A Practical Guide to the Care and Feeding of the Ancestors

My daily ritual of honoring and feeding my ancestors:

I kneel quietly before the ancestor altar. The stone effigies of Mom and Dad stand there, with the cedar plank Dad carved a face into, representing all those who came before them. There is a small candle in a glass holder and a pewter bowl that holds the remains of my last offering.

Opening my heart and soul to all those upon whose shoulders I stand, both known and unknown, I reach out and pick up the bell, shaking it gently to make a clear high tone. As I return it to the altar, I begin to recite the names of my ancestors…
Woodford R. Day
Florence Heisman
Thomas Jefferson Day
Ada Whitt
Walter Heisman
Elanore Hazelton . . .
. . . All my grandmothers and grandfathers, I honor you.

I bow deeply to all those named and un-named. Touch my forehead to the floor in gratitude.
I pour a little whiskey from a flask into the pewter offering bowl on the altar. Sometimes it is water. Sometimes a flower. Whatever seems appropriate.

Now I sit and listen for awhile. I can feel my ancestors here with me, and sometimes they will speak to me. When I feel I have received enough, I bow again and thank them.

I am a professional shaman. Since 1989 I've made my living full time by helping people who come to me to heal the wounds of their souls, bodies and energy. During this time, I have observed many wounds that could not be addressed until the client was willing to look at their ancestors and honor them. The purpose of this short article is to lay out the essentials of what you can do, as a "rugged individualist" of the Post-Tribal era, to connect to the souls of your ancestors, and why this would be a good idea.

Let us take a quick look at the nature of our culture. If someone where to ask you who the most important person in your world is, you would most likely answer that it is yourself. This is the healthy response of any well adjusted person in our society. We live in a time and place where the individual is supreme. While we may talk about how important it is to be a part of something larger – family, career, spiritual community – we always approach that experience as individuals.

In traditional communities, the individual is just not all that important. Not that each and every person isn't valued and appreciated, but it is because they are a part of that larger body – the Tribe – that they have importance. With this sense of being a small part of something larger comes a profound awareness of how many people stand behind you, in the generations of your ancestors, and how their presence continues to impact you in this moment.

What do we mean by ancestor? In many cultures there are ridged boundaries about who is and is not considered an ancestor. I like to keep it simple. Your ancestors are all those who gave you the gift of life. If they were related to you be blood, and they are no longer alive, then they are an ancestor. This can be problematic for those who are adopted, and certainly the adoptive parents deserve honoring as well, but they are not ancestors in this sense of the word. And they do not belong on your ancestors altar, unless your ancestors invite them and let you know.

Most of us ignore our ancestors at best. At worst, we show them disrespect. When we speak poorly of our parents, when we repeat negative or degrading stories about our grandparents, we stand in judgement of them, which is not appropriate. This cuts off a powerful source of potential support in our lives.

In traditional cultures, it is understood that the ancestors remain with us, in some mysterious fashion, long after their physical death. It is understood that we would not be here without the gift of life that we receive from these ancestors, and so we owe them a tremendous debt that we have no way of repaying. Further, it is understood, that if we just pay some attention to them and stay on their good side, our ancestors are happy to provide us with a flow of blessings, energy and advice from where they sit in the underworld. So why don't we do more to keep this connection open and flowing?

Fortunately there are still ways for us to repair this disconnect and begin to benefit from the blessings they have to offer. Here are some fairly simple and direct steps anyone can take in this direction.

1) Set up an ancestor altar in your living space. This is a small table or other surface area that is separate from any other use. It should be kept clean and receive regular attention. Place something on the altar to represent both mother and father's sides of your family and also something to symbolize those ancestors whose names have been forgotten over time. Add a small bowl or dish to place offerings in and perhaps a candle.

2) Make regular offerings. Regular doesn't have to mean daily, though that is best. Offerings can be anything from water to whiskey, raw meat to flowers, incense to tobacco. The idea is to offer something that you believe your ancestors will appreciate and feel honored by. Obviously, don't offer something that would offend them. The offerings should be placed on the altar and should be removed before they become stale or rotten. When they are removed, the offerings should be disposed of in a respectful manner. If possible, they should be released into a natural source of water, burned in a sacred fire, poured out beneath a mature tree, or at the very least returned to the earth.

3) In addition to offerings, your ancestors appreciate being acknowledged and honored out loud. Spirits in general enjoy being summoned with bells, rattles, drums and such. Calling out the names of those ancestors who are known is always a good move, as is a clear statement of gratitude.

After making offerings, it's often a good idea to spend a little time just opening – being receptive to any messages the ancestors may offer you. A simple means of divination comes in handy in this as well, something that allows you to check out what you are hearing. If you feel that they are trying to tell you something more complex and you are not getting it, a visit to a good seer would be in order.

What can our ancestors do for us? Perhaps the idea of being in the flow of life affirming energy and blessings isn't enough of a reason for you to go to all the trouble of setting up an ancestor altar. Once you have established a good relationship with them, you can ask their help for everything from finding your misplaced cellphone to getting a new job. But this doesn't work so well if you only go to them when you need something.

Consider the natural relationship between generations within a family. The children of the family – barring trauma, distance or other distortions of the natural order – are the treasure of the family. The parents devote most of their resources to supporting, nurturing and providing for them. The grandparents dote on them, as do all the living relatives who have any opportunity to do so. Now, take away the division of death. Look at all those generations of Grandmothers and Grandfathers standing behind the living. These all love and want to add their blessings to the life of the children as well. And to all of those who stand behind you, you are that child. The ancestors who respond to your offerings will treat you in the way ancestors always treat their descendants. They will watch out for you, offering protection, guidance and suggestions where needed.

The feeling of all these ancestors standing behind you and smiling their love forward to you is powerful, supportive and energizing. You no longer have the feeling that you are having to wage life's battles all on your own. You also know that they are looking over your shoulder should you think about doing something dishonorable.

Perhaps most important, no matter who you are, no matter what your history, you would not be alive today if not for your ancestors. It is this gift of life that makes them bigger than us. This is a debt we can never repay. No matter how you choose to honor your ancestors, this is the root of what we are honoring. The real shift is not in trying to change how things are, but in acknowledging how things are.

What you do with this information is up to you. Our culture places little value on how we treat our ancestors. If you choose to "go it alone" you will be in step with most of those around you. If you choose to walk in step with the generations that came before you, your path will be filled with more joy and abundance through this connection.

I wish you all the blessings and joy – all the gifts your ancestors intended for you.

Author's Bio: 

Kenn Day is a working Shaman and a nationally recognized lecturer with over
20 years of practical experience in the healing arts. He maintains an active pri-
vate practice at the Full Spectrum Health Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and offers
a series of shamanic training seminars for those interested in exploring the
path of post-tribal Shaman.
For more on Kenn, visit his web site at www.shamanstouch.com.