As one of my new favorite witches Byron Ballard reminded a workshop recently: If you think that only pagans and eastern religions venerate their ancestors, perhaps you’re not paying attention to the latest craze for genealogy.
Y’all are swabbing your DNA and sending it to corporations so that you can find out you’re 2% Native American and 12% Scots-Irish and then have a big reveal party, and you’re spending hours and hours on websites you’re paying to subscribe to looking for records of that great-great-great grandfather who was a cattle rustler, but when I put chamomile tea on my ancestor altar in my favorite grandma’s favorite teacup tonight in remembrance of her somehow I’m the weird one?
Most people who have a passing understanding of Samhain know it as the time when pagans believe the veil between this world and the next is very thin, and the dead at this time of year like to come around and visit with us, deliver messages.
Why do we as humans care so very much about our lineage, about our dead?
In an age where we have a President who is empowering a movement that wants to “end birthright citizenship” and believes that having “white” ancestors somehow makes you superior to everyone else, this is a far more loaded question than anyone ever expected. Pagans get the added concern that some who count themselves among us ardently believe that only those who are of a certain heritage may worship certain gods, and use their practice as a means to promote hate.* Ancestors these days are the object of obsession in both positive and very negative ways.
We care because we know that time is short. We know that death comes for us all, and it comes too soon. We care because to remember and be remembered is a way of extending life and giving meaning to life. In short, we remember our dead because we want to be remembered when we are dead.
That’s one reason, anyway. But there are others. Another big one is that knowing who our ancestors are helps to tell us who we are. Even before Wilhelm Roux first posited that chromosomes carried inherited traits at the cellular level in 1883, we knew that we carried “the blood of our ancestors” in our veins. We knew a child could have their father’s eyes, their mother’s proclivity for music, a grandfather’s hypersensitive sense of smell, the likelihood of contracting a certain disease that a great aunt may have had. We have always known as humans that we are the culmination of the compilation of many generations’ worth of building blocks of traits and features. And we are curious to understand what parts of our family tree we’re perching on.
The dead can be inspiring, the source of support for those inclinations that are a little bit outside the norm, and that make you wonder and feel you might be special. Nearly every witch I know claims an ancestor who was “crafty” in her ways, and who he or she probably “takes after.” And if you have a famous person in your ancestry, someone who did something singular and epic, you puff your chest out a little further and proclaim that you are from their line.
The dead can also be problematic. Nearly all of us have relatives who have done things of which we are not sure we can be proud. The great uncle who was banished from his homeland. The great great grandparent that was a thief or who murdered someone. But sometimes it’s as ordinary as a parent who was abusive. These sorts of ancestors are the dark gods whose names are spoken with hushed voices. At the very least, we avoid their rememberance in polite company.
Often we don’t know quite what to do with them and certainly don’t know what to do with how they make us feel. They too are to be honored, however awkwardly. Their legacy, often blooded and foolish and filled with pain, is ours too to claim if we want to embrace the whole of our humanity. Because being human is as messy, bloody, foolish, and painful a business as it is a joyful, loving, beautiful, and lucky one.
The point of revering ancestors isn’t to hold them up as perfect paragons of who we’re supposed to be, or to use them as a gateway drug to finer feelings of nostalgia for times and places that were nowhere near as good as we’d like to think they were. The point of ancestors is actually to humble us to understand that so long as we live in human shape, and experience time in a linear form, we will always be losing things to the past, and we can and should respect that part of our experience. In addition, we must also understand that any temptation to puff ourselves up with the belief that we are better and brighter and smarter and more advanced than those that came before must be tempered with the acknowledgement that when the next generation arrives, we won’t be anymore. We will be someone’s ancestor, someone’s past to remember, fondly or fearfully.
But most importantly, the past is a teacher to the future, and like all teachers we encounter on our journey, we should maintain a stance of respect and desire to learn that which is instructive and helpful, while sorting out the things that are not. Blind faith in the wisdom of the past is a recipe for stagnation, and rejection of it entirely is to drift rudderless through time. The veil at Samhain-tide may be thin, and at times may even seem to disappear entirely. But we are the living, and living in the land of the dead is not a sustainable thing. The point of journeying beyond the veil is that we must, eventually, return, bringing what we’ve learned with us, holding on to the good, and leaving the bad behind.
Blessed Samhain, y’all.
*Allow me to say this clearly and without qualification for the record (And it angers me that I even have to, but these are the times we live in.): I stand for inclusive pagan practice in every way possible. If you are of the belief that some races, some genders, or orientations, or abled bodies, render one human superior to or entitled to more than another human, you are not welcome at my hearth. I owe no frith or comfort to bigots and endeavor to give none.