My step dance teacher told us that set dances were always the same, unchanged. But she’d go on to say that “this is the way the step was done when I was a girl,” and she’d demonstrate, quick and clean. Though she was past fifty and round, her feet were still sure of themselves. “But up north it would look more like this.” And again, a step. “But it’s the same step.”
I didn’t get what she was driving at for many years, but I always remembered what she said. Around the same time, I sang occasionally with a woman who insisted that her version of the song was the only “right” one. I found it a little limiting, but I can hold more than one version of anything in my head, and when I sang with her, hers was the version we used.
I heard an interview on the radio years later where a traditional singer said that the tradition is a river. You can’t take a slice out of that river and say “this is the tradition.” My mother long ago taught me that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” It’s as valid for a song, or a myth, as it is for life.
Is Pandora the giver of all gifts, spilling her jar across the hillside, bestowing the knowledge of all good things on humankind, or is she the silly girl who can’t keep her hands off her husband’s box? Is Arionrhod the independent, self-assured woman—the “virgin” in the old sense, or is she a lying slut? Is Medb the bestower of sovereignity, or the original swinger?
As my grandmother might have said, “it depends on whose ox is being gored.” Every teller of tales, every artist or writer has a point of view. Many have an axe to grind. The bard who said that “it is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed” wasn’t just talking about Medb, now was he? what did that tale look like a century back? Five centuries? What did it look like when it was first told? We used to make statues and paint portraits of people as god(desses) or historical figures. Today we have Presidents dressed up as fighter pilots. I ask you, what’s the difference? And the fact that people react to these images tells us that there is truth in them, or at least power. The way the tale is told is at least as important as the tale itself