Pagan Celebrations for the Ancestors: Beyond Samhain

A statue with three skulls carved on it.
Three skulls to represent the Ancestors in ADF.

Most pagans know the term “Samhain.” In fact, you probably learned about it in your very first year of being a pagan. However, there are many pagans who are not Wiccan or Irish Celtic Recons, and who do not want to celebrate this specific holiday. What do we do at this time of year?

This article is in separate parts. First, I list how ancient and medieval pagans celebrated their ancestors. Second, I discuss syncretic ways you can bring that into your practice. Last, I have a ritual guide suggesting how you may structure your ritual to honor the ancestors. I hope to give you, dear reader, some ideas for what you can do to celebrate your ancestors.

Traditional Customs

These are arranged by general cultural groups. While I did not include Indo-Iranian or Vedic practices, I am working to learn more about them. Please see the sources section for links to most of the material I present in this part of the article.

Norse and Germanic

  • The hamingja, one part of the Self seen as the ‘luck’ of that family, is passed on to the next generation.
  • There was a possibility of communicating with an ancestor by sitting on their grave. Odin, in particular, does this in the lore. But people did this as well in the Sagas.
  • Winternights was a Scandinavian celebration for the beginning of winter. While not much is known about it, the people were supposed to make a sacrifice to ensure a good year. Likely Freyr and the Disir were honored at this feast.
  • There was a connection between the elves and the ancestors for the medieval Scandinavians. Particularly, the Álfablót and Dísablót were celebrations for the ancestors, and they were celebrated at different times of the year. (Many modern Heathens celebrate Álfablót around the equinox.)
  • Note: The Wild Hunt is part of wintertime. However, it is for the darkest and coldest and stormiest parts of winter, not Winternights.

Roman and Greek

  • Parentalia is a nine-day festival for the ancestors, enacted predominately in the home, but the beginning of the festival was a state ritual to Vesta.
  • During the Parentalia, there was the Feralia. This part of the festival was to deal with (for lack of a better word) the Manes who may be hungry or angry. The head of the household enacted this ritual. Families were also supposed to leave offerings at the tombs of their ancestors.
  • Carisita was the final day of Parentalia. On this day offerings were made to the Lares, the household gods, and families celebrated their love for each other with feasts and gifts.
  • The Greeks celebrated Anthesteria in the spring. This festival was to honor Dionysus, the new wine crop, and the ancestors. The third day of the festival was called Chytroi/Khytrai. Cooked grains and seeds were left out for the dead. Hermes Chthonios and the Keres were given offerings.

Slavic and Baltic

  • Diziady — this is a celebration of the dead. Interestingly, it used to be held twice a year (not unlike the Norse rituals for Álfablót and Dísablót). This celebration includes leaving out food offerings for the dead.
  • Mokosh is a mother goddess in the Slavic pantheon, but she also rules the realm of the dead.
  • Veļu Laiks — this is a Latvian name for the pagan Baltic celebration of the dead. It means “time of the souls.” Festivities include a party, as well as going to graves and lighting candles on the gravestones. In ancient times, this was also about honoring and feeding the ancestors to ensure prosperity in the coming year.

Celtic and Gaulish

  • Kalan Gwav or Allantide or Allhallowtide was a Cornish holiday celebrated at the end of October. Children were given apples as gifts, and their dreams that night, if the apple was placed under their pillow, were supposed to predict the future. There were other forms of fortune telling, including throwing walnuts into the fireplace and lead-pouring.
  • Calan Gaeaf was a Welsh holiday celebrated at the same time of year. People avoided church yards and cross roads, believing that they might come across ghosts. This holiday included dancing around a fire and it also included predictions.
  • Samhain was, of course, a Gaelic holiday. The people believed that the Aos Sí visited them at this time of year and would wander through the villages. Villages would leave out offerings of food and drink outside for the spirits and the dead. Divination also occurred here, much like in Cornwall and Wales. There were also communal bonfires and people would take flames from the bonfire back to their own hearths.
  • While there is not much written about Gallic customs, we know of the worship of several deities from inscriptions. The goddess Erecura is a chthonic goddess associated with fertility and apples. Nantosuelta is a fertility goddess who is associated with ravens and, likely, the underworld.
  • For the Gauls, this was also the time of the new year. In all likelihood, this was the time to show hospitality to the dead. It may also be seen as the time to celebrate the Sacred Boar Hunt, where Maponos dies.
Large slabs of stone, organized in sets of three: two vertical, one horitzontally on laying on top.
Stonehenge

Additional Modern Practices

  • Photos — you can have photographs of your ancestors, either at your altar or collected together on a counter or table.
  • Ancestor Box — this is a box that holds items that remind you of your ancestors. Many pagans keep this box closed throughout the year and only open it when they honor the ancestors at a Samhain, or similar, ritual.
  • Dumb Supper — this custom comes from Celtic culture, but it is another common practice today where you eat a meal and leave a space at the table with a full plate for the ancestors. This can either be silent or not. I would consider this a great time to tell stories about the ancestors or to talk to the ancestors.

Tradition and Syncretism

Whether you are a hard or soft polytheist, or any other kind of theist, I believe modern paganism grows stronger through syncretism. If you want to delve deep into a specific polytheistic culture, that is perfectly fine. That is good work, and I love that stuff.

But for many pagans, that involves a lot of research and it takes a lot of time. Syncretism can be useful if you are a new pagan, or if you are still learning about the ancient paganisms that are being reconstructed. And if you are like me, and like looking at the broader Indo-European spectrum of ancient paganism, you like seeing where these cultures intersect. Syncretism is a useful tool to create modern traditions.

A Note on the Time of Year

The Romans and Greeks held their celebrations to the ancestors in the spring. The Celts and other groups held their traditions in the fall. However, the Romans and Celts celebrated specifically at the end of their calendar year. I’ve always liked the sentiment of honoring the dead before the arrival of the new year. I think it’s especially lovely with the common neo-pagan practice of specifically honoring those who died in that year. So whether you honor your ancestors in the fall, the spring, or on New Year’s Eve, I think it’s important to take time spiritually every year to look back and look forward.

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Photos from a public Samhain ritual (2019).

Who you Honor

The Ancestors — There are different types of ancestors, notably: family, heart, and bone. The ancestors who raised you, the ancestors you admire, and the ancestors of where you live can and should all be celebrated.

The Deities — I have named several already: Erecura, Nantosuelta, Maponos, Mokosh, Freyr, Odin, Hermes Chthonios, and Vesta. You could also honor the goddess of your hearth and home. You can honor any deity of the winter, the underworld, or of the dead. I can think of Cernunnos, Frau Holle, Hades, and the Cailleach.

The Spirits — I previously mentioned the Elves and the Disir from the Norse tradition. The Greeks gave hospitality to the Keres. The Romans specifically honored their Lares (their household spirits). And the Celts honored all of the Aos Sí. Essentially, when you look at the whole, any variety of spirit could be honored at this time of year.

How You Honor

  • Leave offerings of food and drink. This was universal from Indo-European pagans. In fact, it’s globally universal as well. You could give the ancestors food and drink that they liked or might have liked. If you don’t know, then any home cooked meal should do. It’s the backbone of hospitality.
  • Thank your ancestors for your luck or good fortune. This would be a particularly Norse way to celebrate. However, generally thanking your ancestors for your existence, or for how they inspire you, is also good. You’re here to honor the ancestors, after all. You should thank them.
  • Ensure a good year through an offering. The Norse specifically did this as an annual sacrifice. However, since this pagan holiday wraps up the harvest season, I think it makes sense to give an offering for a year of prosperity at this time. Alternately, you could give an offering to a deity, ancestor, or spirit that protects and guards your country, much like the Romans gave an offering to Vesta.

How you Celebrate

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Visiting the grave of my grandparents.
  • Divination! This is certainly a fun way to celebrate. As I’ve noted, divinations at this time of year are a Celtic custom. However, the Norse and Romans also did divination around their new year. If you don’t consider this holiday to be your new year celebration, then you could certainly do annual divinations on New Year’s Eve or another time that you do consider the new year.
  • Visit graves. This is a great activity outside of ritual. If you can visit the grave of a family member, give offerings and sit and talk with them for a while. You could even try a trance to communicate with them directly. You could also visit nearby graveyards, giving an offering to all the ancestors there.
  • Celebrate your current family. This is another wonderful idea that could be either during or outside of ritual. As the Romans ended their holiday for the ancestors by celebrating their current family, so could you. If you live in a country that celebrates Thanksgiving, you could integration this custom into that modern holiday.

A General Ritual Outline

Disclaimer: This is not an exact script. This is a guide for how you might put together everything I’ve discussed in this article.

Decorate your altar, table, or other ritual space with photographs, an ancestor box, and/or favorite foods and beverages for the ancestors. You may also have a method of divination at the ready, and any other ritual tools you require.

You must decide who you want to honor at this ritual. You can honor any variety of the ancestors. You could even do a specific ritual for just your ancestors of bone at a cemetery. You may also call in the house spirits, the land spirits, and/or a deity if you wish. I quite like what the Romans did by first honoring Vesta, who kept the whole of Rome safe. If you are in the United States, you could honor Lady Liberty, since the “Blessings of Liberty” are literally written into our constitution.

Call each being into the ritual in a specific order, perhaps saying something about each of them. For example: “I call to the ancestors of family, those whose lives have created my own and those who helped raise me in my youth. To you I give thanks for my life, my morals, and my kindness. Hail, Ancestors!” Say something that has meaning for you, and for the ones you are calling.

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My altar for my Oma after she passed away.

In terms of what you do during the ritual, I would say you should definitely give an offering of food and drink. This could be as elaborate or as simple as you like. For instance, if I were to do a ritual specifically to my German ancestors, I could make a plate of brats and sauerkraut with a beer. If I wanted to honor a specific person, like my Oma, you could leave a favorite food or drink (she loved Diet Coke).

A group might be able to make a more elaborate offering table, with a corn or squash dish for Indigenous Americans, Cacio e Pepe for Italian Ancestors, and so on. You can also decide if you will share a meal with the ancestors during ritual. You may do something like a Dumb Supper with a plate specifically for the ancestors.

Many modern pagans think that coffee and tea are good beverages to give to the ancestors. If you want to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, brew her a cup of coffee. Even if you don’t know what a certain ancestor would like, make something with sincerity and tell the ancestors you did your best and you hope they like it.

If you have photos or an ancestor box, you could add a new photo to your altar, or you can open the box and look at the mementos inside and talk about your ancestors.

You may also wish to give an offering to ensure a good year, like the Norse, Romans, and Balts did. Since this is meant to be an annual offering, make sure it’s large enough. Don’t pour a handful of oats — pour several helpings. Don’t give some of a beer, give a whole beer. Again, you don’t have to do this. But your offerings should match your asks, and I think ensuring a year of prosperity is a bigger-than-normal ask.

In ADF, we take omens every ritual. I don’t believe most pagans do this. However, this ritual would be a perfect time to do some divination to look at the next year specifically. (I personally like to do my annual divinations during New Year’s Eve.)

If you take any sort of omen or divination, thank the ancestors and any other beings you called to for what you received! Then I would close the ritual by thanking any beings I called in for their presence during the ritual.

If you are celebrating as a pagan community or family, and did not do a Dumb Supper during the ritual, you could feast afterwards! Like the Romans, you could celebrate your current family and your current loved ones. You could also make this part of your Thanksgiving celebrations if your country celebrates that holiday.

And lastly, if you wanted to do something the day of the ritual, or as an additional way to celebrate the season, visit graveyards to give offerings. If possible, you could visit the graves of specific family members.

Final Thoughts

Samhain is wonderful, and I’m happy that neo-paganism holds ancestor veneration so highly. But many pagans do not want to specifically celebrate this Irish Celtic holiday, and it often feels like Samhain overshadows other polytheist customs and celebrations for this time of year.

Hopefully this article helps pagans broaden their perspective on how we can honor the ancestors, and where these traditions come from. I also hope my ritual outline gives readers ideas for ways to honor the ancestors that don’t feel so specifically Celtic. And if you do focus on one specific polytheistic culture, I hope my notes and resources help you to further your research and practice.

Sources

All websites accessed October 2020.

Daniel McCoy. The Viking Spirit. Daniel McCoy. 2016. Pages 90–91; 101–103.

Cara Freyasdaughter. “Winternights — The Heathen Samhain?” Patheoshttps://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2016/10/happily-heathen-winternights-the-heathen-samhain/

Stormerne and Arlea Hunt-Anschuetz. “Winternights.” https://www.manygods.org.uk/articles/festivals/winternights.shtml

H. R. Ellis Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse University Press. 1988. Pages 71–78; 106–122.

“Álfablót.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81lfabl%C3%B3t

“Parentalia.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parentalia

Jessi and Melissa. “Anthesteria.” Hellenionhttp://www.hellenion.org/festivals/anthesteria-festival/

“Dziady.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dziady

Emi Pastor. “November’s the month to bring together the living and the dead.” The Baltic Timeshttps://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/30009/

“Allantide.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allantide

“Calan Gaeaf.” Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calan_Gaeaf

“Samhain.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain

“Erecura.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erecura

Segomâros Widugeni. Ancient Fire. ADF Publishing. 2018. Pages 52–53; 104–105.

Thomas Apel. “Vesta.” Mythopediahttps://mythopedia.com/roman-mythology/gods/vesta/

“The U.S. Constitution: Preamble.” United States Courtshttps://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/us

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