Vita Enim Mortuorum in Memoria est Posita Vivorum
Posted on August 6, 2017
“The life of the dead is placed in the living.” – The Ninth Oration of M. T. Cicero against Marcus Antonius, Called Also the Ninth Philippic, 10.
As the Northern Hemisphere enters the late Summer and early Fall seasons, ancestors and ancestral holidays are on my mind, greatly. In fact, the majority of my observed holidays have some kind of major ancestral component to them. The “season” of such observances, which are commonly concentrated by many Pagans in the fall and winter is really the majority of the year. While I would not say I am particularly “death obsessed”, there is a significant facet of emphasis on my ancestral dead that forms a major part of my cultic practice.
I generally refer to August 1st as the holiday of Hærfest (or Hlaftid). It officially, and effectively, starts this lengthy season of ancestral worship for me, which will conclude in May. With five dedicated holidays, spanning a total of at least twenty-five days in my liturgical year (excluding namedays or anniversaries of deaths), one can see how it is important to me.
Across the spectrum of Heathenry and Paganism the first harvest of the year (called Hærfest/Hlaftid/Lammas to Anglo-Saxons, or Lughnasadh to Gaelic and Wiccan traditions, or a variety of other names) focuses on the physical harvest. It is employed and celebrated as the first of those holy days where people reap the benefits of the year, give thanks for the fertility of the land, and generally honor that which is made. It is the culmination of a year’s efforts, and traditionally represented a bulwark against the coming Winter.
In Fyrnsidu, we follow folkloric traditions of crafting corn dollies in order to house the spirits of the land and fertility for the Winter, and then return them in order to usher in Spring. Even those of us who have no direct ties to the land, or who do not have ties to the agricultural cycle of the year, nevertheless reap the bounty of that which grows from it and that which the gods have gifted us. So in the honoring of Harfæst even by urbanites we see a celebration just as worthy. I, of course, bring this up because there has in the past been some question whether or not Pagans without ties to the agricultural cycle should venerate the harvest.
But the Harfæst that I celebrate is different. I make an effort to include the ancestors with a greater, more prominent, role in my rites. Alongside Ing and Beowa and the nameless spirits of growth and soil, I offer them beer and bread, sharing the wealth of the earth and underworld with them. I make an effort to give them the due honor that is required because, though my life is my own, their actions were what lead me to that place, where I could reap such rewards.
This is in addition to those weekly rites in which I give my ancestral beings offerings, and honor those ancestors who act as guardians and protectors of my reality. I make observances to them, and feed them on the regular.
I find that many Pagans have issues surrounding the concept of Ancestral worship, and there is a fundamental disconnect of purpose. I have spent numerous hours speaking to people asking the “why” of the practice, especially those from identifiably poor or broken families. In a sense, I tend to sympathize with them, because my relations with some of my living members are not as good as they could otherwise be.
Ancestral cult is often considered a (if not the) defining facet of indigenous polytheistic practice, one which is largely found worldwide. Though it arises in different contexts and invariably takes on different cultural expressions (compare Roman familial cult with Confucian filial piety), the divine nature of the ancestral being(s) is largely recognized in these native systems of practice and worship. Stanley Stowers, in Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families describes the traditional domestic cult as being anchored in two places of extreme importance: the home and the tomb. Both of these locations represent a spatial, physical, tie of cult and practice, establishing a location of worship and a feeling of connection of the polytheistic system they are found.
In this instance, the anchoring of one’s private cult to the tomb (literal or figurative) encourages a continuation of identity, and blazing a connection between those what have come before with those that are now. Knowing where one comes from enables one to better go forward, and the guidance and examples given by the honored dead, the protection and support which they can provide will ultimately see to that end (By in large, there are exceptions, of course).
My approach to Ancestral worship threads the aforementioned concept of divine reciprocity – do ut des – with that of cosmological reality and the inclusion of the past into the present through the actions and vagaries of Wyrd and the speaking of Orlæg.
Present reality is uncertain and constantly in flux. It is constantly affected by the actions of all things in that reality, people and gods alike, which (in part) contributes to the fluidity and uncertainty of it, and these actions are spoken and laid down in the Well of Wyrd (through the speaking of Orlæg), which gives shape to all things. Westerners perceive reality linearly, in the manner of a past-present-future advance where things that have come before us are done and gone and have little to no effect on the present (big events in history aside), and less on the future. The “past” of Heathens, instead, is all that had been done and completed and accomplished. Everything else, simply, is nonpast.
The important thing to remember in this system is that the past is ever-evolving and ever-changing based on the events which have come and are completed, and this ever-evolving, ever-changing, ever-increasing force which continues to draw into itself can and will intrude into the present time. It effectively creates a series of circular, differentiated, realities as it progresses, an agglomeration of earlier, that provides not a static and unchanging circular repetition but a new revolution which is reminiscent and influenced by what has come before.
Some of the ancestors have completed missions and have truly entered the “past”, where others have not and their actions and obligations exist alongside us in the “nonpast”. The concept of “fulfilling one’s Ancestral Wyrd” is not uncommon among modern Heathens, and the tying of familial luck to the actions of an ancestral being, being exacted and experienced today, is likewise a topic of discussion. This is only one such example of what we believe to be the “past” intruding upon our modern time.
If the past is a living thing, as it is often portrayed in Germanic cosmology, then a role of the people in the nonpast is to remember it, learn from it, and codify it. This is done through ritual and through remembrance. For Heathens, and many other Contemporary Pagans, the passing of one from this world merely represents a transition to another, but it is the obligation of the familial priests and those who are left behind to ensure that the needs of these people are still met throughout this world.
Pagans have a statement, “What is remembered lives”. Similarly, Cicero wrote, “Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum.”
In this system of a past that engages, exerts influence on, and is coterminous with, the ancestors are truly not “gone” from our reality like they are in the tripartite, linear system we are accustomed. By recognizing that, feeding them, nurturing them, or propitiating them in the manners in which we are supposed to, we engage with them to receive their guidance and their protection. They, like the Gods, have a greater perspective in ways which we cannot truly appreciate. Until we join with the fixed past, we are shackled with a limited vision of what reality is.
The maintenance of our relationships with our ancestral dead is of paramount importance in the reconstruction of a viable household polytheistic practice. Forgetfulness is identified as one of the largest threats, traditionally, to this practice.
It is for this reason, and a multitude of smaller ones, that Harfæst takes its place as the beginning of a cycle of holy days revolving around the importance of the dead, and sharing what I have with them. Because they are not gone, and continue to guide and protect me and mine, and are due the reverence and respect expected of that role.
Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
Stowers, Stanley. “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families” in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, ed. John Bodel and Saul Olyan, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.