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Contacting Ancestors

At Samhain it seems only fitting to offer an oracular technique that honors our departed loved ones. This time of year, when the thinnest of veils separates the living and the dead, offers good opportunities for contacting an ancestor.

In most areas of the world, ancestor worship serves as an integral part of social and religious life. Within Buddhism and Hinduism, for instance, venerating departed forebears allows members of the present generation to rid themselves and their predecessors of negative karma. If Hindus or Buddhists perform meritorious acts during their lifetimes — service to others, pilgrimage, meditation, etc. — they share their merit with family members who have already died. This transfer helps the departed loved ones to move closer to enlightenment and bless the living in return.

Ancestor worship comprises the single most significant religious activity in China, while in Japan, Korea, Thailand and Viet Nam, veneration for a person's predecessors also retains its significance. In this part of the world, where the extended family remains central to society, revering departed loved ones reminds the living of their place in life and their responsibilities to family members both alive and dead.

Many indigenous cultures pay homage to ancestral spirits as well. Indians of both North and South America not only esteem their elders, but also honor their deceased forebears as grandmothers and grandfathers who have gone before them. In Africa, ancestor worship is practically ubiquitous. In the case of the Zulu people, for instance, reverence for a person's forebears provides the basis for most religious activity. In fact, to become a diviner in Zululand, you have to receive a special call from an ancestral spirit, often through a vision or dream.

In the West, honoring ancestors seems a fairly foreign concept to most of us. In fact, for some people it might actually conjure up images of "ghoulies and ghosties … and things that go bump in the night." [Old Scottish prayer] But if you keep your departed grandmother (or another relative) in mind, remembering how dearly she loved you, the reason for contacting a predecessor becomes immediately apparent: Most of our forebears want the best for us. And having gone before us, they have a wider view of life and of our family lineage.

Like most Americans, I rarely contact an ancestor for oracular advice. I speak with my maternal grandmother and my father (both of whom are deceased) about once a year, and they often have useful insights for me. I usually perform such divinations on their birthdays or death dates. Occasionally a distant predecessor will also contact me, as a Mohawk ancestress[1] once did while I was writing about indigenous mythology. She told me that my book was a gift from her people to mine, a blessing of my desire to share native wisdom with a mostly white audience.

Death remains one of our major taboos in North America, so contacting an ancestor is more complicated for us than for those in other cultures. It wasn't always that way. In prehistoric Europe, people believed that the veils between the living and dead were thinnest around Samhain, during the transition from summer to winter. They invited their dead ancestors and loved ones as guests on those nights, often setting a place at the dinner table for them. You'll be working in a similar vein.

Divination Method: Contacting an Ancestor

Before you contact an ancestor, select one of your favorite ways to.ground and center. Feel yourself as grounded by earth's gravity and centered between earth and sky, to help you sense your place in your family lineage. When you've finished the divination, thank your forebear(s) for their wisdom and express gratitude to the universal energies for holding you in their loving embrace.

Making Contact
You can encourage your departed loved ones to come talk to you about issues you find confusing, especially on dates that hold memories for you concerning them, or during the transition from summer to winter. To perform this divination:

  1. Settle on a question for your beloved ancestor(s).
  2. Ground and center.
  3. Keep your eyes closed and silently ask that one or more of your departed loved ones join you in thinking about your oracular question.
  4. Listen for your ancestor's voice(s) if your favorite oracular channel is auditory. Watch for a sign if you tend towards visual divinations. Or notice any feelings or physical changes in your body if the kinesthetic mode comes easiest to you.
  5. Interpret your oracle. In some cases, you may want to use free association.
The World is Your Oracle
by Nancy Vedder-Shults

Nancy's forthcoming book, The World is Your Oracle, compiles hundreds of divination methods, from ancient oracles to modern-day techniques. The excerpts published here will describe a few of the ways to access the deeper layers of our minds and broaden our sense of perception.

A good oracle puts us in touch with ourselves. It lets us discover our motivations, feelings and thoughts about the question we're exploring. And it connects us with the atmosphere or environment surrounding that question — making us aware of the water we swim in, but usually don't notice.

To receive inner guidance, all we need is to open ourselves to what our body/mind tells us, what our emotions display, and what our unconscious knows. In this way, we can begin to hear with our inner ears and see with our inner eyes. Using these mystical senses — what we might call the sense organs of the unconscious — we perceive holistically, noticing relationships and patterns rather than isolating, classifying and judging what we observe. Once we have gathered this wisdom, we can then use the rational mind to interpret what we have learned.

We live in an interconnected world, a web of life. Each segment of that web reflects the whole just like fractal designs or holography. That's why the patterns we discover through divination give us information. They mimic the relationships of the whole at a particular moment in time.

Additional Suggestions

You can ask a specific ancestor to speak with you about your issue, or you can send out a call for any person who loved you in life. Make sure to add that you're inviting only friends or relatives who come in good will with your highest benefit in mind. My own calls for help through the veil have always been answered by people who in life loved or had strong positive feelings for me. But adding this restriction still makes me feel safe, and safety is the first requirement for a successful divination.

  • If, like me, you tend towards auditory oracles, most of your answers will arrive in the form of a conversation with your ancestor. My grandmother and father have both conveyed helpful insights in words I heard in my mind.
  • Communication with the dead can also occur through synchronicities and dreams. My friend Abbie had stayed with us for three weeks before moving to Washington, D.C. When she died several years later, she said goodbye by rattling the doorknob to the room where she'd slept. My father also came in a dream to let me know that he was dying.
  • Remember that the oracle you anticipate may come in the way you least expect. And please note that if your ancestor does not answer you within 10 or 15 minutes, he or she may contact you in the days, weeks or even months that follow. This type of divination always remains a two-way street. You are contacting another individual, who may not always be available. For example, recently my father told me that it had become more difficult for him to talk with me, since he had reincarnated and was now living his next life. Some souls seem to pull away from their former lives more quickly than others. If they don't answer, you may need to try again another day, or ask someone else. But be assured that the love, protection and guidance of our ancestors defies the finality of death.


  1. Vedder family legend has it that we are descended from two Mohawk women who married Dutch colonists in the seventeenth century.


Graphics Credits

  • burning incense to the ancestors in Vietnam, courtesy of j ha
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