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Moving Forwards & Looking Back – Ancient Ancestral practices in the modern age
Traditional wisdom ranging from a bevy of global cultures—including Native American, Taoist, and West African groups—calls for honoring one’s ancestors to a specific generational threshold. I’ve most frequently heard talk of remembering to ‘seven generations,’ and trying to learn the names of one’s family up to that level. Doing the math, if you start with yourself as the first generation (1) and go back seven steps, at level seven there are 64 individuals, for a total of 127 names, lives, and personalities to remember. If you start at your parents (2), the top level has 128 people, and the total runs up to 254 persons of note. That’s only counting direct ancestors, one mother and one father for each person, with no account for brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, stepparents, adoptive family, etc. While it is certainly not impossible to remember a roster of names to that length—recitations of lineage are common in a number of cultures which rely on oral transmission of lore—it can be difficult for people in a literate society to manage. Moreover, for those of us who like to maintain ancestral altars, keeping physical representations of between 128 and 254 people on our altar spaces can be unwieldy.
So what are our options, if we recognize the importance of maintaining an ancestral presence in our lives? Today I want to look at some of the ways we can encompass our forebears without crowding out an entire room of the house with representative knick-knacks (if you do maintain such a room, kudos to you and I would love to visit, as that would be an intensely powerful space, I think!).
The most direct method for incorporating all of your ancestral names back to seven generations is to simply draw up a family tree. You could, of course, join a service like Ancestry.com, but that can be quite expensive. If you’re willing to make a long-term project out of developing a family tree, there are many good courses in genealogy available. Local libraries often host free-or-low-cost genealogy events, and if you cannot do that there are wonderful online options which charge a fraction of the price of major sites like Ancestry. Two great resources are the National Genealogical Society, which runs classes for $45-70, and FamilySearch, which offers a simplified online family tree-maker similar to Ancestry for free (a word of warning, if you join, you may get some evangelizing from the Mormon church, as that’s who provides the service). Having a graphic family tree in your ancestral space is a good way to show honor and remembrance to the departed, but you may only have room on a printed tree for a few generations. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could always decorate a wall of your altar room with a family tree of some kind, a la the Sirius Black house in the Harry Potter books. You could also maintain a genealogy album or family record book, which allows you to also record some stories and memories about the people in your past.
Genealogy makes a lot of sense in terms of developing an understanding of your direct lineage, but what if you’ve got gaps or have good reasons for disconnecting from your immediate forebears (due to abuse, abandonment, etc.)? We all come from somewhere, so sometimes we just have to widen our net a bit.
Several years ago, I read a book called The Seven Daughters of Eve. The author, Bryan Sykes, presents the medical science of genetic testing in the context of connecting back to a series of ancestors (the titular Seven Daughters) who represent a cross-section of ancient tribes and cultures. The connections experienced by those who underwent testing revealed a lot about the history of humanity, including migration patterns and intermarriage practices, but at a personal level the genetic examination of mitochondrial DNA (derived from the mother) told those who went through it something about themselves. They learned that they were part of a tribe, and that their very blueprint of life bore the earmarks of that tribe.
We often grow up hearing that we’re from a Scots-Irish or Jewish or Chinese background, and I think it’s highly relevant to try to connect to our ancestral culture as it’s passed down to us by our elders, of course. Genetic lineage, however, provides a very interesting way to understand our family tree in a more narrative way. We can see where our gene pool started around a particular point in time, and follow it in a piecemeal pattern as it moves forward into the present day. Considering that genealogical records seldom can take you back more than a few centuries, genetic testing can help complete the picture or can provide a wholly new sense of personal identity.
Testing tends to be somewhat costly, usually ranging from $100 to $400, but the results feed not only your own understanding of your genetic lineage but also enhance the anthropological and forensic understanding of tribal dispersal throughout history. It’s sort of like being part of a massive experiment, a map-making game, and a cultural fact-finding expedition all at the same time.
Once you know your “tribal” lineage, you might find new practices and methods for participating in your spirituality that jive with your ancient heritage. You may find that you are not solely descended from Eastern European stock, but that you perhaps have some Jewish heritage as well. Or you may find that you are one of the many descendants of Genghis Khan, and want to see what twelfth and thirteenth-century Mongolian religion was like.
Of course, you don’t have to look to your direct parentage to develop an ancestral practice at all.
If you are looking to develop a sense of ancestry which doesn’t simply focus on your immediate family or your far-flung predecessors, you could always opt to decide who you consider an ancestor. Now, I would not in any way suggest that picking ancestors willy-nilly replaces a deeply felt bloodline or adoption lineage in an ancestral practice—especially in the context of extant tribal practices such as those found in African Diasporic traditions—but you can certainly augment your ancestor altar with those who have provided guidance and wisdom to you whether they share a drop of your blood or not.
Teachers, icons, heroes, and looming figures from your own culture can be perfectly effective ancestors to work with. For instance, if you’re an American with a strong tie to that particular cultural identity, there’s no reason not to consider George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin your ancestors in a way. Honoring them and working with their spirits might provide some tremendously good insight and experience. You can also look to a group of people who share your interests and who have made a strong name for themselves within that field. For example, if you’re involved in physics, you might consider putting pictures of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Feynman on your altar (although I can certainly see some folks getting quite wide-eyed wondering why you are burning a candle to Niels Bohr). I actually keep an altar setting to ancestors who form the background of my magical practices, including folks like Tituba, Doctor Buzzard, and Sheriff James McTeer. I also maintain some space for folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston, who acts as my ancestor in two fields of interest: magic and folklore.
I would also say that it can be incredibly tempting to create a “pile” of ancestors when selecting from outside a family lineage. I’ve heard a time or two someone invoking “all of the witches of ages past” or “my sorcerous sisters.” As a part of a general invocation I can see the sense of that, but I do feel that naming at least a few of those departed ancestors is crucial to forming a real connection. After all, we respond to our names more readily than almost any other word (a slick trick some salespeople use involves repeating your name during the conversation so you decide to trust them/think of them as a friend, and thus you are more willing to give them your money). So while you very well might call out to your spellcasting brethren in the ether, finding a few names will probably pack a bit more punch. Plus, you have the added bonus of knowing more about someone else who does something like you, and thus you have an opportunity to learn as well. A win on all fronts, I’d say!
There are dozens of creative ways we can open up our understanding of ancestry and work with the departed, and I’ve only scratched the surface of these three suggestions. The resurgence within Paganism of practices centered around ancestral work means that the opportunities to incorporate our forebears will be growing more and more. What sorts of work do you do, and what creative methods of incorporating ancestors have you found? I’d love to hear!
Wishing all the best to you and your kin, here and departed,
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