Ancestral Lineage Healing FAQ

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Altar Tending and Offering Practice

I have a relationship with the Greek goddess Hecate, but my blood ancestors are from West Africa. Is it problematic ‘mixing and matching’ to honor them with her?

This is really nuanced terrain when it comes to mixing and such, and I’ve done it lots of ways over the years. There are different lenses through which to think about this. Briefly:

Through a relational/animist lens consider asking Hecate how she sees it and your blood ancestors how they see it. If they’re both good with it, no problem! If they have concerns is some way try to hash out a reasonable accommodation with the involved parties directly.

Through a pragmatic ritualist lens, I’m pretty sure the ancient Greeks didn’t see Hecate as a steward over just their dead or Zeus as a deity of storms only in Greece. Most cultures view their sacred powers as upholding the larger world while also respecting that their gods may have regional potency and that other cultures have their own elder powers and such.  In this way, I suspect Hecate quite capable of co-existing with your ancestors of blood. It’s not so different from the multi-cultural spaces and ecologically varied habitats we walk in today.

Through a lens of discernment about cultural sensitivity, because Hellenic traditions are largely reconstructed (rather than having historically intact priesthoods), this means a lot is up for negotiation and folks rely on their own direct intuition to a high degree around protocol. I don’t think any Greeks are going to fault you for relating with Hecate in this way. And I suspect your ancestors are glad for the care and reverence however it arrives.

Please share more on the colorful mandalas throughout the website. How do they relate to ancestral healing?

These images are from one stage of an overall offering ritual/practice inspired by the Andean despacho ceremony. I learned this ceremony in maybe 2008 from Meg Beeler who learned it from her Q’ero teachers in Peru (good article from Meg here). I’ve since had the chance to sit in ceremony (just a little) with some of the indigenous elders from that region during their trips to the United States, and I’ve also had more dedicated students of those ways share the images of the fancy ones I’ve crafted here with folks from there and they like them :-)  The despacho in particular as a ceremonial form can be utilized for many many different intentions; however, the 14 images on the page for the online course are from multi-day ancestor-focused trainings I guided in the past decade.

The offerings are natural/biodegradable and the images are typically taken before the kintus (leaves) are added as prayers (sometimes they are pictured around the central offering). Eventually participants pray with the leaves to/with/for the ancestors, other offerings are added, the overall offering is bundled up (it’s laid out on a base of fabric that’s often not visible in the images), and then we determine if it will be burned (most common), buried, or on rare occasions taken to a body of water to be delivered to the spirits. I don’t tend to focus on this because I don’t want folks to think they need to make something fancy like this to honor their ancestors; it’s more something that’s because part of my style as a ritualist, especially when leading group trainings.

So…they’re adaptations/elaborations of an Andean despacho ceremony with the specific ritual intent to feast/honor the ancestors. Thanks for asking!

Example from Berkeley training 2016 after kintus were added.

How do the ancestors make use of physical offerings such as food or drink? This seems so foreign. Can you elaborate?

Most importantly think of feeding in the general sense of feeding any relationship. We may feed our connection with our children with physical food but also attention, quality time, and kind words. We may feed our house plants with water, fertilizer, sunlight, and words of praise and appreciation. Notice what feeds you…of course calories but also kindness, mirroring, fun activities, learning, etc.  So feeding the relationship with our ancestors is no different; ask them what they would like and experiment with enacting those requests (when practical and reasonable).

Offering food and drink is a very ancient and cross-cultural act of sharing and generosity between the living and the dead. Like a cat bringing us a dead bird, we bring them what sustains us and perhaps also what we know them to love. And food at the end of the day is energy. Money is like this too and a common offering for the dead. If we see the underlying essence of a thing this can help to understand how it ritually functions. In Yorùbá tradition we offer, for example, birds or 4-leggeds like ram or sheep to the ancestors. Although the living human community eats the bodies of the animals in the usual way for sustenance, the blood of the animals are shared with the ancestor shrines and so they are participant and also fed. This is a bigger topic around life force (a.k.a. blood) offerings, also very ancient, but again…ask the ancestors, the well ones, what feeds them and trust that. And more on this especially in Part One: Lesson Five.

Can you share more on guidelines you recommend for tending an ancestral shrine or altar?

I don’t want to create dogma about altar practice so I’ll share how I’ve come to see it and a little of why. I believe it’s beneficial to have a physical place to honor your blood ancestors (if there is not already a place designated in the natural world) as having a place gets them out of your body, brings the relationship more conscious, and functions in that way as a kind of depossession. The space between us and them increases intimacy and honors their reality. Shrines are also a meeting place, a focal point for the energy, a place of heightened contact.

Remember the shrine is for your ancestors, not the ghosts, not those who are still in their process of just becoming ancestors. You don’t want to call not-yet-well energies into your home but rather to safely assist them to become ancestors (the focus of the course) and then seat them on your shrine. That distinction matters a lot.

After experimentation over the years, I’ve found it best to not have the shrine where you sleep if you can avoid it. This is because it’s a focal point for spirit activity at times and restful sleep is important for life. If you don’t have a choice you can have something that’s contained/closed/covered when you’re done working with it. Or have a designated place outdoors (just ask the stone/tree/etc if they want that first).

With photos, my ancestors personally are not so into them, I think because they want to be known for who/how they are in the present In a way it’s almost like the photos are baby pictures or how they used to be. Also, I don’t tend to have photos of the living on the shrine as it can imply they’re with the ancestors, a hazard generally and especially for any living folks ambivalent about being here. But mostly once your specific ancestors are well if you have photos of them, just ask if they want them on the shrine and listen to their reply.

Lessons Four and Six (Part One) will include excerpts from the book on ways to consecrate ‘spirit houses’ or ongons and the question of how to involve physical objects to deepen the connection with the ancestors at one’s shrine is it’s own topic worthy of another thread.

After doing the meditation on boundaries I realized I have unwell ancestors on my altar that I have been tending to for years. Do I take it down until the work is done? I also call their names in libation should that cease also?

Excellent, relevant, and also tender question. Before I say more what’s really important is that there’s no implication in any way of rejecting or cutting ties with any recent ones who are not yet fully ancestralized or seated in their full potency. Here’s what I would suggest: Continue to tend at your ancestor shrine but rather than focus on specific remembered dead at this time, hold a general big space at your shrine for the deeply well grandmothers and grandfathers of your lineages. This may look like simplifying, having things like a bowl of water your change, a live plant, a candle, general symbols, other things the ancient ones request from you (we’ll dive into that more by lesson four, part one). So think of the seating (in a general way at first then more specific over time) of the well ones as temporarily displacing those who are still in a healing process, like in concentric circles it’s you in the middle, the ancient well ones around you, then those still in need around them. And in your prayers and tending at your shrine with the ancient vibrant ones, you can totally ask them to begin to deeply weave in those who are not yet fully vibrant. Which is to say that this boundary with the recent ones is temporary and for the sake of healing.

As for the libations, it’s something we’ll explore more in upcoming lessons but offerings can have different intentions, different directions/intended recipients, and in that sense different ritual outcomes. I would say for now to stop directly giving offerings to any among the dead who are not yet well and to explore a temporary pause in naming them, and instead to give offerings to your ancient and deeply awake and loving ancestors and ask them to use some of the energy from those offerings to assist the more recent dead who are still in need. This still extends care and concern to the recent ones while they’re getting healed up, still makes use of the goodness of the offering practice, and also has the effect of supporting ritual safety by not encouraging the not-yet-ancestors to hang out in your space before they’re on the level. Some traditions have practices for directly feeding the dead who are not yet well but it’s a more edgy and possibly hazardous practice, and this method aims to achieve similar results in a ritually safe way. If omitting the names in this way doesn’t sit right with you, just make sure you feel the backing of the well and ancients ones before naming, that you envision the ancients weaving in the more recent ones until they’re also deeply well, in which case great to resume naming (which is to say invoking).

I have two separate altar spaces, one for ancestors of blood and the other for ancestors of affinity/spiritual lineage/other-than-blood. Is it best to have these stay separate and to honor them at different times?

I think this is a question of personal preference to a large degree. I’d suggest asking the most well energies among your blood ancestors what they prefer about it all and to not let it be a source of stress. The main thing is that either general category of ancestor be deeply well in spirit, that you know their super well and vibrant, that’s all. Ancestors who are deeply well tend to play well with other ancestors.

What if I make food offering and when I feel that its ‘done’ that I then share it with other people and eat some of it myself? I am bringing this up because I grew up with some Hindu neighbors and they used to distribute the food offerings (prasad) to everyone in the vicinity including the Muslims who would take it. This food is believed to carry blessings.This there any particular reason I have to discard the offerings in the nature?

Great question. There are deeply different protocols for this and no one correct way although I’d encourage consistency over time, even if the plan changes at some point in how you do it. Coming out of a European Pagan background, there’s a prevalent idea that you don’t eat the food of the dead (check out the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth around this, not pretty…similar with the pomegranate of Persephone). In this way it’s cast as a kind of stealing or rudeness with adverse ritual implications. Now, having said that as an initiate in Egungun society of Yoruba culture when we offer something to the deities we almost always eat of those things ourselves and feed the people in that way. The deities get a little, a serving or even a few and the living partake of the majority of the offering. I like this protocol personally and observe it when offering, for example, roosters or rams. However I still am in the habit of giving the ancestors their own little plate, their own helping and once I’ve offered something to them not taking it back. The protocol you’re describing I suspect is to offer all of the thing at which point it becomes medicine and then is shared with the people. That’s also an ancient legitimate and wonderfully workable protocol. There’s more that could be said about all this, but in short: No, no reason you have to adopt my witchy European superstitions when you have your own ancestral protocols to fall back on.

You’ve expressed a note of caution or discernment about having photos of the dead on an ancestral shrine. How about having them in your home just in general?

If it’s not a shrine it’s probably fine. I see altars or shrines are places of heightened ritual intention or more likely contact with powers or beings seated there. If it’s not on a shrine per se, just more an ancestor remembering place, just notice the energy around it all. If it brings joy and goodness, go with that. If something feels off, also honor that.

My ancestors asked me to bring them an offering (tobacco) that has a negative association for me, but I noticed that following through with the request brought a shift in the energy. For me this highlighted bigger questions of my personal responsibility and the importance of being accountable in this work. Can you speak some to those bigger themes?

Like any relationship, our engagement with the ancestors tends to begin with a process of establishing trust. When they request a thing of us, it’s important to assess if we can agree to that. And if so, to make certain to follow through. The principle for me here is to under-commit and over-deliver. And more generally once we become aware of the need for healing with our lineages and we have skills to remedy those troubles, one could argue that this implies a moral obligation to assist. I tend to see it that way but some would feel that’s extreme or heavy-handed. Most important on a smaller level of scale is to follow through with things we agree to (and apologize when we don’t) as a way to establish trust with them.

I was asked by my ancestors to bring them an offering (tobacco) that has a negative association for me, but I noticed that following through with the request brought a shift in the energy. Can you speak to how to think about and navigate requests for ancestral offerings that as a living person you have a strong aversion to?

This is a good and common question. The short answer that would apply, for example, to foods that you don’t enjoy is that it’s for them not for you, so do your best (if you’re willing…if you’re not just let them know up front). No need for you to eat from the food also. Folks sometimes get snagged with things like alcohol and tobacco. Unless it’s a strong trigger for you around personal addiction (in which case own that and let the ancestors know), the important thing is that you’re bringing this to the well ancestors not the ghosts. If you’re feeding the well ones only this should be just fine, but that distinction holds with any kind of offering really. If you’re curious you can ask them what they like about it and they’ll likely share. Of course all the offerings have their own properties and what not. Feel your way through all this and course correct as needed, but be willing to explore through engagement with them and listening to the feedback.

I often bring food to the ancestor altar. When it’s time to remove the offering I feel bad about throwing out non-compostable foods. It feels like the food could be nourishing something else. Burying isn’t a good option for me because squirrels actually dig up food and drag half eaten things around our yard. What are some other good, earth honoring ways to dispose of food offerings?

If the offerings aren’t harmful to the creatures (e.g., chocolate’s not great to leave out, same with candies) and you’re able, I tend to just return them to the Earth. If they would be harmful to the creatures, it’s possible to return them via the trash/landfill as they still get consumed by the very smalls in that way. I don’t tend to do a huge amount of food offerings in terms of quantity and frequency so I don’t feel like this is a big ecological challenge, and I respect folks wanting to proceed with mindfulness on it. If it’s a concern, I’d encourage hashing things out with your ancestors about what you feel is possible and/or arranging with them an approach to offerings where you share a little with them and the rest is eaten by the living. The protocols on eating the offerings vary from culture to culture (see other replies on that topic). Trust your intuition, common sense, and also what your ancestors would like on all this as there’s not one script to follow so much.

The only photo I have of my beloved ancestor who seems well in spirit is of her holding me as a baby. I know not to put photos of the living on my ancestral altar, but this being me, is it ok to use this photo?

It’s truly up to you. There is so much dogma in the world I don’t want to add to that. Ask your other trusted powers what they say on it and what’s best for you and if they say it’s cool then it’s cool. The concern (