A politically incorrect opinion on cultural approriation by eclectic Neopagans

A politically incorrect opinion on cultural approriation by eclectic Neopagans May 15, 2012

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.

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