Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pagan Cultural Appropriation: When It's Good, It's Very, Very Good, and When It's Bad It's Horrid

I think most people who know me have figured out that although my blood comes mostly from Northern Europe, my primary relationships with the Great Ones - those relationships that are so old and deep that they reach out to me and are, therefore, the reason I am Pagan, come out of my stream of past incarnations and are not from Northern Europe.  I am primarily Hellenic.  One of the awesome things about being primarily Hellenic is that I don't just have to rely upon my past-life recollections (although I regularly do).  There are surviving written documents where I can verify what I remember.  Part of what I remember is that we were regularly encountering other cultures and were constantly engaged in what now gets called "cultural appropriation," and I don't have a problem with how we were doing it.  After all, Dionysos, for example, wasn't originally Hellenic, but he has long since become not only Hellenic, but one of the Olympians!  Hail Dionysos!  Our ancestors were always encountering other peoples and influencing and being influenced by them.  This is part of being human.

There are two main approaches to encountering other people's religions that are really, truly, Pagan with roots all the way back and are documented.  As far as I am concerned, when you use these approaches, you are being a good, truly old fashioned Pagan and I don't have any problem with them.

Model Number One:  The AMAZING and Novel
You are traveling in a foreign land or encountering a culture that is different than yours.  You discover something that is absolutely wonderful.  Let's say they are amazing apricots...but it could be anything--a cure for some malady, a brilliant philosophy, a new musical instrument, an entire community that has developed a particular virtue to the peak of perfection, whatever.

Your reaction is, "These are the most AMAZING apricots EVER!  How do you have such amazing apricots?"

To which you learn that in addition to whatever materially is going on (a particular hybrid, etc.) there is also a goddess of the orchards that blesses the apricots and teaches the people who listen to her how to best care for the orchards and manage the harvest etc.

At which point, determined that you, too, shall have amazing apricots when you go home, you learn everything you can, you consult about all aspects, and you take very seriously everything you have learned about this goddess.   When you go home, you begin a cult to her and share what you have learned.

Information about how to establish, build and maintain appropriate relationships with the relevant invisible beings is an essential part of the transmission of knowledge.  Not only do I not have a problem with this, I think this is a critically important aspect of what we have lost in our culture and is a huge factor in the many problems that we are facing in this world.  No small part of what I see as the Pagan project is that we have to figure out how to re-establish, build and maintain these relationships with beings in relationship to virtually everything that we do...because that knowledge has been lost.  If there are people who have this knowledge, especially about the spirits in our land-base, we NEED to learn it.  And what we do learn, we need to be sure to pass on in addition to our knowledge about the material side of things.  We need to re-weave these strands back together.

Model Number Two:  I KNOW YOU!!!
From the perspective of a distant researcher trying to untangle history, this approach is a challenge...but it is a very legitimate old-school Pagan approach and one that we do naturally, I think. I will use myself as an example.

I am in a situation in which I am encountering a particular tribe's goddess who is the Bear Mother.  When She appears, She looks really different, but I KNOW HER!  It's Artemis, it's Artemis, it's Artemis!!!  I LOVE HER SO MUCH!!!  I know it's Her.  I feel it in every cell.  I know Her in that sense of when you have someone who is a dear friend that you haven't seen in decades and you know them instantly even though they look really different.  Every bit of scholarly discernment has flown out the window because it's HER and I LOVE HER.  And look how happy She is!  I want Her to be happy.  I didn't know She liked that kind of flowers.  I will get Her some.

Again, this is truly, legitimately old-style Pagan and is all over the historical record.  For that matter, we wouldn't even have a Roman pantheon if they hadn't done this with Hellas.  The pre-Hellenic gods of that area were all aniconic. And when Alexander the Great sacrificed at the Temple of Herakles in Tyre, we can be pretty certain that this was not the name used by the Phoenicians, but that also doesn't mean he was wrong in his identification.

I believe that if we take the Great Ones seriously we are acknowledging that they are bigger than us and that our understanding of them is limited.  Therefore, I think that the possibility that we are encountering some of the same beings wearing different "masks" is something to take seriously and can help us deepen our relationships with the Great Ones.  However, it is important to realize that if you are recognizing a deity in a different culture as the same being that you know, you are speaking for yourself and do not take it upon yourself to speak for the culture of someone else.

Principles for Appropriate Cultural Appropriation
I don't see anything wrong with the two models of what I am now going to call "traditional cultural appropriation" because they imply the following:
1.  They take the Great Ones and the invisible beings very seriously.
2.  They are motivated by a desire to be in strong, appropriate relationships with these beings.
3.  They take the wisdom and knowledge of the other culture very seriously and honor it.
4.  They don't create harm to the other culture.
5.  The person engaging in them is taking aspects into their own culture and is not setting themselves up as an "expert" in somebody else's culture.

This is very different than what I consider to be the "bad" ways of dealing with cultural appropriation.  These are ways that violate #4 because they create harm to the other culture, but in ways that are typically subtle and invisible.

Model Number Three: The Baneful and Horrid
I am making an assumption that most people who are going to read this are magic-workers of some sort, so I'm not going to explain the guts of everything.  This section is primarily about thought-forms.

Most cultures have various rituals that are primarily intended to maintain the health and well-being of the culture and its relationships with the unseen realms, including the most important Great Ones to those cultures and ancestral forces.  In order to ascertain which ones we are talking about, you have to do a functional analysis of the ritual.  Many rites of passage, for example, are not just about the individual's development, they are about the continuity of the people and the culture and their over-all right-relationship with the unseen.  What you are looking for are those rituals that maintain a coherence for the culture on the inner planes.

As long-standing thought-forms, these rituals have a groove of power written into the inner planes.  They are maintained through the repetition of the rites through the ages and from generation to generation.  Most traditional cultures are under real threat.  Often through a combination of genocide, forcible conversion to monotheism (if we are including other parts of the world, it is not just Christianity but also Islam), and dislocation, the thought-forms of the rituals that maintain the integrity of "the people" are not being sufficiently reinforced on the inner planes and are weakening.

DO NOT HIJACK THOSE THOUGHT-FORMS!!!  It is baneful magic.
If you are dealing with an endangered culture whose elders are desperately trying to keep and maintain the thought-forms on the inner planes, redirecting what energy there is to flow to you and your community and/or rewriting the thought-form so that you've overpowered the traditional form...all of that is seriously baneful.

This requires some analysis on the part of magic-workers.  You have to look at the functional purpose of particular rituals and you have to be rigorous and careful about how your rituals are related to the inner-plane thought forms.

Model Number Four: The Stupid and Tacky
Most of what I see is actually stupid and tacky rather than full-on baneful.  However, there is some bane here and it bleeds into Modern Number Three, easily.  If we step back and think about how thought-forms are re-written, I am going to say that when in early Christianity and during the persecutions of Pagans many of our gods became saints, this is an example of thought-forms being hijacked.  They took our Great Ones, hijacked the thought-forms, and made them small.

So, when some white person decides to take the thought-form of a ceremonial headdress from an indigenous tribe and make it a costume or even an inspiration for an outfit to wear to a club, that person is taking a powerful sacred thought form and making it small.  However, not everything that comes from another culture is sacred.  We influence each other's styles all the time and I really like to wear clothes from other cultures.  This takes discernment and learning enough about the other culture to make a determination about whether the aesthetic piece you are taking is rooted into sacred thought-forms.  Take practicing members of the other culture as your guide in this.  If they are wearing, using, doing the thing you are wanting to aesthetically adapt in mundane situations, that is an indicator.

Most of what I see in cultural appropriation, though, is just tacky behavior.  Know something about the real-life situation of the people in the cultures you are encountering.  I will give you a personal example that I have seen a lot.  It has been a long time ago, but I used to go to Pow-Wows a fair amount.  The way to respectfully go to a Pow-Wow as a white person is to make your own ribbon shirt and make it as pretty as you can make it by yourself and by hand.  Put time and effort into it.  What you DO NOT DO is to buy an expensive traditional tribal outfit that the people who are actually in that tribe cannot afford.  That is unforgivably tacky.  I'm sure you can expand from there.

These are just some thoughts because I don't think that our discourse at this point has been sufficiently nuanced.  I don't believe in the binary that all cultural appropriation is bad.  We are constantly influencing each other and all cultures are incessantly changing...if they don't change, they die. One of the biggest dangers to traditional cultures is the demand that they not be permitted to change or they are seen as not legitimate.  That is one of the sure ways to utterly destroy traditional cultures...fossilized cultures are dead cultures.  However, as Pagans, I do think that we need to be more thoughtful about how we go about adopting and adapting things from other cultures and being mindful that we do not engage in baneful activities.


Society of Diana said...

What do you think about the Cultural Appropriation of Jewish Kabalah? I'm being sincere, not sarcastic. I believe that it's one of the most insidious cultural appropriations which is completely glossed over.

Those who created "Hermetic Qabalah" violated your last three rules:
3) Judaism wasn't honored, it was stripped and ignored.
4) Many of the founders were openly, or at least casually, antisemitic.
5) The founders didn't read Hebrew- per Dion Fortune, they translated from Latin, yet they are seen as the experts in a system of Hebrew magic.

Tangent: I disagree with your point about Saints as Gods "made small;" Their cults couldn't be suppressed, so they they were adopted and ret-con'd into the system. One of my favorite ancient feasts which survives today: The Feast of Saint Dominic is a continuation of Apollo's cult. (Fun side note: Domenica means Sunday) There is a parade of the statue, then when it's enshrined, snakes are dumped onto the base of the statue and omens are read. This saint isn't small, the cult survives, the worship of the essence behind this name and statue continues on.

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you for your comment! This is a very interesting question. I am not a Qabalaist and, although I have studied it, I do not know enough about the history or what it means within the context of Judaism to have a sufficiently informed opinion. I do not know, for example, if it is tied to thought forms that maintain the integrity of the Jewish people and Jewish identity on the inner planes. I just don't know.

As for the tangent, I honor your thought on that, but we will disagree. I do think you are correct in that those saints are the worship that could not be fully suppressed, but the form of Saint Dominic (which I am glad continues) is still a heck of a lot smaller than the god form of Apollon himself. What I should have probably said is that Apollon Himself doesn't get any smaller, but he's given a much smaller vessel to act through...because that's really what the god forms are.

I really appreciate your thoughtful question and comments, though. What I can say is that you have made me think and highlighted for me something I should learn more about.