Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From the Upcoming "Talking with the Spirits" - Preserving the Lore, Transmitting the Lore


In discussions of religions of antiquity, “reconstruction” refers to the process of building a model of previous historic and pre-historic traditions, and then examining that model for ideas of how to implement those traditions in a modern, practical sense. The specific definition of “reconstruction” which fits our usage best is, “an interpretation formed by piecing together bits of evidence”.

In the case of [Celtic Reconstructionism], what we are attempting to model are the various forms of pre-Christian Celtic spirituality. We do this in order to create a modern spiritual practice that retains as much authentic older material as possible while also being workable in the modern world. We do this because we feel called to Celtic Deities and a Celtic worldview, and we wish to help preserve modern Celtic languages, music, and cultures
  Kathryn Price NicDhàna, Erynn Rowan Laurie. C. Lee Vermeers and Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann
Because we are a highly literate culture, we tend to learn things from text. Books (and now e-readers, tablets and the Internet) are our preferred medium for the storage and transmission of information. Our religious beliefs were shaped by the Reformation, when the printing press took Scripture and its interpretation from the hands of an educated clergy and turned it over to the individual.  Given that, it’s not surprising that we equate “lore” with stories we can read. Nor is this entirely a modern phenomenon. Many religions have holy books, not just the big Monotheist faiths: consider the Rig Vedas, the Zoroastrian Avestas 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 written word.  But neither should we minimize other ways of preserving information which are perfectly functional and which even have advantages over the literary approach.

Songs and Recitations: 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 – trained performers of the saga - who know 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.  Current events 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. The chante lwa (lwa songs) of Haitian Vodou come out of a society where dictatorial government by force has been the rule. They feature many double entendres, allusions and sly winks which are clear to the poor peasant singers but which a wealthy spectator would likely miss.  In a land where expressing one’s grievances can be fatal, the chante lwa allow believers to communicate safely with their fellows and with their spirits.

And while the written word can convey information with great accuracy, there are emotional nuances that can better be transmitted by music. Rhythms can induce altered states of consciousness and even full-on trance possessions. Marching songs can gear an army up for war: love songs can put an audience in a romantic mood.  Sufi mystic Syed Mumtaz Ali said their devotional Sama songs were
… a means of increasing the brightening light of the burning flame of the love of Allah and it has a tremendous spiritual effect on the listeners. Many a Sufi undergoes a state of unveiling of spiritual divine mysteries. When such states coming from the world of the unseen thus become overwhelming, the Sufis experience a particular kind of spiritual state of transformation which is called 'wajd' or spiritual ecstasy. 
… Sama which moves and activates this mystical element in man in such a way that it makes the listener totally unaware of his surroundings in this phenomenal world to some other reality. The man thus becomes completely unaware of this world, its surroundings and the effects of the corporeal universe. Sometimes the effect of Sama becomes so intense and severe that all the energy and strength of the listener's limbs becomes suspended and he loses his consciousness. One who remains intact and manages to stay on his original position even after passing through such a state of deep ecstasy reaches and attains to very high spiritual positions indeed!
Art: In cultures where only a privileged few are literate – that is to say, most cultures throughout history – the masses must get their religious education through other means.  The decorations in temples and cathedrals were not just for show. They were also a means by which stories could be passed down to spectators. Murals told the story of a people’s noble triumphs and heroic defeats. Statues gave concrete form to abstract ideas and provided a tangible representation of intangible beings.  By meditating upon those images, the postulant could gain an understanding beyond a merely intellectual apprehension. Standing before an enormous marble sculpture of Poseidon, they could feel both the sea king’s enormity and His personality.   The Netjer (Egyptian deities) could be symbolized with hieroglyphs but came to vivid life in wall paintings and brightly colored statues.

Idols were a nexus between the sacred and mundane worlds, a literal embodiment of Spirit. In creating images of the Gods, craftsmen brought Them into their place and their time.  The Renaissance artists who painted saints in contemporary clothing and who surrounded Jesus with European shopkeepers and peasants were bringing His mystery into their era. They were focusing on the Crucifixion and Resurrection not as historical curiosities but as eternally recurring Mysteries.

Monotheists condemned idolatry because they felt that it limited the infinity of the One God, that it focused on the creation rather than the Creator. But few who venerated idols were so foolish as to believe that their God could only be found in a particular image. Rather, they recognized that their shrines were both wholly statue and wholly God: the Divine was infinite yet also present within the confines of the sacred image. (Christianity preserved some of this line of thought in their Mysteries of the Incarnation and the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist).  Hindu scholar Shukavak N. Dasa explains:
Hindus worship specific images that are described in scripture (shastra). The technical name for these sacred images of God is arcya-vigraha. Arcya means 'worship-able' and vigraha means "form" and so arcya-vigraha is the "form to be worshipped." We can also say that God agrees to appear in these special forms that can be understood by human beings in order to allow Himself to be worshipped.
Drama:  Greek drama began as rituals to Dionysus. Comedies celebrated joyous stories during the green spring and summer: tragedies honored sad events in His mythos during the cold fall and winter months when nature mourned. Through watching the downfall of heroes audiences could experience pity and terror, resulting in a catharsis (purification) of negative emotions. The broadly drawn burlesques of comedies allowed them to laugh at human frailties: often these “satyr plays” were ribald observations on love and lust wherein even the Gods could be subjected to gentle lampooning.
Ritual drama was hardly confined to the Pagan world. Medieval mystery plays like Everyman provided moral guidance and edifying allegory to the peasant crowds. Passion plays brought the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus to vivid life. (Alas, the audiences frequently became so engrossed in the action that they later took to the streets en masse to punish any “Christ-killing” Jews they could find). On the Day of Ashura, Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali with parades of flagellants lamenting his death and wounding themselves to bleed as he bled. And Yiddish theater, which influenced American dramatic forms from Vaudeville to Hollywood, has roots in Purimshpil, comedic improvisations performed in synagogues during the Feast of Purim.

Although it sometimes results in possession, dramatic reenactments need not draw down the Gods directly. More often they bring the audience to the Gods or to the events being celebrated. Whether as spectators or participants, they experience the past as present. This can become a powerful means by which community is created – especially when these dramas are performed for a strictly limited audience and serve as initiation ceremonies.  Then they can serve both to enlighten and to mark the participants as a people set apart.