COMING OUT OF THE WEST

This is a blog dedicated to the magic, lore and folklore of the British Isles – Ynys Prydain, the Island of the Mighty. It’s written in Glastonbury, where we live, but it won’t be exclusively Avalon-oriented, although there will, no doubt, be posts relating to this part of South West England.

 

As far as possible, too, it will deal with facts, rather than current myths, about the origins of our practices as modern pagans. Trevor and myself are both from Celtic backgrounds: my father’s family are from Pembrokeshire, and still farm there on the edge of the Preseli hills. The Landsker, the shifting linguistic boundary which separates English-speaking from Welsh-speaking Pembrokeshire, currently runs directly – if invisibly – across my cousin’s land. My mother’s paternal family are from Galloway and the Highlands (and no, I have no idea what the ‘family tartan’ might be: as with most working class Scots, the 19th century revivalist version of the tartan has largely passed us by). Trevor’s family originally hail from Dolgellau, in the heart of mid-Wales. Both of our families spoke Welsh in the early part of the 20th century but do not do so now: my grandfather died when my father was 7, in 1929, and my father was sent to boarding school in England, thus never learned to speak the language.

 

Both of our families are influenced by industrial Wales and Scotland, as much as any aspect of the poetic or romantic traditions of those countries. They come out of the steel-making and ship-building contexts of Cardiff and Clydeside, of the hardgraft rural economies, of a repressive small-town respectability (my father remembers when attending the Conservative Club in Haverfordwest, let alone an actual pub, was indicative of deep-rooted debauchery) and grim, grey-spirited forms of Baptism and Methodism which thankfully seem to have left my rather jolly family untouched.

 

As an aside, there was a short-lived TV series years ago, featuring Ronnie Barker as a small-town South Welsh photographer in (I think) the 1920s, with a young female assistant who came to live over the studio. When chastised by her elder sister for unseemly behaviour, she replied that she was happy. “Happy,” said the sister, with a dismissive snort, “I never thought I’d see the day when a sister of mine grew up to be happy.” Quite.

 

But neither Trevor nor myself claim an ancient pagan heritage, passed secretly from generation to generation. Our families were Christian, even if only nominally in some cases. Of the people we know whose ancestors really were cunning folk, very few of them practice, or even believe, and those cunning folk were themselves Christians. My Welsh grandmother did read tea leaves – most Welsh grandmothers did, and family stories are full of ghosts and the Evil Eye, but they were still churchgoers, and they did not practice some antique form of goddess-worship in secret.

 

Welsh legend continues to imbue the valleys and hills of the Principality with meaning: we’ve just returned from an area of Snowdonia where the local school is named after a character in the Mabinogion, where the centre we were visiting lies in the valley where Gwydion rescues his nephew Lleu and where a magical golden-bristled beast was said to be hunted: these are real places, stories tied into actual locations, which have genuine significance for the residents. But it isn’t a fantasy land: there are generations of people, now, who have never had jobs. Drug and alcohol abuse are rife. The north has been ruined by the collapse of the slate industry; the south has been devastated by Thatcher’s closure of mines and steel plants in the 80s, and those magnificent castles are still regarded by many for what they are: the concrete form of Norman oppression. It’s unwise to study those legends and their ongoing significance without also acknowledging the context in the lands in which they are set. The same is true of Glastonbury, often regarded as a pagan theme park: yes, there is a substantial degree of pagan influence on the town, but it’s also a real place with real problems. These places deserve better than a sentimental romanticisation.

 

In addition to this, neither Trevor nor myself has any interest in perpetuating commonly held fantasies about the pagan way of life: a lot of what’s often decribed as “ancient” comes out of late 19th century occult practice, Gardnerian efforts in the 1950s and beyond, or later writers.  If people want to rename the Winter Solstice ‘Dave,’ for example, they are welcome to do so, but there’s no entitlement for claiming that this is its antique name, and too much of the writing in contemporary paganism is simply slipshod  and dollar-oriented (ancient Irish potato goddess, I’m looking at you). And there’s no reason for it. Why isn’t recent work good enough? Why cling to an entirely spurious account when the reality is equally, if not more, interesting?

 

A number of contemporary commentators are redressing the balance and this move towards historical fact and the exploration of the history of mythology and folklore is, to my mind, a lot more intriguing than the invention of a fantasy history to boost the ego of some self-proclaimed High Priest/ess.

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