This isn’t a post about the 1973 British film by Robin Hardy, or the awful American re-make of 2006. I did enjoy these films (the first far more, obviously) because they tackle the challenge of humanity looking back at our history through the eyes of a different morality.
Looking back through an ‘us and them’ mentality of Christians vs. Pagans is a little farcical given the fact that the atrocities committed by the Spanish Inquisition out-do, in their depravity and cruelty, anything we might accuse the agrarian Egyptian and Indo-European cultures or even the more warlike Norse culture of. I guess you could develop a scale of violence and cruelty, but I’m not sure what the point would be.
I suspect that many Atheists look at people who indoctrinate their children into a belief system that incorporates ritual cannibalism of an agrarian sun-god archetype overlayed on a Hebrew rebel with similar scorn.
On May 20th I attended the English Ale festival, held in the town of Mylor in South Australia. The day include a collection of activities taken from various aspects of culture from the United Kingdom, including Morris Dancing, burning a Wicker Man, Punch and Judy, Mummers Play and a concert at the end of the day.
I found the day thoroughly enjoyable and recommend it to anyone with a bit of a pagan bent. If you aren’t familiar with European pagan custom the day may seem a bit confusing.
On the subject of being confusing, the driving motivation behind this post is my lamenting the loss of valuable collective ritual in modern society. I doubt very much if the thousand or so people attending the English Ale had harvested their corn by hand, made a Corn Dolly to
preserve the spirit of the grain over the winter or had a personal perception that the jumps made in the Morris dance had any connection to the height of their next crop of corn. I know one or two attendees may have, but in the collective I think it is fair to say that most of us are divorced from the reality of dependence on an agrarian lifestyle.
While some would argue that this is the 21st century and we should get on with living our shopping mall and iPhone lives, part of me still yearns for the simplicity of connection to nature and the intertwining of it in a ritual lifestyle. I know there are many groups, the Norse Heathens, the new Druids or the various flavours of Wiccans, who are trying to revive the ‘old gods’ and ‘old ways’. I sympathise with these groups, and spent some time as one myself, but ultimately struggled to find authenticity.
So what do we have left when it comes to collective ritual? Some people attend football matches and cheer or boo their respective teams. Some people march in protest against the vast collection of government incompetence, others go to see pop stars play in stadiums or preachers with their own rock-band play in bigger stadiums. I think all of these things have in common a placement of the audience in the role of relatively passive observer.
In America the Burning Man or Coachella festivals involve mass gathering of people, but I get the feeling that the narcissistic undercurrent is not the same as events where the participants are contributing for a perceived greater good. The only experience I can draw on where something transcendent is created by a group of individuals is at an Irish Music session. Thirty musicians singing or playing a common tune, working in harmony is a sublime experience.
Session music is not like listening to or performing in a choir or band with set music, but music that is generated directly in response to the flow of the tune.
I definitely recommend attending the English Ale if you get a chance. I put together some of the footage that I took along with a cover of Damh the Bard’s excellent song, Wicker Man, in a video here. The festival is a collection of echoes that call to something in the bones of our agrarian heritage. I’m not confident that we as a race are in a position to hear them clearly, but I will continue to listen.
Details for all the groups and performers can be found at theenglishale.org.