Sunday, July 17, 2011

Honoring One's Ancestors

A large part heathen practice involves honoring our ancestors.  While living, our ancestors were living breathing people, with hopes and dreams, families and friends they loved, successes and hardships, and if not for their hard work, dedication, and sacrifices we would not be here.  A part of our heathen soul, our Orlog, is passed to us by our ancestors.  We work hard all through our lives to pass good Orlog to our own children, and thus our descendents.  We share blood and culture with our ancestors, and it is through our ancestors that we find connection with our Gods.

In death, we as heathens have various ideas about where they might be. Perhaps a part of their heathen soul is in our Ancestor's Halls in Hel or perhaps they rest in the mound.  There are other concepts of the afterlife among modern heathens, but these are probably the most common.  Regardless of where they are, there is a belief that our ancestors are aware of us and watch us throughout our lives.  That our Alfar and Disir are able to bestow advice and a bit of needed Luck to a deserving descendant.  That our ancestors take an interest in us and may look out for us during a trying time.  Regardless, we owe our ancestors our lives, and they deserve to be honored and remembered.


Many newcomers to Asatru or Heathenry focus first on our Gods, and only later develop a true interest in honoring their ancestors.  This is probably a vestige of the mainstream religions within which they were raised.  To your average person in our Western Culture, religion is all about honoring a god or gods.  For the majority religion, Christianity, the entire focus of the religion is on worshipping their god.  So, it makes sense why new heathens first focus on our Gods, and don't usually come to fully understand the importance of honoring their ancestors until they've been around Heathenry a little while.

Junius Ray Stinson, my grandfather on the left.

But our ancestors have a direct and vested interest in us, and how we live our lives.  They share the frith of kinship with us, and properly honoring them and making them proud is of great importance.  So, when new heathens approach you or your kindred looking for guidance, share with them the importance of their ancestor.  Teach them how to honor and value their ancestors at least as much as they honor and value our Gods.

Sometimes new heathens will ask, "But what about all my Christian ancestors, how am I supposed to honor them?"  Quite frankly, I don't believe that there should be any difference in how we honor our Heathen ancestors from our Christian ancestors.  We honor them by knowing them, remembering them, gifting them, leading worthwhile lives, and raising strong responsible children.  All ancestors, regardless of what religion they held in life, would appreciate all that we do for our ancestors. 


There are many ways to know one's ancestors.  One of the best ways to get started is to talk with your living relatives, and find out all they know about your grandparents, great-grandparents, and as far back as any one of your living relatives can go back.  Take notes.  Write down names, dates, where they lived, and their occupations.  If they remember little details from their lives, make note of those as well.  What where their interests and hobbies?  What were their greatest hardships and accomplishments?  What was their favorite foods or treats?  What stories are known or have been passed down about these ancestors.

While your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are still alive ask them to tell you stories from their lives.  This may take some convincing with some of your quieter or more modest relatives.  But some living relatives will tell you all sorts of stories from their lives.  Ask them how they felt about or reacted to important historical moments that took place during their lives.  Ask them about the jobs they held, the homes they lived in, the schools they went to, the adventures and misadventures they lived.  Once these living relatives are gone, their stories will go with them if you don't ask and listen.  Take careful notes and keep them all in one place you won't lose them.  Details are easy to forget or mix up, so keeping notes will keep the information clear and accurate in your memory, and give you something to refresh your memory.  Notes also make it easir for you to preserve and pass on the information you collect.

Genealogy can also be enormously interesting and enlightening about one's own background.  You are in luck if you already have a relative that has done a lot of the genealogical footwork for you.  Usually they will be very happy to copy of the information and families trees information they have gathered.  Sometimes it will be so complete, that you don't have to really do much more with it than read it and learn from it.  But, with genealogy you can always strive to go further back with the research, and existing genealogical information given to you by another relative can give you an amazing starting place for further research.  

Whether you are starting nearly from scratch in researching your family tree or if you are given a headstart on the information by a relative, there are a variety of on-line sources of genealogical information.  One such site is  You can do some very basic searching for information for free at, but you will get much further along and more quickly, if you go ahead and pay the $20 a month fees to register with their website. has searchable census documents going back to the 1700's.  They also have all manner of birth records, death records, service records, marriage license records, immigration records, ship passenger lists, and the list goes on and on.  All of this is searchable, and with a little practice you can start piecing together your families history from home on the internet.

With today's technology, you also have the option of having your DNA tested and analyzed.  There are a wide variety of services and pricing methods based on this technology, but if you do your research and have some money to spend you can learn a lot about where your ancestors come from, who you are currently related to in the world, and many other helpful areas of informaton about your ancestors.

If you've managed to do some or all of this work to learn more about your ancestors, then it is definitely worth bringing all that information together in one place, and putting it in a format that can be shared with other relatives and your descendants.  This can be as simple as photo-copying and stapling together packets of information to share and pass down.  Some families bring the information together into a book format, and print off a number of actual books to share and pass down.  The book creation option is enormously easy using today's print-on-demand book services available on-line. and are both excellent options in this area.  And with today's technology, it is even possible to use family-tree software to enter all of your information into a professionally designed computer interface that makes the information searchable, easily browsable, and when copied to a disk...enormously easy to share and pass down.

I've been asked before, "What if I'm adopted and don't know who my ancestors are?"  Or, "I never knew who my father was, so I don't any of my ancestors from that side of the family?"  We can't help it if circumstances make it impossible for us to know or learn more about our ancestors in all or some of our family.  But regardless of whether you know your ancestors or not, 100% of us do have ancestors.  Even if we don't know them, you can be assured that your ancestors DO KNOW YOU.  Though you know nothing of your ancestors, they are still worthy of being honored and gifted. 

The act of knowing one's ancestors and all the time and sacrifice that can go into such an on-going process, is a great gift to one's ancestors.  And the knowledge you gain about them, makes your connection with them and your ability to honor them just that much stronger.


Remembering an ancestors gives them the respect and recognition they deserve.  It allows them to live on in this world, in the form of memories, stories, and the lessons that their lives can teach us.  Everyone wants to be remembered, and there is no reason to believe that our ancestors would be any different.  There are many ways to remember one's ancestors, and the following are just some of them.

Talk with your children about your ancestors.  Tell them the interesting, funny, and moving stories that you know.  Show them photos and home movies if you have them.  Share what you know about who they were, what they cared about, and what they were like to be around.  Explain to your children why their ancestors are important and why it is good to honor them.  In essense, make these people "real" for your children and give them the tools they need to connect with them and to feel like they have a relationship with who they were (are).

Glen Franklyn Stinson, my father, during WW2.

Use whatever creativity you have, and create art that memorializes your ancestors.  If you carve stone, carve a rune stone in honor of a specific ancestor.  If write songs, poetry, or prose, write something that memorializes a specific ancestors, and expresses who they really were and why they are important to you.  If they had a specific craft that they were good at or enjoyed, then it may be benefical to learn and practice that craft yourself.  If they had a favorite food or dish that they liked to prepare or are known for within your family, then prepare that food or dish keeping that ancestor in mind.  If you take the food or dish to a family dinner or wider gathering, tell those present about the food and the ancestor that inspired you to prepare it.

During meals at special occasions prepare an ancestor's plate and set an empty seat at the table.  At the beginning of the meal, invite ancestors or a specific ancestor to dine with you.  During the meal, tell stories of that ancestor and share why they were so important to you.

During Symbel, speaking good and true words of your ancestors or a specific ancestor is a wonderful way to remember them and to share with those you care about something special about that ancestor.  When making such a toast, say who the ancestor was by name, and then share from your heart something meaningful about them.  These words and the honor you give them go into the well, and everyone participating benefits from them.

Photos are an amazing way to remember people, and having a large wall of your house dedicated to photos of your ancestors reminds you of them daily.  If you have certain belongings or artifacts passed down to you that belonged to ancestors, care for these objects and keep them safe.  Find ways to preserve and display these items in your home, to show their importance to you and to also serve as a reminder of your relationship with that ancestor. 

 In taking steps to remember and memorialize one's ancestors, it is the act of doing something that shows them your respect and admiration.  It is one thing to say, "I honor my ancestors," but there is something so much more significant to actively do something that honors them.


One traditional way of honoring one's ancestors is to establish an area in your home specifically for honoring and gifting your ancestors.  Many call this an Ancestors' altar, but the name or shape of it is not nearly as important as what you do with it.  The altar could take the form on one set of bookshelve in your home dedicated to this purpose.  Perhaps the altar is an old table or piece of furniture that belonged to an ancestors that was particularly special to you.  Perhaps it is simply a wide window sill overlooking a beautiful view outside.  Really, it depends on how much space you have and what you have at your disposal to create this holy space.

Once you have a spot picked out and prepared, place things in the area that remind you of your ancestors and represent who they were.  This can include photographs, objects that belonged to them, and objects that they would have liked based on their interests in life.  Establishing this holy space is a deed that you have performed, that in a concrete way shows your ancestors how important they are to you and that they are not forgotten.  This holy space in your home also serves as a constant reminder to you and your family, so that everyday as you pass the alter, thoughts and memories of your ancestors are brought to mind.

This altar also serves as a place for gifting your ancestors, and these gifts can take many forms.  Placing an offering bowl on the altar with some of their favorite drink, food, candy, or other object will actively show them the honor you are showing them.  It is a gift you are giving them in return for the many gifts they have given you.  Gifting is a powerful way to build bonds and friendships among the living, and gifting has the similar affect of maintaining our connection and relationships with our honored dead.


This particular method of honoring one's ancestors is not talked a lot about.  Or at the very least, it is not talked about enough.  One of the greatest gifts you can give your ancestors, is to live a life of which they are proud.  What better way to honor your ancestors than to lead the sort of responsible, eventful, and accomplished life that would make them proud of who you are and what you accomplished with your time on earth?  When making a choice in life, it is worth considering what would Grandmother Hattie think of what I'm about to do?  When deciding whether to watch 6 hours of television or actually accomplish something, it is worth considering what Great Uncle John would want you to do with your life.

We all wish the best for our children and our descendants, and will do nearly anything to give them the nudge they need to lead responsible and productive lives.  And when our children and grandchildren do grow up to be strong accomplished adults, we feel great pride in them.  It should be no different for the dead.  By living a life of which they would be proud, we show them that we have not squandered or taken lightly the gift of life and Orlog they have passed to us.  Many of our ancestors struggled and sacrificed greatly to give their descendant's a better life than they had, and when we recognize this and lead our lives with this in mind, we show them in a concrete way that we acknowledge and appreciate them and what they did for us.


Another way of honoring our ancestors that does not get spoken of enough, involves the chidren we bring into this world.  What better gift to our ancestors than raising, to the best of our ability, healthy and well-adjusted chidlren?  We see in the faces of our living parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents the pride they feel in those children that are descended from them.  It should be no different for the dead.  What pride they must feel to see those that are descended from them, growing and prospering in the world.

Even a tree with deep roots but no limbs will eventually die.  Continuing our families, and strengthening and improving the lives of those that come after us...brings great joy and honor to our ancestors.


It is unreasonable to expect that a new heathen would hit the ground running, and attempt to do everything talked about in this essay from day one.  Just like forming and maintaining relationships with the living is a process and takes time, so does building and maintaining our relationships with our ancestors.  So, if you read this essay and find that you are doing nothing that is listed here, or very little of it, then pick one or two things and work toward making them happen.  When those are in place in your life and working well, choose a few more things to add and bring into your Heathen practice.  Over time, you will establish a connection and a bond with your ancestors that will serve you, your family, and your kindred well.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods


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