Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ancestor Altars, and a bit on altars in general

I use the word altar to describe the various spaces around my house that are set aside for idols and gratitudes. And by idols, I mean ammonite fossils, white birch twigs, found-feathers, bits, baubles and candles. Lots of candles.

I realized, as I set about to write this piece, that I used the word ‘altar’ in a very casual and common way. Sometimes, in the pagan world, because we can bring mystery and mysticism down to the level of the every person without it losing its magick, we forget that speaking of altars might embellish in some brains, the images of gilded tables centered in our homes as if we treat our home like a church. An altar is a space that is important because I make it important. I decide that what I place on it means something. And then it becomes more than a shelf with beloved objects on it. Maybe just to me, but then again, I don’t need it to matter to anyone else.

Altars in the Home
I have always been drawn to the meditation of the Romans making offerings to their household gods. I worship and honor the elemental forces of nature that we are both a part of and surrounded by. Even my house is made of lumber from the trees of the earth. I am surrounded by this same world, transformed. It’s what shelters me and keeps me warm. Why wouldn’t I honor that force within my walls as I do within the forest? Which I do. Not because I think I have to in order to prove my faith.

All of the altars in my home happened naturally and organically. Many of them over time. They don’t stand out. Most of them blend in with the d├ęcor. It starts off simply enough. A vacation with good friends in the mountains, and I find a rock somewhere during the trip that speaks to me. I may pick it up almost unconsciously, even though my friends will have had to stop and wait for me to catch up. A rock that I feel the impulse to take home with me from that earth, that spot of joy. It usually always starts with a rock. When I come home and unpack it, I find a place it wants to be. I might write out a prayer and place it underneath the rock, like wishing on the evening star. Then I might write another note. And another and another. I have now made that place important because the rock is there. It has now become an altar.

We Even Do It Outdoors
Often, in the woods, when we stop to meditate or make camp, we will find a nook where we see a natural offering space. We leave gifts and food and drink there, a gratitude to the animal beings for letting us share their space- much like bringing a hostess gift to a party in a stranger’s home. We don’t feel that we have to or that it’s a discipline of our spirituality to do so. It just happens. It’s the gratitude work we do that opens us up to seeing ourselves as sharing this earth with all its living creatures. Once you accept that, all feelings of entitlement- to anything- cease to be able to be true, too. So we have gratitude for what we have and we take pride in what we, ourselves, manifest in our lives.

Taking It On the Road
Some of my altars are very important to me, like my ancestor altar. It’s the only altar that I have been disciplined enough to never set a single piece of clutter on it. I can’t very well take it with me when I travel, but I wanted to bring my Work with me when I went to spiritual retreats.

In the beginning, I used an object as a physical altarpiece. I have an ammonite fossil that my wife bought for me, about the size of my palm. It sits on my ancestor altar, and when I travelled, I brought it with me in a handsewn bag. This object carried with it the energy I had paid into my home altar. When I began to use the ammonite for other purposes, I put together a small version of my home altar into a leather box, which travels everywhere with me.

Inside the round leather box from Ghana is a small ammonite fossil, a piece of quartz, a piece of petrified wood, a sprig of rue, and a small silver bracelet given to me by my first ancestor teacher. These are all items that have meaning to me and how I practice. The ammonite is a meditative tool I use to remember the unending thread of the past that stretches out behind me. The quartz is a focal point, like the flame of the candle I use to guide the otherworld to me (metaphoric and literal). The petrified wood acts similarly to the ammonite and is a favorite fossil of mine. The sprig of rue is an herb associated with ancestor work.

In more casual gatherings, I carry a small orange photo book that I got at the photo desk of Target. It has photos in it of those who have passed on (no photos that include living people). I stash it in my luggage bag and keep it next to my bedside at night. I also have a small jar that has dirt from my hometown in it, and dirt from England and Ireland. Some day I will have dirt from Germany and Poland as well. Earth is sacred to me, and that jar mixes together the home soil from the many lines of my ancestors. For me, it has power.

Another item you can use and make- made objects contain more energy and make your luminous being shine brighter- is a take on Buddhist prayer beads. Start by collecting beads that you are drawn to use for your ancestors. For example, I might pick a large bead to represent a family line unknown, but then a pretty swirly bead for a favorite grandmother, and a delicate glass bead for an uncle who died young… anything that will help me make a connection to that object with the energy of that person, known or unknown to me. The easiest and simplest one I ever made was of wooden beads, colored with sharpies of varying hues. After that I wrote the initials on them in black, and strung them on a spare piece of yarn. Powerful doesn’t have to mean expensive, and I would take care to spend a lot of money on expensive tools that you haven’t worked with yet, until you know whether you connect to that work or not.

I carry the energy of my ancestors inside me, always. In the beginning of trying to connect to that energy, I required more tangible tools to keep my focus and keep me aware of that truth on the cellular level. But now many of these tools are familiar old friends, and hold places of honor on the altars of my home.

1 comment:

  1. I recently bought a book on altars. After watching your altars grow and transform over the years, I've learned how important and meaningful they can be. It's one of the things I love most about visiting you and Kelley.


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