Honoring Your Ancestors
AYIBOBO to Bondye, The Ancestors and the Lwa!
After God/Divine and before all other Spirits, come the Ancestors. Honoring ones ancestors has been in practice for centuries and consistently done by a multitude of cultures all around the world. It is a practice that is not limited to one's culture or upbringing. The leaders of these old practices can all agree that anyone can and everyone should perform regular service to one's ancestors.
The Ancestors are the foundation of who we are. They are us, and once upon a time, they, too, were alive. By honoring them, we in turn honor and celebrate our own lives. Our successes in life are a direct reflection of who they are and once were. Through our prayers and consistent service to them, they are elevated spiritually, thus bringing them closer to the Source from which all things manifest and therefore establishing a higher place in the afterlife. If it wasn't for your ancestors, we would not have a place in this world. So when we give service to them, it is with the upmost respect. Take good care of them, and they will take good care of you
In Vodou, one of the very first things I learned to do was to build a strong working relationship with my ancestors. Once this relationship is built, we can ask them for assistance in almost every aspect of our lives, and they will be there to help. They are our own spiritual allies and are powerful, to say the least. Why wouldn't one choose not to access them? It is your birthright, so let us not forget them!
There are many ways we can show honor and respect to ancestors. Some can take as little as five minutes to several hours; other ceremonies can last up to an entire month or longer. The important thing to remember here is that we give them our attention regularly. It’s as easy as visiting their graves, keeping them tidy and offering them their favorite flowers. It’s not uncommon at all to leave them offerings of the things that they enjoyed in life. Mini bottles of alcohol will definitely entice them as well.
So, how do we begin formally? There's no better time than at the beginning of each day. The daily act of pouring morning libations is a good and easy way to begin building this relationship. After waking (and preferably before anything else), fill a cup, mug or glass with cool water. If possible, take this outside to a spot where you won't be disturbed for a few minutes. This is how I learned, and I'd like to share it with you, from our house to yours.
Stand facing east and offer the cup up to the direction and say to yourself:
"I show honor and respect to the spirits on my mother's side."
Turn to the west and say to yourself:
"I show honor and respect to the spirits on my father's side."
Turn to the north and offer the cup up the same way and say:
"I show honor and respect to the spirits which are known to me."
Finish in the south the same way saying:
"I show honor and respect to the spirits which are unknown to me."
By doing this you are also creating a crossroads, a point from which we can begin to access the spirits.
The following is my own adaptation from a simple Ancestral service from The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot, by Louis Martinie and Sallie Ann Glassman. This was one of the first ways I learned how to strengthen my relationship with my Ancestors.
From here it doesn't matter which direction you face, just as long as you have a spot to pour small amounts of water. Hold the cup as if saluting and say out loud:
"To my Ancestors; to those remembered."
(Speak each name, going back as far as you know, and pour a small amount of water on the ground with each name.)
"To those whose names which are forgotten, lost in the seas of time, I honor you."
"To those whose ashes which have been scattered to the four winds, I honor you."
"To those whose bones that lie within and upon this land, I honor you."
"To you, from the living."
(Don't pour water, just hold the cup.)
Now say a simple prayer to God/Divine for the spirits of your ancestors. In your own words, pray for their elevation and that they'll be brought close to God's love, warmth, and light. After this spend a moment telling your ancestors that you are offering them this water to refresh their spirits. Explain to them what you are doing and that you want to build a closer relationship with them. Ask them to remove all obstacles that you may face on this day, as well as whatever you want them to know. Ask for help if you need it. always ask for daily protection for myself, my family and loved ones, and my property. When you're done, just thank them and pour the remainder of the water out onto the ground. And that's it!
Of course, there are many other things you can do, such as offering them the first cup of coffee in the morning. If you’re enjoying a cocktail or a glass of wine later in the day, you can pour a small amount (just a sip) on the ground before you take your first drink. Salute!
Now this is the bare minimum of the work that can be done with your ancestors and it will no doubt get their attention. You'll find that by doing this, life in general will start to get a little easier, one day at a time. You’ll find that eventually they'll start to visit you, whether by "knowing," or even in your dreams. But nonetheless, know that they are paying attention. There may come a time where your ancestors want something a little more personal, such as a designated space of their own. This usually happens once they are ready to establish an even closer working relationship. That brings us to the next topic.
The Ancestral Altar
Vodou is about serving your ancestors, and the Lwa themselves are ancestral spirits. Creating an altar for you Ancestors is the first sacred space you'll make when you begin to serve the Spirits. Even if you feel the Lwa are calling you to serve them, you must first serve your own lineage. It’s important to remember that after God come the Ancestors and then the Lwa.
First thing I recommend doing is to learn as much as you can about your own lineage as possible. This will help you to know how to properly serve them. By learning their likes and dislikes, you'll be able to provide them with the things they enjoyed most while they were alive. This is also a great opportunity to have a sit down with some of the living elders in your family. Talk about the good 'ol days, they'll love that! Gather pictures and former possessions of them if you can. Just remember that if you do use pictures, make sure that they do not include the living in them. Dig up those old family trees and look for what's on the surface. If someone in your clan has a family Bible, this is a great place to start. You may discover a family crest or shield. Learn about the things they were known for. What were their favorite foods and what did they like to drink? Did they have any hobbies or did they collect certain things? Go back as far as you can on both your mother’s and your father’s side.
If for some reason you are having trouble tracing them back, you can always start researching the traditions and cultures from the places they originated from. Learn about common foods and drink associated with their country and homelands. I experienced this firsthand from my father’s side of my family. My father and his brother were abandoned at a very early age and then adopted by a wonderful and loving Italian family. After learning who his biological mother and father were, we learned that his parents were Cajun and that he was born in a small town in the bayous of Louisiana. I learned the origins of the Cajuns and from there, learned how to better serve that bloodline. Even though he was adopted, I also serve those ancestors from his adopted Italian family. I owe them my gratitude just as much as my blood ancestors, because if it wasn't for that early chain of events, I wouldn't be the same person I am today. Don't forget too, that you can also pray to them and tell them what you are doing. Ask them to help guide you while you are creating this space for them.
Once you've gathered as much information as you can, you can begin the construction of your ancestral altar. First decide where you are going to set it up. You want to choose a place that’s somewhat private and won’t be in the way. If you have a separate room which is strictly dedicated for spiritual work, use that. If not, you can choose a corner in any living room, dining room, kitchen or office. If at all possible, try to avoid using your bedroom, unless you are placing them in a closet. The reason for this is because of the amount of energies you'll be working with. Some people are more sensitive than others, and having all this new activity can greatly affect your sleep and personal time in your own private quarters. Either way, this space should be spotless and remain so from here on out.
- Now that you've designated your area, you'll need a small table or flat surface. Clean this well and cover it with a pure white cloth. We use white because it represents purity and cleanliness. Don’t use an old bed sheet, please! No matter what you choose, just make sure that this space is dedicated only to them.
- Next you'll need a water receptacle. I recommend using something that is clear, like a large wine glass, goblet or something similar. I use an oversized brandy snifter that I found at a craft store. Whatever you choose, fill it up with cool tap water and place it on the altar. I have mine in the center of my altar - that way it serves as a focal point when I’m working with my ancestors. The water serves as a conductor for Spirit energy, giving them something to easily pass through. This will enable them to communicate with you better during your services, as they use it to pass through. It’s also important to know that the act of changing the water regularly is an act of service and it shows them that you care about them. The water can be changed daily and at the very least, a MINIMUM of once a week. Never let it get stagnant and certainly not cloudy or dirty. I add a splash of white rum to mine which not only helps keep the water clear, but alcohol also entices the Spirits!
- Get yourself a cross or crucifix that will fit inside the water receptacle and place it inside. Avoid wooden ones for obvious reasons. I use a large plastic crucifix purchased at a Catholic supply store, which stands up inside the water glass. I like it because it doesn't get damaged and is easy to clean. To a Vodouist, the cross represents the point where the physical and the spiritual worlds meet.
- There should always be a white candle (for purity) present on the altar. The tall seven-day type in the glass containers is best. Light and heat are essential for working with your ancestors. It's a consistent reminder for you and to them, that you are keeping your relationship strong, focused, and active. Before giving them the candle, spend some time praying to them and telling them what you are doing. Tell them you are giving them heat and warmth so they can open up the lines of communication. Pray for the development of a strong, loving, and working relationship with them. Once this candle is lit, it should never be put out. If you are worried about leaving it out and an accident happening while you are away, then this is a good time to start building your trust with your ancestors. Express your concerns in the beginning and learn to trust that they will take care of you. Developing this trust with the Spirits is the KEY to any future workings you will do with the Spirits from here on out.
- Now it's time to place pictures and objects which represent your ancestors. These can be objects which are directly linked to them, such as things they owned, or they can be representations of where they were from. Give them what they liked while they were alive. Some examples may include:
Alcohol for the drinkers
Cigarettes or cigars for the smokers
Pipe tobacco if you have Native Americans in your family
Stones or dirt from their homelands or graves
Religious objects associated with their faiths
Flags from their country
Flowers from their funerals
Favorite perfumes and scents (Florida water is a favorite and is great for sprinkling to "refresh" altars
Fresh flowers are ALWAYS appreciated and are a great manifestation of life, not to mention adding scent and beauty to your ancestors's space
A small journal containing the names of your known ancestors from both sides of your family
Service to Your Ancestors
In our house we serve our ancestors on Monday. I also find it’s a great way to start the new week, so I can tell them about my plans, while asking them for guidance and to remove obstacles. Choose a time when you won’t be disturbed. In preparation for serving your ancestors for the first time, I recommend preparing a grand feast for them. This includes all of their favorite foods and drink. Consider offering whatever it is that they liked in life or the traditional dishes of their homelands. See it as a kind of welcoming party. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks should be provided. If you're not giving them an entire bottle, then a simple shot will suffice. White rum is always a favorite if you are unsure of what to use. Additional offerings can include hot coffee (one black and one with sugar), as well as both sweetened and unsweetened hot cocoa. Breads and desserts are also good to include in their feast. You want to enjoy this experience, especially during the actual preparation. Do it with love and finesse, showing them you care! Once you are finished preparing everything, place their offerings onto white dinnerware that will solely be used for serving spirits. If you choose not to do this for whatever reason, then simply use white paper plates instead. Place all the offerings the altar and on the floor in front of them. (Make sure everything is clean and spotless.) Ensure that you yourself are clean and dressed all in white, and pets are properly placed away during the service, to avoid distractions as well as keeping them away from all the delicious food! It’s extremely important to remember that all plates, glasses and dishes offered to the Ancestors should never be used again by the living.
You'll begin your service by lighting your white candle and continuing to hold it while first praying to God. Depending on your beliefs any prayer will do, but if Vodou is your path then you should start with traditional Catholic liturgy. This includes beginning with the sign of the cross and reciting aloud one Our Father, three Hail Marys, and one Apostles’ Creed. The purpose of this is to first acknowledge God/Divine. It also puts you in a good state of mind, as well as cleansing your space and providing a clean and negativity-free area for serving your ancestors. Once you have done this, focus your attention on your ancestors. Call out to them, repeating their names over and over until you start to feel their presence. Don't forget to welcome and acknowledge those whose names which are unknown to you. Speak to them as you would to a parent or elder and always with love, kindness, and respect. You can even greet them in their native languages if you choose. Focus all your attention on them with total concentration and you will start to feel them around you. Tell your Ancestors about the food and gifts you have brought them and explain why you have done this and of your desire to connect with them. The first time I served my Ancestors, I made their plates first, leaving small portions for myself. I brought this in so that after I welcomed them, I could actually sit down with them and enjoy a meal. It was like I was sitting at the family dinner table talking to them. This was an intense moment for me. It felt like a wave of Spirits swirling around the room. Some stood out stronger than others and were very recognizable. There were times when this experience became very emotional for me.
When you are speaking to your Ancestors, it is important to tell them as much as you can, and as many details as possible. This will enable them to specifically help you in the areas of your life where it’s most needed. Express to them your failures and successes. Tell them all about your goals and ambitions, asking them for guidance through your dreams. Pray for the beginning of a new and strong relationship with them and speak from your heart - they will no doubt be there to listen. You'll be amazed at how they start to show up in your life, revealing themselves to you.
Once you're finished, thank them for their presence and for their time. Leave the offerings where they can remain overnight. When you wake the next day, gather everything up in paper bags, where they should be brought to area where they won’t be disturbed and left in the woods or at the base of a tree. Parks are a great source, as there are plenty of heavily brushed areas to hide the offerings. Liquid offering can simply be poured on the ground outside.
Continuing Your Service to Your Ancestors
As I said before, Mondays are the day that I serve my Ancestors. On this day I make sure that the altar is clean and tidy and that the water is replaced. Usually around this time, the candle has burned itself out and is ready to be replaced by a new one. Either way, whichever day you choose to serve them, it is important that it becomes a routine. Always begin with your opening prayers and then talk to them as you did before. Don't forget to thank them, especially when you know they have given you help. If you're cooking something for dinner (and not just on Mondays) and you know it’s something they would like (or better yet, you hear them telling you, "I want, I want!”), offer them a small first portion before preparing your own plate. If you’re a coffee drinker, consider giving them two cups (one black, one sweet) of coffee in the morning before you have yours. They will greatly appreciate this and it shows them that you care. Don't forget your daily libations, as this is especially important when you are beginning to serve your ancestors. You need to strengthen your bond and libation is a good way to build your relationship with them. As time progresses and your relationship starts to grow, you'll start to notice that life in general seems to get easier and easier. The things that concerned you before can start to diminish, and your overall luck often takes a turn for the better. You become happier and a more complete person. Ancestor reverence is the core of Haitian Vodou and what we do as a religion. Don't take them for granted. Take care of them and they will take care of you.
This is the beginning folks. Enjoy, and Ayibobo!