Many years ago I began a personal tradition of seasonal rituals, offerings and acknowledgment of my ancestors and loved ones who had passed beyond the veil. I had small mementos, cremains and ethnic items representing my somewhat mixed heritage all arranged on my main home altar, where I performed and displayed most of my spells and home rituals.
At Holidays and family gatherings, I always share a plate of food and a cup of drink with them. Having the mementos, photos and offerings there gave me a connection to my dead, and I always felt a bit sad when I packed some of the items away after each Holiday or Sabbat, so about 20 years ago I decided to create a year round Ancestor Altar. You will hear me refer to it interchangeably as my Dead Altar, Ancestor Altar and my Altar of Beloved Dead.
My Dead Altar began with a simple but elegant African ancestor ritual that I found in a book on the Orishas . I’m sorry I can’t remember the title or author; it’s been long and long ago, now.
The ritual ingredients were simple:
- 13 white tapers (to light their way and provide warmth)
- clear water (that they mightn’t thirst)
- salt (that they mightn’t hunger)
- incense (to please them)
- A photo, personal memento or representative item
You may choose to cast a circle or create a sacred space in which to work, or you may allow your creation of the altar to be your ritual, sacred in and of itself, which I believe it is.
To begin a new altar I always cleanse and bless the area first. For me that means a nice polishing of the furniture with lemon or orange oil followed by a sprinkling of holy water of one type or another. Sea water, water energized by sun and moon, or until it’s gone I’ll continue to sparingly use my stash of water from the Well at Glastonbury. I also sometimes anoint the corners with Magickal Blend of Nine Blessing Oil.
I generally arrange the altar to be pleasing to the eye; beauty is a form of adoration. If you choose to use the 13 tapers be careful of your placement of personal items. You don’t want them covered in drippings. (I switched some years ago to glass candles like the one pictured here. Too many altar cloths ruined by wax! I still use 13 for formal occasions and holidays, but keep one burning 24/7 year round)
Of course, your opening ritual can be as simple or as complex as you like. Write a poem or prose or a simple letter, or just talk to your ancestors and loved ones as you would were they alive.
As you light the candles and incense tell your beloved dead that they will always have a place in your heart and your home; that you welcome their presence; their wisdom and love and are grateful for their guidance.
As you lay the salt and pour the water tell them that you offer it that they will never hunger or thirst.
Spend a few moments in silent contemplation of the gifts your loved ones and ancestors have given you.
This standing book case that I’ve dedicated as my Ancestor Altar has given me plenty of room to spread them out that they might all be well seen. I love the symbolism of the colorful and happy style of Dia De Los Muertos. My Dead Altar is also home to many of the animals and familiars that have shared their lives and spirits with me.
Having the Altar of my Beloved Dead in my living room- making daily offerings of incense, lighting their candle and making sure they always have food (salt or offerings from the kitchen- they love home cooking) and water, keeps them close to me in a way that’s difficult to explain. Although I know they are alive in my memory and heart no matter what, I find these physical mementos and rituals comforting and it gives me a happy sense of their presence in my life. I find myself more often joyful than sad when I think of them, and am forever it seems, finding small items that I want to add to the Altar.
I hope you will take a moment to share your own experiences and remembrances of your loved ones who have passed with me, and if you have or make your own Dead Altar, please email me a photo and I’ll post it here at Thornesworld.
In Light and Shadow,
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