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, June 8, 2016

The Practice of Hanging Names

When I created my first ancestor altar it was meant to be a place and space to honor those who came before me. I was only looking for a quiet space that could be made sacred, to light candles and say names. It was a good place to start and my ancestors became a meditation of names burned deep into my bones.

After a year of devotional practice and attendance to my altar, I had a firm foundation and I was ready for something less passive. I was prepared for the next step, to reach out to the names I had been speaking for connection and counsel.

My personal altar changed and the travelling shrines I created during the year did as well. I wanted them to be a space, whatever the place, for spirits and humans to meet, where I could speak to them with greater chance of being heard, and vice versa. But I wanted the shrines to be thoughtfully provocative to the senses, to help blur the line between the living and what comes after.

I had been doing research into my Slavic genealogy and then into early Slavic pagan practices, trying to bridge a gap from the last known-to-me name and their unknown ancestors. I stumbled across information describing how, when babies were born, a piece of earth was placed in their mouths as the first food they would ingest, as a means of keeping them always connected. Then, the umbilical cord was tied to a tree in the center of the village, where it would leather over time, swaying in the breeze with the cords of those who had come before them.

I had the thought that someday, when I had a home that had a tree, I would tie a natural ribbon on it for each of my ancestors, and let them decay away. That visual stayed with me so strongly, that I began to include it in all of the shrines I help co-create. I offer people the chance to write the names of ancestors or deceased loved ones on ribbons cut from natural fabrics, and hang them on an installation. When the shrine comes down, I roll the ribbons up and keep them until All Hallows, where we read the names on them out loud and burn them in our sacred fire, sending them up like prayers.

The unexpected layer of the magic for me came in the first shrine we created like this. I was sitting in it at dusk and the ribbons swayed gently in the evening breeze. And I peered through the veil they created. I peered through it and I heard a woman's laughter. On the other side of the ribbons, on the other side of water, two young women laughed on a floating bridge.

I remembered that one of the ways to truly honor the dead was to be alive in the world.

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