Regenerating the Old Ways   Leave a comment

boe-coverYears ago “in my other life”, while I was studying Old English, I found myself returning repeatedly to a dialog about 40 pages into our class text.

We were learning from Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, one of those standard hardcover textbooks you really can’t afford to buy new without a trust fund, the kind of book that generations of students dutifully underlined and annotated and highlighted and struggled through in one or another of its many editions and revisions. (My used copy has at least two previous owners, and the annotations and exclamation points to show for it.) Open to the copyright page and you see the first edition appeared in 1891, 125 years ago. The book itself is now part of a tradition.

Much of the text consists of tables of declensions and conjugations to memorize, alternating with Old English readings, both heavily footnoted. Fortunately, our teacher knew from experience that as long as you sought only to read, you could dispense with a good deal of that memorization. Learn a few core patterns and a high percentage of the time you could understand the grammar of the rest of what you read, recognizing a great deal by analogy and context.

But what about speaking? For “dead” languages — and what language is really dead if we still study it? — conversational examples are generally pretty thin on the ground. Language learning techniques have improved over the decades, especially for living languages. But many of those same strategies work just as well for tongues whose last speakers lived with horsecarts and cobblestones, hearthfires, oil lamps and emperors. So while you won’t necessarily be chatting right away (at least until you devise the needed vocabulary) about rap and drones and global warming, you can still access the living spirit of a language through conversation. So what amounted to a conversational fragment, really, still set my imagination turning.

Here’s that dialog in my translation, somewhat condensed. The tone of the original is just as heavy-handed and more than a little pedantic.

Teacher: Today we’re going to speak the language of the West Saxons. Are you ready? Tell me, students, what is that language?

Female Student: It’s the speech of our ancestors.

Teacher: That’s right. Our ancestors spoke it a thousand years ago.

Male Student: A thousand years ago? Those ancestors have been dead a thousand years? [Did he just wake up in class, halfway through the term?!]

Teacher: That’s right. Their bodies are dead.

Male Student: They don’t speak any longer. So then their language is just as dead as they are. What need is there for us to learn it?

You have to admit that this literal and clueless male student (in Old English, leorningcniht — in bad translation, “learning knight”) has a point. And if you’re thinking that Druidry, like any other human creation that once flourished and underwent a sea change over time, once faced a similar challenge, you’re not wrong. (History repeats itself to get our attention.)

If you’re wakeful enough this time of year, in spite of the tendency to drowsy half-hibernation that besets many of us in northern climes (or southern ones six months out from now), you may also be thinking that the problem is circular. I mean: As long as we see and treat something as dead, it has no life. We can always find someone or more than one asking plaintively, “What need is there for X?” But perceive it and use it as a living thing, and it revives in the doing. Our attention brings to it a very real and living fire.

That Old English dialog concludes in the next chapter:

Teacher: Well, young man, tell me now: everything that’s new, is it all good?

Male Student: No, sir. It’s not.

Teacher: And it’s also the same: not everything which is old is bad.

Male Student: Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.

Teacher: Miss, what do you say about this?

Female Student: I say that though we can’t hear their voices, nevertheless we can read their words.

Teacher: (Summarizes the deeds of the West Saxons). Now we are their heirs. If we don’t want to be foolish, let’s learn the speech of the West Saxons.

Now we are their heirs.

The ancient Hebrew people in exile in Babylon faced a similar problem: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” When the landmarks of your practice, whether cultural, geographical, psychic or some combination of all of these, are no longer present to support and sustain you along your path, the disorientation can be profound. What can you do?

“Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.” But it’s a choice to insist on being so literal.

sakuramcOne of the weaknesses of modern practice, observes R J Stewart in his magisterial Living Magical Arts,

“is the literary emphasis on superficial technique; the right words, the correct authority, the proper way to extinguish a candle; such details are given quite spurious weight without recourse to the traditions in which they may have originated. Much of this nonsense is cut through cleanly by a simple magical law: seek to understand the tradition, and the techniques will regenerate within your imagination” (pg. 69).

In the case of a living tradition, the solution is self-evident: study the tradition. But what about traditions that have no living point of contact?

I take comfort from Stewart here: seek to understand the tradition. The effort itself can help lead us to sacred sites and other contact points, links, resources, people, spirits (and in the case of “dead” languages, texts and practices and those first faltering attempts to spell out our life in a new tongue).

Our attention is a living and revivifying fire. “The techniques will regenerate within your imagination.”

A gift of Yule. (And since I’ve been doing Old English: Glæd Ġeol! Glad Yule!)

The next post will examine how well this works in practice — for me, anyway — the only person I can understand from the vantage point of inside knowledge.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Bright’s grammar; magic circle.

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