A Response to Sam Webster’s Ancestor Worship and Dealing With the Dead
Sometimes reading through posts on peoples’ blogs, I get inspiration to write. Sometimes it is in addition to what they’ve written, and sometimes it is a rebuttal. Sometimes the post inspires me to write on some aspect of my own life, religion, etc. Sometimes it is not much more than an extended “Hell yeah!”
I read through Mr. Webster’s article. What I found did not so much challenge me as trouble me, as he says he is acting as a Pagan pastor. Particularly since Ancestor work, worship, and veneration are parts of the foundation of the Northern Tradition, I, accordingly, view the Ancestors as part and parcel of the life one leads. As a shaman, priest, and Ancestor worker within this Tradition I find the attitudes Mr. Webster presents towards the Ancestors in the writing concerning.
“Ancestor worship has become a popular topic in the Pagan community, but it is worth noting that it is not universal, or necessarily normative. It can also lead to some problems. . . ”
Not every Pagan will regularly worship Ancestors but I have yet to hear of any Pagan not at the least worshiping, venerating, and/or remembering their Ancestors, at the very least, on or around October 31st.
Ancestor worship can be worship of one’s blood, spiritual, adopted, chosen, lineage, and/or inspirational Ancestors. He notes that there are Asian and African lineage-based Ancestor worshipers that know their lineage and where it comes from. I’m not sure what he is trying to make a point of here, excepting that perhaps they can trace their lineage back to where it originated, or some point in antiquity to where records fail or become irrelevant. The problem with painting with as broad a brush as Mr. Webster does, is that he already is showing inaccuracies and he has only started to stroke the canvas. Mr. Webster notes that “This is a degree of specificity we have yet to achieve,” and yet, I can point to my own Elders, and a great many Wiccans can point to their own lineages. I view this knowledge as a good. I can point to who trained me and how, where this and that idea developed, and provide due reverence for them when they have passed on, while still improving upon the lessons they gave me, and passing on those lessons to the next generation. I find no issue with honoring ones Elders as part of the Ancestors provided those Elders are actually dead.
In his next section he makes the point that not everyone works with the Dead. He is absolutely wrong. Every one of us will die, and we all know or will come to know someone who dies. Whether or not the religion itself acknowledges it, and engenders a positive relationship with the Dead, is an entirely different story. I know that I am picking on semantics here, but if you are going to be a pastor, and an effective communicator as one, the language you use to describe things matters. I’m not saying one must be perfect, but his connection of the Golden Dawn with what may be one of the very few exceptions to the rule of working with the Dead does not effectively make his case or tie it into the main theme he is writing about in this piece, especially in regards to Pagans as a whole. He notes that the Golden Dawn developed during ‘the great age of Spiritualism’ and made strides to divide itself against the practice of mediumship, favoring scrying, and that it actively discouraged contact with the Dead. This is because the main thought of those in the Golden Dawn at the time is that what they would “speak to would not be the blessed and intelligent soul, usually” and were “thought by those Victorians to be reincarnating or possibly passed on to their reward, and so not available for conversation”.
So the main way of viewing the Dead from the Golden Dawn’s perspective, according to Mr. Webster, is that ‘They are dead and we would not want to have conversation with them anyhow even if they were able to be contacted.”
What he says next is both mystifying and boggling to me, as a priest who worships and works with Anpu, aka Anubis. He says that “I generally give no thought to ancestors or even lineage”. This, despite being “a priest of Hermes and Hekate”. It seems he serves a particular role, basically to help the Dead find Their way so They are not lost. He notes that to talk to them “would not occur to me.” It makes no sense to me that someone who works with the Dead would not seek out and cultivate a connection with their own Dead.
Perhaps that is just the work that Hermes and Hecate want him to do and no more. I do not worship either God or Goddess regularly nor have enough regular contact with Them to make a judgment. I am not a priest that works within that culture. Perhaps one who does would have a better understanding and be able to make one.
That all said, I deeply disagree with the next paragraph where he says “ those Dead whom folks are invoking and making offering to might better be considered the Honored Dead or Mighty Dead”. No.
If my Great-Grandpa Datema comes and talks to me it is probably just Great-Grandpa Datema. He is one of my notable Dead, both because I have a name for him, and he has a story that I know, told to me by my grandparents and by him, of how he immigrated to America as World War I was going on. He is one of the Väter (the German word for Fathers that I use rather than alfar, as that word, while sometimes denoting powerful male Ancestors in the lore, it also means elf) as he is one of the great roots that were laid down in my families when he came here to America. He isn’t especially powerful in terms of raw strength, but he has the wisdom from where he came from, and the lessons of how hard it can be to live between two places. By the time he died, Great-Grandpa had lost most of his ability to speak and write in Dutch, and by turns, also did not speak or write terribly great English, either. Yet his wisdom, support, and love for his children is a powerful force in its own right and so I honor him as one of my Väter. Perhaps this is a difference in culture, but I view all the Ancestors as worthy of my communication, as potential helpmeets rather than just calling on the Might Dead, Honored Dead, Heroes, etc. It may be that one of my less notable Dead, or Dead for whom I do not have a name, will have the key that opens up the path before me, or gives me what I need to face a challenge, rather than one of the Might, Honored, etc. Dead.
What he goes into next is his own work and view. Ancestors, to my mind, can imply biological connection but can also imply everything, such as adoption and lineage, that I noted above. I think he insults his own lineages and Ancestors when he calls those who empower or inspire him from the past just ‘the Past’. Especially since he takes refuge in what I see as something those Ancestors, and other Ancestors, are directly involved in. The fact that he has the gall to refer to his Ancestors as a set of resources, as just part of ‘the Past’, as he puts it, is…well, insulting.
His last concern (please note I don’t think he has laid out his concerns thus far effectively or with solid reasoning) is “that folks are performing practices such as seasonal rituals ‘because their ancestors did them’. Seriously? How is that in this day and age meaningful motivation?”
Granted, if I lived in a climate that was totally unlike my Ancestors’, i.e. I lived in Phoenix and celebrated a harvest during the dry season, I could see his point. The objection he has unravels pretty quick given where I live. From what I have been told by those who have visited and lived in Germany, Michigan does tend to have very German-like weather and harvest patterns. So, a lot of Northern Tradition holidays would be fine being repeated in roughly the same times over here because they fit into the general scheme of our own weather and harvesting, minding that a lot of the celebration of holidays were based on local reckoning, such as moon phases, harvest times for local farmers, omens and the like. It would not be impossible or even unwieldy to do many of the celebrations my Ancestors may have done in ancient Germany. Yes, we live in modern times, and I would not expect my military, or my militia to hang prisoners of war. My Ancestors were practical. If it worked, They used it. If it would no longer be acceptable to do something I am sure there would be other ways found, invented, or inspired to.
I find myself rankled at his use of ‘the Past’. The Ancestors are not just ‘the Past’, per se; They were, and are, in some sense, People. They lived. Practicing at least some of the things in the ways our Ancestors did them can give us understanding of how and why. It is like archaeologists who learn how to knap flint; the process of learning how is as important to understanding the questions of how and why, and related questions to them as well, such as “Why this style of arrowhead?”, “Why this method of holding the stone?”, or “Why this flaking style?”. It is as, if not more important than the answers received at the end result of making the arrowhead, knife, carving, etc. By not trying to make these connections, rather than degenerate our rituals, we degenerate our relationship with the Ancestors and become more lazy. The Ancestors’ ways of doing things were frequently challenging, labor intensive, or required a lot of input from many people to be effective. Sometimes spiritual value is lost when we are not asked, or demanded, to put effort in. There is spiritual value in doing things the old way, such as making a Sacred Fire by hand, having experienced this. Our focus for almost every ritual, in my view, should be on the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and doing right by Them. I believe that for us to have the power that Mr. Webster believes we should have for our rites, it is absolutely necessary for us to do the hard work, personally and communally, that They require whether or not our Ancestors did it this way or that traditionally/according to the lore.
In the end, I did not feel that Mr. Webster made any firm points. It felt rather like he was merely railing against the notion that the Ancestors deserve honor, regular communication, and proper respect. I am an animist and polytheist operating out of a reconstructionist-derived view, and as such, believe that the lore and archeology are jumping off points. The Ancestors’ ways may not all work for the times we are in now, but for those practices that we can translate into modern times, I feel very deeply that we should. There is much wisdom that the Ancestors, as well as the Gods, and spirits can teach us if we would just listen, and especially, do the work. Out of anything that rankles me it seems that this article rails against the work that is needed to effectively communicate with the Ancestors and to bring Their Wisdom into the modern times to be shared with all who would hear and do the Work.