How to Build & Tend an Ancestor Altar

Ancestor altars are highly personal, but there are suggested guidelines.

Ancestor altars are highly personal, but there are suggested guidelines.

Excerpt from Deliverance! Hoodoo Spells of Uncrossing, Healing, & Protection:

There are as many ways to honor the deceased as there are cultures that have ever existed. Today, a tremendous amount of people are cut off from the practices their own Ancestors maintained to forge a connection to their forebears, but the work of Allan Kardec, founder of Spiritism in 19th century France, provided a new spiritual technology for people the world over to receive messages from beyond through experiences of private and public mediumship. Known as Espiritismo throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the techniques Kardec espoused helped to fill the gaps in ancestral reverence for African peoples who’d been physically displaced from the lands in which their dead were buried, forming a tradition that would grow parallel alongside such religions as Lucumí / Santería in Cuba. In the United States, the popularity of Spiritualist churches like the one founded by Mother Leafy Anderson in Wisconsin had a similar effect on practitioners of African diasporic magical practices there.

In Spiritualism, both blood Ancestors and other spirit guides are honored with an emphasis on cleanliness and sweetness. An ancestor altar (or boveda in Espiritismo) can be made by draping a white cloth over a dresser or a high shelf and arranging either 6 or 8 long-stemmed glasses of water in a circle on top of it with one slightly taller glass of water placed in the center. A drop or two of a sweet-smelling perfume like Florida Water may be added to each glass and a white candle is lit as an offering of light to the spirits. Christian symbols such as crosses and crucifixes are also common, but the important thing is to appeal to the sensibilities of your forebears.

Ancestor reverence in this context is a highly personal affair, so there are no rules – only suggestions – with emphasis placed on the experience that the practitioner has both at the altar and elsewhere in life, guiding them toward offerings to make and actions to take based on signs and omens. An ancestor altar can be also be as simple as a glass of water and a white candle set up in a clean space. Photos of the deceased can be arranged on the altar, but it is considered traditional to ensure that no photos of the living are present. Offerings such as coffee, candy, tobacco, alcohol, and food can placed on the altar and incense can be burned as well. It is considered especially wise to offer foods and items that the deceased who are represented on the altar preferred while they were alive. Generally, food and beverage offerings are left for a few days before being disposed of conventionally or at a place in nature.

Placement of the altar in the home varies from person to person based on space concerns and preference. Some would say that such an altar should never be erected in one’s bedroom due to issues of propriety, while others would say that the kitchen is best because the deceased want to be included in the daily conversations and activities of their descendants. Many folks “tend” their ancestor altar only once a week, refreshing the water glasses, replacing food and offering items, putting out new candles, and generally spending time with their Ancestors by sitting in meditation before the altar after giving prayers of thanks and making requests. Others tend the altar daily, but it is almost universally considered a “non-working” altar. Spells are not performed here, even in situations where ancestral aid is called upon. Rather, it is a place to commune, connect, and even cleanse oneself by verbally petitioning one’s dead relatives to help while running one’s hands down the body through auric field and flicking energetic debris toward the altar. A splash of a perfume like Florida Water, Kolonia 1800, or Siete Machos on the hands before cleansing in this manner is traditional.

Ancestors are a source of wisdom and clarity.

Ancestors are a source of wisdom and clarity.

Many consider one’s Ancestors and personal spirit guides to be their primary source for gaining wisdom and clarity, as well as their first line of defense against attack. If one seeks to hone their mediumship abilities, then time spent at one’s ancestor altar can be of great help as well. After giving offerings and expressing gratitude, pray sincerely from the heart for guidance, wisdom, and clarity. Then, sit in silence before the altar for at least 15 minutes and, afterwards, record your impressions. These may be images, thoughts, and / or words that came to mind during the meditation. Performing this at least once per week can have a tremendous effect on one’s intuitive abilities and the grace with which one moves through life. If you “don’t experience anything,” continue anyway. They may make their messages known in dreams or in everyday signs and omens. Many psychic readers attribute their intuitive insight to the aide of their Ancestors and many rootdoctors believe their help is integral to the potency of their work.

Due to the extent to which I see the harmful presences and patterns left by unresolved ancestral dead in the lives of my clients, I personally call upon “my Ancestral Helping Spirits – those that lived well and died well, made it through the Veil and chose to accompany me in this lifetime” rather than Ancestors in general (words courtesy of Christina Pratt of Why Shamanism Now podcast). This ensures that I am engaging only those Ancestors of mine who resolved their lives before or after death rather than Ancestors of mine who remain ghosts, or restless dead who seek to hijack the living to fix their own unresolved lives. I also only place photos of those ancestors I know, through divination, to fall into this category of Ancestral Helping Spirits. If other Ancestors do show up, I consider it my job to move them on through Ancestral Elevation or other psychopomp acts so that they can work with me in a good way as Ancestral Helping Spirits when then are ready to.