We may think of ancestor cults as belonging to earlier forms of society, but this isn’t entirely true. Anyone who starts researching family history knows how finding the ancestors can create what feels like a living connection with those of our blood line who passed away long ago. I should know – I’ve done it! It came as something of a shock to me, but as with other avenues I’ve explored, I eventually decided to put both my research tips and something of my experience into a book. The result is Growing Your Family Tree: Tracing your roots and discovering who you are (Piatkus 2011; e-book with Lume Books 2019)
In order to write the book, I wanted to hear how other people had experienced the family history trail, so I set up a survey. Some wonderful material came up through this, which I’ve quoted liberally in the book, and which I hope to include in a future post for Cherry’s Cache. Also on the agenda is a further post about taking up ‘The Quest’ in family history, making expeditions to explore the terrain where ancestors lived, and hunt for new information.
But for this current post, I’d like to share two experiences which I had, of witnessing what ancestors mean in cultures other than a modern Western one. These are included in my book, but I’m bringing them together here for the first time, and with photographs which tell as much of the story as the words.
Sailing to the far side of the world – Bali and Easter Island
My husband Robert and I used to go on cruises as guest lecturer and artist-in-residence. We made some fascinating voyages, mostly on smaller ships, which allowed us to travel to smaller ports than is possible on giant liners. One of the most extraordinary journeys was to Easter Island, as I’ll recount shortly. First though, I’ll relate how a trip to Bali allowed us to see, quite by chance, a ceremony for drawing back the spirit of an ancestor to dwell in the family home:
From Chapter Two
In modern Western culture, it may seem odd to assert that the ancestors can make their presence felt, but in many other cultures it is a natural assumption. Ancestor veneration is, or has been, important in practically any society that we might care to study. African, South American and Aboriginal Australian cultures all have strong beliefs in the significance of the ancestors, and practise customs which acknowledge the part they play in family life. They are variously thought, for instance, to guide their descendants, govern the local landscape and assist in divining the future. In shamanic practice, still found in countries such as Mongolia and Siberia, magician healers enter a trance and depart on a journey to the spirit realms to encounter the ancestors of the villagers, who will then give them counsel for the wellbeing of the community.
Ancestors in such cultures may be seen as deities, spirits or souls of the departed – there is no one definition, and often the boundaries are hazy – but their existence at some level is taken as a given. On the whole, they are not deified in the sense of worship, and therefore scholars nowadays prefer to use the term ‘ancestor veneration’, as this reflects more accurately the broad sweep of customs associated with the ancestors.
Below: the different shrines and ceremonies of Goa Lawah, which is also celebrated for its sacred ‘bat cave’! (Photo of procession from a website showing further images of the temples; other images © Robert Lee-Wade, Cherry Gilchrist)
When my husband and I visited Bali early in 2010, by great good fortune we hired a taxi driver who was keen to show us some of these customs. He drove us to a temple built into the rocky hillside, known as Goa Lawah. It is a popular venue for funeral ceremonies, and renowned for its colony of sacred bats, which reside in a cave at the back of the temple. Situated at a place where sea and land meet (symbolising the border between the present life and the afterlife, our driver told us), the temple acts as the mediator for the soul that must take its journey from one to the other. The body is first cremated, and then the ashes are placed in a coconut shell and taken down to the shore close by, where they are thrown into the ocean. A line or rope, with up to 2500 ceremonial coins tied to it, is cast into the waters as well, and the mourners cry out for the dead person to return to them as they draw it back to shore again. Two times more, the line is cast and the call goes up for the deceased to come home.
After twelve days have passed, the family members return to the same spot, and collect some kind of object (our driver was vague on this point – perhaps a stone from the shore, or something left over from the ceremony) which they carry reverently back to their home. This object is then placed in the domestic shrine, where it is believed to embody the spirit of the relative, now an honoured ancestor. From this time on, this ancestor will watch over the family, and protect and bless its members.’
It might seem as though Western society is far removed from such practices, but we too have our graveyards, where flowers are renewed, and relatives go to remember their loved ones. On Remembrance Sunday in Britain, we honour the dead of the two World Wars, and in Russia, practically every newly married couple has a photo taken in front of the local war memorial, where the eternal flame burns to commemorate the fallen soldiers. There are traces of interaction with the departed too, in Western customs, such as the feast of Samhain or Halloween in Irish tradition, when food and drink was and perhaps still is left out for the dead. We mark roadside casualties with shrines of flowers and symbolic objects. In Russian Orthodoxy, the first forty days after the death of a person are thought to be a journey during which the soul suffers various trials and temptations before reaching a more blessed state; at the end of these forty days, families may hold a ‘remembering feast’ to honour the departed and the arrival of the soul in heaven.
The mother at the centre of the world
Discovering the part that ancestors can play in human life may come about in unexpected ways. When I visited one of the remotest islands in the world, I had no idea that it would lead me into an intense experience of this kind. Here’s how it happened:
From Chapter Eight
It’s 2 March 2008. Mother’s Day in the UK, but we are spending it in the South Pacific, far away from gifts of flowers and chocolates, and restaurants packed with families taking Mum out to lunch. In fact, we are in a completely different civilisation altogether, visiting Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island. Robert and I have been transported here as lecturers on board a cruise ship, and today is our second and final day in this extraordinary place. We catch the tender boat from our ship and ride the fierce waves to the shore. The captain has warned us all that we might not even be able to land, after six days of sailing from the Chilean port of Valparaiso. All in the lap of the gods, he says.
And gods are what they have here. Yesterday, we watched the island emerge from the haze with growing excitement – a rounded volcanic scoop of land dressed in soft greens and greys. We began to make out cliffs and swathes of grassland, then, finally, the first of the giant statues for which the island is famous: the Moai. Nearly a thousand of these stone statues, with their huge heads and staring gaze, are placed around the island, many at the edge of the land, facing inwards towards the people they protect and command. Each face has its own character. When we landed, I made straight for the first Moai I could see, standing on the rim of the harbour, and was seized with a spine-tingling sense of awe as I gazed up at him. In fact, I felt overwhelmed. This was a place I had known of since I was a child, but had never dreamed I might be able to visit. Now we were stepping into its mythical world.
There are still many questions and mysteries surrounding the old culture of Easter Island, but it’s known that the statues were carved between five and eight hundred years ago, and it is thought that they represent the deified male ancestors. Certainly, today’s inhabitants treat them as such, and asked us to respect the Moai by never treading upon the ahu, the sacred stone platforms upon which they are set. On the first day, then, we became acquainted with these ancestors, along with the herds of bright bay horses that roam the island freely, the green-sided volcano with its extraordinary internal lake and the exquisite beaches fringed with palm trees. The island, once stripped of its trees, is back to a better natural balance again, planted also with stately groves of eucalyptus. All through the centuries of change, the Moai have presided as immortals over the landscape.
Now it’s day two of our visit, and we have barely a morning to see whatever else we can of this magical island. Something has tickled my imagination in a guidebook that I browsed on board the ship: a mention of an ancient round stone representing ‘the navel of the world’. Te Pito Te Henua is one of the other names for Easter Island and that in itself means the navel and uterus of the world, so this stone would therefore be the navel of the navel. Robert agrees: we should try to find it.
Friends on board recommended that we seek out the woman taxi driver on the quayside, probably the island’s one and only female cabbie among the ranks of beaming and burly male drivers. We spot her easily, and though they’d mentioned her simply because of her general helpfulness, hiring her cab for the morning turns out to be crucial to what we discover.
‘Ah, so you want to go to the place that we visit for energy,’ she says, when we ask her about the site, for which we have only rough directions. She takes us over to the north coast of the island, veering away from a well-frequented beach (though that, in Easter Island terms, may mean only a handful of people) to turn down an unpaved road which emerges by another small and completely empty beach. Among the rocks above the sea line, a round wall of stones and boulders has been created, about three feet high and eight feet in diameter. Within the circle it encloses, a huge and beautifully smooth ovoid stone has been placed, like a giant egg. Four similar but smaller stones are set around it at regular intervals, forming a square. It has a Celtic feel about it – we could almost be on the West Coast of Ireland or in the Hebrides – but here we are, over two thousand miles from any mainland and over eight thousand away from home.
It is first and foremost a place for women, our driver tells us. She invites me alone to accompany her into the circle, and seats me on one of the smaller stones, encouraging me to place my hands on the great stone egg in front of me. She sits opposite and does likewise. ‘Put your hands on it gently,’ she says. ‘Relax.’
Women of the island have been coming here for hundreds of years, she explains. They come to pray for help, for safe childbirth and even for the delivery of their babies. The stone is the mother, their mother, and the island’s mother. ‘What do you feel?’ she asks me.
I feel as though the stone is not a stone at all, but an egg with the shell stripped away, and the delicate but all-powerful pulse of life moving within its membrane. I sense the women who have laid their hands here, and the ancestral mothers whose spirit is contained within the stone itself. Currents of energy seem to be running up my arms.
I tell her some of this, and she is satisfied. She then steps outside the circle and invites Robert to come and join me. Now I can suggest to him how to sit and place his hands and, rather to his surprise, he too experiences waves of energy.
We leave the enclosure. It’s time to get back to the harbour and board our ship for another six-day voyage, back to the coast of South America. Both of us are reflective after the experience, and feel privileged that one of the islanders trusted us enough to teach us about her sacred site. We first met the father of the island in the myriad forms of male ancestors, but now we have also met its mother – the one stone representing all the female ancestors.
This is a Mother’s Day that I won’t forget.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these descriptions, and please remember that you’re welcome to add comments or recount your experiences too. If you are making a comment on the blog for the first time, this will be submitted to me first to activate it, so it could take a day or two before you see it posted.
You may also be interested in: