Friday, January 14, 2011

The ghosts of stories

We were talking in my Future Visions Book Group last night about this, at one point talking about hunter-gathering peoples and their oral traditions. Adam Thorogood mentioned The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, and how the aborgines of Australia encode information necessary for the continued survival of their tribes and clans in ways that embed individuals in their landscape, their ancestry and the flora and fauna that surrounds them.

This type of racial memory is the trans-generational correlate of DNA - instinctive memory that promotes survival down the generations. I'm not trying to be reductionist, but it's marvellous to me how the origin of stories lies here - how the human imagination can construct a marvellous epic like an Oddysey or Gilgamesh unconsciously from this basic drive.

Songlines and other oral stories are no less great for not being written down, and it's sad to think that whenever an indigenous tribal culture is destroyed by 'development' or colonialism or commercial interests all their oral tradition is lost too.

Of course, this happened in Wales - when the Romans came and massacred the Druids in 61AD, who were the guardians of the oral tradition. Then the country was Christianised. Both of these cultures destroyed the original oral tradition which is why there are no gods in the Mabinogion, only kings, prices and bards, with quasi-magical powers.

If you squint, you can see that these characters are pale shadows perhaps of Gods and Goddesses in earlier stories, lost hundreds of years earlier in the sieve of tribal memory.

Some of the druidic stories made it to Ireland, but even there, after centuries of disapproval from Christian priests, the gods were demoted to the Tuatha de Danaan.

So the Celtic tradition has no Thor, Odin or Freya. Instead in the British Isles we take our gods from later conquerors, the Viking Norsemen. They gave us our day names - Thursday for Thor, Wednesday fore Odin, or Woden, Friday for Freya or Frigga. The Romans gave us Saturn-day. Our pagan roots are revealed in Moon-Day and Sun-Day. Tiu'sDay belongs to a Germanic God of War.

What would our day names be if the Druids and Boudicaa had never been conquered, or if they had discovered writing, I wonder?

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