How to Build An Ancestor Altar

At its core, hoodoo is a practice of ancestral veneration. The honoring and even worshipping of ancestors is practiced around the world. Many African religions have a foundation in the belief that one's ancestors play an active role in the life of the living even after death. The spirits of the dead are invited in the household so that they may influence the family and provide blessings and protection. The intimate relationship between the living and dead is a complex and multifaceted exercise of remembrance, respect and reconciliation.  

Maintaining a connection with our dead ancestors is a foreign concept to the majority of Americans because Christianity permeates our culture. Christianity teaches that death is a concrete ending and many approach the subject of death and dying with morbid fear and confusion. For those who are seeking to practice hoodoo, it can be difficult to address these ingrained fears and establish a new understanding of the cycles of life and death. Hoodoo like many African traditions, sees life and death as being an interconnected journey of the soul. When the sun sets on our lives in the world of the living world, it rises on the spiritual plane where our souls continue to live.

The power that resides in and through hoodoo practice comes directly from the strength, endurance and wisdom of those who came before us and establishing a relationship with our ancestors is vital to the success of every working, charm, trick and candle burning used in the tradition. Without the assistance of our ancestors, trying to perform workings is like shooting in the dark hoping to hit something resulting in a lot of wasted time and energy. Our ancestors don't just power magical workings, they also guide our steps so that we can avoid negative situations and recover from mistakes quickly. The real strength of a conjure man comes from the foresight provided by their ancestors through their ancestor altar.

Creating an ancestor altar can seem like a daunting task to many newcomers, and to often this step is skipped over in favor of the magic. The beginner might be overwhelmed by the amount of information that is available on the subject and become confused with contradictory sources. I understand how one could reach a “stalemate” in their search for authenticity. Creating an ancestor altar isn't as hard as it may seem. I’m providing these easy steps and words of advice to help you get started.

Find a place in your home that is relatively low in traffic, meaning that not many people will see your altar. You can also use a closet space to ensure that it is safe and hidden from questioning eyes. It’s important that your altar isn’t in the bedroom unless there is a separate closed off space in the room. Your altar will become a point of spiritual gravity and a highway for spirits to travel through. This spiritual activity can negatively affect your dreams and sleeping pattern.

  1. When you’ve decided on a suitable space, find a table made of natural materials; I have found that wood tables work best, but a glass table is also acceptable. The table can be as small as your average end table or as large as a buffet or credenza table. I have found that a waist-high table allows you to kneel when speaking to your ancestor showing more respect and vulnerability which they appreciate.
  2. Next clean your surface with a spiritual solution like Florida Water, Rose Water or Koloria 1800. Wipe in a circular clockwise motion. After the altar is dry, say a prayer over the table expressing a desire for it to act as a holy space. If the table is made of wood you could then rub a blessing oil into it like Van Van or Ancestor Oil.
  3. Find a cloth for your altar. Most commonly white cloth is used but I prefer cloth with an African pattern. It is alright to be creative in the choosing of your cloth, but try to avoid dark colors and synthetic materials, cotton is best. Cover your altar with your altar cloth.
  4. The very first thing on your ancestor altar should be the Bible. Make sure that your Bible doesn't take up to much space as there are other things that need to be added. The Bible should be placed at the forward center of your altar. The Bible is a powerful spell book and the prayers you’ll be saying at your altar will come from those pages. Also, it is likely that your ancestors were Christian and they will respond to verses because they are familiar with them.
  5. Next, place a white seven-day candle before the top of your Bible. We use candlelight to provide our ancestors with illumination. The candle acts as a beacon drawing spirits closer to us. The white seven-day candle will stay lit at all times so you might want to stock up on them. (don’t light the candle until your altar is completely set up)
  6. After the candle has been placed on the altar, add a wine glass full of water next to the candle. We are born through water and bodies of water have been thought of as points of entrance between the world of the living and dead through history. We place the glass of water on our altars to “lubricate” and facilitate a stronger connection with the spirits who will be called on at our altar.
  7. Place picture of your ancestors to the left and right of your Bible, candle and glass of water. Their pictures help to strengthen your connection. Don’t worry if you don’t have pictures of them. There are other things that can be added to your altar to strengthen the connection.

This set up of a Bible, a candle and a glass of water are the bare-bones essentials needed to make an ancestor altar. If you can’t afford anything extra or you don’t have much space in which to work, start with this basic setup. You can always add more to your altar as your situation changes. The most important part of working with your ancestors is the time, dedication and veneration you give to them. They will understand if this is all you can do. If you do have the means to continue building your altar, here are some further steps

  1. Next place anything that might have belonged to them on the altar in front of their pictures. For example, if grandma had a ring that was passed down in the family or if grandpa had a favorite smoking pipe, these things should be placed on the altar.
  2. Then you want to add common offerings to your altar. Common offerings to ancestors include coffee, rum, and food. You can use small glasses and plates to place your offerings on.
  3. Add items that are significant to your spiritual practice on your altar, I highly suggest some type of divination tools like bones or tarot cards. A divination tool will come in handy in clarifying the message that might come through your altar.
  4. Finally, place an image of a spirit known for protection on your altar. It’s always best to have a working relationship with the spirit you chose to place on the altar, but if your beginning you might not have a working relationship with a spirit of protection so use this time to begin communicating with that spirit as well. I suggest Saint Michael or the Virgin Mary. This spirit will act as a guardian between you and any random spirits that may be attracted to your altar, filtering through negative energies. Place an extra candle and glass of water next to the image of your protector.

Other common items you can choose to add are dirt from an ancestors grave, an incense burner, candle snuffer, a bell, flowers, and Florida Water. How you arrange the items on your altar is a matter of personal preference. The water, coffee and rum should be cleaned and refreshed at least once a week. Any food offerings should be left on the altar until it has lost all life and becomes stale. Your candles should be replaced as soon as they go out.

Working at your Ancestor Altar  

Now that your ancestor altar is completely set up, it’s time to begin welcoming the spirits into your home. The ancestor altar is more than just a collection of memorabilia, it is a living functioning sacred space where you can feel comfortable and safe in your communication. It’s important to back up all of the physical work you’ve done to construct your altar with spiritual rituals.

Begin by inviting your ancestors to “sit” at your altar. You can achieve this with a three-day long ritual that is intended to prepare the space.

Day 1- at your altar, try to imagine the faces of those who have passed and the moments of joy you might have had with them. Say a prayer out loud to them. Speak their names and let them know that they are not forgotten. Take as much time as you need to really make a connection. After your prayers, visit their grave site if at all possible.

Day 2- Cook a meal for two. Prepare meals that they would like and make a plate for them and yourself. Place their plate on the altar. Sit in quiet contemplation with them as you eat the food. Say a prayer out loud to them. Speak their names and let them know that they are not forgotten. Take as much time as you need to really make a connection.  Leave the food on the altar until all life has gone from it and it is stale.

Day3- Bring them gifts as an offering. Flowers, perfumes, additional candles, candies, alcohol, and cigars are all very good offerings. Light your altar candles and sit in quiet meditation of everything that they've sacrificed for you to carry on their legacy. Out loud, ask them to come into your life and to speak directly to you. Ask them to work through you so that you can continue their work. Give them praise with songs and dance. Express gratitude for their attention.

After you have invited them to your altar make sure to spend time with them every day. Before your day starts, say a prayer at your ancestor altar for blessings and protection. Before bed, say another prayer giving them thanks and honor. Maintain a schedule where you will venerate them and uplift their spirits, I suggest this be done at least once a week. Pay attention to your dreams and to your intuition during this process. Your ancestor will eventually respond to your prayers so pay attention.