Samhain, the Time of the Ancestors
Author: Sta Muertero Steven
Although I honor and serve my ancestors year-round, All Hallows is the time when I go all out for them and prepare a large feast. However, I find little information in many of the marketed texts of Wicca and modern Paganism that deals with ancestor veneration, a practice that is a major characteristic of the vast majority of the world’s basic religions. I’d like to share my views on this and offer what I’ve found to be effective in establishing solid lines of communication with my ancestors, essentially a novena to bring them into my daily life to provide me with love, guidance, wisdom, and protection as I go about my way in this sometimes uncertain world.
In Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Scott Cunningham writes, “Many Wiccans do attempt to communicate with their deceased ancestors and friends at [Samhain], but it seems to me that if we accept the doctrine of reincarnation, this is a rather strange practice. Perhaps the personalities that we knew still exist, but if the soul is currently incarnate in another body, communication would be difficult, to say the least. Thus, it seems best to remember them with peace and love-but not to call them up” (p. 143).
Thus begins many beginning Wiccans’ view of the spirits of our ancestors, including my own in the beginning. No offense to the spirit of Scott, but I now beg to differ. Through my personal journey in ecletic Wicca, then traditional Haitian Vodou, and now Wica and Traditional Witchcraft, I have come to view the above as a rather naive and simplistic view of the soul and reincarnation. I feel the above concept of the ancestors comes mainly from a combination of a misinterpreted and simplified view of the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation and the typical Western concept of a single-component soul.
A previous co-worker of mine who is from India and a practicing Hindu both believes in reincarnation and honors the spirits of his ancestors. I’ve not asked him to explain how these seemingly contradictory beliefs are reconciled, however, I have to wonder if the explanation is in any way similar to the concepts found in Haitian Vodou, where there are many components to the soul, one of which reincarnates at some future time, one which joins the spirits of the ancestors in the waters below, while the others perform other functions and journey to different destinations. All of these components are important, and one should not be thought of as the “real” soul above the others.
In any case, I believe that one can adhere to a doctrine of reincarnation and honor the spirits of one’s ancestors, even bringing them into their daily lives for guidance and protection, without having the beliefs contradict one another in any way. This has been uncommon in my knowledge of the majority of eclectic Wicca and the modern Pagan religions, however, it seems this may be changing as more individuals and groups (re-) discover ancestor veneration. I feel this view can easily be adopted by the rest of them, giving a more solid foundation in the traditional practices found in almost all basic religions throughout the world. The eagerness with which many of the ancestors of those of European origin seem to flock to the service provided when a descendant begins the service of the Lwa Ginea, in other words, practicing Haitian Vodou, or another Afro-Caribbean tradition, is evidence enough for me that our pre-Christian ancestors possessed a tradition of honoring the ancestors that is long overdue in being re-established in some form by their descendants.
The following is a ceremony I have found effective based on my training in Haitian Vodou. I hope that by sharing this information, the long-forgotten ancestors of those who perform this ceremony will be brought back to this realm to bestow their wisdom and blessings upon their descendants to help guide them toward a more fulfilling life in every way.
The Ancestor Novena
This ritual, although seemingly simple, has enormous effect on a person in that if that person has never successfully established contact with one’s ancestors, this will allow for the ancestors to come fully into one’s life. The ancestors are how every person alive exists. We stand on their shoulders; we have their blood in our veins. Their spirits surround us through the tie of that same blood. For these reasons alone, we should honor them and invite them to be active in our daily lives. But also, they possess knowledge of ourselves and of the world and can provide protection that we would not have otherwise.
In the beginning, one should only establish contact with direct blood relatives, meaning parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. In an ideal ancestor-venerating society, all other relatives, such as aunts and uncles, would be taken care of by their descendants. However, in this country (the U.S.) and in the majority of the Western world, as you may know, this is not the case. In some cases, passed extended family members may have had a greater effect on the person than parents, and so on, and those spirits may wish to be honored in the person’s line of ancestors, as well. That is fine, however, they should be invited after the direct blood relatives. Those extended family members and even the spirits of those not related to you by blood can be included in your service to your ancestors after this novena has been successfully completed simply by calling their names and asking them to join your ancestors during one of your regular services.
This ritual is effective even if one’s parents are unknown, because we all have never met the vast majority of our ancestors (three, four, five, six, seven, and so on, generations back). This ritual is also effective, and even essential, for a person who had a negative or abusive relationship with one’s parents or grandparents. Whatever that person or those people were like during life, they are now beyond the veil and have learned many things. That’s not to say that they’re more spiritually evolved by virtue of being dead, but that they can now see a larger picture and can be spiritually elevated if they so choose and if you help them to be. They are also now surrounded by the spirits of their parents and families and are possibly being guided by them, helping them understand where they may have gone wrong in life. This is essential for those people’s spiritual evolution because the unresolved issues with their ancestors tie them to the past, preventing them from moving forward. We are never completely free of the past; we are always connected to everything and every time–we are one.
Items to obtain for the novena
- One or two white 7-day candles (large, tall candles encased in glass), or a set of white tapers.
- Cascarilla (dried and ground egg white in the form of a compacted powder), or white chalk.
- A clear glass of water.
- Perfume or incense of a soft, light nature (with an incense holder).
- A corner of your home or small space that’s not in your bedroom which can be used (at least temporarily if you can’t dedicate permanent space) to house your ancestors.
Items to have for the ninth day
- A white plate.
- White flowers.
- Food that they may have enjoyed in life, cooked by you, with no salt added (if the ingredients inherently contain sodium, don’t worry about, but do not ADD salt).
- Clean the space you have chosen for your ancestors. If you plan to have an altar table, that’s fine, but during the novena, place everything directly onto the floor. If you have pets, partition this area off somehow so they will not have access to it, at least during the novena.
- Take the cascarilla, rub your finger into it, (or use the chalk) and begin to draw an arc on the floor from one wall to the one perpendicular to it. Make it a solid arc; this will take more work if you have carpet. If for some reason, you can’t use a corner but a section of wall instead, make this a half-circle, starting from one side of the area, moving around it, and closing it in on the other. The purpose is to spiritually close off this section.
- Using the cascarilla (or chalk), make nine short dashes along the arc or half-circle. It should look like railroad markings on a map.
- Place one 7-day white candle inside the marked-off area, along with the clear glass filled with water. Also, place the bottle of perfume or the light, clean scented incense inside the area.
- Choose a certain time of the day that you are sure you can be free to talk with your ancestors at the same time for nine consecutive days, beginning on a Monday.
- When the time comes, settle yourself in front of the area, light the candle, and open the bottle of perfume or light the incense. Prepare yourself for spiritual communication and open yourself to the spiritual world, whether that is with the Our Father and three Hail Mary’s, or meditation, or a prayer to the God/dess, the Cabbalistic Cross, or whatever. Do this at the beginning of each session.
- Also at each session and after the opening part just mentioned, state your full name along with any other name by which you are known, and call to your ancestors both known and unknown. Ex: “I, Paul Michael Smith, Grey Wolf, call to all my ancestors, those I know and those I currently do not…”
- After you’ve gotten their attention, thank them for giving you life, for without them you wouldn’t be here.
- Next, talk with your ancestors the way you would family members at a family reunion, catching those up who have missed the latest bit of your life, and introducing yourself to those you don’t yet know, which of course will be the majority of them. Tell them what you’re doing (the novena) and why you feel it’s important to you. Chances are, they already know, but it’s necessary for you to speak this aloud to them; it gives purpose and power to your physical actions. Ask them to come into your life and help you do what you need to do.
- When you have said all you wish to say, thank them again. Tell them you will be back again at the same time and place to talk with them more the following day.
- Extinguish the candle, or allow it to burn the remainder of the day/night until you go to sleep, or allow the candle to burn continuously throughout the novena, which will require at least two 7-day candles. (All depending on how nervous you are about fire hazards. I allowed mine to burn continuously and asked my ancestors to guard the candle to make sure it didn’t tip over or catch anything on fire-nothing bad happened.)
On the Ninth Day
- Do your prayers as usual, talk with your ancestors, and then explain that this is the last day of the novena, and that from now on you will come to them once a week to light their candle, supply fresh water, and serve them food if they tell you they need it.
- At this time you can place the altar in the area, if you plan to have an altar. Then place all their items on the altar (this is “lifting them up”), give them the flowers you’ve gathered or bought, give them the food you’ve prepared, and thank them again for being an active part of your daily life.
After the Novena
Choose one day of the week (usually this will be Monday) that you can go to your ancestors, light their candle, give them fresh water, give them food if you feel they need it and whatever type they ask for (again with no salt added), give them flowers, alcohol, cigarettes, whatever they enjoyed in life, and talk with them. Place pictures of them and items they owned on the altar; truly make it yours.
While chatting with them share with them your good news and bad news. When you feel you need help in life’s difficult journey, ask them for support and guidance.
Once you have established a good relationship with your ancestors, let this relationship evolve as they dictate. In other words, this is only the beginning.