Respect, Memory, and Human Remains

In 2008, I founded a group, Pagans for Archaeology. I did that because I believe that without archaeology, we would know considerably less about ancient pagans and polytheists than we do today. I even wonder if the Pagan revival would have happened the same way without input from archaeological research.

The Pagans for Archaeology Facebook page now has around 15,000 likes – so even if many of those people haven’t read the “manifesto” of the group, that shows a very big interest in archaeology among Pagans.

place

Bryn Celli Ddu – “The Mound in a Dark Grove”. Originally a Neolithic burial chamber, later a passage grave. © Copyright Paul Allison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

What Pagans for Archaeology stands for

  • We’re Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.
  • Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved frequent human sacrifice.
  • In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.
  • Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.
  • We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.
  • We are also vehemently opposed to people leaving tealights, candles, crystals and other non-biodegradable “offerings” at sacred sites. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Follow the Country Code.

The case for retaining human remains

The case for studying remains

  • Osteoarchaeology can tell us a great deal about past people, both populations and individuals: what they ate, what diseases they had, where they lived, how far they travelled, what they worked at, where they were born. Putting all this information together for a large number of people gives us a picture of a whole society and the lives of individuals within it.
  • Associated grave goods can also give us a picture of what mattered to the individual who was buried there. Grave goods should remain with the skeleton where possible, as they are an integral part of the assemblage, and may have been intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
  • The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that’s why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person’s name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).
  • There was a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity in the past, and because human remains can tell us where people came from, this prevents fascists from claiming that Britain was ever inhabited solely by one particular ethnic group.

The case for displaying them in museums

  • Neolithic long-barrows were not private; people interacted ritually with the remains after they had been placed in the mound.
  • It helps to perpetuate the memory of the dead person.
  • Museums are Pagan shrines; the name means “temple of the Muses” (okay so the proprietors of the museums may not see it that way, but we can choose to do so).
  • It helps us to understand their culture and connect with them.
  • It might help us to come to terms with death.

The case for not reburying

  • In many cases, the original burial context may have been lost or destroyed. The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves in their own language) people of New Mexico see no point in reburying remains, because disinterring them destroys the sacred context of the original burial
  • Looters might steal the grave-goods or the bones
  • We don’t know what ritual the dead person might have preferred
  • The remains should be stored for future study (analytical techniques are improving all the time)
  • Reburial means that we will no longer have access to the knowledge and memory of the person, and will quickly forget them
  • It is difficult to know which group of contemporary Pagans should receive remains for reburial, since we do not have cultural continuity with pagans of the past (who may well have had very different beliefs from us about the soul and the afterlife, and definitely had different practices from us).

Remains from other cultures

I think that human remains from indigenous cultures (such as Native Americans / First Nations and Australian Aborigines) are a different situation than that of British prehistory.

One of the ways in which indigenous peoples have gained political and cultural leverage is by campaigning for the return of their ancestors’ human remains (and British reburial campaigns often appropriate the narratives of indigenous campaigns). Very often, these remains are more recent than prehistoric British remains, and the indigenous people still have cultural continuity with the cultures that buried these remains. The people excavating these remains are usually from a different culture which has a history of colonial oppression towards the indigenous people.

In the case of British prehistoric remains, everyone in Britain is culturally (and genetically) descended from them, including the archaeologists doing the excavating. In the case of indigenous human remains, only the indigenous people are culturally (and genetically) descended from them.

Why archaeology is important

Archaeology matters to us because:

Archaeology means the difference between fantasy ideas and facts to me, okay they don’t always get it right, but they do try.
History is something we need to learn things from, in my opinion, not because I have this vision of some sort of golden age of yore, but that there are skills and mistakes that we need to learn from.
Many of the basic skills we all once would have had are gone and are now only known to a few, fire-making for one instance. Society might not require those skills right now, not with all the technology we have, but that does not mean they should be lost totally and that’s what archaeology means to me, the saving and keeping of our past, because one day we may need that knowledge again.
~ Blu, PFA member

I find archaeology fascinating, like a little kid in a candy shop discovering new and exciting pieces of our evolution and our history.

Whilst I haven’t formally studied archaeology at university, I have always found it interesting and particularly in high school studying art my interest was piqued by Ancient Egyptian and Roman crafts and ideals, and now especially as a Witch and a Pagan the Gods and Goddesses and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians.

It is amazing to see how we have developed from those times in each little piece we discover. I am in awe of prehistoric times and little pieces of skeletons of dinosaurs that form the now extinct creatures.
The evolution and growth of plant life and animals, and of humans…

I love hearing about medieval times and the discovery of beautiful pieces of silverware, pottery and jewellery which ties into the history of the Celts and Avalonian times, a magical period that really resonates with me.

History is an important part of our development, our past, our present and the future in both advancing technology and in terms of our spiritual development as we can call on our history, our Gods and Goddesses to help with our present and our future…
~ Kali Cox, PFA member

Part of my Pagan outlook is a respect for the wisdom of the past, and the people of the past, so I think we need to know the real stories of past people. Not the history that was written by the winners. The only way we can do that is through archaeology, because ordinary people did not often leave written records (the exciting exceptions being the Paston letters, the Vindolanda Letters, the Book of Margery Kempe, and not much else that I can think of).

I also think that as Pagans we draw on the cultures of the past, and archaeology can really help us make sense of those cultures.
~ Yvonne, PFA member

For me, it adds to my understanding of the present. By studying the past I get a better sense of why and how we came to be as we are now.
~ Kim Hunter, PFA member

Cultural Appropriation and Racism

In my last post on cultural appropriation (Cultural Appropriation has nothing to do with “Race”), I made the point that the issue is about culture, not genetics and not “race”. People are part of a culture if they have been brought up in and immersed in that culture – it has nothing to do with their genetic background. Völkisch racists want you to believe that only people who are descended from Northern Europeans can worship Northern European gods, so they have taken the discourse around cultural appropriation and twisted it to their own ends.

However, when the Patheos editors shared the post on the main page (which was very nice of them), they changed the title to “Cultural Appropriation and accusations of racism”. I wasn’t sure how they got to that title from the content of the post, but in the post, I was trying to deconstruct the notion of “race” as a biological or genetic characteristic, and to point out that people shouldn’t culturally appropriate, not because they are a different “race”, but because they are from a different culture. And cultural appropriation can be distinguished from cultural fusion (a respectful blending of cultural forms) by the power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one.

Culture is rich and complex and deep, with its own history, traditions, folklore, and layers and layers of meaning (as the picture below of women in Mali illustrates). Lifted out of context, it loses meaning.

By Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland - Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6120091

Women in Mali. Photo by Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Interestingly, a friend who commented on the previous article expressed the concern that would-be cultural appropriators might take the title of the post as carte blanche to carry on appropriating, or as a denial that cultural appropriation is a form of racism (which is implied even more strongly by the changed title that I mentioned above).

I have outlined what cultural appropriation is in previous posts on the topic: the exploitation and commodification of other cultures’ sacred rituals and artefacts, often resulting in a trivialising effect on their meaning. Here’s my definition again:

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a colonising or culturally dominant culture takes a ritual or sacred or meaningful practice from a subjugated or devalued or colonised culture, lifting it out of context and draining it of meaning. And probably making money out of it.

If you’re still not sure what cultural appropriation is, please go back and read those posts again. Or read Crystal Blanton’s excellent post on why cultural appropriation is hurtful and damaging. Here’s her definition:

What is cultural appropriation? It is the borrowing and using of another person’s cultural treasures without permission, without necessary cultural context and without employing the respect due. Many times cultural appropriation is the means of monetary gain by the exploiting of things that should not be for sale, and sometimes it is to gain prestige or credibility. It is also a way that white people have gotten fame or credibility by the very use of cultural attributes that others from the culture are criminalized, villainized and demonized for.  Either way, cultural appropriations takes the valuable pieces of marginalized cultures, those who have already suffered at the hands of painful oppression, and further takes what is left for them to have agency over. When one’s culture is gone, all things are lost.

A subtle form of racism

Why is cultural appropriation a form of racism?

  • It is an extension of colonialism. First the colonisers stole land and natural resources, and persecuted the colonised and enslaved, trying to prevent them from continuing with their cultural practices and lifeways; and then, having destroyed and commercialised our own cultural icons, their descendants plunder the remnants of indigenous cultures for meaning. Obvious examples here are the destruction of Native American / First Nations culture, and the way that whites tried to prevent slaves from having any kind of family life by splitting them up.
  • It exoticises other cultures, regarding them as inscrutable, mysterious, alluring, and barbaric. Take for example the Chinoiserie craze in 18th century England, or Orientalism in the late 19th century. Neither of those was particularly respectful towards the cultures being commodified; it was the exotic and strange that people were attracted to.
  • It commodifies other cultures, regarding them as a resource to be plundered, and a marketable product to be repackaged and sold.
  • It erases the complexity of other cultures. The idea that “all cultures are the same really” erases centuries, possibly millennia, of subtle and complex thought. Examples here include the Perennial Philosophy (the idea that all cultures have the same central core idea), and New Agers who make this claim. The idea that “yoga could have been discovered by anyone” erases the genuine achievement of Indians in inventing it (not discovering it). The idea that you can understand Buddhism well enough to teach their spiritual practices without proper study, and without learning about Buddhism in depth, is another manifestation of this erasure of complexity.
  • It trivialises other cultures. Dressing up in a bastardised version of someone else’s sacred garb, or painting your face in a parody of their skin tone, is offensive.

    “You take a part of a person’s culture that means everything to them, and you make it meaningless. You wear the symbols that represent their cultures without actually understanding the power of what these facets of their culture means to them.” – Udoka Okafor

  • It’s arrogant. It assumes that everyone has a right to everyone else’s cultural forms. There’s an idea floating around that all culture is public property, and everyone should have access to it. Several spiritual traditions with initiations and gradual revelation of mysteries beg to differ. And where one culture has a history of violently persecuting another culture, it’s downright insulting to steal their rituals on top of that.
  • It rides roughshod over the feelings of people of colour. It denies the agency and the feelings of oppressed and marginalised people. It says “I don’t care if this thing is sacred to you, I want it, so it’s mine.”

So, just in case anyone was wondering, yes I do think that cultural appropriation is an extension of colonialism and racism.

Creative Endarkenment: The Need to Slow

three votives

 

 

 

 

Language holds clues.

When my son was very small, he used to spontaneously burst into tears and tantrums at random moments. It took us a long time to figure out what set him off. When we had simply been talking over our day, or reading a book together, or planning dinner, why was he so triggered? After some months, I finally had a breakthrough—or at least, I think I did. To this day I don’t know if I was right (but the crying did get better, so something helped).

It turns out he was upset by the words “up” and “down.”

They’re such slippery little words. We use them in so many figurative ways. Try making a list sometime of all the common phrases that use either of those words. For my literal minded son, at age two, it was simply overwhelming and confusing, to hear these directional words used in contexts where they became nonsensical. (Look something up in a book? Write it down? What do those things mean?)

***

For those of us who have managed to reconcile ourselves to the idiom-soaked nature of English, language holds clues. And the phrase “slowing down” is the one I want to focus on here.

I already wrote about the downward motion that is (to me) inherent in endarkenment. But there is also a slowing, almost to stillness. One cannot seek endarkenment with the clock ticking or the timer going off. And the very phrase, “slow down” suggests there is a relation between the movement downward and the loss of velocity. We come to rest. We land (we ground). The earth offers enough resistance that we pause for a bit before burrowing under the surface of things.

In the dark one feels one’s way forward, fingers splayed out, sensing. It’s necessary to move slowly. We are learning to trust new senses.

It may be necessary. But it isn’t comfortable. I am restless, impatient with myself, always frustrated at my own lack of progress, whatever the work at hand. There is so much to do, so far to go—and I am not nearly where I ought to be, say the voices in my head. Hurry. Push it. The end of the school year push brings a breathlessness and exhaustion with it.

dark words

 

I recently heard this bit of wisdom: We overestimate how much we can get done in a day, but always underestimate how much we can get done in a year. Thinking about this, I know it is true. At the end of any given day, my to-do list is mostly only half crossed off—but if I think back to where I was one year ago, I’m astonished.

Even when we feel stalled or stuck…we are actually moving. Things are happening at levels we can’t consciously navigate.

To engage creatively, we have to learn to trust ourselves.

This is true in writing poetry, as Yvonne and I wrote about. It’s true in any writing, including this blog entry. (I had to start four times before I found my way with this one. I had to walk away and come back, after days.) But more than that, too. I have friends who are grieving. Friends who are fighting. Friends who are searching their lives for what comes next. In all of these cases, creativity, and slow living, are called for to avoid flammable reactions or settling into the easiest, but not best, solution.

Living well, living fully, listening into the dark is an ongoing creative process that takes courage. For some of us, art is one byproduct of a life deeply dared and lived. (This is one of my ongoing arguments with Yeats, who claimed in “The Choice” that we must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work.” I see no choice to be made.)

And, importantly, we need to find strength enough to slow the pace of our lives down and let those deeper processes have the time they need to do their work on us. Growing, healing, changing takes energy. The temptation (culturally reinforced) to keep busy, to pack in more to every hour, to multitask, to squeeze in an extra errand, to fit one more thing into our already overly crowded schedule—this temptation must be fought off.  With our claws. With our teeth. Because more often than not, not only is it antithetical to our growth as individuals, it is one way we actively build up walls to keep ourselves from facing the mess.

It is healthy, and necessary, to occasionally sit and look out the window on a rainy day. To stroll, rather than jog.  To read a novel, rather than a blog post. To graze on fresh picked berries and herbs, rather than throw something in the microwave. Even just to sit in the sun and soak up the spring warmth and the scent of flowering trees. Above all, to put away the screens and turn the phones off for a while.

Something happens to time when we choose the slower path. It becomes more fluid. The minutes no longer tick second by second, rather they pour into each other, flowing and ebbing as our breathing shifts, as our thoughts slide and skitter and slide. We become a little more fluid, opening to change in ways we can hardly articulate. In such moments, it may feel to our restless, sensing brains as though nothing is happening. We certainly can’t point to evidence of being productive. And yet, a year of this, or even a month, or maybe even a good rich weekend of retreat, I can’t help but believe, would be life-altering.

This sort of slow motion living is how the deeper wells of being get stirred.

Are you ready? On your marks…get set…slow.

 

side yard mothers day 2