Last year, I started the year off talking about Ancestry, and this year I'm sort of retouching that topic with Ancestors. I want to go a bit more into specifics this year, and I've encountered a few new to me thoughts on Ancestors that I want to talk about as well.
Technically ancestors are the people of your blood who have come before, so that is where I'll start. I think we have lost touch with our ancestors in a way that many of our ancestors would find shameful. I personally don't know much about anyone in my family further back than great-grandparents. And what I know about my ancestors of blood I know because I met them. I have heard the odd story here or there, but mainly about people that I did actually meet.
I feel that loss, like I am adrift in an ocean without a map. I think that we all do, on some level. There seems to be a great interest these days, to uncovering stories and information about our ancestors, and I think it is in part to fill that need to connect to our own past.
So how do we honor ancestors of blood if we aren't familiar with them? I start with the ones I did know, the close dead. Let me share a little about my beloved dead with you. I love that phrase, by the way: beloved dead. I think that it really reminds me that those that have passed beyond are dear to me.
I'll start with my grandfather on my dad's side. He was a big fan of genealogy, and hand a bunch of books and had traced back some of our ancestors. It is through him that I know that I have Pictish blood as well as a connection to one of the Pharaoh's of Egypt. But as nifty as that information was (especially when I was still in high school), I was more fascinated by the fact that my grandfather built the house he and my grandmother lived in. My dad's mother (she remarried seven times, so I had two grandmother's on my dad's side) loved the desert and all things strange and wonderful. She used to tell me, when I was little, that we were aliens, and that she and I were from Venus (though she said my dad was from Mars, so I'm not sure how that worked).
On my mother's side, my great-grandmother was what I would picture a Chinese socialite to be, in all the right ways. I remember dancing at her birthday party, my mother and I did a traditional Chinese fan dance, and there were hundreds of people in attendance. She always seemed regal to me. My other great-grandmother on my mom's side was as humble a woman as you could know. She wouldn't ask us to help her change a lightbulb (even though we were at her house at least once a week for dinner) because she didn't want to bother us. I lived with her for a while, in her last year, to help around the house. She used to always offer me cough drops as candy. I never knew either of my great grandfathers, and my grandparents are still alive.
When my Tai-po (my great grandmother) was starting to decline mentally, I remember my mom suggesting that we should get her to tell us stories of when she was little. Her parents came over from China (I forget if she was born here or there), and mom said no one really knew what her childhood was like. But no one ever did get those stories, and they are lost to time, like so many others. I would like to research, to learn about the places my family lived, both in China and in Europe.
I also think of myself as having ancestors of place. For a long time, this meant places that had spiritual significance to me, such as Ireland, China, Hawaii, Egypt. But recently I was reading a book that also talked about honoring the ancestors of the land you live on, not just your country, but your city and neighborhood and quite literally down to the plot of land you live on. Honoring spirits of the land has always been a part of my practice, but for some reason, it never occurred to me to honor the people who lived here before. And yet, now that the idea is in my head, it is something that make so much sense that I feel I need to pursue it.
I see ancestors of spirit also in influential people who have touched my life in some way. Not just the obviously spiritual ones too. When I was little, I was enthralled reading stories of Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale and Anne Frank. I do enjoy a well written biography, but mainly if the focus is on the stories (and not on facts and numbers). I also have quite enough chaote in me to honor ancestors of spirit who never lived in this world: influential people from works of fiction. Several of my childhood idols and role models were fictional, and they served just as good examples for how to live a good life as did historical people.
So how does all this tie into the Norse side of my practice? I see ancestors as a pretty big part of the Norse mindset. People who died in this life were not seen as finished, there was a distinct concept of living in the afterlife. Not only that, but in the disir (female relatives who have passed but continue to watch over their bloodline), we see that they have a continued interest in our lives. Honor of the ancestors is done at Symbel, as well as other times during the year.
As I said, I am not Heathen, and such haven't participated in a Symbel myself, though I have read about them. One of the things I loved about the ritual was that each person was given a chance to honor an ancestor. I have had the opportunity to participate in rituals (general Pagan rituals) where this was done, where each person in the circle shared a name of someone who has passed that they wanted to remember and honor, and could share a story about that person if they liked. These moments are probably among the most moving I have had in ritual. There is something very powerful with a group of people who may not know each other coming together and sharing their ancestors. Some of the stories brought me to tears.
When I think of how the Norse might have approached life, I think that a strong tie to their own ancestors was part of what made them who they are. I think that looking to other people's ancestors also gives you a huge insight into who they are as people. Our ancestors shape us in ways we might not even be aware of.