Black people across the diaspora have a myriad of spiritual traditions and practices that offer us healing and strength. Of these many traditions, one of the most ancient ones is ancestral veneration. Hoodoo, Santeria, and Ifa are all religions/spiritual divination systems rooted in the African diaspora that believe that our ancestors are sentient and can be present in our lives even after they “die” on the physical plane. Building an ancestral altar is a way for Black people to connect with our ancestors and use their love and protection as guidance.
There are ways that you can learn more about popular African Traditional Religions (ATRs) like Hoodoo and Ifa (Juju Bae’s A Little JuJu podcast is a good place to start), but you don’t have to commit to any one religion in order to venerate your ancestors. It’s something we have always done, even subconsciously. Many of us grew up seeing pictures of our ancestors and obituaries on the walls or high shelves of our parents’ and grandparents’ houses – these are altars, whether we call them that or use them as such or not. Ancestral veneration is natural and available for any Black person to participate in—we can connect with loved ones who have passed away or ancestors we’ve never heard of or met. Our ancestors understand the oppression and hardship we face and the ones you connect with will have a vested interest in helping you make decisions, guiding you through pain and grief, and assisting in putting you in alignment with your success.
How to Build an Altar
An “altar” can technically be the size of a full room or small enough to fit in your pocket. If privacy is an issue where you live, you can place the tools needed inside a box or a closet. They can be decorated with incenses, tapestries, crystals and more, or they can be mostly bare. For our purposes, your ancestral altar will just be a space over a flat surface covered by some type of cloth (preferably white). You will need to listen to your ancestors to figure out exactly what your space needs and it will be different for everyone. If your focus is manifesting abundance, you may keep money on your altar. If you want to bring more love into your life, maybe you’ll keep rose quartz on your altar. Regardless, the altar is a communication piece that requires consistent maintenance.
Priestess and astrologer Iyalorisha Ehime Ora (@ehimeora) suggests keeping a token of each of the four elements (water, air, fire, and earth) on your altar.
Keep water on your altar and change it weekly. Water is divine and aids in your ancestors’ communication with you. You can keep more than one cup of water for more than one ancestor, or two cups for either side of your family.
Keep a candle consistently lit. A plain, white candle is fine. The flame and the way the candle melts can help you receive messages from your ancestors; the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to interpret these visual cues as messages.
Keep incense on your altar. The smoke, like the wax and flame of a candle, can contain messages that you learn to interpret as time goes on. The incense smoke can also take on different scents that give you insight into what your ancestors want to say.
Keep something alive on your altar. Healing crystals, plants, flowers, etc. Anything that has live energy will obligate you to give consistent attention to it, and thus your ancestors.
Now that you know what to keep consistently on your altar, the only thing you’ll need is offering, consistent practice, and protection.
You can begin by bringing your favorite food or any food that comes to mind, but as you spend time with your ancestors you’ll learn what food they desire. You can bring full cooked meals, or small snacks and fruit. Do not let food rot on the altar; keeping it for a day is fine. These offerings will support your prayers to your ancestors for abundance and guidance. Use your intuition to decide how to dispose of the food each day.
According to Iya Ehime, keeping protection is essential. You can use physical protection like a machete, sword, or a mirror placed on the altar so that your ancestors can bounce back anything that may be thrown at you.
You and your ancestors can work together to decide what this looks like. Be intentional and specific about why you are building an altar and what you want from your ancestors. They are here to help—are you simply interested in building your spiritual practice? Do you need help with a job, a relationship, a loss, or are you generally looking for protection and manifestation? Whatever it is, communicate this to your ancestors. If you have specific ones you want help from, keep photos of them on the altar.
But truly, all of us come with a network of millions of ancestors whose spirits remain available to us for our protection whether we know them personally or not. Meditate at your altar every morning. Pray at the altar, speak out loud, do whatever feels right. The more time you spend with it, the more natural it will feel. Ancestral veneration has deep roots in our history as Black people, and no matter what your religious practice (even if you don’t have one at all), it can help attract more good things into your life.