Interpreting the Old Ways

Week 18 (I): interpretation, or how to know when you’re putting modern meanings on ancient beliefs

While browsing one of the old pagan communities over on Livejournal, I came across a really excellent question (original thread here):

Some witches use traditional folk songs, stories, and legends to supplement their understanding of pre-Christian beliefs. My question is how do you prevent yourself from interpreting the material too much? How do you know that you are not projecting your bias into the material? Sometimes a wren is a bird and not the God.

In other words, how do you incorporate old material outside of the context in which it was first constructed? Full disclosure: I am not a reconstructionist* and have never been one. There are definitely other pagans who are, so I suspect their answers will be markedly different from mine.

I wouldn't do the same things within this stone circle that people would've done centuries ago

I wouldn’t do the same things within this stone circle that people would’ve done centuries ago

That said, I do use old symbols and gestures in my practice. One of my favorite songs for meditation and prayer dates back to the 1600s. But I have no illusions that I am using these things the way our ancestors did. The world is a different place, though aspects of it have remained the same. You can never step in the same river twice, but whenever you do step in it, the river is still made of moving water. While it may not be the same water that clung to your skin before, it’s still water. The elements may be the same but the details are disparate.

My interpretations of these songs, rituals, and gestures that are hundreds of years old are informed by the world in which I grew up. I am not the same witch I would be if I had been born in the 1700s, and I imagine I am not the same witch I would be had I been born in 2300. For me, context and time period matters. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate songs from past centuries, or like the way a particular form of antique ritual dancing looks. You can still use old things in your practice, but for me I see it as an homage to and appreciation of things past.

Put another way: I may dance at dawn on the summer solstice in a stone circle (fun fact: there’s actually a stone circle near my house), but I don’t think it’s the same way people danced at stone circles at dawn a thousand years ago. My dance is reminiscent, perhaps, and certainly an interpretation of their practices, but it’s a distinctly modern interpretation, not a perfect reconstruction.

* My own understanding of reconstructionist traditions is pretty basic. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article on it, but I would love to hear from readers about where I can find more info on what reconstructionist practices look like!

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