Wisdom Of Ages

When I was a kid, my parents had a whole lot of things to say, some of them undoubtedly things their parents had told them when they were kids, and so on, going back who knows how many generations. I have no idea how much got passed down from my grandparents, and wouldn’t have any idea what was passed down from my great-grandparents or further back, although I can recognize some things that definitely transferred.

Things like Dad’s insistence on doing things right. His dad… well, there are pictures of the man beside the dictionary entry for “stubborn”, and you messed with his setup at your peril. Mum’s cooking arrangements being damn near an exact match of her mother’s – not helped by them living in the same house for a good chunk of my childhood and grandma doing a decent chunk of the cooking. Heck, my mother’s handwriting is remarkably similar to grandma’s, and I’m quite sure that’s not deliberate.

This is why imposing a change of culture on anything doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a conquering nation imposing their culture on the defeated or an elite – self-styled or otherwise – insisting that the vast majority of the population is wrong and needs to do it (whatever “it” may be) differently. A huge chunk of culture is a collection of habits, behavior, and sayings that today’s adults grew up with and sort of inherited from their parents. Who inherited them from their parents, and so on.

Yes, each generation keeps only some of the parental wisdom, and tweaks other parts to fit their circumstances. But a lot of the core values, the underlying things, they stick, hard. After all, a huge amount of what we as humans recognize as familiar is set when we’re too young to consciously remember. I don’t recall the research, but I do know that there’s a certain kind of terrain that feels like home to me – because it’s the kind of area I lived in as a very small child. I don’t recall consciously living in that part of the world, but when my family took a vacation to visit Mum’s relatives who still lived there, I recognized it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence I’m currently living somewhere that – despite being on a different continent and in a different hemisphere – has a similar kind of feel to it, if a bit hillier than that part of Australia.

What actually happens when you’ve got a culture being imposed is a combination of different effects. You get the surface obedience that goes with there being unpleasant consequences for not following the new rules. Historically this included things like the kids being taught the official religion for public and the old religion for private. It’s one of the reasons the old Christian church went to a lot of trouble to “find” saints and angels whose virtues came as close as they could get to the assorted deities of the people they were converting. It’s just that much easier if you can say, “Oh, right. We know about him. He’s the patron saint of sailors, and we call him a different name.”

Yeah, funnily enough telling people the gods they’ve worshiped forever are actually the approximate equivalent of minor deities in a much bigger pantheon than they knew about tends to work better than telling them their gods are evil and they have to stop worshiping them now. Strange how that works out, yes?

As well as the surface obedience with the underground original culture, you get weird blendings. English is full of them, since there were a bunch of frequently warring minor kingdoms that gradually grew into what we now know as England (just look into the etymology of English place names and how many different languages got caught in them (Torpenhow Hill, anyone?), then the assorted Norse and Norman incursions.

One part of my ancestry stems from the Isle of Man, which is well known for the blending of Celtic Christianity and Norse pagan starting in the 800s. Ish. There are stone crosses with Norse pagan imagery on one side and Celtic Christian imagery on the other – generally believed to be the result of the conquerors marrying local girls (since they’d set up shop locally and ladies from their own lands were in somewhat short supply, as it were), and the new wives (and slaves) bringing up the kids the way they were raised (As a side note, on the 1000th anniversary of the establishment of the Manx Tynwald, a group sailed a reproduction Viking longship from Norway to the Isle of Man. At one of the stops in Scotland, it’s reported that someone commented to a grumpy looking Scotsman, “Cheer up! The Vikings will be here soon.” and was told “Not again.” Cultural memory…).

Of course, if you’ve got the right – or wrong – kind of people as the conquered party, you get something along the lines of Australian culture, where the official rules are a veneer and the real rules are never stated openly and depend heavily on context. Not that this is surprising, since it’s essentially a prison culture – when the default assumption is that those in power are the enemy, you’re going to get a culture that hides itself and builds any number of traps into itself. It’s how prisoners communicate without the guards knowing what they’re talking about, even though they’re ostensibly speaking the same language (Yes, I am rather perversely proud of growing up with a dialect that’s basically a mutated thieves cant. Even though it makes living in the much more plain-spoken USA rather… challenging at times).

How do you know which way something will go when someone tries to change a culture from the top down? You don’t. You can guess that you’ll get a split where those in power and those who want to be in power echo the imposed values as much as they can, but when they’re not something you grew up with, they’re easily dropped in times of stress. You can also guess that most people will keep on doing what they’ve always done. As a general rule, the more isolated or lower class a group is, the less likely its members will take on the imposed culture. Where there’s intermingling, a blended culture will start to develop, as long as both the old and the new are stable.

And of course, all of this needs to hide in the background of a story – or at least mine does – because I’m not about to write dissertations on cultural change. Writing stories happening in times of cultural change is a different and much more interesting beastie thank you very much.

(Today’s cat photo is an old one of Bugger and Baby, both of whom have gone on to whatever awaits in the next life. They are missed. Bugger is the gray and white)

19 comments

      1. yes, and i sometimes act like i am holding snippets of people food to them like i used to. its waaaaay to quiet here.

        1. The other day, just at sunrise, when Greebo used to snuggle, a cat got on the bed and pressed against my side. I assumed Havey. But minutes later I moved my feet and realized Havey was there.
          The cat against my side stayed there, full solid and warm.
          I wanted so badly to reach, to maybe pet Greebo one more time.
          But I didn’t dare, and eventually he went away.
          I was fully awake. I take it to mean he came to visit and cuddle. And that he misses me as much as I miss him.

          1. awwww

            a few weeks ago i was mostly asleep and felt someone jump onto the bed and nudge me.. and i woke up a little more and said “What, kitty?”

            and then woke up enough to remember.

            1. I get that all the time. It’s got so I have no idea whether the cat landing on me at night is one of the living ones or one of the others come back to visit.

  1. re: the handwriting. I’ve recently learned that it was not uncommon, where penmanship was taught a good deal more rigidly in schools (or at all, sigh) for people, particularly close family members, to have very similar or even near-identical handwriting. Maybe that’s part of it? (I was taught penmanship, but only about through 3rd or 4th grade–this would have been the mid 1980s. When we were all learning it, all us kids had somewhat similar writing. It was only after, and without further penmanship instruction, that our handwriting diverged drastically…)

    1. Interesting… I don’t recall getting taught penmanship beyond “this is what the letters are shaped like” – although the two Australian states where I lived had two distinctly different styles of cursive. The New South Wales version was a lot simpler than the Queensland style, and neither looked much (anything) like Mum’s handwriting.

      Of course, me being a lefty meant that what I did never looked anything like official handwriting styles. To this day I have two very different styles – the loopier one with the backslant which is my default, and the rather more easily deciphered forward slanting one I use when I need my handwriting to be readable.

      Neither of them get much use these days. I can type faster than I can write with the forward slanting style, and possibly with the backslant one as well.

    2. My handwriting is early Victorian for Portugal, or was before it acquired some American spareness.
      I look a lot like paternal grandfather’s mother. AM a lot like her too.
      I don’t believe in reincarnation, but if I did….

  2. Not being Catholic (or Orthodox), I thought it was a matter of the “common folk” renaming their little gods into saints and the Church “turning a blind eye” on what was happening.

    IE Not Top Down, but the Authorities accepting want was happening.

    On the other hand, in an unwritten SF Universe of mine, the alien counter-part to Christianity did accept various popular gods as angelic beings reporting to the Infinite-One. 😉

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bit of both involved, although have read (sod if I remember where) that there was a deliberate decision to cast quite a few pagan deities as saints for easier conversion of the locals.

      Heck, the amount of pagan symbolism in the major Christian holiday traditions is phenomenal. I mean, rabbits and eggs? About the only way you could get more obviously “birth, rebirth, renewal” would be to have a statute of a giant peni… oh, wait. The Morris pole. Complete with a knob on the end. Nevermind.

      1. If you haven’t read it, you might want to check out Ronald Hutton’s book ‘Stations of the Sun’. He has a LOT of information on traditional British holidays, how old they are and where they came from. He’s a pagan and a classically trained historian from Oxford as well as a very good writer. According to what I remember of the book, many an ‘ancient pagan British tradition’ as recorded by Victorian scholars was maybe ten years old or so.

        Really just about anything he wrote is worth reading.

    2. It was more complicated than that, most of the time.
      It’s more like stories ascribed to gods were suddenly told about Saints or the Baby Jesus. (And honestly, even some Roman moral stories got transferred)
      And most Parish priests in the early middle ages were simply NOT educated enough to know better.
      You have to account for the fact there was very little writing, that kids misinterpret things all the time, and that parents often died when kids were quite young.
      IOW things got ROYALLY muddled.

      1. I imagine they did. Parish priests more or less telling the stories they were told, a lot of the older traditions just quietly continuing without much fuss.

        I think – although I can’t guarantee that what with the “Romantics” (mostly Mid-Victorian) and all – things like well decorations and such go back a lot longer than Christianity.

  3. You reminded me of when I was first stationed in Charlotte, NC in 1991 and then two years later married and moved to York, SC, far smaller and less cosmopolitan. The local schools still celebrated Jefferson Davis’ birthday and there were no Lincoln’s Birthday sales at the local department stores.

    Memorial Day? A celebration of Union war dead.

    By the time we moved northwards to Hershey in 2001, that was changing.

    1. Yup. What’s the saying? Culture changes one death at a time. Something like that, anyway.

      Some things last longer than others. As long as the defining myth of a culture stays more or less intact, that culture is going to hang on. This may explain Australians: the myth is a bunch of ill-equipped, down on their luck, petty criminals and political prisoners dumped in a hostile place where everything is out to kill them. Funnily enough, the fact that Australia is still trying to kill everyone there seems to be enough to keep the general level of cynicism and mistrust of authority reasonably high.

      1. I’ve always heard it that medicine (or science) moves forward one funeral at a time.

  4. In Jo Walton’s first published work, the King’s Name duology she had local gods convert to Christianity essentially. (or not)

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