Across the ancient world the veneration of the spirits of the human dead was practiced in a variety of forms. Long before letters were invented the megalithic peoples built great mounds and tombs and kept complex rites of bone and sun and land. The historical peoples we know inherited a land already haunted with unmemoried monuments, with clans of spirits whose names were forgotten. Upon that soil and stone new lives and deaths came and went. Newer mounds and tombs were added to old, and the Dead were never absent from either popular religion or the practice of magic.
In many Pagan farm cultures the family dead were buried under the very earthen floor of the family home. The intimacy of the living with the immediate generations of the Family Dead was part of daily life. Only in places where the press of human population demanded it, such as the growing City of Rome, were the dead transported to ‘cemeteries’. As the Christian churches gained power in the late Roman Empire a deliberate effort was made to divide the living from the dead. Church doctrine taught that the dead were inaccessible to the living. Any manifestation of family spirits or the Heroes of the old religion were demons, impostures of their imagined “Enemy”. Except for certain sanctioned Christian heroes – the ‘Saints’ - there was no licit contact between mortals and the spirits of the dead.
Any effort to restore the ethos and practices of traditional Paganism must certainly include a restoration of the Cult of the Dead. It is an indispensable part of every version of ethnic Indo-European Paganism, and is often called the basis of all work with the spirits. In modern Paganism it is an element that was excluded in early forms, and is now returning.
For those who entered Pagan revival through Wiccan-style rites the absence of the Dead and the Ancestors from most usual work is notable. I think we can find two major influences behind that. Gardner’s Wicca developed in the mid-twentieth century, and the influence of both spiritualism and of Theosophy was still strong. Mediumship – especially physical mediumship – had been frequently involved in fraud both paranormal and financial, and was greatly reduced in influence from previous decades. Dissociating witchcraft from mediumship was part of the effort to legitimize witchcraft practices. From the other side of the same Theosophical influence they received a doctrine of universal reincarnation. Theosophy took the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, edited it for westerners, and made it a standard part of ‘esoteric teaching’. This was picked up by the early waves of the Pagan revival. When I began meeting other Pagans and witches back in the 1970s a model of universal reincarnation from human life to human life was an assumption of the movement.
|A Roman Lararium, house-altar|
for the Dead.
The study of real sources about ancient Euro-Paganism has convinced many that no such doctrine was a part of traditional Paganism. Plainly there were teachings about the continuance of individual awareness as a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ although many ethnic systems contain the idea of multiple soul layers or components. The core of traditional Pagan afterlife beliefs seems to involve the journey of the spirit into the Land of the Dead (usually the Underworld, in some sense). This involves various landscapes, incidents and mysteries, which various sects and teachers used as the basis for rites of initiation and seership. However reincarnation or rebirth is clearly a part of some ancient teachings. In some cases it occurs within family lines, in others a great hero is reborn among his folk. Even in such cultures the cult of the Dead is present, offering a bit of paradox about the fate of the individual soul.
The fate of common personal souls was thought to reside in the Land of the Dead, in which they were subsumed in a general cult of ‘the Dead’ or of ‘the Ancestors’. It was hoped that one’s family and clan would preserve one’s name and memory, and in that way one’s spirit would receive personal offerings and remain close to the love of the folk. Those who were initiates of some ‘mystery’ might expect to be received in some deity’s house or garden, to experience a more personal existence than that of the unremembered mass.
On a family level this was much more personal. Many cultures place a shrine or altar for the house’s lineage in the house itself. Daily spiritual work would have been at least as involved with the Ancestors as with any of the Gods. In Northern lore we find some families who expect their Dead to dwell in a local mound or mountain. Nobles might choose to ‘set up court’ in their own burial mounds, receiving offerings and giving blessings from that seat. The notion that the Dead receive offerings at their graves, whether those are in family homes or in separate spaces, seems to be nearly universal.
We will examine the development of a personal Cult of the Dead for sorcery in coming chapters. Let us examine a few of the broad categories under which the spirits of the Dead were worshipped and conjured in traditional Paganism.
The Ancestral Dead
This category is personal and specific. It refers to those in the line of your family history who are honored as beloved Dead by the living. Some cultures are very concerned with reverence to the recent Dead, with the keeping of family tombs or of house-shrines to the recently passed. Honor to one’s immediate parental and grandparental generations is central to this category.
For many modern Pagans this presents a difficult hurdle in our restoration of traditional practice. There are two primary difficulties that modern people encounter – first, many families do not share the religious or occult inclinations of modern practitioners. Second, many families have been damaged by a cycle of abuse, or by addiction or other dysfunction that weakens the bond between generations.
The problem of ‘worshipping’ a recently-dead family member with whom one may have had a less than affectionate relationship is addressed by tradition in a strict manner. It simply does not matter what relationship one had with the formerly-living. They are now among the Dead, and must be honored as we honor the Dead. If a parent does badly by their children so that the children refuse to give that proper honor then the whole luck of the family might fail – this encourages the elder generation toward kindness. The Ancestor-worshipping traditions often have specific rites and methods for reconciling ‘difficult’ ancestors with the living. Those can be found in several of our recommended books.
As to the question of recent or Ancestral Dead who were not polytheists, or were in fact devout or nominal Christians, we can answer in several ways. First we might assume that they will have gone their way, and be unlikely to remain to answer the call of a Pagan’s altar. However we know, in most cases, that the Dead loved us while they lived, and so love us now. We can make the proper offerings in any case, in love, and hope that their own gods will allow them the happiness of being remembered. In some cases the recent Dead are entirely happy to remain near their family for a time. It can be a kindness to include some element of the spirit’s religion in their commemoration, but the simple offerings and honoring we give can only be a comfort. We might even assume that the reality of spiritual life becomes clear to us all at death, regardless of our ‘beliefs’ during life. The modern conceit that we shape reality with our beliefs certainly has no basis in tradition.
In any case the degree of intimacy with which the Cult of the Dead is approached will vary widely among practitioners. The basics of the work are done in the home, integrated into the common life. While reverence to family Dead is often seen as a first step, as a gate-keeper between the mortal shrine and the wider world of spirits, this can be approached in a formal and respectful way whatever the personal emotional position of the student may be. There are also many who say that it is the Oldest Dead who bring more power to the work, rather than the more recent.
Notable mortals sometimes become notable spirits. Throughout the Pagan world those whose lives are worthy of memory, those who have done some great or terrible deed for their folk, those of special power, charisma and skill are held in special memory and high esteem. Some of these become active sources of blessing and the object of cult. Often such worship is associated with the tomb or historical locales of the Hero’s story, but sometimes such spirits are subsumed into the pantheon of gods, and generate temples and images widely.
The Hellenes referred to the mightiest of such heroes as the children of the gods themselves, and thus Demigods – “half-gods”. This idea – of mortal offspring of the gods – occurs in various ways and with varying degrees of literalism or importance. Whether or not the local system allows the idea of literal divine parentage the Heroes are those who seem to shine with divine power, and who use that power for the good of their folk. This may occur after death, in the mind’s eye of story, or during a charismatic and effective life.
For modern Pagans in our decentralized and eclectic culture we might each have our own heroes. Of course we share various historical and cultural commonalities. Figures of national or ideological history, from Jefferson and Franklin to Crowley and Gardner, might become a part of a home shrine-cult. For those seeking the work of magic and priestcraft a specific subset of the Heroes may be valuable:
The Elder Wise
It has always been a part of magical wisdom for the living to be taught by the Dead. That which is remembered, lives, as they say, and the memory of the skills, ways, and lore of a people is a matter of great importance to the Dead. Many of those who have undertaken the work of restoring the Old Ways have sought to hear the voices of these beings.
In Our Druidry we often refer to such spirits as the Elder Wise. Spirits, as we say, of those who were once magicians, once priestesses, oracles, spellbinders, conjurors, we call to them and ask them to bring us their teaching. Our experience suggests that this approach is fitting for anyone who dedicates themselves to magical arts or Pagan spirituality. These spirits have shown themselves to be responsive and actively ready to support our modern efforts.
The Unhappy Dead
Life can be hard, and fate is not always kind. To the ancients the rites and memory of mortals were central to the maintenance of a happy afterlife for the recent Dead. Those who passed without proper rites, without a tomb, without kin to mourn them, without formal remembrance were unable to make the usual transition into the Land of the Dead. They became ‘ghosts’ specters that haunted the living world.
This fate was not limited to the lower classes. Those who died unknown while traveling, in shipwrecks, in great battles, by crime or murder – any who died with their life unfulfilled – might find themselves in this category. Together these spirits made up a crowd or mob or host of grey and unhappy beings, some of whom might hate or resent the living. It was not a judgment of moral character. In fact it was the default for all – to become a part of the Host. The rites and works of religion and religious magic were developed to provide a better portion, just as agriculture provided more plentiful food.
This Host of the Dead was a major source of power for practical spellcasting in ancient magic. While they are called on for almost every kind of work, in the Greco-Egyptian material they are called upon for the more “low-down” intentions – harm, coercive love-spells, winning at gambling by disabling the opponent. They might also generate serving spirits. In modern spirit systems it is sometimes taught that such spirits can benefit by working with mortal sorcerers. Their work helps them remember themselves, their names become known to the living, and they can often grow in wisdom and power, along with the magician.
The Ancestors and the Dead are the gateway to working with the spirits. Whatever one’s spiritual perspective the value of work with the Mothers and Fathers, with the Mighty and Wise Dead, and even with the Host of the Hungry cannot be overstated. In many ways it is the single most vital missing element in restoring a polytheist perspective to modern magical practice.