What if Your Ancestors were Horrid? (by Jason Miller)
Not all ancestors are worthy of honor. Every time I teach anything about the ancestors this topic comes up. Some students have been abused by their parents, who were themselves products of abuse going back generations. The idea of honoring ancestors, or even just strengthening connection to their family line induces trauma. Other students are aware that their ancestors might have been racist or bigoted or oppressors, and don’t want to honor such people.
So, what do we do? I don’t have any neat and tidy answers, but I do have some questions that might help you arrive at your own decision.
You Can’t Erase Your Ancestors
Bottom line: your body is made from the genetic material that was passed down to you from other people. They are you and you inherit qualities from them like it or not. You can’t simply pretend they don’t exist. I personally find it positively galling that I am connected genetically to some people in my family, but that doesn’t stop it from being the reality.
Pretending that you are unaffected by your genetics, or that your privileges or oppressions are not connected to your ancestors and the society that they lived in is just delusional. No matter how independent you want to be, you are still interdependent. The first step in being free from the hold of the ancestors is knowing that there is a hold in the first place.
Acknowledging And Honoring Are Different
You can’t erase your ancestors, but that doesn’t mean you have to embrace them. You should acknowledge who they were but acknowledging and honoring are different. You can call your ancestors to the circle, you can even make an offering to them, without in any way honoring them as good, noble, or worthy of emulating. The first step in rejecting something is knowing what it is you are rejecting.
Some ancestors who show up at offerings and I ask them for advice and connection. Others I say “take this offering and shut the fuck up. I don’t want to hear from you”. Remember, offerings are not only for spirits you like. Paying off spirits that cause harm or that you don’t want around is a time-honored tradition.
Is The Work Worth The Payoff?
There can be enormous benefit to making peace with problematic areas of our past. Some people confront things they don’t like about the religion of their birth, or heinous acts committed by their country, and come out stronger for it. They found what was good and beneficial and did work around the things that were harmful and evil. I have done some of this myself. Yay! Good for us…
Other times though people simply have too much trauma to make this work worthwhile. Or perhaps the evil is just so much more prevalent than anything good that the evil is inescapable. The answer to whether the returns are worth the investment is going to be different for everyone.
Maybe a lifetime of hard work will let you assimilate and find peace with an uncomfortable truth that you have been avoiding, but is it actually worth a lifetime of work? We only have so much time on this planet, we can’t fix everything. There is nothing wrong with deciding that you are not going to struggle with this shit.
We Will One Day Be The Problematic Ancestors
If slavery were legal, do you think you would own slaves? No? Me neither. I once asked a room of 40 people this question and you know what? None of us would have enslaved another human being! I would bet that if I travelled the country and asked this question every day to auditoriums of thousands of people almost no one would say that they would. This is as it should be because slavery is wrong and was always wrong. People who lived in times when slavery was legal knew it was wrong. And yet…. well, you know history.
There are things we do today that are wrong but normalized. If you are reading this post on a cell phone you are participating in an industry that uses child slavery, and this is evil. It’s wrong, and we know it’s wrong. And yet…. I have a smart phone and I am betting that you do too.
Chances are that some of your problematic ancestors just held the views that were normal for their time. Does that make them evil? Maybe, only you can answer that.
That said, not every villain of history was normal for their time. Christopher Columbus was a genocidal maniac even by the standards of his day and that played into why he was arrested and stripped of titles by the Queen. HP Lovecraft, whose stories I treasure, was unusually racist for his time, and was called out on it by others.
Don’t justify your ancestors or make excuses. Just realize that they were as complex as you are, and as programmed by society as you are, and as flawed as you are.
Some students are surprised that I don’t keep an ancestor altar. I mention them as a group, among other groups, in my regular offerings but I don’t keep any kind of altar or focused practice on my ancestors. The first Vodou ceremony I ever went to the Houngan came to me and said “Your ancestors are so quiet! I have never met someone whose ancestors are so quiet….” I am sure that in his eyes this was not a good thing, and he advised a bunch of things that would help open channels of communication. I however was quite pleased to get this message from someone else because that was exactly the work that I had been aiming at.
Bottom line is this: you get to determine if you do magic that involves your ancestors or not. You get to determine which you honor and which you avoid. You get to determine whether you want to maintain a permanent shrine, do a weekly offering, a once a year dumb-supper, or nothing at all. There is no right and wrong here, only choices and consequences.