A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
Living With the Ancestors in the Present
(This is a column I meant to post about eight days ago, when all the other great ancestor-related readings were being proliferated.. but I suppose this is my “fashionably late” addition to the season.)
A lot of my time as a spirit-worker and teacher involves helping people to come to a better relationship with their blessed dead – ancestors of both blood and “other-than-blood relation” – and in general addressing many of the issues that arise in the typical 21st century American “spiritual seeker” around such things. My own religious and spiritual work is deeply entrenched in “theism”, but I tend not to default to deity work with most people whom I am seeing as either clients or students. The reasons for this are various, but the main element is that in my tradition, one must prepare oneself before approaching the gods. Many of these preparations should have been undergone in our developing years – e.g. as children and teens going through a process of enculturation and initiation-based rites of passage – but as most of us in America did not grow up with the benefit of a traditional polytheistic or animist upbringing, we need to return to these basic principles as adults. This process, in my experience and observation, can involve years of developing foundational platforms of spiritual and personal/emotional essentials.
These foundational processes, most of which are a part of “traditional” (e.g. pre-modern) societies throughout the world from a very early age and are hardwired into the enculturation process, are basically absent from American (and Western-in-general) culture at present. In addition to the fact that the ancestors are our closest connection to the world of spirit in the first place, I have found that they are also the best place for the people I am doing work with to begin at, in working to restore the foundational qualities that were otherwise absent from their path of development. Working with the dead should be among the first and most vital parts of any system of spiritual living, not just in a ritual sense but also in a day-to-day sense as well.
However, there are a few common misconceptions that come up from that stance. The biggest is that because “the ancestors are the dead”, they are of “the past” and therefore to work with them is to work with something other than “the present”. While the past is an important factor in ancestor work (in understanding the history of your known or unknown ancestors, to better understand the lives that they lived and the experiences that they had or the hardships that they had to endure, champion, or succumb to), one of the most important parts of a functional and lived ancestor practice is found in the act of realizing our ancestors are beings, forces and agents who are present with us today.
Orion Foxwood, teacher of Appalachian Conjure, Faery Work and witchcraft, dropped the phrase “continuity of being” in an interview he gave on working with ancestors in a spiritual or magical practice. Since I don’t know the actual (probably Eastern?) origins of this particular turn of phrase, I attribute the words to him when I use them to explain ancestor practices. I think that it is a very, very important concept that I see a lot of people struggle with. The ancestors are not gone and are treated improperly (and even disrespectfully) when they are relegated to being mere scions of a time long gone. They are not alive – a living spirit is radically different than a dead spirit! – but they continue still, and are purposed and realized agents in our lives, in our worlds, and in our very selves. They have agendas, needs, and oh-so-many blessings to bestow upon us in the form of guidance, intervention, or aid in times of struggle. In honoring the ancestors, we are honoring them as they are in the present, with their histories as a part of what brought them to us as they are today.
This same concept of conceiving of our ancestors in the present tense and the present sense should be applied to their traditions – religious, spiritual, and societal – that we seek to in some way emulate, reconstruct, or draw wisdom from. We do a disservice to ourselves and our ancestors by conceiving of ancestral traditions as mere vestiges of a past long gone, and so long as we view our ancestrally-inspired or received religious structures as being born of “the past” rather than lived today in the present, we limit our religious engagements to the realm of reenactment or anachronistic pantomime.
The societies of the ancient world had structures, ideas, paradigms and experiential processes that are just not a part of our modern world anymore. As one of the major purposes of a religion is to establish and shape the societal norms and appropriate behavioral conduct based on certain metaphysical or spiritual concepts, to attempt to recreate ancient religion without acknowledging the social or moral structures that the religions existed to teach or uphold is to practice little more than esoteric live-action role-playing. In other words, to bring these ancient traditions into a properly realized state in the 21st Century, we must endeavor to actually live them by bringing them into the present. This is done by actually honoring the wisdoms, knowledge and power that these traditions hold, not just in some ancient context or for the purpose of giving ourselves a comfortable spiritual cloak to wear, but for the purpose of literally living our lives and building our world in better ways.
This concept of “ancient traditions as avenues for progressive modern development” is one that I see a lot of people get stuck on. There seems to be an idea that honoring the ancient ways is conservative and therefore not progressive, but I argue against this vehemently. The fact of the matter is that our ancestors – all of them! – lived on this world a lot longer than we have, and over the hundred-and-fifty-thousand-or-so-years of human social and spiritual evolution, they had to have done something right. How do I know this? Because we’re still alive, still growing, still figuring $#%! out and still developing new ways of being. But if the ones who came before us hadn’t held knowledge, wisdom, and power… we wouldn’t be.
I am not advocating for adopting and living every single thing our ancestors did, nor am I on the bandwagon of “if it is old it must be awesome!” Because the truth is, as many point our, many ancestral peoples raped, pillaged, enslaved, genocided or otherwise unlawfully and ferociously dehumanized other groups. (Then again, some of them – like Cyrus II of Persia – wrote declarations of human rights thousands of years before anyone else was doing so.) Obviously recreating systems of racial, sexual, or gender-based segregation or distribution of rights or social mobility is not progressive and not a good thing to pursue, and so I want to be clear that this is not what “living ancient tradition” looks like. (Proliferating mechanics of prejudicial hate is an affront to everyone who has ever lived, period.) However, the “bad stuff” of the past does not somehow invalidate all of the brilliant, disciplined, and inspired primal potency of the ancient ways of living.
There was a time before microwaves, automobiles, airplanes and GMO produce where people had to actually practice situational and environmental awareness. There was a time where “environmental awareness” would not have meant “how not to pollute our planet” but instead “how to pay attention to the physical world around you”. We need to do more of that. THAT is how you begin to live the traditions of your ancestors. Honor them not just in your temples and at your shrines and in your morning or evening prayers – although then too! – but also by pulling your nose out of your iPad or keeping your cell-phone pocketed for a time as you walk through the city or the woods or the park downtown and begin to remember how to pay attention to the world around you. Allow your ancestors to guide your senses to a place of returned awareness of not only the world, but of yourself as a child of lineaged descent, and of your place in the world – as they surely knew theirs! – and also, perhaps just as importantly, the world’s place in you.
We all come from somewhere, from some people or peoples. We all have ancestors, some great and some monstrous. And we all need only look out our windows or at the headlines to see that so much of our modern world is derailed and heading toward disaster. We are involved in global wars and in destroying our planet and in depriving certain groups of people from the rights that should be afforded to everyone, and we are all involved here in the West in a fractured education system and a broken medical healthcare system and a terribly dysfunctional political system. Our society is not just corrupt but actively corrupting, and its toxicity is in each and every one of us, in ways far more pervasive and dangerous than has ever been the case in human history before now. We have never needed the wisdom and guidance and connections of our ancestors more than we do today, which is why so many of us are turning to their ancient traditions to find peace, direction, community or even just a few moments of solace at the end of the day.
But I challenge you all to do more than that. Don’t just turn to them for momentary comfort. Don’t limit your engagement with the ancestors, or with the ancient traditions, to some disconnected reenactment or disconnected self-help session. Draw their wisdom into your life with very step, with every breath, with every act and deed and word that you spit into this world. Raise your children with honor, treat your friends and your enemies as beings of agency and dignity, engage with your physical natural world as if your very life depends upon its bounty and health – for it does! – and walk your streets, your paths, your hallways and cubicles with the lived and inspired awareness of your ancestors. By this I mean, be open in your awareness of the present state of your ancestors beside and around and within you, AND ALSO be open to the awareness that they can offer you of the world outside of you in your navigation and shaping of it.
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