Yesterday, my friend Erick DuPree posted a very thoughtful piece on embracing the secular Halloween and avoiding the ancestor reverence that is so important to many pagans and witches this time of year. In a very touching way, Erick discussed his troubled history with his father and his wish to separate himself from the misogyny and racism that permeates his family line. That same misogyny and racism is likely to pollute the family line of every person of European descent, including myself, so that is a decision I can fully understand.
Yet, I feel like there are still reasons to do ancestor work. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never been very good at ancestor work. I have an ancestor altar at which I pay my respects daily, but I don’t do nearly as much work contacting my family on the other side as many other witches do. I’m just processing my own thoughts as a person who (I think) shares a similar family history and was touched by Erick’s comments.
So why would I do ancestor work? I don’t have a negative connection to my ancestors, but at the same time I don’t know much about them. My knowledge extends only as far as the family members I have met. I never knew my great grandparents; I never even met my maternal grandfather. They were from Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. I’m a first generation Californian. I don’t even walk upon the same land they once did.
Healing past wounds
I tend to believe that once a person crossed the veil, they see that very little of the conflicts and stressors of life in the physical world matter. I don’t believe in a separation of “good” and “bad” souls after death. Rather, I believe that they all come together. My kinda sorta Presbyterian grandfather is in the same place as my other grandparents, who were Catholic, and they can all hang out with my wife’s Methodist grandparents. Across the veil, separation and conflict are no longer an issue.
Sounds great, but imagine how a soul is going to feel wandering the great beyond after a life of racism, misogyny, or hellfire and damnation condemnation of other religions. I think they’d feel pretty ashamed. Living with the eternal knowledge that you spent your time on earth hurting other people sounds pretty awful. It seems that one reason to work with ancestors would be to help them heal these shameful and painful wounds from their earthly lives.
Honoring those who provide good examples
There are ancestors beyond my blood relations. There are great authors I admire. There are people like Doreen Valiente and Margot Adler who helped bring Pagan traditions more and more into the light. These are people who gave witchcraft and other traditions breadth, meaning, and a wider acceptance. I wish to honor the spirit of those spiritual ancestors.
There are also non-pagans who fought for justice and equality. I think of peaceful warriors like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Rosa Parks deserves honor; Eleanor Roosevelt deserves honor. Great intellectuals who have influenced your worldview are good people to honor. For me, that would include the philosopher John Rawls and authors like John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Henry David Thoreau.
Some illnesses and behavior patterns are passed down genetically. Others are passed down through socialization. Alcoholism runs through family lines, although it probably has an observational learning component to it. You see your dad drink too much, and you grow up thinking that’s normal. It’s often the source of pain between ancestor and descendant. Domestic violence is similar. It’s not in the genes; it’s in the socialization. Exploring these issues in your past can be a good way to identify them and make healthy changes in your life.
Obviously, truly genetic risk factors like Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and some forms of cancer are impossible to remove from your DNA. But even they have behavioral components to them that can increase the risk. A change of diet or giving up habits like smoking can decrease your risk for some familial problems. This is more of an intellectual way of working with ancestors, learning about their behavior patterns and the illnesses they suffered from, but perhaps some communication with their spirits could help catalyze your own changes.
I’m really just thinking out loud here. I do some, but not all, of these things, and most of my life has been spent with a relative indifference to my ancestors. I celebrate both secular Halloween and spiritual Samhain. This year it looks like I’m celebrating both on the same night. Tonight I’m putting on a costume going to the entertainment district outside Disneyland, basically to drink and enjoy other people’s costumes. I love Halloween. It doesn’t all have to be healing, reverent, and somber.
Everyone has the right to their own path, and I greatly admire people like Erick who break molds and strike their own paths, especially when they inspire me to think about mine. Bring on the costumes and candy corn!