In September, a very dear friend of mine had a massive stroke while at work. He was in a coma for days, and while he’s now conscious he doesn’t seem very aware. Friends and family visit him constantly, talking to him, playing harps and singing, doing everything they can to stimulate his mind, but so far the most they’ve been able to elicit from him is blinking – and it’s uncertain whether those are responses or he’s just blinking. The prognosis, to be honest, is not good.
This man has been active in Paganism at least as long as I have, since the early 70s. A Wiccan, a Druid, and a Native American medicine-keeper, he moved between those spheres seamlessly, gracefully, and with authority. He was also one of the few true Bards I have known, whose music rang with truth and whose store of Lore (deliberately capitalized) was enormous and freely shared. He was what the Native American communities call ‘a valuable person.’ The ruin of this mind – to say nothing of the loss of a much-loved personality – is nothing short of a tragedy to our Community. And for me it has brought into focus the undeniable fact that much of modern Paganism’s history, and all its best stories, exist primarily in the minds of a generation — mine — that’s rapidly aging out.
My friend and I, you see, had plans for next year: we were going to hold a series of talks, locally and then if possible farther afield, about the long history we shared despite not having experienced it in the same parts of the country. Not so much the doctrines and practices, the scholarly collecting and disseminating of verifiable facts, but the oral histories, the family gossip and funny stories and “how did that wind up part of our Lore?” How things were back in the day and how they differ now, and perhaps how some of our lost ways can be restored to us. Without his passion and power and boundless enthusiasm, I don’t think I can do it. But I can do this: I can reach out to everyone I know and urge them, urge YOU, to tell our stories.
I know — everyone is so busy these days that we don’t feel like we have the time to just socialize for hours, which is when we humans have always told our stories. Coven-or-grove time is crammed into an already over-full schedule and must, alas, stay on point or we feel we’re not being ‘effective.’ And we’re all both so trained in the rigidity of classroom education and so accustomed to being polite (despite appearances to the contrary on social media) that we hesitate to either ask impertinent questions or wander off topic and over-share. But we have to break those habits.
If you’re an elder or teacher, for the Gods’ sake talk! And not just from your BOS or lesson plan — though you must of course cover those as thoroughly as you can. Tell the stories behind and around the lessons. Tell stories of the old days. Tell the funny one about the time the ritual failed spectacularly, or the inspirational one about the time it succeeded beyond all expectations. Tell stories of your elders — your downline is their downline, after all, and your students will be fascinated. Explain anything you do differently from the way you were taught, and why. Drop names. Trace relationships. Recount old gossip, all the juicy details. If you don’t already know where everything in your Book of Shadows came from, find out — and pass it on. Nothing should be off limits. You may not think a particular item is interesting or important, but some day it may well be. And the stories flesh out the ‘official’ teachings in a way that makes everything more immediate and memorable to those who came later. Above all, encourage your students to ask questions.
If you’re a member of any kind of linage, formal or informal, please ask more questions of those who’ve preceded you. How did this get in our Lore? What does it mean? How did you, dear teacher, get involved in all this, and why, and what was it like then? Who did you know and what were they like? Any idea they are now? Sure, your elders try to tell you everything, but we can’t unless you help us. We forget. We get wrapped up in another train of thought and neglect to mention something. It can take the right question to tap into a stored memory, a long conversation to create the chain of associations from this thing to that thing to the story that’s needed. Take the time to have those conversations. Take notes, or record the conversation, and don’t worry if they ramble. The ramblings so often contain and conceal the gems of knowledge the teller may not even know they know. Ask.
But there is still a custom — I won’t call it a tradition — in some Pagan circles, of not wanting your students to ask probing questions. I know people who came from such groups, and their stories appall me, such as the fellow who allowed each covener to learn only one ‘role’ in the ritual because he was more interested in putting on a perfect performance than in the power of a properly-understood ritual. Once this was a mechanism for leaders to maintain control over their students and coveners, back when one person might be a desperate seeker’s only source of knowledge and participation. Not any more. Even if you’re stuck with a teacher who doles out crumbs of information like a miser parts with gold, today’s frustrated student has access to the Internet. And most likely, said miserly teacher is no longer the only game in town. Ask. And if necessary, flee. Find someone who wants to empower you.
At the moment, there are two very interesting projects in the national Pagan Community for the preservation of our heritage. The first is the Pagan History Project. They are devoted to gathering oral histories from long-time members of the various Pagan traditions, which makes them an ideal repository of our stories – including what they light-heartedly call the ‘grandmother stories,’ the apocryphal tales of the initiations and personal gnoses of our founding elders. The second project, a more formal one, is the beautiful New Alexandrian Library. Though not entirely up to speed yet, they are a research facility dedicated (as their website states) “to the preservation of books, periodicals, newsletters, music, media, art works, artifacts, photographs, and digital media focused on the metaphysical aspects of all religions and traditions. There is a special focus on the preservation of materials from the Pagan, Polytheist, and Western Mystery Traditions.”
You can start your own history project, too. On a recent Saturday, three priestesses downline from me came over for lunch and an afternoon of questions and answers. We had such a good time, and it all went either on tape or into various notebooks. We went over Trad lore I know I’d shared before but which evidently hadn’t been fully understood — and now, with no distractions and plenty of time, it could be. Under their questions we discovered that a favorite kick-ass spell that I’d taught all of them orally was not after all in our BOS, as I thought. We don’t know if it may have once been there and got lost over the years – I suspect so because I have a clear memory of seeing it there — but because of our oral tradition it’s still part of our Lore. Thanks to that afternoon it’s now in the BOS for sure – they all wrote it down. We plan to do this again with a bigger group. It’s a start.
There’s a recurring element in folk tales about Witches: that she can’t die until she’s passed her power to an apprentice or heir. I submit that a Witch can’t die — or shouldn’t — until she’s passed on her stories, which is where most of her power derives, anyway. In the end, all any of us has, perhaps all any of us is, is our stories. If we let them die with us, our Traditions will die, too.
Tell your stories. Please tell your stories. You don’t have forever. On October 26, 2015 — the Full Moon and his birthday — my friend passed into the Summerlands. Hail and Fare well!