Whether you celebrate Samhain, Halloween, or another autumn holiday, this is the season for being in touch with your ancestors. If you're anything like I once was, the word "ancestors" may have no resonance for you. It may sound like a primitive concept, something out of reach. That's okay; things can change - if you want them to.
The title of this post is meant to reference a social awareness that I've found important when embarking on ancestry work: it is to remember that, as white people, we are extraordinarily fortunate to often have access to records that help us identify members of our recent lineage. In the US, where I live, Native peoples and African-Americans do not often have such a luxury; their ancestors were the victims of genocide and slavery, and their white captors or executors didn't care to learn or write down their names. I carry humility in my search for this reason.
I'm new to this and by no means any expert, but I wanted to share my experience for any of you out there whose ancestors are tugging at your ear, like mine were. I just started this journey maybe a year ago, and for several reasons:
1. As a white American, I was born to a land that is not mine, and from where my lineage does not originate. I also cannot just move to Europe and expect that to be anymore a home, because it is not the landscape of my life. As Americans, many of us are stuck in the strange position of being forced immigrants, removed from our ancestral lands either by force or in seeking a different life.
2. I am drawn to animism, mostly through the study of indigenous spiritual paths. I've yet to come across an indigenous spiritual path from any part of the world that doesn't have a strong ancestor reverence. It makes sense, then, that in order to be in balance with the old ways, I too must learn about my ancestors. (As part of doing so consciously, I see and acknowledge that my ancestors and their communities not only intentionally disconnected indigenous, African-Americans, and other people of color from their spiritual ties to ancestry, but taught them to be ashamed and embarrassed by the "primitiveness" of such beliefs, so that now current generations suffer the lack of connection as a product of internalized colonization.)
3. In recognizing the disconnection Americans (and may other Westernized peoples) have from their lineages, I begin to see that part of the breakdown of modern society can be attributed to this (at least in my eyes). When we are not connected to your past and those that sacrificed for your birth - whether one generation ago or one hundred - we are balloons loosed from our string, ungrounded. We lack the support of our ancestors and thus, in part, lose an understanding about community, the cycle of life, and communal responsibility.
4. I imagined the history of my families and saw that they must have survived war, famine, disease, and more in order for me to be here. At some point, they lost their indigenous ways to Christianity. The women, especially, would have suffered rape and other forms of violence in order for me to be here. In my own search for and connecting to them, I can honor and celebrate these sacrifices, and stand up for what they couldn't. I can mourn the loss of my own people's connection to the land and to old ways, and relearn from what's left.
I also want to emphasize that last point: white people have a lot of grieving to do. We have been disconnected from our lands, from our traditions, and from our lineages. We have participated in the murder of pretty much every other culture on earth. This is important to recognize.
So I started my journey. There are a few threads I'm working on:
1. I take online classes with a guy named Daniel Foor, who's an expert on getting well with your ancestors. He also happens to be a dude very into social justice and humble about his wisdom and experiences, so I trust him. I'm really leery of the woo-woo brodudes with their "light and love only" nonsense. Daniel's the real deal and he's got two online courses you can take for HELLA cheap - one about animism for anti-racist folks, and one about ancestral healing paired with social justice. Get on his newsletter and explore his website, too - he's got lots of great little nuggets of gold everywhere. Here's the link to his trainings page, where you can sign up to watch the recordings of those two classes I mentioned: https://www.etsy.com/listing/487043475/custom-order-for-christine
2. Ancestry.com - It's a great place to start. It definitely costs money, and it definitely takes some cross referencing to get as accurate as you're gonna get, but it's a step. Again, not exactly available to those that are not of European descent.
3. Reading early European history - While there's not exactly a ton of anthropological information left from pre-Christian tribes, there's enough to do some learning. There's such a thing as revisionist literature, in which authors take small pieces of history and reinterpret them into what they think (or hope) European indigenous religions would have looked like, but that's not really my style. I tend to stay away from that stuff, and look more at objectively written history, and explore art (Dover publishers have great little collections of Celtic, Norse, and other European art). A great book I started with is "Myths & Symbols in Pagan Europe," by Davidson. Also enjoy works by Dan McCoy (he also has GREAT recommendations), found here: http://norse-mythology.org/viking-spirit-introduction-norse-mythology-religion/
4. Okay, don't laugh at this one - but I fell in love with the show Vikings. Not because of any historical accuracy (I don't know how accurate they are in production), but because there are virtually no quality shows that feature pre-Christian European indigeneity. In a way, it's actually brought me closer to my ancestors because I feel a sadness for being so disconnected from those ways and from the adventures (and misadventures) of my lineage. I will tell you something else of which I am not ashamed: the show's main lady character, Lagertha, is so multi-faceted that she instantly inspired me. She's equally a loving mother, hard-working farmer, dangerous warrior, and fair leader. Her character made me feel like I have a place, despite the horrors of patriarchy and capitalism. (My good friend Gwynne is always yelling at me for romanticizing the tribal past and she's right, but sometimes it's nice to fantasize about being a respected warrior AND a fun mom at the same time)
5. Here are a few more concrete and personalized things I did:
a. I learned as many names of my grandmothers as I could and said them in my head regularly. Nunzia, Stashia, Naomi, Concetta, Palma, Octaviana. Those were all I knew and I felt blessed just to have a list that long to start with. I looked at any old photos I could get my hands on, which are even fewer, it seems, than the list of names. I asked for stories, what tiny pieces people in my family could remember. I wrote their names down and drew trees, noting where the empty limbs were.
b. I found gravesites and visited them. I visited the headstone of my paternal grandmother, whom I'd never met in life. She's buried under an enormous sweetgum tree and I visited her grave in autumn, as the leaves were turning. I then visited my maternal grandfather, again, whom I'd never met in life. I looked at the things people brought to grave sites - real flowers, fake flowers, little pictures. In Jewish cemeteries, I'd noticed little rocks on top of tombstones; I made a note to research burial traditions of other cultures. I thought of incense that I could burn and small pretty stones that might go unnoticed by cemetery staff. I was horrified at the idea that the resting places our loved ones could not be elaborately decorated, or surrounded by beautiful plants, because most cemeteries want to maintain the golf-course look for some horrid reason. I recognized feelings in myself of disgust at the sterility of graveyards.
c. I started talking to them and singing songs for them. I felt very silly at first, but I kept going, wishing them good morning over my first cup of coffee, and thanking them for all the sacrifices they made so that I could be here, doing the things that I do. I invited the well ancestors (those that are well in death, as not all of our ancestors are) to become a part of my life and send me signs, and be with me. I sent my unwell ancestors love and asked them to respect my space and leave me be. And then, I started listening when I sensed that I was receiving a sign. Roses kept coming up for me, so I started paying more attention to them; I've never been much a rose person myself and even resisted it at first, but now I see roses as a sign of my grandmothers. I have a favorite song that I listen to and sing for them. This year, I even finally set up a little altar for them, complete with candles, curios that have been handed down, seedpods and other natural artifacts, and a place to burn incense for them. It's an excellent place to connect and pray, and just a couple of weeks ago I burned beeswax candles in vigil for the ancestors of this land upon which I live in gratitude and sorrow. I also felt called to craft tiny clay figures to sit around a central votive candle, as the image of cloaked elders around a fire is one that comes to me very often when I think of ancestral guides.
If you've made it this far, thank you! I hope this information has been useful to you - to be honest, I didn't anticipate writing quite this much, but there it is. I believe that when white folk wake up to their ancestral lines - acknowledging the sorrow, heartaches, and triumphs that they survived, and acknowledging the history of racism and imperialism in which they participated that hurt so, so many others - we will be able to reclaim so much of what has been taken from the human race in this barbaric quest for "civilization." We can undo more wrongs; we can heal old, old wounds; we can mourn the loss of our own old ways and ancestral meanderings; we can come together in a better way, and we can move towards a cultural balance.
Please feel free to use any of the social media links to come chat with me about this post or ask questions if you have them (or post questions in the comments!). I'm still new to this, but it's already deep in my heart. Be well, friends.