Monday, February 21, 2011

Learning to Honor the Dead by Galina Krasskova

One cannot honor the dead too much. So much of what we have and who we are comes from them. Their strength, sacrifices, wisdom, failures, victories, faults, and graces form the generational tapestry of which our threads are an ongoing part. The connection we have to them is one of heart, blood, bone, and spirit. It is right and proper to honor them on an ongoing basis. (How one does this will vary, based on the ancestors themselves, and the individual’s religion). Our ancestral dead watch over us and can become a wall of strength and protection at our backs. Memory is a powerful thing, and remembrance a powerful gift. While our ability to give elaborate offerings might be limited, we can all give the gift of time and memory to our dead.

So what does all of this have to do with Hlin? Hlin is one of the Norse Goddesses, often associated with the Goddess Frigga, the Lady of Asgard. The surviving source material on Norse cosmology points to Hlin as being part of Frigga’s retinue. Hlin is commonly associated with protection, warriorship, and processing and healing from grief. I run a “Deity of the Month” series on my personal blog and every month a different Norse or Germanic Deity is selected and folks contribute articles and some discussion. This past summer, we looked at Hlin.

As I’ve already noted, Hlin is a Goddess often associated with grieving. Part of Her core competencies, if you will, is aiding people in coming to terms with the pain of losing a loved one. Renewing those connections through the gift of ancestor work can be a powerful part of healing and processing grief. (I know it certainly was for me). In many ways Hlin stands in the place between this world and the world of the dead, facilitating communication. She handles both as a warrior and as a comrade, all those things that connect these two spheres of being. Because of that, by extension She may be called upon to help facilitate clear communication across that divine, particularly with one’s ancestors. Hlin can teach you how to do it right. Furthermore, by engaging in these practices, one can honor not only one’s ancestors, but this Goddess as well. Every warrior Deity that I have ever encountered has been about what needs to be done; They are about the work at hand. I suspect, based on my own limited experience, that Hlin is like this as well. By doing what needs to be done to honor one’s dead, something that frankly should be part of any healthy spiritual practice, we are doing something that can be pleasing to Her too.

The most basic thing you can do, to begin honoring your dead, is to make space for them and for these practices in your home. Having a dedicated space given over to honoring the dead is important, if only as a psychological cue that calls to mind the connection we have to them. By setting up an ancestor table, (or shelf if you have a small apartment) you’re acknowledging the ongoing bond that you have to your own ancestors. You’re making a statement about your desired intention of honoring that connection too. This doesn’t have to be elaborate. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what you do so long as you do something consistently. If you are on an exceptionally tight budget, simply setting out a glass of tap water and spending ten minutes in the morning talking to your ancestors will suffice. But this is a relationship and like any relationship human or other, it takes attention and work. Our dead want to be remembered and honored. They haven’t forgotten us and by turning our attention toward them in a consistent manner, we’re empowering them to watch over us and work on our behalf. That is no small matter!

So the first step that I would suggest for someone interested in honoring the ancestors is to set up a space on one’s home. It can be a shelf, or a table, a nightstand, or dresser top. I have found that my own ancestors specifically wanted to be in the kitchen and dining room so that is where my own altar resides, with a secondary altar dedicated to my adopted mother in my living room. Pick a space and clean it up. Put out pictures of your honored dead, and also of any people who were important to you spiritually. Sometimes the deepest bonds are created from the heart and spirit rather than blood and that is ok too. Those people count as a special class of ancestors. Never, ever put a picture of someone living on the ancestor altar as it is disrespectful to death (and in some traditions considered really, really bad luck). I have found that if one has tastefully framed photos of family and departed friends displayed, it rarely raises comment. It is a natural thing to honor the dead. We may not have learned to do it in a sacred context, but remembering those who have come before us, whose passage through this world shaped and honed us is a deeply ingrained and very natural thing. I have only ever received questions when I had visible offerings of food and drink also sitting out, and those questions were always respectful – curious but respectful. In many cases answering those questions led to the one asking developing a greater awareness of their own dead too, even if they didn’t rush home to put up an altar! It never hurts to make space for respect and recognition even if just in little ways, like the raising of a glass of wine in toast “to the ancestors.” This too, is veneration.

Once you have a table or space determined, and your pictures arranged (if you don’t have photos, put out things that remind you of your ancestors, or that come from the regions of the world from which they themselves came), add a candle and perhaps a couple glasses of water or beer, maybe flowers if you want to get particularly fancy, and there you have it: your very first ancestral altar. Of course it doesn’t stop here. Once you have your altar set up, the next step is to work with it: talk to your ancestors. Tell them about your hopes, your dreams. Bring them into your daily life in all its minutiae. Set out offerings of water, wine, beer, coffee—whatever you get the feeling they might like. Set out offerings of food and sweets, or maybe tobacco too. Most of all, give them the gift of your time. That’s where it really begins, with making the conscious determination to put yourself in right relationship with the generations of ancestors whose struggles put you here.

Galina Krasskova is a free-range tribalist Heathen who has been a priest of Odin for more than a decade. Her primary interest is Heathen devotional work, and she has both written and lectured extensively on the subject. Galina is a Northern Tradition shaman currently residing in New York, where she is pursuing her masters in religious studies. She is the author of several books, including Runes: Theory & Practice, Exploring the Northern Tradition and Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner

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