“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.”
It is the time of year when nights are growing longer and we are coming up on the time when the veil between form and spirit gets muddier. It’s wonderful to feel protected and warm in your home and your space when these times come around.
Our peoples have been using the plants forever, and they know just what we need to feel cozy and safe.
If you’re interested in honoring your ancestors this season with any kind of ceremonies or ritual activity, please do check out some guidelines for safety when engaging with ancestors that I’ve put together. It’s important to treat this stuff as for real, which it is.
All of our ancestors, no matter where we are from, have strong relationships with protective plants. For example, my husband’s people from the middle east may burn like incense bundles of dried hyssop, and steam miramiyeh sage over the fire in winter to keep the house safe and bright. What plants have your people used in this way?
I wanted to share a few plants from the European apothecary that my people have relied upon, they are blessed friends.
(As always, I invite you to pray with your medicine and ask humbly for these plant spirits to walk with you and live with you in a good way, in a good relationship.)
This is one of my favorites for so many gifts it brings us–but especially that gift of protection and light. Goldenwort (called by many St. John’s Wort) “lets the light in” both literally (taking internally can make you more easily sunburn) and energetically, in that she helps light move in the body and helps our energy bodies organize anew with plenty of light around wounds, traumas, and previous areas of stagnation. The traditional and favorite way of mine to have goldenwort around is to pick the flowering tops at midsummer and hang the drying bouquets in key points around the house. You might also take some tincture in low doses, especially if the darker months bring on depression for you, golden can keep the light flowing in and around you.
She is not called “herb-of-grace” for no reason. Fresh rue has a smell that is sharp and cleansing, letting you know what she does. Rue has clear boundaries and can help us define the directions that we go and what shape our lives take. Her small yellow flowers make up crosses, or four directions, the ancient sign used by nearly all peoples. She brings that clarity and simplicity. This is not one that occurs to me to take internally very often, except for in specific conditions. But to smell her is medicine–especially if you happen to be pregnant and have morning sickness. Rue is a wonderful one to grow around the house, if that’s available to you. Also wonderful for adding some tea to a bath, along with salt, to help clarify what’s you and what’s other.
Betony used to be planted in the cemeteries and around the churches after Europe was Christianized. I think this is because our ghost problems were well underway at that point, our intact indigenous ways (which helped people die properly) already quite muddled. There was a village sense to keep the dead where they were in the grave, because they were not safe to be around anymore.
I thus think about wood betony for keeping spirit that is not well in its proper place, not mucking in living affairs, until it can be mended and brought to wellness again through ritual process. Since this is a time of year of spirit issues (just look at our collective images of what Hallow’s Eve is!), wood betony can be a beautiful ally to keep around to keep things out that are not well enough to come inside. I, as usual, prefer to plant this one around the house, she does well in pots.
If not, some wood betony tea or tincture-in-water used to clean doorways, windowsills, and other more open parts of the house (or body! think neck!) is always helpful.
I could probably make a list of my fifty favorite protective herbs, but these ones are truly some of the most lovely ones that I turn to. If you have room to grow plants, and there are nurseries near you that carry this sort of thing, then I strongly encourage you to try planting these! If you can but there are no nurseries, then try Tina at Crimson Sage Nursery, who mails beautiful plant starts.
Be blessed and have a safe autumn season.
I loved this recent episode of the Herbal Highway where Sarah Holmes speaks to some of the challenging parts of being in such a hurting world, and maintaining connection through that. This theme has been so much on my heart recently, and I found her words medicine.
“In these times of so much violence and grief one choice we can make is to seek connection. Join Sarah Holmes for a discussion of connection as a path to health, personally and globally.”
This time of year, many spiritual traditions have a special place to honor the ancestors. These celebrations are beautiful, often intricate, involving time-involved food offerings, flowers, and the light of candles. Seeing images of them often sparks a longing in the hearts of all of us wishing we had a better connection and relationship with our own ancestors.
There is a practical piece to approaching ritual like this when our ancestors are possibly or certainly not well in spirit, or haven’t been ritually tended for some time (millenia, in some of our cases). What to do? We must begin somewhere with ritually engaging with our ancestors if we feel called to, and yet it is of the upmost importance that we engage safely and effectively so as to keep things going in a good direction.
A note: when speaking about unwell ancestors, I don’t mean that your/our ancestors are bad people, per se (although I know what it’s like, also, to feel that they are). What I mean is that many of our peoples carry the poisons of genocide, abuse, rape, invasion, slavery–you name it, really–no matter which side of those harms they were on. Those poisons have probably not been alchemized, and are probably sitting there in the family system in an undigested, unresolved state. It is those poisons that I am encouraging we be safe with, and protect ourselves from. If our people had lives touched by these processes, then they likely still are sitting in the unresolved toxin of it.
This might seem obvious, but the best way to do ritual with your ancestors is to first and foremost engage in ritual that heals and brings home those souls who are not well or who are mired in aforementioned toxins. This can look different ways, but of course the way that I think is the most foolproof is the process of ancestral healing that I practice, as taught to me by Daniel Foor.
This means that if you put out sweet bread, flowers, and water or rum as so many people do, then you are super, super specific that these flowers and rum are for only people who you are related to in spirit who are in a state of well, bright, good, intactness. Unfortunately, if the toxins of our time have been in your family for awhile, this might not be your beloved grandpa (although we can have a more nuanced discussion there). The point is, don’t be feeding ghosts in your house who are not well. You should consider yourself awesome at boundaries if you try this course of action.
Instead of making ancestral offerings of food and incense and in your own home, if you are not sure about boundaries or not sure who is well, you can go outside somewhere to some land that is wild (ish) and with respect for the spirits of that land that are more powerful than your unwell ancestors (such as trees, streams, stones, and the like, who are gracefully holding their own amongst the human messes), ask if it might be alright to make an offering there for your people who are not well to get more well, through some food, raw meat, whatever. Please get a distinct “yes” from the land before continuing. If you are not sure about your yes, then good to begin back at suggestion one. If you do get a yes, then go ahead and return to that spot with whatever seems right to you, and pray out loud that this be used for the wellness of your ancestors. Obviously, don’t leave garbage or stuff that won’t decompose or be eaten by critters.
The hope is that you may be able to engage with your ancestors in some way this season that feels good, right, protected, and true for you, and that keeps things going toward a direction of health and wholeness. It is possible to do, but takes some care, some eyes-open reality, and some perseverance, for many of us.
Wishing that you and all your people be well, and that we may all feel the richness of standing at the family shrine, feeling the feeling that what came before us is supporting us in a good way.
The times we find ourselves in, to put it mildly, are the craziest ever. And the many forms of rock-bottom, including violence, hatred, dispossession, and theft on large scales continue to shock many of us each day.
Why engage the ancestors? Aren’t there more pressing issues?
Well, yes–we need each and every one of us working hard and showing up in order to heal the gross imbalances in our world, and there are endless causes and projects to be in support of toward that end.
And, even as we show up for that, what are we arriving with? Until and unless we know our own ancestors and our inheritance from them in a conscious way, and until our people have actually become fully well and integrated, then we run the large risk (and common occurrence) of bringing their unresolved stuff with us to each project we embark upon, and it’s nearly guaranteed to get in the way of us showing up to be the powerful, compassionate people we need to be in order to make change happen.
I’ve been involved in activist and justice-working circles for many years, and it’s great, necessary stuff that needs our elbow-grease. But, in many of these spaces, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the tidal forces of inherited stuff that everyone comes with in a constructive way. If you have been part of any kind of committee or community group, you know what I mean.
It becomes necessary to clean out each of our ancestral houses, so that we can be well and good, focused about what we are doing here, and so that we are able to listen, to speak, and to feel clearly. We need to let the (sometimes thousands of) years of traumas that have been passed to us lay to rest.
For the healing of the earth, and honestly the continuance of humans as incarnated beings, it’s time to clean up and put our ancestral systems in order so that we can be the ones that we have been waiting for.
For some of us, this truth from Thich Nhat Hanh can be difficult to bear, for we know the ones that we are continuing are not the wise and bright spirits that intact cultural traditions speak of when they say “Ancestors.”
The very good news about this truth is that it exists in present tense–those spirits behind you can change in state, because they exist right now, not fixed in the past–and with your life you can shape what is brought here in the name of your people, you can become a face of shining blessings. The palm of your hand can transmit the power and wellness of your people who lived and survived through everything the world has seen.
Because we are here, the whole web can be transformed. And when we look into the palm of our hand, we are able to love what we see.