by Sarah Gottesdiener·
Ancestral work is broad, vast, and incredibly important to any personal magical and spiritual practice. Ancestral work is part intuition, part dialogue, part deep listening. It can be research and reading based. It is engaging with the practices, food, medicines, stories, and beliefs of your cultures. If it is appropriate, it is about honoring and listening to the spirits of those in your lineage who have walked before you. If appropriate, it is about engaging in a generative relationship with your ancestor or ancestors. If that isn’t appropriate or possible, it can be about connecting to a self-made space of support and rootedness, considering yourself as a future ancestor, and creating your own appropriate customs and traditions.
Ancestral work can help everyone. If more white people spent more time researching and in engagement with their lineage, they would be less likely to steal and appropriate the work of Black, Brown, and Indigenous cultures. They would feel more rooted and connected, which would result in less violence."Whiteness" creates erasure, amnesia and emptiness; and when folks feel empty, they grasp, steal, numb out, or react in any number of harmful ways.
Today, I'm sharing some ideas to explore your ancestral lineage and incorporate ancestral work into your life from of my own personal process. Ancestral work has allowed me to determine what trauma and ingrained beliefs were passed down to me, and thus work on repairing and reconciling in this lifetime. Depending where your ancestors came from—and their own, unique a story—your process and angle will be quite different.
My thoughts and practices have been informed by people who specialize in this work: Shayne Case, Chiron Armand, Dori Midnight, and Ylva Mara Radziszewski all have extensive practices and teachings on ancestor work. The term "well ancestors" comes from Daniel Foor and his book Ancestral Medicine. Olivia Pepper has been sharing some interesting takes on their Instagram—so has Jessyka Winston from Haus of Hoodoo. My friend Milla has written about this quite a bit—check out her site.
Below are some ideas to explore if you know your lineage, or if you don’t. As I always say: take what you need, and leave the rest.
If you know your lineage...
Connect to non-activating ancestral practices first: If you know approximately where your ancestors came from, there could be quite a bit of information to explore. Connect to the food, the folktales, and the myths. Look up art from the area(s) your ancestors are from. Listen to their folk music. Research their flowers and herbs: see if you can’t grow a few in your home or garden. See if there are any spirits, goddesses, or deities from your background that you relate to. Many practitioners suggest connecting to your “well" ancestors first: ancestors that were not colonized. These ancestors might be incredibly ancient—this is where trust is required. Can you create a ritual that invites in the spirits of your well ancestors? Can you connect psychically or spiritually with them? Create an altar, make them offerings. Sing to them, talk to them. Ask them to visit you in dreams, in meditation, while you are journaling.
Repairing harm: I believe that white people specifically need to repair the harm our ancestors created. All white folks carry the demon of constructed whiteness inside of them. Looking to how your ancestors caused harm may give you clues on how you carry white supremacy inside of you. For example, my ancestors were complicit in that they were quiet, did not speak up about injustice, and chose to hide in assimilation. I am assuming this was a trauma response to stay safe, as both sides of my immediate lineage were persecuted. They also might have been actively racist. I can only guess that choosing whiteness by assimilating meant adapting and engaging in other forms of white supremacy. What repairing that specific harm looks like for me is speaking up against racial injustice in person and in public. White people have to look at, face, and examine the harm they are accountable for. Ignoring this is complicity. Looking at where your ancestors were racist, or caused other harm, and transforming that in the present day, is part of our work. All white folks must be making reparations however they can, as well. I also think it is valuable to read histories. For example: if you know your ancestors came to the states from Germany in the 1800s, then reading the history of Germany in the 1800s—and reading about the history of the states in the 1800s—for context, might be useful for you.
Harm and abuse is enacted throughout all cultures. Part of healing from lineages of abuse means no longer putting up with abuse of all kinds. It means deciding to be the one that chooses love. It means deciding to be the one that breaks the spell of abuse in your family line.
Boundaries: It is perfectly reasonable to have boundaries with your harmful ancestors. If your ancestors were oppressors, repairing harm is part of your work, and you are absolutely allowed to have boundaries with them. You can do a cord-cutting ritual where you say you are no longer carrying on their harm. You can have some last words with them letting them know that their behavior is ending with you. That you are not allowing their energy to continue. Be firm, be clear. Cast them away. Then continue to do your ancestor work in other ways.
If you don't know your lineage...
If you know nothing about your lineage there are still so many ways to do ancestor work. So often I see folks feeling shame around not knowing, when it is truly common to not have access to that information. To paraphrase Dori Midnight: you are your ancestors. Meaning, your hair is your great great great grandparent's hair; your skin, your cells, your physical body, your unique traits—it is a mix of all your ancestors and your own unique spirit. Loving yourself is loving your ancestors. Name all the beautiful, natural traits you came in with, the parts that are inherently you. Those could be passed down to you by your ancestors. Acknowledging your "youness" by sharing and expressing those gifts is honoring your "well" ancestors.
Spending time meditating on ancestral wisdom could be useful! This wisdom lives deep within. Trust that it is there. Trust it still lives, because you still live. Sitting in the roots of trees, being at the base of mountains help connect to this wisdom as well.
Create your own ancestors: I am a proponent of creating your own ancestral family tree. This is derived from the queer idea of the "chosen family." In every lineage, there are specific folks that you may derive inspiration from: artists, queer folks, trancestors, activists, innovators, and scientists. For example, some of my queer ancestors are Sappho, George Sand, and David Wojnarowicz. If there are lighthouses that inspire you, think of some ways to dedicate yourself to their ideas, their art, their actions, so that they live on in you. Teaching, citing, and sharing the work of your "chosen ancestors" is one way to honor them.
The Future is the Present: I am a proponent of doing explorative work around present place, space, present moment, and land. The present will become the future, and you will become an ancestor. Look into who’s land you are on: find out which Indigenous people lived here before colonization and genocide. If Native Americans live where you reside, how can you support them? For example, Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has a structure where you pay land tax, so that they can buy land back. Research what plants and animals have been growing and living where you live presently, and be in relationship with them. Read about the history of your area. Allow yourself to create an ancestral practice that is dynamic, creative, and nourishing.
Questions to ask yourself to begin your ancestral work:
- What do I think my ancestors were in need of healing?
- If I think or know my ancestors were harmful, how do I heal that harm now, with my actions? How do I heal that harm within myself?
- What do I need from an ancestor practice, right now?
- Are there any recurring patterns or threads from my life? Could these be related to my ancestors’ lives?
- What do I want to know about my lineage that I trust I can access through spells, meditations, and reflections?
- What Tarot or oracle cards remind me of my ancestors?
- What ancestral plants, herbs, flowers, planets, or constellations do I feel a specific affinity towards? Why?
- What is exciting to me about creating my own unique ancestor practice? Where does my intuition tell me to begin?
Ultimately, ancestor work is personal and incredibly specific to you. There's a lot more information I don't have space to address here. If you the ideas presented here speak to you, do some reading, book a session with a practitioner, take a class, and think about what feels generative and necessary for you to invest in. Above all else, remember that loving yourself is loving your ancestors.