Connecting to Ancestors

By Erica Baron, Woullard Lett

reflective glass ball

Woullard Lett: Where are we before we are born? What happens after we die? These questions have been answered differently by different cultures throughout the ages. Our various approaches to addressing these questions across time and space epitomizes the essence of the fourth principle: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. One common cultural response to the question of what happens after we die centers around how we relate and respond to the idea of ancestors. In contemporary culture in America, there can be found marked differences between how some communities of European descent and some communities of African descent view and relate to ancestors.

Erica Baron: In one of the most important texts in the intellectual tradition of my culture, she said, Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus has to visit the Underworld to speak to the dead prophet Teiresias. This visit is suggested by the witch Circe. She tells him that only Teiresias has been allowed to retain his intelligence after death. The other souls “flit about as shadows.” (Translated by A. T. Murray).

Circe tells Odysseus how to find the Underworld and what to do there. She instructs him to give offerings of water, wine, honey, milk, and barley to the dead. He is also told to slaughter two rams. The spirits of the dead will be drawn to the blood from the rams. He is supposed to keep them all away from it until Teiresias comes. Odysseus is to allow Teiresias to drink from the blood. This will give Teiresias the strength to see and communicate Odysseus’s future.

Odysseus follows Circe’s instructions and makes the necessary offerings. The spirits of the dead, “came thronging in crowds about the pit from every side, with a wondrous cry; and pale fear seized me.” (Translated by A. T. Murray). Before Teiresias arrives, Odysseus sees the soul of his mother, but she does not appear to recognize him. After he speaks to Teiresias, he allows his mother to drink from the ram’s blood. Then she recognizes and speaks to him.

Homer’s are not the only European ideas of death and the afterlife, of course. However, when I think of the role of ancestors in European tradition, this ancient story feels relevant. This is not a story of ancestors who are helpful to the living after they have passed on. Indeed, even very recent ancestors do not even remember us. Though Odysseus is able to receive the wisdom and guidance of Teiresias, this is presented as an extraordinary occurrence.

Woullard Lett: As a descendant of Africans enslaved in America, the culture and consciousness of my immediate ancestors who were brought to these shores experienced an intense and ongoing assault on memory and meaning. Not having claim to a specific community, country or cultural history, due to intense, intentional and ongoing efforts to invoke amnesia, alienation and disassociation from identification with their African heritage, many of us have adopted a pan-african orientation towards our pre-enslavement cultural history and practices. One ritual that has been retained or reclaimed and practiced is honoring ancestors.

While widely practiced among many traditional cultures around the world, the African practice of naming ancestors is grounded in a theological belief that the spirit energy of ancestors is benevolent and compassionate. Just as ancestors provide life force and abilities biologically to their descendants, they also provide phenomenological and theological assistance and guidance.Ancestors provide phenomenological assistance through epigenetic and cultural transfers and transmissions. Ancestors are characterized as providing guidance from beyond the material world.

Erica Baron: Moving forward in time to the Christian era in Europe, the ancient stories have been replaced. Now there is a story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This comes with the promise of eternal life in heaven for Christians. Now the story says that our ancestors remember us. But they still are not offering continuing help and guidance.

Instead, we get the idea of Saints. Saints are particularly extra-special people who have died and are able to help the living. They do this indirectly, by asking God to help them. Many Pagan gods and goddesses in Europe were reimagined as Saints. Part of the project of converting people to Christianity. For the people of Europe, these figures were more like deities than like personal ancestors, at least at first.

I’ve been thinking about all of this,because of a conversation we’ve had on our team about ancestor veneration in different cultural communities. This got me thinking about my connection to ancestors as a descendant of Europeans. It’s also the right time of year to be thinking about these things.

In my Wiccan tradition, the holiday of Halloween corresponds to the religious observance of Samhain. Samhain is the time when we remember and honor the Beloved Dead and the Mighty Dead. The Beloved Dead are those we have a personal connection to who have died. The Mighty Dead are those initiates in our tradition who continue as our partners after death. This is also the time of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which are Christian days to honor the dead.

In my experience, these observances are solemn. Samhain is not a tradition of fearing the dead, but it’s also not entirely festive. For example, one common tradition is the "dumb supper." The Beloved Dead are invited to attend a meal with the living, and the meal is shared in silence. Even Halloween, the more festive version of engaging with death, is about engaging fear. Those terrifying spirits in the Odyssey are not gone from our imagination despite the passing of millenia.

Woullard Lett: A worship service order of service that called for “naming ancestors” immediately brought to mind the practice of libation and honoring of ancestors practiced in many African and pan-African communities. The practice of libation and honoring of ancestors in the African tradition is an example of acknowledging and affirming the belief in communal connection and the primacy of social support. The practice is a reflection of the orientation expressed in “ubuntu” or I am because you are and the idea that we each stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Following the line of lineage and descent takes us back to the source.

Erica Baron: The conversation on the New England Region team was about whether it is appropriate for European descendants to participate in some version of ancestor veneration and whether there are ancestor naming practices that we could/should engage in that originate outside of African tradition. This began as a question about cultural appropriation. However, there are other issues to consider. I think of my own ancestors, both near and distant in time, with much more ambivalence than I witness in people of African descent, and it’s not just me.

In my Wiccan community, we have practices to do spiritual work with our ancestors. This is deeply fraught for many of us who are of European ancestry. Most people of European descent who I’ve talked to about this have serious reservations. We often resist these practices. Why? Many of us are living in ways we imagine our recent ancestors would frown upon (queer, non-Christian, etc.). Many do not have to imagine this disapproval because those who are now passed expressed it directly when they were alive.

For those who are committed to justice, connection to European ancestors usually means connection to atrocity. To the legacy of slavery, genocide, and colonialism on this continent. And to centuries of brutal conflict in Europe before that. When I reach into my family’s past, I must confront the harms my ancestors committed. Including to each other. Indeed, those of European descent in my Wiccan community who do a lot of work with their ancestors generally spent at least as much time on healing legacies of harm as on receiving inspiration or wisdom.

Woullard Lett: In the African diaspora, the practice of naming or veneration of ancestors was one way of holding on to the faint memory of a pre-colonial world. Often connected to naming the ancestors is the ceremony of libation. These practices were a ritualized form of defiance and development for those communities. Performing them was a denial of attempt to denigrate the African personality and deny Africans their humanity. It also served to affirm their ongoing connection to “source” and their portion of compassion from universal consciousness despite their dire circumstances.

NER Team: One of the practices of Spiritual Leadership is *binding to or claiming tradition. This means being accountable to the tradition of Unitarian Universalism. We do this by bringing forward what is still live-giving. What will help us create Beloved Community? We must also be accountable for the legacy of Unitarian Universalism. We do this by recognizing harms committed by Unitarian Universalists and UU institutions in the past. And by seeking to repair that harm.

Woullard Lett: This practice is experienced in communities of African descent as claiming the tradition of Unitarian Universalism and being claimed by it. In this case too we acknowledge the full character and nature of being by including that which is positive and for which we admire them and that which might be considered negative and for which we could be ashamed. This practice of claiming and being claimed is combined with the practice of covenant which allows us to view ourselves and our experience not as fixed but as a growth experience, rather than our experiences being about what being but becoming.

Erica Baron: For UUs of European ancestry, the work of *binding to tradition is easier to name than to practice, of course. Not only because the work of recognition and repair is logistically difficult. It is also emotionally difficult. For me, it is hard to hold both the good things I have inherited from my own ancestors and the harms they caused at the same time. To see the gifts without excusing the harms. To see the harms without rejecting the gifts.

For those of us with European ancestors, ancestor practice needs to dwell in this paradox, as does our practice of *binding to Unitarian Universalist tradition. For those of European descent who want to undertake the spiritual practice of being accountable to and for our ancestors, there are many ways to begin. One way is to find out who our ancestors were, precisely. I’m fortunate that much of this work was done for me by my relatives who are interested in genealogy. There are lots of excellent resources online for discovering more about your particular family history.

Once you know something of the story, it’s time to work on your relationship to that story. That might mean imagining a conversation with specific ancestors. Or writing them letters. Or some other creative way of engaging what you have discovered. Think about the gifts that you have inherited, the things you do still hold on to and which nurture who you want to be in the world. Maybe say thank you in your letters or imaginary conversations. And think about what you know of the harmful legacies you inherit. You might express your sadness or anger about these things in imaginary letters or conversations. This will probably take more than one session to explore fully. Take your time and stay open to new insights and feelings.

Then it is time to think about how you want to begin repairing the lasting harm from your own family. I’m still working on understanding this step for myself. I know that I want to be engaged in the work of reparations, and I have taken some small steps to start that work. There is more to be done, however.

I know this step can be challenging, partly because we did not directly participate in many of the harms that are our legacy. I did not personally accept the first land claim on stolen earth, for example, although my ancestors did. From a mindset of individual responsibility, it might seem easy to dismiss the responsibilities of repair.

The question I encourage you to ponder is: What do my Unitarian Universalist Principles ask of me in relationship to the harms that are my family legacy? Justice and equity might demand that I seek to right past wrongs even if I did not participate in them directly. My conscience my ask me not to turn away from the lingering effects of atrocities even though they are centuries old. And surely an awareness of interdependence will not let me pretend that I am not connected through time to my ancestors’ actions and the ongoing injustices that spring from them. Nor am I disconnected from those who still suffer the effects. We are bound together by very real impacts of actions and attitudes past and present, and I bear some responsibility for that.

At this time of remembering the Beloved Dead, I invite those of European descent into the paradox that is our heritage. This is challenging spiritual work, but it is what our Unitarian Universalist values ask of us.

Woullard Lett: For those of African descent, understand that the naming of our ancestors opens portals to an ultimate reality that is both immanent and transcendant. It identifies that which we can claim for inspiration and yet calls us to an aspiration that is often referred to simply as “beloved community.” The communal acts of various cultures whether public traditions like All Hallows Eve (Halloween) or private and semi-private rituals like Muerte De Dios or African libations all bring us closer to that place.

* We have recently changed the name of this practice to Tending Our Tradition, in recognition that the metaphor of binding may have a charge that is harmful for Black people, people of Asian descent, and others.

About the Authors

Erica Baron

Rev. Erica Baron joined the New England region staff in 2019, focusing on helping congregations live into their missions and develop their gifts for spiritual leadership. Before joining the Congregational Life staff, she served as parish minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the...

Woullard Lett

Woullard Lett joined the New England Region UUA as Acting Regional Lead on May 1, 2018. Woullard is a long-time member and lay leader at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Manchester, NH and board member of Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community. In the past, Woullard worked...

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