You may already have an altar to your deities, but what about the human spirits that have made you who you are? An ancestor altar is a sacred space that honors your deceased loved ones and can be used for prayer, offerings, and spells. Creating an altar is a beautiful way to remember your ancestors and to show them how much you appreciate their presence in your life.
YOU can make an ancestor altar! Yes, you--even if you happen to be spirit-deaf, very busy, or hate your family. If you're not sure how to get started, here are seven easy steps for putting together an ancestor altar for Samhain:
1. Listen, learn, and reflect.
One of the best ways to honor your ancestors is to take the time to learn about them. You can start by researching your family history and learning as much as you can about your ancestors. This will help you to understand where you come from and how your ancestors have shaped your life so far.
As you contemplate each of your ancestors, pay attention to any intuitive feelings or nudges you get from their names or portraits. Sometimes elder spirits will take on the role of spiritual guides and guardians and may have advice or encouragement to share with you.
Whose spirits should be honored on your ancestor altar? Grandparents and great-grandparents who have crossed over are a common choice, but you can focus your attention on any that you feel close to. Not everyone knows who their “real” ancestors are—and because of family trauma and other reasons, not everyone is in a position to honor their actual genetic forebears. Of course, you can use an ancestor altar as a platform for working through shadow-y family baggage. But if you wish to keep it focused on gratitude and learning, then feel free to find yourself some different ancestors.
I’ll explain what I mean. As we often say in Pagan communities, there is kinship of the blood and there is kinship of the spirit. Both can be powerfully magickal.
My favorite recent example is these mathematics students in China who have begun a custom of keeping a shrine to Isaac Newton. None of these students are direct descendants of Newton (in fact, nobody is—Newton probably died a virgin). But they still leave him offerings of apples and money and ask for his help on exams, as if he were a deity or an honored ancestor.
The bottom line is, if you don’t have any known ancestors or they’re not worthy of being on your altar right now, then pick someone else! We are all connected though our shared human experiences and our DNA. Spiritual teachers and historical figures you admire are good candidates for adoptive "ancestors."
2. Make a space.
Find a special spot in your home to set up the altar. This can be a corner of a room or even on a shelf. The important thing is that it's a place where you feel comfortable spending time with your ancestors.
Keep it clutter-free. Clean, purposefully arranged spaces help spiritual messages flow more easily. If you don’t have space to commit to a permanent ancestor altar, that’s okay. Decide on a “season” for your ancestor altar (for example, the 10 days before Samhain) and do your best to maintain it for that period of time.
3. Decorate your altar.
Now it’s time to get creative! Fill the altar with things that represent your ancestors. This can include family photos, mementos, and objects that belonged to them. If you know what part of the world your ancestors came from, you can include items from that country or region. Make it as structured or organic as you like. Go for minimalist or “more is more.” You may want to designate half of the altar to your mother’s side of the family and half to your father’s side, with the two family lines meeting in the middle.
Peep at others’ altars for inspiration and you will see many common themes. Because this season is about accepting and honoring death, skull imagery is very popular on ancestor altars at Samhain. So are fruits, flowers, and candles, because they represent the fleetingness and fragility of life. Use a black candle (to honor the Mighty Dead), a white candle (to invite in benevolent spirits), or any other color that is a favorite of your ancestors or has special meaning in your culture.
4. Don’t forget your sense of smell.
This time of year, my social media feed overflows with beautiful tributes from my friends to their departed ancestors. But one thing isn’t communicated through all those online words and images—smell.
Scent is a powerful tool for stimulating memories and emotions from the past. For those of us without especially strong mediumship abilities, smells can also be a powerful trigger to help connect with the spiritual planes.
Did grandma douse herself with White Diamonds every day, while grandpa smelled like aftershave and pipe tobacco? If so, you have a ready-made tool for calling upon their memories. (Hint: Discount stores and dying malls are a good place to look for the perfumes of the past.) You don’t have to limit your scent magick to commercial fragrances, either. The aroma of freshly baked bread evokes primal memories in nearly everyone, while a whiff of wet fertile soil might help you connect with agrarian ancestors.
How about herbs and incense for your ancestor altar? Rose, Frankincense, and Sandalwood are high-vibration aromas that are appreciated by many good spirits. You may also choose Sage or Rosemary for remembrance, or Rue or Myrrh for grief if that is what you feel this Samhain.
5. Make offerings.
One of the most traditional ways to honor your ancestors is to give them offerings. This can be done by leaving food or drink out for them, or by burning incense or candles in their honor. You can also give them other gifts that are meaningful to them.
Witches will debate all day long about whether our spirits and gods actually “feed” on the offerings we give them, but it seems to me that most signs point to “yes.” Refresh food offerings each day and dispose of them in a responsible way. (Outdoors is great, assuming you are mindful of pests and the local ecology.)
6. Offer time, too.
One of the most sincere offerings you can give is your time. This is true for our living friends and family, and it’s true for beloved spirits, too. So, spend a little time each day at your ancestor altar. If you’re terribly busy, just five or ten minutes of your undivided attention will be enough.
Another way to honor your ancestors is through prayer. You can do this by asking for their guidance and protection, or by thanking them for all they have done for you. Let your heart open and receive blessings from those who have gone before you and have wished for your health, success, and happiness. You can pray for your ancestors, too, wishing them healing and joy in their own lifetimes.
This last part doesn’t make much sense, I realize. But just try it sometime and see what happens. Time is freakin’ weird, y’all—and an ancestor altar is a portal through which blessings can flow both ways.
7. Pack it up.
Hopefully your ancestor altar has been fun to create, beautiful to look at, and has given you much to contemplate during the season of Samhain. If an ancestor altar isn’t a permanent feature of your home, it’s time to respectfully pack it away for next year.
Some Witches have a special box or chest for storing items for the Samhain ancestor altar. Family mementos, photos, and spirit communication tools can be kept together for easy future access. Samhain time is also a good time to tend to family heirlooms that need mending or cleaning and to put them in a safe place. If you’ve meditated with your ancestors and received any messages, dreams, or visions, write these down so they can continue to guide you.
Creating an ancestor altar is a thoughtful way to connect with your loved ones who have passed on. By taking the time to create a sacred space in their honor, you will open up the channels of communication and create a powerful connection that will last long after Samhain has ended. So get started today and see how much closer you feel to your ancestors by the end of the month!
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