No really, I’m just gonna talk about ancestor veneration and altars.
But I’ve been watching too much Star Trek (TOS), so I’m dorking hard right now.
This is going to be abridged because whatever I feel like it.
- Who: there’s a school of thought in the ancestor-worshipping community that says you should focus heavily on your blood relatives. I say pish posh. As many people know, chosen family is often the only safe, non-abusive type of family that some folks can have. I am a big supporter of worship of ancestors not only of genetic relations, but also of cultural and inspirational origin. Note that this does not mean one can simply ‘choose’ to acknowledge a random culture as their own (take note appropriators, ur doin it wrong). But, for example, someone who is drawn to Norse paganism but doesn’t have direct ancestry in the Nordic lands would not be out of line in acknowledging the Norse people, their heros and legends, as a type of ancestor. But there should be some sort of cultural tie there, even if there isn’t a genetic tie. This does not mean you can claim a closed or indigenous culture as your own. That makes you an asshat.
- Why: Ancestors are often overlooked, at least from my experiences in European-based polytheism. Everyone gets real excited over gods and heros and big sparkly things and ignores other spirits and entities. Ancestors are important to me because, especially as someone living on stolen land, it provides a basis and background for my beliefs. I know that not everyone connects with their genetic heritage and bases their religion on it, but for me it happened that way, and it’s quite important for me to recognize the family, lands, and peoples from which I come. Ancestors often have cultural wisdom and traditions to share that you wouldn’t be able to get from other research, and though it might always be UPG to the public, it can add vitality and interest to one’s personal practice.
- What/how: communication can happen in many ways. Little nudges, symbols you associate with certain family members. Tarot, runes, dowsing, or scrying may also prove useful, as well as trance methods. Offerings are often a very important part of ancestor veneration. These can be altars, food, cigarettes, alcohol, symbols or objects that they like (my aunt loves butterflies and Tweety Bird, for example). For more ancient, distant ancestors, historical research is necessary in most cases, though almost everyone likes alcohol and incense.
- When/Where: There are certain holidays which focus on contact with ancestors, like Samhain, sometimes Yule, Mother Night, etc. I personally prefer to keep a small shrine up at all times, and to do extra special things for the holidays I celebrate, such as Silent Supper, divination, and fancy decorations!
One of the most frequent questions I see from beginners is “how do I set up an altar.” On a certain level, it’s kind of funny. Altars are so personal and varied in use, purpose, size, time, space, etc, etc that someone couldn’t possibly start to tell you how to set yours up. Folks often forget that ‘altars’ are distinct from ‘shrines’ and ‘temples’ in a few ways. Traditionally, altars are more functional, being set up for particular rites, rituals, or spells. Think of the conventional Christian altar, set up for Communion. Ceremonial magic has altars that are made and outlined for specific rites. The altar is not a place of worship, but instead a workspace. After the rite is over, altars are often deconstructed.
Shrines, instead, are semi-to-completely permanent structures that don’t really have clear space for working or rites. They are often collections of symbols, objects, icons, and idols that represent whatever the shrine is devoted to. This can be completely secular as well, for example a shrine to getting a job, a shrine to hope, happiness, or better academics. Some folks call them inspiration walls, but almost every person has made one at one point.
My personal altar varies with the seasons, my moods, and the purpose that I need it for. It often has representations of my personal cosmology, seasonal celebrations, or deities on it. In such a small living space as I have now, I only have one combined altar/shrine space. Ideally, I would have many scattered throughout the house for different purposes, and I would change many of them with the seasons. Throughout this articles are photos of past and current altars I’ve had.