The arts in Paganism

Pagan traditions like to celebrate the arts, whether it’s in the eisteddfod of Druid ritual, or the skaldic arts of Heathenry, or making things for use in ritual and around the home. If you look at any list of Pagan values, you will not find false modesty, self-deprecation, or other similar traits on the list. Humility is on many lists, but not modesty (in any sense of the word). Boasting and bragging are fine, and letting it all hang out is fine. False modesty about one’s artistic endeavours is not a Pagan virtue.

However, boasting and bragging are very specific verbs. In Heathenry, the symbel ritual consists of three rounds: brag, boast, and toast. In the brag round, you brag about things you have done (feats of any kind, which can include the arts). In the boast round, you boast about things you will do. In the toast round, you offer praise — nowadays mostly to the gods, but perhaps in the past, to other people too. The important thing about all of these (brag, boast, and toast) is that they are said over the sacred mead horn, and therefore take on the character of sacred oaths: the brag and the toast must be true, and the boast must be fulfilled—by making your boast over the mead horn, you have made a promise before the gods to do the thing.

In Druidry, there is the eisteddfod, which is an excellent celebration of the bardic arts. The eisteddfod (plural eisteddfodau) comes from Welsh culture and involves singing, reciting poetry, or storytelling.

In Wicca, we appreciate the arts, but we do not have an eisteddfod as part of every ritual, like OBOD groves do. I have been to both eisteddfodau and symbels organized by Wiccans, but as special occasions rather than regular occurrences. The witchy place to share songs and stories is around a campfire, and I’ve enjoyed some wonderful sessions over the years.

Celebrating the arts in all their forms (dance, music, writing, painting, pottery, etc) has always been part of Pagan life. The ancient Greeks had the Nine Muses, goddesses of poetry, history, music, and so on. The list of their names varies by region and author, but here is the widely-recognized list:

Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry), and Urania (astronomy).

— Wikipedia

In Northern climes, storytellers and bards would have been very valued members of society, both for their store of lore and for the entertainment value of their performances.

Bards and storytellers seem to have been able to commit prodigious amounts of lists, poetry, and stories to memory (unless they just made up the lists of what people were wearing as they went along). We know this because of the long lists of clothing and armour and horses in texts like the Mabinogion, which was originally orally transmitted. These lists are boring to us but doubtless conveyed oodles of social meaning to the contemporaries of the storytellers.

Learning the art of storytelling is not learning to recite a story verbatim, but rather to memorize the key points of the story, and retell it in your own way. That is one of the reasons why things come in threes in traditional stories. When I am starting to learn a story, I make a list of the key points on a card. There are also traditional ways of telling stories, such as including the “run” — a section of the story where the tale goes faster and takes on a rhythmic quality (usually it is a ride across country or a chase scene). It is a good idea to look for parts of the story where you can enhance your listeners’ experience by talking about smell or sight or sound or taste.

Back in the days before television and radio, in-person storytelling would have been a highly valued art. Now, we expect perfection and special effects; but there is still something really special about listening to a story or a song while sitting around a campfire. It’s an experience I strongly recommend.

A sleeping lady. Art by Arthur Rackham.
Art by Arthur Rackham

Featured image by Victoria Borodinova on Pixabay

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