The Dishonored Dead

When we pass from this incarnation I do not believe that we suddenly become enlightened gurus or even much better people (at least not for quite a while), but I do wholeheartedly believe that we gain some perspective on our lives. We are able to see our lives a little more clearly and size them up by whatever moral and ethical standards we acknowledged in life, even if we did not live by that moral/ethical standard. This has been my belief for some time now but since I began ancestor work, my beliefs in this department are particularly pertinent, primarily because they can in some instances put me at odds with traditional beliefs about the so called dishonored dead. Basically, criminals, thugs, and delinquents are not supposed to receive libation/offering because when we call to those ancestors we essentially bring that energy into our own lives. Consequently, those rites are reserved for the honored dead, those who lived moral, upstanding lives and who supposedly have the kind of energy that we want to bring into us.

It seems logical enough. Why work with ancestors who were criminals? Well, how are we defining criminal? Is it simply someone who went to jail once for something that they promptly regretted or is it someone who was in and out of prison his or her entire life for various infractions both large and small? Just because someone spends time in jail, does that mean that they were not self-reflecting people who wanted to better themselves? Does the crime factor into this? Drug sales versus murder for instance? What about the ancestors who seemed moral and upright but actually harbored a secret darkness that only they and the Gods know about? You did not know about that darkness so you poured libations for Aunt Hattie or whoever all the time. Maybe it’s not like that. Maybe the Gods and the upstanding Egun know that Aunt Hattie had a dark soul though she managed to behave herself in public, so they run interference by not allowing Hattie to wreak havoc on your life. Or maybe, just maybe, Aunt Hattie’s “crimes” were of a nature that she could make sense of them after her death, because there is nothing like a major transition to bring about a little perspective. I think death definitely qualifies as a major transition.

I do not pretend to know what happens to a person’s mind and soul – their thinking process about their life – after death. I don’t know much about people’s minds and souls in life for that matter! All I know and trust is what I see, hear, AND feel from my family. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was not an upstanding citizen by any stretch of the imagination. He was a criminal (mostly drug activity) but he also had a deep desire to be better than he was. His time in prison gave him a chance to reflect and introspect about who he was and what he wanted from life. In letters, he shared a slice of his personal pie of regrets with me and my mother. I knew that he never imagined his life would turn out the way it did. His early high school photos betray that fact (they were full of smiles, good spirit, and hope!). So, when sources say that we should not libate our “dishonored dead”, I have to pause for a moment and really ponder how I define “dishonor”. My uncle did not die thinking that his life was the greatest thing ever and that his drug activities were right with the world. He died in a period of reflection and deep introspection. My uncle died in a process of finding his wisdom, rooted in trials, tribulations, and gigungous mistakes!

So, is my uncle less wise, less able to help me than an “honored” ancestor who lived an uneventful life and who learned little because he didn’t do much wrong? I think not. I am not saying that massive moral lapses are the road to wisdom but I am saying that my uncle started on the path to honor BEFORE he died. That path was cut short by complications with an illness that those same sources may say further reveal my uncle’s problematic life choices. So that’s would be a double wammy for my uncle: criminal and the victim of a questionable illness. By this rule, I could not even talk to him, let alone libate or make other offerings. I have to say that, in my uncle’s case, I disagree with this take on things. I want to honor my uncle and the wisdom that he does have as it was hard won!

That said, I feel the need to emphasize that I am not naive. I would make an exception for my uncle BECAUSE I KNEW HIM IN LIFE pretty well and I trust my intuitions about him. I am not sure I would make offerings to the (supposedly) dishonored dead that passed from this incarnation long before I had a chance to know them. I will leave their management to my elder, honored dead. At some select times during the year, I think I will pray for their elevation, as suggested in the article that I cited above.

Blessings to my ancestors, to my many dead. May all find their way!

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9 thoughts on “The Dishonored Dead

  1. I’m going to agree with you to disagree with that particular source. Yes, their personalities don”t change much after death…but it does give them a lot of clarity. They’re free from a lot of the social pressures that controlled the choices they could make, which gives them a lot of clarity, in my experience. Truth be told, the ones who’ve had problems in their lives are sometimes more helpful because they would do anything to prevent us from followng those paths.

    And I *REALLY* disagree with the idea of children not being helpful! Hmph. We shouldn’t honor deceased children? Honestly? Or suicides? I have big problems with all of the above. But then, as I have a sort-of Egyptianesque idea of the soul, I would have problems with that. Ok. Enough venting. Thanks for setting me off! 😉

  2. Ashe’ to you Tamilia,
    I wanted to applaud you on your research and seeking resources on how to honor your Egun. I would also like to applaud you on your decision to honor your ancestors as they call to you.
    I am not an expert or anything but I would like to give you some info that debunks the article you referenced. First of all, these “rules” as to honoring the deceased derived from Espiritismo (or Spiritism) NOT African tradition. Many of the traditions of the Egun were lost in the modern world, which is why the “Santeria” community adopted the practices of Spiritism to honor their ancestors. The only Orisha worship culture that has maintained the Egun tradition is the Brazillian, and even that is still tainted by Spiritism. Not to mention even in Spiritism they pour cool water on the floor to refresh the “hot” or “dark’ spirits. In Spiritism, spiritual masses are held and the dark spirits are asked to be “illuminated” and “ascend” to higher beings. But these are Spiritist beliefs that were influenced by Catholic and French occultism. In Santeria, everyone has “Muertos” (dead) and everyone has light and dark dead. As I understand it as well, Egun is strictly ancestral spirits, and Muertos are considered to be spirits we have collected from past lives and work as spirit guides. To only honor the light Muertos/Eguns is not only haphazard, but does not bring balance between the spirits, which then means the person working with the spirits in unbalanced and then leads to an unbalanced life. We need our dark Muertos/Eguns to protect, defend, and guide us. Working with their energy does not mean we are bringing their “negative” influence in to our lives, but that they are defending us against those negative influences from reaching us. Also the idea that we can not pour libations for children, criminals, warriors, those who have died due to “dishonorable” diseases, and etc. is absurd. First of all, the bit about “what can a child teach us” just angers me a bit. My ruling Orisha is Eleggua. Eleggua is the guardian of children and is the youngest of the Orishas. Eleggua was the only one who could cure Olofi (God) when he was ill, where all the other Orishas had failed, he succeeded. You mean that Eleggua, a child, did not teach anyone from his knowledge of herbs and healing? Not to mention we would not have the coconut divination system if it was not for Eleggua. Eleggua made it possible for people who were not Iyalochas or Babalawos to have a system of divination to communicate with their spirits. Nothing to learn from children, huh? It’s just laughable. Now going in to the bit about criminals, this is strictly a human made decision. What defines a criminal? Well by this articles standards you might as well lump Marie Laveau, Doctor John, Queen Njinga, and Harriet Tubman in to that category as well. It has no logic, you cannot honor one and exclude the other. I understand that they are very anti-criminal, and by criminal they mean “thug” or “gang banger”, but let’s take a look at Tupac Shakur for a moment, while yes he was a “gangster” and lead a questionable lifestyle, he did amazing things for his community, and is still honored in many ways, through artwork, music, writing, and the people from his community. So which is it? What outweighs what? There is no logic. In African tradition, especially those of the Kongo, honored not only their ancestral spirits, but anyone who was from their tribe. This includes criminals, suicides, warriors, etc. Another thing, the whole bit about not honoring warriors; I really hate to break it to them but all the Orishas are warriors. Even Ochun, Orisha of love and fertility, is the upholder of the law and devours those who threaten her people, by consuming their villages with water. Oya, Iyansa, however you wish to address her put on a beard so she could go in to battle with Chango. And of course let’s not forget Oggun, the Orisha of WAR. You mean to tell me that we are not to pour libations to soldiers, warriors, and those who Oggun protects?
    And the most irritating thing “Those who have died from dishonorable diseases”. First of all who decides what diseases are honorable and dishonorable? How can they say that with a clear conscience and promote being “Pro-Africa”? How many people in Africa die each day because of AIDS, HIV, gangreene, polio, cholera, the list goes on? And why would we not honor these people when we have an Orisha that protects and assists those who have illnesses such as these. Babalu-Aye is loved because of his amazing healing powers. And what was the other one that we are not supposed to pour libations to? I believe it was those who had violent deaths? Well then, we would have to throw out most of the African slaves who shared this religion with us, and not to mention the Native Americans who also heavily influenced the “New World” Orisha worship.
    Anyway, I appologize for my rant. But out of all of this I wanted to reccomend a couple of very good books to help you on your path and to help to honor your Muertos and Eguns. The first book I reccomend is: SEA EL SANTISIMO – A Manual for Misa Espiritual & Mediumship Development by Mario Dos Ventos. This is a fantastic book that explains how one uses and works with their Boveda (ancestor altar). The next book I reccomend is: Ancestors: Hidden Hands, Healing Spirits for Your Use and Empowerment by Ra Ifabegmi Babalawo. This is a very good beginners book to understand ancestors in the African-Yoruba tradition. If you are interested in Orisha worship and Yoruba traditions I highly reccomend the following authors: Ocha Ni’ Lele, William Bascom, and John Mason (http://yta-mason.com/). Ocha Ni’ Lele is supposed to be working on book about the Egun. William Bascom has wonderful books with literal translations from the Yoruba for both cowrie shell divination and Ifa divination. And John Mason’s book series is fantastic, he gives a good explanation on how to honor the Orisha and how to work with their energies. And if it peaks your curiosity, I am currently reading a fantastic book on Palo called: Palo Mayombe- The garden of blood & bones by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold.
    I hope this has helped in some way, and I don’t come off as a babbling moron.
    Ashe’ to you, ALL your Eguns, and Muertos. 🙂
    ~G

    • G, thanks for your comment. I know that Olokuntogun Ifasehun Ojedele, the creator of Roots and Rooted, is not an authority on these matters but what he was saying in that article pissed me off so much that I had to write a response to his piece despite that fact. I was responding to him from an emotional and intuitive place rather than from research.

      I am new to ancestor work within the ADR sphere so I want to thank you for offering additional resources that I can review. I will add the pieces that you cited to my already very long reading list. Everything, even in the world of spirituality, has to be thoroughly analyzed, critiqued, and taken with a grain of salt so thanks again for presenting a few more books about ancestor/Egun (and Orisha) work that offer a perspective that is different from Olokuntogun Ifasehun Ojedele of Roots and Rooted!

  3. Ekaro,
    I know most people wouldn’t answer directly, and by name, but I’m not most people – so here we go. lol

    The article is not based on my intellectual, political or emotional position on Ancestors. Its based on 12 years of working with and communicating directly with Ancestors. I have experienced with my own family members and the loved ones of others what happens when traditional African libation and rites are used to INVOKE, enshrine and honor deceased who have lived dishonorable lives or that die in particularly terrible or sad ways. I am particularly aware of what can happen when the Uninitiated invoke these deceased and what kind of havoc they bring, sometimes unintentionally, into the lives of the living.

    I used a particular term “dark deceased” because it is accessible and has been used and defined adequately over the last 2 decades by other non-Orisa groups. But I want to be clear there are Yoruba terms that clearly and specifically distinguish between “deceased” and “Ancestor”. These traditional Yoruba terms and their definitions validate the article, my personal experiences, as devotee and priest, and the experiences of those that I have known over the years.

    There is a subtle but real erosion of ethics in western society that compels us to devalue morality. At the root of Orisa’Ifa is the pursuit of Iwa-Pele. This is not a cliche. It is not “just something we say”. It is of paramount importance, so it is something we DO. And if we would hold the living accountable to this, and we believe in life after death, we must hold the deceased accountable as well. So even if a deceased person is not terribly disruptive in that state, we will not pretend that they have miraculously transformed into something else, when in most cases, they have not. (Ask around, not many people are taking the pains to elevate the spirit of wayward people after they die.) If a person is dishonorable in death, only the Egungun after elevating their spirit can designate them as Egun, rather than simply “the dead”.

    I have worked the funeral rites process as well. Death and transition is not as simple as you would hope. I won’t go into detail on a blog of all places, but “stuff happens”. People don’t just go from “here” to “there”. Especially not dope dealers, pedophiles, wife beaters, murderers, crooks etc. Its just not that simple. Until you’ve worked an Ancestor that is making that transition my account may not make much sense.

    While I wouldn’t call myself an “expert” because I have many elders with twice/three times as much experience, I’m no novice. I write from experience, mine and others. I am aware that my experience, while real and valid, runs counter to Orisa Lineages that work Ancestors and non-Ancestor guides more closely to one another. I think Queaker’s concept of honor both “light” and “dark” dead has merit – but only if the devotee has a strong spiritual community, with initiated Priests at the helm who recognize the dictate of Iwa-Pele. I may upset some folks – but its pretty obvious that working both “light” and “dark” dead has created some bad consequences for some Iles. (No, I have no intention of expounding. lol) Balance is real and needed. But there are few safe ways for an uninitiated work with dark deceased. My elders and many I’ve encountered that espouse to Squeaker’s position will say “hey, let me help you do that” even if the public position is “honor them all”. If you’ve ever experienced the spirit of a child that died as a toddler or a suicide victim, then you know they’d rather get healing than libation.

    That said, I’ve seen my name and at least one other casually thrown around in this dicussion. Please remember that we are real people. We do not live on the internet, we use the internet. Treat us with the same courtesy, love and respect that you would offer if you met us at a Bembe or the corner store. If you’re going to mention us by name, at least invite us into the conversation – especially if you intend on inferring how well you know us or our knowledge of the culture. Now that I’m here, I’ll stick around a bit and hopefully we can have an interesting chat. (P.s. I don’t write everything on Roots and Rooted. Please ask if you want to know the author of something for sure.)

    Grace and Peace are Always Yours.

    • Greetings Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun,

      Thank you for your comments on the post! I welcome conversation with someone with as much experience as yourself.

      When I read your reply, I got the impression that you may have thought I was discounting your experience/work with Ancestors. In actuality, I appreciate your experience and I am even more grateful that you share your years of experience with people such as myself who are new and in need of the perspectives that those experiences can provide. What I meant to express in my post – and what I think I successfully expressed in my post – is that in the case of this one particular ancestor or deceased individual who I knew during his lifetime, my experience/intuition runs contrary to your own. For me – at least with this one ancestor – I disagree about what sort of honor he should or should not receive. In addition to commentary on this one ancestor, I also presented my struggles with the issue at hand and my questions regarding the issue. In that way my blog post in part response to a sliver or what you had to say on Roots and Rooted and in part my articulation of what I think happens to some of us when we pass on. Your comment on my post seems to be addressing points slightly askew of the points I was making. That’s totally ok with me. I welcome the conversation. But we just need to get on the same page before we can actually discuss anything of mutual import.

      To your point regarding authorship on your site, I saw no other authorship credit on the “Heaven for a Thug?” article so I deduced that you were the author as the Admin for the site. The fact that articles not posted by you (usually) clearly credit the actual author just below the title of the piece helped me to draw this conclusion. If this is not the case and I need to check with you on articles that have no credits, let me know. And, if the authorship of “Heaven for a Thug?” is erroneous, please let me know and I will post a correction here on Wandering Woman Wondering. I do not want to take issue with the wrong person’s comments. That’s problematic for everyone.

      Lastly, I apologize if you feel your name was “casually thrown around”. If you feel comfortable, could you elaborate on how your name was disrespected? (again, that was totally not my intention! I am embarrassed if that is how it came off) I only see your name mentioned twice and each time the primary purpose of the comment was the acknowledge what you yourself stated which is that you “not an ‘expert'” or as I put it “an authority”. That in no way means that I think you lack knowledge, experience, or Orisha’Ifa credentials. What I mean when I agree that you are not an expert is that there are many ways to work with the dead and with ancestors, even within ADRs, and that you are not the first or the last to offer guidance in those areas. If something that we may agree was disrespectful came through in my comment, let me know. We can talk about it and if we agree it will be clarified/corrected immediately. Wandering Woman Wondering is about my spiritual path and exploration. That includes the emotional aspects of that journey. To my awareness I passionately disagreed with you but if we can concur that my affect strayed into disrespect, I will correct that ASAP.

  4. This is good. By “casual” I mean to compare it to hearing from a friend of a friend that your name came up in a conversation…..that was witnessed by a crowd. lol And you wonder “hey, why didn’t I get invited to the conversation if my name was gonna be mentioned?” lol I’m totally *not* upset. I was just surprised and I try to maintain a halfway decent reputation online and offline. lol

    I was trying to address both your comments, those of Squeaker and also those of other individuals I’ve encountered on and offline that struggle with who to honor and why. So my comments may have been a little muddled. I think some of the things that give context for me is how my experience changed from the period of when I worked with Ancestors at a self erected shrine, with the assistance of an Orisa priest, which does date back 20+ years to the point when I got my consecrated Ile’run shrine about 12 or 13 years ago (hence the second message I sent – making a clear distinction because I think it strengthened my relationship with the Egun). Or when I first “passed an Ancestor” – that is when an Egun used me as its mouthpiece. Also, working my first funeral, along with other things like working with the spirit of a person that died very young. These firsthand experiences made it easier for me to be hands off with some loved ones until I was positive that my family Egun really acknowledged them as Ancestors. This meant not communicating with people that I loved, that may not have completely lived up to their potential. Some of these deceased became Ancestors later, through work in Orun. Five, eight years might pass and I would have a dream or something would pop up while I was on the divination mat and wha-la the message was clear “start honoring them. they’ve done work they didn’t get to on Earth” and it would be all good again. But I learned that the Egun needed to make this decision, not me.

    All that said (I ramble) I think your Uncle may fulfilled one of the principle requirements, developing spiritual and ethical consciousness. Being aware of his actions, desiring to be better, and working towards that. Provided he gave up crime as a part of that pursuit, he probably made it to the land of the Ancestors. If nothing else, he did some work on the other side and got there in due time. But, I’m the type that I’m going to divine on that or get someone else to divine on it..

    • I understand where you are coming from. Future posts regarding your writings at Roots and Rooted will definitely include you in the conversation :-). Nothing like hearing your name in somebody else’s mouth and not expecting it. LOL. I truly get it.

      Thanks for sharing a bit about your path within Ancestor Work. It sounds like a winding road but a rewarding one. I especially like the idea of divining about it or having someone else do it. I was recently connected to a Santeria priest in Chicago who is willing to read for me. One of my questions will be about my Uncle’s status among the Ancestors. My hope is that he has done (or is doing) the work he needs to do but I would be interested to see what some (relatively) objective third party divination turns up on the matter.

      I hope that this awkward first “meeting” over the one post on your website that I was having trouble linking to my own experiences does not detract from the fact that I really do enjoy your website and the guest authors you bring in! Your comments here and your site in general are very helpful for me on my journey! Many thanks!

  5. I’m a little late to this discussion, and I apologize! That’s what I get for not subscribing to a comment thread…

    I’ll save the more heated issues for my own blog. I don’t feel it’s fair or polite to incite a riot on someone else’s and let them clean up the mess…lol. But I do have one or two (or maybe a handful) polite points I’d like to make.

    First, the site we’re discussing is strictly ADR. I’m not. I’ve gone as far as I believe I’m called to on that path. Although I will continue to study ADR beliefs as I do all religions, in an anthropological point of view, I will go no further in pursuit of it as a spiritual path for myself.

    It’s from this background that I disagree with the opinions expressed on the website we’re discussing, as well as those of the author of the post, Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun. ADR paths and practitioners are not the only people on earth worshipping, venerating and working with the Ancestors and other non-incarnate spirits; human or not.

    First, the concept of “light” and “dark” deceased. Well, yes and no. There are many more variations on the disincarnate spirits than simple “dark” and “light”. There are millions of shades of grey. When dealing with the spirits of humans, they are neither pure good nor pure evil, but have varying degrees of each within them. They are capable of both great beauty and great destruction, and have committed both in their lives on earth.

    Who is to judge which is which? I have ancestors who fought in the United States’ Civil War on the side of the Rebels. His side lost. His he therefore not to be honored? He had a wife, children, responsibilities and lost everything because of that war. I will not judge him as “dark” because of the side he chose. I will not judge those in war because they were pushed into it because of the times they lived in. Nor will I judge criminals as “dark” because of mistakes they made during their lifetimes; mistakes they may or may not regret afterwards. It’s not my place to judge them. They are my Ancestors.

    I have worked with disincarnate children. My experiences are obviously different than those of Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun. In fact, I have a family I honor because they found me and requested that I adopt them. They were Lakota Sioux. Mother, Father and Daughter. There were no descendents to give them veneration. They were massacred; quite possibly by people I am related to. Yes, they died violently. Yes, there is a child. I give them honor. It is all they wanted from me.

    I have worked with the “dark deceased” as well, both those that are inclined towards helping me in my life, as well as those that seem bent on destruction. Again, my experiences are apparently a good bit different from those of Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun. I do not discount Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun’s experiences. I only wonder what caused those differences.

    The second problem I have with Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun’s position as a member of an ADR religion, is this concept that it is somehow our duty to pray for these “dark” souls so that they may progress, to a “Land of the Ancestors.” In my beliefs, there is neither heaven or hell. “Land of the Ancestors” is a bit too close to a concept of heaven for my tastes. Time is irrelevant to the soul; many of the laws of physics are as well. It is completely possible for the soul to exist as the personality of a life it has lived, and also be in the soul of a human walking the face of the earth right now. For the soul, there is no need for either heaven or hell, nor for us to pray for him/her to get there.

    I also find no need for a priestly hierarchy as is found in the ADR traditions. It seems to me that the masses of people who have little spiritual inclination have need for the priestly caste. Those of us who are spiritually inclined have little use of their services. Particularly in the manner in which the services are generally offered. Many true seekers have experiences because the Gods grant them; and through these intimate, intense, spiritual initiations are granted every bit as much knowledge as could be attained from the assistance of a member of the hierarchy. No, I’m not discounting the role of the Priest; just trying to express what that role should be.

    So my two cents + change. Not trying to start a battle, just a cross-cultural discussion. Things are so similar and yet so different from one to the next, I wonder what the truth is? Is it simply subjective? Subjected to the beliefs of the person who experiences the truth? If so, it could change from individual to individual…or is there something one person or the other might be missing? Food for thought.

    This time I’m subscribing to the comment thread. I’ve learned my lesson! 😉

    • Camylleon, thanks for offering your reflections. I especially appreciate your closing remarks. For the last ten years, I have had little use for notions of “the truth”. Instead, I favor the concept of multiple truths, as many truths as there are people to hold those truths and deem them sacred. You, Ol’Orisa Olokuntogun, and Squeakerxmim have good points, but context and religio-spiritual convictions are very important to what any of us and anyone coming into this thread takes away as being true for them.

      All of us seem to agree that experience is a great teacher. Naturally, we have all had different experiences thus far, and so our lessons from the teacher differ a bit :-D. Hopefully we can continue to converse about both the convergent and divergent experiences in respectful ways. We’re on a good track if we wish to continue open, respectful dialogue that is sensitive to the different religio-spiritual convictions that we each bring to the table.

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