Ancestral Altars: A bridge between worlds - Ashley Brothers
Updated: Aug 12
Multiple cultures across the globe dedicate a spot in their home to an ancestral altar. Whether it be a whole wall, a section of the house, a small table, or a simple bookshelf, many families honor their loved ones with pictures, candles, incense, crystals, flowers, food, drinks, candy, trinkets, and other offerings as a way to express their gratitude, respect, and interconnectedness beyond space and time. After all, the soul lives eternally. So, even if they are not with us in body, our ancestors and loved ones are with us in spirit.
There can be a general offering of whatever you deem appropriate, but some choose to gift their ancestors with their favorite things like cigarettes, alcohol, or some other item that was special to and appreciated by them in particular. This is not a one-day-a-year event, but rather a daily practice that goes deeper than honoring the ones we love.
While we pray and ask our ancestors for help in times of need, THEY may need US too. Not everyone’s passing was swift, easy, or peaceful. Many ancestors need as much support, help, prayers, compassion, forgiveness, and power that we can spare them in order for them to be able to transcend the levels of their new reality . . . just like we do in ours. If their lives were particularly challenging, they may have a lot of baggage that weighs them down, or their state of awareness when they passed may have left them confused as to where they are and where they are supposed to go once they transition. An example may be if they suddenly died in an accident, a murder, and so on.
In some shamanic traditions, they talk about living and exiting through the heart chakra or higher if we want to die consciously. Basically they mean dying with a neutral vibrational energy or better. They expressed the need to clean our chakras; shed our wounding stories and limiting beliefs; make amends by saying we are sorry to those we’ve hurt; ask for and grant forgiveness; and to express our love and gratitude. A lack of awareness or a “heavy heart” (low vibrational emotions) may make it difficult to rise beyond the middle world (earthly planes). This is why ghosts and other suffering beings attach themselves to people or wander from place to place. In this case, a person may need to call a psychopomp (soul-transitioner) in order to help lost souls heal and move on to the Destiny of Human Souls.
Ancestral altars can become like a gateway or portal between realms that allow for communication and transference of energy. There is a belief among many cultures that if we don’t feed our ancestors, they will feed on us. The offerings themselves are a form of energy that they can consume and, in cases where we may have had some friction with someone, it gives us a chance to set things right so that we don’t have to necessarily repeat the same tumultuous dynamic in the next incarnation together. It can be a form of peace-keeping, a truce, or settling of karmic debt. It’s also just a form of love, compassion, and respect.
In my case, I’d had a very difficult relationship with my own mother and despite many healings, extractions, and depossessions practitioners had done on me, she kept coming back just as sad, scared, and pissed off as she was when she died in 1999. There was major unfinished business between us. I even gave away everything I had inherited from her several years after she passed (including money and belongings) because I realized that I was getting seriously ill and starting to get similar scars and illnesses that she had experienced. I didn’t know how to honor her. So, instead, I tried to detach myself from her. I tried to run, to hide, to banish her, exorcise her, and anything else you could think of, but it wasn’t enough.
After a 15-year battle with her ghost, I finally surrendered. It was the summer of 2015. I was 11 years into my spiritual training and taking a much-needed hike in my favorite wildlife reserve when I happened to glance behind me. I stopped dead in my tracks in utter disbelief and sheer frustration when I noticed my mother’s spirit on the trail behind me. I called out to my spirit guide/teacher and asked him what I could possibly do to get her to go away. (Thankfully the trail was empty otherwise people would have thought I was talking to myself). He said, “Offer her a healing.” I turned to where he was standing beside me and looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean ‘offer her a healing?’” I asked. “She’s dead.” He chuckled and replied, “Yes, but you’re not. You have the training. So, offer her a healing. She doesn’t need to be alive for you to help her and to heal her.” I wanted to slap my own forehead. Of course. I’d been trained in speaking to and helping the deceased.
So, I refocused my attention on my mother. I looked at her sad face and asked her if she wanted to do this again . . . if she wanted to go through all of this crap between us in the next life. She silently shook her head. I asked her if she would like a healing and her face broke out into a huge smile as she nodded. So, right then and there, in the middle of broad daylight on a hiking trail, I called all my spirit allies and ancestors from all 7 directions to come and hold sacred space for us. I then proceeded to do shamanic healing (extraction and soul retrieval) on her as if she were one of my long-distance clients. By the time the work was done, she was glowing.
I called in Grandpa Hilger, her father who had passed 14 years before her, to help her transcend. I saw his spirit for the first time in over 20 years as he lovingly embraced his daughter. She beamed up at him with pure love, joy, and gratitude on her face. I stood there and cried as held her in his arms and danced with her. Her joy uplifted her spirit in a way that nothing else could. As she was distracted by the reunion with her father, they rose together, in beauty and joy, until I could no longer see them.
I still see Mom from time to time, but now, instead of being sad, angry, and cloaked in shadow, she smiles and glows. We speak to each other with love, compassion, and forgiveness. I see her for who she is now, who she is becoming, rather than who she was. I no longer fear her picture or her presence. What once was a brutally painful relationship between us, is now one of peace and joy. She suffered in death, as she had in life, and what was unresolved within her had been passed on to me. It was up to me, like it is the rest of us, to break that chain. In my case, I had the skills and the willingness to offer the same kind of healing that saved my life countless times. It lifted the burden, broke the chain, and wrote a different ending to our story together in this lifetime.
So, no matter how you go about it, grand or small, consider making an altar for those who have passed. Leave little offerings, light incense or a candle, or just say a simple prayer for the wellbeing of all. May you and your loved ones be blessed on this day. Thank you for reading.
Instructions For Building A Proper Ancestral Altar:
Building an ancestral altar is a deeply personal and spiritual practice that varies across cultures and traditions. An ancestral altar serves as a space to honor and connect with your ancestors, seeking guidance, and protection, and maintaining a link with your roots. While the specifics may differ, here are some general instructions to help you create an ancestral altar:
Research Your Ancestry: Before you start, gather information about your family's history, lineage, and cultural traditions. This will help you understand who your ancestors were and what practices might be appropriate.
Select a Location: Choose a quiet, clean, and dedicated space for your ancestral altar. It could be a shelf, table, or any other surface. Ideally, place it where it won't be disturbed.
Altar Cloth: Choose a cloth that resonates with you, and it's often chosen based on a color significant to your culture or personal preference.
Candles: Place candles on the altar to represent the element of fire and to illuminate the spirits' way. Some prefer white or specific colors based on tradition.
Incense or Smudging Tools: This represents air and purification. Choose scents that are pleasant and meaningful.
Offerings: Decide on offerings like water, food, drinks, or items that your ancestors enjoyed during their lifetime.
Photos and Mementos: Display photographs of your ancestors, as well as objects that remind you of them.
Symbols and Statues: Incorporate symbols or statues that represent your cultural or spiritual heritage.
Family Tree or Genealogy: If you have a family tree, it could be displayed or represented in some form.
Prayer or Intention Cards: Write prayers, intentions, or messages to your ancestors.
Set Up the Altar:
Cover the altar with the cloth.
Place the candles at the back of the altar, along with the incense.
Arrange the photos and mementos in the center.
Put offerings in front of the photos. Refresh them regularly.
Add symbols or statues on the sides, as appropriate.
Cleanse and Bless the Altar:
Before setting up the altar, you can cleanse the space using smudging tools or any other method that aligns with your beliefs.
Offer a prayer or intention to bless the space and invite positive energies.
Regularly clean and tidy the altar space.
Change the offerings periodically, disposing of old ones appropriately.
Light the candles and incense during times of connection or when seeking guidance.
Connection and Ritual:
Spend time in front of the altar regularly, whether it's daily, weekly, or during special occasions.
Light the candles and incense, and offer prayers, thanks, and intentions.
Meditate, reflect, and feel the presence of your ancestors.
Remember, the key is to adapt these instructions to your own beliefs, cultural practices, and personal connection with your ancestors. An ancestral altar is a living space that should evolve as your relationship with your ancestors deepens.
Ashley Brothers - Institute of Conscious Evolution LLC, Bend OR
Author of A Living Prayer Blog, public speaker, holistic practitioner, and teacher of energy medicine, shamanic healing, and psychic channeling