One of the highlights of my week is the Folklore Thursday hashtag on Twitter. I’ve not had time to look at it for a few weeks though, so it seems I missed the occasion when some völkisch fascists tried to hijack it, much to the horror of the regular participants.
One of them accordingly started a second hashtag, Folklore Against Fascism, and several participants tweeted about their opposition to fascism and commitment to inclusive folklore.
Every culture has produced folklore, and every culture’s folklore is worthy of study and respect.
There are several insidious ideas in general circulation which are an attempt to make völkisch ideas “respectable”, or are linked to völkisch ideas.
One is the idea that your genetic heritage is what makes you a member of a particular culture. Not so: what makes you belong to a culture is being recognized as a member by other members of the culture, and having, and maintaining, cultural links with that culture. This applies whether we are talking about being a member of an Indigenous People (not a matter of “blood quantum”, which is a racist concept from the Indian Act), or about being a member of a diaspora (such as having Irish cultural heritage). Even in the case of Judaism, where having Jewish ancestry is important, that importance is a cultural tradition in Judaism, not a universal rule applicable to other cultures).
Another of these insidious ideas is that folklore is inherently rural, conservative, and retro. This idea was unfortunately popularized by early folklore collectors, who believed that the folklore they collected in the countryside was more pure and genuine. It has since been comprehensively debunked by academic folklorists, who (following the great Alan Dundes) look at form and function and transmission.
In fact, urban legends are a genre of folklore; jokes are a form of folklore; anything that is transmitted orally is folklore (though sometimes it gets written down and then re-transmitted or revived).
Some of these ideas have got into Pagan culture as well, and we need to guard against them. Not everyone who expresses these ideas is a fascist, of course, but I think it’s important to tell people where these ideas come from and suggest more helpful alternatives.
It’s kind of ironic that, after Pagans were (quite rightly) firmly told to stop appropriating Indigenous cultures, some people have now twisted the idea of cultural appropriation to mean that no-one can ever do anything involving another culture. This has been used by racists to exclude Black and Indigenous and Asian and Latino people from participating in Pagan traditions originating in Europe.
I’ve written extensively about cultural appropriation elsewhere, but suffice it to say here that immersive and respectful participation in another culture is not cultural appropriation; filing the serial numbers off it and shoehorning it into your own practice is cultural appropriation.
Folklore is multicultural
Some of the oldest stories are found in many different cultures. The earliest version of Cinderella has been traced to China. The story of Gelert (the faithful hound who kills a wolf that is threatening a baby, and is then killed by a human in the mistaken belief that he killed the baby) is found in France, where the dog is called Guinefort, India, where the predator is a snake, and many other cultures.
There has been some discussion among folklorists about whether folklore is diffused via trade routes, or arises independently. It’s probably both. But the fact remains that a good story is a good story, and will spread.
I’ve come across essentially the same story in the Brothers Grimm and a collection of Siberian folktales. The Grimm story was The Queen Bee.
Similarly, the story of Indra and Vritra the water-enclosing serpent has all the same elements as the story of Thor and Jörmungand, the serpent who encircles the ocean. Not surprising, as both are closely linked.
Odin has some striking similarities with the Hindu god Rudra. Both lead the Wild Hunt and ride out in winter. There are a huge amount of parallels like this.
Folklore should be about feeling a connection with the land and with the Earth; and connecting with other humans through the power of a good story.
David Southwell, the author behind Hookland Guide, explains why he started the Folklore Against Fascism hashtag:
He’s inspired by the author C.L. Nolan, who wrote about folklore and opposed fascism:
And Dee Dee Chainey cited the legend of the New Forest witches’ ritual in 1940 to stop Hitler from invading:
And Goths against fascism joined in too:
This has been a concern in Pagan circles for a long time, and several groups have been set up to provide an alternative and a voice for those who object to our traditions being hijacked by racists and fascists.
It’s also an issue in environmental circles, as this tweet points out:
I also made this point in my recent piece on The Wild Hunt, The Tower and the Virus.
So what can we do about it? Keep making it clear that fascists are not welcome in our spaces (both online and offline) and educating people about these ideas — because what the fascists want is for their ideas to be normalized and become mainstream.
We also have to make it clear to non-participants that folklore and mythology and Paganism are not inherently racist and that we welcome diversity.
It’s also St George’s Day today, and Shakespeare’s birthday. A day when this topic comes up quite a lot. St George was from Cappadocia in Turkey. He’s possibly based on an ancient vegetation spirit. He’s the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Catalonia and Aragon, among other places.
Happy international green George day!