Monday, November 7, 2011

Honoring the Ancestors . . . . Or Not

Every Samhain I'm confronted with several rituals that call for "honoring the (or our) ancestors."  While I understand the reasoning behind it, it bothers me from both a theological and a personal perspective.  This doesn't mean I ignore the "death" aspect of Samhain, just the opposite, I've always embraced it utterly, but the people I choose to honor and remember that night I don't think of us my "ancestors."

On Samhain I like to honor and remember the "recently departed."  I light candles for my grandparents, remember friends I have lost, and still lament the passing of my cat Princess.  I don't think of any of these people (or cats) as ancestors, they are all immediate family members or former peers.  I've never stopped to think about a distant forbearer, or a relative known only to me from a faded photograph.  The losses I've had effect me enough that I don't really want to add anymore grieving to my life.

A big reason for my lack of ancestor worship (or honoring) comes from being an American mutt.  While I've always been told that my grand-father's side of the family was "Welsh" it's not something I'm sure of, and I've never felt a great connection to it.  I have many friends who are wrapped up in their cultural identities.  "I hate the English because I'm Irish," or "I'm rooting for Italy in the World Cup because I'm Italian."  I've never felt this kind of identification, and while I'm nominally an Anglophile (British rock bands are the greatest of all time, earl grey tea is delicious, Wicca is English), that has nothing to do with Welsh roots.

While there are lots of elements in Modern Wicca that could be considered "Celtic" (deity choices, the sabbats, much of our modern mythology), I've never felt especially close to the Ancient Celts.  Out of all the great Western Paganisms, it's Greek religion, myth, and deity that I've always felt closest to, and that started at a young age.  There's not a drop of Greek blood in my body, but it's the group I most identify with.  When I'm asked to bring a dish at Samhain that my ancestors would have eaten, I'm at a complete loss because I don't particularly care what the Ancient Welsh ate.  Ask me to bring something that my spiritual ancestors might have eaten and I'll show up with some wine and honey-cakes.

I don't mean to dismiss the Welsh and the Celts out of hand, I have some interest in them.  I do the occasional workshop on Druids, one on British manifestations of the Horned God, and I'm familiar with Celtic/Welsh myth, it just doesn't call me to like Pan and Dionysus.  I don't know why I would want to call to a bunch of ancestors I don't feel necessarily connected to, who may not be my ancestors anyways.  Since my Mother left me in the second grade, I have almost no idea where the other side of my genetic code comes from.  In other words, even if my Gramps comes from a Welsh background, that's only a tiny percentage of me.

From a theological perspective honoring my ancestors and inviting them to ritual makes even less sense.  The spirits of my grandparents being around is understandable.  My Grandmother has been dead for ten and a half years, my Grandfather for eight, that's a blink in the history of the world.  If you believe in reincarnation, maybe they haven't been reincarnated yet, they are barely dead in the long-view of things.  There presence in ritual from a theological perspective is completely logical, an ancestor from two thousand years ago is much less so.

If we are going to accept reincarnation as the death/afterlife/rebirth scenario in Modern Paganism, wouldn't the spirits of our ancestors be reincarnated by now?  Who exactly are we calling on Samhain if that's the case?  Do a few of our ancestors just drop out of the cycle of death and rebirth in case someone comes calling?

Reincarnation opens up a giant can of worms when it comes to honoring our ancestors.  Let's say my genetic ancestors are Welsh, but in my last four past lives I've been an Ancient Greek, a Jewish Pharisee, an Italian Merchant, and a low level official in the Inca Empire, what connection do I have to Wales?  Does a genetic heritage trump all of those past lives?  It seems rather limiting that we'd only be reincarnated into a specific cultural group time and time again.

The idea of reincarnation changes the entire equation when it comes to honoring past ancestors, because those ancestors could have come from anywhere.  Perhaps the cultures we feel closest to are a product of those past lives, and represent our true ancestors?  Is our genetic make-up simply chance?  I know, I'm spitting out more questions than anything else, but I don't have any answers, just thoughts to ponder.  I guess you could make a Jungian type argument that our genetic heritage is imprinted with certain keys that connect us spiritually to our ancestors, but I've never felt that connection.

In 2012 I'll be invited to several Samhain rituals again where I'm invited to honor the ancestors.  I'll again lament the loss of family and friends from my recent past, and then take comfort in their presence.  My mind will wander and my spirit will hover, and I'll say a Goddess Bless to my genetic ancestors, and my spiritual ancestors, and then I'll return to focusing on the losses that have actually shaped my life.    

1 comment:

  1. The thing about ancestors, is that without them, there is no you.

    They don't need names, or labels, or terrible amounts of dedication. (Although they are quite acceptable should you wish to pursue deepening the relationship.) Every moment you love your life, they see this, and in your love there is their honor. It really is that easy. They can be your greatest spirit allies - no other entity has such a vested interest in your success and well being. They brought you here!

    It is frustrating as a fellow American Mutt not having cultural reference or root, but that leaves us open to use what we feel is right without walls. This in and of itself is unique to our melting pot of a culture. It's one of the things I love most about being here and now. Your grandparents, having moved on, are a perfect connection to your line through time.

    I would love to share my experience of the what I feel are the three parts of the soul, to help make sense of the eternal nature of the soul and how reincarnation fits into that, but that would make a better conversation than something to read.

    Thought provoking read here, Jason.