Working with your ancestors can be such an incredible part of your witchcraft practice. It adds a sense of continuity, community, and direction to many people’s spiritual lives, with or without the addition of magic! My ancestors have taught me so much, given me personalized spells and rituals that they created for me, and opened up possibilities for studying magic based on my ancestral heritage. Beginning to work with my ancestors has been an absolute game-changer for me. Not every witch has such an easy time connecting with their ancestors, though. Families come with a lot of baggage!
When I teach about ancestral magic, one of the biggest roadblocks I see my students facing is this sense of detachment that they have from their ancestors. There are so many things that can cause this sense of disconnection, not the least of which is the fact that most of us have very little knowledge of who our ancestors are. I’ve met witches who feel like they have no right to ask anything of their ancestors because they simply don’t know them. When your ancestors feel like strangers, it’s hard to do any kind of magic with them! Even though it can feel insurmountable, this sense of detachment isn’t fate. It’s possible for anyone, and I mean anyone, to find a strong connection with their ancestors, and today we’re going to take a look at how you can do just that.
Why You Feel Disconnected
One of the biggest reasons why so many people feel detached and disconnected from their ancestors is that many of us are living in a society that has no real death culture. In the US, death culture is essentially “get it over with as fast as possible, don’t talk about it, and pretend it doesn’t exist as soon as you can”. We have very few ways to grieve as a community. We have no traditions that honor or bring our attention back to our dead. We won’t even think about the fact that someday we will die! The western world has a serious problem with death-avoidance and it has truly done a lot of damage to us as individuals.
How much do you know about your ancestry? I’m willing to bet that unless you’ve done a serious genealogy project, you know very little. You probably know a bit about your grandparents’ lives and maybe you know a tiny amount about your great-grandparents’ lives, but do you know anything about generations before that? Most families have a handful of stories about where they’re from, but they’re often incomplete, lacking in detail, and sometimes even factually incorrect because the information has been passed down through so many generations. It’s no wonder you feel disconnected from your ancestors, you don’t know who they are!
Trying to work with your ancestors when you don’t know the first thing about them feels kind of like walking into a giant room of strangers. It’s awkward, you don’t know who to talk to, and you definitely don’t feel comfortable asking anyone for favors. And even worse, everyone is telling you that you should feel like these people are your family! Of course, you feel disconnected from them.
On top of this, many of us struggle with our living family members. It can feel like a huge hurdle trying to build relationships with our deceased family members when we can hardly stand the ones who are still alive. This stops so many people from exploring ancestor work. Their experience with family has been so negative, fraught with disappointment, and stressful that they don’t even want to think about adding any more family to their plate. And if you’re adopted and don’t even know who your genetic ancestors are, how do you even go about working with them? (It’s possible, I promise!)
Many people feel like their ancestors won’t approve of who they are. The modern world has opened us up to the incredible diversity of human experience, which means that so many more of us are adopting and discovering identities and beliefs that clash with those held by previous generations. What are you supposed to do if you’re gay, or in an interracial marriage, or practicing witchcraft? Will your ancestors reject you and hound you and shame you for being who you are? Given that a lot of people’s living family members will do exactly that, it hardly seems worth the risk to a lot of people.
It’s Not A Lost Cause!
Even if I just described you to a T, it’s still possible for you to have a wonderful, fulfilling connection to your ancestors. Yes, even if you’re adopted. Yes, even if you’re a witch and they were Christian. Yes, even if you don’t even speak to your living family members. It’s still possible for you to have a great relationship with your ancestors!
The reason for this is simple. You have so many of them! When you think about your living family members, you probably only have a handful of them. Maybe you have a slightly larger extended family, but most of us can only claim about a dozen close family members, give or take. This is not the case when it comes to your ancestors. You have generation after generation after generation of ancestors going back for as long as humans have existed. That’s a lot of people and a lot of chances to find someone that you connect with.
It’s okay if you don’t want to work with the spirit of your deceased aunt because she was kind of a bigot. Someone in your lineage will be just like you. I guarantee that you have ancestors who were gay. I guarantee that you had ancestors who practiced magic. I guarantee that you had ancestors who broke every rule in the book and were the black sheep of their entire town. You have ancestors who are just like you and who will love you and help you because you’re their legacy.
How To Connect With Your Ancestors
So how can we connect with our ancestors when it feels like a lost cause? there are lots of ways to go about doing this, and every person is going to be different. We all have different families, different histories, and different needs in our magical practice.
1. You can pick and choose which ancestors to work with.
First things first, you do not have to work with any ancestor that you don’t want to work with. All of the same rules about spirit work apply to ancestor work. If a spirit makes you uncomfortable, is rude to you, is abusive, or just skeeves you out, then don’t work with them! You can put up a ward specifically to keep them out. When I introduce ancestor work, everyone is always worried about the horrible people in their family line. This is your permission to not worry about them. You have complete license to ignore any ancestor who was a racist, a belligerent sexist, a slave owner, a criminal, etc.
The thing is, everyone is related to someone that they would absolutely loathe. We all have bad apples on the family tree. When I said you had generation after generation after generation of people to choose from in your ancestry, I meant it. Not all of them will be good, not all of them will even be tolerable. Some of them you will downright hate. And that’s okay! You can completely ignore them when you find them and kick them out of your practice entirely.
2. Research your genealogy
This will be harder for some people than for others. Some families have full genealogies already created and just waiting for you to find them. Other families will have absolutely nothing to start with. Some families will have had decent record-keeping that makes genealogy easy, others will have scattered, contradictory, or missing documentation that makes tracing a family line very difficult. Do not think that you have to have a complete picture of your genealogy before you begin working with your ancestors. You do not! If it seems like too much for you, you don’t even have to do any genealogy research. It’s entirely possible to work with your ancestors without having all the historical documentation about who’s who. They will tell you what you need to know!
For those of you who like the idea of doing their genealogy or who already have access to a family tree, researching your genealogy can be a great way to connect with your ancestors. I know that having my genealogy researched gave me so much insight into my family and my practice. It answered questions like why I felt so drawn to certain parts of the country and why I could feel my ancestors so much more when I went there. It gave me names and allowed me to find pictures of the spirits that I’ve been working with for years. And best of all, exploring your genealogy is an excellent way to show your ancestors that you are interested in building a relationship with them. Rather than feeling like you’re walking into a room full of strangers, you can begin your work with your ancestors with a solid knowledge of who they are and what their lives were like.
3. Are you applying your problems with living family members to your ancestors?
If you have struggled with your living family, you need to make sure that you’re not painting your ancestors with the same brush. It’s easy to imagine that because your living family is difficult, your ancestors will be as well. This is not always the case, though. Sure, some of your ancestors will be just as difficult as your living relatives, but not all of them. You have ancestors who are lovely people. In the same way that everyone is related to an asshole somewhere in their lineage, everyone is related to some truly wonderful people. You just have to find them! But you can’t find them if you refuse to even approach your ancestors because you’re so afraid of having a repeat of what you’ve experienced with your living family.
Remember, you don’t have to work with any spirit that you don’t want to and it’s a lot easier to cut off contact with an unpleasant spirit than it is to cut off contact with a living family member! Don’t assume that your ancestors are going to feel the same way that you’re living family feels about you. Don’t assume that they’re going to judge you in the same ways that your living family does. Your ancestors are individuals in their own right and I guarantee that if you give them the chance, some of them will surprise you with how accepting and loving they are.
4. Find multiple ways to communicate
For some people, connecting to their ancestors is difficult simply because they have no idea how to communicate with them. If you don’t have extrasensory abilities that allow you to see or hear your ancestors clearly, it can be really hard to feel connected to them! For this reason, it’s a great idea to try as many methods as possible to communicate with your ancestors. Try using a pendulum, try communicating with Tarot, try meditation, try listening for them in your dreams, try looking for signs or coincidences in your life. There are so many ways that your ancestors can communicate, can intervene in your life, and can answer your questions. You just have to be on the lookout for it!
Sometimes, it also just takes a while for your ancestors to wake up and decide to communicate. If you’re just getting started with ancestor work and you’re not hearing much from them, don’t freak out. They may be just waiting and getting a feel for you before they start rummaging around in your life. Keep showing up, keep trying to communicate, keep trying out new methods of communication, and pay attention. You never know how your ancestors will show up in your life and answer your questions.
5. Create a weekly ritual for connecting with your ancestors
One of the best ways to connect with anyone, living or dead, is to show up regularly to spend time with them. This is how all relationships work! If you want to date someone, you have to spend time with them on a regular basis. If you want to maintain a friendship, you have to communicate with them and spend time with them. Your ancestors are no different.
I would suggest building a ritual into your week that allows you to sit down and connect with your ancestors weekly. How you go about doing this is totally up to you, everybody’s ancestor practice is a bit different. I like to make offerings to my ancestors once weekly, usually on a Monday. I’ll light candles, set out a glass of water, maybe make an offering of coffee, whiskey, or food, and say a quick prayer. Most weeks, I’ll spend a few minutes sitting in silence after doing this short ritual, just to listen and see if my ancestors have anything to say. Often, they’re very quiet but other weeks they may have a lot to say and sometimes I’ll end up spending quite a bit of time at this altar simply because I showed up and listened.
6. Just ask!
If you want to connect with your ancestors, the best way to start is to just ask for them to connect with you. Sit down at your altar, light a candle, and ask for your ancestors to show up in your life and to make themselves known to you. They might answer right away or they might not answer for weeks, but they can’t answer if you don’t ask. Give them the space to come into your life, open that door so that they know that they’re welcome and you may be surprised with how excited they are to meet you!