Tracing My Roots; Honoring My Ancestors

Until this year, ancestor work hasn’t been a part of my practice. Being raised as a generic, Southern Protestant, without any sort of strong extended family ties or traditions is not a background that supports a connection to honoring the ancestors.

However, inevitably, the things I cringe at or run away from will be the things I eventually need to confront, make my peace with, and integrate into my life.

From Halloween and Samhain to Dia de los Muertos and All  Saints/Souls’ Days, this season is a time when many traditions think about, interact with, and honor death and the dead. So, this seemed like a good time to talk a little bit about my own practice in this are.

In the process of figuring out what ancestor work and honoring my ancestors means to me, I constructed an ancestor altar.

ancestor altarMy ancestor altar lacks a lot of the things you might see on other altars – pictures of family members, white candles and cloth, and special tools or equipment. However, all of the objects on the altar were chosen with care, and speak to my relationship with my ancestry and my ancestors. The right side of the altar is devoted to my blood ancestors – my direct family line – and the left side is for my lineage ancestors (mentors, personal heroes, those who led the way in my chosen communities).

Masks – The collaged masks were my first foray into ancestor work. I’m not much of a visual artist (that’s Opal’s territory!), but I love collage work. I put together these two masks – one for my blood ancestors and one for my ancestors of lineage – from images that represent aspects of those ancestral lines.

This was a great opportunity for me to think about what I know about my ancestors, how I feel about my ancestors, and what I associate with my ancestors. In the case of my lineage ancestors, I also thought a lot about who my ancestors are – the dancers, the academics, the medieval Christian mystics, the Cathar heretics, the musicians, the ascetics – all the traditions that I benefit from, that made me who I am in my mind, heart, and soul just as my blood family’s gifts made me who I am in body and genetics..

Books – Books have always been in important part of my life – my higher academic work was in English, and my maternal grandmother was a librarian. The book on the right side is a book of prayers that belonged to my paternal grandparents – the one relic I have of theirs. The book on the left is The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis – one of his major critical works. This book played a major role in my undergraduate coursework, and C.S. Lewis was one of the most influential thinkers in my young life. His theology (which is admittedly shaky and not without problems) aside, his vision of Narnia, was one of my first steps toward a Pagan worldview. Both of these books are important for themselves, but also serve as symbols of the knowledge my ancestors have gifted to me, of the benefit I’ve derived from their wisdom and work.

Stone – Much of my connection to my blood ancestors is tied to my connection to the land. My people are mountain people – Appalachian mountain folk. We’re not particularly rugged, as mountain folks go – my folk were bankers, doctors, lawyers – but we’ve been in the mountains, on this land for generations. The stone is from the mountains where I was born – a little part of the land I come from.

Pointe Shoe – I took dance – ballet and other forms – until I was eighteen. My childhood role models and heroes included the greats of ballet history – Marie Sallé, who emphasized the narrative of ballets over mere shows of technique; Marie Taglioni, the first ballerina to make dancing en pointe more than acrobatics; and Dame Margot Fonteyn, who sustained her life as a dancer far past the point when most dancers’ bodies give out. Though I no longer take dance classes, the lineage these women helped create helped shape my body and taught me about discipline, devotion, and the joys of movement.

Pentacle – This pentacle belonged to one of the elders of the first Pagan community I was a part of. She passed on a couple of years ago, and shortly before she died, one of her other students gave me the pentacle. I never knew Lady Eleanor terribly well, but her students – and the community she started – supported me and helped me grow.

Card/Photo – Most ancestor altars have photos of the beloved dead. I don’t have photos of my deceased relatives, nor do I have photos of most of my lineage ancestors. I didn’t want to print off pictures from the internet, so I decided to hold off. However, I found this lovely, laminated card of Anna Pavlova, who of all the dancers I admired as a child was the most dear to my heart, the closest thing to a saint I had in my early life. Pavlova’s devotion to dance was a sacred calling, and she did her best to take ballet to all corners of the world.

Of course, this isn’t a finished work. I’m working on elemental mandalas for this altar; I’ll be looking out for other photos and representations. But this is where I am now, what I have thus far.

Who are your ancestors and beloved dead? How do you want to honor them?

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