Cultural Appropriation Vs Appreciation: A Primer For Pagans, Polytheists, And Occultists

Cultural Appropriation Vs Appreciation: A Primer For Pagans, Polytheists, And Occultists January 15, 2019
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The issue of cultural appropriation is one that has come up a number of times in the pagan, polytheist, and occult communities. At times the discussion is helpful, at others there is clear confusion between what is appropriation vs appreciation, and occasionally there are those who appropriate the notion of appropriation.

What do I mean by all of this? Let’s first begin with some definitions.

Cultural appropriation is typically defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” But what is most important about the concept that is typically not always understood or explicitly stated is that it is referring specifically to cultures that were colonized, disenfranchised, and ultimately not ones that are in the position of power within the culture of the appropriator. Everything comes down to disrespecting marginalized cultures by taking aspects of their culture out of context in a manner that not only isn’t originally intended, but in a way that diminishes their meaning.

I find it best to explain through examples:

Cultural appreciation: a non-Native learning directly from a Native how to do smudging, and using it in your own personal practice as a means of cleansing or purifying a space. You have the blessing of a Native person, you learned how to do it correctly, and you’re not using it in any other way other than intended. In addition, you’re treating the practice appropriately and with respect.

Cultural appropriation: a non-Native wearing a Native American headdress to Burning Man as a “cool costume”. These items were earned and worn with respect to ceremonies, not as costumes by non-Native people.

Native people have undergone genocide and racism at the hands of white people, and continue to experience racism and discrimination today. Disrespecting their culture by taking pieces of it out of context is tone deaf and insensitive at best.

Next example:

Cultural appreciation: a non-black person becoming an initiate of an ATR (African Traditional Religion) and undergoing their ceremonies and rituals in a manner that is appropriate to the tradition.

Cultural appropriation: a non-black person who is not an initiate invoking Erzulie Freda in a non-ATR ceremony such as Thelema, neo-Wicca, or the Golden Dawn and excusing it with “All love goddesses are the same goddess anyway”.

Similar to Native people, black people have also undergone genocide and racism and also continue to experience violence, racism, and discrimination today. The traditions that are sacred to black culture should be respected and approached appropriately knowing this. And besides, good luck calling on Erzulie without calling on Papa Legba first, anyway. For all else, consult with an actual initiate on how to be practice in a way that is respectful of these spirits, their traditions, and the people who are actively involved in these traditions.

Unfortunately in some cases, the notion of cultural appropriation is being appropriated by racists who are attempting to hijack the term in order to argue for “cultural purity”. And frequently people who are actively engaged in serious spiritual and/or occult practice that has any historical relevance are often targeted for these accusations. Reconstructionist pagan communities are especially bad at this, particularly in circles where nationalist views are present. You cannot “appropriate” ancient Nordic, Celtic, Greek, or Roman traditions. None of these cultures and traditions were closed to foreigners, nor do they exist in some unbroken lineage complete with initiation today. They are not among the marginalized like Natives and black people are.

Using the term “cultural appropriation” in a way that is inaccurate diminishes actual, genuine examples of cultural appropriation. It also is unfairly dismissive of those who have undergone the necessary steps to engage in another culture’s practices respectfully. There are plenty of non-blacks who have undergone ATR initiations, non-Asians who have taken refuge as a Buddhist, non-Indians who have attended a wedding or festival and worn traditional attire while celebrating that special occasion with their Indian friends, etc. None of these things remotely compare to white women wearing bindis as a fashion trend, doing tone-deaf and unresearched eclectic rituals using the Orisha or the lwa from ATRs out of their cultural and traditional contexts, or wearing sacred Native American attire as a Halloween costume.

We have a lot of occult traditions that exist which are syncretic, did a great deal of cultural borrowing, and in some cases can be argued that back in the day what they did with what they took was problematic. A fantastic example of this is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which borrowed from the Jewish Kabbalah and made an entirely new tradition complete with elements from both pagan and Christian elements, and the mess that they made of Egyptian religion and its gods. Is what they did to the Jewish Kabbalah cultural appropriation? Unfortunately, yes. And being Jewish myself this is something I am painfully familiar with: the constant, painful irony of running into “Kabbalists” and ceremonial magicians who either make anti-Semitic jokes in my presence or outright tell them to me because they have no idea that the polytheistic witch and priestess in front of them comes from a Jewish background.

Since these Golden Dawn practices and their offshoots have been going on for well over a century there’s very little we actually can do about it. Like my own discussions on initiatory Wicca vs neo-pagan Wicca, the cat is out of the bag, the horse has long left the barn, and there’s not much we can do about it other than become educated, educate, and move forward. But people cannot use being involved in the Golden Dawn and similar traditions as an excuse to engage in further cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is definitely an issue in the pagan, polytheist, and occult communities, but often the real problems are overlooked in favor of non-issues. In addition there are people who have significantly less than pure intentions who are attempting to borrow terminology meant to help the disenfranchised and marginalized communities in order to use it against them and anyone who supports them, and we must be vigilant against this. At the same time, people need to learn how to handle elements from other cultures respectfully and with full understanding of what they are doing, especially when it comes to cultures that were colonized by their ancestors.

It is true that in both ancient and modern times, cultures have intermingled and mixed. The Greek Magical Papyri alone is a mix of Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Egyptian mysticism. There is nothing inherently wrong with either syncretism or eclecticism, but as many who are involved in such practices will tell you it’s very difficult to combine cultures without a genuine understanding of what you are combining–and cultural appropriation is rooted in that lack of genuine understanding.

When in doubt, talk with people from that culture. Listen to them, learn from them. If you genuinely want to be a part of a particular tradition and undergo the necessary steps to learn it correctly so that you don’t unintentionally disrespect it, you can do that. It’s not unlike traveling to a foreign country: you need to learn the language and the customs in order to avoid being that ugly tourist.




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  • Peter Raftos

    There you go again throwing out the bathwater but not the baby! So many throw out the baby and keep the bathwater!

  • Doc Wilkerson

    I do consulting on the issue of cultural appropriation for schools and organizations. There are 2 key ideas that are glaringly absent from this discussion: 1. Reconstructing a defunct religion from extant sources isn’t the same as “borrowing” material from continuously practiced living traditions because the relations of power are different. In the case of continuously living traditions, white pagans are often able to appropriate and use cultural materials with an impunity that the ethnic peoples who practice those ancestral traditions dare not. This disparity needs to be addressed. 2. The relations of power matter, because there isn’t actual exchange happening-exchange is a transaction between equals who both gain from the exchange. Ethnic minorities who practice ancestral traditions often do so under tremendous duress, with almost insurmountable pressure to assimilate into the dominant culture. On the other hand, pagans,etc.–who are overwhelmingly white–can simply absorb the influences of other cultures and use them as desired. This is not an even exchange. If pagans, etc. are serious about insisting that it is, then they honestly need to address what–of value–the other cultures are getting in return: forced assimilation isn’t an act of exchange. The pagan, etc. communities need to think long and hard about what they are giving back to the people whose cultures they are “borrowing” from.

  • Peter Raftos

    With respect,on closer reading Doc your points re power and relations are actually mentioned – albeit in different words ” But what is most important about the concept that is typically not always understood or explicitly stated is that it is referring specifically to cultures that were colonized, disenfranchised, and ultimately not ones that are in the position of power within the culture of the appropriator. Everything comes down to disrespecting marginalized cultures by taking aspects of their culture out of context in a manner that not only isn’t originally intended, but in a way that diminishes their meaning.”

  • Unlabeled_Unlimited

    This subject just confounds me.
    I’m a true American Mutt.
    I am French, Dutch, Scottish, English, Norwegian, Native American and family mythology says African too.
    There is no makeup made for my version of pale white, close is as good as it gets.
    The idea that sharing ideas and creations is, somehow, “bad,” continues to confuse me.
    At this point in our shared earth journey of this cycle of recorded history, there are no pure cultures as our ancestors knew 500, 1000 or 2000 years ago.
    Known human history are the shared stories of human movement, cooperation and conjoined creation.
    We are one race, the Earth Human, reinforcing divisions keeps us mired in our dark, bloody, past.
    Love to all.

  • Shawn Herles

    “This subject just confounds me.”

    It doesn’t confuse me. It’s meaningless politically correct crap created in the bowels of hell, otherwise known as post-colonial academic studies.

    Progressives can insist on all the nuance they like on this issue. How it filters down to the real world is a different story. Just ask the white student physically assaulted at SFSU for wearing dreadlocks, or the recent Pantheacon debacle.

  • MacKenzie Drake

    This and the comments below put succinctly what I’ve struggled to explain to others without getting in their faces on their own turf as to why I don’t “pick up one of those herb bundles, that cool shield and whatever that tapestry is” when I go into an occult store. My euromutt ancestry may contain biological as well as mythic traces of descent from a Native ancestor, but I wasn’t raised in the culture, nor have I made a concerted effort to do so, and that is central to my understanding as to do or do not. I can be an ally, but claims beyond that are not something I feel qualified to claim, socially or magically.

  • Mx.NathanTamar(they)

    We all came originally from the same place, the same ancestors.

  • Al Dent

    I’m not coming for you, I’m glad that you wanted to cover this topic. That being said, insight from those affected by cultural appropriation would’ve made this more well rounded. I really just think that it would have been more beneficial overall if you had consulted POC before writing this because the topic of cultural appropriation deserves to be handled with more care, more detail, better wording (i.e. “borrowing”). Not saying that you didn’t care or that you didn’t try, but I feel like there was a lack of oversight used in this article.

  • thelettuceman

    ItS meAnInGLEsS poLItICalLY CroRREcT CrAP

  • thelettuceman

    “We are all the same”, says the person who by their own admission is already represented everywhere.

  • Uillceal Gwynlambth

    I’m a little tired of being ‘white’ and therefor being told I don’t matter. Have you not seen the complete and total appropriation and commercialization of Irish symbology? Suddenly every March there are leprechauns and 4-leaf clovers everywhere and absolutely no one with a clue as to what is going on and in December there are the Menorahs that I think half the Jewish population don’t remember the meaning of [Festival of Lights? Its the conclusion of a vicious civil war]. And as a point why isn’t it appropriation when say Black-American misuses an African rite/ceremony/costume? Black-Americans and Africans are not the same people in the same way being Irish-American isn’t being Irish.

  • Uillceal Gwynlambth

    Oversight? Do you have a list of approve authorities for the rest of us to apply to for permission to think? Maybe the author needs to report before the Committee?

  • Michael Callaghan

    Is there something wrong with asking folks who actively practice their culture’s spirituality how to approach that spirituality in a respectful manner as outsiders? Does it cost us anything to be considerate of other people’s traditions? It just seems like there’s a lot of resistance to the idea of being courteous and respectful, and I don’t understand why.

  • Joan Taillon

    I’m generally with you on this. Just who are these “white” people who are inevitably and always in the wrong?

    I’m half Irish, half French-Canadian, and I celebrate both cultures. But I also have a large number of Aboriginal and Metis family members (through marriage) and friends; I welcome every opportunity to celebrate their ways too. I don’t think I’m unique in that regard. I practise only what I have been taught and I respect the limits of what can be shared. My experience is that most Aboriginal people are generous in inviting non-Aboriginal people to smudge and join in their public gatherings.

    But I am sickened and saddened that every March, as you say, our Irish symbols are mocked and denigrated (often unwittingly) and there’s no outcry. It angers me to see St. Patrick’s Day celebrations degenerate into frat-house-style debauchery that not infrequently results in brawls and broken windows on main street. I’ve actually stopped attending public celebrations where I live now, because they can become rowdy and dangerous. Also, the general public typically is hostile to anything and anyone connected to the spiritual side of our traditions, especially if they are Catholic. Vulgar Catholic-bashing is rampant, and no one yells foul about that in their fake Irish accents.

    You make a valid point, I think, about American (and likewise Caribbean) Black people assuming African rites, etc. as their own unless they have been invited or initiated into same. African beliefs, rituals, customs, languages and forms of dress appear to be as diverse as those of Native Americans. An Inuit person would not don a Plains Cree headdress or claim an Ojibwe chant as his own.

    The concerns about cultural appropriation should not be dismissed, but in many instances people carry such accusations and accommodations to ridiculous extremes. We can get past this if we endeavour to respect each other’s beliefs and traditions by asking or waiting to be invited before joining another’s ceremonies or adopting another’s practices. Atheists and Protestants partaking of Holy Communion at a Catholic mass comes to mind, and if the blasphemous nature of doing so is mentioned, frequently they shrug it off and treat it like a joke. Yet all and sundry argue these days about who is or is not allowed to smudge with sage. Many Europeans have been practising a similar form of purification for centuries.

    We also need to be truthful that most in the Western world today are of mixed blood and have assimilated a variety of traditions. It’s time everyone figured out that it’s time to stop “othering” people according to their colour, religion or place of birth.

  • Dream0fSkye

    That is the issue and the irony here. Most of what is magically practiced by there groups has very little to do with what the ancient religions did.

  • Dream0fSkye

    The truth is, most of neopaganism is just repackaged golden dawn. Which is christian/kaballah.

    It is also an americanism to say “white” and “black”. These identities can only exist in a country where ethnicity can meld together.

    And that is what the heart of america is. Cultural Assimilation not to some idea of white civilization, but every nationality and culture using each others symbols and celebrating the holidays they like.

  • Dream0fSkye

    It is a toxic idea of Ethno-spiritualism, which is really another form of Ethno-nationalism. A religion is not tied to its people except in rare cases like the jews, or Druze. It is good to be courteous and respectful. To honor the traditions as they should be honored. It just that the idea of this is rare, as spirituality, nationality, and ethnicity were joined at the hip for so much of human history.

  • Dream0fSkye

    The issue is appointing yourself as some kind of arbitor of what is and isn’t appropriation. Saying you know what offends minorities is still bad, because it still falls into the trap of “The white mans burden”. Minorities, you think, can’t speak for themselves, so you speak for then. In reality, minorities need to be given platforms, not have more white people say what they think the minorities need.

  • Unlabeled_Unlimited

    I am not represented anywhere, I am me.
    I don’t label entire swaths of people, or even one person, I tend to deal on a case by case basis.
    The rich Anglo/Christian centric rulers that made these policies, continue to make these policies, do NOT “represent” me, nor any of my ancestors.
    I’m stuck in this boat by accident of birth, or choice depending on your reincarnation bias, same as you.
    Labelling, fighting, always results in crap outcomes.
    We continue to expect different results.

  • MacKenzie Drake

    I figure with regard to the ancient Deities, They will either work out a compromise or ignore the would-be worshippers. Only so much can be reconstructed. Sadly, Eris seems all too agreeable to innovation in Her name.

  • AutumnMF

    I’ve struggled with this pretty much the whole time I’ve been a witch. There are levels of it that affect it. On a personal level the world’s pantheons are not an all you can take buffet. Think about what you are doing. Next is an awareness that not all religions have a means of conversion. Some specifically do NOT. Just because someone wrote about one of these faiths does not mean that all of the folks who practice that faith approve of outsiders taking up their spiritual practices. Tread lightly. Finally there are those authors who have misrepresented things pretty badly, those are the actions I most worry about. A book is written, someone is making a profit on misrepresentation of a religion or spiritual practice. Not Cool. As a “white American” I think you are pretty safe following the traditions and deities of pre christian Europe. Especially if you completely understand that significant material was taken from Jewish tradition in the first round of Pagan Reconstruction. If you want to geek out in anthropology and learn even more that’s fabulous too.

  • Craig Schumacher

    That’s all very well, but the Gods are not empty symbols. They are potent living agents, and if a god calls to someone to engage with them, woe unto any of that god’s ‘traditional’ devotees who presume to restrict what their god can do.

  • small steps

    I am still relatively new to my path, less than a year, but I have felt just more whole since embarking upon it. I began with the, I guess you’d say genreic, my invocations, my questions, they went simply to the Lord and Lady. In my studying, I just read and covered a number of pantheons, and was fascinated and learned, which as we all know is the point of all this. Yet, within the study, one kept coming back to me, drawing me in, Bastet, and while I am not, and my ancestors were not Egyptian, I felt that failing to acknowledge and study this would be failing to do the thing that I asked every morning at dawn. Open my eyes to that which I may not otherwise see. So, I have begun to study Bastet specifically, while still studying all the pantheons that I can find, but I do not see it as any sort of appropriation. Frankly, as I see it, if I were to say “oh, yes, I feel this, it is what I have asked Goddess to aid me with, but I’m not Egyptian so I have to just not go there” would be at best insulting. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, I don’t know.