Ancestor Veneration

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"Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors, for the mind is trained through knowledge. Behold, their words endure… follow their wise counsel."

From "The Book of Kheti," Selections from the Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, selected and retranslated by Maulana Karenga.


The following is from the introduction to my forthcoming book, Honoring our Ancestors: A Veneration of the Blessed Dead. ©2003.

Ancestor veneration is not ancestor "worship." Many who call it such are skeptics who dismiss any concept of an afterlife or tradition of honoring the dead as superstition. Others consider it a practice that is offensive to their concept of God akin to idolatry and necromancy. But most simply have no real knowledge of the traditions of ancestor veneration, especially those of us who live in Western society.Venerating our ancestors is not an act of worship; after all, they are not gods. Rather, it is a way of continuing to show the love and respect we had not only for those relatives and loved ones we knew when they were alive, but for our unknown ancestors as well. By honoring them through veneration we say, "Thank you for my existence, for who I am and who I will become."

Our ancestors can be a vital force in our lives. They stand in the Duat—between the twin pillars of Life and Death—communicating that knowledge only they can give. Our ancestors can go where gods cannot. They can help us with things as simple as finding a pair of misplaced keys, or band together to drive off a malicious spirit. All we have to do is ask. Veneration is another way by which we can invite their help and thank them for it.Ancestor veneration is a part of my practice of Kemetic Orthodoxy. I maintain a shrine to my Akhu (ancestors) in my home, as do many followers of my faith. I venerate my Akhu once a week in addition to birthdays and special holidays. However, ancestor veneration is not unique to my religion; it shares a widespread connection with many cultures and traditions throughout the world, both past and present. For now, it is my purpose in presenting the following information to educate and inform those who may wish to know about ancestor veneration (and perhaps practice it on their own) from the perspective of my own religion, with other cultural and traditional views to follow in my forthcoming book on the subject.

I believe that our ancestors love and watch over us still, and want to be involved in our daily lives. Through the act of veneration, we give life back to those who gave us life, and the ones we still love beyond the body will live forever through our remembrance of them. In return, their wisdom and advice can greatly enrich our own spiritual growth before we join them in the Beautiful West.

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.


T. S. Elliot, "Four Quartets"


If you are interested in this practice and/or wish to have your own ancestor shrine, read on. If not, you may return to the Main Menu.


Who can I have in my ancestor shrine?

The realm of the Blessed Dead encompasses all whom you hold in affection. They do not have to be blood-related: spouses, partners, good friends and those related by marriage all have their places within your ancestor shrine, should you choose to include them. However, including celebrities (unless you knew them personally) and historical figures is dubious. Invoking the spirits of people you really don't know that well is tantamount to inviting a stranger off the street to move in with you. Our beloved pets are a source of strong emotional attachment and comfort, so you may wish to honor them as well when they pass on. However, I recommend a space apart from your ancestor shrine to honor departed animals because their essence is more in the realm of the netjeri, or "nature spirits," and these may not mingle well with human souls on a psychic level. For example, my Akhu shrine is on top of a bookshelf in my study, but I have a special place for my two spirit-dogs on one of the lower shelves.
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do I have to honor abusive ancestors?

Absolutely not. Veneration is a rite of respect, and respect must be earned. If you have ancestors who were physically, sexually or emotionally abusive, they don't automatically belong in your shrine just because they happen to be your relatives. You should never feel compelled by relation or guilt to venerate someone who treated you (or others) badly when they were alive.However, I have known instances where abusive ancestors came to realize their mistakes after their passing, and then communicated their regret to surviving relatives through dreams and other revelations. Even in this case, it would be up to you whether or not to have them in your shrine. Some individuals may want to try to forgive abusive ancestors out of a sense of spiritual enlightenment. Others may not, and they are not necessarily in the wrong. You may do whatever you feel is right for your particular situation. And you may certainly change your mind later on.

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how often do I have to venerate my ancestors?

As mentioned above, once a week is sufficient—although you may tend to them more than this if you wish. Birthdays or special holidays in your religious tradition are also appropriate times for veneration. If you feel that you cannot keep to a fairly regular schedule for this, it would probably be best not to set up a shrine. Of course, there are exceptions for illness or travel. Still interested? Then read on, or go back.

setting up an ancestor shrine

An ancestor shrine may be a separate, standing altar in your home, or the top of a book-case, console or fireplace mantle. A white or deep blue cloth (representing Nut) would be appropriate, or perhaps something that belonged to one of your ancestors, such as a tablecloth, runner, doily, or even a large handkerchief. The ancestors seem most happy when their shrine is in a room that is used often in your daily life because they enjoy the continuity of being part of the family. A sofa table in the living room is a better place for them than a lower bookshelf in a spare bedroom. In fact, a bedroom shrine is not recommended since it can cause strange dreams and other unusual occurrences.

Photographs of your ancestors are always good to put in your ancestor shrine because they create a visual "contact." However, make sure no living persons or animals are in the pictures with your ancestors. You are creating a place to honor the Blessed Dead. Including the living in this space is not a good idea, and it's even considered to be bad heka (magical/spiritual practice) for those still alive in the picture(s). If you do not have a photograph of a known ancestor, you may write his or her name on a dinner placecard or on a piece of paper and put this in your shrine. In fact, you may have your own "Book of the Dead"—a journal or notebook containing the names of those you wish to honorin your shrine. In fact, I have such a book that I keep on my shrine that I use to read aloud the names of my Akhu in the veneration process. Other additions in your shrine may include favorite possessions of your ancestors: books, pens, letter openers and such, and even miniature representations of things they enjoyed in life.

You may also want to include representations of deities from your own religious traditions associated with death and the Afterlife. In my tradition statues or images of Wesir (Osiris), Yinepu (Anubis), Hethert (Hathor, as Lady of the West), and Nebt-het (Nepthys) are often placed in Akhu Shrines. Other appropriate images would be Hecate, Kali, Demeter, Persephone, Kore, the Virgin Mary, etc.


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shrine implements for veneration

The following shrine implements are recommended to have either in your shrine or nearby:
A small bowl, glass or goblet (for libations)
A small pitcher
Small plates for offerings
Flower vase
Candle(s)
Incense & holder

 

Many import stores such as Pier One and Cost Plus World Market are good sources for the above implements. Saké cups and servers, sauce dishes and teabag holders work very well for presenting shrine offerings.


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offerings & prayers: the act of veneration

Flowers or live plants are always nice to have in your ancestor shrine at all times, or as part of an offering. You may also offer the favorite foods and drinks (see sidenote below) your loved ones enjoyed when they were alive. Cool water and honey were traditional offerings to the dead in ancient Egypt, and are still used today in Kemetic Orthodox Akhu shrines. When offering wrapped food and/or candy, be sure to unwrap these items at the time of offering as a courtesy; the essence of the offering is more easily partaken of this way. Food offerings should be small as to minimize waste; a spoonful or so is sufficient.

Left-over food offerings should preferrably be composted (e.g. left under a bush or tree, or buried), or you may wrap them separately and throw them into the trash. Libations may be left out to evaporate or poured out onto the ground. It is not recommended that you eat or drink any of the offerings to your ancestors afterwards, as you may with offerings to various deities. Unlike the gods, the Akhu do not "revert" their offerings by partaking of its original essence and then blessing it for us to eat or drink. What the dead get, they keep.

Incidentally, if a food or drink item turns putrid rather quickly, consider it a sign that someone didn't like it, and don't offer it again!
(As a sidenote: if one or more of your ancestors were fond of alcohol, and either you or someone in your home is in a recovery process, do not offer it. You are not obliged to have any substances that are potentially harmful or offensive—including flower or incense allergies—in your home in order to venerate your ancestors.)

At the appointed time of veneration, light candles and incense (optional), pour a libation for your ancestors and offer a bit of their favorite foods. You may also recite an ancient funerary offering prayer called a Hotep di Nisut, or King's Offering, as it was traditional for the Pharaoh to offer on behalf of the people on important occasions. There are many translations and variations of this prayer which have been found on tomb walls in ancient Egypt. It was later called the Peret em Heru, or Offering of the Mouth. To say such a prayer is to actually bring its offerings into existence in the West—and it is quite a bountiful offering!

After your offerings are in place, you may start your veneration with a formal prayer in your tradition, or simply talk to your ancestors informally. Somewhere in this process it would be good to present and name your offerings, then touch the pictures or written names of your ancestors and call their names out loud as you do so. By "prayers," I want to reinforce what I said earlier in that our ancestors are not gods and that we are not "praying to" them as such. Prayers, in this case, are simply a means of communicating with our loved ones as we spoke to them in person or on the phone when they were alive.
In fact, you could consider ancestor veneration as placing a long-distance phone call!

If possible, venerate your ancestors at their gravesides from time to time, especially on their their birthdays and holidays. In the past when I lived closer to my maternal grandparents' crypts (I have since moved out of state), I brought flowers and a picnic lunch, and after putting the flowers in their crypt's respective vases, I offered a portion of my lunch and "chatted" with my grandparents. I would tell them all the latest goings-on in the family, meditate silently to let myself hear any messages they may have for me. I concluded with a recitation of the Hotep di Nisut for each of them. Afterwards, I'd say one mass recital of the Hotep di Nisut for all who were buried in the mausoleum with my grandparents, and offered water libations to some of the surrounding crypts and graves. To view a photo album of one of my visits for the Wag Festival, click here.
Doing volunteer cleanup at your local cemetery is also a good general service to the ancestors, even if no relatives or loved ones are buried there. Before you do this, however, it would be wise to go to the main cemetery office (if there is one) and inform the management of your activities. Due to theft, littering and other disrespectful acts that can occur in cemeteries, you don't want to be mistaken for a vandal!

If you decide to visit a cemetery for whatever reason, it is a common courtesty to first stop at the entrance, announce yourself and then ask permission of the Blessed Dead to enter. The same goes for when you leave: bid the ancestors goodbye and thank them for allowing you to visit.

 

I remember the names of my ancestors. I speak the names of those I love.
I speak their names and they live again. May I be so well-loved and remembered.
In truth, may the gods hear my name.

From Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead (p. 54)
Translated by Normandi Ellis

 

MORE QUESTIONS? Feel free to e-mail me: senytmenu at gmail.com.

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A HOTEP DI NISUT PRAYER

An offering which the King gives to Yinepu-Upon-His-Mountain and to Wesir, Lord of Abydos: a thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of oil and alabaster and linen, a thousand of meat and fowl and all things good and pure that heaven gives, the earth produces and the inundation brings; for the ka of [name], ma'a heru.*

*"True of voice," a term used for a soul who has passed Judgment.



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Wag Festival


The Wag Festival is one of the oldest festivals honoring the ancestors, dating back to the Pyramid Texts in the Old Kingdom. It took place on the 17th and 18th day of the first month of Akhet (towards the end of August on the Gregorian calendar). The original meaning of the word wag (pronounced "wahg") is unclear, but a similar word in the Kemetic language means "rejoice."

This festival was much more than a memorial service; the Akhu were invited to actively participate as well. In antiquity, statues of the deceased were taken in procession to local temples and necropoli, given various offerings of flowers, food and beer, and then processed back to their tombs with torches lit in their honor. Offerings of fabric for statues of local deities and Their priests were also traditionally given at this time.

By the New Kingdom a symbolic voyage of the Akhu to Abydos (the main temple for Wesir, King of the Dead) was enacted. On the eve of the Wag Festival in Thebes, the priests put model boats on top of the tomb chapels with their prows pointed towards Abydos. At midnight the next day, the boat were then turned around, representing the return of the Akhu to their tombs.

The Wag Festival ended with a presentation of victory wreaths for the Akhu, (made from vine, persea, olive, and acacia leaves, combined with papyrus and lotus blossoms), which were placed at the tombs the following day on the Festival of Djehuty (Thoth). The "victory" element in this offering refers to the successful transition of the ka through Judgment into the Beautiful West.

The Wag Festival is still celebrated today by the House of Netjer in the Akhu Shrines of its Shemsu. Special offerings, candles and hand-made paper boats are placed in the shrines. To view my Akhu Shrine, along with photos from a recent trip to the cemetery, click here. Many also visit the gravesites of their relatives and loved ones, while some write tributes (Letters to the Dead) at the Virtual Abdju.



Many thanks to Rev. Neferuhethert of the House of Netjer, whose extensive research into the festivals of ancient Egypt is used as reference here. Visit her beautiful Domain of Hethert (Hathor) to learn more about these ancient festivals, and other aspects of Kemetic life and worship.

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