The ancestor altar is a sacred place, a space of coexistence between the living and the dead. Spanning thousands of years and across many traditions, people have called upon our ancestors for guidance, protection, and spiritual empowerment.
In this blog post, we will explore what is an ancestor altar, why and how you should cultivate your own, and how to set up a sacred space for your ancestors.
Most of these photos of ancestor altars are courtesy of the members of the Infinite Roots Coven.
What is an Ancestor Altar?
Many people, such as Hedge Witches and other Neopagans, don’t necessarily work with any gods or deities (maybe deities of the home), instead generally communing with the spirits of Nature, or the spirits of the dead, including ancestor work.
While it’s common to honor our deceased loved ones during Samhain (or Halloween, All Souls’ Day, Día de Muertos), the altar of the ancestors is typically a permanent altar kept by those who are dedicated to working with the spirits of the dead.
As beings who have passed, the knowledge that our ancestors hold is vast. They’ve lived entire lives full of lessons and seen the comings and going of this material plane. They are happy to be called upon the ancestral altar, and to help us see clearly, to follow the path divinely set before us.
Where to Keep Your Ancestor Altar
It is important to build the altar somewhere it won’t be disturbed. Unless you’re building a temporary one for a specific ritual, it should be set up somewhere that it can stay permanently. This might be on top of a dresser in your bedroom, or a mantle in a common room. The more you see it, the more you’ll engage.
Make sure to acknowledge your altar every time you pass by, not just when performing rituals or meditations. Your ancestors occupy that space and want to be included in your every-day life.
Keeping an altar that honors your ancestors is a symbolic and direct invitation into your home. Once there, they will commune with you, aid you in your journey, and keep an eye on the going-ons of your house when you’re not around.
How To Set Up An Altar For Your Ancestors
- Clean the space, both physically and energetically.
- Place a white altar cloth.
- Pour some coarse salt on it.
- Optionally, cast a circle, invoke the elements or call the quarters.
- Say a prayer to invite fresh energy to this space and to honor those who helped shape who you are today:
“I ask my ancestors for protection.
I thank you for protecting me, my family and my home.
Thank you for guiding me on my path.
For allowing me to be of service in alignment with my True Will.”
What to Put on an Altar for the Ancestors
What someone keeps on their altar is totally up to them. The most important thing is that the ancestor altar must be kept clean, fresh flowers must be placed, and any offerings should be replaced often (every week or so) so that the altar is clean and in harmony.
Here is a list of basics things to include on your ancestor’s altar:
Ancestor altar cloth
This is the foundation of your altar. It will hold all sacred items bestowed upon it and create the space for your elders to sit. Ideally this material is something special to you; perhaps a family heirloom or a gift from a dear friend.
If you don’t have a certain cloth that you feel symbolizes your ties to the spiritual plane, then any cloth you already have is fine. Just make sure it feels right, that it’s clean, and bless it with your intention before setting it out.
What color should the ancestor altar cloth be? If you aren’t sure, choose a white altar cloth. White represents light, wholeness and completion.
Photos of those who have passed
This can be family members, pets, or friends. There needn’t be a blood tie for someone to be in our spiritual family. You might find that even obtaining old photos is a divine act; our loved ones can be invoked simply by us connecting with living family members and friends, sharing fond memories and telling stories. You’ll feel them come alive in this exchange.
See also: Spell for a Loved One who Passed Away
Having items that our deceased actually touched is helpful in initiating contact. Think along the lines of a necklace from your grandmother, a bowl or plate passed down through generations, or the bell on your cat’s collar.
Whatever it is, it should be something that was important to them, and doesn’t necessarily need to be relevant to you. For example, if your elders were religious but you are not, it’s still good to place their cherished cross figurine upon your own altar. This is an altar to conjure them, not to celebrate yourself (though that should be done in other ways).
If you don’t possess any tangible heirlooms, you can create art or symbols that represent your lineage. This could be a print of the countryside where your great-somebody grew up. It could be a flag, or the national flower of your ancestor’s homelands, or maybe a figurine of a bird that is common in their area. Get creative here, and listen to your intuition. Your ancestors are already guiding you.
Items that represent the Elements
When doing any magic, items that symbolize the elements should be present. They are what make up our physical world, and thus must be honored in calling past this plane. Rocks, crystals, plants, or flowers; even actual dirt from a special place, may be used for Earth. A glass or bowl of water should be presented to them, since everyone gets thirsty. Seashells or sea glass can also invoke water. Keep a feather or burn incense to honor Air. The flame of a candle should be lit when working with your altar, bringing forth Fire.
Read also: Elemental Spirits and the Four Directions
Candles are important not just to invoke the Fire element, but to call upon specific people. If your great-aunt loved the smell of pines, then put up a candle scented like the forest. You can use jarred candles and put different photos on each one. You may wish to use different colors, depending on what you’re asking at the time. No matter the candle you use, light it with intention.
What should be the candle color for ancestors? White and blue are traditional colors for opening the pathways to communication and contacting benign spirits.
Read also: Candle Color Chart
Ancestor offerings: Food and beverage
We all love treats and feel endeared to those who gift them. If your grandpa loved gingersnap cookies, put a piece of one on the altar! If you want to have your morning coffee alongside your ancestors, pour them a small cup. Perhaps you want to share a special meal. Make them a serving and place it upon the altar, making sure to discard it respectfully when they’re through. Don’t toss it in the trash. Take it outside, gently placing it somewhere responsible.
Something with a blade
Be it a pocket knife, sword, or machete. Your ancestors are here to protect you and everyone in your home. Arm them with something that will help them to carry out this task.
Read also: Athame: Do’s and Don’ts of your Ritual Knife
However you decide to setup your ancestor altar, be sure that it is special and personal to you. Dust it regularly. Change out the water every week. The more time you spend with it, the deeper your practice will flourish. Your ancestors are waiting to speak with you.
Celebrate and Honor your Ancestors
Building a more complete picture of your relatives and their history can help to promote a greater appreciation for life and form a better understanding of the individual journey your family has been on.
- Share stories with living family members about their deceased ancestors.
- Write memories of your parents and give them to your children.
- Find and prepare recipes from countries where your ancestors lived.
- Get an AncestryDNA kit.
Each of these activities is a great way to create a permanent online memorial that will help keep loved ones close now and in the future.
Explore channeling messages through the art of divination: Divination Methods