Working with Ancestors


Working with Spirits is just like everything else in Witchcraft- you can't be an armchair magician. You have to get your hands dirty and do the work. You can spend years trying to prepare yourself for Spirit work, reading endlessly and imagining how it will all go down. The best way to learn, grow and eventually master these skills and techniques is to just get in there and do them. So put down those books and get ready to contact some Spirits!

Ancestor Spirits are one of the easiest, most friendly paths of Spirit work available. That being said, sometimes generational traumas or problematic relatives can complicate this work and bring on feelings of dread. If that be the case, we will discuss problematic Ancestors in just a bit.

Some folks also get nervous around the idea of Ancestor work if they were adopted. There's plenty of adopted folks who have thriving Ancestral relationships and practices and I promise there are ways to make it fit your needs. We'll get into that more in detail in a later lesson, too.

Aside from a couple exceptions, it's important that you know and understand your Ancestors are your POSSE and they have your back. They are invested in what's best for you, in your success, and in your life like no other. So calm those titties, my pretties. Ancestor work is cause for celebration, not vexation.

Ancestor Veneration

Ancestor veneration is often confused with Ancestor 'worship', but this is not a correct definition or description. Think of the word veneration as 'reverence' or 'respect'. Ancestors are not deities and most cultures don't believe Ancestors rank on the same level among the divine.

Some believe Ancestors act as messengers and intermediaries between humans and gods. The idea in these belief systems is that Ancestors are especially suited for this because as former humans they understand the human condition better. As former humans, they are better capable of communicating needs, requests and prayers to a deity than a Spirit or entity who has no experience as a human, including a divine being such as a god.

Some believe it is their sacred duty to care for their Ancestors in the afterlife, and provide offerings of food, drink and even money.

There's a long history among many cultures around the world who practice veneration of the dead (aka who revere or respect the deceased). Ancestor veneration is based on love and respect for those relatives who have passed on.

In many cultures, Ancestor veneration is a continuation of the belief that the dead go on to have a continued existence on the Spiritual plane. Some believe Spirits and Ancestors even have the ability to influence the fortune and circumstances of the living.

Not all veneration of the dead are about Ancestors. While some groups venerate their direct, familial Ancestors, other religions, groups and cultures may venerate saints, souls in Purgatory or all departed souls, regardless of familial status.

Common Ancestor Veneration Goals:

• To ensure the Ancestors' continued well-being

• To ensure the Ancestors' positive disposition towards the living

• To sometimes ask for special favors or assistance

There are also non-religious aspects to Ancestor veneration practices. For example, Ancestor veneration can cultivate kinship values, such as:

1. Filial Piety

  • This is an attitude of respect for parents and Ancestors in societies influenced by Confucian thought. Filial piety is demonstrated, in part, through service to one’s parents. It has shaped family care giving, intergenerational equity, old age income support, living arrangements, and other aspects of individual, family, social, political, and legal relations in China, Japan, and South Korea for millennia.

2. Family Loyalty

3. Continuity of the family lineage

Many cultures and religions practice Ancestor veneration but may not even realize it. It is common for people to visit the graves of their parents or other Ancestors, leave flowers and pray to them in order to honor and remember them, while also asking their Ancestors to continue to look after them.

The word veneration in English means a great respect or reverence caused by the dignity, wisdom, or dedication of a person.

Although there is no generally accepted theory concerning the origins of Ancestor veneration, this social phenomenon appears in some form in all human cultures documented so far.

Ancestor Work

In general, any work you do that involves Ancestors can be called Ancestor Work.

To me at least, the term and practice of Ancestor work goes beyond just Ancestor veneration.

Ancestor work can be done by anyone and everyone. But Ancestor work is not just about celebrating, revering or respecting those who came before you. There is joy and pain in our Ancestry. When we do Ancestor work we address and deal with both of these in our lineages. I think Ancestor work includes Ancestor veneration and the hard work of untangling, processing and healing generational curses, traumas, wounds and other problematic history.

It's also about looking ahead and understanding your personal role as a future Ancestor yourself. Doing the work now and laying a foundation to be strong, supportive Ancestors for your descendants is part of this path.

Ancestor Worship

Some people and cultures raise their Ancestors to god-status after they depart the physical plane, or they are elevated there over time, maybe even over the course of generations.

While it's possible to worship your Ancestors just as you would your gods, since I am vehemently against any practice that involves worship, I won't promote the practice or teach about how to do this. It's important that you know it exists, though.

Benefits of Ancestor Work:

Ancestral work is advantageous to your practice and your magic in ways I could never fully cover in one course, and in ways you just can't predict.

Here are just some of the benefits:

• Lots of holidays around the world venerating, honoring and celebrating Ancestors, Saints and the Dead- makes this a practice shared by many and a path that lets you be more open with some or all of your beliefs and practices.

• Offers us a sense of continuity, a sense of purpose, of belonging to a group and a line that has been passed down one generation to the next for as long as humans have existed

• Ancestors are 100% on your side, acting as Spiritual cheerleaders and coaches in the game of life

• You are their family, their lineage. You are their legacy on this earth, the culmination of all of their decisions, successes, failures, and experiences, and you can draw on all of those experiences to help you in your magic.

• Ancestors can act as your spiritual bouncers. When you have an entire house full of experienced spirits in your home, it’s quite easy for them to kick out any unwanted spirits hanging around. They can lay down the law, enforce your house rules, and decide who can come near you and who can't.

• Make excellent intermediaries between you and other Spirits you may want to work with.

• Ancestor work helps you be better at spirit work in general. Their presence gives you skills, abilities, and fail-safes that will allow you to tackle further spirit work with ease.

• Ancestral spirits have skills and knowledge that you do not. It allows you to learn and trade your skills and abilities as a living person for your Ancestors’ skills and abilities as spirits.

• Ancestors enhance your divination wildly (seriously, if you do divination, you NEED to get your Ancestors in on it, the results are crazy)

• Offer tailored ritual and magical help. Ancestors can give you recipes, rituals, and prayers that are potent and effective.

• Solid advice with hundreds of thousands of years of experience to draw on (although, please remember, YOU are the one living now, and you are the expert on this modern world!)

• Add power to spells and rituals. So, so much power.

• Help you with honing in on a direction to focus your personal growth and spiritual/magickal studies. This is a HUGE help if you're not sure what to focus on and tend to be scattered!

Of course these benefits are just scratching the surface. There's too many to even try to list.

Estranged Families

One common concern about working with Ancestor Spirits is what if you don't like your family, or what if you are estranged from them?

I hear you loud and clear on this one. Families are complicated and we all have jerks and assholes somewhere in the family tree. I make a distinction between my immediate family- my husband and children, the humans I am most protective of and loyal to- and everyone else. I have a huge extended family- dozens of Aunts & Uncles and hundreds of cousins. Several among them are people I choose to no longer speak to or have contact with. This has been a very healing and incredibly empowering decision for me to cut these family members out of my life completely. I feel zero shame, guilt or regret over it. I am wholly a better me for having done it.

I do not buy into the New Age or Christian bullshit that we must love everyone, especially family. That love is the default and expected, or due. That we must endure or tolerate bad behavior because we're family. Fuck that. I don't love everyone. I have a general love and compassion for all life, but specific love is reserved for people who deserve my love. I don't give my love or time to people who have gone out of their way to hurt me, who are unsafe for me, or who don't have my best interests at heart. I set boundaries with those people, along with people who are toxic or bring unwanted disruption or dysfunction to my life.

How many times have you shared a story with a friend or acquaintance or even another family member of being bullied, threatened, intimidated, oppressed, silenced, marginalized, exploited, abused, manipulated, lied to, coerced or of enduring some other ill treatment, and received a response like, 'Yeah, that sucks... but she's still your mom' or 'That wasn't OK but he's your brother, you have to forgive him'? It's infuriating, isn't it?

We're conditioned to put up with BS because we're taught blood is thicker than water and love is unconditional and that family comes first no matter what. But that's not what I believe.

I worked hard for years to shed those toxic beliefs. I'm sure many reading this have also had to break ties with family for their well-being.

Family isn't always the people you were born into. Sometimes we have to choose our family.

Blood is not the sole factor on who your people are. Unconditional love is a lie church taught us to put up with abuse and not tell. No thank you to that mess. As long as I exist in this physical form, my love for any human I didn't give birth to is sure as shit conditional on how you treat me and how I feel about it. It can be withdrawn or altered and is not governed by an arbitrary loyalty oath. 'Family' doesn't come before your mental health, your physical well being, your safety, your sanity. The pressure of making your extended family a priority above all else isn't a good excuse to neglect your own needs, compromise your values or morals, give up what you love or stop pursuing your goals.

So when it comes to working with deceased family members we were estranged from or who we didn't like, we can choose to cut them off just like we did (or wanted to!) in life.

We likely all of us have bigots, murderers, rapists, thieves and otherwise just plain nasty or unpleasant people in our ancestry. You never have to work with ancestral Spirits you don't want to or that you are uncomfortable with.

You are wholly in charge of which Ancestors you decide to connect with. You're the driver.

Often Ancestor Work leads us to repair or heal the pain caused by certain Ancestors. If or when you ever feel called to take up that work- and not doing so is 100% OK- you can choose to go at your pace and on your terms. You have the power to say no, to stop or to put it down anytime. You will always be the one who decides.

One thing you might find is that while you may not be on good or speaking terms with your living relatives, you actually get along great with many of your deceased family members and Ancestors! I regularly work with my grandmother's Spirit, my mother's mother, but want nothing to do with my mother directly (who is still alive) and I have never felt judged or pressured or even asked to change that relationship by her. My grandmother seems to understand I am better without my mother- her daughter- or she at least supports my decision and leaves it alone. Ultimately, she is there for me and she loves me so she's there for what I need. Any Spirit or Ancestor who doesn't get that, who doesn't offer that, doesn't get an invitation or the benefit of spending time with you.

Adoption / Unknown Family History

If you are adopted it can feel especially tricky to begin Ancestor Work.

I wish I had a perfect answer for you here, but there just isn't one.

Some ways you can navigate Ancestor work if you don't know your blood lineage:

• Call to your blood lineage on the Spiritual realm. This may involve using your own blood in your ritual or invocation. This can be an excellent way to meet at least one blood Ancestor who can then help you connect with others. It can take several tries but I have found this to be an effective way to make contact when you have nothing else to go on.

• Visit the homeland where you were born, or where your people may have originated based on what you know from your birth certificate, race or ethnicity. Call on the Spirits of your people while in the place they were most strongly tied to.

• Complete a DNA test and register your results to find living relations. Establish your genealogy as best you can, and through those connections or registry you can slowly discover some or much of your blood lineage. When you find an Ancestor you feel drawn to, start with them.

• Work with the ancestry of your adopted family if you like them- chances are those adopted Ancestors know you and consider you family, too.

• Work with Ancestors you are connected to in other ways such as a godparent or in-laws - not all Ancestors are blood relations.

• Initiatory Ancestors: These are ancestors that you acquire by way of initiation This can be through religious initiation but also through secular initiations such as receiving a doctorate.

• Identity Ancestors: These are the spirits of the dead who share your identity or vocation. If you're LGBT, you could celebrate the LGBT people who came before you. If you're an artist, you can work with great artists who have come before you. Hell, you're a Witch, work with the spirits of the Witches who came before you!

Ancestor work tends to guide itself. You'll likely find many of these questions answered once you get started.

If you're worried about using rituals from the wrong culture because you don't know where your family is from, relax. They will appreciate your love and attention regardless of whether you're using the exact same rituals and words that they would have used. And don't forget, they can help you to develop rituals as well!

Different Beliefs / Religions

Sometimes people feel trepidatious about contacting Ancestors when they ware worried about giving offense or being judged because they don't share the same values, beliefs or religious practices.

I bet there were plenty of people in your ancestry who didn't conform or fit the mold, too! I bet once you get started you'll discover people in your lineage who were more like you than you knew.

Maybe you're LGBTQIA+, for example, and come from a conservative home, or the fact that you are a Witch or an atheist and come from a religious family who thinks you worship the devil. Or you had a baby at a young age and didn't get married (shock and awe), or you have had lots of sex partners or are poly but know your family disapproves.

Again, the reality is most of your Ancestors will be much more understanding, accepting and non-judgmental than you realize, often much more so in death than they were in life. But if you happen to run across an Ancestor who doesn't accept you as you are or who you feel judged or looked down on by- throw them out and don't invite them back. Ain't nobody got time for that.

My experience is some Ancestors who were strict and conservative in life turn into ''do what makes your heart sing' and 'YOLO' people in the afterlife, while others stay scroogy.

For example, my husband has one great-great-Aunt-by-marriage who used to hang on our Ancestor wall with her husband, my husband's great-great