Since most of you don’t live near me, and there’s a lot of interest in my upcoming“Dance in the Graveyard” class, I thought I’d offer those of you who aren’t local a brief ritual you can use to open lines of communication with your ancestors during this Samhain season.
Samhain, as many of you know, is the traditional Gaelic festival that spawned, first, the Catholic observances of All Saints Day (a.k.a. All Hallows Day), and then the very secular festival of Halloween. It is celebrated as a holy day by Wiccans, many Druids, and some Pagans of other traditions.
Traditionally celebrated on October 31/November 1 (Gaelic festivals run from sunset to sunset), the traditional date falls within a few days of the astronomical midpoint between the Sun stations of Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, which happens on November 6 or 7 (changing slightly each year). This year, it falls a little after midnight on November 7th, here in the Eastern time zone.
All four of the traditional cross-quarter festivals fall near solstice/equinox or equinox/solstice midpoints, which are always at 15 degrees of the Fixed signs of the Zodiac These are the powerful degrees that astrologer Dane Rudhyar called “the gates of the avatar” — another word for the Divine incarnate. The veils between the worlds are thin at these liminal times. At Samhain, the Sun is at 15 degrees of Scorpio. (The Zodiac of Western astrology is an astronomically-accurate celestial coordinate system. More about that here.).
Like most planetary movements in astrology, the influence of these patterns is fluid and wavelike, peaking at the date of the exact midpoint. So it’s certainly appropriate to do this ritual anytime between the end of October to a couple of days after November 7th. Afterwards, you’ll want to consider how you will incorporate this ancestral work into your regular spiritual practices.
Essentially all spiritual traditions offer some form of ritually honoring one’s ancestors. But if you don’t have an ancestor-honoring spiritual tradition you adhere to, or you don’t feel your tradition goes deep enough, use this ritual as a beginning, then let ancestors themselves guide you into the best way for you to work with them on a regular basis.
The Ancestor Altar
What you’ll be doing in the ritual is setting up an ancestor altar, and calling on your ancestors to form an energetic vortex that connects them with you through the medium of this altar. Personally, I’m not big on ancestor “worship”. This work is about connecting and honoring, which is the purpose of the altar.
For some of you, the altar may be items you keep in a box that you bring out only when you are actively working with them. Others might want to have a few framed photos and perhaps some heirloom items on a table in the living room that doesn’t look like an altar when you aren’t working with it. If you have space/privacy, you can set up an altar where offerings can be regularly maintained, even if that’s just a small space on a bookshelf.
What goes on the altar (or in the box) is very individual. You’ll definitely want some connection with your ancestors of blood — both parental lines. You can use old photos, heirloom items, or you can get some modeling clay and make a bowl (for your mother’s line) and an obelisk (for your father’s line). They can be quite small. You might want to put a drop of your blood on each one, because blood calls to blood through time, space, and dimensions.
If you have ancestors of spirit, lineage, or friendship to whom you feel strongly connected, by all means, you can include items that represent them as well. Ancestors of the land you live on, of the arts you practice, of your spiritual background — all these folks can eventually be included on your altar.
But to begin, if you’ve never set up an ancestral altar before, call on the ancestors of your blood. Because healing in physical reality resonates back through the ancestral bloodline, these ancestors are invested in you and your healing, and will be protective of you.Yes, even the ones who were total jackasses in life gain some perspective once they reach the realm of the Ancestors. But note this — you do not have to, nor should you, include any ancestors you are not at peace with. You need not honor those who did not honor you.
The only thing that must be true of all of them is that they are dead. Do NOT include photos or other representations of living people on the ancestor altar. This altar is the home of the dead.
If you are adopted, and uncertain of your birth parents and grandparents’ status, you must work only with those of your bloodline who are certainly already dead. You can be quite specific in naming them — for instance, “my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side”. You may not know her name, but she’ll know who you are when you call to her.
Part of the ritual involves making offerings to the ancestors. Making offerings is an often misunderstood practice. We are not looking to placate anyone by making offerings. It is not a bribe. We are extending a hand in greeting, and creating an energetic bridge on which we can meet. Remember, we are trying to communicate between the world of the dead and the world of the living. There are difficulties involved in doing this — which is as it should be — and if we want to create a meeting place, we must put some of our own energy into it, and a link for them to the physical plane. The offerings demonstrate our respect and openness to contact, and put our personal energy behind those intentions, as well as offering an anchor for spirits within the physical world.
What should the offerings be? If you work within a particular spiritual/magical tradition, you (or your teacher) will know what offerings to give (and you probably don’t need this ritual, because you’ll have your own). But if you are working outside of a tradition, you’ll need to think about it, maybe do some reading, and follow your instincts. Food is one of the best options, especially food that you know an ancestor loved. Alcohol is frowned on in some traditions, encouraged in others. Candles, incense, flowers, and grains are all common.
My own practice is influenced by my Wiccan background and the ancestral traditions of the Dagara tribe that I learned from Malidoma Somé. I regularly use four offerings, one for each of the four Elements: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. The offerings are incense, a candle, water, and ash from a sacred fire.
That’s what we’ll use in the ritual, though you should feel free to add any others that you think appropriate. Also, if you don’t have ash from a sacred fire (and if you aren’t sure what that is, then you probably don’t), you can substitute cornmeal or some kind of whole grain. On special occasions, you may want to give more substantive offerings of food or drink. In that case, an offering bowl can be placed on the altar, and the offerings placed in the bowl at some point during the ceremony.
Leave offerings for at least 24 hours, but dispose of them when you sense the energy of the offering has changed. Incense and candles are disposed of by being fully burned. If an offering is on your altar, it should not be neglected. Pay attention to it. If you don’t feel you can sense energy well, ask your ancestors for guidance, then take your best guess as to when it should be disposed of. (Any sign of decomposition is a good sign that it’s past time)
It’s important that offerings be disposed of appropriately. NEVER eat or reuse offerings. Ideally, they will be buried or composted. The spirits understand that the trash may sometimes be the only option, but the effort made to appropriately return them to the Earth is noticed.
It’s important to consider that not all ancestors are in a place where they can give you help or advice. Especially the more recently-dead may be still acquainting themselves with reality on the other side, and be a bit stuck or confused. They’ll work it out. Helping them is not your job — there are others who do that work. You want to call to the ancestors who are in a place of perspective and power. Those who have reviewed their own lives, and are consciously working to help their descendants heal from old, ancestral wounds and improve their lives.
Keep it well in mind that you are neither a victim nor a puppet. Your connection with your ancestors is a respectful, co-creative venture.
When: Sometime between now and November 9th. There is a Full Moon on Saturday, November 4th, around 1:21 a.m. EDT. My personal preference would be to wait at least half a day after that, and work on the waning side of the Full Moon.
What: You’ll want to have the following items:
- An altar (or a box to hold the items you’ll have on your altar if you need something you can keep hidden most of the time. )
- Incense of some kind. Myrrh, cedar, patchouli are relatively easily available as stick incense. If you like making your own incense, have at it. My own blend includes myrrh, cedar, patchouli, mugwort, mullein, dittany of Crete, wormwood.
- A red candle (votive or tea-light)
- A bowl or glass of water
- Ash, cornmeal, or grains in a small dish
- Your journal
- Meditative music or nature sounds recording if it will help you focus and get into a meditative state. You may feel you don’t need it, and that’s fine.
- A drum or rattle (if you don’t have either, just put some popcorn kernels in a pill vial for an instant rattle!)
- Candles. These are separate from the offering candle, above, and used for light. Lots of people use electric candles. I don’t. Aside from environmental concerns — just more plastic crap destined for a landfill — I feel that Fire has its own magic. I also pay attention to the environmental footprint of the candles themselves. But these candles are optional, and electric light is fine, though I’d suggest keeping it dim.
First, do everything necessary to make sure you are not disturbed during your rite. You want to be able to go into a light trance or meditative state during the ritual, so this is important. Set the atmosphere with music/nature sounds (soft, in the background) and light any candles except the votive/tea light you are using as an offering.
Cleanse the space energetically in whatever way you normally work. If you use salt and water, I’d suggest using a tea of some kind of cleansing herb, such as rosemary, rather than salt for this working.
Set up your altar in any way that feels appropriate to you. The directions associated with the dead and the Ancestors are the South (in the West African Dagara and Hindu traditions) the West (in Celtic/European and some Native American traditions) and the North (some Native American and Northern Pagan traditions). I don’t know of any traditions that use the East as the place of the dead.
Place the photos, and/or heirloom items, and/or bowl and obelisk on the altar. (You may want to put a cloth down first, or a special tile of some kind. You can also use other decorations, but if they are placed on this altar to honor the Dead in the ritual, then they belong to the Dead. They are no longer yours. (If it’s just something like the lamp you keep on the living room table you’re using for an altar, that’s still yours. 🙂 ) Then place the offerings, but without lighting the incense or candle.
Ground and center yourself, and enter a light trance state. (If you don’t know what that is, just focus on your breath, bring your mind into the present moment, and sit with that awareness for a bit. You might also want to check out Diana Paxson’s book “Trance-portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World”)
Now light the candle and the incense. Hold the bowl or glass of water up in a gesture of offering before replacing it on the altar. Do the same with the grain or ash. (If the altar is a private, permanent one, you might want to scatter the ash or grain across it. You can also just leave it in an offering bowl.)
Pick up your drum or rattle and begin a simple rhythm. You don’t need to get fancy — just a simple, heartbeat rhythm will get the attention of the ancestors. You can also just pound your hand on the ground, as the Dagara people do — and that has the advantage of being something you can do just about anywhere when you want to call your ancestors.
Once you have a rhythm established, call upon your ancestors. You can do that just by talking with them (yes, out loud), or you can say something like this:
I call upon those ancestors of mine who are well-established in the ancestral realm. The ones who have the vision, perspective, clarity, and wisdom needed to advise me, your descendant. I ask that you join me here, and aid me in creating a place for you within my world, within my home, where we can commune and learn together. Where we can share what can be shared across the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living, and create healing for both.
I offer you here incense and candle, water and ash (or grain. If you are giving other offerings, mention them here as well) Please accept these offerings in the spirit of family, love and connection with which they are given. I dedicate this altar to all my ancestors, and ask you to take your place in the realm of the ancestors to guide and protect me(us, if you have children. Mention their names here. You can include your spouse, but ideally they should have their own ancestral practice. And yes, you can have a combined family ancestral altar if you want.)
Now, just spend some time talking with your ancestors. Let them know what your life is like. Tell them what you are grateful for, and what you struggle with. Tell them where you want your life to go, what kind of person you want to be, and ask them to guide you. Keep the percussion going softly as you speak, and then spend some silent time listening.
When you feel the time is right and your communication is complete for now, thank the ancestors for their presence and blessings, and blow out the candle. I usually see the vortex of energy that forms around the altar like a camera lens that opens fully when in ritual, and shuts down to a small opening attached to the altar when the ritual is over. You might also visualize a gate on the altar that shuts at the end of the ritual. Use one of these or a similar visualization to return the space and your head to normal physical reality and indicate to the ancestors that they should now return to their realm.
Bring yourself out of your trance state in whatever way you normally do (clapping and touching the ground with that intention works fine), then spend a few minutes journaling about your experience if you want. When you are done, ground and center. (Food is always an effective option for grounding.)
And that’s it! For now. You’ve started a relationship, and, as with any relationship, it’s important that you hold up your end. So come back to your altar regularly, and get in the habit of telling your ancestors what’s going on, asking for their guidance, and paying attention when that guidance comes in the form of synchronicities or intuition.