Families aren’t perfect. Not everyone in a family likes or agrees with one another, and everyone has at least one relative who has actively harmed the family in some way. However, we’re Heathens. Ancestor veneration is a key part of our spiritual practice. So how do we honor ancestors who have hurt us? And, how do we begin to heal the damage to our family’s wyrd?
My Grandfather’s Legacy
My father’s father is a good example of this. The youngest of eleven children from a small farm in Sweden, he moved to the USA in the 1930s to escape poverty in his small-town and to start a new life. He ended up in the Midwest, married a Norwegian-American woman later in life, and had six children of his own—my father being the youngest of these children. Unfortunately, unlike his closest brother who had moved to Chicago, or his sister who had stayed in Sweden, he did not go on to create a better life for himself. Though he did find work, he became a verbally abusive “weekend” alcoholic who gambled away what few resources he had and left his family in poverty. Being the youngest my dad endured the brunt of his anger for many years, as his siblings had each escaped as soon as they could do so.
Years passed, and while time doesn’t heal all things, it definitely helps to dull the pain. My grandfather died many years before I was born; I never met the man. I have no personal resentment against him, though I wish he had been a better role model for my father. What my sister and I did get was a lifetime worth of hearing about how worthless my grandfather was and my dad’s disdain for all things Swedish. Though I inherited my Swedish-American ancestry from my grandfather, he also gave me a big reason to avoid it.
Despite this, and my father’s dislike of his Swedish roots, I’ve always been fascinated with our connection to Sweden. As a third-generation American, I distinctly felt the lack of cultural identity, made all the more so because I was surrounded by friends and family members who reveled in their Scandinavian roots. I grew up in a Midwestern town that was inundated with Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans—we proudly boast the longest-running Swedish Pancake House in the area, and we have several Scandinavian tchotchkes stores and Swedish-themed hotels or restaurants in the area. Sweden is in our blood, and we can’t avoid it, no matter how much my dad would love to do so. So when I found Heathenry, I was ecstatic and relieved. Paganism? Based on deities my Scandinavian pre-Christian ancestors worshiped? Count me in!
How Do We Honor Dishonorable People?
I’ve been Heathen for over fifteen years now, and I have been grappling with this ancestor veneration dis-easiness for almost as long. So a couple of years ago, I reach out to a friend who is a Heathen seidhkona as well as an initiated Santeria to help me start to piece my ancestor practice together. If you’re not familiar with Santeria (and I wasn’t), it’s a living tradition based on pre-Christian Caribbean beliefs mixed with elements of Roman Catholicism. Ancestor veneration plays a huge role in Santeria, and unlike modern Heathenry, this tradition has hundreds of years of recent practice. Based on her experiences in Heathenry and Santeria, my friend was able to give me a few practical guidelines to help get my ancestor practice started.
One of the first things she pointed out was we all have hundreds of generations of ancestors. I don’t need to honor just the recently deceased; I can honor segments of my ancestors, or, more generically, “my ancestors” as a whole. For example, I can just honor my mother’s family, or I could honor just those family members from Norway, Germany, or Ireland. Another way to go about this is to focus on those recent ancestors whom I know were honorable in life. There is no reason that one bad ancestor should ruin the whole bunch.
She also pointed out that we can heal relationships with specific people even after they have passed on. In fact, it may be easier to do it this way; after death, many spirits seem to lose some of the enmity and vitriol they possessed in life. With these things in mind, I built an ancestor altar and started making regular libations. I started visiting my ancestors’ graves at the local cemeteries when I could, and sharing more stories of my beloved dead at Heathen events such as Winternights. I started to toast them as often as I toasted the Gods and the lanvaettir. And then, after some long discussion, my sister and I decided to go visit Sweden to help rebuild the pieces of family history that had been lost due to my grandfather’s alcoholism.
My father was stymied by our decision. He could not figure out why we would ever want to visit Sweden, or why we cared anything at all about our lost grandfather. In our fact-finding discussions with him, he would often get annoyed or angry, or just shake his head in disbelief. I can understand his reaction to a certain extent; everything we said or did reminded him of his childhood and the pain he’d carried with him his whole life. It wasn’t until we were there, tracking down our ancestors’ graves in the local familjegrav in central Sweden, did we understand the impact our trip was having. We had decided to go on this trip for us–to heal our own connection with our ancestors. However, this trip was was giving my father a chance to heal his relationship with his father as well. Alcoholism (and its long-reaching effects) are family wounds, ground into a family’s wyrd; it effects everyone in the family. We were just the ones in our family who had decided to try to stop the cycle and begin to heal it, one step at a time.
Finding New Ancestors and Creating New Bonds
It was our third day in Sweden, and we had finally made it to our grandfather’s hometown. The sun was setting against the foggy sky filled with drizzling rain. We had just come out of an amazingly productive meeting with the local genealogist, who had traced our family in this area back to the early 1700s. As he closed his shop, he pointed to the town’s church and kyrkogård (cemetery) a few blocks away. “Your great-aunt should be in there,” he said. “Maybe some cousins, too.” We thanked him for the fifteen-millionth time and left.
My sister suggested that since we did still have a half hour or so of daylight left, we should check out the cemetery. We did, splitting up to cover ground more quickly. About twenty minutes later, I was cold, wet, hungry, tired from our long day, and ready to turn in when I heard her yell from the other side of the cemetery. She excitedly waved me over and pointed at the tombstone in front of her. “Ekvall?” I asked. “That’s not our family name.” She pulled out a tattered list of our Swedish relatives and pointed at it. “No! Look at her maiden name.”
“Hannah Ekvall… Svensson!” I read. We checked the dates and confirmed it—here was the grave of our great-aunt Hannah, the older sister of my grandfather who had stayed home in Sweden when her brothers left. We took a picture of the gravestone, high-fived, and went off to search for others. That night we emailed our parents with our find and the somewhat dark and blurry photo of the gravestone. What we received back the next day from my normally reserved Scandinavian-American father surprised us both.
You two have discovered a sentimental bone in my body that I didn’t know I had for my Swedish relatives and the village of Nora…. Please put flowers on Aunt Hannah’s grave and thank her for keeping in touch with my family all those years!!
Neither of us had even known Aunt Hannah existed other than as a name on a list of family members. However, despite never having met her, she had had a huge impact in my father. As we later found out, for several years in his childhood she had sent the family Swedish newspapers and individually-wrapped Christmas gifts for the kids (which, if you are the youngest of six kids and never receive anything new, really is a memorable gift).
The next day, after our breakfast of Swedish pastries, we scoured the rest of the graveyards and found several other great-cousins and a great-uncle or two. However, our biggest find remained Aunt Hannah’s grave. While we were there, we spent an hour or so weeding her grave; as she had had no children, no one had tended her grave in almost 35 years. Then we planted fresh flowers on top of it—purple, red, and white–which, as we saw several other Swedes doing it, seemed to be the norm. Luckily, a nearby florist shop had a huge display of flowers for sale. We weren’t sure if we’d ever be back, so I also wanted to leave her something that would last.
Before we left town, we each spent some time at her grave in quiet communion with this woman whom my dad had never met, but who had made such a lasting, positive impact on his life from thousands of miles away. I realized that I had a new ancestor to add to my list: Aunt Hannah, much beloved by her nieces and nephews. Back stateside, I found that part of her spirit has come back with me, as well. Now Hannah has an honored spot on my ancestor altar. I greet her every morning by name, along with the rest of my gods and ancestors.
As for my grandfather, when we got back to the States, I made a special visit to his grave in my hometown. I brought him a postcard of his hometown that had never seen again (a fact that he often cried about when he was drunk), and a cardamom-sugar roll from our local Swedish bakery. My father tells me that his parents’ weeknight routine was that after all of the kids had been put to bed, they would sit in the kitchen talking, drinking coffee, and eating cardamom-sugar rolls. So now, once a season, I visit my grandparents again, bringing sweet coffee and cardamom rolls, and giving them a chance for a fika break with the granddaughter he never met. I don’t get much from them when I visit–mild confusion, if anything–but I try not to have any expectations. I just enjoy the quiet time with them, drinking coffee and sharing news of the family. It helps me as much as it does them, I think.
While we can’t erase our family’s history or our own wyrd, we can research our ancestry and find new ancestors worth honoring. These worthy ancestors may be hidden, but every family has them. It can helpful and healing to find them and forge deeper connections with them. In this way, we can begin to heal the spiritual and emotional damage in our wyrd and prevent the damage from spreading to our descendants. There is help to be found in even the most pain-filled Ancestors’ Hall, if you look hard enough. We do not need to do any of this reforging alone.
(And because the Gods and Ancestors Are Subtle(tm), one of my decidedly non-Heathen cousins posted this to my FB wall while I was in the middle of writing this article: “Meter Television is conducting a nationwide search for fun, outgoing and adventurous Americans with Swedish ancestry (even a little bit counts), with a burning desire to find their roots and see their motherland. Chosen participants will compete in extreme cultural challenges to discover their rich and fascinating roots while trying to win the grand prize; MEETING THEIR SWEDISH RELATIVES.” Unfortunately for them, I’ve already been, and my only living relative is a 93-year-old Swedish lady who doesn’t speak any English. Uff da!)