Worship of the Ancestors

Our ancient ancestors respected their ancestors. This began as soon as they had passed from the realm of Middangeard to the great beyond with the funeral. Béowulf gives us an image of what a Heathen funeral may have been like. Béowulf was cremated. This started with the building of the pyre, and the burning of the body with all the grave goods. As the fire burned, the folk mourned. This mourning probably consisted of dirges, wailing, and what we think typical of mourning. After the body was burned, a mound was built to contain the ashes. More grave goods were added, and the mound enclosed. Once the mound was complete, 12 warriors rode around it chanting a dirge, and songs of praise for Béowulf. This was probably typical of the funerals of the age, and gives us some idea of the respect they gave the newly dead. The songs of praise no doubt would be sung again and again at symbels in years to come, and thus keep the memory of the deceased alive. The next event in regards to the newly dead was the erfi or minni as it was called in Old Norse (reconstructed as *ierfealu in Old English). This was a symbel specially dedicated to the recently deceased person done several months after the funeral. At it, the heirs received their inheritance, and the new ancestor was praised in the minni done by their direct heir after he or she took the High Seat.

It did not end there however. Archaeologists have found evidence of the burning of grain in Anglo-Saxon graveyards, such as that at Portway in Hampshire, England, and this is attested to by the 7th century Penitentials of Theodore which forbade, burning grain for the well being of the dead. In addition to this activity of gifting grain to the dead, they were remembered in symbel. Part of the rite of symbel in ancient times which played an important role was called in Old Norse the minni. The minni consisted of toasts to the ancestors, and was done during husel as well. Also in symbel, as part of the gielp (boast of one’s past deeds) one gave their parentage or ancestry, and this can be seen as an act of respect for the ancestors. Children were named for ancestors, and it was thought they inherited their ancestor’s hamingja or luck. There is plenty of evidence of a deep respect for the ancestors in the lore, and more than enough for a basis of practice today.

Of particular importance of to the ancient Heathen were the Disir (Old Norse) or Idesa (Old English). There is much evidence for the worship of the tribal mothers in the lore. Germanic mercenaries in the Roman legions made altars to the Matronae, or “Mothers” along Hadrian’s Wall in England, and others on the continent. These altars were to deities with names such as Alatievia, Gabiae, and Aufanie. Scholar Rudolf Simek links the Norse Disir to the Matronae, and also links Anglo-Saxon Modraniht, “Mothers Night” to the Matronae. Amongst the Norse, the Disir were worshiped at dísablót according to Viacute;ga-Gúms saga at Winter Nights, though the Heimskringla places it in February or March. These were not communal celebrations, but family gatherings, although the dísablót mentioned in Viacute;ga-Gúms saga was quite large. The Disir in the Norse lore were seen as protectors of the family, while the inscriptions to the Matronae inscriptions, were calls for help in time of need, requests to watch over the family or clan, requests to help in fertility and childbirth, requests to heal, as well as requests to give protection in battle.

So what does this mean for the modern Heathen? Largely, it means perhaps we should try to learn about our ancestry, and give respect to those ancestors we deem worthy. Genealogy is an excellent way of getting in touch with one’s ancestors, even if one can only trace the line back a few generations. Naming children for dead ancestors is another way to get in touch with one’s ancestors. Children named for an ancestor are thought to inherit some of the ancestor’s hamingja. There are many ways we can respect our ancestors.. I have burnt grain at the graves of my parents. I take a fire pot to their grave and in it place some grain. Using vodka or another sort of alcohol I set the grain alight and allow it to burn until all the grain is gone. All the while I am saying prayers to my ancestors and praising them. I also often remember them in the minni or myne (as it would be called in Old English) of symbel, and during offering. Usually, I say something in praise of something they have done, or simply wish them well in the afterlife. At the major feasts such as Yule, we set a plate aside for the ancestors with a little of each food present. It is then given with the offering to the Gods.

I have had an ancestral altar in my home with pictures of ancestors upon it. On such a shrine, one can keep mementos of the ancestor, perhaps a grandfather’s straight razor or a grandmother’s embroidery. Anything that had meaning to the ancestor can be placed on the altar. One may wish to do regular rites at the altar, perhaps even daily ones. I burn incense at mine, and offer them wine on special occasions. Daily prayers would not be out of line. Indeed, the ancestors were probably worshiped more than the major Gods in ancient times. A custom we kept in White Sage Kindred of Dallas, Texas was that every Winter Nights we would honor the ancestors of the members. We would set up a special altar to them. On it we would place pictures that the ancestors had brought with them for that purpose. The offering as well as a good part of the symbel was dedicated to them. In years to come, as Heathens pass on, ancestor worship will become even more important, as the anniversaries of Heathens’ deaths will become a time to make offerings to them and remember them.

A large part of Paganism is a deep respect for the ancestors, for their deeds, and keeping their memories alive. This is especially important to families as ancestors form a part of the family. Families are not just the living members of a family, but the dead as well.