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Ancestral Altars – Creating Space for the Dead

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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Darkest Night – A Poem for Hekate

I am feeling a bit under the weather today. Allergies are kicking my butt and I feel as if my head is in a vise. So, instead of trying to fight through all of the crap in my head, I thought I would re-share an old post, Darkest Night. I wrote this several years ago as an offering to Hekate at our groups Hekate’s Feast night. However, its content is just as relevant today as it was then.

Once again we enter the season of contemplation and quiet as the wheel of the year turns to Mabon. This turn ushers in the beginning of the darkest time of the year. And in this dark, we call upon the Goddesses whose realms reside in the shadows. We turn to them in the darkest hours of the night, during the darkest times of our souls. It seems fitting that this small offering be shared once again,

Darkest Night – A Poem for Hekate

By Terry Lynn Pellegrini – (Copyright 2016)

In the darkest of nights, She lights my way. Phosphorous, illuminating, brilliant one. Torches held high, I follow. Through my despair, through my apprehension, She leads me to knowledge. She leads me to joy. And through my joy, She shows me life and what lies beyond.

Her torches burn through the forgotten fields of my soul. Scorching that which has died, lain fallow, neglected. Blackened earth and ash nourish the slumbering seeds of inspiration, Pushing visions through the parched earth towards the moonlit sky. I feel Her pull, Her presence quenching my thirst, slaking my hunger.

With Her keys, She unlocks for me the mysteries, Invites me through the door and into the welcoming darkness I have forgotten. Her hounds, black, menacing, ever at my side.  Guarding my steps, teeth bared, haunches taut. Ever ready to protect as well as devour. And they watch, as fears are defeated and yearnings are satiated.

And when I stand at the crossroads of my life, She comes. Lighting the path of my existence, showing me the path to my destiny, Gifting me with the secrets of life, death, and beyond. And I rejoice in the knowing of Her. Giving freely of my heart, my devotion, my pain, and my joy.

Hekate Soteria. Hekate Phosphorous. She of the three faces. Guardian of the Crossroads. She who stands as my Mother, my sister, my Goddess. My teacher, my mentor and my muse. Hekate. May I live a thousand years in your service. May you be forever in my heart, my mind and my soul. Hail Hekate!

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Seeing Our Own Shadows

For many in the Pagan community, Imbolc is upon us. Imbolc is the spoke of the Wheel of the Year when we acknowledge the return of the light. In many parts of the world the earth has begun to stir. Tiny shoots are breaking through the soil and reaching towards the strengthening sun, casting tiny shadows upon the earth. We too, are stretching, awakening, beginning to look forward to the longer days and shorter nights. This is the time of new beginnings and of giving birth to new ideas. With the light returning our minds stir and stretch, sloughing off the hibernation mode of deep winter. It is during this time of growing illumination when we may find ourselves seeing our own shadows.

A seedling coming out of the soil into the light.
A seedling makes its way towards the light.

While the world shakes off its slumber, we work to clear away the sleep from our psyches. The mind fogs of winter start to clear and we find ourselves looking forward to planting the seeds of new ideas and goals. Yet we find that there are shadows lurking in the liminal. We catch glimpses of the dark, unwanted parts of ourselves we wish to ignore and hide. Deep inside the spaces between the burgeoning light and winter’s darkness the shadows await our acknowledgement. Until we do we cannot move forward, cannot grow as enlightened beings. But what are the shadows? Where do they come from and what can we do about them?

Seeing our Shadows for what they are.

The shadows are our roots of pain, anger, guilt, resentment, and doubt, the things we least like about ourselves. They are the things we don’t wish see so we ignore them. hide them. We relegate them to the shadows where they lurk, popping out at the most inopportune moments. But they don’t stay down for long, manifesting themselves as fear, paranoia, mistrust and hate. What we must do is see our shadows as the roots of who we are and what we shall become, not as some hideous beast to lock away. When we take the time to step inside ourselves and flick on the light we allow ourselves to see our shadows for what they are, our allies. Then, and only then, can we begin to grow again.

How do we go about seeing our shadows? What does it take to make them our friend and ally? Time, meditation, introspection and quite often, a good therapist or counselor. Your shadows have been there a long time. They are not going to reveal themselves in a day, or two, or even a year. As witches and magickal practitioners we know that facing our shadows is a life-long process. As one shadow fades into the light another may take its place. Only with diligence, commitment and the help of others will the shadows give us their names. Once identified we can summon them, grab hold and embrace them, allowing for reintegration and healing. Tamed, a shadow changes from nemesis to ally, becoming our assistant in planting the seeds of renewal.

Facing our Shadows

All of us have to make the conscious choice to meet our shadows head on, to face our fears. It is not easy seeing our own shadows. It can be very uncomfortable and often downright nasty. But unlike Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day, seeing our shadows will not prognosticate six more weeks of a winter in our souls. Quite the contrary, facing our shadows allows the light in and spring to return. By uncovering the roots of our struggles, cleaning away the old soil and tending to them, we have made viable what once lay dormant. When we allow the light to show us our worse, we can put a name to it and see it as an ally, a friend. Now, we can begin to plant those roots where they belong, in the light of our being.

Our shadows, no longer a threat, become tamed, a helpmate. That which was shadow ceases to exist as such. Transmuted, integrated, they now become a vital part of who we are, working with us instead of fighting against us. As the Sun continues to grow in strength so shall you, warmed by the knowledge that you have survived another winter of the soul. Your shadows dispelled, you can now move forward, sowing the seeds of possibilities along your way (read more about possibilities here).

During this season of renewal, beginnings, and the waxing light, make a choice to find yourself, face those bits and pieces of yourself that need tending to. Take a deep breath, reach inside yourself, flick on the switch and search for those shadows. At times the work will be difficult, sweaty and gritty, but the benefits are worth the fight. When your spring does arrive, all that you’ve sown, planted and nurtured will dispel the shadows, allowing room for change and possibilities to blossom.

Blessed Be!