Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Time to Build an Altar

I recently posted an ancestral healing meditation that included the instruction to set up an ancestor altar. Since then I’ve received several questions about how, exactly, to do this. An altar can help you focus on the task at hand when you’re doing meditation, ritual or spellwork. It can remind you of the energies – deities, ancestors, spirit helpers – who are a part of your path. And it’s not at all difficult to set one up.

Essentially, an altar is a collection of items organized in such a way that they evoke the purpose of your spiritual or magical activities. You can set up an altar right before a ritual and take it down as soon as you’re done or you can arrange an altar that stays in place for an extended period of time.

My Ariadne altar; it lives on the end of my desk

Some traditions have a set of requirements or instructions for altar-building. For instance, some varieties of Wicca require you to place representations of the four classical elements in the appropriate directions on your altar. For other paths, you might need to place particular tools on the altar in specific spots or you might need to ‘feed’ some of the items or dress them with sacred oils. If you practice a tradition that has specific instructions for setting up an altar, then you need to follow those instructions. But if you’re not part of that sort of tradition, or if you’re just looking for inspiration, you can ‘free-form’ an altar for almost any purpose. Here’s how:

The first thing to do is decide whether the altar will be permanent or temporary. For a ritual in the woods or in someone’s living room, when all the accoutrements will be cleaned up afterward, you’ll be making a temporary altar. But if you’d like to set up an altar to your favorite deity or your ancestors and have it in your house as a constant reminder of your relationship with those energies, then a permanent altar is the better choice.

All you really need to start is a flat surface – a large stone for outdoor rituals, a tabletop or bookshelf indoors. We make the temporary altars for our seasonal rituals on a picnic table when we’re outdoors and on the coffee table in the living room if we’ll be inside. My Ariadne altar is a long-term installation; it fills up a portion of my desktop in my office. I also have several altars to deities and ancestors in various places around the house – on bookshelves, the fireplace mantel, a little shelf on the headboard of my bed. Most of them look like interesting collections of knick-knacks, so people who aren’t pagan wouldn’t necessarily recognize them as altars.

My Egyptian altar; it sits on a bookshelf in my living room.

Once you’ve chosen your surface, you can begin to collect up items to put on your altar. If you’d like to define the space with a cloth of some sort, now is the time for that. A piece of plain fabric, a scarf, a table runner – any of these will work as long as it fits the theme of your altar. Think about the colors that make sense in this regard: blue for a water god, red for the blood of the Ancestors, pink for healing. The color you choose should resonate with you.

Now what goes on top of the cloth? If this is an altar to a god or goddess, you might want to have some sort of representation of them. Some people like figurines and small statues, paintings or other images. Other folks like to focus on the symbols of the deity – Mjolnir for Thor, a labrys for Ariadne, a Brigit’s cross for (obviously) Brigit. Whatever you choose should evoke the central focus in your mind every time you look at it.

Now you can move on to the next selection of items. Are there other symbols or images you could add that will give you more layers of meaning? Stones, runes, wands and other ritual tools can add significance. If it’s an ancestor altar, old family photos or other mementos make a heartfelt addition. If this is a seasonal altar, natural objects such as leaves, flowers and rocks can add to the ambiance.

Speaking of ambiance, most of us like a nice candle or two to gently illuminate the altar. For rituals and spellwork, choose candles appropriate to your purpose. Match the color to the meaning, since the purpose of an altar is to evoke a response in the people looking at it, and pay attention to any scent as well, since that can either add to or detract from your purpose. My Ariadne altar has a candle scented with olive leaf and thyme; to me the aroma instantly evokes the Mediterranean, where my patron goddess hails from. You can add scent with incense and essential oils as well. In addition to anointing yourself and any other participants in the ritual or spellwork, you can anoint candles, statues and other items that will not be damaged by the oil. Wooden objects such as bowls and platters will absorb the oil and provide a gentle, long-lasting source of scent for your altar.

As you decide what to add or leave off of your altar, listen to your inner voice. This is the avenue through which the gods and the ancestors speak to us. Few among us will hear clear directions in actual words, but when you feel drawn toward one particular figurine or become uncomfortable with the addition of a particular stone to your altar, pay attention to those feelings. They matter.

When you’re finished, stand back and look at what you’ve created. Does it evoke your purpose? Does it make you think of the deity, the spell or the ritual you’ve made it for? If it does, then you have successfully created an effective altar.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ancestors and Bees


This week on the Minoan Path blog I'm abuzz with information about how the Minoans revered their ancestors. From the beehive-shaped tholos tombs on the open plains to the pillar crypts beneath the great temples in the towns of ancient Crete, the people took the time to honor those from whom they descended. In the hopes that you will take some time to do the same, I also revisit the ancestral healing ritual I posted here last week - just in case you missed it the first time around. So click the headline below and feel the embrace of the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand.

'Tis the Season: The Ancestors

As always, if you'd like to find out more about modern Minoan Paganism, please join the conversation over at Ariadne's Tribe.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rite of Ancestral Healing

Samhain approaches; ‘tis the season of the Ancestors. On my Facebook page I recently posted an article that focused on the concepts of ancestral debt and credit – in other words, the ways in which our ancestors’ life experiences shape the family line down through time. I’m not talking about DNA here, though the emerging science of epigenetics may one day be able to explain the nuts-and-bolts of this kind of ‘bequest.’ I’m talking about the Spirit of Family, of your ancestors and your family line, extending deep into the past and, I hope, long into the future.

Coy Thomas Mathis and family in the 1910s

The article talks about how our ancestors’ lack – poverty, war, depression – might be one source of the mindless drive toward consumerism in our current culture. All those empty spaces our however-many-great-grandparents had to live with – are we trying to fill them up with video games and smartphones? My Facebook post prompted one reader to ask a favor. The article mentions the concept of ancestral healing as a way to close the gap, fill the void, and regain the spiritual depth that a relationship with the Ancestors can bring. The reader asked me to create a ritual for just such healing and share it. That is the purpose of today’s blog.

Let’s start with some basics about ancestral spirit work. First of all, you don’t need to have your family tree drawn out all the way back to the Middle Ages. In fact, you don’t have to know your genealogy at all. Your ancestors are in your blood, your bones. Your DNA sings their song. And if you’re adopted, you can also call to the ancestors of your adoptive family – they are truly yours, too.

In the modern world we are not taught how to connect with the Ancestors. Sure, we have family reunions and we might look at old photos, but for most of us, sitting around a fire while a bard or shaman calls up the ancestral spirits is not a familiar activity. It’s this lack of connection with the Ancestors that keeps us from knowing what’s going on inside us; we need that bond in order to heal the family spirit and ourselves as well.

So we’ll begin with this simple act: connecting with the Ancestors. Then we’ll help them find healing while we also discover ways to fill up those empty spaces in our modern lives.

Make some time and space for this activity. You can do it alone or with others, but be sure you won’t be interrupted. Turn off phones, shut off TVs and computers, turn down the lights, have other adults attend any children who won’t be participating (yes, kids can get in touch with the Ancestors just as well as adults can).

Prepare a sacred space using your favorite method. Cast a circle if you desire, but at least smudge or salt the area and consecrate it to the activity at hand. You can do this ritual entirely in your head, as a meditation, but it’s nice to have something physical to anchor your thoughts, so I recommend setting up a small Ancestor altar.

If you have old family photos, display them along with any mementos that help you feel connected to your forebears. I recommend that you only display photos of deceased family members; mixing pictures of the living among the dead can confuse the Ancestors and suggest to them that you would like those particular living family members to join them. No, I don’t think terrible things will necessarily happen if you include a photo of a still-living relative, but I like to err on the side of caution. Please take the Ancestors seriously; they are very real.

Once you have any photos and/or mementos gathered, light a candle or two. My ancestors enjoy food, drink and flowers, so I make small offerings to them before I begin this sort of working. If there are particular foods or drinks that evoke ‘family’ to you, include them. A token amount – just a taste – on a small plate is sufficient. (As an aside, it’s a lovely gesture at special times such as Thanksgiving, Yule, and celebrations like birthdays and weddings to set up an ancestor altar, if you don’t already have one going, and include the Ancestors in your celebratory meal.)

Now sit comfortably and focus on your altar, or on mental images of relatives if you haven’t set up an altar. (But really, set up an altar!) Allow yourself to feel the connections between and among the people. Yes, there are lines like on a family tree, but at an even deeper level there is a spirit that envelops the entire family, binding them all into one enormous entity going far back in time. You might experience this spirit as a kind of fog or miasma, or as incredibly fine cobweb, or some other subtle substance that wraps the whole family into a single entity.

While still focusing on this enveloping spirit, allow your eyes to close and allow yourself to recognize that this ancestral spirit enfolds you as well. Relax into it; it is as much a part of you as the cells of your body. Feel the Spirit of the Ancestors wrap around you like a great cosmic hug. Remember, you are the result of the love of thousands. Feel that love. Open your heart to it and revel in the connection; you are never alone.

Sit with this for a few minutes, allowing yourself to become familiar with the Spirit of the Ancestors.

Now introduce yourself to the Ancestors. Yes, they already know who you are, but announcing yourself is polite, just as if you were stepping through the front door of your grandmother’s house and calling out to let her know who’s there. Tell the Ancestors your name and why you are connecting with them today: to acknowledge their hardships, their wounds, and to help them heal. Allow your mind to open and pay attention to what they have to share with you.

Depending on your particular sensory style you may experience mental images, or feelings, or sounds…even scents and tastes. Don’t try to identify everything right away, but just let it flow. The Ancestors have been largely ignored for a long time; they appreciate our attention and our willingness to communicate.

Once the ‘talk’ from the Ancestors slows down a bit, focus your mind on the concept of healing and ask the Ancestors what you can do to help them heal. Each family is different and each set of Ancestors has unique needs. Whatever comes to you, don’t try to analyze or judge it. Simply accept it as is.

For some, the simple acknowledgment of the difficulties our ancestors have been through is enough to initiate healing. Others may request acts we find odd or silly – taking six raspberries to a particular place and setting them on the ground in a certain spot was my first assignment from the Ancestors. We can’t truly understand what deep underlying effects simple physical actions may have. Trust your instincts and don’t allow yourself to be embarrassed. Often, healing comes about in unusual ways. But obviously, use your common sense and don't do anything dangerous, even if you think the request is coming from the Ancestors.

Once you feel you have received all the communication the Ancestors have for you at this time, you may politely bid them goodbye. But I need to issue a warning here: You haven’t just done a ritual; you’ve begun a relationship. Don’t revert back to the typical modern stance of ignoring the Ancestors. That’s the equivalent of spending an evening with someone and then never speaking to them again. Go ahead and plan, right now, for the next time you’ll connect with the Ancestors again. Set those family photos and mementos somewhere they can become a permanent altar.

Once you have completed the ritual, take a few minutes to sit quietly and notice any differences in the way you feel. Upon connecting with the Ancestors for the first time, many people feel as if they have filled up an empty space they didn’t even know existed before. It is in our nature to be connected with the Ancestors, to have a relationship with them, to live in their midst. When a society forgets this, we all suffer on many levels. Give thanks for the Ancestors and look forward to the next time you meet with them, and you will find healing you might not have expected.