Ancestor Work: Categories of Dead Folks


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.


Ancestor Work: Start Simply, Simply Start


Ancestor AltarI put my fingers on the touchstone and allow my shrine to open. Muted sensations fill my mind and brighten. I light the two white candles on either side of the picture frames, then from those flames the incense. In my mind’s eye I let the light and smoke expand, both illuminating the space and obscuring it, filling it with a bright cloud on which my mind can receive images. Slowly I pour the hot water in the tea cups and say hello. I speak to my Beloved Dead, it’s not formal, it’s respectful but casual, these are my grandparents and great-grandparents after all. I tell them about the week, how it was my niece’s first birthday and she’s incredibly cute and they’d all love her, only one of her great-grandparents getting to meet her, just once before cancer took Nana. I talk about work, all the things that grandparents love to hear. I thank them, every week, for the role they played in shaping my personality. I ask for their support in my life, I have nothing planned, so it’s a general request, just be there for me.

Moving from my main ancestor shrine I light another stick of incense, and place a piece of buttered toast in two cups, marked in my mind with the light of the moon and the light of the sun. More formally, I offer the food and incense to them, but as with my Beloved Dead, I thank them for how they shaped me, and ask that they continue to work with me, and walk with me.

I never thought I’d be the type of person to work with my ancestors. Honestly I got into it accidentally it seems. I’m horrible with birthdays, so I asked my mother to email me all the birthdays for people in the family. She obliged, but her list included my great-granny’s birthday, despite being dead for nearly 20 years. I didn’t know how to arrange the information, so when googling my options to easily keep track of it, I ended up making a family tree. Then I decided to expand it, so I tracked down a few deceased family members and their information and added it. My grandmother (now deceased) found out and thought this was great, she was the family historian. She saw my initial family tree on Christmas Eve, and when she went home she couldn’t get to sleep, not because she was excited for Christmas, but because she wanted to track down all her records for me. It was bittersweet, for she gave me all her unorganized records and I made sense of them, but she died suddenly four months later. If we hadn’t worked on the family tree together the information would have been lost.

I don’t know how the ancestor work happened to be honest, but at one point it just felt natural that I should honour the dead I knew, that doing the family tree awoke this idea. I printed out pictures of them, both young and old when possible, and put their teacups in front of them, the only memento I have from most of them, and some candles. I don’t come from a family that has an ancestor tradition, my culture by the time it reached me had lost such things, and while there is some ancestor veneration in Buddhism, at that time I wasn’t involved enough to know it well, nor did I feel like their formalized methods were appropriate. So I made my own. I’ve worked with spirits for years, I regularly chatted with my one grandma as she’s buried a mere five minute walk from me, so I just adapted it from those ideas, and built upon responses over time. Sometimes when people ask me about ancestor work, when I mention that my simple methods are my own that’s the end of the conversation, they want something “traditional” because we’re taught to think that’s better. Other times the fact that it’s my own method is what appeals to people, because perhaps like me they’re not from a family or culture or religion with such practices, or perhaps like my take of Buddhist forms, they find it’s too formal and structured.

My practice is simple, but I thought I would share it. It’s nothing special, but it’s from the heart and effective for what I need.

My ancestor shrine has many objects on it, but a few simple classes of items. Most important would be the photos, the pictures of how I remember these people, and younger pictures them in their prime. I don’t know why I felt compelled to include both, but I like it, and when I acknowledge birthdays it’s nice to see them young and healthy, and when I honour their death it’s nice to see them as I remember them. As mentioned I have teacups from all the Beloved Dead, so they’re on the shrine. Two white candles, two incense holders, and a small vase big enough for two flowers. I also have a few random mementos, I didn’t want to include them initially, but they’re items I’d have no place for otherwise, and would probably throw out: a blue glass Madonna from my Grandma who wasn’t Catholic but had over 50 Madonna figurines, a backscratcher from my Great-Granny who died when I was five and that was always my toy when visiting, or the Statler and Waldorf figurines of my Granny who always claimed they were her boyfriends. Then in the centre is a statue of the Angel of Death, representing the Dead I don’t have on the altar, those who I knew but aren’t in direct lines (the Great Aunts and Uncles for instance), or those Dead whom I never knew.

Every week I boil some water, and perform the basic ritual described above. I make offerings to them, tell them about my week, what’s happening with the family, remind them they’re loved and missed, and thank them. If it is an important day, a birthday, anniversary, or death date I’ll make them a proper cup of tea, as an extra honouring for that day. I don’t use tea weekly for a few reasons, first water is traditionally offered by…well almost every culture to their dead, it’s the elixir of life, practically I don’t think it’s needed to use tea, and quite frankly brewing several cups of tea, only to dispose of them before they go bad (and they do, experience taught me that) is annoying, whereas water can stay on the altar all week until the next offering.

More important than anything I’ve found as I’ve done ancestor work, is to connect and acknowledge. Unless we come from a family/culture/religion with ancestor work, the dead are buried and then mostly ignored. Just by acknowledging them, you’re welcoming them back into your life. Sometimes I think about offering more elaborately, but to me, it’s about family. If they were alive and came over, I wouldn’t have cake ready for them, I wouldn’t have large meals just appearing, but I’d have tea, and if they wanted anything else, they could ask. So I keep it simple, hot water or tea, candles and incense. These are my Beloved Dead, they don’t need anything more, just love and remembrance.

A lot of people put off ancestor work (and a lot of work) for fear of doing it wrong. Contextualize it in the flesh though. Start with your Beloved Dead, the ancestors you knew in life, and just give them a space and time of your attention. Just talk. You don’t have to be formal, you don’t have to be elaborate. These are people who loved you (and if they didn’t that’s another issue for another time about ancestor work), so they’ll be understanding. If Grandma came over and I didn’t have tea, she might grumble, but in the end it wouldn’t be a big problem. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, they’ll forgive you, and if you’re open, they’ll guide you. Like many things in life it’s better just to start.

Shapeshifting Saviours, Meditation, and Logic


Mercury WebDue to the convergence of newage and Buddhism I’ve seen the so-called “non-violent” communication for a while. I’m fed up with it, and I’m not the only one. Here is a look at how non-violent communication is just as violent, if not more so, than normal communication.

Why is rape such a central element in many religious myths? This came up at dinner this week actually, it’s more than a bit unsettling to modern sensibilities how the mothers of Zoroaster, Jesus, and Buddha never gave consent to become pregnant, it was just placed upon them.

Speaking of that Jesus fellow, the first written description of him calls him a magician. Not surprising to most occultists, but still neat. Also not surprising if you’ve read Jesus the Magician by Morton Smith.

A later text about Jesus calls him a shapeshifter. While I would never have labelled him such, it’s an interesting reason and covers a small hole in the Gospels. (And I don’t mean the ones through Jesus’ palms…too soon?)

Want some great life advice from five awesome female mystics? You got it.

Like a lot of sorcerers I collect tools, but I like to know the whys and hows, and histories of the items. Here is the start of a great in depth look at magickal blades, which helps fill in some of that.

I’ve wanted to talk about ancestor work for a while, because I keep getting more questions about it, and why I do it, and how do I make peace with the idea. Brother Moloch addresses the common question of why to work with ancestors, especially if your family was less than stellar.

Believe it or not the Onion wrote an article about me. Or at least it sounds like how many of my friends talk about me.

Speaking of meditation, TUM talked briefly about a short meditation retreat he did and how it’s not all fun, games, and stress relief. Let me say to those curious about his experience, that’s just the tip of the rabbit hole.

Continuing on meditation, I know I always complain about those scientific studies explaining the benefits of meditation…we get it, it’s good for you…the American Psychological Association says it helps fight depression. It’s also good seeing it from a serious source, not just random blogs or papers pulling info together.

On the flipside here is a list of 10 things science will make you happy. Bacon must have been 11th on the list. It might seem initially odd that I’d share this, but remember I think a sorcerer is judged not achievements, titles, tools, or training, but by the life they live and if they’re content and productive.

I also think a sorcerer should be firmly grounded in reality, which is why I advocate for more scientific rigour in practices, and scientific literacy. So, to kill a favourite pet I see among pagans, an analysis of 240 different studies shows that there is no notable health benefit from organic food.

Keeping with reality, here are eight common mistakes in how we think, and how we can avoid them. Some of these are even more an issue to those who follow magickal forms of thought.

Another problem with how we think is how often we ignore omens, and how the majority of deaths are caused by such ignorance. Totally true fact.

Gate Crasher At The Ancestor Altar


Like most obsessed sorcerers I have several altars around my house. Sorry, according to Rinpoche I’m not obsessed, I’m “dedicated,” that sounds nicer. I’ve downsized recently, but I have my general and planetary altar, my chöd altar, my wealth altar, my Buddhist altar (okay a few of those), and my ancestor altar (recently just added a second one of those to discuss later).

Of all my altars my general/planetary and my chöd altar are my most “open” altars. When I do my morning prayers to the planetary angel while the offering is for them, it’s understood that what they don’t take/want can be taken by any spirit in the area. In chöd you go out of your way to call everyone you can to take the offerings. These altars are right on top of each other, so it tends to be, not surprisingly, where a lot of my random spirit activity occurs. My wealth and Buddhist altar(s) are semi-open, they’re dedicated to specific figures, but aren’t exclusive. I have trouble picturing a Bodhisattva getting annoyed that a random spirit is coming to take their offering. For the most part though since the work is directed to these figures no one else shows up.

Lastly there is my ancestor altar, which is closed in two ways. First it’s dedicated to my ancestors (imagine that) and anchored to them via photos, teacups, and art. Secondly it’s somewhat shielded. I wouldn’t say shielded or warded in the traditional sense, but it’s in my living room and I have it isolated from that space. While it is physically located in the living room, it’s energetically elsewhere behind a veil/shield, not for any super mystical reason, but as a genderqueer pansexual polyamorous sex-positive sorcerer my living room is often the scene of many things my very Christian ancestors might not approve of. (I may or may not be naked typing this within arm’s reach of the altar) So whenever I work with that altar, there is a stone I have to touch and “pull” the altar through that visual/sensory boundary.

One day, several weeks, back I opened the space, felt something off and thought nothing of it, and went about my weekly offerings. I lit the candles and incense as I chatted with my family about what had happened in the last week with the family and myself, I refilled their tea cups and noticed there was someone new in the space. Now every once and a while a new ancestor appears, it’s as if they talk from time to time, and someone says “Hey, your great-great-great grandkid is leaving us food and drink, come visit.” It’s weird, cause I don’t know these ancestors, my altar is for those I knew in life, but I’m not going to turn away someone just because they died before I was born. Anyways this new person didn’t feel right. There is a feel to ancestors, when the new people showed up I could feel the connection, I know they were family, and could even intuit roughly who they were (maternal/paternal and how far back). This new person didn’t feel like them in any way, he felt disconnected. It’s like when you’re in high school, there are 500+ students in your school, but you can immediately spot the transfer student in the crowd and tell they don’t fit in.

Before I could even address him, he asked for buttered tea. I asked who he was, and got no response, my awareness of him faded, so I left it. The next week he was there again, a bit stronger, I got a visual sense of him, he was an older white man, thick square glasses, and in a rocking chair, quite at home. Again he just suggested (cause asked implies too much communication) that he would like some buttered tea. This is odd, because buttered tea is a Tibetan drink, and that man is not Tibetan, and he didn’t strike me as someone who lived in Tibet or with the exile, he didn’t feel tied to Tibet/Tibetan Buddhism, he was just a strange old man asking for buttered tea. Again I asked who he was, and he faded out.

It sounds odd (because the rest of this story is so run-of-the-mill down to earth…) but I felt almost insulted by his presence. He wasn’t family, he wasn’t an ancestor, why is he inside my ancestor altar? I have two free-for-all offering buffet altars downstairs, why is he hanging around with my grandparents? As I’m overly polite with spirits (moreso than people most of the time) I decided to leave him be, I wasn’t going to cast him out, but I wasn’t going to indulge him without knowing who he is, or why he was there.

After several weeks of him occasionally showing up I got out a neutral coffee cup and made him buttered tea, which I served along with the drinks for my ancestors. The impression I got when I put down the tea for him? “Some apple crumble would be nice too.” It is amazing how someone seems unwilling to communicate, but still suggest/request to be fed in this manner. He got his tea, and no more.

It didn’t get rid of him, it wasn’t as if he wanted one last cup of tea before moving on, or anything like that. He’s a pretty “grounded” spirit, as solid as a stout ghost or ancestor that’s been worked with, he has presence and personality and awareness, which are really not common traits for wandering human spirits. Usually they’re weak, echoes, mentally dull, but not him. He still shows up, sometimes he’s an older man, sometimes he’s in his 40s-ish. He has the most unusual penetrating glance when his face prominently appears, as if his thick glasses are magnifying his sight, not just fixing it. I asked him to make use of the other altars for offerings, but he never showed up there.

I really have no idea who he is, or why he showed up, how he got into my ancestor altar and why he doesn’t go to any of the other ones.

This really is just to share some of what my magickal life is like, folks read my theorizing and my rants, but I thought I should also share some of what happens in my life. Also if you’ve had anything similar, or any ideas, I’m still trying to sort him out, so commentary is welcome.

He did lead me to creating two more categories of the dead beyond what my tradition held, but that will be discussed another time.

Grave Dirt: Bring Up Your Dead


I was asked on the Book of the Face how I collect dirt, and one on hand it’s really easy, do it however you want, on the other hand, if it’s not something you do I guess it’s helpful to know how others do it, so I thought I’d explain that.

There are (in the system I work with) three basic types of dirt: Grave dirt, Nest dirt, and Goal dirt. (I guess, last one was never named. Also there is Graveyard dirt, which is somewhat like Nest dirt, though elements of the other two now that I’m thinking about it)

The one most occult folks focus on is grave dirt. Whether it is a family member, a famous person, a spirit ally, or random grave, there are lots of uses for the dirt, which I won’t get into here, let’s stick with method. (Also, I reached my word limit talking about Grave dirt, I guess that’s the only one we’ll look at now, but hey, at least Goal dirt is already written, so you’re guaranteed a post on that)

My kit: Incense, lighter, spoon, containers with labels, and cigarettes, all stored in a zipper sandwich bag

My kit: Incense, lighter, spoon, containers with labels, and cigarettes

To collect grave dirt you need three simple things: offerings, a container, and a spoon. Being how I am I actually have a ritual spoon for this…and by that I mean one that I’ve only ever used for dirt collection and I keep in my backpack at all times. In fact, all three things in my bag at all time. (They didn’t used to be, but some spirits I’m dealing with have me doing a lot with dirt right now…)

The offering is a bit subjective. If you know the person it could be something appropriate to them. When collecting dirt from my Grandma’s grave I took her vodka and a cigarette, cause that’s what she liked. For my other Grandma I’d take flowers, specifically chicory, dandelions, or anything else that grows on the side of the road. For a soldier you could take toy weapons, poppies, whatever. A lot of people offer coins, and mention the Greek tradition of leaving coins for the ferryman. Personally, I think that is fairly silly. Sure, it worked in Greek culture, and pagans who still follow it would appreciate it, but my Grandma would look at me like I was a goof if I thought two quarters would be a good offering. (But being my Grandma she’d take it and thank me I’m sure) I get the reason, I just think it’s too esoteric for most people. If you don’t know the person, or don’t know what they’d like the big five offerings you can give become water, food, incense, candles, and energy.

Approach the grave, centre and still yourself for a moment, just let the world drop behind you a bit, and then set out the offering on or beside the grave. Depending on your skill/inclinations you can either just talk out loud to the spirit, or actually do a bit more work to call them up. On a simplified level I usually put my left hand on the ground and project a tendril into the earth until I find the urn or casket or a sense of presence, then feeding a bit of energy down that line I draw them up, gently asking that the join me, or at least communicate with me. (The latter is because some really like to be rooted in their remains and would rather talk from below than on the surface, I don’t know why, I didn’t expect it until I encountered it)

Give them the offering. If you know how you can either multiple it, or shape it. The advantages to water, incense, and to a lesser extent candles is they’re fairly good at taking the “imprint” of offering visualizations. So if you create a visualization of an offering water/incense/candles are a good way to ground that offering in our reality and keep it stable. Energy is of course even more malleable, you can offer it however you want, I use a variation of a Shinto method. I clap three times, loudly, but not too hard, but enough to make a clear sound. With the first clap I see the sound clearing away discordant energies, the second more fully calls the spirit into the place, the last is a welcome announcement ‘ah you’re here.’ Then I rub my palms together and hold out my hand as if I was holding a ball in my hands. Aside from the meanings of the clapping, by clapping and rubbing your hands you bring blood, and thus energy, to the surface of your hands, which you can then naturally let pool in the bowl of your hands, or you can will it out.

Now that they have been called, and given the offering you can actually talk with them more directly. This is totally up to you; do you just think it, or speak it, do you chit chat or get straight to business? While thinking works, I find the vocalization carries more energy to them, so the messages are more clear, and oddly so are their responses, and at least in a cemetery talking to a grave isn’t unusual. Explain to them that you’re going to take a portion of their land/grave (my grandmother calls her grave her “property”), and if you have a specific request/intent you can explain that, or you can just explain it’s for connecting with them. Wait to see if they agree, depending on your level of communication they might say it, or you might get a sense of yes/no, if you can’t even get that ask for a small sign “If it’s yes touch my right hand, if it is not touch my left.” If it’s a yes, just take a spoon of the dirt, and you’re good. Usually I touch the dirt first and say something like “This is the spot I’m taking if you would bless it for me” to just draw their resonance into it a little more. If it’s a no, either give up, and thank them, or see if you can convince them, maybe they want another offering, maybe they want you to visit more often (yes Grandma…) or something, sometimes it’s a firm no, other times there might be some negotiation.

Put it in your contain, seal it, and label it. (Okay, I label them, because I don’t use all the dirt at once in many cases and don’t want them getting mixed up, and I occasionally grab samples from more than one place in a day, and again don’t want to confuse them.)

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