Bone Path: The Power of Spiritual Naming

A series of bones rendered in white on a black background.

In my life I have tried on so many spiritual labels: pagan, wiccan, neo-pagan, heathen, witch, druid, unitarian, universalist, humanist, interfaith…I’ve explored Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Quakerism and more in earnest study looking for a spiritual home. And while all of the paths within these labels have something to offer, while they all apply somewhat to my personal beliefs and practices, they also imply by the nature of their definition an exclusion.

In working directly with my ancestors and with the earth, the garden, the elementals, the beings, in reading about the history of these labels and intersections with my personal spiritual journey, I’ve learned that what my ancestors called their spirituality was very different from what we might call it. Many of the spiritual labels in common use have negative connotations because they were labels that were given to a spiritual path by folks that were viewing it from the outside. The path itself had no particular label for the people who practiced it. The path was simply the way of the people. It was the way of the common. It was the way. Lived and interwoven.

I have been empowered by reclaiming some of these labels too, like witch, heathen, pagan, and they are a part of my spiritual identity. Yet I recognize that in the pre-christian folk traditions of my ancestors many of these labels in contemporary form do not apply to the lived practices.

Labels can be restrictive, too, prohibiting spiritual exploration or social inclusion. Some spiritual paths will not accept you if you use some of the labels that define other spiritual paths — reconstructionist Gaelic polytheism doesn’t admit witches or druids, many branches of Christianity exclude heathens and pagans, heathenry can be intolerant of goddess/earth based spirituality outside of the Northern pantheon, some witches and pagan traditions can’t tolerate Christianity …and this exclusion presents several very specific quandaries to me.

— 1. — I am a person of multiple lineages. My spirituality is richest and best when I am in direct relationship with all of my ancestors: Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic. Some of these ancestors were pagan/heathen, some were witches, some were atheists, and many of the most recent were devoutly Catholic/Christian. Exploring the fullness of my ancestral spiritualities means allowing for the all, which is quite wonderful! Yes, many of my ancestors experienced discrimination due to their spirituality, and yes, many were killed for their spiritual beliefs by other ancestors with other spiritual beliefs. This complexity is not an easy delineation, and deepening into the context of these challenging harms through historical study has increased my compassion for ALL of my ancestors. Exploring the integrative whole has been healing for me, and, I hope, for them too. I need a spirituality that allows for this wholeness, the changing nature of it, and fluidity in study and practice.

— 2. — I live on colonized land with a complicated history. While one branch of my family has been in the Americas since the late 1500’s, most of my ancestors were displaced from their homelands within the last century. Their bones are buried all over this continent.. I have direct connection with my most recent immigrant ancestors — my grandfather being one — and their families, have visited his ancestral home. But many of my people were wanderers, dispossessed, meaning place-based historical connection has little resonance. Yet the relationship to land is absolutely essential to my family story, a tale filled with longing for home, and of primary importance to me. Connecting with the place where I live, learning its history, honoring its original peoples and being in service to the land and the spirits here is the core of my spiritual practice — and very much in alignment with my deepest ancestral stories. I need a spirituality that does not neglect, ignore or try to transcend this difficult reality.

When we look at the roots of language, when we excavate the roots of all the words used to define spirituality, when we move into the bone story, we can find little bits of truth in them, but there is a larger overarching truth that I think many are seeking, a truth that comes through these direct relationships, that begins with the experiential, and then deepens with research to weave our gnosis, to weave our experiences into the matrix of understanding. And that to me is the essence of ancestral animism.

Ancestral animism allows for the honoring of the ancestral whole. Ancestral may be blood lineage, or place lineage. It may be a creative lineage, too. We are all descended, inspired, woven from so many lineages, and the Ancestral in my practice holds plants, animals, stones, trees, waterways, this sacred universe, this holy earth, as well as a deep understanding of human relationship. It sees all as ancestral. I choose to begin my study of lifeways and folklore with my blood ancestors, to work with the threads left to me in text, art and archaeological perspectives. I have a devotional rhythm that tends to focus on one lineage or another at different times of the year. In their songs and stories, their symbols and cosmologies I find syncretic elements that reinforce my practice. It is a really beautiful weaving, ever changing and not static. In meditations they have told me there is no wrong way to do this work, there is only the way of the work itself, a huge relief for someone with a cognitive disability who is constantly concerned about doing things wrong.

Animism says that this world is alive and interacting with me at all times, that my role is to be in relationship, offering service and gratitude. Animism opens the daily lifeway that is earth rhythm, the direct and continuous spiritual relationship that is everpresent in the everyday: breath, movement, food, drink, tending and honoring. Animism is also in alignment with the perspectives of my ancient ancestors and the ancestors of the place where I live. In choosing to see this place as alive, I can ask how to live here and listen for an answer.

My love of this path is that it is interactive and direct and experimental. My love of this path is that it is connective forward and back through the wyrd, through all of time. And it’s very individual. It is specific to a place. It is specific to a lineage or a collection of lineages, like so many of us are. And yet it’s also collective in that it is a shared path, where we can increase each other’s gnosis and experience through sharing ceremony, honoring inspiration and weaving information together.

I also love that this path is not dogmatic, it doesn’t have a textual proscription and does not eliminate anyone’s respectful explorations. It is also creative, inventive and organically responsive to where we are in this time and history. For while I take very seriously the mandates of my ancestors — particularly around making oaths, truth telling and hospitality — there is also room for new ethos, new stories. Opening myself to ancestral animism has given me such richness and such joy.

Ancestral animism is ancestral also because we are ancestral ,we’re all ancestral beings. We all carry encoded in ourselves, the lives and deaths of billions and billions and an infinitude of creatures and plants and animals. And we’re made of the same things as the stars and the waterways and the bees and the microcosm too. The world needs us to remember our place within this matrix, to be where we are, be in service to the land where we are and the people of the lands where we are so that we can begin to repair some of this wyrd rent through millennia. In seeing ourselves as related to everything, in the lineage of everything that is, everything that was and everything that will be, that to me, is what ancestral animism means. We are connected, a part of this world, beloved by it, and may use our lives to the service of that connection.

This path is all about building relationship, doing the slow work of fielding relationship over time and through place and through your uniqueness, your unique perspectives, It means excavating where these things come from in you and finding those relationships in history, because they’re there, the threads are there. Once we recognize something, we have an obligation to ask a questions, to be in inquiry with it. We can receive direct information from everything because everything is alive. Every single thing is alive. And this living, breathing consciousness was so much a part of our ancestral traditions.

You don’t need an intermediary to practice ancestral animism. You definitely don’t need a guide. You carry all of the information inside of you, encoded in your cells — in the incredible wonder you are — and in your willing relationships with the living world. The world is always here and present with us, always alive and willing to give us information, to be in relationship with us. We are a part of everything and everything is alive.

This synergy of ancestors and animism allows for my wholeness, my journey and the continual evolution of my spiritual path. It’s the language that I’ve chosen to use, and it’s an invitation for you to find your own perspective, to question, always, the terminology of definition, to uncover your unique place of practice and spirit song. One of my old writing teachers said that naming is the first magic, and what he meant by that is that language is really important. What we call ourselves, how we define ourselves, has power. And we don’t need to be satisfied with someone else’s terminology. We can ask for language to define our personal path, and we can share it in community.

Of course, you’re welcome to use my language if it resonates with you, but we always have to be in inquiry and ask, is this for me? Is this my path? Is this what I believe? Is this what my ancestors believed? Is this what the land wants of me now? Is this the best way for me to be of service? And if you get a wholehearted overwhelming, yes, which I do as the sun signs and the birds sing, and the leaves tremble in the morning breeze, I get a whole hearted overwhelming. Yes. Ancestral animism. That’s my path. And if you have words that define your path, that feel really good and right to you, please share them. We need more options, more songs of inclusion and definitions for the path that is lived, the life that is honoring.

By this and every effort may the balance be regained. ALU

Explorations in folklore, earth lore, magic and ancestral animist practice.