Pagan Paths

A blog by an eclectic, UPG-focused polytheist, with thoughts on "DIY religion" - building your own unique tradition for yourself.

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My Practice: Honoring the Dead

b2ap3_thumbnail_candles.JPGIn the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly in New England where I live, the leaves are starting to turn, the temperature is cooling off... soon enough the leaves will be falling off the trees, frost will cover the ground, and it will continue to get colder.  But right now, where I live, it's still warm for this time of year and there's some green on the trees still.  The dark half of the year is here, but it's more like "twilight" than full-on darkness.  Still... time to start lighting candles, asking the Powers to guide the way into the dark night.

When Samhain/Halloween approaches, many Pagans remember the dead, and the Pagan blogosphere will often get into the topic of ancestor veneration.  A couple of years ago, I was not in the habit of this practise because I have abusive family members, and the abuse was generational, and I felt highly uncomfortable reaching out to these people's spirits; I also believed there was no point in reaching out to people who have probably since reincarnated.  But my views on this have changed considerably over the last two years, and today, I not only honor the dead - and my ancestral dead among them - but I also believe that honoring the dead is an important part of my practise.

Let me make the disclaimer here that I am in no way saying that honoring the dead, or ancestor veneration, is mandatory. I believe that what a person does in their own private practise has to be up to their own individual dictates of conscience.  I do not believe it is good to shame someone who would find ancestor veneration to be triggering, into "doing it anyway".  So PLEASE do not take anything I am saying here as pressure, demands, or a prescription for everybody.

That said, in my own personal perspective on Paganism, it isn't just about the gods, but it's also about the spirits of the land in this world, and the dead. In a path that honors the Powers of the Land, it also makes sense to honor those who lived on the land.  The Alfar are thought by some to be ancestors, and some think the Alfar are elves... I think it's possible to be both.  Just like some of the dead go to Valhalla, and some go to Helheim, some of the dead may go to Vanaheim, Ljossalfheim, etc, especially those who had ties to the spirits therein.

But even more importantly, I would not be here if it were not for my ancestors, good or bad.  They gave me life.  The foundation for the world we have now, was laid by those who went before us.  Expressing gratitude and showing honor to the dead gives energy to the realms of the dead (such as Helheim) and those who dwell within; even if someone you are venerating has re-entered the wheel of incarnation, that energy still goes to "feed the dead" and strengthen the bonds between the dead and the living, where they watch over us, and their hopes and dreams and goals continue to be realized with us... a part of them remains with us.  By remembering someone's name and their legacy, by remembering someone's memory, we not only show respect to them, but we also give honor to the interconnectedness of worlds, of people, of the way a life makes an impact on other lives... the bonds of obligation we have to remember where we came from and "pay forward" the help we are given, which helps to keep us in right relationship with the Powers and the world around us.  Honoring the dead and remembering history and giving gratitude for my life and the labor that has gone to making the world I live in, also helps me to better honor the gods and other spirits, because I am more mindful of all of the intersecting bonds and relationships.

In terms of my own blood ancestors, I cannot paint everybody with a broad brush.  Just because some of my ancestors might have done bad things, does not mean that all of my ancestors were bad people.  It can be healing to connect with an ancestor you've never met but who has been watching over you and has hurt for the hurts you've experienced, and can be the family that you need.

If you are completely uncomfortable with honoring any blood ancestors but you would like to venerate the dead somehow, there is also the concept of spiritual ancestors - honoring the memories of people you admire.  I have quite a few spiritual ancestors - activists, artists, writers - who I remember and drink toasts to at Samhain and other times of the year.

On that note, ancestor veneration does not have to be limited to Samhain but can be done year-round. Building a simple altar to honor the dead can be a powerful act.  If you honor a deceased relative that you knew in life, or know things about, you might put mementos of them (if you have any) on the altar, or things you know they probably would have liked, like a pretty piece of china for a great-grandmother.  An ancestral practise doesn't have to be complicated - you can light a candle and take a moment to remember the person, or make an offering like a libation of something they might have enjoyed.  The act of giving physical offerings to spirits (regardless of the type of spirit) is a way of giving them energy, and sometimes a spirit may be able to receive the "astral version" of the offering where they can "taste" it in their non-corporeal body, etc.  At Samhain, many Pagans offer a "dumb supper" where a portion of their meal is given to the dead; this is a way of showing hospitality like you would to a living family member or friend.

I think honoring the dead is a beautiful thing - it reminds us that death is but a passage from one plane of existence to another, and that those we love who pass on can still remain with us in spirit, even visiting and communicating with us (if you believe such things are possible, as I do).  It is a way to connect the present to the past, which can help us in preparing a better future for those who will regard us as ancestors, someday.

Have a blessed Samhain this year, everybody.

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Sebastian Lokason (formerly known as Nornoriel) is an artisan, author, and diviner; he has been a pagan and occultist for over twenty years. He is in his mid-thirties and lives with his spirit-husband and their cat in New Haven, Connecticut. His official website can be found at with a list of forthcoming projects, events he’ll be attending, and so forth. His personal blog can be found at


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