Samhain is upon us, and it is time to discuss the art of the ancestral altar. I'm looking forward to having some time to pursue this project. It's something I've given a lot of thought to but haven't actually mobilized myself to tackle it yet. This is mostly due to the fact that for years my life was very unstable, moving from one place to another and living out of storage containers, boxes, and temporary places to live, and never really putting roots down anywhere. I can't say I'm really in the place at the moment where I will be rooting deeply, but at the very least I can catch my breath some, unpack and sort my belongings, clean out the closets, and throw out what no longer serves the new person I am becoming. Before we discuss the altar, let me detour a bit so you have a back story.
In my recent introductory post I warned everyone that this blog might get a little edgy. I finally decided to dive in and dig through some dirty corners of the underworld.
First you need to know that you are dealing with someone here who does not really have a lot of great memories of my family growing up. There are a few. But overall, I come from a broken home that was rife with alcoholism, sexual abuse (yes me) and drama that never ended. I come from a long line of mothers that were not close to their mothers, basically women who hated women,who hated their daughters and who hated their mothers. I come from hysterical screaming and shattering glass, a War of the Roses worthy divorce of my parents, and pill popping relatives. I survived a near death drunk driving experience on Hwy 49 when I was 11 years old as a passenger, careening down the road with headlights turned off while being called every four letter name in the book; a nervous breakdown my senior year of high school, a grandfather who couldn't keep his pants zipped up in the presence of children or any other women; and a string of disastrous relationships culminating in my recent divorce 3 years ago. Gee what a surprise... It's not like I had the greatest role models in the world.
So why on earth does someone like me give a shit about an ancestral altar? Honestly I didn't for many years. And why on earth would anyone else LIKE me, give a shit about an ancestral altar? That you have to decide for yourself. It's a little hard to wrap my brain around it now that I've decided to pursue this, but I'll do my best to explain how this makes sense to me, and why it became important.
I think everyone has a basic instinct no matter what the circumstances to know where we come from and why. For those of us on a spiritual or occult path, the idea of karma and the working out of karma and past lives can even come into play when contemplating some of these sentiments. Sometimes, it's just a need to feel connected to something, anything.... and make the most of it. I'm also a firm believer in the idea of genetic memory, and have had ample opportunity to see it work itself out in strange ways, but that is for another blog post for another day.
I became interested in my own genealogy several years ago when I realized how little my family cared about knowing these things or preserving any of the family history. The problem in the entire family I realized was a huge “disconnect” in general from life. I had to actually dig deep, going back to my great grandmother in order to find any sense of continuity at all, and any reason for caring. My great grandmother was a self proclaimed Rosicrucian who I am told, had the ability to read tarot cards and to astral project. So even in my personal family's overall unhealthy condition, who wouldn't be interested in that? I certainly was. It just so happened my mother pulled an envelope out of her stash one day and handed it to me, which had a number of papers belonging to my great grandmother within it. In this mysterious envelope I found some personal correspondences about her interest in UFO-logy, and her studies and experiments in dream control and telepathy with a Rosicrucian organization. I was in my 30's before this was given to me.
Whatever this was, this mysterious metaphysical inheritance, jumped two generations and landed in my lap. My mother's aunt married a freemason, and incidentally I myself as a co-mason have inherited his masonic bible. I always found it very curious. Curious enough that in spite of all of the family sewage, I needed and wanted to know more. So I took up the torch in a mission to find out more about my genealogy. I'm not going to go into any lengthy dissertation on what that history is save for the highlights that matter to this entry, but the point I wanted to make is that I found a reason to care. And in that, especially over the last three years of trying to rebuild my life, post divorce, once and for all, to overcome this multi-generational curse of misery; I've come to terms with a few things. It was time, if only in my mind, to try and find the best in some of these people and be grateful for some of the positives that were handed down to me over the generations. This is where the ancestral altar became an important idea to me because it was a means of being able to systematically do just that as a form of therapy.
As a bead work artist, part of acknowledging my ancestry is in the acknowledgment of my grandfathers' (the child molester), Native American Indian heritage. That branch of the family is descended from the Lenne Lenapi (Delaware Indian) Tribe. Part of what will be included upon my personal ancestral altar is a priceless pair of handmade beaded Delaware Indian slippers, a gift from my grandmother to me. The story has it that when my grandfather was a very small child, Some of the Indians living in Montana at that time, would come to visit his mother who was a half blood. They never sat in chairs, they always sat on the floor, and they gifted these slippers from their tribe to his mom (my great grandmother on the other side of the family tree). Part of the fascinating thing of the journey for me, was that at the time I became involved in bead work, I had no idea that I was descended from Native Americans at all. The instinct came first, the knowledge came later.
Those slippers provide me with a more positive anchor and gives me hope that within the genetic memory of my own DNA, I can tap into something much older and much more rooted in a better way of life, then the emotional and sexual dysfunction of my grandfather. When I invoke the ancestors in any magical operation, I don't necessarily have to have had a relationship with my grandfather in order to connect to where he came from. I think that is part of the healing journey is knowing that there is more to the story then what I was given initially.
My grandmother on my moms side was a constant thorn in my mothers side. She was an alcoholic as was my mom's father. I remember many nights growing up, listening to my mother shriek in anger, and even once ripping the telephone off of the wall, wires and all, in her fury, after talking to her mother on the phone. I never heard anything good about her growing up. Every tale that was ever told about that grandmother of mine, was colored by my mother's hatred of her.
When I knew her as a very little girl she had had a stroke and was disabled. The stroke had happened before I was born. The story behind her stroke is morbidly fascinating in a horrible way. It's a horrible story and I'm going to tell it. The night it happened she had been participating in sexual congress with her third husband, (against her will, I'm told). She was being forced to perform oral sex and her head had been knocked on the wall in the process of her husband pleasuring himself in this manner. .....the stroke happened during her forced participation in this activity. Among many of the genealogical documents I've come to possess, I have one written by her. It's a ten page type written letter titled: “I married a sex maniac”. The very first sentence of this ten page letter reads: “I married a sex maniac and as a result I am horribly crippled for the rest of my life. I am writing this in the hopes that it will be published and will reach a few women to warn them that these perverted sex practices are very dangerous......” It is ten pages of sordid soap opera material describing a very un-enlightned and equally uneducated attitude toward sex in general that was inherited from her very fundamentalist Rosicrucian mother, her record of personal abuse, and a great deal of ex husband bashing. It also goes onto describe her anxiety over the fact that her other daughter thinks this kind of sex is OK, and she has tried and tried to tell her how dangerous it really is to no avail. The type is so faded you can barely can read the print. I don't know when this was written there isn't a date on it, but it is symbolic of the remnants of an outworn 1950's mentality and it is horribly sad.
So what is the positive takeaway here? What is it here that is worth salvaging in the memory of this woman for my ancestral altar aside from a legacy of drinking, domestic violence, institutionalization and rape? She was a dancer. A chorus girl, “can can” dancer. This is a part of her life no one ever talked about with me when I was growing up. She wrote another equally long document called “The Adventurer and the chorus Girl” which is the only witness to this part of her life. She was a chorus line dancer at the age of 17 with the Paramount Theater. She traveled on tour with them until their show shut down. The biography describes her trials with several different dancing jobs, being hired and fired. She was fired at one job for drinking and falling off the stage mid performance, and fired from another for refusing to go out with her boss. Eventually she met her “adventurer” at one of these dancing “gigs” who became her first husband.
Three nights a week I stand with my “sisters” at the Belly Hive, in belly dance class, with a group of wonderful women, dedicated to female empowerment and the Goddess. Some part of me feels compelled to take one of those dancing photographs of my alcoholic, crippled grandmother before life ruined her, and create a beaded tribal dance necklace or dance belt as part of a tribal dance costume, with her picture as a centerpiece. It's the only positive story I have of her life. This item will no doubt find it's place on my ancestral altar as well. It was probably one of the few times in this woman's life she ever felt she was following her bliss. I have been fortunate enough to have inherited the instinct and the talent for dance through her. She was also an artist. I remember her house being full of oil paintings when I was a child. Most of them were not very good because she was painting with a partially paralyzed arm, I do have two charcoal sketches she did of an old blacksmith shed and a house that are her originals. My mother inherited this gift for art as well, though she never used it beyond drawing a couple of pictures she has hanging in her house. I also inherited it. I haven't drawn anything in many years, but I took art in college and used to have a passion for pencil sketching animal portraits. As I said, life happened over the years and I really didn't have much time to pursue this interest in the chaos of my life, so it's gone dormant for many years. I still think someday when time and space provides, I might re-visit that chapter of my life and invest in an art pad again. In the meantime, my bead work is my primary art at this time. So through these things, I can acknowledge that no matter who this woman was, or what her character flaws were, she did contribute something worthy to the cause, and these are the takeaways I choose to recognize.
So lets talk about your ancestral altar for a minute. You are either like me, trying to salvage something worth salvaging from your history, or you are fortunate enough to have a lot of other lovely memories of your childhood and your ancestors. Which ever one of these directions you resonate with, I encourage you to contemplate your altar this Samhain. Do you have photo albums in dusty old boxes that never see the light of day? Find something in one of them and create something meaningful. Maybe it's an old jewel in your jewelry box that you never wear, from your Great aunt, or some memento from a long lost uncle, a stamp collection, a foreign coin.... whatever little tidbits you might have laying about, you can magically craft something out of them that you WILL use on your magical journey if you feel so called. The idea here is that if those ancestors are dead, it's now time to “make it your own”. You have permission to do anything you want with it, even if it would have horrified them. If you want to cut that picture up and turn it into a craft project then do it. Or you can do what a friend of mine has recently been doing. As she was sorting through her late mothers belongings, she realized she had very strong sentimental attachments, not to the object but to the story behind it. For example, the old clay pot her mother baked beans in every winter... the pot was ugly as sin.... but the memory of baking beans brought back fond memories of her mom. She learned that she could take a picture of the thing to help preserve the memory and the story, but let the actual object go since she didn't really “like” it aesthetically. This is what I mean by making it your own. It helped her release some of the guilt and let the attachment go that needed to move on.
I do bead embroidery, I have a mind to go through some of these old photographs and create a beaded wall hanging out of them much like you would bead a cabochon necklace. You can make medicine bags, altar pictures, Tarot card bags with ancestral mementos or photos attached.... the sky is the limit. If you have any strong inclination to honor any magical or spiritual inheritance from a specific ancestor, consider combining that memento into a magical tool, perhaps a wand, other meaningful altar piece. If you have the space, you can consider making this a permanent fixture in your house. The way some people hang photo's on the wall, your ancestral altar can become the “hearth” or “power center” of the house complete with offerings, incense, sage, candles and the whole nine yards, and anything personally meaningful to your connection with your history, your present family and your future offspring. The trick for some people though is to make sure if you are healing the more negative influences of family histories, to do the healing work, and keep only the things that make you happy in some way on this altar. Find a way to re-frame the story and keep what's best. You don't want to create an altar as your power center in your home that has the potential to make you depressed. This isn't about owing anything to anyone's memory, it's about empowering yourself in spite of these memories and keeping the gifts you were given that have helped you survive your history. If you are not one of these people like me, then you will not have these issues to battle, and your journey to this altar will be a great deal more joyful from the beginning.
So while you are warming those hands on those hot cups of coffee, cider and coco, do some sipping while you go through those old boxes that you pulled out the basement. Write that book, assemble those memories, or compile something to pass onto your own children this Samhain. Make it a family project if you are inclined. Get your kids involved and take the opportunity to teach them the stories as you go through the stuff. More importantly, if you are like me, take the time to do some healing and find whatever is good in the legacy of chronic darkness. You can turn it all around with a little intention, ritually discard what is no longer useful as an “inheritance” mentally, physically or emotionally, and work toward a huge internal change for something better as you rise out of the ashes. This is the Celtic New Year. It's time to begin with a clean slate.
Tell us about your process and what you plan to do with your ancestral mementos below this year.