Last week I talked about starting ancestor work, and a few people in the comments already jumped ahead to what I wanted to talk about this week, which is the different categories of the dead and ancestors.
The tradition I ended up working with included a few categories of the dead, and that has been tweaked a bit by me based on my cosmology.
The first is the Beloved Dead. The Beloved Dead are the family you knew. If they were alive at the same time as you, if you knew them, then they’re in the Beloved Dead category. This is the primary group most people work with, and in a lot of ways it’s the most accessible.
The second would be the Faceless Dead. The Faceless Dead are the family you didn’t know. The great-great grandparents who died before you were born, all those you never got to meet but whom you are a descendant of are the Faceless Dead. They’re still an easily accessed and immediate presence in ancestor work despite the distance.
Some people wonder why or how someone you never knew would work with you, even if you are a descendant. There are several reasons, the first, as cheesy as it sounds is the love of family. How many of us have had someone born into the family, a child, a niece or nephew, a cousin, whatever. Right away we probably love them. We have no idea who they’ll grow up to be, but there is this immediate bond, they’re family, they’re our kid, or our sibling’s kid, or someone else’s, but we love the parent, and that transfers to the child.
Another reason, which is harder to explain, is the continuation of self. There is a saying that children make us immortal, because our genes and values will continue through them. (Technically with that logic, it just means you’re long-lived, cause all of humanity will die eventually.) We’re a physical emanation of those who went before us, we’re connected to them, and in many ways a part of them, so it’s in their best interest to work with us. We’re a continuation or extension of them, it is natural to seek to benefit that which is connected to us.
Note: Some groups and lineages refer to this category as the Nameless Dead. For me that doesn’t work, first off I’m my family geneaologist, I know names of my family going back before the Battle of Hastings. Secondly Nameless has a very specific connotation in my spiritual background which clashes with this understanding, so I switched it to Faceless. For the most part there are no visual representations, so they are Faceless to me.
Those two categories are the two “proper” categories of ancestors we have to work with. The next two are not quite ancestors properly, but interact with us in a similar way.
The first of these is the Lunar Dead. The Lunar Dead could be seen as our adopted family. They are our friends, teachers, and people we had close ties to. Your best friend, or even your best friend’s mother depending on your relationship, might come through as a Lunar Dead in your life. If you’re part of a spiritual tradition, the teachers before you can be part of the Lunar Dead, and much like the Faceless Dead, this can include those you’ve never met. In my case my lama’s lama, who died a few years before I got into Buddhism, has made his presence felt with the Lunar Dead. If they were the type of person who would help you out, no matter what in life, then chances are they’ll fall under the Lunar Dead.
The second group in this set is, as some might have guessed, the Solar Dead. The Solar Dead is a very broad category. It includes anyone who could be in the previous categories, but from a past life. You might still have some connection, however subtle, to family members from another life, to friends and teachers who knew you before you took this birth. The Solar Dead can even potentially contain other forms of your self from the past. I have a very loving woman who occasionally shows up, and I get the sense she was a nanny of some sort for a life I spent in India, where she was closer to me than my mother was. Basically though the Solar Dead is any type of connection with a deceased spirit from a life before this one. I don’t know how far back the Solar Dead can go, I assume it’s more based on how long the connection has been dormant, how strong it was, and how connected you are to it now, but that’s just what seems right to me, and might not be the case.
The last category of the dead is not really an ancestor in any sense of the word (though there could be overlap), and that would be the Mighty Dead. The Mighty Dead are the powerful, fascinating, and unique historical figures out there. They’re people that made a huge difference in the world, the people who will be remembered by many not related to them. This could be famous political figures, Ghandi or J.F.K., warlords like Napoleon, great minds like Sagan and Einstein, even great sorcerers like John Dee, or Crowley. If they’re a figure famous for their work in some regard, they can be included in the Mighty Dead.
I know some people work regularly with the Mighty Dead, giving frequent offerings, much as they would with their ancestors. Personally I don’t, I don’t have a connection with any of them that I feels warrants it, but if I need to work with one of them, I can create such a relationship, but I don’t keep one going on standby just in case.
For me these extra categories slowly developed as I worked with my ancestors. My Great-Grandpa who died before I was born showed up after a while, and I felt I couldn’t exclude him, just because I never knew him. So I included him on the offerings, and then another family member I had never met made their presence known, and over time I realized there was a group, so I gave them their own category and set of offerings.
I find every once and a while I get a few new Faceless Dead, as if my work with the rest of them is slowly calling them, or awakening them, or perhaps the dead communicate and tell their parents and family “Hey, someone is actually acknowledging us, come get a meal.”
My Solar Dead showed up before I began ancestor work, but it was my ancestor work that gave me a format to work with them, rather than just having them occasionally around.
No Lunar Dead showed up before I began to call them, it is a category I created out of utility, as I worked with the dead I made a point of acknowledging some friends who had been murdered, and felt that whatever was out there of those who I knew, but was not related to, could still benefit from some offerings.
Once a week I make my offerings to the various groups. My Beloved Dead and Faceless Dead receive incense, candles, and water or tea. My Lunar Dead and Solar Dead receive bread. Perhaps more importantly though, they all receive my attention, which from my conversations with them, sounds like most of them almost never get.