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21 Sep 2009

Returning to Our Ancestors

Article by Maribeth Coye Decker

This is not a scholarly work, although I’ve read and researched quite a bit. My purpose is to share the insights and thoughts in my path from a childhood in Buffalo, New York to the Heathen way of life. This may help others identify similar dormant yearnings in themselves or others who are moving towards Heathenry. I also want to document the awakening process of coming home to our ancestral religion and culture.

The title started out, Returning to the Gods of Our Ancestors. But in writing this article, I saw that my return was two-fold. My first step was to acknowledge the importance of ancestors in our lives. Through them, I was able to take the second step towards a relationship with our Gods. This article explores my first step.

My Ancestry

I was born an Irish-German Roman Catholic American in Buffalo, New York. Why is this significant? Because I learned that heritage was important. Everyone in my town knew and celebrated their heritage. My father’s family names were Hahn and Link; my mother’s family names were O’Malley and Dean. I grew up believing the world was Roman Catholic with a few Protestants, Jews and people of color on the periphery. My peers were generally of Irish, German, Polish, or Italian descent. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas in public school. I could pronounce O’Leary, Tagliagami and Czelewicz without stuttering.

I’m not advocating a return to this time in my life. The very huge down side of this upbringing was the certainty that only Roman Catholics were going to heaven and African Americans were inferior to white people. I have outgrown both of these prejudices.

But what I have taken with me into adulthood is the importance of a connection to my ancestors. My family visited the German Roman Catholic cemetery in Bowmansville, New York to see my dad’s ancestors back four generations. We went to Geneva, New York where my mother’s ancestors rested. I’ve always taken my children there when we visit western New York.

My dad’s mother kept Mass cards and obituaries from funerals of family members. If you haven’t seen Mass cards, they’re a little larger than a business card. On one side is some sort of Christian picture. On the other side is the deceased’s name, date of birth and death and place of interment. Sometimes the spouse and children are listed. Gramie passed them onto my dad, and I asked my mom for them when dad died.

I have a well-researched ancestry on the O’Malley family completed by my great-uncle, which takes the family back to Ireland, but I have no such research on my German family. I believe that Germany acting as the US’s enemy in both World War I and World War II took its toll on American Germans’ ancestral pride. More particularly, the heinous crimes committed by Nazis during World War II may have dampened many German Americans from pursuing their ancestors. It’s hard to do a lot of boasting about your German ancestry under these circumstances. I remember that I had a yearning to take German as my second language in school but was talked out of it by relatives who thought Spanish would be more useful. So I learned to speak Spanish, but when I hear German, Irish and the Nordic languages spoken, the sounds resonate with me.

Folk Soul Hits Home

When I heard the term “Folk Soul,” it addressed a part of me that had not been cared for or nurtured for many years. Carl Jung’s original conception of the Collective Unconscious best describes the Folk Soul for me. He was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. He cautioned that modern humans rely too heavily on science and logic and would benefit from integrating spirituality and an appreciation of the unconscious realm. In “Jung’s Conception of the Collective Unconscious,” Kazlev writes:

“The Collective Unconscious…cannot be built up like one’s personal unconscious is; rather, it predates the individual. It is the repository of all the religious, spiritual, and mythological symbols and experiences.

“Actually, Jung’s choice of the term ‘archetype’ is in some sense misleading. For in the late Platonic tradition, the archetypes constitute a totally spiritual reality; the original perfect spiritual reality or realities, which generates the imperfect physical realities; the ‘thoughts in the mind of God’ of Stoicism and Platonic Christianity.

“But Jung interprets his archetypes in a biological sense. He says (no doubt due to the Darwinian influence of his age) that they are ‘inherited,’ and that they ‘have existed since remotest times.’ Yet even ‘remotest times’ can still be located temporally. Such times may have occurred an enormously long time ago, but they are still temporal.

“…For Jung then, the Collective Unconscious is not, as many of his popularizers claim, a kind of “Universal Mind” or metaphysical reality, like the Platonic World of Forms, but rather an ultimately biological reality.

“Certainly, later in life Jung downplayed the ‘biological’ aspect of his psychology and even discarded it altogether…”

In my opinion, even though he repudiated it later, Jung had rediscovered a component that was part of our ancestors’ understanding of the soul. Edred Thorsson explains the traditional Germanic body-soul complex in his book, The Nine Doors of Midgard. My understanding is that there are various components within what we usually understand as the “soul.” One component is the myne (memory). Edred writes, “The myne is a reflective quality—the part of the mind that uses images, shapes and dimensions to store and work with the mind’s own contents. Certain portions of the myne are innate and transpersonal. This is the store-house of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, if you will.”

Our Folk Soul, then, might be a psycho-biological memory of our ancestors and from our ancestors. Possibly this innate part of our humanness is what propels most indigenous cultures to remember and honor their ancestors. For example, in Japan, (where I lived for three years) the summer Bon-Odori festival celebrates the return of the dead relatives; you will also find home shrines dedicated to family relatives replenished regularly with gifts of food.

Examples of Nurturing or Stifling the Folk Soul in History

I believe that Folk Soul endures primarily through attachment to land, language, traditions, and customs. It seems to me that religious beliefs are secondary to the maintenance of the Folk Soul—they are shared and accepted by the group as a way of explaining how the world works and how the group fits into it, but those beliefs aren’t used as a litmus test of correct religious convictions.

Groups intent on breaking down or eliminating another culture forbid its language, customs, traditions, and religious ceremonies and take away its land. My theory is that this cuts off the people’s connection to the Folk Soul and they lose their way. They lose their connection to their place in the world and in turn, may destroy themselves and/or their world.

This section was not written to elicit guilt, anger or defensiveness on the reader’s part. Its purpose is to provide a few historic examples of how attacking a people’s language, culture and traditions can have a negative impact on a people’s Folk Soul and the environment they have created and now live in.

Japan—Holding Onto its Folk Soul

My research has led me to believe that Japan was and still is a society that has chosen to protect its Folk Soul throughout the centuries when confronted by the challenges of colonization, globalization, immigration and conversion. My first husband, who grew up in Japan, always told me that the Japanese pick what they want from other cultures and discard the rest, in order to keep their culture intact. I want to share a segment of Japan’s history that supports this view.

In the 1500s and 1600s, European countries were intent on colonizing the rest of the world—or at least trading with it if they couldn’t colonize it. Religious conversion one of the methods of colonization used by Portugal and Spain. Wherever these powers attempted to expand their territories or influence, missionaries would soon follow.

Since neither could colonize Japan, they vied for the exclusive right to trade with Japan and propagate Christianity in Japan. Portuguese Jesuits took the lead. The Jesuits believed that it was very effective to first convert the people in power, who could then pass the religion downward to the commoners. When the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier arrived, Japan was in the midst of a civil war. No ruler had the exclusive power over the nation and hence, no ruler had control over who Japan would trade with.

The situation changed when Hideyoshi reunified Japan in the late 1580s, but probably not in the direction Portugal and Spain has hoped. Once he became the regent of Japan, Hideyoshi began to pay attention to how European power had expanded in East Asia. He also became alarmed by the actions of the Christian Daimyos (feudal lords) in Japan. He learned that these Daimyos were directing forced conversions of retainers and commoners to Christianity; that they had turned the city of Nagasaki into a military stronghold; and they participated with the Jesuits in the slave trade of other baptized Japanese. Hideyoshi commanded the Catholics to stop the slave trade of Japanese women and bring back all the Japanese. In 1596, the Jesuit fathers prohibited slave trade in and outside Japan.

After Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu assumed control over Japan. He also distrusted Christian activities but gave priority to trade. In an attempt to wrest control of trade from the Catholic countries, Dutch and British traders advised Ieyasu that the Catholic countries did indeed have territorial ambitions, and that conversion to Catholicism was their principal means of takeover. Takeovers had already occurred in the Americas and the Philippines. The Dutch and British promised, instead, that they would limit themselves to trading and would not conduct missionary activities in Japan.

Ieyasu finally banned Catholicism in 1614 and later threw out all European missionaries and executed all converts. This marked the end of open Christianity in Japan. His decision in the mid 1600s to ban missionaries was one of the reasons that I found a living, breathing indigenous culture with its Folk Soul and indigenous religion, Shinto, intact, when I was stationed with the US Navy in Japan in the 1980s.

As an interesting follow up, I see that the Japanese are still making decisions to protect their Folk Soul by choosing to use robots rather than immigration to solve their manpower shortage. A Belfast Telegraph article of May 16, 2007, entitled, “Rise of the Machines,” reported,

“Countries such as South Korea and Japan, which suffer from some of the lowest birth rates in the world but have opted against large-scale immigration, are increasingly turning to robots to meet their manpower shortage. Unheralded advances in automation mean that robots are in production that will be able to look after children and the elderly, do routine housework, guard criminals and hunt down terrorists.

“In Japan, where humanoid robots aimed at being more aesthetically pleasing to the public are about to hit assembly lines, robots are gradually replacing humans in the menial jobs that are increasingly hard to fill.

“In response to the vocations crisis in the [Buddhist] priesthood, a bearded robo-priest is on call 24 hours a day at the Yokohama Central Cemetery to perform funerals, while at Tokyo’s University of Science, visitors are greeted by a robo-receptionist in a uniform who answers questions and gets bored when there’s nothing to do.

“Japanese robots have learned to run, lean over and pour tea. With an aging, infirm population placing enormous pressure on the healthcare system, the government has laid down deadlines to ensure their entry in human environments.”


It seems that the English did more harm to Ireland’s Folk Soul than Europe did in Japan. To provide the historic background, remember that England’s state religion is Anglican; the Church of England; but Ireland is predominantly Roman Catholic. According to Frank Delaney’s Ireland, the English imposed Penal Laws in Ireland in 1691. This required all Catholic priests and bishops to leave Ireland by May 1, 1698; they would be arrested, hung, drawn and quartered if they returned. In addition, the crown confiscated more and more Catholic lands until by 1700 the Catholics—i.e., native-Irish—owned less than 15 percent of their own country. A Catholic could not carry a gun or speak the Irish language, which all Catholics spoke as their first language. Catholics could not practice their religion. Delaney’s observation of the result of this treatment was,

“It has often been observed that, as a nation, the Irish incline toward lawlessness and disrespect of authority. But they had always observed faithfully the old Irish laws. Any disrespect can be traced to the Penal Laws. These measures derived not from just and proper government but from prejudice and injustice, because the British sought to make the Irish into Britons, make them speak and dress like English people. Instead, they made criminals of people for doing what they had always done—practicing their religion, exercising their rights and beliefs.”

US Native Americans

Vine Deloria Jr., in Custer Died for Your Sins, writes persuasively of how the US government’s policies towards Native Americans were detrimental to their culture and Folk Soul. Here are a few examples.

He explains that between 1860 and 1880, the tribes were confined to reservations and Indian religious life was forbidden. Various Christian churches lobbied for the right to proselytize the reservations. They came up with a solution to the problem—to divvy up the reservations so every sect had a chance to convert the Indians. Other churches were forbidden to proselytize in reservations that did not ‘belong’ to them.

In 1887, a federal law effectively attacked the Indians’ cultural tradition of communal ownership of land and sharing of resources. It allotted each Native American a certain number of acres of the tribe’s communal lands and allowed them to sell the land. Prior to the federal law, the tribes owned 135 million acres. By 1934, Indians has lost 90 million acres.

Native Americans have taken the US government to court over the original treaties between the tribes and the United States in order to reclaim their tribal life, rights, language, land and religion. They continue to revitalize their culture and Folk Soul connection through these actions.

US African Americans

Bringing Africans to America as slaves, I believe, took a great toll on the African Folk Soul in America by cutting off African Americans’ link to their ancestors’ language, customs and traditions. Even their knowledge of what African region or tribe their ancestors came from was lost. Again, Deloria in Custer Died for Your Sins, has an interesting ‘take’ in explaining this toll.

“Time and again blacks have told me how lucky they were not to have been placed on reservations after the Civil War. I don’t think they were lucky at all. I think it was absolute disaster that blacks were not given reservations.

“Indian tribes have been able to deal directly with the federal government because they had a recognized status within the Constitutional scheme…The blacks, on the other hand, are not defined with their own community.

“…The black needs time to develop his roots, to create his sacred places, to understand the mystery of himself and his history, to understand his purpose. These things the Indian has and is able to maintain through his tribal life…”

I have great hope that the new DNA testing providing information about ancestry will give African Americans a chance to find out where their ancestors come from.

Do the European and African folk souls exist anymore in America?

It seems to me that most European Americans have a tenuous, muted link to their Folk Soul. In Custer Died for Your Sins, Vine Deloria Jr. expresses his opinion about the lost connection between European Americans and their Folk Soul, the essence of ethnic identity.

“…Whites are inevitably torn because they have no roots, they do not understand the past, and they have already mortgaged their future. Unless they can renew their psychic selves and achieve a sense of historical participation as a people they will be unable to survive.”

My theory is that the Folk Soul pushes through America’s Western Christian society like grass pushing through cracks in the asphalt—it’s there, but you have to look for it. Note the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the popularity of the Ancestry website, I googled “US Polish society” on the Internet and found Polish societies for students at Harvard, Yale, Penn State and University College of London (OK, that’s not the US, but you get the idea).

Here’s another example. I took this quote from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family Search website on why they research their genealogy. It is unlikely that the Latter-day Saints set out to explain their understanding of the importance of the Folk Soul on their website, but nevertheless, I think they did just that.

“Why do members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do family history research? They do it because they are motivated by love for their deceased family members and desire to serve them.

“Life does not end at death. When we die, our eternal spirits go to a spirit world, where we continue to learn while we await the Resurrection and Final Judgment.

“Members of the Church believe that the family can also continue beyond the grave, not just until death.

“This is possible when parents and their children make special promises, called covenants, in sacred temples. These covenants, when made with the authority of God and faithfully kept, can unite families for eternity.

“Members of the Church believe that their deceased ancestors can also receive the blessings of being eternally united with their families.

“For this purpose, Church members make covenants in temples in behalf of their ancestors, who may accept these covenants, if they so choose, in the spirit world.

“In order to make covenants in behalf of their ancestors, members must first identify them…”

Here’s an example of Folk Soul expressed in the African American community. I see the importance of Folk Soul embodied in the movie, Antwone Fisher. It opens with a dream sequence that reminds me of feasting before Sumbel, a reconstructed ceremony that is practiced by Heathens. In the dream sequence, Antwone dreams that he is a 10-year-old boy being welcomed to a feast in his honor hosted by his relatives, who are extremely proud of him. As they pan around the room, you notice people dressed in clothing going back generations. It becomes clear that his ancestors have put together this feast. The story then moves to his life: his father’s murder while his mom is pregnant with him, her abandonment of him as an infant because of her drug addiction and his upbringing in an abusive foster home. This true story ends with his finding and being welcomed back into his father’s family.

The Folk Soul in a Land of Immigrants

America has been called a melting pot because of the number of immigrants that have settled here. But I think America is more like a good chili. The richness and delight of the final offering comes from allowing each ingredient to remain separate and distinguishable. Yet each ingredient is now infused with the flavors of the other parts.

As an American, I recognize that my forebears were immigrants. For them, immigration was a valid solution to the difficulties they were experiencing in their homeland. However, if you look at how indigenous cultures retain or lose their Folk Soul, immigration seems to work against maintaining a group’s Folk Soul.

My ancestors’ Folk Soul still exists within me, and I want to strengthen this part of me. Yet, I understand that I’m now a part of a land of immigrants and my expression of the Folk Soul is different than it would have been if my families had stayed in Ireland and Germany.

I think the best expression of the Folk Soul connects people to the wisdom of their ancestors. It helps define who we are, our values, how to act and provides us comfort in knowing that we are part of an extended family that cares for us. My theory is that a strong connection to your Folk Soul is necessary for spiritual health as a person and as a people.

European Americans: Returning Through Language, Land, Traditions and Ritual

Stephen Pollington, in The Mead-Hall, writes,

“The purpose of ritual is to affirm social values and cohesion; myth necessarily accompanies ritual and myth likewise re-affirms the identity of the group and the individuals within that group…part of the importance of myth and ritual is to act as an immutable ‘core’ to the society and its structures.”

Many people have done an incredible amount of research on the language, traditions and rituals of our Northern European ancestors. From that research, Heathenry has developed rituals such as Blot, Sumbel, wedding rites, engagement rites and baby naming rites. We celebrate holidays and heroes through feasting, toasting and boasting.

Pollington describes Sumbel as “an event characterized by both festivity and seriousness, a structured affair where order, orderliness and participation in a traditional joint activity were the whole point…The feast with strong drink, speech-making, gift-giving and ritual is in many ways the defining image of the warrior society presented in Beowulf.” It was in the re-created Sumbel ceremony that I was able to publicly remember my ancestors during a ritual other than a funeral. What a revelation and wonderment that I could consciously honor relatives who meant so much to me. And I loved when other ‘sumbelers’ honored their recently deceased relatives as well as historical figures that were their heroes.

I also found a rightness in starting off by acknowledging the land and the land wights (spirits) as a way to consciously create a sacred space prior to the Blot ritual, which is an exchange of gifts (“a gift for a gift”) between the Gods, the ancestors and their folk. For the first time, the physical world had a place of honor and power in a ritual. The sharing of drink with our Gods was an incredibly powerful part of the ritual.

The slogan and practice of “a gift for a gift” explained the true nature of our relationship with our Gods, our ancestors and the world. It spoke of a partnership between our Gods, our ancestors, and the world, and us. There was no fearful worship of a perfect deity who demanded subservient obedience and right belief. There was also a correcting of our connection to the world; the relationship was based on mutual respect rather than exploitation.

In summary, the rituals and traditions observed by Heathens, the practitioners of the revived native Northern European folk religion, have nurtured a part of me that was dormant for many years—the Folk Soul and my continuing, active connection with my ancestors. This allowed me to begin a tentative relationship with the Gods, but it is still in a formative stage. I continue to participate in rituals and traditions and learn more about my heritage through reading, discussions and writing.


Carl Jung Wikipedia Entry:

Delaney, Frank. Ireland. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Deloria, Vine Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins. New York: McMillan, 1969.

Deloria, Vine Jr. God is Red. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishers, Third Edition, 2003.

Kazlev, M. Alan. “Jung’s Conception of the Collective Unconscious”:

Kirishitan Wikipedia Entry:

Pennick, Nigel and Jones, Prudence. A History of Pagan Europe. London: Routledge Publishers, 1995.

Pollington, Stephen.The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England. Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003.

“Rise of the Machines,” Belfast Telegraph., May 17, 2008.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family Search Website

Thorsson, Edred. The Nine Doors of Midgard: A Curriculum of Rune Work. Smithville, Texas: Runa-Raven Press, 2003.

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