In the Footsteps of the Ancestors

by Melusine Draco

The Ancestors play an extremely important role within the Elder Faith of European witchcraft.  The honouring of the existence of the ‘Mighty Dead,’ and venerating their memory with propitiatory offerings, is a common root of all belief, with many cultures believing that the dead live on in another dimension, continuing to affect the lives of subsequent generations.  This concept of spirit ancestors is an extremely ancient one, especially when it involves dealing with deceased members of a particular people or clan, and is still widely observed in Japanese Shinto, Chinese Confucianism and among the Australian Aboriginal and Native American peoples. In the West, we know from the  remains of the numerous prehistoric earthworks that the indigenous people of the British Isles, and later the Celts, honoured their ancestors, and the earliest written observations of the practice are those recording the Roman Paternalia (February) and the Lemuria (May), which later spread throughout the Empire.

It is curious how retentive these ancient mythological doctrines about death are enshrined in the racial memories of different peoples. This Celtic fable of the Land Beyond the Sea, to which souls are borne after death, has also engrafted itself upon popular literature in the concept of the Grey Havens in The Lord of the Rings as ‘one of the only places that leads to the ocean’. The ocean, because it is the origin of all life, and also because of the mysteries beneath, is symbolic of life and mystery. One could even say it represents the mysteries of life … and death … and the Ancestors

In fact, the most powerful energy on which an Old Craft practitioner can call is that of our ‘Ancestors’, who represent our culture, traditions, heritage, lineage and antecedents; they trace the long march of history that our predecessors have taken under the aegis of traditional British Old Craft. When those of the Elder Faith pass beyond the veil, their spiritual essence merges with the divine spirit of the Whole, which in turn gives traditional witchcraft the continuing power to endure – even past its own time and place in history.  It therefore remains the duty of an Old Craft practitioner to ensure that the soul of any newly deceased can successfully join the Ancestors and keep adding to the strength of belief, which, in many instances may already have endured for hundreds of years.  If when living, we cannot acknowledge and respect the Ancestors of the Elder Faith to which we claim to belong, then we will contribute nothing to the Whole when we die.

Interaction with these spirit ancestors as an invisible and powerful presence is a constant feature of Elder Faith, with the Ancestors remaining important members of the Tradition they have left behind.  In general they are seen as Elders, treated and referred to in much the same way as the most senior of living Elders of a coven or magical group, but with additional mystical and magical powers. Sometimes they are identified as the Guardians, the Mighty Dead, the Watchers or the Old Ones, who gave magical knowledge to mankind, rather than merely family or tribal dead. Or, even more ambiguously ‘those who have gone before’ – their magical essence distilled into the universal subconscious at differing levels. Reverence for Craft Ancestors is part of the ethic of respect for those who have preceded us in life, and their continued presence on the periphery of our consciousness means that they are always with us. And because traditional Old Craft is essentially a practical thing, the Ancestors are also called upon to help find solutions to magical problems through divination, path-working and spell-casting.

The Ancestors are called upon to act as intermediaries between human and the Divine because, in truth, our deities have little time or patience with the constant carping and demands leveled at them by the occupants of the Compass or Circle.  The ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ attitude of modern supplicants has alienated them from the divine nature or essence of our gods. The ‘god and goddess’ of popular witchcraft are no longer within hailing distance and, as a result, the Ancestors have been dragged out of mothballs to intercede between the two parties with a view to reconciling our differences.  The act of propitiation and appeasement have all but disappeared from our rituals – those rites of direct communication with deity and age-old customs so ancient that they have had time to firmly entrench themselves in the vast storehouse of our racial subconsciousness.

Those deep-rooted folk memories, that earned Carl Jung the scorn of his contemporaries, serve to explain the many cross-cultural similarities that appeared to alter a culture’s natural development by an outside influence, or exposure to a more advanced, or military powerful, society. The mass migrations from the earliest times served to re-populate vast areas of land decimated by conflict and invasion – and the four-thousand years or so following the end of the last Ice Age was a time of dramatic re-ordering in Western Europe, according to Professor Barry Cunliffe in Facing the Ocean.  Old Europe, an early culture in south-eastern Europe before the arrival of speakers of the Indo-European languages, is a term coined by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to describe what she perceived as a relatively homogeneous pre-Indo-European Neolithic culture in south-eastern Europe.

Old Europe, or Neolithic-Europe, refers to the time between the Mesolithic and Bronze Age periods in Europe, roughly from 7000BC (the approximate time of the first farming societies in Greece). Regardless of specific chronology, many European Neolithic groups appeared to have shared basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale communities, more egalitarian than the city-states and chiefdoms of the Bronze Age, subsisting on domestic plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and hunting, and producing hand-made pottery, without the aid of the potter’s wheel. There are also many differences, with some Neolithic communities in south-eastern Europe living in heavily fortified settlements of 3,000–4,000 people (e.g. Sesklo in Greece) whereas Neolithic groups in Britain were small, with possibly 50–100 people.

Marija Gimbutas investigated the Neolithic period in order to understand cultural developments in settled village culture in the southern Balkans, which she characterized as peaceful, matristic, and possessing a goddess-centered religion. In contrast, she characterizes the later Indo-European influences as warlike, nomadic, and patrilineal. Using evidence from pottery and sculpture, and combining the tools of archaeology, comparative mythology, linguistics, and, most controversially, folkloristics, Gimbutas invented a new interdisciplinary field – Archaeo-mythology.

In historical times, some ethnic groups were believed to correspond to Pre-Indo-European peoples, assumed to be the descendants of the earlier Old European cultures: the pre-Hellenic Pelasgians; Minoans; the Leleges – whom Homer names among the Trojan allies; Iberians; the Sardinian Nuragic people; Etruscans; the Rhaetians, a confederation of Alpine tribes;  the Camunni of Lombardy and the Basques. Two of the three pre-Greek peoples of Sicily, the Sicians and the Elmians, may also have been pre-Indo-European. How many Pre-Indo-European languages existed is not known. Nor is it known whether the ancient names of peoples descended from the pre-ancient population actually referred to speakers of distinct languages. The idea of a Pre-Indo-European language in the region actually precedes Gimbutas, going by other names, such as ‘Pelasgian’, ‘Mediterranean’, or ‘Aegean. [The Language of the Goddess]

According to Professor Gimbutas, Old Europe was invaded and destroyed by horse-riding, pastoral nomads from the Pontic-Caspian steppe who brought with them violence, patriarchy, and Indo-European languages – with later and more prolonged migration after Old Europe’s collapse due to other factors, including the Anatolian migration. While there can be no direct evidence of prehistoric languages, both the existence of Proto-Indo-European and the dispersal of its off-shoots through wide-ranging migrations and ‘elite-dominance dispersal’ are inferred through an accumulation of data from linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and genetics. Comparative studies describes the similarities between various languages and the traces the spread of cultures presumed to be created by speakers of Proto-Indo-European in several stages  into their later locations in Western Europe by migrations and ‘elite-recruitment’ as described by anthropological research. Recent genetic research has also increasingly contributed to the understanding of relations between various prehistoric cultures, including those influenced by the wide-spread Atlantic coastal migration that brought remarkable building skills to Brittany, Ireland and the British Isles.

As a result, our sacred landscape is like a gigantic patchwork quilt that also reflects the beliefs and culture of the people who have dwelt in it down through the ages.  And much of what we see in it today is a stark reminder that its most striking features were important landmarks for our Neolithic ancestors. Chet Raymo is a rare animal indeed. He is a professor of physics and astronomy; a teacher, writer and naturalist, exploring the relationships between science, nature and the humanities. His books are recommended reading for anyone wishing to seriously study pagan Mysteries and learn how to interact with this ancient landscape:

‘This is not a work of metaphysics or theology.  It is instead a kind of serendipitous adventure. A spiritual vagabond’s quest.  I have tramped the landscapes … studying the rocks, the sky, the flora and the fauna, and I took whatever scraps of revelation I could find.  I sought the burning bush and did not find it.  But I found the honeysuckle and the fuchsia, and I found the gorse and the heather.  When I called out for the Absolute, I was answered by the wind.  If it was God’s voice in the wind, then I heard it.’ [Honey From Stone]

Nevertheless, the Neolithic hunter-gatherers who erected those massive monoliths in central Turkey 11,500 years ago had a command of geometry and a much more complex society than previously thought, archaeologists are now telling us.  The enigmatic monoliths erected at Gobekli Tepe have been puzzling archaeologists and challenging preconceptions about the prehistoric culture of our Ancestors since their discovery in the 1990s.  In fact, almost 12,000 years ago, in the remote recesses of Anatolia, today’s southeast Turkey, something happened that, seemingly overnight, completely changed the course of human evolution.

Far flung bands of hunter-gatherers who previously had wandered the landscape, existing day to day by foraging from whatever nature provided, suddenly gathered in one place, organized themselves into a work force, built huge megalithic structures for what seems to be religious purposes, and invented agriculture, giving birth to what is now called civilization. But some pieces of the puzzle are missing. Why did they do it? What motivated them? How did they learn so much so fast? The fact that something drastic occurred is recorded in the archaeological record, wrote Jim Willis in Archaeology & Science. Anatolia had been a popular region for settlement throughout history due to its geopolitical location and fertile lands. Humanity, on the other hand, has consistently built places of worship from past to present. Early periods of civilization are currently being rewritten with Gobekli Tepe – home to the oldest known temple in the world.

At this world-renowned archaeological site several concentric stone circles feature massive T-shaped pillars that reach almost 20 feet in height with animals and anthropological motifs carved in relief. A new study focuses on the arrangement and positioning of the oldest circular stone enclosures and the researchers claim that underlying the entire architectural plan of these great structures is a hidden geometric pattern, which they describe as being specifically an equilateral triangle – and that it required planning and resources to a degree thought of as being impossible for those times.  The first phase of construction at the famous ‘potbellied hill’ has been dated to between 12,000 and 11,000 years ago, and these prehistoric stone circles, located on a barren hillside has challenged archaeologists’ ideas about prehistoric cultures since their discovery.  Does the ‘sacred geometry’ of Göbekli Tepe suggest that our Ancestors knew of these rudimentary principals and indicating a much more complex society than previously assumed by archaeologists, or not?

Until these new observations, most archaeologists had assumed that the circles at Göbekli Tepe had been built gradually, over a long time period, possibly by different cultural groups, and that older circles were covered over with the new. Never was it considered that all three enclosures might have been constructed ‘as a single unit at the same time’, said the researchers. Using an algorithm, they identified the center points of the three irregular stone circles, which fell roughly mid-way between the pair of central pillars in each enclosure. The eureka moment came when the three central points were found to form that nearly perfect equilateral triangle, so accurate in measure, that the researchers say the ‘vertices are about 10 inches away from forming a perfect triangle with sides measuring 63 feet each’.

Nothing like it has ever been found anywhere in the world. As of June 2020, there are more than 200 stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe, buried beneath the surface (most of them) in 20 clearly denoted circles. These pillars are massive; they rise to an average height of 20 feet and have a weight of 10 tons. Fitted into sockets previously hewn out of the local bedrock, the t-shaped stone pillars are the site’s most unique features.

Klaus Schmidt, one of the most famous excavators of the site, discovered two phases of occupation, the oldest of which can be traced back to around 10,000 BC. This means that already 12,000 years ago, the society that was in charge of building Göbekli Tepe was ahead of their time, at least in the construction and organizational sense. Needless to say, its true purpose remains a profound mystery, although various theories propose that Göbekli Tepe was either a massive ceremonial site – which would make it the oldest known megalithic temple on Earth, or an early astronomical observatory.  Experts like Schmidt suggest the site was used in a religious or ceremonial sense, where people from vast distances traveled to the site to pay their respects. Whatever the case, the imposing stratigraphy at the site attests to several centuries of activity, the earliest of which originated during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

We must also take into consideration that the people who built Göbekli Tepe did so without the aid of pack animals or technologies such as the pulley or the wheel.  The monument is so old that it predates pottery, metallurgy, the invention of writing or the wheel, and essentially the Neolithic Revolution. Remember, Göbekli Tepe was not built in a day, and it most likely took several generations to complete a site that would deliberately be backfilled around 8,000 BC. Klaus Schmidt suggests that the people of Göbekli Tepe weren’t wiped out, like other lost civilizations. “They simply packed up and went somewhere else – became someone else. It was like the witness-protection programme. In a way, they were still all around us. Lots of us were probably descended from them.”

This then, was the world of our Ancestors before the Indo-Europeans came flooding in from the East and the ‘out of Africa’ migration brought the  ‘stone-builders’ of Egypt and Mpumalanga province of South Africa.  Here, Adam’s Calendar is a series of stones believed to be the oldest man-made structure on Earth and remains accurate as a calendar following the shadow of the setting sun cast by the central monolith onto a flat calendar stone next to it.  The ancient circular monolithic stones predate any other structure found to date and, seen in perspective these stones are amongst an estimated one million ancient stone ruins scattered throughout the mountains of southern Africa; together with the famous megalithic monuments of the ritual landscapes of Brittany, Ireland, England, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.

By about 8000BC the post-glacial period had finally begun.  The chronology of the changes are blurred but, according to Professor Cunliffe, the long established terminologies of Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic are still useful as a broad generalization, and the date of c.8000BC provides a convenient starting point for the process of change when the British Isles was still joined to the north-western Europe land-mass.   At this time the process of vegetational change escalated as the open tundra was colonized first by open birch forest and then by aspen and birch and later by pine.  About 7000BC hazel began to dominate; then followed elm, lime, oak and alder; and by about 6000 BC the hazel-pine forest had given way to a stable primeval forest dominated by shade-creating trees. In southern Europe, especially Iberia and southern France, pine spread to the higher altitudes while the rest of the land was covered with oak forests, with a much lower percentage of the other trees found in the primeval forests of the north.

The brief but cold spell at the very end of the Late-Glacial period drove human groups from the northern parts of Europe, and required major adjustments in the lifestyles of those who attempted to live at the fringes.      With the rapid improvement in the climate after 8000BC and the spread of forests over most of Europe, human populations moved gradually northwards.  After the middle of the sixth millennium, by which time Ireland had been severed from Britain; in central and southern Portugal it is possible to distinguish between the Early Mesolithic dating to about 8000-6000BC and a Later Mesolithic which lasted until about 4500BC.

By the beginning of the fourth millennium much of Atlantic-Europe – from the valley of the Vistula (Poland) to the Straits of Gibraltar, including the off-shore islands of Britain and Ireland, had adopted a Neolithic lifestyle.  By 4000BC some communities within the Atlantic zone had already begun to develop a specific form of monumental architecture and the building of large megalithic monuments was an Atlantic phenomenon without contemporary parallel.  In south-eastern Europe from the shores of the Aegean and Black Sea to the eastern fringes of the Alps, certain communities, perhaps motivated first by curiosity, were beginning to open up the trade routes.   By about 3000BC the evolving social system had emerged into ‘archaeological visibility’ with the Beaker, the battle axe, and the rite of individual burial as its defining characteristics.  However we choose to interpret these symbols – the communal nature of the drinking vessel, the axe as an icon of aggressive power, and single burial showing reverence for the individual – the ‘package’, and this presumably its social meaning, was widely adopted over a huge territory extending from Moscow in the east to Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland in the west.  [Facing the Ocean]

And, with all this to-ing and fro-ing, these people would have brought with them their culture and customs, beliefs, folk-medicine and superstitions.  Whether they were a member of the ruling classes, artisans, warriors, servants or slaves, their racial memories would have travelled with them in the baggage train – together with their priesthoods and shamans; astronomers, magi and wizards, diviners, conjurors, fortune-tellers and wise women; wort-charmers, healers and augers; sorcerers and enchantresses; necromancers, thaumaturgers, soothsayers and spell-casters. Probably all separated by an uncommon tongue but bound together by their magical prowess.

The majority of ancient peoples observed the cult of Ancestor-worship that was based on love and respect for their deceased. In some cultures, it related to beliefs that the dead have a continued existence, and possessed the ability to influence the fortunes of the living. Some groups venerated their direct, familial ancestors, while others venerated those who acted as intercessors with deity. In European belief, the point of ancestor veneration was to ensure the Ancestors’ continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living tribe, and sometimes to ask for special favours or assistance. The social or non-religious aspect of Ancestor-veneration was to cultivate kinship values, such as filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family or tribal lineage that reach down to the present day.

For example: Brythonic-Celtic cultures in Cornwall and Wales, observed the autumn Ancestor festivals occurring around 1st November; in Cornwall the festival was known as Kalan Gwav, and in Wales as Calan Gaeaf and are ancient festivals from which modern Hallowe’en is derived.  During Samhain, 1st November in the Gaelic-Celtic cultures of Ireland and Scotland,  the dead are thought to return to the world of the living, and offerings of food and light are left for them.  On the festival day, ancient people would extinguish the hearth fires in their homes, participate in a community bonfire festival, and then carry a flame home from the communal fire and use it light their home fires anew.  This custom has continued to some extent into modern times, in both the Celtic nations and the diaspora where lights in the window to guide the dead home are left burning all night. On the Is;e of Man the festival is known as ‘old Sauin’ or  Hop-tu-Naa.

Whether there really exists among their descendents, certain powers lost by those less finely attuned to the Elder Faith, is a subject well worthy of consideration.  It may well be that those more closely allied to the earlier races do retain many more of those occult instincts intact. In the ‘spiritual’ feelings of the indigenous people there continued to dwell from generation to generation, and all the centuries which passed, an inability to obliterate the dark superstitions of the Eld, writes Wood-Martin:

 ‘It is true that the half-educated peasants publicly profess to be ashamed of such practices; but none the less, they do cling tenaciously, in secret, to the mysteries which their fathers and mothers taught them to dread, and the deep-rooted belief of the people in this kind of witchcraft still meets one at every turn.  Unreasoning credulity and superstition are more deeply rooted, both by hereditary tendency and direct tradition … It required, as a matter of course, to be semi-veiled, no matter how pure they might be – for all vanquished religions are accused by the incoming creed – early Christianity – of teaching indecent rites and organized immorality.  It is clear, therefore, that the biased testimony of the Fathers must be taken with a considerable degree of caution with regard to their allegations regarding paganism’. [Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland]

Antiquarian, William Wood-Martin was probably researching his magnus opus by the mid-1800s and was more than sympathetic to those followers of the Elder Faith that had survived almost intact in Catholic Ireland.  His two-volume study is a fascinating collection of folk-memories about the mythical races of Ireland, especially the Tuatha de Danann, who were the spiritual race of Eire. and the most ancient of all of them. Tuatha de Danann (or Sidh – pronounced shee) was a magical race with supernatural powers. They represented the Elder Faith, for they were the folk who lived in pre-Christian Ireland for centuries, where they taught their skills in the sciences, including architecture, the arts, and magic, including necromancy. Before their unexplained disappearance, they stayed in Ireland for around four thousand years, and although there have been more than a few claims regarding their disappearance – the truth remains unravelled.  They retired underground, where they became known as Aes sidhe (the people of the mound – fairy mounds or forts), in the hollows of the hills and mountains.

In Wales there is a similar race known anciently by the natives as Y Tylwyth Teg which literally means ‘the fair folk’. Welsh fae typically live in lakes or streams and sometimes in hill hollows – although they are generally divided into five different types: the Ellyllon (inhabit groves and valleys and are similar to English), the Coblynau  (fae of the mines), the Bwbachod (household fae similar to brownines), the Gwragedd Annwn (female fae of the lakes and streams) and the Gwyllion (mountain fae more akin to hags). Although most stories about Y Tylwyth Teg are recorded from oral tradition, references to them appear in writing as early as Giraldus Cambrensis (c.1146–1223). Their king is Gwyn ap Nudd – Lord of Otherworld – while Gwlad y Tylwyth Teg is a Welsh name for Otherworld.

In general, Y Tylwyth Teg are portrayed as benevolent but still capable of occasional and dangerous mischief. In distinction from other Celtic fairies, they are more often associated with lakes, especially at Llyn y Fan Fach in south Wales. Another distinction is their fear of iron; unbaptized children were said to be guarded from being taken by them, by having a poker placed over the cradle. The link with such lakes as Llyn y Fan Fach has implied that the conception of Y Tylwyth Teg is derived from the short, dark-skinned early inhabitants of Britain who lived in crannogs, primitive lake dwellings; this coincides with one of the four general theories explaining the origin of fae; smaller and darker than Y Ttylwyth Teg, the ellyll may have been adapted from the non-Welsh elves.

Faerie belief was beginning to fade at the time countryman, Francis Kilvert wrote that he’d been told: “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe they travel yet…”  This was not complete disappearance or extinction, therefore; more, it was a matter of the human eye of faith failing, or being distracted by the Christian teachings heard in the Wesleyan chapels. The fae were still there, but showed themselves less often than before; and were, in any case, naturally elusive. Our forebears often saw them – and knew that they had done so.  The certainty about the nature of the experiences frequently disclosed, is derived from various factors – circumstance, context, and experience – but in no small measure came from the witness knowing already what to expect.  Many, to this day, believe that Wales is still a hive of fae activity, but isolated sightings are depleting because they are now more stigmatised and ridiculed.

A slow absorption of these various pockets of humanity were swirled around the great melting-pot of Europe until only the more distinguishable elements of the different cultures remained in evidence.  It means, however, that we can still recognize the similarities among witches of different nations, backgrounds and ethnicities, regardless of historical, geographical or familial factors.  We can also look at the process and resources whereby knowledge, ideas, skills, perspective and even book-learning that moved across cultures, generated new and fresh concepts concerning the order of things in traditional European witchcraft.  It has been suggested that these cross-cultural exchanges took place in cultural boarder-lands where the margins of one culture overlapped another, creating a mutually beneficial relationship within local communities where exchanges of ideas took place on a mundane level. From such a stimulating interaction, ideas, styles, techniques and practices moved inward towards the cultural centers, urging them to renew and update cultural notions – hopefully without running the risk of misinterpretation or mistransliteration within the cultural-folk memory, or collective unconscious.

Like all forms of memory, cultural memory has important functions. For example, it crystallizes shared experiences and in doing so, provides us with an understanding of the past and the values and norms of the tradition to which we belong. It also creates a form of shared identity and a means for communicating this identity to new members. Because memory is not just an individual, private experience but also part of the collective domain, cultural memory has become a topic in both historical and cultural studies . To understand culture, we access a vast array of cultural symbols, such as books and artifacts of the past to provide insights into where we came from. Libraries and the internet store a seemingly infinite amount of data about what it means to be part of a witchcraft tradition – but cultural memory is the longest-lasting form of memory: indeed, cultural memory can last for thousands of years.

Collective unconscious refers to structures of the unconscious mind which are shared among beings of the same species.  According to Carl Jung, the human collective unconscious is populated by instincts, as well as by archetypes: universal symbols such as The Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Shadow, the Tower, Water, and the Tree of Life.He linked his collective unconscious to ‘what Freud called ‘archaic remnants – mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind’. He credited Freud for developing his ‘primal horde’ theory in Totem & Taboo and continued further with the idea of an archaic ancestor maintaining its influence in the minds of present-day humans. Every human being, he wrote, ‘however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche’.

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