Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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The carrying stream of memory

Stanley Robertson, arguably the most important of the storytellers of the Scottish Traveller tradition during the second half of the twentieth century (see The three-fold living landscape), could retell from memory many hundreds of stories. He was also well aware of the older generation of people from whom he had learnt these tales. While a folklorist or ethnographer would use such cerebral terms as 'oral tradition' or 'aural transmission' to refer to the way such memories are kept alive over the generations, Robertson himself referred to it by a more poetic phrase: 'the carrying stream of memory'.

Streams are never static. And just as the Taoist expression says that 'You can't take a whirlpool home in a bucket', so too a bucketful of water taken from a stream is not a bucket of stream but a bucket of water. Whirlpools are like candle flames – they are not 'things' but ever-renewing processes.

I have written quite extensively elsewhere (see The Process of Reality) about the overlaps between early Taoist thinking in China and the ideas of Heraclitus, writing at the same time in a Greek-speaking port situated in what is now Turkey. Heraclitus is famous for saying something like 'You can't step in the same river twice' and he did say 'Everything is flow'.

In both cases we are looking at a worldview which predates the static, timeless Essences or Ideals of Platonism – a worldview which underpins Christianity and has been absorbed uncritically into its secular successor.

There is no reason to suppose that north European societies encountered timeless Platonic Ideals before the Christian conversion. And, even then, they would be slow to have much influence. While direct evidence is lacking, we should assume that pre-conversion European worldviews assumed that 'Everything was flow'.

In Seeing past 'secular' assumptions I discuss Graham Harvey's view of animism as not simply 'things have a life of their own' but more as the 'continual re-establishment of the world' (Harvey 2013: 138; see also 139–40; 148). Such notions of animism seemingly blur into Taoist ideas of 'everything is flow' and pre-Socratic Greek beliefs – especially as expressed by Heraclitus – that 'all is change'. In this proto-historic era of the mid-first millennium BCE direct evidence is too often lacking, but animism was almost certainly part of contemporary cultures in both western China and the eastern Mediterranean; a more nuanced sense of animistic worldviews may put early Taoism and Heraclitus into a clearer context which is less 'other' than modern scholarship has inadvertently assumed.

Reality as a creative process

We see something of this sense of 'everything as flow' when we use modern day words such as 'creativity'. Creativity is associated with ideas which are 'emergent' – ideas which are in the process of being realised, ideas which are in the process of being re-imagined or reinvented. We can also see something of this same 'process of reality' in the ideas, developed in the 1980s but still current, that everything in society is part of an ongoing process of 'social construction'. Much of what we take to be 'reality' is just the current manifestation of these complex interactions between members of a society.

For a useful summary of how these processes of social construction work in modern society, see Simon Danser's The Myths of Reality. Some of these ideas are summarised in a website called Foamy Custard.

holiday snap

Before photograhs, how many people could remember what they wore on holiday, say, fifty years ago? How many people remember what year they went to which destination if they didn't write on the back of the print?

In modern society, where books, photographs, videos and web pages are the repositories for most knowledge – our 'prosthetic memories', so to speak – we find it hard to think of culture as being something which is alive and ever-changing. But in any pre-literate society the entire culture which makes up that society must be transmitted from one generation to the next. Anything which is not passed on – whether stories or skills – will be lost, to at least some extent. And, of course, culture is not passed on as some sort of 'fossilised heritage' – it is the very life-blood of that group of people.

As I have described in more detail in Horn Dance or Stag Night? Folklore and myth in the age of blogs, in-jokes and nicknames are 'living folklore', whereas nineteenth century folktales retold in books are not…

Cauldrons of creativity


If all this seems at first glance to be a long way from medieval mindsets then think of the medieval Welsh literature. The cauldron of Ceridwen is the 'source' of just such an emergent process of creativity. Medieval Welsh words such as awen also denote a 'spirit of inspiration' – an attribute also associated with mead and alcoholic drinks. In the Scandinavian sagas and well as Welsh legends, mead provides poets with their inspiration.

The 'spirit' of mead is the same 'spirit' as to be found in the various types of distilled alcohol which are referred to as 'spirits'. We use the word 'spirits' in this was as the distillation process captures the spirit or invisible vapours of the alcohol. There are some clear overlaps between the spirit of mead – and the spirits of medicines and poisons – and a more pervasive 'energy' or 'force' (the best word is 'potency') known in Europe by a variety of names, such as óðr, ond, numina, potentia, and further afield as qi (or ch'i), shakti, prakriti, kami, tse, mana, ashe, manitou, Wah'Kon and many other more local variants. Indeed the only societies which do not have a word for this 'potency' are Protestant and secular Western ones – although the potentia of saints' relics sustains this idea within the Catholic church.

I discuss óðr, ond, numina, potentia in detail on pages 13 to 19 of Souls, Spirits and Deities. They are also discussed in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol.

An 'emergent' Anglo-Saxon world

There is probably much more which could be said about pre-conversion worldviews as being more like a seething cauldron or a 'carrying stream'. However for the time being simply bear in mind that for an Anglo-Saxon the world was much more akin to an 'emergent process' – a stream, or a whirlpool, or a bubbling cauldron – and nothing like the Platonic concepts which are still deeply-rooted in modern Western thinking.



copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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