Basics: Thoughts about Ancestor Shrines

I am currently in a point of my life at which I am half sick of theory. So I’m writing a nice post about something practical that can be done. Specifically, the basic practice of establishing an ancestor shrine.

I do a lot of things that are rooted in historical practice, and a lot of things that are simply and straightforwardly personal. I also have a lot of ideas that I have not yet successfully implemented, or ideas that I will never implement but am willing to suggest to others in case they find them useful.

First of all, and right up front: I do not only honor bloodkin on my ancestor shrine. My community is larger than that. I do honor not only to the elderly neighbors who adopted me as a bonus grandchild, but to important thinkers and friends – and people who were important to my parents as well, for that is part of my heritage. I have tokens of relationships that have ended, pictures of pets, and so on. All of these are part of the great what-came-before, the pool of life-energy that made me, not merely as a living body, but as the person that I am.

The photographs I have are only of people who have gone to the beautiful West. I consider it bad luck to put a photograph of the living on the ancestor shrine, a sort of implied curse – therefore I cannot put the only photo I have of my great-grandfather there, as it includes myself as a baby! (I had a couple copies of it printed, though; at some point I intend to try to trim one of them down a bit so I can display it safely.) I keep things that include the living near the shrine but in a distinct space to one side.

I have the shrine set up against the western wall of my bedroom. It actually occupies one end of my desk. I have a lot of assorted Stuff there. In addition to the photographs, I have things that belonged to and were loved by my ancestors and others – a plate painted for me by one of those neighbors, a Book of Common Prayer belonging to my grandfather, a glass bottle belonging to my other grandfather, my great-aunt’s Polish-English dictionary, and so on. At some point I will get some shelves or something put up which will help organise the clutter; I suspect some things will go onto the adjoining south wall as well.

The shrine itself is a double-doored antique cabinet that I found a few years ago. It mattered to me to get something with double doors; the gateway between the material world and the unseen world is constantly described as having double doors in ancient material, and even if what’s behind those doors are a few drawers filled with other ancestral knick-knacks, it’s important symbolism for me.

I have been pondering – if a cabinet is too difficult for people to do – the use of the false door. False doors are an old tradition in Egypt, of course, and were often inscribed with prayers and such things. It would be easy enough to paint the nested doorway motif on a piece of wood, if someone wanted to have such a thing as the backplate for their own ancestor space. (I may add it to my own at some point.)

The furniture for it is mostly put together out of other ancestral items – my candleholder is my grandmother’s ashtray, for example. The offering cup I put out routinely was a piece my grandparents bought at Williamsburg. The incense burner is new, but shaped like a boat.

I think the boat is a useful and important tool, and I think I will want to get a dedicated one at some point, rather than just the incense burner one. The relevant boat in Egypt was one of the long flat barges that we see in so much artwork, with the prow and stern bent upwards and ending in lotus flowers. So much of the symbolism we have involving the ancestors has to do with boats, with providing them with boats, starting with the sixth-day festival and moving to other grander things, that I think I’m starting to come down on the side of wanting a model boat on the shrine.

One thing I want to do at some point is get a book. A book to write down the stories in, the memories, to record the names of the people I have loved and lost. This is a means of immortality, to remember the names. To write down each and every one of them, with stories, with understanding, to hold that space. I’m feeling very particular about the book, though, so that’s not happening quickly at all.

Another thing I want to do is get model food for shrine offerings (in general, as well as for this shrine). This is of course an ancient practice – heck, they’d also have stelae with names of offerings written on them and ask people to pour water there to activate them – but I haven’t done it yet. I have done food offerings with my ancestors, but I don’t have dedicated plates for them, I just use the ones we have downstairs. At the very least I think I need bread, beer, meat, and roast duck, since those are the sixth-day offerings explicitly mentioned.

So, core points for ancestor shrine:
* some sort of gateway to the West (double-door, false door, etc.)
* cup, candleholder, incense holder
* material items and representations of the akhu
* boats!
* offerings of various kinds, whether actual or representations

And that should be a good place to start.

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8 thoughts on “Basics: Thoughts about Ancestor Shrines

  1. Juni says:

    I have been working on and off on my Beloved Dead shrine- one of the pieces is a false door. Since I am a lousy painter, I decided to get some wooden trim from the craft store in two different styles, cut them and glue them down to look like modern doorframes. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to cover them in gold, or stain them and paint the background like the real wall.

    From what I read about false doors (which is admittedly not a great deal) inside the innermost door was traditionally the name of the deceased, yes? Does leaving that space blank mean anyone can come through?

    Would having the names of the blessed dead be a suitable stand-in for those who one doesn’t have pictures for?

    (I apologize if this is rambling, Kiya! I considered waiting to post this after I’ve slept, but knowing me I’ll just forget.)

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      In an ancient context, the false door would have been in an individual tomb (or, as was the case for a lot of tombs, an official shared family tomb, in which case I imagine the name on it would have been a family-founder or patriarch figure).

      I’m not sure how I’d parse an interpretation for the modern context. I would probably put prayers and blessigns and offering stuff around the edges of the door, possibly with a ‘for those who I pray for’ notation, maybe.

      Yes, names are excellent (and historically appropriate!) substitutes for images.

  2. veggiewolf says:

    And, I’m reminded that I was negotiating for miniature food to be made. I need to follow-up on that.

  3. veggiewolf says:

    Reblogged this on Fluid Morality and commented:
    Practical things always win.

  4. Idebenone says:

    I am often asked what kind of things can be used as offerings in a Lasa/Lare Shrine. I like to use plants & flowers . But whenever I do ritual I make sure that I offer some of the same wine I drink to the Lasa. I also place some on my God & Goddess shrines. Another favorite offering is Jordan Almonds . These are easy to come by at our local Middle Eastern grocery . Because they are often handed out as favors at New Orleans weddings, these favors usually end up on the Lasa Shrine. The offerings last a long time.I have also successfully used Florida Water . I’ve seen this sold for more than $7.00 a bottle on pagan sites. But here in New Orleans this is so common item that it is sold at our local Walgreens, mostly in the summer so this is when I stock up. It is great as an insect repellent and it can also be used after the mosquito bites to stop the itching. Coaches & parents soak cooling cloths in it and store these in ice chests then use it on the back of the necks of their young athletes to help fight the heat. I like Florida Water’s crisp scent. It has has been used to cleanse houses of negative energy in New Orleans for a long time. It is typically added to a bucket of clear mop water and then the floors in the house are mopped from the front door out of the back. Because the Lare can be spirits of the home or location, I find the use of such a historical liquid appropriate.I have also used Dr. Tichenor’s as an offering. This is linked more to my paternal ancestors and many summer weekends spent on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The key here is the link to my past and my ancestors and the heady smell. Scent is a great pleaser of the spirits. You can also use fresh baked bread for this reason. But I tend to shy away from food offerings at my interior shrines as here in the deep south cleanliness keeps the critters & bugs away. And our tropical climate makes us more susceptible to these.

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      Florida Water is also pretty easy to make! I have a jar of it upstairs. There are a lot of different recipes out there.

  5. Eric Roberts says:

    Other than the photograph being an implied curse…I am with this 100%. We have had an ancestor altar for years. It actually grew out of a temporary one that we would put up around Samhain…it’s now a permanent fixture.

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