“Forgive me if I am meddling in matters I don’t understand, but looking back at what has passed, I think….. Merlin, what I am trying to tell you is this, that I believe your god is with you still.”
The Question: why do Brits think we do not have an indigenous spirituality and why are we importing other people’s? Why do those who do recreate pre-Christian practices get such bad truck from the overarching culture of the day?
Ok, it’s a big hope but surely it’s not impossible to achieve to answer these questions? I tell myself that it is doable, reachable, worth it, enlightening and won’t it just free us once and for all from this self-rejection?
Here are the short answers: Yes, we have an indigenous spirituality, it’s just been very well hidden; we’re importing other people’s because we are unaware of/ or rejecting of our own; those who recreate it are challenging a Big Fat Myth.
This myth that has been carved out of the marrow of our souls, when once we fought it with our own blood and flesh, for we knew it to not be true. But now it’s a myth so powerful that we just regurgitate it verbatim as if there were never another truth. We have forgotten because we have been led to believe that there is only toxic indigenousness of being British. Nationalism, racism, fascism, ignorance and poverty. You even say the words druid, witch or pagan and our morality bristles tingle with negative revile: Satan worshipping, make-believe, dark magic, wrong.
The myth has been so beautifully carved, so ancient have been the lies that we have lost the sight needed to look into the deep past. Did you even know that the Romans did not find a savage, uncultured, immoral peoples here? Did you even know that? Of course you did. Why, we have many documentaries about the wonders of Stonehenge, of the burial practices of the Bronze Age, stone circles and winter solstice alignments. So of course we knew. We know all this, we have acclaimed professors who tell us all about the interesting things ancient Britons did. We’ve even heard of the ‘Druids’ that Tacitus, that Roman observer/propagandist writes of, and how robe-clad well-to-dos in the Victorian era circumambulated Stonehenge, dressing up in white robes and being all sombre. Yet all of this is seen through a variety of prisms. first, one of an anthropologist looking at arcane practices that as an observer they assume the observed culture will simply not affect, they remain untouched, clinical in their observing. Other prisms are that of science, that dearest of churches that clearly we must believe in, even though it gave us phrenology and eugenics. The Church itself, rational thought and platonic investigation, that anything cultured meets certain criteria of analysis and reductionism. Except if it is of mythic, esoteric, unseen and unknown matter? No, this has been denounced as quackery or worse. Our culture is disdainful of anyone who lives a path that it feels should be assigned to the history books and left there.
It behoves us to ask, why? Why must we be so doggedly intent on denying our own indigenous roots? Why do we ascribe negative associations with them? Why are we so utterly incapable of accepting our spiritual belonging to this land? Why have we been fed the line given to us by our conquerers and why on Earth do we still regurgitate it, without a second thought, in order to disclaim, denounce and deny our own indigenousness?
This question is now critical to discuss and to explore. This is because of the very reason that the brilliant mind of Woman Stands Shining, Pat McCabe of the Dine’ or Navajo tribe puts so well: the greatest challenge of our current situation is to find a way to live sustainably. Therefore we need to learn from those cultures who have proven sustainability credentials as they have lived and remained in one place for many thousands of years. These are the indigenous peoples of the world. Yet we are either appropriating their wisdom or we are destroying their cultures. So how can we possibly learn from them?
I have some theories. Our current cultural view of pre-Christian spirituality in Britain is forged by the colonial assumptions of the early Industrial Revolution. To excuse the rape and destruction of other cultures, British explorers reduced these people to sub-human, curios, enchanting and odd. Dangerous, yes, but primitive. The prevailing western culture would sweep them aside, convert them to Christianity and teach them to read, in return for vast wealth and control. This was a learned behaviour dating to the Roman period, where ‘divide and conquer’ was a military tactic to subjugate the indigenous cultures in Europe, in the way of the empire-building and expansionism of the dominant culture of Rome. Early ‘pioneers’ of the Industrial era simply continued this. But guess what? They’d kept on doing it to the indigenous culture of the Motherland of Britain ever since the Roman occupation in AD43.
Here is some evidence for this continued subjugation: the adoption of Pagan (and therefore pre-christian) festivals into Christian ones, such as Christmas and the arrival of the Sun God in the shortest day, the May Queen and the phallic Pole turning goodly villagers toward the safety of the manicured village green and away from the erotic sexiness of the blessings of the fields by Cernonnos the Horned God and his Divine Consort, and of course Samhain becoming the greatest woman-bashing of the year: the Black Witch, all evil and ugly, treacherous and wicked. Where, pray tell me are the White Witches, the Golden Witches and Green Witches, the bright and beautiful elements to the sacred Feminine that we hold within us? Where are the healers and midwives, the gardeners and physics? Where are the blessing-givers and the wise women? (When I dress up and go Trick-or-Treating I am going to give a gift of a blessing, not just take their sweets.) I give you also the witch trails of the 15th and 16th century, when witchcraft was made illegal in 1563, and during this entire period around 200,000 women (and some men) were killed in some form or another in western Europe. See also the raping of a wife only made illegal in the twentieth century, where before that it was deemed a woman had ‘given herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract’, noted by Sir Mathew Hale in 1736. How about the Harvest Festival, where the abundance and utter selflessness of Earth is not even given lip service in Church, where we use Her bounty as evidence to give thanks to an anthropomorphic male God, oddly reminiscent of someone who looks very western, very rich and very austere. That healing with hands (just as Jesus and John the Baptist did) was made a heretical act, unless you were doing it through the Church.
Oh, I could go on.
You’ll see that the evidence I am giving has a fair share of evidence of subjugation of women in it. This is not a coincidence. The denial of indigenous wisdom and spirituality is part and parcel of the way women are treated in society, because women are the holders of ancient wisdom. This is seen in almost all surviving and recorded indigenous cultures in the world. Women were the drummers while the shaman danced. They hold the circle, they feed the people, they make the babies and tend the sick, they impart the wisdom of the fireside and are holders of the stories and songs, sang to their children. So, to reclaim our own indigenous roots is to finally listen to the women, not to hide them, belittle and control them.
The hole that was left when we lost our belonging has been filled by the Church, nationalism, rational thought, science and a distancing that we are comfortable with, because it is now acceptable to be interested and fascinated by our pre-Christian culture, as long as we look on the surface like it isn’t seeping into our bones, making us gaze in wonder at the moon and to want to dance around the Guy Fawkes-torturing fire (not a whiff of Paganism there.) We wave our sparklers and take astronomy evening classes to try to understand the itch. Yet we know that our heritage is not a test ground for theory and science, it is a rich mess of wild love for our place. The enforced narrative that kept indigenousness from threatening the dominant culture is cracking: ‘long-forgotten culture’ or ‘prehistory’, the words we use to keep the past from grabbing us, slowly, slowly we are finding a new narrative. One that is richer and more alive: shamanism, rites of passage, wedded to the land, these are things we can understand from our own lives, for we all have stories of this, if we look back. Shamanism of childhood, our teddybear who spoke to us, the trees that were our friends. We have lived it, and the past is myself.
Then, finally, what of our own indigenousness that we have and how do we really feel about embracing it? If we could ask ourselves to be honest, how easy would it be to slip away from the negative associations in our minds? What if I wrote hedgerow medicines, celebrations, community, wise women, storytelling, songlines and nursery rhymes, grow your own, take care of Earth, revering our ancestors and loving with all our hearts those who came before? These are indigenous practices, that we still embrace today, that we need in our lives. They enrich our baleful money-making daily lives and we should be able to breathe, finally and say ‘I come from a long line of indigenous wisdom that is unbroken’ without feeling fraudulent. Why is it that people are taking DNA tests in their droves, to thrill at exotic blood, yet feeling a slight disappointment when it turns out they’re actually quite British? My only answer to that is that the negative associations with our indigenous roots are too negative to swallow.
Yet, the Deep Time has ever been there, waiting to be refound and reborn in our consciousness. Before the myths that the Romans gave us, then the Church, then the Enlightenment and rational thinkers, before the great Industrialisation and Enclosures Act. Before they ever were, we were indigenous, we protected this land, fed off it, nurtured it, grew from it and returned to it. The greatest challenge of our lives is to become sustainable in our days once more, so that finally we can become a restorer species, not a consumer species. We do not need to look elsewhere, we need to just look back in time.
Quote from ‘The Last Enchantment’ by Mary Stewart, 1980, p 207
(I highly recommend you read these books! Merlin of the Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and this final one).