An Underworld Focus

At this time of year, I pay a lot of attention to one part of my Focus*.

As altar-y spaces go, it is unquestionably the “witchiest” part of mine: bones, skulls, fossils of extinct species, a mummified bat, images of prehistoric cave paintings, megalithic spiral carvings and departed loved ones, a dried pomegranate. It is where I keep the black jar of rose water with which I have anointed several dead people, and the tiny jar of cedar oil, veteran of so many Hallows rituals, whose scent reminds me of the inside of a coffin.

It is The Underworld.

My Focus is built in a bookcase, with one shelf removed to make a double-height space. This area is The World, filled with all the symbols and reminders of what delights and moves me about life on Earth.

But on the shelf below The World is The Underworld, the place of grief, and memory, and ancestry.

This space is important to me because life is not all joy. It is loss and fear and the inevitable fact of mortality as well. Memory of what has forever gone away. And this, too, must be remembered and honored and reckoned with. And so I curate and care for this grim part of my Focus, and urge you, too, to create one on such themes, at least at this time of year: the time of Hallows.

Making an Underworld Focus is simple in concept but may be emotionally challenging. Gathering the images of your Honored Dead can be an experience of great sadness…or it can be one of fond remembrance. It depends on you.

Do you, like so many Pagans, have skulls or bones or Halloween decorations that set the proper mood? Gather those. Put down a black cloth as a base upon which to create your Focus. Arrange the objects and the pictures of your Honored Dead. Include a candle so you can “activate” your Focus when it is complete, and so it will be illuminated at night when you light it. You may want a small dish or incense burner so you can burn some incense there: perhaps the evocative, mood-altering resin incenses such as dragon’s blood or frankincense.

I keep some ritual tools in my Underworld, as well: a clamp and surgical scissors that were found in my mother’s apartment when she died (she was an RN), and a sprig of yew I gather in a cemetery each Halloween, dry for a year on the Focus, and then use to light the Hallows fire the following year.

You may wish to place an empty plate and/or drinking vessel on your Focus: symbol of the “empty place setting” that is often set for those who have died at Hallows feasts. You can make offerings on this plate: pomegranates are popular, or perhaps a red rose (fresh or dried).

When I light the candle on my Underworld Focus each night, I say the words, “The Honored Dead” (just as I say “The Sacred Earth” when I light the candle on The World Focus). This reminds me that I am of a lineage of organisms far beyond my mere nearby genetic neighbors and extending back billions of years. My Honored Dead are not only relatives and departed friends: they are ammonites and trilobites and bacteria.

Here, at this time of year when Pagans of all stripes contemplate mortality and ancestry, an Underworld Focus is a way to begin a practice of coming to grips with the fact that we will die, that all that arise from the Earth are subsumed within its Sacred fabric again, to be reconstituted as new life.


*An Atheopagan term for an altar, used as an alternative so as not to imply worship or sacrifice.

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Atheopagan “Saints”

They are Honored Dead, at the very least.

Giordano Bruno. Galileo Galilei.

Copernicus. Isaac Newton. Aldo Leopold. Marie Curie.

Albert Einstein. Richard Feynman. Rachel Carson. Carl Sagan. Ursula K. LeGuin.

Stephen Hawking.

Mary Oliver.

And there will be more, when they go: Jane Goodall. Richard Attenborough. Bill Nye. Wendell Berry.

The work of these people is so powerful that it persists into today. It resonates across the centuries. It inspires us to seek the truth, to honor reality, to celebrate the great circle of blessed Being.

I—only half joking—call them the Atheopagan saints. St. Carl. St. Isaac. St. Rachel. St. Ursula.

And yes, we can all have a chuckle about that.

But wouldn’t you light a candle for St. Carl, who brought us into the magic of the Cosmos? Or St. Isaac, who gave us calculus and modern physics? Or St. Ursula, who shattered the conventions of gender with her wildly humane writing?

Or embattled, suffering St. Charles, who spoke the truth about evolution?

It works for me.

These are my Honored Dead, just as much as those I knew in person. They lifted us all up and helped us to come closer to embrace of reality.

And don’t even get me started on the political saints.

May each of you have the courage of St. Harriet (Tubman) and the awe and wonder of St. Carl.

Happy belated “All Saints” Day!


Look! You can even buy candles! But it’s Amazon, so it would be better to make your own.

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.