A politically incorrect opinion on cultural approriation by eclectic Neopagans

Eclectic Neopaganism is criticized by anthropologists and other academics who condemn the removal of religious symbols and practices from their cultural context as trivializing, as well as by feminists and race advocates who condemn the theft of the traditions and practices of another culture as another form of Western colonialism, and finally by other Pagans.  Hard Polytheists in particular may claim that the gods themselves don’t appreciate being appropriated.  Setting aside for the time being what the gods want, I want to first discuss the argument that cultural appropriation is trivializing and then turn to the question of the “theft” of another’s culture.

A splendidly ridiculous example of the trivializing form of eclecticism is an on-line game called “Create Your Goddess”.  It’s so bad, it must have been meant as a joke.  The player is presented with a (nude) female figure who resembles a Barbie doll and the “player” is invited to mix and match skin tone, hair color, and clothing of “goddesses” from ten different cultures.  The result is absurd at best.

My Goddess with Yemanja skin, Amaterasu hair, Lakshmi torso, Isis legs, and Corn Maiden feet

In Pagan circles, the issue of trivialization often takes the form of questions of “authenticity”.  In my opinion, there is nothing that makes eclectic forms of spirituality automatically any less authentic than those that are “traditional” or are based on reconstructed cultures from antiquity.  Certainly, one cannot pick and choose deities from the pantheon of pre-Christian Ireland, merge them with a Neo-Wiccan ritual structure, and then claim to be practicing an ancient Celtic spirituality.  But that does not mean that such an eclectic spirituality is any less valid than that of either Celtic Pagan Reconstructionists or of the ancient Celts themselves.  In fact, to the extent that eclectic spirituality reflects (post-)modern values, one could argue that eclecticism is better suited to people today than one that was created by people in a distant time and place.

I am an eclectic myself, so I have a certain perspective or bias.  I left Christianity, in part, because I no longer saw the value in trying to imitate the values of people that lived before the Enlightenment, before Liberalism, before feminism, and before there was anything called “spirituality”.  Then I came to Neopaganism after reading Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon.  Consequently, I had no illusions about Neopaganism being “the Old Religion”.  So I judge questions of authenticity differently than a Reconstructionist: if it works for you, go for it.

A more serious charge, I think, is that of cultural “stealing”.  This criticism becomes especially acute in cases where the tradition borrowed from is a living one, for example Hinduism.  And it is doubly troubling in the case of Native American spirituality, since Europeans have already literally stolen so much from that group.
However, this raises the question whether it is actually possible to steal a cultural symbol or practice.  Stealing implies that the thief has deprived the owner of something.  In my opinion, if eclectic Neopagans borrow from other religious traditions, especially living ones, mix that tradition with Neopaganism or with Neo-Wicca, and then claim to represent the indigenous religious tradition, then they are frauds.  Not thieves . . . but frauds.  For example, “IndoPagans” should not claim to represent the cultural traditions of Hinduism.

I recognize that on this issue my views are pretty far from what is considered politically correct in the Pagan community (or even mainstream culture) nowadays.  My opinion is, if it’s not nailed down, then its fair game to me . . . as long as I openly acknowledge what I am doing.  I’m not going to buy a statue of Shiva and add it to my Neopagan altar and the then call myself Hindu.  But if I like the imagery and myths about Shiva, then I will use then.

And I don’t think I am being untrue to my American heritage in doing so.  (For one thing, stealing things from other cultures is very American!)  But more than that, when I take a name, a story, or an image from another culture, I remove it from its cultural context, and it is transformed.  There’s no way to avoid it.  In order to completely avoid any cultural “appropriation”, I would have to deprive myself of access all the myths and imagery of the world’s religions, living and dead.  This is what many Naturalistic Pagans do, and that is a legitimate choice.  But for those for whom the stories and imagery of ancient cultures resonate deeply, it would be like amputating an spiritual appendage.

I do understand how people from “traditional” cultures consider it disrespectful to “steal” their words and images.  When I was a Mormon missionary, I remember I met this lady who told me she believed the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, was a prophet.  But she was not Mormon.  (In retrospect, I think she may have been Baha’i.)  I insisted that a belief in Joseph Smith’s prophecy logically compelled her to become Mormon.  She just responded that she had incorporated my beliefs into her own.  I was offended.  (Note: Mormons don’t worship Joseph Smith, but they honor him like a prophet, like Jews do Moses.)  I felt like she was trying to “steal” Joseph Smith from me.

But looking back, I realize now, she wasn’t taking anything away from me.  Her Joseph Smith wasn’t my Joseph Smith.  And for that matter, my Joseph Smith wasn’t the Joseph Smith anyway.  The same is true of Neopagan borrowing from “traditional” cultures.  If I invoke the “Trickster” in a prayer, I am sure I have a very different idea of what that means than do those Native Americans who use that name.  I am not taking anything from them.  Their religion is not in any way diminished by my use of that word.

And the same holds true for ancient pagan religions.  Sure, Celtic myth has a different meaning to people who live in Ireland than it does to those born and raised in North America.  But does that make it meaningless to me?  No.  When I read a story about CuChulainn and the Morrigan, something resonates in me.  Is that because some ancestor of mine that I don’t know about was Irish?  No, it’s because I am human.  And I reserve the right to take that story, change it if it feels right, and incorporate it into my personal spiritual practice . . . so long as I don’t then call myself a “Celt”.

The one caveat I would add is that those who “borrow” cultural traditions, must still treat them with respect.  The lady I met in Brazil was respectful of the historical figure I honored.  The Dress-Me-Up-Goddess game above, or the Lakshmi Whopper below, are not respectful.  Not every use of another’s culture is okay.  I do have a problem with the commercialization of another’s religion.  While, in my mind, my spiritual development may trump your cultural sensitivity, the profit motive does not trump anyone’s cultural sensitivity.

“Lunch is Sacred”: a Spanish Burger King ad appropriates the Hindu goddess Lakshmi

Now, having said all of this, I do think there is a danger in dealing with ancient myth, but it does not come from a  concern of cultural appropriation.  Sometimes Neopagans seem so fascinated by pagan gods and myths from other cultures, they forget about what really makes us Pagan . . . It’s not, in my opinion, believing in more than one god.  It’s experiencing those gods (or “God” or whatever you want to call it) in what is right outside your door — the dirt under your feet, the sun on your face, the wind in your nostrils.  What is more “pagan”: someone sitting in an armchair reading a copy of a manuscript of the Tain Bo Cualnge, or someone outside mixing compost into their garden with an attitude of joyful reverence?  I know people will disagree, but I know what my answer is.  I do plenty of the former — reading ancient texts — but I have slowly come to realize that what makes me “Pagan” is what comes after I put the book down.

  • http://twitter.com/postpagan Glen Gordon (@postpagan)

    I understand what your saying. on some levels appropriation is unavoidable and even healthy. You are right, it is how it is done that makes the difference. There is respectful appropriation, which I feel keeps as much in context as possible, and there is disrespectful appropriation or misappropriation which has no regard for context and is a selfish act. misappropriation is worst when one is profiting from the misrepresentation.

    misappropriation can be theft. When something from another culture becomes adsorbed into the colonial culture to a point where context is lost from the original source that culture it originated from those people have a hard time accessing its original meaning, it is theft. this is what happens with much of Indigenous cultures around the world from the didgeridoo to feathered head-dresses. It is difficult to see and draw the line when something is becoming misappropriation, and thus I find caution is necessary.

    Your point about her Joseph Smith not being your Joseph smith is similar to an argument I make about modern polytheism. The Thor of ancient Scandinavia is not the Thor an Asatru worships in Seattle and that is not the same as the Thor a wiccan is worshiping in Miami. True, when you use a symbol or myth from another culture in your own ways it becomes something new. However, by calling it the same name (for example Thor) is that not different from the wiccan with a panceltic pantheon calling one’s self Celtic? It’s no longer the same, why call it by the same name? This is where the waters of appropriation get muddy. I’m not saying its wrong or right, I am just acknowledging a big grey area in between.

    I find source materiel of ancient European cultures very valuable in my practice and beliefes. However, I think what sets me apart from most is in how I work with that source materiel. Instead of focusing on the symbols of the source material and what my ancient European ancestors may have did, I am far more interested in why they created these symbols and traditions and the social-mechanics behind them. I also do this with some cultures I have no claim of heritage with. I have found often these cultural symbols are originally rooted in both the time and place of where they came. And so, I work my inspiration from these sources into my time and place through method not as much symbol.

    It is good your bring up this issue. I think it is very important, due to the nature of neopaganism and American culture to talk more about these issues.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Glen Gordon (@postpagan) wrote: “misappropriation can be theft. When something from another culture becomes adsorbed into the colonial culture to a point where context is lost from the original source that culture it originated from those people have a hard time accessing its original meaning, it is theft. this is what happens with much of Indigenous cultures around the world from the didgeridoo to feathered head-dresses.”

      I have to admit ignorance of the process by which this occurs. I understand how the meaning of feathered head-dresses is lost to the White culture, but how does the Native American culture lose the meaning of the head-dresses? I think this must occur as Native Americans were conquered, colonized, and converted. But is that a risk when we are talking about Neopagans appropriating Hindu symbols, for example? No doubt Neopagans may loose the original meaning of the symbols, but is there any danger that Hindus will loose the meaning because of Neopagan appropriation? If Native Americans had not been colonized, would their symbols have been lost to them? If not, is the issue cultural appropriation, or is it colonization?

      Glen Gordon (@postpagan) wrote: “… by calling it the same name (for example Thor) is that not different from the wiccan with a panceltic pantheon calling one’s self Celtic? It’s no longer the same, why call it by the same name?”

      Good point. I don’t have a ready answer for that one. I would say I don’t have a problem with people calling themselves “Celtic Wiccans” or Celtic-whatever, so long as they don’t claim to be representing ancient Celtic religion (a very common claim), unless they are really trying to reconstruct the same. I guess I would say the same about “Thor” — use the name, but don’t claim that your “Thor” is the same as the ancient Norse Thor … again, unless you are a Recon.

      Glen Gordon (@postpagan) wrote: “IHowever, I think what sets me apart from most is in how I work with that source materiel. … I have found often these cultural symbols are originally rooted in both the time and place of where they came. And so, I work my inspiration from these sources into my time and place through method not as much symbol. ”

      Can you elaborate on this? I understand trying to reconstruct what ancient pagans did (which I understand you don’t do, and I don’t do either). And I understand trying to figure out why I respond strongly to a certain myth of symbol and then work that myth or symbol into my personal pantheon (which is what I do). I think what you are describing is different.

      • http://twitter.com/postpagan Glen Gordon (@postpagan)

        Below, B.T. does an excellent job of answering your first question. I would add, this also accrues when someone of a culture is being told what their culture means by someone outside of it. For example Hindu is a broad term that incorporates so many diverse religious traditions. When an American of European extraction begins telling an East Indian what Karma is and is not, assuming they know as much or more, that is (mis)appropriation. And that happens a lot. The western ideas of karma, zen, the yin-yang are so far off the mark to the original cultural meaning its appalling.

        For your second question, well that not an easy one to answer. That is, in part, one of the big questions my blog aims to answer. An example off the top of my head is Awetspire, a word of my creation from possible proto-Germanic and proto-Indo-Eruopean root words for air, breath, inspiration, and so forth. Many IE cultures have deities associated with the sky. To me Awetspire, is my attempt of working with the method behind those traditions. Awetspire is the one-breath and the atmosphere itself. I have a ritual I have developed around the concept as a sacrament of breath which helps me tap into the currents of the air and the breathing of the planet and bring my awareness to my integration into the natural living-world as a human. One one level it taps into what I believe to be ancestral knowledge but in a way unique and relevant to me and my place and time. I also relate to a genius loci of the sky here in the Inland North West which I call Father Rainshadow. I believe the Gods of different European cultures are products of the local ecology and thus I feel it proper for my relationship with the land to reflect that.

        There are no easy simple answers or solutions to cultural appropriation and knowing when it is respectful and when it is not. There is a lot of grey area involved which makes navigating those waters complicated. However, one of the best things we can do is to talk openly and honestly about this issues with each other.

        • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

          >I have a ritual I have developed around the concept as a sacrament of breath which helps me tap into the currents of the air and the breathing of the planet and bring my awareness to my integration into the natural living-world as a human.

          Glen, could I see that ritual script?

  • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

    I think where the problem arises is when the new use or meaning becomes so prevalent that the original culture is misunderstood at every turn. That’s where it would really piss me off if I belonged to an American Indian tribe and people everywhere are telling me what my tribal symbols mean, and I would start to talk about them being “stolen.” Same thing if I was Hindu and lost in a flood of Western (mis)understandings of karma, Kali, etc.

    Yet you put your finger right on it when you say we must not claim to represent the culture from which we take our inspiration. Even a tacit (unspoken) claim may be too much. If we explicitly acknowledge our own interpretations as well as the legitimate origins, then I think it’s okay.

    A difficult question is: how big does a religion have to be to be considered a “living tradition” necessitating concern about appropriation? Native Americans and Hindus are two big examples, but what about Hellenic polytheists in Greece? I incorporate Greek myths into my personal practice – should I be worried about acknowledging them at every turn? I work this one out by remembering that Greek myths have been part of a larger Western culture for millennia, and the interpretations of Hellenic polytheists in Greece are not necessarily the same as those in ancient Greece (which even then enjoyed a plethora of different interpretations). So in this particularly case I feel justified. Yet I struggle to generalize that into a moral guideline for dealing with other cases.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      You have an excellent point B.T. I’ve been approaching the issue with the assumption that Pagans are a religious minority. But that assumption obscures the fact that most Pagans are White and middle-class and not in a cultural minority. Perhaps we cannot separate our Paganism from our privileged social position as easily as I thought.

      • http://twitter.com/postpagan Glen Gordon (@postpagan)

        That is exactly it! It is easy for us to not see our own white privilege. Because of this we are given unfair advantages in our religion (even a minority religion like paganism) that other groups don’t have. I suggest looking into Tim Wise studies on the subject of white privilege: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3Xe1kX7Wsc

  • http://twitter.com/postpagan Glen Gordon (@postpagan)

    damn typo, meant to say it isn’t easy for us to see our white privilege.

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  • http://seanmcdh.wordpress.com Sean MacDhai

    GREAT post. I wrote something on the matter a few weeks ago, referencing the fact that Neopagans confuse “cultural appropriation” with “cultural borrowing”.
    http://seanmcdh.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/wicca-and-cultural-appropriation/


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