Ancestral Altars – Creating Space for the Dead

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As Samhain approaches and the veil thins we often become introspective.  We muse on the things we have accomplished in the past year, and ponder what we wish to accomplish in the next.  We think of the turning of the Wheel of the Year, the endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Our minds contemplate those that have passed before us.  This is the time of year when our ancestors call to us. This is the time for building our ancestral altars and creating space for the dead. A sacred place, a portal, where we can communicate and call to our ancestors, both of the blood and of the heart.

Ancestral altars are a part of many different cultures and religions around the world. Many homes in both the Japanese and Chinese cultures have altars for their ancestors that are used every day.  In ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, there were many different forms of honoring the dead and the ancestors. However, one of the most well-known celebrations for the ancestors is Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Celebrated from November 1st through November 2nd, those of Mexican descent erect ancestor altars and visit the graves of their loved ones to celebrate both life and death. 

Ancestral Altars - a gravesite in Mexico decorated for Dia de los Muertos
A gravesite in Mexico prepared for Dia de los Muertos

Ancestors of the Blood and of the Heart

Earlier in this blog I mentioned honoring your ancestors by blood and of the heart.  Those by blood are of course your biological ancestors, those directly related to you through your parents.  Ancestors by heart are those individual who have passed on in which we feel a spiritual or personal connection with.  These ancestors may include those of a different culture or spirituality that you connect with. Perhaps they were your favorite neighbor, a teacher or instructor, or your best friend from high school. Our ancestors of the heart are those that have had an impact on our lives, those we hold dear to us regardless of familial relationships. They deserve, and need, to be honored as well.

Creating Your Ancestral Altars

An ancestor altar may be constructed just about anywhere. It may be used just for the Samhain Sabbat or left up all year. Be sure to create the altar on a flat surface such as a table, fireplace mantel or hearth, a dresser, ora side table.  Some of the items you may wish to place on your altar are as follows:

  • Altar cloth – any color but traditionally black
  • Pictures of your Ancestors – these can be photos or other representations
  • Candles – I prefer black or purple but the colors are up to you.
  • A chalice with wine or water
  • An offering bowl or plate
  • Incense burner and incense
  • Favorite items of your ancestors – These can be articles of clothing, toys, their favorite drinks or foods.

Let your creative juices flow when setting up your altar. You may include flowers and special tokens from passed relatives. A wish/prayer box to send messages to your ancestors is great addition. You may wish to add scrying mirrors, crystal balls and other divination tools can be included as well. The only limits are your imagination and needs of your ancestors. 

Using Your Ancestral Altar

Use your ancestor altar to commune with the ancestors, to give them offerings of thanks for all they have done, for you and your family. You can sit before your altar with your family and friends and tell stories about those that have passed before you, their deeds, adventures, as well as misadventures. Light the candles and incense and then meditate or scry before the altar. This communion is when you may ask your ancestors for guidance and insight. But above all, use your altar to remember, to keep the memories of those that have gone before you alive and well.

For me, taking the time to sit, commune, and honor our ancestors has greatly improved my well-being and my Craft. I have been given information from my ancestors that I could have never learned in books. Many warnings have been expressed, ethereal pats on the back given, and admonishments sent. Once you have stood in front of your altar, given your offerings and then felt the reciprocal love wash over you, you will never be without an ancestor altar in your home.

I encourage you to go ahead, build your altar, light your incense and candles. Commune and honor your ancestors this Samhain Eve and know that you and they are interconnected, intertwined, and forever a family.  Blessed Be. 

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