Ancestor Work: It’s Not Always About “Honoring”

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Happy Samhain and Happy Halloween to those who celebrate them! Here on the Patheos Pagan channel, we’re just wrapping up a month-long series on ancestor remembrance. Our Pagan writers produced dozens of thoughtful articles on connecting with ancestors. Additionally, some of our writers teamed up with writers from the Progressive Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Spirituality channels to do ancestor remembrance practices in tandem. I hope in the future we can do more projects like this to form meaningful cross-channel relationships. (The Patheos Public Square focused on remembering the dead this month too — check it out!)

In listening to all these conversations about ancestor work, I wanted to address an objection that often comes up around this topic.

“I don’t like my ancestors. Some of them, in fact, were execreble human beings — rapists and abusers, slaveholders and architects of genocide. I don’t want to honor them, or remember them, or acknowledge their existence at all.”

This is a fair and valid objection. Some of us need to set boundaries between ourselves and our ancestors in the same way that we might need to set boundaries between ourselves and abusive family members. Not all of us will be reconciled with estranged families in our lifetimes, and sometimes keeping distance is the best possible strategy for managing the trauma of the past and the ongoing danger of the present.

Many Pagans who prefer not to honor ancestors of blood focus on ancestors of spirit — mentors or historical figures with whom they have affinity — or beloved dead, friends or adoptive family who have crossed over. Some also honor ancestors of place, those who lived on the land where they now live (and these ancestors may be animal, not human). Our ancestor remembrance project includes several examples of these kinds of ancestors; I’ve particularly enjoyed Nornoriel Lokason’s memorializing of Harvey Milk and Helen Keller and Lupa Greenwolf’s letter to her non-human ancestors.

Other Pagans approach their ancestors of blood by accepting their flaws and focusing on their strengths. This can feel like a more authentic way to honor a dead family member with whom the relationship was conflicted and difficult. Although the article deals with a spiritual ancestor rather than one of blood, Cat Chapin-Bishop’s remembrance of Ann Putnam is a good example of how one might work with a problematic ancestor around themes of redemption.

These kinds of ancestor work still focus on honoring the dead, however; and for anyone who is just beginning ancestor work, honoring is the best and easiest place to start. But ancestor work is not always about remembering the positive. Sometimes, it can be about demanding justice, making reparations, or healing wounds.

My line of witchcraft considers itself “traditional” — a slippery and much-contested word, but here meaning something like “witchcraft that deals primarily in relationships with the land and its inhabitants in various states of embodiment.” As I was taught witchcraft, deepening relationship with the ancestral line is a key element of our work — and if no relationship exists, we must restore it to come fully into our power. So what do we do if the ancestral line is blood-soaked, broken, twisted with hatred, wounded?

The short answer is that we engage the ancestral line where we have direct access to it — beginning with its endpoint, our own embodied selves. Whatever we have inherited from our ancestors that burdens or wounds us, we work to make it right: to atone for our ancestors’ wrongdoing with just action, or to heal grief that our grandmothers and grandfathers carried to their graves. It’s slow work, often painful; and it is not work I would recommend to everyone. There are a thousand ways to deepen spiritually and serve community, and not everyone’s path will lead them to dig into the past this way.

For those who are called to work with their ancestors, especially those who are trying to resolve an inherited spiritual burden, I can recommend an excellent mundane tool. If you have access to family stories, either through family members or through genealogical research, it can be enormously helpful to make a genogram, a tool often used in family systems therapy. A genogram is a kind of family tree that also records major life events (such as illnesses, career changes, etc.) and important aspects of family relationships (strained or very close connections, for example). The results can reveal a pattern that persists over generations, or behaviors in later generations that represent clear reactions to events that occurred before they were born. A genogram can help uncover issues that need to be addressed, and it may even identify specific ancestors who need help in healing, who need to be confronted for crimes, or who may be of aid in either process.

The process of healing one’s ancestral line will be different based on the situation, and it is probably best undertaken for the first time under the guidance of someone experienced in ancestor work. Readers may also find Laura Patsouris’ short book Weaving Memory to be helpful. From personal experience, I can say that to successfully resolve an issue in one’s ancestral line can be an enormous relief that reverberates throughout one’s life. Ancestor work allowed me to shift complexes that years of other spiritual practices and healing modalities had failed to touch.

Ancestor practice that goes beyond honoring can be heavy work. Happily, not every Samhain celebration needs to be about confronting family traumas. My ancestor practice tonight will be to dress up my little one in an adorable monster costume and take him to hand out candy to local trick-or-treaters, as my parents and grandparents did. Whether the Samhain season calls you to deep healing or simple celebration, I wish you all the blessings of the dark time of the year.


Storytime: Wayland’s Tale


Small candle, Mind-Forge, help me fly

Through thorn, to World Tree nine worlds high,

What Was, Is, Will Be:

Three Sisters stand by me.


Light a candle, my love, a small mindfire to prick the growing night. For all this starts with a story. Not a pretty or happy story, but one that is True…


Once not so long ago, or very long ago indeed, or maybe not until next week…

there was a god who wanted to try his luck as a man. It happens now and again, and there’s always a story to come of it.

This particular man had two brothers, and the three of them were fortunately enough (and that is very fortunate indeed, bad luck or good) to marry three sisters. Nine years they all lived happily enough, and then the sisters flew, called off by their father to far fields of battle. Nine years have we been together, nine years will we be apart, they told their mates. Never seek us, never search us out. We will come back to you. And off they flew, crying and calling to war.

Now the man’s two brothers could not abide to live with their grief and solitude, and they urged the young man to come with them and chase their wives, bring them back to home. But the young man trusted his wife to come back as she said she would, and he urged his brothers to have patience. This they could not, and so they said good bye to the young man, and went to seek their wives. With one thing and another, those two quickly met their deaths, for you cannot chase after what has flown away from you and ever come to any good.

The young man knew nothing of this, however. He turned to the hills, and found within them ore and jewels, and month by month and year by year he practiced a lonely craft as smith. It wasn’t long until he became so skilled at his art, that his reputation spread throughout the land and his small house filled up with treasures of his own making.


Now it happened…

that a neighboring King heard of the renown and reputation of the Smith. How could he not, when rumors ran across the country? No smith so skilled as he, travelers told the King. And none so wealthy, either. All by himself he lives, just him, alone, in a house full of gold rings, chains, and hammered armor all of utmost skill and craft.

The King could not forget this Smith, this no one noble, once he had heard these tales. Who is this man, he asked, to have more wealth than I do? Am I not king? And for whom does he do this work, for whom does he hammer the gold and iron, if not for the king? By rights I should have him here beside me.

So the King gathered twelve of his strongest soldiers in the hall guard and together they traveled to the Smith’s small house, intending to ambush him and bring him back to the King’s hall. Luck was with them. The Smith was out hunting when they arrived. The house was empty of any person, but the stories were proved true, it was filled with gold buckles, rings, ornaments and armored magnificence. The men had time to arrange themselves in hiding.

And the King, looking around, had time to take the most beautiful ring of all and stash it in his pocket.


As it turned out…

they didn’t have long to wait. The Smith returned successful, a bear over his shoulders. In no time the thirteen had overpowered him, and without delay they tied him up and took him back to King’s great hall, his realm and home. Once there, to ensure the prisoner would not escape (for he was very strong), the King ordered his men to hamstring and hobble the Smith. Then they locked him away by himself, on an island close by. It was the Smith, his forge and anvil, a chest to keep the metals he would work, a simple bed, and very little else.

The ring he stole, the King gave to his only daughter. To his young sons he gave nothing, for he had no other stolen goods to give.


Can you imagine, now…

how the days and nights stretched on for the prisoner. Nothing but the sound of surf and seagull, the roar of the forge, the clink of his hammers. Wounds slow to heal, both outer and inner, oh my yes. Yet in his pain, his grief, his anger, he didn’t stop work. And out of that crucible, all his jeweled ornaments, all his fanciful masterpieces, went now to the King.

How long did this last? Some months? Years? How should such mortals as we, free and yet untested, measure time’s reach for one who is captive, for one who has been a god? But the Smith would have his revenge.


For as you might guess,one day…

the king’s two sons took it into their heads to row out to their prisoner. They were curious boys, and they knew the rumors of the chest of gold and other metals, they’d heard whispers of the jewels he kept to work his magic on. And after all, what gifts had they received? Did they just want to look, or were they hoping together to trick the smith, or overpower him, and steal his wealth? They didn’t tell me, my lovelies, if they were.

The Smith, healed on the outside by now, at least, welcomed them in and agreed they should see the wonders contained in the chest he kept by the forge. Eagerly, the two leaned over. And as they did, their prisoner brought down the lid with such force it severed their heads from their bodies at once. Oh, he made a clean job of it. The bodies he buried under the dirt floor of his cell. But the heads he had use for. Taking the two skulls, he veined and lined them with gold, fit fine jewels into the eye sockets, and sent the two goblets—rare beauties—to the King as a most precious gift. Delighted, the King promised they should toast the princes, when his sons returned from their bear hunt.


But you haven’t forgotten the King’s daughter, surely?

She who was gifted the Smith’s ring had broken the jewel. Worried her father would find out, she rowed out to the cell just as her brothers had, to ask him to fix it, a favor. Her he welcomed more warmly, with spiced wine. And the stories are not so clear, my dears and darlings, if that wine was drugged, or if the drink only softened her smile. But here is the truth of it: when she rowed home, the princess was carrying the Smith’s child. She might have been able to hide her broken ring, but a baby she never could. Weeping, she told her father the King what had happened.

Now the Smith flew free, for he had in the long years of captivity and anger made wings for himself, and hovering above the shocked King his enemy and captor, he admitted, laughing grimly, all he had done. He revealed the goblets’ deep secret, the fate of the princes. And he claimed the son the princess carried, and laid a charm of protection upon both her and the babe, so that the King must house and feed them, until the Smith, a god once more, came back to claim them both for his own.

And the King, broken and bereft, admitted his folly and too late regretted his acts. For the Smith’s triumph over him was utterly complete.


Keep the fire lit, a while, my loves, and get you to bed. I won’t be sleeping this night, and how the cold comes on.



And so the first debt is paid, the first promise kept.

It is.

fire in fall


The Thirteen Vanic Virtues


fire in fall“Why did you change your name?” people ask, when they see the name on my book’s cover is different than the one I use in here.

I had a hundred and one reasons for changing my writing name but (attention, Facebook) none of them are nefarious. And the answer I give depends on the day, my mood, and the phase of the moon. They’re all true. It was a change coming for years and it was a moment’s decision.

“Why didn’t you go all the way and change your legal name, then?”

To this there is only one answer, but it stands up to all 101 on the other side and balances them: my husband asked me not to, and I adore my husband.

So I walk the world divided, and that provides the tension that sings through me, my poems, and keeps my pulse quick. I’m hardly alone. Writers and pagans are two communities who know all about pseudonyms, pen names, craft names.

Years ago I met a Sadie who has been a fundamental influence on me. Recently I’ve been thinking about her again:


Sadie and Maud

by Gwendolyn Brooks


Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-tooth comb.

She didn’t leave a tangle in.
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chits
In all the land.

Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.

When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie had left as heritage
Her fine-tooth comb.)

Maud, who went to college,
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.


I discovered this poem when I myself was… in college. And that may be why I read it not so much as a diatribe against education as an argument that the quality of one’s engagement with life has more to do with attitude than privilege. Maud had the privilege and played out the script, and look where she is at poem’s end. Sadie got nothing, and yet she leaves a rich legacy behind her…and had a good time in the meantime, by the sound of it.

Reading that poem at twenty, I decided a fine-tooth comb sounded like a fine way to live. But…what comprises such a comb? Where shall we find the thing, and how shall we know it?

And what do we do if we temporarily lose it?

I found myself remembering that fine-tooth comb again this week, as I’m reading excerpts from Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft (New World Library, 2003). Here’s an extended passage on the figure of the Wanderer: Devils Lake path October


…This is the time in life when a person is most intensely in search of her deepest self, a self she knows she will not find reflected back to her from within the familiar arenas of her merely human culture.  She searches for the seeds of her destiny in the more diverse, wild, and mysterious world of nature.  She no longer conforms to nor rebels against society.  She chooses a third way.  She wanders, beyond the confines of her previous identity. 

            The Wanderer crosses and recrosses borders in order to find something whose location is unknown and unknowable.  She will conclude she has found it not by its location in a certain place or by its matching a prior image, but by how it feels, how it resonates within her upon discovery.  She doesn’t know where or when or how clues will appear, so she wanders incessantly, both inwardly and outwardly, always looking, imagining, feeling.  In her wandering, she makes her own path. 

            The Wanderer discovers her unique path by perceiving the world with imagination and feeling.  She senses what is possible as well as actual.  She sees into people and places and possibilities, and she cultivates a relationship with the invisible realm as much as with the visible.  She is in conversation with the mysteries of the world, on the lookout for signs and omens.  She attend especially to the edges, those places where one thing merges with another, where consciousness shifts and opens, where the world becomes something different from what it initially appeared to be.


Plotkin’s Wanderer sounds a lot like a “livingest chit,” doncha think? And maybe, just maybe, what I’m writing my way towards in here is a Theology of the Livingest Chit.

By definition, there aren’t too many maps in this work I’m embarked upon. The Northern gods I’m tangled up with don’t set down rules to obey…but they do espouse virtues. Traditionally, these are

  • Courage
  • Truth
  • Honor
  • Fidelity
  • Hospitality
  • Discipline
  • Industriousness
  • Self-Reliance
  • Perseverance

The nine Norse virtues are all honorable ideals but honestly they never fit me very well. Trying to bend myself to that list feels, well, like a slog. That probably doesn’t say anything very good about me, but there it is. I realize this morning this could be because these virtues are community oriented and I am at heart a solitary. They seek to weave a group together into a village or town or other workable society and I live at the far edge. My true home is not…the home. (Which is, yes, another source of creative tension for someone currently in the role of at home parent.)

But I have discovered another set of virtues

Some of you will know the Northern gods are divided up into two groups: Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir are the ones most people know (thank you Marvel): Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Baldur, Tyr, Frigga…They tend to be sky gods, gods of justice and community. The Nine Virtues are Aesir virtues, for the most part.

The Vanir, on the other hand, are closer to the land, the seasons, the magics of earth. (And yes, I am grossly generalizing here…there is much subtlety in the system that I’m choosing not to go into in this space.) The Vanir deal a little more in the wild and fey. Frey, Freya, Njord are all Vanir…and so, by most contemporary accountings, is the Smith, Wayland.

And, I just discovered, searching online, they have their own set of virtues. Originally the list was twelve, but I split up Courage and Passion, which seem to me related, but separate:

For the original list, created by Nicanthiel Hrafnhild and Svartesol, see this link. I have slightly edited their list of Virtues and reworked the descriptions of each. (Author’s note: Svartesol is Nornoriel Lokason, whose more recent writings can be found here at Patheos Pagan at Ride the Spiral. And here is his official website.)


The Thirteen Vanic Virtues

The pursuit of beauty and elegance in thought, form and speech, and the valuation of beauty as worthy in itself.

The strength of will to see a course of action through. The ability to face difficulty and danger.

Zeal, vigor; wholehearted zest for life.

Harmonious and balanced thought and action; tranquility, calm, serenity.

The quality of being receptive to the world around one, non-judgmental. To listen deeply.

Music and dance; the nurturing of inner wildness and radical innocence, being “fey”

The recognition of nature and the environment as worthy of respect, care and reverence.

The all-encompassing force which expands outward: love for family, for kin, for humanity, for all beings.

The peace and goodwill between people bound together; loyalty and the keeping of one’s word.

The binding of two parties into one common bond, generosity and hospitality.

The ability and willingness to surrender to overwhelming grace, the ability to feel happiness in the moment.

The trust that the Gods exist and are worthy of our worship, and Their ways worth following.

Brother(ahem, Sister)hood
The recognition that we – humans, animals, plants, spirits – are all part of the grander scheme of life,
and we share a common heritage, as children of the Earth.


So there it is. I think the Vanir have provided me my fine-tooth comb. At least for a while. This list connects me to myself, my true home (which may be no home?), and this earth that continually spins out from under my feet, leaving me dizzy.


Meanwhile, over my desk I’ve taped this up:

Do no harm.
Take no shit.
Be a “livingest chit.”

As they say at the end of church service every weekend, May it be so.

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis




Art, Agriculture, and Ancestors

Patheos Pagan is hosting a conversation about honoring the ancestors this month. I didn’t write anything for it, having no established practice to speak of. More truthfully, the whole concept challenges me.

The relatives I’ve lost (thankfully few) weren’t a very spiritual bunch. They lived deeply in this world. I honor them best by enjoying good food, good friends, and remembering to appreciate the small beauties of each passing day.

As for ancestors of the land, having just passed “Indigenous People’s Day” (which is still known as Columbus Day in much of the nation), I have at best uneasy relationship with this idea. Who am I to assume that the ancestors of this place called Wisconsin, called the USA, welcome my attempts to reconcile with them? They might well be furious—at the genocide and displacements of their people, at the ignorance with which we carved up and plowed into the land, at the disrespect we show to their descendants, even now, in how we treat both the peoples and the land. I would like to believe some sort of connection is possible, but I don’t think I’ve yet put in the work and time that would make this an honest effort. At best, I can bow my head, and promise to try to listen, to teach my children how to listen.


But there is a ritual pilgrimage my family makes in October each year.

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Traveling about an hour up the road, the town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin serves as host to a ten-day Fermentation Festival, celebrating all things fermented, from compost to chocolate to kimchi to beer. And as part of this celebration, each year arising out of the farm fields in a 50-mile loop, the Farm Art DTour.

People come from as far away as the Twin Cities and Chicago to drive the loop, stopping at the installations—some of them by professional artists, others by the farm families that own the land, local 4H groups, and some pop ups from local artisans and neighbors. We move as pilgrims through the rural landscape, stopping at each station to read, consider, pause, interact, take pictures, try the food.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

It’s always a profound experience for me to see so many people spend a day visiting art of all kinds, driving through the autumn fields. The DTour ties together agriculture, culture, art, food, history and land. This year, the very first stop was a new sign with this text:


Wanąğomįk cinąk

The native inhabitants of this area were called Winnebago by the neighboring Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1993 the tribe reclaimed their original name of Ho-chunk, or “People of the Sacred Language.” Reedsburg has long held a respected place in the history of the Ho-chunk. In the winter of 1893 the citizens of Reedsburg stood up to the US Government military in order to protect the Ho-chunk from the decimation of the forced removal from their homelands. Due to the large number of church-sponsored cemeteries or final resting places located in Reedsburg, the Ho-chunk refer to the city as Wanagomjk cinak, or land of cemeteries.


The words washed over me like cool water, reminding me that history is always more complex than the stories we learn (no matter which stories we learn). That in every generation, peoples can work together in spite—or even because of—their differences. That respect and appreciation can grow anywhere. Maybe, just maybe, keeping in mind this piece of local history, I can begin to find my way to connecting with the ancestors of this place in a way that is respectful to them and honest to myself.

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

We drove on. Soon we came to a spiral labyrinth mowed into the corn, with signs along the way reminding us to “still your lips” “open your ears” “quiet your mind” “listen to the land…”

Listening Labyrinth

Listening Labyrinth

when we reached the center of this contemplative journey, there were stairs leading up to a platform that allowed us to see over the cornstalks, the view expanded in front of us to embrace the landscape. The metaphor was unmistakable.

One of my favorite aspects of the DTour is that it forces one to see the land, agriculture, and culture, anew. If this is art:


Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani


Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

What about this?


Tractors, photo R. Busse

Tractors, photo R. Busse

And what about this?


Cemetery, photo R. Busse

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

How we find food, prepare it, share it, and how we honor our dead…these things may vary from generation to generation, from one culture to another, one region to another, but… we all do procure and share food together, and we all do honor our dead.


By the time we finished the loop and headed for home, we had enjoyed pork and sauerkraut sandwiches, Asian-inspired potstickers (including a macaroni-and-cheese version–this is Wisconsin, after all), fermented salsa, local chocolates. I felt my connection to this place reaffirmed and reframed—by returning to the land with a reverential attitude, I already begin to connect to the ancestors of this place, and in doing so, I reconnect more deeply to my own humanity.

Wealth, photo R. Busse

Wealth, photo R. Busse


With thanks to my husband, Reed Busse, for the photographs. My daughter insists that I use some of hers as well. Alas, she missed my deadline…so expect to see more DTour shots in upcoming essays. 

Beloved dead

As I explained in my previous post, ancestors don’t have to be family members who have died – they can be people you feel connected with through place, community, and religion.

Harold James Aburrow – family ancestor

My grandpa originally came from Petersfield in Hampshire. The family story was that we are descended from, or related to, the cricketing Aburrows of Hambledon, but family history research has not found any direct connection. Nevertheless, Aburrow is an unusual name, and is very concentrated in and around Hampshire when you look at the maps for the 1881 and 1991 census, so we may well be related. My great-grandfather was a grocer in Hambledon, and had a van which travelled around the area; the family joke was that he was a barrow-boy, but his grocer’s van was a little grander than that. My grandpa had a painting in the stairwell of his house which was done by great-uncle Allan and was a copy of a painting of lions thought to be by Edwin Landseer (the guy who made the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square). Many years later, I saw a copy of the Landseer painting in a pub in Lancaster. The pub was called the Golden Lion, but was known locally as the Whittle (as that was its original name).

In the one photo that I have of my grandpa, he is in the garden, holding a tray of seed potatoes. I think he liked gardening. I remember going with my grandparents to collect leaf-mould from the common woodland. I used to sit in the kitchen with him and play Hangman (the word game). We used to run round the house singing “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in imitation of the Beatles. He used to share his Trebor Mints with me (you can’t get that kind any more, sadly). One of his sayings was “waste not, want not”. And I have a very dim and distant memory of sitting on his lap and being told a story. My grandparents had a coal fireplace and I used to like to watch the blue and green flames of the sea coal. They had a tabby-cat called Smokey.  I remember high tea at my grandparents’ house, with Marmite, and watercress, and malt loaf, and Battenberg cake. Possibly not all in the same meal.

Why so few memories of my grandpa? Because my parents grew up in the Exclusive Brethren, and left that group in 1976. This meant that my grandparents were forbidden to have any contact with us after we had left. I only found out by accident in 1996 that my grandpa had died. I wonder what he would have thought of this blogpost. A few years after that, I had a dream of my grandpa and grandma among mountains, in the Summerlands. They seemed happy. I have also thought of them many times since at Samhain.

Ursula Fanthorpe – ancestor of spirit

There is a wonderful eulogy to Ursula Fanthorpe from her life-long partner, Rosie Bailey. I feel connected to Ursula Fanthorpe for several reasons – being a poet, being LGBT, and having lived in and loved some of the same places – I have lived in Bristol, Oxford, and Lancaster, and she spent time in all three. We both also gave up teaching. She wrote a wonderful poem about Stanton Drew, where I have spent many happy times. She also wrote a great poem about Pomona and Vertumnus, which is one of my favourite stories from Roman mythology. Her poetry was that rarest of things, popular with the public and critically acclaimed. And some of it is very funny, like Reindeer Report and her other Christmas poems.

Thomas Bodley – ancestor of place

Oxford would be a very different place if Thomas Bodley had not founded the Bodleian Library. I have always loved libraries – they are like ocean liners bearing the freight of knowledge across the dark sea of time. Bodley was a Protestant and a childhood friend of Nicholas Hilliard, the miniaturist. He loved languages and learnt Greek and Hebrew. He revived Duke Humfrey’s Library (which had been stripped and abandoned during the Reformation) and encouraged friends to donate books to the library by inscribing their names in a handsome vellum book; he also formed an agreement with the Stationers’ Company to send him a copy of every book they printed; this was the origin of the idea of a copyright library. If you visit Oxford, be sure to include a visit to Duke Humfrey’s library, part of the Bodleian.

Madge Worthington – Wiccan ancestor

I was lucky enough to meet Madge Worthington at her 90th birthday party. It was a lovely occasion and she was clearly enjoying herself. The photo in the linked-to page was taken at that party. As well as being a great witch who loved the Goddess of the Craft, Madge loved animals, was active in the Green Party, and loved to dance. She also had a great fondness for Battenberg cake, so I always think of her when I eat it. I have always liked it too. There are many strands of the Whitecroft tradition all around the world. The one I belong to is quite interested in folklore and folk tales, and I think Madge was too.

Ancestor Remembrance Project

This post is part of an Ancestor Remembrance Project, and I am partnering with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish tradition, and both of us are remembering our grandfathers.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

Joy at the Breakfast Table

I went out to my favorite trail to run again, Pheasant Branch in Middleton, a three mile loop that takes me through both the prairies and the woodlands of Southern Wisconsin. I know every turn and twist, which helps me see the minute changes from week to week as the seasons progress.

This connection to a specific place, as well as the running, grounds me.


A week ago, three sandhill cranes flew right over my head, belling their prehistoric music, maybe on their way to find the bigger flock they’ll migrate with. I don’t believe in coincidence. The card for JOY in my tarot deck shows three cranes dancing, and my jogged mind said to me, You better write about this.

Joy in the parents with their now-grown chick, headed back to join their community. What is more archetypal than that?


Not every dance a family does is quite so joyful. My oldest is thirteen now and suddenly my used-to-be-morning child is slugging pretty hard into his bed. No matter that his alarm goes off at 5:30, the past couple of mornings he’s tumbled downstairs, scarfed breakfast…and needed a ride to school because he missed the bus and it’s too late to walk.

“This is your problem to solve,” I holler up at him. “I’m not going to drive you to school every day.”

“I’ll skip breakfast!” he yells from upstairs. “I’ll skip lunch! I deserve to be punished!!”

Change is hard for my kid.


There’s the savvy old saying, You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. This is pretty practical advice for parents. Unless you give birth to a mule.

My kid is something of a mule. When he gets thirsty, I know from long experience I can’t lead him to the water. He’ll just balk. Instead, I have to nod my head casually and say, “I hear tell there’s water over thataway.”

I’d like to solve all his problems for him…but he resists that, and I know deep down he is right to resist it. He’s gotta figure it out for himself. Each of us does. My job may be, more or less, to keep a little space clear at home to give him the place and the quiet he needs to become himself in the world.


I’ve been sitting on this essay for a week, because there’s something about it that felt unfinished, half-realized. And I think, reading it over again, that it’s right here, in the acknowledgment of my own limits. This strange little piece is not just about one mother and son relationship. Maybe this is the best we can do for each other, ever: to keep a little space clear in all our relations to allow family, friends, colleagues, to be and become themselves. I can’t solve your grief. I can’t tell you how to fix your life. I can’t know you, ever, fully. But I can give you room. And I can help to define the boundaries of that space by listening closely, deeply, to your voice.  


If we could look at each other and promise, You can be yourself with me, it’s okay, what a gift that would be. What a revolution.


While I was driving my kid over to school, he said angrily, “Maybe I need to start setting my alarm for 3 a.m.”

“Well you know,” I said, eyes remaining on the road, “I don’t think the alarm is working. Maybe it’s already set too early.”

“Hey–yeah,” he said. Sometimes there’s grace. Sometimes a person is receptive to a new idea. We’ll see how it goes tonight.



Meanwhile, after the kids have gone to school I light a candle
and search out Wayland in my notebooks.

He’s reading a copy of The Anvil’s Ring and says absently,
Did you know they’re still trying to figure out
the Ulfbehrt swords?
He chuckles, shaking his head.

Hey, I say. I could use a little direction here.
This hasn’t been an easy season.

But I should know better by now.

He doesn’t even look up, just smiles to himself.
I hear there’s water over yonder. If
you’re thirsty. Follow those cranes.



One week later…my son walked to school this morning, and was probably late getting there. He’ll figure it out. Yesterday the three cranes were closer to the trail when I jogged by. You’re still here, I said. The tallest one looked at me. Of course. You haven’t published that essay yet.






Why remember ancestors?

It is good to know where we came from, and to honour those who struggled to give us the freedoms that we have today – freedom to love, live, laugh, and learn.

“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before. ”
― Alice Walker

I don’t think we owe it to the ancestors to behave in a certain way, or to live in a particular place ― but we do owe it to them to remember their struggles and their achievements. Without the feminists, queers, Dissenters, Pagans, and many others who struggled for freedom and rights, we would not have those rights and freedoms today.

Ancestors of blood, spirit, and place

What is an ancestor? First, and most obviously, it is someone from whom you are genetically descended. If you go back far enough, of course, your ancestors multiply exponentially and you could be descended from anyone. You can even have your genome mapped now, so you can see where your ancestors came from generations back. Some Druids refer to family ancestors as “ancestors of blood”. Focussing exclusively on “ancestors of blood” can be problematic if your ancestors were in the habit of colonising and subjugating other peoples (which is true for just about everyone who is of European descent).

Ancestor fan chart

A family tree

An ancestor may also be someone from the past whom you admire or feel an affinity with. Perhaps they were an activist for a cause you support (feminism, LGBT rights) or created beautiful art or literature, or made an amazing discovery in the sciences. Some Druids refer to these ancestors as “ancestors of spirit”.

An ancestor may also be someone who lived in the place where you live now (no matter where your family came from originally). Some Druids call these “ancestors of place”. If you are a descendant of people who colonised a region, then the concept of “ancestors of place” needs to be treated with considerable sensitivity. And if you are a descendant of people who were persecuted by the inhabitants of the country where you live, then you might not feel like honouring ancestors of place – though some of them might have been defenders instead of persecutors.

The Beloved Dead

In many forms of witchcraft, including Reclaiming, Feri, and Wicca, there is the concept of honouring witches who have died, especially at Samhain. In Reclaiming and Feri, they are called the Beloved Dead. These may also include non-Craft family members who have died.

Companion animals

Companion animals who have passed on can also be remembered at Samhain. I remember the cats our family had as a child, Shandy and Spicy, and my cat who died in 2011, Harry.

Previous incarnations

If you have a clear idea of who you were in previous incarnations, you could also honour your previous lives as ancestors.

Beliefs about life after death

Most Pagans believe in reincarnation, with a period of rest in the spirit world between incarnations. In Wicca, the region where the dead go is referred to as the Summerlands.  Some of the dead are believed to stay in the spirit world to watch over other Wiccans, or their families.

Samhain and ancestors

At Samhain (31 October), many Pagan traditions believe that the veil between the worlds is thin, and that the Beloved Dead can visit this world. Rituals are held for people to connect with the Beloved Dead. This can include putting up pictures of them or creating a shrine for them; reading the names of all those who have died since the last Samhain (this is done by Reclaiming witches); meditating and communing with them; and setting a place for them at the feast.

Every Samhain, I take the opportunity to commune with my friends, fellow witches, and family who have died, and to tell others about their lives. It is a beautiful ritual, and important to remember those who have passed on. There is a saying in the Reclaiming tradition: “What is remembered, lives.”

Jewish remembrance customs

Judaism has some very well-developed remembrance customs for the bereaved, with stages of mourning, and the recitation of  the mourners’ Kaddish prayer, and the marking of the Yahrtzeit (the anniversary of the death).

The Yad Vashem remembrance project, “Unto Every Person There is a Name” also attaches considerable importance to remembering and reciting the names of those who died in the Holocaust, and filling in their biographical details. 

Patheos Pagan ancestor project

The Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project has been set up by Christine Hoff Kraemer, who writes:

My vision for the project is this: Partners get to know each other via e-mail or phone, and the Pagan partner shares a bit about his/her ancestor practice. The two of them together create a practice for October that feels doable for the non-Pagan, which might involve journaling, building a meditation altar of family pictures, researching family stories, visiting a gravesite, or preparing a special meal where family members are honored — there are lots of options, and the Pagan partner is there to help the non-Pagan find something that will work for them.
Next, we’d like the partners to do three blog posts about their ancestor remembrance practices and the experience of working together during the month of October. If the practice chosen is ongoing, you might do one post a week; if you choose a one-night event, like a special dinner, the posts might be closer together (reflecting on preparing for the event and the event itself). The partners will link to each other’s posts, and ideally also to the Public Square landing page, which should be up in the second half of October.

I will be working with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish channel, who blogs at The Worthington Post. [update: Her blogpost, about her grandfather, explains her approach to this project.]

My ancestors

I plan to focus on some specific people for my ancestor project. My family member will be my grandpa, Harold James Aburrow. My “ancestor of spirit” is a bit harder to choose – I have an entire Pinterest board of people whom I admire. But I think I will focus on U A Fanthorpe, since I am a poet and so was she. My chosen “ancestor of place” is Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, because libraries are really important, and I used to work there. My chosen Wiccan ancestor  is Madge Worthington, founder of the Whitecroft line.

I will remember them by creating a shrine for them in my home, researching their biographies, and visiting their graves (if known). I may not be able to visit their graves during October, but I will try to do so during the next year. I will also hold either an ancestor ritual or a dumb supper.


If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

When Storymaking Fails: Towards a Non-Narrative Theology

Late in the summer, I opened an old wooden writing desk I keep in my office.

A year or two ago, I went through a period of a few months where frenetic ideas were coming quickly but I had no energy to write them into poems or essays or the book I thought might be glimmering around the edges, so, excited, over stimulated, I stashed them all in a box and let them sit a while.

Casting through old pages for ideas this summer I remembered that stash of notes and pulled them out, brought them upstairs. I remembered them as notes, lines, half-poems started and ready to be finished. I remembered them as a coherent set of ideas ready to be filled out and expanded upon.

They weren’t.

Instead, they were random jottings, strangely spooky and unfamiliar—like hearing a ghostly voice at great distance waft up from the scrids of paper. Some not even ideas—just nouns or doodles, unrelated. Or a half question. One slip of paper was entirely blank. Bits of dialogue in voices I now don’t recognize. There was no thread running through the group, there was no way to tie them together. I could weave no narrative.

It was a record of damage. Or maybe, damage control.




I know there is such a thing as Narrative Theology , or Postliberal Theology, as it is also known. I admit immediately I have only the faintest grasp of the subject, but it seems to be involved in moving away from a liberal Christianity that situates itself historically, back to one that centers itself in narrative—or story, or myth, if that word isn’t offensive. (It shouldn’t be, I think. Myth is the story that is always now and always true.)

If my understanding is correct, I have a lot of sympathy for the movement. A living religion has to situate itself in the ever-present yes of myth. (My easy embrace of a historically-based understanding of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity, for example, is rooted in the fact that I am not a Christian.)

Story is how the human animal makes meaning. Story is central to religion.

That said, I think again of my scraps of paper, scribbled down and saved from a period of my life when the narrative(s) I had created no longer worked. The story I created that was me no longer fit. It wasn’t an easy time…but I wouldn’t give up the knowledge I gained coming through it. And those little scraps bear a broken witness.

I distrust any religion that hands its followers too many answers. Answers close down the conversation, they take us from the journey to the idea of arrival, of finish line. We can’t help making narrative, any more than we can help seeing pattern. It’s what our species does. But I distrust stories that don’t leave some spaces.

Whatever my theology is, it needs to be able to encompass the gaps and ruptures as well.



A writer knows to leave some gaps in the narrative, to allow the reader to fill in some blank spaces. To invite co-creation.




I haven’t decided what to do with those folded up scraps of paper. Right now they’re in an envelope. Part of me wants to put them into some kind of book (to contain them is to give them a shape, even just a loose one, and shape is meaning). Part of me thinks they’re close to holy relics and ought to be kept private and secret. Part of me says Get real, it’s just some random jottings on bits of paper. You’re never going to come back to them.

Truth be told I’ve temporarily misplaced the envelope.

Moon over water (shutterstock)

We are made of scraps, unconnected, random experiences and actions that accrue through days and years as we grow. The bits that don’t fit our story, we conveniently let go. The mind sifts. But what happens when we’re faced suddenly with those fragments that we discarded, those little voices and stories and motions we forgot about? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats wrote. Theology has to make a place for the non-narrative moments too, or it fails us.