Bad Ancestors: Folklore, Ritual, and Responsibility
Ancestors. It’s a powerful word, but a difficult one for so many people, especially in these times when it is nearly impossible to avoid looking critically at the people who have made us. We see their flaws, their pain, the pain they caused others. Many of us turn away from them: through casual disinterest in learning their names and stories; by outright, angrily rejecting them; by shrugging off responsibility for the ways in which their actions in the past continue to impact our present. Some of us even romanticize them, minimizing their negative aspects to focus on idealized visions of the past that, in reality, serve no one. We don’t look them fully in the face, not really. It’s because we’re afraid of them, afraid that if we take responsibility for them, the stains on their souls will rub off on us, sullying our own. We think we can sever ourselves from the past, but we can’t. We are interconnected and interdependent. Like the shadowy part of each of us, they will only rise up against us if we turn our backs to them.
Our ancestors persist. Just because we don’t want them doesn’t mean that they will lie down in the dirt of their graves and accept oblivion. It doesn’t mean that they will passively swallow our ire, resentment, and even hatred. It doesn’t mean that the generational consequences of their mistakes will evaporate if we ignore them long enough.
Althaea Sebastiani has written in the recent past about the importance of ancestor work beyond veneration (and offers a course on it!) Chiron Armand has also talked quite a bit about the very real, material influence of ancestors in our lives. Ancestors live in us and are part of our histories. If we believe in their existence enough to venerate them, we should also believe in their ability to influence us. Spiritual relationships are two-way streets.
It can be helpful to look to folklore, myth, and legend to get a deeper understanding of how peoples in the past dealt with their ancestors, especially for those of us who belong to traditions and religions that do not have long, unbroken lineages to a pre-Christianized past. Learning what we can is both instructive and reassuring. We aren’t the first to have to deal with problematic (or downright evil, as can be the case) ancestors. For proof, do a quick review of folklore for stock villains: abusive mothers, stepmothers, and mothers-in-law; incestuous or neglectful fathers; competitive siblings; bloodthirsty husbands and wives; vengeful ghosts. Folklore is full of individuals who must come to grips with their living and dead family members in order to better their present circumstances. Whether they liked them or not was irrelevant.
What Can Ancestors Do?
For those of us who believe in spirits, including ancestors, death is only the beginning of a new journey and state of being. The dead may enter the underworld, for a time or permanently, or they may linger in this world as revenants or ghosts. They may reincarnate into their descendants or become guardian spirits. Given enough time and veneration, ancestors may also transform into spirits of the land. Hilda Roderick Ellis (Davidson) notes the anxiety of the Christian King Olaf, as quoted from the Flateyjarbok, in The Road to Hel:
“I am much afraid that a famine will come in the land after we are laid in howe. And thereupon sacrifices will be made to us, and we shall be turned into trolls…” (101).
In traditional folk religions around the world, there is a deep connection between ancestors and spirits of the land. The underworld is both the place where the dead go and the source of the earth’s and community’s fertility. So the dead give us life and sustain us, not just spiritually but physically, too. Elizabeth Wayland Barber touches on this in her book The Dancing Goddesses:
“Farmers…felt that the return of dead spirits in the spring brought or caused the resurrection of the grain and the fruitfulness of the animals and humans… [Yet] the unruly spirits often caused havoc, especially if they felt ‘dissed’ or forgotten…” (88)
This havoc could come in the form of physical and/or mental illness for humans as well as drought, animal disease, and other calamities that made life for the community difficult. To avoid this, many individuals and communities have honored their dead regularly, feasting and celebrating them, and also deterring them through the use of various charms and rituals. Of course, a heavier hand is needed for some of the dead: those who won’t be pacified, who cling to their anger, guilt, and burdens into death.
Battling the Dead
In The Return of the Dead, Claude Lecouteux quotes The Book of Settlements:
“Thormod was a man little liked and of a difficult nature; his wife was named Thorgerd. Shortly after he died and was buried, his wife visited Havard, who welcomed her warmly and asked her what was new. She told him of Thormod’s death and added: ‘Things have not grown any better because of this, for he returns to his bed every night. I want you to help me, Havard, because while my people were loath to deal with Thormod before, now they are on the verge of all fleeing’” (89).
It’s familiar, isn’t it? That fear of facing the dead: the ones we resent, the ones who were hurtful, who aren’t the ancestors we want influencing our lives. Lecouteux notes that “Thormod does not resign himself to his death — he is avenging himself on his people and the clan that did not welcome him, and once night falls, he returns to his home” (91). His people might have had good reason for rejecting him, but it didn’t change his feelings after death, nor his power to respond to that rejection. The kind, helpful, good-natured ancestors are easy to embrace and work with; the difficult ones, less so. It would be so much easier to just run away. Still, the dead return, and eventually we must face them.
Sometimes that means battling them, or hiring specialists to do so, to release their hold on us. This is also ancestor work. Havard tells Thorgerd to go to his son Olaf, who engages Thormod in physical combat. After a dramatic and extensive battle, Olaf breaks Thormod’s spine and drags him into the sea, which he seems to haunt thereafter. But, at least, Thormod leaves his community alone.
Helping the Dead
But battling the dead isn’t the only way to deal with them. Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead also includes medieval stories from England, such as one about a “horse-like revenant” that transforms into a “rolling truss of hay with a light in the middle of it” that appears to a man bearing home a pack of beans (109). The man tells the spirit to go away, but the spirit refuses; mere rejection won’t put him off. Instead, the spirit explains why he’s been locked in this in-between state and asks for the living man’s help. He pleads with the man to let him carry the beans. It seems that allowing the spirit to bear a living person’s burden — to work off his guilt, to become helpful — is key to his liberation. The man agrees, and at the end, the living man has “the spirit absolved and masses sung and thus freed him from his ghostly state” (110). This heals the spirit, allowing him to transition to the next phase of existence. This story clearly has a strong Christian element, and yet other parts of the tale are clearly pre-Christian (like the beans, which were used by pre-Christianized Romans to deter revenants). It’s hard to say whether the absolution at the end is wholly Christian or if it is a Christian overlay on an earlier practice. Both are possible. Either way, the basic concept holds for polytheists and animists, too.
Similarly, in the tale “Knightly Loyalty,” the protagonist Count Willekin von Montabur comes to an inn where a knight, who died before paying a debt, has been buried by the innkeeper in a pile of manure. Willekin pays the debt to the innkeeper and properly buries the knight, and later the knight comes to his aid. After the dead knight helps Willekin win a tournament and marry a noble lady, the knight appears to him one last time and explains, “I am the dead man whose body you redeemed and to whom you provided a sepulcher” (Lecouteux 124). He thanks Willekin and then vanishes.
The theme here is not only that we must treat the dead with respect, performing proper funeral rites to give them peace, but also that the consequences of the wrongs they commit and the regrets they have during life will persist after death until they are resolved by the living. The past affects us all; we cannot outrun it. If our ancestors have debts, the living must pay them. If they have guilt, we must find a way to resolve them, or they will continue to haunt us. And, often, we can help them by allowing them to help us do the things we must do.
Like these revenants, ancestors return to remind us that they are still here, impacting our lives in many ways, until we finally decide to face them. Sometimes, as with Thorgerd and Olaf, we have to do battle with the ones who won’t be healed. Others, however, need and want our help: help in reconciling their actions, purifying and healing their souls, and liberating them to become better ancestors. We won’t know which it will be until we approach them.
Forgetting Our Ancestors
Manduhai Buyandelger’s book Tragic Spirits explores not only the philosophical and practical aspects of contemporary Mongolian shamanism, but also how it is deeply interwoven with and impacted by sociopolitical realities. She begins by telling the story of a man named Dorji, whose family has suffered generations of illness and poverty. During a shamanic ritual, the ancestor is invoked and the reason for the suffering is revealed:
“Dorji says that he lost his parents as a small child during the political violence of the late 1930s that swept through Mongolia…and thus had no chance to learn about his origins…” (4).
The loss of origin stories is believed to be the cause of Dorji’s family’s present struggles with poverty and illness. Story-loss should not be an unfamiliar concept for us in the U.S. Many of us have lost our origin stories, too, whether they were forcibly taken, gradually surrendered or coerced away over time, or a mix of both. Dorji’s family reconnects with their ancestors by relearning their names and origin stories, and by giving offerings and sacrifices. In response, the ancestor agrees to help the family, and the bond begins to be mended.
The belief that ancestors have the power to obstruct an individual’s and family’s prosperity and health is also found in European folk traditions. For example, Ellis relates how Halfdan Scylding (mentioned by Saxo) enquired of an oracle why he and his wife were infertile. The oracle replied that he “must make atonement to the shades of his brothers if he would raise up children” (102). Halfdan had killed his brothers, and their revenge was apparently to make him infertile, a terrible curse for a king.
Buyandelger also writes of the uheer, the forgotten and unknown spirits lost to state violence who embody cultural forgetting — the severing of the past from the present — that she describes contemporary Mongolians suffering. Buyandelger writes that “uheer are the most vicious and harmful spirits; they epitomize forgetting as the outcome of violence” (20). Unlike origin spirits — deep ancestors — uheer cannot be recalled and remembered. And remembering is crucial to healing.
Forgetting as the outcome of violence: we have that here, too, in many forms and at many levels of human experience, from the personal to the cultural and even intercultural. In this sense, forgetting is almost a noun: a symptom. Not a verb, not a thing that is done, but something that happens as the result of something else. If we persist in forgetting, or in trying to forget, we will only continue to reap the suffering caused by what is forgotten. In certain situations, remembering is impossible. But in others, it is only feared, and that fear prevents us from healing what can be healed. And without healing, there is no moving on.
What To Do?
This is something that we are beginning to realize: we must remember the past, as much as possible, even if we can’t love it. We must face our ancestors, even if we hate their worldviews and actions, even if we fear them. In doing so — in looking at them fully, remembering them, listening to them, battling them if necessary, amending their wrongs through our own actions, and healing them when possible — we begin to find ways to work with them to do good things. We find ourselves finally equipped with the tools to knit scar tissue over the wounds of the present that were created before we knew what the world was, before we were even born. And, by removing ancestral obstacles and burdens, we can begin to find new connections to our histories that give us nourishing wholeness.
Before we can expect our ancestors to move on, or to compel them to do so, we need to ask them what they need us to do. Divination, consultation with spirit workers, and other forms of contact with the dead can be helpful here, as well as genealogy. Learning the history that our ancestors helped create — especially hidden or marginalized histories — is essential to understanding, to remembering, for the sake of our ancestors. We need to ask ourselves:
- What “debts” do our ancestors need to pay?
- Who has suffered — directly or indirectly — by our ancestors’ actions or lack of action?
- What can we do — for others and/or ourselves — to alleviate that suffering?
This isn’t to say that we are guilty for what our ancestors did, as if the past is our fault. We aren’t to blame for what we didn’t do. But to deny the effects of the past on the present is naïve. We are responsible for understanding those effects and changing ourselves — our attitudes and behaviors — accordingly. We are responsible for learning about and eradicating current injustices and inequities, regardless of how “normal” or “harmless” or “traditional” they may seem when unexamined. When we make changes to ourselves in the present, we begin healing ourselves, our ancestral lines, and our communities. Keep in mind that change isn’t just having a new outlook; it’s also about taking action.
Ancestor rituals are a component of this healing. Healing rituals — whether in the form of a spiritual battle or something more cooperative — can both initiate and punctuate the material work above. Healing rituals can open paths that were previously blocked; they can liberate and fortify us for the work at hand. We can (and should) turn to our ancestors to learn how. Which ones need our help? Which ones are willing to help us? Which ones (if any) do we need to battle? How?
Our ancestors — regardless of their characters and actions — can teach us and help us make the world better than it has been. They can show us what not to do, how past actions create present circumstances, and how we can begin to set things right. Through this work with them, we can grow stronger, more fulfilled, kinder, healthier, and more at peace. We can find answers, fill voids, and begin to create the wholeness and interconnectedness we all crave and deserve.
Buyandelger, Manduhai. Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia. University of Chicago, 2013.
Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Greenwood Press, 1968.
Lecouteux, Claude. The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind. Inner Traditions, 2009.