The Ancestor Altar – Honor and Healing

ancestor altar

In this post, I’m going to talk about why to build an ancestor altar and how to do it. In many cultures, these kinds of altars were found and some of the scholars thought that were part of some kind of religious beliefs or deification of the ancestors, but in fact, there were two main reasons why people made ancestor altars in the past:

  • To help their ancestors on their way to the beyond.
  • As a Healing element: To remember them and connect with them from a specific place that we can see.

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Help the Ancestors on their way beyond.

Some cultures use this kind of ancestral altars to put things that their beloved ones can use in their journey to the beyond. For example, in ancient Mexico, there was a belief about a place called “The Mictlán” and there the journey endured 4 years after death to really rest in peace, the death had to pass 9 levels of tests, and in the first days of November or days of the dead, the living relatives who still remembered them put in the offering various gadgets that would help their loved ones to pass these tests, including figures of dogs because the first level was to cross a river and only a dog could help!

In fact, I think that the belief of cross a river is in many cultures, like the legend of the Styx, the river of Hades for the ancient greek, but the origin of this idea must be deep in our subconscious because it is present in different places and times of the history.

Also, the 4 elements are present on the ancestor altars related to this idea of helping our family in the world of the dead:

  • Water to quench thirst, 
  • Earth: a cross of ash or rocks to expiate their faults (also salt that comes from the earth is used as a purification element), 
  • The fire that represents faith, the light, and hope, also some believe that with this light the dead find the way home. Some use one for each family member, others put 4 lights, one per each of the four corners or directions as an orientation element.
  • Air: The incense is the one that represents this element, and also was a tool to clean the space and protect your beloved ones in their path.

the four elements

An Ancestor Altar as a Healing Element:

Some elders like the Laikas in Peru say that we have to honor our ancestors so we can be free of their karma, their history, and generational curses that they are nothing more than patterns that are repeated in the family over and over due to the memories or programs in the collective subconscious of the family. In fact, they say that if you don’t honor your descendants on an ancestor altar they gonna destroy all the house, it is their way to say that is better to watch them and know who they are and who they were than try to deny them or not giving them the importance in our life because then they remain in the deeps of our psyche and their stories are going to follow us and destroy us.

The disempowering triangle

But why is important to honor their legacy? Well, in our life we have a lot of stories inside us, stories that we have to tell to ourselves about how is our life, and especially we tend to play one of the three roles of the disempowering triangle: victim, victimized, or savior:

disempowering triangle

The victim

The most common is the victim and of course many of the times it has to do with blame to our parents, or brothers, or uncles, or any other member in the family. To play the role of victim is a way to avoid any pain by blaming others, “if only it would have been different”, “if only she were more loving”, “it’s all because of how he treated me”, “she didn’t love me”, etc. But the problem with this is that we lose all our power because if they don’t change anything is in vain. Instead of that, we can think about ourselves like the heroic child who survived despite the lack of love at home, or the woman that now has the courage to be what she wants despite the lack of acceptance and words of encouragement from their family, we can transform our “victim” story in one of a hero, even if the first step is: only become aware of that, is a great step.

The victimizer

The second role that we want to get rid of is the victimizer, and this came with guilt and eventually with pain so really we want to release this role because can be the path to disease. This one also has a relationship with our ancestors because sometimes they weren’t very nice with others and that information is in the field of the family, or maybe you had a relationship of love-hate with one of them, for example, one of my clients told me that it was difficult to her to conciliate with her mom’s memory because she had to take care of her in her last days when she was sick, and she loved her but also she had fights with her, you know that a person who is sick can have a very bad mood, so she felt like sometimes he was a victimizer to her. 

But you know, this role is eradicated with compassion, remembering the inner child in us, and remembering that we don’t know everything, we are learning, so our ancestors too, if you have problems to remember one of your ancestors with love please remember him/her like a child, a child that also had deficiencies, and that couldn’t be able to express love because all the things that she/he lived. Also, I recommend using Ho’oponopono the Hawaiian healing of forgiveness which is very appropriate to get rid of these roles.

Check our post: Ho’oponopono Technique History and Steps

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The Savior 

The third role is a difficult one because we think we are doing the right thing, and it’s the savior role. In this role the person wants to help and save somebody and lead him to the “right path”, but as the other person gains a little strength and do things that maybe are not to the liking of the savior, then this savior gets angry or sad and feel ripped off and disappointed, and then now is the victim of someone that abused of his goodwill, and now you can see how the triangle is perpetuated, and people tend to go from victims to victimizer to savior and to victim again.

So, regarding our ancestors, some of them played this role as the savior, like the selfless mother or the father which gave all his time and effort to provide the family or the aunt that took care of everyone but she never had time to herself and got ill. We have to look at these stories head-on, recognize the lessons that they can give us so we don’t have to repeat them, and the ancestor altar is the tool that we use for that. Also in this case of the role of savior, we can recognize that the objective is to empower the person we are helping to become what she is destinated to be not what we want her to be, and also recognize that the people that we think that are the villains torturing the person we are helping are also human beings that are like that because also have their own stories and wounds.

Check the post: Dr. Hew Len Inner Child Meditation.

How to build your Ancestor Altar

With all this said, we now can enter the topic of how to build your Ancestor Altar, doesn’t matter if your intention is to send them strength in their path to the beyond or honor their stories and recognize them so all of you can be free, the steps are the same and this exercise can help you a lot and even avoid you from years of therapy.

ancestor altar elements

1. The place

The first step is to find a place to build your ancestor altar, is preferred a place inside the house but with where the sunlight is present, also has to be in a place that is not too hidden and that you feel comfy, it can be a table, a shelf, a bookcase or on the windowsill (the interior part). 

When you find the place begin the decoration with a tablecloth, it can be a nice new one or maybe you have a special one that belonged to your grandparents or so, both options are ok, the most important is the intention.

shamanic Drumming

2. Photographies or Symbols of your Ancestors

Now that you have an appropriate place for your ancestor altar then put some photos of your forefathers, one practical tip here is to scan the original photos and print them in a specific size for your altar so they are homogeneous, and also with this you protect the original photos from wear. If you feel in the mood you can build the frames of their photos with the colors more typical on them or decorations of who they were.

If you don’t have a picture you have these options:

  • Use things that belonged to the,
  • Use symbols that remember to them
  • Use a “Calaverita” with their name. Nowadays the decorated skulls that are typical from Mexico are not too difficult to get in the stores especially on the dates of Halloween, you can use one of them and put the name on the forehead to represent one of your relatives.
  • Put a name on a glass candle as a representation of him/her.
candy skulls for the altar
Candy skulls to represent the ancestors in your altar

If you have ancestors that are difficult to remember because you feel like they make you suffer, then remember them as a child, remember their inner child and represent its presence like that, if you have pictures of them as children is ok, if not you can use an image of a child or little angel that represents them.

3. The four elements

As we mentioned earlier the four elements were present in most of the offering to the ascendants because people believe that each element protects them in their path beyond, but more than that, the relevance of put the four elements in your altar is to build a space where the life is present because you want to honor their life and their passage through the earth, so to include this makes the altar more alive:

  • Water: a glass of water is ok, also if you have the opportunity you can put a little fountain with water in movement. We were born in water, and also the water cleans us at the time of death, so it also represents the life cycle.
  • Fire: Of course you cannot miss the light that represents the guidance, the hope, the warm, and also is an energy of transmutation that some people believe help to transmute the heavy energies.
  • Earth: The earth is such a noble element that helps to discharge anything that is tiring us, you see, if we put poop on the asphalt is going to become a mess, but if we put the poop in the earth this becomes compost and helps to the life. Also, think about how comforting it is to lie down on the grass or in the sand and how it makes us rest, that’s the earth. So put some stones, or a little bit of sand in your altar to make it comfy.
  • Air: You can represent this element with incense but also with aromatic things because they propagate their perfume through the air, you can use a medley of dry flowers, or living flower or herbs, or the perfume that they like.
colorful paper as tablecloth for your altar
colorful paper as tablecloth for your altar

4. The Family Tree

Here is good to have a plant to represent the family tree, also a plant ground to the earth to clean the place and give it life to your ancestor altar.

5. Food Offerings

The food offering is a way to invite them from the food of this world that you still enjoy, these are some ideas of how you can include food offering in your altar:

You can divide the food offering in specials and regulars

  • Specials: Things that they especially liked: like their preferred dish, preferred bread, preferred food, the preferred beverage, the dessert that they liked the most, a liquor that they enjoyed in life, etc. Most of these offerings can be on special days like their anniversary of birth or death, day of the deaths, thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.
  • Regular: You can maintain the altar with food the rest of the year with things that last longer like some fruit, nuts, salt, bread, chocolates, candies, etc.

candies for the offerings

5.1 How long should the food stay on the ancestral altar?

It depends on what kind of food is, for example, if it is a special dish it can last maybe three days, but if it is nuts and chocolate it can last longer, just check that they don’t spoil.

5.2 What do I do with the food that is removed from the ancestor altar?

It is a belief that the energetic essence of the food is taken away for the ancestor, but the material part remains, so the most appropriate is to use it as compost. You can also eat it if it is in a good state and if you feel comfortable with the idea of sharing the food with your ascendants. If you have any superstition about eating it don’t eat it, not because there is something bad about it but because your subconscious is not going to be happy and can create some symptoms of discomfort.

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6. Seasonal Offerings

This is to share with them things that represent the four seasons of the year, and also things that we bring from different places that we visit as a way to share with them our good experiences here on Earth, some examples can be:

  • Seashells from the beach when you visit the ocean in summer
  • Flowers that you find in spring
  • Leaves with orange colors from the autumn 
  • Cocoa in the winter
  • Whatever you think is appropriate to share your life experiences with them.

7. The Best Offering

The best offer is your prayers. I recommend the fire prayer, you will need a candle, toothpicks, and an ashtray.

7.1 Steps to the Fire Prayer for the ancestors.

  1. Turn on the fire on saying “welcome Granpa Fire”
  2. With your hands open a bubble surrounding the altar and you.
  3. Take a toothpick and think about your ancestors and what you want to clean or heal, then with your breath blow on the toothpick all that information, three times, hand it over there.
  4. Then bring the stick to the fire until it burns almost completely, when the fire is close to your hand then drop it to the ashtray.
    • This is a ceremony of transmutation. Here you can apply the Ho’oponopono phrases while the stick is burning. “I love you, I’m sorry, Please Forgive me, Thank you”
  5. Then as you discharge all that then you fill your heart with fire: just take some warm from the fire flame and take it to your heart. 
    • You can say “May the divine light illuminates us all, thank you, thank you, thank you”
  6. Repeat if you have more issues that you want to transmute.
  7. Close your bubble and turn off the fire suffocating it (not blowing) and say “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you”

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8. Conclusion

The ancestor altar can help us to heal all our lineage and to free ourselves from the stories that repeat patterns in our lives, so we can live from divine inspiration and not from the trap of those old memories.

Use your imagination to build your altar and remember, the power is in you, in your intention, everything else is just to help you to do the transmutation.

Thanks for reading, if you liked it please share and comment

with love, Stela Ahau


PS. I recommend that you learn Ho’oponopono to clean all those painful memories that we have been carrying generation after generation and that does not allow us to express the Christ in ourselves. Ho’oponopono is truly an excellent tool to free ourselves and begin to connect more with unity consciousness. For this, this official course with Dr. Hew Len is the most appropriate:

Also here you have a free introductory Ho’opoopono Course of 7 days with Dr. Joe Vitale if you like to know the basics of this beautiful practice:


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