The Importance of Oral Tradition in European Paganism

 

In any pagan culture, the further back in time we go and the more we retreat from its modern civilised state, the closer we get to its oral tradition.

Often described by Christian scholars and those influenced by them as “illiterate” in order to promote and justify the Church’s past (and, in third world countries like Nepal and India, ongoing) missionary work, conversions and “literacy” programs, this is not the case. Such societies commonly knew runes – the futhark in the case of the Anglo-Saxons, the Ogham in the case of the Celts, and a hypothetical Slavic runic alphabet.

Essentially shorthand alphabets, these runes did have religious and symbolic significance as well (after all, like the Greek alphabet they largely derive from, they ultimately originate in the pictograms of Egyptian hieroglyphs). As a writing system, during pagan periods archaeological finds suggests they were used mainly for short passages, and to commemorate the Dead in runestone passages.

As partially literate people, we must understand that, as societies that practiced oral tradition, were more removed from civilisation and therefore had less of a need for formal historical, legal and financial records, these pagan cultures did not need to be fully literate.

The stories preserved through oral tradition rely on repetition, these epics, as well as political and legal speeches, all had to be remembered. Cultures that could remember everything, and had to, had little need for full literacy.

Oral tradition in our mythology:

Archaeological finds – sculptures, statues, temples, brooches, pendants – are highly significant and how much these have enriched and informed our understanding of our heritage, as well as acting as relics that keep us in touch with our ancestors, cannot be overstated.  However, the stories, the myths and the rituals, even the fairy tales, all originate in this oral tradition.

Once upon a time we remembered knowledge – we did not need libraries. Just as we remembered this history, this heritage, and passed it down to the next generation, our ancestors needed to remember their ancestors, and their past lives, and these memories and past lives were likewise unlocked and passed down to the next generation symbolically by the older generation, i.e. the priests, the druids, the sorcerers etc.

To understand our religion, its symbolism and the purpose of repetition, we need to understand how oral tradition works, the methodology and reasoning behind its use of repetitions, the structure of the recorded narratives, and how easy it is to overlook just how steeped in ritual and religious practices and beliefs these classic texts such as the Iliad, the Kalevala and the Poetic Edda are.

(Wikipedia) – “In Parry’s view, formulas were not individual and idiosyncratic devices of particular artists, but the shared inheritance of a tradition of singers. They were easily remembered, making it possible for the singer to execute an improvisational composition-in-performance.”

“..it is doubtful, to say the least, whether Oral-Formulaic Theory can be applied to any of the many fixed-phrase genres of folklore – for example, proverb or riddle. Proverbs are not composed anew each time they were uttered. Without the possibility of improvisation, it would appear that the Oral-Formulaic Theory would not be applicable… Still, even if Oral-Formulaic Theory were valid only for the epic genre, it would be of importance. The epic is unquestionably a major genre of folklore, and thus any theory proposed to deal with such a major genre would be significant. “ – Alan Dundes – p. xi, from the Forward to The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology by John Miles Foley

“…the key to an understanding of the Kalevala is the power of the word, the power of incantation and of the story that brings power. Its heroes are word-masters and wonder-workers.” – vii – Albert B. Lord, Forward to Kalevala translated by Keith Bosley

I might do a future video going into Oral-Formulaic Theory after studying it further, but it is clear that there was method in the structure and repetition to aid speakers (and singers) in remembering these passages.

Furthermore, though repetition undoubtedly served this simple purpose, the amount of repetitions – be it of verses, motifs, symbols or of similar characters – was no coincidence, and I would argue ultimately rooted in the reincarnation rituals that spawned these more elaborate folk tales and epic poems.

The significance of numbers in Oral Tradition:

3: We often see our heroes in oral tradition attempt something three times, be it challenging, physically attacking or charging, or approaching or entering something. Sometimes the third attempt triggers a change or revelation (or a failure) by itself, sometimes it is the fourth attempt that sees this metamorphosis or the breaking of the pattern occur. Examples include Patroklus (the foetus, literally “the glory of the father”) charging the wall of Troy three times, with great success, until the fourth attempt/the change triggered by the third attempt (or the third symbolic pregnancy) results in his death at the hands of Hektor that sets in motion the chain of events through the rest of Homer’s Iliad. It is also significant that Achilles chases Hektor (literally “to hold” – Hektor holds things together) around Troy three times before slaying him. There are also examples of this in the oral tradition of the Welsh Mabinogion. Another example of this can be seen in the number of stages of shapeshifting in Irish fairy tales, before the side in question reaches its final form, and the protagonist receives a revelation and/or solves the riddle.

7 – the amount of years between each rite of passage, the three stages of awakening – ages 7, 14 and 21. The amount of days in a week. In accounts of the Irish Sidhe (fairies/elves i.e. the ancestors) the sidhe are said to kidnap girls, and after seven years “when the girls grow old and ugly, they send them back to their kindred, giving them, however, as compensation, a knowledge of herbs and secret spells” (Lady Wilde). This could be interpreted as representing the period of religious service (to the ancestors) before girls reached adulthood and were returned to their family (and future husband). In the “Peredur son of Efrog” story in the Mabinogion his father the earl has seven sons. In this text at least 7 is more commonly the number of items or number of people  that appear in a scene, rather than the amount of repetitions of the protagonist’s action.

9 – The nine months of pregnancy (and, in reincarnation, 3 x 3 symbolic pregnancies), the nine realms of Yggdrasil. In Irish myth: “If you walk nine times round a fairy rath at the full of the moon, you will find the entrance to the Sifra; but if you enter, be wary of eating the fairy food, or drinking the fairy wine (Lady Wilde). In the Mabinogion Peredur encounters nine witches – “together with their father and mother”.

The integrity and reliability of recorded Oral tradition:

With any documented myths we need to be critical and know how to “filter out” the Christian elements. Unlike in the fictional histories, chronicles and other works by Christian scholars, I would argue it is considerably easier to recognise these distortions and anomalies worked into the texts of oral tradition documented by these predominately Christian scholars. We just need to understand how oral poetry worked, recognise the symbols and riddles that clearly predate Christianity, and recognise what are, to varying degrees, fairly obvious Christian distortions, and in some cases what even appear to be forced “disclaimers”, in parts of the text.

A particularly striking example of this is the Kalevala, Considering how late this record of Finnish and Karelian folk tradition was compiled, one might expect it to me riddled with anachronisms and heavily influenced by Christianity, but this is not quite the case. Though adopting a linear narrative and a consciously monotheist interpretation of a “chief god” and a “Great One”, with occasional references to the “Devil” and “evil”, unambiguously Christian and Biblical references are actually rare, unlike, for example, Beowulf and the Mabinogion.

When we focus on reading these original sources – the oral traditions, epic poems and rural folk tales that are at the centre of our cultural heritage – we come far closer to understanding their true essence and the burial and reincarnation rites they related to than we will by simply reading books “about paganism” or more specifically summaries/modern paraphrasing and collection of this or that pantheon and its myths. We need to reconnect with oral tradition.

Folk tales and customs belong in the countryside among the common folk, not in libraries gathering dust

Though books such as James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World and Marie Cachet’s The Secret of the She-Bear are invaluable, we need to train ourselves in our ability to follow these complex narratives and structures, recognise the patterns, symbols and riddles and to really enter the mindset of our forebear practitioners of the oral tradition, with the right method and the right “key” to unlock these secrets and make sense of it all.

I am still learning, and will do what little I can to guide people as my own knowledge grows.