Happy Samhain! As the darkness falls this Samhain night, our billions of Ancestors visit us. Who are they? What can they offer you for your struggles today? They can help you anytime during the year – not just now – if you ask.
A quick note before discussing that meme. As we celebrate another sacred Samhain, it’s cool to notice some good things. First, this year we have many opportunities for online Samhain celebrations and rituals, many of them today. The links were given in this post. Also, this is our first Samhain with The Wonder Naturalistic Pagan Podcast, and so we have a podcast celebrating Samhain, one on on Ancestors in general, and on Death. The many ways some of us are celebrating was given in this post. Happy Samhain everyone!!
OK, yes, the meme above is a joke, meant to poke fun at people who pray to their Ancestors. But hey, at least praying to one’s Ancestors is praying to something which was once real – as real as you or I. This can be a powerful, beneficial spiritual practice, and whether or not these Ancestors can literally hear and intervene is not what’s most important here. In fact, so much of all types of our Ancestors lives and breathes in each of us – and in the literally billions of humans alive today. What could be more real?!
But why? Why would one pray to one’s Ancestors? Praying to, and at least venerating, Ancestors is an ancient and powerful spiritual practice – one which stretches across humanity, both in space and time, echoed in culture after culture? There are many reasons. One of the main reasons, again in culture after culture, was the belief that these Ancestors could, and did, control or at least affect, our day to day lives out of their own free will. OK, so I don’t think that’s really true – and yet I venerate – and ask for help from – my Ancestors every day. Why?
For me, my Ancestors are with us, powerfully. With us with every step we take, in our DNA, in our minds, and in nearly every aspect of what makes us ourselves. After all, how else did we become who we are today? Yes, a little of it is our own free will – perhaps. But so much of it is the influence of our parents (which they learned from their parents, and so on back for millions of years). Plus, the parts we’ve learned from wider society are also from our Ancestors – because just several dozen generations back, our Ancestors include nearly all humans alive, and nearly every idea in human culture today is from them.
So if we, as Naturalistic Pagan, feel the need to call upon our Ancestors, how might we do so – and for what? Because our Ancestors can provide a huge toolbox of abilities and strengths, metaphorically. Among other ways, our Ancestors can help us tap into the power of literally most incredible, wonder thing known to exist in our vast and stunning universe – our human brain. It goes like this: Imagine if your great grandmother was a world champion tennis player, and you were stepping onto the tennis court, racquet in hand, in a tennis competition. Would you imagine your great grandmother behind you, coaching you, guiding your swing? Of course you would. Yet, this is not so far from our world today, everyday.
We have literally millions (trillions!) of Ancestors, with an incredible range of skills, who have brought us to where we are today. In fact the models show that we are descended from nearly all humans who were alive on earth just a few dozens of thousands of years ago (well those who had kids). The same math quickly closes the gap completely, and so every single creature in our line of descent before around 1 million years ago was either the Ancestor of every single human alive today, or didn’t have surviving descendants. Not all that far back, and every single one of your Ancestors is also one of my Ancestors.
We face all kinds of challenges in our lives. Each of these challenges can draw on a multitude of Ancestors – both human and from before humans, if we want. Plus, as discussed previously, we all have some horrible Ancestors (some of us knew some of them). Because in this case we are choosing which specific Ancestors to call to mind, that problem is avoided. We know we are simply calling on those helpful Ancestors as we choose.
In the weeks leading up to Samhain, before dinner every day, we say our Ancestor grace in my family. We take the next Ancestor card, attach it to the wall, and say what we are thankful for from that Ancestor – the kids have grown up with this, and it’s now as natural as breathing. These same cards have a lot of uses, and now they come in handy to help guide us as we look at what Ancestors we can call on, and just a few of the many things we can call on them for.
Most Recent Ancestors (within the past few centuries/millennia)-
Our most recent Ancestors will include people we may have known, or may still know, and those may provide direct examples in trying times. Such as, when faced with a sudden need for very hard work, such as if an impending flood means that kids have to be attended to while one is trying to move stuff out of the basement, remembering and calling on a great grandmother, who managed to move the livestock and prepare the farm, working for hours through the night in the rain due to an impending tornado. Or when confronting a challenging school assignment, or a tough math test, thinking of the grandparent who was an accomplished University professor. Before that, we won’t have specific individuals – but we know so much about our Ancestors that this is an even more rich source of inspiration.
Perhaps a good theme for many of our Ancestors who were community builders and who domesticated animals and plants is that of intentional transformation. What do you need to transform, right now? Our Ancestors literally transformed the ravenous wolf into the floofy fur babies around us, and the gritty fieldgrass into soft sweet corn and other grains. What an astonishing transformation – that power is within each of us, today!
School is an obvious time to call on our learner and teacher Ancestors, but of course there are many other times too. As someone over 50 learning some of the computer stuff (like zoom during a pandemic!), which my teen kids seem to know automatically, learning happens throughout life.
Bravery? Bravery is needed all through our Ancestry, but to leave one’s home and literally walk to another continent or other completely different place, with different ways to get food, different climates, and so much more, must have been scary! Our human explorer Ancestors who left Africa (and those who stayed!) were clearly able to find life solutions in varied circumstances. Maybe a good source of inspiration during a career change? As someone who recently went through a career change, I can say that these Ancestors are helpful!
Our storyteller Ancestors can inspire us when public speaking is needed, or simply a power point presentation. Similarly, toolmaking is needed all the time in our lives, even today. The tools made by our Homo habilis Ancestors allowed them to vault into a new lifestyle of success. On a wider scale, toolmaking can apply to a lot of problem so
lving – where we use those same brains to find a way to get what we need, using what we have.
Teamwork also increased over this time. We can do so much more together than we can apart!
The cooperative eye hypothesis is one possible evolutionary explanation for how we evolved eyes with large white areas. This may have had the advantage of allowing the whole team to easily see which way one member is looking, making teamwork easier, and hence giving a selective advantage to the team (which is made up of mostly family members). We can see from extant gorillas that this must have happened in just the last few million years. Do you need to pull your team together at work or in causes we work for to make a better world? Please, Hominid Ancestors, help me!
Our wide range of mammal Ancestors offer a lot as well. Escaping into the trees gave our monkey-like Ancestors quick safety, while still allowing them to see and assess the threat. Maybe they can be called on when we need to find a way out of a tough or threatening situation? These primate Ancestors gave us our dextrous hands too – maybe when we are trying something with our hands, such as playing a piano? Before that, our mammal Ancestors were the first to develop the emotions we feel from our limbic system. Those emotions are so important when we are consoling someone close to us who is hurting. They are also important in building a good ritual. Help me, mammal Ancestors, in reaching those present for the ritual tonight – to touch not just their thoughts, but their feelings, buried deeper in our brains.
On the way to becoming mammals we also first developed body heat. With the cold settling in here in Michigan, I know that I’ll have plenty of times when I can call on that warmth – for myself or a spouse. Similarly, back then we literally made our ears from the bones which had been part of our jaws. Walking into a concert, I can ask my synapsid Ancestors to deliver a wonderful evening for me! Or, just the other day, sitting in my hunting stand, trying to listen carefully for those footfalls which, coming in a slower pattern than those of a raccoon, to give me a hint of an approaching deer.
For all of these, and especially the farther back we go in time, we can remember that we call on our Ancestors to help us. That means metaphors are perfectly fine. The more they help, the better. If a metaphor feels silly, and if that momentary laugh helps deal with a stressful situation, then all the better. Before body heat, our Ancestors evolved a lot, giving us many different ideas to draw upon. Our first Ancestors fully on land (even though insects beat us to the land) were reptiles. Their hard shelled egg and dry skin enabled them to live their entire lives on land. Maybe one way to ask them for guidance is for the toughness to endure what was previously unendurable? For millions of years our Ancestors died when hit with the hot, parched air on land, and then, our Reptile Ancestors conquered that aridness.
Among many other possible ideas, our Ancestor Tiktaalik’s upward facing eyes may show us optimism. For millions of years, our Tiktaalik Ancestors could only look up longingly from the water, unable to leave the water. With eyes still firmly on the top of their heads, ancient Tiktaalik fossils were unearthed from the frozen tundra of Canada. Do you need a little help feeling perseverence, even when the goal seems so far off and it’s tempting to slip into depression?
It was a giant leap forward when our Ancestors evolved jaws. We take them for granted today, like nearly every feature of our bodies, but jaws were a
major advance. Who would think that gill arches could be so useful? Gill arches are simply bone structures supporting the gills and helping their movement. But to use the frontmost gill arch, and the muscles already attached to it, to smash food instead of simply moving the gills? Wow! How many times do we find ourselves stopped by an obstacle, unable to break it into bite-sized pieces? When that happens, maybe we can
call on our jawed fish Ancestors to help us chew the problem to make it solvable. And how many times in our lives is a problem mostly a matter of finding the courage to stand up for ourselves? At those times, maybe calling on our first Ancestors with a spine – the first fish – can help inspire us to find a backbone ourselves?
Before our Ancestors were eel-like fish, they were like something between an eel and a worm. I’ve see these fossils (Pikaia), and was surprised at how tiny they are – only about 3 cm long (and thin- see picture). Their Ancestor worm-like creatures were also probably small. Maybe they can be called on when we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. As a white guy, maybe they are helpful for me to call on when in a discussion, reminding me not to dominate and mansplain?
Their small size clearly didn’t mean they weren’t important and eventually powerful – after all, their descendants today have taken control of much of the Earth and are even, tragically, changing the climate drastically. On another level, these first animals organized different types of cells, increasing effectiveness (and leading to an organization of different organs). Maybe I can call on them when I need to organize my resources and efforts?
Even tiny worms are made up of billions of cells, and those cells were once independent creatures, before joining together (as modern day sponges show). What can we call on our single cell Ancestors for? Maybe in help cooperating with others? After all, our eukaryotic Ancestors arose due to the cooperation between bacteria which would become our mitochondria (see the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria), where both the larger cell and the engulfed bacteria benefited by working together to conquer life’s challenges. Our bacteria Ancestors can be called on for many purposes, including success (bacteria are everywhere) and successful trading (bacteria swap pieces of DNA with other bacteria).
How could we have nonliving Ancestors? Well, because even the first life had to arise from something, and that something had to be non-living (because that’s the first life we are talking about). Life is actually a fuzzy line (like many thing
s in our actual history), and so one can argue where along the line of self replicating bits one would say is “alive” – but that’s not important here. For me, I’ve called on these Ancestors (such as RNA and DNA) when I need to copy things, and try to do so accurately.
For the supernovae who are our Ancestors before RNA & DNA, perhaps when we need to simply push hard, maybe to power through a lot of work, or push for something important? After all, a supernova is a much, much larger explosion than the biggest nuclear bomb, and the sheer level of power is hard to match.
When describing all this to my 7 year old this morning, he looked at the cards and said he wanted to call on our Big Bang Ancestor. I asked him what he would call on the Big Bang for. He said he calls on the Big Bang to help him get bigger, because he is growing up! Wonderful!
Happy Samhain, everyone!
Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host
We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University (conducting nanotech research), has spent two decades in the silicon industry, and now leads an analytical lab in the Detroit auto industry (returning to his roots). He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates facebook and yahoo groups on Naturalistic Paganism.
Heather is a parent and a scientist raising her four children to explore the world through scientific understanding and with spiritual appreciation of the Universe. She has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Michigan State University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in English Literature, also from the University of Michigan. She teaches physics as an adjunct instructor at Delta College, runs the Math Mania program at a local elementary school, has worked at Dow Corning as an engineer and at NASA as an intern, and she has led science outreach workshops for K-12 students through joint programs between NASA and the University of Michigan. She is a naturalistic non-theist, whose faith has been shaped by her childhood within the Episcopal Church, her adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist church, and through Buddhist meditation. She has a passion for bringing science and spirituality to everyone in a fun way, both for her own family and for the wider community of the Earth. She is a co-author with Jon Cleland-Host ofElemental Birthdays: How to Bring Science into Every Party.