browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

The Ancestor Altar

An ancestor altar is an effective and beautiful way to connect with and gain support from the spirit world. It can be as simple as a photograph and a glass of water, or as elaborate as the spirits direct.

A simple but well-made food offering to an adopted ancestor

An even stronger connection than a photograph is a little dirt from your ancestors’ graves. There is an art to getting that dirt in a respectful manner.

Go to the grave, bringing with you a small container such as a pill bottle, a spoon or trowel, a few coins and (if your ancestor has no history of alcoholism), a small bottle of whiskey. Introduce yourself to your ancestor. Explain what you want to do — bring home a little dirt from the grave so that you can build a connection with him or her. Pour the whiskey over the grave and tuck the coins into the grass about where your ancestor’s hand would be. Then spoon a small quantity of dirt into the pill bottle.

When you get home, put the graveyard dirt into an attractive, appropriately sized container. Definitely something nicer than a pill bottle or zip lock bag! I have dirt from several graves; some of them, as you can see below, are kept in the sort of gold- and silver-papered cardboard boxes that jewelers sometimes pack rings and earrings in.

Saturday is the traditional day for working with the dead.  The traditional, basic offering — the “meat and potatoes” of the spirit world — is a glass of water; some folks, drawing on the traditions of the Spiritual Church, dye the water pale blue. Once you have set up a simple altar, you may wish to make weekly offerings of food, music, or other items as the spirit directs. Of course, if you know your family’s favorite foods, etc., you may certainly offer those.

Pay attention to unusual food cravings and “earworms” – tunes running through your mind that you can’t get rid of. These may be requests for particular offerings from your ancestors.  The lyrics, or an associated memory, may reveal what they want — or it may be the music itself that they want to hear.

When you approach your altar, show respect, ask forgiveness if you have done wrong – but also tell them your troubles and don’t hesitate to express yourself. It’s OK to get your BMW on (Bitch, Moan, Whine).

My own ancestor altar includes earth from the graves of friendly people; an adopted ancestor; an empty picture frame to represent unknown relatives; a photo of a rose taken by a now-deceased friend

You can also recruit “new” ancestors – those who have passed on and succeeded in the things you wish to accomplish, even if they are not related to you. I would also recommend at least one person who dedicated his or her life to good works and/or justice.

If you have trouble connecting with their ancestors due to adoption, divorce, family feuds, or other reasons, don’t give up!  If you have no photographs of your ancestors, and cannot get to their graves, you can use a personal possession of theirs instead: a piece of jewelry, a tobacco pipe, a favorite book, etc.

If you don’t even have that, you can — over a period of time — call the spirit of your ancestors, even if they are unknown to you, into “ordinary” dirt. African-Americans with unknown Native American ancestors have been doing this work for centuries; they refer to it as putting “Blackhawk in a bucket.” Blackhawk is a stand-in for their unknown Native American ancestors, and they place him in a bucket of earth — a very three dimensional way to do this work! (Read more about working with Blackhawk at the Independent Association of Readers and Rootworkers.)

If the ancestors you are seeking are not Native American, you can do this with a figurine representing the ethnicity of the ancestors that are unknown to you. You can even do this with a small figure of a skull — there is no better symbol of the dead, after all.

After you have your dirt, and attractive container, and your statue, leave offerings just as you would for an ancestor known to you, as described above. Don’t hesitate to talk or commune or pray as you make your weekly offerings. In a year or so, your ancestors, known and unknown, will have found you and your altar and will be ready to stand by you.

 


12 Responses to The Ancestor Altar

  1. Ames Hall

    Thank you for this. It’s so incredibly timely. I’ve wanted to work with ancestors and set up an altar for some time now, so this will definitely get me started in the right direction!

  2. SilverShadow

    An amazing article Miss Michaele! This is the first thing I did when I became more interested in hoodoo and wanted to really find my spiritual base. Its really awesome that you put this together so finally people have a solid go to article for how to put together an altar. I myself have been working with mine for about 4 months and will continue to foster the connection through some of your suggestions above.

    On the subject of “earworms” I’ll say the way it appears my ancestors wish to speak to me is through phantom scents. Things that instantly bring to mind people and places. A special kind of scent of cooking food, someones home, or perhaps someones favorite perfume. Its been kind of tough to put it all together of what they would like but its getting easier the more and more I work with my altar.

    -SS

    • Miss Michaele

      I’ve had messages in phantom scents, too — when I was going through a very rough period, I used to smell frankincense or John the Conquer root on the way home from work. Neither of the plants were anywhere near at the time, of course ;)

  3. Manor

    Hi Miss Michaele, is there any way that I can speak with you?? If so can you email me at the above email address?? I am only seeking help.END!!

  4. Porl Wright

    I owe quite a lot to Miss Michaele and
    Hoodoo Foundry for helping me with
    this,i am adopted and I was just telling
    Someone that my adopted family would
    Have no truck with hoodoo. So the blank frame works well for me, plus adopting
    a few people works very well. Since their
    graves are far away…would anyone have
    a suggestion as to long distance grave keeping?

  5. Miss Michaele

    Porl, I have the same problem with both my bloodline and adopted ancestors. I talk to them frequently and give them water and a nice meal every week.

    My bloodline ancestors are pretty quiet. The ones I’ve adopted are mostly on my working altars, and frequently direct my work.

  6. Sonia

    Hello, I have a silly question regarding the offerings made to ancestors. If you offer an ancestor their favorite food, what do you do with the food afterwards? I’ve put my father’s favorite foods out for him, but when everything gets cold and hangs out for a while, then what? What is the proper way to “clean up” after an offering?

    • Miss Michaele

      Traditionally, you take the offering outside for the local wildlife.

  7. Riama

    I would like to know, I am working on my ancestor alarm one can u put your ancestor along with your boyfriend/husband ancestor on the same table, I am asking because I have hem both vising me anyways lol in dream and just being around. second can does can you put a step mother there along with the birth mother if the birth mother died when u were a baby and he step mother raised you? can you put people you do no know much about as both my boyfriend parents died by the time he was ten I suppose if i call hem they will talk o me since hey were visiting me without me waning them too, also he reason i ask is because if i don’t know hem much or my own ancestor for that mater what kind of food to put or object to put on altar…. I want to do well and do not want to anger them in any ways help please oh and what theme of altar to pic my family is from Africa with indian Persian and Asian blood and my boyfriend is half Turkish and half African american

    • Miss Michaele

      Riama, please accept my apologies for the delayed approval and response.

      Different spiritual traditions have different rules about relationships with the dead – but I would say that any of the dead who loved you when they were alive and have been friendly in your dreams deserve a place on your ancestor altar.

      As to food offerings: If you have a craving for a food you don’t normally eat, it might be a request from a family member who has passed. And about decorating the altar — I would try different things and listen with your heart for your family’s opinion and suggestions.

      I work with several spirits of the dead who are not related to me, and each one has his or her particular requests. One likes his area of the altar particularly clean; another likes offerings of soft, sweet cake; others like shiny things on their altars.

  8. Audrey

    So on the 20th of last month I was doing a bit of last minute running around before a flight I had to catch out of town and directly in between the oil store where I have recently started visiting for essential oils and dvd’s and the nail salon I have recently started visiting for my nails and eyebrows, there is a (for lack of better terms) a botanical store where you can purchase many different spiritual artifacts. The many times Ive walked past this store and visited the stores directly connected to the left and right of this store, I have never noticed it before and can not help but believe I was guided to it! I had a very brief conversation with the cashier and long story short, she mentioned setting up an ancestor alter for me. That’s why I’m here now contacting you, maybe its just curiosity but maybe its something deeper…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>