Ancestral veneration has been practiced for centuries although there is no generally accepted theory concerning its origins. As a social phenomenon, this act has appeared in some form in almost every culture that has been documented or written about. There are several theories from an anthropological perspective as to what ancestral veneration gives to a society. Religious organization, group cohesiveness, and a way of coping with grief are some examples of accepted ideas. From a spiritual perspective, ancestral veneration is honoring and connecting with the ancestors for several marked reasons. Par example, in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora it is generally believed that one’s ancestors can intercede on behalf of those who honor and venerate them. It would be a disservice though to say that the ancestor’s position is to solely fix one’s problems, or to intercede when one has an emergency. The view is that we are all strings on a bead. Our mouth is one hole and our reproductive organs another. We are all connected to our ancestors by a thread. The veneration of ancestors from a diasporic view is based on the notion that by honoring one’s ancestors you give acknowledgement and presence to your own life experience. The diminution of traditions that have been held for thousands of years in favor of more contemporary new age thought is a disservice to the struggle that made the content of your ancestors possible. This is to say, if one practices Lukumi, Palo Mayombe, and/or Vodou, there is a set liturgy, songs, prayers, foods, and service that one performs to respectfully honor one’s ancestors. From a diasporic position, these are not exotic, nor expensive rituals. They are simply part of one’s traditions in the same way that if a person is catholic, they will read the rosary or if Jewish, will commit to the lighting of the Menorah during Chanukah. Regardless of one’s level of initiation, ancestral veneration is in fact easily accessible to all. The difference between topical ancestral veneration and complex ritual lies in the level of depth that the adherent wishes to perform.
For instance, one can pray to god in the privacy of their own room. While others can go to church and act out elaborate ritual. Part of what makes ancestral veneration ritual important is comradery of community. It is understood in the Lukumi tradition that “Iku lobi ocha” or “death gives birth to the saint”. This means that if our ancestors did not exist to worship god, what would god be? Or better stated, my ancestors come before god. For this reason, you do not serve them scraps of your food. You serve them a full plate first. Elders teach their godchildren that you do not give to your ancestors with a closed fist. (don’t be stingy)
This is not said as an offensive statement. It is how the Lukumi reason their existence as directly cause by their ancestors’ copulation and how that lineage lines up towards the hand of god. Thus, ancestors are viewed as the main doorway before any workings are undertaken. It is very common to hear an Olorisa elder say “Did you put food for the dead?” during a party. Offering food to the ancestors is not a method of quelling their hunger and shutting them up, but instead it is viewed as including them in the celebration that is taking place so that their presence and position of significance is honored. If your ancestors had not been generous and fruitful, you would be poor and withered.
In order to understand what ancestral worship is, we must first identify what it is not considered in the Afro-Diasporic traditions. Ancestral worship according to the Lukumi is not some topical new age meditation. It is not induced by reiki or intuitive touch. It is not ooga booga costumes or a simple candle. To anyone who actually practices or is initiated in the diaspora, ancestral veneration is deep, personal, and has its ritual.
To those millions of adherents of the diaspora, ancestral veneration is not viewed solely as a burn a candle and say a prayer act. Although some Olorisa do not have a Kardecian ancestral altar known as a “Boveda” in their homes, it is not uncommon to find this type of altar at a practitioner’s home. A Boveda is typically composed of seven or nine cups or goblets of water, flowers, white tablecloth, a crucifix, candles, prayer books, satin handkerchiefs, rum, cigars, and occasionally religious figurines. It’s construction is quite similar to a Hatian Vodou fete altar. The boveda is considered a center post or light house for spirits. A boveda typically has one larger vessel for water. In the case of a seven glass Boveda, one may find a large center glass and six smaller and in the case of a nine glass boveda, one may find eight smaller glasses. The number nine is typically associated with the dead. In the case of a seven glass Boveda, each glass is ascribed a specific meaning.
Three glasses to the left of the main glass would be faith, hope, and charity. The three glasses to the right would be beloved family spirits, guardian angels and spirits, and spirits in need of light. The main glass is often called “El Santisimo” which translates to “The Holy Spirit”. A Boveda is a very simple and effective way of communicating with your ancestors. One can, on occasion, light a candle to their ancestors or use a bit of perfume or kolonia in their hands to ritually “rub and remove” negative energy and transfer it to the Boveda. It is common to see a practitioner genuflect and touch the table where the Boveda is kept. Typically, only two color candles are lit at a Boveda. One is white, the other is purple.
There is a specific prayer in the selected prayers book by Allan Kardec that states “Hay un velo material que te occulta a mi vista” or “There is a material veil that occults you to my view”. It was taught to me in the late 80s while living in little Havana and attending (and hosting) regular spiritual masses with my community that the color of that veil is purple. Years later when I would develop a great love for Vodou and would attend my first Fete Gede or party for the dead, I was heavily impressed that almost everyone was dressed in purple. Lighting purple candles helps thin the veil. Often you will hear new age practitioners talk about how Halloween is the time when “the veil is thinnest”. From a Lukumi perspective, that veil is consistently thin and we are able to access our ancestors for their advice and guidance.
There is also the concern of ideologies which are being perpetuated that doing healing work brings your ancestors to you. From a Lukumi perspective, our ancestors are not crippled or in need of some type of healing. Nor does one having personal emotional, physical, financial, or spiritual problems inhibit a healthy connection with their ancestors. There are many occasions where one has a physical ailment or financial problem and by propitiating or working with their ancestors that problem is almost immediately lifted. Healing the symptom in the majority of these cases is not suddenly bringing the ancestors around. Your ancestors do not view you as having some mystical “stink” that keeps them at bay. If you contain all the pain of your ancestors, then you also contain all their wisdom. Focus on their wisdom and you will find you will overcome that pain.
The ancestors also have several taboos. Serving anything with salt to your ancestors is considered disrespectful and is considered not received. Those with African ancestral roots within the diaspora typically offer coffee without any sugar, and a glass of water with dissolved sugar. The reason for this is that when the slaves in the diaspora would toil the fields, the slave masters typically gave them black coffee and a biscuit for breakfast, and a glass of water with cane sugar as a chaser. This was to give the slaves energy to work. As the religion developed, it became traditional to strengthen your ancestors with a nice black espresso.
Not all ancestors accept cigars or tobacco. Some will be partial to food from a specific region or area (especially if you are working with a specific set of spirits). There is in fact a difference between a spirit guide and an ancestral family spirit. It is silly to claim native American ancestry and perform faux ceremonies of burning sage on over sourced abalone shells as a way to venerate them. If you genuinely have an ancestral tradition and wish to make an offering, don’t be an arm chair practitioner and study the traditions to some extent.
On occasion you will find what is known as a “Plante” or foundation. This is typically a white plate with nine small pieces of coconut, a bit of palm oil on each piece of coconut topped with one guinea pepper. There will also be candles, flowers, food, cakes, different liquors, cigars etc…. This is usually placed in either the coldest part of the house (the bathroom) or an isolated part of the house (laundry room or patio area). Over the years I have questioned several elders over the reason why this space is placed in a bathroom. The reason, I have been told, is that in many homes in Cuba there is “el cano” or “the floor drain”. This was considered a place within the home that connected one to the underworld. It is no coincidence that the Orisha Agayu in Cuba who would later be linked with Saint Christopher, who is also linked with Charon (the ferry man of the underworld) and that the veins of lava which ran under the earth’s mantle are considered part of this “drain”. There are in fact several ceremonies and sacrifices that are performed at the drain of the bathtub. There is a spirit that is said to live there called “Eggun Konibere” that is occasionally appeased when one takes on the initiation of Agayu. (Though not all houses perform this act).
It is custom to have a staff or cane for the dead in Lukumi houses. This is usually a strong and stable staff or cane that has nine ribbons of nine different colors, jingle bells, bells, doll heads, and other personal implements. When one strikes the staff nine times, it is said the ancestors come. There is a specific liturgy of songs called “Oro for Eggun” that is sung before EVERY major ceremony. Some of the songs are reminiscent of funeral songs, others whip into an ecstatic call and response which allows the ancestors (and on occasion) the Orishas to take possession of their children. There are also houses which will use an old wooden broom stick without the brush.
“For my dead homies”, while pouring from their bottle on the floor became a part of the American vernacular in the early 90’s with the resurgence of Santeria, 21 divisions, Palo Mayombe, and Vodou. The actual act of libation is not so simple. At most altars, alcohol is poured into a shot glass or cup or aerated and spit from the mouth. Water is typically offered on the bare earth while the practitioner says “Tuto, Omi Tuto, Ara Tuto” (Freshness, fresh water, fresh earth) One will then cross their arms to the Sun (olorun) and on occasion state a prayer of Moyugba or remembrance which may or may not contain the phrase “Ibae l’aye t’orun” and then “Ibae” after each deceased person’s name is stated. The alcohol that is typically offered is Gin, Rum, and Aguardiente. It is of no coincidence that the perfume Kolonia 1800 Silver Label smells similar to Gin. Since the Juniper berries used in Gin production are also used in the fabrication of the perfume. Kolonia 1800 Silver is still used by many at their Bovedas and is a staple at any reputable botanica or spiritual supply store. It is as basic an ingredient in the espiritismo communities as selling a candle.
Liquor is not the only alcohol that is offered. On occasion you will see a practitioner offer Florida Water on the floor. This is an absolute staple in the worship of Lwa Damballah. I once witnessed a rather large woman get possessed frantically by Damballah. She fell to the floor and was immediately covered with a white sheet, where she was doused with Florida Water. As she began to slither like a serpent, she slowly began to wrap her sheet-wrapped body around the Poteau-Mitan (center column) of the Vodou altar and climb it. With the use of no arms. Fathom that mystery.
Champagne is typically used for the worship of “High Yellow” spirits. Wine is rarely if never used. Some will put a glass of red wine to their gypsy spirits, even then, it is hardly used and is far likely a personal act for a specific spirit as opposed to anything that is a real part of the Afro-Caribbean traditions. There is a specific mixture of firewater, peppers, sticks, and other secret ingredients that are used to create a specialized drink named “Chamba”. Chamba is not for the faint of heart. A good Chamba can remove bad medicine or magic from a victim’s stomach, cast away dark forces, and put the most stubborn of spirits to work.
As you can see, the veneration of ancestors from a genuine Afro-Caribbean practice can not be reduced or trivialized. It is a living tradition with its set of rituals and practices and should not be dumbed down for mass consumption. If you are curious about working with your ancestors, please come by Zombi. We have a monthly White Table Mass to develop mediumship, and you can meet many people who are in varying levels of their spiritual development and ancestral working. In the words of John O’Donahue, “If you steal a people’s language, you leave their soul bewildered.” If you are teaching ancestral veneration and repackaging it with some connection to the diaspora, DON’T. It is dangerous, reductive, diminutive, and basic. It does harm to the culture you are stealing from, and the person you are misinforming. If you have any questions please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org