Ancestor Rituals – Magical Tech For New Rites

Well it’s been a while since my last post. I wasn’t intending on leaving it for about a month, but life has been pretty crazy round here of late.

Most of it is mundane stuff, but the strange and otherworldly has been rather active here too. And I’m going to be honest with you here, I think this is some kind of run-up to Midsummer. Still, if restoration is a thing we’re going to be invested in, we need to be ready for some pretty hefty bumps in the road. The Good Folk have not been treated well over the years, and a lot of them are very angry from what I’ve seen/heard/experienced.

But this blog post isn’t about restoration and the Other. The post I owe you is about ritual with ancestors. I just wanted to tell you all to look to your wards, make sure your apotropaics are good to go, and that a burnt offering of raw meat can go a long way with hungry spirits.

So that said, on with the show!

Magic vs Religion (?)

I’d like to begin by talking about a group of practitioners who lived a long time ago. They were people who served their communities, using their lamentations at funerary rites and guiding the dead to where they needed to go. They were also skilled in the art of evoking the dead, and purification. In many ways, they were the ritual specialists of the old chthonic cults. They were goen, and it is from them that we get the word goetia.(Stratton-Kent 123-131)

Nowadays, most people associate goetia with demons and scary looking diabolist grimoires from an era when the sauciest of texts came in the color blue. There’s this idea that magic and religion are two entirely separate things – a conception that likely didn’t exist for the original goen. To quote Jake Stratton-Kent, they belonged to ”a phase of culture wherein magic is not perceived as a specialized or marginalized sphere of activity, but permeated the whole of existence.” (Stratton-Kent 126)

In some ways, the distinction between magic and religion is entirely political. For example, the Catholic church rites of transubstantiation and exorcism are

A real den of magical iniquity.

undeniably magical in nature, and yet it they are not considered so. Why is this? Simply because the church (with its long history of clearly magical participation) doesn’t consider it to be so? And this is a line that is negotiated and renegotiated as the times change. How many people in the early modern period with witch bottles under their steps would have ever imagined it to be the domain of witches a mere three hundred years into the future? And yet this is overwhelmingly the case nowadays. It’s witches who bury the bottles now, few non-witches have even heard of them.

It’s not my intention to gripe about the politics of “magic vs religion” here though, I simply wish to make the point that magical tech can have religious applications too. And as I hope to demonstrate in this post, the inclusion of magical tech into ancestor rituals can allow us to flesh out the religious rites of the ancestor cults we wish to build.

Necromancy vs Sciomancy

But first we need to get some terminology out of the way, and some clarification of the two types of dead.

Historical accounts tells us of two types of dead: the revenant and the ghost, with one pertaining to the physical elements of the dead, and the other the

ancestor rituals - zombie
We’d like to avoid this, thank you very much!

non-physical. European cultures have believed in both kinds of dead at various times in their histories. Sometimes (as in the Heathen period Icelandic tales), it’s revenants or draugar that take center stage. However at other times, it is spirits.

Over the years, this has led to some Heathens arguing for a completely non-dualist view of the soul (ie a soul that does not separate from the body after death). However, I find flaws in this argument. For if we are to take the arguments that the Wild Hunt originated in the ancestor rites of the early Indo-European societies, and that the act of the masking transformed the young warriors into the ancestors (per Kershaw), then a belief in a non-physical soul is somewhat necessary.

Instead, I find greater sense from both a scholarly and experiential perspective in a tripartite schema of ‘soul’. One that is comprised of breath/spirit wind, a ‘free soul’ (the hyge), and a more passive soul that is confined to the body (mōdsefa). (The sharp minds among you may notice the correlation between these two soul parts and the ravens said to accompany Odin.) Those of you who are interested can read more about my take on this here.

The division inherent within the terms “necromancy” and “sciomancy” reflect these two types of dead and the practices surrounding them. That’s not to say that correlation is causation here though. Simply that true necromancy requires the physical remains of the deceased and may also involve the creation of revenants. The practices that the vast majority of modern “necromantic” practitioners are engaged in involving the non-physical aspects of the dead is more properly called “sciomancy. (“The Rain Will Make”)

Thankfully, it’s the latter that I’ll be dealing with here.

A Magical View of Ancestor Cultus

Now that we’ve gotten those definitions out of the way, it’s time to return to our central problem: how to make contact with our deceased ancestors in an effective way.

1. Story

A lot of people laugh when I tell them that magic is all about stories and the telling of stories. But this is especially the case with the dead because the stories we believe and allow to mold us in life, can so easily become what we are after death.

Think about the stories your family tells about deceased relatives. Where does your family believe they go? What is the likelihood that your ancestors thought the same thing? Finally, if your family comes from a number of different faith traditions, what (if any) common ground can be found?

I believe that it’s incredibly important to find that common ground too. As Pagans and Heathens we tend to take a kind of patronizing view towards the dead and where they may have ended up. We decide wholesale that they’re really in “heaven”, or “hel”, or (heavens forbid, fucking brosatru) “Valhalla”. But that may not be where they actually are or how it looks for them.

So I tend to take a pretty loose view of this part of ritual planning. Most afterlife beliefs involve the moving of the deceased to another place that is either good or bad, and often there are obstacles considered to be in the way. So rather than getting into details about place names, I tend to just go with generic terms like “peaceful lands” (pick one, whichever you want!), and with a standard three obstacles (as a repeating theme in European folklore). This usually allows me to work with both Christian and pre-Christian ancestors quite well.

And like the goen of old, I use lamentation (or rather a dirge) to call them forth. My chosen song is an adaptation of the old English song ‘A Lyke Wake’. Which is perfectly really, because it was designed to be sung over a corpse and effectively guides the deceased through the obstacles to the afterlife. You can see my adaptations here. The tune itself remains the same.

You will notice that there are both summoning and returning verses. Don’t be an asshole, do them the courtesy of singing them home if you summon them. This song can also be used to psychopomp stray spirits to good effect.

Permission?

Depending on your worldview (and the worldview of your dead), there may be permission required from whoever the “story” puts in charge of wherever the dead are. Again, I like to stay general here and make a polite address to whichever deities are in charge of the places where my dead reside. I call to them, ask permission, and make offerings. Manners go a long way in witchcraft.

Meeting Halfway

It can be hard for the ancestors to come and hang out with us, especially in a ancestor rituals - crossroadsmore present sense. So I usually suggest that we include ways to meet them “halfway” in our ritual design. Historical accounts and evidence give us multiple examples of these “halfway” places that can be recreated in ritual. Crossroads, water, pits, doorposts, and mounds – these are all places that can be helpful to recreate ritually when working with the dead. Your circle could be as a mound, crossroads can be made with sticks bound together, and most people have access to doorways and bowls of water! Symbolism is a language of ritual, so don’t worry if you have to symbolically recreate any of those things. The ancient Greeks had no issue with recreating the geography of Hades in their Nekyomanteia (orakles of the dead), and archaeologists of Old Norse culture are investigating similar ideas in the north too!

Some Safety Mechanisms For Ancestor Rituals

And speaking of bowls of water, let’s talk safety mechanisms. One of my favorite ways of contacting ancestors is the Art Armadel. As a technique it dates back at least to the Greek Magical Papyri, and is a form of scrying. Just with ghosts and other spirits summoned into the mix.
I mention this tech because it’s got a couple of really neat safety mechanisms built in (which is why it’s been my predominant form of having a natter with spirits since my kid was born).

First you summon a gatekeeper deity or spirit. For some people this is Hermanubis or Anubis, but I tend towards good old Draugadróttinn, Odin. (I ancestor rituals - circehave this whole bastardized ritual involving stuff I also found in a dream that would melt a purist’s head.)

Then you ask them to bring the dead you want to talk to (or whoever), and you basically scry the conversation you have. And I know, it sounds weird to have a conversation into a bowl of water, but it’s also great because the spirits are contained, and there’s someone bigger than you in charge of the whole thing. Moreover, you can do the whole ritual within a circle for an added layer of protection.

(Obviously this is a very simplified version of this whole thing. For a similarly bastardized but more detailed ritual, see Gordon White’s Chaos Protocols)

This kind of ritual tech is great for solo rituals, but what about rituals that are more public?

From my experience of incorporating some of this tech into public rituals (no joke – and they were right next to a civil war battlefield), there are one of two ways you could go with this:

1. Ask a deity to act as ‘gatekeeper’ for the rite.

2. Have attendees wear phylacteries (protective amulets – I usually make my kid wear one anyway).

There is of course the third option of simply not allowing anyone but the ritual specialists inside the sacred space for the duration of the working, but I’m yet to see any group actually do this.

Regardless of what you do though, be sure to pay attention to your wording of things and the kind of conditions and permissions you’re including (either intentionally or inadvertently) in your liturgy. This this is incredibly important when dealing with the numinous, especially if you use language of agreement (ie their presence is contingent on abiding by certain behaviors).

Lastly, be sure to have back-up plans (like a bunch of asafetida you can burn) and plenty of apotropaics. I would also advise including a purification stage after the ancestors have been sung home before the end of the rite.

Final Words

Around two thousand words of text and I’m barely scratching the surface here! Hopefully though, this post has given you some ideas for how you could incorporate magical tech into your ancestor/dead rites. I also promised some prayers but found myself hesitant to share the prayers that have become part of my family’s hearth cult.

In the next post, possibly an AMA on this subject to tie things up. In the meantime though, stay spooky my friends!

Sources (Not Linked)
Jake Stratton-Kent – Geosophia I
Gordon White – Chaos Protocols

Ancestor Veneration: Building a Shrine

shrine - ancestor shrine

I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was a kid we had a kind of unofficial ancestor shrine. Nobody called it that of course, but that’s essentially what it was. To most visitors it was nothing more than the corner of the living room.

shrine - photo
Someone’s ancestors (not mine).

It just happened to be filled with lots of photographs. However with our familial ties to Spiritualism, it had an extra layer of meaning for us (even if only subconsciously).

It was never worked like an ancestor shrine, but that doesn’t matter because it still did what it needed to. It provided a focus and gave them a place in our home.

Open Shrine or Closed? Some Considerations

My family’s unofficial shrine was open, any visitor could see it. However, you might want to take some time to think about how open you want your shrine to be. You see for some people, an open shrine is to be avoided. Visitors may not understand or respect it. They may even actively try to mess with it if they have a grudge. Some people feel that the ancestors prefer somewhere peaceful in the home, and some traditions simply prefer to maintain a degree of separation between the living and dead. Keeping your shrine away from more “public” areas of the home can be a way to protect and keep sacred what might be seen as the power of your family.

However for other shrine keepers, the shrine is best kept where it can serve as a daily focus for family rites. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the people who keep an open shrine don’t share the same concerns about visitors! However for these people, the focus is typically more on continued inclusion of the deceased in family life.

If you’re not sure whether to build an open or closed shrine though, it can be helpful to take some time to consider your perception of shrines and how they relate to the ancestors themselves. Do you believe they’re always present at the shrine or do they (hopefully) come for rituals/when called upon? Because if you think they’re always there at the shrine then you may want to opt for a closed shrine.

You can also take a mixed approach too, keeping an open shrine but with closed spirit houses/vessels. This is the approach I take. Others keep their shrines in public areas but cover them in some way.

Shrines as Storied Places

Ancestors are about story. We exist because of their stories, we build their stories into our lives, and we keep their memory alive in story. The ancestor shrine is no different in my opinion (though not all traditions agree). I look over at my family’s ancestor shrine and on one level I see a random collection of old photos and objects. However, I know that each of those objects aren’t just randomly selected, there are stories attached. So I guess what I’m saying here is that ancestor shrines can become quite busy. It becomes all too easy to add the old rosary of a beloved aunt or one of grandma’s crochet hooks. So be mindful of space. Unless you’re incredibly disciplined and/or already belong to a tradition that takes a more minimalist approach, you’re going to need enough space to really sink into this practice.

Directionality

Ideally in my opinion, an ancestor shrine should be in either the west or north. shrine - sunsetMy reasoning for this is twofold. First of all, both of these directions have traditionally been linked with the dead in various folklores and mythologies. For example, the Old Norse Hel is said to be in the North (Simek 1993, 137), and multiple European mythologies depict the dead going over the seas to the land of the dead (which for many were in a westerly direction) (Heide “Holy Islands”). Secondly, I’ve always had greater effect when working with this directionality while working with the dead. Your mileage of course may vary.

Typical Items

So you have your space picked out, now it’s time to fill it. Before doing so though, I would take some time to cleanse and consecrate your space in whichever way is typical for your tradition or way or working. Because regardless of tradition, one of the keys to working with ancestors is cleanliness. So make sure that anything you use for the ancestors is clean first, in all senses of the word.

Once you have your space and it’s ready, it’s time to remember those stories I

mentioned before. In the beginning, you probably won’t have any spirit houses or vessels – they tend to come with time and after working with the dead. But that’s okay. Because you can make a good start with photos of deceased (no living!), candles, offering vessels, an incense holder, and some stones or soil from ancestral sites.

If you have anything of your deceased – those storied items – add those too. One rule that you need to keep in mind though, is that once something goes to their shrine, it stays with their shrine. So you really need to make sure that the offering vessels don’t get mixed in with your living family crockery. This can be

shrine - matrioska
Matronae statues are hard to get, but matrioska are pretty easy to find!

a little confusing if you use everyday-looking items as opposed to more obvious ritual bowls.

My ancestor shrine also contains a couple of Matronae representations, and if your tradition has a group of collective dead like that, then you may want to create or add a representation of them to your shrine. It’s worth noting here that I also have other representations of the Matronae, but this second set are for the worship of a more locally-based collective of Matronae.

Shrine activities

Once you have your shrine set up, you’ll most commonly interact with it in three main ways:

1. Cleaning/Maintenance

As I said above, cleanliness is key to working with the dead. You know that advice that you see in literally every ghost show ever to clean up your demon-infested hole if you want to get rid of them? Well, there are reasons for that. Ancestor shrines can attract some opportunistic entities that will mess with you – especially before they’re established. Once your shrine is fully established though, the shrine and the ancestors represented can serve as powerful protection against all kinds of nasty things.

For example, when I was pregnant (and therefore under magical taboo), some individuals decided to try starting a witch war with me. Sensing it coming, I went to my ancestors and basically gave them the heads up. One night a few days afterwards as I was lying in bed, I noticed the outline of a humanoid figure in my kitchen (which I could see from my bed). I knew it was someone creeping and so started trying to think of ways that I could get rid of them without breaking my taboo. However I need not have worried, because the humanoid was very quickly surrounded by a red mist and the buzz of voices that amplified before disappearing with a snap. They’d been escorted out of my home by the ancestors!

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about here.

So you want to keep your shrine clean. None of this “doing so much work that the dust doesn’t have time to settle” mentality here. That doesn’t work here in my opinion. Keep it clean, keep it light, and keep it bright.

2. Checking In

The second main activity is simply checking in with your ancestors. This can

shrine - cake
Holy hell, how good does that look!! Are those some fucking Johanesbeeren there too? Damn, girl! Y’all know how to get me coming out, never mind the dead!

be as simple as lighting some candles and then sort of keeping them in the loop like you would living relatives that live far away, or making them and yourself some coffee and sitting down for a full on chat/advice session. You may not get a whole lot at first in terms of communication, but remember, dead communication can be pretty damn subtle. So be patient. If you’re really struggling, pull out some divination tools.

3. Offerings

Feeding your ancestors in an important part of ancestor cultus, however it’s worth bearing in mind that different traditions consider different things suitable/unsuitable for offering. For example, in some traditions, you don’t offer alcohol to the dead because it’s “hot” and will lead to restless dead. You want to only offer “cool” things like water. However in other traditions, alcohol for the dead is perfectly fine. There are also different protocols for how long food and drink offerings should be left out. Generally speaking though, it’s a good idea to only leave things out for a couple of days. Remember that cleanliness thing? You want to avoid things going nasty and moldy on there.
And again, don’t consume what has been given to them.

However, food and drink aren’t the only offerings that can be given to the dead. Flowers, candles, incense, songs, crafts and prayers can all play their parts too! Depending on what you’re offering, you may need to either burn or submerge your offerings in water. By fire or by water are the traditional pathways through which offerings may be gifted to the dead. After all, if the dead can reach the afterlife via water or fire, then your gifts to them can most certainly take the same routes.

So be creative.

Final Words

When you’re not used to working with the ancestors, it can be all too easy to feel self-conscious. It can be easy to feel like you’re not doing it right. Don’t worry though, they’re pretty used to us fucking things up. In my experience, they’re just glad you’re trying. So keep trying. Work with your shrine. Figure out what gets the best responses. Go with your instincts regarding placement of objects, ways to approach or leave, and what kinds of offerings are appreciated.

Just experiment for now.

Even if all you can summon is a big fat “I haven’t a fucking clue what to say”. Just sit there anyway. Say what comes to mind. Confess your fears and worries. This stage is all about trying to create and nurture that connection. Give it a month of checking in and making offerings every couple of days at least.

In the next post, I’m going to look at the nuts and bolts of ritual with the ancestors. Prayers, songs, all that jazz. So stay tuned.

Eight Sarcastic But Serious Tips for Necromancy

Necromancy - squad

Bored with the same old candle spells and rhyming couplets? Why not dabble in a spot of necromancy for the kind of life change that only the dead can bring! Practiced for generations and common to pretty much every culture on earth, necromancy is the new way to find out shit you wouldn’t otherwise know.

The Dead > Siri

We all have things we want to know about: lost items we want to find, things we want to know about other people, what the winning lottery numbers are…. and well, as we all know Siri can be a right royal bitch! But who the fuck is she to be a bitch? Sure, the dead can be bitches too (see point #2 ), but they arguably have some sentience (depending on your worldview). It’s like the difference between getting attitude from a fucking Furby, and you know, an actual person. Yes, Siri, you’re just some flashy Furby pimped up with spy tech! You are NOT the boss of me.

(FYI, the Dead also beat Alexa. The gods don’t go to any old schmucks for information!)

Necromancy - Siri
“Fuck you, Siri!”

But the point is, the dead can help with lots of questions. From modern iterations on the traditional treasure-hunting theme (“Where are my keys?”), to questions designed to find out hidden knowledge (“How many people has my aunt ____ banged? How many does it take before people start to call you a ‘bike’?”), the dead have you covered.

Your Dead Entourage

For the truly self-centered and destructive among you, necromancy also gives you the option of compelling the dead

Necromancy - squad
Amirite?

to go and fuck up someone you hate! Yes, for the small cost of completely shitting on any chances of being a decent human being and the potential consequences of getting caught robbing graves, you too can have your own dead army. Marvelous!

Of course, there’s a lot of argument about whether it’s *really* bad to do that to the bones of traditional targets (like hanged criminals and shit), but I’m going with the moral absolutism here. It’s way easier to be sarcastic about absolutes than shades of grey.

The Underworld’s The Limit!

Did you know that there are a fuck load of dead people buried in the earth, and that lots of people have died since the beginning of humanity? This means that there are literally millions of dead people to choose from with your necromancy. The Underworld is the limit, people!

Necromancy - underworld
See? LOADS of dead people. (Thanks for the snapshot, Orpheus!)

So, what key tips would I give to the would-be necromancer? I’m glad you asked that, because I have some right here!

1. Pick The Easy Ones

Necromancy - Kratos
This isn’t really Kratos, but this guy? Yeah, you’re not aiming to raise guys like him.

This is something of a no-brainer, but you generally want to go for either the somewhat debilitated or you know, people who actually liked you in life. The reason for this is that if you have a Code:Draugr situation, the weaker ones won’t be able to fight you as well, and people who liked you won’t automatically try to fuck you up when you drag them kicking and screaming from their miserable afterlife existences. Don’t go for the cool-sounding warrior or king, because that hardly ever goes well. The same goes for criminals or people who have died in really bad ways. That kind of anger sticks around (also: see point #2)

Generally the best advice is to go for your grandma who used to feed you cakes every time you went round to her house. Only this time, she’ll be feeding you information instead of diabetes.

2. An Asshole In Life Is Still An Asshole In Death
So, once upon a time there was a douchebag called ‘Hrapp’ who lived in Iceland way back when. Now everyone thought he was a grade A prick even in life, so it should have been a no-brainer to not bury him IN A FUCKING DOORWAY! Except they did, and it was terrible, because doorways are weird, liminal places, and Hrappy-boy stayed right where he was. Yes, they had a Code:Draugr situation, and it sucked. Because if they thought he was a prick in life, he didn’t exactly improve on death. No, he got worse, and even worse, he had draugr-powers.

To be fair, his wife probably just dealt with his demand to be buried in the doorway with the same level of give a shit or existential terror as she may have done to his demands for horse ass for dinner. Whatever, the moral of this story is clear: death doesn’t erase douchebaggery, so don’t raise douches. (That’s a moral for more than just necromancy, right there!)

3. Be Respectful
So, you’ve got your dead all nice and necromanced, how do you talk to them?
Well, if your answer was something along the lines of “Well, like Zak Bagans!”, do the world a favor and slap yourself. Actually, slap the shit out of yourself and put down the necromancy, no more necromancies for you!

No, the best way to deal with the dead in necromancy is to reign in all your inherent douchebaggery and pretend you’re a respectful fuck who isn’t just really trying to find out who his/her aunt banged for the lolz.

4. It’s OK To Be Scared
In fact, if you’re not scared, you probably have no internal capacity for risk assessment. If you cannot do that, then put down the necromancy. Fear isn’t a bad thing, it’s natural when raising the restless or rested. If anything, that preternatural cold kind of inspires it. It’s like a visceral warning that what you’re doing is not just a little bit against the natural order of things, and that’s the kind of instinct that keeps you from either joining them, or winding up in a straitjacket.

You just have to learn to handle the fear, not rid yourself of it.

5. Fuck-Ups Happen, So Have Backup Plans
Another thing you have to handle is the potential for fuck-ups. Or even ways in which you vastly underestimated the situation (same diff). This is incredibly common, and despite the new and improved character sheets the dead now come with which allow you to compare their stats with your own to see who has the most dots in whatever, fuck-ups are pretty much a part of the necromancer’s life.

Once upon a time, there was this dude called Benvenuto Cellini. Now Cellini got in with a necromancer back in the day and kinda let him know that he was up for learning about it. Kind of like a bucket list kind of deal really. So Cellini, his new necromancer buddy, and a couple of other mates he invited along, went off to the Coliseum to go and bother the dead. The first time they went, it was all a bit “oooh” and “ahhhh”, and “when will I see my dead girlfriend again?” (FYI, not a good question to ask.)

The second time though, there were more spirits than you could shake a stick at of various kinds. I mean, this was a situation seriously going downhill. But did the necromancer turn into Zak Bagans? Nope, he stayed respectful. His assistants were terrified, Cellini was terrified, the little virgin boy psychic they’d brought along was terrified. Seriously, they were so close to being completely up shit creek because the Coliseum was crawling with the dead and everything else.

Thankfully, the necromancer had a good plan to disperse the dead, and this is where we get into back-up plans.

6.Fart-o-cism
Yes, you read that right.

Cellini’s necromancer had a big pile of stinky ole asafetida. Because the dead apparently don’t like stinky stuff. (Nor

do the elves btw, a euphemism in Icelandic for ‘to take a shit’ allegedly literally translates as ‘drive out elves’).

Necromancy - Fartocism
“No more ghosts here, boss!”

However, they didn’t really need to crack out that fetid weed, because….

Cellini’s bud Agnolo cut cheese like you wouldn’t believe. No really, from the description it sounds like that fart would have left a mark. But it worked, and the dead started to get the hell out as soon as they could.
So you know, if you’re really in trouble, try shitting yourself.

7. Put Them Back When You’re Done
Remember when you were a kid and you finished playing with some toys, left them out, and got bollocked by your mum for not tidying up after yourself? Well it’s the same principle here. If there’s one theme that keeps coming up again and again in the different accounts of necromancy, it’s that the dead mostly don’t like being raised, so the least you can do after finding out where your car keys are, is put them back. Necromancy that focuses on just calling them up is half a job done. Don’t be one of those guys.

8. Purification, motherfuckers!
Lastly, when you’re done with your necromancing for the day, don’t forego your purification rites in favor of climbing into bed and getting a few more minutes of sleep. You already messed up your night’s sleep with going out and fannying about at the local cemetery/burial mound/crossroads, you may as well just suck it up and make sure you end the night right.

The dead are kept from the living for reasons, mostly that they’re not too good for us. So, it’s a good idea to make sure that you leave the fun of the graveyard, in the graveyard. Popular options include a good old-fashioned scourging, suffumigation, and ritual bathing, so there’s bound to be a method to suit every necromancer!

If all of this sounds good to you, and you’re the kind of person who enjoys the kind of pant-staining terrifying fun with the dead that only necromancy can bring, why not actually give necromancy a go?

Necromancy: Because Siri Is Shit