Rituals for Living
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Cleansing Your Ancestors
By PNS Buthelezi
In Southern African indigenous spirituality it is believed that humans are on a journey the objective of which is union with God. Spirits burdened by their past deeds on earth cannot be punished indefinitely. Ideally all spirits of deceased are given proper burial rites and cleansed, because we all commit sins to some degree that will weigh us down after physical death.
Often people who die having committed atrocities are burdened by their deeds and rejected by other ancestors and living relatives, so they wonder around rejected and tormented. Sometimes they manifest as a ghost. If they remain in this state they become troublesome on the living relatives, because they need atonement, and acceptance into the community of ancestors. They need to be set free to continue their journey to their Creator.
Ancestorship is not automatic, and setting up an altar does not mean they are automatically there. You have to officially welcome them there. An Ancestor altar is space within your home, and it does not end there. It is also a physical manifestation of the relationship between you and your Ancestors. If neglected, then this relationship is also neglected. By setting it up you are also setting a space within your heart and within life. By welcoming them to the altar, you’re also welcoming them within your heart and your life.
Prepare the Altar with Items that you feel identifies with them. Then you need to officially fetch their spirits, and cleanse them before you locate them at your altar. Cleansing spirits is extremely important, because life is a traumatic experience for us all, and leaves scars and guilt within our souls. Uncleansed spirits are troubled and they will bring trouble if you welcome them unhealed to your life, even if it’s not their intention to hurt you.
About three days before officially locating your Ancestors to their new altar, visit the grave of your loved one – could be your grandfather etc. Invoke him by name and say who you are. Tell him you’ll come back in three days to fetch his spirit together with other family spirits – bonus points if you also know them by name. Ask your grandfather to gather family in the spiritual realm in the meantime, so you’ll take them home in three days’ time.
On the third day, you should have a prepared altar already with bits of their favourite foods. You should have a bucket of water (prayed on and prepared for cleansing). Some people use water with special herbs, like I’ve done, some use sea water, or river water etc.
This ritual is done in the morning or afternoon, and is usually done by elders in the family, because it requires ritual cleaners, and a fixed mindset on doing this whole heartedly, and with discipline. For example, try to avoid sexual intimacy for about seven days before this day. Pray for the water that you bath with, so it not only washes your body, but also cleanses your soul. Work through your own emotional issues as well that might hinder the ritual.
Also have a white handkerchief with you. Where I’m from a branch of a special tree is used as well, some use a candle, but a candle is difficult because it could blow out. Leave a bucket of cleansing water just outside your gate, or have someone bring it outside as soon as they see you arrive back from the grave without you having to send for them when you arrive, because you’re not to speak to anyone else at that time except the spirits.
It’s best to have someone accompanying you, to drive you to the grave especially if it’s too far. If the grave is even further and consequently you don’t have access to it, then you don’t have to go to the grave, but instead to a mountain – the mountains are a natural altar and very powerful too, or a river connected to the sea. Ancestors love water, the Earth may bury them in their graves, but water brings them back to life.
At the gravesite pour libation or even tobacco if some of them smoked it. Invoke them by names, ask them to invite each other including those that have been forgotten. Tell them who you are, and that you have come to fetch their spirits to be amongst their family as they used to be when they were alive. Ask them to cling onto the white handkerchief you’ve brought with you.
It’s important to never let the handkerchief at any point to touch the grave, or the ground. The world is full of wondering spirits looking for a home, especially in the grave yard. If the handkerchief touches the ground you might pick up a stadium full of them. From the moment you invoked the spirits you are not to speak to anyone else except them, until you get to the Ancestor altar you’ve prepared for them. Those accompanying you should be with you at all times until you reach the Ancestor altar. If accompanied by someone Ancestors might choose to sit on their shoulders instead of yours, and they might feel a heaviness like they’re tense and need a massage. If you come across someone you know and they greet you, you have to ignore them. This is why it’s best not to do this alone.
On your way home, you have to continuously talk to your Ancestors, describing what is happening around. When you get in the car tell them, when you leave the grave yard tell them, when you drive over rivers and passing lakes, or any large bodies of water tell them. When the car turns into the left or right in the street, tell them. When you are stopped by traffic signals tell them, when the car begins to move again you tell them. You will end every sentence with a reminder: “We’re going home to your family, please don’t get left behind.”
Finally you’ve reached home and to those that have seen you, you’ve been talking to people they don’t see like a mad man. Outside your home, there will be a bucket of cleansing water waiting at the gate. You keep the handkerchief and you wash it with your Holy water. You tell the spirits that you are cleansing them off all grudges, of all guilt, of all the hurt, and scars in their souls. You ask that the Creator cleanse them of their wrong doings known and unknown. Tell them that with this cleansing you’re elevating them to their higher responsibility of Ancestorship. Tell them to cultivate good qualities that they had when they were alive, and to discourage the bad ones, because they now know better. Tell them you’re cleansing them all, and let not one remain uncleansed, saying he/she did not hear. Tell them uncleansed spirits are not allowed in your home, if they allow this cleansing they will be welcome.
At the gate have someone with a tray of fruits, tobacco and drinks. Before you walk in tell them the food is a gift. Welcome them into your home and ask may they please accept the gifts. Continue talking to them when you walk in, still describing what is happening until you reach the room and the Ancestor altar you’ve allocated them. Place the handkerchief at the altar. Light the candles sprinkle some tobacco, pour their favourite drinks etc. Tell them this is the Altar I place you in, but do not be limited to it. You are free to move around every corner of this house. This is the place I’ll come to when I need to talk to you. May this relationship grow from strength to strength. Tell them they are to protect this family, and fight off its enemies. They are to bring good fortune and good will. If something bothers them they are to reveal it peacefully through dreams, so it can be addressed. Ask them to reveal though dreams the significance the ritual you have performed.
It’s important to remember that Ancestors are not pets, and should not be kept as such. They are not workers and they are not employed by you. They are elders and should be related to as you’d relate to your elders. If you forget your place they will soon teach you who the adult is between you and them, and you won’t win. Don’t make promises to them, unless you intend to keep them. They can’t be cheated too. Keep the altar and the room clean at all times. Taking care of their space is the same as taking care of them they’ll appreciate it and they’ll show how much.
Be aware of your dreams and take note of how they appear. They should look good and healthy with clean beautiful clothes. If they appear cold, or wearing rags means they are troubled. Ask what they need and from who. Sometimes they may appear as certain animals. If you’re unclear about what a dream might mean tell them you’ve received their message, but unclear about what it means. Ask them to be clearer and the answers will come.