Making My Path

As it was for many other modern Pagans and witches, I didn’t entirely grow up with the religion and spiritual practices that I now follow. What I did have was the Appalachian folk beliefs of my family. Or, rather perhaps, what remained of them. The superstitions and folk cures passed down to me weren’t much, but I’ve realized that they’re the foundation my spirituality was built upon. They’re the seeds from which it all sprouted for me.

It never occurred to me that other families didn’t always believe in prophetic dreams, spirits, and signs until I was older. As a child, I didn’t think twice about my dad blowing smoke in my ear to cure an earache I had. These things were simply a part of life.

I don’t recall when it was that I realized these things weren’t a part of everyone’s truth, though I obviously did learn so at some point. Was it when somebody had a mocking tone when they talked about spirits and superstitions? Or maybe it was just that I didn’t hear many people talk about such things as openly as my family did amongst each other.

If it weren’t for the family stories of ghosts, dreaming about the future, and out of body experiences; would I have become so interested in the spirit world and spirituality? Sure, I greatly enjoyed popular fantasy on tv and in books. A friend and I once made up ridiculous pretend spells because we were fans of these things. But, that was all fiction. Playing pretend was one thing – belief is entirely another. My belief at the time was part of my heritage.

Despite these firmly rooted beliefs, a large part of my family’s Appalachian religious heritage didn’t stick for me. I left Christianity in search of religion that made me feel more whole, more like I had found home. In a span of a few years, as a teenager, I became a Pagan. I knew it was the right path for me because it was one I was experiencing. Instead of simply hearing some preacher on a pulpit yelling about his (very ignorant) interpretation of the NKJ version of the Bible, I was able to feel a personal connection to the divine. One of my first spiritual experiences was walking home and becoming suddenly aware of the sacred spirits that were around me. The trees, the sky, the earth itself; I realized that they had spirits as much as humans do. I realized that they are divine. I learned that the Earth, herself, is living being.

As time went on and I learned more, experienced more, my interpretation of deity changed. Instead of just one god or goddess, I realized that there are many. Some of Them spoke to me. They visited me in the Dreaming and in meditation, whispered into my waking subconscious, sent me signs. These are deities who feel real to me. They’re not some far off being watching from above, who I could never hope to know.

(All of this is not to say that those who don’t experience religion in the ways that I have are wrong. I would imagine that anyone who feels a connection to a religion will find meaning in it one way or another.)

It is likely that many of my recent ancestors may not be happy with my choice to worship the old gods. There are many things about me that they likely aren’t thrilled about, to be fair. That is, of course, assuming that the ancestors don’t learn and grow in whatever afterlife they are in. It’s entirely possible that those who would have been disapproving in life are more supportive in death.

Many Pagan traditions have a strong focus on ancestral veneration. Norse Heathenry, one of my strongest influences, is very much one of them. So, too, is the importance of family history for many Appalachians. It was never outright said, but rather implied throughout my life, that knowing where we come from and who came before us is important. That’s why pieces of family history have been passed down for so long. Though my ancestors and I are very different people, many whom I would not want to associate with in life, many whose lived experiences would be very different from mine even if we had lived in the same time period; they are important to me. Whatever they were like during their lives, there is something I can learn from them (even if it’s only a recognition of where toxic family traits and traumas came from).

I digress. Whatever my ancestors think of my religion is on them. My experiences with the gods Whom I have connected with has been wonderful. Yes, even in times when They needed to teach me difficult lessons. Even, too, in times when They feel distant, when I long to feel close to Them again.

My relationships with Them have also changed over the years. Since I came to a polytheist worldview, the gods I worship have been teachers, parental figures, friends, lovers, and more. My view of divinity has shifted from being the Unknowable, to one shaped by the personal connections which I have made with a very few of the innumerable number of gods in existence.

Sharing spiritual connections with humans is important, too. I realized this at some point after a number of years spent as a mostly solitary Pagan. Some of that connection was found online, in groups where people shared many of my beliefs. It took some time, but I found an online Rökkatru group where the members feel like a long distance family. Knowing that there are people out there who share a common belief in these gods, who find inspiration in the mythologies, and who care for one another, is comforting.

It wasn’t until shortly after moved to the city that I sought out local religious community. I found that first in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where I began meeting with the Pagan group for a while before also joining the rest of the congregation for Sunday services when I was able. My connection with this group of humans is more centered around community and secular humanism. Though it is not deity-centered, it is still spiritual.

This all leads me to where I am now. My path is a blend of Appalachian folk belief, Norse and Irish polytheist Paganism, and Unitarian Universalism. My path is also deeply influenced by animism, pantheism, herbalism, intuition, and an appreciation of science. Each person will have a different story, different experiences and influences that define their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices. We all have to find our own paths, in our own ways.

When I was just starting out, I never imagined the course that my spiritual path would take. I think that it will continue to grow throughout my life. Perhaps I will come to believe things, as I have in the past, that I never considered a possibility. Or maybe, I will be drawn to revisit a practice that I have long since neglected. Whatever route it takes me, I know that it will continue to enrich my life.


Looking To The Family Tree

A common piece of advice for new Pagans is to look into one’s own ancestry to find their gods. This can allow one to have a starting point to start their research. That said, it is crucial to remember a few things:

• The gods do not care about color or ancestry when They call you. You do not have to be white to worship the Norse or Irish gods, for example. The gods are for everyone.

• Some traditions, particularly those from colonized cultures, are closed to outsiders. Indigenous cultures often fall in this category. Unless you are from that culture, leave it alone. If you are invited by practitioners within that culture, let them lead the way and direct you on what’s appropriate.

• Of colonized cultures that have traditions that are not closed (such as Irish), please still remember to respect those from the culture and take their lead.

• There are white supremacists that use ancestry and spirituality (particularly Folkish traditions and Odinism) as a cover for their groups. Beware of these types, learn the codewords they use so that you can avoid them, and don’t allow them into your space.

Image: a circle with people of different colors holding hands on top. “Our gods are for Everyone!” is written in the center. Runes go around the circle under the people. “Fuck white supremacy” is written in runes at the bottom. Credit: Myself, Art By Alvinia. Available on my Redbubble shop here.

I found my gods before knowing much about my ancestors. I had a very basic idea of where my ancestors came from, though some of what I heard from family was misinformed or otherwise missing. I had no idea if I had any Irish or Norse ancestry at all when The Morrígan and Loki called to me. Finding these deities did lead in a roundabout way to a stronger interest in my ancestry. Working with one’s ancestors is a common practice in the Heathen community, after all.
Although some interpret “ancestors” solely as our biological predecessors, it is important to remember that they can also include our ancestors of spirit. These can be anyone who has been involved in shaping you or your traditions/ culture. Adoptive family, teachers, spiritual leaders, and role models are among those we may consider ancestors.

For me, looking into my genealogy is a way to connect with and honor some of my ancestors. Another part of honoring my ancestors is to acknowledge the struggles that they likely went through, as well as the harm that they may have done. This can be important for both social justice work as well as shadow work. In my opinion, one can not truly honor their ancestors without honesty.

Some will use their genealogical research or dna results as an excuse to justify why they should be allowed to practice closed spiritual traditions. This can lead to misappropriation and other disrespect toward marginalized cultures as someone tries to connect with a spirituality that requires cultural context they don’t have.
While I fully believe that all of my ancestors are worth acknowledging, it is important to me that I not confuse their heritage with my own. As a white American living in the 21st century, I did not grow up in the cultures of my distant ancestors, nor do I experience any of the struggles that those currently part of certain ancestral cultures may have. My ancestors, for whatever reasons, either abandoned or lost their connections and needed to make new ones. It is not for me to make judgments on them. It is up to me, however, to make my own connections in appropriate and respectful ways.

Ancestry is important in that it can help us to know who we are and where we came from. This does not mean that our genealogical ancestry should be put up on some imagined pedestal. Our ancestors of spirit are just as important, sometimes even more so. Furthermore, we have a lot to learn from those we may not necessarily consider our ancestors. All humans, no matter which mythology you believe in, or even if you believe only in science, share ancestors somewhere along the line. We are all connected.
Yes, it is perfectly okay to look to one’s ancestors to find your gods. Just remember that ancestors aren’t always blood and that’s a beautiful thing.

Seeking The Ancestors

For many Pagans, the ancestors are an important part of our spirituality. They are a symbol of where we come from; whether biologically, culturally, or spiritually. They are also often looked to as spiritual beings who may look after us, whom we may build relationships with and ask for assistance from in our lives.
Ancestry is also important to those of other faiths in their mundane genealogy quests. For some, it’s simply an interesting hobby to find out information about who came before them. An aunt of mine has put quite a lot of work into our family tree. She’s found confirmation of family stories, as well as information nobody still living had known of.
Researching genealogy is one way that spiritual practice and mundane hobbies may overlap. (Although, for Pagans, the “mundane” is often very spiritual.)

It seems to me that Americans may have a somewhat complicated relationship with ancestry. Even the many who are privileged enough to have access to ancestral records are often distant from the ancestral heritages we boast of having. Irish-Americans sometimes don’t understand Irish culture or even realize Irish/ Gaeilge is a language, for instance. Many other Americans don’t even have the privilege of knowing where their ancestors came from. We have our American regional cultures, but that’s not always enough to resolve the disconnect we feel with our ancestors.
As one who has an interest in ancestry, I sometimes question why my ancestor’s origins should matter to me. Most were immigrants (read: colonists) from various countries hundreds of years ago, a very small few were native to these lands or kidnapped. I can’t claim any of their heritages as my own. Being white, I especially can’t rightfully claim the heritage of my distant Indigenous or African ancestors. So is there something I can learn from them? What have they passed down to me through the generations? How did their cultures influence Appalachian culture and, thus, the lives of my family?
Sometimes studying genealogy can help us to understand our regional cultures, family traditions, even traits (toxic and otherwise) passed down in the family. Sometimes it can just be fun. The stories we may find can be weird, tragic, or just interesting.

In our searches, it’s important to be sensitive to any cultures our ancestors may have hailed from. Being proud of where your family comes from is one thing, disrespecting the people who are still there by making claims to a culture you know little to nothing about is another. In relation, it’s also important not to raise the status of your ancestors above others. That should go without saying. If we’re going to seek the ancestors, we should also try our best build our understanding of them.

Poetry: To The Ancestors

To those who left their homelands
In search of a better life
I honor you
To those whose homelands were invaded
Forced to either assimilate or leave home
I honor you
To those indigineous to this land I call home,
Forced off your lands, and cultures stripped away
I honor you
To those brought to this land by force,
Enslaved and stripped of your cultures
I honor you
To those who were the invaders
Who stole lives, land, and culture
I remember and see shame in your actions
To my ancestors of blood
I thank you for bringing me here
To my ancestors of spirit
I thank you for leading me here
To my ancestors from far and near
In both time and place
I honor you
May your good deeds be remembered
That we may live by example
May your struggles be remembered
That we may know our strength
And may your wrongs also be remembered
That we may learn and do better