We hope you enjoy this audio recording--and transcription-- of a talk we hosted last week at Green-Wood Cemetery to celebrate the release of Mallorie Vaudoise's new book Honoring Your Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestral Veneration.
Mallorie is a spiritualist, folk Catholic, and witch of Italian descent based in New York City. She also runs a fabulous blog on Italian Folk Magic. She is an initiated Olorisha (Orisha priestess) and an apprentice in the ecstatic music and dance traditions of her ancestors. You can find out more at www.roadsideomens.com. Her book is a how to guide for developing personal ways of honoring your ancestors through altars and offerings.
Let us know what you think in the comments section!
After I started telling people I was writing a book about ancestor veneration, I learned something very humbling. Apparently, nobody knows what the word veneration means. So that seems like as good a place as any to start. What even is ancestor veneration?
“Veneration” is synonymous with “worship”. When we talk about ancestor veneration, we’re talking about the idea that, in addition to worshipping God or gods, someone might also worship the human beings who came before them. But to me, “veneration” doesn’t have the same baggage as the word worship. Worship has a popular connotation with the idea that whatever you’re worshipping is better than you. I didn’t want to use it, because I didn’t want anyone to assume that honoring your ancestors means putting them up on a pedestal. Our ancestors are human, after all. They were flawed in life and they’re still flawed now.
But what I really loved about the word “veneration” was its etymological roots, and of course, roots are very important when you’re writing about ancestors. The root of the word “veneration” is the Proto-Indo-European word *wenh1- meaning “to strive, desire, or love”. From this same root, we get the Latin word Venus, the name of the Roman goddess of love. We also get the English word “wish”. I find that these themes--striving, desiring, loving--are often present in ancestor veneration practices. We strive to make contact with our departed loved ones, usually in order to ask for their help achieving some desire for good health, abundance, and happiness.
Ancestor veneration is not limited to one culture, time, or place. It is so common throughout the world that we can’t trace a linear evolution of the practice through history. Ironically, much of what we learn about the ancient world comes to us through the remains of their own ancestor veneration practices as archeologists uncover them in burial sites. The Egyptian pyramids, for example, were actually elaborate tombs, and mummification was believed to enable the soul of the deceased to return to this world and receive offerings of the things they enjoyed while alive. Families that could not afford these extravagances would find more economical ways to honor their ancestors, like statues that stood in for the mummified body as a perch for the soul to rest on as it received offerings.
In ancient Rome, where my own ancestral line is from, the nine-day festival Parentalia in February was dedicated to ancestor veneration. Roman families would visit cemeteries and share cakes and wine with each other and give them as offerings to the deceased.
The image of ancient Roman families dining in cemeteries might call to mind the modern Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, in which families will build elaborate altars called ofrendas in cemeteries for their deceased relatives. The ofrenda will often include flowers, food, and beverages which are given as offerings to the ancestors.
Similar practices--building altars and giving physical offerings to the ancestors--are also extraordinarily common throughout Asian countries. The Hungry Ghost Festival is observed by Buddhists, Taoists, and practitioners of Chinese folk religion in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. During this holiday, devotees will often burn joss paper representations of material items such as clothes, gold, and other luxuries for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals are served to a table set with empty seats for each deceased member of the family as though they were still living. Related festivals with similar practices are also observed in Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
In many parts of the world, ancestors don’t just passively receive offerings. They play an active role in directing the living community towards personal and collective healing. In Gabon, initiates of a spiritual discipline known as Bwiti ingest the psychedelic root bark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant to achieve direct communion with their ancestors. This communion is believed to heal physical and mental illnesses, stabilize community and family structures, and promote spiritual growth.
In South Africa, traditional healers known as sangoma receive guidance from the ancestors for their patients through spirit possession, through mediumship, through throwing and interpreting the patterns made by bones, or through dream interpretation. The ancestral spirits contacted can be the personal ancestors of the sangoma or their patient. Or they might be general ancestors associated with the geographic area or the community.
At this point, I’m beginning to think that our own culture is the outlier for how little attention we pay our ancestors. But it wasn’t always this way. Between the 1840s to the 1920s, a movement known as spiritualism thrived in the United States and Europe. Like the South African sangomas, spiritualist mediums would contact ancestral spirits for guidance. The topics they would ask about tended to be moral, philosophical, and theological issues. And, to the credit of whichever spirits they were talking to, spiritualists were very politically progressive, pushing early on for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Spiritism, a branch of spiritualism developed by Allan Kardec, is still practiced in Continental Europe, Latin America, and the Carribbean.
Given the near universality of ancestor veneration, it’s been interesting to see the reaction to the book among people who grew up without these beliefs and practices. The concern that I hear most often is, “but I don’t like my ancestors”. What people usually mean when they say this is that they had difficult relationships with the deceased members of their family while they were alive.
I think this is where ancestor veneration can actually provide the most benefit to the people who are the most resistant to the idea. When someone who had a difficult relationship with a deceased family member finds a way to honor their ancestors that works for them personally, they take back control over their narrative. The difficult or abusive family member no longer stands between them and their history, which is so much bigger than any one individual.
Our ancestry stretches back in time for as long as there have been human beings. That’s about 200,000 to 400,000 years, according to the best scientific estimates. That’s thousands of generations of people. Of course some of them were assholes. But some of them were saints. Some of them lived well and died well, and can assist their descendants along the journey. I believe that when we reach backwards, these older, wiser generations reach forward, and the generations in between fall in line.
And beyond those 200,000 to 400,000 years of humanity, we are connected with our non-human kin as well. Biologists hypothesize that all life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago. Our ancestors connect us with the rest of the web of life, which includes all human beings, all other animals, plants, fungi, and others.
Blood is important, but ancestors are more than the direct bloodline. In addition to our blood relations, each one of us has a whole court of other guides who, for whatever reason, are able and willing to help us evolve as spiritual beings. Ancestor veneration provides a powerful reminder that you’re not alone to any people who feel disconnected from history due to a difficult or abusive family member.
One of the unique challenges that I faced in working on the book was how intimate and personal the topic is. Writing a book about how to honor your ancestors is a lot like writing a book about how to have a happy marriage or how to raise healthy kids. What works for me the author, won’t necessarily work for you the reader. So I can’t just say in the book, “follow these instructions to the letter and your ancestors will have been honored”.
Instead, I chose to focus on teaching people to ask the right questions. That’s why there are journal prompts at the end of every chapter. Because the material doesn’t mean anything until you apply it to the context of your own life. It’s one thing for you to hear me say, “Your ancestors are your bloodline and much more.” It’s another thing to sit down and write out the name of every person on your family tree that you know, and then the names of all your childhood caregivers, and any ancestors who adopted you through initiation into a spiritual lineage, and all the groups of ancestors or individual spirit guides that you have some connection with due to your career path, or where you live, or a personality trait that you have. Just writing out that list is a powerful magical act.
And in addition to teaching people to ask the right questions, I chose to give inspirational examples of ancestor veneration practices from around the world. I expect that in some cases, the reader might copy these exactly as they’re written. But I think that more often, people will read about someone else’s practice and it will spark something unique in them and they’ll follow that intuition.
The examples I included were drawn from different established spiritual traditions, primarily the ones that I have had the honor of witnessing firsthand, but also from my own personal experiences looking at 21st century American life through an animist lens.
One part of the book that I always get comments on is a short section on house spirits where I talk about the kitchen sink and stove. It’s easy to take these for granted because every American house has them, but water and fire are the two primordial elements. The fact that we have such easy access to water and fire would seem nothing short of miraculous to the vast majority of our ancestors. They spent so much of their lives focused on meeting those basic needs and we just have to twist a little piece of metal around for access to clean water that we can drink, that we can wash and cook with.
Cross-culturally, the hearth is often where important household religious activities would take place. It was the site of rituals related to birth, death, and solemn vows for the ancient Greeks. A modern stove will be recognized by ancestral spirits as a hearth so if it’s being disrespected, your ancestors may view that as disrespect towards the entire circle of life. But on the other hand, if you keep it clean of grease and clear of pots and pans, the stove can substitute for an ancestor altar. Light one of the burners and say a prayer. That particular practice isn’t traditional in that no living person ever taught me how to do it. But it is traditional in that it reflects a view of the world in which everything is alive and interconnected.
Ultimately, I wanted people to spend very little time reading the book and a lot of time trying things out. It is a short book for a reason. I don’t want the reader to spend hours reading it and thinking about it. I want them to pick it up, spend a few minutes reading a chapter, realize that what I’m saying is actually something they knew on some level all along, and then put the book down and go do something based on that information.
For people who are just starting, this usually looks like ritual. They build an altar to their ancestors, they pick who goes on that altar, they start sharing offerings here and there. The best case scenario is that the book gives them the license to do what they already knew they needed to do. Unlike other spiritual practices, ancestor veneration is something we do naturally. Our bodies already know how to do it. And unlike other spiritual practices, there’s very little that can go terribly wrong. You are not going to accidentally open a portal to hell if you give the wrong color of flowers to your great-grandma. So the book’s role for a beginner is to encourage them to follow their own intuition.
For people who read the book and already have a practice, the most important thing for them to take away from it is to learn how to listen to their ancestors. So for more advanced practitioners, the book’s role is more to teach them how to listen and how to separate the signal from the noise. Again, I don’t want them to spend a lot of time reading what I have to say. I want them to hear what their ancestors have to say. Like the Gabonese Bwiti practitioners, the South African sangomas, and spiritualists from Europe and the Americas,
I believe that ancestors can provide us with the guidance we need to live better lives and build stronger communities. And I do think it’s worth noting how all of the cross-cultural examples I just gave place an explicit emphasis on the health of the human community, as well as how it can exist in harmony with the earth and the spirit world.
And that’s the fundamental change that I long to see in our culture. I think a lot about how different our lives would be if we were able to tap into the collective wisdom of those who went before us before making major life decisions. And how different the world would be if we tapped into that wisdom before exercising our democratic right to vote or sitting on a jury to judge one of our peers.
The point in consulting our ancestors before making a decision or taking action is not to surrender our power, but to arm ourselves with more information. We don’t want to approach the conversation with the attitude of, “I just want someone else to tell me what to do, or think, or believe”. Instead, our goal should be to consult a perspective that is more expansive than our own. A perspective that zooms out beyond our immediate individual gain or loss and considers the impact of our decisions on the next generation, and the generation after that, and the generation after that. When we choose to honor our ancestors, what we’re really doing is preparing the world for our descendants.
I can’t stress this enough. We must all prepare the world for the descendants. As I said before, not all ancestors are the immediate bloodline. So even those of us who do not have biological children in this lifetime, will still have descendants. You’re not off the hook just because you don’t have kids. You’re still a link in this chain and we still need your help.
I see this book as a very small part of a much larger movement away from a purely materialist view of the world and towards an awareness of the world as being alive and enspirited. To give a few examples of where I see this movement heading:
Marie Kondo has sold over 11 million copies of her book
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
to people in 40 countries. Earlier this year, a TV series based on the book came out on Netflix and ignited a whole new wave of interest in her work. If you somehow managed to miss it, Kondo’s tidying method involves talking to material objects as though they are alive: she instructs her clients to greet their houses at the beginning of the process and thank any possessions that they choose to discard along the way.
While her approach is not tied to any specific religious practice, Kondo did grow up visiting Shinto shrines in her native Japan and even worked as a shrine maiden for five years. Shintoism teaches that kami, or spirit, is present in all people and things. (As an aside, it also includes ancestors as a category of kami who should be venerated.) Kondo’s tidying method brings this traditional idea into a secular context. And this is particularly powerful medicine for Americans, because we just have so much stuff. If grappling with the amount of stuff you own can become a way to reconnect with the sacred, we will see major shifts in American culture towards an awareness of how spirit is manifest in the material world.
Earlier this year in New York City, the paintings of Hilma af Klint were shown publicly for the first time in the Guggenheim Museum. Born in 1862, af Klint turned to spiritualism after the death of her sister. Working with a group of women called the Five, she committed herself to creating abstract paintings as directed by spirit guides in mediumship sessions. Many of these paintings are diagrams illustrating complex spiritual ideas.
To their credit, the Guggenheim did not shy away from describing the spiritual inspiration of af Klint’s paintings to over 600,000 people who came to see them. It was the best-attended exhibition in the Guggenheim’s history. The best-attended exhibition in the history of one of America’s most prestigious art museums included information about spiritualism and the details of how the artist was in contact with the spirit world as part of her creative process. When you think about who goes to museums in New York City--usually the people who are responsible for manufacturing and promoting culture--it becomes clear that the impact of af Klint’s work is only just beginning. Who knows what future art, music, television, and fashion will reflect some aspect of af Klint’s conversations with her ancestors or the visions that were transmitted to her by her guides.
This year, the cities of Denver, Colorado and Oakland, California both voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. These mushrooms have been used by the native peoples of Mesoamerica for religious communion, divination, and healing from pre-Columbian times to the present day. At the same time, other plant-based psychedelics with a long history of use in religious ritual among indigenous peoples, such as ayahuasca and iboga, are becoming household names in the US. Increased access to psychedelic substances may result in more spontaneous contact between the living and the spirit world, including the ancestors. And even after the trip is over, people who have experienced that type of visceral contact with the other side may be more motivated to seek new paradigms and practices for their daily lives.
I’m cautiously excited to see where the world is heading. But whatever this movement turns out to be, it will not have any staying power if we don’t have our roots planted firmly in the ground. Tidy homes and psychedelics will only drive lasting cultural change we are able to understand our place in history and respect our connection with the rest of the web of life. So I’m hoping that each one of you here tonight will do your part in honoring our ancestors.