8 Tips to Build an Altar for Your Ancestors

Our bodies remember what our minds forget. We still end up haunted by the past even if no one tells us about it.

Mallorie Vaudoise

Perhaps you’re a beginner witch who isn’t worshiping a Deity yet. You may be wondering who can come to your aid in your first foray into spellwork. Maybe you’re more of a secular witch who isn’t too fond of the idea of worshiping Deities. After all, Deities may or may not exist – but your ancestors are right there. You know they were real, you‘re proof of that. Or perhaps you’re a well-seasoned witch with a fluid dialogue with one or more Deities. Now, you feel called to explore and deepen your relationship with your Ancestors.

One of the first steps in building a relationship with your Ancestors is dedicating an Altar (or a fraction of an existing Altar you may have) to them. This is important because your physical offerings should be placed in a space that’s kept physically and spiritually cleansed. An Altar (ideally) meets these needs. Of course, you can limit your relationship to your Ancestors to prayer. But, the moment you involve physical offerings, their blessings may become physical as well. This is why having an Altar devoted to your Ancestors is a great idea.

Why Build an Ancestor Altar?

Why would you work with your Ancestors in the first place, though? Well, you know for a fact that they have an interest in you. This isn’t always certain with Deities. As your blood, they want to see you succeed. Some of them may even share your last name and want you to bring honor to it. They want your last name to be associated with success.

However, if you’re doing spells for other people, please note that ancestors are usually better predisposed to do workings for either you or other relatives. In this sense, working with a spirit guide or Deity may be more productive. This does not mean you should neglect your ancestors.

Mallorie Vaudoise says there are many benefits that come from working with your Ancestors. Good health is one of these results. This is so because the body is connected to the Ancestors. They are responsible for your physical body. The physical health that is connected to ancestral healing and veneration also includes mental and emotional health.

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After three months of a process of deep ancestral healing, I went to sleep one night during a Full Moon and I had a dream. In the dream, my mother told my sister and I that not giving violent or even abusive male ancestors their proper place in the family tree would result in mental health problems for the women in the present. I told this dream to my mentor, who is an expert in Family Constellation Therapy, and she confirmed this is a piece of information that this discipline has long recognized as true. Even though I have benefited from this therapy, it does have some problematic and homophobic and aspects that need to be questioned. But that’s a topic for another post.

Besides health, ancestral veneration can bring about:

  • meaningful work
  • wealth
  • a romantic relationship that is loving and high-vibrational
  • fertility, either understood as literal fertility or metaphorical fertility in the form of creativity

Keeping up a consistent and fluid ancestral veneration practice can also protect you. It offers protection from all sorts of spiritual and mundane threats. “They can act as bouncers, preventing spirits that don’t have your best interests at heart from getting access to you,” says Vaudoise about our ancestors. They can quickly get rid of any spiritual intruders. They can also return any hexes directed your way back to their senders. 

Types of Ancestors

Vaudoise identifies several types of ancestors. Here are three of these categories:

Blood Ancestors

These are the ancestors that literally share your bloodline. As they are responsible for your existence, you should worship them first, before other types of ancestors. If you don’t know their names, you can call them “my biological mother,” “my biological father,” “my biological maternal grandfather,” and so on.

Lineage Ancestors

These include the ancestors of your adoptive or step parents, if you have any of these. It also includes the ancestors of your spouse, if you feel drawn to work with them. If you’re against marriage but live with a long-term partner, consider throwing a party. Invite your family (either blood or found family is fine) and friends in honor of your love. This will communicate to the ancestors that you’re as good as married. You don’t have to get the government or any organized religion involved. However, do try to include an exchange of vows of some sort.

Affinity Ancestors

These are people in the spirit world who share an important characteristic or quality with you. If you’re trans, for example, you may choose to work with Elagabalus, a forgotten ruler from Ancient Rome. Elgabalus, assigned male at birth, asked to be referred to with she/her pronouns and was willing to pay good money to whoever would give her a vulva. 

If you’re a lesbian or some other kind of woman loving women, you may choose to work with Sappho or Emily Dickinson. There are letters from Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law, Susan, professing her love to her. If you’re a writer, working with Jane Austen or Dr. Maya Angelou may be more your vibe. These ancestors generally offer help with the identity or vocation you both share.

Dealing with Problematic Ancestors

You may feel troubled about working with your Ancestors because they believed in or did horrible things. Whether it was being homophobic or enslaving others, hardly any white person’s bloodline is free from wrongs.

However, take into account that your ancestors are not the same in the spirit world as they were when they were alive. They may wish to repent. You can help channel this repentance by donating your time or money to organizations that rectify their wrongs in their name.

Building an Altar for Your Ancestors

These are some tips to take into account when building your Altar:

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1. Adapt the Altar to Your Needs and Your Household

Unlike a Wiccan Altar, there are no rules when it comes to setting up an Altar for your Ancestors. After all, you know them better than some random practitioner giving you advice online. Every household is different. Perhaps you live alone and have no pets and can go crazy with dangerous plants and fragile trinkets on a table. Perhaps you have children or cats, and have to take extra precautions. A small night-table with a drawer in which you can store fragile items or things that are not apt for pets or children to ingest could be perfect for you. Even an Altar on a shelf that dogs and children can’t reach can be a great idea.

You can also build an Altar on the floor, that’s perfectly fine as long as the floor is clean. Try to use some sort of cloth in this case (in all sorts of Altar, really, as cloth connects you to the women in your lineage, but especially if your Altar is on the floor). If you need to hide your Altar or need it to be portable, or perhaps you don’t have much space for it, there are options. You can build it in a wooden box or a wooden tray you can quickly put inside a drawer, suitcase or closet.

2. Start with Small Offerings

Vaudoise warns us against giving expensive gifts to our Ancestors before they have given us a valuable gift themselves:

it’s much more important to avoid giving lavish gifts to ancestors and other spirits unless they have given lavish gifts to you first. Otherwise, you may end up creating an energetic imbalance in your relationship with your ancestors.

Mallorie Vaudoise

Some examples of appropriate small offerings include:

  • prayer
  • singing songs to them
  • playing music (perhaps music from the past you think they listened to)
  • a glass of water (Spirits are very thirsty!)
  • loose tobacco
  • coffee
  • honey
  • fruit (you can use this fruit in spells later)
  • bread or baked goods
  • a candle
  • some incense
  • a small offering that your female ancestors will appreciate is Rosemary. It is an herb which in Ancestral Veneration has a correlation with the women in the family.

See how they react to these offerings. Then start escalating to include a large figure of a Saint they worked with or even a pilgrimage to their place of origin.

3. Acknowledge and Honor the Religion of Your Ancestors

Even if you don’t share their religious beliefs, it’s an act of respect to acknowledge the religious beliefs of your ancestors. You can pray the traditional prayers of their religions in front of your Altar. You can also include religious texts like  the Bible or the Quran on your Altar. Your Ancestors will be influenced positively by your sign of respect. 

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4. Share Your Food and Beverages

If you help yourself to some coffee, give a sip to your ancestors in a separate cup. If you’re enjoying a candy bar or some fruit, cut a small piece and offer it to them. Food you’ve cooked yourself is especially meaningful, as it is the fruit of your labor. Nevertheless, communing with your ancestors by sharing what you yourself are eating or drinking is a powerful act. This is so because it symbolizes the relationship being mutual and going both ways.

As with all perishable offerings, leave it on your altar for a couple of hours and then store it or dispose of it in whatever way you see fit. Don’t leave it out for too long. They can rot, and it’s not respectful or sanitary to keep rotten food on any sort of Altar. It can also be dangerous for any pets and children in the household.

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5. Pay Special Attention During Gatherings and Parties

When you throw a party or gathering at your place, however big or small, however improvised or formal, your Ancestors notice. They are the oldest members of your household. As the oldest members, they deserve the first sip of beverages and the first bite of food. This is an act of respect. Try to do it, whether you do it secretly or you set their own set of china and give them their symbolic first sip and bite publicly in front of everyone.

Whenever people are invited to your house, your Ancestors can look at them from the place the Altar is. You will see that your Divination practices involving the people that visited your house will be far more accurate. This is so because your Ancestors have already “met” them. Your Ancestors may also express their displeasure at your current company by things breaking and general chaos being created once this person enters your house.

6. Keep Your House Clean

Once you invite spirits of any kind to your home, keeping the cleanliness of your household becomes paramount. High-vibrational spirits like those of your Ancestors or powerful Deities are attracted to pleasant smells and a clean home. Low-vibrational ghosts and spiritual parasites are attracted to decay, dirt, and rotten food (including the rotten food in your fridge). Part of a robust spiritual practice is keeping your house clean. This may seem mundane, but skipping this step may lead to disastrous results.

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7. Pay Attention to Your Body

Your blood ancestors are the reason why your physical body is the way it is today. It is logical that they may try to communicate with you through bodily sensations. Pay special attention to your feet. Look after the health of your feet and pamper them with scrubs and moisturizers. Your feet are the body parts that make contact with the Earth, which contains ancestral wisdom in the form of your non-human ancestors. Your feet are what keep you grounded.

You may turn the skincare you do on your feet as a ritual you do in front of your Altar. It can also be a meditative time in which you’re more receptive to their messages and wisdom. You can include a couple of drops of an essential oil that has to do with psychic powers, such as Lavender, in your foot lotion to help.

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8. Remember that ultimately, you are the one who is alive

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

Rebecca Solnit

Letting your Ancestors determine or heavily influence your choices and your courses of action is a way of avoiding responsibility. You’re the one who’s alive. You’re the one who’s in the driver seat. Your Ancestors are wise. But, if their messages are coming from a place of hurt, they can hinder you more than they help you.

Often, the internal voice that forces us to compromise before we ask for what we want is a symptom of ancestral trauma. Someone in our ancestral line experienced pain, loss, or prejudice and developed a coping mechanism that may have helped them survive but is now limiting their descendants’ ability to thrive.

Mallorie Vaudoise

Take control of your life and your choices as an act of hope. Your actions matter. If you make a mistake that hurts you, your Ancestors won’t suffer the way you will. They are dead and beyond suffering. So make sure the mistake is your own and there are no Ancestors that can be blamed for them. That could hurt your relationship with them in the long-term.

In short, having a regular Ancestor practice can benefit you in many ways. There are several types of Ancestors, including Blood Ancestors, Lineage Ancestors, and Affinity Ancestors. Even if your Ancestors did questionable or awful things, it is still worthwhile to work with them. This is so because you can help them rectify their wrongs. Building an Ancestor Altar is a personal experience. It will vary according to the individual. However, there are some simple tips that will certainly help most people.

What is your Ancestor Veneration practice like? Which tip did you like best? Tell us in the comments!

References

Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Haymarket Books, 2016.

Vaudoise, Mallorie. Honoring Your Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestral Veneration. Llewellyn, 2019.  

Virginia Castiglione
Virginia Castiglione

Virginia Castiglione is the Founder and Content Marketing Lead at Aquamarine Content. She is a certified gemologist and Reiki practitioner. She’s also an astrologer. She’s working to get her Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature. She’s the emotional support human of a cat named Limón. She’s a Virgo Sun, Pisces Moon, and Taurus Rising.

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