A reader asks, “I have a question about the “honoring ancestors” tenet. I am adopted, and don’t know my biological parents. When I envision my ancestors do I just think generally? For example, I am African American, do I just think of (for lack of a better term) random black people?”
Well, first of all, keep in mind that not ALL Pagan traditions include ancestor veneration as part of their belief or practice.
There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to do this, or that if you don’t, you’re not a Real Pagan™. However, many Pagans do include honoring their ancestors as part of their practice because it’s something that feels right to them. Since it sounds like it’s definitely something you’re feeling a connection to, let’s talk about the second part of your question: being adopted.
For some people, the notion of kinfolk is quite simple: it’s blood related ancestry, and that’s it, period. However, for many other people both in the Pagan community and outside of it, your family is the group of people who have raised you and loved you, whether you’re connected to them by DNA or not.
Ask any parent of an adopted child which kid they love better – their adopted one or their biological one – and you’ll get the same look of confusion and disbelief that you’d get if you asked the parent of two biological kids which one was their favorite. Your family loves you, and you love them – because you’re family.
So, let’s go on to the idea of honoring ancestors when you have no biological connection to the people who are your parents.
You have a couple of different options. The first is that you can honor the ancestors of your adopted family. That will probably be pretty easy to do – after all, you’ve grown up around them, you’ve seen their family photos on the wall, and you’ve listened to Grandma’s hilarious stories about her gin-crazed youth over Thanksgiving dinner. You could even set up an ancestor altar with family pictures and heirlooms.
Another option, and the one that your question specifically addresses, is that of honoring your ancestors from your biological family. There are a number of different ways to do this, but it can be tricky when you’re not entirely sure where your predecessors came from.
The first way, and one that works for many adopted people who have chosen not to pursue their biological parents’ information, is that of honoring archetypes. Now, this is still going to require a little bit of research, but it’s not nearly as complex as embarking on a DNA treasure hunt.
An archetype is a symbol. Let’s say I know that I’m of Eastern European ancestry, but not much else. That’s not a lot to work with, is it? There’s a whole lot of random white people I could be connected to. However, with a little digging, I discover that there are some legends among Eastern European countries that I find I really connect with. Taking it a step further, I learn about, for example, a folktale from the Carpathian mountains about a woman who lives in the woods, protects children from hungry wolves, and brews up magical potions. Was she real? Maybe – folktales often have some basis in reality. Maybe not – but regardless, she might be a good place to start. If I think of her as a spiritual ancestor, rather than a blood ancestor, I can still pay tribute to her as a symbol of the many people whose blood could be running through my veins.
Another way of connecting on an archetypical level is to do an ancestor meditation – this is a good way to let your mind wander back and see if you can connect, on a metaphysical level, with either individuals or archetypes who resonate with you spiritually.
You mention that your genetic background is African-American. Africa is a big place, and there are many countries, cultures, and folktales to work with. Doing some research into the different areas would be a good place to start.
It’s also important to note that many people are of mixed heritage. Mechon, who is an African American folk magic practitioner in North Carolina, weighed in on this for us. She says, “I can tell by looking in the mirror and at my mother that I have African ancestry. It’s pretty obvious. I’m black. Like, I’m really black. But once we get back more than three generations, I don’t know where the trail leads. My grandfather, who was a lot lighter than the rest of us, never knew his father, and the family legend is that he was white, although my great grandmother never said. My mother is a mix of African American and Cherokee. There’s a rumor that there’s some Irish DNA thrown into the mix as well, and I have an uncle who is light skinned with red hair, freckles and blue eyes. I used to feel like I could only honor my African ancestors – after all, I’m very proud of my black heritage – but the more I learn and journey and study, the more I realize that I can honor the ancestors of my spirit as well… and not all of them are biologically connected to me.”
In addition to honoring biological and archetypical ancestors, there is also is the concept of the family of the heart and soul – these are the people who love you and count you as family, either by blood, by choice, or by happy accident. They may include your best friend’s mom who let you sleep over every Friday night in high school, or your spouse’s dad who likes to take you fishing, or that wonderful distantly related cousin that shows up at random to just drop off things she knows you would like. Family of the heart and soul, for many people, is as valuable as the family you’re genetically connected to.
So, to answer your question: How do you honor your ancestors when you don’t know your biological background? The answer can be as simple or as complicated as you choose to make it. For now, try delving into some of the things mentioned above, and see where the journey takes you.