I see oppressive systems as being like water pressure in the ocean. The deeper you go in the ocean, the greater the pressure.
Gods and Politics, Warp and Weft
The question of which comes first, gods or politics, is for me rather like the question of the chicken and the egg. The one exists in the context of the other, and they are inextricable. The deities we choose to worship (and even the deities who choose us to work with them) are influenced by our politics, because why would they choose to have a relationship with a human whose values and goals differed from theirs, and why would we choose to have a relationship with a deity whose values and goals differ from ours?
Let’s take a step back and talk about definitions.
What is a deity? A deity is a powerful entity or identity who has emerged from the complexity of the universe, and is shaped by social interactions (with humans, animals, their environment, other deities, and other spirit entities) just as humans are. Deities have agency, or at least they seem to. Often that agency involves influencing people to do their work for them. That’s what I believe anyway; you may have a different idea. It’s worth thinking, too, about what kind of person a deity might be. If they are advanced beings of great virtue, then one would expect that they have ethical values that are similar to the highest values we can imagine (unless they possess information about how the universe works that is simply unavailable to our finite perceptions, in which case they might have a different concept of what is ethical). But nevertheless any ideas they come up with have to work on the physical plane and be comprehensible to our finite perspective.
What is politics? Politics is any situation where a conflict of interest or a difference of power is resolved by negotiation (which could be a large-scale vote or a small-scale consensus process) instead of war. It has even been said that war is a continuation of politics by other means (which is true, as when negotiation breaks down, either the status quo or an outbreak of physical violence will follow).
Conflicts of values
If you believe that the gods come before politics (by which I mean the way humans negotiate living in community), what would you do if a deity commanded you to do something that was against your ethics? I imagine that, at the very least, you would do some practice of discernment (such as divination) to check that you had heard their message correctly and were not just deluding yourself. You might even refuse outright to do the task they have requested. In that case, you have (rightly in my view) put politics before gods.
If you are a person with a marginalised identity who wants to honour Pagan deities in community with others, and something about the way Pagan rituals are constructed excludes you from those rituals, then there is a conflict of interest (the existing members want to keep doing their rituals a certain way, but you want to join the group, which requires change). There is also a power differential, in that the existing members of the group hold the power to change their rituals or practices to be more inclusive (or not). So that’s politics, right there, as Ginger Drekisdottir pointed out.
So, if a disabled person, person of colour, or LGBT person is structurally excluded from your rituals but they were chosen by a deity you honour – your political decision to exclude them dishonours that deity – and you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods. Especially if your rituals are the only ones in town.
If your chosen deities command hospitality towards the stranger, but your politics and values demand that you turn refugees and migrants and the disabled and LGBT and PoC away… then you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods.
Many Pagan deities command hospitality, honour, and the exchange of gifts (reciprocity).
The politics of the gods
I think the deities are part of Pagan society, not separate from it, and therefore even the way we negotiate our relationships with deities is political. They may want one thing, we may want something else (a conflict of interest). They may have a different perspective; they also have greater – possibly infinite – power in a particular sphere of influence. They are part of a complex web of relationships which involves differences of power, conflicts of interest, and negotiations about how to resolve those conflicts. So your relationship with a deity is political, just as the personal and the interpersonal are political.
And rather than politics being a sphere that is separate from deities, it is the complex web of relationships between human and human, human and other-than-human, humans and deities, spirits and deities, spirits and spirits, deities and deities. So you can’t put one before the other – politics is the very stuff of our relationships with gods, the context in which those relationships happen.
I became a Pagan and a polytheist because I believe that all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable. My values informed my choice of religion and theology, and my values are political because they are about how I relate to other beings. It is impossible to consider the gods (or any other entities) outside of that context of interrelationship – and therefore, politics.
That’s enough apple pie metaphors… let’s get down to brass tacks.
It’s good to have descriptions of what a word means, so that labels are mutually comprehensible. It’s also quite nice when the meaning of a word bears some vague resemblance to its etymology. But there’s a conflict between creating a meaning that is inclusive enough to include the majority of people who want to identify as that label, and making a word completely meaningless.
A definition is a fairly precise meaning or set of meanings that are generally agreed usage(s) of a word and what it denotes.
However, language usage is fluid and changeable, and different groups of people use words differently in different contexts. That’s why it is a good idea to examine the connotations of a word, so that we can describe how it is used in different contexts.
Examples of words that have highly fluid — and thus highly disputed — meanings: Pagan, polytheist, and Wiccan.
Part of the reason that these words are disputed is because the dictionary definitions are largely unhelpful and out of date.
Why are the meanings disputed?
If a group of people wants to describe its practice, beliefs, and values as distinct from those of another group, it becomes helpful to have a name that describes only that group, and is not in use by another group. This is why the various denominations of Christianity have created labels to distinguish themselves from each other. It’s why there are umpteen different varieties of witchcraft, Druidry, and Heathenry. You can recognise some common factor that makes them fit in their respective categories; but there’s enough difference between them that it is worth adding a qualifier to the label.
The word “Wiccan” has a fairly chequered history. Gerald Gardner referred to all witches as “the Wica“. Charles Cardell described his group as “Wiccens“. Gradually, in the USA, Wicca came to refer to any Wiccan or “Wiccanish” tradition. In the UK, it tends to refer to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans — but many people identify as Wiccan who have never been initiated into those traditions. (Part of the reason for this is that it became very difficult to identify as a witch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wiccan became a handy euphemism for witch.) The word “Wicca” has become so broad and confusing that it may be impossible to restrict its meaning to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans.
There are also other witchcraft traditions (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA) such as the 1734 tradition, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and so on. Most of them are initiatory. Fortunately, hardly anyone disputes that the word “witch” applies to all these different traditions.
It is also worth noting that uniformity of belief is not the prime focus of witchcraft traditions. You can be a polytheist witch, a duotheist witch, a pantheist witch, an atheist witch, an animist witch, or some combination of these. (Some readers of All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca were surprised that I said that you can be an atheist witch. It’s more difficult to be a materialist witch, not believing in or experiencing energies; but not believing in gods is not a barrier.)
To my mind, polytheism just means “many gods” or “belief in many gods”. It doesn’t say anything about how you worship them, or what type of rituals you perform to get in touch with them. Some people want to define polytheism as “religious regard for many gods” (in order to exclude those who acknowledge that gods exist but don’t have any truck with them – but I think that is redundant, as even if a Christian acknowledges that our gods exist in some way, they don’t acknowledge them as gods, so their view is irrelevant to the definition of the term).
If you want to describe a particular way that people interact with the gods, or a particular concept of what they are, then I would argue that you need a qualifying adjective. Various qualifying adjectives have been suggested (hard polytheism, soft polytheism, devotional polytheism, relational polytheism, Jungian or archetypalist polytheism, monistic polytheism, henotheistic polytheism, mystical polytheism), not in order to split polytheism as a whole, but to provide more accurate descriptions of how people relate to the gods.
Various people have different understandings of what polytheism means in their religious context. If someone else’s meaning of polytheism conflicts with your meaning, then you have two possible options:
- claim that their meaning / usage / understanding is wrong;
- add a qualifying adjective to distinguish your usage of the term from theirs.
Over recent years, there have been various online arguments about how to do polytheism “properly”, such as:
- Should you have a specific patron deity?
- Can you choose your patron deity, or should they choose you?
- Can you say no if you are chosen by a deity you don’t want? (Yes)
- Do we serve the gods, or are they allies?
- Can we ever know the true nature of the gods?
- What does “real” mean?
- Who has the authority to answer these questions for others?
What’s really going on?
It is probably not possible to “win” one of these arguments, or answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is always someone who wants their definition of a concept to be the only valid definition, and to be a gatekeeper of who gets to identify as a particular label. Being a gatekeeper or the person who gets to define a term is a position of power and control, potentially with authority attached to it.
Whoever gets to define or describe what polytheism is will have a huge influence on its future development. If it is a broad-brush movement with many different ways to be polytheist, it will become large, nebulous, and hard to control. If it is narrowly defined, it will be much smaller, but possibly easier to control. And it will end up excluding people whose insights, ideas, and practices might have been valuable to it.
My own position is that I don’t want to control anything. I am inherently distrustful of authority (including any authority that I myself may accidentally have acquired). Any authority should have checks and balances with it. If you are the high priestess of a coven, or the leader of a religious tradition, there should be a process for consultation and establishing consensus, and in large groups, for democracy and accountability. For example, in the Inclusive Wicca Discussion Group that I founded on Facebook, I created a set of group guidelines and invited members to vote on them and add to them; and there is more than one moderator for the group. In my coven, we take it in turns to write rituals, so everyone gets the kind of ritual they like; and whoever has written the ritual is the facilitator for that ritual. Whilst I am the most experienced witch in the coven, so the buck does tend to stop with me, I do try to empower others. The process of teaching and learning that we use is all about sharing ideas.
If you want to create a sub-tradition of polytheism that has a set of beliefs, practices, and values that meet your expectations and requirements, that’s fine. But don’t try to label it as the One True Way of polytheism. You will need to give it a more specific name. Some have argued that if polytheism is seen as a catch-all term that includes soft polytheists, archetypalists, and so on, then it becomes a less useful term. Maybe so, but that’s just how language and terminology work.
That’s why Niki Whiting proposed the term ‘relational polytheism’, and others have proposed other qualifying adjectives: to be clear about how our polytheism works out in practice and in context. Similarly, there are different flavours of Wicca and witchcraft, each with their own label, to enable people to find a flavour of Wicca that’s right for them.
People are confusing denotation with connotation, as often happens when the meaning of a term is contested. The term polytheism denotes ‘many gods’. To a devotional polytheist, that has connotations of devotion, religious regard, and so on. To a relational polytheist, the connotations are forming relationships with the gods. In order for different groups of people to find the polytheists they want to hang out with, we need those qualifying adjectives so that everyone who honours many gods can call themselves polytheists, without insisting on a particular definition of a god, but if you want to be more precise about how you want to honour the gods, or what you think gods are, then use a qualifying adjective.
The alternative is that a tiny group of people get to define what polytheism is and who gets to call themselves polytheist, till the whole thing turns into a clique and everyone else loses interest.
Polytheism isn’t yours
As Bekah Evie Bel points out, polytheism isn’t yours. And it’s not mine either. It belongs to everyone.
There are different kinds of power, as famously identified by Starhawk (and probably others before her): power-over, power-from-within, and power-with-others. Authority comes in at least two flavours: being an authority on a topic (that’s why writers of books are called authors) and having authority over others. All of these are conferred by others to a greater or lesser extent (even power-from-within occurs when the pressure from inside is greater than or equal to the pressure from outside).
John Beckett writes that some people have a problem with authority. This is true, but sometimes it’s for very good reasons. We all mistake authority-on-a-topic for authority-over-others. Many bloggers have the experience of getting the comment “You can’t tell me what to do” when the authorial tone of their post was intended to be authority-on-a-topic and not telling others what to do. This is frustrating (but sometimes people get the authorial tone of their posts wrong, including me). But there are those who quite blatantly want to have power and authority over others, and use their powers of manipulation and persuasion and their apparent deep knowledge of a topic to gain power over others. They use the confusion over what is legitimate power and authority to create a mini-kingdom for themselves. These are the people and power-structures we should be resisting.
As Rhyd Wildermuth writes in a recent post, Gods & Authority:
Enclosure can happen for meaning, too. In fact, that’s always been the trick of Authority; convince people they have no other access to meaning except through their prescribed doctrines, just as Capital convinces us we have no access to exchange except through property and the market or the State convinces us we’ll die without it.
This is a situation that we want to avoid at all costs in the Pagan, polytheist, Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan communities. As soon as one person or group claims sole access to meaning, then they have enclosed meaning, and are in pursuit of power and authority over others.
The Buddha made a very sensible disclaimer about his teachings – that if they make sense to you, follow them, and if they don’t make sense to you, don’t follow them. Maybe we should all add that as a disclaimer at the end of our posts.
If someone says a thing that makes sense to you, then you would be well-advised to follow it. If it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it – but do think about why it doesn’t make sense to you. Is it because you have an issue that is getting in the way, or is it because you have genuine solid objections to it?
Power and authority in groups
I have observed a number of different religious groups with different ways of dealing with power.
The Quakers make their structure as flat as possible, with elders and various committees. Sometimes the elders have too much power, but this is presumably balanced by the committees, and by the strong Quaker discernment processes. They also strongly recommend that people attend their classes on being a Quaker – so presumably those would also teach you about how to complain if somebody “forcefully eldered” you. I think we can learn a lot from how the Quakers do things. They also have regional Yearly Meetings in which all the Quaker meetings come together to discuss things, again using Quaker process. The disadvantage of this system is that the power is not out in the open where people can see it.
In Wicca, there is no formal power structure beyond the immediate coven. Covens have autonomy, and this is an important principle to most Wiccans. (Some groups have high priestesses who are referred to as Lord and Lady – but this is a North American innovation and is not done in Wicca in Britain, where we have quite enough aristocracy already, thank you. As far as I can tell, in most groups it is an honorary title only.) The system of coven autonomy has its pros and cons – it means that there can be very dodgy behaviour in a coven, and they can get away with it – but it does prevent hierarchy forming above and beyond that.
OBOD Druid groves generally have leaders, but different people are encouraged to lead rituals. They also have sub-groups for the different grades (bard, ovate, druid) and these could develop some odd power dynamics, but I haven’t observed any groups beyond the bardic grade, so I couldn’t say for sure. There is also the rather odd idea of the chosen chief of the order (who chose him? I didn’t vote for him…) but this seems largely ceremonial, as far as I can tell. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)
In Unitarianism, they have ministers and committees. In fact they have a lot of committees for such a small group. They also have an annual General Assembly (similar to the Quaker Yearly Meetings). The power of the minister and the committee generally balance each other. (Sometimes one has too much power, sometimes the other.) Congregations have autonomy, and there are also the important principles of the freedom of the pulpit (the freedom to state your truth in the pulpit) and the freedom of the pew (the freedom to believe your truth and disagree with what is said from the pulpit).
Authority (use of power legitimated by the structure) in the Quakers, Unitarians, and OBOD is fairly well-distributed in a system of checks and balances between the national body and the local regions and congregations. Wicca doesn’t have a national body, but we do get together to discuss things and we have a shared body of practices, as well as freedom to be creative. None of these systems are perfect, but they’re pretty good. There’s always someone with a big ego trying to gain power, but most of the time they are balanced by the structures that exist to regulate power and authority.
Freedom of belief, freedom of conscience
All of the above groups have freedom of belief: you can be an atheist, a pantheist, a duotheist, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on. In practice there are not that many polytheists in the Unitarians and Quakers in Britain, but there are some, and both groups include atheists. What is important in all these groups is your values, including a willingness to play nicely with others. They do share a worldview, an ethos. As Caelesti writes in this excellent blogpost, Belief vs. Worldview:
Lived Values Follow Worldview – hopefully after developing a worldview, or during the process of developing one, values and ethics come to be a lived part of one’s life. This has been primarily what I have been focusing on this past year with my Self-Care Virtues project – the virtues are based on Celtic and Norse polytheistic worldviews, and there are also influences from my UU values.
It is also worth noting that these groups are mostly stable. Of course there are arguments about what it means to be a Unitarian or a Quaker or a Wiccan (and probably a Druid too, but I don’t know) but as every group has a variety of different preferences within it, I expect these arguments will never be definitely settled by a schism. Instead, there are affinity groups of Unitarian Pagans, Unitarian Christians, Quaker Pagans, Christian Quakers, and so on and so forth. And in terms of values, these groups generally have more agreement with each other than disagreement.
The emergent polytheist movement
I am largely observing the emergent polytheist movement from the outside and over the internet, so what follows is a somewhat partial perspective – but I have observed (and others have too) that there are some rather disturbing tendencies developing, which could in a couple of generations adversely affect the setup of polytheist communities.
Personally, I feel excluded by the polytheist movement. I have had too many polytheists tell me that I can’t be a proper polytheist because I’m a Wiccan (and it seems Jason Mankey has had the same experience). I feel excluded by all the people saying that there is only one way to be a proper polytheist, and that is to be a devotional polytheist. I feel excluded by the editorial policy of Polytheist.com, which is that they choose who they want on the site, and do not accept applications from prospective bloggers (contrast this with Gods & Radicals, whose editorial policy is basically “send in an article”, or Patheos Pagan, whose policy is also that people can apply to join, though that probably needs to be formally stated somewhere). I feel excluded by the increasingly narrow definition of what a polytheist is. Polytheism means ‘many gods’. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you also believe that they are emanations of the divine source, or the underlying energy or whatever. That’s still polytheism.
This one of several reasons why I wrote my post on relational polytheism – the idea that we are in relationship with the gods, that we are co-creators with them of unfolding reality. It is possible to be a polytheist and a Wiccan – because I am one, and so are many others. My polytheism is different to Jason’s – but that is just fine.
If membership of polytheist groups and communities becomes based on a test of belief, then there will be persecutions of “bad polytheists” a few generations down the line. What matters is your values. Do you treat others with respect for their autonomy and freedom? Are you inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, and people of colour? Do you care about the environment? Are you prepared to play nicely with other people who believe differently than you? Then you’re in my community. If not, take a hike.
As Rhyd Wildermuth says, how we world the gods says much more about us than it does about them. If we are authoritarian, the way we world the gods is as authoritarian figures. If we are egalitarian and peace-loving, we world them as egalitarian and peace-loving. He writes:
The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.
This is what’s going on with Heathens and Gaelic Reconstructionists who insist there must be a racial component to worship of gods. They are the sorts of people who believe in race, and therefore world their gods into the earth racially. The same can be said of people in those same traditions who insist there is no racial component; they don’t believe in race, and therefore don’t world the racism into the gods.
The true offering we give to the gods, which is precisely the same offering we give to any other living being, is this act of worlding. When I make offerings to Arianrhod, she’s not drinking that mead. Instead, by offering her mead or flowers, I am worlding her into the earth through the act of offering those things, but this is only a personal act.
So if someone claims that you don’t choose a god, a god chooses you, and that once the god has chosen you, you must do their bidding – then they are probably an authoritarian trying to world the gods as authoritarian. If they claim to be the chosen mouthpiece of the god, and try to tell you that they know better than you do who your personal deity is (or deities are), then they are trying to gain power over you. If someone claims that they are practising the One True Way for everyone, and you’re Doing It Wrong, then they are trying to gain power over you. The fact that there are many deities and many religious and spiritual paths suggests that there is no One True Way, in any case. If they tell you not to talk to certain people or types of people, that’s a power-grab. I wrote some warning signs of unethical groups for the Gardnerian Wicca website that are probably applicable more generally.
It is perhaps inevitable that some people will seek power and control. That means we have to create the structures, the checks and balances, that will prevent them from gaining too much power. As Syren Nagakyrie writes in this excellent post, A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism:
At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.
We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.
Draw the circle wide
As Caelesti pointed out in her post, people’s beliefs shift and change over time. We live in a culture and a time where it’s hard to be a polytheist. Some days people are atheists with polytheist leanings, some days they are full-blown polytheists, some days they are agnostic. It’s okay to have doubts; they are a healthy part of spirituality and religion. If you didn’t have doubts, how would you test ideas to see if they really came from the gods, or were just the product of your ego? If you exclude everyone who is a bit agnostic, and don’t allow them room to practice, then you might be missing out on good people, and you won’t be giving them an opportunity to experience the presence of the gods (and how they interpret that experience should be up to them). As Elizabeth I said, “I would not make windows into men’s souls”.
Belief and faith originally meant trust, not assent to a creedal proposition – and I really hope that they will come to mean that again. I hope that polytheist communities will not have a creedal test of membership, but develop a common set of practices and values that will attract people who want to live those values and practice those values and world the gods in a way that will make the world a better place for everyone, not just a privileged few.
The first rule of being an elder is not to talk about being an elder. Don’t even think about being an elder. And certainly don’t proclaim from the rooftops that you are one. If you think you are one, you probably aren’t. However, if you are in a position of leadership, then you need to hold yourself accountable – you have been given power, so use it responsibly and mindfully. My favourite elders are the people who don’t even know that they are elders. Very few of them are famous, and they just get on with serving the community and being themselves.
HONOUR & HUMILITY
Behave honourably and with humility. If you screw up, admit that you screwed up. If you screwed up in public, admit publicly that you screwed up. If you caused damage, seek to repair it.
Be aware that you don’t know everything. There is always something new to be learnt. For example, the things you learnt about gender, sexuality, and consent back in the sixties may need revising in the light of new experiences and new understanding. Being old is no excuse for being a massive transphobe, for example.
One of my favourite elders (who isn’t famous, but is awesome) once said to me, “The more you know, the more you realise that you don’t know.” Now that is a wise attitude.
POWER & COMPASSION
If you have power, own it. Acknowledge that you have it, and wield it responsibly and with compassion. You will also need discernment. Remember that power is given to you by other people; it is not an inherent quality that you possess. If you do not wield your power with compassion and discernment, then you will lose it.
You may have been chosen by the gods for your leadership role – but you had better not act as if that was the case. If you do, the gods can certainly choose someone else instead of you. An arm clad in white samite did not offer you the sword Excalibur from the lake – and you don’t get to wield supreme executive power without the consent of the governed. It is more likely that you got your role because you were a willing and useful person who was in the right place at the right time. So yes, you have skills and knowledge, and that should be celebrated and is worthy of respect (but not servility). But you are not infallible.
Combine your power with compassion and discernment. If someone comes to you with a story of abuse, don’t dismiss it or try to brush it under the carpet. They have taken a risk by talking about it: the risk of ridicule or of not being believed. However, it is a good idea to seek some kind of confirmation or corroboration of their claims. 99% of the time, it is probably true: but occasionally, it is paranoia or hearsay. Hence the need for discernment.
STRENGTH & BEAUTY
Be graceful and skilful. Acknowledge and cultivate your strengths and your good qualities – but be aware of your shadow side, and seek to channel its energies appropriately. If you are generally an angry person, then you need to keep that under control, but it is not an entirely negative trait: sometimes anger can be righteous anger, but you need the wisdom to know the difference between projecting your shadow on to someone else, and calling out injustice and bad behaviour.
MIRTH & REVERENCE
Always be prepared to take the piss out of yourself and your delusions of grandeur. This is why kings would license a fool or jester: so that when they were about to do something stupid, there was one person who was not afraid to tell them it was stupid. I have a small posse of people whom I have encouraged to kick me up the arse if I ever start getting too big for my boots. I hope their arse-kicking services will never be needed, but I feel it’s wise to be prepared.
Be aware that there is something greater than yourself, and that you are in service to it (whether that is the Craft, the gods, your community, truth, love, or what you will). The transformational leader knows that they are there to empower others and create safe space for them to grow in.
Cultural appropriation is always a difficult topic to get across in a nuanced way – and no-one seems to agree on what is respectful borrowing and what is cultural appropriation. Some people even go so far as to claim it doesn’t exist.
What many commentators miss, however, is the power differential in cultural appropriation. People forget that we are living in a postcolonial world, where non-European cultures are still routinely dismissed as “primitive”, “backward”, reactionary, and hidebound by tradition, and European culture is presented as the norm, and an ideal to live up to, despite its over-consumption, cycle of boom and bust, and exploitation of other parts of the world in order to maintain the expensive western lifestyle.
In countries with a majority white, western, Christian population, European cultural norms prevail. The rituals, clothing, and even hairstyles of other cultures are seen as outside the norm, “exotic”, and “primitive”.
Being regarded as exotic makes the products of other cultures ripe for commodification and packaging up as a consumer good. Consider the late 18th century and early 19th century craze for Chinoiserie. Lots of people made a lot of money out of that one. But it didn’t help actual Chinese people trying to survive in Western culture – they were labelled strange, weird, foreign, the “Yellow Peril”.
Being regarded as primitive makes the products of other cultures seem taboo. This means that countercultures within the European cultural sphere want to adopt them. However, whilst such countercultures have less economic and cultural leverage than the mainstream, they still have more leverage than the culture being borrowed from.
Either way, the economic power, social power, and cultural prestige of the European hegemony massively dominates the world in terms of what is seen as “normal”. In the religious sphere, Christianity is seen as the norm, and everything else (including Pagan religions) is seen as exotic and/or primitive. In the economic sphere, capitalism and commodification are seen as the norm, and other systems of exchange are seen as exotic and/or primitive.
This situation creates a massive imbalance where the products of other cultures are trivialised, fetishised, and repackaged as consumer goods for the amusement of Europeans.
Consider the way in which Hallowe’en has been commercialised, commodified, and trivialised, and you can imagine how people from other cultures feel when their treasured traditions, clothing styles, and rituals are repackaged as consumer items.
“Oh but I don’t mind the commercialisation of Hallowe’en”, I hear you cry. Fine – now imagine that it is on top of your land being taken away, your ancestors being enslaved and murdered, your economic, employment, and housing chances being severely limited by systemic racism – are you angry yet? (Oh wait, our pagan ancestors were killed for their beliefs – albeit a long time ago.)
So, if a person from another culture adopts a European practice or personal adornment style, they may be doing so in an attempt to gain some of the economic and cultural leverage that they lack; whereas if a European-ancestry person adopts a non-European practice or cultural adornment style, they may well be doing so because they want the “exotic” or “primitive” glamour conferred by it, which is why it is often disrespectful and erasing of the other culture, because it contributes to the “othering” of that culture.
This unequal power dynamic is why a white person painting their face black is considered inflammatory, whereas a black person painting their face white is not. In vaudeville theatre, the black-and-white minstrel shows presented a caricature of Black people which was deeply offensive.
In Morris dancing, the origins of black face paint may be because Morris dancing was originally an imitation of Moorish people brought back from the crusades; or it may be because the dancers wished to disguise themselves, and using soot to ‘black up’ their faces was effective as a disguise; or it may have been an imitation of miners and/or chimney sweeps, whose faces were black because of coal dust; or it may have been copied from vaudeville blackface; or it may have been a combination of all of these. It does seem likely that the introduction of black-and-white minstrel shows to England gave fresh impetus to Morris blackface. Therefore, many Morris sides have modified their face-paint so that it does not resemble vaudeville blackface quite as much; or they explain the miners / chimney-sweeps / disguise theory before they begin their performance.
This unequal power dynamic does not mean that we can never do anything associated with another culture; it does mean that we should approach other cultures with sensitivity and tact, and if we are told to back off, we should back off.
I don’t think that worshipping a deity from another culture is wrong – deities have migrated from one culture to another for millennia. I do think that it is disrespectful to take someone else’s ritual to that deity, or any ritual, rip it out of its original cultural context, and plug it into your own cultural context without regard for the differences between the contexts. The same applies to clothing styles, hairstyles, and artefacts which may have specific meanings and be associated with specific identities, especially if those identities have been crafted in resistance to European cultural hegemony, or are expressions of the sacred in a particular context. When the artefact, clothing, or hairstyle is ripped out of its context, the original meaning can be lost, diluted, trivialised, or erased.
In two previous posts on cultural appropriation, I explored the difference between respectful borrowing and cultural appropriation, and how practices are not plug-and-play components that can be easily transferred from one cultural context to another.
- Avoiding Appropriation and The Perpetuation of Privilege (Daughters of Eve)
Cultural Appropriation and Lines in the Sand (Heathen at Heart)
I Am Guilty of Cultural Appropriation! (Nature’s Path)
- The What They Did, Not the What They Are Conversation (Quaker Pagan Reflections)
The subject of group dynamics is complex, but one way of observing group dynamics is to ask the simple question, “Where does the power go in the group?” In other words, who is wielding the power?
In many groups, there is an elected or appointed leader. In most churches, the minister is officially the leader – but woe betide her or him if they upset the committee. In Wiccan covens, the leader is usually the high priestess. In a Druid grove or a Heathen hearth, there may be a small group of leaders, or a single leader. Quaker meetings usually have a group of elders.
In a small group, it can be an excellent idea to rotate the leadership role. Different members of the group take it in turns to write and facilitate a ritual. Most progressive and/or inclusive covens encourage their members to create and lead rituals.
Most people find that working in a group with a flat hierarchy is preferable to working in one with a very top-down hierarchy. Flat hierarchies are characterised by shared decision making and informal communication between team members.
Groups often go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. First the group comes together (forming). Then there is a struggle to resolve the group’s differences (storming). Once that has been resolved, the group’s values, goals, and beliefs converge (norming). Once that process is complete, the group is ready to perform. These stages can actually be a cycle rather than a linear process.
During the formation of the group and the convergence of its ideas, who is in the group, and who is outside the group, will become apparent. This is known as the in-group / out-group dynamic. The formation of the in-group can be a positive thing, in that it makes the group feel closer together, but it can be dangerous, because if the in-group projects its shadow onto the out-group, this can result in persecution of the out-group.
The projection of group members’ shadows onto other people in the group can be a dangerous dynamic. If you are the leader of a group, this a thing to watch out for, as you don’t want one person to be demonised or outcast by the rest of the group. The shadow is the aspect of our psyches that we have repressed because we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, and we often project it onto other people, especially if they resemble the repressed aspect of personality.
Another interesting dynamic in groups is “somebody has to do it” syndrome. This is where one person takes on more responsibility than the others, and an expectation is created that they will always do the task that they have taken on. This might be always being the one who leads the visualisations, or always being the one who calls the quarters, or something else less obvious, like being the person who provides a ritual if no-one else is feeling inspired. The way to break out of this dynamic is for the person who always does the thing to let go of feeling responsible for it, and for the people who never do the thing to have a go at doing it. It also means breaking the ritual tasks down into small manageable chunks so that people who might find it daunting to take on the management of a whole ritual can build up gradually by doing a small piece at a time. Luckily, Wiccan ritual lends itself well to being broken down into manageable chunks.
It is a good idea if the locus of power in a group is visible. If it is not obvious who holds the power, then it will default to the person with the loudest voice or the most stubborn resistance to new ideas.
One way to ensure a fair and balanced approach within your group is to make the rules by consensus. In this exercise (preferably on the first session of the group), ask members to suggest what the rules should be. The purpose of the rules is to make sure that everyone has the power to ask questions, to feel safe in the group, to ensure confidentiality, and to prevent conflict.
The role of the leader of a coven is to empower others and enable them to develop as priestesses or priests. This model is sometimes known as servant leadership – because the leader is mindful that the group is not there to serve them; rather they are there to create safe space for the group, to hold the space, and to empower others to be creative in that space.
In my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca, I explore the issue of group dynamics extensively in the chapter on running a coven.
Inclusive Wicca is not just about including LGBTQIA people; it is also about including people of colour, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and working the rituals in a way that includes everyone and enables all participants to contribute.
- Keep pure your highest ideal: personal ethics in Wicca by Alder
- Wiccan ethics – Sarah Howe
- Caveat Emptor: Money in Wicca – Sophia Boann
Model policies, group guidelines, etc