Survival of the Past, Survival of the Future
In reading a text by George Henderson, Survivals in Beliefs Among The Celts (1911) on Sacred-Texts.com I am struck with the possibility that as we 21st century pagans move forward with our practices, we are in many ways bringing survivals of our own prior religious practices into our current beliefs. Henderson states that, “Survivals may be defined as primitive rites believed and practiced, rites which once were ‘faith’ but which from a later and higher conception simply ‘remain over’ or survive. A survival may remain over both as ‘belief’ and as ‘rite’; in either case it is the equivalent of the Latin ‘superstitio’.”
I do not agree that it is essentially the birthplace of superstition, nor do I agree with his implication that the practice is no longer believed. Still, the notion that we bring what we previously practiced into our contemporary practice is worthy of note. Henderson is, of course, discussing the survival of certain pagan practices in an otherwise Christianized culture. I am suggesting that for, at least some pagans, there is a survival or remainder of Judeo-Christian religion that survives a conversion to paganism.
One of the more obvious examples of the survival of Judeo-Christian practices within contemporary pagan practice is in the Alexandrian Tradition that incorporates the Qabalah and Angels Magic. Christian Wicca is another hybrid form, which incorporates elements from Wicca such as reincarnation, fairies, and the Summerland (which is equated to the Catholic Purgatory) with a transmogrification of the trinity into a Father/Son/Divine Feminine Spirit.
Some Christian Wiccan practices are based on one of the texts Henderson uses to explain survivals, The Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers, incantations, blessings, runes and practices of Scottish folk-ways from the mid 19th century. (Of particular note is the Beltane Blessing, which I have not included herein because it is rather long) .
Is this borrowing a bad thing? Should we aspire to completely remove our prior experiences from our current practice? I would argue that we not only should not but cannot, for survival of these prior practices are the way I learned at least some of my family tradition.
My Great-Great Grandmother Ellendra could remove her past practice of our Family Tradition from her practice of Methodism when she moved from her native Wales to the American South in the early 19th Century. Her experience brings new meaning to me of our family’s motto: To Know, To Dare, To be Silent.
Ellendra kept very silent because the family tradition in my branch of the family seems to have died with her silence. We all joined the ranks of Methodists and Baptists in lock step… and yet…
My Nana told vivid stories of her grandmother, Ellendra, riding across fields, sidesaddle, her black English riding habit flowing behind her like a dark raven’s wing. Ravens are rarely seen in Louisiana so how would Nana have known about ravens but for being told of their significance to our family?
One might argue that Nana was well read and perhaps knew of ravens through Poe or some other author. Perhaps, but Nana also was adept at folk medicine, growing and using herbs (which she called “yarbs”) for healing, and moon lore. Because she passed that information on to my Mother, Elgene, I would guess that she learned it from her mother, Elvira, who most likely, learned from her mother, Ellendra.
My Nana and her daughters were different – even odd – my mother and her sisters were quite psychic, as was my Nana – not something proper a Northside Houston Baptist woman in the 1960s would claim out loud, anyway. I even remember one summer evening when I was about 17, I offered to read Tarot cards at Nana’s kitchen table and she did not bat an eye – my Mom and Nana sat with me and had their cards read.
I believe some of the old ways of my family were remembered and incorporated into the new world my Great Great Grandmother found herself in – one that was very Christian and of course, would not suffer a witch to live, and so, to live she was silent, yet created her own form of religion, with some of her traditions surviving within the new religion she was forced to adopt. If she had not adopted and adapted, none of the old ways would have survived for my grandmother and mother to teach to me.
They never called it “witchcraft” they actually called it “old wives tales”. Somehow, it was okay for old wives to tell tales and still be accepted within their community.
What seems to be happening now is that some people are criticizing those who may be incorporating prior beliefs into their contemporary practice. Whether those beliefs are drawn from a Judeo-Christian belief system or from a later system like Alexandrian or Gardnerian Wicca, doesn’t seem to really matter to me.
What matters is: Does it work?
Carmichael, Alexander, The Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations Ortha Nan Gaidheal, Volume I, 1900,
Henderson, George Henderson, Survivals in Beliefs Among The Celts (1911) ,