Monday, July 25, 2011

On Holy Writ: for Galina Krasskova

I've been talking a lot lately about ways of seeing and why we need to get back to the worldview of our distant ancestors.  The latest post from Galina Krasskova is an excellent study of what that entails and why it is so vitally important.  Galina nails in a few paragraphs what I've been trying to say for weeks: she also hits some issues I had overlooked.   I've focused on the Scientific/Materialist prejudices which shape our worldview.  Galina concentrates on a no less insidious prejudice, our reliance on Holy Writ.  Toward that end, I thought I'd add a few words of my own.

Many religions have holy scriptures, not just the big Monotheist faiths: consider the Rig Vedathe Zoroastrian Avestasthe Book of the Dead and similar texts. Sacred books can preserve a great deal of ancient knowledge, and provide a framework upon which we can build sociocultural institutions and identities. After the Temple's destruction, the Rabbis preserved Jewish identity and culture through their veneration of Torah and Talmud: they allowed the Jews to survive as a people when many peoples were consigned to the dustbins of history.  We cannot minimize the value of the Word.  But neither should we minimize other, non-textual ways of preserving information which are perfectly functional and which even have advantages over the literary approach.

Singers and bards have long memorized lengthy passages. The Iliad and Odyssey were transmitted orally before being preserved in writing.  Even today the Kirghiz preserve their ancestral history in the Manas saga, an epic of over 236,000 lines - almost nine times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined! (And yes, there are manaschi who can perform every line).  These songs and stories are more flexible than the written word. The poet/singer is given room to improvise, to alter the text to address contemporary problems.  Incidents can be incorporated into the tribe's collective memory and become a part of their mythology.  Oral epics grow within a well-established culture, yet are less subject to official censorship and control.  Controlling printing presses and libraries is one thing: controlling the songs the grandparents sing to the children at night is a far more difficult matter.

Today many Reconstructionists treat ancient texts as sacred scriptures.  Yet this is a modern view, certainly not the intention of the original writers or of their audience.  It is, of course, difficult to establish the authorial or editorial intent of the original writers and compilers of most holy scriptures.  It is not difficult to prove that these texts have been re-edited and re-interpreted throughout their history. One sect's apocrypha is another sect's canon, and one generation's heretic is another generation's prophet.  The battles which have arisen among Reconstructionists as they struggle with inclusion and interpretation are part and parcel of scripturally-based faiths.  Words can be set in stone: their meaning is far more fluid.

The idea is not to say the exact words our hundred-generations-removed ancestors used in their ceremonies while using the correct dialect and wearing a ceremonial robe woven out of period-appropriate fabrics. The idea is to re-establish the connection those ancestors had with their Gods and the ways in which they interacted with the world.  Instead of seeing them as part of a mythic Golden Age set apart from us, we should understand them as a process which began long before us and will continue long after we are gone.  We still fight their ongoing battles; we reap the benefits of their achievements; we carry the terrible burdens of their failures.