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Ancestors of the Spirit

By Judy Harrow

(Used with permission)


Try this experiment: do two web searches, one on "ancestor worship" and the other on "necromancy." The results for ancestor worship will be mixed -- strict monotheists disapprove, ethnographers simply describe, indigenous faithkeepers advocate the practice. But the results for necromancy will be irrationally fearful and bitterly hostile, even when it comes from those faith groups who venerate saints.

There's really not much difference between ancestor worship, veneration of saints, and necromancy. But "necromancy" has become a loaded term, strongly implying that either the practice itself, or the particular ghosts that are being called on, are gross and evil. (Just notice the difference in feeling tone between "ancestral spirit" and "ghost"!) So, our community honors our blessed ancestors; those people summon up the evil spirits of the unquiet dead. In fact, I do revere the spirit of Charles Seymour (an early twentieth century advocate for the restoration of Goddess worship). But "Saint" Dominic, that cruel instigator of the bloody Albigensian Crusade and inspirer of the Inquisition -- feh!!

None of us choose our genetic ancestors, or our genetic endowments and deficiencies. But we all get to choose our ancestors of the spirit, and of the mind. These are the people, whether genetically related or not, that we would like to emulate in our own lives. To understand this, let's take a moment to honor all the non-relatives who nurtured our child-selves: the schoolteachers, scout leaders, kindly neighbors, and parents of our friends. Just as they gave us some things our own parents could not, so we receive from historical figures some things we cannot derive from the dead of our own families.

Intellectual and spiritual legacies are gifts we can claim or decline (or simply neglect). This is true for everybody, but it's more obvious with Pagans. The vast majority of us were born and raised in other religions, and came to Paganism by conscious choice. Only a very few are here through inertia and habit. First-generation intentional communities have a special vibrancy. However, choice always brings responsibility for the choices we make, and for their outcomes.

Lineage and Tradition

We have formed new kindreds and created our own family trees of choice, grafting branches to rootstocks in a complex and patient process. Our teachers had teachers. Our chosen ancestors of the mind and spirit also had teachers, mentors, and role models of their own. They took what they received, developed it further, and passed it to us. We will pass it to those we train. My teachers' teachers, my students' students, and I comprise a lineage. What we hold in common, our way of doing things, can be called a tradition. But living tradition is a co-creation, a continuous process, not a static object.

James Fowler, a liberal Christian theologian whose book Stages of Faith presents a model of faith development that is useful for any religion, brings us the very important concept of cumulative tradition, which he derived from the writing of one of his own teachers, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Fowler writes:

Speaking of religions as 'cumulative traditions,' he [Smith] suggests that we see a cumulative tradition as the various expressions of the faith of people in the past. A cumulative tradition may be constituted by texts of scripture or law, including narratives, myths, prophecies, accounts of revelations, and so forth; it may include visual and other kinds of symbols, oral traditions, music, dance, ethical teachings, theologies, creeds, rites, liturgies, architecture and a host of other elements. Like a dynamic gallery of art, a living cumulative tradition in its many forms addresses contemporary people and becomes what Smith calls 'the mundane cause' that awakens present faith.

Faith, at once deeper and more personal than religion, is the person's or group's way of responding to transcendent value and power as perceived and grasped through the forms of the cumulative tradition. Faith and religion, in this view, are reciprocal. Each is dynamic; each grows or is renewed through its interaction with the other.

The cumulative tradition is selectively renewed as its contents prove capable of evoking and shaping the faith of new generations. Faith is awakened and nurtured by elements from the tradition. As these elements come to be expressive of the faith of new adherents, the tradition is extended and modified, thus gaining fresh vitality. (Stages of Faith, pp. 9-10.)

Words like cumulative, dynamic and reciprocal are very important. What Fowler is describing is a healthy interaction, a co-creation. At first, the tradition informs, nurtures and guides us as we develop our conscious contact with the Ancient Gods. As the flow of inspiration is opened, we in our turn extend, refine and modify the tradition, adapting it to the ever-changing circumstances of our lives, keeping it alive and thriving. This process is pretty obvious in Paganism, newly awakened from a long dormancy, having to adapt to enormous material and cultural changes all at once. It happened much more gradually in religions whose development was not interrupted, but just try comparing their understandings and practices of 500 or 1,000 years ago with those of today.

The Mighty Dead

What does the phrase mighty dead mean to you? I wasn't really given any definition by my own elders, so I worked out my own. Yours may be different.

To me, mighty dead means something very similar to what my Catholic friends refer to as saints. A Buddhist might call them bodhisattvas. Secular anthropologists describe them as culture heroes. They are people who lived before us and whose stories we find instructive or inspirational. These dead people continue to guide us, at least by example and perhaps also by inner communication. These beings are both human and Otherworldly -- mediators, translators, potential guides for our own explorations of the Otherworld. Our mighty dead show us how to come closer to the Ancient Gods, and how to live well, applying ancient wisdom to our daily lives.

Catholics pray to saints whenever they please, but also dedicate a festival to their honor, called All Saints Day. By no coincidence at all, that is the same day as the Pagan feast of Samhain. We welcome our mighty dead at Samhain, but I know of no Pagan rule against honoring or even invoking them at any other time. Ancestor worship, and necromancy, are also normal parts of most indigenous, tribal, unbroken Pagan traditions, world wide. It's not surprising that we are discovering the need to include them in our own reconstruction of the Pagan lifeways of European culture.

One important difference is that the Catholic Church has a fairly elaborate institutional procedure for determining just who is a saint. So the saints are a group of spiritual ancestors approved by the elders and shared by the entire community. Pagans need to make individual choices, to address those historical figures whom we find worthy. (Sometimes small groups, such as covens or kindreds, will honor their group's ancestors -- their elders in lineage who have passed over, and perhaps some historical figures that inspire all of them.) I believe that such freedom of choice regarding spiritual ancestors reflects our polytheistic approach to Deity. So there's something else to think about: who are your personal mighty dead, and on what basis did you choose them? What do you do to make these ancestors part of your life here and now?


Necromancy is a step beyond ancestor worship. If ancestor worship is like the ordinary, exoteric "lay" practice of any religion, then necromancy is the esoteric, mystical aspect, the inner game, the active search for conscious contact with ancestral spirits. The word necromancy is derived from two Greek roots: nekros (corpse) and mantis (prophet). So necromancy is specially-focused possessory work, calling on the ancestors, usually for purposes of divination. Because necromancy has been practiced in many cultures, it includes a variety of techniques.

Some of the questions we bring to the ancestors will directly concern our spirituality, our relationship with the Gods. Others may seem to involve more secular aspects of life, such as family or career issues. Yet we know that the Sacred -- and the sacred aspects of meaning and values -- permeate every truly religious life.

Here's an example: The martyred Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last Pagan academics of classical times. I believe we could benefit greatly from her experience, wisdom and guidance now, as we rebuild a Pagan community and culture. When issues of Pagan scholarship arise, we might seek Hypatia's aid in a number of ways, such as:

· simply asking ourselves "what would Hypatia do?"

· meditatively contacting the spirit of Hypatia and asking her directly, perhaps as part of a dream induction.

· asking Hypatia to be with us, within us, during a critical moment and to lend us her wisdom and guidance.

It's good to have the benefit of somebody else's longer experience. Still, whether the advice comes from the living elders or the mighty dead, we must not follow it slavishly. Instead, we should gather as much information as possible, as well as advice from many different respected sources. We should listen carefully, consider both thoughtfully and meditatively. Ultimately, we must make our own conscientious decisions and live with the outcomes of the choices we have made. Neither the ancestors nor the Ancient Gods can relieve us of this responsibility.

To Learn More:

· Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide by Judy Harrow (Toronto: ECW Press, 2002)

· Writing For Your Life : A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds by Deena Metzger (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

· Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown (Berkeley: U of California Press, 2001)

· Ancestors in Post-Contact Religion: Roots, Ruptures, and Modernity's Memory edited by Steven J. Friesen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

· The UCLA Folklore and Mythology Archives has a cross-cultural selection of articles on ancestor worship.

· Ancestor worship is important in indigenous African spirituality. The Ifa Foundation web site has more information.

· How to create a traditional Mexican altar for Dia de los Muertes (Day of the Dead).



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This page last updated October 26, 2005