The Deepest Magic: To Know Yourself, Know Your Ancestors

I wrote this less than a month before my mama died in a car accident, after which I immediately got pregnant. That experience enhanced the way I view the march of generations and the connections between souls separated by time. You can read my blog post about all of that here).

But stand brave, life-liver,

Bleeding out your days

in the river of time;

Stand brave:

Time moves both ways.

-Joanna Newsom

(image source unknown)

(image source unknown)

You come from a long line of healers, midwives, songstresses, herbalists, dancers, birth-givers, artists, and wise women. 

You are a direct descendent of powerful visionaries and earthwise geniuses, and their ancient knowing resonates today deep in your marrow.

These are not empty platitudes or the wishful thinking of modern spiritual yearners; these statements are genealogical fact.

You have billions upon billions of ancestors, who lived at all times and in many places across the globe. The human species evolved over millions of years and took many paths to spread out across the planet.

You need not know the specifics of who they were, where they lived, or what they did. In fact, you will never know the concrete facts about the lives of 99.99% of your ancestors.

They are lost to history, because they lived in prehistory.

They lived in a time when everyone was in a state of constant direct communion with the earth and sky, with the animals and herbs, with the water and weather. They couldn’t survive otherwise.

They lived in a time when knowledge of the body- the magic of healing and the holiness of sex and the miracle of birth and the necessity of death- was held by every member of the tribe. They couldn’t thrive otherwise.

They lived in a time when reverence and a sense of the sacred spoke to them in hallowed whispers throughout the mundane tasks of daily life. They couldn’t find meaning in the universe otherwise. 

Today many of us ache for these old ways, yearn for the wisdom that seems so inaccessible to us in our denatured, hyper-speed modern life.

The dearth of this once commonplace wisdom has led to a craving in our culture so intense that it leads many to embrace nonsense, sometimes dangerous, teachings in an attempt to feel connected to something, anything, sacred.

This need not be the case. For those of us who hunger for a deeper spirituality, the simplest, realest, most powerful, and most personally meaningful way to find it is to find our ancestors. Everyone I talk to who has engaged in any sort of ancestral work has found it to be the most important source of connection, reverence, and wisdom in their lives. 

There is a reason that every indigenous culture on earth practices what anthropologists call “ancestor worship;” the spiritual imprint of those who came before us in our bloodline resonates more strongly within the molecules of our bodies than any other source of knowing, being, or loving.

Our ancestors shared our same genetic blueprint and the physical and non-physical gifts & foibles that shape our lives today. Even though we’ve never met in the physical plane, we understand our family on a soul level, and can communicate there as well.

These people once lived and breathed, just like we do now. They know what it is to be embodied, they gained a lifetime of wisdom, they’ve experienced the portal of death, and have graduated to the other side. 

From there, they continue to influence our lives. I’ve found that connecting and communing with my ancestors is much easier than I’d imagined. They want us to reach out. Just as when they were living, they are still deeply entwined with and concerned with the fate of their descendants. They are our kin, they are us, and they are our surest path to self-knowledge.

There are three ways to connect with your ancestry:

 

1. Recent Genealogy-

 

This is how you can get to know the .01% of your ancestors who left written records, the ones closest to you in time, the ones you may have known in this life. Start by talking to the oldest living member/s of your family or anyone who knew them. You want two pieces of information from them- all of the names and dates you can get (full names, maiden names, birth and death dates and places) and any stories they may be able to tell.

The stories will give you insight into your own life and the human condition, and if you’re lucky will carry you through joyful and tough times for the rest of your life. Even if the stories aren’t all that meaningful, they will at least give you a glimpse of who these people who made you were.

The names and dates will get you started on ancestry.com. At this point, decades after it was founded, hundreds of your ancestors have already been input into the databases at ancestry.com by other descendants of theirs (your many heretofore unknown cousins!), and the company has uploaded millions of files and documents and sometimes photos related to those who lived in the past. 

Once you input the names of your closest ancestors- parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.- those who came before them will magically start to fill in on the higher branches of your family tree. What used to take people many hours of travel and searching through musty library stacks and filling in family trees by hand is now available at our fingertips with a few strokes of the keyboard.

Learning about your recent ancestors on the internet is easy and deeply fulfilling (I dare you to start digging into your roots and not become completely fascinated and totally obsessed), and modern technology has also made uncovering your deep ancestry possible. 

 

2. Deep Ancestry-

 

Deep ancestry uses your DNA to trace your lineage back to ancient times, to about the last Ice Age, around 2,000 generations ago.

This is the prehistoric period discussed above, well before agriculture or writing or even settled villages. This was the hunter-gatherer period that spanned the vast majority of human history.

By uncovering your deep ancestry, you can know where your people were living at the dawn of humanity. This is done by using your DNA to trace your pure matrilineal or pure patrilineal line. The matrilineal line is traced through the Mitochondrial DNA we each inherit from our mothers, and the patrilineal line is traced through the Y Chromosome, which only males carry and pass on to their sons.

So for women, if you wish to trace both lines (might as well!), you need to have your brother tested instead of yourself. If, like me, you don’t have a brother, you have to perform two tests. You can test yourself for the matrilineal line, and then have any male on your father’s side tested for the patrilineal line.

I did my tests (on me and then, years later, my dad) through The Genographic Project by National Geographic. I love everything about this project and highly recommend it. I also recommend their film The Human Family Tree.

I especially loved knowing who my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s (etc. ad infinitum) people were. If you’re a woman, then every single woman before you gave birth to a woman who lived long enough to give birth to another woman. This is an unbroken line stretching back eons. That is amazing! I cried my eyes out when I got the results back on my matrilineal line. You can read that story in my 2012 blog post Deep Ancestry: My Ancient Heritage in Haplogroup V.

(If you do this and find you come from Haplogroups U, X, H, V, T, K, or J you MUST read the book The Seven Daughters of Eve by geneticist Bryan Sykes. It helped me get a much fuller picture of the lives of my ancestors in Haplogroup V.  And if you don’t know what a Haplogroup is- I didn’t either! But it’s basically your ancient family group).

Although our Ice Age ancestors are so far removed from us in time and are so many more generations further back that those ancestors whose names and life events were recorded in the last few hundred years, there is a deep resonance with our ancient kin that I have found just as real and rewarding.

 

3. Direct Communication, Honoring Rituals, Dreams & Other Ways of Connecting

 

What if you’re adopted though? Or if finding this information is too hard or costly or time consuming? Or what if you’ve found these names and places and stories and now wish to bring your relationship with your ancestors to a deeper level? Or you just miss your grandma and want to talk to her again?

The simplest way I’ve found to commune with my ancestors is to simply talk to them. I first did this spontaneously on Samhain a few years ago, while driving in my car. I knew that, in many cultures, October 31st/November 1st through the Winter Solstice is known as the time when the “veil between worlds is thinnest”, and I’d noticed that I could feel this heightened sense of another realm being close by during that time. I felt I was being beckoned.

So I decided just to say hello. I went backward through the generations, speaking the names and saying hello to those grandparents and great-grandparents I was lucky enough to know, reminding them of times we had and thanking them for loving me, and then greeting by name those before them who I hadn’t known personally but whose names are known to me thanks to my genealogical research. 

(For those who don’t know their names, or were adopted, you can still greet each ancestor in turn going back in time.  We all have the same number of ancestors- two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Greet them one by one.)

This simple act laid the groundwork for a future of communication between me and them (especially the ones closest to me in time, the grandmothers who I knew), and I now speak to them frequently and feel their influence, their love, and (in the case of one great-grandmother) their fierce protection in my life.

Adding a ritual element to this saying hello practice can add greatly to the experience. Lay out whatever objects are meaningful to you, help you access the deep places, or remind you of your ancestors. I have a red glass bell painted with roses that was my paternal grandmother’s that I always ring when I start my ritual, and have found that its presence has enhanced the experience greatly.

I don’t hear direct words spoken to me or have blinding flashes of insight during these rituals, rather a feeling comes to me that helps to guide me forward.  And often things will happen afterward- worldly things like coincidences or opportunities or otherworldly things like dreams- that seem like a direct gift from the ancestors brought about by our communication. 

Dreams that feature ancestors or that seem to contain a message from them are magic working on two levels. When our ancestors enter the dreamtime in order to communicate with us, we best heed their message.

Making art related to the stories and lives of our ancestors can deepen our connection to them as well. 

Years ago I had a dream in which I found a rolled-up scroll embedded in the bone of my right wrist (I am right-handed and write with that wrist), and when I unfurled it the name of my three times great-grandfather, William Newton Wright, was written on it.

The message was clear- write!

I’ve only ever wanted to write in this life, and that dream told me unequivocally that it was time to start taking that desire seriously.

Wright/right/write. The scrolls are in your bones. Write!

Word play is a great way to get my attention, especially when the message comes in a dream and an ancestor is featured.

My first project after that dream was to write out the story of the death of the first child born to my great-grandparents, the Wrights, both of whom I was lucky enough to know as a small child. I’d always heard about how their firstborn child Cleatus had died at six weeks old during a freezing backwoods Arkansas winter and how the mules hauling his tiny coffin had given out in the driving rain on their way to the cemetery and how the hole they attempted to dig kept collapsing in on itself during the muddy burial (my dad’s people like to tell stories, however sad they may be). 

Writing this story out seemed like a good way to honor my dream, the life of the boy who would have been my grandmother’s older brother, and the grief of everyone involved. It was a beautifully healing experience to cast my mind back there, and I loved making art out of this ancestral story. 

When it was done, I read the story out loud to my father (Cleatus would have been his uncle), my sister, and my then four-year-old daughter. Then we rolled it up into a scroll and buried it beneath a tree. It was a simple and spontaneous act, but it tied us all to one another and to our ancestors in a way we will never forget.

I’ve also been able to connect with my deep ancestry through drumming, something I had never had an interest in before I came upon a Saami drum at a yard sale a few years ago. I am not descended from the Saami, but they are also a part of Haplogroup V, so we are descended from the same ancient people of Northernmost Europe, where the indigenous Saami are still living today. Finding that artifact and starting to use it in ritual has opened me up to a whole new level of relationship with my prehistoric kin.

If you have unresolved issues and/or bad memories with an ancestor that is impeding your recent genealogical, deep ancestral, or ritual work, I recommend the podcast episode The Parallel World of the Ancestors from Sounds True.

Whatever your story, wherever you live, whoever your people, you are the product of the love of billions. You literally wouldn’t exist if every single one of your ancestors hadn’t existed.  Your existence is wildly improbable, and yet you’re here. Because they were here. They live in you still, and you can know yourself most deeply by knowing them more fully. 

This autumn, and then forever after, talk to your ancestors.

(Photo at top taken by Milla when we went down to the river a few days after Samhain/All Souls Day/Day of the Dead. Our Halloween weekend had been very busy and I used this quiet time to finally say hello to my people, as per the custom of so many cultures around the world at this time of year.

Milla and I will be teaching Root Medicine: Ancestral Remembrance & Folk Herbalism at the Spirit Weavers Gathering this June, and hope to bring this workshop to more places. Click here to learn more.

I also offer Ancestral Remembrance Phone Consultations for any wishing to deepen their connection to their lineage.)