Last week I was the guest speaker at a joint meeting of the Trinity College Dublin Literary and Environmental Societies. I was speaking at their request about the intersection of myth, feminism and ecology in my writing, and as I always do, I was stressing the value of our native mythology and folk traditions, and the way that they emphasise the need to live in balance and harmony with the land. Afterwards, a couple of students asked questions which stayed with me for a good while afterwards, because they’re right at the heart of my work in the world.
One of those questions was about how we keep the old stories alive in their original forms, so that we don’t run the risk of them being in some sense ‘Disneyfied’, or reduced to overly simplistic messages and ideas – maybe even inaccurate ones. This is a subject close to my heart, because I am constantly faced with inaccuracies about Celtic mythology and other traditions on the web and elsewhere, and I find that to be a problem. In all my teaching work, I constantly stress the need for knowing the old stories properly, for getting your facts right, for consulting original and authentic sources and doing the proper research before you can make authoritative statements of your own about characters or plot lines or what it all ‘means’.
I’m sure some people find that quite unreasonable of me, as if I’m trying to stop the stories growing, stop people from exercising their imagination – because everyone knows that stories – especially stories in the oral tradition – grow and change over time, right? And that is quite true, for most types of folklore: fairy tales, for example. They change across years and they change across continents. They travel, transform, integrate, shapeshift. It’s what they do best. But it’s not always quite so true for the narrative forms which come together to constitute a mythology. Myth springs from the specific interactions between people and the land they occupy. It comes from all the ways in which we fall into, and are able to merge with, the dreaming of the land we live in. Myth is an act of co-creation between people and their land. It has an explanatory function: how the world came to be as it is, what our place in that world is, how we should be, how we can learn from the nonhuman others who share our part of the world with us, how we keep our part of the world – and ourselves in it – in good heart. Mythology grows out of a long, long tradition of wisdom which is, in great part, place-specific. Irish mythology represents what our forebears knew about this land and the others who share it with us, and the Otherworld which overlaps it. To blithely rewrite it and present our rewritings as fact (I’m not talking about fiction here – that’s a different matter entirely) disrespects that knowledge – a knowledge which we no longer have, or we wouldn’t be in the dire mess we’re in today.
I guess I don’t believe it’s okay to just rewrite the plots that don’t quite fit our (modern) notion of what a story should be, or to miss out the bits we don’t quite get, or say a human is a goddess, or make a willow an oak, or a raven a crane, if it suits our argument better. Do we really think we know more about this world, its creatures, and the Otherworld, than our ancestors did? Frankly, I don’t think we do. The old myths come from what our ancestors saw and knew in the days before we became addicted to stuff and to social media and to the instant celebrity it can sometimes bring. In the days when they were fully engaged with, participating in, enmeshed in the living world around them. When they spoke to crows instead of to machines; when they believed that a cow had a unique wisdom which we really need to value; when they knew how to discover the medicine of plants, and which trees were sacred and why. When they knew how to take just as much as they needed, but not more, and when that was really perfectly okay. This, and so much more, is the kind of knowledge we need to relearn, and to fully embody in our lives. And to do that, we need to learn the value of proper, long, respectful apprenticeship to the old myths and stories, and to the land they emerged out of.
The second question which stayed with me was related to the first: how – and, very specifically, where – do we find those stories in an authentic form, and then how do we transmit them, in ways that will have traction? How do we begin to understand why and how the stories matter, and then how do we pass that knowledge on? Where on earth do we begin?
And yes, that’s the hardest question of all. There are a very few – a very, very few – books which tell (some of) the old stories as they were originally written down. There are very few freely available online resources I’d recommend, and little which offers what I think of as a genuine applied mythology which might open the door to more authentic, properly grounded, and meaningful lives. Certainly little which aspires to accurately (and humbly!) weave all of those threads together.
Which is where The Hedge School comes in. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog or my Facebook page will know that, when I came back to Connemara earlier this year, it was with the intention of developing a resource not just for transmission of accurate information about the genuine native traditions of these islands, but to focus on the ways in which they might be relevant to how we live today. And so The Hedge School (which is a lovely little yellow and green building, as well as an online space) is all about offering practical guidance for living well, living authentically, connecting with our places, and finding a deep, embodied sense of belongingness to this wide, beautiful Earth. It’s about understanding our myths, rewilding our minds, re-enchanting our lives. Ultimately, it’s about building a new folk culture, based on the application of our old native traditions to our lives today.
Of course, folk culture is a term with a lot of baggage behind it, and back in the day it certainly had connotations of tribalism and insularity. British cultural geographer George Revill has this to say about how ‘folk culture’ was traditionally defined:
‘Conventionally, folk culture refers to the products and practices of relatively homogeneous and isolated small-scale social groups living in rural locations. Thus, folk culture is often associated with tradition, historical continuity, sense of place, and belonging. It is manifest in song and dance, storytelling and mythology, vernacular design in buildings, everyday artifacts and clothing, diet, habits, social rules and structures, work practices such as farming and craft production, religion, and worldviews. Researchers and collectors from the later 19th and first half of the 20th centuries formulated a notion of “the folk” as relatively untouched by the modern world and of folk culture as precious survivals and relics from bygone cultures transmitted orally down through the generations.’
But, more importantly, he also notes that ideas about what folk culture is and can be are changing:
‘However, more recent work recognizes the place of folk culture in the modern world as heterogeneous and emergent practice. … From this perspective, folk culture is evident in a multiplicity of local cultural reworkings, as individuals and social groups creatively make sense of the circumstances in which they live. Thought in this way as emergent and freely adaptable vernacular culture, folk culture can be urban or rural and can combine cultural elements from different places, from traditional and commercial and from past and present cultural practices. Conceptions of folk culture not only inform long-standing themes of landscape, region, and place within cultural geography but also speak to more recent concerns with identity, habit, indigenous knowledge, diaspora, heritage, authenticity, and hybridity.’
That’s the kind of folk culture I’m interested in building. One which has its roots in the land we actually live in, but which has the open-mindedness, spaciousness and curiosity which will allow us also to bring to it the traditions and heritage of our birth lands or ancestral lands, wherever they might be. As a friend said to me recently, women around the world weave. In Syria, they will make baskets from different plants than those we use in Ireland, and perhaps they will use different patterns, but they will always know how to weave – and the act of weaving, of making, of creating, and the imaginal and mythical connotations of that action, will in some sense be common to us all. And sitting together, sharing stories of our different weavings, and teaching each other new ways to weave, doesn’t threaten the ancestral folk culture that either group of women carry in our bones – on the contrary, it enriches us all. How do we apply that idea to our different mythologies? How do we fully embody the wisdom of our ancestral land, and yet make it accessible and relevant to all who live there, including those who may just be passing through? These are the questions I’m interested in exploring; this is what The Hedge School is for.
It seems to me that the constant calls for ‘new stories to live by’ might better be translated into a call for a new folk culture. And if we’re going to consciously think about building a new folk culture, we need to start with the old stories. They’re the ones with deep roots – and it’s always better to build from strong roots. To inhabit the stories in a way that is authentic, and to truly understand the depth of wisdom that they offer, first you need to understand their roots. Who were the people who told these stories? How did they live, and what was their history? What kind of language did they speak, and how might that have affected the way they saw the world? What were their social structures, and what did they eat, and what did they hold sacred? Myth taken out of context is uprooted, and has no traction. It’s a slow study, and deep – but it’s more than worthwhile.
So how do we begin to build that folk culture? What is it we actually have to do?
- First, and this was my answer to the student who asked that second question: learn some of the old stories, and tell them. Tell them to your children, and then talk about what they mean. Don’t just become a passive consumer of them. Discuss them with your friends. We need to keep the stories alive, and to think deeply about what they mean. And stories are kept alive by being told.
- Turn the television off and reinvent the ceilidh – ask every guest at your table to sing an old song, remember an old nursery rhyme, tell an old tale.
- Re-enchant your life. That’s a big subject, and it’s also the subject of my new book, The Enchanted Life, and there’ll be more of all that here on this blog as time goes by. But here’s a taster for now:
‘The enchanted life … is one which is intuitive, which embraces wonder, and fully engages the creative imagination – but it is also deeply embodied, ecological, grounded in place and community. It flourishes on work that has heart and meaning; it respects the instinctive knowledge and playfulness of children. It understands the myths we live by; thrives on poetry, song and dance. It loves the folkloric, the handcrafted, the practice of traditional skills. It respects wild things, recognises the wisdom of the crow, seeks out the medicine of plants. It rummages and roots on the wild edges, but comes home to an enchanted home and garden. It is engaged with the small, the local, the ethical; enchanted living is slow living.’
These ideas, and many more, are things that I’d like to explore in some detail at The Hedge School. As well as the paid-for courses, I’d like to offer some solid and useful resources on our website which are free to everyone. And to bring in as contributors others who share the same passion for building a new folk culture based on our native traditions. And so if you’d like to join in, and to support the work we do, please think of contributing via our Patreon page – where, for as little as US$1 a month, you can not only help us in our work, but gain access to information and updates that are exclusive to our community. (Do click on the button below to find out more about what we have in mind.) And if you have relevant skills that you’d like to share, then we are open to contributions for The Hedge School blog.