Queer Samhain: Why should I honor my awful ancestors?

Most Americans lack a defined relationship with our ancestors, particularly those who died before we were born. We certainly don’t have a mainstream cultural equivalent of the ancestor-veneration practices in Shinto and many American Indian traditions. To address this gap of connection, many pagans and pagan groups, particularly those working in Shamanic contexts, are working to create better ancestor connection practices for us to use in our modern, magickal lives.

For some queer people, coming into a pagan tradition where suddenly ancestor work is A Thing can be…unsettling and confusing. Some of us cut ties with our families after being rejected for our queer identities. Some of us keep family at arm’s length because, while they aren’t outright hostile, they just don’t “get” our queerness and don’t make attempts to understand, much less affirm, us. Complicating this further, some of our deceased relatives were slave owners, bigots, or worse. Many of our families seem to actively work to disempower, rather than empower, us. So why on earth should we incorporate our ancestors into any of our magick?

There is power, of course, in connecting with those who came before. “You are the result of the love of thousands,” as poet Linda Hogan says. Our root chakras rejoice in us connecting to the building blocks that helped to create us, and working with our predecessors can open us to new wisdom and perspectives in our work and in our understanding of ourselves. In working with our ancestors, we have the opportunity to heal past wounds that impact our lives. Plus, working with the dead can improve our outlook on death and remind us that there is more to the world than our present experience of it.

The good news is, when doing ancestor work, you aren’t obligated to build a relationship with your horrible great-great-uncle Mike, your bigoted grandparents, or anyone in your family you have a distaste for. In fact, you aren’t even limited to your family of origin relatives in ancestor work. You’ve got some options.

Option 1: Finding the right ancestors to work with in your family

As you consider your ancestors, remember: They go back hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s entirely likely there’s at least one person in your family history who was similar to you. You may have to go waaaay back to find them, though. If you are adopted, you may have to search your birth parents’ bloodline as well as that of the family into which you were adopted. But somewhere, through journey work, you may find a kindred spirit. If you’re unfamiliar with how to do journey work, I recommend my friend Monika Coyote‘s classes on the subject.

Option 2: Working with ancestors in our streams of power

Ancestry is about more than just blood or who raised you. We are connected to people through streams of power, as well. If you are a magickal practitioner, there are hundreds of magickal practitioners who came before you. If you are queer, there are tons of queer activists and artists who paved the way for our lives today. If you haven’t already, spend some time learning more about notable magickal and queer people in history, and see if any of them “click” for you. Then leave offerings for them, write songs for them, offer them thanks and listen for their wisdom.

Option 3: Working with your future descendants

Even if you never have children, you will also become an ancestor one day, as part of the streams of power of magick and queerness. Future queer and magickal people may want to connect with you. There’s a beautiful essay in Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries called “The Glitterheart Path of Connecting with Transcestors” by Dr. Pavini Moray, in which pe offers this beautiful prayer for the yet-to-be-born trans folk of your body, of your heart, and of the world:

Blessings on my transcendents. Blessings on my trenscendents. May the learning and work I do be ever in service to your wellness. May the love I feel flow towards you through the stream of time. May you fully savor life’s sweetness, through this love-honey I offer, and may my blessing permeate and protect every moment of your lives.

Dr. Pavini Moray, “The Glitterheart Path of Connecting with Transcestors”

You can easily adapt the above prayer for whatever stream of power or heritage you wish, offering blessings and connecting with the flow of future generations.

As part of your work with descendants, you can also do non-magickal actions. All our activism, all the art we create, and all the times we express ourselves publicly as queer makes a difference for those who are coming to terms with their identity now and in the future. For example, I’m writing this on National Coming Out Day, and each year I write a social media post reminding people of my queerness, because coming out is an ongoing process. Everyone’s choice to come out or not is valid, and nobody should be bullied to come out before they’re ready. But one of my hopes in posting these reminders is that maybe they will give someone the courage to acknowledge to themselves, and maybe someday to others, who they really are. I am happy to use my voice to help those who may be struggling, because I certainly spent much of my younger life lacking vocabulary to express how I felt inside.

Regardless of how you approach ancestor or descendant work, and even if you prefer not to work with ancestors or descendants at all, know that you are connected to a vast, diverse, and beautiful web of humanity: Those who came before, and those who will follow. Much like The Force, these streams of power will be with you, always.

Blessed Samhain!

3 thoughts on “Queer Samhain: Why should I honor my awful ancestors?

  1. Brilliant piece, I was recently thinking along similar lines about honouring (or choosing not to honour) problematic ancestors.

  2. My own ancestor altar has a small section for my blood ancestors, a rather larger section for the Queer ones (plus Mr. Rogers!) and the biggest section for my now-deceased HP and teacher. My blood ancestors were neither uniformly excellent nor uniformly terrible, and I honor the fact that I wouldn’t be here without them, but the ones who helped me be and let me be who I am today get the most veneration.

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