Ancestors: A Conundrum

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


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.