The Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Ancient Pagan Roots

They say that everyone’s ancestors are pagan if you go back far enough. And it’s true! The definition of pagan is “heathen, especially a follower of a polytheistic religion” or “a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.”

In ancient times, almost all of our ancestors worshiped multiple gods, goddesses and mystical beings. Though today’s major religions are primarily monotheistic, meaning they only worship one god, these religions are relatively new in the world. Christianity has only existed for about 2,000 years, (not exactly a blip but significantly less time than the ancient pagan religions that existed prior), and Islam has only been around for about 1,400 years. Judaism is the primary exception to this rule, having been founded at least 3,500 years ago in the depths of history.

Still, there is evidence of pagan rituals going back literally tens of thousands of years. For example, the Venus of Willendorf, a pagan goddess sculpture found in Austria, is believed to have been created around 25,000 BCE. By this logic, only 80 generations ago, your ancestors were probably pagan and all the millenia of generations before that were definitely pagan. (Assuming about 4 generations per hundred years, equaling about 80 generations back to the founding of Christianity.)

Now that I’ve had a chance to flex my academic research muscles a little… what does all of this mean for you in the modern world?

Why Connecting with Your Pagan Roots is So Powerful

Connecting with the ancient pagan roots of your ancestors is a powerful way to reflect on and develop a deeper spiritual practice and belief system. Pretty much every culture in the world has some kind of ingrained pagan practices or folklore beliefs. In Scotland, this manifests as the Fairy-Faith. In Italy, this appears in the form of Roman gods and goddesses who have lingered in a variety of ways since ancient times. In Japan, this looks like the beautiful, earth-focused practices of Shinto, while in the United States, Native American tribal rituals vary widely.

It is one thing to learn about or even become trained to practice these faiths and traditions. It is another to immerse yourself in the practices of your own ancestors. There is something deeply moving and powerful about coming home to your own culture. Whenever I have visited Scotland, I have felt the call and the pull of my ancestral heritage, though my ancestors left Scotland three hundred years ago for the new world. Whether you can physically visit the homeland of your ancestors or merely learn about their culture and beliefs, this journey of exploration can really lead you to discover new, deeper facets of your inner witch.

My Research Strategy

Let’s dive into the juicy parts!

My first recommendation is to do a DNA test or at least sign up for a genealogy research account. (I recommend Ancestry.com for both – not a sponsored recommendation, just a service I use myself and really believe in.) I encourage you to do your research about genealogical DNA tests and only proceed if you feel comfortable sharing your personal information in this way, but if you are, you can learn incredible things through DNA testing.

My grandmother, who turns 75 years old this year, learned for the first time just a few months ago who her birth father was, thanks to DNA testing. We live in an amazing time!

If you do take a DNA test, you’ll be granted access to a variety of information about your ancestral heritage. Within the Ancestry.com platform in particular, you’ll learn about your estimated ethnicities, which will give you an idea of the general countries and areas of the world from which your ancestors hailed.

From there, you can start researching the pagan practices and traditions of those cultures. This can be really interesting, because a lot of times, ethnicities will pop up that you weren’t aware of. These might be really ancient holdovers within your DNA or just a small percentage from a branch of your tree you didn’t know about. For example, my DNA test says that I am 5% Norwegian, which was a bit of a surprise as I didn’t know that we had much Scandinavian ancestry in our family.

 

On the other hand, do dig into your estimated ethnicities as sometimes they can be too vague. For example, my DNA test says that I am 9% French and does not say I am Italian at all, even though all of my great-great-grandparents on my maternal grandfather’s side were born in Italy. However, when I click on the circle on the map around my French heritage, it is revealed that the area of my “French” ancestry overlaps the area of Northern Italy where my family immigrated from. This vague level of detail is because ancestry has little to do with current political borders so you want to make sure you understand the more narrow regions from which your ancestors originated.

So how do you go about researching the pagan beliefs of your ancestors? I say start with a Google search and work your way up to the library! Good old-fashioned research is the perfect strategy here as it allows you to dig deep into the historical knowledge of your areas of interest, geographical information, local deities, folklore stories from the region, old wives’ tales and local home remedies, etc. Anything and everything can be relevant to finding your roots – whatever resonates with you can become a part of your regular spiritual practice or simply a background knowledge that influences the way you express your spirituality.

I recommend recording everything that you find and sorting through it later as you never know what might end up being a powerful revelation, that you thought was merely a footnote at the time.

Whatever you take away from the process of finding your ancient pagan roots, I am certain you will discover new aspects of your inner witch.

Obstacles & Challenges

I do want to address a few obstacles and challenges that can arise when trying to find your pagan ancestors.

Cultural appropriation is rife within the spiritual community and it was once common to pluck the elements of various cultures that called to you and to either disregard or simply remain ignorant of the cultural significance of the rest. Thankfully, this practice is slowly becoming less and less acceptable in the wider world and the discussion of what is and is not cultural appropriation is becoming a regular part of spiritual circles. That’s why researching your own heritage and becoming familiar with the pagan customs of your own culture is so important. Rather than cherry-picking a few traditions that you find interesting from a random culture, why not dive deeper into your own culture to discover the practices your own ancestors actually practiced?

Now, another challenge within discovering your ancient pagan roots can be your own ancestors themselves. Whether you have serious tension with your own family or you struggle with the actions of some of your ancestors, (for example, European slave traders, Viking raiders or the violent or sexist practices of many ancient and even modern cultures around the world),

 

this journey can be triggering at times. Sometimes we learn things about individual people or cultures that we wish we never had.

If you were adopted or you have little information about your heritage, a DNA test might be just the answer you’re looking for. But if you aren’t comfortable taking a DNA test or don’t wish to invest the money in one, consider researching the ancestral traditions of your adopted family if you feel close to them. If your family used to always say your ancestors were from a particular region, try researching that.

It’s important to recognize that family and heritage are not the only way you can discover your inner witch and develop a spiritual practice. If you do not wish to connect with your own ancestors or their cultures, you are under no obligation to do so. Just proceed with caution and awareness as you develop a practice outside of your own cultural heritage.

 

Have you explored your ancestral heritage and found your ancient pagan roots? What enlightening information did you discover about them and about yourself along the way?

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