Ancestor Worship in Pagan Cultures

The concept of ancestor worship is not a new one for many Pagans today. Ancient cultures often venerated those who came before them, and even now, in our contemporary society, it’s not uncommon at all to find celebrations that honor the ancestors in a variety of different ways.

Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos is held every year in Mexico. Image by Dallas Stribley/Lonely Planet/Getty Images

In Mexico, and in many Mexican communities in the United States, the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1. This is a time when families gather together, pack picnic lunches, and go to cemeteries to honor the memories of family members who have died in the past year. Altars include colored tissue ribbons, flowers, photos of the dead, and candles. It's also popular to include food offerings with a theme of death - sugar skulls and coffins are a common item, as are small figures made of bread. You can celebrate the Day of the Dead - Día de los Muertos - by decorating your altar with sugar skulls, photos of the deceased, and coffins. If your loved ones are buried nearby, stop at the cemetery to clean up headstones, and leave a small token or offering in tribute.

The Parentalia

The Street of Tombs, Pompeii, Italy
Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images

In ancient Rome, an annual nine-day celebration was held to honor the spirits of the ancestors. This typically fell in February, and families gathered together to visit the graves of their deceased loved ones. Much like the Day of the Dead, it involved a visit to the cemetery as well as offerings of cakes and wine. To celebrate the Parentalia yourself, visit the graves of your ancestors, and pour a libation of wine at the headstone.

Make an Ancestor Shrine

Ancestor Altar
Set up a simple shrine to honor your ancestors and loved ones. Image by Patti Wigington 2008

If you've got the room, it's nice to use an entire table for your ancestor shrine, but if space is an issue, you can create it in a corner of your dresser top, on a shelf, or on the mantle over your fireplace. Regardless, put it in a place where it can be left undisturbed, so that the spirits of your ancestors may gather there, and you can take time to meditate and honor them without having to move stuff around every time someone needs to use the table. Things to include: photos, family heirlooms, maps, decorative fabrics (In some Eastern religions, a red cloth is always used. In some Celtic-based paths, it is believed that a fringe on the altar cloth helps tie your spirit to those of your ancestors).

Protective Kinfolk

Pagans with torches
Images (c) Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In some cultures, particularly among Scandinavian societies, ancestors were buried near the home so they could keep a watchful eye on the family. The deceased helped bring honor and fortune to the surviving members, and in return, the family made offerings to the dead in a specifically ritualized format. Families who failed to honor their dead properly could find themselves facing misfortune or catastrophe. To honor your ancestors with a Nordic theme, make offerings of food and wine at a gravesite. Make this a formal occasion, perhaps even reciting your lineage back as far as you can (Hail to my ancestor, Andrew son of James, son of Ingrid, daughter of Mary, etc.).

Perform an Ancestor Meditation

Cemetery by night
Image by Johner Images/Getty Images

Many modern Pagans find different ways to pay homage to our ancestors - both our blood kin and ancestors of the heart and spirit. After all, if not for them, we wouldn't be here. We owe them something, some gratitude for their ability to survive, their strength, their spirit. Some people choose Samhain as a time to honor their ancestors, but you can perform this meditative exercise any time you feel a need for connection with those who have walked before you.

Asian Ancestor Veneration

Incense stick and candles
Aninda Kabir Avik / Avikbangalee / AKA / Getty Images

In many eastern religions, ancestor veneration is practiced. It’s not so much a worship, but a reverence for those who came before. This is due in part to an emphasis on family lines, and Confucius himself taught that the elders should be treated with honor. The notion of “family” was not just the people who lived in your immediate household, but your extended network of cousins and kinfolk, both living and deceased. Both Shinto and Buddhist practices include ideals of filial piety, and when an individual died, elaborate ceremonies were held both at the funeral and at the home. Just because someone passed on did not mean they were no longer thought of, and most homes continue to have a small shrine or altar to the ancestors even today. If you’d like to honor your ancestors in an Asian style, add a small shelf on your wall with a photo of the deceased, some incense, and cups for offerings.

A Ritual to Honor Your Ancestors

vintage family photo album and documents
Andrew Bret Wallis / Getty Images

For many of us, there has been a resurgence of interest in our family histories. We want to know where we came from and whose blood runs through our veins. Although ancestor worship has traditionally been found more in Africa and Asia, many Pagans with European heritage are beginning to feel the call of their ancestry. This ancestor ritual focuses on the strength of family ties, both blood and spiritual, no matter where your people came from.

Ancestor Rite for Families with Children

Tanya Little / Getty Images

If you’re raising kids in a Pagan tradition, it can sometimes be hard to find rituals and ceremonies that are both age-appropriate and celebrate the aspects of the particular Sabbat. This ritual is designed to celebrate Samhain with younger kids.

Make an Ancestor Altar Cloth

Ancestor Cloth
Make an ancestor altar cloth to honor your family tree. Image (c) Patti Wigington 2013; Licensed to

An ancestor altar cloth is something you can make any time of the year, although it can come in particularly handy for Samhain when many people choose to perform ancestor-focused rituals. This project can be as simple or as complex as you like, depending on your time constraints, creativity, and crafting skills.

Plan a Samhain Cemetery Visit

When you're wandering around a cemetery, be considerate of others who may be present -- both the living and the dead. Patti Wigington

Consider a Samhain cemetery visit to honor your family when the veil is thinnest. This can either be a solemn and quiet occasion or cause for great celebration and joy.

Honoring the Ancestors When You're Adopted

Dads and Daughter
For many people, "family" is the people who love us most. Image by Laura Doss/Image Source/Getty Images

A reader wants to know how to celebrate her ancestors when she's not even sure who they are. Here are some tips on honoring the ancestors of the heart and spirit, as well as of the blood.

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Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Ancestor Worship in Pagan Cultures." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, February 8). Ancestor Worship in Pagan Cultures. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Ancestor Worship in Pagan Cultures." Learn Religions. (accessed April 1, 2023).