Designing for the Dead

Some of the talk in the magical parts of the blogosphere that I read has been about ancestors lately, and ghosts. It’s on a lot of magical people’s minds right now, which is surprising, but it also makes a good deal of sense for some reason. It’s the season of Vesta, when Rome’s fires were banked, the temple of the hearth goddess was swept out, and the new fire was laid. It was a time of renewing last wills and testaments, and for claiming the wills of the recently deceased from the Vestal Virgins (who were their keepers and executrices).

I’m telling you this now, especially any of you who think of yourself as “not into the magic stuff” or as overly rationalist, or scientific, because what follows is decidedly NOT scientific… although it may connect to the interrelationship between the three levels of the brain I discussed tangentially in this post on the Chariot, and the 3-fold model of the human brain: namely, the idea that certain kinds of activity, like ritual, can access deep parts of the brain that are more fundamentally non-rational and relatively inexplicable, but may be ‘tuned’ and altered by action on the more rational/human levels.

Or, you can just see the following report as totally subjective, and maybe even made up as an amusement. Up to you.

A few days ago, in the midst of all this, I happened to find a card that belonged to my grandmother (it’s in her handwriting) with one of her favorite prayers on it. Actually, I don’t know if it was one of her favorite prayers: I remember her asking what my favorite prayer was, and I had told her this one… And here it is on a card, in her neatest ‘recipe card’ handwriting; did she write it before, or after, I told her that I liked it? I don’t know. It’s an artifact, either way, and a link to the dead. The other card with it was her recipe for snickerdoodles, a kind of cookie (which I really ought to pass on to Deborah). Anyway:

Almighty God, who has given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee, and dost promise that where two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou will grant their request; fulfill now, o Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come, Life everlasting. Amen.

So it was on my mind to do a ritual for the ancestors. My ancestors.

Just completed a rite dedicated to my Ancestors — I lit black and white candles on the altar, set with the table of practice and the crystal, and the Wand. I also have a small side-altar, where I set candles of the four elements burning — for the honored dead of my family: cremated, lost or buried at sea, carried away by the wind, buried in the Earth. This isn’t specifically why I lit them — but acts which are functional in origin often become ontological upon reflection.

Then I called the ancestors of my family who are already dead. I specifically called in John and Camilla, Duncan and Muriel, Wilbur and Angie, Charles. I called them by name, and by their relationship to my living parents, and so to me); where they weren’t directly related to me I named their children as far as I knew them, and the relationship to my own branch of the family tree.

And they came.

It got cold, at least subjectively. The smoke from the burning incense (Amber) traveled in weird directions and made odd shapes in the air. They arrived hungry and full of accusation.

I’m not currently stuffed up or sick, but I started producing mucus like nobody’s business. I started crying my head off. I had snot running down my face, mixing with tears, and forming a sticky glue all over my hands. I started bawling, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.

I remembered a technique from Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery course, and I began inviting them to partake of the sweetmeats and cooked meats and steaming broccoli and beautiful salads (and my grandmother’s “Johnny Mazetti” a sort of lasagna made with tubular noodles instead of leaves). The ancestors ate, but in an accusatory way. They were still angry about something. I started naming more dead relatives. As the new arrivals showed up, they started out angry, and then they saw the food. I sensed them dressed in rags, so I imagined new clothes laid out along the table, set with bright candles. Soon the company were dressed, and new things sprang to mind. Railroads, and Airstream caravans (my father’s parents were big Airstream buffs, traveled all over… maybe met Gordon’s family in Australia or New Zealand back in the day… who knows?) Airplanes, and airplane tickets. Travel was big on everyone’s mind… long journeys, short journeys. Wine and whiskey, too, scotch and beer. No cigarettes or cigars asked for, just drink, and meat, and Aunt Bea wanted chocolate.

Each new name I mentioned usually sparked awareness of three or four more names, a weird remembrance train as I even recalled great Aunt Annie, who my grandmother hated for forty years before I was even born, yet who now welcomed her to the table with open arms. I can’t have heard Aunt Annie’s name mentioned more than once or twice in dozens of years, yet here she was.

Finally, I couldn’t bear the parade of names any more. I told the spirits assembled, “if they are related to me by blood, and you knew them in life, and thought well of them and regard them as good and honorable, both then and now, then invite them in to partake of this feast, and sure this hospitality.”

The tears ebbed. I stopped saying “Sorry, I’m sorry.” Good feelings started to arise in my chest. I felt surrounded by a loving, cheerful, chatty company and fellowship. The tension in my shoulders eased and then broke, at least to some degree.

The incense smoothed out. Instead of rising in spurts and jerks and whorls, it now flowed to the northwards in a few smooth lines (there were several sticks burning at once). Uncle Charles and Uncle Wilbur said I should make an ancestor tablet before I make the Kavad. How does one make a Hermetic ancestor tablet, RO?)

I discussed some of my goals and hopes and dreams with them. Some of them had been very shabbily dressed, but now they were pretty cleaned up and seemed a lot stronger and healthier. One of my grandmothers needed a curling iron, and I called one out of the incense smoke for her. She was young, like in the pictures, instead of the way I remember her. I needn’t go into my goals and dreams here, but they involved work, and school, and helping my family, and my mission to help kids be better dreamers and doers and thinkers. I sensed assent and a willingness to help.

One more thing to be done. I don’t know why I felt this was important, but it was. I raised my hands over the altar, over the crystal (where were all those lights in the crystal’s impurities coming from, anyway?), and grabbed hold of the fabric of reality. Tai-chi-grown muscles seized hold of… something… and pulled it away like a curtain. “The name of the Veil of the Temple is Paroketh,” I said, and opened the veil.

And immediately I started crying again. Not tears of sadness, but of … well, joy is a funny word for it. I started crying. We’ll leave it at that.

A lot of them left. I’m not sure if they went through the opening in the Veil of the Temple, but the stream of incense smoke actually kinked, flowing east, away from me, instead of to the north as it had been before. I know that some of my ancestors chose to go, and I don’t blame them. There was a peace and a sense of lightness in that direction, that way, and they were ready for the chance. And they went.

The incense was almost out. I gave the license to depart from the procedure for giving offerings from Jason Miller’s class (I didn’t have the RO’s Modern Angelic Grimoire one close at hand), and it seemed appropriate after the feast we’d just had. My grandmother (I’m not sure which one, frankly, but I don’t think it matters) said that I had to remember to hold a feast like this. Once a month, at least, until they got healthier. She asked if she could bring friends to the feast next time. “Yes,” I told her. My grandmothers were great at picking friends.

The incense went out, burned down to stubs. I snuffed the candles. The room became… well, normal.

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  1. Brilliant. This was really beautiful.

    I have no idea how to make a Hermetic Ancestor Tablet. I put up statuary on a shelf near the door for my ancestors, and I treat them like the Romans.

    • I’m clearly going to have to work on this “hermetic ancestor tablet” thing, then. We clearly need a design to accompany the table of practice and the altar layout. 🙂

      Thanks for the kudos, though. it means a lot to have you visit my electronic abode.

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