You can’t really say my family belongs to any one denomination of Christianity. Me, I was raised as a non-practicing United Methodist. Certain of my cousins, on the other hand, are Catholic and their Catholicism is obviously important to them. So I’ve found it both puzzling and charming that these devout Catholics are firm believers in the powers of the ancestors. Can’t remember where you put your glasses? “Did you ask Grandma?” Need a parking space? “Ask Grandma!” I’ve never heard any of them mention a saint’s name, much less Jesus or the Virgin Mary—Grandma handles our family’s problems just fine on her own.
I envy my cousins’ easy connection to our ancestors (one ancestor, anyway), as I’ve never felt it myself. This wasn’t an issue back in those non-practicing Methodist days, but as a Pagan, it comes up every fall (Samhain) at a minimum. I have never known how to honor these ancestors who are just names to me without feeling hypocritical. Even now, having had friends and close family die, I am still at a loss about how to do anything meaningful, or if I should be doing anything at all. What does it mean to honor your ancestors, anyway? Ancestor altars sound nice, but my track record for maintaining and using altars is iffy at best. Nor do I come from a culture where altars were in everyday use. I just can’t see my parents or grandmother being comfortable with an altar, which defeats the purpose of honoring them with one. I’m not sure if there even is life after death. If there isn’t, are ancestors anything more than just memories? And if you have no personal memories of them, what then?
Adding to my frustration, it seems that everyone that I’ve read on the topic has found a practice that works for them, be it an altar, a ritual, special prayers, or something else. (Of course, if they’re comfortable with their practice, they’re likely to feel confident enough to write about it. If there are other confused souls like myself, they may very well be keeping their doubts to themselves. Not that this nicely reasonable thought really reduces my insecurities!) And so I’ve added ancestors—the whole messy topic of them—to my ever-growing list of Pagan-themed insecurities, along with wondering why I never sense energy, don’t remember ever having a psychic impression of anything, and can’t seem to get the hang of keeping a Book of Shadows.
Last week, I started rereading The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman. I’m having the same reaction I had when I read it in 2007: I’m fascinated by his ideas if not necessarily his writing. But this time around, sentences are jumping out at me that I don’t remember noticing the first time around, such as this quote about ancestors:
‘Ancestry’ in our culture implies chromosomal connection; ancestors are those humans from whom I have inherited my body tissues. Biogenetics replaces the spirit world.
In other societies an ancestor could be a tree, a bear, a salmon, a member of the dead, a spirit in a dream, a special spooky place. These may be addressed as ‘Ancestor’ and an altar home built for them, away from the home you inhabit. Ancestors are not bound to human bodies and certainly not confined to physical antecedents whose descent into your sphere allowed only via your natural family. Only if a member of the natural family (itself not always determinable), say a grandparent or an uncle or an aunt, is worthy enough, powerful enough, knowledgeable enough, may he or she become an ancestor in the sense of a guardian spirit. To be an ancestor you do not need to be dead, but you do need to know the dead—that is, the invisible world and how and where it touches the living.
Is Hillman factually correct? I have no idea. But as we enter fall and the season of dying, and as Samhain begins to come up on calendars and in conversation, I find the idea of ancestors who aren’t just the people who came before you on your family tree to be a relief. On the one hand, a tree or a special spooky place are something my oh-so-sensible mind can appreciate; on the other hand, they’re not so determinedly non-Pagan that it would be inappropriate to honor them in a Pagan fashion. I don’t have to rush to a decision on if I believe in an afterlife or not. Hillman’s definition frees me to find ancestors who mean something to me, leaving my deceased relatives as family.