The Ancestor’s Bonfire
Last month I traveled to Ireland to visit the old neolithic burial mounds and the seaside where my forebearers most likely made their home. I made a pilgrimage to the old sites— the hills shaped like breasts, springs tucked in a moss-covered hazelwood, the circles of stones. I went by myself Ireland, to put my body on the land and meet the ancestors of my bone, but I did not come back alone.
I’ve been devoted to the idea of tending a relationship with my ancestors for some years now. Especially in autumn, when the veils between the worlds become thin and the ancestors draw close enough to communicate, and be heard. It all began for me the first fall I made an ancestor altar and my grandmother, who had passed when I was a teenager, came to visit.
It was a particularly lean time in my life. Dealing with a new chronic illness, I was living on very little and mostly just scraping by. Earlier that day I had spent a totally unexpected sum of money and was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent. As I went to create my altar that night, I took down the worn wooden box that held my grandmother’s old handkerchiefs. I soberly sorted through the ancient lacy-edged squares and there, at the bottom, was a battered envelope with my name written on it. Once upon a time I had stashed bills in that envelope, but I had long since emptied it of all its savings and, to my memory at least, had even thrown it away.
My hands were shaking when I opened the fold. Inside that envelope was almost the exact amount of money I had spent that day. I sank to my knees and wept.
In the Celtic way of thinking our ancestors, those who came before us, do not exist in some far-off place. They live in a world that exists right alongside of us. A place that is only, truly, a hair’s width away. They inhabit the Otherworld. And when the gateways are opened, they can still reach out to touch us, soothe our wounds, smooth our hair.
The ancestors are here still. They are just waiting for us all to turn around and embrace them once more.
For those of us who are the great-grand children of settlers, we often have very little of our physical ancestors with us. If we are lucky, we might have a ring, a knife or a letter. But usually it’s just stories, the color of our hair, what we feel in our bones. In Ireland, I got to meet those ancestors who live inside the land, and the land itself— the first ancestor, the one whose seaweed and cattle milk and nettles make up the DNA inside my bones. The one who first made my people indigenous. To go back, and to be of that land once more, was a profound homecoming.
One of my first few days in Ireland I got the unbelievable blessing of being able to climb into the middle of a 4,000-year-old burial mound alone. I sat in the darkness, surrounded by carved stones and the feeling of earth above me, and I drummed. We don’t know much about these mounds, but we do know they were made for ancestor worship. Incredible stone age works of craftsmanship, with astrologically aligned chambers and bowls that held cremated remains. These are the hills within which the Sídhe were said to have gone into the earth, and they are still today considered entrances into the Otherworld by local folks. So much about these places is mysterious, but this much we know— there is a power to the places where the ancestors dwell.
As I beat on my bodhrán, I could see them. The ones that came before me. The ones that gave me my bright eyes and frizzy hair. I felt them around me, could watch as if they were gathered around a fire. I sought in my mind’s eye to find the flame they circled and realized, with a jolt, that that fire was me. I was the bonfire around which my ancestors warmed themselves. It was me, in the fire of my embodiment, that they had come to see and be heartened by.
I asked them what I could do for them, and they told me only one thing— to use the gifts I’d been given in this life. To use the gifts they spent their entire lifetimes and lineages cultivating so that I could truly live the spark of my own life.
This one experience has forever changed the way I think about myself, and the gifts I’m so quick to downplay or shunt away in a corner. I came back home, more fully myself, and more devoted to the Otherworld than ever before. And for good reason. Once you make this connection to the loving ones of the Otherworld, that plane which is everywhere and nowhere at once, magic just seems to light whatever path you follow.
There is so much to share from my rich time in Ireland. If you want to read more from my pilgrimage head over to the blog to check out the collected writings from my time there.
And if you are wanting to touch into this concept of the Otherworld, to feel its presence and make contact with the denizens who live there, check out my online course Herbs for the Otherworld.
In the course we explore the autumnal contours of the Otherworld, how to approach that invisible threshold and harness the plants and practices that will help you open a portal of wisdom between yourself and this other world. Sign up now and tune in at your leisure.