We learn history in many ways — from school textbooks, non-fiction scholarly works, novels, television, documentaries and films, the nightly news and more — and some of those sources may even be accurate.
But what of cultural lore and traditions, and family history?
In the past, these stories were shared at family gatherings, at times of celebration such as festivals like Samhain and Bealtaine, but also on special days for individuals such as births, birthdays or naming days, weddings, and —yes — deaths, as families gathered to celebrate the life of a loved one who had passed.
In ancient Irish traditions — and many other cultures and places with strong oral traditions — families, villages, clans and tribes honoured the role of the story teller.
These were known as the fílidh (pronounced fee-lee) in Druidic and Celtic traditions, poet-seers who learned hundred of stories in apprenticeship with other fílidh (singular is file = fill-eh) and were honoured with a special seat at the table wherever they travelled. Even after the druidic traditions lost their power and influence, the stories were learned and shared by the seanachaidh (aka seanchaí, pronounced shan-ah-hee).
The fílidh and the seanchaí were the heart and soul of their culture, especially in cultures that thrived on oral rather than written traditions. They were custodians of the past, who held the stories of place, the memories of the people, their heroes, gods and goddesses, dreams of the Otherworld and more.
Who are the fílidh and the seanchaí in your family, your circle, your town? How do you learn traditions and stories from your past?
In the month of Samhain (Irish for November), we can honour our ancestors and keep their memories alive by exploring and sharing our history, our family lore, by being a file or seanchaí. And as you reflect on family lore and traditions, and bring them into your own awareness and consciousness, pause and reflect on what you can learn from those stories. For instance, as I gathered stories about my grandparents growing up in Liverpool, England, and their parents and grandparents, many who had left Ireland for England due to The Great Hunger, also known to some as the Irish Potato Famine, I recognized how resiliency was carried down generation to generation, and how they banded together in times of crisis — knowledge that can support me and inspire me during these times of COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
These stories may come from older generations within a family, or from research, and even if they are stories not from your individual DNA they may be stories that shaped your experiences growing up in your adopted family or your adopted place.
How can these stories inspire you? So many ways!
Their stories may reveal patterns of beliefs that need to be broken, or even revived? They may reveal strengths and talents carried from one generation to another, or even pain and wounds carried from one generation to another. All can inspire. All can heal. All can be shared with our own descendants of blood, bone and spirit.
What might you learn from walking or talking with an Elder or with the younger generations in your family?