As ATRs (African Traditional Religions) and the various forms of Neo-Pagan Reconstructionism (Astaru, etc) have gotten more and more popular in the US, more and more people find themselves praying to, or doing rituals with, the ancient gods of many different cultures. But who are these gods, really?
For the ancient Yoruba, as with the ancient Norse, the pantheon of deities they worked with were, by and large, their own ancestors, who through centuries of devotion and offerings have become elevated and expanded into larger-than-life beings – what Jung calls “autonomous archetypal complexes.”
What this means is that that people who, in life, demonstrated certain dramatically powerful personality characteristics or traits – unusually memorable piety, courage, loyalty, leadership, seductiveness, wisdom, etc – after death, continued to grow in power, expanding their roles until they began to take on the characteristics of various ideal human types – the warrior, the maiden, the healer, etc.
When modern peoples, therefore, choose to become initiated into one of these systems – whether that be Santeria, Druidism, or something else – what they are actually doing is being adopted into the worship of another culture’s deified ancestors.
Now am I saying that there is something wrong with this? Absolutely not! As anyone who has ever been involved with almost any of these religions knows, initiation and participation into one of the so-called “nature-based” polytheisms can be one of the most rewarding, enriching and transformative experiences you will ever have. If that’s what you have done, or are considering doing, great!
As modern scholarship continues to confirm, however, the way that these religions were historically practiced – prior to contact with Christianity – did not consist of the uniform worship of a pantheon of deities universally acknowledged by everyone in that religion. Rather, these things were practiced locally, in concentric circles expanding outwards. And what I mean by that, is this:
For the ancient Yorubans, as with the ancient Norse and almost every other tribe with similar practices, spiritual life began at home. People worked with and turned to their own ancestors for help first, as well as to the specific spirits of the land they lived on – nature spirits living in streams, rivers, forests, etc.
Next they turned to the spirits of their village, or clan – mighty warriors long since departed, leaders, healers, midwives and the spirits of those who saw to the health and prosperity of that local group (note: this is very similar to the ancient Roman conception of the Genius Loci).
Finally, and only when these spirits had all been fully and comprehensively welcomed, acknowledged and celebrated, they would then turn to the patron god of that village or village – in Scandinavia, this might be someone like Thor, the god of thunder, while in Yorubaland it might be someone like Oshun, the godesss of the rivers.
These beings – the ancestors of your family, the nature spirits who guard the land that you live on and the spirits of your village or clan make up what is referred to in spiritist practices as your “Spiritual Court.” Some of these might be unrelated to you by blood, by sympathetic in temperment; others may not even be human, may never have been born into a human body at all.
What we do know is that these spirits – these ancestors, genii and clan or tribal spirit guardians – form the core of worship and ritual devotion in almost every single shamanic system known to man, and that these sorts of practices continued in this way for thousands of years, only changing to become more systematized and universal when they came into contact with (and in most cases conflict with), Christianity. So they did gain something by virtue of taking on a sort of “one size fits all” quality; but at the same time, they lost something too.
Because the most powerful magic and inspiration always comes from, your very own spiritual court – the invisible beings who walk with you, and only you, in this lifetime – the unseen grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the tree spirit in your very own back yard, the clan guardian who has watched over your family tree for thousands of years, in many cases completely unacknowledged – these are the most intimate, vital and powerful spiritual connections you will ever have.
Align with these, and you will go on to tremendous achievement in whatever path you pursue; fail to do so, and you may very well spend the rest of your life spinning your wheels, uncertain as to what to do next. It really is that simple.