Ancestor beliefs and the ‘time before memory’

I have made much of the importance of ancestor beliefs in my posts, and how these relate to a belief in ‘fairies’ and ‘spirits’, and I’d like to examine this a little bit more…

Before the introduction of literary culture to Atlantic Europe by the Greeks and Romans, the transmission of memories, information and knowledge was by oral transmission. This involved the development of a number of ‘tricks’ of formalisation – ‘aides-memoires’ if you will- in order to assist with memorisation, and from this grew the bardic culture: a field of expertise for coding large amounts of complex knowledge into verse and forms which allowed memorisation, as well as providing a shared mnemonic culture and good entertainment.

Statue of Iron Age 'bard' clutching a Celtic lyre, or 'Crwth'. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Statue of Iron Age ‘bard’ (Brittany) clutching a Celtic lyre, or ‘Crwth’. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Bardism survived the Christian period into the late medieval period when they were largely only formally employed as reciters of pedigrees to Gaelic chieftains, but died out with the dissipation of the clan system – the last vestige of Iron Age culture save for those particular story traditions and beliefs which we all know and love, and which I seem to spend a lot of time writing about. Pedigrees offered clans a link with the heroic (i.e. – ‘purer’ and less controversial) past. As such, they were open to a great deal of interpretation and revision in order to satisfy the political needs and claims of contemporary bardic patrons.

Due to the limitations of memory, the usefulness of information, there is usually a cutoff point or ‘event horizon’ in oral history which represents a ‘time before memory’, and oral/bardic culture had to deal with this in a formalised way. In the context of informal folktales collected from post-literate societies (even if the reciter is illiterate), vague timescales creep into narratives: For example, Irish tales of the Cailleach Bheara collected and stored at the DeLargy Centre at University College Dublin’s folklore survey archive might refer to ‘a long time ago’ or even ‘a hundred years ago or more’ to establish a setting which involves timescales of great supposed antiquity. The opening credits to the Star Wars films open with the same legendary theme before scrolling away to a point of infinity on the screen. In a way it is a method for framing a story in a distant place where anything might be possible, or at least be more difficult to contest!

The start of all good stories...

The start of all good stories…

This ‘time before memory’ is an important place where a storyteller can establish modern ‘facts’ with abstract and alliterative origins. The freedom of the story takes the gravity of established fact and reality from the shoulders of the characters, allowing them freedom to fly in unimaginable ways and perform acts of magic. Time, physics, even conventional morality do not apply, except where it suits the storyteller to remind their audience of them.

Understanding how to address the principle of ‘time before memory’ was undoubtedly a technical discipline to a bardic/oral culture. Beyond the ‘event horizon’ it wouldn’t have been a case of ‘anything goes’, but there were instead degrees of difference depending on just how far back the tale was taking the reader. A good example of this are the written works of the traditional (orally transmitted) lyric poets of ancient Greece, most notably Homer and Hesiod (6thC BCE or earlier), both of whom deal with these shady kingdoms of the legendary past in a formalised and structured pattern. From the foundless chaos of the initial creation to the time of the Golden Age and the subsequent ‘Ages of Men’, through to the matings of gods with men and finally the Trojan War and its aftermath these narratives take the listener (or later the reader) through the various degrees of comprehensibility which end largely in a recognisable world of humans following the sack of Troy. Subsequent ‘histories’ from this part of the ancient world would use the events at the end of the Illiad to start their accounts of history ‘within memory’…

To add another dimension to bardic culture, it often relied upon former bards ‘from beyond the event horizon‘ to give authority or veracity to their accounts, as if these people were astronauts reporting back from the unknown. Thus we have Celtic story figures such as ‘Oisin’, ‘Taliesin’ and ‘Merlin’ (even the egotistical, pompous and bumbling Senchán Torpéist) who occur in stories in such a fashion. Who knows – perhaps Homer and Hesiod themselves were of the same kind?

The real Homer?

The real Homer?

The further back into the unknown and deep ancestral time a narrative tale goes, it is generally fair to say that the more fantastical it becomes. The number of human-like characters dwindles in order to suggest the origins within a single family unit – mother, father and child. Even then, they may take on characteristics which make distinguishing them from the landscape and animals of the land increasingly difficult. They grow to huge stature, as if to explain their likeness to the stars, oceans and mountains which informed the landscape of the listener. 

 

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