Ancestors for the Alienated

On the subject of ancestor worship, I find myself deeply conflicted.

Its provenance, of course, is undeniable: it is attested across the whole of the world and the whole of human history, from some of the oldest archeological sites to cultures across the world today.  There are those who see its traces in the roots of all religion, though that is always a bold and, from a scholastic standpoint, unprovable claim.  Its efficacy, also,  as both magic and religion, is well attested in both ancient and modern times.  As Gordon White has said, and others have said before him, who among the Otherworld could care as much or as well for human affairs as those who have, themselves, been mortals?

And yet … I find the notion of ancestry … troubling.

To lay the facts bare: I am a witch from a family of Christians.  I am queer from a family most of which I never felt safe coming out to.  I was assigned male at birth and, for all that I am both more and less and other than that, look the part enough that I am generally ascribed the privileges associated with it, and know first hand exactly what sort of monster men are trained to be.  I am white in a world where white supremacy has brought low every people and nation it has come across, all in the name of profit and purity.  I am not proud of the people I come from, nor should I be.

The one attempt I made at “ancestor work” (for lack of a better word) was a visionary journey undertaken at Heartland Pagan Festival 2009, my first with Aradia.  I was only at the beginning of my visionary studies, then, but visions of that strength have remained few and far between.  The drumming began, and I entered the trance.  When the time came to leave my body, though, things went awry: a column descended from the sky, squares and circles and triangles and other shapes stacked one atop the other, all scribed in bright blue light, poured down and pinned me where I was.  The message, I feel as strongly now as I did then, was clear.  “You are not wanted,” it said.  “Do not call upon us.”

And yet … one without a past has no future.  And witches and queers alike have always sought strength in both the facts of history and the mythic past.

Who are the Mighty Dead that I call upon come Samhain?  Who are the ancestors of the alienated?  Several names come readily to mind.  Doreen Valiente.  Gerald Gardner.  Margaret Murray.  Pamela Coleman Smith.  Aleister Crowley.  Frieda Harris.  Frida Kahlo.  Margot Adler.  None of them perfect people, of course.  But … I wonder.  Would they answer if we called?  We, their spiritual heirs, those who draw strength and inspiration from their life’s works?

I could have the answer to that.  I have tools for divination.  And yet …

Frankly, I fear the answer.  I am, as I said, deeply uncomfortable even with the notion of ancestry and, by extension, ancestor worship.  And then there’s the part where necromancy has a certain (perhaps undeserved) reputation, which was ingrained in me deeply early on.  And, were I to ask, and be told “yes, you may call upon us” … then I would be rather obliged to follow through.

And then there are the basic logistical questions: what do the rituals look like?  Having been raised in the heart and soul of White America, a land where Protestant Christianity has done its best to scrape all the ritual and ecstasy and tradition from even its own religion, I have no native rites to turn to for inspiration.  Nor do I wish to engage in any appropriation of others’ cultures: I am seeking to undermine my ancestors genocidal legacy, not participate in it.  Perhaps the dead, themselves, might instruct me.  That would be the best option, but it still leaves me floundering for a place to begin.

Who are the ancestors of the alienated?  What are their rites?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Ancestors for the Alienated

  1. As I read this, I can’t help but think that people in cultures where ancestor worship is an active element of life have faced these concerns. There were people in ancient Rome who were disowned by their families, or whose ancestors committed atrocities that they rejected. While it is possible that the only visible option to such individuals was to simply be marginalized by the overculture, it is just as likely that some manner of mechanism existed to replace or bypass the ritual functions ancestor worship satisfied. Perhaps there is some scholarship on this topic?

    As for selecting pagan elders or figures, there is certainly a precedent in a few cultures that practice ancestor worship of deifying public figures.

    I also wonder if it might be useful to simply ritualize your separation from your ancestors. Establish your own personal genius as your progenitor and ancestral spirit and work from there.

  2. I have read that there are Hellenistic rituals aimed at divesting oneself of individual ancestors. It does seem likely that the Romans had them as well. I have not, unfortunately, found the rituals or the scholarship, myself. Frankly, when last I looked, the scholarship on Classical ancestor cults was slovenly at best: most of it dating from the first half of the 20th century and relying far too heavily on 19th century anthropology. And I no longer have JSTOR access. (Guess what I miss most about college.) But that is neither here nor there.

    The ritual separation is a thing that I have considered. I like the genius-progenitor notion, actually, despite its circular logic … or perhaps because of it. Alternately, I could trace myself back to a progenitor trickster. At the same time, though, such a move … lacks nuance. The white supremacist capitalist patriarchy we call a nation may be abhorrent, but … it is where I come from. And to deny its formative influence reads very much as absolving myself of its crimes; the magical equivalent of “well, i never owned slaves hur hur hur”.

    I find myself thinking of the House of Atreus, and the dooms that fell to each sequential generation.

  3. Pingback: Ancestors for the Alienated: First Contact | Journey Through The Obsidian Dream

  4. Pingback: One Witch’s Gender | Journey Through The Obsidian Dream

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