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'Tis the Season: The Ancestors

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I’ve been thinking about the Ancestors a lot lately; it’s that time of year. In fact, they’ve even asserted themselves when I wasn’t seeking them, such as the day I experienced a vision of a Minoan priestess undertaking a rite of prophecy through the ancestral spirits. From the earliest times, the Minoans revered their ancestors. At the Autumn Equinox they held celebrations of the dearly departed, feasting and performing rituals in the shadows of the beehive-shaped tholos tombs where their ancestors’ remains were interred. Some of the tombs had pillar crypts beneath them, providing another place for offerings and communication with the dead.

My own experience with shamanic practice centering on the Ancestors and Minoan spirituality suggests a reason for the beehive shape of these tombs and the connection of the Ancestors with the Bee Goddess. Like many shamanic practitioners, I have experienced a particular sound when I connect with the ancestral spirits, a sort of multi-pitched buzzing that almost exactly reproduces the noise of a hive of swarming bees. And of course, honey being such a delicious prize in cultures that did not yet know how to refine sugar from beets or cane, I can totally relate to the idea of bees being sacred representatives of the Ancestors and, later on, the gods (or goddesses, to be precise). I keep a miniature beehive on my Minoan altar to remind me that the Ancestors were just as much a part of Minoan spirituality as the goddesses and gods.

Later on in the course of life on Crete, during what we think of as ‘classical’ Minoan civilization, the timing and location of ancestral rites changed. Some people still gathered at the tombs but the temples became a more popular focus year-round as well as at particular calendar points. The Ancestors received their reverence at the Winter Solstice rather than the Autumn Equinox, during large state rites rather than intimate family gatherings. Eventually the tombs lay deserted, forgotten. And eventually the Ancestors themselves faded from view, ignored and unnoticed in favor of the more impressive formal ceremonies of the end-stage Minoan society and then the Mycenean Greeks.

I suspect the same thing has happened time and time again as cultures around the world shift from smaller, more intimate social structures to larger city-states and other more complicated types of civilization. The Ancestors, the center of sacred activity for the family and clan, become the gods of the tribe and then of the state. Ultimately, the rulers of the state declare that the gods are their ancestors and no one else’s.

This ‘evolution’ of civilization draws us away from our spiritual roots in this sense, leaving a void where the Ancestors used to be. Whether we recognize its nature or not, I think this void affects us, creating a sense of emptiness that we may not know how to fill. Activities such as family reunions, genealogy research and looking over old family photos can only go so far to fill this void. And the Ancestors themselves suffer from this emptiness just as much as we do; there are wounds on both sides of the equation.

A short while ago on my personal blog I shared a rite for ancestral healing, a way to reconnect with the Ancestors and heal both them and ourselves. I’m sharing it here again because I think it’s important to make this connection, to fill this void. You don’t have to follow the Minoan path or any other particular tradition to enact this ritual. Everyone has ancestors, going back to the dawn of time. I hope you take this opportunity to create a relationship with your ancestors; may their blessings flow over you like honey from the comb.

Let’s begin by making some time and space for this activity. You can do it alone or with others but be sure you won’t be interrupted. Turn off phones, shut off TVs and computers, turn down the lights, have other adults attend any children who won’t be participating (yes, kids can get in touch with the Ancestors just as well as adults can).

Prepare a sacred space using your favorite method. Cast a circle if you desire but at least smudge or salt the area and consecrate it to the activity at hand. You can do this ritual entirely in your head as a meditation but it’s nice to have something physical to anchor your thoughts, so I recommend setting up a small Ancestor altar.

If you have old family photos, display them along with any mementos that help you feel connected to your forebears. I recommend that you only display photos of deceased family members; mixing pictures of the living among the dead can confuse the Ancestors and suggest to them that you would like those particular living family members to join them. No, I don’t think terrible things will necessarily happen if you include a photo of a still-living relative, but I like to err on the side of caution. Please take the Ancestors seriously; they are very real.

Once you have any photos and/or mementos gathered, light a candle or two. My ancestors enjoy food, drink and flowers, so I make small offerings to them before I begin this sort of working. If there are particular foods or drinks that evoke ‘family’ to you, include them. A token amount – just a taste – on a small plate is sufficient. (As an aside, it’s a lovely gesture at special times such as Thanksgiving, Yule, and celebrations like birthdays and weddings to set up an ancestor altar, if you don’t already have one going, and include the Ancestors in your celebratory meal.)

Now sit comfortably and focus on your altar or on mental images of relatives if you haven’t set up an altar. (But really, set up an altar!) Allow yourself to feel the connections between and among the people. Yes, there are lines like on a family tree, but at an even deeper level there is a spirit that envelops the entire family, binding them all into one enormous entity going far back in time. You might experience this spirit as a kind of fog or miasma, or as incredibly fine cobweb, or some other subtle substance that wraps the whole family into a single entity.

While still focusing on this enveloping spirit, allow your eyes to close and allow yourself to recognize that this ancestral spirit enfolds you as well. Relax into it; it is as much a part of you as the cells of your body. Feel the Spirit of the Ancestors wrap around you like a great cosmic hug. Remember, as Native American writer Linda Hogan says, you are the result of the love of thousands. Feel that love. Open your heart to it and revel in the connection. The Ancestors are always with you; your DNA sings their song.

Sit with this for a few minutes, allowing yourself to become familiar with the Spirit of the Ancestors.

Now introduce yourself to the Ancestors. Yes, they already know who you are, but announcing yourself is polite, just as if you were stepping through the front door of your grandmother’s house and calling out to let her know who’s there. Tell the Ancestors your name and why you are connecting with them today: to acknowledge their hardships, their wounds, and to help them heal. Allow your mind to open and pay attention to what they have to share with you.

Depending on your particular sensory style you may experience mental images or feelings or sounds…even scents and tastes. Don’t try to identify everything right away but just let it flow. The Ancestors have been largely ignored for a long time; they appreciate our attention and our willingness to communicate.

Once the ‘talk’ from the Ancestors slows down a bit, focus your mind on the concept of healing and ask the Ancestors what you can do to help them heal. Each family is different and each set of Ancestors has unique needs. Whatever comes to you, don’t try to analyze or judge it. Simply accept it as is.

For some, the simple acknowledgment of the difficulties our ancestors have been through is enough to initiate healing. Others may request acts we find odd or silly – taking six raspberries to a particular place and setting them on the ground in a certain spot was my first assignment from the Ancestors. We can’t truly understand what deep underlying effects simple physical actions may have. Trust your instincts and don’t allow yourself to be embarrassed. Often, healing comes about in unusual ways. But obviously, use your common sense and don't do anything dangerous, even if you think the request is coming from the Ancestors.

Once you feel you have received all the communication the Ancestors have for you at this time, you may politely bid them goodbye. But I need to issue a warning here: You haven’t just done a ritual; you’ve begun a relationship. Don’t revert back to the typical modern stance of ignoring the Ancestors. That’s the equivalent of spending an evening with someone and then never speaking to them again. Go ahead and plan, right now, for the next time you’ll connect with the Ancestors again. Set those family photos and mementos somewhere they can become a permanent altar.

Once you have completed the ritual, take a few minutes to sit quietly and notice any differences in the way you feel. Upon connecting with the Ancestors for the first time, many people feel as if they have filled up an empty space they didn’t even know existed before. It is in our nature to be connected with the Ancestors, to have a relationship with them, to live in their midst. When a society forgets this, we all suffer on many levels. Give thanks for the Ancestors and look forward to the next time you meet with them, and you will find healing you might not have expected.

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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