31 Days of Ancestors: An Ancestor Work Project
I posted this on my Tumblr a few years ago, in a slightly different form, but I think it’s worth sharing here as well. It reflects my own process, albeit in a more organized approach, to digging into ancestor work. This method is specific and immersive, which allows for stronger connections that are crucial to enduring and meaningful relationships with our ancestors.
While we can certainly honor our ancestors en masse, there’s a lot to be said for honoring specific ancestors. Each ancestor is an individual, a person with a lifetime of experiences and unique lessons to share and powers to convey. If you know them, won’t your work with them be more personal and powerful?
Why is Ancestor Work Important?
Ancestor work and veneration connects us not only to those who came before us but also the times in which they lived. It conveys a continuity, a sense of belonging to and participating in something greater. It allows us to engage with history from a personal perspective, to see how the past has generated the present, and intuit how we may be impacting future generations.
Inevitably, you will uncover the bad with the good. You don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) love everything. But look for the roots, reconnect with them, and you’ll find beauty there. Once we understand our roots, we can foster the flowers that produce nutritive fruit. Celebrate your heritage and carry it into the future — but first, you have to know it. Absorb it. Let it become part of the fabric of your being.
While written with blood ancestors in mind, this project can easily be adapted for study into cultural ancestors — heroes, spiritual and political leaders, celebrities and artists, and even strangers who have intrigued and influenced us for one reason or another.
To me, ancestor work has three major components (all of which are touched on in this project):
- learning about the ancestor as a person
- learning about the ancestor’s culture and time period
- doing the practical work of communing and working with the ancestor
Part of this is accomplished through genealogy – a type of ancestor work that isn’t often viewed as such, and something that I’ve done with my mother for over a decade. There isn’t much of an emphasis on genealogy in discussions about ancestor work, but it’s so important because that’s how we get to know our ancestors on a personal level – it’s how we find out who they were and how they lived so that we can begin to discover how they can help us. It’s hard work, but I’ve done my best to break the process up into segments and guide you through it one step at a time.
Due to the nature of genealogy, records keeping, and ancestor work in general, you may not be able to answer all of the questions posed in this project, or you may discover the answers at a later date, and that’s fine. What’s important is discovering what you can and using that information to make a meaningful connection.
This is a great project for the month of October, but this project can be done at any time, so feel free to bookmark it for later. Ancestor work is valuable in any season.
Here we go, down into the earth among the shades, spades in hand…
Day 1 – Establish your goals for this project
What do you hope to accomplish by connecting with an ancestor? Do you want to learn more about what life was like in a specific time period? Do you want to learn more about your cultural and ethnic heritage? Is there something about a particular ancestor that appeals to you, and you’d like to grow closer to them? Is there a spiritual or religious dimension? Framing your goals early on, even if they change later, will help you to focus on the things that are most likely to resonate with you throughout the project.
Day 2 – Ask a family member (or several family members) about your family history
Who were their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents? Write down full names (or at least first and last), dates of birth, and dates of death for research later. Also try to get stories – what people did for a living, how they lived, what they valued. How did your parents and/or grandparents (and great-grandparents!) grow up? Also, if your family immigrated at some point, try to find out where they came from and when they might have immigrated. If you can’t get this information, don’t worry – you’ll do some digging on your own later on. But it always helps to get clues – you never know what might be important later.
Days 3-5 – Get started on genealogy
Join an online genealogical site or search a genealogy forum for information about your ancestors. MyHeritage.com is free (as far as I know), and Ancestry.com offers a free 2-week trial (which you can cancel before they start charging you). If you or someone else has already done this, dig into it!
Begin by searching for your earliest known ancestor (this can be a grandparent or great-grandparent, living or deceased). Start mapping a family tree based on what you know – your full name and birth date, that of your parents’ and grandparents’, and so on. That’ll be your foundation. Ancestry.com has a great feature where they tag suggestions for census records and other valuable documents based on information you input, and this can help you get started on tracing your family tree back in time. Archives.gov (U.S. site; I’m not sure what other countries have, but I’m sure there are similar sites) has lots of resources for genealogists, like census records, which have good information like names of family members, where they were living, what they did for a living, and where they were born. You can also check the personal genealogy websites of people (probably distant relatives of yours) who have done genealogical work for certain ancestral lines.
Day 6 – Choose an ancestor to work with
This will be the person you focus on for the duration of the project. Keep in mind your project goals and how much information you think you’ll be able to get about them. It will be easier to choose someone closer in time for your first go—a great- or great-great-grandparent – but if someone jumps out at you or you’re really interested in a particular time period or country of origin, go for it! Just be prepared to have to work harder for information.
Day 7 – Start compiling a life sketch of your ancestor
When were they born? Where?
What was their first language?
Who were their parents? Siblings?
How did they grow up – what work did their parents do? Were they poor, middle-class, wealthy?
If they immigrated, where from? When?
When did they die? Where?
Day 8 – Continue compiling a life sketch of your ancestor
As an adult, what did they do for a living?
Were they involved in or present during significant historic events?
Is there any family history about them?
Does your family still own something of theirs? If so, what is it? How did they use it? Where did they get it?
Are there any pictures of them?
Again, if you run into questions you can’t answer, leave a blank space for it and move on. Some of these questions you may never have answers to, and that’s OK.
Day 9 – Learn about where they grew up and lived
Where were they born? Where did they grow up? Include the country, region, and city/town, when possible.
When did they live there (years)?
What is this region noted for?
What languages and dialects are spoken here?
What are the topographical features of this place?
Describe the bioregion (plants, animals, climate).
What type of government does this place have? What government existed there in your ancestor’s time?
Day 10 – Research the time period your ancestor lived in
What significant events occurred in your ancestor’s time? What was technology like in their time? Medicine? What clothing did people wear? What other things have you noticed about this time period?
Day 11 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture: food & drink, part 1
What foods are native to your ancestor’s place of origin?
What beverages were/are important here?
Find a recipe from this place that your ancestor might have eaten.
Day 12 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture: food & drink, part 2
Follow the recipe you collected yesterday and enjoy the food/drink of your ancestors!
How hard was it to prepare? What does it taste like? What does it tell you about the life your ancestor lived and what their culture valued?
Day 13 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture: traditional costumes
What is the traditional costume of your ancestor’s country of origin? Compile images and information about the costume’s origin and development over time. What does this costume say about the country’s values? What does it say about the kind of life your ancestor’s people lived?
If you have this costume at home (and you may not; many people don’t), put it on for a little while. How do you feel wearing it?
Day 14 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture: literature
Find a poem or story from your ancestor’s country of origin (bonus: get a copy of it in the original language, too!). Read it and take note of character types and roles (if applicable), interactions with the environment (if applicable), values that are communicated, and any religious/spiritual aspects. Also note the tone, the voice, the imagery used. How does this work make you feel? If you’ve been able to find a copy in the original language, how does it sound in your ancestor’s native tongue?
Make an aesthetic board or collage of this work to express your impression of it.
Day 15 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture: music
What music styles were popular at the time your ancestor lived in their country? Find a piece of music that your ancestor might have heard and enjoyed while they were alive. What instruments have a prominent role? If there are lyrics, what messages are communicated? What does this music evoke in you? What do you think your ancestor would have enjoyed about it? What does it tell you about the time your ancestor lived in?
Day 16 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture: art
What period of art did your ancestor live in? What art styles were in vogue at that time in their country? Look up a work by an artist that was a contemporary of your ancestor, preferably in your ancestor’s country of origin. What is depicted in this piece? How is it portrayed? What values are conveyed?
What was this artist trying to say through this piece? What does it say about your ancestor’s time?
Day 17 – Learn about your ancestor’s native tongue
What language did your ancestor’s family speak? Find a language dictionary (online, mobile app, or at the library/book store) and look up a few words or phrases. If they speak the same language as you, research colloquialisms or slang from their time period. How does it feel to say those words?
Day 18 – Watch a movie set in the country and time period your ancestor lived in
The coordinates can be approximate. It’s best to find a film that at least attempts to be historically accurate. For example, if your ancestor lived in England during the 12th century, a good film might be The Lion in Winter (even if your ancestors weren’t royalty). Or, if your ancestor was alive in the U.S. during the ‘60s, you could watch Selma or even a few episodes of Mad Men.
What do you notice about how people interact with each other in the film? What are the class, gender, race, and other social dynamics? How did they dress, travel, work? Imagine living during that time – what would you have struggled with? What would be important to you? What do you think was important to your ancestor?
Day 19-21 – Uncover oral history or legends about your ancestor or their neighbors
There are quite a few genealogical histories that have been published over the years by individuals collecting stories from certain towns or for particular families. There may also be stories in old newspapers about them.
Don’t be afraid to email other people doing research about your family if you see that they’ve made some headway about your ancestor or their close family members. Also feel free to call or email places of worship they attended, public records offices, and other resources of information available to family members and/or the public.
Day 22 – Learn about the work your ancestor did – part 1
What did your ancestor do for a living? How did your ancestor do his or her job? What materials and tools did they use to do it? What types of people did they come into contact with on a regular basis in order to do or sell their work? How was their work regarded by their contemporaries?
Day 23 – Learn about the work your ancestor did – part 2
If you can, spend time doing the work that your ancestor did, or visit a place that does that work. If this is not possible, try to watch some YouTube videos or doccumentaries about that work. Learn what you can about the history of that job and what it was like to do the work at the time your ancestor lived.
Day 24 – Learn about your ancestor’s religion
Learning about your ancestor’s religion is incredibly important because for many people, especially those who lived in earlier times, religion had a huge impact on worldviews, morals and ethics, and attitudes toward oneself and others. So a big part of getting to know your ancestor is getting to know their religious beliefs and practices. A lot of people overlook this, especially if your religious/spiritual beliefs conflict with theirs, but it’s really essential. It’s okay if you don’t believe the same things that they did; it’s a part of life – learning to connect with people from different perspectives. It doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to connect, or that you can’t still learn from them.
Christening and marriage records are especially useful in determining religion. You can also try to locate their gravesite — at least one of my ancestors was buried in a Catholic cemetery, which is an obvious giveaway.
Most of the time, people practiced the same religion as others in their community, so even if you can’t find any records of religious rites performed for or by them, you can research the religion practiced in their community and safely assume that they practiced it as well (unless there’s something that suggests otherwise).
Some questions to ask:
- What values does this religion hold? What codes, morals, ethics?
- How did they worship? Where?
- What is their worldview? How are people viewed in it—what role do they play; what position do they have in relation to other beings?
- What relationships with the environment does this worldview elicit?
- What is/are the deity/ies like?
- Is there a belief in an afterlife? If so, what is it like?
In addition, it’s important to learn about the history of that religion in your ancestor’s area because practices change and develop over time and differ from place to place. What questions did they seek to answer through their religion? What stories/parables/myths were popular in this time?
Day 25 – Learn about your ancestor’s culture’s indigenous religion or spiritual system
What is the native religion/spiritual system of your ancestor’s culture? Ask the same questions of this spiritual framework as you did the day before. In addition, find one myth/parable/folk tale from their country and explore what it expresses about their spiritual beliefs. How did these beliefs impact your ancestor’s contemporary (and current) culture?
Day 26 – Learn about your ancestor’s death
When did your ancestor die? What were the circumstances of their death? Look up an image of their grave, if possible – many grave sites are documented at FindAGrave.com. If possible, visit the grave site and leave an offering—flowers, coins, food and drink, or some other gift.
Day 27 – Learn about death and memory in your ancestor’s culture
Research funerary rites that might have been observed at their memorial service and/or interment. How would your ancestor, given their religious beliefs, like to be remembered and honored?
Things to ask:
- How were they memorialized?
- How did/do people in their culture (especially in their time) honor and remember loved ones?
- Are there certain ceremonies and/or holidays that are set for honoring the dead?
- What would a ritual or ceremony to honor them look like?
Day 28 – Write a ritual or ceremony to honor your ancestor
A good way to go about this is to take into consideration not just your beliefs, practices and symbology but also that of your ancestor’s. The point is to show respect and love for your ancestor while expressing that love in ways that are meaningful to you, too. It can be a hard balance to strike.
You can do this a variety of ways – one popular form of honoring ancestors is to construct an altar and give an offering. Here are some suggestions for how to do that.
Day 29 – Honor your ancestor
Now is the time to honor your ancestor by performing the ritual or ceremony you wrote the day before. After you perform the ritual or ceremony, write about the experience. Did you feel a connection to your ancestor? What thoughts or images came to mind as you performed the ritual/ceremony? If you don’t feel much, don’t worry! Building relationships takes time.
Day 30 – Connect with your ancestor
You can do this a variety of ways, so do what you’re most comfortable with or experienced in. You’ll find a few ideas below. Note that all of these should include an invocation of your ancestor. If you aren’t sure how to do this, the Icelandic text Grogaldr offers an example:
“Wake thee, Groa! | wake, mother good!
At the doors of the dead I call thee;
Thy son, bethink thee, | thou badst to seek
Thy help at the hill of death.”
Essentially, state your ancestor’s name (full name is preferable) and your relationship with them, request their presence, and explain why you’re reaching out to them. Offerings are a good idea: incense, food, drink, tobacco, herbs, etc. Depending on your spiritual system, if the offering is edible, you can eat or drink it to commune with them, or you can leave it overnight and dispose of it in the morning. You can also burn offerings or pour libations into the earth.
Divination: Technically, when you’re divining with the dead, it’s called necromancy – not half as scary or nefarious as it sounds. You can use virtually any method of divination to do this, but be sure to invoke your ancestor first.
Meditation: There are lots of different ways you can do this, and you can find several suggestions online. My method is simple and open-ended:
- Light a candle and/or incense.
- Relax your body and clear your mind, settling into a kind of resting, passive awareness.
- Invoke your ancestor.
- Perceive without seeking anything in particular — be sensitive to your surroundings and your inner state, watchful for sensations, but don’t force it. Anticipate that they might not come; if they do, you’ll know it, but it probably won’t be in the way you expect.
Once you’ve connected with your ancestor, you can begin to ask questions. The answers may come in the form of emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, or images. Don’t be too quick to assume that every thought that comes to mind is from your ancestor, but don’t be dismissive, either. Allow the experience to wash over you; afterwards, you can write it all down, reflect, and sift through it for insight.
Dream work: Another way to contact ancestors is through dreams – either by dreaming about them specifically or receiving messages they leave us in our dreams. You’ll need to be able to tell the difference between regular dreams and prophetic dreams. It may or may not happen the first, tenth, or even hundredth time you try it, which can be discouraging, but if you have patience and dedication, it can be a really rewarding way to communicate with ancestors, especially those we knew in life and have grieved over.
To encourage communication with ancestors this way, you can make a dream pillow.
Ancestor Dream Pillow
– Needle and thread
– Stuffing or scrap fabric
– Herbs and/or spices: lavender is great for sleep-related magic; you can also include any herbs that you associate with your ancestor (e.g. if your ancestor kept roses, rose petals would make a great addition; if they had a special recipe that’s been passed down in your family, include some of the herbs or spices from that recipe)
– You can also include an image of them, if you have one, or embroider their name on the pillow in a contrasting (preferably embroidery) thread
What to do:
- Cut out two small rectangles or squares of fabric, large enough to sew around the edges and still have room for stuffing things in.
- Sew together with the right sides (the pretty part of the fabric) facing, leaving a half-inch section open.
- Pull the fabric right-side-out through the hole, and then stuff with the stuffing/filling, herbs and spices, and a picture if you have one.
- Sew the hole closed. Optional: You can embroider their name on the front of the pillow to build a stronger connection, if you like.
- Ritually dedicate it to your ancestor by cleansing it, invoking your ancestor, and stating your intention for it.
- Place it under your pillow and go to sleep.
Traditionally, ancestors are more active on new moon nights, so you may have better luck under a new moon or even a waning moon.
Day 31 – Reflect on your experiences.
What have you learned from working with this ancestor? How has this project altered your understanding of yourself, your ancestors, and your heritage? Will you continue to do ancestor work? What aspects of this project did you enjoy most?
I’d love to get any comments and questions from anyone who does this, while you’re working through it or afterward.