Spirituality, colonialism, and ancestors
A few years ago now, the last of my grandparents died: my father's mother, Dora.
last of my grandparental bereavements, it was the least emotionally
wearing. I had never met Dora, at least, not that I remember. I and my
father and step-mother had talked off and on in the last years of Dora's
life about me visiting her in her nursing home, but in the end, it
seemed too odd, to introduce a new element into her ill-remembered world
after nearly 100 years of life.
The first time I met her,
therefore, was at her funeral. It was a small service in a crematorium
chapel. I learned more about her at the meal following the service than I
had ever known about her during her life. She was not, by all accounts,
an easy woman; she was deeply spiritual as well as religious; she was
somewhat strange by ordinary social standards.
I commented at the time that it was nice to know that I came by those traits honestly.
role of family and forebears can be a challenging one to grapple with
for contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and those who are
spiritual-but-not-religious. While many of us seek to honour and connect
with ancestors as part of our spiritual and/or magical practice, those
ancestors who are closest to us in time, and therefore most likely to be
concerned with our personal well-being, are often also those most
likely to be of a different religious and spiritual outlook to
We may have had a troubled relationship with them
while they were alive, or conversely -- as in the case of my grandmother
Dora -- we may know little or nothing about them, beyond the high
probability that they would not have approved of our spiritual and
Many of us look at spiritual traditions in
which knowledge and practice is passed down from generation to
generation -- indigenous traditions (such as those of the pre-Columbian
and pre-colonial cultures of the Americas), African diaspora religions
(such as Santeria and Vodoun), and Eastern spiritual traditions (like
Buddhism and aspects of Hinduism) -- with awe and sometimes envy. Some
of us attempt to emulate or take on those traditions wholesale, and in
the process often appropriate and deeply disrespect both the traditions
and their origins.
Yet as much as we long for the passing on of
spiritual knowledge and tradition across generations in those
traditions, we often find it hard to find or see the wisdom which our
own grandparents may hold because they are part of a religious or
philosophical tradition which has rejected us, or which we find
politically, ethically, or theologically difficult.
following more-or-less reconstructed and/or inspired traditions at the
beginning of the 21st century, we are spiritually displaced.
Contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks
are often lucky to have even one generation of full continuity in the
passing on of their spiritual tradition, and we do not, for the most
part, have the kind of connection to place that tens or hundreds of
generations of living in one geographical area gives. We are largely
urban, disconnected from land as well as tradition.
I do not at
all state this to elicit sympathy. On the contrary: most contemporary
Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks are white,
middle class, and reasonably, if not very well off; those of us in the
Americas and Australasia are largely descended from populations who have
been directly and indirectly complicit in the oppression and murder of
black, indigenous, and other people of colour for centuries, and
continue to be so; and those of us in Europe are the beneficiaries of
centuries of colonialist conquest and exploitation of those same black,
indigenous, and people of colour.
If I recall his argument correctly, in Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft,
Professor Ronald Hutton proposes that many of the roots of the creation
and revival of Pagan movements -- not only Wicca, but also Druidry and
other, more New Age movements -- lie in the British Romantic movement,
which itself could be argued to have come out of the mass displacement
of British people from country to city in the Industrial Revolution.
movement came hand in hand with the enclosure of the commons and the
Lowland and Highland clearances, and were followed by the Irish Potato
Famine -- the devastating effects of which were caused not by the potato
blight, but by the deliberate actions of the Imperial British
These factors in turn led some Scots, English, Irish
and Welsh people to take their chances -- by choice or by force -- in
the ‘New World’ of north America and Australasia, where they forged a
new life for themselves in new lands, by participating, directly or
indirectly, in taking land and life, often with geat brutality, from
both indigenous populations, and from West African people kidnapped into
Colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, hand in hand.
is our very displacement, combined with a mindset embedded still in
colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, that leads us to oppress
and exploit again and again, this time in the guise of spirituality and
seeking to deepen our awareness. However unconscious the mindest may be,
and however we may wish it away, there it is.
The irony is deep.
Our very attempts to mend our scattered spirits, our relationships with
our fellow humans, and our world at large end up doing further harm to
Facing this history, this reality head-on can be deeply
painful. It can provoke feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and impotence.
Often we fall into patterns of white fragility and denial. These are
patterns that I believe we must move beyond if we are to have
any hope of beginning to right the wrongs of history and of the present,
and to develop a rooted spirituality in any meaningful way.
Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks -- at least,
those of us who are white -- do well to remember and accept our
displacement in space, time and relationship, and to do what we can to
reconnect ourselves, not based on what looks juicy in another's
tradition, but based on exactly where we are. And where we are is always
as the child of a child of a child.
I still know very, very
little about my father’s mother. Yet still, Anglican Grandma Dora and
Grandad Alan (her husband) are remembered on my Ancestor altar, along
with the Welsh and Scottish non-conformists and Polish Catholics of my
mother's ancestry, and assorted step-family members.
Taken all together, they are something of a mixed bag:
postman and conductor of a Welsh Male Voice Choir, who served the
British Imperial Government in India in the early 20th century;
country lad and hero of the Polish WWII Resistance, who escaped from
Nazi work and prison camps at least twice, and later built a business as
a silver-plater in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter;
- a ceramics expert from the Potteries, who in his retirement regularly visited China to advise on porcelain production;
- a schoolteacher from the hills of south Wales, who defended my teen Goth style from familial scorn;
headmistress from rural Norfolk, whose question at the end of every
meal she cooked was, "Have you had sufficient?" (to which the only
proper reply, of course, was, "Yes, I've had ample thank you.").
are just a small selection. The criss-crossing of class, gender and
nationality, war, racism and colonialism, creativity, resilience and
rigidity in their lives is dense and many layered. They are not always
an easy bunch, either as individuals, or in the junction points of
historical realities which they embody.
Yet despite this, or
rather because of it, engaging with my ancestors is one of the richest
and most important parts of my spiritual practice. It not only connects
me to the past, but to the living present. These dead people still live
in me -- both in my DNA and in how I have developed as a human being.
The movements of history which produced them, and their ancestors before
them, are moving in the world and in all of our lives still.
my 20s and 30s, I focused on finding and accepting my place in the
more-than-human, all-species web of life, my current geographical and
ecological place in the world. This was important work, vital to my
ability to be present in my life, but for me it was not in itself
complete. Finding and accepting my place in relation to my ancestors,
however challenging and painful it can be at times, also means finding
and accepting my place within humanity, re-rooting myself not only in
the earth itself, but also in the rich and strengthening soil of human
life and human relating.
Through this re-rooting, I am able to
take responsibility for both celebrating my ancestors, and for repairing
what they, through acts of commission or omission, took part in
breaking. That taking of responsibility itself becomes part of how I
honour them, strengthening my bond with them, which in turns strengthens
me, as I engage with the world.
It is no easy task, but it is so very worth it.
Image credit: photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash
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