Ancestors: A Conundrum

What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

—Radiohead

I have always acknowledged that my particular flavor of Atheopaganism springs from an unlikely confluence of experiences which will not resonate for some. Among them are such elements as having been raised with no religion—really none, not even atheism, but rather a complete blank where the topic might have existed—a deep and passionate love for the natural world, and a personal drive towards seeking for the most likely truths about myself, humanity and the nature of the Universe. An atheistic, Earth-focused, ritually-expressed set of observances and practices was the natural outgrowth of the circumstances from which I came. It is a formula, found after long experimentation, for a person like me to cultivate happiness and meaning.

One circumstance which commonly informs Pagan cosmology and practice and yet which I have not really touched on is ancestry. So I thought I would take a stab at talking about that now.

For many who gravitate to Paganism, the concept of ancestry is deeply important. Feeling a part of a lineage, whether familial, cultural, or even evolutionary, is a source of brimming emotion for many Pagans, who feel in their understanding of where they came from a powerful, visceral meaning…a placement in time and space. While some go so far as to spill over into romantic and sometimes fanciful ideas about “the Ancients”, others, including many naturalistic Pagans, are simply moved by the fact that we descend from so many millions of generations of creatures that came before us, strove, struggled, succeeded in reproducing and then died. They fondly honor the handful of generations of which they have memories or about which they have received family lore. And if they have children, they know that they, too, are ancestors in the making: they pass down stories and traditions, they provide that the next generation may thrive.

Little of that resonates for me, regrettably. I envy those who experience it.

Ancestry for me is a charged and problematic topic. I stem from a highly abusive family background and am estranged from all members of my blood family. What I know of my ancestry is unremarkable, although I do descend from several passengers of the Mayflower. Since that time, to my knowledge, my antecedents have lived and died pretty much completely without distinction. There are no heroes, no luminaries, no significant successes of any kind. Nor is there any cultural identity beyond plain, white-bread American. No stories of immigrant struggles, nor Old Countries’ Ways.

None of which would have mattered, I am sure, if my experience of my family had not been so terrible. But it was, and so I am left not with swelling love at the thought of ancestors, but rather with a cold stab of betrayal. I survived my ancestors, and that is about the best I can say of them.

Nor do I have, or will I have, children. I would never take the risk of perpetuating what was done to me, and my commitment to the biosphere leads me to embrace truncating my branch of the family tree rather than adding more mouths to this beleaguered world.

Long story short, I am adrift in the world with neither root nor fruit. And it is from this context that I began a quest for some kind of sense of place: for a framework and a practice to give me the sense that I belonged here.

Family is the leading edge of ancestry. Family says, we brought you here, and you belong. You are one of us. Unless it doesn’t, in which case your experience of ancestry becomes something else entirely.

This has all turned out very confessional, and I really didn’t mean for it to be. And I’m not looking for sympathy, please: it’s taken a long time, but I’m okay now, by and large. I have wonderful people in my life who are functionally like family, who are kin to me. I’m just not related to them except in a taxonomic sense.

Now, I think the Great Story of evolution is amazing. To know that we derive from elements forged in the hearts of exploding stars, that we are the descendants of bacteria and fish and tetrapods and reptiles and proto-apes is profound and wonderful in a literal sense: it fills me with wonder.

But then we get to the humans, and that word comes along: ancestors. And I go cold.

I wish it weren’t so. But it is.

Anyone else out there who comes from a Disaster Family and grapples with ancestry as a part of your Pagan practice? Please comment and let’s converse.

I believe one of the main drivers of religion is not to feel alone. To feel a part of Something Larger. Families and ancestral lines can give us that. But so can shared experience. So let’s talk.

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3 thoughts on “Ancestors: A Conundrum

  1. Hey, I know the feeling. My family background was very abusive too, and I’m also child-free. The emphasis on ancestors does sometimes leave me feeling cold too, and let’s not even get started on the ways “ancestry” can be twisted into racism. But on the other hand, there is as you say, the great story of evolution…all our forebears, human and non-human stretching back through time for billions of years, without whom I wouldn’t be here today.

    I think that ancestors can be more than just your immediate biological parents, grandparents etc. There are ancestors of place, the people who lived where you now live (in my case the Celtic Iceni tribe, for the US-based, perhaps a Native people), ancestors of DNA which includes the first humans and those species who came before, ancestors of inspiration, great thinkers who have influenced your own ideas and worldviews, etc.. So I try to take a broader view of who “the ancestors” are which allows me to move beyond the hurt, and feel a sense of belonging to the “great family” of humanity as a whole.

    But of course, one of the joys of Paganism is that nothing is dogma, so if working with ancestors of any sort is triggering, or just doesn’t work for you, then you can jettison it, just as we can with literal belief in gods, or Wiccanate heteronormativity, or animal sacrifice or any other parts of Pagan traditions we don’t agree with.

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  2. Yes, I’m clearly in the direction you say you aren’t here. Thanks for this clear picture of where you are. I might point out that the long evolutionary chain, including stars, are your Ancestors too. “Ancestor” doesn’t mean only human. Also, I try to point out to all of us (especially Pagans like me who do put a lot of emphasis on Ancestors), that with literally billions of Ancestors, all of us have at least thousands (or more) Ancestors who were the worst kinds of people imaginable – rapists, abusers, murderers, deadbeats, bigots, sadists, and so on. In fact, you and I have nearly the exact same proportion of these assholes in our ancestry (and not too far back, the same ones). Yes, you have some that are more recent – but I bet I have some that are even worse than those you know by name. How? Because we all do – the horrors of the distant past are too brutal to describe. I make that guess partly because you are alive, can think, walk, etc. What do you think? Hugs- Jon

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  3. Interesting topic, to be sure.
    One of my deepest regrets, in a life without many, is my total lack of curiosity about my ancestry, when I was young and had grandparents and family galore to ask. Nor did they talk about their past- to the best of my recollection. Only when I was middle-aged, and my mother near death, did I begin to ask, like the proverbial child, “Where did I come from”? I got some hints, from her and other sources, about Irish and Scot origins, as well as a very intriguing story- long the shameful family secret- of a Cherokee fore bearer.
    Interesting as this is to me, as I approach the end of my own life, it does not begin to explain why, when I encountered the idea of “The Goddess” in the late 60s, I fell into her arms with a great sense of relief. Probably has a lot to do with an often-absent and distracted mother, and a family that, in general, had little time for me. Here was a deity who opened her arms, and loved unconditionally. How could I not fall?
    One amusing sidelight: for reasons too complicated to touch on, my mother did expose me to Catholicism for a few, pre-adolescent, years. Most of it went over my childish head, and I took no harm from it, but I was deeply impressed by the theatrical elements of the experience- the smell of incense, candles flickering in the gloom, the chanting (this was before The Church “reformed”, and the chants were in Latin, as they should have remained), and, above all, the guy up there on the stage (as I thought of it) in the gorgeous robe, running the show. I am quite sure that this experience explains my later love of The Theater (my first career), as well as my gravitation to middle-sized-frog-in-a-small-puddle Pagan Priesthood, thirty years ago. I got to get up there in my own gorgeous robes and control, (more or less), rituals involving a couple of hundred people, and it was a rush, for awhile.
    I still miss it, sometimes- still have the robes, for that matter- but my faith (both in the existence of an anthropomorphic, caring deity of any gender and in “Neopaganism” itself) faltered, somewhere along the line, and I just wasn’t able to do it anymore. Too bad. I coulda been a contender.
    But, I digress.
    What I want to say is that there’s a clear connection between our desire to know “where we come from” and the conceit that, when we get up and sing “We All Come From The Goddess” (one of my favorite hymns, by the way), we are speaking literal truth. Life is frightening enough without some sense of being tethered to the past- some explanation of how we got here and became who we are. Without that knowledge (or, anyway, belief) we are in some kind of existential free-fall that can be highly disorienting. This explains the existence of a flourishing, billion dollar “Genealogy Industry”, serving those who need anchoring in time and place.
    Thanks for opening up the subject, Mark. I look forward to reading other’s thoughts on the subject.
    Here’s a link, by the way, to an interesting article on the genealogy industry: http://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/jun/19/ancestors-genealogy-high-cost-money
    Be well, all.
    -Buffalo

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