Beauty in a Barbell: How to Set Up An Ancestor Altar

“So, when we say that the soul leaves a person’s body at the moment of death, it would be more correct to say that the body leaves the soul”

Deepak Chopra

“A house without an altar is ungrounded”

Sobonfu Some

The foundation of Hoodoo or any African based religion or spiritual system is ancestor veneration (To learn about Hoodoo, please visit the article I wrote on Hoodoo here). This is accomplished primarily through establishing an ancestor altar. It is important to note that we do not worship our ancestors as gods or deities. We honor them and their sacrifice, acknowledging that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. We acknowledge that although they may not be present in the physical realm, their spirit and energy is alive and ever present. We understand that the love, guidance and protection they bestowed upon us in this earthly realm is still accessible. We understand that our ancestors are concerned for us and our well-being. We understand that they desire to share space with us and commune with us. Nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of our dearly departed. Sobonfu Some goes even further and explains,

“Ancestors are also referred to as spirits. The spirit of an ancestor has the capacity to see not only into the invisible spirit world but also into this world, and it serves as our eyes on both sides. It is this power of ancestors that will help us direct our lives and avoid falling into huge ditches”.  

The ancestors operate various roles; protectors/warriors, guides and healers. The ancestor altar is the primary means for us to establish a relationship with our ancestors and access their power, strength and love.

In summary, the purpose of an ancestor altar is to:

  • Honor and pay homage to those who came before you
  • Create a loving space for their spirits to commune
  • Establish a working relationship and access the protection, guidance and love from your ancestors

Now, I would like to outline the basics of setting up an ancestor altar. Of course, one should always let their intuition and the spirit of their ancestors guide them on how the altar should be set up, but this discussion is universal to ancestor altars across African religions and African- based spiritual systems, particularly Hoodoo.

  1. Determine who will be on your altar

My first ancestor altar had one person, my paternal great grand-father James Edward Lacey. He was the one who first revealed himself to me as one of my closest guides. Since then I have added so many of my ancestors who I have been led to put on my altar. For those who I don’t have a picture of, I write their names on paper and place them on my altar. For those family members who have just transitioned, you should wait at least 30 days before placing their picture on the altar. This will allow their spirit time to make their full transition from this realm to the next. Lastly, I do not believe in placing any ancestors on your altar who you do not love, trust or failed to live as righteous a life as possible in this realm. Your pedophile uncle, evil aunt or grandfather who left the family do not have to be on your altar. Again, let your intuition guide you. Never put pictures of the living on your altar.

  1. Elevate Your Ancestors

You want to elevate your ancestors. Use a small table for your altar, or if you set your altar on the floor, use books as elevation. Setting up an altar on the floor allows for it to be easily assembled and disassembled if you must set up your altar in private. I would avoid setting up your ancestor altar in the bedroom when first beginning.

  1. The Color White

Always use a white tablecloth, sheet or pillowcase on the elevated surface. White represents purity and light.

  1. Cool Water

Always have at least one glass of cool water. Start with one glass. If you decide to use more than one, always use an odd number of glasses (3 or 5). One glass can represent your maternal side, one glass for your paternal side of the family and one glass can be for the ancestor you feel a special connection with. Cool water offers the spirits refreshment, clarity, and purification

  1. Fresh Flowers or Plants

Try to have fresh flowers or plants on your altar. Spirits are very close to nature and the earth. Keep the flowers fresh and the water clean in the vases. Once the water is dirty or the flowers have died, replace them. My ancestors love sunflowers and that is what I keep on the altar. Let your intuition guide you on what would be most appropriate.

  1. Coffee/Tobacco/Incense

Fresh brewed coffee (black or with molasses) wakes the spirits. The ancestors also love cigar smoke. This will awaken them as well. If you don’t want to use cigar smoke, incense or palo santo will suffice.

  1. Offerings

Offer your relatives the favorite vices they enjoyed in the physical realm. I have whiskey, oranges, peppermints, Big red gum, cigarettes, coffee, cakes and candies on my altar. You can also offer food as well. I usually place a plate of whatever I have cooked. There are some people who say that you should never offer food with salt to the ancestors, but I do, and I have never been led to feel that it was wrong, but again, listen to your intuition. I also have the palms from Palm Sunday on my altar. All my ancestors were good Christian folk, so I also have my grandmother’s Bible on the altar. The things that were near and dear to your ancestors can go on the altar as well.

  1. White Candles

Always use white candles. Spirits are attracted and drawn to the light from white candles. When you light your candle, the spirits will know to come. Watch the flame of your candle, notice if it flickers. This will indicate that Spirit is near. Never blow your candles, snuff them instead.

  1. Ancestor Invocation

When you light your white candles and place your glass of water on your altar, you want to say an opening prayer and invocation. It is important that you dedicate your candles and water to your ancestors, because there may be other spirts that will be attracted to the light and are looking for a place to commune. These spirits need to know that they are not welcome. This space is for your loved ones only. This is the invocation that I use:

“I call on my blood ancestors and my adopted ancestors known and unknown and all my relations who love and support me. I call on my spirit guides who have adopted me as their own. Bless me with your wisdom and insight, guard and protect me. Let me be a vessel for your spiritual powers. By the power of three I conjure thee, in the name of the father, son and holy spirit. Ase”.

When I say “my blood ancestors”, I will call their names. When I say “my adopted ancestors”, I will say their names. If your family was adopted (like mines), those adopted ancestors are there for you just as your blood relatives. I say the father, son and holy spirit because I am a traditional hoodoo practitioner and I practice Hoodoo as my ancestors did and they were Christians. You can adjust this invocation to fit your needs and the desires of your ancestors.

After I say this invocation, I will talk with my ancestors. I will tell them about any issues or problems I’m having. I will pray with them. I will ask them for guidance and protection, but most importantly I thank them. I thank them for surviving slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow. I tell them how proud I am to carry their name. I tell them that I will speak because they couldn’t, and I will make them proud. I tell them I love them, and they will never be forgotten. I ask for their protection because racism is still very much alive and well and if I am to bring glory to our family line, I will need some extra help. They assure me they got me. They share insights with me, give me great advice and ease my fears. I say good night, snuff out my candles and tell them, “see you in my dreams”.

The relationship I have with my ancestors is priceless. The peace and power I feel knowing that I am never alone, and that I am protected, loved and guided has made such a difference in my life. My altar is the bridge between the past and present and the assurance that our future as a family is bright.

If this list seems too daunting, one glass of water and one white candle is all you need.  Spirit will come. The ancestors are only waiting for you.

Kathleen, “The Nutritional Truth Teller” is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, and a Certified Vaginal Steam Facilitator. She is the owner of Beauty In A Barbell Nutrition, whose sole mission is to optimize the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the Black community through African Holistic Health. She carries with her the ancestral knowledge and wisdom of the medicine men, women, healers and warriors she lovingly calls her ancestors.