Toward a Progressive Pagan Culture
I met a Notable American Druid (NAD) in Ireland while I was on scholarship as a Celtic Studies student, and we traveled together from time to time while we were there. One evening, after touring County Donegal, we stopped at a pub in Carrick on the way back to Glencolumbkille. I don't remember what NAD drank that night, but the publican taught me to make what he called 'Hot Bush'. Here's the recipe:
Boil the kettle.
Pour hot water into a mug.
Boil the kettle again.
Pour the water out of the mug.
Put 3 cloves, a teaspoon of sugar and a shot of Bushmills into the mug.
Pour boiling water into the mug and stir.
It was good insurance against the temperamental June weather on the island, and I drank a lot of it during my stay. Anyway, so there we were, listening to a session, me drinking Hot Bush and NAD making conversation with the locals. One of them, a portly, middle-aged woman told me her son had done bass work for the Pogues and invited me to contact him about the undergraduate project I was working on (I never did). She also told me that her family had been involved with the IRA and specifically that her mother had moved weapons for the organization. She was a great conversationalist, and she seemed to like me too, so we were getting on well together.
Then NAD interrupted (during the whole running guns for the IRA bit) to tell the woman that he was a Notable American Druid, that he believed Ireland had been better off without Saint Patrick and that he thought the Irish should turn the island back over to the Druids altogether. Mind you, I didn't entirely disagree with the man, but I didn't think a pub in Catholic Carrick was the place to share that sentiment, and I didn't think the daughter of a militant family was the person to share it with. She seemed to agree, and over the next hour, I helped her edge him out of the conversation while we continued to chat about music, politics and life.
In Episode #3 of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Bill Moyers muses that stories are messages in a bottle from shores someone else has visited first, and Campbell himself asserts that stories teach us how to go with the great way of things1. In Western Apache tradition, stories are so deeply rooted in the landscape that the very mention of a place-name can invoke both the story and the wisdom associated with it2. And in my own, beloved Gàidhlig culture, it's common for native speakers to 'gabh sgeul' or 'give a story' about the human history of Cape Breton Island that helps listeners to situate themselves in their own culture.
This is the power of story, whether it be informal narrative, memoir/biography, fiction or poetry. It touches our consciousness in places historical and instructional writing do not, allowing us to see ourselves in the flow of a tale, empathize with the characters in it and come away changed. Bards, skalds and other ancient storytellers understood this power and wielded it for many purposes. In fact, I believe it could even be said that the great Bardic houses of Ireland were valued because they shaped their communities with words.
But this blog entry isn't a story in the past tense, and I have no interest in belaboring what bards, skalds and other historical storytellers were and did. I think there is already too much of the backward gaze in our Pagan community, although I do understand the impulse to create spiritual continuity by linking new spirit-ways to the old. I also understand the need for instructional material and its popularity among Pagan newcomers. We're building a new spirituality on the fragments of many old spiritualities, so it's natural for people to look for help along the path. Finally, because I've lived both outside and inside a community where informal storytelling traditions are valued and passed from generation to generation, I understand that most individuals have no immediate conceptual framework for the power of stories that come from and apply to their own people.
Yet Pagan storytelling is something our community very much needs. It isn't enough for us to read pre-Christian histories, because at some point the similarity to our spiritual forbears breaks down and we find ourselves in the present, searching for help with problems they never had to face. It also isn't enough for us to read instructional materials, because after the rites and devotions, we still need to learn how to go as Pagans with the great way of things. And while it might be difficult to build and nurture a storytelling tradition in a world where most people just don't do that sort of thing anymore, our descendants will need messages in bottles from shores we visited first.
In some respects, I think we have the beginnings of this in self-reflective Pagan blogging. I've also seen it in the recent Pagan film The Spirit of Albion. Editor Anne Newkirk Niven has been a long-time champion of Pagan fiction and poetry, and in fact, she first published most of the work in my recent collection. Rebecca Buchanan's online journal Eternal Haunted Summer has been publishing Pagan fiction and poetry for a few years now, bringing writers and readers of Pagan literature together. These bloggers, film-makers, authors and editors (among others) are telling and promoting stories that are self-consciously Pagan, that take their faith seriously and because of this are contributing to an emergent native storytelling tradition. We need more of that more consistently, which means we need a community of people who understand its value and contribute to its cultivation as tellers, writers, listeners and readers. We need stories we're willing to pay for (because tellers and writers craft better stories on full stomachs) and stories we tell each other because the fire is warm and the wine is cold. As Pagans, we need to do more than support historical and instructional writing; we need to be a people of story, with stories to tell.
I told you a story at the beginning of this entry, a true story, as true as my memory and my travel journal could give it to you. I told it because I think it's a good tale and because there are lessons in it. To this day, I'm still embarrassed about the NAD's behavior and conflicted about my own. Should I have told him that I thought he was being culturally insensitive? Should I have added my voice to his in those moments when I agreed with what he said? Should I have helped to edge him out of the conversation? I'm not certain on any count, but it's a road I've traveled, and now you've traveled it a little way with me. Perhaps your answers will be more definitive than mine, but because I told you the story, you got to ask yourself the questions.
In future blog entries, I plan to write more about Pagan storytelling and advocate its growth in whatever way seems best at the time. But for now, I'd love to read your thoughts about modern Pagan storytelling in the comments. Have you read a good Pagan story? Have you written one? Do you have an informal (and appropriately anonymized) story to share? Please, gabh sgeul.
Tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, 's beannachd leibh,
(Thank you for reading, and bless you,)
- "Joseph Campbell on The Stories That Guide Us." BillMoyers.com. Vimeo. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
- Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. Print.
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