Ancestor worship is one of the most important parts of all African-origin religions; Vodun, Hoodoo, Santería, Umbanda, Kimbanda, Candomble and all Afro-Caribbean cults work with the spirits of the Dead as much as they work with the Orishas/deities. It is believed that, after death, the soul of a dead person can not only help the living, but can reach a much higher level of power and spiritual evolution through the help and offerings of the devotees. The more devotees and rituals offered to a spirit, the more powerful healer/advisor/provider it will become. So, the more you work with the spirits of your ancestors (blood related ancestors or not), the better.
A quite explanatory example of this could be the Corte Malandra (which could be translated as The Court Of The Bad Ones), which is a well established part of Maria Lionza's cult in Venezuelan Santeria. The Corte Malandra is a group of spirits who were thieves, dealers and criminals on their human lives; after their deaths, they started helping and healing people who were looking for a change in their lives, and right now you can find their statues in any good Latin botanica.
One of the most interesting facts about this type of worship is the fact that their pantheons are constantly evolving and growing; while other forms of Witchcraft have closed forms, Afro-Caribbean Magic is only a few hundred years old – on our own lifetime, we will see new spirits enter the altars and become Santos. Someone that right now is just a priest/priestess, can become a part of the religious worship after his/her death. Figures like La Madama , La Negra Francisca, La Negra Tomasa, José Gregorio Hernández and many, many others were born human and, just as it happens with Catholic Saints, not all of them were specially holy during their lives.
One of the first Santeras I ever met was a faithful devotee of La Negra Tomasa. She had a wonderful dark-skinned doll that was her spirit vessel, and the doll had many different clothes and even her own wicker chair. I worked with this woman at an occult shop, and she would often bring her doll to help her when she had difficult spells to make. Whenever she needed any special help from Tomasa, the Santera would sew a complete new outfit for the doll and give her many offerings of candles, fruits, sweets, wine, and anything Tomasa would ask for. Though I have never worked with her myself, I could see how powerful Tomasa was and later found many other Santeros that worked with her.
Another common form of Spirit worship is the Bóveda Espiritual (Spiritual Dome), an altar for the dead only that is built with seven glasses of water, white candles and a Caravaca cross, all over a pristine white cloth. Depending on the position of the glasses on the table, the Spiritual Dome can be at "rest", on "attack" or on "defence" mode. Other items like flowers, offerings, cigars, and anything the dead ask for can be added – but, under no circumstances anything offered must contain salt, as it is believed that the dead hate salted food.
When we speak about Ancestors in Afro-Caribbean religions, we speak of three different types of spirits:
- Bloodline Ancestors: our direct family members. The work of these spirits is to care for us and protect us. Unless they were magick practitioners during their life, they have no magickal powers or knowledge of the future. It is our work to give them light through candles, offerings and prayers – and of course by remembering them with love. Our home and their graves are the best place to contact them.
- Racial Ancestors: our cultural and racial heritage. For example, my racial ancestors are the Guanches, and since they were Berbers/Amazigh, my African ancestors. They are revered both as a race and, if known, as specific spirits. They can hold knowledge of the Spiritual Craft, knowledge of the future, and can defend or attack in case of curses. Their action is specially powerful if worshipped on their places of power.
- Non Racial Ancestors: any spirit that was born human, from any tradition, race or country, that has called us into his/her worship. These Spiritual Guides are a huge part of Spirit Worship, as the Spirit chooses the practitioners that are more akin to their energy and the bond can be very powerful. These Spirits are our teachers and guides.
An Ancestor altar is usually a mix of these three elements, but if you are a beginner, my advice is always start slow. You can always keep a special place for your Bloodline Ancestors, as they will receive much more than they will give, and keep your "working" Spirits separately on a much more magic-oriented altar, that can be permanent or not – if you don't have much space, I seriously recommend keeping altars' images and objects in a box on a secure and clean place, and put them out only when you are working. Spirits do not like messes!
Before any Spirit work, you must clean yourself, physically and spiritually. A good herbal bath, wearing clean clothes and getting some spiritual cleansing (with smudging, herbal sprays, cascarilla or whatever is your tradition) will prepare you and open the energy channels. After cleaning yourself, you must also clean the room where you will be working – it is a tradition on all Afro-Caribbean religions that the Dead require the utmost cleanliness to accept a practitioner's offerings. If you work with any Gods or Goddesses of the Dead/Underworld, it is always a good idea to make an offering to them before you start contacting your Ancestor Spirits, as they will open the gates of communication between you and them.
Isolation and silence are also very important – turn off the phone, the tv and the computer if possible, and take off your watch if you wear one. You can play devotional music if you are used to, but it's really not necessary. If the temperature allows, take off your shoes. As it happens in most magical procedures, meditation/drumming/grounding exercises will disconnect you from your everyday routine and change your state of consciousness.
Candles for the dead are usually white, but there are other candle colors used for them – also, a Spirit can ask for specific candle colors of their liking. Anyway, starting with white candles is always a good choice. The candles can be anointed with a magical oil, and sprinkled with powders, ground herbs, glitter, etc., depending on the use you want to give them – but always choose an odd number of candles. I have no explanation for this, but all practitioners I have met insisted a lot on it and I have always followed this advice.
Other traditional offerings for the Spirits are incense, flowers, sweets, bread, fruits, liquors, cigars, honey, cocoa butter, etc. All offerings are placed in front of the altar – the more beautifully prepared, the better. If you are working outdoors, please be kind to Mother Nature and leave only biodegradable offerings that are not harmful or poisonous to the local fauna; if needed, bury the offerings when you have finished your work.