Folkism vs. Ancestor Reverence

All ranting aside, one thing I really wanted to make a clear distinction between is the idea of being called via one’s ancestors, and ancestor reverence itself, vs. the idea that everyone must follow the traditions of their own ancestors only.

I have heard, at times, people discard the very idea of being called through one’s ancestors as itself racist. I feel very strongly that this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The gods call people in countless ways, for countless reasons. Sometimes, those reasons have to do with lineage, inherited traits, and/or family traditions. I’m not going to condemn somebody for heeding that kind of call. What crosses the border into racism is when people say that such a call is stronger, more significant, more valuable, more respectable than some other way to be called.

I think some of this is actually more a product of the Pagan desire for Ancient and Venerable Traditions ™. For the same reason there have always been some people who want to believe they come from a long line of family-trad Wiccans, there’s always going to be folk who want their bloodline to be a special validation of their practice. Granted, there IS such a thing as family traditions of magic and witchcraft. It doesn’t look much like Wicca, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Similarly, there ARE people whose family lines have some really interesting connections in them, but that’s not a sign that those people are more important than anyone else.

Ancestor reverence is about honoring where I come from. It’s about recognizing that I’m not alone in the world, that I am part of something bigger than myself. It’s about acknowledging that I didn’t pop fully formed out of Ginnungagap knowing everything I need to know to survive. I have parents and grandparents and great grandparents. I have mentors and teachers and guardians. I have inspirations and heroes. And yes, ultimately, those lines take me all the way back to the beginnings of humanity, and when I turn around and follow the threads back out, I recognize that ALL of humanity shares common ancestors.

When I am in a group setting, I invoke the ancestors of the community and world as a group, using a prayer composed by Diana Paxson for use in Hrafnar and Seidhjallr rituals which I have modified to be more inclusive:

Our mighty Mothers here we honor
From womb to womb since worlds’ beginning
And Fathers of the flesh and spirit
Sacred seed itself renewing
And mindful Mentors, wisdom winning
Sacred Skalds and holy Heroes
All who lived and died before us
Ancestors, guard and guide your descendants!

The point, for me, is to give credit both for actual physical reproduction (because we really wouldn’t be here without those basic realities of human fertility, and the Vanir are very fond of fertility rituals), and for those who influence younger generations in a great variety of other ways. There is more than one way to matter, as an Ancestor.

I use this prayer in my own private practice as well, as part of my “daily” (more like several-times-weekly) prayers. When I speak it on my own behalf, I’m thinking of my specific individual ancestors and lines.

  • First I am thinking of my own ancestors of Blood and related ties – the people I am related to and the people they married. I’m thinking of my Grandma’s second husband Howie, a chocolate-loving surgeon who played piano for me when I needed to rehearse for auditions, and my Great-Aunt Alice, the only Episcopalian elder in our family of Unitarians, who used to take us to the Begonia festival, and my Dad’s brother Tom who was the Mayor of Fortuna and taught me needful secrets of leadership, and had a great big laugh.
  • Second I’m thinking of my ancestors of the Heart – the people (and animal companions) I knew personally who have since passed on. I’m thinking of my former therapist and mentor George Hersh whose advice and support got me through college, Hugh Daniel who contributed so much to my political education growing up, and my beloved cat Rascal who was with me for 21 years from when I was in second grade.
  • Third, I’m thinking of my ancestors of Spirit – people who came before me whose works inspire and influence me still today. I’m thinking of Queen Elizabeth I, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jim Henson, and Catherine Bell.
  • Fourth, I’m thinking of my ancestors of Community – people who I didn’t know personally before they died, but who were very important to the people around me. I’m thinking of Leigh Ann Hussey and Mary Atkins.
  • [Edit] Fifth, I’m thinking of my ancestors of the Land – people who lived and died on the land I grew up on, and the land I’m standing on when I pray. The indigenous first people, and later generations, both honored and despised, who immigrated or invaded. I’m thinking of the Ohlone and Miwok, of the Missionaries and Colonists.
  • Finally, I’m thinking of the ancestors of the World – the entire line all the way back to Worlds’ Beginning, and forward. Whether I know them or not, love them or not, even whether I respect them or not, all of humanity is due this modicum of acknowledgement.

All these people I honor because they are mine to honor, but I don’t honor the first few categories as better than anyone else’s ancestors. I don’t honor them to the exclusion of honoring others. And I would never, EVER tell someone they were unqualified to honor my ancestors, or that they were any less worthy of respect and honor because they don’t share mine. Obviously the first implication of such a conceit is racism and I can just imagine people saying “I didn’t mean it THAT way“, but that’s not the only point here. It’s also and perhaps far more often classism. How many people are extra proud when they find they are descended from some king or queen? How proud would they be if they found they were somehow descended only from peasants? But the whole point of Ancestor reverence is that your ancestors are worthy of honor because they are yours, not because they made history, not because they made money, not because they were especially noteworthy while alive, but just because they’re family, and family matters.

I frequently visit other religious traditions and witness, participate, or even help run rituals. I do this because I study religion in general, not just my own, and because I like to help my friends who need an extra pair of hands with their own rituals, even if they’re honoring gods I’ve never met before. When I go visiting, and the Ancestors are honored in someone else’s tradition, it doesn’t change which ancestors I’m honoring. I acknowledge my same ancestors of the blood, heart, spirit, community, and world whether I’m doing it by raising a horn and pouring out some good mead, sitting quietly in an Episcopal church lighting a candle for my Christian disir, or singing their praises with Umbandistas. When I’m on my own, I use the methods most natural to me, but there are countless methods, and they don’t only reach the ancestors who used those same methods before, they reach everyone’s.

In my experience, the gods are a lot more open minded than we humans are. That makes sense, since we’re mortal and limited. Respecting our limits as such is one thing, but aiming for it is quite another.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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2 Responses to Folkism vs. Ancestor Reverence

  1. Ted E says:

    Interesting and thoughtful post. Got me thinking that I honored my Great grandfather and great great great grandfather by being a mariner (all be it in the Coast Guard but both of them were sea captains during the age of sail). Probably not the way you are thinking of honoring tradition and family. I could be wrong though.


    • EmberVoices says:

      I’m pretty open minded about what honoring family traditions entails. While I didn’t specifically have following in their career footsteps in mind, it’s certainly come up in the past, and it counts in my book for sure. -E-


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