HONOURING THE ANCESTORS IN (my) DRUIDRY
by DJ Droood
Why Honour the Ancestors?
There are few “articles of faith” in druidry, but one commonly agreed upon principle is that honouring the ancestors is central to druid spirituality. Why this is so, I'm not entirely sure, although a reading of the ancient Celtic tales shows that lineage was worth noting...parents, or foster parents, the layers of pioneers described in the Book of Invasions, the naming of teachers. (Cuchulain’s teacher in the martial arts, Scathach , for instance.) Modern druidry, since the beginning of the revival in the 17th Century, has been “backwards” focused, looking to those in the past for inspiration and teaching. Current druidry has a whole branch....reconstructionism...that tries to uncover and emulate the ways of the ancient Celts and druids. This preoccupation with our past...our ancestors...isn't unique to druidry. Most spiritual systems have a component of ancestor “worship”, such as Japanese Shinto, and people from the ancient Egyptians to the Roman Catholic Church to the British Museum delight in preserving and displaying the memories and physical remains of our ancestors.
So when Emma Resenthal Orr says a core value is
honouring of the ancestors and honouring of the land” and "Druidry connects with all the other Earth-ancestor traditions around the globe, such as the Native American, the Maori and Huna, the Aboriginal, the Romany and the indigenous spiritualities of Africa and Asia", a view supported by leading British Druid Philip Carr-Gomm.i,
I agree! And interest in my ancestors helps weave ties to the past, to the land I am living on, and strengthen the sense of responsibility to my descendents.
I am not alone in having used interest in my ancestors as a doorway into druidry. An enquiry into one's past raises so many questions...Who where my ancestors? How did they live? What did they believe? For many of us, reading about the Celts leads to mentions of the mysterious druids, and before you know it, you have dropped down the rabbit hole that leads to the Druid's Head Pub seminar series.
Here are some experiences I've had trying to trace and, in the process, honour my ancestors.
Types of Ancestors
We think of our ancestors as our flesh and blood..the people who passed life down to us, generation to generation. There are many other types of ancestors we can honour.
Both adoption and fosterage are ancient ways of developing family relationships. In Ancient Rome, an emperor (and indeed others of the elite class) would often adopt a full-grown man to be his heir. The adoption of the ancient family name and lineage was accepted as fact. In the Irish tales, there are stories of foster families raising children as if they were their own. If you are adopted into a family, you become a full member of the family and the ancestors of the family become your ancestors. You have been chosen to carry on the family story.
There are the intellectual, spiritual, artistic and cultural ancestors...people who have impacted our worldview, from Jesus to Voltaire to Gandhi. These folk are not necessarily of the blood, but they have given us gifts that have shaped us, as much as the flesh-gifts of our genetic ancestors.
Druidry has many such guides we can investigate and honour. If we belong to a spiritual community, perhaps there is someone who was instrumental in organizing and building what we enjoy now, such as Nuinn or the recently departed Issac Bonewits. There are lots of books on the history of druidry, and perhaps someone resonates with you or reflects your druidic outlook.
For me, I will light a candle for the recently departed Jean Markale.
Critics allege that his 'creative' use of scholarship and his tendency to make great leaps in reasoning cause those following the more normative (and hence more conservative) mode of scholars to balk. ii
His works cover the spectrum of my Druidic interests, and in such an entertaining and provocative way that I find myself seeking out his books time and again. Thanks, Jean!
In the early 1980`s, a woman who I've never met, but is married to a distant relation, did a tremendous amount of family history research and wrote letters to hundreds of people with our surname, and travelled to archives and church basements in Eastern North America, compiling the definitive genealogical map of my extended family in our geographic region. This was all before the first personal computer. This knowledge, which has been added to and amended and corrected over the years by various other family members, is a tremendous gift and base of knowledge. Another man, in another country, did a similar thing on an even grander scale, and these two documents together give me hundreds of years of `footprints`to follow.
A person beginning this journey of discover today should appreciate some of the resources available online and in organizational software. Genealogy was not always an armchair sport, but a matter of getting your fingers dusty and spending long hours in town hall archives. Genealogical research could be a life-long endeavour, and even if you are fortunate enough to have inherited a sketch, you can still colour in details.
That said, genealogy can only take you so far into the mystery of the ancestors. Although my detailed pedigree goes back many generations...many centuries...I have no idea where I came from. I envy my compatriots in the New World who can say “I'm Italian”, or “I'm Dutch” or “I'm Chinese”. (-Canadian). My family name and history arrived on the shores of this continent in the early 17th Century. My progenitor probably came over from London with some Puritans, as he married into a know Puritan family from London, but he may have been here already. He was a tradesman who perhaps came to Connecticut for work. As standard spelling was not yet practised, the family name could and did take many variations, and many records have disappeared. Knowing where my ancestor came from with any certainty may never be possible. A long standing family tradition is that our family were Huguenot refugees from France who escaped to England, but there isn't a scrap of proof for this.
My ancestors moved from New Haven to Stamford, Connecticut in the 1650's. While the existing records indicate they were doing well...they owned a house and farm land, and members of the family were earning a living working for the wealthier landowners...they made another difficult journey a few years later to the Dutch colony of Flushing, New York. Why? A woman who may have been a sister-in-law was burned as a witch around this time. Was this an impetus to get out? The economic environment was rapidly dominated by a small, inside circle of Puritan leaders. Did they leave for economic reasons? I don't know.
Where names and dates lay flat on the page, they can be brought to life and placed in context with some historical research. Even if my great great grandmother isn’t named in the pages of the book, she lived the experiences described in them. A way to feel what my ancestors might have felt or experienced is to read history with an “I was there” attitude, and in a sense, I was. My genetic code witnessed the advent of electricity. My DNA experienced the Industrial Revolution, wars and famines and great migrations. I were present for the birth of babies...in a way, the birth of myself!....I've died many times, and have fallen in love and been heartbroken...allowing myself to feel what my ancestor must have felt makes the dry words of history come alive, and at the same time makes my ancestors more three dimensional characters.
A job for many lifetimes awaits those who study their past.
Speaking of religion and genealogy, a most amazing and free resource for research is FamilySearch.org, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They have amassed the largest genealogical database in the world their Church doctrine states that
"saving ordinances" (including baptism, confirmation, endowment, and sealing-marriage) must be made available to every individual who has ever lived. To make these ordinances available to people who did not have the opportunity while living, Mormons identify their ancestors and arrange for baptism and other ordinances to be performed for them by proxy—that is, with a living person standing in for the deceased person—in a temple. Often referred to as temple work, this search for ancestors is an important part of the Mormon faith.”iii
Getting in touch with the ancestors can take an eccentric twist. Some basic information in the family genealogy led to further investigation in libraries and archives that revealed an interesting connection an ancestor had with the American Revolution.
A chance encounter led to a glimpse into a world I didn't know existed...living history...and we (my wife and I) joined an historical reenactment group...doing historical interpretations of....well, war mostly...of soldiers and camp followers. (wives and children). Living history was a passion and great family activity through much of the 1990's. The hobby combined so many elements that seem to parallel druidry...research, a love of theatrics and costumes, all the “crafty” elements involved in making gear, camping and campfire fellowship.. At times, when the conditions were absolutely correct, I could feel a shiver and almost know what it must have looked and sounded like..(although I’m sure the smells would have been far more horrendous than I could conjure up in my mind.)
The most memorable moment was at a reenactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. It was a large event, and the fields were divided in British forces on one side, and French forces outside the walls of the historic Citadel, on the other, perhaps over a thousand soldiers and camp followers in all. In the evening, after the tourists had gone home, I found a hill in between the two camps. Campfires flickered from both sides, and the sounds of music and singing drifted up the hill from both sides. Wood smoke hung in the air and the walls of the Citadel loomed darkly over the plains. This, for me, was magic.
Of course, words on paper and uncomfortable woollen clothing can only carry you so far. To thoroughly confuse an issue, we need science.
For my birthday one year, my wife gifted me with a DNA test kit. This has turned out to be one of the best presents I have ever received, and it keeps giving gifts of knowledge, delivered to my in box, every few months. genealogical DNA test is an field that has taken off in the last 5 years, although I only have direct experience with the National Geographic Genographics project.
``The project also sells self-testing kits: for US$100 anyone in the world can order a kit with which a mouth scraping (buccal swab) is obtained, analyzed and the DNA information placed on an Internet accessible database. The genetic markers on mitochondrial DNA (HVR1) and Y-chromosomes (12 microsatellite markers and haplogroup-defining SNPs) are used to trace the participant's distant ancestry, and each customer is provided with their genetic history. As of April 2010 more than 350,000 people had bought a test kit.`` iv
My DNA test was link a sunrise breaking on the darkness of my distant past. I already knew that, like all of us, my ancestors, having developed an upright posture and a sense of adventure, left Africa sometime between 50 and 100 thousand years ago. My test told me that some 12 thousand years ago, a small pocket of Ice Age ancestors had found a relatively hospitable place to “winter over” in the Iberian Peninsula. They may have been a tribe numbering no more than a few hundred, and several such pockets existed in Europe. During this time, slight genetic mutations occurred that would allow scientists thousands of years in the future to track their movements as the ice began to retreat. I know that about 9 thousand years ago, my hunter-gatherer ancestors began following the herds north. Eventually they made a home along the coast of the North Sea, and Friesland seems to have the largest concentration of my Y-chromosome clan. This apparently makes my genetics “Germanic”, as that language group arose in the regions where my kin made their post glacial homes.
So science can get me to the Copper Age, then kicks me off the train. My Gx20 Grandfather may have been a Viking! How exciting to think that....a hairy, scary seafarer kicking in the doors of British churches and loading all their precious treasures into his longboat (before burning their stupid books and despoiling their sheep.) Of course, he may have done this on the North coast of France, and become a genteel Norman, before crossing the channel. Or maybe he was a farmer from Lower Saxony who got a great deal on an abandoned farm after the Romans left Britain. Or perhaps he was part of a Germanic tribe that settled in Northern Gaul, became French and had to leave during the 1500's for religious reasons. Or perhaps my ancestor was simply a “baby daddy” who left his genetic legacy with an unfortunate village girl during a violent raid.
One thing is for sure. Combining modern science, history, archaeology and oral tradition, I know with certainty that my ancestors found it quite cold during the Ice Age.
Which leads me to druidry. As I've mentioned, the study of our ancestors and what they believed and speculating about their spiritual life, pointed me, like many, towards this path.
As a child of the confused and fragmented Media Age, the moral and ethical values of my parents didn't make a lot of sense for me, (nothing really did. I blame television.)I searched around for something to fill the void, and I struggled through the fear and guilt associated with abandoning the religion, the backbone of the culture of my forefathers that I felt no longer served my post-modern sensibilities. Eventually,I discovered Philip's bookv. Druidry has proven a flexible alternative ever since.
It is possible that I have a genetic predisposition to spirituality. I was raised by tribalistically Protestant parents who took great pride in their particular denomination and were suspicious of those with somewhat incorrect information.(Baptists, for instance.) The Roman Catholics had it completely wrong, of course, and other religions were not contemplated. (Although the successful Jews in our community were sort of like living examples from a Bible story, and thus accepted.) I have two uncles who became ministers. Scattered through the family record are stories of great life decisions, like moving across an ocean or picking sides in a revolution, that seemed to be religiously motivated., all of which makes me think I have some strand of nucleotides that makes this stuff fascinating for me and my kin.
For me, druidry is like a bridge between my flights of fancy and the solid material predictability of a rising sun and fertile earth. Druidry has an entire festival dedicated to those who have passed into the Other world. Ritual and meditation (such as the wonderful one written by Donata on the OBOD site)vi can help access areas of the psyche..the subconscious...my Jungian analysis isn't developed enough to provide a more technical description..but the place inside us where we develop dreams and where ancestral memories live...wait, I have Google:
“In psychology, genetic memory is a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time. It is based on the idea that common experiences of a species become incorporated into its genetic code, not by a Lamarckian process that encodes specific memories but by a much vaguer tendency to encode a readiness to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli. It is invoked to explain the racial memory postulated by Carl Jung, and differentiated from cultural memory, which is the retention of habits, customs, myths, and artifacts of social groups. The latter postdates genetic memory in the evolution of the human species, only coming into being with the development of language, and thus the possibility of the transmission of experience. Racial memory is a concept in Jungian psychology. Racial memories are posited memories, feelings and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a "collective unconscious".vii
A great meditation that can bring us back into our deep past has been developed by Cursuswalker, adapted from Richard Dawkin's book “The Ancestor's Tale”.
Whatever we may think about the Druidic idea of shape-shifting, it is beyond reasonable doubt that it does happen, just over an immense period of time. In 'The Ancestors Tale' (the book he wrote just before 'The God Delusion') Richard Dawkins summarises the latest scientific evidence to outline the 40 evolutionary rendezvous between humans and all other species now alive to reach back to the origin of life itself. viii
One of my favourite druidic tools for accessing ancestral memory, or that Otherworldly place where knowledge and wisdom live as dreams, just waiting to be tapped like sap in a tree, is mirror scrying. I've only done it a few times, and my technique may be rough, but I light a candle, and in a dark room facing a mirror, stare at my reflection. I think about who I am, where I am, how I got there, where I came from...eventually, I can enter a trance-like state, where I am both conscious of my surroundings, yet disconnected, and start “receiving” some very unusual information, usually in the form of visuals. I can “see” my face transforming...even my location. I may be accessing ancestral memory, or I may just be messing up my eyes, but the few times I have done it, it was good food for the imagination. I can recall one particularly powerful and hypnotic experience at a Samhain ritual a number of years ago when several of us did this technique as a group, looking into our own faces, the faces of our ancestors, and the faces of those we shared that moment with. It became a glimpse into not just individual contemplation, but the idea of community and neighbours and mutual support.
Druidry has many other tools as well. Various divination systems like tarot and ogham are ways to access the Ancestors. Druidry's focus on creativity and the Bardic arts also aids the journey of the spirit. It is possible to synthesize the things we know...our research and genealogies and inner questing..into poems or songs or historical novels or paintings or campfire stories. Journeys of the imagination are journeys into the Otherworld, where the ancestors are waiting.
Visiting the Ancestors
We can visit the places our Grandmothers knew. Words on paper can excite the imagination, but so much more so the smells of a field during fertilizing, or the spray of the sea or the feel of cobble stones beneath the feet. See the mountains they climbed, or the forests they walked in (if they haven't been cut down yet.) Of course, nothing remains the same, and the places you visit might be a very different from what our ancestors would have known. Perhaps imagine that you are taking them with you on your visits. (in a sense, you are.) You are bringing them back to the place they once knew, and letting them see it again with new eyes. It could be a truly interactive experience, with you being the vehicle for their rediscovery, and they giving you deeper insight into what you are looking at. I know this is speculatively esoteric, but we can do that in druidry!
For me, the bucolic pastures that many of my paternal ancestors called home is now Flushing, New York. My visits into this past usually involve a walk through Times Square, a Broadway show and a visit to the MOMA. A walk through Central Park can give me a feel for the land as it might once have been. If you can get your hands on the September, 2009 National Geographic, there is a great digitized photo spread of Before New York: Rediscovering the Wilderness of 1609.
Another area of ancestral homestead, a small island off Novas Scotia, is now in the restricted area of an oil refining facility, and I have not been able to visit since I was a child. Google maps let’s me imagine the rugged coastline. My mother still lives on a piece of property that her ancestors have been on since the 1830s, so when I visit my mum, I can walk up the hill to the burned out and decayed wreckage of the log home my Scottish GGGgrandmother lived in, and still look out over the breathtaking view of the lake below.
And one can actually visit the departed ancestors themselves. Many museums, such as the British Museum in London, have mummified or otherwise preserved remains of long dead people, who have achieved something close to immortality. Lindow Man is probably the closest we will come to seeing a druid with our own eyes. It is certainly not unheard of to find bones displayed in various churches around the world. A travelling “Bog Bodies”exhibit, displaying those who fell or were tossed into bogs of Northern Europe, recently came to my town . To see someone who lived 2000 years ago that may possibly have been a genetic, and was certainly a cultural, ancestor can be a spiritual experience. It could also be an exercise in morbid curiosity. One can hope that any such “displays” are presented tastefully and respectfully, and you bring an attitude of reverence when you attend.
Of course, as has been discussed on messageboards, the environmentally conscious druid will make travel choices that are the least impacting to the environment. Perhaps restricting ancestral visits to places that are within rail travel, or making a longer, possibly more expensive, but potentially more meaningful land and sea travel choices.
As a child of the oil age, I grew up in a radically different culture than even that of my parents only 40 years earlier. They were both born at home on a kitchen table (one night apart) in homes with oil lamps...no electricity yet...by the town doctor who arrived by horse. The traditions were hard work, church on Sunday, some candy and an exotic orange in the sock at Christmas, some door to door mummering and trick playing on New Years Day. Easter was the time for new clothing. Marriages and funerals were the main social functions. My kids laugh at the fact that we only had one television channel and no computers when I was growing up, but by the 60`s and 70`s (I was backwater...things happened 20 after everywhere else there) electricity, cars, modern medicine, `pop culture` and most crucially, television, had cleaved my lifestyle and that of my children from that of any generation that has gone before.
But the biggest tradition of all remained. By the 1970`s, my Christmases had become something new....televised specials, advertisements for indispensable toys (the Slinky really was a magical toy), syrupy songs that get played, to this day, ad naseum. (although I don’t remember them starting as early as October when I was a kid.) “Traditional` Christmas” was a manufactured Victorian fantasy. Even our folk memories feel manufactured and marketed sometimes.
I may sound anti-Christmas, and that would be very much in keeping with my Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian ancestors traditions, but I love the traditions of Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter and Halloween . I can see the turning of the wheel in those traditions, and it links me to the ancestors, even if the “costumes” of the traditions change. Winter Solstice is an ancient time for feasting with family and friends.
I think you can honour your ancestors by learning about their beliefs and traditions, but the real way to honour your ancestors, yourself and your descendents is to come up with healthy, fun traditions of your own adapted to your place and time. If they are worthwhile, they will survive.
Humans are star stuff evolved to the point that it can begin to know and marvel at its own magnificent STORY.”
“PERHAPS THE DEEPEST SPIRITUAL CONNECTION to the vast Universe that science has given us is an awareness that ancestral stars are part of our genealogy. We can now know and feel our connection to the heavens, for stars are among our ancestors. Every atom in our bodies, other than hydrogen, was forged in the fiery belly of a star who lived and died before our own star, the Sun, was born. ix
At the heart of spirituality lies the question “who am I?”. The study of ancestry provides important answers. Honouring the ancestors is honouring our remarkable stories, stretching back billions of years.
iii http://genealogy.about.com/od/church_re ... ormons.htm
iv https://genographic.nationalgeographic. ... index.html
v http://www.druidry.org/obod/theorder/ar ... ments.html
viii http://caerabred.wikispaces.com/The+8+L ... Concestors