Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Story of a Place: Religion Doesn't Travel

You cannot bring a "religion" to a new land. Each land is different and sacred, and has its own powers, its own stories. A set of customs and Gods from somewhere else simply cannot and will not thrive as it did back where it came from. Over time, it can become integrated with the powers of a new place, of this I have no doubt. But it will necessarily be changed if the integration is done properly. To fail at the integration is to invite disaster and loss of spiritual power. To succeed at the integration is to accept a new sacred story, complete with its own secret history and its own powers, into your way of seeing. This changes a lot about you, as well as your "religion", if you happen to carry one of those around.

Some things, to me, are not "native" to any place- they can travel anywhere because they belong everywhere. The belief in the spirit, the belief in sacred powers, the belief in the need for respect or inter-connection between all things; these ways of seeing are parts of a universal truth about our existence here in the middle-world. They are not the "religion" I am talking about. You can't carry The river-God of one people into a land of rivers that is thousands of miles away, which has its own river-Gods; to do so is at the very least rude, rude to your new hosts- and at most dangerous. I think that the river God of the distant country might still be able to "see" or "hear" you in some extraordinary way, especially if you make the effort to contact it, but the local river-Gods in whose presence you immediately dwell certainly are aware of you. Just as you wouldn't think to enter a person's home and ignore them as they try to speak to you, so you shouldn't ignore the beings of the sacred story that is embedded in whatever land you come to inhabit, should you move across the land and change your home.

Coming to live in a new place always entails learning new stories, new secrets, and learning to interact with new powers. I can go so far as to say that each place has its own "religion" naturally carved into it, in many ways seen and unseen. Keeping your old religion means integrating it with the voice of your new place, and that means that it may change. But life is water, not rock- change is no evil thing. Perhaps the religion you were born in has undergone many changes long before you knew it, or your ancestors knew it, and so who can say what "it" really is supposed to be. I think our respect for our ancestors is the only and best reason to keep a religion you know they cherished, but no one- our ancestors included- can make life into rock. We have to live as they did, and engage places and powers with flexibility and wisdom. Living respectfully demands no less.

When I come to a new place- at some point, I set about opening my mind to "learn the story" of that place. That story, learned piece by piece over time, learned through visions and dreams, must become the basis of my "religious" practice in that place. Religious practice is really just a formal way of showing respect to a story- whether the story of a place, the story of your ancestors, or what have you. There are many ways to show respect; some ways are shared by many people, formed into traditions over time, and others are personal, but no less important.

I bring my seven basic beliefs- described in my last post here (and in other places) everywhere I go. To them, I add some things I know my ancestors believed, but always- now more than ever- I set about learning the story of a place, to add to the mix. That is my way. When I leave this place, this place that I have lived in for years, and whose story is still being revealed to me slowly, I will find a new story. Discovering that is part of life's enjoyment. Life and religion is water, not stone.


Annua said...

What you say is very true, and things that I have been thinking for some time but not saying to anyone; simply because it is a thought that most people find daunting or confusing. But really when we shake free of our labels for a moment and stand alone in a wild place, that happens to be far from the land of our ancestors, there is nothing either daunting or confusing about it. There is simply the land and its story, and me and my story together and interweaving in that moment, making a new tapestry of things. My story is the story in my blood, the tale of my ancestors dreamed up between them and our Mother-land. And as I look around me I see that that dream is something I have in common with the oak trees that my people have planted, the rabbits, horses, pigs and deer that have also been brought here and become part of the place. Our people's blood is in this soil also now, along with the blood of the people that came before and the animals that are native to this place, all blending together forming a new dream.
Strange visions rise up out of this land to greet me, men with the head of the thylacine and many things as strange when all is said and done as men with antlars. But not strange really, they are visions of a past, of a people's interaction with a land. The land is not strange to me and neither is anything that is human, though it may differ from my ancestor's poetry of life, we all derive ultimately from one Mother.
Here in Tasmania we are in a unique situation. We barely know the stories of the people who were here before. Only a few precious fragments of their poetry is known to us. And yet, perhaps because it is so forgotten it sings itself so loudly in the silence of the bush here, it is a wonder to me that others can sleep at night and not go out to listen to it raging on under the stars.
Instead there is almost no one to listen to it. The European pagan people like myself want to build their hawthorn hedges and make their oak groves and try and pretend that nothing exists outside of their 'little Britain' and the descendents of the Palawa indigenous population sadly have (I am told) no shamans or wise people. Many of them hate their own white blood, which is of course their dominant ancestry. The part of their background that commited genocide on the other part...We are so caught up in our labels, at seeing black or white on someone's skin and excluding them as though it means something ultimate, that it would be considered an outrage in some quarters for me, a white woman to claim I can hear this land. But the land doesn't seem to care. I guess she sees the wide-lens view.
In these dreams and snatches of singings sometimes I see/hear an old woman who is often up there in the mountains. She walks with a gnarled stick and has a possum fur about her shoulders, and every day or night she lets out the sun or the moon from a woven basket so they can ascend the sky. I am not too bothered about the supposed gender of the celestial bodies, nor about the colour of her face. But sometimes, just sometimes in a certain light I am sure that her weather-beaten skin is some indistinguishable shade that frustrates the mind's desire to make it black or white. And at such times I smile to myself, knowing all is right with the world and nothing has been 'displaced.'

Algernon Misanthrope said...

Greetings Good Hinhan,

I quite like this blog. And I really enjoyed this post as it is something that has been of a concern to myself for sometime. Indeed, we are experiencing the difficulty of having a British culture and religious observance in a new land that is completely opposite in season to our previous practises. It is interesting, because the dictates of the 'traditional community' would have us maintain our traditional dates no matter the weather outside. But there is something inherently stupid about observing midsummer indoors in near snow conditions!

So integrate I say! Integrate with the land. Adapt or perish I believe is the catch cry.

Besides, Hoodoo adapted to it's new conditions and I can't thing of a single person who would feel confident enough to go around calling a Hoodoo conjurer 'eclectic'.