The Rantin’ Raven: Cultural Appropriation? Really?

The Rantin’ Raven: Cultural Appropriation? Really? August 1, 2015

For the past several years, accusations of cultural appropriation have been flying thick and fast around the Pagan world. Any time someone draws upon an idea or cultural artifact they can’t prove belongs to their ethnic group, especially if it’s from a culture deemed oppressed or exploited, someone else is right there to scold them for underhandedly “appropriating” it.

But cultural appropriation isn’t always the misappropriation of myths and spiritual artifacts from low-technology indigenous populations by high-technology Western wannabes. Sometimes, it’s more peer-level than that, if no less damaging.

"Knossos fresco women" by cavorite - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Knossos fresco women” by cavorite
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
"Θεά των Όφεων 6393" by C messier - Own work Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Θεά των Όφεων 6393” by C messierOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the early days of Modern Witchcraft, many of us believed that one of the most important ancestral origin-points of Witchcraft was ancient Crete. Lots of us had Minoan snake-goddesses on our altars, or wore Her image or the sacred labrys (double axe) as a pendant. Both non-fiction and fiction books, such as The Dancer from Atlantis (Poul Anderson) or Sign of the Labrys (Margaret St. Claire), linked ancient Crete–the “Kheft” of the Egyptians–with modern Witchcraft, and the fledgling Pagan press, such as the Green Egg, often featured articles about it. While we cared a lot less back then about academic proof of Witchcraft’s origins, as we didn’t believe we needed to justify our beliefs to anyone, we read archeology avidly. We especially devoured anything supporting the theory that the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, a prosperous colony of Crete, was the origin of the legends of Atlantis.

Atlantis, you see, was one of the main mythical origin-points for the magical heritage that would come to be called British Traditional Witchcraft. There had been legends in the British Isles of the island’s having been settled by refugees from Atlantis, as documented in Doreen Valiente’s Where Witchcraft Lives and other sources, for at least a hundred years — much longer if you interpret the Book of Invasions in light of anthropology and, more recently, DNA. It was all so consistent.

And then, the lesbian feminist Witches came along. They claimed that Witchcraft was “wimmins religion” and that Crete had been the last great matriarchy of the ancient world. Suddenly, it was Not-OK for Traditional Witches (what later came to be called Wicca) to hark back to Crete, to display the labrys or images of the snake goddess. It was only OK for lesbian separatist Witches. They reluctantly conceded that it might be possible for heterosexuals to be Witches but claimed the entire subject of Minoan Crete as theirs. They were quite aggressive about that. It became extremely uncomfortable for the rest of us to wear our Minoan talismans in public and if we talked about what had until then been the common mythology of our origins we were silenced with slogans like “Hands Off Wimmin’s Religion.” It was more than a slogan — it was a battle cry. And anyone who trod on what they considered ‘their turf’ got blasted.

"AMI - Goldene Doppelaxt" by Wolfgang Sauber - Own work Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0Via Wikimedia Commons.
AMI – Goldene Doppelaxt” by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s nothing wrong with lesbian separatism or the idea of a women-only culture. Truth be told, a lot of women need a space that’s free of men for at least part of their lives. I imagine many men need such a space, too — that used to be one of the reasons men joined the military. What’s wrong is the appropriation – no other word for it – of a large chunk of our mythology by what was as least as much a political movement as a spiritual one. And what’s wrong is what happened afterwards: instead of standing up for our right to hold on to our Minoan connection, we just let it go and replaced it with another myth.

The hijacking of Wicca’s mythology about roots in Crete happened to take place around the same time Irish folk music–real Irish folk music, not Irish-American pub ditties–hit the US music scene. Suddenly, Wicca became “Celtic.” Granted, Gardner had called it that, but he’d meant only that it appealed to what in his day was called the “Celtic temperament” — artistic, extroverted, and mystical. This new “Celtic” Wicca looked awfully Irish, despite the fact that the vast majority of its practitioners knew nothing about pre-Christian Ireland except that it was polytheistic and had cool art. Ritual accessories lost their astrological or classical décor and were slathered with Irish interlace (which, by the way, was originally Norse). New initiates began taking Celtic names in preference to almost any others.

Within ten years, few Wiccan practitioners had any idea there had ever been any connection between British Witchcraft–Wicca–and ancient Crete. In fact, among most British Traditional Wiccans (Gardnerians and their kin) in America, and despite Gardner’s frequent mentions of Pan and Diana as the patron Deities of Wicca, ancient Mediterranean Paganism became an unacceptable topic. It simply wasn’t done to invoke any but Celtic deities or to acknowledge that there might have been any influences into the formation of Traditional Wicca outside the British Isles, never mind the copious archeological evidence that the Roman army had brought their many religions with them to the Isles, where they’d taken root nicely. Except for a rare few of us Old Farts, this part of modern Wicca’s culture is gone forever.

Feminist Witchcraft, too, moved on, becoming much less a branch of Witchcraft and more a feminist Paganism. A large faction dropped the pseudo-archeology and most of the magic, opening up to a wider spectrum of women and incorporating New Age ideas to become the Goddess Movement. They don’t seem to wear the labrys much anymore, either.

Maybe I’ll dig mine out and see what happens.

(Postscript: I recently encountered a group of Minoan enthusiasts on Facebook, and it’s wonderful to finally have others to talk with about my life-long fascination. They have developed a Minoan-based seasonal cycle and liturgy, a Minoan Paganism that isn’t exactly Reconstructionist but isn’t far off, either. So far, though, not a word about Atlantis… or Wicca.)

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