This follows a thread that I started with the discussion of Fisher’s Hungry Ghosts. I noted there that one of the things that characterized the hungry ghost sort of spirits was their talkiness, they loved to discourse. I realize there is something else about them that is important to highlight—they like to take on human identities. They like to have a name and a history.
That has been niggling at me a little and I started to think about how they do or do not differ from my sense of the ancestors and I realized that the ancestors I have encountered have never made an effort to claim an identity. I often get a glimpse of who or what I think they were in life, but they have never tried to identify themselves to me as someone.
The sort of presence that I’m calling ancestral never really feels exactly like an individual either, more like they are the closest face in a concerned crowd. That is another thing, the ancestors come with a sense of concern, like they are showing up to support and push, often when I can’t always guess at what they are supporting and pushing in specific, except just my life, my being.
The greater Afro-Caribbean spiritualisms seem to have a good sense of that, that the ancestors that return as ancestors have lost much of their individuality. They come back cleaned of much of their life, even if the imprint of that life remains on their spiritual being.
Those who come back as ancestors come back without history, which is a little counter-intuitive. I haven’t had a deep sense of the ancestors caring about traditions, but they do seem to care a lot about unhappiness and misery (and children, oh yes, children; that’s a long tangent, no doubt). I wonder if some of the ancestral defense of traditions has less to do with them being traditional than with traditions often being a vehicle toward order and thereby happiness in the community.
This way of thinking makes the blandness of offerings to royal ancestors in medieval China really intelligible, as meeting the ancestors on the terms most proper to them, in their anonymity and humanity rather than as individuals. It makes the contrast case with Odysseus more intelligible, too, with the blood serving as a pulsing reminder of life, an effort to call back the shadow of a life rather than the force of an ancestor.
There is value to be had from drawing a firm conceptual line between the two sorts of work, between devotion and necromancy, though I suspect to do so well would require some careful rethinking of popular / folk ideas around the topic. Many of our contemporary sensibilities are so conditioned with keeping death far from sight that all interactions with the dead get lumped with the necromantic. And, too, necromancy itself acquires a more intensely negative association than it ought to have (though we probably ought to have some negative associations with it).
There are differences, sometimes quite dramatic, between ancestors, but even that difference has an impersonal quality to it, like those who were joined by a common death, or some other experience that cut deeply enough to leave an imprint on their very being, like profound spiritual initiations (which are for good reason often compared with a death in life). Offerings to the ancestors tend to become increasingly more general, less specific, ordered somewhat by these affinities.
There are some implications, too, for people who dedicate themselves to spiritual pursuits with a strong ancestral component, considerations regarding how they are (or are not) preparing themselves to take their place in the legions of the mighty dead. How do you prepare yourself to better lose your face?