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.
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).
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.
29 thoughts on “The Ancestor Altar”
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!
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.
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 😉
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!!
You can email me at email@example.com. My phone number is 707-714-7091.
Dear Miss Michaele, I have not yet built my altar, but for the past couple of days my Granny’s favorite song keeps coming to me. Is my Granny reaching out to me?
Na’Keia, I’m sure she is! Go over the lyrics of the song and see if they are a message from her — either a request for the design of your altar, or a recommendation for your life. And play the song at least once, just to be sure. Sometimes your ancestors just want to hear their favorite tunes in your house.
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?
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.
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?
Traditionally, you take the offering outside for the local wildlife.
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
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.
And i’d like to know how to channel my ancesters spirits…Because i have an Great-Aunt whos now passed away…But she had a wealth of knowledge in Cinjure & Rootwork….I was visited in a dream and was shown where a piece if her jewelry was …It was a ring that she wore on her finger That was supposed to have been given me…but cousin gert passed away before giving it to me….She lived in New Orleans, La …And was well known…And I want to channel her spirit to help aid me in my endeavors….Please help!
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…
Hi, I really appreciate this post…thank you. I have a much better idea of how to set up my ancestor altar. I have a question, though. How do you suggest going about it if it is an older sibling who you never met, who died before being born into the world? (There are no ultrasound photos, nothing). I feel a connection to her as I have dreamt of talking to her, but I have no idea how to go about it when it comes to an altar.
Lady J, start with a white candle and a glass of water and an empty photo frame. As you set up this simple altar, ask her to send you things that would represent her as she would like you to know her.
Hi Ms Michaele. My grandfather was well skilled in rootwork for most of his adult life and i’ve been told for years that the gift was passed on to me. My question is, is this possible?. I dabble in it myself, getting out of bed sometimes with an urge to light candles, mix herbs/powders and i have no idea where the desire comes from. I smell a strong cigar scent very, very frequently, sometimes so strong, that i have difficulty breathing. This scent is not just in one area. I smell it at home, in the car, even now that i’ve moved to another city and for some unexplained reason, no one else smells it, except me. It gets so strong sometimes, i have to run outside to get fresh air..I was told that it was my spiritual guide and she gets upset because she’s sending me messages and i’m not listening or paying attention, but how can i pay attention to something i don’t understand?.. Every psychic/medium i’ve seen over the years tells me that i have the gift, but i need to channel my strength. How do i go about doing this, Ms Michaele?..Any advice would be greatly appreciated, thanks
I have a question my ancestors are not buried close to me. My parents are but they are in a mausoleum. So what could I do instead of getting dirt from t the grave
Very fortunate to have found this site. Thank you .
I would love to learn more about hoodoo amd ancrstor altar and just all which would help me please…
Darius, have you seen the Lucky Mojo Forum? There are literally thousands of active threads on every conceivable kind of hoodoo rootwork, including working with ancestors.
For a more structured education, you might want to apply for miss cat yronwode’s Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence course, based on her own experience and learning from hoodoo practitioners over a period of fifty years (she started very young — at fourteen!).
Thank-you so much. I am adopted, it was a closed adoption with no records of my family. The knowledge given to me is that I am of Colombian decent. Finding my craft has felt so much like coming home, to a home I didn’t know I had! Since I am of Latin orgin I felt compelled to create an altar for my ancestors at my working altar. I didn’t know what I was doing but I believe they were speaking to me, for i already have an empty picture frame, a statue of a day of the Dead mother carrying a child and have been offering food and drink. I feel so relived to know that I was hearing them after reading this. Thank you
Liz, your ancestor altar sounds lovely!
If you wish to connect with your birth family in the real world, look into DNA testing such as offered by 23andme and Ancestry.com. Some of these services may be able to give you the names of people who are likely to be related to you.
This may be a silly question, but my family (both sides) are very Christian so I am unable to speak to them concerning these matters. However, I am very sure that I am being led to hoodoo through my ancestors in a strange way, during a very convoluted spiritual quest. Is there a way to know whether or not my family’s ancestry participated in this spirituality? My father has African American and Cherokee Native American roots and my mother is full Sicilian. I appreciate your thoughts, even though I’m pretty sure this is a vague conceptualization.
Lele, have you read Martin Coleman’s Communing with the Spirits? It is a very comprehensive book and treats the subject of necromancy (working with the dead) very seriously. In chapter 4 , Coleman says,
Which is to say that when you are able to connect with your ancestors, they have very good reasons to meet you halfway.
Now, in the “real world,” you can research your ancestors — just talk to your parents about straight-up genealogy. Get names and pictures. Get a few personal possessions if you can.
As to your ancestors’ spiritual practices, don’t frighten your parents by asking about hoodoo or any kind of magic.
Talk about folk medicine. The term “root doctor” exists for a reason. Ask if they remember anything their parents might have done to treat common illnesses, predict the sex of a baby, plant better crops (you’ll find a rich source in the Farmer’s Almanac).
Ask about Bible verses, too. Many evangelical Christians love to use the Prayer of Jabez to safeguard themselves, their families and their financial well-being. It’s a relatively new development. How do your parents feel about that prayer? How do they pray with Bible verses? Do they remember their parents working with the Bible that way?
With questions like these, you can calmly and respectfully learn from religious folks about things that carry spiritual power.
This was so thoroughly written and I appreciate that. My two concerns that are making me pause for now are:
1: Will they expect me to deliver on requests that I can’t give because of my mores like meat (I’m vegan) or tobacco smoke (I have children in the house and don’t smoke)?
2: How do you handle the presence of the decease if your children become afraid?
Vasia, great questions! Thank you!
As to your deceased relatives demanding things your conscience won’t permit, I would let conscience be your guide. Don’t let them guilt-trip you just because they’ve passed. If they would have guilt-tripped you and caused drama in life … maybe they don’t deserve a place on your altar. That’s up to you.
If your children get scared, a traditional remedy is to go to the deceased relative’s grave and bring home a little of the dirt. Place it at the child’s bedroom door, so they an both look in on the child and have an easy way to get back to their grave once they’ve had their visit. It will also remind them they no longer belong in the living world.