Set Up an Ancestor Shrine - Ancestor Altar

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Honoring Those Who Came Before Us

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In many Pagan traditions, the ancestors are honored, especially at Samhain. This Sabbat, after all, is the night when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its most fragile. By setting up an ancestor shrine or altar, you can honor the people of your bloodline -- your kinfolk and clansmen who have helped to shape the person you are. This altar or shrine can be set up just for the Samhain season, or you can leave it up all year long for meditation and rituals.

If you've got the room, it's nice to use an entire table for this shrine, but if space is an issue, you can create it in a corner of your dresser top, on a shelf, or on the mantle over your fireplace. Regardless, put it in a place where it can be left undisturbed, so that the spirits of your ancestors may gather there, and you can take time to meditate and honor them without having to move stuff around every time someone needs to use the table.

Also, bear in mind that you can honor anyone you like in this shrine. If you have a deceased pet or friend, go ahead and include them. Someone doesn't have to be a blood relative to be part of our spiritual ancestry. Be sure to read our article on Honoring the Ancestors When You're Adopted.

Make the Space Special

First, do a physical cleaning of the space. After all, you wouldn't invite Aunt Gertrude to sit in a dirty chair, would you? Dust the table top or shelf and clear it of any items that are not related to your shrine. If you like, you can consecrate the space as sacred, by saying something like:

I dedicate this space to those
whose blood runs through me.
My fathers and mothers,
my guides and guardians,
and those whose spirits
helped to shape me.

As you do this, smudge the area with sage or sweetgrass, or asperge with consecrated water. If your tradition requires it, you may wish to consecrate the space with all four elements.

Finally, add an altar cloth of some sort to help welcome the ancestors. In some Eastern religions, a red cloth is always used. In some Celtic-based paths, it is believed that a fringe on the altar cloth helps tie your spirit to those of your ancestors. If you have time before Samhain, you might want to make an Ancestor Altar Cloth.

Welcome Your Kin and Clan

There are different types of ancestors, and which ones you choose to include are up to you. There are our blood ancestors, who are the people from whom we directly descend -- parents, grandparents, etc. There are also archetypical ancestors, who represent the place that our clan and family came from. Some people also choose to honor the ancestors of the land -- the spirits of the place you are now -- as a way of thanking them. Finally, there are our spiritual ancestors -- those who we may not be tied to by blood or marriage, but who we claim as family nonetheless.

Start by selecting photos of your ancestors. Choose pictures that have meaning for you -- and if the photos happen to have the living in them as well as the dead, that's okay. Arrange the photos on your altar so that you can see all of them at once.

If you don't have a photo to represent an ancestor, you can use an item that belonged to him or her. If you're placing someone on your altar who lived prior to the mid-1800s, chances are good there's no photograph existing. Instead, use an item that may have been the person's -- a piece of jewelry, a dish that's part of your family heirloom set, a family Bible, etc.

You can also use symbols of your ancestors. If your family is from Scotland, you can use a kilt pin or a length of plaid to represent your clan. If you come from a family of craftsmen, use an item designed or created to symbolize your family's artisanship.

Finally, you can add a genealogy sheet or family tree to the shrine. If you have in your possession the ashes of a departed loved one, add those as well.

Once you have everything in your shrine that represents your ancestors, consider adding a few other items. Some people like to add votive candles, so they can light them while meditating. You may wish to add a cauldron or cup to symbolize the womb of the Earth Mother. You can also add a symbol of your spirituality -- a pentagram, ankh, or some other representation of your beliefs.

Some people leave food offerings on their altars as well, so that their ancestors can partake of a meal with the family.

Use the altar when you perform a Samhain ancestor meditation or a ritual to honor the ancestors.