In the forgetful west, as well as places where there has been massive cultural upheaval due to war or extreme cultural shifts, many people do not have an inherited explicit pantheon. They may have been informed of various local or ancestral legends, but this has been disconnected from daily life and practice. For the average person, this is not the worst thing in the world. They can be okay doing whatever people around them are doing, or what they are told to by the state or authorities in big religion. For a witch or someone called to priestly function, this is an extreme tragedy though.
The thing most people do when their culture’s spirituality has been gutted is either join or accept conversion to the dominant culture or oppressor’s religion, or a version of it. Some view the oppressor’s religion as representative of all spirituality, and reject spirituality altogether. Because the Almighty Universal Force cannot be what their oppressor or other big religion says it is, some reject the idea of an Almighty Universal Force, period. Most wouldn’t bother to imagine that perhaps it is, but just not what big religion says it is.
This, by the way, is one reason that though many are hostile towards me, I have no problem at all with atheists or atheism. I view them as closer to the mark than the average religious person. No, Sky Santa does not exist as the Almighty. It exists as a sort of energetic concept, and therefore has some degree of power through its followers, but it is not the The. Whatever the Almighty is, whether or not we believe in It is irrelevant to It. It only affects us to believe that there is a Prime Energy in the Universe.
Because of my views on this matter, I consider it more sound for those in recovery from big religion or cultural upheaval to build their new system(s) the way the original people did (by deifying honored Ancestors and heroes), rather than to start with appropriating deities from other cultures. Unlike some others, I don’t see cultural appropriation as 100% wrong. It is normal for humans. It’s just that there’s a respectful way that leads to mutual growth and cooperation, and there’s a disrespectful way that leads to exploitation and further distance.
Technically, within the illusion of division, your Ancestors would be interceding for you and the deity/force of Nature/archetype, but that illusion breaks once they are dead. It was only their flesh that made them seem distinct from any force they exemplified in human form. This is part of a useful illusion to keep us functioning and sustaining life, but it has its limits. It is a layer of reality that is needs based, but not the whole picture.
As witches, we need to be useful, so getting wrapped up in this particular technicality would distract us from the greater reality. Since we are incapable of truly relating to a non human force of Nature as long as we are living, we personify them to help us to work with them in spite of being unable to really experience what it is to be them beyond our senses. If you are building your pantheon from scratch, your Ancestors are your best options. The truth that many don’t seem to want to discuss though is that no matter which pantheon you operate under, you are most likely just worshiping more distant Ancestors. Some, such as Auset, and a fair proportion of Orishas such as Shango and Oshun, have legends that explicitly spell out that they were human at some point. I have a theory that the idea of Jesus came about because a religious sect understood that they needed an Ancestor to stay relevant. It worked as far as getting the numbers. The saints are like bonus Ancestors.
Finding Your Gatekeeper
If you know where your people are from, start with your ancestral Gatekeeper. This is the deity who stands at the gate between “heaven and earth” or the spirit and physical realms or the crossroads. Even if you’ve had dreams or visions of deities from other cultures, start with your own if you know it.
If you don’t know where your people are from, then go by local tradition, the ways of your teacher, or feel or revelation. Basically, choose the Gatekeeper closest to you. If you don’t like any of those options, then go materialist and physically go to a crossroads, corner, in-between place, or water’s edge, and let your physically local Gatekeeper tell you their name(s).
Go to the place with four varieties of consumables:
- the most common local meat prepared in a way that is not to fancy, but both sweet and spicy, this is usually going to be some kind of poultry or fish
- tobacco or other good smoking herbs
- liquor or very good coffee prepared black and sweet
- candy or sweet cakes
With little or no formality but much respect, lay these things out nicely as if you were serving a small picnic. Use biodegradable or salvageable plates and cups/glasses. Ask the Gatekeeper to give you a term or name by which to call them. Don’t be surprised if this is just “Gatekeeper”, “Sentinel”, or “Guardian” in your or some other language. If you were raised in an Abrahamic faith, they might even give you the name of an Angel. Just sit and breathe until some sign or name comes to you.
Later in your practice, even if you know who your ancestral Gatekeeper is, you will still learn to align with your allied and local ones. If you do have to build your pantheon from scratch, you may later incorporate other deities, perhaps from different cultures, but at the beginning, stick to Gatekeeper and Ancestors.
Different cultures and traditions have different ways of honoring their Ancestors. Be advised that some South Americans do not mention the dead. So if the idea of disturbing the Ancestors at all squicks you, then you will need to find another way. For you, the way may be direct contact with local animals and natural phenomena. Sometimes it is a matter of logical progression. In some cultures, the dead or part of them is consumed and therefore living within the people, and one does not wish the new children to be burdened with the past. In some cases, it is that the dead are now dispersed throughout the land or in other animals, and they don’t want to bind their now free souls with human concerns.
So while giving these instructions, I’d like to remind everyone that there is no one way for everyone. The instructions here are just for those for whom it is suitable, sound, and productive.
As I’ve said before, everyone has Divinity within them. This includes your departed relatives. They are the closest people to you who have passed to the other side. No one in the entire spirit realm has your back like your Ancestors. Be aware though, that dying doesn’t automatically make someone humane. If they were horrid in their flesh lives, they will likely resist the proper cleansing and development of their soul/energy when their soul/living energy is released from their flesh. Consider why a person does inhumane things in the first place: because they are overly attached to the wrong kind of power or base gratification. They were unbalanced, and given the chance, may unbalance your life if you call them.
Mind that some of them may have been inhumane in some ways for sound reasons. If one was a warrior, they may not have been the most pleasant person, but so long as they were not too harmful, they may be okay.
Another note before we get started is that your Ancestors belong to your family. This may include extremely close friends and very trusted students, but nobody else. Some Ancestors like to be shared, and some don’t, but they will reveal or manifest to others on their own. You shouldn’t be the one to initiate that interaction.
So pick your benevolent, humane Ancestors to work with. Give them places on your altar, and functions related to who they were and how they behaved in their flesh life. Later, you may associate them with various deities that you grow closer to, but at the beginning, consider each a deity of _____. Each can have multiple functions, or you can make one a general masculine force and another a general feminine force, and if you were fortunate, an androgynous force.
Remember that each ceremony or ritual should begin with your Gatekeeper. You don’t want to misinterpret any signs or messages, or have imposter be-ings intruding on your doings. Starting with the Gatekeeper prevents all sorts of problems.
In your starter pantheon, aside of a Gatekeeper, you need:
- a Mother
- a Father
- a Bridge Person/Androgyne
- a Wild Person
- a Warrior
- a Builder
- a Scholar
- a deity of Illness/a Healer
- a Death
Different people have different needs, but this should get you started.
Because this is an old issue for people in African systems, though a relatively new one in the western world, there is plenty of guidance in this matter. If you have any questions about how to go about things in your specific case, feel free to ask here in the comments, or a friend or local practitioner.
Because many times, you will see the term “Ancestors” used as a sort of shorthand to encompass all of the Dead/Departed/Passed On, which I do myself sometimes to avoid an already risky tl;dr situation, there needs to be some clarification. Though the term “Ancestors” is acceptable as a linguistic shortcut conversationally, it is not technically correct in practice. There is your physical, genetic Ancestors, and then there are those who have not only crossed to the other side, but have progressed in their journey enough that they become guides for their descendants and allies among the living.
In African and diaspora belief systems generally, Death is viewed as a sort of life in and of itself, just not in animated physical terms. So after death, one undergoes both a physical and energetic transformation before they or an amalgamation of theys return. Sancista Brujo Luis explains the various terms for the deceased in Brujeria on a video on YouTube. Take the time to watch it whether or not you are in an ATR, because for those of us whose main languages are Germanic or Latin based, the letter of word is important because we rely less on tone or inflection in our languages.
Now, if you have to make due because you don’t know who your most advanced Ancestors are, then you do what you must. It’s not a good idea to do without the link through the departed simply because you don’t have an ideal situation. Just remember to go through your Gatekeeper and be respectful and mindful.
You can also read about how Ancestor veneration is or was done in various cultures.
Blessings and Ase!