Upholding Ma'at

Journeying through the modern world with ancient ways.


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Pagan Blog Project: A is for Ancestors

I’m a little late in starting this project, but I thought I’d give the blog posts correlating to each letter in the English alphabet a whirl. Some of what I pick I’m sure I’ve gone over before, but sometimes I’m not as creative as some of my fellow bloggers. I’ll try to have sources on hand where possible, but most likely I won’t. If you want to know a source feel free to ask me in the comments.

In Ancient Egypt there was ancestor veneration. I’m using “veneration” because many people feel the term “ancestor worship” gives the wrong impression about how ancestors were treated at this time. Tombs were visited regularly, offerings were provided by the family to a statue of the ancestor, or offerings were provided hired clergymen. Some had stelae with the offering formula listed, so upon recitation the deceased could be provided the necessities. All of this was done as a way to ensure the deceased were cared for in the afterlife and would survive. Just as a body needed things in the living world a soul required the necessities to survive in the afterlife. The consequences could be dire if the ancestors weren’t provided the essentials. A departed soul, if neglected, could haunt the living if the deceased felt neglected. We know this based on letters written to the dead found at excavation sites, as writing letters to the deceased was common. While there were letters begging the dead to stop tormenting the living most of these letters consisted of asking for assistance in some manner.

In modern Kemetic practices in a similar vein as the ancients. However there are some major differences in the modern practice. Many keep the offerings quite simple. In lieu of statues being presented offerings or reciting offerings from a stela many Kemeticists use a photograph of a loved one. Not all ancestors have an image dedicated to them, and some ancestor shrines are set up in a general manner so not any particular ancestor is offered. Food and drink offered to the ancestors in general aren’t ingested as it’s considered ingesting the essence of the dead by some, which has ill implications for those who do ingest offerings. The reason behind it is if ingesting food and libations from the gods is like ingesting the essence of a deity (for the lack of a better term) and thus the life-giving qualities of a deity, then ingesting food and libations from ancestors would mean ingesting the essence of a dead person.

There are some modern Kemeticists who don’t offer to their ancestors period. The reasons for this vary. Some Kemeticists do not feel a connection to their ancestors. There are others who don’t feel the practice is necessary for their personal religious practice. There are other reasons, and some have multiple reasons for not offering. In my case I was averted to offering to my ancestors for personal reasons, but reconsidered my stance after problems in my life after some tribulations in my life. Whether a modern Kemeticist offers to their ancestor or not – in my opinion – doesn’t affect the validity of their religious practice. It is a matter of the individual’s choice and their comfort level.

If one wants to learn more about the practice from a modern Kemeticist’s perspective I recommend Richard Reidy’s Eternal Egypt. There are quite a few other Kemetic blogs which discuss the matter as well. At the core of offering to the ancestors consists of providing food, a libation (water being the most common), incense, and cloth for images of any ancestor. If providing offerings is an issue I highly recommend making a hotep tray with images of what should be offered. To get ideas on how to make your own I have a tutorial on how to make one from clayboard.

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Approaching My Ancestors

I, like many other times, light the candle at my ancestor shrine. I burn my incense and chant the offering formula. Then I take up my hotep tray to present my offerings. It’s a simple ancestor ritual, but I feel it accomplishes what I set out to do. I don’t have any image of any particular ancestor on my shrine. I don’t even know if any will show up. I’m not sure what I would do should I ever experience them. I just know what I’m doing in that moment.

I have to confess to something relatively ironic. Even though ancestor worship (as in not the literal worship, for those not in the know) is part of the Ancient Egyptian religion I have a difficulty partaking in such rituals. Some of it stems from my aversion of dead spirits. OK, the dead in general creep me out so much I dislike cemeteries. I wish I could explain why because I don’t fear death. I’m sure it’s something some therapist will help me sort…

Another part of my discomfort with ancestor worship stems from an issue of my own ancestry. The first obvious issue of my ancestry is one very common issue I’ve noted throughout the Kemetic community. I, like others, aren’t sure our ancestors would feel comfortable if we expressed such an act through a Pagan way. I’m not even sure how my Deist ancestors would react to such rituals. I know some in the community resolved the religion issue by assuring themselves many of their ancestor appreciate the remembrance. Unfortunately, as cited by many people in my life, I think quite often, and this rationalization of focusing on the act has holes in it for me. It goes back to my earlier points of whom would appreciate the gesture regardless of the religious expression. I remember, moreover, my maternal grandmother specifying that she had no intention of visiting as a spirit once she died. My mother has voiced something similar. It ultimately comes off as pretentious and selfish to assume that, unless specified somewhere, one can call upon their ancestors, expect them to show, and have no qualms with your ritual.

I didn’t know how to incorporate ancestor worship into my practice given my reservations. When I was a member of the Kemetic Orthodox it felt awkward even acknowledging my ancestors during the senut rite (it’s their equivalent of the daily ritual). It just never felt right to incorporate ancestors. I felt like if I did I would get the one who found offense and subject to his or her disapproval. What then? What if I managed to disrespect my ancestors? So I avoided mentioning them at all. I avoided ancestral rituals, and I read other members’ interactions without any real way to relate.

The past few months saw some massively hard times for me. I truly felt like no one cared and I had no idea what to do or to whom to turn. Since I am no longer affiliated with the Kemetic Orthodoxy I felt I didn’t have a religious figure in whom to confide. Despite the fact both of my paternal grandparents are living I never felt right asking them for advice. When I had a moment I gathered items: candles, a candle holder, incense, and a couple of small trinket boxes. After some discernment I decided to make a hotep tray out of clayboard. I sat down with my makeshift ancestral shrine and proceeded to perform similar to the ritual at the beginning. There was no chanting, but I certainly plead for help. It was clunky, it was awkward, and I certainly didn’t feel anything or anyone. I still found comfort in approaching my ancestors.

After I had some time to process everything I had some realizations. Yes, one should make an effort to remember and venerate their ancestors. It’s our ancestors who are one of many aspect that contribute to who we are. I feel one should not be expected to worship every ancestor because of this aspect of respecting who shapes us; not every ancestral tradition is one I follow today. Even my ancestors didn’t follow every tradition, hence why some were Deist or atheist in my family. Some of my ancestors divorced and remarried at a time when such things were taboo. If they found a way to live their life with their traditions I can too.

Even the idea it’s just for my ancestors is somewhat questionable. It’s a lot easier for some people to overcome grief when they acknowledge a loved one is dead. Some people mourn by tending to the grave. Knowing that if we can take care of them in a physical matter provides some guarantee we will see our loved ones in the afterlife soothes and assures us. It provides comfort and hope. Ancestor worship provides as much for the living as it does for the dead.

When I end my offering ritual to my ancestors I’m fully aware there probably aren’t any of my ancestors present. I’m aware that I’m probably “doing it wrong”. My concern lies with how I can venerate the ancestor in a way that’s comfortable for me. I know when I snuff my candle, bow, and leave that I did what was best.