Myths about Wicca

Fantastic article by River Enodian from the Tea-Addicted Witch blog.

A Tale of Two Wiccas: Tackling Misinformation

Explains how eclectic Wicca and initiatory Wicca are two different things; discusses cultural appropriation in Wicca; looks at the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law; and explains Wicca’s relationship with Crowley, Thelema, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I’ve tackled some of these topics myself but this is an excellent overview.

Celtic festival names

Some time back I posted a video about cultural appropriation and Lora O’Brien pointed out that the modern Wiccan and Pagan usage of Sabbat names is appropriated from Irish culture and language.

Gerald Gardner and other early Wiccans did not use the Irish names for these festivals — that happened later. Wicca is not a Celtic religion.

It does seem wrong to lift these festivals out of context. There are other old names for these festivals in England and Wales (the Scots Gaelic has similar names to the Irish Gaelic, but pronounced differently).

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Folklore Against Fascism

One of the highlights of my week is the Folklore Thursday hashtag on Twitter. I’ve not had time to look at it for a few weeks though, so it seems I missed the occasion when some völkisch fascists tried to hijack it, much to the horror of the regular participants.

One of them accordingly started a second hashtag, Folklore Against Fascism, and several participants tweeted about their opposition to fascism and commitment to inclusive folklore.

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Misconceptions about cultural appropriation

I have now written several articles on cultural appropriation. When people comment on articles on this topic, I have observed several recurring themes.


Silos, Acatlán, Hidalgo, México. Photo by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural silos

Frequently, people assume that talk of cultural appropriation means that no-one can ever use an idea from another culture.  This would rule out situations of cultural fusion, where two cultures which are on an equal footing come together to create a new amalgam of ideas, music, cuisine, or ritual. It would also rule out cultural exchange, where two cultures on an equal footing acquire new ideas, practices, or rituals from each other. These situations are clearly not problematic, because the two cultures are on an equal footing. The key feature here is theequality of the cultures.

People also talk as if those who are trying to draw attention to the issue of cultural approppriation are behaving as though culture is a monolith or silo, where nothing can ever be transferred from one culture to another. Obviously, this is not the case, and offering examples of cultural fusion or cultural exchange between cultures which are on an equal footing is not an argument for dismissing claims of cultural appropriation.

What makes you part of a culture?

Some people claim that what makes you part of a culture is that you are genetically related to the people who produced that culture. On the basis of this claim, the idea of cultural appropriation has been distorted by people with a racist or alt-right agenda, who want to keep people of colour out of revived European religious traditions. We should strenuously resist the idea that culture is genetically trasnmitted, as it is legitimises racism.

Culture is transmitted through acculturation, via books, films, conversation, storytelling, dance, and traditional practices. People who immerse themselves in another culture can become part of it, and can legitimately take part in its practices and rituals, though if the culture is a living culture, then they should approach living representatives of that culture in order to become part of it.

Culture is specific to time and place

Another recurring theme is the idea that culture is universal and somehow open-source. This is derived from two particularly pernicious ideologies.

The first of these is colonialism, which has taken many forms over the centuries, and consists of the dominant or hegemonic culture assuming that it is superior to the conquered culture, and therefore has a right to the goods, services, resources, lands, and ideas of the conquered culture.

The second of these ideologies seems benign, but isn’t. It is sometimes called the perennial philosophy, and sometimes called universalism – the idea that there is a universal essence of every idea or practice that can be extracted from it and re-embedded in another context. This is the idea behind Michael Harner’s “core shamanism” – the idea that there is a universal shamanistic practice which can be extracted from Siberian shamanism, and re-clothed in the trappings of another culture, and thereby can become the shamanism of the new culture.

However, whilst ideas from one culture can be transferred to another if proper care is taken, quite often they are transferred with little appreciation or care for the original culture from which the idea came, or cherry-picked whilst ignoring other aspects of the source culture which are too ‘difficult’, and become distorted in the process of transfer. The transfer of ideas becomes problematic and culturally appropriative when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

Ignoring the power differential

Many people who struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation fail to see that it happens when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

What does it mean to say that one culture has more power than another? When a culture is seen as normative (in the current context white, European, heterosexual, male, and cisgender are the “norm” or unmarked default), it has more power than non-normative cultures.

Cultures acquire normative status by conquering other cultures. In the ancient world, the Graeco-Roman culture was the normative culture, against which other cultures were measured and found to be barbaric or exotic. In the modern world, the Western culture of Europe and America is the normative culture against which other cultures are seen as relatively exotic or even barbaric.

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Living Traditions

Why cultural appropriation doesn’t work 

A culture, and a religion, is a massively complex system of interlocking ideas, philosophies, symbols, and practices.

If you take one of these ideas out of context and try to shoehorn it into another tradition, it’s like taking a complex part out of a clock, and trying to put it in a completely different clock, or even a completely different machine.

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Steve Collis. CC-BY-SA2.0

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Steve Collis. CC-BY-SA2.0 (wikimedia)

Or it’s like an organ transplant – the new organ may be rejected and you need to take lots of drugs to get your body to accept it.

The New Age, which has lots of different parts cobbled together, is basically Frankenstein’s monster.

Or it’s like looking at a completed jigsaw puzzle and taking one beautiful rose from the middle of the picture and trying to put it in a completely different jigsaw. No two pieces are exactly the same, and it doesn’t fit the picture in the other jigsaw anyway, and so you have to hit it with a hammer and file off the edges to get it to fit in the other jigsaw.

Thanks to Bob for the ideas of the jigsaw and the organ transplant.

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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,

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.

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