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History of Neo-Pagan Druidism, Requirement 3

Describe several examples of authentic folk customs absorbed into Neopaganism, and describe how they have been adapted. (minimum 300 words)

There are none. Neo-Paganism, from its beginning, has been unable to incorporate folk customs in any authentic way primarily because of (a) the diversity of traditions within Neo-Paganism and (b) the fact that those who laid the foundation for Neo-Paganism were English-speakers brought up in a Christian culture that had already reworked folk customs thoroughly.

This is not to say that we have not been influenced by a wide variety of folk customs; indeed, we have integrated many basic customs into our religion in one way or another. The issue is that instead of incorporating these customs wholesale, Neo-Pagans rarely accept them exactly as practiced, and particularly rarely accept them if they seem to have an association with Christianity. Because nearly all folk customs are also culturally contextualized, the transportation of a folk custom from Ireland to America (or vice versa) will always result in a loss of certain elements.

Further, it is likely that with the "do what works for you" attitude of the general Neo-Pagan movement toward adopting the customs of wider cultures, such customs are unlikely to find any way to truly integrate into the movement as a whole. Individuals, perhaps, can retain an authentic ancestral custom, but the movement as a whole would be hard-pressed to adopt any sort of authentic custom.

The most important issue with the importation of folk customs, though, is the revalorization of these customs when the person who comes across them decides to absorb them. Like battle plans that cannot survive contact with the enemy, folk customs cannot survive contact with Neo-Paganism without undergoing serious changes. These changes may come from attempted re-Paganization of the custom, amateur hermenutical and/or scholarly assessment, misapplication, or even flat-out misrepresentation. Any custom that enters Neo-Paganism as a whole would be subject to all of these factors from a variety of different levels, stripping any "authenticity" from them.

This process of revalorization should not be mistaken for a criticism or an invalidation: indeed, revalorization is the primary method used by humans to lay claim to something. But it does negate the possibility of authentic tradition remaining "authentic" within Neo-Paganism. It does, however, prevent authenticism and wholesale absorption from occurring.

Some examples of original folk customs that have been revalorized in this way would be the use of censing and aspersing areas, the sharing of food with the ancestors in the so-called "dumb supper" many have during Samhain, and the tradition of bonfire jumping at various holidays.

Censing and aspersing for purification, which, if we cannot find an obvious connection in Indo-European belief, we can find its use in two primary customs: Native American practice and the Catholic Church. There is evidence, though stretched, that the use of smoke from a bale-fire might have been considered cleansing of livestock, but it is more likely that the shining fire is the cleansing agent in this authentic IE Pagan belief. No, our use of modern smudging and censing is likely to come from the folk methods of using and utilizing the smoke of frankincense and sage from the Catholic Church and the Native Americans, respectively. There is evidence that items from Catholic ritual worked its way into home practices, and the idea of cleansing with smoke and water seems to be one of those. Also, throwbacks to Native American practice (often done in order to valorize our own worship schemes by seeking a prestigious past) are common, and the concept of smudging is likely very strongly drawn from this culture. The idea of smudging worked its way into modern folk belief in the late 19th century with the spiritualism movement, when things Native American came into vogue. Theosophy also picked up on this trend, moving it still further into our circles of thought.

The "dumb supper" has been ascribed wide folk origins, but appears to be primarily Slavic in nature. In later Christian times, it was a custom to set an extra place for those who have died recently, which was worked very easily into our Neo-Pagan Samhain, a festival primarily about the dead. We have ascribed pre-Christian meaning to the dumb supper, but it is unlikely that this tradition predates the 18th century. Nonetheless, it is a folk custom that we have come to ascribe to many cultures (particularly Celtic) and that we continue to use to this day.

The tradition of bonfire jumping is a folk custom that is hard to trace deeply. Certainly, there are no pre-Christian examples of this action, but it was popular throughout Europe and has been retained by many Neo-Pagans as a valid custom for us to repeat and retain. Often, it is said to give fertility, though it is often done in modern times by Neo-Pagans simply looking for a good, historically accurate rush of adrenalin.

In short, many folk customs that Neo-Paganism holds most dear seem to come from outside our religions. They have been absorbed in ways that are generally cloaked in a guise of "authenticity" that never truly existed, making it difficult for us to fully comprehend why we do these things, but it does not make them less valid. We just need to be a bit more honest with ourselves, is all.


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