Over time, I’ve been drawn to ancestor-focused spiritual practices. At first my interest was theoretical. Recently these kinds of practices have become important to me.
This development, like my family, is complicated. I grew up a doubting Christian. My mom started a Hallelujahful church in our living room, and my father, though also born-again, went to a Presbyterian church and was mortified by hers. I attended a fundamentalist school, with yet another spin on the gospel. It was a lot of Jesus. Ultimately, I reacted by becoming a devout agnostic but fearing a future religious conversion.
Now I’ve given up my allegiance to unbelief, and that’s a little scary to navigate and strange to talk about. While I don’t feel connected to Christianity, I’ll probably always be in mental dialogue with it, whether I want to be or not. So it interests me that ancestor veneration is suggested even in the Bible. The image above is Chagall’s Rachel and the Household Gods, inspired by the story in Genesis (which I wrote about in 2015).
As the story goes, Rachel’s husband, Jacob, has spent twenty years working for her father, Laban. He feels he’s received little in return, apart from one wife he chose (Rachel) and one he didn’t (Rachel’s sister, Leah). While Jacob stews about the unfairness of his lot, the Lord appears and instructs him to “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred.” Rachel and Leah agree that they should go.
Rachel steals Laban’s teraphim — household gods — when he’s away shearing his sheep, and then she and Jacob and Leah, and all their children and animals, flee. Catching up with the caravan after a week’s pursuit, Laban denounces his son-in-law, asking why Jacob absconded with Laban’s daughters as if they were “captives of the sword.”
Laban has some compassion for Jacob, suggesting he’s “gone away because you longed greatly for your father's house.” He seems chastened, too, admitting to Jacob that while “It is in my power to do you harm, the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Take heed that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.’” But why, Laban asks Jacob, “did you steal my gods?”
Jacob, unaware that Rachel took them, tells Laban to search the caravan. Perhaps in a nod to how serious the theft of teraphim is considered to be, Jacob promises his father-in-law that “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.”
Laban goes from tent to tent, searching, but Rachel has put the gods in her camel’s saddle. She tells her father that she can’t dismount because she has her period, and he doesn’t challenge her.
As I said in 2015, many argumentative gymnastics have been performed over time in trying to reconcile the passage with Judeo-Christian monotheism, but Susannah Rutherglen makes a strong argument that Rachel took the idols for the most logical reason: they represent a connection to her ancestors, to her father and his forebears, blood relatives she’s leaving behind.
Ancestral practices seem foreign to many from European backgrounds because we don’t know our own history. That’s my conclusion after researching spiritual conceptions of ancestors, across the world and across time, over the five years I’ve spent working on my book.*
I don’t want to generalize or try to explain all my thinking and feeling in this small space.** Still, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to believe that it’s best to share rituals of meaning to me that might also be meaningful to other people, rather than hoarding my discoveries until I figure out the perfect way to write about them, or worrying that in sharing I’m being preachy or unbearably weird.***
In that spirit, and because a couple of you have asked, here are a few of the books, teachers, and other resources I’ve come across that have led me to where I am now. Most of the books I’ve read and enjoyed in full; others I’ve dipped into. Some of the teachers I’ve worked with or taken a class from or talked to; some I’ve seen or heard a lecture from, and taken at least some small insight away.
Many of the books are geeky (because: me). A few are more self-helpy. I’m not including memoirs, personal essays, and fiction I’ve loved in this list because, if I did, it might never end (see also: reasons my book draft is so long**). Okay, there’s one memoir, by Malidoma Patrice Somé, but it’s a special case.
The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, by Claude Lecouteux (originally published in 1986; this translation published 2009)
The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, by Fustel de Coulanges (originally published 1864; my edition has an Edward Gorey cover and different translator; free PDF); but see Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, by Sarah Isles Johnston and The Ancient Roman Afterlife: Di Manes, Belief, and the Cult of the Dead, by Charles W. King
Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, edited by Alisa LaGamma (2007; free PDF) (companion consideration from Maaza Mengiste, and later non-developments)
Ancestors in Post-Contact Religion: Roots, Ruptures, and Modernity’s Memory, edited by Steven J. Friesen (2001)
The Archaeology of Ancestors: Death, Memory, and Veneration, edited by Erica Hill and Jon B. Hageman (2016)
The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, by Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger (1998)
The Red Book, by Carl Jung (2009); Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s The Red Book, by James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani (2013); Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web, by Sandra Easter (2016)
The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community, by Malidoma Patrice Somé (1998)
Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing, by Daniel Foor (2017)
This Ancient Heart: Ancestor, Landscape, Self (particularly the forward by Graham Harvey and afterward by Ronald Hutton), edited by Paul Davies and Caitlin Matthews (2015)
Land of Our Fathers: The Roles of Ancestor Veneration in Biblical Land Claims (this is low on the list because it’s so specialized, but it’s excellent smart, juicy nerdery; can’t recommend it highly enough), by Francesca Stavrakopoulou (2012)
Household Gods: Private Devotion in Greece and Rome, Alexandra Sofroniew (2016)
Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women's Altars, Kay Turner (1999)
At the Crossroads, edited by Jake Stratton-Kent (2012)
It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (I have some qualms about this book, especially the insistence on reconciling with parents no matter the context, and the occasionally unscientific framing of epigenetics, but I like aspects of it, and I know it’s helped people), by Mark Wolynn (2016)
Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, by Donna Harkaway (2016)
Select teachers and practitioners:
The Ancestral Healing Summit (a mixed bag; all lectures from the event are still downloadable, but for a fee)
Science, Magic, and Religion, Courtenay Raia’s UCLA class (tangentially related but great nerdy fun)
A caveat: If your family history is painful, please make sure you’re well-supported with therapy or friends, or some group, teacher, or network you trust, before you start unearthing hard stuff in response to reading any of the books listed above.
If you have any (friendly) questions, I’m happy to answer them if I can. As the good people who manage the NYPL’s research rooms can attest, the books above are far from an exhaustive list of the resources I’ve consulted, so if you’re looking for information about anything in particular, feel free to reach out. And if you don’t see your own favorite resource on here, I’d be glad if you sent it along.
All good wishes until next time,
* I turned in the second draft on June 3 and I’m awaiting word from my editor and agent. It’s nice to be working only one job — for a month or two.
** My current draft is almost 120,000 words — eep!
*** I’m always at least somewhat weird, and I’m comfortable with that.