Tag Archives: interpretation

Interpreting meaning

Humans like reading meaning into things. It is an urge that has given us both divination and the scientific method. We want there to be meaning and we find it preferable to see the hands of judgemental and angry Gods in our misfortunes than to attribute it to random chance. This determination to find meaning can do us a great deal of harm if we imagine causal relationships where none exist. It can be particularly harmful when we apply it to each other.

We all read things in to each other’s words and actions. Not least, I think, because we’re looking for something that is about us. We want to be significant. There may be more attraction in thinking someone is cross with us than thinking they are tired, or have low blood sugar, or are constipated. It’s similar to the way we prefer to see the anger of gods than random happenstance. At least if people, or the gods are angry with us, we are involved in what’s going on. Being peripheral or irrelevant can feel very uncomfortable indeed.

We are all involved in the business of reading each other, because mostly we make less than perfect sense to each other. The exact ways we use words can vary. A term loaded with dire implication for one person can be empty of that for another. What we hear, what we understand, what was meant and what is admitted to, do not always neatly align. We read each other to try and find meaning or common ground or we hear what we want to hear and refuse all scope for reinterpretation or compromise.

We read each other visually, too. We read for gender and sexual identity, for power and status, for wealth, normality, sanity… We read for signs of membership to small and more secretive groupings. As Pagans we look for sacred symbols on clothes, jewellery and skin to help us find fellow travellers.

We read to validate ourselves. Sometimes, we read what we fear may be true because it is perversely more comforting than changing our stories about how the world works. We read each other for ego boosts and proof of our own excellence. How often we manage to communicate precisely what was meant and no more or less than that, is anyone’s guess.

When two people exchange ideas, two realities collide. It is as though we are each standing in a separate universe that works to different rules. We speak alien languages to each other and make hand gestures that seem obvious to us, and that tell entirely different stories to the other person. We give messages with our bodies, in eye contact, in touch that may be read in myriad unintended ways. But what else is there?

Unsolicited interpretations

People are quick to try and help each other by explaining things. Whether that’s symptoms, or symbols we dive in and offer our take on it. When that’s unsolicited, it can often be problematic. Unsolicited medical advice from people who KNOW that if you just ate this particular fruit the cancer would go away and that if you went for a run every day you’d stop being depressed. One of the problems here is that people mistake the fixing of small, easy things for the fixing of much bigger ones. This is especially true with mental health where minor problems can indeed be eased with a bit of nature, but serious depression cannot.

When it comes to interpreting signs and symbols, it only works if you share culture. Most signs are open to multiple interpretations. Owls can mean Blodeuwedd, or Athena. Ravens go with Odin, and The Morrigan. Jesus and Dionysus both claim the wine. Black cats are lucky or unlucky, depending on where you live. Personal symbolism further complicates things – your mother archetype in a dream will mean different things if you mother is horrible, or dead, or has been missing for years, or is likely to wake you up with coffee at any moment.

In many ancient Pagan cultures, the business of interpreting signs and dreams belonged to the priesthood. I think this is because it is a job that confers authority. The power to tell a person what their symbols mean is a considerable power. Used badly, it is the power to wipe out personal difference and deny personal experience. It’s the opportunity to force cultural norms onto someone resisting them – we don’t care what your mother was like, you’ve dreamed about the archetypal mother who is good and kind and bountiful.

The symbolic language we use in our sleep is personal. It draws on images and experiences from waking life, from the books and films we choose to encounter, and from how we think and feel about things. We have nightmares about the things that frighten us personally, not the things our cultures consider symbols of fear. To impose a meaning on someone else’s symbolic experience is thus to impose a certain authority over them. The pushier we are, the more we claim to have absolute truth and rightness, the more we risk reducing the person whose symbolism we have the ‘answers’ for.

The desire to interpret is one to watch closely. Fair enough if it is your job to interpret, or someone has asked you to – that’s a considered relationship. Rushing in to offer unsolicited interpretations is a whole other thing. I notice this on facebook where I sometimes post dream content – usually because I think it was funny, or odd, and primarily to entertain. Sometimes I ask for suggested interpretations and sometimes I don’t, but I get them either way. People who know nothing much about my life can be very confident about what my dreams signify. None of them have ever considered that I may have withheld details, or matters of context to avoid embarrassing someone else, for example. Interpreting an un-discussed, unexplored dream is not a good way to do it. The person whose symbol it is must retain the right to decide what the symbol means for them.

If you feel the urge to interpret – be that symptoms or symbols, check in with yourself about why that is. Do you want to seem clever? Do you need to feel more important? Do you want to show off a body of knowledge? Do you believe that symbols all have straightforward meanings that apply to all people in all circumstances? I think we’re often well motivated when we pile in – we want to help and believe we can, but belief that we’re helping doesn’t mean we’re actually helping. If you want to help someone, don’t try to steal their authority. Offer them possibility ‘it could be’ ‘it might’. You can share your insight without imposing your reality. Just because your ravens mean Odin doesn’t mean their ravens do. Perhaps they’ve just been to the Tower of London. Perhaps Raven is their animal guide. Perhaps Bran is trying to talk to them. There’s always more possible answers available.

Excerpts, dreaming and a winter break

Over the coming few weeks I’m going to be sprinkling the blog with book excerpts. This is because in order to spend half a week with a stall on the Stroud Christmas market, and to have any hope of a week off, I need to set up the blog in advance, and I need that not to be excessively hard work! Yes, I could stop doing a post a day, but then the hits on the blog fall away and it makes me sad, so, you get book excerpts!

Here’s the first one, taken from Pagan Dreaming, and here we get into why I think dream dictionaries are questionable…

“Why should we accept the authority of a dream dictionary, when we would not accept the authority of an official priesthood?

There’s an additional issue here that in ancestral cultures, interpreter and dreamer could be assumed to have exactly the same background, history, symbols and beliefs. A shared symbolic language makes it more likely that one person can meaningfully comment on another person’s dreams. A glance at human history will show you that symbols are not universal. The swastika has been both a sun sign and a fascist emblem. Some cultures consider black cats to be good luck signs, others find them unlucky. All symbols are culturally specific in their meanings. So for ancestors who shared culture and symbolism, the priest might well be able to help the dreamer make sense of things. These days it is less likely that any two people will entirely share a symbolic language, making interpretation necessarily a more personal business.

We have a very diverse and fractured culture, exciting in its lack of hegemony, but in which we can no longer make assumptions about shared icons and archetypes. My symbols may well not be your symbols. Thanks to technology, we have access to a wide ranging culture that gives us new stories, imagery, metaphors and concepts on a daily basis as well as access to all of the available mythology and culture of the world. The speed and
quantity of material we are exposed to also undermines our scope for having a shared symbolic language. What I read yesterday may inform me, and you have no way of knowing what I tapped into. The dreamer’s associations can therefore be radically different to the ideas an interpreter brings to them. How can we possibly assume the existence of a universal language in this context? Furthermore, with such breadth and richness to draw on for potential symbols, how can a book of a few hundred pages hope to cover all possible symbols and meanings, or deal with the speed at which pop culture icons change?

Culture not only informs our symbols, it also tells us what is important. In materialistic western culture, we might be more motivated to look for insight into our careers and financial prospects, than into the condition of our morals and virtue, for example. This will direct us to pay more attention to some dream details than to others, and probably shape what we dream about in the first place. We are unlikely to dwell on things we truly consider to be irrelevant. Thus we cannot think about dreams without also bringing into consideration our relationship with our culture.

It is worth being cynical and considering that writing dream interpretations is really easy. You can make correlations with anything that takes your fancy, and no one can objectively prove that you are wrong. You might find it amusing and instructing to invent a few dream definitions of your own. Or, take some focus that pertains to the human experience (sex, ambition, frustration, depression) and work out how every dream you can remember
having can be made to fit that interpretation. You will find that anything can be made to seem like a symbol of anything you want it to. If you intend to work with symbols, then understanding how innately malleable they are, and how vulnerable to our desires they can be, is really important. Any attempt at working with symbols has to at least try to budget in the impact of human desire – conscious and unconscious. All too often we see what we want, or what we fear may be true, not what is actually before us.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-dreaming


Dreams, meaning and the things we don’t want to mention

There’s something about the human mind that inclines us to look for patterns. We infer faces where none exist. We’re really good at seeing patterns of causality, when faced with coincidences. This is, in essence, where all superstitions come from, and why we end up with lucky socks and obsessive compulsive disorders, sometimes. The ability to find meaning is of course also the basis for all science. Let’s pause a moment and enjoy the beautiful irony that superstition and science may both depend on the same human qualities!

Post a dream on a social media site and in minutes, someone will try and interpret it. We can’t resist. Surely, amidst all the weirdness, there must be sense and significance? Surely those bizarre happenings must have symbols in them, and once we get to the symbols the madness will turn back into coherence. You can easily see the benefits this could confer as a life skill, but dreams are not regular life. I remain suspicious about the degree to which intelligible meaning can be squeezed out of the strangeness that is dreams. I think we risk reducing the dream to something less than its splendid whole when we try and make it mean something.

The sharing of dreams is also a partial process, and that’s very human, too. I’ve shared two dreams publicly, of late, where I have changed the whole impression the dream is likely to give by deliberately missing out some details. It’s tempting to skip over the embarrassing, awkward bits to get to the funny anecdote. It’s advisable not to name the people involved, frequently. Or why it was that we didn’t have any trousers on in the first place. And what we were doing, exactly, that meant this obsessive fixation with doors that won’t lock properly really came into focus.

Usually (at risk of too much information) the unlockable doors in my dreams are on toilets. A recent occasion where they weren’t raises interesting thoughts for me around ideas of boundaries, privacy, personal space and secrets. And there it goes again, that all too human urge to make sense of a dream, coupled with the equally human urge to withhold from you all of the most private and secret parts. Without the unwritten content, no one else has a shot at making sense of it – and of course that’s deliberate too, because while I might be interested in what you think about the possible symbolism of unlockable doors, I don’t want you dwelling on the symbolism of what I was trying to lock in, or out, or why.

There are all kinds of things we can do in response to our dreams. Looking for meaning is just one option. There’s a lot we can learn just by looking at which aspects we want to draw other people’s attention to, and which bits we will never admit to. Secret urges of which we will not speak. Things that do not sit well with our waking personas. Images of shame, guilt, lust, and all the other vices that we wanted to tidy away and find, awkwardly, that really we haven’t.

Pagan Dreaming… in case you want more of this sort of thing.

Divination lessons with Poe

I was listening to Omnia’s version of ‘The raven  a little while back, it struck me what a pertinent piece of writing this is for anyone engaged in symbol interpretation. It’s a bit of a crash course in things you really don’t want to do, and I thought it might be both entertaining and useful to poke around in that a bit. If you aren’t able to listen to Omnia, here’s the text version.

We start out with a chap in a state of angst and melancholy. Moods colour perceptions, and if you are depressed, pretty much everything has the potential to look like a harbinger of doom. He has a fair sense of his own mood, so has no excuse. If you know everything looks shitty and feels doomed, try to avoid reading messages into things because you will just see portents of everything going to hell in a handcart. Had a dancing rainbow unicorn turned up, he would probably have seen something terrible in its eyes.

Clearly he’s looking for something or hoping that something will come to him. Perhaps the ghost of dead Leonore, but he has both a mood of gloom, and an agenda, which informs how he understands everything. It’s easy to see omens when you are specifically looking for them, and the stronger desire is, the less reliable your interpretations will be, so at the very least you need to factor that in a bit and not get too carried away.

He asks the bird its name, it answers ‘Nevermore’ and he instantly rejects that as the name the bird goes by, because it does not suit him to accept. If we are led by our assumptions, we are going to get things wrong. We should not assume otherworldly beings will have the same conventions and habits as we do.

He says a few other doleful things, the raven repeats ‘Nevermore’ and he at once assumes there must be innate meaning in its saying that. The more logical conclusion is that the bird knows one word, and this is it. Again the agenda is allowed to inform the interpretation even when other possibilities are clearly present. He then proceeds to ask an array of questions to which ‘nevermore’ would be the least helpful answer he could hear. He’s setting himself up to get the depressing answers that on some level, he evidently wants. Gloomy man confirms his gloom.

The bird stays. Never once does he consider that the bird might be benevolent, a guardian, or connected to Leonore in some way. He assumes it is there to torture him because he is busy torturing himself. Had he asked ‘how long must I suffer?’ the raven’s ‘Nevermore,’ might have sounded like a blessing, not a curse.

“Will they make me eat tapioca again?”


Without an open mind, any form of divination can be a lot like seeing what you were looking for.

Re-writing life

Personal history is a story we put together as we go along. It explains who we are and how we got here. Often in making our own stories, we are limited to just that first hand perspective. How things looked from where we were standing defines what we think life meant at any given moment. However, we are not all knowing, and what we think happened, is not always what other people think happened. Changing the story can mean changing who we think we are and where we think we came from, and that can be powerful.

The stories other people tell us about who and how we are, can also be misleading. The earlier we hear those stories, the more they shape our perceptions, and the harder they are to weed out. While other girls were princesses, I was ‘funny looking’ and that assessment haunted my childhood and shaped my emerging teenage self. Having been told I was fat, unattractive and that no one would ever want me, I went into all relationships at a disadvantage, feeling that I had to please, rather than looking for people who might like and appreciate me as I was. The mistakes I’ve made as a consequence of that one story, have been numerous, and I suspect I do not know the half of it.

Once we start considering our history as story, it is clear that what we have can be rethought. That which might have seemed like a fact, can be re-identified as an opinion. However, the more important and influential the story was, the more serious the impact of questioning it. Break a big enough story, and you can take your entire sense of reality down. This is a messy and time consuming process. I’m finding it also to be a very good sort of process.

I’ve spent the last few years challenging every story I have about who I am and what significant moments of my history meant. I’ve dug out and poked defining observations, and I’ve collected fragments of insight from other people to give me possible new versions. Each round of this has knocked me about emotionally, alarmed me, confused and disorientated me. But critically, each round has brought me to a place of being a bit happier and a bit more functional. I was carrying a lot of really shitty stories, many of them gifted to me by other people. Stories about what an unappealing nuisance I was, and am. Stories about never being good enough, about being difficult, demanding, impossible and horrible to deal with.

The old story can be condensed down to an assessment that I was a bit of a failure as a human being and needed to do everything I could to compensate for my many, many shortcomings. I look back and see how biddable this made me, how readily I could be guilt-tripped into tolerating all kinds of things, and how it drew all the life, light and colour out of my life. The new story I am working on is that I was on ok sort of person, but that there were some people in my life who were not kind to me. Their reasons for this may have had very little to do with what sort of a person I really was, and everything to do with their wants and fears. I do not have to let that define who I think I am, or who I think I was.

The one thing I have learned as both a reader and an author, is that other interpretations are always available. This does not just apply to books. It is very much a life issue. I’ve lived with interpretations that have been crushing me. Other versions of my history exist. I’ve been helped in this by people who were there along the way, and who have shared other stories. I’ve been helped by people who have not supported the old story. I suspect there is more to rethink and figure out, but the path before me seems open now, rather than a scramble through prickly undergrowth with no obvious destination.

Interpreting the cranes

Poke about online and you’ll find a lot of references to the ancient Druids using ogham for divination, and as a consequence being described as having ‘Crane knowledge’. There is much to be cautious about here. Firstly the ogham itself, which might well not be ancient, and the relationship between Druids and cranes. The idea of the crane bag – a tiny bag of wisdom items carried by Druids, may be something derived wholly from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The idea of ogham as ancient, sacred, mystical language of the Druids, and as method for divination, probably comes from there too.

I’ve read The White Goddess. I’ve also read a Peter Beresford Ellis essay on the subject of Graves’ ogham fabrications, and I’ve read Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess, which flags up many issues around Graves’ work, including the ancientness of ogham. The trouble with Graves is that his influence is widespread, and his ideas are touted around the Pagan community as ancient truth in ways that are bloody difficult to unpick.

It is therefore entirely possible that Druids did not spend any time at all reading mystical ogham messages in the flight of cranes.

However, of all the birds a person might look to for mystical signs in flight, cranes strike me as the most interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time sat in hides and windows watching birds. The thing about most birds, is that once you get to know them, there’s plenty of logic to what they do. They have methods for flying that suit their purposes. Little birds, vulnerable to predation, fall like leaves out of branches. Large winged buzzards soar on the thermals, because they can. Crows attack falcons, not to proclaim coming revolution, but to defend nests and territory. Fishing birds get active when the fish do. They have patterns that repeat over days, habits, preferences, tastes. Spend enough time watching, and the mysterious behaviour of birds resolves into something wholly intelligible.

Except for the flight of cranes, that is. I’ve seen cranes in flight a few times now. They have huge wingspans, long, delicate legs, long necks, and are capable of making a lot of shapes in the sky. Most birds tuck their feet in when in flight, but crane legs seem to get all over the place. The shapes they make are many. They also like posing when on the ground and court with a crane dance that offers all kinds of interesting moves. I would bet that what cranes do makes perfect sense to cranes, but for the observer it’s not too easy to match the shapes they make with obvious intentions. The bigger a flock of cranes, the more complex things they may seem to write across the sky. With their otherworldly calls, and their rather glamorous presence, they really do stand out as birds that might be embodying messages from the divine.

A scatter of wings and legs across a wintery sky. A flash and arc of cranes in flight as they move between feeding places. The human temptation to see a message, written in bird form. What did it say? What did it mean? To the cranes, it meant they were shifting field, for whatever reason. Did the universe pick the moment of their flight to have a little conversation with itself?

Then there were the great flocks of lapwings, weaving across the sky – an act of alarm at the possible presence of a predator, but those swirling bird forms paint the sky in ways that suggest meaning. Crows and lapwings flying across each other in the high wind, a tapestry of bird forms. Does it mean something?

The human mind is predisposed to look for patterns and meanings. That’s one of the features that has turned us into what we now are. We see meaning in randomness – as the Rorschach ink blots have taught us. We find it reassuring to have meanings, and we have a collective obsession with the idea that patterns can be interpreted to give us some control over the future. Be that patterns in currency markets, education outcomes, political policies or the flight of cranes. We really don’t want to believe that the world is a random place that has nothing to say to us. However, in our desire to impose a meaning, I wonder if we miss the subtle things that might be actually there. A lack of meaning would sometimes do a lot more to comfortably explain life, and even more critically, death, than this desire to interpret.

Abuse of language and person

I had a discussion with a friend a bit back, in which I commented on the issues of saying ‘I suck’ and she said…”What I think he really means is…” It gave me a double take. What on earth were we doing, trying to interpret so simple a statement? I’ve had situations where I apparently should have understood ‘never’ to mean something less absolute, and where my saying ‘no’ was not understood as ‘no’ by the person hearing me. This is dangerous territory.

I can point at a few things that got us here. There’s the pop-psychology stream, giving us a tenuous shared grasp of interpretation. What does he really mean? What is she implying? It’s become more relevant because parts of modern life are full of double speak. When someone selling a property says ‘spacious feeling’ we know the place is probably small. Any time a politician opens their mouth, we expect them to say something other than what they mean, carefully hedged so that afterwards they can pretend they were honest with us all along. We’ve learned to mistrust apparently plain speech.

The idea that someone means something other than what they’ve said feeds the passive aggressive approach, and is fed by it. “Fine” does not always means fine. Sometimes it means furious. “Do what you like” can mean “do what I want you to do or suffer the consequences.” It can also be the defeated whimper of a person who has given up trying to get themselves heard, and that can be problematic, too.

The trouble with interpretation, is that you can read anything in, and insist on its presence regardless of what the person speaking tells you they meant. You can go further and decide the other person had unconscious impulses that make your interpretation right. If you want to do something they are not consenting to, deciding you can interpret their unspoken desires is a route to doing as you please. “I know what you really want” is a dangerous and destructive line to take.

We second guess each other. We look for deeper meanings and implications that weren’t there. All too often we ignore the possibility that the surface language was fair and true. If we can’t tune into each other’s distortions and double speak at this point, we are doomed to mutual incomprehension. Then we can follow through by blaming each other for lying and misleading.

Language is a flawed, but also fantastic tool. It is the underpinning of human co-operation and we depend upon it to share and develop ideas. And yet we deploy it carelessly, and bend other peoples’ to distort their meanings. We do not say what we mean and then get angry when other people fail to understand us. Or we get angry with the people who do carefully speak and understand in literal ways.

We need to say what we mean. We also need to assume other people are saying what they mean because it’s probably the only hope we have of weaning each other off passive-aggressive language use. We need to give a good, hard look at those facets of our culture that are corrupting language with on-going misuse. Or we end up unable to talk meaningfully with each other, interpreting ‘I never want to do that,’ as ‘maybe later’ and “you are hurting me,” as “I like this, please do it again.”

I gather it is a Domestic Abuse awareness week here in the UK. I’d like to point out that wilful re-interpretation and misinterpretation can go a long way to enabling abuse. When nothing you say is taken at face value, it is impossible to speak. Your words will be reinterpreted to suit the inclinations of your abuser. When nothing they say is to be taken at face value, and you might be harmed if you don’t understand what they really want, words become weapons. They become the justification for weapons. Interpretation can become a reason for violence, for forced sex, for shouting and breaking things. The implications are huge.

Taking a person at their word is an important mark of respect. If that is taken from you, the damage to your sense of self is massive. Being able to trust what you hear is essential if you are to feel secure. If you’ve got to constantly second-guess what is being said to you, then you never feel safe or comfortable, you are always anxious and on edge. That’s no way to live. If a wrong interpretation will lead to a denigrating bout of verbal abuse, or a bodily assault, you learn to be really afraid of getting it wrong. You also feel like this is your fault and responsibility – you are the one too stupid to understand, so it’s because of your mistakes that you are assaulted. There’s huge psychological implications to feeling that way. It destroys your sense of self.

This is what we do to each other when we let over-interpretation go unchallenged. We make a culture in which some women are not able to say no to sex because their words are twisted to mean other things. We make a culture in which some men think its ok to hit the person who didn’t get what they really meant. If we stop abusing the language we will edge in the direction of not abusing each other.


Most human interaction has an element of interpretation to it. What we means to express, and what other people make of it, are often very different. As a fiction author it’s something I can exploit. Slightly ambiguous writing gives people room to bring their own stories and ideas to mine, and that can make for a richer reading experience. It’s not all good fun though.

History is full of interpretations, as we ascribe meanings and lines of causality to the past. The culture and assumptions of the interpreter will colour what they see. Across Pagan traditions we are still dealing with the legacy of Frazer, who considered traditional people around the world a viable model for the ‘primitive’ European. His prejudice, assumption and colonial attitude narrowed down Paganism to an idea about fertility and very little more. We also have the legacy of Gimbutas, whose feminist ideas encouraged her to see an organised, matriarchal, Goddess worshipping society, and again to miss the complexities and reduce the history down to something restricted and misleading.

When it comes to religion, all we can do is interpret the past. We are never going to dig up a belief. We can find writing about what people said they believed, but you only have to look at modern newspapers to know that what people proclaim in public is not always what they practice in private. We can’t dig up feelings in the graves of our ancestors, at least, not in any way we can substantiate and agree upon.

Interpretation is not just an academic issue though. We might want to consider how we interpret the causalities in our own history. Where do we apportion blame, or credit? We can read in lines of connection that have nothing to do with what was happening. Coincidence can be highly misleading, and the desire to find ourselves innocent of all offence can incline us to skew the evidence in our favour.

Our lives are full of interpreted data, often thrown at us by politicians. The media is often full of ‘facts’ that turn out, on closer inspection, to be highly suspect. The current education minister here in the UK seems to think that all children should be able to get above average results, for example. A brief foray into the meaning of ‘average’ should ring some alarm bells here. We’re killing badgers based on research that suggests it could make a 16% difference to TB in cattle. Turn that on its head and what you see is more like 84% worth of no difference at all. It’s all in the interpretation and the presentation. 50% of all children are doomed to be below average, no matter how well we teach them. That’s what a mean average is all about.

In our own lives and interactions, how much interpretation do we bring into play? If someone makes an absolute statement ‘never do this’ for example, do we quietly shuffle that round to imagine it means ‘sometimes’ and carry on as we please? Do we hear ‘no’ as ‘maybe’? That’s one of the quick routes to raping a person. Do we say ‘never’ when we mean ‘maybe later’ encouraging the people around us not to hear ‘no’ as an absolute? Do we interpret other people’s words and then hold them accountable, based only on what we think they said? Do we keep doing that even when they try to explain what they meant was something else entirely? All too often, the answer is ‘yes’. It makes for exhausting, impossible attempts at communication, largely doomed to failure and frustration. If we neither speak clearly nor listen clearly, but keep reading in our own agenda, the one thing we cannot have, is truth. Neither our own, nor anyone else’s. Language is an imprecise tool and mistakes are inevitable, but it helps if we’re more interested in communicating than in trying to score points.

I’ve developed a personal preference for people who try to communicate well, who are willing to listen, and are not so caught up in their own story that they cannot consider an alternative. I’ve seen too much of the other thing. I have come to the conclusion that faced with people who are determined to interpret my words to fit their agenda, such that firm statements are bent out of recognition, and vaguer ones pinned down with meanings they didn’t even imply, I shall quit. I’m not on a personal mission to try and save everyone from the consequences of their own actions. I have a finite amount of time and am not going to squander it arguing with people who are always right, no matter what.

And who are no doubt quite capable of hearing that as “of course in your special case I can be persuaded” because that is the nature of the beast.

Speculating wildly

I’ve been talking a bit lately about the issues of shoddy history, and crazy interpretation, which comes up a fair bit in the new book, Druidry and the Ancestors. I’m being careful not to replicate content, so whatever comes up here is not in the book, for purposes of keeping life interesting. I don’t actually have any problem at all with wild and creative speculation. It is, after all, the foundation of much fiction writing. Wild speculation can lead to testable theories, new interpretations and other good stuff. It can also create confusion, spread misinformation and generally mess people about.

The first rule of good speculation is to be clear what you are doing. Offering interpretation of facts is fine, but it needs to be said that you are giving an interpretation, not ‘obviously this is the only way of reading the data’. It won’t be. There are always alternative stories available. One good way of keeping your speculation under control is to do a lot of it, ironically enough. Postulate half a dozen interpretations, and then talk about which one you like the most or which ones seem the most plausible.

Giving a bloody stupid interpretation alongside your pet theory and suggesting this somehow demonstrates your theory is the only good one that can fit the fact, is bullshit. Don’t go there.

Be mindful of the stories you already have an investment in. The odds are good that you will interpret in line with existing beliefs and will have blind spots around things you either do not know, or believe. I have an axe to grind about how we interpret human sacrifice into archaeological data, for example, so there’s every chance I will deliberately go the other way, perhaps more than the evidence supports. I am positive about historical pagans and therefore unlikely to give critical theories the same weight as celebratory ones. At least I know this. Many of the people who have written history books about pre-Christian folk had an agenda – to prove the superiority of both Christianity and the more industrialised and colonising culture they came from. As I commented on recently in the post about the trouble with animism, so much of this thinking is still ingrained culturally. Perhaps a little bias the other way is a necessary counterbalance for the time being.

Many of us have work or life experience that calls upon us to interpret information. That may be formal data analysis, but more likely about deciding what someone else’s behaviour means, or who to trust, which expert to follow, which political party to vote for. We are all unavoidably in the business of turning raw information into stories. Sometimes it is the wild speculations that take us forward. Could we…? What would happen if…? Radical things can only come from wild and original thinking. Include Green movements, feminism, new technology and modern paganism in that list. We need wild speculation. Without it, we stagnate.

There is also the wild speculation of politicians who want to make us afraid of the wrong things to keep us pliable. There are the wild speculations of creationists, and the incredible theories of people who can imagine rape as part of God’s Grand Plan. Think about it and you will see some interesting differences. The most dangerous, sick and deluded of wild speculations assert themselves as unassailable truths.

Where there is even a small margin of doubt and uncertainty, there is hope. We need uncertainty. A wild speculation that is not complacent about its own merits will be tested, explored, and only taken forward if it starts generating some kind of evidence. The sick and mad speculations automatically assume their own veracity and will mow down anything that fails to agree. Thus when a misguided vision in the hands of the right people turns out to provably not work, it gets dropped, while those who have no grip on reality keep peddling their madness. People who cannot tell between what is real and what they have imagined can get things right – by accident, if by no other means. But an argument you do not know how to back up or verify is not a very useful thing to take out into the world.

The Pagans I’ve met have all tended to be speculative people, and we do like our wild theories (Atlantis, aliens, dolphin priestesses, the burning times, conspiracy theories etc.) There can be a lot of fun to be had playing with ideas, but we need to keep our feet on the ground and make sure we can test what we think is true, and not rely on our beliefs to reinforce our beliefs.