I feel like there’s kind of this 50/50 thing going on in the magickal community where like half the people I talk to fully embrace ancestor worship and using guidance and help from ancestors to achieve goals or workings, and then the other half are like ‘Ancestors? What?’
Okay, so I won’t claim to be even remotely an expert on ancestor veneration or working with the spirits of ancestors, but I do know a thing or two about it, and if this post resonates with you, or you want to read more on the subject out of curiosity, I highly recommend either of these two books:
- Honoring Your Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestral Veneration, by Mallorie Vaudoise
- Communing With the Ancestors: Your Spirit Guides, Bloodline Allies, and the Cycle of Reincarnation, by Raven Grimasi
Getting to Know Your Ancestors
First, ancestors fall into the two categories of ‘known’ and ‘unknown.’ Unless you are adopted and do not know any of your biological ancestors, you probably already have some ‘knowns’ that you can think of, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, maybe even great-grandparents, who have passed away, but are connected to you via bloodline or genetic heritage.
Here’s where some people ask the question ‘What if I’m adopted and have ancestors of my adopted family? Do they still count?’ and, while I cannot speak from personal experience, I have heard of people in this situation who say that this is the case, but that also, you may just have more ‘unknowns’ than ‘knowns’ for now.
I’d like to offer up a third really really helpful book here if you’re new to trying to contact ancestors or spirit guides of any kind, please check out Spirit Guides: Spirits Guides for Beginners by Mia Rose. This book is short, to the point, and immensely thorough while being exactly the right length to convey the basics of this process.
I won’t rehash what’s already been written well by others, so, first, most people recommend if you don’t know who you’re contacting and aren’t sure who might come through when you try to make contact, you may want to first cast a protective circle and meditate on your ancestors, attempting to make contact.
I also won’t go into super deep detail about the possibility that other spirits may come through that aren’t your ancestors and don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart.
If you do make contact with ancestors, they are usually there to help you and they will generally love you and want to work with you. If you seek out ancestors that you did not get along with in life, you may be disappointed to find that they also don’t get along with you in the afterlife.
Ancestor are usually not harmful, however, if they were mean-spirited, unhappy, or very negative when alive, they will usually be that way after death, so you may want to steer clear of those ancestors, at least when you’re first beginning to work with ancestors. If you encounter a spirit that feels wrong at all, respectfully ask them to leave and consider trying again another day.
If there are specific ancestors you want to make contact with, it may even be helpful to have items that once belonged to them, in order to better call or reflect their energies at first.
You should always ground and center yourself, first. Most people recommend casting a circle if you are going in search of ancestors. If they have already appeared to you, you may be able to call to them or contact them without as much effort as someone who is starting fresh, and may not need a circle cast each time.
The best method is generally to sit quietly and meditate with a lit candle, perhaps with a mantra, soft music playing, or any other element that can help you focus deeply, or even enter a trance-like state where you can better bridge between this world and the spiritual world.
Focus on your breathing, your mind completely clear, and expect this to last 10-30 minutes.
You can try eyes open or closed. Focusing on the candle flame and then letting your vision soften and seeing past the flame can help you open your mind to receiving messages or communication.
You can also repeat a particular ancestor’s name as a chant, picturing that person, or while gazing at an image of that person. Instead of a name, you can create a chant or a simple syllable or sound while meditating.
Don’t be frustrated if this does not work at first. It may take several or many attempts to contact a particular ancestor successfully. And, its also possible that they will respond later, perhaps in a dream or by synchronicities that appear in the following days or weeks. Don’t give up, as ancestors are there, but you may need to work to establish that communication.
If an ancestor appears or makes contact that is ‘unknown,’ be polite and welcome them, then ask their name. Usually their name will come through in the form of images or thoughts you receive, but could occur in other forms. From my personal experience, and what I have gleaned from others, ancestors will usually always feel positive and loving when you encounter them. So, again, if someone you encounter doesn’t feel like an ancestor, use your intuition and go with your gut, because they’re probably not your ancestor.
Ask your ancestors questions if you wish, and when you are done, respectfully thank them and dismiss them. If you feel comfortable, you can invite them to stay as long as they’d like in your home. In most cultures, it is considered beneficial and a blessing to have an ancestor bless your home with their presence.
Altars to ancestors function the same way as altars to deities, saints, and other beings. There are a few basics that you will want to keep on an ancestor altar that are considered pretty standard:
- representations of the 4 elements: a bowl/glass of cool water (change it daily), fire (usually a candle), air (can be incense, a feather, etc), earth (crystals, coins, plants, etc)
- offerings (we’ll get to this in a minute)
- personal representations
Personal representations can be items the person had in life (clothing, jewelry, books, etc), or items that represent the person(s) such as a symbol of their profession/hobby, a picture of a beloved pet, a favorite item you remember them with often, pictures of their home, pictures of them, and so on.
That’s pretty much it for the basics, but you can make a really elaborate ancestor altar if you wish. As you work with ancestors, you may find that some are more sociable than others and you may accumulate items directed at one or a few ancestors over others. This is totally normal.
What Should You Offer?
If these are ‘knowns,’ then its likely that you already have an idea of what they liked in life, and offering those things to them now is usually perfectly acceptable. Spirits don’t have to worry about things like heart disease, lung cancer, and diabetes, and its common for people to leave offerings of things like candy and cigarettes, for instance.
One of my grandmothers was diabetic but LOVED certain candies and I put those as offerings for her, as well as nickels, which she used to scotch tape into birthday cards for me. These feel very personal to me and meaningful, and I know she knows what they mean to me.
Another ancestor comes through as very loving and jovial and he was also a scientist, so I may leave things specific to his profession in life. He was specifically a botanist, so I ask him to help me with my plants, and I plant seeds in pots on the altar for him.
Above all, you can’t go wrong with water and a bit of food. It can be customary to cook an extra serving of a meal and leave it out on the altar for the day or a few hours, depending on if you’re worried pests will be attracted.
You can also leave fresh fruit or veggies, raw meat (even if you’re a vegetarian, ancestors love the high energy of a piece of meat), or things like milk, or juice.
Alcohol is usually never a wrong choice (unless you are working with particularly puritanical ancestors) and your options there are plentiful. Your ‘knowns’ are probably easy to pick out a drink for, but a nice full bodied red wine is never wrong, or even consider looking back through your ancestral genetics on a site like 23andMe or Ancestry. com.
I mention this because weirdly enough, I discovered I had some Egyptian ancestry, likely from immigration out of the African continent on the way to Central and Northern Europe, so I include drinks like mead, wine, and tea/coffee to capture the whole fam.
Conversing and Quality Time
Most of the time, your ancestors will simply just enjoy quality time with you. They want to help you and they are directly concerned with your success in this lifetime. Sit and talk with them, ask them what they like for offerings, talk about your life, whatever you feel compelled to do.
You can also ask them to help you with obstacles and things you’re working through. This is particularly effective to work with ancestors if you ask them to help you with things related to family, home, and career. You can ask them to help you with prosperity and good fortune, too.
Thank them often for their presence and let them know you are grateful for their assistance. Tell them they are welcome in your home, invite them to stay as long as they wish, and make their altar a place of comfort and belonging for them. But, as with any altar, keep it clean and cared for.
If you are going to set up a permanent ancestor altar that you leave out all the time, at least change the water daily and consider implementing something like a daily ancestor commune, where you spend some time caring for them so that they will return the favor.
If your ancestor altar is temporary, meaning you don’t leave it out all the time due to safety or privacy (or any other reason), make sure to let them know when you have to clean it up. You can always still leave drinks and food out without an altar, letting them know its for them by silently calling to them and inviting them to partake without the formal process of setting up an altar every time.
Your ancestors can also give you advice on matters you are having trouble seeing solutions or need different perspectives. Like I mentioned before, you may not always like what they have to tell you, but their guidance will be with your best interests at heart.
So, to summarize, if you’re working with deities or spirits, but haven’t worked with your ancestors, I highly recommend it. If you’re considering working with spirits, but haven’t yet, ancestors may be a good place to start. They can also function as protection when working with spirits.
They are generally some of the easiest to work with and contact, and are also mostly benevolent (again, you may encounter some who are not, but that’s usually the exception rather than the rule), with your best interests at heart. They usually want to guide you and help you in this life, so why not take advantage of their assistance?
If you have a particularly effective method of communing with your ancestors and want to share, feel free! I’m always interested to hear how other people have discovered ancestors and worked with them.