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When we illuminate the road back to our ancestors, they have a way of reaching out, of manifesting themselves ... sometimes even physically.
—Raquel Cepeda, Bird of Paradise
The veneration of ancestors is a commonly held practice throughout the world based on the idea that in spite of their lack of a physical body, our ancestors continue to influence the living. To maintain connections with the ancestors of one's lineage and to receive their blessings and protection, family members will regularly make offerings and honor the ancestors through prayer and sacred rituals.
Ancestor veneration is not the same as worship, which is typically reserved for a deity or deities; Uncle Fred and Grandma Louise didn't automatically become saints or deities when they died. Worship means "the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity," whereas veneration is defined as "great respect." Making this distinction can help us view ancestors and ancestral spirits differently. It's time to incorporate them in our spiritual practices as important intermediaries, just as so many cultures do. There's a richness to be had by making conscious connections and working with the ancestors to help them heal, to heal ourselves and our families, and to heal the Earth.
There are four things our ancestors need from us: acknowledgment, validation, understanding, and forgiveness. If we are able to provide these four things, our ancestors will naturally become a more important part of our lives. They will seek to help us in as many ways as possible, serving as spiritual guides and teachers as well as givers and receivers of healing. Working with them in these various ways helps us to free ourselves from the chains of unhealthy family patterns, some of which you may have already discovered in yourself. (If you haven't discovered these patterns for yourself yet, don't worry; we'll be discussing how to do this throughout the book.)
Exercise Reviewing Your Ancestral Connections
Take a few minutes and record in your journal ways that you have honored your deceased loved ones. To whom do you feel most connected? Have you felt their influence in some way? Are there any ancestors with whom you have unfinished business? Are there any that you'd just as soon not have anything to do with? What blessings or gifts have you received from any of your ancestors? Do you ever sense one or more ancestors looking out for you? If so, who comes to mind?CHAPTER 2
Cultural Views and Practices
There's a wide variety in the way various cultures treat their ancestors. From simple reverence to more complex systems of beliefs and practices, from indigenous communities to more contemporary cultures and communities, every culture has its own unique characteristics related to the honoring of those who have come before. There are, however, some commonalities that are universal:
There exists another realm where ancestors and other spirit beings dwell.
Ancestors remain active participants in the lives of their descendants.
Ancestors help keep family traditions alive.
Ancestors protect the family.
It's important to make periodic offerings to honor the ancestors and to receive their benevolent gifts.
Ancestors can serve as intermediaries between humans and a supreme being.
If ignored, ancestors may create problems.
Ancestors gain greater spiritual perspective and insight in the afterlife.
Ancestors carry with them into the afterlife some of their idiosyncrasies, unhealed wounds, and character traits.
Ancestors can help you heal, and you can help them heal.
Following are just a few examples of various traditions around the world where ancestors are acknowledged for their influence upon the living. While not exhaustive, it gives you some idea of the scope and variety of ancestor veneration.
Ancestor veneration in China has a lengthy history. It wasn't until the emergence of Confucianism and Taoism during the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) and the revisions of the earlier religions that ancestors were accorded a greater significance along with the gods of the earlier religions. It was acknowledged that the ancestors' steady presence influenced the family in a consistent way.
Confucianism put emphasis on following the Tao ("The Way") and harmonizing with the continual dance of yin and yang, dark and light, masculine and feminine. Sometimes interpreted as "The Way of Heaven," the Tao represented that mysterious and magical force that underlies everything. One of the fundamentals of Confucianism was to honor family, both the living and the dead, and to do so through the enactment of rituals that expressed that reverence.
Taoism emerged about the same time as Confucianism and held the view that there is a natural rhythm to the Tao, and through living in harmony with nature, you can come to know the Tao. By coming to truly know the natural laws, you come to appreciate the Tao in all things. Both spiritual philosophies stress the importance of offering your reverence and showing proper respect to elders, particularly parents and grandparents.
As is true in many cultures, it's believed that the ancestors will look after the family through their continued existence in the afterlife. They can influence the fortunes of the living and can provide wisdom and guidance for their progeny. In turn the family must pay homage to the memories, deeds, and sacrifices of their ancestors. By keeping them happy and venerated in the spirit world, they in turn will provide blessings for the family.
The veneration starts at the funeral of the deceased, where various items such as a towel, toothbrush, comb, and sometimes even a computer are placed in the coffin with the deceased or are burned as a sacrifice. Following the funeral, an altar is created to honor the one who died, and each day offerings are made to help the person have a safe and pleasant journey into the afterlife. Favorite foods (usually fruits and vegetables), wine, and even money are placed in front of the altar. The money is symbolic pieces of paper, called spirit money, and is often burned as a means of reaching the deceased loved one. Included on the altar is a picture of the ancestor and a memorial plaque.
After a few weeks, this altar is taken down and the ancestor's name and dates of their life are inscribed on a commemorative wooden tablet. This tablet is then placed on a different altar along with the tablets of other ancestors. A separate wooden tablet is placed on an ancestral shrine in a temple.
The living continue to honor their ancestors by going to their gravesides regularly and through annual ceremonies such as the Ghost Festival, where it's believed that the spirits emerge from the lower world to visit, and Tomb Sweeping Day, which takes place in mid-spring and is considered a sacred day of the dead. The core component of both of these festivals is the honoring of ancestors.
Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. Asgeneralized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many ... can be recalled by name. But they are not the living-dead. There is a difference.
—James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me
As is true of other cultures, African veneration of ancestors is aimed to assure not only their well-being in the afterlife but also to seek their blessings and their assistance. Another function of ancestral veneration is social and familial in that it helps bind the family together and assures the continuity of the family lineage. With populations that inhabit a specific territory and share a communal heritage, these practices help maintain solidarity within the community. Ancestors are honored through prayers, offerings, and sacrifices.
There are long-standing traditions in most African countries, and often ancestor reverence is integrated with Christianity, with the exception of North Africa, where Islam predominates. There is still the acknowledgment and worship of God (the one God in many forms), but there is not a personal relationship with this higher being. God is the Creator of All, but He is too distant to hear the prayers of mere mortals. Instead, prayers are typically mediated through the ancestors.
The living have an interactive relationship with their ancestors—they can influence one another. The flow of energy goes both ways, and there is a continuity of connection between the living and the dead. After a year has passed, Zulus, a South African people living mainly in the KwaZulu-Natal province, will welcome the deceased back into the home by performing a ritual. A section of the hut is set aside for the ancestor, and a large branch is brought in, which becomes the ancestor's place to sit—wherever the beer is kept!
The ancestors are seen as capable of meting out punishment as well as support, guidance, and encouragement, so the actions of the living are done to appeal to the ancestor's benevolence and guidance—and to avoid punishment. The ancestors are considered to be the caretakers of the family's and community's customs, laws, and moral codes. They watch over the living to assure that these are kept in alignment with tradition. If something is out of alignment, the ancestors can create difficulties and illness.
Gretchen Crilly McKay was initiated as a traditional African healer called a sangoma, or African shaman. In a personal interview she shared the following:
When you were having a problem, you would go see the local sangoma and he would contact the ancestors and determine the source of the problem by throwing the bones [an ancient tool for divination]. I recall where a friend's son was taken ill and they took him to see the sangoma. He threw the bones and determined from the ancestors that gathered in the ritual that the boy had the wrong name!
Gretchen continued, "So the sangoma in the communication with the ancestors was told the boy needed a name that meant 'Chief.' The boy was then given that name and immediately the illness lifted."
The healing can work both ways, from the living to the dead. If an ancestor left a mess when he died, he also carried some of that into the afterlife. By working with rituals and propitiations, the living can help him do the necessary healing that will allow him to further evolve on his spiritual journey in the afterlife. That way the entire family and community can benefit, particularly the descendants.
Although ancestors are always closely involved with their living relatives and watching out for their welfare, they are not connected in the same way with everyone in their group. Tradition dictates that the elders' position of authority allows them a more direct and intimate relationship with the ancestors. The elders' role is to not only represent the ancestors but also serve as mediators between the ancestors and the family.
There is a complexity to the Hawaiian traditions of honoring the ancestors. The most important terms to understand their relationship with ancestors are ohana, akua, and 'aumakua.
Ohana (o-HA-na) translated means "family" yet its meaning extends far beyond what we in Western cultures typically think of as immediate family. It applies not only to those related by blood, but also to those in the larger community who share in the spirit of aloha, or love and compassion. In an island culture such as this there is a greater interdependence on one another, and this is embedded in the traditions and customs. The well-being of the community is dependent upon the foundation of ohana.
The akua (ah-KOO-ah) are Hawaiian deities. The ancient Hawai-ians had upward of 400,000 gods and goddesses, the four major deities being Ku (Koo), Kane (KAH-nay), Lono (LO-no), and Kanaloa (Kah-nah-LOW-ah). Each deity has a particular function (and typically more than one); however, our purpose here is to understand how these relate to the ancestors.
The akua were based in experience, not in some conceptual or mystical notions. They appeared as sentient beings of the land—the wind, the ocean, and the volcano, for instance. Pele (PAY-lay) is perhaps the most widely known of the panoply of deities and is associated with the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. To the ancient ones she was not a representation of the volcano, nor was the volcano a representation of her. Pele is the volcano and the volcano is Pele. This is just one example of how present and alive the various gods and goddesses were, not only in the people's consciousness but also in the very land itself.
The 'aumakua (ow-ma-KOO-ah) are the divine ancestors, a natural extension of ohana. They are charged with watching over their descendants and are asked for assistance in daily matters. They favor those who practice the aloha spirit and warn members who are behaving badly. They can even mete out punishment for anyone who breaks kapu (a taboo), sometimes by sending illness.
Communication with the 'aumakua was woven into everyday life. They were family, and though powerful, they were not akua. They would communicate with their descendants directly through dreams and mediums and could even appear in animal, plant, or mineral form. Often they appeared as an animal that represented the family's ancestral connection to a particular species. In fact, the akua and the 'aumakua could both express as bodies of animals, plants, or minerals. One of the most prevalent ways they appeared was as animal spirit guides.
A friend who lived in Hawaii for most of his adult life told me a story of his 'aumakua, which was Pueo, the Hawaiian owl. He traveled from Kona to Hilo, one side of the island to the other. He noted that Pueo followed him to and fro, and he gave thanks for the guardianship of his 'aumakua. He told me that when Pueo shows up for him or for anyone who has a relationship with this 'aumakua, it is a sign of protection and guidance. However, if Pueo shows up in some way and she is not your 'aumakua, it portends a death.
A few years ago, I was facilitating a shamanic ceremony in Kona one evening with a group of 120 people that had been participating in a six-day certification training. It was the evening of the fourth day. The participants had all prepared for the ceremony by identifying some trait or characteristic they wished to release. We gathered near the small bay by the hotel, and after some ceremonial procedures, five students at a time would approach the water and release a stone or another article from nature that was a carrier of that which they chose to release with clear intention.
It was a magnificent ceremony, as several people acknowledged. There were also several that reported very distinctly hearing Pueo. The meaning and message did not become clear until after the program had ended. Paul, one of the ten staff members, had been noticeably gaunt and lethargic throughout the six days. The night after everyone left, he passed away. We'd noticed that he wasn't healthy and refused to see a doctor, and unbeknownst to all of us he had an advanced case of AIDS. In retrospect, Pueo was forewarning us of a death. Perhaps this meaning for Pueo's visitation was culturally specific, as sighting an owl does not always mean this.
The indigenous Hawaiians were intimately tied to each other, their ancestors, and to the land. As one writer explained, "The most important ancestor for all Hawaiians is the land itself. Legend names the first Hawaiian as the kalo (taro) plant. Therefore, as the Hawaiian progenitor, it is every Hawaiians [sic ] obligation to care for their elder brother, the land" ("Who Are Native Hawaiians?").
Excerpted from Healing Ancestral Karma by Steven D. Farmer. Copyright © 2014 Dr. Steven D. Farmer. Excerpted by permission of Hierophant Publishing.
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Posted November 4, 2014
Dr. Farmer is the best! I've been a fan of his videos and just read this book -- it does not disappoint! If you're looking for some positive energy in your life, I highly recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.