One does not need to be an initiated diviner to create and tend a family ancestor shrine. In fact, everyone can benefit by carrying out this practice. And if you have children, young or old, this is a great gift to them as well. It can be as simple or elaborate as you choose.
In this blog post I will speak a bit of why I think this is true and then give some ideas and suggestions for how to easily create and maintain such a shrine or altar.
The Importance of Honoring Our Ancestors
An ancestor shrine or altar is a place to honor and remember those who came before us and gave us life. it is because of them that we are here and, in part, they have made us who we are.
Honoring our ancestral legacy keeps us connected to the cycles of life, and brings those who came before us into the present. In fact, in some ways it actually keeps them alive. We may honor specific ancestors: a grandmother, great uncle, great, great grandmother, or we may choose to honor the locality of our ancestors: Italy, Spain, Africa, Peru…and the traditions and culture associated with the ancestry. It is up to you and how you choose to do it.
Ancestor worship gives a depth and complexity to our lives and adds texture to who we are. It is nurturing for both us and our ancestors. Working with the spiritual or energetic dimensions is always a reciprocal relationship.
Knowing where we came from helps us know and feel that we belong. And to whom we belong. It helps us live our lives more consciously knowing that one day, we too, will be ancestors. How do we want to be remembered? What do we want to be remembered for?
Some good things to try to find out about ancestors are: Where did they come from? Where did they spend most of their lives? Is there a quality about them that remains and wants to be remembered and passed on? Where are they buried? Is it possible to visit their graves?
Some ancestors were not great people in their human lifetimes and we may not want to have them around. You are allowed to set your own terms and boundaries around your ancestor shrine. Keep in mind, however, that souls continue to evolve, grow, change and learn after death.
Letting your children know where they came from and to whom they belong is important. It is also essential that our children understand that relationships do not end with death and will help them navigate these passages when they get to them.
Depending on your personal biography, telling the stories of their ancestors to them can be an important practice. It grounds them in their lives and opens a place for the oral tradition inside them. The stories they hear about their ancestors and where they came from help them consciously shape their own stories.
The Importance of Shrines
It is very important to understand the ancestors are not really “dead,” but rather go on living in the ancestral realm to be interacted with if we wish to.
We make shrines to provide a home to the entity or ancestors honored on them. Shrines make the invisible visible. They offer embodiment to those who are no longer embodied.
At the shrine, we make offerings: spirits (wine, beer, vodka, etc. in a glass), small plates of favorite or shared food, flowers, rocks, crystals, mementos, seeds and more.
The offerings are gifts but also food (fuel) for their journey and the work they are doing on the other side. We clean these offerings away periodically when the energetic essence has left them and replace with fresh ones.
At the shrine, we make prayers, tell stories, commune with whom is present there and express our concerns or worry for those currently embodied. At the shrine, we can dialogue with our ancestors.
My Grandmother’s home was full of shrines. There were pictures of loved ones who had passed, with statues of saints and lit candles in many corners of the rooms of her home. For me, as a child, it indicated presence of others whom I could not necessarily see with my eyes. Often, after I heard stories of the ancestors told around the Sunday dinner table I would go looking for them in one of these shrines. If located I would speak to them there at the shrine.
My grandmother kept her ancestors alive so that I felt I could freely interact with them though they were long “dead.” This gave my life a depth and understanding that life continues, relationships continue beyond death, and that those who came before us or left us early are still important members of the family.
How to Create the Shrine
Shrines or altars can have so many forms. Use one that fits perfectly into your space and lifestyle and that is not burdensome but rather a joyful experience. A shrine can be a shelf or table or any surface where, on top of a nice cloth, you place pictures, mementoes, statues or candles, leaving space for offerings to be added. A shrine is an interactive space.
You can also keep it really simple and have one picture and one candle holder in which you keep replacing tea light candles.
Or you can build your shrine outside under a tree, with rocks in a circle on the ground, against a fence. You can incorporate plants and bushes, outdoor statues, prayer flags. It is however you wish to create it. With children it is fun to create and maintain it together. Visit it at holidays or important family times, inviting the ancestors in to the celebration and feeding them. You can leave notes to the ancestors there or read poetry together there.
Trees are great shrines because you can hang things in their branches. One can sit under a tree and listen or meditate. Trees, with their deep unseen roots supporting them (ancestors), strong trunks grounding and centering them (parents and adults), and their branches with young shoots growing toward the sun (children), represent a family system well just by being who they are.
However you choose to create it, let it be a place that you go to periodically with the intention of interacting with your ancestors. Eventually they will come to inhabit it. The relationship will come alive and you will feel supported and cared for, as will they. This is as it should be.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2017
Theresa C. Dintino is an ancestral Strega (Italian wise woman), Earth worker, and initiated diviner in the West African Dagara tradition. For more than 20 years Theresa has studied and practiced an Earth-based spirituality. She currently helps others reclaim their personal lineages through her divination work. Theresa is the author of seven books which include her Tree Medicine Trilogy. Learn more about her books here.