Because of your past writing on ancestor work, I have a question if you are willing to share your thoughts. Generally, I’m wondering if you have any opinions about organizations like Daughters/Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters/Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, etc., and the role they play in mediating our relationship with our Ancestors on a broad, national scale. And because my initial experiences with DAR in particular have shown the organization to have strong monotheist underpinnings, I am wondering if you have any general advice about how to navigate being a polytheist in those kind of organizations.
For context, in my personal ancestor work and my genealogical research, I came across documentation of several ancestors who participated in the American Revolution, which qualifies me for DAR membership. One would hope that an organization like DAR would provide access to a local community of people who value honoring their ancestors and preserving their local history. Unfortunately, although these sorts of organizations have done a lot of good for our Dead, they have been (in the past) outright racist and (in the present day) monotheist at best, aggressively Protestant at worst–to name just a few problems. Suffice it to say that I can’t, in good conscience, participate in the opening prayers of every DAR meeting because of their monotheist language.
In an ideal world, I think that such organizations could do some of the heavy lifting for the ancestral healing that American culture needs, as part of their service work. But in the world as it exists, do you think it’s worth trying to participate in these organizations as a polytheist? Is the desire to honor ancestors and preserve local history enough common ground to put up with monotheistic assumptions?
HI P. Anon,
This is a very, very good question, especially since genealogy work is one of the most concrete practices within the umbrella of ancestor work and also where many of us begin. I’ve also found myself in the same situation, having a direct maternal ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War and thus being eligible for membership in the DAR. For me, I’ve never been able to make myself do the paperwork and really, what they represent is just not part of my personal identity, and having learned about this particular ancestor’s military work has been enough for me. Still, there are benefits to joining such organizations including scholarships and access to research archives. That being said, the concerns you bring up are absolutely valid and one of the reasons that I’ve always dragged my feet when it came to filling out that paperwork.
Here’s the thing though: you can challenge those monotheistic assumptions. You can do it gently, persistently, and by your very presence. You don’t have to ‘put up with’ them necessarily. Just pick your battles. You will most likely be the first polytheist that any of these women have met. It is likely to be completely outside of their idea of what is possible in the world. Your patience may be tested.
The fact remains that while organizations like this can and quite probably should be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to ancestral healing in this country, they are not, and in some instances, re-instantiate the very patterns that need to be challenged if healing is to occur. That isn’t going to change unless and until ancestor workers and those who are deeply committed to understanding the truth of their ancestors’ lives and experiences step into these spaces and do what it is their ancestors call for them to do and that can be uncomfortable (on both sides) and difficult (also on both sides).
As to the monotheistic prayers, I would address that in two ways. Ancestor work is a two-way street: it’s those of us living and those who are dead. Some of those dead were Christians, probably the majority (or Jewish, or Muslim). It’s ok to allow prayers to be said that they will recognize. You may not be able to participate in them licitly (I know that for the most part, I could not since many praise that particular Deity as the only one or the highest one, or make claims of allegiance that conflict with my loyalty to my own Gods). At the same time, it does not hurt these organizations to realize that there are those among them (likely among the specific groups of dead too) for whom that may not be the case. When opportunity arises, gently but persistently suggest other prayers. Point out that when the only prayers are constantly monotheistic in tone, it excludes you and possibly others from participating. There are delicate ways to push the issue. Each group is different so get to know the people in charge and once they understand who you are and their intentions, gently introduce the idea of using more inclusive, or different prayers. Many don’t want to be exclusionary, it’s just they’ve never encountered someone who isn’t them.
But in the end, you don’t need to join these organizations to honor those particular groups of dead. Depending on your ancestry, it might be contra-indicated – the goals of one group may show disrespect to the other group. It really depends. There’s no one pat answer to any of this, like so much in ancestor veneration. What do they want (easily discovered via divination), what do you want? (For instance, if I had a child I might be more intent on joining the DAR because they do have scholarships that would help that child go to college. Things like this can be negotiated. Things like this, like life, like engaging with the ancestors, like so many other things are complicated. Always). One thing you may take on if you choose to join organizations like the DAR is helping them to realize the healing and service work that they can be doing. It’s likely to be an uphill battle but it is a worthy one.
Then of course, there are genealogical organizations that are non-partisan, but exist solely to help and encourage its members in good, solid genealogical research. Those are uncomplicated and actually really helpful (I particularly recommend the National Genealogical Society and their online classes). Also, be kind to your living history people. Those who are engaging in living history work, public history are giving voice to the dead. They’re doing sacred work. Be kind to them and find ways to support what they’re doing.
Thank you for a very though-provoking question.
Temple of Athena asked:
“I also have a lot of guilt calling on my ancestors because I know that I’m not going to have children. I’m not going to continue their bloodline, because I’d be a horrible parent and I have no wish to risk continuing the cycle of abuse. My brother very much wants to get married and have a family, so in a way I am relieved that carrying on the line will not be my responsibility. I’m not sure if it’s my own fear of my ancestors being upset about this attitude that is blocking my ability to do ancestor work, or if it’s a legitimate concern of theirs. Do you have any thoughts on this subject?”
I think that we tend to forget that for all of our ancestors, there are often collateral lines (cousins, siblings, etc.), so if we are not doing x, y, or z, one of our distant relatives may be and it all works out. Not every single person needs to physically carry on the line. There are many, many other ways that we contribute and that we can become good ancestors ourselves. It’s really not a problem if you do not plan to have children. If certain ancestors fret, explain it to them. It’s natural for them to want the line to continue, but you’re not obligated and I have never found that to be a serious issue when honoring the dead. Also, as you note, your brother will likely fulfill that function.
ToA also wrote, “Also, I have a strong urge to work with a specific, long-deceased relative that I have never met. However, most of my other family members do not remember him favorably, and some claim he was downright abusive. But you know some of the details of my family – my living family members are sooo abusive and messed up that I don’t know if their perceptions are trustworthy, and when they die, there is NO CHANCE AT ALL that I will honor their names or work with them. But I’m quite impressed by things that my great-grandfather accomplished; he was the son of immigrants, worked on sawmills and farms from a young age to support his mother, sisters, and eventually wife and children; and created and grew several businesses from NOTHING. I feel like I could benefit from a relationship with him, but I am so hesitant because of other stories that I have heard that paint him in a less than flattering light.”
If you’re feeling pushed to honor him, do it. He may have been abusive, but sometimes spirits find healing amongst their own ancestors and then want to make amends with the living. If you are feeling called to do so, give him the chance. It may be, of course, that your family stories of him are not accurate too. I would deal with him as an individual and see where it goes. Just like relationships between grandparents/grandchildren can be radically different than parents/children, so too is each ancestral relationship its own thing. Peole grow and learn and change and as they heal and learn better, they often try to do better. At the very worst, that may be what is happening here. At the best, perhaps your family stories are mistaken. If you are feeling pushed to honor him, go for it.
V.M. Asks: “Would you be so kind and write on how to strive to be more and more generous on our relationship and offerings to the Gods?”
I think learning how to prioritize the Gods and being in an open, loving, proper devotional relationship with Them takes ongoing time and consistent attention. In many respects, we learn as we go. I know for myself, I often wantto be generous with my Gods but then the little kid inside of me cries ‘no, that’s mine” usually when the offering in question involves part of something sweet. Lol. This is not a bad thing though because it provides us with the opportunity to consciously choose to make those offerings, to be generous, to give to our Gods. It allows for greater mindfulness and for consciously cultivating a generous character in our devotions. We’re all works in progress and developing a generous devotional heart is a matter of conscious cultivation.
If this is a significant issue in your devotional life, I would suggest really meditating on why you find it difficult to be generous with Them. Often a lack of generosity in our hearts indicates a sense of want or loss or not having enough in our lives. The willingness to share one’s bounty is a statement that we ourselves are nourished enough, have enough, and do not want. We should not feel a sense of loss when we give to our Gods. That sometimes this is the case is heart-breaking. In those cases pray to Them. Ask Them for help. Trust Them to be patient.
I find that sometimes starting small with offerings is very helpful. If there is something that one wishes to give the Gods, but one meets with internal resistance, then perhaps half the offering. Give half and keep half. It sounds simplistic, but when the heart is hurting, or bound by insecurity, such simple measures can be useful stepping stones in developing a habit of generous and joyful gifting. Most of all, don’t beat oneself up about these struggles. We are all learning and it’s normal to hit what I liked to call devotional speed bumps. Some days will be better than others, but the important thing is the ongoing commitment to becoming better, fuller, and more devoted to our Gods and ancestors.
In the end, it comes down to learning to make good choices, learning, little by little, to make the decision to give. It’s like developing a habit – it’s a matter of practice and consistently forcing yourself to do the right thing. The good thing, the grace about all of this is that we can ask our Gods and ancestors for help. They will provide it. We’re not alone in our spiritual struggles.
Now, for no reason whatsoever save that she is awesome, is a picture of my cat Elena catching some sunrays on the stairs. ^_^
Owlet asks: “How do you make right after participating in a ritual or group that is disrespectful?”
This is a really good question and I’m glad you asked it here. It’s something that I’ve had to learn through a lot of trial and error, especially when I was much more open to participating in rituals outside my House, and when I was working in the interfaith world. My answer is two- fold.
Firstly, what you describe (which I quote further below) is the real danger of community involvement and I am so very sorry to learn that this happened to you. It hurts my heart to know that your own devotion was impacted by this. It can be very, very hard to come back from such a thing but I will say this: as we learn better, we do better. You’ve had a valuable experience about what is NOT proper community. That will serve as an incredibly useful lens through which to evaluate every other group with which you consider becoming involved in the future. That can be a great blessing. Hopefully, also, others can learn from your story as well.
Now, you ask what one can do. Firstly, ideally, don’t participate in those groups. It is far, far better to remain solitary than to pollute yourself. I think that the desperation to communicate and share with like-minded individuals sometimes pushes us into these situations and it’s so important, early on, to commit to not compromising where piety and respect for the Gods, ancestors, and land are concerned. In this, compromise is nota virtue. Evaluate their theology, their politics, their values, their lifestyles, the choices they make large and small. Separate your personal feelings from these things, because a person can be nice and friendly but in the end, poison ideology leads to poisoning of the tradition and our lives. Do the choices they’re making serve the Gods and the tradition or do they seek to elevate the people and ego-stroking, etc. etc. Is it all about the human condition?
It is absolutely lovely to find like-minded polytheists, and to build communities – and in truth, I don’t think our restoration can endure intergenerationally without lived community. The thing is, it’s important that those communities prioritize the Gods qua Gods and if they don’t, shun them like poison. I would add that we’re never really alone. We have our Gods, we have our ancestors and we can learn from Them and hopefully when we’re ready, They will guide us to working, solid traditions that will augment our relationships with the Gods, not shit on them.
So first and foremost, I would say, avoid these senseless or impious groups. That means making conscious devotional choices about what to prioritize, and about your religious life, and with whom you share that. It means doing some research, asking uncomfortable questions before participating. It means being willing to walk away from groups and people that do not nourish one’s piety. That means weighing everything and most of all being absolutely unwilling to compromise on the key fundamentals of polytheistic practice. I think with the influence of pseudo-progressivism in our communities, we’ve been indoctrinated to think of ‘compromise’ as a virtue across the board. It’s not. If I’m in a ship and the hull is compromised, that’s not a good thing. That is in fact, life threatening. It’s the same with the type of pollution that we can all too often find in certain places.
Owlet’s post continued: “I spent many years as a solitary pagan and polytheist, because I lived in an area where the culture was unusually hostile to such things. When I moved to a large urban center and university town, I immediately got involved in pagan events and groups. I was desperate to be a part of a community. To one group , in particular, I donated hundreds (or more) volunteer hours, a great deal of money, handcrafted ritual items…everything I could give. As I learned over the years, the people running and organizing these events and rituals often did not believe in the gods as anything more than thoughtforms or maybe archetypes, or were at the core monotheists or Christians with a thin overlay of pagan dress. Their disrespect spread from their relationship with the gods, to their relationship with the land, to the ancestors, and to other people, and I played along and became complicit. Now that I’ve left and can stand back, I feel heartsick at the compromises I made to please these groups. The service I gave to these communities distracted from and damaged my relationships with the holy powers instead of strengthening them.”
Again, it hurts to read this and my heart goes out to you, but look at it as a learning experience. It’s often difficult, especially when we’re all hungry for community and companionship, to recognize when something or someone is problematic. We learn, often from harsh experience. I would encourage you to not carry guilt over this. Go before your Gods and ask Their forgiveness if you feel the need, and do a ritual cleansing and then commit to doing better. Sometimes, it’s really, really important to have these bad experiences so we have a baseline from which to clearly and accurately evaluate practices. The most important thing in what you’ve sadly experienced is that now you can look on these things clearly and make better, informed choices. There’s no need for shame about any of that. You contributed to a community that you thought shared your piety. That’s a good thing to do. It’s not your fault that the community was not what you thought. Please don’t carry the guilt from this. Sometimes we appreciate devotion and piety and right relationship all the more when we’ve had an experience of its opposite and the effects of that.
What I would suggest is prayer – we cannot pray too much—and regular cleansings. Whenever I find that I’ve been exposed or have inadvertently exposed myself (and sometimes my spiritual Work requires this) to pollution, I will pray and cleanse myself, sometimes using divination to figure out what type of cleansing is needed. I always suggest going to the Gods, going to the ancestors, going to the land and reconnecting. Ask Them for help and cleansing, ask Them for guidance and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with would-be communities.