A is for Ancestors

Today is the first in a new series of posts on Fridays using the letters of the alphabet for inspiration. The first post begins with the letter A and therefore today’s topic shall be Ancestors. I have done previous posts on Ancestry here, here and here, but as I have said before, honouring those who came before is a very important part of my spirituality because it helps me to develop reverence and respect for others, to remember with gratitude those whom I have loved and lost, and to help ground me, giving me a sense of identity and history.

Over the past few months, I have done a lot of research into my family tree, discovering lots of interesting things. Just before Yule, I managed to get some information from a distant relative which took one line in my family tree right back to 1650. I am really chuffed about this, and I’m hoping to do more over the coming year. I think researching our family tree is a very important spiritual exercise and is one very important way of honouring our ancestors. It allows us to find out who they were, where they came from and even stories about their lives. It is a way to remember them and to develop within ourselves a sense of appreciation and connection towards them.

As I have said before, having a shrine or altar to Ancestors is another way to honour them, and I am trying this year to develop a daily spiritual practice of honouring my Ancestors at an altar. If anyone follows the Atheist Witch Blog, today she included a prayer that can be said each day to our Ancestors. Though our Ancestors may be dead and so unable to hear our prayers, praying to them is still important for what it does for us, the character traits it develops within us, and the spiritual mindset we develop. It allows us to reach across the expanses of time and build a connection with those who have come before. There is also something special about addressing our Ancestors directly rather than in a third person sense.

English: The Chinese Ancestor altar in my sino...

Chinese Ancestor altar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using both the prayer from Atheist Witch and the one I previously wrote for rituals, I have created the following prayer which I will be saying daily to my ancestors….

Dear Ancestors, known and unknown to me,

From my closest blood relatives and all those of my genetic inheritance,

Through the ever rotating circle of life and evolution, to abiogenesis.

To my intellectual idols, and all who’ve influenced and inspired my culture and my life.

To you whose feet trod this sacred land before me,

And to you who gave your lives that I might eat and live.

Thank you for giving me the gift of existence.

Thank you for the examples of your lives.

Thank you for the love shown by those of you who shared your life with mine.

I light this candle now, an offering to honour you all.

May my memory of you live ever on.”

(light candle and spend 30 seconds in silence)

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Celebrating Samhain

Happy Samhain everyone. Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. It also marks the Celtic new year. For the ancient Irish, days always began at sunset and Samhain (pronouned Sow-een) celebrations would therefore start on the eve of 31st October.

At this time the earth has appeared to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves have fallen from the trees and the harvests have been collected from the fields. Summer is over (Samhain means “Summers end”) and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities.

Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. At this time, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and the human world could interact. Many of the modern practices of Halloween have roots in this belief – whether putting lights in carved pumpkins (originally turnips) to scare off evil spirits or giving out treats to those dressed as devils and ghosts to bribe them not to cause trouble to the family. It was also a time for divination and for honouring the dead.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of venerating ancestors, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid. 

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have spent much of the past month researching my family history in order to create a family tree and know more about the ancestors I wish to honour. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. This year that will include both my grandmother and her dog. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods.

Hope you have a wonderful Samhain and a happy Celtic New Year to you,

Honouring our Ancestors

Ancestor Walk 2008

Ancestor Walk 2008 (Photo credit: The City Project)

Two and a half years ago my world was rocked to its core when a friend was tragically killed in a car accident aged only 23. He was a very close friend. Coming to terms with his loss was very difficult and within six months I had lost my Christian faith. As I started to look into alternative spiritualities and practices I across Naturalistic Pantheism, Paganism and Druidry in particular. These philosophies and religions emphasise the importance of honouring our ancestors, those we have loved and lost, and this really appealed to me. Last Samhain, I made an altar and on it I placed pictures of my friend and lit a candle to remember him. It was a good experience and I believe it helped me to accept things a lot more.

Over at Woden’s Wandering Witch today, she writes about the importance of honouring our ancestors too and it’s inspired me to do a post on it. Although I have talked about this before, I feel I had some new things to say.

If we look at most of the ancient religions of the world, and particularly those that honour the earth, they all have a common practice of Ancestor Veneration. Yes, a lot of it is rooted in a belief that their ancestors somehow live on through an immortal soul, but not in every case. In my opinion, venerating ancestors is a way in which humanity has, for many years, remembered those that it has loved and lost and enabled people to come to terms with the reality of death. Honouring our ancestors, whether they be family members, friends or important people who have influenced our lives, is a practice that I think can be of great benefit to us as Naturalistic Pantheists.

How? Firstly, doing something to honour our ancestors help us keep the memory of them alive. While we don’t necessarily forget about the people we have lost, as time progresses and we move on with our lives, we often do not think of them for great periods of time and we lose a connection to them that we once had. By regularly honouring them, we ensure they are remembered…and if we teach the next generation to do the same, then we ensure that we are remembered after our own deaths.

Secondly, it teaches us important life lessons – respect and gratefulness. Honouring our ancestors is a way of acknowledging their influence and impact on our lives and showing gratitude for that fact (yep that includes those you didn’t like too), even though they are no longer around to receive that gratitude. It teaches us respect – for the dead, for the elderly and for other people. We have to take time to focus on others rather than ourselves and to give them a place of honour, and that is a great life lesson to learn.

Thirdly, it grounds us. It reminds us of where we came from and the forces and influences upon our lives. It gives us identity and a sense of connection to the past. It places us within a story and gives our lives meaning and direction.

English: This picture was taken at a Malaysian...

English: This picture was taken at a Malaysian Chinese home. This altar is dedicated to the three Pure Land sages, Avalokitesvara, and Sathya Sai Baba. On the left of the altar is a glass filled with rice. Joss sticks are stuck into it after the ancestors are invited to partake in the offering of food specially prepared for them on the Hungry Ghost festival prayers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So now we have seen some of the benefits, lets consider who exactly we should be honouring? The simple answer is – anyone we want to. Generally I would suggest that honouring family members and friends who have died is a good place to start. You could add in family members further back in your past that you didn’t ever know. You could add in important people who lived in your area or influenced your culture but who you feel a connection to. Finally, you could add anyone who has influenced and inspired you in life.

Yes, I hear you say, I agree with all that, but get specific, what exactly do I need to do? I have two suggestions here – firstly, do some research and create a family tree as best you can so you can see who your ancestors were and perhaps learn a few interesting family stories about them. Secondly, make an altar, just as millions of people have done throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of human history. Put some pictures of lost relatives on it, and maybe a copy of your family tree. Decorate the altar with a few candles, objects that remind you of people and anything else you want to. You could either have this altar up once a year – on Samhain, perhaps on significant dates, or all the time. Create a ceremony to carry out at the altar. It could be something simple like lighting a candle for a minute or something more elaborate including drinking from a remembrance cup and spending time meditating on memories you have of them or holding a minutes silence. Do whatever you feel helps you.

Just one more thing, I always include a few fossils on my altar. Why? As I said in a previous post on the great story of cosmic evolution, we are the subject of millions of years of evolution going right back to a single common ancestor. All those in our blood line, right back to that first life form that appeared on the earth almost 4 billion years ago, are our ancestors and remembering and honouring them helps to keep that fact alive for us.