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, October 22, 2014

A Basic Ancestor Altar

It’s that time of year in the Northeast, when the leaves turn, fall, and litter the ground, crunching beneath our feet.  Among such volume of nature’s skeletons, it is easy to understand why our thoughts turn to our dead. Halloween may be a commercial American holiday, but it has its roots in the pagan holiday of Samhain. At this time the veil between worlds is thinnest, and we can feel the nearness of spirit as it co-exists with our world. The easiest way to connect to that energy is to build a bridge to reach them, something I do with my ancestor altar.
What do I mean by veil? Not an actual veil. It’s a metaphor for a doorway, a place where two planes intersect and a way opens between them. It doesn’t just happen at Samhain, but it happens strongly and consistently at Samhain. If you have ever felt like someone has been in the room with you, or something has run past you, but nothing is visibly there, you have experienced a moment of intersection. I know it scares some people, but it gives me great comfort.
There are basic tools important to creating that bridge of communication in my work. What I am going to talk about are the ones I use, but that does not mean it is the only way to do it. I do believe that before you can learn to substitute, you have to understand the purpose behind the original recipe.

1) First you need a dedicated space for your altar. It can be as small as you have room for, but while using it for an altar, you should not use it for anything else. It is not a space to set a cup or pen down, even for a moment. It’s a lesson in commitment. I like to put a cloth down to formalize it, to remind me of its sacredness.

2) Place a candle on the altar. This is the beacon you are burning, like a lighthouse, to attract their attention. You can pick one candle that will burn through the season. If you are using a dedicated candle holder, tea lights are fine. I used to use Goya candles in jars, until I found a fossil tea light holder at a rock show that I lives on my altar now.

3) The last thing necessary for the bridge is a glass to hold libations for the ancestors. Plastic is not an energy conductor, so I try not to use it on my altars. Water is the best offering. It is what we need to survive when we are alive and comprises a large part of our physical bodies. Spirits are attracted to things that remind of them of their physical lives. Tend to the glass every day; watch the water level and keep it full.

4) If you have any photos of your ancestors, you can add them to your altar. You can also include photos of those you have known and loved in your life who have died, including animal friends. The only thing that is taboo is to put images of people who are still alive on your altar. If the only photo you have also contains living people, you can use cleverly cut post-its to cover the living image.

5) If you have any objects that belonged to the dead, their energy and familiarity will help pull their spirit energy to your altar, especially if you have items that have been passed down. If you know that someone had a favorite flower, you can a bouquet. If they had a favorite drink, set one out for them. It doesn’t just have to be items they held, but can be items that might entice them to come.

6) I also include an offering bowl on my altar as a place to leave candies and small food offerings to sweeten the draw to feed the spirits. Food is not just important to us, it was important to our ancestors, too. As with Dia de los Muertos celebrations, I find items with pungent scents or flavors work well.

These are all things that will help call spirit to your altar. You can also add items that will help you connect to that ancestral energy. If they are allies for you, bone items, stones, or fossils are good aids. But this is the chance for you to put your own touches on the altar, and truly make it a bridge between spirit world and you.
Start tending it a week before Samhain. Light the candle at the same time every day and take moment to think of your ancestors. Take a moment to call to them, either silently or out loud. It’s about dedication and desire. Remember to let your recent dead sleep and rest. Do not call them for your grief is too animal and too frightening for those in transition. Honor their memory and wish them peace. Ask those you call to your altar to watch over and guide them.

Community doesn’t stop when we die. The web doesn’t dissolve when we are no longer physically part of it. We are all relations, all part of multiple overlapping worlds that are both visible and invisible. They exist whether we perceive them or not. So light your beacon, invite your Ancestors to enter, and open yourself to their visitations.

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