Ancestors of the Spirit

by Anna

Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Brandy Williams, author of The Woman Magician, Practical Magic for Beginners, and For the Love of the Gods.

The ancestors came to me when I was 16. I was struggling to survive an abusive family. They’d ripped me out of the school where I had friends and ported me half a country away. I had rejected their values, their racism and sexism, their scam-people-and-run-away work ethic, and the Catholic faith in which they had raised me. Alone, battered, suicidal, I literally did not know who to pray to. So I prayed to the universe. “Help me!”

The ancestors heard a child in trouble and answered my desperate call. I clearly saw a ring of people, women and men, standing around my bed. I recognized them as teachers and healers, although I did not know any of their names. I knew some of them were quite, old and others were very recently ancestors. I didn’t think they were related to me; they were the ancestors who had felt drawn to me by bonds of affinity. They told me that I was bright and loving and worthwhile. They would always be there, they loved me, and they believed in me.

When I converted to Pagan religion I looked for my ancestors and felt cheated. My mother’s family was Catholic and my father’s was Protestant for as far back as anyone had traced. I knew that once there had been people in my ancestral line who had practiced Pagan religion openly, but that had been so long ago that I had no way to connect my story to theirs.

The message I got from the academic works that taught me about ancient Paganism was that Christianity had destroyed Pagan religion in Europe. “Great Pan is dead,” they crowed. I felt gut-punched when I read that. The gods couldn’t be dead! I saw them in ancient statues, I felt them in my heart. But I had no ancestors to take me by the hand and lead me to them, no one I knew by name.

Gradually I learned that this wasn’t the whole story. Pagan rituals survived as folk custom, in dance and song and passion plays. This kind of Pagan continuity calls to those with blood ties to the country. I wasn’t born in Europe, though; I was born in America to settler folk. My heritage is European but I am not rooted in the ethnic heritage of my parents. The traditions of the people who lived here before me are not my traditions either.

When I discovered the teaching tradition of the Pagan philosophers and the theurgic ritual that expresses that tradition I felt I had finally come home. These teachers had lived, as I do, in large cities. They moved from one city to another, Alexandria to Athens to Rome. Their religion was still rooted in the ways of the country, the old seasonal celebrations, but it had a distinctively cosmopolitan feel. Their contemporary students revered them as gentle, kind, and noble. They seem like genuinely good people.

I came to know them through writing their stories. Their biographers recorded their flaws as well as their virtues. Generous Plotinus managed the estates of orphans so they would not be defrauded of their inheritance, but he never bathed! Hypatia welcomed Christians and Pagans alike to her classes. On the other hand, she loved to drive her horses up and down the broad Alexandrian streets, a habit that registered on her detractors as flaunting her upper-class wealth. Porphyry thought deeply and wrote profusely, but when his brilliant mind turned on itself he could fret himself into a state and consider suicide.

The Platonic teachers may not be related to me by blood, I may not have Greek or Italian or Syrian heritage, but for these teachers that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be related to them to learn from them. You don’t have to be white or male or rich to be a theurgist. There is no barrier, no in group, no exclusion. All that they require is that we study them. They ask us to read their writings, to think for ourselves about the world and our place in it, to practice the spiritual tradition sincerely. These are my ancestors. They are ancestors for everyone who connects with their spirit.

Today I start my theurgic practice with a prayer, published in my new book For the Love of the Gods, the History and Modern Practice of Theurgy, Our Pagan Inheritance:

I call on those who have come before me,
Ancestors of my body and spirit.
I walk in the world now,
The link between the future and the past.
As I walk in my day
Grant me the support that ancestors can give
And welcome me into your number when my living journey is done.

When I pray to them sincerely, they come to me and guide me. I feel their presence just as I did when I was 16. I don’t know exactly who guided me in that moment, but I do know that the teachers who guide me today offer the same sustaining encouragement that lifted me up that night. I owe them my life.

Our thanks to Brandy for her guest post! For more from Brandy Williams, read her article, “Bodies of the Gods.”

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