Ancestral Altars & Rituals

A brief introduction to modern ancestor worship for animists, spirit workers, pagans and witches. Whether you wish to work with familial ancestors (the beloved dead) or the ancestors of witchcraft (the mighty dead), this article contains simple practices and rituals to incorporate into your spiritual path. You will learn how to set up shrines and altars for the beloved and mighty dead, how to create a spirit fetiche to connect the dead to the land of the living, how to give formal and informal offerings, as well as simple rituals of benevolent necromancy. Keep in mind the dead are with us the entire dark half of the year from Samhuinn until Imbolc. Honour them often and perhaps leave your ancestral altar up until the gate is closed once more between the living and the dead. A blessed All Hallow’s Eve to you and yours.

Serpentes Familiar by Sarah Anne Lawless


Most cultures, ancient and modern, that worship the ancestors maintain shrines or altars at all times. The home shrine or altar is where the ancestors are told of all that happens in one’s life–all our joys and sorrows. Offerings are given, as the dead are believed to still require the nourishment they receive from our libations and burnt food offerings. It is also at altars and shrines that the ancestors are petitioned for aid or advice. Whenever something is asked of or received from the spirits of the dead, something must be given in return. This may be anything from libations, burnt food offerings, or certain incenses whose fumes are as food to spirits.

The Ancestor Shrine

The ancestral shrine can be anything from a small shelf to a full tabletop with photos and belongings of dead loved ones, various candles, a bell, water, flowers, and an offertory dish for libations or unsalted foods. The altar cloth should be white for worship and offerings and the candles white or blue. This is a devotional space to pay respects to one’s ancestors—especially those of your family. I recommended a shrine for those who do not wish to delve deeply into spirit work, but still want to regularly honour their ancestors.

Shrines can be used for daily or weekly offerings and are a good place to share the sorrows and joys of your life with your dead relatives. A good daily practice is to set a portion of your dinner meal aside on their shrine before you sit down to eat yourself. Other good offerings to leave at an ancestral shrine include their favourite foods, alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco, flowers, and incense. It is best to offer only what the individual spirit preferred when alive. Did they have a sweet tooth? Were they a smoker? Take these things into consideration when choosing the right offering.

The Ancestor Altar

The ancestor altar is a full working altar with divinatory tools as well as spirit vessels to house the spirits of the dead you will work with. The altar must be large enough to house your tools and supplies. The cloth that covers it should be black for your necromancy work. The candles used should also be necromantic black—both the altar candles and offertory candles. Other supplies can include a stang, staff, or wand made from ash, blackthorn, or yew wood; an incense burner or cauldron; an offering bowl and cup; and one or more spirit vessels. Place either a cauldron or clean bowl filled with fresh water on the altar before any rite of necromancy. In general, the ancestor altar can include a collection of tools and supplies that can be used both outdoors and indoors, rather than a static altar in your home. If you do not wish to have an obvious altar set up for your spirit work, you can store the supplies instead, and only bring them out when you intend to use them.

Spirit Vessels

The most common tool used for working regularly with ancestors is a vessel for their spirits to dwell in while visiting our realm. Such vessels should always be consecrated to their purpose and the spirit(s) invited to make a home of it. In Haitian Voudou such a vessel is known as the govi, which is a spirit pot that houses the ancestral spirit of the priest(ess) or the ghédé themselves. In European Witchcraft, a spirit box is used and may be filled with anything from cremation ashes, bones, or personal belongings of the deceased along with herbs which foster communication with the dead. A spirit vessel can also take the form of a fetiche, such as a real, wooden, or ceramic skull stuffed with hair or belongings of the deceased relative. If the spirit you work with is not one of the recently dead, you could stuff the vessel with red thread instead, to ground the spirit in the vessel. A quartz crystal is also a good addition, as many cultures worldwide believe this stone has the ability to ground spirits and keep them in our realm so we can better commune with them. Familiar ancestral spirits should never be bound or trapped in a vessel; they should be free to come and go as they please. They should also always be worked with out of love and not forced. Doing the opposite can have repercussions.

Spirit Vessels by Sarah Anne Lawless


If you choose to summon a chthonic deity or spirits of the dead to ask a question or a favour, timing is important. For the best results, perform the following rituals at dusk, dawn, midnight, the dark moon, the waning moon, the autumnal equinox, Samhuinn, the winter solstice, Imbolc, or the spring equinox. I have known people who have an open door policy with the spirits of the dead in their home. This is a very dangerous thing to do! It is especially dangerous if you have children or do not live alone as you are endangering not just yourself but also your family and roommates. Inviting a strange spirit into your house is like taking a stranger off the street into your home–they could either be a lovely person, or they could kill you and take everything you own–you just never know. Unfamiliar spirits should be summoned within a well-made protective Circle only and should always be banished afterward. Familiar ancestral spirits do not need such formalities, but make sure it’s actually your ancestor you’re talking to and not a demonic or mischievous imposter. This can be done by asking questions only your ancestor would know the answers to or by simply using their full name (including all middle names) or basic genealogy each time you summon them.

To summon your ancestral spirits, call to them while burning an incense that both attracts spirits as well as aids in communication with them. It is also necessary to burn an offertory incense for the spirits as food to sustain them while visiting our realm. However, make sure you do not offer the food incense until you know you have summoned the correct spirit as you do not want to give strength and power to an incorrect spirit. If you work with gods, a gatekeeper or pyschopomp should be called upon to open the gates between worlds and let the spirits of the dead through – the most common being Hecate and Hermes. A traditional offering to such deities is olive oil and honey. Lastly, do not forget to send back what you call forth. This is especially important if you are working with an unfamiliar spirit. Make sure either you or an underworld deity closes the doorway between the worlds when your ritual is finished.

Ritual of Offering to the Spirits

For this simple ritual you will need:

white cornmeal, white powdered egg shell, or white chalk
• a white candle with holder (don’t forget matches or a lighter)
• food and/or a libation
• incense (plus charcoal if using incense)
• a small gardener’s trowel

Take your supplies and offering(s) to a crossroad or graveyard. Both three- and four-way crossroads are perfect. A dirt crossroad is preferred so you can dig a hole to leave the offering, but pavement will suffice in a pinch. If you only have access to a paved crossroad and aren’t near any dirt paths, make sure to just leave an offering of alcohol or incense instead of the food so you’re not leaving a mess for people to drive over. You will want to use a crossroad with little activity or at a time of day when you won’t be seen, as in some areas the police might be called due to your supposed “satanic activity”. Once at the crossroad, draw a sigil like those shown below near the centre, where the roads intersect if you can.

Ancestor Sigils by Sarah Anne Lawless

If you are at a cemetery, draw the sigil at the grave of your choice on the ground where the body would be. If you are worried about the sigil in the graveyard being taken the wrong way by the police, then draw the sigil in the dirt with your index finger instead. Dig a small hole in the center of the sigil and light your candle, placing it nearby. Then mutter your intent and who you are leaving the offering for (i.e., a deity or spirit of the dead). If it is a deity, you may recite an offertory incantation or summoning for them. If you brought tobacco or incense, burn it now. If you have a cigar, light it and take a few puffs, blowing the smoke at the sigil, then place the lit cigar upright in the hole. Pour your libation and/or food offering into the hole and then turn your head from the offering and walk away without looking back.  After performing this ritual consistently, the Witch may eventually ask the spirit or deity to appear so they may ask something of them—anything from permission to collect dirt from their grave for magical use or for powers and abilities. Where do you think all of those “deals with devils at the crossroads” legends come from?

Spirit Vessel Consecration Ritual

The following ritual can be used to consecrate a vessel or fetiche that will be used for spirit work by an individual or a group. For this ritual you will require:

A vessel (box, pot, jar, skull, or fetiche object)
A white candle
Incense burner
Ritual knife
Personal concerns of the deceased
Red ochre or red brick dust mixed with water or red wine
Anointing Oil (plain olive oil works in a pinch)
• Summoning Incense (i.e. wormwood, sandalwood, copal…)
Offering Incense (i.e. myrrh, pomegranate peel, sandalwood…)

Before the vessel or fetiche can be used for spirit work, a consecration ritual must be performed to connect the spirit(s) to the vessel and invite the spirit(s) into it. The most common spirits housed in such boxes are the spirits of the magical practitioner’s family who have recently died or have been dead for generations. The practitioner can add anything they feel is appropriate to the vessel: a rosary, ring, a letter written by the deceased, photographs, obituaries, flowers from the funeral, teeth, hair, nail clippings—anything related to the spirit(s) the vessel is intended for. If you are consecrating a fetiche you might want to drill a hole in it to have a place to load such personal concerns. If the spirit(s) you will be working with is long dead, and no personal concerns can be obtained, then use a piece of red wool instead to create the connection. It must be red and it must be sheep’s wool. Herbs can also be used in place of personal concerns such as wormwood, althea root, copal resin, or yew.

After dusk during the waning or dark moon, create sacred ritual space however you do so in your tradition. Invoke the deity you work with who guards the gates to the underworld, and ask them to open the gates and raise up the spirit(s) you wish to work with. If you do not work with Deity, call your spirit guides to help you open the door to the underworld. If you are an animist, animals such as owls and snakes are well-known psychopomps. Once this is done, place the white candle and vessel or fetiche on the altar. Anoint the candle with oil and light it in the ancestor’s name. Anoint the vessel with oil and the red ochre mixture. Burn the summoning incense as you call up the spirit(s) by name and lineage, and invite them to reside in the vessel. It is best to have one spirit per vessel, but guilds of spirits will get along when housed in one fetiche, such as the ancestors of Witchcraft, your blood ancestors, or the ancestors of a specific trade. Next, burn some of the offering incense and tell them your intent to have the vessel be a home for them while visiting you. Ask if they will agree to work with you and use the vessel. If you do not have the second sight, watch the candle flame for flickering, spitting, and hissing for a “yes” or the flame to be inexplicably snuffed out or weak for a “no.” Sometimes it is the incense that will spark or go out as a signal rather than the candle. If the spirit(s) agree, show them the way to the vessel and to you by pricking your thumb with your ritual knife, or a sterilized pin, so a drop of blood forms and anoint the vessel with the drop of blood. If the vessel will be used by a group, have each member perform this action. The vessel is now linked to you and the spirit(s). If you’d rather not draw blood, you can add your own personal concerns (hair or nail clippings) to the vessel. Burn more of the offering incense in thanks. Continue with a planned spirit work ritual such as the Ancestor Communion Ritual given next, or ask the spirit(s) to return to the underworld, your or your tradition’s Gods to close the gates, and end your rite.

Ancestor Communion Ritual

This ritual is appropriate for an individual or a group. It will require:

bread, butter and honey or bread, olive oil and salt (for new spirits)
• the spirit(s)’s favourite meal or foods (for familiar spirits)
• a libation (wine, mead, ale, whiskey, vodka, rum, or other beverage)
• tobacco, hemp, or offertory incense
• an ancestor altar and supplies (including a fetiche)
• summoning incense
• banishing incense

Create your sacred, protected space however you do so within your tradition or culture, and call any underworld gods you work with to aid in the rite. Use a stang, staff, ritual centre post/pillar, tree, or tree stump to access the World Tree (see On Circle Casting and the World Tree for more information) and call up the ancestors. Burn the summoning incense and call up those you wish to commune with by name. If you do not know their name, list their lineage. If they are not of your blood ancestry, be very specific. Once you are sure you’ve summoned the right spirit(s), invite them to share a meal with you. They will take sustenance from it and your offering of incense, smoke, and alcohol as well. Eat and drink with them. If you are with others, have all present share in the food and offerings. The sharing of the food connects you with one another and with the ancestors you’ve summoned physically and spiritually. This communion isn’t mean to be a silent or solemn occasion. Talk, feast, and laugh as if you were at a dinner table with family and friends. This itself is also an offering, which allows the dead a taste of life again.

Do not ask for anything of the dead the first few times you perform this ritual. If you start having communion more than once a month, then it would be appropriate to make requests. It is best and most common to ask for blessings of prosperity, fertility, and luck. After further communion, you or your ritual group could start asking the spirits to aid in divination. When you are finished, burn your banishing incense, say a clear farewell, and ask the ancestors to return to the underworld by following your representation of the World Tree down. If you work with a psychopomp, you can also ask them to direct the spirits back to their realm and close the door between the worlds.  End the rite, close the Circle or ritual space, take down your wards, and the ritual is done.


Article and illustrations © 2010-2013 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article or its artwork without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link to the article is welcome.

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