How to Work With Your Ancestors
Posted by Cassandra Shea on
What it is and how to get started?
Whether you are new to witchcraft practices or have been around for a while, you have probably heard mentions of ancestor veneration throughout your studies. For those interested in spirit work but not sure where to start, ancestor work can be a good way to test the waters. For others, ancestor work can be a good place to focus their energies if they find themselves needing or feeling called to healing patterns of ancestral trauma. And for others, ancestor work can be simply a way to remember and honor our beloved dead.
As many traditions are out there, there are as many ways to work with one’s ancestors. This guide is meant to highlight some of the key aspects that many traditions have in common.
Ready to start diving into ancestor work?
What is Ancestor Work?
First and foremost, what is ancestor work or ancestor veneration? In simple terms and definitions, it is the practice of honoring your ancestors and the dead through various rituals and techniques, often involving petitioning them to assist in spellwork or current endeavors, leaving offerings, seeking divination assistance, and working through generational curses and trauma to heal and break ancestral patterns that might hold us back.
For some, ancestor work involves simply leaving space for the dead, like on an altar, to acknowledge their contributions to our existence. For others, it involves more detailed instances of delving into ritual work with them to either heal ancestral trauma or petition them for aid.
Various traditions and cultures will work with the Dead and Ancestors in different ways, but honoring the ancestors is prevalent in many ancient and modern cultures in one form or another. And for many (though not all) witches and pagans, it is often a key part in the work that we do.
Types of Ancestors and Other Dead
Many discussions of ancestor work talk about the different categories of ancestors and the dead with which to work. These terms can help you understand and determine which group you feel most comfortable working with in the beginning and if you decide to expand later one.
Ancestors of Blood - These are the dead that we are related to by blood and genetic lineage. They are our departed kin. There are often two subcategories of Ancestors of Blood that are discussed with ancestor work: beloved dead and familial ancestors.
Beloved Dead (sometimes called the Familiar Deceased)- These are our relatives and loved ones that we knew in life and that we are the most closely related to or have a connection with. For some this includes grandparents and great grandparents. For others it can include close friends that have passed away.
Familial Ancestors - These are our blood relatives that are further back in our family trees. These can include distant relatives that lived centuries ago or those even just a few generations back. These ancestors we generally did not know, but may know of.
Ancestors of Spirit (Spiritual Ancestors) - This category of ancestors are those that we feel a kinship to on a spiritual level. This can include historical figures, saints, mythological figures, witches of the past, etc. The Mighty Dead are considered a part of this category of spirits.
Mighty Dead - The Mighty Dead, generally speaking, are the venerated and sanctified dead. The Dead in this category have often been venerated and honored over many generations. They include saints, great heroes, and historical figures that had a major impact on society. There are many names of the Mighty Dead depending on the tradition and culture.
Ancestors of Place - Sometimes referred to as land-based ancestors, these ancestors are ones that lived and died in the same region where you currently live. This category of spirits may be more neglected when it comes to ancestor worship due to issues with colonization and lack of connection with the region in which one lives, but they are also a key part in connecting and healing ancestral trauma. Consider working with this group of ancestors to heal past wounds of colonization and ancestral trauma.
Adopted and In-Law Ancestors - This is not a traditional group of ancestors often listed out there, but it is one that seems worth mentioning. For some who are adopted or do not have a strong connection to ancestors of blood, you may consider working with the ancestors of your adopted family or in-laws’ family.
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Reasons to Honor Your Ancestors
The following is a list of reasons that you may want to start ancestor work or honoring the dead in your practice:
- Heal ancestral trauma
- Break ancestral patterns
- Honor and respect your loved ones
- Petition them for help in your spellwork and rituals
- Seek their guidance in your life
- Need an intermediary with the gods
- Need their protection
- To help the dead move on
Why You Might Avoid Ancestor Work
You are not obligated to work with every category of ancestors or any at all. The reasons why you may not want to work with them may include the following:
- There is a history of abuse and trauma
- You are afraid of spirit work
- You are not interested in it
- You aren’t ready to work through ancestral trauma or patterns
- You do not want to deal with demands from your ancestors
- You have no connection with your ancestors
While ancestor work can be rewarding and beneficial for your practice, it isn’t for everyone. If you find that it isn't for you, then you do not need to pursue it.
Ancestor Altars and Offerings
One way of working with and starting ancestor work is by building an altar or shrine to your ancestors and leaving offerings. When you have decided which ancestors you want to work with, you will probably want to build an altar to them. Ancestor altars serve as a focus for your veneration practice. You can include what you wish, but some of the following may be a good idea:
- If the Beloved Dead are included in this, you will probably want to include pictures or possessions that belonged to them.
- If you are working with the Mighty Dead and Ancestors of Spirit, consider finding a depiction of them to sit on the altar space.
- Black is a one traditional color for spirit work and working with the Dead, so you may want a black altar cloth. White is also an appropriate color to use.
- A white candle should also be present. This can be a round pillar candle, a seven day jar candle, a small votive or tea light. A battery powered candle is also totally acceptable.
- A list of ancestors or a family tree can also be a part of an ancestor altar.
Offerings that are appropriate include any of the following (this is not exhaustive):
- Pure water
- Spirits (beer, wine, liquor)
- Favorite food of the deceased
- Tea or coffee
- Sweets and candy
It is generally customary to not eat or imbibe any of the perishable items you leave out. After about 24 hours you should dispose of them appropriately by throwing them away. Some will leave the offerings out in nature, but be sure to only do this if it is environmentally safe for the local flora and fauna. This is why I generally like leaving offerings of water since it is the safest to leave out on an altar and dispose of afterwards.
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash
Communicating With Ancestors
Many work with the Dead specifically with communicating with them in mind. This communication can be in the form of divination or simply talking to them. If you are inclined there are a few methods you can try.
- Oracle and Tarot readings
- Mediumship practices
- Scrying work
- Prayer, meditation, and synchronicities
- Spirit Boards
- Simply talking to them
- Automatic Writing
Not all of these methods may be for you. Consider your skill set before jumping into communicating with them directly. Are you good with tarot? Then try using tarot to talk with them. Are you good at meditating and listening to messages from spirits? Then work with them that way. Have you practiced mediumship? Consider using your mediumship skills then. If you aren’t good at any of it, just talk to your loved ones. Synchronicities will happen as they guide you in your practice.
Other Ways to Honor Your Ancestors
As mentioned previously, there are many traditions and cultures that work with ancestors and the Dead. Some of those practices are more complicated than others. Spend time researching what your tradition does to work with the Dead.
Here are some other ideas to try:
- Delve into your family tree and genealogy
- Take a DNA test to trace your ancestry
- Visit the graves of your ancestors
- Visit the homelands of your ancestors
- Study and learn about the culture of your ancestors in a respectful way
- Perform a ritual to heal ancestral trauma and break patterns
Here is a list of some additional resources you may want to consider when diving into Ancestor Work:
Book: Badass Ancestors by Patti Wigington
Buy Here for $17
Book: Honoring Your Ancestors by Mallorie Vaudoise
Buy Here for $17
Link: Ancestor Worship & Veneration in Pagan Cultures on Learn Religions
Link: Ancestor Work by John Beckett on Patheos
Video: Honoring Your Ancestors by Mint Faery
Video: How to Set Up and Ancestor Altar by Sunny Brooks
Ancestor work is a part of many traditions of witchcraft, paganism, and other cultures and religions. For many it is a great way to step into other forms of spirit work. And for others, it is their only method of spirit work. We hope this guide gives you a place to start on your own path of ancestor work.
Remember, we are the product of all those who came before us. All of their decisions, the good and the bad, have led to where we are today. We have control over how we honor our ancestors and if we choose to do so at all in this life. It can be deeply rewarding and healing to do so, though.