“Honouring” risks implying that there is some sort of vetting process; like there is a cosmic Simon Cowell who decides who is in and who is out.
The best phrase I have seen for what we could call an ‘ideal ancestral relationship’ is in a photocopied chapbook I bought in New Orleans by Louis Martinié.
(Before the hardcore Voodooists start shrieking, we can discuss him at another time. Owning a book does not constitute wholesale endorsement of a particular world view. I also own A Communist Manifesto and the Koran. And anyway, I love his Tarot deck.)
It’s called Waters Of Return and the phrase is: “Get right with your ancestors!”
Not “honour”. But “get right.” I like it. It’s almost Maatian. It’s The Judgement card as interpreted through Crowley as Adjustment. It implies an inevitable and unavoidable act of plugging in what has been inadvertently unplugged. Or an earthquake that relieves and resets two tectonic plates.
On with it, then. Y’all know I likes me my science learnin’, so let’s get genetic up in here:
Blood magic is unavoidable
We are very clearly talking here about consanguinary ancestors.
‘Adopted’ ancestors, ideological ancestors, cultural ancestors and so on… They all deserve a place in your ancestral firmament, for sure, but the road back to them is different because it is consciously chosen.
When it comes to your consanguinary ancestors the traffic on that road (The Red Road?) runs in the opposite direction. And it is coming at you by the megalitre.
Some things skip generations
I adore my father but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a massive dick. He is. We had a stand up shouting match on our last day in Florence but I consider the family holiday a roaring success because it took till the end of the week for it to happen and we were still on friendly speaking terms at the airport.
My childhood was -on balance- nothing short of blissful. We were never hungry, we were never beaten, raped, abused or abandoned. We were educated, we were shown the world, we were supported in our interests and talents.
If you had it rough and you aren’t ready to work through that (and some of the worst case scenarios can never be worked through) then skip a generation. An ancestor altar isn’t just a place to put pictures of dear old grandma. And it’s not just a group of people who happened to be nice to you as a kid. Sorry if daddy missed your birthday but he probably had to work.
My childhood was great but my father was still a dick. That’s because his father was a dick. He simply wasn’t wired to understand how Christmases work, or how praise works, or how spending quality time works. He gave it his best shot, though.
And it’s that last sentence that brings us to the meat of consanguinary ancestor magic. He gave it his best shot.
Honouring as bearing witness
Go back one or two generations and everybody had dicks for parents. Everybody. Honestly, it’s only a few years back that everyone was living some pretty grim Dickensian childhoods. And spare me your fantasies about how pre-industrial tribal societies worked. No one was working down a mine, sure, but people lived in huts made of actual animal shit, little children had their genitals mutilated before being married off to old men and everyone died of malaria or starvation. The past sucked ass.
So my father’s father was a dick. He was a commissioner in colonial administration (there was an empire back then) in New Guinea. It was more convenient to send my father to boarding school in Sydney two years early (a toddler, basically) than have him in New Guinea. Which meant he would come back every holiday.
Actually, I say that but getting back to the island they lived on was weather dependent. So my father spent more than one Christmas or Easter on a supply boat in a storm circling an island with the rest of his family on it. At age six. Am I surprised that Christmases make him go a bit weird?
But his parents also did good things. He wouldn’t call it “getting right with his ancestors” because he is fiercely, condescendingly atheist but he and his sister went back to PNG last year. They went and saw the house they sporadically lived in, they went to ‘adjust’ their connection with the place. (Again, my words, not his.)
My father’s mother spent her time in New Guinea doing things like setting up libraries for the local kids. He told me how they went to one of them, still kept locked and lovingly tended. He opened the card file to see everything neatly ordered and handwritten… In his mother’s handwriting. What an amazing thing to say you had done with your life.
My mother, at age five, was dropped off with her siblings out the front of an orphanage without warning by her parents because they fancied spending six months in London. Her parents were spending half a year in the land of the British nanny but decided an orphanage in regional Australia was a better choice.
But do you know what else my mother’s father did? He was a doctor during the war in the Pacific. He would stand at the prow of a dinghy and shoot crocodiles with a hand gun before they could get to the American and Australian servicemen who were climbing out of sinking planes that overshot the runway into the water. (Apparently the runway was too short for most of the planes.) He was a hero and -by and large- a very loving, gentle person. We all adored him and sorely him miss. But he still left his kids in an orphanage and vanished to the other side of the world.
Finding an explanation does not constitute forgiveness. But it allows you to honour and bear witness to the truly difficult things that your ancestors had to go through to ensure that you are alive today. Life is a struggle and they achieved something by living long enough to spawn and (hopefully) sticking around to see their kids into adulthood.
My grandparents did some amazing things. They also did some really fucking shitty things.
Go further up the tree
Let’s open this up further. You could be a lifelong orphan and you would still know literally thousands of names to put on your shrine.
If you have some Western European blood in you then you are a descendant of Charlemagne. (Here is a link to the math if you want to check the working. But you won’t.) That’s mathematically true. If you’re trying to wrap your head around how this could possibly work, I’ll give you a hint: in-breeding. Or you can just let Stephen Fry explain it to you which is what I did. (Starts about half way.)
Basically go back about a thousand years and anyone before that belongs to you. It certainly opens up your options for this weekend, doesn’t it? And it definitely means you can skip a few generations if you deem that appropriate. You’ve got loads to spare.
A universal story
Once you get to Charlemagne we are all related. Here is one of the great benefits of getting right with your ancestors. As a practice it doesn’t belong to just one strand of magic because we are all connected that far back, anyway. You and I have family in common. (Sorry to say this may not stop me hitting on you if we ever meet.)
You are here today because your ancestors –my ancestors- survived. You are here today because your ancestors walked out of savannahs and across deserts to populate the planet, you are here today because your ancestors set off in the dark and the rain in bark canoes to fish, you are here because your ancestors hunted in the snowy tundra where other creatures were perfectly happy to hunt them, you are here today because your great great great grandmother lost a baby during the night and still got up to milk the cows.
Ancestry isn’t a value judgement. Daddy might have missed your birthday but there are certain base pairs in your DNA that were won by generations surviving malaria and evolving some defenses to it. Ten thousand years ago your ancestors resorted to cannibalism to make it through the ice age. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this post.
They gave it their best shot. They survived. That is something to bear witness to. These are victories we should mark by celebrating them.
You are built of a proud, tragic, beautiful, sad, bloodthirsty, transcendent, horrifying story that has been going on for millions of years.
You are built of it. You are descended from heroes. That’s why you honour the ancestors.