As a heathen, it is very important to me to talk about my ancestors. And I don’t mean my distant-ancient I-don’t-know-their-names ancestors, folks who lived in Palaeolithic tribes in Europe; I mean my actual historically-documented, I-know-where-they-are-buried ancestors. I don’t mean to say that a slab of granite, a piece of paper, or a photograph mean more than DNA, just that I don’t like to romanticize my heritage or invent a background I cannot actually hang my pointy hat on.
Over the weekend, we held a workshop on magical names. It was great fun, great camaraderie, awesome food, and a “side of education.” One of our group started talking about her relationship to her birth name and told us how her grandfather had to change their surname during the Second World War because of ethnic-based bigotry. This loss of ancestral connection has been hard on her as it has on many folks. It got me to thinkin’ that I have been ignoring a branch of my family. Not on purpose, mind you. Just negligent.
I talk a lot about my father’s ancestral line a lot—Bavarians who left Germany to settle first in Pennsylvania, then the Carolinas, and finally at the foot of the Appalachians in Northeast Alabama. But I think it’s time I gave my momma’s family their due. My mother’s ancestral lines are equally old and equally interesting as my father’s. Let me tell you some of the highlights:
• A good helping have been here since there was dirt.
• The European branches arrived as colonists. Places like New Netherland and The New Haven Colony. There doesn’t seem to be any “blue” blood, but there are more than a fair-share of Quakers. (If you go back far enough there are knights and shite. But I guess that’s true of every family whose ancestors made it out of The Black Death.) This is interesting when you look at the migration of the families in times of military conflict.
• My 4th Great Grandfather lived in Aberdeen and collected tea taxes for Great Britain during the 1770s. Wonder how that ended for him?
• His grandson moved to the New World and lived in Alabama by 1845.
• Speaking of Family Trees, I have an ancestor named Christopher Guest.
• I also have an ancestor, John, with the surname Rolfe. Not the one you are thinking, but there are only 35 years between them and they seem to be cousins of some sort. I haven’t tracked that down yet.
• My 3rd Great Grandfather was in the 1st Alabama Cavalry and died on the first day of the battle of Shiloh. I’m sure he didn’t mean to.
• My grandfather was the youngest of 8, my mother was the youngest of 11, I am the youngest of 4, and my daughter is the youngest of 3. Being the youngest runs in my family.
I know I’ve talked about Grandad Mac, the ornery Scotsman, so I’ll just glance over his story this time.
I grew up thinking that my family were Scots-Irish. Until I found out what Scots-Irish means–and until I found out who my family are and from where they hail.
There are two brands of Scots-Irish: American and European. The European Ulster-Scots of Northern Ireland, ironically, have no Irish ancestry as a general rule . While Ulster-Scots tended to be Scottish, many of the Ulster “Scots-Irish” were not even Scottish, but were English and German from the Palatinate (like my dad’s kin) or Huguenot refugees from France. It’s like saying one is Anglo-Indian; this does not necessarily denote Indian ancestry but, rather, could indicate a person of British descent who was born in or is living in India. So these were Scots–living in Ireland, colonizing it, you know the drill.
American Scots-Irish were their descendants. Born in Ireland of Scottish (or German or English or French) ancestry and settled in New England–rather late as settlers go; they didn’t arrive until just before the Revolution. Later, because they wanted to segregate themselves from the Irish-Irish immigrants that started flooding New York and Boston, took on the misnomer “American Scots-Irish.” They started migrating south into the Appalachians in the late 18th century.
The Macs on my tree are neither the American Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots. They came from Aberdeen and Argyll. The patronymic line is from Aberdeen and the maternal line of Fishers come from Argyll. They lived in The Deep South before Ulster-Scots even arrived on American soil.
Funny thing: there is a second line of Fischers—different spelling, different origin, same name. The second Fischers are also from the Palatinate, again, just like my dad’s family.
But–yes, the story twists. I do have Ulster Scot ancestry. My fourth-great-grandfather on yet another branch was born in Ulster in the mid-18th century. Antrim, to be specific. Antrim of the Islandmagee “Bean Eaters,” just near Ballylumford Dolmen—“The Druids’ Altar.” Of Scottish, German, English, or French? Given his last name, McMurtrey, I’m guessing Scottish. But—because I still have a little more work to do in pinning down his great-grandfather, I have to offer a second possibility. Of course, his family could have been indigenous Irish. You see, Mac Muircheartaigh is an Irish name dating back two-hundred years before my relative in question. This name became “McMurtrey” in the Ulster area. It could go either way. If I find out for certain, I’ll let you know. Until then, Occam’s Razor suggests I assume Scottish.
This “[probably not] Irish” Ulster Scot-Irish family, landed square in Virginia without being part of the New England Scots-Irish migration. They moved south from Virginia in a different wave of immigration, in a different political atmosphere, in a different historical moment from the American “Scots-Irish.” The families likely merged into the same culture over time–I mean, I know I have (not so distant) ancestors that ‘stilled and clogged and played Dulcimers. But I’m just making a point about ethnic origins, not about where they ended up culturally commingled.
It might sound like I’m coming from a segregationist perspective but really, my whole spiritual perspective is that we are all human beings from different constructs of culture. In America, we all end up thrown together in a wack-a-doodle political crockpot and after we stew for a few generations, damn, don’t gumbo ya-ya taste fine just the way it is? But, I also like to be able to say, “Look I can identify some okra and there’s some Andouille and there’s even a bit of gator.”
See where my metaphor is going? Metaphorical spiritual gumbo.
And I like being impressed when someone not only has the nerve to use a boudin–but makes their own!
It’s also good to know whether “a little more rice” or “just one more pinch of cayenne” would be better.
And I get tickeld to know that, if I like it, I can use a jalapeño or–if I keep my acid right–a shot of red wine would fit right in even if it’s not part of the original recipe. And it gives me peace to know that, s’long as I know my shite, I won’t end up ruining five hours of roux-ing if I need to add frozen calamari instead of fresh shrimp at the last minute.
Is my metaphor hanging together?
Even more than that, I NEED to know that bananas don’t belong in my gumbo. Bananas are awesome. However, bananas do not go in gumbo–unless you know a tropical fruit trick that I don’t. If I add bananas, I will waste all of my hard work and prove that I’ve learned nothing about the nature of gumbo.
Metaphorical spiritual bananas. Metaphorical spiritual ancestral gumbo.
This is why it’s important to me to know not to toss New-Age neo-Pagan mango in my heathen crockpot. Unless, I plan to make Apple-pie, that is. Mango might just go nicely with Apple. But not the peels, or the leaves (those contain urushiol). But why would I make pie in a crockpot?
Wait, now I’m hungry. Where was I?
Other lines (that emigrated at all, that is) were English. All of them. They came through New England dilly-dallied around Tennessee Amish country for a generation or two and then moved to northwest Alabama—parallel to (but on the other side of the state from) my father’s ancestral plot. I always thought there was a little more variety in my mom’s ancestral background, but it’s all Kent and York and Rutland and Linclonshire arriving in Puritan New England in the early 17th century. None of the names even vary from Englishy-Englishness unless they are those problematical first names with no last names.
Of Native ancestry we have Creek most recently, Cherokee in two lines in the documented past, and a smattering of Iroquois and at least one Lanape according to church records. I mean, it was New England during colonization and before all-out genocide. No surprise.
By the end of the Civil War, however, my kin were all over Colbert and Sheffield Counties.
Why is all of this important to a Heathen? Well, aside from knowing my background and honoring my origins, I like to look at the ways my ancestors celebrated the turning of the year.
And I like gumbo–hold the passion fruit.
In a few weeks, while many neo-Pagans celebrate Lughnasadh, I will be celebrating Lammas, or Hlaf-mas and Hoietfescht (the first harvest, “Haymaking,” or “Corn Boils”–which only sounds like a disease). For me, looking at my Quaker ancestors, my native ancestors, my Pennsylvania Dietsch ancestors, and my Scot ancestors, I get a profound feeling of Autumn being about gathering—if you will indulge my Protestant inclinations: “bringing in the sheaves.” Sure the bonfires are cool, but I like the customs surrounding baking—manifesting loaves from what were just small seeds in the spring, mystical pilgrimages to sacred wells (even if they are astral pilgrimages or figurative wells), giving the first of the harvest in offering to the divine wonder of creation.
My Urglaawe counterparts say that Hoietfescht is a time to acknowledge the marvels of our cosmos. A time to rejoice. A time to evaluate our accomplishments and reap the benefits of hard work (and perhaps reap the punishments of transgressions or indolence). It’s a time to salute and make offerings to the wights, or wichde, and cofgodas and give tokens of appreciation for their daily assistance in keeping our homes and land safe.
Thinking about what my ancestral folk would do helps me decide what it is that I want to do to honor them, to remember them, to uphold the values passed down to me through six centuries.
Family recipes, if you will.
Thanks for letting me share my pre-Lammas ancestor harvest gumbo ramblings with you.
Waes thu hael,
P.S. My husband is German as well–his folk are from nearly the same geographic area as my folk. However, unlike my family, his IS Irish; and his kin are much newer to the New World than mine are. I think my husband feels more affinity to my ancestry than his own. Perhaps because he knows more about them since I have always told the stories and showed the pictures and named the names. And after all, my ancestors gave me the traits that attracted him in the first place. But, there are some cool stories in his, um, annals. I’ll share those stories with you soon. If for no other reason than to record them for posterity. But mainly to honor them as my husband’s family and the ancestors of my own children.
P.P.S. Today, having suddenly and unexpectedly lost a family member, I am confronted with the dark side of the Lammas/harvest cycle and the knowledge that life is a temporary gift. A strange and wonderful gift that often doesn’t fit right, makes us itch, and regularly doesn’t match our shoes—but a gift all the same. A gift that, like family, we should appreciate for as long as possible.
When it’s no longer possible, well—that’s a whole philosophical question for another day.
 Go on, think about how ridiculous that is.
 Funny thing?
 I’m totally confused. A historical account of the McMurtrey family shows “a William McMurtrey came to South Carolina in 1777 from Larne aboard the ‘Lord Dunluce.’” But church tithe records show that *my* William McMurtrey Jr. landed in South Carolina from Ulster in 1772. I’m starting to wonder if someone misread a 7 as a 2. It happens all the time with handwritten documents.
 Right along with two of my darling dogs. Sheesh, when it rains it pours.