Monday, May 2, 2011

Pet Peeve Oral Tradition as Documentary Proof

One of my big pet peeves is people who say that we cannot judge the history of the occult and the esoteric traditions by the paper trail alone. You know the people---those who insist that unless we know what the oral traditions were, we cannot know what was actually going on.

And always, they know what the oral tradition was, therefore their pet theory is right despite the fact that the paper trail tells a completely different story.

Now, I am not saying that the oral tradition does not exist. I am saying that the concept of the oral tradition is being abused nine ways to Sunday. There is a difference.

Take for instance, the oral history of my own family. This semester I got to work on a project that dealt with the oral history of my family. I got assigned to interview three family members about my family history, then write a small paper about it (I recieved a low A).

What did I learn? That when all four of us had heard a story or explaination for something, none of the four stories would agree with one another. I also learned that the stories being told to the younger members of the family were not the same stories that the older generation recieved.

Conclusion---you cannot trust the oral tradition.

Now, I would love some parts of the oral tradition of the Western Mystery Tradition to be true. Unfortunately, the very parts I would most like to see proven correct are the very parts that I suspect are the most false. And so it goes.

The reason I am thinking about all this is the fact that the Open Full Moon ritual that I am going to be conducting in June is going to be based on the telling of stories. And some of the stories are going to be changed to suit the purposes of the ritual that I am doing. I am currently at the stage where I am fine-tuning certain elements of the stories, much like my father used to tell the same jokes over and over while changing certain parts to heighten the effects of the joke.

Think about it. If I know that I change parts of stories to suit my own purposes (and what is the oral tradition if not a collection of stories and some rather strange ideas), then what prevented the previous tellers of the stories and traditions from doing the same?

Oh, I know there were all much more noble souls than I was. And if you believe that, please leave your email address in the comment section because there are some people who would like to sell you a nice bridge to nowhere---after all, they know the true oral tradition of the mysteries---they would never lie to you.


Sincerus Renatus... said...

I like the metaphore, but a more fair comparison would be to use the common list your family had in dividing the various hosehold duties amongst the members, such as who made the laundry, the cleaning of the house, took a walk with the dog, etc. Some speculative conclusion may be drawn from me reading this historical document, but it is no proof how things actually where, especially regarding any family secrets.

In Licht, Leben und Liebe,

Donald Michael Kraig said...

While I agree that the oral tradition "alone" should not be accepted over written tradition, I would respectfully suggest that the written tradition "alone" is not much better. I've seen written versions of history--events that I lived through--be so far away from fact that I wonder if the writer was even involved. When people write, thinking that the writing will last longer than oral versions, they filter out unwanted facts and present their information through politically-tinted lenses.

The solution, IMO, especially when it comes to history, is to hear several oral versions of events and read several versions of those same events. Even then, the best you can expect is your own interpretation of events, a mere representation of fact much as a map is a mere representation of a landscape. A map is not the territory.

Morgan Drake Eckstein said...

I actually do plan on doing a post about how the written record is suspect also.

Imperator David Griffin said...

I am a little surprised to witness Donald Michael Kraig and I in agreement about something for a change, although I do have a few points to add.

Your article, Morgan, is most valuable in illustrating the problems that arise when historians try to play anthropologist.

Oral tradition is not the field of historians, as they are not properly trained in the ethnographic method. Leave oral tradition to anthropologists with proper ethnographic training.

You will perhaps recall that this is one of my primary objections to Prof. Ronald Hutton's, Triumph of the Moon, as Hutton not only goes beyond the defined region of his inquiry (Southern England) to make wild pronouncements on Pagan survival in Italy and elsewhere, but in the last chapter of his book also inappropriately uses personal anecdotes as though they were established historical facts, when they are, in reality, not even properly ethnographically evaluated anthropological data.

The title of your article "Oral Tradition as Documentary Proof", interestingly already belies your confusion on this matter as yet, as documentary evidence lies properly in the field of history, whereas oral tradition properly in the field of ethnography.

I completely disagree with your conclusion that oral tradition has no value. This merely betrays your personal bias, preferring history over anthropology. As DMK correctly points out, the written record is not by any means necessarily more accurate than the oral record at the end of the day. Both need proper evaluation by those properly trained in the correct field, and not just by any old Phd who thinks they can take a stab at it.

Ms D said...

I do not think it is the idea that oral tradition has no value that is being presented. I think it is the idea that once something is written, regardless of bias, it is then set and can be discussed, cited, and documented. 'Oral history' can give the dishonest, the unable to defend an argument, the poorly researched, and the heavily biased free reign to be changeable and unaccountable. Compunded severely by oaths of secrecy, it allows loathsome behaviour to flourish, cross referencing and citation to fail and scholarship to lack fruition. I fully agree with her, as these things are a plague on the occult community that will only end when all things can be documented and discussed in a manner befitting higher learning and developed spiritual personalities.

Ms D said...

Oh dear, I rather mean to say that I agree with 'him'.