Feeding the Spirits

This is my first post since April as I have been finishing our memoirs of this world and the Otherworld due out early spring 2018.

At this time of the year in addition to the “Day of the Dead,” the Northwest Coast “smoke (long) houses” open for their winter dance season. Connected with the openings is the ceremonial act of “feeding the spirits” known as a burning.

A burning is a timeless and most important ceremony that actually involves cooking food and then burning the food so that the substance and energy of it is taken into the Otherworld. This type of ceremony honoring the gods, goddess, and ancestors by a burnt offering is ancient in form and can be traced as far back as the Egyptians. “The funeral custom is almost universal for the mortuary meal to be made to feed the spirits of the departed, and communion with the ancestral spirits was an object of the totemic eucharist. The sacrifices offered to the dead, the burial rites and funerary ceremonies, generally imply the existence of a living consciousness to which the piteous appeal was made.”[i]

Feeding the spirits in the Norse-Germanic tradition was called a blót that consisted of animal sacrifice. As we all know, the destructive incursion of Christianity into Norse-Germanic lands decimated indigenous religious beliefs and practices. Even though this was the case, their practices and ceremonies continued, shall we say, underground for unknown generations. Eventually, any trace of the ceremonies such as blót and the oral transmission of conducting it were lost to the passage of time. To reconstruct these ceremonies would be near impossible and would be foolish to attempt to replicate one such ceremony such as a blót.

A ceremonial burnt offering is also recorded in the Pentateuch, the Old Testament, in the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. Abraham is supposed to take his son into the mountains and offer him as a burnt offering to God. At the last moment, God sends an angel to stop him from sacrificing his son. And in the stead, provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in the place of his son. This story does point out a sad fact of history where at certain times and in certain cultures, humans have become the sacrificial food of the gods through the corruption of this most sacred ceremony of honoring God and all the unseen reflections of God.

Of course the corruption of this ceremonial practice extends not only to the cultures in the past that have used the deaths of humans as their “food” for the gods but is present today in the Catholic Church rite of communion where the “spiritually blind” participants eat a wafer symbolic of the body of Jesus and drink wine representing his blood.

Many times it is the “returning cultural hero” who brings a new message and method of feeding the Otherworld. Such a person was Quetzalcóatl who brought wisdom as well as peace, knowledge and equality to the people. In his wake, he had substituted a burning, or a gifting to the spirit-world of quail, rabbits, snakes and butterflies, for the priestly controlled brutal feeding of the gods—the blood sacrifice of human beings.

The knowledge and power to conduct burnings was orally passed-on to Sher and me by the late Mom and Vince Stogan who were the revered spiritual healers of the Coast Salish–Musqueam Indian Band. Conducting a burning is very stressful to say the least. There are many tales to be told of burnings, which fly in the face of accepted scientific fact. Since this knowledge was and still is orally transmitted, I can only reveal a few things. Before we open the ceremony by calling in the spirits, I paint myself and my wife with red paint, symbolic of blood. Three plates of food are always required: for the ancient ones, the spirits of the land, and most importantly, the forgotten ones.

In addition to the opening of spiritual seasons such as the opening of the “smoke (long) houses” in the Pacific Northwest for the winter dance season, burnings may be performed for openings and closings including but not limited to weddings, funerals, cleansings of homes and land (the exorcising of spirits that are causing problems), and memorials.

[i] Gerald Massey, Ancient Egypt, 159.