The Importance of Attribution

The Importance of Attribution August 23, 2014


I love this rendition of “Earth My Body.”  I love the additional music, I love the video, I really do.  I just have one big problem with it, and it’s this:  “the opening and closing chant is a very old song with an unknown author.”

No, ma’am.  No, it isn’t.  It’s neither “very old”…unless you consider 1987 to be very old, and since that is the year after I graduated high school I must strenuously object…nor are its antecedents completely unknown. I have a copy of Circle of Song by Kate Marks which says that the chant was published by Prana on their album “Return of the Mayflower” in 1987.  I have never seen a copy of the original recording, so it remains unclear to me whether Prana (group or indiviual) wrote it or someone else did, and I’m not sure whether they gave an author. But the previous recording at least is pretty easy to find.

Here’s how this came about, and why it is a problem:

For quite a while there, people REALLY REALLY WANTED to believe that the neo-Pagan religions that were springing up like fairy rings everywhere were actually unbroken traditions that had been preserved in secret and handed down generation to generation from Neolithic times to the present, completely whole and unaltered. Not only did they want to believe it; in order to appear “authentic” and authoritative, people would claim that whatever they were teaching was handed down from two thousand years of Welsh witches or what have you.

Need I say that this just isn’t so?

All kinds of terrible things happened as a result.  Those who were up front about having just written or researched something, or who acknowledged the fragmentary and/or syncretic nature of what was actually passed down, were often derided or ignored.  Those who insisted on some scholarly rigor were attacked.   As a consequence and in backlash, any evidence of actual pre-Christian survivals were angrily rejected or ignored…either by people who had been burned once and were twice shy,* or by people whose views had been too distorted by the confabulated version of Pagan history they’d been taught.  In order to avoid the whole argument, some people just passed stuff around calling it “traditional”…never mind that the “tradition” in question was often less than ten years old. Most of the popular Pagan chants fall into this category.  In fact, if anybody reading this can show me documented proof that any of the chants we use are older than 1965,** I will post a recording of me singing it to this blog.  (This may sound like more of a threat than a promise, but whatever).  It’s a much more far-reaching problem than just chants, as well…we have false or misleading attributions of liturgy, initiatory lineages, whole traditions.

Why is this important?  Multiple reasons, some of which I have covered elsewhere (mostly writing under the name Sarsen) though it is an absolutely widespread and endemic problem in Pagan circles to this day. To summarize: Obscuring authorship is still used by some unethical individuals to claim ownership of material, boost their own authority, refuse credit to people they don’t like, or make what they are talking about seem ancient and mysterious. It makes people who write music and liturgy less willing to share their work.. It occludes the real and fascinating history of our religions and makes it harder and harder (as the old folks start to die off and events recede out of living memory) to figure it out. This last is a tragic loss, since we have but one chance to preserve the history of what has happened in the last fifty years or so for future generations, and if we let it slip away it will be gone forever.

I’m neither hung up on historical authenticity nor do I think it completely irrelevant.  I do however think it’s vital to know whether you are talking about tradition or personal gnosis, and if “tradition” how old and widespread that tradition actually is and where it comes from. Context is important.  And letting our real history be replaced by a Disneyfied myth serves no one.

As time has gone on, it has gotten better in some ways and worse in others.  I expect the source Nicole Sangsuree got the chant from didn’t know the attribution either, and I’m not picking on her for something a lot of people do and have done.  But just because it’s an inherited problem at this point doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix it.  For the love of all the Gods, y’all.  Do the research.

And go listen to that song.  It’s pretty.


*I once had someone tell me that ALL magic in the US was neo-Pagan and less than fifty years old.  When I pointed out the widespread and heavily documented existence of hoodoo, pow wow, conjure, etc etc etc, they flat refused to believe me.

**I mean an entirely Pagan chant, not just a filk or alternate version of an older song like “Lord of the Dance.”

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