Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Veneration of Ancestors - A Pagan Theme

Pagans from all time periods have engaged in a practice that is called ancestor veneration, where one’s departed forebears are given a certain reverential respect and honor due to their linear importance to one’s own birth and residence within the continuity of a family organization. I think that this is a very natural and basic human sentiment, perhaps somewhat displaced in modern times, but still important. I also believe that it is particularly important to modern pagans, as well as magicians who work with spirits.

In the U.S., there is a decided bias against this sort of belief and practice, and there is a habit of diminishing one’s forebears and putting them into a perspective that everyone who lived and existed in the prior age are inferior to everyone who lives and exists today. We are so devoted to progress that we have learned to belittle and dismiss the efforts and achievements of those who have come before us. This mind-set has unfortunately affected people’s attitudes towards their ancestors. It has also forced our culture to be divorced and cut-off from the people who made our lives and our very existence possible. I find this lack of respect and veneration for one’s ancestors to be not only problematic, but it also has the potential of making a practicing magician a lot poorer and much more isolated. Allow me to explain why I believe this to be true.

Several years ago, I had the same attitude towards my ancestors that everyone else of my generation had. We had a complete disregard for anyone in our past who was from the “older generation,” starting with our parents. Since I, like all of my contemporaries, had experienced a decided generational schism when growing up, we amplified this fissure by dismissing and devaluing everything associated with my father’s as well as my grandparents generations, and we even dismissed those unknown individuals who came before them. I guess we believed that we were the Crown of Creation and that everyone who had lived before us was deemed irrelevant. This was the kind of inherent snobbery held by those of us in the “Boomer” generation, and I suspect that this attitude has been continued in the later generations.

Some years later my sister got heavily involved with genealogy and she performed some extensive research and even interviewed some of the remaining family members who remembered events and individuals in our family’s past. I found all of this somewhat interesting, but because I was the only member of my family who had a strong proclivity for occultism and magick, I felt that I was unique and had little in common with any of my forebears. I read her reports with a certain detached interest, but I felt that it wasn’t really relevant to my life in the present world.

This sentiment continued for some time until I underwent a reformation in regards to my pagan beliefs. A few of my most respected pagan friends then gave me some constructive criticism and informed me that it was natural for pagans to have a certain veneration and reverence for their ancestors, regardless of what they might have been like when alive. I have also encountered individuals engaged in the African Religious Traditions who told me that the most important spirits in any kind of root-work or invocation regimen were one’s ancestors. Without them, a magician had no allies nor anyone to guide or vouch for them. In other words, without the ancestors, a magician was alone and without spiritual allies.

I pondered all of these various ideas and came to realize that they were all correct, and this completely changed my opinion and attitude towards my living family and its resident ancestors. I don’t have to either engage with these spirits or seek specific guidance from them, but I do need to at least keep the “spirit door” open for them, and to honor and respect them in turn. In doing this, I have encountered some vague but intriguing notions that I am not the only one in my family line who has had an interest or an ability with magick and occultism. I can’t exactly determine who they were or from which genetic family line or time period they once lived, but I feel them and I sense that they are very much behind the scenes when I perform various magical or liturgical rites. My own mother, who is recently departed, seemed to show her ghostly presence to me whenever I perform the Mass of the Great Goddess, and of course, our recently departed furry friend, the cat Stars, is very much actively participating in the work of the grove where he is buried.

All of these elements have come together and forged within me a very different attitude and perspective in regards to my ancestors. I now have a special sacred place in my library where I have placed all of the pictures that I have of my linear ancestors. They occupy a place of honor and learning within my occult and spiritual work. Certainly, a number of these ancestors would have objected to my occult practices if they were alive (and in fact a few of them did), but now that they are dead, it would seem that I have realized a greater acceptance from them. I have acquired an attitude of honor and reverence for these important individuals regardless of what kind of person they actually were when alive. It would seem that the transition of death gives a person a certain amount of restitution and rehabilitation. Whether they were scoundrels or irascible tyrants during life, death has a way of mitigating all of their faults so that they become worthy of honor and remembrance simply because they were ancestors. Perhaps this is one of the greater mysteries of death, although still being alive, I am unable to confirm this as a fact.

Another thing that I learned is that we have both physical ancestors and we also have spiritual or magical ancestors. We have our actual genetic forebears, and we also have individuals whose traditions we have been initiated into or whose beliefs and practices we borrowed and incorporated into our own spiritual and magical work. Eastern mystical traditions as well as some western venerate their founders and include them in their prayers and spiritual practices. Catholics have their saints arrayed in great abundance, but western occultists have founders and trail blazers who could also receive the same degree of veneration, honor or respect.

We who work with these traditions believe that those individuals whom we venerate are not dead, mute or lost to time, but instead they have a manner of existence that continues beyond death. These spiritual ancestors, as I call them, have become part of the egregore of the spiritual system that they helped to found. Because so many people believe, think or talk about them, and even pray to them, thereby building up their legendary mythic persona, they have become far more powerful and important in death than they ever were in life. As occultists we can choose to either engage with these spiritual ancestors or we can ignore them, but I believe that we ignore them at our own cost. Spiritual personalities that are part of a tradition’s egregore are quite important, and I believe that one must engage with these various individuals in order to fully engage with that tradition. In my opinion, to omit them or somehow denigrate them is to greatly impoverish the holistic experience of that tradition.

Imagine how poor Catholic magic would be without the power of the Saints and the Archangels. The founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ himself, is so pivotal to Christianity that it would seem to be totally absurd to omit him from any kind of Christian service or religious celebration. Yet it is no more absurd to omit the founder or trailblazer of any given occult tradition from one’s considerations and practices. So it is for this reason that I accept and believe that I must give a certain degree of respect, honor and even veneration to those individuals who laid the occult foundation for me to follow many decades later.  

This brings me to the point of my article, and that is the answer as to why I supposedly venerate certain individuals who I believe are critically important to me, and therefore, are my personal spiritual ancestors. One of my friends recently said that he doesn’t believe in putting anyone on a pedestal, which I guess means that he doesn’t subscribe to venerating ancestors, whether genetic or spiritual. I believe that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but I think that taking this attitude makes any magician a lot poorer and less able to be spiritually guided and assisted. Perhaps this does occur whether one has this attitude or not, but I have found in my own work that engaging in the proper attitude of honor, respect and veneration makes it much more likely that I will be fully conscious of any positive encounter with my ancestors, and in fact, I highly welcome it. 

Some have obliquely criticized me that venerating such individuals as S. L. MacGregor Mathers, Aleister Crowley, Gerald B. Gardner or even Alex Sanders is ridiculous. These individuals were just ordinary men who lived and died in the last century, and they were as likely to be highly flawed as well as particularly gifted. Of course this criticism can apply to nearly everyone, since we are all flawed and imperfect who are also mortal. In the eyes of my critics I must be some kind of naive fool or a complete sucker to venerate such individuals as these (or for that matter, to venerate anyone). 

Even so, we live in a nation and a world that venerates its past leaders, ingenious creators, inventors and military heroes. Our public areas are filled with statues, busts and commemorative edifices. We have millions of acres of graveyards carefully tended with the past dead, so it would seem that a respect and reverence for our forebears is part of our culture, whether we admit it or not. So, with all of this in mind, I can hardly be perceived as a naive fool because I venerate my spiritual and magickal forebears. In fact, I believe that I am doing what only comes natural to a modern pagan and a member of my culture.

As I have said, founders usually become spiritual attributes associated with the tradition that they established. In this manner, Mathers, Crowley, Gardner and Sanders are alive in some fashion, existing within the ever growing and waning power and prestige of the traditions that they founded. Regardless of whether someone like Nick Farrell or Pat Zelewski excoriates and denigrates the history of someone like MacGregor Mathers, it would seem that he continues to have a powerful presence within the rituals and methodologies that he originally wrote and passed on to his followers. Not only do I find this lack of respect and honor on their parts toward Mathers to be offensive, it would seem to be a very un-pagan thing to do as well. 

Since I have established above that it is proper and a good pagan practice to venerate, honor and respect one’s physical and spiritual ancestors, then I and others who have taken the teachings and practices from the Golden Dawn should naturally have this same kind of attitude to the founder of that tradition. In fact, I would say that anyone who is an initiate in the Golden Dawn should have a particular veneration and respect for Mathers if they are going to be actively engaged with that tradition. In my opinion, to denigrate and devalue Mathers is to do violence to the egregore of the Golden Dawn. Such a person is not only guilty of a kind of attempted spiritual patricide, but they would seem to have stepped fully out of the egregore altogether, and could no longer be considered as actively engaged with that tradition in any kind of magical or spiritual manner.

Finally, do we judge someone who lived either decades or centuries ago by the scant information that exists about them, or do we judge them by their contribution to our world? Certainly Beethoven was a highly flawed individual who few either liked or loved when he was alive; but it was his transcendent music that made him a venerated and respected composer. Do we consider someone foolish who has a bust of Beethoven in their home? Of course not, since his music was so extraordinary in that time, and it is still performed and listened to today. The same thing could be said of Shakespeare or any other great author, poet, or literary master.

In our post-modern world, many westerners have become iconoclasts and have rejected the relevance of their forebears, despite the fact that we owe our cultural heritage and our lives to many individuals who lived in the past. Their efforts have enriched our world today, so giving them their due seems hardly foolish or reprehensible. I think that have made my point, and I believe that now you might understand why I have said certain things in my previous articles about my spiritual ancestors.

Zalewski’s Critique of My Review for “King Over the Water”

One other thing that I would like to mention before I end this rather long article is that Pat Zalewski has recently criticized me for my review of Nick Farrell’s book, “King Over the Water.” I would like to quickly respond to a few of his points, since it does fit into the overall topic of this article. In his response to me, Pat made the following point:

It was interesting to read a review of King over the Water, which has recently popped up. The author cited Sword of Wisdom as a good Mathers biography and essentially admonished Nick for his analysis of Mathers. Now most of us know that Sword of Wisdom was an informative book, but was essentially a whitewash of Mathers and depicted him as a hero throughout. Now Nick does not need me to defend his work as he is quite capable of doing it himself. What I am commenting on here is how people (like the reviewer) have an idealized mental construct of Mathers and don't want that view shattered with some facts getting in the way, as did the author of Sword of Wisdom. The review was a defence [sic] of the mental image of Mathers and what he should have been like, not like he was. He apparently cannot differentiate the work Mathers did from the character. Howe lays it out [on the] table as to what Mathers was. Though Howe's work is dated, the new material on Mathers that has come to light since Howe, is more peripheral than core.”

Of course, anyone who read my review would note that my problem with Nick Farrell’s book is that it is filled with conjecture, innuendo and talking points; but it has very little actual historical research in it. The lack of citations and the sparse bibliography alone demonstrate that this work is very poorly researched. Farrell has created a supposed psychological profile of Mathers, even when there is so little supporting facts to make such an effort possible.

If Mr. Farrell was such a good historian, then why did he fail to notice that there was another Mathers family in Bedford (possibly related), and that the student who supposedly went to the local grammar school was actually not the same person as MacGregor Mathers, since the birth month in the school registry was in March instead of January? This little fact was explored in the “Sword of Wisdom,” representing one of the many irregularities found in attempting to reconstruct Mathers’ personal history. In short, we don’t really know if Mathers attended that school or not. Maybe he was home schooled. So little is known about his childhood, and also, so much is a mystery about him even as an adult that much of what do know could be considered speculation. With such little information it would be impossible to make a coherent history of Mathers, or even attempt to build up a psychological profile.

Mr. Farrell’s book is more fiction and political talking points than it is factual, and if Mr. Zalewksi thinks that Farrell has presented a factual historical analysis of Mathers, then I wonder how he can make such a statement without perjuring himself. It would seem, as I have pointed out in my review, that Farrell has a hidden agenda for writing two books that disparage and denigrate Mathers. I don’t believe that Mathers was a perfect human being, but I do believe that he deserves honor and respect from us who have used his work to augment our own. It is his work that is being judged, not his person, because so much time has passed that no one is able to build a detailed factual history of him.

Pat continues with the following comment:  

The reviewer was clearly out of his depth, going by some of the contrasts given. What Nick did in his book was to try and get rid of the fantasized Mathers and let the real one stand up. Now not everyone will agree with all of Nick's comments, but at least he tried to separate fact from fantasy which is a lot more than the reviewer did.”

Well “Golly Gee Wilikers,” I must be out of my depth because I believe that the contribution that Mathers has made to western occultism and the practice of magick is extremely important. If I think that Mathers was important, then I must be either delusional or just plain stupid!

I regret to inform Mr. Zalewski that I am equally as capable of making this kind of judgement as he is, and as a magical practitioner of nearly 40 years, I think that I am not at all out of my depth! I believe that Pat’s condescending attitude towards me is really quite obnoxious, and I feel that I can completely reject it as a bit of character assassination. Nick created a fictionalized cartoon character of Mathers in his book, whereas I judge Mathers based solely on his work. That’s hardly attempting to separate fact from fantasy, and I think that my opinion and attitude towards Mathers is much more realistic. I believe that we can argue about what Mathers was really like for the next century, but it doesn’t change the fact that his work was critically important to many magical practitioners today. The historical Mathers can never really be known because so little information has survived, but his work lives on, and for this we can happily venerate and honor him, just as we do with Beethoven or Mozart, regardless of what they were really like as individuals.

Pat goes to say that he does admire what Mathers produced for the Golden Dawn, albeit simply because he follows those practices and teachings, but he doesn’t enshrine him. In reality, he and Farrell do nothing but disparage and denigrate Mathers, so it hardly seems that there is much truth or sincerity in regards to their supposed “admiration.” I think that it’s obvious that Pat and Nick are really engaged in a serious bit of historical revisionism simply because they want to elevate the Stella Matutina (which is their own lineage) over the A+O; it’s all really as simple as that. 

Anyway, I think that I have made my point, and I believe that my readers will now understand what I mean when I say that I venerate certain spiritual ancestors. In my opinion, taking this attitude towards one’s spiritual and magickal forebears (as well as one’s genetic ancestors) is a testament to a practitioner’s sense of honor, worth and continuity. You don’t have to follow my way of doing things in regards to the ancestors, but if you are a modern pagan, then I think that omitting them from your religious and magical considerations might be a serious mistake.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. If your remark about the friend who doesn't believe in putting anyone on a pedastal was directed at me, I don't think you understood what I meant by it in my previous comment.

    When you "put someone on a pedastal" you make them out to be something that they are not or were not. It has no relation one way or the other to respecting practitioners who came before us for who they actually were and/or for what they actuallty contributed to the discipline. I just think that maintaining a false image of anyone or anything is problematic, regardless of whether that image is positive or negative.

  2. @Scott - Venerating ancestors, whether genetic or spiritual, not only puts those individuals literally on a pedestal, but treats them with offerings and prayers as if they were demigods.

    That's how I define veneration, and that's why I have a picture of Alex Sanders on one of my shrines, and I do give him reverence. Alex was a flawed individual when alive, of that I have no doubt. But now that he is dead and a lineage holder of my magical and witchcraft line, he has a "larger than life" role in my personal work. I have not created a false image of Alex Sanders as a man, but he has now been elevated in my mind to an attribute of the egregore itself through which I am working. It is that egregore and its human representative that I am honoring and venerating, not so much the historical person. (But they are connected, of course.)

    If this is how you approach Aleister Crowley, then I did indeed mistake what you said to me. If, on the other hand, you think that this spiritual ancestor veneration is maintaining a false image of that historical individual, then I was correct in my assumption.

    Keep in mind that I had the same attitude as many do towards their spiritual and genetic ancestors and it was not so many years ago, but that has since changed. Also, this article is not about any specific individual and his or her opinions. I was just making a point about something someone said to me that triggered my thoughts about this issue, and helped me formulate this article.

    Regards -


  3. My attitude towards Aleister Crowley doesn't precisely fit in either of those categories. The closest thing to it is the "Pure View" advocated by Vajrayana practitioners with respect to lamas. I wrote a longer piece describing it in more detail years ago, which can be found here.

    The Pure View consists of (1) regarding the lama as an enlightened being, while (2) not shying away from their actual nature as a human being. Hearing you talk about Alex Sanders it always has seemed to me that you regard him similarly, in that you're very clear as far as what he actually did versus some of the stories that he told about the history of witchcraft and so forth.

    On the other hand, I don't think I would go so far as to say that I treat Crowley as an egregore in his own right. Some Thelemites do, and for example engage in practices such as using the name Aiwass (Crowley's HGA) as a substitute for that of their own HGA when starting out on the magical path. That's something that I would personally never recommend to anyone, though opinions among Thelemites vary widely on whether or not it's a good idea.

  4. Is Mercury retrograde and a T-Square really the proper time for a Master of the Art to respond to criticism? Does that responce really need to be attached to a call for more veneration of the Heroic Dead, Sacred Ancestors, etc? Could you not have honestly have seperated the two and just hyper-linked the earlier and sure to be misread latter sections? Is now really the time to continue a debate everyone got sick of the last time Mercury was retrograde?

    Sigh. Well, I quite liked the first half. It would've been nice to see a few comments on how you actually work with your Ancestors, and what forms of veneration seem to work best for you, though.

  5. Actually, the full T-Square subsided yesterday, and today is less crap. So, I retract that part of my criticism.

  6. This is a very persuasive rebuttal of Zalewski's critique of your review, Frater Barrabbas.

    Your keen insight into these matters, bolstered by your extensive experience, is always a pleasure to read.

    Please keep up the good work.

  7. Frater Barrabbas wrote:

    "I believe that Pat’s condescending attitude towards me is really quite obnoxious, and I feel that I can completely reject it as a bit of character assassination."

    You really should just ignore Zalewksi's "ad hominem" attacks on you. This is merely what Zalkewski always does when any sort of critical peer review comes along. Instead of defending his ideas according to the most basic rules of academia, Zalewski always peronally attacks anyone whose ideas differ from his own. The same holds true for Farrell.

    At times these individuals who set themselves out as "scholors" trot out the most bizarre defamatory notions with little or no evidence to back it up, but they have for decades consistently refused to engage with any legitimate sholarly criticism of their strange arguments.

    This, more than anything else, vitiates their scholarly pretentions. They do not even observe even the most basic of academic protocols. In fact, their standard response is merely to personally attack anyone who disagrees with their party line masqurading as legitimate scholorship.

    This shoddy scholorship has made both Zalewski and Farrell somewhat laughing stocks in the larger esoteric community, but it has also caused harm to the credibility of the entire Golden Dawn, as far as in Pagan circles go, since PAgans are used to academically more serious reconstructionists.

    I apologize for Pat Zalewksi's ad hominem attack. It is in no way representative of the traditional Golden Dawn community.

    David Griffin