Authenticity v Validity

Sep 5th, 2013 | By | Category: Articles

joann vander HoevenI remember, quite a few years ago now, reading Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon. I had always known, vaguely, that modern paganism was just that – modern.  After reading that book, and finding out just how modern most of our rituals and celebrations are, I had a bit of a religious crisis.  I was having a really hard time coming to terms with the fact that the spiritual path I was following was essentially made up by two guys in the 1950’s and 60’s.

For a couple of weeks I toiled with this issue, until it finally dawned on me that all religions, at some point, were made up by some people.  Simply because someone made it up 200, 2,000 or 20,000 years ago didn’t make it any more valid. I realised that authenticity did not equal validity.

There was no way of tracing pagan roots back to what we would imagine to be a more “pagan time”  – ie. for most this would be before Christianity.  Paganism didn’t write or record much down in words, though we can catch remnant in snatches of old folk songs, rhymes and the like.  If our paganism is inspired by an even older spirituality, such as our Neolithic ancestors, then certainly we have no written records – a few artefacts, burial mounds and sacred sites to draw inspiration on, but nothing of their words to live by. We still do not know, and can never be certain, what they actually believed, how they lived their lives and how they communed with their gods, if any. We can only speculate.

And so, two men, Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols pieced together a spirituality as best they could, after looking into folk traditions and seeking inspiration from the natural world itself.  This evolved into what is recognised as Wicca and Druidry today.  These paths are not hundreds of years old, though they have been inspired by older traditions.  This does not invalidate them in any way.

I would personally have a harder time believing in the validity of someone’s path who told me that they were following a “thousands year old British tradition” than someone who told me that they made up their own spiritual path.  Why? Because the need for justification of a tradition bothers me – why do we need to justify our paths?  Our good Druid friend, Iolo Morganwg, made up a lot of stuff when he couldn’t find any reference to it a couple of hundred years ago, and yet the stuff that he made up has great resonance and beauty for some druids.  Yes, he passed it on as “real”, and was only caught out fairly recently in his forgeries, however they still remain beautiful and meaningful forgeries nonetheless for many.  It bothers me that he felt the need to forge these documents, but it doesn’t make his tradition any less valid for himself and others with whom it inspires. The question of lying about the authenticity of a tradition is what invalidates it for many.

Why do we feel the need to authenticate a religion or spiritual path before we embark upon it?  Does this have anything to do with the Age of Enlightenment vs the Age of Reason? Why should one be more valid than the other, simply because it has hard facts that it can draw upon?

A religious and spiritual path is such a personal thing, that I find it hard to believe that any one path is good for more than one person.  We can certainly be inspired by it, but the path must be walked by us, and us alone – no one else can do it for us.  Buddha said “Be a light unto thyself”.  We have to find our own ways of communing, our own relationship with the world in order for it to make full sense to our hearts, bodies, minds and souls.  Oftentimes the words and teachings of others can come close, and yet they are still not quite as personal as a one to one relationship.

Protestants have a more personal relationship with God, for the most part, than Catholics when it comes down to it.  That in an inherent part of Protestantism, one that is explored and made quite poignant in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.    Protestantism placed a great emphasis on personal, individual reading of the Bible, thereby increasing the personal relationship with God – no other could really do that for you.  Sadly, within history and especially after the birth of Calvinism, fundamentalism became de rigeur.  

How much of our paganism today is influenced by this Protestant way of thinking? It’s hard to tell, but it’s not something I have a problem with.  I like the idea of everyone having to find their own personal relationship with God, or a god, or goddess, or the spirits of place, their ancestors or the three worlds of land, sea and sky.  This idea is, of course, not solely attributed to Protestantism (remember Buddha’s quote?) but it is one of the more recent religious institutions in the UK, of which we are currently exploring the legacy. 

How far back the tradition of personal relationship with deity goes is, to me, of no consequence.  It’s nice to have historical authenticity, but it does not a spirituality make.  It is within the personal relationship with whatever it is that you are communing with, and which changes you, inspires you or moves you that is really what matters in this life.  Whether you pray using a prayer that is a thousand years old, or one that you made up on the spot, it is in the feeling and intent behind it that matters most, not in the words themselves.  It must connect you with what it is you are trying to reach, else what is the point?

So, to all those out there who are making it up as they go along, who find spiritual validity in what they do, I give a hearty hail!  To those whose find the words of others resonate deeply within their soul, and blend their historic traditions with personal experience, again I give a hearty hail!  Life is too short to follow a path simply because others have trodden it – we can learn from that path, but ultimately it is we who are doing the walking, no one else, and in that is our own validity and personal experience found and blessing us along the way.  

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, the Director of a Belly Dance Company, a Marketing Officer for a music company and an author. She was born in Canada and moved to the UK in 1998.  Her philosophy on life is simple – live it. Fully and as aware as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Be the flow itself. She lives in East Anglia, UK. To find out about Joanna’s book or to purchase online click on the image below…

zen druidry

18 Comments to “Authenticity v Validity”

  1. Kris Hughes says:

    Thanks! I really enjoyed your post.

  2. Su Jolly says:

    I remember Ron giving a talk at a conference in Conway Hall where he cheerfully debunked my cherished belief in Ogham runes. I met him afterwards buying a wand decorated with Ogham runes to use in his own practise. It was one of the best examples of authenticity V validity I think I’ve ever seen and from that point on I stopped worrying about whether what i was doing was authentic. Religions adapt to suit the times. Even if we knew what they did 2000 years ago, we probably wouldn’t be doing it that way.

  3. Sharon says:

    Great post. I too struggled with the idea of my religion being invented in the 1900’s….but as I sought authenticity, I found that it was not what I was really looking for. I was looking for validity, not authenticity. As I found myself among people who claimed nothing later than the Iron Age counted as the true expression of pagan religions, and that we ought to recreate it exactly as it was to please the gods, who apparently have not evolved since the Iron Age, I found stirrings of rebellion within my soul. It didn’t make sense to trap myself in the past. That led me to the Druid Revival and an appreciation for religion evolving over time, and however we choose to express our religion today is just as valid as how those in the Iron Age chose to express theirs.

  4. Great post and one I’ve been wanting to see addresses more in our community. This notion that antiquity = authenticity is rarely questioned. On the issue of making things up, particularly for older writers such as Morganwg and even older ones: I think our notions of “real” and “unreal” are different, and the farther back in history you go, the more you will find people who created stories and told them as history entirely innocently. I do think our way of viewing the world through the lens of fact vs. falsity is relatively modern.

    • joannavdh says:

      True – and facts are always changing, so our current modern view of fact as The Only Truth is a little odd – as Zen purports, the impermanence of all things is what we should be inspired by – even the impermanence of facts! 🙂

  5. Katherine says:

    Great read, thank you!

  6. “How far back the tradition of personal relationship with deity goes is, to me, of no consequence. ” While I agree with this in your context (that it’s still valid even if it’s new), I think there is a lot to be learned by studying Pagan traditions that did leave records, such as Neoplatonic theurgy (Iamblichus, etc.). It’s also quite clear that guidance from personal Gods or Daimones was expected and attested in a lot of ancient cultures. Most had some sort of “professional class” of spirit workers, such as the Greek _goes_ (from which we get the word goetia), but the philosophy of the Hellenic, Roman, and Mesopotamian cultures show that individuals were also expected to listen to their own Gods or Geniuses as well.

    • joannavdh says:

      Indeed – we should not throw research out the window and just work on experience alone – the two can combine to create something wholly grounded, and yet adaptable to today’s society. We learn from the past, be we shouldn’t become stuck in it. A good reminder, Freeman! x

  7. Great post Joanna, thank you. This is a debate that regularly occurs within the Witchcraft community, and I for one find it very frustrating that many seek to portray lineage and historical connection as more important, more valid, than the eclectic Witches carving their own spirituality and their personal connection to the Divine. If the connection to the Divine within and without is present in your sense of spirituality, then all paths are valid in my opinion no matter how new or old. History and lineage does not always equal authenticity, and every practice started somewhere and was new at some point in time. It is a pity that so many people are made to feel uncomfortable by walking their own path, or by walking in the footsteps of others.

    • joannavdh says:

      It is a pity, and I do wonder what motivates people to look down on other people’s beliefs. Humans are fascinating creatures… awen blessings. x

      • John Crow says:

        There are still many wrongly telling people interested in exploring paganism(s) that Wicca (or Druidry) are ‘ancient’ There is of course nothing wrong with creating neopagan paths but the the lack of honesty often presented both by the founders and later followers of these ‘paths’ can often, as you yourself have experienced Joanna, lead to a ‘crisis of faith’ leaving the participant either disillusioned by the new information or choosing to adopt a more fundamentalist approach and refusing to accept academic sources that challenge their new found faith and feel the need to impose this faith on others. Or worse still cherry picking to fit. Surely if we are ever to be taken seriously by main stream society we need to challenge these misconceptions and embrace the deeper understanding of ancestral beliefs, a wealth of which is increasingly becoming available to us, without having to see them through the lens of a Freemasonic spoof Doctor or a fantasist Welsh Nationalist for that matter?

        • joannavdh says:

          Indeed yes – we know that ancient Celtic society valued truth highly in their worldview – I think that it is necessary in Paganism today to be truthful about one’s path. For some people, I suppose it can be so very hard to say “I don’t know”, or to accept that their path may take inspiration from ancient cultures, but is not an “ancient religion”. x

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