If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.
Ancestors are anyone that have gone before you from your lineage – your grandparents, grandaunts, granduncles and then those that can be tracked before – upto seven generations before you. There existence was in someway connected to your physical existence on this planet. Although they are no longer in body, their energy and spirit is still present. Remembering ancestors and offering veneration, reverence and gratitude to them has been part of almost all the indigenous earth-based traditions of the world.
New Moon was usually associated with the ancestors, and Ancestor reverence is practiced throughout the year through ancestor shrine or altars. In Kerala in the earlier Earthen tradition, most communities had ancestral shrines on their land where lamp was lit every dawn and dusk, and some ritual performed on new moon. I have learned that In Bali, every home still has an ancestral altar that is attended to and offered to everyday. Japanese also have the tradition. My dear friend, Irene in Northern American has an ancestral shrine in her own where she has pictures of her ancestors, quotes, and offers cooked rice as an offering.
Why do we need to honor the Ancestor?
In our modern fast-paced scientifically disconnected illusory “independent” “alone” way of life (sorry for the bluntness), these rituals may seem silly, insignificant or unnecessary. Many of us stumble on it or are forced to move towards it as we grow older and the realization dawns that money, fame, power, achievement are momentary pockets of joy in one’s life and there is something beyond one’s mind, intellect, egos ability, and that is what is the source of one’s joy and the guiding force of life. It is as much in me as it is within everybody, and everything around me. There is nothing non-living in space. Ritual creates an intentional space for honoring ‘that’ which is beyond any honor or reverence yet is the intelligence that permeates everything.
One such aspect of that are ancestors and ancestor honoring, remembering, revering because the many bodies, minds and spirits of ancestors that have gone before have a direct connection to our being here, and how we are here. Many sufferings (through the various patterns, habits, events, circumstances, karma exchanges ) have come to us through the bodies and lives of our ancestors. We definitely need their blessings in breaking free of the cycle of this suffering. The same is also true of the awakenings experienced by our ancestors. I am strongly of the opinion that we inherit the merits and demerits of our ancestors, and begin our journey from the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual platform that they have built for us. Our own life, and living has the power to build on, enhance or diminish or elevate or bring down this platform for those who have gone before us and those who might come ahead of us. When that knowing dawns ancestor reverence becomes significant part of one’s life.
When do I do Ancestor Reverence?
I am drawn to the pagan women-centered feminine earth calendar where this time between 27-31 of October is seen as a time to make a personal altar for ancestors, make offerings and gratitude and remembrance and any guidance to break free of our patterns, habits, etc thathave passed down generations to you – that are no longer serving you.
It is called Samhain – in the WIcca tradition. It is also, that time of the year when winter increases and so also, coldness, dryness of winter. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. I strongly believe that these women-centered traditions existed across the earth practiced by all the people of the earth. Slowly as patriarchal tradition and cultures grew stronger, many overlays were developed on it and today they are associated with elaborate religious ceremonies in the hands of few. I am tuning into these traditions as my own practice as they are rooted in the feminine and all-inclusive. I encourage women to engage in them as it is very tuned in with their own body’s rhythm.
My First Ancestral ALtar and Ritual
I made my first ancestor altar in 2011 as part of one of the courses in my Women’s Spirituality program. I also learned a simple divination technique using cowrie shell to communicate. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life of transformation. I was beginning the journey of navigating my matrilineal ancestry, and I knew that with both my paternal and maternal grandparents having left their bodies, I definitely needed guidance from them to not just know about my matriliny but also heal any wounding in and from my ancestry. The first time I made an ancestor altar, made offering – I had a profound dream with my maternal grandmother about a wounding that I had held in my heart towards her. Her words in my dream completely healed and took away that wound. When I woke up in the morning, the title of my thesis – Rising Daughter, Silent Mother, Fading grandmothers – echoed in my head. it just came out of nowhere like the Big Bang. 🙂 That is just one of the many stories that I have around ancestor reverence and ever since, I have always made an altar for my ancestors and offered my gratitude for their presence in my life. Now I will share with you a simple way of engaging in this ritual.
Know that ancestors are wiser than their lived bodied selves i.e when they were alive in their bodies. As ancestors they are able to see their shadow, vices, patterns better, and definitely want their future generations to be free of that because as we become free, they experience the merits of our freedom. Also, if you have an ancestor who was an expert in a field that you are drawn to or are presently in, then acknowledging that ancestor and offering gratitude to their presence in your life also yields their blessings. It is amazing how that knowledge will open to you in a way that you would not have accessed it.
Personally, I feel that the more content we are, the more powerful the blessing is from our ancestors. Our contentment is also our protection. In my own ancestor rituals, I do not seek anything material or worldly from my ancestors. I remember and acknowledge them through the ritual, and offer my gratitude to them. Yes, I do seek their blessings in my own journey of awakening, in learning my life lessons, and walking the path of truth and my inner calling. The intention behind our ritual act is very important.
How to Create a Ancestral Altar?
- Pick a space in or outside your home that is a sacred (meaning it is clean and can be kept clean, clutter-free, and sees less traffic), raised (is above the ground like over a table or cupboard or on a rock), and is accessible easily.
- Avoid bedrooms, close proximity to the bathrooms, shoe area, garbage bins, etc.
- The ritual altar could be on the earth and outside. In fact, many cultures have ancestor shrines outside their homes including my own ancestry, the bali people and many more. I usually use a small table or shelf or on top of a cupboard.
- Cover the area with a clean piece of white cotton cloth (if inside). Then you can place other decorate silk or rayon on top but let the bottommost layer be cotton as it has the best flow of energy. Pure Silk is also fine.
- Now is the time to make a list of your Ancestors beginning with your known maternal and paternal Ancestors, and then you can write the names of all ancestors that you know of seven generations in the past. Once you have identified or written all the known names, you may also write, “all my maternal Ancestors seven generations back that can be supportive and helpful at my shrine and in my life.” Do the same for your paternal lineage. You only need to include ancestors that you are comfortable with. You should list the ancestors of your parents even if they are not biological the same as above, as they have brought you into their lineage. I have a similar situation on my mother’s side where she was brought into a lineage from another one as they didnt have daughters. I need to honor both.
- I also, learned about Affinity Ancestors. Affinity Ancestors are people who are passed into the other realm that are not related to you by blood but have been important to you. These could also be people who have influenced you even if you have never met them.
- Decide and Collect pictures of your ancestors that you want to place on the altar. You can even include any objects or items that belonged to them and have come to you. Be careful to not include pictures that include images of people who are still alive.
- Ritually purify the altar space before you place anything on it. I sprinkle water, burn sage or tulasi or franckenscence and smoke the area. You may also play a chant there.
- Place the pictures of your ancestor as well as any objects that belonged to them on the altar.
- Place a lamp or candle on the altar, incense, fresh flowers (optional), bowl of water, and offerings for your ancestor.
- The ancestor offerings could vary according to your own lived tradition. In India plain cooked white rice, sesame seeds, etc is seen as an offering for ancestors. You can also prepare and offer food items that were liked by your ancestor.
- Consulting your inner guide is the best way to go. Keeping it simple is the key.
The Honoring or Remembering Ritual
Again Keeping it simple and from the heart is the key here.
- Light the lamp, incense.
- Sprinkle the water on the offering. Water has purifying powers.
- Sound the rattle or bell to clear the space.
- Utter an Invocation. I usually say something like
I, ____________ (name), daugher of ____________ (name of your parents), granddaughter of _____________ (grandparents names) and great granddaugher of _____________ (if you know the names or u can say all of you), remember your presence in my life, and acknowledge your life that has gone before me. Please humbly accept my offerings to you. Please guide me to heal those parts of myself that have been passed down through our various generations. Please bless that I may continue on the path of awakening, learn the lessons of my life, break free of my patterns, cast light over my shadow and stand tall in my purpose on this planet.
- Following the invocation you sit or meditate in that space with your eyes closed for sometime.
- (optional) You may share a learning or knowing that has come to you through each one of the ancestors you have placed on the altar. Important to acknowledge all the ancestors on the altar. If there is a specific habit or pattern that you are stuck in and it is associated with an ancestor, you may directly speak of it to them and seek their blessings in becoming free of it or breaking it. If there are obstacles that you are dealing with in your life, seek the blessing of the ancestral wisdom to help you navigate the obstacle with inner strength, and bring some clarity around it.
- You can do the ancestor ritual alone or together with family members or even with your sisterhood. Usually people prepare a feast of their ancestors favorite – offer it on the altar and then family members eat together remembering the ancestors and sharing stories about them. it is a great way for children and grandchildren to know about the ancestors and learn from their lives.
- You may sing songs, read from a sacred text. Again, tune into your inner muse to guide you.
- Complete the ritual by offering gratitude – calling out the names of the ancestors individually and thanking them for being in your life and sharing this moment of space with you. Seek their continued guidance and promise to remember them and to grow on the path of truth and awakening. Bid goodbye.
- You may take down the altar.
Best time to do the Invocation
Dawn and Dusk is a good time to do ancestor reverence. You may continue the lamp through the night and then take down the altar in the morning of the subsequent day or you may continue the altar for few days. It depends on your intention and intuition. The more awakened and tuned you are into your feminine side, the more these rituals become naturally guided, embodied and synchronized with rhythms of the earth.
Please feel free to email pictures and experiences of making your ancestral altar to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will share them on The She Stands Tall Project facebook page.
this article is copyrighted (c) property of The She Stands Tall Project whose mission is to educate, empower and engage women and girls to embody the feminine power (or Shakti) in their daily lives. As women awaken to their inner wisdom, the world will awaken as well.