Ancestor veneration is a popular, perhaps central, part of heathenry. I have a hard time with it for many reasons, but can also see how it’s important. Besides, ancestor veneration gives yet another very good reason why we should dance.
As for venerating ancestors, it’s well attested to in the lore. People go to the grave-mounds of their ancestors to learn things. The Disir, or female ancestral spirits, are a protective force. It is perhaps most well known through the Einherjar, Odin’s honored dead who live in Valhalla.
The family and home is an important part of heathenry. And that extends to the honored dead. Our ancestors are a part of our family, and they don’t stop caring about us, and we don’t stop caring about them, once they have died. It seems that the dead can sort of hang around the house to watch over their descendents. Or cause mischief.
Anyway, venerating the Germanic ancestors tends toward a couple of things that really bother me. The first of which is, of course, the tendency to the folkish, with its overtones of racism.
I almost went into one of my diatribes about greater heathenry here, but I won’t. I am sure that my readers will understand that I despise racism. There is no need for me to go over the same arguments that have been had and will continue to be had on the subject. I will leave it that my stance on the folkish vs. universalist debate is a firm belief that anyone who wants to be heathen ought to be, paired a belief that people are probably more likely to be interested in heathenry if it’s in their cultural background, but for cultural rather than genetic reasons. So, basically, I’m somewhere in between a C and a D in this scale.
I have a hard time with ancestor veneration in what I understand is the traditional way. I’m working on it, and I have altars to both the Disir and my male ancestors. But there are a few reasons I have a really hard time.
The first reason is that my family is insane. No really. Everyone from my family, excluding my siblings and my father, is selfish and manipulating. Almost all of them have some kind of terrible addiction. My grandmother has been married eight times to five men, and my mom didn’t find out that she was the result of an affair until she was in her thirties. All of my family members dislike their parents, all of the mother/daughter bonds are incredibly strained. My father’s mother wants nothing to do with my mother or my half-brother. It goes on and on.
I have a hard time venerating my ancestors because I have a hard time seeing them as anything else but a continuation of my family. Who probably, like my mother, would think I’m going to Hell for being a heathen.
So I look back to my “heathen” ancestory, but that’s all complete conjecture. I do know that I have both Irish and German ancestry, but that’s not very specific and could mean a whole lot of different things about who I come from. In my practice, the worship of the Disir tends to come up as a sort of Mother Goddess thing.
I have never been able to see ghosts, even though I believe they exist. I have never been able to sense them at all. Perhaps this is also why I have a hard time with it.
But then again, perhaps the biggest reason why I feel stumped in venerating my ancestors is that I have no honored dead. None of my ancestors have died since my birth. Don’t get me wrong, I count myself as quite lucky in this regard. But it does make my ancestor altar kind of sparse. I don’t have people I love (I do love my family, despite their faults) whose pictures I can put on my altar who I want to say “hello” to, who I want to remember.
My ancestor altar contains a little prayer I have for a cousin of mine I barely knew, and the program from the memorial service of a beloved college professor–I count him as one of my ancestors because he is the reason I have found the incredible joy and passion I have about my religion.
On the other hand, as I said in my “We are our ancestors” post, I am amazed and in awe at how my body and my life is the result of thousands of people working and living and loving and finding each other and coming together and marrying (or not) and having babies who went on working and living and loving. Their lives and trials and successes are played out in my body. I am not just me, and I can’t separate myself from all the generations of people who made me who I am–the brunette, skinny female with giant hands who is going gray already at 23. The people who gave me my twin sister, who is the person I love more than anyone else in the world, and her giant hands and strands of gray and brown hair and the same mannerisms I have.
She and I both say things like “my ankle hurts, so I have to go to sleep now” and we both know that that is just one of the bodily idiosyncrasies that we have, that came to us because of the lives of all the people before us. When both of us try not to fall asleep by rubbing our toes together. When I hear her toes crack when she walks just like mine do. When I see her sucking on her tongue when she’s sleepy. In all these things that I see her do that I do and that we have seen our mother do. In these little mannerisms, these little bodily idiosyncrasies, I see the generations.
Our bodies are our ancestors’ gift to the world. Their most enduring, likely. And so I like to think that by dancing, I am honoring my ancestors. I am celebrating their gift to me–my body. I am reveling in the joy that they have given me by giving me a body. I am feeling the extent of their bodies. I know, for example, that my ancestors were flexible and had high arches in their feet. These little details of them…that is what I honor when I honor the ancestors. I honor that I am them kept present. I am the remnants of their dreams.