off the evil eye. (I don’t actually advocate spitting on children lol. Put an evil eye charm like a blue eye pendant or something on the kid and keep him or her away from outsiders to avoid the praising).
When drinking alcohol of any kind, pour a little bit on the ground in offering for the spirits (land, ancestors, wandering dead? doesn’t specify. It’s polite though so why not?).
Another Ukrainian one that we do in my house: put the broom bristle side up. Brings good luck/drives away bad luck
Here’s one that’s Appalachian and PA Dutch: throw salt over the left shoulder to ward off the devil (not sure WHEN you’re supposed to do this, but it’s a very popular one and salt does cleanse and protect).
If you walk between two poles that run electricity, you’ll get sick (Ukrainian).
*whew*! that’s all I can think of at the moment — I need to get going with studying–but, please please feel free to post your own folk sayings and customs here. I would love to know what practices have crept into your lineages that y’all know of or maybe even maintain.
Over the last week, I’ve had quite a few questions hit my inbox. Normally, I answer these things privately but some of the questions are things that I get asked frequently, so I figured it was time to write something here (and I welcome the questions so don’t ever worry about emailing me. I might be slow – I am in grad school and perennially running behind in email – but I’ll answer as soon as I can). So settle back, because this is going to be a rather long post as I try to cover the questions I’ve been receiving. I’ve tried to group them by topic, so most of them deal with ancestor veneration. I put those first.
Question 1: Most of my ancestors were Protestants not Polytheists. Can I still venerate them? Will it make them angry?
Death is a great equalizer. I have very, very rarely found religion to be a problem with non-polytheistic ancestors. Nine times out of ten, being reunited with one’s ancestral house, freed of the difficulties and pain of corporeality, is very healing and liberating for our dead. Quite often, many of the prejudices and narrowness that define our living experience simply fade away (I suspect that it is partly due to actually encountering the Powers directly). There are exceptions to this, mind you, but for the most part I have found that what you’re most likely to encounter is happiness that you’re reaching out, a little confusion about how the whole thing works (as we learn to work with our dead, I think they learn to work with us too), and a willingness to communicate.
Sometimes, depending on the religion that your ancestors might be coming from, they may not have a working knowledge of how to DO ancestor work, how to engage with the living so there may be some negotiation there but for the most part, barring the occasional bitter or damaged ancestor, you’re rarely likely to encounter hostility because of your religion. There might be curiosity, and in that case, just explain what you do and why.
Sometimes really damaged or wounded ancestors will require healing and if one is willing, elevations can help enormously with that. I advise people to just start honoring their dead – start where you’re comfortable starting—and then deal with any issues that come up as they arise. It’s a learning experience (on both sides) and there will be a little fumbling along the way just like in any other relationship. That’s ok. Consistency is the key.
If you have ancestors who were especially devout in their tradition, one thing you can do is find out what ways that tradition has of honoring the dead. For instance, my grandmothers were both Catholic. I often have masses said for them or will go and light candles at Marian shrines in various Churches for them. They seem to like it.
Question 2: I know you honor dead that aren’t related to you biologically. How does that work? Is there ever any conflict between your blood ancestors and these spiritual ones?
Oooh yes and yes. I struggled for many, many years to develop a working relationship with my ancestors and I sometimes think they get a little jealous of how much more easily my relationship with non-blood related groups (especially the castrati and/or the military dead) developed. There’s more ease there with those that aren’t related to me even now. I feel often as though I have more in common with them. But, like anything, it’s a work in progress and if I didn’t honor my own dead properly then I wouldn’t be in any position to take up honoring specific groups of unrelated dead. One aspect of veneration feeds into and strengthens the other for me.
I have certain dead in each group, including my blood ancestors, who kind of help keep things organized and will step up to solve any problems that arise between the various groups and that helps immensely. Beyond that, divination is always a go-to when larger problems arise, though I can’t think of the last time that happened. For the most part, we all manage to work together well 99% of the time.
For those who wonder which non-blood related ancestors I honor, I specifically venerate the military dead, the castrati and also as a work-lineage, ballet dancers (I was a dancer for the first working third of my life so that was a lineage of which I was part. It shaped me and contributed to the way in which I approach my spiritual work. I honor them as a spiritual lineage). I also honor my spiritual lineage ancestors (spirit workers, vitkar, priests, etc.). This latter is one of the areas where I find my spiritual ancestors and blood ancestors overlapping since I have several theologians in my line (most notably Jakob Boehme, who is my 11th great grandfather on my maternal side).
Question 3: If you pay ancestor or hero cultus to a celebrity, say a famous dead musician for instance, how is that different from fandom?
I think the purpose in venerating them is different. You are basically asking that this particular dead person become an honorary part of your ancestral house. Why would you do to that for someone not related to you? Well, maybe they are part of your work-lineage. Say you are a musician. Honoring a famous musician who inspired you fits into “lineage.” Or, you are asking that person to become a patron, as in ancient Roman patron/client relationships. This is analogous in many respects to hero cultus. In ancient Roman polytheism, or instance (and one sees this in other polytheisms too, but Roman comes to mind as I write this) one might pay cultus to a local hero because he or she was extraordinary in some way. Herakles for instance, received extensive hero cultus. Why does one do this? I equate it to Catholic saint cultus (which I think evolved partly from a combination of ancestor veneration and hero cultus that was pandemic in the pre-Christian world): one petitions these holy people to intercede with God in Catholicism, or to lend their holy might, their power to prayers for us. Well, we can do that with our heroes too. They can be models of excellence (much like saints are models of holiness), they can be petitioned for help or intercession, or for protection in our work, or a dozen other things as well. The important thing is, we’re not just going ‘rah rah rah’ and swooning over their work. We are recognizing their importance in their field and their impact on us personally, honoring them for that, in the hopes that they will inspire us, open doors for us, and that we may tap into their fire on a spiritual level and be made better through that (along with our own hard work). The purpose is different from fandom.
Question 4: What if you have an ancestor who did something particularly egregious (serial killer, Nazi murder, communist, or just plain asshole in the family). What the hell do you do with them?
This is a good, really good question. The answer: It depends. This is the answer for a lot of complicated questions in ancestor veneration: it depends. It depends on your relationship with that person, whether their actions directly impacted you (if you’re a generation or two removed, you can be a bit more objective in many cases). It depends on whether that person showed any shame or regret or desire to make amends in life. It depends on whether one senses that after death. It depends on what they did and how deep the poison runs.
Often it’s healthier to at least perform the occasional elevation for a wicked ancestor, even if you decide not to honor them in any other way, than to allow their poison to go untreated in the line. An elevation is a ritual to heal a damaged ancestor. It can be very hard to do and I always recommend asking one’s entire ancestral line to pray with you as you do what is a nine-day rite. Why would you do this for an evil ancestor? Well, nothing goes away. If an ancestor is hurt or damaged, wounded or wicked, or any other thing good or bad, it bleeds into the entire ancestor line and that has long term, inter-generational consequences. Sometimes it’s better to face that and find a way to deal with it via ancestor work. This can actually help heal multiple generations. I would do this in consultation with a diviner steeped in your own religious tradition. I like to say that it’s statistically impossible that every one of your ancestors was an asshole. It’s also statistically impossible that every single one was an angel. We all have that one ancestor though, so the deeper one goes into ancestor veneration, the more likely it is that we’ll encounter something that requires careful consideration.
I was telling my housemate the story of Beate Klarsfeld (b. 1939) last night. Klarsfeld was German and was very small when WWII ended. She was part of the generation that wasn’t really taught anything about the war or the Holocaust in school. She went to France as a young woman and when she found out what really happened during the war, she was filled with a deep shame and a deeper rage. That rage filled her with a fury that remained unabated her entire life. She became a ferocious Nazi hunter. Among other Nazi war criminals, she and her husband were instrumental in bringing Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, to justice. She wasn’t perfect. She cooperated with East German Stasi to gain information on West German officials’ past activities, but her life was largely dedicated to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. THIS is one way of beginning to repair an ancestral line tainted by such a terrible thing as a Nazi ancestor.
One doesn’t have to work publicly like Klarsfeld but if you have an ancestor like this, finding a way to give his or her victims a voice and to help them can in turn help repair your own ancestral line. This is not self-serving. An ancestral line that is poisoned and out of balance brings nothing but pain, hatred, and violence into the world. Healing your own ancestral line shuts a door that evil can otherwise use to further damage Midgard.
So, what do you do if you have an ancestor who was a Nazi, a serial killer, a Stalinist, etc.? Or what about just an abusive, violent bastard? Or what if you have a murderer or a rapist? On a small scale, it depends, and saying that can be like bitter ash in the mouth. Still, it’s the truth: it depends. Consult a competent diviner within your tradition. Your other ancestors who were directly harmed by this person may have serious pain and trauma. I usually suggest doing elevations for THEM first before anything else. Then sit down and see what they want? What you are comfortable with? Take your time and consult your elders and diviners. The damaged ancestor may be coming forward in order to try to make amends, to try to fix the damage he or she wrought. (This is not always the case. Sometimes they’re every bit the bastards in death that they were in life, but just as often, they are filled with shame and want to do what they can to repair things. That’s one of the things to figure out. Then, you have to make a decision weighing the pros and cons. I usually suggest an elevation or maybe a series of elevations either way, and then after that, you can decide if you want to work with that person further. If you don’t, there are other rites one can do to cut them out or separate them from the rest of your dead and shun them. If you do, that can be negotiated. It really depends and this is determined on an individual basis. It’s a family thing too: do this in consultation with your other ancestors. Honoring the bad ancestor doesn’t mean you forgive him or her, or that you approve of that person’s choices and behavior. It doesn’t mean that you like that person. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t angry or hurt or [insert emotion here]. It means that you’re making the best choice possible for your spiritual health and that of your ancestral line. Sometimes that choice is to slowly begin elevating, healing, and honoring a particular ancestor. Sometimes it’s to block that person out of your life and line.
There’s no pat answer here. It’s complicated and difficult and often quite challenging.
Question 5: Can pets be included in ancestor veneration?
Absolutely. They are little lives that intersect ours and often make us better people. I have seen animals pray. I absolutely include my deceased pets on my shrine.
Question 6: Can I be heathen even if I don’t have Scandinavian or Germanic ancestors?
Absolutely. The Gods call whom They call. End of story.
Some people are drawn to Heathenry because they have Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry and that becomes a powerful point of connection. That’s ok. Most people find it easier to honor their ancestors first than to approach the Gods (ancestors are concrete. We knew grandma. Gods are harder to conceptualize at first, unless we are blessed with the capacity to sense Them in some way. Not everyone is and that’s ok too). This doesn’t mean that you *have* to have any particular ancestry to honor the Norse Gods (and, as far as ancestor veneration goes: everyone has ancestors. The point is to honor them. It’s not about where those ancestors are from. It’s all good).
Now, the traditions that make up Heathenry are connected to specific lands and cultures. But in the world of our ancestors, that wasn’t as restrictive as we today would make it. What mattered was being respectful and honoring the Gods in ways appropriate to the tradition or cultus. Being part of a community was a matter of sharing that veneration, sharing the same language, customs and laws. It was about acquiring those things, not blood.
It’s cool if one has Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry. That’s great. It’s going to allow one to connect in a particular way to our Gods. But if one doesn’t have that ancestry, that’s ok too. That’s also going to allow for a unique connection and both are equally good. Our sacred stories tell us that our Gods travelled everywhere, engaged with all manner of people, intermarried, had children. They returned home and shared what They had learned. There’s a lesson there that maybe we should take to heart.
I’ve never been a folkish Heathen. There are generally two points on which we disagree theologically: one is veneration of Loki (most folkish Heathens I have met are against His veneration. I fought for 20+ years to normalize His veneration within Heathenry. Those youngsters on tumblr who bitch about how terrible I am would do well to realize that for a very long time I was a lone voice in the wilderness advocating for this God we all love, and without my work, they might find their own veneration of Him a much more difficult thing publicly. But that would be respecting one’s elders and we can’t have that now can we? *sarcasm*). The other is ancestry. I don’t think it matters at all what one’s ancestry is. We’re always going to discover things we find really cool about our ancestry and also things that we don’t like. None of this has any bearing on whether or not one can honor the Norse Gods.
Folkish Heathens think ancestry matters here, and that only those with Norse or Germanic ancestry can honor the Gods (or those adopted or married into the “tribe” so to speak). While I don’t think that Folkish Heathenry equals racism (it doesn’t and eliding the complexities here serves no one), I just don’t agree with them here.
So, if you are not of Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry and feel a pull toward the Norse Gods, go for it. Set up your shrines ,pour out your offerings, pray, develop those devotional relationships and know that you are in perfectly good company. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You belong just as much as anyone else. Honor your ancestors too. That is our strongest foundation of all.
Finally, I don’t usually receive political questions, but two people emailed me questions the week before last (they were polite, at least the first was, so I took the time to answer):
Question 7: “Why do you hate Marxism so much?”
History. (I could have stopped there, to be honest).
I think it seduces people by pretending to offer a solution to all their woes and then cannibalizes the very people who placed their hopes in it. I think it leads inevitably to socialism and, if left unchecked long enough, communism. I think it is dehumanizing and degrading. It inevitably attacks the family structure, destroys the economy, and leaves little room for individuality or human excellence. I also think it is completely incompatible with any religious or devotional life. Like Nazism (two sides of the same bloody coin in my opinion), I think it is evil.
Our country has many problems to be solved, among them, failing infrastructure, contempt for the aged, lack of medical care, stifling educational debt, racism and misogyny that continue to bubble up to the surface, a poor and broken educational system, to name but a few. The solution isn’t to go to the other extreme to fix the problem. Extremes never work but only cause more damage. Rather than focus on Marxism, we should consider that we have a worthless Congress that has something like an 8% approval rate by its citizens. They control the purse strings and they really don’t care about the human lives that put them in office and allow them the privilege of staying there. Marxism is a misdirection that will never fix the actual problem. It will make everything worse and the very people so ra-ra-ra for it, will – if history is any predictor—be the first against the wall should their Marxist “utopia” ever become reality.
This, btw, is why I am not a supporter of BLM or Antifa. It’s just Marxism under another name. Of course, when one points out that Marxism/Socialism/Communism have never successfully worked (and always have a horrific body count) modern interlocutors will go on about how that wasn’t *real* Marxism. That wasn’t *real* socialism. That wasn’t *real* communism. Theirs, of course will be different. Right. I’m not willing to bet my life on it.
Question 8: Are you a Nazi? (yes, someone actually emailed me and this one sentence was the entire email. Such eloquence. I am astounded *sarcasm*).
No. Read my work. I despise Nazism every bit as much as I despise communism. It was and is evil and destructive. People who resort to calling me a Nazi are doing so because they are too small minded to actually engage with my work, and they want to make sure that no one else takes the time to read what I’m actually saying as well. People that throw this term around don’t like that I’m not pro-left (I’m not actually pro-right either) and they use shock-language to scare people away. Never mind that in doing so, they’re showing tremendous disrespect to those who died under Nazism, and are making light of one of the worst and most horrific expressions of hatred in the 20th century.
Read my work and decide for yourself. You are all capable of doing that. From the beginning of my public writing I have always maintained, without exception, a strong stance against this bullshit when it creeps into our communities. This is precisely why I am pro-free speech.
Finally, someone asked me a question I’d actually never been asked before. That alone prompted me to answer it:
Question 9: Who are your personal heroes?
I had to really think about this. I’ve been lucky to have had extremely good devotional models in my life and the one that stands out the most is my adopted mom Fuensanta. Without her, I don’t think I’d even be alive right now. She taught me more about devotion and honoring the Gods and behaving with integrity than anyone else in my world so if we’re talking personal heroes, she tops the list.
After that, it depends on which area of my life we’re discussing. There are people who have inspired me, but very few that I would honor as heroes or saints. That’s such a special category. I need to think about this question more because it really depends on which “hat” I’m wearing. Are we speaking artistically, academically, spiritually, personally? There are many who inspired me (in ballet for instance when I still danced, I looked to women like Anna Pavlova, Olga Spessivtseva, Marie Taglioni, etc. to teach me the grace and value of sacrifice, pain, and discipline) and often they are honored as part of my work-lineage on my ancestor shrine (as the women I just mentioned are), but I don’t pay them the type of cultus that I would give a “hero” or “saint.” It gets complicated – what, with ancestor veneration doesn’t? I have a lot of historical figures I deeply admire, but hero cultus is something else.
I think that’s it for today. I have a couple more questions but they can wait for a later post. I’ll try to do get that post out in a couple of days. If you’re interested in learning more about ancestor veneration, check out my book here. Or, check out the tags ‘ancestors’ and ‘ancestor work’ here on my blog.
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Royal School of Needlework has an ongoing project that allows individuals to “sponsor” a stitch for their “stitchbank.” It’s a fantastic resource for historians and of course, for those who are learning to embroider. RSN correctly points out that embroiderers throughout history have rarely signed their work. We have many, many examples of this beautiful art from antiquity all the way up to the present, but rarely, very, very rarely do we know the names of the (mostly) women who created them (1). This stitchbank is preserving these stitches with the names of either those who sponsored them or those for whom a stitch has been sponsored. I think that is pretty cool.
There are lots of things that we can do to honor our ancestors. I think it’s important to remember though that until the 20th century, a huge portion of our female ancestors’ time would have been taken up with textile production: spinning, in some cases weaving, sewing, knitting or crochet, and for those who had the time, embroidery – adornment. Depending on the period of history about which we’re speaking, one couldn’t just go to the store and purchase thread. Thread started with sheep. You had sheep, you cut off the wool, carded and spun that into thread and then that thread could be dyed, woven, etc. etc. One could trade for these goods, I suppose, but in the end, anything one wore began with an animal or a plant and a terrifying amount of work. Whenever I embroidery, mend, or select clothing, I think of my female dead and the valence such things must, of necessity had for them (2).
So, and my point to all of this, is that I decided to sponsor a stitch for my maternal grandmother Linnie Shoff Hanna (1909-1987). She got assigned the cloud stitch (not posted yet that I saw) and I am delighted. She was the one who first taught me to embroider. I remember how hard it was to learn French knots. She took a piece of nice linen, drew a rabbit holding a carrot and had me make his eye out of a French knot. That was my reward for learning how to do it and when I’d outlined the whole thing and satin stitched the carrot, she made it into a pin cushion for me. Whenever I embroider now, I am inevitably beginning and ending the process with prayers to my maternal dead. It is a way to feel closer to them, to keep them in living memory, as I go about my daily work. May the names of our dead always be remembered.
- The exception, I think, are samplers. Young girls would sometimes sign their samplers. Also, in colonial America, very little boys were sometimes given samplers to do as punishment (the annoying thing is that some of these samplers are better than anything I can do today lol).
- This is one of the reasons that I try to wear clothes made only of natural fibers (wool, cotton, linen, silk, etc.) and, when I can afford it, handmade. I don’t sew well enough to make my own clothes, but I’ve been outsourcing a few things to a terrifyingly gifted seamstress and it is so much better, better made, and longer lasting than clothing purchased off the rack. It’s expensive and I acknowledge that this isn’t something everyone can do (and I can’t afford it for everything) but if you can sew, give making your own clothes a shot. If you can afford it, try getting a bespoke suit once in your life. It changes one’s relationship to one’s clothing, to production, craft, and it really, really makes one aware of the attitude of disposability and planned obsolescence that so define our modern purchasing experience.
ISAW, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, currently has a fabulous online exhibit about Galen up. It talks about Galen’s life, education, and contributions to the field of medicine, what medicine was like in the ancient world, the pharmaceuticals, tools, and surgical techniques available to physicians, women’s medicine and female physicians, and Asclepius among other things. I had a blast going through it and learning things last night. For those interested, Check it out here.
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.
Friday we celebrated our last Sunwait of the year. We had such a lovely ritual. It’s hard to describe something that is at once so simple and yet so profound. The rituals we have done as we move toward Yule have nourished us so deeply, and I truly think they have helped us prepare for these ember days so much more fully than we have in years previous. There was something very special about concluding this cycle with kenaz. It is the hearth fire, the light in the darkness, the torch that leads the way and it came powerfully. Here is the prayer that we offered, written just like last week by both myself and my housemate (and assistant) Tatyana:
To Sunna and Kenaz Hail to You, Oh Sunna, Who always lights our way, keeping the hearthfire glowing and warm in the cold expanse of winter. Hail to Sunna, Who teaches us to cultivate the arts of the home and of civilization, in the icy depths of the cold; for You come bearing kenaz, this rune who brings with himself the power of creation, the fire of the hammer hitting the anvil, of art, of sorcery, and of manifestation. You, gracious Goddess, protect our homes, tending the fire of our spirits, warming the halls of our hearts, in the months when the land slumbers. You inspire our creativity, our playfulness, granting us the gift of inventive craft, and of wonder. You, Sunna, are the spark of optimism carrying us through every dark time again and again. You grant us the courage to persevere, for Your light will always come. You shine the brightest, when your glorious gleaming light glitters on the snow and ice, reminding us always that You are there; and Your embrace is one of joy that our souls may drink in deeply, daily, in the darkness of winter. You bear kenaz forth, a brilliant torch, leading us laughing into the ember time of Yule, where we taste the fullness of Your blessings. Hail to You, Goddess of the Sun, may Your journey lengthen as You return to us again, the fullness of Your glory. Hail, mighty Goddess.
Tonight, we celebrated Modranacht, calling our Mighty Mother Goddesses: Frigga, Freya, Sigyn, Nerthus, Sif, Ran, Loki (not a Goddess but He did transform into female form to birth Sleipnir), Gerda (Who in our tradition chose not to have children but comforts every grieving mother), Idunna (we don’t know if She has children or not), Sunna, Angurboda, Hela (all the dead are Her children), moist Mother Earth, Frigga’s retinue (again, we don’t know from the sacred stories if any of Them have children)—I feel like I’m missing a Deity but we made sure to offer to all of our mighty Mother Goddesses named and unnamed. Then we honored our Disir, and then as many of our female ancestors as we could name. We ended by remembering the Nornir, hailing Audumla, and offering a powerful prayer to Embla. My husband suggested it before we closed the rite and when I spoke Embla’s name, it hit such a powerful groove spiritually, ancestrally that it nearly knocked me over. I don’t remember what I said during ritual – the prayer was offered extempore – but this is a reconstruction of what I do remember:
Prayer to Embla for Modranacht I raise this horn to Embla, Mother of all mothers, Mother of us all. I hail Embla, the first of all women, who drank in the breath of a God, who received sense and warmth and life from the Holy Ones Themselves, who knew Their touch in blessing, who was given a soul. Embla, born of elm, Who ties us to the worlds, Who roots us deep In the time of the beginning, We pray that you, Eldest Mother, Restore our souls and spirits, That we too may look at the world With eyes that have seen the Gods And know that which comes from Their hands To be good and wise and true. Hail to you, Embla. May we always remember you.
For those of you celebrating Yule tomorrow, may your celebrations be showered with blessings and may you find favor in the eyes of your Gods and your honored dead. Alu.