The Ancestors, as one of the Three Kindreds, are pretty central to ADF. Ancestor veneration was pretty important across the Indo European world, and it’s well documented in the Norse and Anglo Saxon cultures, where some of the strongest protectors of the folk are your disir – the ancestral mothers and grandmothers who looked out for and protected their family line.
Still, it can be hard to get started, as a modern American Neopagan, who hasn’t had a lot of real upbringing around honoring and remembering our ancestors. While we might place flowers on a grave, we don’t typically (as a culture) consult with or do actions in honor of those who have died. Also, not everyone is on the best terms with their actual blood family, and in today’s culture, families are often split up by long distances thanks to jobs, divorce, travel, and all the other things that create physical distance in a way that our earlier forebears would not have understood. I’m also fortunate (and young enough) to not have lost a lot of people who were particularly close to me in my life, so I need to expand my definition of Ancestors well beyond just “my dead grandmother”.
So how do we find the Ancestors in the modern world?
First, I think it’s useful to remember that by Ancestors, I don’t just mean “people who are related to you who died”. (This is especially good if the people who have died that you are related to were unpleasant people with whom you choose not to associate.) Rev. Dangler, in the Wheel of the Year book (p 43-44), breaks down Ancestors into four types.
- Blood- Kin: These are ancestors of your blood, such as Grandpa Winston above, or your mother, or you sister, or your child. All of these are Ancestors, or would have been considered so by the Indo-European peoples. (DS: I include the ancestors of my husband’s family in this group as well, as they are now part of my family.)
- Heart-Kin: These are the close friends with whom there are ties of love, respect, and strong friendship. They are family, even if there is no blood tie.
- Hearth-Kin: These are people who have shared your hearth religion, though they may not be close friends or blood-relatives.
- Mentor-Kin: These are teachers, guides, and friends with whom you sharean intellectual lineage: perhaps you learned something from them that profoundly affected your life, or you are following in their footsteps in learning.
From that breakdown, I include in my ancestors my two martial arts teachers, from whom I learned a great deal and who had a huge influence on my life, both of whom died very suddenly while I was studying with them in college. They are Mentor-Kin, in a way, and from them I learned a lot. When I list my honored dead, I include both of them among the other close people I have lost, because they profoundly affected my life. (I also think at least one of them is absolutely tickled that I’m now a practicing Druid – he’s probably the most interesting man I’ve ever met – a practicing Jew, a master of Tai Chi, a professional ballroom dancer, and an expert in the I-Ching. I can only think he’d be profoundly amused to think of one of his former students as a Druid.)
Of course, I include my family and my husband’s family in my ancestral lineage as well. Both of our families have strong ties to our past and to the people who came before us, and there are pictures all over my inlaws and my parents houses of their various relatives from the past. As good solid Methodists, they’d be appalled if I said it was anything other than good Christian remembrance of their family members, but it does start to look a lot like an Ancestor shrine, especially when you start to include little mementos and tokens belonging to the various family members.
I have recently started honoring my Hearth-Kin as well, lighting candles and incense and asking for their guidance as I work my way towards their practice. I know my religion looks very little like what theirs would have been, but I hope that I can honor them in a way that makes them feel valued and remembered, and that they can be proud of having their beliefs and traditions passed on. As part of this practice, I keep a candle on my “hearth” (my stove) that I light each evening as I am cooking and then cleaning up, in honor of my ancestral mothers who also worked to feed their families. It brings a little sacredness to the daily chore, and helps me remember to see the value in little things done with intention.
As I build on my altar space, I am also adding things that remind me of my ancestors. I’ve had some trouble with this, since I don’t often associate people with specific things, but I’m trying to expand that. I use a coin to represent my Tai Chi teacher, and a guitar pick to represent my Sensei who died, since those were things that were particularly special to them in life – even if they didn’t have a lot to do with what I learned from them. I have pictures of my grandmother and great grandmother, and I’d like to gradually build to have some items and pictures from both my family and my husband’s family on our mantlepiece.
My favorite way to honor my Ancestors, though, is through stories. I don’t know a lot of their stories yet, but I’m learning to ask about them now – asking my Nana about her mother’s story, and about the stories of my husband’s family as they worked their homestead in the Hill Country of Texas. I love to share the stories of the people I know who have died though, about the things that made them special or interesting, and about how they lived their lives in ways that influenced mine. I really enjoy sitting around with family and telling the stories that make us who we are (I’m lucky to be close to both my own and my husband’s family for this).
Hopefully I will continue to grow in my respect for and devotion to the Ancestors as I work with and for them, and do things in their memory. Keeping in mind that I have “hearth kin” ancestors as well as those from whom I directly descend, I want to remember them and honor them as … well, as my ancestors would have honored THEIR ancestors. Without them I would not be here, and would not be the person I am today.