I’ve been fielding a lot of questions on TikTok about open and closed practices, which is manageable but mildly distressing, since I am pretty much the opposite of an expert on the subject. Like a lot of Witches of European descent, I have a long history of bumbling into closed practices and going, “Oh. Wait. I don’t think I should be here.” And then carefully attempting to put everything back where I found it.
But as I tried to to provide answers, I noticed a similarity in the topics that people were asking about. Like, there was a whole convo about peyote being a closed practice, and someone asserted that chakras are a closed practice, and someone else tried to resurrect the idea that Tarot is closed practice — but none of these things are actually practices.
Peyote, for example, is a plant; the ritual use of peyote within an indigenous religious ceremony is a practice. Chakras are energy points that correspond to collections of nerve bundles in the human body; an exercise designed to open a particular chakra in a Buddhist or Hindu context is a practice, but the chakras themselves just, like, conceptually exist, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge or poke at them. The Tarot is a deck of playing cards that originated in Italy and was eventually repurposed as a method of divination in 18th-century France; a unique set of techniques for reading Tarot passed down within Romani culture is a practice.
Taking peyote recreationally, however, and then telling everyone you’re going on a vision quest is appropriative. Claiming that chakra alignment has its roots in Western European Witchcraft is appropriative. And no hate to my dearly departed grandma, but dressing up as a Romani fortune-teller for Halloween is also appropriative.
It’s a linguistic issue more than anything else, but it’s a symptom of a larger problem. Many of us in the global minority don’t have first-hand, lived experience with cultural appropriation, so we’re not always able to accurately identify it. Terms like “open practice” and “closed practice” can be helpful as we try to avoid appropriative behavior, but because we’ve allowed dominant groups to have the final word on what is open or closed, with little or no input from marginalized groups, those labels have become arbitrary, and, in some cases, meaningless.
We’re also not always willing to see ourselves as capable of causing the harm we see others inflicting, which prevents us from looking at our own practices critically. And if we can’t examine ourselves objectively, we’re honestly just going to go out and blithely inflict more harm.
Like, back in the early 2000s, Hoodoo got really trendy among Pagans, and a lot of Hoodoo spells and recipes got kind of vacuumed up into Neopaganism. But because of the collective amnesia that’s part and parcel of Greyface Culture, everyone forgot where they came from, even as it slowly became understood that Hoodoo is a closed practice. So in 2010, there were all these Witches making sour jars and calling it Hoodoo, but by 2020, Witches were making sour jars and calling it traditional Witchcraft. And today, we have Witches making sour jars and calling out other Witches for perceived cultural appropriation.
Which means I end up in conversations like the following.
Random White Pagan: “Wicca is cultural appropriation.”
Me: “Actually, as per popular definition, initiatory Wicca is a closed practice.”
RWP: “What?! No. Gerald Gardner appropriated closed practices.”
Me: “I see. Which ones?”
Me: “Which closed practices did Gardner appropriate?”
Me: “Take your time.”
RWP: “… Judaism?”
Me: “Huh. Where would he find information on Judaic magic?”
RWP: “Medieval grimoires!”
Me: “Makes sense. So, tell me about yourself.”
RWP: “Well, I’m a real witch. I practice demonolatry.”
Me: “How interesting! What resources would you recommend if I wanted to learn more about demonolatry?”
Me: “Take your time.”
RWP: “… Medieval grimoires.”
And please know that this is irrefutably not an indictment of demonolators — some of my besties are all up in the infernal, which is fine by me. But regardless of what we’re practicing, we do need to make sure our own sides of the street are squeaky clean before we start demanding that everyone else clean up theirs.
And we also need to make sure we comprehend the difference between appropriation and assimilation, which occurs when a marginalized group adopts practices or traditions of a dominant group, either in order to survive, or because the dominant group has imposed those practices on the marginalized group (the most recognizable expression being the use of Catholic iconography within African Traditional Religions). Folk magic is assimilative by nature, and while this often reads as eclectic, it’s eclectic in a way that doesn’t harm or rob from other marginalized groups.
My favorite example of assimilation comes from the novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé, in which Tituba is introduced as a traditional healer. At one point in the book, one of the Puritans is like, “Hey, Tituba, I want you to put a curse on someone,” and Tituba’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know how to do that, but thanks for thinking of me, I guess?” And the Puritan is like, “Oh, it’s super easy! You just make a cake, except you add a little urine to the flour, and then you get them to eat it. Bam. Cursed!”
I bring this up, because a) it vividly demonstrates how elements of European witchcraft could have been transmitted into Hoodoo over time, and b) one of the consistent arguments I’ve seen in favor of cultural appropriation is, “Well, [insert Folk Magic of the Moment here] takes from other magical systems, so I can take whatever I want from it.”
But as we know, applying destructive order to creative disorder results in destructive disorder. Ergo, forcing an appropriative mentality onto an assimilative model ends badly: It actively contributes to marginalization, and it stamps out the cultural traditions that marginalized groups are trying to protect and preserve.
And whether we want to believe it or not, we make things worse when we tack conditions onto allyship — like when we refuse to let marginalized groups take the lead in discussions on cultural appropriation. But if we can force ourselves to listen, and to accept the nuances of open and closed practices on a case-by-case basis, we’ll be helping to make the greater occult world a little safer for everyone involved.
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