The Ancestors

"Walhalla" (1896) by Max Brückner.

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In ADF practice, there are three Kindreds— The Shining Ones, The Mighty Ones and the Noble Ones.  The Mighty Ones correspond to what many of us call Ancestors.  Indo-European cultures tend to have traditions of strong ancestor reverence, as do many other cultures around the world. Neopagans often like to follow these practices of honoring our Ancestors, and remembering our beloved dead. ADF encourages this, and ADF bills itself as a religion of orthopraxy (consistency in practice) rather than one of orthodoxy (consistency of thought). Sometimes, however, these strains of orthopraxy and orthodoxy are hard to sort out, as was illustrated by a fascinating conversation going on At the Sign of the White Hart.

We weren’t talking Ancestors there, nor yet cosmology, but even so a conversation about the nature of hospitality led us down that path. When we do ritual, are we the hosts or the guests? How do the rules of hospitality apply in ritual situations? In ADF ritual, we are opening doors and inviting Shining Ones, Ancestors, and/or Noble Ones in. This clashes a bit with my personal cosmology. I view the cosmos as layers, and the natural world is as divine as any of the other layers.  The Shining Ones and the Noble Ones especially I see as permeating the natural world. Perhaps there are other layers that they live in, perhaps there is a Valhalla and an Astral Plane and other shades of reality besides. But I view the divine as imminent and immanent as well as transcendent. While the Gods may exist elsewhere and the nature spirits may exist at a slightly difference frequency or intersection of quantum reality or such, they’re still here, all the time too, for whatever values of “here” we’re discussing. The spirit of the Mississippi isn’t in my living room and isn’t going to be, but other beings might be. And if it’s territory that would traditionally be theirs, then who is the inviting one and who is the invitee?

This becomes more complex with Ancestors, as many traditions have a fairly concrete tradition of the land of the dead. ADF people discuss this quite a bit, as it’s somewhat at odds with neopagan notions of reincarnation.  Some traditions seem to believe simultaneously in Ancestor worship and reincarnation, which seems a bit whacked. How can you invite the Ancestors to join you if they’re now living in Peoria, carrying on with a completely new and different life?

For me, I think we carry the spiritual energy of the Ancestors in our genes and in our memory and so they are also in a sense, always with us.  But beyond that, I think of the Ancestors in a way that I suspect lies slightly outside of IE practice. Many cultures, especially in South America but also elsewhere, have a notion of the soul or spirit of a person being a multi-part entity. For example one South American indigenous belief says that after the death of your physical body, one part of your soul will go live with the Ancestor spirits in the high mountains to guard over the people, one part of your soul goes off to some other place, and one part is bonded to an animal companion (whom you may never meet in life).

I believe in reincarnation because I don’t really have a choice in the matter. I have past life memories that are very clear with details that are easy to corroborate.  So unless I buy into some multipart soul theory, I’m going to have a hard time inviting the spirits of the Beloved Dead in for tea. The thing I’ve come to understand for myself is that while some part of me is present in those persons I recall being in past lives, those past people are not me and I am not them in very real ways.  I think of it as a combination of soul or spirit essences making each “me” unique.  If I were your three times great grandma, you could still commune in some way with her without directly affecting the present me.

Coming back round to the orthodoxy/orthopraxy problem, this whole eccentric view of cosmology I have could indeed seriously affect my practice of ADF rites. I prefer to think of it as my simply having a slightly different understanding of the universe, but maybe my understanding of the universe is incompatible with ADF orthopraxy and the little orthodoxy that orthopraxy creates. I hope not. We’ll see as I continue my studies.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sanil
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 12:23:37

    I like the multipart-soul idea. That and your conclusion sound similar to my own thoughts, but I didn’t realize there was already a culture that had such a belief. I hope I had past lives. I don’t have the memories like you, but I think it’s possible and I’ve started to feel like maybe there’s some truth there. I wonder sometimes if I have such a pull to the Greek gods because part of me remembers worshiping them a long time ago, but that might also just be wishful thinking. My fiance and several friends have mentioned worshiping the gods of their/my ancestors, and I don’t really have that, I have no interest in the Celtic gods and not much in the Norse ones…at least nowhere near what I feel for the Greek pantheon. It would be so affirming in some ways to find that I have that pull for a reason and it’s as much a part of my past as my ancestry, but i know i also need to work with the possibility that there’s no such reason and just own the fact that I’m choosing this because it works for me as I am now.

    I really enjoyed this post. Your idea of the world being made up of layers and each layer including the Kindreds is interesting and I think rings true with how I’ve experienced the world.


    • tlryder
      Oct 14, 2011 @ 13:21:46

      Hi Sanil! As far as hearth cultures go, I think we have to go where our heart lives and not necessarily where our blood supposedly comes from. I was completely astonished to find myself so drawn to Roman practice when I’d considered myself very strongly Celtic by both blood and inclination for so many years. I don’t have any past Roman memories, but otoh, neither do I have any past Celtic ones, alas. My best guess on the Roman thing is that I was so submerged in Greco-Roman mythology as a kid, it colored my worldview more strongly than I initially realized. Once I got past the thought of thinking of Greco-Roman stuff as I.E. instead of exotic other, it sorta swept me away. But it’s still mysterious. I’ll live with the mystery for now.


  2. Kévin Silverstag
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 13:00:07

    Great post! Good question as to whether one can believe simultaneously in reincarnation and that the ancestors can still have some sort of existence. For myself, I am an extremely analytical person but I absolutely try to leave that personality type at the door when approaching spiritual matters. As such, I am not bothered by seeming paradoxes like that. I note, however, that a lot of ancients believed that the spiritual power of the ancestors continued to inhabit their physical bones, such belief continuing on into Christian times with the habit of keeping the bones of saints in their churches.

    As for whether your beliefs will interfere with your practice of ADF, I don’t really see much conflict. There is a lot of leeway in the ADF framework. Even just acknowledging, as the ancient Greeks did, that fire was the vehicle of delivering nice scents such as burning animal fat and incense to the gods is probably enough to satisfy the COOR (but don’t quote me on that). However, I do agree that if you don’t see any use for a ‘gateway’ of any sort then you probably are outside of ADF practice.


    • tlryder
      Oct 14, 2011 @ 13:16:36

      Ah, but I’m not saying I don’t see any use for a ‘gateway’. I’m saying that I conceptualize it differently. I see these sorts of rituals, be they a Wiccan casting of the circle or ADF’s opening the gates or erecting the nemeton, as tools to focus intent and will and a method of communicating with the Kindred. I understand that this is a totally annoying viewpoint for others who view these constructs as objects with some sort of physical or paraphysical reality. This is why I say there’s a point where orthopraxy and orthodoxy overlap. If I’m required as part of the practice to believe in the gate as a paraphysical manifestation of an actual object, I’m going to fail every time.

      As far as saint’s bones go, many people believe that even still living people can leave traces of spiritual power on physical objects. It doesn’t require that we leave our soul behind to do that. It was not only bones that were venerated as relics in the early Christian church. A piece of Veronica’s veil or a sliver of the true cross were also considered extremely powerful objects. Though the ancient Celts may have taken the heads of their honored enemies to take that person’s power into their tribe, I don’t think they looked upon it as stealing the soul of the slain. Then again, maybe they did. I’m constantly finding holes in what I think is my knowledge of Celtic cultures.


  3. garbhchu
    Oct 15, 2011 @ 22:30:14

    Hello, TLRyder! This is a really interesting blog. There is a passage in an early Irish text that talks about three different souls: one that comes from your blood relations, one that corresponds with the divine, and one that dies with your body. I wonder if this does not dovetail with your sensibility here.

    Also, I don’t think reincarnation provides too much difficulty. Reality is — must be! — far stranger than we imagine. If it weren’t, then I don’t think we could call on the ancestors at all. If three generations have difficulty getting together without misunderstandings or bickering (and I’ll admit that maybe not all families are like mine) then imagine what twenty-seven would be like! I think what we engage with when we call on our ancestors might be better conceived as the intrinsic link to our forbears. Maybe the ego reincarnates, or the core soul, awareness or whatever you want to call it, but the personae of who they once were carries a separate essence with which we can relate.

    I don’t know, but it might be a possibility …?


  4. Kévin Silverstag
    Oct 17, 2011 @ 18:37:44

    Are you following the adf-dedicants list discussion on the importance of gates? An interesting diversity of opinions.


    • tlryder
      Oct 18, 2011 @ 07:31:15

      Greetings again Kevin, yes, what a lovely discussion, there as well as here. I feel somewhat less unorthodox after reading the variety of responses.

      It was an interesting related issue that Ceisiwr introduced– the non-omnipresence of most Indo-European Gods. To clarify, when I say that I think the Gods are imminent and immanent, it’s not that I think that they’re omnipresent. I think certain Gods might more or less hang out in one location most of the time, and that other Gods are present around us sometimes for other reasons– because we called on them, offered sacrifice, prayed, etc., or sometimes because they’re interested in us.

      In any case, the Gods don’t manifest themselves to me as beings with any kind of bodies or form that is discernible to my physical senses. Other people of course may experience the Gods in different ways. Zeus sure did get a lot of girls in trouble in the olden days, for example!


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