The Ancestor Altar

I know I haven’t updated this in a while.  Here’s to me getting back to it.

I have recently set up an ancestor altar, and have been doing nightly devotions. I have a small table, covered in a black cloth, with pictures of my grandparents, great-grandmother, father, and dogs – the honored dead. There is also an incense burner, candle, and cup of water as offerings. Each night, I give the water as a libation outside, light the incense and the candle, and place a fresh cup of water on the altar, with prayer. I have also recently joined and so far its been a good experience.

I think that ancestor veneration is one of the biggest pieces missing from a lot of Neopagan practice, especially considering how important it was to the ancients. We become so focused on the Gods, that we forget that the Gods were not the only – or even the primary – focus of ancient Pagan worship. Paganism is practical, if anything, and the rural people of ancient and Medieval Europe worshiped the spirits who could most directly help them – the spirits of nature, and the blessed dead. I look at it as maintaining and nurturing a relationship. These are the people who loved us when they were alive. That love goes on, and they guide us still. Ancestor worship helps to maintain that connection.

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The Traditional Samhain Séance

My wife and I have a Samhain tradion. We hold an annual séance on the weekend leading up to Samhain. We have been doing this for two years. We hope to do it for many more. This isn’t what you might expect. Not some spooky Halloween parlor trick. It is something beautiful. For us, this is our way to honor, and to reconnect with, our ancestors. Simply a time to open up our hearts and minds, invite the ones who love us from the other side, remember them, and listen. The results are always moving, meaningful, and surprising.

Being the Animist (and showing my ADF influence) I begin with an offering to the spirits who, while not being specifically “bad” in and of themselves, could be potentially disruptive during this type of ritual. I give a peace offering (beer) to the Fey, the nature spirits and elementals, and politely ask them to wait outside. There are times when I do honor these types of spirits. Veneration of nature spirits and spirits of the land is the very definition of Animism. I am very thankful to these spirits for helping my garden to grow. I especially give them honor on Beltane, the first of May, and on the Summer Solstice. But not tonight. Tonight is specifically for the Dead.

The temple space (our living room) is prepared with candle light, incense, comfortable chairs, and an altar where guests are encouraged to place photographs or items connected to their ancestors. I begin by banishing and purifying the space. I want to clear the space of distractions, physical, mental, or spiritual. I cast a circle, declaring the space sacred. This is not quite a Wiccan circle. It is not a barrier so much as a filter. A line that only love can cross. No taboos about not breaking the circle. No quarters, no elements are called. Remember, we just asked them to wait outside. Then I purify each participant, usually with sage, and encourage them to clear their own minds. Cleansed, they are brought into the circle.

There are prayers. Each is encouraged to pray to their own God. But we don’t put emphasis on any one deity, the focus here being solely on the ancestors. So, while we keep the focus where it needs to be, we are also calling individually on divine guidance and assistance, and keeping the ritual religiously neutral so that non-Pagan relatives can feel comfortable and benefit from the experience. From here, within this framework, the night is spontaneous, unstructured. Our ancestors, those loved ones on the other side, are invited. We acknowledge our bond to them, through love or through blood. And then we listen. When someone receives a message, they speak. Sometimes, the message brings up memories. These, too, are shared. This goes on for as long as it needs to. It could be thirty minutes, it could be two hours. I’ve noticed it seems to come in waves. One moment the room seems crowded, then quite, then messages are flowing again. We don’t always hear from the person we are wanting or expecting to, but rather from whomever needs to speak to us. These are often simple messages of love. It really isn’t all that different from visiting with them when they were alive. They are the same people they were in life. When it seems appropriate, the circle is open, and the spirits are thanked. Thanked, but not dismissed. This is another area where I differ from Wiccan orthodoxy. It strikes me as rude to give a license to depart to Gods or ancestors as a Ceremonial Magician would a lesser spirit. “I’m done with you, now leave.” I would never talk to my grandmother that way. Some prefer “Go if you must, stay if you will.” I prefer to thank them, and pray for their guidance and support. Perhaps they have more to tell us, and will do so later in dreams. But I do believe in grounding after a ritual with a meal. So, we always end by eating, and including a traditional family recipe.

On Samhain night, I reflect on my ancestors, and on my own mortality. We are born, we live, and we die. We are remembered according to how our lives effected others. That is what our ancestors want. To be remembered, and remembered fondly. Remembered for their kindnesses. And forgiven for any mistakes they had made in life. Remember that it is Love that transcends Death.


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Oneiromancy; The Magic of Dreams

Traditionally, Oneiromancy refers to divination – seeing the unseen in the past, present, or future – through the use of dreams. Here I will refer to a whole system of Magic which includes dream recall, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, protection spells for the dreamer, and spell work through dreams.

Why Dreams?
Dreams are our primary connection with the unconscious mind. They occur along the boarder between conscious mental activity and the unconscious, and a good deal of mixing occurs between these two levels of consciousness in dreams. Because of this, dreams may reflect a number of different things, and may be interpreted at different levels. 1) Dreams can be genuine spiritual experiences containing messages from the gods, deceased loved ones, or personal guardian or familiar spirits. 2) Dreams may be messages from deeper aspects of ourselves warning us of problems, or giving us insight into our fears, insecurities, and desires. 3) Dreams can sometimes be just silly play, containing nonsense imagery and conscious ego fantasies, with little or no deeper meaning. Or, a single dream may incorporate all three levels in one twisted surrealist serving. Deeper awareness of our dreams can effect us at different levels as well – it gives us deeper knowledge and understanding of ourselves, a stronger connection to the spiritual, and a healthy outlet for fantasies and creative inspiration. It therefore benefits one to become more aware of the dream experience.

Remembering Your Dreams
The first step toward any type of dream work is to remember more dreams and to keep a record of them. The dream journal is a record of dream experiences over a period of time. It is a tool not only for recording specific dreams in detail, but also for documenting recurring themes and patterns that can be observed by comparing several different dreams over the course of a few weeks or months. The dream journal can be any blank book or notebook used specifically for the purpose of recording your dreams. Keep this beside your bed with a pen, and as soon as you awaken from a dream, write it down in as much detail as possible. You may find, that as you are writing, previously unremembered details and images will emerge. Jotting down a few notes before writing out the whole dream will help you to remember more. Begin with the end of the dream, the first detail you will remember, and work backwards. Then go back and describe the entire dream in as much detail as you can. An easier way to record dreams is to use a digital voice recorder, and dictate the dream upon waking. This method is especially useful for recording dreams in the middle of the night quickly and returning to sleep. You may forget that you even woke and recorded a dream. Listen to the recordings once a week and record the dreams in a dream journal. Even if you don’t remember your dreams at first, get yourself in the habit of writing something in your dream journal every morning, even if it is “I don’t remember any dreams.” Consistent use of the dream journal will help you to remember more dreams.

Dream Interpretation
There are many books on dream interpretation in both the psychology section and New Age section of every major bookstore. A few of them contain helpful guidelines. Most of them are crap. Avoid “dream dictionaries,” books that contain alphabetized listings of “common” dream symbols and a dictionary definition of what they mean. Dream symbols and their meanings are never precise, always changing, and are different from person to person and culture to culture. Take as an example, the snake. In the Hebrew Bible, the serpent is the tempter of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and is seen as a symbol of evil. A person in such a culture who dreams of a snake would interpret it as a very grave omen. However, because the snake sheds its skin, it was a symbol for healing, regeneration, and growth in certain Greek mystery cults. This is the origin of the Caduceus, the winged wand entwined by two snakes which was carried by Hermes – and is now the universal symbol of the medical profession. The same symbol may mean different things to different people, or may mean something different to the same person at different stages of life. It is necessary, therefore, to interpret your own dreams, because only you can interpret them with the greatest accuracy. Try to record an entire week of dreams, then go back and read over that week’s dreams, looking for recurring themes and patterns. Think carefully about the details of each dream – how did you feel during the dream? What were your emotional reactions to strange events in the dream? How would you respond to those events in waking life? What does this dream mean to you? Does it offer any insight to problems and concerns you are having now? Does the dream seem to touch something deeper? Also, pay attention to recurring places and events. Are there particular memories, people, or places from your past that keep coming up? Take note of these, and think about why they keep coming up. Over the course of a few months, watch your dreams and the circumstances of your waking life carefully. Do you notice any interesting sychronicities between the dreams and your waking life? Did the ream seem to foretell, or foreshadow something that eventually happened? Or, do particular dreams seem to coincide with particular events? For example, you dream about finding the milk carton empty, and a week later your wife gets her period. If this happens a few months in a row, then you can conclude that a dream of an empty milk carton is an accurate prediction of the arrival of Aunt Flo. Then, if you dream of a full carton of milk, this may be a positive omen that your family is about to get bigger. No single book can teach you how to use your dreams as oracles better than your own experience, and there is no better oracle than your own dreams.

Lucid Dreaming
A Lucid Dream is a dream in which the dreamer knows that they are dreaming, and can control their own actions, and to some extent with practice, the events, content, and duration of the dream. The first step in Lucid Dreaming is to train yourself to know the difference between dreaming and waking reality
while you are dreaming! After working with the dream journal consistently for a few weeks or a month, look back through it and read each dream. As you read over each dream, make a list of little details that don’t seem to posses much meaning, but that are consistent with many of your other dreams, yet divergent with reality. These are dream signs; little clues in the dreams that, once recognized, will alert the dreamer that they are dreaming. Common dream signs are; “No one seems to notice that I’m bare-ass naked in the middle of this Christian bookstore,” or “In real life, cats don’t talk, and they are even less likely to turn into hot Goth chicks.” A dream sign can be something subtle, like the text of the newspaper printed upside down, or in strange characters, or interspersed with the word “fnord.” Or it could be something stranger and more obvious that you’ll kick yourself for not noticing when you wake up. Like seeing Gene Simmons sitting on a toilet at the bus stop with a purple tiger on a leash eating a dead platypus (Gene, not the tiger). In waking life, get yourself into the habit of questioning your state of consciousness several times during the day. Ask yourself the question, “am I dreaming?” and look for dream signs How can you prove to yourself that you are awake, or are not? How is this state of consciousness like or unlike a dream? How is it like or unlike waking? Do this often enough and eventually one of two things will happen; 1) you will have a cataclysmic existential crisis and wind up in a rubber room eating pre-cut meat with a plastic fork, or 2) you will ask yourself if you are dreaming, while you are dreaming! Once you know you are dreaming, anything can happen. You can meet, talk to, have sex with, famous or historical persons that are either dead or otherwise inaccessible. You can bid farewell to dead loved ones or pets. You can travel the worlds, meet Gods, tame mythical beasts, rescue yummy maidens from being maidens, or anything else you can imagine. You can do things that would otherwise be unsafe, foolish, or impossible in waking life. Lucid dreaming can be used as an exploration of fantasy and play, as and exploration of self and inner healing, or magically to bring results into the waking world. In dreams, you can act out that which you want to happen in waking life, to bring that goal closer to manifestation. For example, you want a new job. Dream about the interview. How will you dress? How will you be received? What questions will be asked? Practicing potentially stressful trials, such as job interviews and first dates, in dreams can help to alleviate the stress of the event, and give you greater confidence because you’ve done it once before. Also, if you practice daily rituals or meditations, try doing them in your dreams. It is also exciting to think that two people can have the same dream. Two experienced lucid dreamers can experiment with having the same dream, and communicating in dreams.

Protection for the Sleeper
People once believed that nightmares were caused by evil spirits, or black Magic Because of this belief, a number of spells and protective amulets were devised to protect the sleeper from the negative influence of bad dreams. Modern psychology now tells us that bad dreams are manifestations of anxieties and fears that plague us at the edge of consciousness, and that we may or may not be consciously aware of. Therefore, bad dreams are often more productive than good ones because they force the dreamer to be aware of problems that may hinder their growth. Whatever the cause, however, nightmares can be extremely unpleasant and frightening, and magical protection is an effective way to prevent nightmares. The simplest way is to cast a circle around the bed before going to sleep. The ancient Egyptians practiced a version of this by drawing a circle in the dirt floor around the bed with a ritual dagger. Stand on or in front of your bed. (You can face East if you want. You don’t have to, if it’s not important to you. Some people like to, though, for some reason.) Visualize a ball of white light at you center, in the region around your heart. See this ball of light glowing brighter with each breath. Take a few deep breaths to concentrate your personal energy at your center. Point toward the air in front of you with your index finger, wand, or athame (magic knife), and feel your whole arm tingle as the energy moves from your center and flows through your fingertips. Walk clockwise around the bed, or pivot where you stand, and as you do imagine that your finger is drawing a circle of light in the air around your bed. This circle becomes a sphere, a protective globe of energy surrounding you and protecting you from negative influences and bad dreams. State in a firm and certain voice that this circle of light will keep out all harmful energies and entities, and allow only positive energies and entities to enter, and that it will hold strong all night and vanish like mist with the coming sun.

One common form of nightmare is called “the Old Hag” or “the Witch riding your back,” also known as “night terrors,” or “incubus attacks.” This type of dream occurs during the in-between state as the sleeper is just waking up. The sleeper thinks they are awake, but are unable to move and may feel as though they are under attack by an unseen entity. It was once a common belief that these dreams were caused by evil spirits or malevolent witches. Several protective measures against suck attacks are found in European and American folklore traditions. One was to make sure the toes of your shoes were pointing away from the bed before going to sleep. Another was to sleep with either the Bible or a knife under the pillow (if you decide to do the latter, I suggest using the witches’ athame, and place it between the pillow and the pillowcase so that it doesn’t slip out from under the pillow and cause traumatic injuries while you sleep). Sleeping on your side is another way to avoid this type of nightmare, since it seems to only occur when you are sleeping on your back. The cause of this type of dream is unknown, but I believe it has something to do with the neurotransmitter your brain secretes when you sleep to paralyze the body and prevent you from acting out your dreams. Sometimes this paralysis lingers for a few seconds after the sleeper has awaken. Although the physical body is paralyzed, the astral body is not. Personal experience has told me that this state of consciousness can be ideal for astral projection(or inducing lucid dreams), and can be induced by falling asleep on your back (if you’re married, or have a frequent bedroom companion, I do not recommend this, as it also causes snoring. Unless you use a CPAP mask. If so, then go with your bad self, and sleep on your back!)

Dream Pillows
A dream pillow is a small pouch or pillow placed on or under the pillow to bring pleasant dreams, and keep bad dreams away. It can be made out of any old cloth, or cloth pouch, of any color that represents dreams to the sleeper. The dream pouch is stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs and should be blessed by the deities of your choice (I chose Morpheus and Aradia). In my dream pouch, I used hops, jasmine flowers, lavender, mugwort, Valerian, and chamomile. Sweetgrass, star anise, marigold, or skullcap can also be used, or a few of these herbs in different combinations. Also, different books on herbalism and witchcraft will have different recipes. As long as it smells good and dreamy to you.

Dream Tea
Some of the above listed herbs, such as sweetgrass, marigold, and star anise, were chosen because of their pleasant smell, and symbolic or magical associations. The others were chosen because they have a sedative effect when taken in tea. Here is a brief description of these sedative herbs. Chamomile and jasmine are sweet smelling flowers, that make an equally sweet tea. Chamomile can be steeped in hot water by itself, or with a little jasmine, and a little honey for a light, relaxing evening tea to curl up with a book with. Valerian root contains a naturally occurring oil which is very similar to Valium. It has a rich, earthy taste and smell, which some people find unpleasant. Adding a little peppermint, chamomile, or both to the tea helps to improve the taste. Valerian and skullcap are great sedatives, and can be used alone or together for a restful night’s sleep. Mugwort is an herb associated with the moon, and has been used in teas for prophetic dreams, and for feminine moon-related discomfort. It is also an
oneirogen, an herb that can induce dreams, or create a dream-like state of consciousness. Mugwort grows along the side of the road with goldenrod and ragweed, and should be avoided if you suffer from hay fever (late summer/early autumn allergies). Hops is used in brewing beer. While it is useful for getting a good night’s sleep, it is a depressant, and should be avoided by individuals who are taking anti-depressants. Any good book on herbalism will go into more detail on the uses and effects of these herbs.

Here is a simple recipe for a tea to induce restful sleep and pleasant dreams;
1 tbs. Valerian root
1 tbs. Skullcap
1 tsp. Jasmine blossoms
1 tsp. chamomile
(add a pinch of mugwort for prophetic dreams)
steep in 1 cup of hot water, covered for 20 minutes. An even simpler recipe is to mix 1 tbs. Valerian root with 1 tsp. Mugwort. Drink 20 minutes before bedtime. Relax and let the tea take effect.

For further reading;

  • Cunningham, Scott, Sacred Sleep; Dreams & the Divine, The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA, 1992
  • LaBerge, Stephen, Ph. D, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, Ballentine Books, New York, 1990
  • Miller, Richard Alan, The Magical and Ritual use of Herbs, Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont, 1993


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A few brief words on Animism

I am finding, more and more, that I am getting away from the word “Pagan,” and embracing the word “Animist.” Pagan is such a loaded term. For one thing, it was originally always pejorative. First, the Romans used the term as their equivalent to our modern “Red Neck.” Then, the Church applied it to anyone who wasn’t Christian, usually with the connotation that they were immoral and uncivilized, possibly even evil. In the modern sense, it is used to refer to the Neopagan movement. Even there, self described modern Pagans resist definition. Margot Adler described the Neopagan movement as being more of a mood than a religion, and she was onto something there. For me, the word Animist is much more precise, far less loaded, and yet far more flexible in many ways.

What is Animism? Quite simply, it is the belief in spirits, particularly nature spirits and spirits of the dead. Animism is the oldest religion in the world, the Primal Religion from which all other religions evolved. When you hear someone use the word “shamanism,” (incorrectly) they usually mean Animism. In Animism, everything has a spirit, a soul, not just human beings. Every animal and plant, even natural features such as rocks, hillsides, mountains, rivers, streams, and lakes, all are alive and inhabited by a spirit. It is nature worship, but it is also ancestor worship. In Animism, the spirits of the dead watch over the living. For me, my ancestors are increasingly the central focus of my worship.

As for the Gods, I am personally a Polytheist, but Animism is older than any form of Theism. To me Paganism implies Polytheism, but in Animism it is irrelevant. It is the worship of Nature and the Blessed Dead, not necessarily any God. Animism can, therefore, be practiced in concert with any other religion, and often is. When Christianity came to Europe, Monotheism replaced the old Polytheism, but Animism remained, especially in the North. In the British Isles and Scandinavia, belief in the nature spirits, called elves, fairies, dwarves, and trolls, persists even to the present day.

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