Doing Ancestral Work
Although it is one of the oldest forms of magical practice in all cultures (or perhaps because it is) ancestral work may seem fairly straightforward. You seek the guidance and support of your ancestors and honor them in return, but human history and behavior dictate that the reality is far more complex. Look briefly at the Ancestors card. (Image) The central figure is fed by the roots of those that came before them, supported and strengthened at the base, and yet they continue to grow outward from the crown- a reminder that we also have responsibilities as descendants.
Who can or should do ancestral work?
The simple answer is anyone and everyone. The more difficult answer is those who are willing to deal with both the pain and joy in their lineages and histories. Some practitioners may have an ancestral background that has been severely molded by the destruction of colonialism (in varying ways), some may have toxic ancestors in their family background, and some may know very little of their familial or blood ancestry in the first place. This doesn’t mean you can’t do ancestral work. In fact, doing this work can be beneficial to you as an individual, but also to your own future descendants. As descendants we can strive towards being strong, supportive ancestors.
What if your ancestors weren’t so great?
Never speak ill of the dead? Regardless of how we choose to talk about our ancestors, the fact of the matter is they were as flawed as anyone on Earth today. In my case, the histories and horrors of conquest in Bolivia live on in me because my ancestors also live on in me- and I may not want to call on every one of them. This is similar to a practitioner who knows of personal forms of trauma in their family lineage. There are many choices here. We can choose to turn our focus away from ancestors we know were destructive in some way or another, we can choose to forgive them (or not), or we can choose to cautiously work with them. In this case it may not be for guidance or support, but rather to reckon with historical traumas as a means to healing. On the other hand, we may focus on ancestors that have been removed from or minimized within our histories, whether purposely or not. We can choose to seek them out instead, a means to rectify these past erasures. Whatever path you choose, be prepared to do a lot of emotional and, at times, exhausting work. Witchcraft is not always love and light.
What if you don’t even know who they were?
There are many reasons you may not know your familial and/or blood ancestry but it is important to keep in mind this is not the only form of ancestral work. Many people tend to think of familial or blood ancestry when they think about these practices. Certainly this is very powerful, particularly for those individuals dealing with ancestry that has been hidden or erased. However, there is also communal and/or cultural ancestry. There are ancestors to social justice movements, ancestors to artistic traditions, ancestors to local communities, and many more powerful souls you can call upon for support and guidance. In the end, no one knows all of their ancestors, familial or otherwise, but recognize that you always have a choice of who to let into your practice.
Where do I start? Can tarot/oracle cards help?
There are so many ways to speak with and honor your ancestors. This will also depend on your type of magical, spiritual, or religious practice. A good first start is to add ancestors to your existing altar or build them a different one. Depending on your relationship with them, you can add items they owned, things that you know they loved (e.g. particular flowers or foods), photographs, other images or quotes that are representative of them, or things associated with their community and cultural identities. Ask your ancestors for support or guidance periodically but remember to give back offerings as well. Food and drink are pretty common and much appreciated.
You can also do research on where your ancestors lived, the time period they lived in, and any other context for their existence. Perhaps you’d like to travel the actual, physical roads they traveled, or learn a bit of the language(s) they spoke? Sharing sensory experiences can be one of the most intimate ways to connect with your ancestors. Did they crochet? Bake bread? Upholster furniture? If you share their hobbies or routines, think about them while doing these things- know that the smell of varnish and the scratch of sandpaper on wood are a shared experience.
Tarot or Oracle cards are a great tool for connecting with ancestors. The focus should still be on self-development but now you are asking the ancestors to guide you in this moment. There are ancestral tarot spreads but any spread will work as long as you focus on seeking ancestral support. Do keep in mind, however, that some ancestors may have their own opinions and agendas. Use discretion when taking their council.
What is the responsibility of the descendant?
There are a few things to keep in mind as a descendent and future ancestor. Remember, you can be an ancestor even without a familial and/or blood lineage. Allow yourself to continue growing as a descendent and through your future descendants. Avoid being appropriative in ancestral practices. This can be a difficult line for those with heritages where, for instance, Indigenous ancestry has been erased. Use your discretion and keep in mind your positionality. Second, do your research. Look to BIPOC practitioners in ancestral practices that come from BIPOC, think about how the experiences of your ancestors in their time period affects your immediate family and community, and remain curious about the fluidity of time.
We want to know …
Following us on Instagram? We’d love to know how you connect with your ancestors. Whether they’re from a bloodline, family lineage, community, or culture, tell us the small ways you keep ancestors involved in your work.