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  • Writer's pictureBriana Amos

Ancestor Altar Tips

Ok so you set up an ancestor altar, now what? This is such a common question that many people approach me with. There’s lots of information about how to set up your altar, but many people are left wondering what to actually do with it & how to upkeep it. Trust me, you are not the only person wondering how to dispose your offerings, what to do while you’re at your altar or how to handle the issue of not knowing who your ancestors are due to the lack of information or having been adopted. So I put together a list of my top 7 tips for maintaining your ancestor altar space.

In this article I won’t be going into detail about the reasons why we honor our ancestors or how to set up your altar, so check out my blog “Ancestral Veneration: The Royalty Inside Your DNA” for that information.

My Top 7 Ancestor Altar Tips:

1. Keep it clean. This should go without being said, but I’m touching on this first because it’s one of the most important things you can do for your altar. Keep it free of clutter & dust. Change your glasses of water weekly, at minimum. Always change your glasses of water if you notice any cloudiness in them. Wash your glasses regularly. If you leave any food offerings, make sure they are removed from the altar & properly disposed of before it spoils. Give any flowers back to the earth once you notice wilting. Think of your altar as the guest bedroom for your elders visiting from out of town. Take that same care & diligence towards the cleanliness & upkeep of your altar.

*Note: I also recommend that YOU yourself are clean as well when you approach your altar or spend time at your altar. Take a shower & brush your teeth babe. It just shows a certain level of respect. I mean think about it, would you wanna sit & have a conversation with someone who was fresh out of the gym & got Hot Cheeto breath? Probably not. Your ancestors will accept you as you are but baby, at least try to pull yourself together first. You don’t need to wear your Sunday best, but just maybe some deodorant at the very least.

2. Visit your altar on a consistent basis. Consistency is key in all things, but especially with ancestral veneration. These spirits are with you everyday whether you realize it or not. Though you don’t need to sit at your altar daily, it’s always best practice to have a designated time & day for your ancestral activities. So you may want to sit with your folks after your Sunday dinner to start the week off with guidance & blessings, decompress midweek with a meditation at your altar or have a Saturday brunch with your spirits after a long morning of cleaning & jamming to old school tunes. This part is very personal. You’ll see many African Americans using Sundays as the day for their deceased loved ones because it stems from our ancestors going to church functions and/or having family dinners on this day but you don’t need to do that just because that’s what the “gworls” *Jackie Aina voice* are doing. So you go to that altar with confidence on any day you choose. Just try to stay consistent with it. Add it to your calendar like it’s a weekly meeting. Keep your ancestors penciled in so they can not only keep you booked & busy, but also healing, healthy & whole.

3. Keep it covered in intimate areas or areas with high traffic. You may be setting up your altar in a small studio apartment or your parent’s basement but try to be intentional with where you keep your altar. Keep in mind that you might not be the only person in your home. Visitors or other occupants of the home could pass judgement or not be accepting of your altar. But don’t let that stop you. If you want to keep your altar private, purchase a room divider or curtain to place over it when you’re having visitors or want to keep people from touching it (anyone you’re NOT married to or related to by blood should NOT be touching your ancestor altar for any reason). If you have to keep your altar in an intimate space like your bedroom, keeping it covered when not in use also helps. Think about it. You have sex and/or masturbate in there. You & your spirits both deserve to have a bit of privacy. Some people set up their altars in a closet or suitcase, so those are a couple of great ideas if you’re lacking space or privacy. Just make sure you give these spaces some light every now & then & don’t forget about upkeeping them.

4. Watch what you say and/or put on the altar. This is a tip that many people forget to mention. Your altar is place of power. Don’t say anything there that you could regret later. If someone is screwing with you, by all means, sit at that altar & tell your folks about it. But be conscious that you aren’t wishing ill on people when it’s petty or unwarranted. Your ancestors can & will deliver some hard lessons to you if you deserve it. So pick & choose your battles. Speaking of battles, it’s good to keep some kind of item representing protection on your altar, like a knife, axe, gun, bullets or something that you know your ancestors worked with. If your great grandfather was a boxer, you might want to keep a set of boxing gloves there. Or maybe a set of brass knuckles if that resonates with you more. But be careful of placing substances or objects on the altar that your ancestors struggled with. So for example, if your uncle was shot & killed, you might not want your protection piece to be a gun or bullets. If your family has a history of alcoholism, you might not want to place that Hennessy on your altar. Just take your time & always think before you act. This will prevent those unnecessary hard lessons from coming later. If it’s one thing your ancestors gon do, it’s make sure you get whatever you deserve. Good or bad. It’s not a punishment, I promise.

5. Don’t worry if you don’t have photos or know who your ancestors are. Since nobody on this earth can trace their family tree back to the beginning of human existence, there is nobody on this earth who knows who ALL of their ancestors are. Sure there will be spirits that you knew while they were living, like your grandparents, aunties & uncles, but your ancestors aren’t just the folks you knew. It’s your entire lineage. Ancestral veneration can be used to honor specific ancestors but as a whole, the practice is more widely used to honor all of your lineage. Many people start out by setting up a small altar with photos of a specific deceased person they loved but don’t feel like you have to pick & choose. This is why having pictures or not having pictures for your altar isn’t going to make or break your ancestral veneration experience. Having pictures does help you to learn more about those individuals & also discern when those individuals are coming forward with a message but don’t stress yourself about photos. Just be specific in your prayers & invocations that you only want to honor & connect with your “ancestors of the light” or “ancestors of good morals & faith”. This specific intention, along with good personal spiritual hygiene (cleansing & protection) will help you to make sure that you’re actually contacting your own ancestors & not some trickster spirits hanging around looking for a free meal. If you do have photos for your altar, just make sure that you cut or crop out any living people. You create a space for confusion & low vibrational entities when you place both the living & the dead on the same altar. So put that picture of you & grandma on the wall instead of your altar.

*Note: If you were adopted, you can still honor your ancestors. In my opinion, you guys are bit lucky because you have access to honor your bloodline ancestors, as well as the family members of your adoptive family that were apart of your life. It’s like having extra people on your team. Don’t stress if you don’t have any photos or know much about your birth family. Your ancestors aren’t like deities that you have to invoke. Their presence already lives in you through your own DNA. Ancestral veneration can be a great aid in helping you learn more about your birth family.

*And another note: Don’t feel as though you have to put up photos of any ancestors that harmed you or that you didn’t get along with. Sometimes these spirits will come to you to make things right after their death, but that’s not always the case. You can absolutely use ancestral veneration to help heal from those issues but don’t feel like it’s necessary. It’s truly better to heal on your own first before healing your relationship with that spirit, if you choose to do so. So you only put the pictures of the people you want on that altar boo. If your narcissistic parent isn’t one of them, then oh well, that’s their fault for not doing right by you in life. You don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass. Especially not anyone dead.

6. Give them some offerings! Before you ask me “why do we give offerings? They can’t even touch it or eat it” please go watch the Disney movie “Coco” & then come back to this article with your newfound understanding. YOU can’t see that they touched it or ate it my loves. Offerings are a form of honor & currency. First, take the pressure off yourself & don’t feel as though you need to give big extravagant or expensive offerings all the time. Give what you can afford to give. Give as often as you feel called to. As for exactly WHAT you give them, that part is between you & them. Some common offerings include food, flowers, cigars, liquor & wine. But you can also give them jewelry, perfume, crystals, trinkets & anything else that you feel intuitively drawn to give. Foods & gifts associated with your family’s culture are always safe bets. Like I stated above, your ancestors live inside your DNA, so you have to have the confidence to sit down & listen to what your spirit is telling you to bring to the altar. You may be grocery shopping & randomly pick up some cupcakes that you feel they might want. Listen to those nudges. If you can’t listen to your inner voice, don’t even begin this part of your journey yet. Allow yourself to get acclimated with learning to listen to yourself. Ancestral veneration doesn’t have a set of blueprints that you have to follow. There’s basic structures we all follow as far as the actual altar set up, but the rest will fall back on you. Even if you are not a person with spiritual gifts, your ancestors can & will still speak to you through your own intuition & dreams. Don’t be afraid about giving them the “wrong thing”. If you feel good about it, then know it’s well received. If you don’t feel good about it, then don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board & start over. You won’t get it right every single time. But that’s ok. Your ancestors aren’t going to punish you for simply learning. They’re your family, not some primordial spirit you don’t know that you’re invoking for a favor. Stay consistent with giving offerings when you’re able to & dispose of your offerings in the trash or out in nature (biodegradable items only).

7. Get busy. So many people tell me “I set up my altar but I don’t know what to do with it”. Pray, meditate, journal, get an oracle deck or divination tool you can use at the altar. This is your quality time with your spirits. Some people like to also sing & dance at their altars (I’m one of them!). Sit down & pray for peace, prosperity & protection. Meditate & allow your ancestral guides to come to you with messages & direction. Keep a journal on your altar to write down your prayers, affirmations, intentions or any spiritual messages you receive. If you’re on top of your spiritual hygiene practices (then & ONLY then) invest in a divination tool like an oracle deck or pendulum to keep on your altar. But please make sure that these items stay cleansed & are only used for your ancestral veneration practice & not for anything or anyone else. Cross contaminating the energy of your tools can create for confusion or worse, create opportunities for low vibrational entities to guide you instead of your ancestors. If you’re truly working under the guidance of your ancestors, they shouldn’t make you feel super nervous or anxious. So make sure you are already in a calm, cool & collected state before you approach your altar or use any of your divination tools, ancestral or otherwise.

All in all, your ancestor altar, for the most part, will be what you make it. There’s lot of other little tips I have but I felt like these tips were the most significant pieces to share. So as I always suggest, please be sure to continue to expand your studies beyond Your altar may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the ones you see on Pinterest & Instagram, but know that if you have the right intentions, it can still be just as powerful. It’s not about how fancy or beautiful it is, it’s about elevation & honor. Your altar may be for the dead, but remember it is YOU who gives it life.

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