Ancestors and Existence

There’s something that’s bothered me for a little while now about how we talk about ancestors.

There is an implicit assumption that it is Good that we are here; that it is Good that our predecessors did things such that we came about. And I couldn’t disagree more.

There is nothing inherently Good about us having been born instead of not born, or someone else being born instead. Nothing. We are the product of a long line – 13.8 billion years’ worth, you might say – of coincidences and accidents, and why do our ancestors get credit for that? What, exactly did they do? Let’s break this down.

“We honor them because they provided the material conditions for our life.”

Yes, and so did the people they inevitably exploited in their time – don’t forget, almost everything you have was, thanks to capitalism and imperialism, stolen from somebody else that it should be given to you. That is, if you’re not the descendant of slaves and born into anything but poverty. I see no reason to honor a financial and material legacy in this day and age. Honor died with the gift economy.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

I see no value in this statement, or in the philosophy that my existence is a transcendent Good. My value as a person is immanent, just like my Gods. If I didn’t exist (mortally and physically), then there would be no one wishing I did. In other words, my value came to be the moment I was born and no sooner. Without me, the world is not an especially better place – a minutely different place, but not a more ontologically Good one. If you worship your ancestors because of this reason, you’re basically worshiping yourself in a way that is simply less obvious in its narcissism.

“We honor them because they gave us our heritage.”

This is something that can make sense to me. Culture and tradition are things that I believe have tremendous (immanent) value,  being social and tribal beings who need an identity to not be miserable, after all. Postmodernism seeks to rob everyone and everything of their context so that all things in the world can be commodified – even our generic heritage – and if I have an ideology, then it aims to negate everything that postmodernism is. To recontextialize ourselves, to re-root, to decolonize; these are worthy endeavors to involve our ancestors in. In fact, we can’t really do it without them.

“We honor them because we love them.”

Working from a Mexican perspective, this is why I do it. This year I’ve built the ofrenda, baked the pan de muerto, gone through the photos, and set out the offerings because these people are my family, first and foremost, and I miss them. As people they were flawed, and their flaws made it hard for me to get to know them. And I’m not just talking emotions, but actual estrangements, logistics that for many years were just too exhausting to deal with. So this is my way of getting to know them better, of being able to invite them into my home since they didn’t have the opportunity to do so when they were alive. This also means that I can honor people who aren’t blood relatives – the concept of blood and lineage is so reductive – and invite them to sit at my table as well.

Why, exactly do we honor or worship our ancestors? For reasons of simple hospitality? Or to elevate ourselves and ward off existential fugue?

Sure, they might want to see you succeed for their own selfish reasons -and I am not one to formally criticize selfishness in the tradition of Protestant moralizing – but maybe thinking about the actual why’s, especially if you’re of an anti-humanist bent, might prove useful.

Especially, yannow, if you’re telling folks to “honor” Columbus because, sure, genocide happened because of him, but all least there’s you to show for it!

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14 thoughts on “Ancestors and Existence

  1. This is an important, and challenging, question that you raise. I’ve definitely expressed all four reasons you list, and I think the first two are somewhat tied up in the traditions I’ve inherited, which makes it more complicated. I’ll have to think more about this, and have more conversations about it as well.

    I’m curious about the fact that you wrote, “If I didn’t exist (mortally and physically), then there would be no one wishing I did,” but then acknowledged that the opposite could be possible as well: “Sure, they might want to see you succeed for their own selfish reasons.”

    Some selfish reasons the ancestors might want us to exist:
    1) To remember them
    2) To make offerings to them
    3) To reflect well on them by our own deeds and our actions.
    4) To deal with their unresolved issues/traumas/wounds/mistakes/missed opportunities that they want to vicariously relive through us. Fuck Columbus (seriously), but I do think Lon has a point when he writes, “We give our problematic ancestors honor by working to clean up the messes they left behind.” “Honor” wouldn’t be the word I’d use here, but the concept is still relevant to the discussion, I think.
    5) To continue their lineage (so that reasons 1-4 can continue to be fulfilled)

    “If you worship your ancestors because of this reason, you’re basically worshiping yourself in a way that is simply less obvious in its narcissism.” This is an interesting point. I think it can also be inverted: anything you do for yourself, you could also be doing for your ancestors, thus leading to an expanded or more diffuse idea of what the “self” really is. It could go either way, I think, depending on the person doing it. When I look in the mirror, I see my ancestors. When I look at my ancestors’ photographs and names, I see myself.

    “‘We honor them because they provided the material conditions for our life.’ Yes, and so did the people they inevitably exploited in their time.” This is true, and shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps those others should be honored as well. Perhaps this reason should be subordinated to reason #4, or perhaps (as you suggest) it should be abandoned altogether.

    “To recontextialize ourselves, to re-root, to decolonize; these are worthy endeavors to involve our ancestors in. In fact, we can’t really do it without them.” Well said. From an existentialist perspective, there certainly is no inherent Good in us being alive, and yet we’re still here, and we do have to inscribe meaning onto our experiences and connect to what’s around us (otherwise, why stay?), one way or another.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good points!

      I should note that I’m not trying to be internally consistent – well, OK, I’m trying a little bit – but you’re very correct in that at some point there’s just no denying that this is for us, otherwise why do it at all? I think here it might be useful for me to acknowledge that I am not actually anti-suicide, as this feeling actually pre-dated my antihumanism. And I speak as someone who has suffered from clinical depression for decades and who was suicidal for a long time. But the relevant sentiment here is that we did not choose to be born, “consent” to it, you might say, and I believe that we have the right to withdraw that consent. One of the things that disgusts me about the popular ways of conceiving of death, aside form a thing to be avoided at all costs except in movie theaters, is that life is a moral Good that deserves to be preserved at the cost of personhood and autonomy. This colors a lot of how I view death, ancestry, life, children, the whole lot.

      “I’m curious about the fact that you wrote, “If I didn’t exist (mortally and physically), then there would be no one wishing I did,” but then acknowledged that the opposite could be possible as well: “Sure, they might want to see you succeed for their own selfish reasons.””

      With that I actually meant “I” not as in “child of my parents”, but “I” as in artist, polytheist, radical, person who likes yadda yadda music genre, etc. The role I fulfill, not whether I was a Cameron or an Ashley or a Rosa or a Dweezil. You get me? (Gosh that was weirder to explain than I thought it would be. There’s probably a term to describe all of that that I’ve forgotten or haven’t learned yet.)

      I guess it’s just important to remember that the ancestors are people too (or A People) and reasons to honor and associate with them might well be the same reasons we honor and associate with anyone else.

      You’ve given me some things to think about. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, I understand what you mean when you talk about the different facets of the self. And I agree with you that voluntary association and personhood and autonomy are extremely valuable, along with culture and tradition.

        I’m not anti-suicide either. Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Or, as 2Pac said, “I wake up in the morning and I ask myself/is life worth living, should I blast myself?” That’s why I wrote, “otherwise, why stay?” By choosing to stay (and like 2Pac said, it’s a daily choice, not a one-time one made by being born), we might as well make the most out of it, yeah?

        I do believe I owe it to my ancestors to continue their lineage, both in blood (I’m not an anti-natalist, personally) and in spirit and word and deed. That’s one of the reasons I choose to stay. Also to enjoy life, and out of love and loyalty for my family and friends, and because I live by the ethic of fighting and not surrendering to the enemy*, etc.

        There’s a long quote by James Baldwin that I love, here’s an excerpt from it: “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.”

        *The enemy being not Death, but rather those who don’t believe in death for themselves, but have no problem with me and mine and the earth being dismembered and killed and forgotten after our deaths.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. “By choosing to stay, we might as well make the most out of it, yeah?”

      I agree, more or less – but then there’s the debate about what “making the most of life” even means.

      “I do believe I owe it to my ancestors to continue their lineage, both in blood (I’m not an anti-natalist, personally) and in spirit and word and deed. That’s one of the reasons I choose to stay. Also to enjoy life, and out of love and loyalty for my family and friends, and because I live by the ethic of fighting and not surrendering to the enemy*, etc.”

      Ah, see, I forfeited that as soon as I decided that my body was not for procreation. And my hysterectomy… let’s just say that my living predecessors didn’t take kindly to the decision. The explicit assumption that I *did* owe them grandchildren and great-grandchildren disturbed me greatly. The pressure was especially present on my father’s side, me being the last hope for the family name to continue. I almost don’t have the heart to tell them that I plan on changing my legal name once I’ve immigrated. The surname won’t die with me, but with paperwork and a quick court hearing.

      And then there’s the green anarchist in me who, as I’ve said in other writings elsewhere, has a dual loyalty – not just to my fellows and ancestors but to the earth. And frankly I think in not making another person, I’ve done a far greater service to both earth and humanity than in anything else I might ever do. In rejecting the concept of legacy have I done a tremendously useful thing.

      Finally, there’s the question of who our ancestors are – an older lens posits that they’re a collective and a newer one that they’re more individuated (from my part of the world, that is). As a group, I can’t see them caring about me much beyond what I can do for them – carry on the name, have children, be successful, etc. And even as individuals, I can’t see them being much interested in what I’m doing either – I’m pagan instead of Catholic or atheist, I’ve moved far away from all of my family, I’m unemployed and rail against capitalism, I’m non-monogamous, and again, I’m never having children. These would all have been unthinkable to many of them in life.

      So for me, personally, I currently have no use for ancestor work beyond hospitality because of the decisions I’ve made in my life, personally and politically. I might work more with cultural ancestors than familial ones, and I do know that I’ll be venerating my parents and other close relatives when they pass – people who I know for a fact are supportive of me. Right now, when I pray to my ancestors, I get no feelings of love, warmth, or support, except in the case of a single relative. Otherwise, it’s radio silence.

      Maybe that’s fitting for someone like me – I’ve decidedly turned my back on a lot of things most folks, my deceased relatives included, held dear. The most important of those things being that I reject our assumed place in the universe as told by monotheists, new agers, and secularists alike. That puts me on par with the devil, unenlightened unhealth, and Ted Kaczynski, respectively. I wouldn’t blame my ancestors for not wanting much to do with me!

      But like I said, there’s plenty of potential for other kinds of ancestor work beyond that of blood for those of us seeking to make a different sort of meaning and reclaim a different sort of context.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences, I respect them and think they bring an important perspective to the conversation around ancestors. It would be ridiculous to assume that everyone’s relationship to their ancestors looks the same. I respect that you do (blood) ancestor work as a form of hospitality, that’s always a good reason. And yes, there’s plenty of potential for other kinds of ancestor work as well.

        Personally, I feel that my relationship with my (blood) ancestors is good enough that they support some of the struggles I’m involved in because it’s me who is involved, even if they wouldn’t have done the same in their own lives. But that’s just me. And if I ever raise children, I will raise them first to think critically and make their own decisions, but will also raise them with full exposure to polytheist and warrior values and the concept of “staying loyal to the Earth,” as Nietzsche said.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. There’s an additional assumption that I’ve seen in recon heathenry, where you worship the ancestors and “pray” to them because it’s assumed they’re more invested you (as their descendent) than an unrelated god would be. So if there’s a personal issue in your life you pray to them rather than the gods.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes – and I think that would be the case for a person who is more or less marching in time with their family’s traditional drum. But for me (and maybe for other folks like me, idk), that’s not the case. (See my latest reply to Heathen Chinese above.)

      I get verrrry little, if anything, when I’ve prayed to my ancestors. Whereas, on the other hand, I’ve gotten jobs after praying to one of my Gods who I know would be interested in me getting a job because of what I do. But at the same time, I have no one to go to for matters of personal relationships and the like. If there’s a feud going on between my cousins or whatever, I know for a fact that my Gods don’t care about that. Same for things like personal inspiration, or helping me find a second partner (I don’t work with any gods of love or sex). Tbh, I don’t think the Gods care about what goes on in our personal lives unless we’re especially close to them, on a first-name-basis you might say, or unless our specific problem is something under their jurisdiction. Otherwise, I’ll get a “not my division”. 😛

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yea, much of what you write here has been a part of my struggles in trying to reconcile personal issues with ancestor worship traditions (made even more complicated by abuse) and my primary excuse is that I do it out of the general rule of “maintaining right relationships” that I also try to keep with the other wihts. Perhaps ancestors change their motives once they shed the concerns of the living and join the dead, with all the purported powers they get like seeing the future. I dunno. At this point I pretty much don’t expect anything out of anyone because I can’t imagine what use they’d get out of me and what i tend to do.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Maybe it’s useful to think about what it meant to turn your back on your community to our ancient ancestors, or what it meant to at least be in that liminal place between of-humanity and of-the-other. Concerned with both, but neither taking a full interest in you. You’re still not an atomized individual in either case, but there is a palpable sort of isolation inherent to being here.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Prologue (added after writing): So, ummm, I like words and I do have a bit of a tendency to go on a bit >..<

    HC said: “‘We honor them because they provided the material conditions for our life.’ Yes, and so did the people they inevitably exploited in their time.” This is true, and shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps those others should be honored as well. Perhaps this reason should be subordinated to reason #4, or perhaps (as you suggest) it should be abandoned altogether."

    YES, THEY SHOULD *ahem* Sorry, just wanted to offer my strongest support for the idea of honoring those exploited by our ancestors right along with our ancestors (even if one of those groups thus decides not to come to our table — if two of my living friends are in conflict and I have a party coming up, I invite both of them. Their conflict has nothing to do with my desire to spend time with them both and to let them both know that they are loved.) More people need to honor both sides, for ancestor worship too often becomes a blowing-up of the things we like and an under-the-carpeting of the things we don't. How, I ask, is that actually honoring someone and not just empty flattery?

    And also to Heathen Chinese: we don't _have_ to make meaning — the making of meaning is a choice we make (rhetorical dodge alert: we are, in fact, constrained to make choices), but it is the very essence of holiness and sacred action. Meaning-making is how we co-create the world, how we take our place in the community of demiurges all around us (the sun, the plants, the animals, the molecules, the invisible physical forces, the songs, et cetera). Tolkien's Christian idea of "sub-creations" mixed with my pagan/polytheist/chaote existentialism very early on . . .

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    1. Trying that again, as all of the important parts of my response seem to be absent . . .

      My friend Fayer Infinity Boxes tranneled this song some years ago (note: I never remember the exact order of the first four lines — I beg the indulgence first of the song and second of Fayer for any possible and unintended insult thereby):

      “Ancestors of path,
      Ancestors of blood,
      Ancestors of land, and
      Ancestors of love.

      I am listening,
      I am listening,
      I am siiinging
      to remember the past.”

      Fayer and I are Radical Fairies — we are an ancestor cult composed of people who often don’t have direct genetic lines to the ancestors we worship. In fact, many of the common conceptions of ancestor worship seem both stupidly limited and troublingly hetero/cis-centric or -normative to me.

      To explain some of what I mean:

      I had a moment of realization when, at a Radical Fairy gathering, someone was introduced to the gaggle of assorted fey creatures present (by which I mean, me and my other corporeally human friends, the assembled mass of ghosts, and whatever other beings decided to show up) with the phrase: “He’s fucked people Harry Hay fucked!”

      This is how heritage works (or, perhaps, werqs) in my main community — not by blood lineage or genetic heritage or even legal inheritance, but through lines of love and sex and play. Ancestors of love are the ancestors I pay the most cultus to, followed by ancestors of path (and I have many — have you seen the list of Sancta/e/i on PSVL’s blog?), ancestors of blood, and sadly ancestors of land. I am still seeking information on that last group and have little capability to offer them true cultus because of my ignorance.

      I have had to search for ancestors because for a long time I did not see my ancestors in the mirror or myself in their photos, as Heathen Chinese said. Without denigrating the very obviously true fact that cross-gender identification with ancestors can and certainly does occur all the time, the idea that honoring ancestors of blood because they are reflections of you smells a bit of cis-normativity when I read it.

      When I was in middle school or early high school, I was at a dinner party with my family and my father told a “funny” story about how his aunt had just died. The punchline was that the family had tried to give him all of her underwear, because she had performed for decades in the mid-20th century as a male impersonator, under the name “Butch Minton”. For the next decade, that one mention of her — the only one I had ever heard — was kept warm and next to my heart. Finally, there was someone like me in my family! Now, things have gotten better and more open with my parents and with my wider family and I have heard more about Emily/Butch and I even own his stage trunk! I’m hoping to haul it up here to the Radical Fairy Sanctuary where I live when I pop south for Thanksgiving . . .

      Why do I myself offer cultus to Assunta Femia (A Sister Species of Crow) O.C., Oskrr, Light Eagle, Bumblebee (whom I actually met while alive), Steven Maxxine Wolf Creek Kali, Desiree White Witch, Violet Plague, Hooter, Crissy Contagious, Yvaine, the other RadFae dead, the Sancta/e/i of the Ekklesia Antinoou, the many many transgender dead, my grandfathers, my great-grandmothers, Aunt/Uncle Emily Pagano/Butch Minton, my friend Michael Palasios (who killed himself last year hours after talking to me) and all the rest?

      Not all of my reasons can easily be put into words, of course, as my path is a silly one and often non-rational. I do because I do, because the doing has an unaccountable (in the Capitalist sense) value to me. Being unaccountable is right next door to being indescribable or ineffable, and means (among other things) that it cannot be commodified. Nonetheless, here are three reasons:

      1) They are there.

      I radically assert that the noosphere is as much a part of the ecosystem as the other six (atmosphere, hydrosphere, magnetosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, pledosphere); in fact, the seven parts of the oikos (Greek for “home” and root of eco-) replace the elements when I act witchier. This is not to say that I am a humanist, by any means, for as near as I can tell, noetic beings have all of the agency and sovereignty and capacity for independent action that the general theological streams in devotional polytheisms ascribe them. Of course, noetic beings function differently and exist differently than we do, having memes instead of genes — to insist that they act as we do is the same as insisting that an octopus does. It’s just wrong-headed and ineffectual.

      Sorry, got lost there in theoryland for a moment. Point being, we tell stories of the ancestors and therefore the ancestors exist, noetically. The simple demands of hospitality, as you point out, Lo, call on us therefore to welcome the ancestors to the table, just as we would welcome any being hanging around to our table, for food and warmth and company, because these are needs that (with a little mental elbow grease sometimes) can be seen to be real for any being, noetic, bioic, lithic, atmic, hydric, pledonic, magnetic.

      But one of the memes that make up the being of the ancestors is that they are interpenetrated with us, interwoven with us. By honoring them, we honor ourselves.

      2) Whenever I tell an ancestor story, half my brain is wondering what stories those who survive me will tell of me. Another fourth is wondering what the stories will say when even they will have died and my story becomes more myth than recollection.

      I am not-so-secretly desperate to know what stories are going to be told of me – I have but little control in the form my agency takes after my gross body dies, leaving only my subtle body, my ghost, in the stories and the magick. Once I convert to a mostly noospheric entity, once my memes have overtaken my genes, once I have died, it is the stories that are told of me that will determine what kind of entity, what sort of spirit, who I am at that point. And I won’t be telling the stories, so I hunger insight from others about how those stories might start — any guesses about my developing mythos are just that: guesses.

      My ethical duty then (owed, here, to myself) is to provide inspiration for stories that I would like to die into, to provide the Kether of the godform I will eventually step into, inhabit, and become. Embodied tulpa drag, you might say. Many, if not most, of my actions, and all the better ones, derive in part from this origin.

      By being here and by living, truly living, like all the way past 10 to 11 (Spinal Tap reference!), I think I just might make a truly cute ancestor. So I thank everyone I’ve ever made an impression on while I am telling an ancestor story (the storytelling is the thank-you). Even if the impression I made is less than flattering.

      3) Honoring my ancestors changes how I understand my “self”.

      Heathen Chinese mentioned this idea in passing, but did not point out that this very praxis itself has (can have) anti-humanist or at least anti-postmodern aspects.

      Our very construction and idea of having a “self”, of what that “self” means, and of what we do with the “fact” of that “self”‘s “existence” is as recently constructed as the scare-quotes I’ve over-used in this sentence 😉 By honoring the ancestors, I start to dismantle that construction, as invisible to me as my bones and inner organs, and grasp toward a construction of “self” that better fits with my values, including my blending of anti- or ahumanism with an understanding of reality at least partially based in Moorean chaos-magic and my rejection of the alienation brought by the act of civilization/urbanization.

      And a couple of random-ass points that floated through my head as well as all the above too-many-words >.<

      HC said: “‘We honor them because they provided the material conditions for our life.’ Yes, and so did the people they inevitably exploited in their time.” This is true, and shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps those others should be honored as well. Perhaps this reason should be subordinated to reason #4, or perhaps (as you suggest) it should be abandoned altogether."

      YES, THEY SHOULD *ahem* Sorry, just wanted to offer my strongest support for the idea of honoring those exploited by our ancestors right along with our ancestors (even if one of those groups thus decides not to come to our table — if two of my living friends are in conflict and I have a party coming up, I invite both of them. Their conflict has nothing to do with my desire to spend time with them both and to let them both know that they are loved.) More people need to honor both sides, for ancestor worship too often becomes a blowing-up of the things we like and an under-the-carpeting of the things we don't. How, I ask, is that actually honoring someone and not just empty flattery?

      And also to Heathen Chinese: we don't _have_ to make meaning — the making of meaning is a choice we make (rhetorical dodge alert: we are, in fact, constrained to make choices), but it is the very essence of holiness and sacred action. Meaning-making is how we co-create the world, how we take our place in the community of demiurges all around us (the sun, the plants, the animals, the molecules, the invisible physical forces, the songs, et cetera). Tolkien's Christian idea of "sub-creations" mixed with my pagan/polytheist/chaote existentialism very early on . . .

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We tell stories of the ancestors and therefore the ancestors exist, noetically.

        Whenever I tell an ancestor story, half my brain is wondering what stories those who survive me will tell of me.

        Honoring my ancestors changes how I understand my “self.” […] this very praxis itself has (can have) anti-humanist or at least anti-postmodern aspects.

        Meaning-making is how we co-create the world.

        I agree with all of these points. Many of my ancestors of blood are also among my ancestors of spirit and tradition and culture. But that doesn’t mean that I honor them only as ancestors of spirit…they are still ancestors of blood as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Also, fuck Columbus. No, don’t fuck him. I don’t wanna give him the orgasm.

    But, another reason to honor the ancestors — and this is particular to honoring the “problematic” (what a beautiful understatement) ancestors — is to remember all the ways in which I am an oppressor, from a long line of oppressors, continuing that oppression. No matter how much work or werq I can, have, am, and will put into anti-oppression and changing myself and decolonizing myself and reenchanting myself and building a world I would like to live in, I am still nonetheless embedded in this world and its realities of oppression. I am still white (hell, I’m even Italian and originally named Christopher — like Christopher Columbus) and it’s all too easy to ignore what that means about me, to displace my complicity, and to hide my own bad actions under a carpet woven from glamours of “I’m not a racist like those KKK qweens” (which is true, by the way; I am in no way a member of a hate group like that — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have unexpected, unseen, and oh-I-have-to-work-on-that moments of enacting racism without intending to) if I don’t remember and “honor” (not the right word) those ancestors of mine who have made the world this way.

    My names are many (I have twelve), and I am, among other things, a recovering racist. The day I forget or ignore that or think that that recovery is done is the day that I become just a racist.

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