The first thing most people think of when they think of “ancestors” is their immediate familial ancestry, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and the like. But in Druidry, the concept of who the ancestors are can be expanded, seeing our place in the wider tapestry of life, and our connection to a past richer and more expansive than we may have thought.
Joanna van der Hoeven writes about how;
“in Druidry, we honour not only our blood relatives, but also those ancestors of tradition (those who have shared our worldviews), and of place (those who are a part of our land).”
This wider view of ancestry appeals to me, as ancestor-veneration was always a sticking point for me in my Pagan practice. My relationship with my immediate blood ancestors is troubled at best, and there are scars there which, while time may fade, will never truly heal. While I respect certain ancestors for the gift of life, I choose not to honour them in memory. So, for me, to forge any relationship with the ancestors, I have to go beyond the immediate past and look to this broader conception.
My ancestors of blood are mostly Irish, descending from a line of local chief/kings in Munster, to the south of Ireland. Some of my genetic makeup also derives from the Spanish armada, who wrecked on Ireland’s south coast and in some cases, settled. I remain deeply proud of this heritage, and love Ireland very much. The other half of my blood ancestry is Polish, a country I know very little about but would be interested in visiting.
I think an over-emphasis on blood ancestry in Paganism can be unhelpful, and taken to the extreme, can lead to (or give unintended support to) racist ideas like only people with the “right” ancestry can practice Celtic or Norse Pagan paths. This is, of course, utterly anathema to Druidry. Knowing one’s own ancestry in no way means being against anyone else’s, or holding any concepts of superiority or purity. The Awen calls who it calls, and transcends boundaries of country.
My ancestors of tradition include Druids modern and ancient, but also for me anyone whose life and work has influenced me. So Charles Darwin, Terry Pratchett, Spinoza, Keats, Tolkien and many more who were not in any way Pagan are all included here.
Living in East Anglia, there is a long history of ancestors of place. Vikings, Normans, Saxons, Iceni, and other peoples have all lived here and left their mark in the landscape and the archaeological record.
I do not believe the ancestors live on after death as spirits. But they are ever-present in our thoughts and memories, as well as in our own bodies and the soil beneath our feet. Philosopher and Druid Brendan Myers writes in Paganism 101:
A scientifically-minded person might want to deny that [the ancestors] live on as disembodied spirits…As an alternative, we could say that they live on in the form of a discernible presence embodied by the habits and characters and stories of their living descendants today. This alternative requires no supernatural element to be intelligible. Yet it seems to me no less spiritual.
Besides all of our human ancestors, I like to think about our evolutionary ancestry. Darwin’s glorious revelation showed that we are all related, and we share a common ancestor with all humans, an older one with all animals, and an even older ancestor (the Last Universal Common Ancestor, or LUCA) with all life on earth some 4 billion years ago. Looking at the deep roots of evolution’s tree of life, we can honour all our ancestors right back to the origin of life itself, and recognise that we are kin with all that lives today.
Joanna van der Hoeven also looks forward, to the “future ancestors”, those yet to come, and urges us to live lives that honour those future generations and the world they will inherit. I am childfree, and have made a choice to not have descendants of my own, but as Joanna writes:
“I will become a future ancestor of tradition, as well as having future ancestors of tradition, and the same can be said for being and having future ancestors of place”.
How we live today, the ethical choices we make, can have consequences that will be felt by those ancestors of the future, and keeping them in mind can help orient our decision-making, taking into account long-term effects not merely short-term gains. By doing so, we can craft a relationship which honours our past ancestors and our future ones.
Dawkins, R. The Greatest Show on Earth. Bantam, 2009
Greenfield, T. (ed). Paganism 101. Moon Books, 2014
van der Hoeven, J. The Awen Alone. Moon Books, 2014