Over the years I have often said to any who would listen that our ancestors are the foundation upon which we build our own lives. We stand upon their shoulders to see not only with our own eyes, but with theirs. We carry their hopes, their dreams and their prayers within our very souls. Our blood relations, or as author Raven Grimmasi calls it, the ‘Red River of Memory’, is within each of us.
The Ancient Egyptians had the belief that our akhu or ancestors, once they passed to the Beautiful West, or underwent their 70-day long journey to that place and passed through the Halls of Ma’ati, were closer to the Netjeru or the Gods than we on Earth are. From the place where they passed to, they could more easily intercede on our behalf. Nearly everyone in antiquity did some practice of honouring their ancestors. From having household shrines, to visiting the tombs and having a family picnic outside of it in order to invite the departed to partake with them. There have been found letters to the dead as well. There has always been a necessary human desire to reconnect with those who did build the foundation upon which we stand.
The idea of venerating ancestors has been misconstrued by those outside the practice as “ancestor worship.” Honour and worship are, to my mind, not at all the same thing. Leaving tobacco or food out on a stone or putting up a shrine to our ancestors or akhu is not any more eyebrow raising or difficult than our ancestors having had a telephone table where they would sit with the telephone and chat during the times of the week when the phone rates were the cheapest to talk to family and relatives, about what’s been going on – sometimes for hours at a time. They would simply dial the number and the person would be there on the other end of the line. Passing to the West, as we call it, is a bit like that. Death, in spite of its inevitabilty and sense of never being able to see a person or interact with them again, does not necessarily have to be the case. The person who leaves this world of form is not necessarily gone, but has rather moved to a different address and changed their number. The forwarding contact information for that person, their essence in the regard that we interacted with them is still available and at the very least, still inside of us.
You don’t need to believe in the fact that the dead are not “gone” any more than a plant needs to actually ‘believe in’ photosynthesis in order to turn green. That connection does not leave in spite of death’s finality. Cultures the world over know that ancestors are there to assist and to guide us. Sometimes they can provide answers to us that we might not have considered otherwise.
According to Celtic scholar, Caitlin Matthews, we have ancestors that are closest to us by family and those who are ancestors to all of us, collectively of humanity. If we go back a mere seven generations, then we have over 200 people in just our immediate, or father / mother, grandfather / grandmother line. That does not take into account the aunts, uncles, cousins and others that are alongside. When you think about it, there is an army of people in our ancestral background to whom we can go for insight and guidance. Then there are the ancestors to whom all humanity has a kinship. These are the men and women who have changed the world and have inspired us over history. These persons have continued to live through the generations and veneration that they receive by those who have come after.
It is immaterial whether we can sign on to a site such as ancestry.com or anywhere else, or send off with a DNA sample to prove that somehow we have superior ancestors. Too many get caught up in the trap of what I call Blood Quantum B.S. There will always be those in the world who will ask you to “prove” or cite your lineage, or to produce some sort of documentation outside of the colour of your skin or the shape of your features in order to ascertain that you are in the right spiritually, or that you are not trying to culturally misappropriate the ways of another Clan or Tribe or Nation. There is nothing wrong with saying,’Thank you” to the departed who have sometimes become part of the spirit of a specific place regardless of your heritage. Anyone who tells you otherwise, more often than not, is a bigot, most likely insecure in their own heritage and spirituality and should be ignored.
In my own practices, I leave offerings of food and water, and sometimes alcohol and tobacco for the akhu. Sharing a conversation and maybe leaving an offering of something that the particular ancestor liked in particular is perfectly fine. In Mexico on Dia de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, family members will share a meal with the departed, setting a place for them, or even venturing out into the cemetery to sing songs, stories or even food with them. The key, according to a close friend of mine, is “to make sure you have a good relationship with your dead people.” The spirits of the dead, whether you believe in ghosts or not, can make the life of those left behind easy or in some extreme cases, can cause headaches for those still amongst the living. Saying, “Hello,” offering water, or just remembering who they were to us and what they gave us is one of the most important gifts we can give to ourselves as well as to them. Someday, all of us will be ancestors to the ones who come after us. It’s good to have such traditions in place and to keep those lines of communication open.
Note: This was supposed to be a part of the Pagan Blog Project. However, since I have been so occupied with school and work it is a bit late and obviously did not make any of the official deadlines . With that in mind, I am doing what I always do: This will be on my time, in my way, and according to my own parameters. That’s what being an independent practitioner and independently minded person is all about.
Illustration of Merytamun by me. Copyright Ma’at Publishing.