In Praise of the Body

The witch-as-body is also the body-as-witch, the raw experience of the poor, the Necromancer cradling a skull and crying, the tired single-mother sipping coffee in mis-matched pajamas.  Herein is the secret that cannot be learned, cannot be understood, cannot be comprehended or dissected. It cannot be known. You can only become this truth, and it teaches you to become it.  It grows within you, it becomes you. It is the secret that cannot be bought, a wisdom that cannot be sold. And it’s what makes all witches dangerous. ~ Rhyd Wildermuth

In his excellent review of what sounds like a truly awful book, Rhyd Wildermuth explores the body-shaming and objectification engaged in by the author of the book under review, and her commodification of witch culture. Do read the whole review, it’s brilliant.

The secret of witchcraft is that is there is no secret, only the mystery which cannot be spoken: the ability to reside in one’s body without shame, without fear. (Actually, “reside in” is too dualistic, implying that the spirit “resides in” the body, like a person in a house – but this is a limitation of the English language. Witchcraft enables us to BE our bodies without shame or fear.)

He also quotes Silvia Federici:

Our struggle then must begin with the re-appropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.

Silvia Federici, In Praise of The Dancing Body

In response to all this, I feel the need to reaffirm the body-positive aspects of Pagan culture.

The patriarchal/kyriarchal/hegemonic culture seeks to regulate and control the body – especially women’s bodies, and especially black women’s bodies – because women, especially black women, are constructed as the Other, the site of resistance to the kyriarchy. Because our existence provokes fear of the Other, fear of wildness, fear of sexuality, fear of letting go – our bodies and our hair (traditionally hair is a source of magical power) must be controlled, groomed, reduced, covered, suppressed. If we cover too much, we are censured for prudery; if we don’t cover enough, there is slut-shaming. If our bodies are too hairy, they must be shaved; if they are too generously proportioned, they must be reduced in size.

The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. It displays one emaciated and one obese woman as a reaction to body fixation.

Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside the art museum, Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. [Photo by Lars Aronsson, CC-SA-1.0]

But the body manifests in many different shapes and sizes and colours. There are female bodies, male bodies, intersex bodies, modified bodies, disabled bodies, ebony-coloured bodies, tattooed bodies, scarred bodies, ivory-coloured bodies, pink bodies, caramel-coloured bodies, chocolate-coloured bodies, hairy bodies, smooth bodies, short bodies, tall bodies. There are bony bottoms, and bottoms that spread like the sheltering boughs of a chestnut tree. There are small breasts and large breasts, perky breasts and “pendulous” breasts, six-packs and beer-barrels. The body reflects our embodied histories as people. Gravity and age conspire to make breasts head south, but it doesn’t make them any less beautiful.

The body is not a commodity for positioning ourselves in some marketplace of attractiveness. The body is not a “vehicle” or an “overcoat” for the soul. Perhaps, in some mysterious way, it is the soul made manifest. (Your mileage may vary according to your theology.)

Bodies, whatever size and shape and colour they are, are beautiful. Especially when lit by candlelight or firelight. But most of all, a body is a person – it’s not just an appendage attached to a head, it is part of the person, and worthy of respect.

Throw away your pre-conceived ideas about slimness and muscle tone, and learn to appreciate bodies as people. Throw away the pre-packaged concepts of beauty imposed by the kyriarchy, and learn to look at bodies the way an artist would: as compositions of line and tone and form, of light and shadow.

Look at the Venus of Willendorf – really look at her. Look how the sculptor loved the generosity of her curves, the abundance of food that her body-fat represented.  Look at the sculpture of the Sleeping Lady of Hal Saflieni – another large woman celebrated by an ancient culture.  Look at the sculpture of the laughing Buddha. If deities can be fat, then people can be fat, and vice versa. There are also sculptures of thin deities. If deities can be thin, then people can be thin, and vice versa. Deities come in all shapes and sizes, and so do people.

Celebrate the curves of the land, and the hills and valleys, and see them reflected in the bodies of your cuddly friends. Look at the slender trees, and see them reflected in the bodies of your thin friends. Celebrate the beauty and diversity of the human body.


Photo credit: Lars Aronsson – Own work. This photo was taken during the joint Wikipedia photo/OpenStreetMap mapping weekend in Växjö. Licence: CC SA 1.0

 

Cultural Appropriation and the Blues

Sure, white people can perform Blues songs. But can we sing the Blues?

The Blues originate from a particular cultural and social history unique to Black people. Yes, the musical form was a fusion of European folksong and African musical and folksong techniques – but the emotion underlying the Blues was something special, and the characteristic musical style of the Blues (the blue note) can be traced back to Africa.

The Blues began as a particular type of Black folk music that was first heard around the plantations of north-western Mississippi at the very end of the 19th century. It originated in the area known as the Delta, the flat plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, over the next few years. It was further disseminated throughout the Southern States over the first two decades of the new century by travelling shows and wandering songsters.

All About Blues Music

The first audiences for Blues music were segregated; there were separate performances for Black and white audiences. The Blues were born out of the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, slavery, sundowner towns, lynchings, chain gangs, and all of that pain. That is why it’s called the Blues.

The Blues… its 12-bar, bent-note melody is the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Bad luck and trouble are always present in the Blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and down trodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life’s’ troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over. This is the Blues.

W C Handy (1873-1958), “Father of the Blues”

So if a white performer sings a blues song, and fails to acknowledge that history, and makes more money off of it than Black performers… now we are moving into cultural appropriation territory. At the very least, they should credit the song to the original artist (which of course they are legally required to do), and make it clear what the song means – whether it is a happy song which seeks to chase the blues away, or one of the sad songs that we tend to think of when the Blues are mentioned.

Blues is not always a sad music and up-tempo tunes are great for dancing, and there was always competition to show off the best moves and attract a partner. The other great function of the Blues is to articulate the hardships of life, richly expressing the pains of love, loss and bad luck, and helping to lift the burden by sharing the load. Both kinds of Blues touched the people who heard it.

~ All About Blues Music

Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered “inferior”, “strange”, or “exotic”. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation.

"Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, Alcide Pavageau (Gottlieb 04541)" by William P. Gottlieb - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04541.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bunk_Johnson,_Leadbelly,_George_Lewis,_Alcide_Pavageau_(Gottlieb_04541).jpg#/media/File:Bunk_Johnson,_Leadbelly,_George_Lewis,_Alcide_Pavageau_(Gottlieb_04541).jpg

Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, Alcide Pavageau (Gottlieb 04541)” by William P. GottliebThis image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04541. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact this is a perfect example of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Musical genres are freely exchangeable when the cultures involved have equal prestige – but when one of those cultures is persecuted, and the musical genre involved is an expression of the pain of that persecution – then it becomes problematic.

Of course, there are many excellent Blues musicians who are white… but the best ones have made some kind of attempt to understand the particular cultural and social history that gave rise to the Blues; or they have created a fusion with another style, and connected it with their own history of oppression.

Similar arguments happen about klezmer music as well, and probably cajun and zydeco, for all I know.

I think that it is acceptable to perform songs from another culture or musical tradition, as songs are generally “open-source” – but if you start making a lot of money out of it, or erasing the existence of the originators of that genre, then an examination of the ethics would be a very good move; and if the genre is born out of a particular history and culture, then one ought to learn about that culture and history; and most importantly of all, if the originators of a culture ask others to back off, we should honour their request.

Most performers recognise that to perform a song really well – to really express it, not just give a technically good rendition of the song – you need to try to understand the meaning of the song.

How does this insight help with Pagan instances of cultural appropriation?

  • Boundaries are often fuzzy, so approach these issues with caution and sensitivity
  • Cultural appropriation is about identity theft, commodification, and inequality of power – so if any of these are present, be aware that you might be appropriating
  • Real examples from history and culture can help us to understand what cultural appropriation is and is not
  • We need to examine the relationship between us and the culture we want to borrow from
  • We need to understand the history of a cultural form, and how it works in its original context, before lifting it out of that context
  • We need to understand the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation

Polarity and Diversity

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept, polarity is the idea that magical energy can be created by bringing together two things which are opposite in nature.

A friend of mine described polarity as the most overused word in Wicca. There are, after all, other ways of making magic. There is resonance, which is the energy created when two similar people come together. It was given the name resonance by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path. Then there is synergy, which is all the energies in the circle coming together.  I think I probably experience synergy in my magical practice more often than polarity.

Polarity is what happens when you work with a magical partner, to be sure, but often everyone in the circle works together to create energy.

In my experience, magical polarity can be created by any pair of opposites. Inner and outer, up and down, spirit and matter, lover and beloved, dark and light, masculine and feminine, camp and butch, air and earth, water and fire, and so on. And each pair of opposites is unique and cannot be mapped to other pairs of opposites.

Polarity exists on a spectrum, too. (It is not the same as duality, where two absolute qualities are seen as opposites.) A person can be more yang than another person, but can be yin in relation to a different person. People become a different polarity in relation to different people.

We need a more complex view of energy than a simple binary. As Linda Haggerstone writes:

Polarity is a natural world phenomenon, and it would take me a while to explain how I experience the world, as it relates to both my physical senses and my spiritual perceptions. Here we go: Polarity is not the same as magnetism. All aspects of the world lie on a spectrum, for which there are poles or extremes, if you like. However, as nature is circular or cyclical, so are its spectra. There is a continuum involved here as well. The Tao. The whorl or wheel of life. Slowing, speeding up, forever spinning but never yet stopping. It would be a wacky world for many humans if they did not attempt to exert control over Chaos via categorisation and ends to the spectra. I think that perhaps those who find beauty, energy, succor in the Chaos or the pan-ness of things do tend to move toward Shamanism, while those who find these in a more concrete binary world might prefer or be instinctively drawn to polarised or oppositional practices. Neither is wrong. Neither is flawed. And neither is immovable or immutable. Not sure this made sense, but there ya go. (By the way, I am not Wiccan but I am a Shaman.)

So polarity is a spectrum, and is not immutable; it can shift and change depending on your mood, on the situation, an on who or what you are interacting with. If you are heterosexual or bisexual, it is a lot easier to make polarity with somebody of the opposite biological sex. That is not to say that it’s impossible for a gay or lesbian person to make polarity with a person of the opposite sex, but it is much easier for them to make polarity with someone of the same sex. Why? Because creating polarity has many components: the erotic, romantic, respect, friendship. So it can be done without any erotic attraction, but the more of these elements are present the easier it is to make a connection.

However, Steve Dee writes,

basing polarity on erotic attraction doesn’t work so well for those of us on some part of the Asexual spectrum. Personally I find myself moved by the mystery and otherness of anyone or thing I work with (plants and animals as well). My own journey away from Wicca and towards other, Queerer forms of magical practice was in part due to my discomfort about what my perceived maleness would mean about who I was and what I would be within the circle.

So why would we restrict people to making polarity with only one of these possibilities (male body + female body) when there are so many other possibilities available, and when so many people just don’t fit into the categories provided?

What if your partner (magical and/or sexual partner) doesn’t feel like an “opposite” for you at all?  Camilla Kutzner says,

For me – femme-loving femme (and increasingly feeling “femme” as my gender identity more than “woman”) – erotic attraction is not based on gender polarity at all. It took me a while to figure out that my notion of generating power and magic works without polarity.

Clearly in this instance, some other magical connection is at work, or perhaps just the simple and beautiful polarity of lover and beloved, constantly interchangeable between the two partners.

Why would people hamstring LGBTQIA participants in ritual by preventing us from using the whole spectrum of polarities, energies, and connections available? And why privilege heterosexual polarity over all other forms of polarity? Why make magic and ritual much easier for heterosexual participants and place a barrier in the way of LGBTQIA participants?

Every time someone says that we must stand boy-girl-boy-girl in the circle, I feel that my bisexual and genderqueer identity is being erased and denied. It must feel even more erasing if you are gay or lesbian. Naomi Jacobs describes her feelings about being asked to stand boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle:

My partner is non-binary gender (that’s sometimes called ‘genderqueer’). Their pronoun is ‘they’ rather than she or he. I feel uncomfortable any time there’s a boy/girl type division in a ritual, thinking of how it would exclude their (extremely sexy!) energies and identity. As someone who is primarily attracted to women, the polarity stuff doesn’t work for me either. I wonder if there are many people it DOES work for.

No one is saying that straight people have to learn new ways of making polarity if they don’t want to, but LGBTQIA people want to be able to make polarity in all the ways available to us. And we would like for our sexuality not to confer second-class citizen status in the circle.

In many spiritual traditions, the goal is to transcend the gender binary and create a new synthesis of energies in the psyche. Kumar Devadasan writes:

The polarity issue in previous pagan and Wiccan paths [is] due to a fertility-based approach and centred around reproduction as generally seen in nature; therefore a male-female polarity. However, if one progresses, one transcends or one follows a path that leads to a transcending stage then the issue of polarity becomes irrelevant. However, I suspect that it will no longer be a magickal path as we know it if at that stage. I am not saying that there will be no magick; but that it will be knowledge and ability as we know the mundane now and so become second nature and no longer sought.

As Lynna Landstreet so brilliantly put it, for her the ultimate polarity is not male and female, but the lightning striking the primordial waters and creating life. For me personally, the ultimate polarity is spirit and matter, which is a similar idea. And the most inclusive way to express the concept of polarity is to talk about the lover and the beloved.