If we want to honour our ancestors, who are they? As Dakota Earth Cloud Walker explains, our human ancestors are more than our blood lineage. They also include ancestors of land/place, past/present/future versions of you, and ancestors of traditions that are important to you such as leaders of religious movements or fields of study. Non-human ancestors are abundant too, from minerals that have been here millions of years which nourish our bodies and fuel our vehicles, to plants that feed us and animals that provide us with companionship. When participating in a sweat lodge ceremony, rocks that are heated and brought into the lodge are often referred to as grandfathers and grandmothers. This reverence is a reminder that our bodies are made up of atoms that came from these other beings’ forms and that we are all alive from an animistic Earth Ethos perspective.
A Druid blogger points out that feeling our non-human ancestral connection during this time of rapid climate change and extinction is a painful opportunity to witness loss and engage in mourning. We all know of painful events that took place on lands near our homes, and we know of ancestors who behaved in ways that don’t align with our values. I grew up on land from which the Cherokee were forcibly removed, on which African Americans worked as slaves, I have known Nazis and rapists in my blood line, and my lifestyle is reliant on resource-rich technologies that disconnect me from the Earth so that I buy most of my food from grocery stores and spend 40 hours a week in an ungrounded office. As a Wiccan blogger said, “If you show me a family that has no problems and no family history of pain, abuse, and all the people in it have been and are kindly saints – I will show you either a fool or a liar.” (Image from here.)
Given this messy reality, how do we practically honour our ancestors in their fullness and complexity?
First, we honour ourselves. An Earth Ethos perspective is to set boundaries but not to completely block energies from our lives, because what we avoid tends to grow bigger and bring in more destructive energy than if we try to turn that “shit” into fertiliser. Keep in mind that you wouldn’t be here if not for your ancestors. Second, “if you don’t have an ancestor altar, you become the altar.” I spent most of my life in a lot of danger and had multiple near-death experiences. My ancestry is full of trauma, and I wanted to create space to show I was in relationship with my ancestry, rather than things happening to my body and in my everyday life. When I began an ancestral altar practice, I created one human and one non-human (tree) altar outside. Over the first few months, two human ancestral altars were completely destroyed during thunderstorms. I was so grateful that the trauma and violence had left my body! The human ancestors settled down after many offerings and ceremonies to make amends for wrongs they’d done. (Photos: the destroyed human ancestral altars from years ago)
Today I have the human ancestral altar inside, a non-human altar outside, and leave regular offerings at both. Some ancestors I honour directly; for example, last night I burned a candle to honour ancestors who offer me spiritual support, and I left a small glass of beer with gratitude for my Germanic blood lineage. Today at my non-human altar (a fern tree in the garden) I buried some jewelry. I have been doing that for some years, as I have many Jewish ancestors who were jewelers and were quite greedy and ungrounded, so giving jewelry back to the Earth is one way I make amends and heal that ancestral trauma energy. Whether you have an ancestral altar or not, our ancestors receive the intentions of our offerings. Honouring someone through dedicating a work of art or a good deed, or planting a tree on clear-cut land can honour ancestors and heal ancestral trauma. If you are interested in creating an ancestral altar, you can access guidance here, and you are welcome to join me at a gift economy ancestral trauma healing workshop this Saturday.