The third in a 4-part series, originally published at The Woven Song.
IV. Ancestors as the Foundation of Place and Time (Earth)
“The crucible of making human beings is death – every culture worth a damn knows that.” – Stephen Jenkinson
As a young man I would hike along the Paluxy River in a small Texas town called Glen Rose. It was such an odd place filled to the brim with “ghosts” from the past. The river is famous for being filled with dinosaur tracks, and in a lot of ways this ancient history became a central focal point to the towns haunting culture. Effigies of giant lizard leviathans dotted the townscape.
Here was an example of how the journey of ancient ancestors became so prevalent and central to the culture and economy of a town. On top of that, there were still old settler buildings in place, filled to the brim with a whole other type of bloody and bizarre history. A kind of colonialist infringement upon an otherwise deeply sacred place. For example, before the white men came, it was filled with sacred springs that were said to heal people, but as always they were exploited. Magic doesn’t like to be bought and sold, and so the springs dried up.
As I walked along the river and hiked along the limestone bedrock overhangs I realized another interesting feature to the land. These limestone overhangs and occasional caves that I would explore were all made from coral and sea life! Here was an honest to goodness example of ancestors forming the rocks and rivers that I now lived upon. Not only were these “ghosts” still whispering out from the ancient stones, but they were also the source of the very minerals that were said to have enchanted the healing springs in the area. The source of the magic that existed within this land, came from the ancestors themselves!
All life as we know it is built within the crucible of the dead. Topsoil is another beautiful example of this. What some folks see as just dirt, others understand as being the composted dead matter of living beings, also inhabited by other living beings that break it down. Soil is alive, and yet it is dead. No better example could be made to show just how central and immediate an impact the dead have on all life upon this planet than to look at soil.
Just as the stars had formed the planets, the living have terraformed those planets and weaved within various bioregions, a unique mythic ecology. But these “places” were not just symbolic as physical manifestations of ancestry, they were also socio-ecological manifestations. By socio-ecological I mean to say that the mythic ecology was interwoven with the social dynamics of the creatures that lived there. Indeed any society is inherently a type of mythic ecology, for it is an extension of the natural world and its sensual desires, it’s teleonomy.
What is certainly peculiar about this is how a sense of place develops between a people and the land. Since I have written about this in my other article, Interanimism, I am going to bring it back here to help explain the complexity of how ancestors become our place and our sense of place.
“Any kind of relationship that was held in common with the more than human world was in a sense a co-constitutional existence by which the actions of the human people and “non human people” were considered as a united story. So the ancestors themselves inhabited those stories and those stories inhabited the places in which they were embedded. In this sense, to the Great Plains inhabitants of North America, the bison were considered ancestors because the relationships between the people and the herd were symbiotic. Their story was synonymous right down to their migration patterns. They inhabited the same places and they shared a common mythos. This can be verified in part by the Lakota language, where the term for the Great Mystery, ‘Wakan Tanka’, shared an etymological relationship with the bison which were called ‘Tatanka’. And Tatanka roughly translates to “he who owns us”, which is incredibly significant when understanding this to refer to ancestral lineage. Hence being the reason the Bison were considered the older brothers of the Lakota…
This meant that the herd or the forest or the mountain were all a part of their ancestry because their identity as a family included these things as part of the familiar network. The more important a place or a type of animal was, the more venerated it was as an ancestor. Someone’s great great great grandmother might actually be the mountain because the tribe all came from that person and began its collective story under the mountain itself. Their ancestry became a totemic experience of relationships to place and its inhabitants…
Because of this, the ancestors were not an aspect of dead beings that somehow haunted us in the present, but rather to be an ancestor was to be alive as a different state of being. And this state of being was a kind of imprinting or embedding into the eco-sociological matrix of their places. So when you died you literally became the land, the flora and fauna etc. Your stories inhabited the land and were still very much a part of what made it what it was.”
Another very interesting correlation to ancestors and place was how people would view various myths of the underworld or otherworld. Within the Irish tradition, Tir na Nog was considered a place within the land. All throughout the land, sacred places and mounds abound, being the actual physical manifestations or gateways to the other world itself. In Norse culture the underworld was not seen as some idealized dimension apart from the land, but it actually was considered a literal world beneath their feet. The ancestors who resided in Hel were said to also be in locations related to their family homesteads. Whether that be near a hill or near a river, this is where the family would go to commune with their ancestors. It is important to note that nearly all indigenous cultures revered the burial grounds of their dead.
I think the concept of other worlds being separate from our own, being in other idealized dimensions far far away was a result of civilization and the idealism that came with it. As people separated from the sensual interwoven mythos with the land, they needed to find new places in which their dead could reside. Where they had once literally resided as the land itself, because their bodies decomposed into the land, civilized humanity had begun to practice other forms of tending their dead, taking them away from the homesteads or special family locations. This made the concept of ancestors, that were still interactive with your reality, slowly fade out of the mythic ecology of a culture. Still needing a place for their dead, they retreated into idealized fantasies of transcendent realities no longer embedded into the land’s sensual dreamscape.
Being in close connection with our ancestors was akin to being in close connection to the land itself. For they were the beings that imbued story into the land. Just as the ancient coral imbued magic into the sacred springs of Glen Rose, TX, our human and more than human ancestors imbued magic into the landscape that we called home with their stories and bodies.
To be continued …
About the Author
Mathieu Thiem is a bioregional animist who spends his time studying the art of mythic living and running a blog called The Woven Song. www.wovensong.co