|Natufian burial in Israel. Natufians were the prehistoric|
ancestors of the Canaanites.
One issue in polytheism that does the Macarena on my last nerve is the insistence that a person must have an ancestral and ethnic connection to the polytheistic religion that the person practices. The deities call whom the deities call, and sometimes they ignore ethnicity and culture. There isn’t much arguing you can do--and it is pure hubris to try. And sometimes (usually) the deities know something you don’t: perhaps a hidden element of ancestry, perhaps a person of that culture or ethnicity has claimed you as kin without your knowledge, perhaps the deeds of a previous ancestor have endeared your family to these deities of different cultural backgrounds, perhaps there’s a past life connection there (if you believe in past lives). Or maybe they believe you will honor them well. Who can know?
Many people who insist that they have a direct line of ancestry back to their polytheistic religion may not actually be able to prove this without a DNA test. What if their ancestors weren’t actually Celtic just because they lived in France prior to emigrating to Canada? What if the family that family came to France so long ago it was forgotten that they are Frankish invaders with more in common with Germanic polytheists, and thus the person “should” be practicing Germanic polytheism instead of Celtic religion. Oops. What happens when your recent ancestors are all Christian and deny their polytheistic roots: do you honor these ancestors and their religion or ignore them? And what happens when you know your family isn’t telling you the whole story, whether they know the whole story and fudge the truth or whether the story has been hidden from them? Many of us carry ethnic ancestry that we may never know about because of the racial and ethnic prejudices of the past or because of absent records. How do we connect or reconnect with these hidden roots when we don’t even have a notion?
To make a long story short, the relationship bears the status of “It’s Complicated,” and to oversimplify it discredits the situation and falls short of honoring the ancestors. I will explore my own story here in the case that it might help others in similar predicaments.
I practice a form of Canaanite polytheistic religion called Natib Qadish. I have no ethnic or ancestral connections that I know of to ancient Canaan. It surprises people because when they meet me, they assume I’m Jewish, and I look the part. Yet my family has consistently told me that I’m WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant): even though Aryan posterchild I am not. Unless I get a DNA test, which at some point I’d like to despite the expense, this is the only information I have to go on and genealogy has proven equally quiet. Were I to “practice the religion of my ancestors,” I know that at least four centuries into the past most of my ancestors are Christian, and thus I would practice Christianity. And yet…
And yet, despite my mixed feelings (mostly good, but some bad) towards my Christian upbringings, I realized I had a different connection with the divine. After a long period of prayer and contemplation, a deity communicated with me. The goddess told me her name and it was a name I hadn’t heard before from a pantheon I had never heard of--the Canaanite pantheon. So it is Canaanite polytheism I have honored since the winter of 1998. Since that time I have run into polytheists of various stripes who seem to believe that I am mistaken for honoring a pantheon belonging to a culture that is “foreign” to my own ancestry. On rare occasion, I’ve found those who assume a person should be or is ethnically Jewish if s/he honors the Canaanite pantheon, though I can guarantee many of my Lebanese friends would disagree with this idea. Some who emphasize Jewish ancestry might have forgotten or overlooked that much of Jewish ancestry comes from Europe long before it reaches back into Canaan. The fact remains that I have no heritage from the Near East and I have no Jewish heritage either. There are a few ancestral connections I could make to that area, but they are spurious, convoluted, and based on disputed theories from questionable connections: possible Spanish or French ancestry that could have connected with the Phoenicians, and a few “Lost Tribes of Israel” speculations, and a "direct" ancestral link to King Arthur. I might as well try to hold the wind in my hands.
In the mean time, how do I venerate my ancestors, especially when many of them do not understand my religion, while still honoring the Canaanite ancestors? I’ve found that the best way is to practice a skill my closer ancestors would have used, keep items around the house that would be familiar in some way to them, visit a place they would have been or a museum that focuses on their heritage, and to offer them a seat at the dinner table especially when making foods familiar to them. I have one particular relative who used to lounge on the couch, eat chocolate, drink a little booze, and watch alien conspiracy television shows while she was alive: it doesn’t hurt me a bit to do the same in her honor. Unlike setting up an altar--a foreign practice to them--these are activities they understand and appreciate. It took me a while to puzzle out this matter and I think it’s a favorable compromise amidst myself and my monotheist ancestors. At any rate, I am still puzzling on the matter and likely will for life.
The next question I need to work out regards Canaanite ancestors. By Canaanite ancestors, I am not necessarily referring to my own ancestors, since as I said before I have no biological claim to them that I know of. Instead, I am speaking of the ancestors of my religion. The best way to honor them is to learn how they honored their own and try to do likewise within my limitations.
The Canaanites and their ancestors, the Natufians, would sometimes plaster the skulls of ancestors. They’d paint features such as facial hair on to the plastered skulls and add cowrie shells for eyes. I obviously don’t have a human skull in my household nor would I go out and buy one for this purpose, but I did find a papier mache skull in the Halloween aisle of a craft store, and I’d like to do this skull up in this manner. Alternatively, I could decorate Mexican sugar skulls made for Dia de los Muertos. The Canaanites also visited the tombs of their relatives and dined with them: this is nearly impossible for me to do since I don’t live in the Near East and I don’t have ancestors there. The best I can do is leave flowers at cemeteries, make offerings near the makeshift plastered skull, or symbolically invite the Canaanite ancestors to a family dinner and set a place at the table for them--in this respect, I can engage in a Near Eastern practice called a kispu rite.
Working with these ancient adoptive kin is just as tricky as working with my monotheistic kin, but in a different way. With my monotheistic kin, it is the ancestors I know that sometimes pose problems. With my adoptive Canaanite ancestors, it is what I don’t know that proves problematic. Canaanite names, and later both Jewish and Muslim names include one’s ancestry right in your personal or familial name, and it serves to tell others that you are the son or daughter of so-and-so. Since I cannot claim any of my immediate relatives who would be ok with this practice, I feel the need to look to my unknown adoptive Canaanite ancestors. I have a choice on how to proceed. I can meditate and try to listen for a name, but I may never be certain I understood correctly or formed a connection. I can choose a name of a known Canaanite and claim adoptive ties, but this strikes me as hubris. I can see if any of my Lebanese friends who know of Canaanite ancestry would claim me. Or I could refer to myself as a ward of the state, a bitu ugariti or bat ugarit (“daughter of Ugarit” in Ugaritic and Hebrew, respectively) or bat kna’an (“daughter of Canaan”, in Hebrew), and so on. Sometimes I think of myself as a student of Ilimilku the scribe, since I study his works and I, too, am a scribe—talmidah le-Ilimilku (in Hebrew). I’ve found no word for “student” in Ugaritic, but were I to reverse engineer the word and frame it in Ugaritic, I would say talmidatu le-Ilimilki. Until I get a very clear and obvious sign that I have a specific adopted Canaanite ancestor, these options will have to serve. This would reflect my status as adopting the Canaanite ways without offending my recent biological ancestors who have no desire to claim as kin in front of the Canaanite deities, and without borrowing a Canaanite ancestor sans permission.
So there it is. For my non-Canaanite monotheistic kin, I focus on deeds, skills, familiar activities and items instead of making formal offerings at an altar. For the Canaanite ancestors, I plan to make a small altar with a plastered skull or a sugar skull and make offerings. If you are in the same situation, give these techniques a try: honor your own ancestors in deeds and skills, and honor the ancestors of your religion through learning how they honored their own and applying that information in their veneration. I would guess that the steps in this dance are familiar to many in similar situations and to others in mixed families who have ancestors that would have been at war with one another. Only time and practice will tell how suitable both sets of ancestors will find this arrangement.