Dealing with difficult ancestors

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”

The prevailing wisdom in Paganism tends to be that at Samhain, you honour the ancestors. In fact, for many Pagan traditions including Druidry, ancestor veneration is generally seen as a good and important thing year round – though of course Samhain brings this into greater focus, with a real emphasis on creating Ancestor Altars, making offerings to them, praying to them or even calling them to you from whatever afterlife you may believe exists.

I have no intention of denigrating these practices. For many people, this is a very important and personal connection with loved ones now no longer with us. I think it’s beautiful to see, and I love how this ancestral connection manifests in different cultures – for many years I have made it part of my Samhain rituals to visit and leave paper flowers at the Dia De Los Muertos altar set up by the Mexican Society in my University.

But all of this emphasis on the beloved dead can leave me, and no doubt others, feeling cold. For what do you do if your ancestors were, to put it mildly, difficult?

My family is dead.

Yet I don’t honour them at Samhain. I don’t set up Ancestor Altars for them or leave them offerings. I don’t talk to them and I certainly don’t pray to them.

This is largely because they were – complicated – people, and people who I don’t really want anything to do with even after their deaths. I hesitate to use words like abuse and trauma but…yeah. I expect I’m not the only LGBTQ+ person within Paganism who had a difficult relationship with their family and find ancestor veneration a challenge. And no, just because someone who was a pretty awful person in life is now dead, it doesn’t absolve them or make them any less awful.

So what do I do?

Well, I have a few stretegies that I hope might also be helpful for anyone in a similar position.

For those ancestors who were mostly good people in a difficult situation, I honour them in some ways. For instance, my grandfather was devoutly Catholic and would definitely not approve of my gender, sexuality, or religion. So I don’t have him included on my Pagan shrine. But he was generally pretty decent, so I do honour his memory. Around Samhain I tend to go and find a local Church, preferably Catholic, and light a candle there for him. It isn’t my faith any more, but it was his, and I prefer to recognise that in all it’s complications than to be so bold as to presume he would be OK with being part of a Pagan ceremony.

For others, I practice a deliberate forgetting. There is a general sense among many Pagans that to remember the ancestors is to keep them alive, that a person is not truly dead until they are forgotten and their name no longer spoken. I have someone in my immediate ancestry who I choose to forget, to deliberately let go and not keep alive in my memory. To allow them to truly die.

So I don’t honour this person at all. No photographs or objects, no recalled stories, no name spoken in ritual or otherwise. They are cut off, all ties severed. This may sound cruel, but believe me it is not half as cruel as the fury they inflicted on me.

In cases like this, a deliberate forgetting, which can itself be incorporated into a ritual of banishment, is a form of psychological self-protection and self-compassion. It is, in some cases, the only way to heal and move on with your own life, by letting the dead stay dead.

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.

Kylo Ren, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” dir. Rian Johnson

On a more positive note, one thing I do at Samhain, and really whenever ancestry comes up in a group ritual, is expand my concept of ancestors.

Ancestors are not simply immediate family. Going far back enough, we all have countless ancestors, back through history. In my case, I am descended from ancient Irish chieftains, Spanish sailors, Polish refugees. I can be justly proud of this ancestry even if not of my immediate forbears. Beyond this, we all come from Africa, from the Rift Valley where Homo sapiens took their first migratory steps. Beyond this, we are descended from hominids, apes, shrew-like mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, single-celled eukaryotes, right back to the very origin of life on earth itself.

The epic saga of evolution reminds us of how far back our unbroken ancestral chain stretches, and how interconnected we are with each other, and with all life on earth. These are ancestors I can honour.

My Druid College teacher, Joanna van der Hoeven, expands the concept of ancestry further in her writings. In The Awen Alone (2014), she writes:

In Druidry we honour not only our blood ancestors, but also those ancestors of tradition (those who have shared our worldviews) and of place (those who are a part of our land). Yet it is not only the ancestors of the past that concern us – it is ancestors of the future, those yet to come, who we must consider.

van der Hoeven, J. The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid. Moon Books, 2014.

This expanded view encompasses any who inspired our traditions, such as Pagan writers and thinkers who are now deceased (and I would include any poets, musicians, artists, scientists etc. who inspire us in this), any who lived on the land where we do now, and those future generations who will inherit the earth that we leave them.

Thinking of ancestry in this way allows us to appreciate the connections we have that go deeper than blood, and consider our own responsibility to be good ancestors for the future, whether we have biological descendents or not.

Like many things in Paganism, what you get from ancestor veneration depends on how you interpret it and what you put in.

Of course, as there is no dogma in Paganism, you don’t need to honour the ancestors at Samhain or any other time at all if you choose not to – your path is your own, your past is your own, and there is no need to justify it to anyone.

9 comments

  1. “right back to the very origin of life on earth itself”….I like this concept. We are fundamentally a composition of stardust and the energy of all that is and will forever be. Past and future all in a single package. I should like to honour my ancestry not just of this earth but of all existence beyond.

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  2. Excellent post! I think it is perfectly reasonable to exclude problematic forebears from your ancestor altar.

    The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids also talks about three types of ancestors (blood family, spirit ancestors, and ancestors of place), so I think it’s pretty widespread in Druidry. Spirit ancestors being the ones you feel connected to as kindred spirits.

    There’s been some great ritual work done over the last few years with the Transgender Rite of Elevation, where LGBTQIA people get together to honour the transgender dead, and elevate them to the status of ancestors (hence the name of the ritual).

    My beloved dead altar includes LGBTQIA ancestors. We can definitely count LGBTQIA people of the past as ancestors.

    My take on the question of what would my immediate ancestors think of their photos being on a Wiccan altar is, they presumably have a different perspective where they are now. I hope so! They were not around to react to my nascent bisexuality so there’s no immediate reason to exclude them from my altar.

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