Ancestor Veneration

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathen basics, Heathen worldview, Heathen worship, Afterlife

One of my favorite Disney songs is Honor To Us All from Mulan, because of these lyrics (sang by Mulan):

Ancestors Hear my plea: Help me not to make a fool of me And to not uproot my family tree. Keep my father standing tall.

This reveals a little about Chinese folk religion. First the importance of family, not wanting to dishonor her family or her father. As an extension of this family honor, that the Chinese practiced ancestor veneration.

So why am I talking about Chinese folk religion on an Anglo-Saxon Heathenry blog? Many ancient cultures practiced ancestor veneration, the ancient heathens (pagans from ancient Germanic peoples) included.

In ancient times, your survival depended upon your family. Not just the nuclear family, but those in your community. Chances are, most (if not all) of these people would be extended family (cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents as well as your parents and siblings). A community’s survival depended upon everyone working together and doing their fair share. And this responsibility did not end with death. Archaeological evidence shows that the ancient heathens believed in a soul that had multiple parts. So while one part of the soul would go to Valhalla (if a warrior) or to hell (the Old English term, the Norse called it Hel or Helheim), another part of the soul would remain where the body rested (the mound), and another part would remain with the family, continuing to contribute in any way it could to ensure the family’s survival (I plan to do a future post about the heathen afterlife). Like many other cultures, offerings would be made to the ancestors as well as the gods and other spirits.

I see many heathen websites talk about ancestor veneration, but very few tell you how to do it. The truth is, it’s done the same way as worship of the gods or veneration of the home and land wights (spirits). But I’ll share with you how it generally works in my hearth cult (home worship).

First, let’s define what an ancestor is. In the context of ancestor veneration, an ancestor is any deceased family. In modern times, an ancestor isn’t necessarily just blood relatives. It’s can be any deceased person who has influenced you. The ancient heathens are spiritual ancestors to any modern day heathen, regardless of that person’s ancestry. I consider King Penda of Mercia (the last pagan King in the British Isles) to be an ancestor of mine, even though I have no idea if he’s actually related to me by blood or not.

Another ancestor of mine is my mother. She died 21 years ago. But I believe that when we die, a part of us becomes a sort of guardian angel effort their family (again, not necessarily just blood relatives). So I have no doubt she is still around, watching over me.

This last year, on her birthday, I went for a really informal offering to her. I grabbed a beer (she was a party animal, so she definitely loved her beer), went outside, and I just spoke to her from my heart. I wished her a happy birthday, told her that she was missed by everyone in the family, and they she had been the glue that held our family together (as we have really fractured as a family since she died). I thanked her for continuing to watch over us. I drank some of the beer, and poured the rest out onto the ground. Of course, most of my offerings are not this informal but it felt appropriate for the occasion.

What about for the thousands upon thousands of ancestors for whom we only have names (knowing nothing else about them), or those for whom we don’t even have names? I often address them collectively as “my ancestors”. This is always a part of a more formal ritual, which also includes the gods and other wights. The prayer usually goes something like this:

Hail my ancestors, those people for whom I would not be where I am today, those who keep diligent watch over my family. I thank you for the protection you provide, and everything that you have done for me. I offer you this [beer/incense/food/offering] in thanksgiving for all that you have done, all that you do, and all that you will do. A gift for a gift!

If you make frequent offerings to your ancestors (I encourage you too!) and you have the space in your home, you can create a special ancestral altar for them. This is by no means necessary, though. If you do, you can put on it pictures of ancestors that you feel close to, ethnic items from the nationalities from which your family originated, and/or items that remind you of certain ancestors. As long as you remain respectful towards them, there really isn’t a way to do it wrong.

Another way to honor your ancestors is to visit their graves, and leave offerings there.

So why would you want to include your ancestors in your practice? As I said earlier, I believe that our ancestors remain with us after death and become guardians of the family. Living descendants are the only representatives that they have among the living. They have a vested interest in seeing us succeed, as our success is their success. The gods may or may not care about the small details of our lives (there is much debate about this), but they are not omnipresent. They cannot be with every heathen all the time. Our ancestors, however, have a much smaller charge than the gods. Just their family as opposed to an entire religion. So if you call upon an ancestor for help, one of them is much more likely to be available to help than if you call upon say Thunor (Thor) who may have a hundred other people calling upon him at the same time.

I’m not saying here that the gods do not care, or that they do not aid their worshippers. But a god’s duties include much more than catering to their worshippers’s whims. They may not always be available when you call upon them. After all, you don’t run to Congress every time you have a need, if you have family who is able and willing to help!

There has been a recent trend in heathenry to downplay the ancestors. The reason is that the ‘folkish’/racialist (racist) factions of heathenry tend to over-emphasise ancestry, and inclusive heathens do not want to be lumped together with racist forms of heathenry. I even saw one heathen equate ancestor veneration with racism! Let me be clear: all are welcome to heathenry regardless of race. For those who are not of Germanic ancestry who are heathen, I even encourage you to include your ancestors in your heathen practice. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

It is my firm conviction that if you do not include your ancestors in your practice, you are missing out on a lot!

For some more information about how some other heathens incorporate their ancestors into their practice, see this post on Reddit that I started.