Thoughts adapted from something I posted on social.druidnetwork.com back in October…
Who are the ancestors?
This is a question I ask myself often – every time they are mentioned in a pagan rite, public or private, and especially when the calends of Winter approach and we light lanterns for the dead.
One answer I keep coming back to, having read through others’ thoughts, is that the ancestors are whoever you want them to be – whoever you wish to connect with. I say this without judgement: everybody needs a thread to follow, else all our stories would be lost in the cacophony. Many druids choose to focus on their pre-Roman ancestors; others on their Anglo-Saxon or Viking forebears. Myself – having the questionable luck to be the (step)daughter of a historiographer – I prefer the small details of everyday life much more than the grand, sweeping visions of the culture as a whole. I find echoes of the ancestors in the footprints they left behind, the grain they farmed, the letters they sent. I find common cause with the folk of this land regardless of their origins or race.
For me, the ancestors are threefold: of place, of blood and of spirit – an idea I first encountered in one of Bobcat’s books, The Principles of Druidry, which resounded deeply with my own. The three sometimes overlap and sometimes clash; their boundaries shift and blur, but whenever I feel jaded or out of touch with a sense of who my ancestors might be, these definitions help me to remind myself.
The ancestors of place help to connect me to wherever I am, which is rarely the same place for very long… Their stories become part of my own, and my story adds to theirs. Right now, that story could include prehistoric settlers of the Lancashire coast, Anglo-Saxon monks, Tudor merchants, Victorian industrialists, Mary Seacole and John Lennon – and countless, countless more. They help me to find a sense of community and common cause with those around me, and to learn how best to love each new part of the world.
The ancestors of blood are a knotty issue for me, as they are for many people that I know – but the stories of my family live on in me, and some of them I will pass on to others, in their turn. As for my ethnicity… it comes with a weight of cultural heritage – what I sometimes refer to (only half-joking) as “Welsh guilt” – and a healthy dose of ambivalence. I don’t see myself primarily as Celtic, despite the happy accident of my family/name/schooling; I see myself, like this island, as a gloriously mongrelish mixture. My roots feel as Roman as they do Anglo-Saxon, as much as anything else – and, above all, they feel human. For me, this is what matters, above all: my blood ancestors, whoever they may be, are those whose story of flawed and beautiful humanity I carry in my very bones. It is to them I turn for guidance in my darkest moments.
And the ancestors of spirit: who might they be? They are the most elusive, and yet – paradoxically – the most ubiquitous of all; the easiest to find and the hardest to define. They are poets, painters, mystics, heroes, builders, writers, healers, and many, many more. They are the wellspring of my druidry. Wherever awen shines through word or deed, I feel the traces of a kindred spirit: an ancestor, or fellow walker of the path (regardless of whether we call it by the same name). I honour them each time I follow the call of my own spirit.
To finish with a truism: the fundamental aspect of the ancestors, for me, is their humanity. Much of my druidry is centred around the spirits of the other beings in this world (and perhaps beyond); the ancestors help me to bring humanity back into the frame – a sort of corrective, restoring the balance between the human story and the world of the wild, for both are equally part of each other. By honouring both, we remind ourselves of their interconnectedness, and carry that knowledge with us in all that we do.