The Bonds(?) of Blood

One of my fascinations with the pagan and polytheist cultures is what draws our collective attention. There are thousands of meaningful, thoughtful, and historical practices and, at times, we are, as a collection of seekers, drawn like moths to the flame to one of these particular sets of skills. It’s almost a fad, but ‘fad’ is a bad word to describe it because it implies that these practices will dissipate or disappear when our attention shifts elsewhere. It’s true that not all of us may find long-term meaning in our new spiritual discoveries, but it doesn’t mean that these practices or customs are not valid or will not be held up by groups or individuals who have held them as sacred for longer than we might think.

I first noticed this phenomenon around the explosion of interest in root work and other forms of folk magic. I have been studying root work since I first realized that polytheism and pagan practices were for me and it was quite surprising to see it brought to the forefront. In my prior experience, lots of systems of low magic and root work were thought to be…less than ethical due to the loose and questionable moral practices that may be ascribed to those particular modalities. However, that didn’t stop the collective mind from latching on and devouring what they could find on the topic. Blogs and books were written and a lot of information [and misinformation!] was spread. Then, as quickly as it had come to pass, it died down again and those who found meaning in those traditions incorporated it into their practices and those who had been practicing since before the boom may have sighed in relief and kept doing what they had been doing.

What has come next in popularity and attention, at least from where I sit, is ancestor veneration and veneration of the dead. It has been rather curious to watch. People that I have known for years who might have given the ancestors a cursory glance prior are now full-fledged supporters and vocal advocates for ancestor worship, and have incorporated it as a major part of their personal spiritual practice. As a voracious observer, this has proven to be quite the feast for my curiosity.

Like root work, ancestor veneration is not a new thing. As I was forming my thoughts for this entry, I did a little reading on the topic and was not surprised in the least to find that every religion, no matter how large or how small, has some aspect of ancestor veneration involved in it’s practices. From Roman Catholicism to tribe-specific practices in Africa, spiritual and religious groups hold the dead as holy and invite them into their devotional practices. We might honor the saints and martyrs of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox faiths, we might throw a party for the ghede, or we might make space on our altars for a beloved relative or friend who went before us. Regardless of the particulars, our traditions include considering those who have left their earthly bodies as vital to our experience in ours.

What makes this particular resurgence different from that of root work or, in my experience, any other newly launched or rediscovered practice, is the attitude that is held regarding it’s significance in the wider pagan and polytheist cultures. Where past ‘fads’ may have drawn middling opinions at best as to who should practice or why they should practice, I have found that the opinions regarding ancestor veneration are wildly different. I have seen absolutely rabid writing about how every pagan and polytheist absolutely MUST engage in this practice if they are to be pleasing to their Gods and their ancestors and, that if they choose not to or are lead not to, they are not only spitting in the faces of their fellow practitioners, but the Gods and the ancestors themselves. This practice is being presented as an unequivocal ‘must’, in that you are not a ‘real’ pagan or a polytheist if you don’t do it.

I find this disturbing on several levels.

First, it clearly communicates that we, as fallible meat-machines with a ceiling of how much we may understand of that which we cannot see with our eyes, are authorities on those things that exist beyond on our plane. It says that we know, without a doubt, what the Gods and the ancestors want from both ourselves and other individuals who may walk a pagan or polytheist path. This, in my experience, is completely untrue. Even the most talented shaman or most practiced spirit-worker is not right one hundred percent of the time, nor can they say with absolute accuracy what the Gods and ancestors want from all Their other humans. It’s simply not possible and, though I am loathe to drag out this word since it is so often abused, it is hubris. It brings up the well-beaten argument of how UPG [Unverified Personal Gnosis] works—if God A tells me to do one thing as a devotional activity and then tells another person to do something completely at odds with what I was told, which is right? Who has the authority? The real answer in my world is that neither of us are the authority and that we must rely, keeping in mind the fallibility of our ability to hear the Holy Ones, on what is communicated to us and only us. If I tell you that my devotional practice is The Right Way to do things, I am taking on an authority that you have not given me permission to hold.

Second, it sets a precedent that all our practices must be vaguely homogenous and I find that frightening. The things I do for my Powers are very much tied to who I am and what my relationship with Them is. It has little to do with what is considered right or proper or even pious and everything to do with what my Gods ask of me as an individual moving in this world under Their direction and guidance. This mindset says that ancestor veneration is a MUST and your practice and spirituality is fractured at best, and offensive at worst, if you don’t engage in this way.

These are consequences to what I am calling the birth of prescriptive spirituality in the pagan and polytheist demographic. It’s ugly at best and it’s what many of us converts sought to move away from when we either discovered or were called to our current communities, if we have one, from our milk religion, if we had one.

In my own world view, the current popularity of ancestor veneration and the resultant judgmental views attached to that practice, or lack there of, are but a symptom of this new turn towards the prescriptive. That shouldn’t, however, communicate that this is not an important turning point. The outcome of this particular upsurge in one type of practice will either lead the pagan and polytheist demographic towards a further jaunt into a prescriptive existence where we listen to and comply with the views of a few voices, or we reject the notion that there is one way to practice and be devoted and continue a long tradition of individuality in spirituality.

I will admit to having a personal stake in this particular development. In short, I am tired of being told I’m wrong or spiritually undeveloped.

My ancestors came into my life uninvited, which, if you know my biological family, is entirely unsurprising. The first Samhain after my paternal grandfather had passed, I attended a ritual and he showed up completely unaware that he had passed and utterly confused as to why he was not at home with my grandmother. It was heartbreaking, to say the least, and it was even more so when I had to tell him that, no, he could not come home with me and that I was not going to take him home to my grandmother. He had to understand that, for him, his time in this plane had ended and he had to cross, which he did at some point.

After he left this world and took his place in whatever part of the underworld he belonged to, it was quiet for awhile but things soon began to get difficult. Within a few months after I had oathed my life to my God, I began to have unusual difficulty in parts of my life that had, until that point, been smooth sailing. My day job began to suffer. Things I had agreed upon with my supervisor began to turn to dust. I had difficulty being recognized by my chosen name [I do not use my legal name on anything but paperwork] where I never had before. There were ridiculous misunderstandings between myself and my coworkers.

It began to spread to other areas as well. I suddenly had trouble fulfilling my spiritual obligations, though I was putting forth a solid effort. Spiritual events I had committed to attend had a dozen roadblocks thrown up in front of them and I only managed to actually get to them through a vast amount of last-minute finagling. I honestly thought I was going crazy in a new, unforeseen way.

I gave in and sat with a diviner who turned out to be an incredibly powerful ancestral worker. It didn’t take her long after she drew her cards to tell her that my ancestors were interfering with my life. They were unhappy, she said, because I was living in a way that they found deplorable. In short, they wanted to see me living as female, married to a man in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage, having multiple children, and interacting only with Yahweh. To that end, they had begun to meddle. All my work troubles and all the roadblocks and difficulties I was having spiritually could be laid at their feet. She was able to identify them as three female individuals who left my paternal grandfather, my only ancestral ally, feeling intimidated both in life and in death.

With that pronouncement, I knew exactly who they were. I had known them in life and, quite honestly, they were as displeased with me when they were embodied as they were after they had crossed over. I have always been the black sheep of my family in that I am queer, gender-variant, non-monogamous, and have, as my patient mother has said, ‘interesting’ sexual practices. These particular ancestors were having none of that and were intent on me falling into line with their wishes.

The prevailing attitude on ancestor worship says that I should have complied, or tried awfully hard to. I should have created a physical space for them in my home, made regular offerings to them, and worked hard to gain their favor. However, there is a three-fold problem with this line of belief.

First, I had been all but commanded by my God to live a totally opposite life. He had directed me to present and cultivate an identity as male, revel in my queerness, pursue non-monogamous relationships, engage in ‘interesting’ sexual practices, and to never, ever have children. My oath to Him was barely six months old at that point and you had better believe I was not in a hurry to break that.

Second, what my ancestors wanted was not even a little in line with what I wanted. I had just spent three years living in a way that they had deemed acceptable and it had made me absolutely miserable. I was [and am] no longer willing to live unhappily for the betterment of something outside of myself.

Third, what struck me perhaps deepest of all was that they had made not one damn sound about their wishes until after I had sworn my oath to my God and happily struck out on the path He had chosen for me. It was clear that they had been quite content to keep to themselves until I had done something that they found repugnant. What was communicated to me via this uncovering was that, as it had been in life, they did not care until I showed independence and commitment to something that they felt infringed on their self-styled command.

This drew out my anger, as can be expected. I was assured by several spirit-workers that they would not ‘win’, as the contract between myself and my God had already been signed and He held the ultimate upper hand. In a way, outside their meddling, I looked at my situation as a test of my resolve and willingness to uphold my oath.

I looked for help, but none was there. My grandfather, though compassionate, essentially threw up his hands and backed away. My God stood back and watched, knowing full well that, in the end, He had me. No one was going to stand up for me in this because, frankly, they were far too irritating to want to deal with. So, with all of that in mind, I went to war.

I dug my heels in at work and used every professional connection I had to achieve what I needed to move forward. I barreled through the roadblocks that were standing in the way of my spiritual development. I went to my ancestors and said ‘absolutely not, this is not up for negotiation, and you can either remain a part of my life as it stands now or you can leave’.

They chose to leave and I have not heard from them since, which for me, has been a huge blessing. I still speak with my grandfather on occasion, but there is no space in my home for him, as, though I love him deeply, he would take advantage of that and come to stay. That is the beginning and the end of my ancestor veneration. I don’t have an ancestor altar and I don’t make any offerings to my dead. When I have opened my doors to the long line of mystics and God-touched folks in my line, none of them come. When I call my ancestors, none of them call back. I don’t know whether that is a result of me sending the meddlers packing, but, in the end, I honestly don’t care much. Maybe some day they will decide that they are interested and maybe I’ll return the interest, but, at this point, it’s not something that eats away at my day-to-day.

The dead, by and large, don’t speak to me otherwise. There is no community of dead that demands my attention and the most interaction I have had with someone that has passed is when they attend a ritual I happen to be at, which is not very often. I don’t feel called to this work in the least, nor is it something that I feel would enrich my spiritual life or practice. In all honesty, it would add more things to do to the ever-growing list I maintain for my God and, in my life, He comes before all other beings, human or otherwise.

In all of this, I am not an abnormality. As much as there is a growing faction of very vocal and adamant ancestor venerators, so is there a quiet group of spirit-workers and lay folks that either have no calling or no desire to be involved with those that have passed. I know folks who, like me, have had involvement with ancestors who have added chaos and discord to their lives and who have rejected those relationships in favor of peace or their true calling. There are others who seek their beloved dead but find none. I know of at least one individual who sacrificed their ancestral ties to pursue their spiritual calling and their relationship with their Goddess.

I have found that this group of people is quiet for two reasons. Either we are too busy with other things to engage or we don’t wish to be the target of the judgment of others. Some of the lay pagans and polytheists that I’ve spoken to about this are honestly afraid to be public with the fact that they are not engaged with their dead. They fear public ridicule and shaming and, quite frankly, I don’t blame them. I’ve seen absolutely horrible things written about people who don’t comply to the ideas of ‘right’ worship described by others, up to and including supporting death for those who stray from this prescriptive path. Yet, those same voices express wonder and outrage as to why polytheism hasn’t gained a stronger foothold in common society. Go figure.

This, of course, doesn’t even address the experience some people have with being connected to the dead who were awful, horrible people in life. Should a person who suffered abuse and harm at the hands of an ancestor be required to include them in their veneration? What about those who committed crimes against greater society? Does Hitler deserve the recognition and honor that beloved Uncle Joe who spent his days rescuing kittens from trees does? I don’t have the answers to any of those questions since I don’t hold ancestor veneration as a part of my spiritual practice but I will say that, if what those who are violently in favor of it is true—that devotional practice begins and ends with ancestors, then I am not sure I would want those who were malevolent in life as a part of my living space or my spiritual practice.

I suppose it’s possible to say and believe that it doesn’t matter and that the dead are always owed our attention, but I don’t believe that. I do not owe attention to every Power that crossed my path provided that I am polite and acting in a way that honors the One that I DO owe attention to, so I don’t see any interaction I may have with the dead as any different.

Will that change in the future? I don’t know and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. If the Mister boots me in the back of the head and says ‘go deal with the dead, boy’, I’ll do it and be grateful for another chance to practice obedience. If an ancestor knocks at my door who is not out to make me miserable, then perhaps I’ll bring them into my life.When those closest to me–my friends and intimates–pass on, I’ll likely set space apart for them in my house as a remembrance, but I’m not sure that counts as ancestor veneration.  Otherwise, I got stuff to do, you know?

I suppose, at very base, this is about one of my core spiritual beliefs. You and your Powers, if you have any, determine your spiritual path and not the input of your fellow meat-machines. I don’t think it’s bad to listen to other folks—I know I’ve learned from reading and listening to those I both agree and disagree with—but, in the end, I’ve got what I have cobbled together and what the Mister has charged me with or suggested and, for me, that’s the best way of doing things.

If the ancestors come knocking at your door and you decide to say yes [because you always retain the right to say no], if you decide to seek them out, or if your Powers direct you to them, then by all means, get on that horse and ride it into the sunset. If not, you and your practice are not incomplete or wrong without their presence. There is no one application of spirituality and devotional practice, no matter what your involvement in community or a specific tradition may or may not be, and there is no one right way to be in the favor of the Gods or the ancestors, if that’s your bag.

As for the prescriptive attitude that is beginning to permeate the pagan and polytheist cultures, well, I just don’t know. It leads me towards sadness and admittedly a little bit of fear because I don’t believe for a minute that the Powers intend there to be only a specific set of practices that gain Their favor, love, and involvement in our lives. As They love us in our many permutations of humanity, so we love Them with just as many flavors of devotion.

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~ by Alex on June 30, 2013.

7 Responses to “The Bonds(?) of Blood”

  1. “…they did not care until I showed independence and commitment to something that they felt infringed on their self-styled command.”

    ^ That comment reminds me of the current discussion and attitudes in polytheism that I’m seeing. People are speaking out and doing something different, and we’re being met with retaliation because we’re not bowing our heads and doing what is ‘acceptable’.

    All of this resonated a lot with me. Ancestor worship isn’t a big part of my practice right now, though it might be. Well, at least not in any really recognizable religious fashion. I’m slowly learning my family history from my grandmother, but I consider that more of a familial duty because no one else will learn the history or give a damn, and I consider the stories important and want to at least have them in case someone in our family does become more interested in our history. (We also had a long history of illiteracy and just…our history is in shambles and I would like to see that change.) However…I’m really not comfortable with venerating my ancestors. My family is full, full, FULL of abuse and downright vile behavior, and I don’t feel obligated to people just because they contributed to my DNA.

    anyway I need to stop before I write an essay of a comment. Thanks for another really great post. Your writing is excellent and always gives me a lot to think over.

  2. My blood relatives are not nice people. I am by far their least favourite person. So, when I have all but begged Cousin X for a copy of our family tree, she has ignored me. When I have asked my mother for my maternal grandparents names, she has been evasive and given me the absolute least amount of information possible. Which given we live a continent apart is as simple as ignoring my phone calls and emails. I am shut out from this generation, and from the previous generation. They don’t like me in life, and they don’t think much of me in death, so it would seem. And I’m meant to venerate these horrible people? I. Do. Not. Think. So.

    • I should note, if I didn’t make it clear, that ancestor veneration doesn’t have to be blood family..it can be friend or lovers who passed, dead folks that you admire, categories of dead folks like those who died from complication of AIDS or those who died as a result of injustice. It can be anybody that passed on, not just those we are genetically connected to.

      • Sorry, was on the phone with my disability payment provider and didn’t fully unpack the thought process I was having. If that sentence makes any sense?! I’m all for honouring the beloved dead, it’s just that my genetic dead suck. I should really not try to type and talk on the phone at the same time!

  3. Thank you for writing this post. Oddly enough- or maybe *not* so oddly enough- the concept of ancestor veneration has been on my mind a lot these days. As well, though I have been thinking on and reading up on these concepts a lot, I am not sure where I stand on ancestor veneration, but this post helps me a lot to unpack where I might be going.
    As others have pointed out, my immediate genetic line (both alive and dead) is rife with folks who run the gamut to unfriendly to my chosen path to some downright unpleasant misanthropes who have disowned me, both in life and in death.
    But, oddly enough, I cannot dispute that I do feel drawn to work with the dead…forgotten military dead of others, especially…so there’s that, and therein lies the heart of my dilemma.

    But I thank you for this post. It gives me much food for thought today.

  4. […] read more at Rock of Eye […]

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