Magic Ritual

The Work of the Ancestors / sabrina scott

I wrote this around Halloween this year, and performed it in early December at a Toronto Writers vs Trump reading series. It comes from thinking about a lot of things – trauma, pain, suffering, abuse, ancestors dead and alive. Growth, change, repetition. Thank you to those who invited me, and those who witnessed my performance, for the positive words and inspiring me to share it here.


The burden of intergenerational trauma is hard, heavy, a lot to carry. It’s rough to be the one who notices. We notice because the pain becomes unbearable, and in that noticing comes responsibility to act, to do something, to be different.

Intergenerational trauma. Handed to us like an inheritance, a gift. Through the violence of birth, we absorb their wounds both inside and outside the womb. We carry the burden.

We move slowly towards self worth, self love, self acceptance, self stability, if only for a moment, like a lighting bolt shock. To feel that strength, that invigoration. We light a candle.

This is the ancestor work.

One candle for every time our own kin laughed at us when we told them about our rape. Every time our own blood told us, well, it’s your fault for wearing that outfit, what did you expect? Every time our family insulted us, beat us, threw something at us, pushed us down the stairs, neglected us, called us names. Maybe there are one or two candles. Maybe there are so many there’s no room left on the altar for anything else. Maybe we cry and cry. Maybe we go numb and feel nothing, unable to speak. Maybe it hurts too much this time, maybe we blow the candles out and go to bed. Maybe we stay up all night kneeling, staring at them, eyes bloodshot, scrying, squinting to see the spirits’ secrets, a spirit-salve for our run-down souls. Tired. This is how we do the work.

We go to therapy. We tell our own children that they are beautiful. We trust our partners to love us. We learn more effective coping mechanisms to survive strong emotions. We soothe ourselves when we are under stress. We are kind to the animals in our lives, and to strangers, and to ourselves. We are fragmented constellations, an incarnation of our ancestors, hot blood coursing through our veins. Heart beats, pumps. We keep moving. And sometimes we are still.

Some of our ancestors have done unspeakable things. There are some people I do not, will not, talk to. But they have left their mark on me. There is so much I have shaken off. This is ancestor work. I have done a lot but there is always more to do.

I buy flowers. Sunflower, marigold, carnation, roses. I buy honey, coconut milk, bourbon. I buy apples, tangerines, pomegranate. I paint my nails red like blood, black like the earth, and leave my skin white like bones.

I exhale inhale. I make sounds and contort my body in feral shapes. I let my ancestors move through me and shake out their sadness. I dance in a circle and slap the floor with my feet, soles thump, soul thirsty. Manic and controlled like a breath aware it is a breath, a coming and going for the sake of survival. I make a nonhuman sound.

This is the ancestor work.

Skin tingles, hot and cold, firm but brittle. This is the work of exorcism, of getting rid of it, of seeing and healing and really seeing enough to know where to put the medicine, where to bury the skeleton, it is the knowledge of knowing, tacit. Just when to scream, what guttural growls free the soul, unlocked, unleashed, light as air.

We hold the trauma in our bodies. Our ancestors are there too, in our muscles, tense. Ready to strike. We put their pictures on our altars if we have them. We write down their names on sheets of paper and set them aflame. We cook them food to nourish them. We give them fuel to do the work with us. We feed them. We drink with them. We acknowledge their role in creating us.

We heal them we heal ourselves we heal our children. We know this process is eternal. We care take. We build relationship. We use salt to cleanse. We burn cedar to scrape away the muck. We light birch bark candles and with the ghosts we chew corn raw, take the autumn seeds inside us and commit to growth. We wake up from nightmares. We pray. We take our medication. We throw the rotten food down the toilet. We bundle up warm in the cold. We go where we are wanted. We say their names. We remember their faces. We commit to our bodies, to our own journey, to the wound-womb inside us, creative, willful, fierce, regenerating.

What is the point of this? Relationship. It is about learning to be in and cultivate relationship with ourselves and with others, with our pasts and our futures. It is about acknowledging our active role in creating our reality. It is about the responsibility of those with the power to heal to do so.

We all have this power.

A witch who can’t harm can’t heal. A witch who can’t curse can’t cure. Be there, go there, go deep go dark and feel it and scream and cry until you can’t anymore. And then, with our always already broken bodies, we must heal. We must do the work. We must light the candles. We must prepare the feast. We must pray.

Instead, it seems we mostly curse. Shun. Excommunicate. Throw around words like: violence, abuse, unsafe, crisis, panic, accountability, responsibility. Sometimes we say those words because they are true. Sometimes we say these words because they are a fast track to being right, to be taken seriously, to be made comfortable again, to avoid doing the work.

Ancestor work is not comfortable. It is grueling. It is inconvenient. It is sweeping the dust away, it is pulling off the bandaid, it is applying alcohol to a cut. It is excruciating and we must go there, through the tunnel, until we see light. We must go deep, deep down into the dark. Dig up the half-buried bones. Hold a wake. Light the candles. Say the words. Inhale exhale. We do the work.

Ancestor work is being in relationship even when you don’t want to, because you are. Sometimes the best medicine makes us sick first. Purge, discomfort, pain, cleanse, refresh, make sense. Be still. Let it wash over you like a spell, and may each forward step you take light the way for the spirits behind you. The ancestors, the remembered and the forgotten. However painful, my wish is that we can all keep walking until the strength we gain from walking together outweighs the pain we endure with each individual step.

This is the ancestor work.

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