The 3 kindreds are the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, and the Deities (I am a fan of the neologism Godden, but will avoid its use here). This division within ADF is based on lore. However, it sometimes resolvesthe kindreds further than lore necessarily supports. For instance, Freyr is a God, but is also leader of the Alfs/elves which might be nature spirits or ancestors; The borders are permeable. Not all Kindred entities fit precisely into these three categories, but what is important is that each of these categories seem possible to find no matter the culture. Further resolution into different types of ancestors, or classes of nature spirits, or tribes of gods, does not appear to occur consistently among/between cultures.
First, I will examine the Ancestors. Their major defining characteristic is that they were once living people (the usual sense being humans, though there are those who do venerate beloved animals that were a part of the family). Once they pass on from this existence, they remain in contact with us to a degree. They are most frequently considered to take interest in matters relating to their lives.
One common division of the Ancestors is into three groups: the ancestors of blood, ancestors of culture, and the ancestors of the land. Just as some members of the Three Kindreds can be seen as having ties to more than one category, it is possible for an Ancestor to belong to more than one sub- category. The ancestors of blood are related by familial ties, for these a major area of concern would be their descendants on earth. Note that while I use the term blood, there are indications adoption was considered to go beyond one’s living family and involved adoption by the Ancestors as well. For ancestors of culture, there are several angles to consider. One subset would be the now ancient pagans who came before us who would have had similar religious beliefs. Another cultural subset would be those performing similar jobs to the jobs we now do. Yet another would be those with a similar general outlook on life regardless of religious belief. The third group are the Ancestors of the land. There a blurring here with the nature spirits for whom there is an association with geographic area. They have a role in mediating with the land as well as much to teach about interacting with the sometimes less “human” Nature Spirits.
The Ancestors can be seen as providing the same sorts of blessings that living elders in each of the respective categories provide. They can provide advice, encouragement in a particular skill or area of religious development, or otherwise guide us with an understanding of the human perspective.
Suitable gifts to the Ancestors include things they would have enjoyed in life, particularly food. I personally like to give the Ancestors things I think of as treats that may have been less frequently enjoyed in life and would therefore be of more interest due to their comparative rarity.
In general, as mentioned earlier, Samhain is the most Ancestor-focused High Day (at least in popular neo-pagan interpretations). Many of the practices associated with that holiday in modern times focus on the Ancestors of the blood. To me, the cultural Ancestors are best honored on a regular basis, perhaps tied to the activities of that culture, much as one would pray and give worship to a deity when engaged in an activity relating to that deity’s primary area of interest. The Ancestors of the land are often best honored at the same time as the land spirits or nature spirits, in some cases beforehand for their intermediary aspects. I definitely see benefit appealing to them when seeking a good harvest. Also, Ancestors of the land may also be so named because they are buried on the land and have returned to it, and thus their veneration may be tied to grave sites and important local monuments. Appropriate worship of Ancestors whose grave sites are unmarked or unknown is more difficult, so it is important to maintain a general attitude of respect to the land, like the respect of a good tenant for his landlord’s property.
In my time in ADF the most definite sense of the presence of ancestral kindred I have experienced was that of my paternal grandfather during my devotionals. On multiple occasions I had gained a definite sense of his presence. This surprises me as my late grandfather (along with my still living grandmother) were/is Catholic. I get the impression he is surprised, too, but in the largest amount of mellowing from his life, he accepts things as they are. Of course, I’m certain that gifts of beer help! Beyond my grandfather, I make offerings to brewers that came before me, seeking their guidance in the art and science of brewing.
Next we come to the Nature Spirits, sometimes also referred to in ADF parlance as the Noble Ones or the Sidhe. Their major defining characteristic is their association with nature. They are friendly to humans, being part of the Three Kindreds, but can be alien in their own way. Their interests tend to revolve around a sphere of association with nature. Not all spheres are the same, however, so there are some general classifications that can be made.
Classification of the Nature Spirits carries with it the same issues as subdividing the Ancestors. Nature Spirits sometimes relate to a fixed location: a patch of land, a stream, a forest glade. These Nature Spirits are the ones who most often blur with the Deities when one comes to River goddesses and Goddesses of the Land (Not to leave out the Earth Mother). Still, there are other types: spirits of a particular animal or plant, individuated or archetypical(Often referred to as totems, an Algonquin term closer to clan in meaning). There are also those spirits who generally emblemize the Wild without being tied to any one part of it, elaborated as nymphs. Finally, in terms of the Noble Ones, we find references to both the Fairy Folk and the idea of conquered spirits of the land who still have some dominion over it.
The Nature Spirits can be seen as providing blessings in their realm. For some practitioners, the important characteristic may be a blessing of the crops (possibly in return for a share set aside). Other practitioners may seek them out for their intuitive knowledge of the Land, Sea, and Sky. For others still, their aid may be most acutely felt via the lessons that Nature can teach about how to be human.
The High Days associated with the Nature Spirits are significantly looser than for the Ancestors. One can see hints of involvement, though, in the festivals transitioning from Spring to early Summer, particularly Ostara with its theme of new growth and Spring’s Return (as well as propitiation for a good harvest). Suitable offerings for the Nature Spirits often focus on the returning a share of human food production to them. This is frequently grain, though I have also had good results with local organic produce, especially that I helped grow. There is also much discussion about leaving a section of one’s yard wild for their use.
During my practices I have frequently had a sense of the Nature Spirits but rarely a specifically focused one. I give grains and greens to them, but at the time am not tending a garden of my own nor even a yard. There is one exception – a fox spirit of sorts with whom I was involved prior to my involvement in ADF. For him I find certain items, such as rice, suitable (Yes, this is a non-Indo-European carryover).
Finally, we come to the Deities (After writing much of this as Gods and Goddesses, the malleable nature of gender for a number of deities caused me to change it), often known as the Shining Ones by ADF. In my mind, the defining line for the Deities is both stricter and looser than that for the other Kindreds. I see this line as two-fold. Firstly, it is a question of power. When it comes to the Gods and Goddesses, the question of equality of footing falls away – they are terrific, both in the modern, friendlier sense as well as the older, frightening one. Secondly, within ADF it is often (There are exceptions, e.g. Ana as venerated by Shining Lakes Grove) a question of verifiability. Often in ADF, Deities are considered to have some level of attestation in the lore, directly detailed as such or hypothesized from the tales. In both cases, their interests revolve around areas of influence – each God or Goddess having one or more (as well as their own personality). Some Gods or Goddesses are at least considered to be former humans, grown mighty. Others are Nature Spirits writ large, in charge of large lands, rivers, and even seas and continents. There are many still who aren’t so easily shoehorned into “promoted from the other two Kindreds.”
To divide the Gods and Goddesses into categories seems a futile endeavor, yet there are some categories of note. One may often speak of Dumezilian functions for a given God or Goddess, but often the most important deities are multifunctional – or even a deity who seems to fit in one function from lore will have an entirely different one – for example, Thor’s role in hallowing things. One may also speak of Proto-Indo-European roles, based upon common features – but not all deities fit the most common roles.
The Deities provide major blessings. An invocation I wrote describes them as world-shapers, and that describes how I see them. Yet, frequently, the greatest blessings they provide are a shift in perspective.
Suitable gifts for the Deities include alcohol, food associated with a deity, gifts of physical items (sometimes ritually destroyed), and things that encourage their power (oil on the fire for a fire deity). Each deity is individual in ADF ritual perspective and so both research and personal experience factor into giving them appropriate gifts. I have had a definite positive response giving Heimdall red lentils (originally given as a general offering), though there is nothing in the lore that would point to such an association. On a more traditional note, however, I find that mead, a more culturally appropriate offering, definitely garners a good response as well.
It can safely be said that every High Day involves the deities; frequently it is seen as a must to invite specific ones from among their number for the Beings of the Occasion. Some High Days within a given culture celebrate specific deities explicitly, such as Imbolc, which is strongly considered Brighid’s day.
In my time in ADF I have experienced the deities many times. Many of these times were specifically bidden, as when I made offerings during my devotionals. Yet there have been times when their presence came to me very abruptly. Often this was in a subtle fashion but not always; one notable occasion was when I was volunteering on a local organic farm and I had a sudden ineffable sense of Thor’s role in the fertility of the fields. While I make offerings to particular deities with which I do have some relationship, I also make offerings to deities in pursuit of specific boons or when I am at an appropriate ritual.
In conclusion, the Three Kindreds: the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, and the Deities are not hard and fast categories, but classifications we have chosen to try to cover the set of powers friendly to us. Each of them has their own role in our worship and practice, and I have personally found that offering to them is a good route to building my relationship with them.