I recently watched online The Power of Shamanism Summit featuring 31 shamanic practitioners from many traditions including African, Siberian-Russian, Peruvian, Celtic, Egyptian and Greenland-Inuit, to name a few. Woven through many of the presentations was the thread of ancestor honoring. Not the same as ancestor worship, honoring ancestors is really about honoring our ancestral helping spirits. We call on these spirits for guidance and help in making our way in this world. We call on them to mend past relations with forgiveness and acceptance. Shamanic healer, teacher, and author, Christina Pratt says “Our break with our ancestral helping spirits is said to promote illness and abuse of power in our family lines. Shamans believe that a strong working relation with true ancestral helping spirits, can help us mend feelings of alienation, isolation and loneliness.” From the earth plane we are capable of healing the past including ourselves and passing on a healthy legacy to future generations. One of the ways to “honor thy father and mother” metaphorically speaking, is to dedicate a special place for them.
Explore your feelings about connecting with your ancestors. Does it feel awkward or even uncomfortable? You may need to sit with these feelings for a few days. Have you ever considered that you could mend a relationship with someone who has died? Have you ever thought relationships with them could continue even after their spirits transition from this world? John Lockley, a fully initiated sangoma (healer and shaman) in the Xhosa lineage of South Africa, having spent 10 years in apprenticeship with the tribe that gave us Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, when speaking about connecting with ancestors, said that for some of his students, it was easier to have a photo of the Dali Lama on the fridge than it was to have photos of dead relatives. So you are not alone if there is some initial awkwardness. Set an intention that you will identify, honor and respect your ancestor helping spirits so you can call them in to help healing for the world, to clear shame or guilt, or for whatever your lineage needs.
Who do we call ancestors? Some may limit ancestors to those related only by blood, including blood relatives of your mother’s and father’s lineages; of those you have been adopted by, either legally or by a heart connection; or of those who have been mighty teachers or influencers in your life. You can even include cherished animal companions. Others take a broader view, calling on the spirits of place, animals, plants, elementals, mythical beasts and beings: it’s about the relationship, the connection we have to all in the great web of life who are willing to help us.
Find a location where you will be able to sit or stand comfortably to say your prayers. Clear the energy of the place using incense or sacred essential sprays. Make it special and sacred. Place photos of your ancestors on the altar. Include memorabilia that represents individuals who are dear to you. For example, I have a pocket watch from my Italian grandfather whose initials engraved on the back are the same as mine; a circular red, white and blue zipper pouch which my mother crocheted, a lock of my husband’s gorgeous thick hair and a crisp white Irish linen handkerchief. Use maps, flags, family trees. Leave some space for future changes and embellishments, because your altar is likely to be a dynamic, changing place over time as you develop your practice.
Prior to opening your daily prayer to the Ancestral Spirits, make an offering. You can use incense, candles, sprays, scents, chocolate, tobacco, cornmeal, water, wine, symbols, sacred stones, soil from the ancestral homeland, or local flowers. Be creative and have fun with this. I also ring a lovely brass bell to announce to the ancestors when prayer is about to begin.
Creating and reciting a daily prayer honoring the ancestors is a way of creating an intimate relationship with them. Your prayer could include the following format: An initial calling to the departed, by name when you know the names; start out with your maternal lineage and then your paternal lineage. If you want to include middle names that makes it even more personal. Add your special heart connections, teachers and companions. If a spouse and his parents are deceased, include them too and any siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and other grand-. half- and step- relatives.
Give thanks to the ancestors for your life and the opportunity to grow and meet challenges in this world. Ask for help in finding your right livelihood or your purpose for being on this earth. Then ask them to look out for your living relatives. Get as detailed as you want. And ask for blessings for the generations yet to come.
You may also call out to the spirits of the land and elementals, including your own neighborhood or building. Ask for protection of home, property and dreams. And ask to become more loving, wiser and joyful with all our relations. And then specifically ask for help with your To Do list for that day. End the prayer by blowing out a breath, extinguishing a candle, or singing a song.