Poem: For the Mighty Dead

composed 25 October 2014, for the Earthspirit Community’s perpetual but non-exclusive use.  

The Earthspirit Community, an earth-based spiritual group in western Massachusetts, asked me to compose a poem of invocation for the ancestors, for their annual ‘Open Samhain’ event yesterday (Sunday) evening in Northampton, MA.

All you Mighty Dead, silent and unseen,
now gather at this crossroads of the worlds,
to walk these barren fields that once grew green
ere changing to the hues of harvest golds.
Come, you Mighty Dead, you sepulchral throng,
you company of those who’ve gone before.
Come, ye shades, ye ghosts, ye ancestors bright:
This time is yours; in this place, you belong.
For we invite you from the farther shore,
and ask your presence in this place, this night.
Come, Honored Dead of our own kin and blood,
fathers of our fathers who labored long
hammering hot steel, digging in cold mud,
loving, fighting — sometimes right, often wrong.
Mothers of mothers, across Time’s oceans,
birthing children, and spinning out the thread
of the long lineage back to the start
of our kindred: we greet with devotions
aunts and uncles of our own family’s dead,
those buried and burned closest to our heart.
We turn to the heroes, renowned in name,
both makers of myths and doers of deed:
we call you, lawgivers of honest fame;
soldiers who brought peace, who in times of need
brought safety to the people and the land;
sages and inventors, whose art and skill
gave insight, light and life; healers who found
the cures; teachers who spoke truth with command;
musicians whose harmonies reach us still.
We name and call you to this sacred ground!
And likewise, the Nameless, in teeming crowds,
the ancestors of every tribe and race,
the spirit-host that fills each street, and floods
the city square, and the remotest place,
and every wood and furrow in between —
that undiscovered country without breath,
whose subjects made language, and kindled flame,
the  first to sharpen steel with edge so keen;
the first to laugh — the first to laugh at death;
the first to love — the first to speak Love’s name.
Come, Mighty Dead, our families, heroes, friends.
Impart you wisdom to us in the dark.
For your presence frightens us, and yet mends
our hearts much, for wounds from Death’s scythe cuts sharp.
Now we must choose, for the hour is here:
a bloom, to feed the dearly-departed;
a stone to seek guidance from ghostly guest;
a seed, as an oath to an ancient ear.
With flowers, seeds, or stones are paths charted,
to claim the aid of the dead in their rest.
And when we, the Living, depart this hall,
you Ancestors, return to your custom:
between us and you stands an ancient wall,
a border to which we all are destined.
We’ll stand on our side, and you on yours,
until our turn comes to cross that bridge of sighs.
Great Ancestors, aid us, but not so near.
As this rite ends, retreat behind your doors,
and do not linger. With gentle good-byes,
depart from us — knowing we hold you dear.

Notes (below the cut):

The poem makes use of some of the EarthSpirit Community’s symbolism and language, but largely it relies upon a framework that I learned of several years ago. I was told that it was from the Yoruba tradition, but I don’t know (as you’ll see in the comments, doubt has been cast upon that provenance), and I haven’t been able to confirm that.  The core element is that the Mighty Dead, or the Ancestors, are divided into three classes — the Family Dead of our own kin and blood, like grandmothers and great uncles, are the first class. They still have living relatives, and tend to be very much like they were in life.  Then there are the Heroes, or the Elders of the People — people that achieved sufficient fame and worthiness in life to be celebrated and named and honored, who have a tendency to have their worst characteristics polished off in death, and to grow in greatness.  We’re not related to them, but they heed in a somewhat-detached way the honor and devotion that comes their way from the living who know of them and regard them as important.  Finally, there are the Nameless, who are people who did amazing things, but so long ago or in such relative obscurity that their identities are no longer known — the first person to capture and control fire, the first person to eat an oyster, the first person to speak a poem knowingly, and so on.  Again, I’m told that this is originally a Yoruba tradition, but I don’t know whether it genuinely is or not.  All I know is that I’ve found it helpful to think of the Ancestors that way, and even to think of Christian concepts like the Cloud of Witnesses, the Company of Saints, in this mindset.

The poem’s six stanzas first call to the Mighty Dead generally, and then invokes each of these three classes specifically, before allowing for an ‘offering’ of stones, seeds, or flowers to the specific categories of the dead; and concludes with a semi-traditional License to Depart or invitation to the invited Mighty Dead to leave again.

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  1. […] Hymn to Juno, Queen of the Gods — I’m a student of Jason Miller’s.  In late April, as his students were getting ready to do an around-the-world ritual in honor of Juno, I composed this hymn as part of the effort to provide tools and resources to everybody.  A lot of people read it and used it, apparently. Very few people bothered to tell me. Pretty common, actually. (The other poem that people visited a lot was this one for the Mighty Dead). […]

  2. What makes good art is a bold stroke and a steady hand. It needn’t be a perfect depiction of a bowl of fruit or a faithful portrait. It’s a great poem written with a hand that doesn’t waver — bold, honest, evocative, and moving — and I can’t imagine dispelling its moment with deconstruction.

    • Understood sir. But I’m going to confess that I barely skimmed your discussion with Io for fear of spoiling the moment. Nothing like starting one’s day with a dram of poesy – Thanks and have a fun day!

    • Indeed, Robert… between your comments and Io’s, I’ve made a bit of a reorganization of the entry — the poem first, the notes at the end (and below the cut). Yoruba provenance is unlikely, as Io says — but the threefold pattern of ancestor veneration is useful enough in itself to keep in poetic form as-is.

  3. I like the poem. Fwiw, those categories don’t really sound like any I have ever really heard used to describe Yoruba Egun (ancestor) veneration. Like you said, doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful, but I suspect they ain’t Yoruba. At the very least, they ain’t the way I was introduced to the Yoruba way of doing things.

    • Agreed. The more I think about them, the more I find that they’re useful but unlikely to be Yoruba, at least as they were presented to me.

      That said, I find them to be meaningful and useful. When I work only with my own family’s dead, the results are uneven; the alcoholics are still nasty; the villains are still villainous. When I work with the Heroes, they tend to be very much “You should do what I tell you”. The Nameless are very much out of sync with humanity. But when I work with all three, I find that they have a mutually-evening effect one on another — the heroes uplift and ennoble my family members, and the family spirits moderate the “rock star peremptory attitudes” of the Heroes… and the Nameless seem to force everyone to take a much longer view of any situation than normal. It’s very beneficial, I think, to think of the three categories of the dead and invite them in, in a way that pushes them to work together.

    • Speaking just for myself, I found applying complementary groupings like this a useful step to realizing how narrowly I was applying the term ‘ancestor’ in the first place. In more tightly-knot communities, the intertwining ancestries that unite a community are more visible.

      The genuinely familial always seems to have the bite of karma for me, too, that which is inherited because unresolved. As my mom has been expanding her genealogical research, it has been funny to see some of those unresolved tensions beginning quite some time into the past.

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