Tag Archives: tradition

Making new traditions

For me, one of the great joys of modern Paganism is the scope we have to create new traditions. Not, I hope, with an eye to becoming the dogma for future generations, but in a playful and light-hearted way that enables us to let go of anything that doesn’t work.

We have a wealth of inspiration to draw on from folklore and mythology, but we don’t have to be excessively faithful to it. You don’t have to spend long studying these things to realise that they change over time anyway. Traditions are all about people keeping the bits they like, letting go of the bits they don’t and innovating new things to suit the time and place in which they find themselves.

Midwinter is the season of festivals, and there are a great many we might look at. Or, we can make our own. For me, one of the key seasonal features is the Christmas pudding. This is largely because of all the festive foodstuffs, it’s the one I truly love. I’ve been making puddings for years, and where I can, I make puddings to share. Having a pudding tribe is an important part of the season for me. One of my other personal traditions is visiting the swans – I live near Slimbridge, where migrant swans come in each winter to feed. They travel thousands of miles escaping the arctic winter for the relative mildness of the UK. There are also huge duck migrations, and I’ll enjoy seeing them, too.

Traditions give us fixed points in the year, they can connect us to ancestors, landscape, other living things, communities… they are very much what we make of them. Too much tradition is inevitably stifling, but sprinkled through a year, traditions form points of familiarity and continuity that can help us feel secure and give us a sense of place in both time and the physical world.

Anyone can start a tradition, and keep it for as long as they wish. As Pagans, we can, and I think should craft our traditions based on our experiences and needs, knowing what we want and need from them and acting accordingly. If we’re going to invest in keeping on doing something every year, it should be something that feeds the soul, lifts us, helps us bond with each other and brings joy, comfort, coherence, and connection.


Evolving traditions

If something is traditional, that shouldn’t mean it’s above questioning, even if you are someone who is passionate about upholding the traditions of your culture and protecting other people’s rights to their traditions.

Many cultures have a tradition of genital mutilation. Traditions of cruel punishments, unreasonable intolerance and sick leisure activities have existed all over the world through history. As someone with a deep attachment to British traditions, I am not obliged to take onboard the whole lot of them. For me, any ‘tradition’ that involves cruelty needs ditching. Baiting animals, cock fighting, bear dancing and fox hunting are all things that have been considered great traditions in this country. To try and hide that cruelty behind the excuse of tradition is intolerable to me.

Traditions can and do change. Mumming used to be more about collecting money for those in poverty during the winter – many customs have an aspect of ritualised begging to them – wasailing, pace egging, guy making to name but a few. Our trajectory away from abject poverty has reduced the impetus to go out undertaking these forms of ritualised begging. Instead, people now do them for fun. The traditions have changed.

The most ardent traditionalists from all cultures pick which traditions to ignore and which to uphold. Most usually people ignore the traditions they find inconvenient and uphold the ones they enjoy. Take for example the way in which the Christian far right in America is keen to uphold anything negative the Bible might suggest about LGBT people, but seems to have entirely failed to notice how opposed Christian traditions are to divorce and adultery.

The idea that ‘this is my culture and you have no right to tell me I can’t do my traditional but horrible thing’ has hard wired into it a complete disregard for how traditions actually work. Traditions change. They evolve to meet other changes in circumstances. If the wider culture changes, it is reasonable to assume the tradition will evolve to keep up. Cock fighting is no longer a sport. It’s been widely speculated that the great tradition of cheese rolling has its roots in some ancient practice involving burning wheels and human sacrifices. I have no idea if it did, but the principle that you can go from chasing a burning wheel with a human sacrifice in it down a steep slope, to chasing a cheese, is a good one. Willing victims offer sacrifices of broken bones.

If a tradition is no longer suitable, it can be changed, without destroying the culture it came from. I suggest that hanging onto an otherwise dead and unsuitable tradition, for the sake of tradition, is a sure fire way of actually killing tradition within your culture, what isn’t allowed to evolve, will die.

Bard Skills – matters of ownership

No one can claim ownership of a traditional song, or a story, or someone else’s poem. However, there is a kind of optimal etiquette around this, and everything works better when people are respectful of each other’s repertoires.

When you start out as a new performer, the odds are you’ll have no idea what the people around you know, and you may pick up something someone else is performing. However, the probability is that as a new performer, you’ll pick up fairly obvious material (let’s nod to good old John Barleycorn again.) This is ok, and something not to worry about too much. There are things that happen around certain kinds of material, I’ll be back to that in a moment.

However, hearing a piece performed by someone in the same circles as you and thinking ‘I’ll have that’ is not a good way to go. Many songs and stories share content, and having a different version from someone else works well, but taking someone’s version to perform in the same spaces, is bad manners. If you are going places they are not, that can be fine. Otherwise, ask. It may be that this is the sort of beginner’s piece that the performer is happy to let you have, or that they don’t mind sharing it. Get permission.

If the material you want to borrow is the creation of someone in your circle, really, really get permission. Material written by people you don’t know (youtube has become such an interesting part of the oral tradition) is fair game, but do credit it where you can.

When I started singing folk songs in public places, I sang Wild Mountain Thyme, Bonny Ship the Diamond, The Leaving of Liverpool, High Germany, and others. Nobody else at the club I was going to seemed to be singing them. My repertoire expanded rapidly in that first year and became more diverse, less obvious. Then I watched as other new-to-folk people came along, and sang a lot of the things I’d been singing. I put those songs down. It was fine. I’d had my time with them, and other people needed them more than I did. No doubt, other people had stopped singing those songs when I started.

The process of handing material over is part of what helps us all to grow, helps new people get started, helps keep things moving. I started a new singing venture this autumn. One of the regulars has picked up Wild Mountain Thyme. Another expressed enthusiasm when I sang Shenandoah. I sent her the words, happily, and have since heard her sing it. There are balances to find around what we keep and what we let go of, but it’s a key part to participating in a living tradition.

Folk and new tradition

I grew up with folk music, and was learning songs from an early age. That said, it wasn’t until I found a folk club in the Midlands, in my early twenties, that I had any idea I could sing. It came as a bit of a surprise being complimented on my voice after so many years of being told I sang like a cat…

I’m interested in tradition, and more importantly, in living tradition. I do know a fair few traditional songs, but early on I took the decision to seek out and learn the work of contemporary singer songwriters working in folk. It’s an odd thing, this, because in some ways, the measure of your success as a writer of new folk is to have your name drop off the song, and to disappear. In terms of ever getting a royalty cheque, this is not a great outcome, and I do know folk composers whose work has gone feral in this way. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The point of folk is the sharing of material, and the writing of songs that can speak to people, and be sung unaccompanied in fields. Early on I did dabble in song writing, but frankly I’m not very good at it, and there are so many good songs out there in need of an audience. So I lend my voice to other people’s work, keeping songs alive, and audible as best I can. It’s a small contribution to the tradition, but that’s where the tradition comes from – innumerable unnamed people down the centuries singing the songs they thought should be sung.

How to destroy a culture

History offers us many terrible examples of attempts to destroy cultures through violence and oppression. What it also demonstrates is that, so long as there is someone left alive who cares, and either has access to memory or other sources, something of the culture will survive. People will go to remarkable lengths to protect the things they are passionate about.

As a consequence, I am endlessly confused by the people who think that immigration, and Europe, can somehow damage British culture. I find it doubly odd when you factor in that our radio stations are not carrying anything like as much European pop music as they do American songs. Our cinemas are not awash with arty continental films, but with Hollywood films. Our televisions are not broadcasting French sitcoms and Italian dramas to a great degree (I gather there was a Scandinavian  woman with a jumper, but it’s hardly a cultural takeover).

I have a suspicion that many of these fanatical defenders of ‘British culture’ would struggle to identify anything iconically British. Chicken tikka masala, perhaps.  Football, which clearly no one else in Europe plays. Saturday night drunkenness, which literally no other country on the planet goes in for. King Arthur (and many of his stories actually come to us from the French, but who’s counting?) Defenders of ‘British Culture’ also don’t seem to know that since the last ice age, all we’ve had is immigration. Our language is a composite of the languages of settlers, and invaders. Our traditions and history are deeply intertwined with the histories and traditions of people across that tiny strip of water. Really, it’s not a lot of water, people have been back and forth across it in boats for thousands of years.

A culture dies when no one cares about it. How many people who claim to be pro-British culture have any involvement with, or interest in any British traditions? I suspect most of them don’t. I note that every single folk person I know has made no suggestion that we need to protect our traditions from other people. Why would we? Other people’s traditions are not a threat. Cultures die when people stop caring about them.

The threat to Britishness does not come from outside. The threat to Britishness, and I do think there is one, comes from the apathy of the British. If we don’t care about our history, heritage, landscape, unique natural phenomena, folklore, and traditions, that’s our fault. No good blaming people from other cultures. It’s not like anyone is closing our libraries and museums, selling off our most environmentally important landscapes for development, fracking our land, destroying our archaeology in the name of progress, taking away funding from indigenous language projects, or creating a culture of forced work mobility to undermine communities… Oh, that would be our government, wouldn’t it?

Witchy Granny Chakras

At what point do we say something has become a tradition in its own right?

The idea of chakras as drawn from eastern traditions first entered western awareness in 1927, according to wikipedia. My Gran was 7. Other people’s grannies had yet to be born. It means your modern witch could quite legitimately have learned about chakras from their witchy granny who learned about it from a book, that they might not have read themselves, but which may have been transmitted to them by other means.

How much eastern mysticism entered western thought in the 1960s when others of our witchy grannies learned it from someone who had met someone who had once sniffed a real guru?

Wikipedia also reckons that prana and Mesmer’s animal magnetism were pretty much the same thing. Not that wikipedia is an unassailable font of wisdom, but its a place to start. The west has been borrowing exotic things from the east for a long, long time. But it goes deeper, because if these things have some kind of reality, then anyone, in theory, can figure them out. If an energy system is real, you don’t need a witchy Granny or a guru to teach it to you, you can just find it. Possibly.

I’m a second generation modern Pagan. No doubt my son is picking things up from me that I’ve absorbed along the way. Some of them, like my pronunciation of Beltane, are not as they were in their original, authentic and proper context. Does that matter? Does it matter that there’s a western chakra tradition that might have very little to do with anything anywhere else in the world? If it works for people, is that more important?

I learned what I thought were traditional folk songs from my grandmother. They turned out to be songs by singer songwriters who were there at the start of the folk revival in the UK. They are still the traditional songs I learned from my granny. But that’s not the same as being part of one of those families that handed down songs through the generations. But what if my son learns those songs from me, and his children as well? At what point do we become tradition bearers? I offer it as a parallel, because while I have a lot of folk songs, I don’t have any chakras whatsoever. The issues still interest me.

Ancestral songs

The folk tradition has been part of my life from the beginning. I grew up with traditional songs, and modern singer-songwriters, and spent my twenties running a folk club. I’ve always loved the material, but I don’t think I really understood it until I started using it in a working context.

If you’re living close to the earth and doing things by hand a lot, it takes a colossal amount of time and effort. Much of it requires some attention, but won’t fully occupy your mind. If you spend whole days on fairly dull, repetitive, essential work, it can become soul-numbing, mind killing drudgery.

Unless you’re singing.

I can do anything, for as many hours as it takes, if I can sing or if someone else is singing. I can push through pain and exhaustion. I can do the utterly tedious and be happy, because I’m singing. The sharing of voices is a really community binding thing, too. Singing together, working together, that has so many levels to it, and a real power. If I’m singing then first and foremost, I am a person sharing a song, and what I’m doing with the rest of me does not define how I feel. In face of long stints of hard grind, that can be critically important.

Being a person who sings, and does other stuff, is a totally different emotional experience from being a person who is engaged in dull and physically demanding work, and is not allowed to sing. It raises interesting issues about how human and expressive we are allowed to be in our workplaces. I also find myself thinking about the important role of the radio in the modern workplace. The presence of popular music, the permission that gives to at least sing along with the chorus… it’s a lot more like tradition and ancestral expressions than may first appear.

Bardic tradition and relationship

When we talk about bard stuff, the emphasis tends to be on original creation, be that in song, poetry, story making or wider expressions of creativity. We lose sight sometimes of bard craft in the moment, and that old tradition of sharing words and music. There are two sides to having a tradition, of which original creativity is only one. Obviously you need people to make things, or there are no stories to tell or songs to sing. In order for there to be a tradition, other people need to pick up those songs and stories and share them on, keeping them alive far beyond the death of the originator.

I grew up steeped in the folk tradition, and I know a lot of material that has been through countless unnamed other hands. To be truly part of the folk tradition is to disappear. The songs and stories live on, the people gracefully melt away. Those songs change and evolve over time, something visible in the many variants of many older ones. Change is part of the living quality of tradition.

As a performer, I dedicate far more of my time to other people’s material than to creating my own. I’m very much on the maintenance side of these traditions, not an innovator. I sing and play traditional material, and also things written by people I know. It raises some interesting issues for me. I quite often change bits. I’ll replace archaic words with things more likely to make sense to my audience. I’ll change gender to make songs fit me, or I’ll change the meaning of a song simply by singing it as a woman. Richard Marx’s Hazard becomes a story of prejudice against lesbians if I sing it the way he wrote it! Damh the Bard’s Obsession is a very different song if I sing it, just because it is me, and not him. There are songs I’ve felt comfortable tweaking and adapting, and songs where I would not change a detail of arrangement. There are songs I do not sing, much as I love them because I do not feel I can honour them. Raglan Road, would be a case in point.

This is incredibly personal stuff, and is about my relationship with a song, it’s creator, it’s history, where I got it from, what I was doing when I learned it, and who I’m singing it for. Each relationship is different, for me. I’m entirely conscious that every other person who engages with this same folk tradition has a totally different relationship with the material. This is great. Other people can mess about with songs that I hold sacrosanct and could not touch. I am not in any way distressed by this. I run into arrangements that reimagine songs in ways that inspire me, and others that make me sad, and that’s fine too. Diversity is good.

What I’ve realised over the last few days, is that my relationship with the tradition, and with each individual song or tune I work with, is important to me. I take those relationships as seriously as I do relationships with people. For me, a song is a living, breathing, spirited thing that deserves respect. I’ll only change it if it makes sense for the song. I’ve been working on a rework of Lyke Wake Dirge, which is beautiful, but needs a lot of explaining in the original, being both archaic of language and about something that we don’t have in the collective consciousness any more – the journey through purgatory. I might try it out at Samhain. In the context of my relationship with that song, I can do that. Other people may not like it. I in turn feel bloody uncomfortable when people re-write Christmas carols to make them Pagan. But, I deal with that by not singing them. End of problem.

Relationship is not one big blanket thing with a single answer for all circumstances. It is the precise way in which we engage with specifics – people, places, songs, trees… and I have only just realised in a conscious way how important that relationship with songs is to me.

A landscape full of stories

When I lived in Dursley, I lived in a landscape full of stories. Every hill had a tale or two associated with it. Places around the town and surrounding countryside were full of stories, too. Some of them were shared tales – the site of the former small pox hospital, apparently the ruins were there when my great grandmother was a child. The mass graves on the hillside, which, despite local legend, were probably ancient rabbit warrens. Rabbits used to be wimpy and needed warrens made for them when first introduced by the Normans. The earth-worked hill fort re-mythed as a place to race chariots.

Folklore is full of stories that root people in the landscape. The invented history of local places, explanations for natural features, and for place names, are common. Many clearly have no proper grounding in reality. Last weekend I went to Cromwell’s Mount in Scarborough, local legend has it, he fired on the castle from there. The most tenuous grasp of cannon capabilities suggests this was impossible. Tales of dancers transformed to standing stones, boulders placed by giants as tombstones, hills made of abandoned boots in a ploy to confuse the devil… There are many such tales around the UK.

These are often not real histories, and probably never were meant to represent a kind of literal truth. Instead, what such storytelling does is give you a map of the landscape. It makes personal each hill and cave. Nature isn’t an entirely strange, dangerous, and unknown place. The land outside the village is where we once fought a battle, its where you can see ghosts from that long forgotten war. It may be creepy, but it’s known. It may be hazardous, but here’s a story about a man who went up that hill and killed the most ferocious wild boar that ever was seen. This is where King Arthur is buried. This is where Granny was drunk on cider whilst riding a horse. Personal stories and bigger myths blend together. Back when stories were most of our entertainment, the idea that a hill looks a little bit like a sleeping dragon could keep you imagining and inventing for a lot of evenings.

Anyone can undertake to bring stories to any landscape. History can be helpful in this regard, furnishing raw material. Tales from our own people are just as relevant. This is the hill Bob tried to cycle down without using his breaks, this is the corner where he unexpectedly met a duck and wound up in the hedge… Making things up is fine. This is the corner where Bob met a dragon, and fell in the hedge. Looking at a place and wondering what would have been and what never was, is just what our ancestors used to do. Making stories about the landscape should not be a dull process, it’s just about rooting tales in a place, so that the people who share the tales also feel rooted in that place, have a sense of belonging. We are story telling creatures, and when tales of the tribe include a keen sense of locality, we know who we are, and where we are.

Chanelling the folk

For a long time it was a commonly held belief that folk customs could be assumed to contain ancient Pagan remnants. After all, the common folk are so often an illiterate, uneducated lot, not too bright… what can they do but repeat what they’ve always done? Clever people from the literate classes can interpret things into the unwitting actions of the folk people.

I’ve been doing some deep, deep work over the last few days, listening to the voices of my peasant ancestors, and this is the wisdom I have brought back to you.

We have to make our own fun, and so we make stuff up. We tell stories. Some stories are old and some are new and some are the kind of new stories that are really the old stories in new skins.

Begging is mostly illegal and shameful. None of us are beggars. Although, if you get a nice bit of greenery and a dead bird to show people, that’s not begging, that’s tradition. Sing the song, do the dance, pass the bowl round. That’s not begging either, that’s a custom and it’s heritage and thank you yes, a pint would go down very nicely just now. Got any apples? How about a nice bit of pudding? We’re very good at coming up with things that aren’t begging at all, but that result in people who have a lot of money, food and drink passing it around to those of us who don’t have quite so much.

But we’re just simple country people acting out the timeless traditions. So that’s different. If you don’t pay up, we’ll plough your drive, or piss on it, or put a rude verse in about you for next year. That’s traditional too, that’s not menacing anybody, it’s how things are done.

It’s amazing how many ancient folk traditions involve passing round a bowl or demanding refreshments. We could talk about the symbolic sharing of wealth to encourage the fertility and wellbeing of the tribe… we could shoehorn that into what we want to think ancient Paganism looked like, but I’m not convinced. I’ve been out with mumming sides, I’ve carol sung door to door. Most of the year you cannot knock on doors and demand money in exchange for a song, but in the week before Christmas, it’s fair game. Most of the year you can’t turn up in a costume and demand sweets, but on the 31st of October a lot of people will have sweets in, just in case. Penny for the guy? Ritualised begging. It’s mostly about the begging, and the sweets. I wonder how long we’ve put a skim of religion over the top of that? Because of course if you let yourself believe it’s religion or tradition, you can also pretend that the people you are ritually relieving of distress aren’t also bloody poor and in need the rest of the year.

It’s not poverty, it’s not begging, it’s traditional, and therefore the rest of the time we can pretend the need doesn’t exist. Because we’re clever and literate and we can read in the signs of ancient religion that tell us these people are just fine, and acting out ancient Pagan heritage, and not actually starving.

Most mummers these days aren’t starving, but as Christmas is the season of token-gesture charity giving, it’s worth a ponder.

(Also, I owe a lot to Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun for this.)