As I write this blog post, I’m sitting on a train. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling, this Imbolctide. I spent the weekend with friends in Edinburgh, celebrating the festival with food and crafts and ritual. Now I’m heading south to Birmingham for my grandmother’s funeral.
I never met her, at least, not that I remember. I and my father and step-mother had talked off and on over the past few years about me visiting her in her nursing home, but in the end, it seemed too odd, to introduce a new element into her ill-remembered world after nearly 100 years of life. Now she’s dead, and I will be ‘meeting’ her tomorrow at her funeral.
As Pagans, the role of family in our sense of our place in the world can be a complex and difficult one.
While many of us seek to honour and connect with our ancestors as part of our spiritual and/or magical practice, those ancestors who are closest to us in time – and, as a friend of mine p0ints out, therefore most likely to be concerned with our personal well-being – are also those most likely to be of a different religion or spirituality than ourselves; they are perhaps even people we had a troubled relationship with while they were alive, or people we know little or nothing about.
Many of us look towards indigenous spiritual traditions, in which spiritual knowledge and tradition is passed down from grandparents to children to grandchildren, with awe and more than a little envy. Some of us even attempt to emulate – or appropriate – those traditions for ourselves. Yet we may find it hard to find or see the wisdom which our own parents or grandparents may hold, because they are part of a religious or philosophical tradition which we find problematic.
As Pagans following more-or-less reconstructed and/or inspired traditions at the beginning of the 21st century, I believe we are a spiritually displaced people. Members of living indigenous traditions not only have continuity of human knowledge over time, but also continuity of relationship with the land on which they live and in which their ancestors bones are buried or over which their ashes are scattered. In contrast, modern (neo)Pagans are lucky to have even one generation of continuity in the passing on of their spiritual and religious tradition, and we do not, for the most part, have the kind of connection to place that tens or hundreds of generations of living in one place or one area gives.
If I recall his argument correctly, in his masterpiece, The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton proposes that many of the roots of the creation and revival of Pagan movements – not only Wicca, but also Druidry and other traditions – lie in the British Romantic movement, which itself could be argued to have come out of the mass displacement of British people from country to city in the Industrial Revolution, hand in hand with the enclosure of the commons and the Highland clearances. And those in turn led Scots, Irish, English and Welsh people to take their chances in the ‘New World’ of north America and the Antipodes.
Displacement at every turn: from the space of the country to cramped city living, from common land which families had worked for generations, to a ‘New’ world, fought over, killed over and parcelled out.
I am not advocating backward-facing, impotent anger over what was done to our ancestors, nor hair-shirted guilt over what was done by our ancestors. Nor am I advocating focusing on the distant past at the expense of our personal, recent pasts, and our living present. I simply believe we do well to remember and accept our displacement in space, time and relationship, and to do what we can to reconnect ourselves.
I know next to nothing about my father’s mother. There is a tear in the fabric of my relationship with my ancestry of blood and bone, of my relationship with the cosmos. Tomorrow I will begin the task of gathering the knowledge to begin to weave that particular tear whole again.