Healthy Reverence and Ancestral Traditions

In Plato and the commentators — and in people talking about them — I’ve often seen positive language about people observing their ancestral traditions, especially as Late Antiquity gets under way and doing so becomes dangerous to one’s personal and political safety. In some places, there are remarks that so-and-so is from x place, but worships the Theoi; in others, care and attention is given to note what an individual is keeping alive, or to conversion to a polytheistic religion from Christianity. It’s something I noticed fairly early on in reading, many months before I started underlining specific passages.

It was something fresh on my mind about a year ago when I asked someone whose heritage isn’t the same as the pantheon le worships if le had a Lararium. This, for me, was highly topical. My ancestors are from Norway, Sweden, and Québec/France, not Greece; furthermore, in the United States, the historical and cultural lens taught in schools is “former British colony where tea party doesn’t mean what you hope it does.” I worship the Hellenic Gods, and out of a concern for whether or not I was neglecting a God or daimon (or, to be honest, even doing ancestor worship properly), I had been wondering for some months if anything about my household worship should change to reflect that. I was hoping to compare notes. Instead, what I got out of that conversation was an opportunity to articulate some things that had been rumbling around my head for a while, a very positive outcome.

For me, that issue is related to two ideas:

  1. Generations ago, my ancestors converted to — or were converted to — Christianity. As a polytheist, do I have a duty of repair regarding any of those Gods and household spirits? Given that families are like guest-houses that we incarnate into for a limited amount of time, something like this is limited to a set of specific embodied circumstances. In the Phaedrus commentary, Hermias/Syrianus comments that people will often incarnate into families to resolve injustices from generations ago because that is what is best for the soul, and the soul is thus drawn to a life in which that will happen. (Note: I’m paraphrasing heavily.) The pious thing seems to be that one should reach out with a “hey, you don’t know me, but” prayer or ask a divination specialist to at least check. Obviously, there will be some cases when the answer is no.
  2. When I was watching The Good Place (sorry, haven’t seen the last season), I was struck by how interpersonal obligations were built up through the phrase “what we owe to each other,” which is also the title of a philosophical book that I have not read. The way it played out in the TV show involved the characters learning etiquette and mutual respect. When it comes to household spirits of yore, what is due to them? Do they have a preferred mode of worship, and is it the same or different from the household cultus in the tradition one practices?

Importantly, these questions come out of a desire to do what is just and to create healing. We can use them as prompts to deepen our practice without succumbing to hate, division, and false senses of superiority. Questions like these can also heal a disorienting sense of unplacing when they are approached from a place of compassion, fierce honesty, and care, and while the answers may create some eclecticism, it will be an eclectic element that is solidly grounded in piety according to what is most just in each person or family’s specific case.

Because this is a short post, I would like to close with a quotation from Marinus’ Life of Proclus, or, On Happiness, translated by K. S. Guthrie. It provides the correct ambiance for the questions I asked above, specifically in terms of displaying a practice that is conducted harmoniously and with vigorous attention to duty, respect, and upholding custom, even if it is about ancestor worship.

Proclus left this world in the 124th year from Julian’s accession to the empire under the archonship of the younger Nicagoras in Athens on the seventeenth day of the month Munychion, or the seventeenth of April [485 Common Era]. His body received the funerary honors usual among the Athenians, as he himself had requested; for more than any other did this blessed man have the knowledge and practice of funerary honors due the dead. Under no circumstances did he neglect to render the customary homages, and on fixed yearly dates he went to visit the tombs of the Attic heroes, those of the philosophers, of his friends, and acquaintances; he performed the rites prescribed by religion, and not through some deputy, but personally. After having fulfilled this pious duty towards each of them, he went to the Academy, in a certain particular place, and by vows and prayers, he invoked the souls of his ancestors, collectively and separately; and, in another part of the building, in common with others, he made libations in honor of all those who had practiced philosophy. After all that, this holy person traced out a third distinct space and offered a sacrifice to all the souls of the dead.

I hope that you all have a good weekend.


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