Myth & Culture Together Live on in Folk Custom
The phenomenon of indigenous beliefs lingering on with the common people after the population has been converted to a new religion is known as “folk religion.” We see it plainly today in Central and South America. The most well known custom that merges indigenous belief with Christianity is the Mexican Day of the Dead. There are other examples in other parts of the world where ancient animist and shamanic beliefs have carried on under the newer religions of Buddhism and Islam.
Europeans are Indigenous People, Too
There is often a disconnect in recognizing this custom in European cultures.
There is a tendency to view native populations around the world as “indigenous” and give respect to ancient beliefs and traditions, and forget that Europe once had an indigenous culture, too, that was displaced by incoming Catholicism and even more strongly eroded during the Reformation era.
Indigenous European beliefs, unlike other world cultures, tend to be viewed as backwards, superstitious, quaint.
It is my sincere belief that ancient cultural folkways of ALL people are worthy of respect.
And so, when Europe has faced religious onslaughts both old and new, and when some European governments today are actively erasing their ancient heritage and downplaying their culture, it is important to point out that European cultural tradition is a special inheritance that deserves to be cherished as much as all other cultural groups.
So, in this vein, I would like to share an interesting story regarding European cultural folkways.
New York Times blogger, Matt McAnn says:
In remote northeastern Poland there lives a group of elderly Orthodox devotees who are said to possess special powers. They can heal the sick, cast out demons — even still a foe’s heart. Living at a mystical crossroad of Christian faith and folkloric superstition, they consider themselves members of the church, though the church does not.
They are called “Whisperers.”
As mentioned above, folk religion often mixes Christianity (or whatever the new religion in the region is) with indigenous local folk belief. While the common people usually consider themselves strictly Christian (or Muslim, or Buddhist, etc), church leaders almost universally reject the popular beliefs that stem from indigenous origins.
This quote strikes a note with me because identity is a complicated thing. People who don't know European history very well get very caught up in the idea of nation states.
The truth is that modern nation states are a very recent development in human history (19th and 20th centuries, with some exceptions).
A lot of people can't wrap their head about the idea that the name of the nation on your ancestor's passport might have very little to do with your family ethnic background.
German speaking communities were being persecuted at the time - communities that originated with Saxons who had lived there as early as the High Middle Ages.
My ancestor would have identified as an ethnic-German despite living outside of the modern German nation state.
So I think it's apropos that these folk practitioners don't fit the molds of religious and national identity, as that can be a very nebulous thing by modern understandings.
Of the Whisperers, McCann says:
The Whisperers’ willingness to do “the bad stuff” intrigued Mr. Kaminski. He said he witnessed a friend of one Whisperer asking if she — they are usually women — could make her neighbor die. Mr. Kaminski said that the Whisperer replied, “Yes, I can do that,” but with a caveat. “She said, ‘If your neighbor is a good person, you will die.’ And she prayed that,” Mr. Kaminski said.
Duly warned, the woman agreed. And a month later, Mr. Kaminski learned she had died instead. It was harvest season, and she fell under a tractor.
My name is Carolyn Emerick, and I write on the history, myth, and folklore of Northwestern Europe.
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