My Ancestor Practice

I’ve mentioned on several occasions that I do ancestor work, but I haven’t given a ton of details. That’s partly because it’s very much an evolving practice for me, and I don’t want to present myself as a hugely knowledgeable source of info. That said, my ancestor work is a big part of my spirituality, and it feels weird to not have talked about it much in this space. So today I want to talk about it–not in terms of “here’s a method you absolutely should try!” but in terms of “here’s what this looks like for me right now.” Not unlike my posts about my work with Hestia. Obviously ancestor work will look different for anyone who practices it, and it may not fit your needs at all (if you come from an abusive family, for instance, ancestor work may feel more damaging than healing for you–and that’s perfectly valid!) If it does seem like an area of witchcraft you’d like to explore, I’d encourage you to pick up one or more of the books I’ll discuss in this post and use those as your starting place. My practice is a hodgepodge of things I’ve picked up from books, tarot, and my own intuition. 


My interest in ancestor work started where a lot of my current spiritual practice started: with tarot. When I picked up my first deck not long after my dad’s death, I was expecting to use it as a meditation tool. And it certainly was that. But as I was developing my knowledge of the cards, I remember reading the descriptions for the King of Cups and thinking, “Huh, this reminds me a lot of my dad.” And almost immediately, that card started to pop up often. Especially in moments when I was missing him the most. I wasn’t sure at the time if it was really him appearing through my cards to offer comfort, or if my cards were simply tuning into my grief on their own. But either way, it was comforting. And I began to wonder about using my deck to reach out to other ancestors–ones I’d only known briefly, like my paternal grandmother who’d died when I was five; and ones who I only knew through the stories my parents and grandparents told me. 

At the same time, I didn’t want to just dive headfirst into working with spirits completely blind. Dad’s card showing up in my readings was one thing–either he or the cards were making that happen without my taking any action beyond drawing a card. But consciously, actively reaching out to ancestors farther back felt like something I shouldn’t attempt without at least doing some research. 

So I picked up Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing by Daniel Foor. I can’t remember now why I chose this book to start with–maybe I came across it in a shop, or maybe I just typed in “ancestor worship books” into google to see what came up. In any case, Ancestral Medicine proved to be an invaluable starting place. As always, your mileage may vary–and there’s bits and pieces of Foor’s methods that I’ve adjusted over the years, or left behind altogether. There were two principles of his book that were the most formative for me. The first was learning to identify the relative “health” of the ancestors I wanted to connect with. Some ancestors, Foor suggests, are in a stronger, healthier, and more positive place than others. And this makes sense, right? A person who dies peacefully with their family surrounding them will likely be in a very different place than someone who suffers a traumatic death, for example. Foor has many rituals and suggestions for how to improve the health of any ancestors who need it. But he advises that you begin by connecting with ancestors (or even whole bloodlines) who are at their healthiest. 

This leads into the second piece of the book that has been deeply meaningful for my practice: finding an ancestor who is healthy, strong, and eager to help you; and then partnering with that ancestor as a guide and protector when you’re reaching out to less healthy spirits. As a dear friend brought up when I was describing my fledgeling ancestor work, “If you’re just placing a call to a random pay phone, you have no way of knowing who might pick up the call.” I don’t know how much I believe in Dangerous and Malicious spirits, but I certainly believe that some spirits may be harmful if they’re not in a good place (inadvertently or otherwise). So having a protector on the spirit side of things who you trust can make all the difference. This might be an ancestor who you knew in life, or it might be someone who you heard stories about, or it might even be an ancestor who lived so long ago that you don’t even know their name. Foor has a lot of guidance on how to locate and partner with an ancestor who fits the bill, and if this method sounds useful for you, I encourage you to pick up his book. 


At first I expected that my dad would serve as my protector spirit. But as I practiced and tried out Foor’s methods for myself, I realized that he wasn’t in the right place for it. I’m not precisely sure why, but my best guess is twofold. Firstly. he’s still learning the ropes of being an ancestor, since he only died a few years ago. And secondly, he’s splitting a lot of his time between me, my brother, and my mom. And that’s as it should be! The last thing I want is to put pressure on him. I’m just grateful when he shows up in my readings or meditations to say hello and that he loves me. 

No, my protector spirit turned out to be my great-great-grandmother, who her grandkids referred to as “Dodo.” (We’ve lost the family lore about where this nickname came from, alas!) Dodo is something of a family legend. I grew up hearing my maternal grandfather tell stories about his grandmother Dodo. She’s a big part of why my grandparents met. She started her own tuberculosis clinic after losing one of her sons to TB. She was a generous, caring, and passionate woman who loved her family fiercely. Even though neither my mom nor I ever got to meet her, we always felt like we knew her. 

Once I started actively including ancestor work in my spiritual practice, Dodo stepped forward to meet me almost instantly. I think now that she was always watching over my shoulder, but my tarot practice gave her a chance to communicate with me more directly. Dodo usually appears in my tarot readings as the Lovers, which I interpret as her connection to me–she helped my grandparents meet and fall in love with each other, which is how my mom came to be, and by extension how I did. Plus Dodo’s love feels like that strong, passionate spark that I associate with the Lovers. 

I didn’t even have to ask her to protect me. Whenever I’m embarking on spiritual activities that need a guide, I feel her hand on my left shoulder, and off we go. Dodo is an incredible guide and protector, and I’m beyond grateful that she’s taken a shine to me. 

The other ancestor I work with frequently is my maternal grandmother’s mom, who we call Mom Baker. If Dodo is a strong hand on my shoulder, Mom Baker is a warm hug. She appears as the Page of Cups in my readings–intuitive, curious, and capable of seeing the beauty in any tiny moment or object. (She fits right into my Hestia practice in this way, actually!) She doesn’t act as a protector in the same way that Dodo does, but she often pops up when I need comfort or when I’m feeling overwhelmed. 

These three–Dad, Dodo, and Mom Baker–are my most frequent companions and the spirits I call on the most often. But I’ve connected with quite a few others at least once or twice: both my paternal grandparents, Dad Baker, and both my paternal grandfather’s parents. Some seem further away, which I interpret to mean that they’re less connected to the material world right now. Some need healing, which is work that I plan to do going forward. And some, much like living relatives, just don’t seem to connect with me as well. (My grandfather’s mom/Dodo’s mother, Grandma W, doesn’t have much in common with me and our conversations always feel somewhat stilted.) Maybe that will change as I grow, but I try to remind myself that it’s okay if it doesn’t, too–not everyone gets along. And there are likely forces at play on the Other Side that I’m not aware of, too! 

One thing I’ll caution you about if you do decide to dive into ancestor work: take it slow. That goes double for spoonie witches. When I was first starting, I decided to do a giant tarot reading calling on NINE different ancestors (!!) for guidance. It definitely worked and I got a lot of good advice from them, but I was beyond exhausted afterwards. I’d suggest starting with one ancestor and really nurturing and developing that bond before moving on to another. 


To close, here’s a few of the ways that I honor my ancestors and include them in my regular spiritual practice! 

On my altar, I have items that remind me of some of my closest ancestors. For Dodo, I have a darning tool that belonged to her, as well as a stalk of grass I collected from the ground where her TB clinic once stood. For Mom Baker, who I always heard stories of her freshly-baked dinner rolls, I had a bracelet made custom with a stalk of wheat and her name on the inside. (I sometimes wear this when I want to carry her with me, but otherwise it stays on my altar.) For Dad I have a small coke bottle (he collected Coca-cola memorabilia) and a necklace that I used to carry his ashes when he first died. I plan to add items for other ancestors as I find the Right Thing or my connections with them develop further. For all of the ancestors I’ve connected with (even briefly), I keep their birthdays on my calendar and give them small offerings that day. 

Dodo and Mom Baker have also claimed specific tarot decks in my collection, and I more or less only use those decks for the purpose of speaking with them or seeking their guidance. For Dodo, it’s my Alice in Wonderland deck. (I think this is her sense of humor peeking through, since there’s a dodo character in Alice in Wonderland.) I’ve actually bought this deck twice because it’s such an important part of my practice, and my first copy got rain damage during a trip when I stupidly left it in a bag that wasn’t waterproof. For Mom Baker it’s my Chrysalis Tarot. She seems to really love the storytelling aspect of it. 

I recently finished reading Ancestral Tarot: Uncover your Past and Chart your Future by Nancy Hendrickson–it’s excellent, and I’m looking forward to incorporating some of her activities into my work! I have several ancestor worship-related books on my to-read list. I don’t know yet which of these I’d recommend, but I thought I’d share the list in case one of them jumps out at you. And as I read them, I’ll likely post reviews either here or on my instagram. 

  • Badass Ancestors: Finding Your Power with Ancestral Guides by Patti Wigington
  • Honoring Your Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestral Veneration by Mallorie Vaudoise
  • How to Connect With Your Ancestors and Spirit Guides by K. Yansa
  • Ancestral Grimoire: Connect with the Wisdom of the Ancestors through Tarot, Oracles, and Magic by Nancy Hendrickson

Are there books about ancestor work or spirit guides that you’ve found particularly formative? Do you have strong connections to one or more of your ancestors? I’d love to hear more about it in the comments!

(Audio version of this post coming soon!)

Published by Ru-Lee Story

Tea-drinking, asexual, agender tarot practitioner and author battling chronic illness and social injustices. Not necessarily in that order. They/them or ey/em.

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