Witchcraft generally divides ancestors into two broad categories: the Beloved Dead and the Mighty Dead. For this post, we're going to focus on the Beloved Dead, which are familial ancestors.
Who are the Beloved Dead?
The Beloved Dead are what most people think of when they hear "ancestors": family members who have long since passed. Although the Beloved Dead are often called the "ancestors of blood," they don't require blood relations. Familial dead also include adoptive families and in-laws. After all, family is family.
Some people divide the Beloved Dead into subcategories, such as the Ancestors of Milk and Honey (in-laws). For this post, I'll refer to all of them as your familial ancestors.
What if I don't know my ancestors?
If you don't know your ancestral line, don't fret. In my experience within the community, most witches ask ancestors to come to them. You don't need to have met your ancestors, or even know their name, to work with them.
Ancestors can be contacted in two ways: communicating with specific souls, or calling out whoever wishes to respond. I'll cover both of these methods later.
On Abusive Ancestors.
When discussing ancestor work, one of the main topics that pops up is abusive family members. In fact, this is one reason why people contact the Beloved Dead: to achieve clarity and healing for previous trauma.
If you're going to contact abusive ancestors, keep two things in mind: (1) the dead may carry their attitude with them, BUT can also receive clarity in death; (2) you don't HAVE to contact them. Communicating with rude or uncooperative spirits is emotionally taxing. Don't risk your health or happiness over it.
Sometimes, an ancestor may turn out to be rude, manipulative, or stubborn. Don't feel the need to continue with this soul. You are never obligated to heal or put up with taxing spirits. If a relationship turns too sour, don't hesitate to contact a different ancestor.
What if my ancestors have a different religion?
This is one of the most common questions I receive about ancestor work, and it's a valid concern. Most new spirit workers worry that their ancestors won't cooperate due to religious differences. While this is sometimes the case, I've learned that many souls--even hardcore Christian souls in life--are surprisingly lenient in death.
When I first worked with my grandfather, a devout Catholic, he was more than happy lend me graveyard dirt for my magic. To him, it was like giving me a sweater when he was alive. He felt happy to give his granddaughter presents again.
As you can probably tell, my ancestral line is Irish Catholic. While some of them refuse to partake in witchcraft, others gladly participate once they learn that it's for my own protection, healing, profit, etc. My main piece of advise is this: Don't decide whether or not they'll participate before they do.
How to contact the Beloved Dead
You have a closer link to the Beloved Dead than any other ancestor. As such, they're fairly easy to contact (in comparison to other spirits).
Much of spirit work requires a physical link to the soul, and ancestor magic is no different. One option is to use your ancestor's graveyard dirt (sometimes called ancestor powder). If you have your ancestor's ashes, these work similarly. Another option is to use family heirlooms. Old photographs, books, tea sets, clothes, furniture--any heirloom should do the trick. You'll have an easier time signaling the Beloved Dead if you have a direct link to their soul.
If you own some of these, harness their energy before communicating with the Beloved Dead. For instance, focus on the energy while calling your ancestors to you. I highly recommend using these objects during divination. If you know your ancestor's name, call it out, and clarify "of the ___ family" (to prevent souls of the same name from arriving). If you don't know their names, ask for an ancestor of the ____ family to come. Evoke the Beloved Dead through a ritual with offerings and, of course, adequate spiritual protection.
If you don't have your ancestor's heirlooms or graveyard dirt, you can achieve this without them. A piece of yourself--such as a hair clipping or finger nail--can go a long way. Remember, you're blood-related to the Beloved Dead.
Offerings For The Beloved Dead
Offerings vary depending on ethnicity and culture. Some general offerings include dark bread, cakes, wine, tobacco, milk, water, candles, stones, flowers, artwork, letters, or items that represent their religious faith. Well-fed ancestors are more likely to repay you, whether that be through protecting their offspring, increasing your luck, advising your craft, or pouring their power into your spells. If you can, maintain regular offerings for your ancestors.
But why should I do this?
First and foremost, contacting the Beloved Dead unites you with your family line and traditions. If you feel disconnected from your culture or ethnicity, you may want to work with the Beloved Dead. In America, many descendants of immigrations feel stripped of their ancestral roots. The Beloved Dead teach you how to reconnect with them (as well as the Mighty Dead).
Second, ancestors are more likely to help you than other spirits. Powerful, well-known spirits have a lot of people knocking on their door, but few practitioners are summoning your great-grandmother. Your familial ties guarantee that you already have something in common. The Beloved Dead can become valuable allies and guides for your craft.
Third, the Beloved Dead are easier to contact than other deceased souls. There's a higher chance that they'll respond and get along with you. Finding physical links, offerings, and tools is relatively simply compared to most of death witchcraft. If you're a beginner spirit worker, consider working with the Beloved Dead.
Consider this post to be a primer, one that will kickstart your work with the Beloved Dead. To learn more, research more ancestor sources and your culture's funerary traditions.