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Samhain/Ancestor Work

Hello and welcome! Today is Thursday, October 28. A little light housekeeping before we jump into the topic at hand. I have been talking about my plan to do a Q&A episode in November. The plan is to read listener questions and answer them on that episode. I’ve gotten a really great response so far, and I’m kind of excited to do an episode that is a really different format to what we usually do here, which is I pick a topic and just run my mouth about it for 20 minutes. 

So, if you would like to submit a question specifically for that episode, there is still plenty of time. You can ask questions about previous episodes we’ve done, if you’re looking for clarification of any of those topics. If you have specific questions about any aspects of witchcraft, spellwork, if there are things about me specifically that you’d like to ask, that’s totally on the table. 

 

Again, if you would like to submit a question for that episode, please message me either here on my podcast platform Anchor, on Instagram @middleagedwitch, on Facebook again @middleagedwitch, or just send me a good old fashioned email at eli@middleagedwitch.com. I always respond directly to every message I receive, so if you have a question that you do NOT want me to share on an episode, please send it in anyway and just mention that it’s a private question and I will happily respond privately. I’ll include my contact info in the show notes as well. So that’s that.

 

On to the show! The moon is waning in Leo, and we have a big weekend ahead of us. Halloween and Samhain goes with witches like peanut butter and jelly. There is such a fun party atmosphere at this time, and I am so looking forward to Halloween night. I’m sure I’ll be posting some pictures on social media and I look forward to seeing how everyone else celebrates as well.

 

But we kind of already covered all the Halloween spookiness last week, and this week I really wanted to talk about Samhain and ancestor work. Samhain is one of the four pagan fire festivals. It marks the last of the three harvest festivals as well, the two others being Lughnasadh in early August and the Autumn Equinox in September. Samhain also marks the day when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, meaning that our loved ones who have crossed are able to come and visit with us more easily. 

 

It’s customary in many cultures to build an altar for deceased loved ones during this time. These altars are meant to hold pictures of our loved ones, as well as a few of their favorite belongings such as military service medals or old heirloom jewelry. There are typically candles, glasses of clean water, fresh flowers, along their favorite foods, drinks, and vices. Sweet breads, fruits, wine and liquor, cigars, cigarettes, anything to tempt our loved ones to favor us with a brief visitation. To show them that we remember them, that they are still near and dear to our hearts, and that we miss them and think of them often. 

 

If you do intend to create an ancestor altar, be aware that a lot of spiritual activity is going to be taking place in and around that space, so be prepared for that. Not only is the veil already very thin, but the mere act of creating this altar literally invites more spiritual activity. So keep that in mind, and avoid putting it in your bedroom if you can. If you live in a shared space with others who don’t approve, or if you don’t have room anywhere else to put it except your bedroom, consider clearing space in your closet or a cabinet if you can, just to create that delineation and keep them from coming in uninvited when you’re trying to sleep.

 

Now, something that is commonly done when constructing the altar is to cover the table, shelf, or whatever surface you’re using with a special cloth. As witches, we are familiar with the concept of altar cloths, and this is really no different. You can even use an old handmade quilt or doily, or a flag if these have meaning for your ancestors. You can make your altar as simple or as elaborate as you like. You can incorporate cultural elements from your ethnic heritage, or from your ancestor’s country of origin, you can leave little handwritten notes for them, I mean, go crazy. Get creative. This is witchcraft after all. 

 

As for other customary activities, a bonfire is traditional, after all Samhain is a fire festival. Make an event out of it; invite some witchy friends over, or at least some friends who are open to trying something interesting. Make a fire in a fire pit or a cauldron, even a potbelly BBQ grill or a little hibachi will work. Write down some old habits you intend to release, or old beliefs that no longer serve you, and take some time to talk through them, and then burn them in the fire. Toss in some rosemary or cedar as well, for purification.

 

Something we can keep in mind is that Samhain is the witch’s new year. This marks the final spoke in the pagan wheel of the year. So if you think about it like that, it can be a great time for that sort of New Year-style reflection, and setting intentions for the coming year. Stripping off the things we don’t identify with anymore or that aren’t really helping us get where we want to be. Then serve some warm, mulled wine, which is just wine that’s been steeped with spices and fruits, like cinnamon, cloves, orange slices, and star anise. Leave some of the wine on the altar. Spend some time around the fire, talking and laughing and meditating.

 

Of course a nice seance, or other means of communion with the dead is also a traditional Samhain activity. Fun fact! Seances were really popular with the Victorians, and honestly that’s so funny to me for some reason. We think of them as being really uptight and moralistic, but they truly loved a seance. Anyway. Cast a good strong circle first and be clear about who is allowed to enter it before you begin. And then invite your beloved ancestors, your guides, benevolent spirits, and just speak with them. Listen quietly for them to speak back. Write down your impressions and any messages you receive. Thank them for coming, and release them.

 

Lighting a Seven Day candle on the windowsill is a lovely way to guide the departed to the spirit world. You’ll want to light it a couple days before Halloween, and then depending on the burn time of your candle, you’ll let it burn for a certain amount of time each night until a few nights after Samhain. Traditionally, you’ll just light it and let it chill for seven straight days, but that seems like a great way to start a house fire, and that is NOT a traditional Samhain activity.

 

Some of the folks who appear on our own family altar include My great Aunt Edna, who was an absolute firecracker. She loved white zinfandel, so I’ll be certain to have a good bottle of that on hand for her. And for my husband’s Grampa Charlie, there will be saki, which he developed a taste for during his time in Japan with the Navy. And it’s not just our human family members who will be on the altar, but even our beloved pets as well. Our sweet boy Dexter has a special place of honor on the family altar, and for as long as I shall live, he always will. 

 

Our family altar is full of love and admiration for all of the people who are represented there, but it is not especially large or extensive, due to the very complicated feelings I had and still have for some of my relatives who have passed on. I will not go into too much detail, except to say that just because a relative has died doesn’t mean that I have to mourn them or honor them. And I just wanted to talk about that today a little bit before we wrap up.

 

There are a lot of memes online about how empowering it is to know that all your ancestors are there for you, behind you all the way, protecting you from beyond the grave. And that is truly a beautiful sentiment, but it doesn’t ring true for everyone. Many witches have experienced terrible abuse at the hands of their families. Many witches may have come from lineages that they aren’t especially proud of, or don’t feel especially tied to for one reason or another. And that is fully valid and I understand that. In my bones, I truly understand that.

 

My advice for those witches who have trouble connecting with their ancestors due to complicated feelings about family history, is to remember that family trees have roots that go deep, and branches that stretch far, so maybe somewhere along that tree there is someone that you can connect with. And if there isn’t, don’t despair. You can set an altar for people you loved that maybe weren’t family by blood, but by the heart. Maybe a departed friend, a kindly neighbor, a favorite teacher, whoever made an impression on you and made you feel seen.

 

They are likely to feel very honored to know that they are remembered by you, and I suspect that they may pop in to see what kind of altar you’ve created in their memory. In addition to found family, because the veil is so thin, this is also a great time to connect with your spirit guides, particularly if you’re not feeling super connected to your ancestors. There are a lot of great books and online videos available that can walk you through the process of discovering and cultivating a relationship with your spirit guides, and you can absolutely add items to your altar to honor them. If you’re unsure what to put out for them, you can literally ask them. Listen to the impressions you get, and proceed with good intentions and your efforts will be well-received.

 

Another common trope you see online an awful lot is this idea of witchcraft lineage. People will claim to be fourth or fifth generation witches, they come from a long line of psychics or healers, they’re descended from someone who was hanged for witchcraft in Salem, or whatever. And while that’s all well and good a lot of people absolutely do come from witchcraft families and it is so cool to be able to call upon that heritage, it doesn’t make a first generation witch’s magick any less powerful. At some point in every witch’s family history, there was a first witch. Imagine how much it’ll mean to your own descendants one day to honor you on their own altars.

 

And also, I just want to clarify, while a lot of women and men were hanged for witchcraft here in the States, those people weren’t witches. They were mostly Christians who just happened to be unpopular or too outspoken and were the innocent targets of the worst kind of people. Witchcraft was just an excuse to murder them. It’s terribly heartbreaking and it does represent the mistrust and prejudices that people had and continue to have against witches, but those poor folks weren’t witches. Anyway, back to my point.

 

If you are a new witch, a first-generation witch, a witch who has to hide your practice, a witch who just flounders around feeling unsure of your craft and wondering if you really even are a witch, please hear me when I say that YOU ARE A WITCH. You are valid, your path is valid, your magic is valid. So if you feel like you can’t really connect with your ancestors in any kind of way because they were maybe staunchly religious and would be totally disappointed that you’re participating in something they consider deeply sinful, that’s not uncommon. Don’t worry about those ancestors. They’re not invited to your altar.

 

Save that space and those efforts for people who you do feel connected with and who you do want to put in that effort for. There is this sense that we tend to have, that we have to revere history and things that are old, and while there is certainly a lot to honor, the fact of the matter is just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. So if the history isn’t there for you to lean on, make it a point to be the history that your own descendants can lean on. And not just your biological descendants, but all those you will be able to touch through your friendship and magic. That is a hell of a legacy, and I’m proud of you, and I want you to be proud of yourself.

 

That’s all I really wanted to say for today. Blessed Samhain, witches. I will talk to you again next week. My name is Eli, and this has been the Middle-Aged Witch podcast.

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