The daylight is fast waning, the leaves are swirling and dropping, chill winds are carrying the howls of the wild. After a long growing season of flower and fruit, our attention now turns towards the annual cycle of death and renewal. Many cultures across the world celebrate the New Year in the Fall, a time when we follow the lead of the trees, ritually shedding what we no longer need, making room for the new to emerge. And as the veil between the worlds becomes thinner, our inner ear becomes especially tuned to the voices of our ancestors. If you are someone who yearns to connect more deeply to your lineage, this is the best season for ancestral communication.
TALKING TO THE DEAD
Yes, I know, I know. As modern people, we are too mature to “talk with the dead.” We already know that communicating with our ancestors is a silly, superstitious relic of some bygone era, best forgotten. That talking with the dead is only for woo-woo airheads, right?
But wait! What if these stereotypes about communicating with our ancestors are not true? What if staying in communication with our beloved dead is an incredibly beneficial process, one that keeps our bodies, our minds, our families and communities healthy? What if ancestral communication has always helped us stay in right relationship with the natural world? What if restoring these practices can help us restore our culture, and a sense of who we are? What if ancestral communication can actually help us understand how come back into balance on a planet experiencing ecological breakdown?
Let’s take a closer look at mainstream messaging about ancestors.
OUR LOVED ONES ARE NOT LOST
Our everyday speech reveals just how thoroughly embedded is the notion that when our loved ones die, they are “gone” or “lost.” Think of how common it is to say, “I lost my best friend this year.” Or, “I just can’t believe my mother is gone.”
Our language normalizes a process of disconnection with our forebears that would have shocked the ancients. People across the globe–yes, the people from whom you and I descend–practiced profound reverence for ancestors. They made elaborate rituals to honor, and communicate with them. Our ancestors are not “gone.” And It is certainly not a requirement that we “lose” our beloved friends, relatives, or pets. I’d like to paraphrase a quip from Stephen Jenkinson, one of my favorite teachers on all things related to grief, death and eldering:
If we lost our wallet or our keys, we would make a good effort to try and find them. We would retrace our steps, we would look everywhere, under every pillow, in every crevice of the couch and the car. And if we could not find them, we would give ourselves a really hard time about it. We would condemn our carelessness and swear never to let it happen again. Yet, we are so cavalier about losing our Grandfather, or our best friend? Why do we do this?
HAMMER OF THE WITCHES
There are very good historical reasons why we have internalized this disconnection with our forebears. Today, there is a widespread belittling of ancestral communication as unscientific. But not all that long ago, we were threatened with far worse than teasing us with the labels “irrational,” or “woo woo.” All over the globe, imperial powers of Church and State wanted to conquer new lands. (They still do.) They they did this (and still do this) specifically through violent and brutal suppression of the spiritual practices of Indigenous tribes. Many of us are well aware how recently this happened in North America, and Australia, for example. But we often forget that this same pattern of colonization and imperialism happened all over Europe, to Indigenous European tribal people.
In order to strip their power, colonizers literally hammered our ancestors with propaganda. The publication of the Malleus Maleficarium–The Hammer of the Witches–was a key piece of this brainwashing and disinformation campaign, which portrayed ancestral communication is dangerous and demonic, an evil sorcery. Worship, prayer and ceremonies that were thousands of years old were branded criminal activities for which millions of “witches” were burned and tortured.
Have you ever considered that some these brutalized Indigenous people are your ancestors? And mine?
Do you remember the witch hunts? The colonial forces? The torture? The Hammer of the Witches? Does this memory live somewhere in your bones? Do you understand how this brutality is continued today in the form of belittling, infantilizing and minstrelizing ancient cultural practices of ancestral communication?
Given all the atrocities of colonization, it is understandable that we internalized the disparaging messages of the colonizer, and started to mock these practices ourselves, We did this in order to keep ourselves safe from the hammer. We can have compassion for this survival strategy. And, we can start to heal this by restoring and healing our connection with our ancestors.
This time of year, a simple (and tasty!) step towards this recovery is to revive one of the most beautiful of rituals: The Ancestor Feast.
Do some research into the foods your people would have eaten, a few generations ago (or more). An internet search is a great place to start. Or perhaps a recipe or two has somehow survived in your family? If so, you are one of the lucky ones. Set a date with your family and friends to lovingly prepare these ancestral dishes, and enjoy them together. Bedeck the table with flowers and candles. Lavish them with music and prayer. Tell stories of your ancestors if any stories survive. Perhaps you can find a song appropriate to your ancestral heritage, and sing it with your children. From each of the prepared dishes, reserve a small portion for an “ancestor plate” and then offer this plate outdoors, perhaps to a tree or a fire, with intentions of feeding the connections between you.
There is a long way to go towards restoring ancestral communication. Feasting our ancestors is a lovely way to begin. And long overdue.
Let the feasting commence!
I hope you have begun the process of releasing the outdated and ridiculous notion that talking to the dead is dangerous or demonic or immature. It is quite the opposite, actually. Communicating with our beloveds who have sailed “beyond the veil” natural, normal and highly beneficial. Ancestral healing is ritual practice that can be learned by anyone. As with any ritual, there are some basic safety protocols that we follow. For example, making sure to connect with ancestors who are vibrantly well and who are committed to our well-being. But once we know how to do this, we can receive an incredible amount of wisdom, guidance and support from our ancestors.
When we abandon or trivialize the practices of ancestral communication which exist in each of our cultural heritages, we are actually colluding with the violence of colonization. I invite all of us to recognize what Augusto Boal calls “the cop in the head,” the internalized colonizer telling us our ancestors are “gone,” or “lost.”
It is time to recover and heal our ancestors. It is time to rebuild relationship with them. It is time.
SCHEDULE AN ANCESTRAL HEALING SESSION WITH NALA WALLA at BWELLNOW.ORG
I just set up our altar for this time of year with my 5 year old daughter. We will share stories soon and have our feast (thanks for the reminder of the feast!)…