• Jess

Sheltered Roots: Climbing the Family Tree

*Within Heathenry, ancestor reverence is an important and long-standing part of our hearth cult, extending back thousands of years to when our forebears used burial mounds and the practice of utiseta or outsitting (this tradition still continues today). Also within Heathenry, we have some serious problems around racists making unfounded claims about how race and ancestry determine who is allowed to engage in our spiritual tradition. That's a really important conversation to have and it deserves it's own separate post, but that's not what today's post is about.

Our lives are made up of the threads of many stories. There are the stories that surround us filtered through our experiences of religion, culture and media, the stories of our personal experiences, and of course, the stories of our families. While our relationship with our immediate or extended family can be sticky, I think it's safe to say that many people long for a sense of rootedness, connection and belonging, and one place to find that is in knowing the people and places we come from.

As I've been learning the languages of the people I come from, I wanted to understand more about the places and people I come from, so I began some genealogy research. Within hours, I had before me more pieces of our family past than I have ever had in my entire life. I’m grateful that some family members have already traced parts of my father line back to the 1700s.

I traced different parts of my mother line back to County Cork in the 1800s, to 1682 in France and to Argyll, Scotland in 1740. I've been living 30 minutes from where many of my ancestors lived for the last 300 years. I wondered about why they left their homes, and how they got here, and what they made of their life in a new land where they had to speak a new language. Some of my questions had answers. Other questions were met with the brick wall of silence.

It was frustrating to come up against those unanswered questions, but to know the birthplaces and occupations, the births, deaths and marriages of the web of my family dating back nine generations on some lines feels like holding a treasure chest full of jewels. There is a part of me which believes that we are never truly dead until we are forgotten. If I can bring my ancestors back to life by speaking their names, doing honourable deeds in their names and sharing what I learn with the rest of my family, their spirit can be revived.

As I've unearthed more of my family history, I've been drawn to find out more about the ancient and contemporary history and culture and feel a sense of peace and continuity, a feeling of rootedness and grounding, not unlike the feeling I get from building relationship with the earth, the waters and the land spirits.

When we are living through tumultuous times, it can help calm our bodies and clarify our vision to know that this is but one snapshot of human existence, to remember that the way things are isn't how they have always been and that we can reshape them yet again. The world we know now is but one possibility and the wisdom of those who came before us can help us navigate uncertainty and loss.

The world is still in deep trouble, but having the names and stories of my ancestors is a much needed anchor when violence, rage and grief are rightfully erupting on a daily basis. When I recite their names, I feel on a visceral level, how much I am not alone. Whatever helps you feel rooted in these times, whatever helps you feel a sense of compassionate connection, do that.

This is what stories can offer us. Comfort and purpose. Grounding. A way of locating ourselves in the world, in relation to other beings of the seen and unseen worlds. The stories we repeat shape how we see ourselves and the world and everything in it. They can remind us of our belonging or convince us that we are alone. The power of story reminds us that it matters what we call ourselves and others, that there are no throw-away words.

If you're interested in doing research on your family tree, here are a few resources which I've found invaluable. None of these links are sponsored, I'm just sharing them because they've given me so much assistance with my own genealogy research.

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

What I really like about this course is that it walks you through the various types of sources and shares with you tips about which organizations might have useful records, how to increase accuracy and efficiency in your search and how to keep track of what you learn about your family.

Family Search

This was the most useful tool for me. It contained everything from family photographs to marriage and travel documents.


I found Wikitree helpful for narrowing down details and confirming information which I'd found in other sources. Wikitree is 100% free to use.

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