Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Missing Link: When Ancestors Don't Match Your Religion

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?

Ancestral Religions
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.

Monotheistic Kin
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.

Canaanite “Kin”
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.

Photo Credits: A reconstruction of a Natufian burial at the "El-Wad Terrace" archaeological site in the "Nahal Me'arot" Nature Reserve, Israel. Taken by האיל הניאוליתי. Available at Wikipedia. Photo used under Creative Commons License. 


  1. People saying you have to be related with a people in order to practice a certain polytheistic religion irk me as well... WHile I think such a blood tie may give people a more special feeling of connection to it, I firmly disagree with the stance that it is *necessary*. I'm Flemish myself, thus descend from the Franks, with perhaps some Roman and Celtic blood, and I know of a Scotswomen a few generations back... While I strongly identify with my Flemish ethnicity, and thus of the wider Germanic peoples, I do not think this restricts me to Ásatrú or Fyrnsiddu or yet some other branch of Germanic polytheism. I a a Hellenic polytheist and proud of it, and no one is gonna tell me I shouldn't be and get away without firm correction.

    I myself am somewhat unsure about Ancestor-worship, for the same reasons as you, and also because in Hellenismos Ancestor-worship has some very specific restrictions that are different from ordinary worship. This gives me something to think about at least ;-)

  2. A couple of thoughts. First, for what it is worth, the Asatru and other Heathen communities have similar discussions regarding the importance, or unimportance, of ethnicity. Some Heathens are "Folkish," others are universalist.

    Second, I have arrived (for the time being) at a view that there are three categories of ancestors:

    - Ancestors of blood, who are the people from whom we are descended;

    - Ancestors of spirit, who are the people who, in earlier days, walked the path that we are now walking; and

    - Ancestors of place, who are the people who, in earlier days, lived in the place where we're living now.

    The last category may seem a bit strange, but the fact is that many Reconstructionists (or Revivalists) do not live in the same place as their spiritual ancestors did. Heathens of various traditions may live in North America rather than in, say, Norway or Iceland. Accordingly, while they worship the Nordic pantheon, they would also honour the spirits (wights) of the place where they now live. This would not have been at all unusual in the old days. We read, for example, about workers from the Near Eaat coming to Egypt and continuing to worship their own Gods while paying due reverence to the Egyptian Gods as well (in some cases syncretizing the two).

    Thoughts submitted for what they may be worth.

  3. As I understand things, different types of gods can be considered different beings. Some gods may be seen as elder ancestors who favor one group of people or the other, others are more forces of nature who reveal themselves to whomever they like. I also think a lot of the whole "you have to be of "x" ethnicity to be "y" has a lot more to do with nationalism and identity issues of our culture and age than anything the ancients would have cared about. I'm mostly of northern European ancestry (that I know of) and I've looked into Heathen religions quite a bit, but I've not yet had any "wowie!" moments like have have had with Sekhmet and other Egyptian gods. It could be because Heathen gods' relationships with their people is different than an Egyptian gods' relationship with theirs.

    Regarding monotheistic ancestors...I'm not of the opinion that they all become enlightened and suddenly "get" my being polytheist upon becoming dead. That said, love finds its way, and while some of my relatives might be unfamiliar with an ancestor shrine, it serves as a visual reminder that ancestors are indeed still a part of our lives, and that they need support, too. Especially with a small child, showing him the ancestor shrine is a constant reminder that the blessed dead are a part of the household, just like the gods and spirits are. I try not to let my beliefs overwhelm theirs, though. In addition to mementos and offerings, I have a Catholic saint's candle on my ancestor shrine, as said saint is also my paternal line's namesake.

    I guess it's like if one is a vegetarian and invites omnivore family over...one is obviously not going to go against one's beliefs and serve meat to "appease" them, but one would at least try to serve food that they think their relatives might like. And if said relatives aren't jerks, they will understand.

  4. I have mixed ancestry personally. I'm of Meditteranean descent, and I identify with this most strongly in terms of my culture and spirituality which come from that area and I love the civilizations that have sprung up in that area. I feel very spiritually attached to it.

    I also have some (possibly) Celtic and Germanic ancestry. I don't personally identify with northern European culture or religion, but I will still worship all of my ancestors (and with these people being polytheistic it's not really an issue). With monotheistic ancestors it might be more difficult. Sometimes I just call upon them and honour them or give them some offerings. I don't think their shades would take offense at me giving them gifts.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this complex topic, Tess. In the past year, I've been particularly focused on working out the quirks that come with honoring non-polytheistic ancestors. I think it's certainly something that will need to be explored and fiddled with on an individual basis.

  6. @A: I think many people have similar problems as we do in regards to biological ancestry and the ancestry in our religions, and I think the topic certainly merits further consideration.

    @Makarios: Yes, I like those categories of ancestry. The "ancestors of spirit" also reminds me of a concept I'd been introduced to several years ago: "educational lineage"--the idea that we are all tied to those who have taught us, and those who have taught our teachers, and so on.

    @Lowenmensch: Yes, I too am of the opinion that monotheistic ancestors will not just automatically waken to "enlightenment" and honor our polytheistic ways after death. I look at it as if my ancestress liked the color blue and hated hot pink when she died, she's still going to like blue and hate hot pink in death. I believe there's a certain amount of "character integrity" (like structural integrity, only pertaining to the personality) that is often preserved after death. Just my two shekels.

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have such a mix in my ancestry, and I have found I have little if any interest in their deity/ies (mostly they were monotheists), yet I am deeply drawn to the Far East. This is a great comfort to read, as I have always been afraid of appropriating another culture as my own, when the draw I feel is inexplicable and the last thing I want is to disrespect an entire people. I have much, much, much more to study, but this has been a great blessing to read. Thank you, again.

  8. @Anonymous: I am glad my post was of service. Best wishes on your ancestral devotions.

  9. As I always say, ancestry is so selective. If I chose to identify exclusively with my Celtic or German ancestry... what about their origins, or our ancestry at any stop all the way back to Africa. And what about the fact that ancestry changed every time someone left the middle east to trade in europe and left kids (or any other combination).

  10. As all people are descended from the same origen, and migration was a common phenomenon through out history, ethnicity is more or less irrelevant. I am of Kana'an of my ancestors, however that is not the only reason I follow the way of that region. I think a piece of Kana'an ought to be restored to Members of our Way, a small city roughly the size of San Marino. Spoken Ugaritic could be restored to the people, and truly impressive temples should be built, to honor our Iluma. I dream much of honoring Ba'al Hadad with a great temple of Ashlar Stone Masonry, with a courtyard, an Altar and a Holy of Holies.

  11. As all people are descended from the same origen, and migration was a common phenomenon through out history, ethnicity is more or less irrelevant. I am of Kana'an of my ancestors, however that is not the only reason I follow the way of that region. I think a piece of Kana'an ought to be restored to Members of our Way, a small city roughly the size of San Marino. Spoken Ugaritic could be restored to the people, and truly impressive temples should be built, to honor our Iluma. I dream much of honoring Ba'al Hadad with a great temple of Ashlar Stone Masonry, with a courtyard, an Altar and a Holy of Holies.