Ancestral work – Getting started with the spirits. 

I have so much going on right now that it’s hard to stay on top of it all. 

 

I often advise newcomers that their absolute first port of call should be the dead of their family lines. These Beloved Ancestors are the spirits that have the most interest in your well being and continuation because without you there is no more of their bloodline in the end. Which isn’t to say they can’t be complete twats, because they can – especially those who are recently dead. Which is to say that if you’re dad was an asshole in life, or your uncle a racist shit, then they probably still will be in death. Probably. Nothing is 100% set in stone.

Now, I don’t interact with any of my recently dead. I prefer working with the older family spirits to date. In part because none of my actual bloodline had passed until very recently and in part because of that bloodline I didn’t know the one who is gone. I do still honour my Grandfather’s second wife and my Grandmother’s second husband as family, but they’re not Ancestors, they’re Beloved Dead or ‘Ancestor’s of the Heart’ so my feelings of them is a bit different.

Anyhow, this is about getting started working with them. There are a lot of different ways to go about and different paths have different rules. This is just where I started, what I know and what I have experienced. It is not the absolute, one true, and only way. Quite the opposite, this is MY way and one of many. A lot of my practice is mashed together from UPG, reading up on Hellenic Chthonic practices, folklore and traditional witchcraft.

When I started off on this part of my path I did so from a point of necessity. There was a major family drama going down and I was at the point of hot-footing a family member. Before taking what I knew to be very drastic measures I touched base with some peers and asked if anyone had better suggestions to get the issue resolved quickly. One of them, a vodou practitioner, suggested I speak with my Ancestors. At this point I had no dead in my family line and I had no clue. This wonderful person gave me the starting point from a vodou perspective and it’s the one I recommend for everyone as it’s pretty neutral. Do note that in Vodou you do not keep the Ancestral altar in your bedroom unless you can cover it or have it somewhere you can close the door on it (Think of it this way – effectively your relatives can watch you fuck).

Start simple, clean white cloth, a white candle and a glass of fresh water that you change regularly. Sit down, light the candle, say hello and talk to them. You can tell them about your day, your problems, your victories and they seem to like knowing about any family things, good and bad, that are happening. That’s the basis of the whole shebang. Simple and sweet, nothing complex and easy to do even if you’re not ‘out’. You can also add white flowers and photos of your family. 

You can literally stop reading here if you wanted to.

Moving forward to what I have now. I draw on a lot of traditions and I’m going to lay out some odds and ends of praxis that you can take or leave.

il_570xn-545636399_sjr5The Skull

The skull is a spirit house for the Ancestors. For me it is where their candle rests and is elevated on my Ancestral Altar at the hearth of my home (in this case a bookshelf in the lounge room as we spend most our time there). George (naming is optional) looks a little like the plaster of paris one by etsy use ViciousNoodle. You can use a real skull if you want, but ceramic ones tend to be as good, and you can also get stunning theatre prop ones.

Offerings to the ancestors and various props and objects live on the altar which are ‘owned’ by my Ancestors or part of their worship.

The Candle

Candles are important, as we all know. If you can not have an open flame for any reason then don’t, they’ll live. The main aim of the candles is to create light for your spirits to see your working and be warmed. In the case of the Dead they can also act as a guiding light to the spirits.

For my family we have two options for candles. I used to use beeswax candles. The downside is they’re expensive, the up is bees and honey have long held associations with the dead, and they smell amazing. Unfortunately my local supplier for beeswax pillars got in a bunch that literally burnt for 30 minutes and then dissolved into an absolute mess, so we’ve been using tea lights. The advantage of tea lights, as much as they are cheap, is that you can leave them to burn as they have limited burning time and are inexpensive. You can also get them in many colours and scents if you’re so inclined. One of my Dead loves vanilla scented ones.

Offerings

2014-06-21 19.22.43
An adhoc offering made at my beloved’s home before we moved in together. Honey, port and a lit candle for warmth and light.

Speaking of, these are a big deal, for me fresh water
is a must and my Dead insist on alcohol. Whenever asking for anything big from them I put out the good scotch, and wine and port are regular additions. Food isn’t good for us, the cat gets into it, but rice, bread, honey, and olive oil are all traditional offerings, as are foods that your dead liked in their lifetimes. Likewise tobacco is often a fantastic and traditional offering, as is incense. A LOT of spirits like smoke offerings. The reason I have been given is that it make their spirit bodies feel ‘full’ or tangible if you will.

In my praxis anything given to the dead is no longer fit for human consumption. Liquids are poured into the garden, food discarded away from the home (usually given to the ravens) and other offerings either burnt, buried or carefully discarded in the main bins after being wrapped separately. Burying objects for the dead is a great idea as the lands of the Dead are literally beneath the ground in most lore.

 

Feeding any spirit regularly is a good idea. Food is love as the phrase goes, and regular attention and feeding strengthens your bond with your spirits. For the Dead water, olive oil, honey etc is also soothing. Alleviating restlessness and potential anger and resentment directed towards the living.

So next big thing is working with them!

At the end of the day this is as easy as sitting down and talking and then listening. Working with your Ancestors can be a good way to start developing your ability to hear spirits and interpreting their messages. They can communicate with you directly, through divination, dreams and various waking symbols.

For odds and ends tell them what’s happening and what you need/want from them, give them a little extra love for their attention and then again if they do the work (and they won’t if they think it’s bad for you).

For house protections place items that are related to the home and family (hair or symbols of living family members) on the altar permanently. Feed them regularly and let them know you’re trusting the home and household members to them.

 

Pagan Blog Project: A is for Altar

(I will be posting one post once a fortnight for each letter due to time constraints)

Ok, a very beginner, and perhaps a bit twee, subject to kick this off with, but as a forum mod over on the dreaded Facebook and someone who has not quite given up on Tumblr’s Pagan tag it seems as good a place to start as anywhere.

Firstly let’s just clarify the difference between an altar and a shrine as they are commonly used in Paganism/Witchcraft.

  • An Altar is a working area that often changes seasonally or with whatever projects you have going.
  • Shrine is a set up that remains in place where you make offerings to spirits, Ancestors and/or Deities that you work with and nothing that does not pertain to them ends up in that space (unless you have annoying housemates of some kind or cats).

Pagans and Witches I know have (for the most part) 3 ways of doing things – They maintain an altar or shrine/s only, they maintain an altar and separate shrine/s, or they smoosh the two together they have space issues or privacy issues or just because they can. I fall into the latter category which tends to mean I am an absolute shocker for using altar as a cover all term for both altars and shrines.

So the thing 99% of people think when they get into Paganism or Witchcraft is that they need an altar of some form and it needs to have very particular things on it. This tends to lead to a lot of questions and frequently money wasted by people who don’t necessarily have the money and are probably not going to use the things that they buy in the initial layout.

First things first – you do NOT need a dedicated and permanent altar. Or a shrine for that matter. You don’t. Any surface you work on, from your bedroom floor to the kitchen bench, to a piece of cloth on a patch of grass outside, or a rock, can be temporarily dedicated as an altar. If you’re working magic on it then it’s an altar. If you make offerings on it it’s a shrine, in that vein of thinking.

Second really important thing – if you are not part of a specific tradition that has altar and tool requirements then there is actually no must have items for an altar.

It’s easy to think that you must have an altar and it must be huge and awesome or contain certain things because horrible asshats like me tend to post the odd image of ours and they are frequently kind of huge and awesome or contain ‘traditional tools’. That… and every 101 book I’ve ever read demands you have an altar with certain tools or representations on it.

No. Nope. Not at all. In fact for the first decade I practiced I only set up an altar when I needed it for something and otherwise didn’t bother.

Having an altar, as mentioned above, is a personal choice. Should you be like me and for some reason maintain one then what goes on it is HIGHLY subjective. Most 101 books and well meaning experienced members of the communities will tell you that a basic altar should have representations of the elements, deity/Lord and Lady, and a basic offering of some kind. This is a reasonable way to start. I personally do not ever recommend any form of Deity representation, but I don’t work with Deity much, and not conventionally, so it’s not something I’m comfortable advising on.

My original altar contained a photo of my Nanna, a white candle and a glass of water for my Ancestors and that was it. It’s grown organically and vastly as needed which means I’ve never wasted money on unnecessary items. This is important because so very few of us have excess cash to throw around these days.

Let’s take a walk through my current altar* as you can see it below…

So much stuff crammed into one surface... hard to believe that 3 years ago I refused to maintain an altar at all isn't it?
So much stuff crammed into one surface… hard to believe that I refused to maintain an altar at all for 10 years isn’t it?
  • The Fan – a purchase at a festival I attended with the Wolf. It cost me $2 and I use it to fan smoke when I’m using it for cleansing. It’s less likely to attract unwanted attention if I’m working outdoors or travelling than one of those feather/wing fans some people use.
  • The Fur – If you read back a bit in this blog I’m working with a Fox entity. She asked for that. As a rule I am indulgent of the spirits I work with provided requests are within reason. As a rule I only work with a couple of them so I can be.
  • The Red Bowls – Offering bowls. I believe these were from Thailand, or possibly Bali. Regardless they were a gift from my Mum who thought they were beautiful. I agree, obviously. Gifted items are often perfect altar items for me. It’s a luck of the draw thing.
  • Feathers – Collected locally or at places I’ve been. Useful for charms and making things but not elemental representations in my practice. Be aware of any legalities around collecting samples like these in your local laws.
  • Rosemary – I use rosemary instead of sage. It’s cleansing and protective and smells better. The rosemary on my altar is harvested as part of one of the Feasts of the Dead and changed at the same.
  • Ancestral Setting and Candle – I have an active Ancestral practice and they get regular offerings of water and/or alcohol and food. I HIGHLY recommend a beginner develop relations with their Dead.
  • Skulls, and George! (The grey skull) – I work with the dead and entities that have ties to death and/or sex. These are often filled with something or being used as ‘housing’ for entities I’m working with.
  • Candles – there are candles on there for two spirits I work closely with, and my Ancestors. On occasion there will be added candles for working, people who are ill, someone who has passed etc. I find candles are useful focal points.
  • Roses – These are fake, but they’re again an entity related item. On feast days I will often place fresh flowers on the altar.
  • Make-up and Perfume – Ladies, gentleman, and everyone between or outside those arbitrary gender pronouns, masks are magic and makeup is just a type of mask. Useful, very very useful, to have charged makeup.
  • The Shells – probably the thing people most often mistake as a representation of elements the shells are there for two reasons. The actual reason is that they whisper and the spirits can and will use them to talk if you hold them to your ear long enough.
  • Incense (not visible) – incense is the most useful thing ever. Use it for offerings or to cleanse, to divine in the smoke trail or as a mind-altering substance for ritual purposes… totally the most useful thing if you can have it where you are.

So, yeah, it’s pretty big. It’s more complex when you add items I’ve removed for the photograph and the other two levels my altar has to it. Thing is, as I said, this grew organically. There was the initial few items that then became a few more. Then I started working with that spirit and it wanted a few things. Then I needed a few things to represent that thing I was doing…

And so on and so forth.

What’s resulted is a complex (and kind of cluttered) altar to another persons eyes but one that only contains exactly what it needs to mine.

So feel free to go nuts with decorations and traditional tools and such things if it pleases you, but if you’re unsure then get the absolute bare basics (a candle as a meditation focus for example), if anything at all, and let things come to you of their own accord as you grow into your practice.
*NB: A personal habit that I recommend getting into is never ever posting your full altar or anything you are working on at the time. Take a few things off, wait till a project has reached fruition before talking about it and so on. I’ll explain the reasoning in a later post. 

Pomegranate Vodka: Stage 2

Two half bottles of pomegranate infused vodka… and my usual dodgy camera work.

Stage two is complete and the vodka I started back just after Spirit’s Night with the Beloved Dead’s Altar’s pomegranates is now filtered and bottled up. Which means I need to get off my ass and work on the actual final bottles for it so I can hand it over to the people who I deem fit for it.

Tastes pretty damned good too. Not bad for a first try… although it’s admittedly hard to fuck up. Now if someone, anyone can tell me how I get tat really rich red colour without food colour? I’m thinking I need to smash the seeds up a bit.