Everyone talks about the loss of human connection today. No one talks about the devaluation of memory.
After all, with resources like Google and YouTube, why do you need to remember anything? All you need is a few keywords to find exactly what you were thinking about.
Then you can share it on your social media account and feel like the smartest monkey in the room.
Things weren’t always like this, though. Things were quite different, and we’re going to look at how we came from those views to these. We will look at the perception of memory over time in reverse.
The Late Dark Ages
For the purposes of this discussion, The Dark Ages refers to all of time before the internet became widely available. Not because they were a time of zero information, but because the concept of a blue light filter would have been laughable. The Dark Ages are the time before screen worship.
Near the end of The Dark Ages, if you wanted to know something you didn’t, you would still look it up. You would usually look it up in a book called an Encyclopedia, because The Almighty Screen didn’t exist yet.
For the younger readers, Encyclopedias were books that contained information in a concise format. This information was sorted (usually alphabetically) in a similar fashion to Dictionaries. Dictionaries were the print version of websites that tell you what words mean.
These Encyclopedias were the source of elimination of memory in the late dark ages. Why did you need to remember something if you could just go look it up? I’m sure this all sounds familiar to what we do today.
At the beginning of the late dark ages, encyclopedias were not widely available. Instead of having information presented concisely and alphabetically in a series of books, you needed many books. These books were collected and placed in a temple of knowledge known as a “Library”.
The ruins of libraries still stand today, although now it is mostly a place for bored school children and people who are too poor to own computers. Many of the old books are still there, if you feel the need to scratch your archaeological itch.
More memory was needed to use these libraries. You had to remember the name of the book or author you wanted. If you didn’t, you needed to possess arcane knowledge of a book numbering system. Without any of these things committed to memory, your search for knowledge would be a long one.
The defining characteristic of the late dark ages is in universal literacy. Everyone can read, so everyone has access to the knowledge contained in books. Things were not like this in the middle dark ages.
The Middle Dark Ages
Before literacy was universal, or even common, vast memory was the hallmark of an educated man. There were some women possessing a vast memory, but they tended to be the exception and not the rule.
During the latter part of the middle dark ages, literacy was uncommon but writing was not. Individuals who learned their letters were able to communicate their ideas in print, but these were few and far between. Most writing was done by institutions that were dedicated to putting pen to paper in preservation (and alteration) of knowledge.
The downside to these circumstances were that your information was only as good as the writer was honest. Many things were lost in translation due to either incompetence or ulterior motives. How, you ask? By practices put in place when writing was uncommon.
Before writing was a common practice, literacy was reserved for the elite. The masses relied upon the elite to relate this knowledge to them, and to tell them what the information should mean to them. This is the basis of nearly every surviving religion.
Those in the know leading the average schmoes. Everything from the stories of your people to the will of your gods, put into a neat little package for the useful idiots of the citizenry to understand.
The middle dark ages, despite improving near their end, were the worst for the individual of all the dark ages. If dead men tell no tales, then all men below the elite castes were dead for a very long time. It was not like this in the early dark ages.
The Early Dark Ages
Before cultures began chronicling their histories and beliefs, oral history was a prime factor in every man’s life. Whether you were born the son of a slave or the son of an earl, you knew your histories and heroes. Your kin shared them with you by the fire of an evening. The original entertainment.
Many of these stories we only know about today because the elites of later cultures put pen to paper. As we’ve already discussed, this is both a blessing and a curse.
Our understanding of the tales is only as accurate as the writer (long dead) was honest. We will never know for sure how accurate they are to the originals.
You may be saying that an oral history is no different. If I tell you something, and you tell your friend, and he tells his, by the time the story returns to me it will no doubt be different. To this I have two responses.
The first response is that oral traditions were usually passed down in grand songs. They were structured in such a way as to be easily remembered. Skaldic poetry is an example of this: if you get the meter wrong, you will not be able to ignore it. It will be auditorily obvious that the story teller has made an error in recollection.
We do not get this with writing, as we can’t hear the dissonance in a writer’s words when we don’t know the writer. It is one thing to know your brother wrote something he didn’t believe, because you know him. We can’t know men who died a thousand years ago.
My second response to the accuracy of oral history is one that pertains to stories today. It is one of many reasons I maintain a strong memory makes for a strong mind.
The Memory of Here and Now
Stories and concepts are fluid. The ideas changing with each retelling is not a flaw, but a feature. It is in this way that a story grows with a culture instead of being left behind.
Huginn and Muniin, Odin’s ravens, have names that translate to Thought and Memory. They bring him information from all the worlds. Odin himself has changed, having more than 200 names. One of these names is Svipal, which loosely translates to The Changeable.
Odin was originally a god of death and battle. The grim reaper, much like Thanatos and the ferryman of the river Styx wrapped into one. Over time, however, his stories were told such that he took on traits of the god Tyr. In this way, the changing culture of the people who revered him changed his nature in their oral history.
As Christianity became more widespread, Odin begins to take on Christian qualities. This is seen in his appearances as “High, Just-As-High, Third” when appearing as three separate entities to Gylfi, a man who sought wisdom.
An example of a story changing over time is in how this story was related to me as an amalgam of two different Odin stories. The story changed, details of it changed, and that’s a part of the changing times.
How do the changing times relate to the memory of here and now?
People change. Stories change. The more keen the memory, the better the individual’s ability to process this change over time.
Santayana said that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. I would add that they also lose their ability to identify the growth of their culture over time.
Not being able to change with the times can result in a complete loss of connection to that culture, which is what we are seeing today. I must then conclude that memory is not only desirable in our times, but outright necessary.
For the old culture to survive and become the new, it is necessary for us to remember ourselves. Remember our ways. Remember the stories and histories and heroes of our culture the way we know them, not the way people will tell us they are.
If you want to find the fast track to slavery, simply divorce yourself from this responsibility. Allow strangers of means to tell you how to think, how to worship, what to buy, and what to say.
If you want to find the fast track to slavery, let the here and now return to the middle dark ages with a new medium. Worship your Almighty God of the Screen. Do whatever you want with your finite life, but don’t expect to see me there.
I’ll be in the wilderness with blood on my boots and a gun in my hand. It’s deer season, and I’ve got meat to butcher.
Until next time…
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