Ancestors! In Vodou and Elsewhere
|At the core of every Afro-Caribbean tradition is the propitiation of one’s ancestors. In Lukumi/Santeria, they are known as eggun. In Espiritismo (Hispanic Spiritism), they are known as “los muertos”, and in Haitian Vodou, they are called zansyet yo. Even most Hispanic Catholics that I know revere their ancestors with a glass of water and a candle, thus giving their ancestral spirits luz (light: to guide their way), progreso (progress; advancement), and refresco (refreshment). The ancestors are so fundamental, so basic to the individual that one’s first service in any of these traditions should be to them. They are essential to your well-being and development.
One coming into the world is standing on the shoulders of his or her ancestors. In other words, it was they who made you. One change in the past could have changed your position in the world today, including your very presence in this world at all! Our ancestors help guide us to our respective paths. They take us where we need to be in life. They love us and oftentimes want to contribute to our well being.
Your ancestors were once living persons. Can you name your ancestors? How far back? As such, all of them have their individual and various likes, dislikes, and personalities. Studying your family history is one great way to start serving your ancestors. It will also improve your physical service as well. Doing this will give you further knowledge and understanding of yourself. Due to the fact that your ancestors are yours and yours alone, I – as well as other practitioners – will not be able to give you a complete list of offerings for them. There are, however, some basic general ancestor offerings.
But who exactly are your ancestors? Ancestors are those in your family bloodline. Now, other people from various traditions have different ideas as to who constitutes as an ancestor. For some practitioners, only someone who died a “natural” death can be considered an ancestor. I, however, disagree with this view. Family actually extends quite far also, in my view. First, as I have stated, there are the ancestors of your biological bloodline. These are your mother, father, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. I find it interesting that in some Cambodian forms of Buddhism, a person’s mother and father are considered to be like that person´s God. My friend explained it to me thus:
“When we (Cambodians) go to Buddha, we do that for protections, for peace for us, for luck for us, for things like that. But a good person listens to his parents. Your parents created you, God creates things. So you see how it is? Doing anything to displease your parents, is displeasing to God, and will bring you bad luck. You see?”
These family members, considered by mostly everyone as such, frequently qualify as ancestors. But there are more. Are you adopted? If you are, then you have a second set of parents, siblings, cousins and family. They are your ancestors too. Do you have a deceased friend, who you considered family in life? He or she is an ancestor. A deceased spouse is an ancestor. Deceased members of your spiritual family are your ancestors. (According to your tradition, your initiator should teach you how to approach this.) Have you had an abortion or miscarriage? Those child spirits can also be considered ancestors and included on your altar. Spiritual guides can also be placed on your altar and given their special place. This is because the bottom line is: we all have something to contribute.
Ancestors are individuals who still have their own personalities. This should be taken into account. You should not consider that because they died they will suddenly have a reawakening and become all peace and light. This does sometimes happen however. With some exceptions, most ancestors will react to situations, problems, and proposals in ways that are in accordance with their personality in life. If a person was lazy in life, one can most likely assume that they are still lazy in death, and you will have to work to get them motivated. If someone was a workaholic, however, you can expect them to work day and night on your problem until it is resolved. Your ancestors are all around you. They are with you. Use this to your advantage in everyday life. When looking for a carpenter, why not ask Uncle Juan – known for his excellence in carpentry in life – for help. Skills, attributes, and traits are all transferred with death. If your grandmother just loved coffee, why not serve her some on the altar?
In Vodou, when someone dies a number of things are considered as possible to occur. A person can go straight to God and never be heard from again, never disturbed again. A person can go “anba dlo” (under the water) and later be reclaimed by living family members. A person may also be reborn as a Gede lwa. A person can be gathered up, under specific circumstances in a special way, and thus become a zonbi. We are not talking about the physical zonbi in this case. ; ) It is the spiritual component of the individual that is “captured”, so to speak, and which will later be put to work.
If your heritage shows that you are German, give your ancestors German foods. If your family is from Hungary then give them traditional Hungarian foods. There are other things that most ancestors will gladly accept. For one, whenever working with a spirit, an ancestor, a Lwa, a mo, whatever, one should always have at least a glass of water and a candle. Ancestor staples include coffee with and without sugar, bread, milk, coconuts, candy, white rice, chicken, and other white foods. When serving your ancestors remember that their foods are served without salt. Salt has the ability to make the ancestors depart and nullify their powers; in fact it would be better not to serve them at all then to serve them with salt. After the first service, however, your ancestors should be immune to salt, and you can offer them foods that contain modest amounts of salt. The lwa Gede, who is an ancestor, accepts some of the saltiest foods of all the lwa.
You will need to find a table to set up as your altar. Any type of table will do. A nightstand will work also, but be sure to keep the altar out of your bedroom if at all possible. This is because the spirits will often disturb your dreams and/or cause you problems in having a romantic partner.
Place a large glass of water in the center of the table. You can choose to use a white cloth as an altar cloth. Under this glass of water, you can place a small round hand mirror. The spirits are known to live on the other side of the mirror. Ancestors are also known to be “anba dlo” (under the water) so a glass of water is needed. Both these things will amplify your ability to contact them. In my family, we use a brandy snifter and a white men’s handkerchief as our altar cloth. The handkerchief usually belongs to a dead male of the family, although when those are all out, an Espiritista in my family will put a brand new handkerchief under certain consecration ceremonies. In my family, the rule is one may not consecrate one’s own handkerchief, it must be done by another member of the family. To this altar, add photos of your ancestors. (DO NOT INCLUDE PHOTOS WHICH HAVE LIVING PERSONS IN THEM!!!) You can also add jewelry that once belonged to them, trinkets, and other things that remind you of your ancestors. Let them be your guide. Some people keep dirt from a deceased family member’s grave on the table, small toys (for spirits of deceased children), crosses, bibles, and flowers. White flowers are appropriate, as well as the inclusion of a single red rose. Just one though.
When you open the service, recite the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Apostle’s Creed. You can also use prayers from Allan Kardec’s books (click HERE to legally download some of his titles free of charge) Remember to have a white candle lit. Name all your ancestors as far back as you can. You should start with the most recently deceased. Then state: “To all those ancestors who I know and who I don’t know” This is a classical way, in Vodou, to cover all your bases. Then present your offerings to the four directions. Tell your ancestors what you are giving them, for example “Here is cake for you to eat, coffee to give you energy, etc.” Then tell your ancestors that you love them, you remember them, and you are serving them. Have a short period of remembrance. Experience your ancestors to the fullest extent of your abilities. Draw from their wisdom. Remember the love they showed you in life. Allow them to bring you inspirations, give you advice, and communicate with you. Some people use rattles, bells, or other noisemakers to attract the ancestors’ attention. You can do this too, see what works for you. Ask your ancestors for peace, guidance, to clear your path of obstacles, for blessings. Then leave the room and let them eat.
After at least twenty four hours, you can go back and remove the food offerings and leave them under a bush or in a cemetery.
If you would like to receive a really clear, strong message from your ancestor in the form of a dream, you can sleep in front of the altar. Alternately, you can also sleep directly on top of the grave of a chosen ancestor. Be careful with this, unless you have a gad or some other form of protection it is not recommended.
Your ancestors can help you a great deal by clearing your path of obstacles. They will work on your behalf. They will give you insights and blessings. But if you slack in their services, ignore them, mistreat them, they can also do the exact opposite. You will find yourself with obstacles springing up all over. So, take care of them and their table.
You should attend to your altar at the very least once a week. Keep it clean. Keep the water fresh. Keep the glass washed. The day of the ancestors is Monday, so this is the best day to approach them.