A video in which I read an excerpt from my book, The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation. I was particularly pleased with this chapter, as I think it’s very poetic and has some powerful imagery in it.
A video in which I read an excerpt from my book Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft, all about the inner work and why I think it’s important.
If you are looking for a clear explanation of lineaged, initiatory witchcraft, this is it. If you are looking for a coven, thinking of joining a coven, or merely curious, I would recommend reading this book. Even if you are an experienced Wiccan initiate, you could benefit from the perspectives offered in this book.
If your coven is open to seekers, this book should go straight to the top of your recommended reading list, for seekers, new initiates, and even old hands. It’s clearly written, engaging, well-structured, and scholarly.
There is still considerable confusion over what inclusive Wicca actually is. In part, this could be because the people who are confused about it haven’t read my book, All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca (available on Kindle and in paperback), or the short guide to being an inclusive coven.
The common idea of “grounding” literally and figuratively sends us earthward. To the very real dirt we walk upon. Spirit is in the compost and in the leaf mulch, in the decay in the gutters and the dust under the couch. In the way things fall apart. To make new life, DNA breaks down and recombines. To make new families, households break up and recombine. It’s painful and messy and necessary.
This is not what most of us are taught. Re-visioning (human) nature as dynamic and always-changing helps us re-vision our own spirituality. Charles Eisenstein says in The Ascent of Humanity:
When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative, and growing, then we need no longer transcend it, but simply participate in it more fully.
Participation takes a little precaution, however. Ground and shield. The advice is almost always applicable.
It’s difficult to remember to ground and shield when lives are busy and pressure is high, when people are shouting. When we are shouting. And that is also possibly when it is most important. Here is a simple technique that anyone can practice. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a bit. Feel the rhythm of your breathing.
Feel the breath of your body circulating. Feel the blood circulating.
Identify where the energy centers of your body are, at this moment. Where the tension is. Identify the emotions, the kinds of energy you are feeling. Exist there, still breathing deeply and regularly.
Feel those tensions slowly begin to stretch. Feel the energy begin to circulate with the breath, the blood. Let the energy of your body root itself, streaming down through your feet, into the ground. Let it sink and reach down deeper into the earth under you. Feel the roots of your being stretch downward. You are connected to the earth by this stream of energy. You are secure.
Take a moment to breathe in that space of security and sure knowledge.
Then, when you are ready, draw the healing and protective energy of earth up, even as your energy continues to descend. Visualize that energy shimmering around you, a shield. Does it take the form of water? Pellets of ice? Braids of fire? Woven flowers or pure light? Whatever elemental or visual image feels personally right for you, allow your shield to grow and strengthen around you.
Know that within that shield you are safe from others’ negativity.
Breathe, feel the flow of energies down into the earth and up into the shield.
With gratitude, still feeling your shield around you, slowly rise into the day, centered, focused, rooted and protected.
There are many ways to do it of course. The need to ground and shield has been brought home to me recently in various contexts, everywhere from Facebook threads that disintegrate, to my son’s slammed door over my head. It’s a loud and reactive world these days, with an unending stream of stimulation at our fingertips. We lose track of ourselves.
All this energy–which could be put towards our work–expended in arguing and memes and othering. We have a long way to go. There are as many ways to go about the work as there are people going about it. Look around at where you are, figure what you can do from here. Then ground. Spend some time with the grasses and mosses. The roots of dilemmas and the roots of trees. This season, bend close to the ground, focusing on the local, the small, the neighbors you can directly affect (and I mean neighbors in the most generous sense of the term: peoples and species and rocks in your immediate vicinity). The work is humble. Revolution starts where you are, with whatever size canvas you work with.
Creativity is by its nature radical (revolution and roots): poetry, justice advocacy, meal preparation, the crucial conversation with your high school son about how to get caught up on English homework—all of these have value, and dignity, and real worth in the world. Grounding and shielding helps us protect ourselves when the work gets messy, gets dangerous. And it will. As the poet Robert Frost said, creativity is “play for mortal stakes.”
The work looks different for each of us, but we each have work to do. Let’s try to honor each other as best we can, remembering the world needs our many diversities–and even our disagreements–to thrive.
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.
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.
I am not a football fan, personally, but I have always believed that the fans in the Hillsborough disaster were innocent.
For those who are not familiar with what happened, on 15 April 1989, there was a huge crush at the football stadium where Liverpool fans had gathered to watch their team in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Due to fears of football hooligans, the spectator areas were arranged in pens. In part because of the poor way that these had been constructed, and in part because of overcrowding, one of these pens collapsed and 96 people were killed.
I will never forget the time I was at Paddington Station in London, trying to get back to Bristol, and there had been a football match. Barriers were set up all along the platform, and the fans (and me) were herded along the platform, and had to queue for ages to get on the train. They were apparently used to this sort of treatment and responded with good humoured banter to the whole thing. I had not experienced this corralling before, and found it extremely frustrating, claustrophobic, and potentially panic-inducing. I was only calmed down by the good-natured chat of the football fans.
At the time of the Hillsborough disaster, police and politicians tried to pin the blame on the fans – but now, after the third judicial inquiry into what happened, it has been ruled that the fans were unlawfully killed.
Today, after 27 long years, the 96 victims of the Hillsborough tragedy – and their families – have finally received justice.
The youngest victim was just 10, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, and the oldest was 67 years old, Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron. These were fans that went to a football match, as so many of us do, on the 15th April 1989, but never returned to their loved ones.
I pay tribute to the families and friends of all the victims of the tragedy – as well as many others from the city of Liverpool – for the passionate and dignified campaign they have fought for almost three decades.
Today they received total vindication for their fight for the truth and for justice.
But what does all this tell us about the state of British society? In my opinion, it tells us that the ruling classes want to create a caricature of working class people as an unruly mob of workshy slobs who eat terrible food and behave badly at football matches. The authorities also made efforts to conceal the truth about what actually happened. The ruling classes fear the solidarity and organisation of the working classes, and have done their best to destroy it by undermining or destroying the power of the unions, and removing every social measure that creates an even playing-field for the less-well-off. Council houses were sold off, utilities privatised, and now they are trying to destroy the NHS. However, perhaps this victory for the Hillsborough families means that the tide is turning. I hope so.
It also tells us that you don’t get justice without struggling for it, campaigning for it, and organising together in solidarity to get it. It tells us that the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster pulled together, through thick and thin, for 27 years to get their victory. As the Liverpool football anthem has it, “You’ll never walk alone”.
I congratulate the Hillsborough families for their victory. Justice at last. The names of the victims are no longer besmirched – may they rest in peace. As The Hávamál puts it:
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.
That is why posthumous reputation is so important. Now that the Hillsborough victims’ good names are restored, perhaps they can rest a little easier.
These victories (small or great) for social justice are won by real people getting together in solidarity, setting aside their differences, to campaign for truth and justice. Yes, we must change ourselves, but we can and will change the world by working together. We cannot sit idly by, arguing about how many gods can dance on the head of a pin, in the face of climate change and social injustice and environmental destruction. My theological musings tend to be of a mostly practical nature: how to put our values into practice, and how our theology underpins the struggle for social justice. I chose my values (of democracy, fairness, justice, equality for all, environmentalism) on the basis that all life is sacred. The gods I am in relationship with also seem to share these values – otherwise I wouldn’t be in relationship with them.
It is well known from the lore that the gods actually have a brewery, not a bakery.
There is no shortage of alcohol in mythology:
Norse mythology tells of Aegir, the ale brewer of the gods, who held a big party for honored guests every winter. The party was held inside a great hall whose floor was littered with glittering gold, providing enough light that no fires were necessary for illumination. The special beer for the event was brewed in a giant cauldron given to him by Thor and served in magical cups that refilled as soon as they were empty. He even had a couple of loyal servants who distributed food and otherwise cared for the guests’ needs. The shindig was the highlight of the social season and all the gods attended. However, like so many off-campus college parties, alcohol and animosity could sometimes spoil a perfectly good evening.
There was also the time when Oðinn stole the mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir from under the mountain where it had been hidden by Suttung.
Alcohol was clearly important and sacred to our ancestors. It’s a shame that we merely abuse it, instead of using it in a sacred manner (like other drugs that ought to be used as a sacrament).
The brewing of alcohol seems rather magical – taking some ingredients that are not intoxicating, mixing them together, leaving them to ferment, and thereby producing a drink that can transform your perceptions – if used carefully and sparingly.
It’s quite exciting to put fruit, sugar, water, and yeast in a demijohn and watch it blooping and bubbling away as it ferments. There’s nothing quite like the taste of home-made wine, especially if you gathered the ingredients yourself from the hedgerows. It’s like alchemy!
And interestingly, both alcohol and alchemy are derived from Arabic words…
Alcohol in ritual
Many people maintain that alcohol is sacred because it has yeast in it and has been fermented, which makes it alive somehow.
If you have some form of alcoholic sacrament at the end of your ritual (cakes and wine if you’re Wiccan, or a sharing of mead if you’re a Heathen), there may be some people who are recovering alcoholics who cannot partake. Maybe you could share some other fermented drink, like drinkable yoghurt? (Personally I don’t think this is cultural appropriation unless you steal the ritual that goes with it. YMMV.) Other solutions to this that have been suggested are having a non-alcoholic alternative (but some people prefer the symbolism of everyone drinking from the same cup / horn / chalice).
Alcohol as metaphor
(everything up to this point has been blessedly free of any metaphorical subtext – but if you’re fed up with metaphors, you can skip this section)
Alcohol is sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of alcohol available. Some people prefer mead; others prefer wine, or cider, or beer, or lager. Some people say “I don’t like beer”, but do not realise the huge variety of beers that are available. Some people call alcoholic drinks by different names – cider in the UK, hard cider in the US; ale, beer, lager, porter, stout… If you ask me what my favourite drink is, I’d have to say, all of the above, depending on the day and my mood.
Religion is also sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of religion available. Some people prefer Heathenry; others prefer Wicca, or Druidry, or eclectic Paganism, or Asatru. Some people say “I don’t like religion” but don’t realise the huge variety of religious experiences that are available. And some people call religious experiences by different names – polytheism, hard polytheism, relational polytheism, devotional polytheism, pantheism, mysticism, and so on. Some people, when presented with a list of theological perspectives, will say, “all of the above, depending on the context, the day, and my mood”.
Always read the ingredients list
As this excellent post by Bekah Evie Bel, Polytheism Isn’t Yours, points out, you could just ask people what they mean by the label they are using, instead of assuming that they mean the same by it as you do, and then being disappointed when it turns out that they don’t.
So if someone shares their surface with you and they say, “I am a polytheist” try not to make any assumptions. Ask for clarification if you are interested by this surface, move on if you aren’t interested. Clarification (usually expanded labels) will tell you how much deeper you want to go. But if you don’t ask for clarification, if you don’t seek to go even a bit below the surface then it’s not that persons fault if you make a stupid assumption.
Just like you read the list of ingredients on food and drink to make sure there’s nothing that you’re allergic to.
Thing is, it’s in the nature of language that people will use words to mean something slightly different, or even wildly different – so labels should be used as a way to start a conversation, not as a substitute for a conversation.
This post was inspired by a comment by Bekah Evie Bel on my previous post which mentioned (hard) cider. The metaphorical aspect of it is entirely my fault.
Nearly every time I write a post about cultural appropriation, someone comes up with a reductio ad absurdum argument which makes something that really isn’t cultural appropriation look as if it is.
One of the most frequent push-backs (or even derailments) when cultural appropriation is mentioned is “does this mean no-one can ever do anything that originated from another culture?” No, of course it doesn’t mean that – although that is what racist and völkisch types want you to think it means.
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. The key features of cultural appropriation are:
- There’s a big difference in power between the appropriating and the appropriated culture
- There’s a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated culture, and the oppression is still happening now
- The meaning of the practice is lost or changed in the process of appropriation
- The appropriator makes money out of repackaging and selling the practice, and the originators of the practice don’t get a penny of it
A difference of power
An example where there is a power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one is the appropriation of Native American ritual by “plastic shamans” and New Agers (and some Pagans). The issue here is not that the appropriators are genetically unrelated to Native Americans: the issue is that there has been a considerable loss of power (land-rights, cultural cohesion, economic power) and white people have consistently tried to erase or exoticise or exterminate Native Americans and their culture. And in order to fully understand and engage in Native American ritual, you have to be immersed in the culture and know all its stories and symbolism, and share the political and economic struggles of the Native Americans. Non-Natives are sometimes invited to learn from and participate in Native American culture; but you can’t learn their tradition just by picking up a book and sticking some feathers in your hair.
If there is no power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one, then it’s not cultural appropriation. If I start wearing a dirndl and practicing Austrian folk dancing, that’s not cultural appropriation: my culture hasn’t oppressed the Austrians or threatened to erase their existence or frequently belittled their beer-drinking and yodelling. (Actually I think we find these qualities rather admirable.)
I read a great story recently where a guy moved to the Amazon rainforest, married the daughter of the tribal ‘shaman’, learnt their practices and traditions, and is going to be the next tribal ‘shaman’ (or whatever their preferred title for the role is). Now that is respectful engagement with a tradition.
A history of oppression
An example where there is a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated one is the appropriation of the Passover Seder by modern Christians. There used to be a charming Christian custom of “celebrating” Easter by holding a pogrom (the mass murder of Jews in “revenge” for their alleged “betrayal” of Jesus). And now modern Christians think it’s appropriate to commemorate the fact that Jesus was celebrating Passover at the Last Supper by holding Passover Seder and inserting all sorts of Christian symbolism into it. I think this is a particularly crass example of cultural appropriation.
If there is no history of oppression, it probably isn’t cultural appropriation. Celts and Vikings are not being oppressed by anyone Black, Chinese, Asian, or Middle Eastern, so if any of those people choose to honour Viking or Celtic deities, then it definitely isn’t cultural appropriation.
Racists will try to tell you that anyone who doesn’t have Viking or Celtic blood in their veins can’t do Norse or Celtic spirituality. Well, the Vikings intermarried with people of other cultures all the time, and the “Celts” (apart from being a label imposed by the Greeks) were a vast range of people from Galatia in Turkey, Galicia in Spain, Wales, Brittany, parts of Austria, and were united not by genetics but by shared culture, related languages, and similar art styles. So even based on what we know of history and lore, that claim is utterly spurious, but culture is not transmitted by genes, but by the passing on of stories and rituals and symbols.
Loss of meaning
Where there is a loss of meaning is when a practice is appropriated into a very different cultural context and takes on an entirely new meaning. An interesting example of this is chakras, which were imported into Western spirituality from Hinduism and Buddhism via Theosophy. As this particular appropriation happened about a hundred years ago, it’s probably so deeply entrenched that there’s not a lot of point moaning about it, but if you compare the Western understanding of chakras with the Eastern view of them, it is possible to see that they are viewed quite differently. Another example is the growth of “forest church” among Christians, where they go into the woods, celebrate the festivals of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, but with Jesus and the Trinity and the Atonement as the core of their religion. To me (and I know not everyone feels the same), this is a complete and utter travesty of what the Wheel of the Year is about, and I find it really offensive, because the meaning of the festivals has been completely changed.
If there is no loss of meaning through the transfer of the practice, then it probably isn’t cultural appropriation. Within living memory, OBOD Druidry acquired the festivals of Wicca, and vice versa. Originally, the Druids mostly celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, while Wiccans celebrated mainly the four “Celtic” quarter days (Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Hallowe’en). Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols used to sunbathe side by side in their nudist colony in Hertfordshire, and a fruitful cultural exchange occurred, whereby the two nascent religions acquired each other’s festivals, and the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year was born. Arguably there was a mutual enrichment of meaning.
What about cultures of the past?
If the culture being revived or recreated or reconstructed is a “dead” culture, and there are people reviving it who are not genetic descendants of the people who created the original culture, that’s not cultural appropriation. Culture has nothing to do with genetics. Culture is transmitted through word of mouth, stories, practices, and being immersed in it; it is not transmitted genetically. If I moved to another country and became immersed in their culture (or if I decided to become a Buddhist), the fact that I am probably not genetically related to anyone from that culture is completely and utterly irrelevant.
The Romans oppressed the indigenous people of Britain and assimilated their deities into a cultural fusion that we now refer to as Romano-British (and thereby preserved those deities’ stories by writing them down). But both the ancient Britons and the ancient Romans are dead and gone, so we are not perpetuating that oppression by reconstructing Romano-British culture and religion.
What about living within another culture?
If you go and live in another country, it behooves you to learn their customs and culture and stories and traditions, so you can appreciate their local culture and be a good guest. That’s not cultural appropriation. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, as the saying goes.
When Megan Manson (who is a British practitioner of Paganism and Shinto) joined the Pagan Channel, there was a brief discussion of whether her practice of Pagan Shinto was cultural appropriation. I don’t think it is at all, because there is no loss of meaning – Paganism and Shinto are sufficiently similar that mutual enrichment may occur. The British are not currently oppressing the Japanese or trying to erase their culture (nor do we have a long history of oppressing them), there is no power differential between the two cultures, and she isn’t making money out of her practice. Furthermore, she lived in Japan for a long while and immersed herself in Shinto there.
What if a deity comes calling?
If a deity from another living culture calls to you, that’s not cultural appropriation. If you lift the rituals of that other culture out of context and offer them to the deity without fully understanding how they work and what they mean, then it might be. You don’t have to be genetically related to the culture that originally named the deity in order to work with or honour that deity. It helps if you can understand and relate to the deity’s cultural context, but that has nothing to do with genetics.
Using cultural appropriation as a smokescreen for racism
Many people have taken the idea of cultural appropriation to mean that you can never do any practice that comes from another culture. That really isn’t what cultural appropriation is about at all – but racists want you to believe that that is what it is about. They believe that each “race” is unique, has essential characteristics that are genetically transmitted, and that these characteristics are immutable – and that, in their view, is why people of Asian or African descent can’t participate in European spirituality. The racists also try to claim that the Native Americans told them to seek their own heritage, which somehow justifies their völkisch views. Yes, they told people of European cultural background to seek our own cultural heritage – I very much doubt that they meant that it was somehow genetically encoded in our DNA.
The view that you can only do the spirituality associated with your genetic background is clearly racist, and deserves to be called out wherever it appears.
This also means that we need to be really clear about what cultural appropriation means, and to push back against people who claim (either sincerely or in order to derail a conversation about it) that cultural appropriation means no-one can ever do anything from another culture.
We also need to be really clear about what “race” and racism are. Race is a social construct, but one that has been used to oppress people, and therefore it is a social construct with real effects. However, there is only one “race”, the human race.
If you engage respectfully with the other culture, seek to learn from it, make sure that you are learning from the real sources (or people who have learnt the practice from a genuine lineage or tradition) and not from somebody who has made up their own version of something and stuck an “exotic” label on it – then that is respectful engagement with another culture, and definitely to be encouraged.
What about cultural melting-pots?
What about cities where many different cultures come together and create a unique fusion of concepts? That’s great – they are probably all on an equal footing in the city, and they can create vibrant and exciting fusions of ideas. And probably the original culture is flourishing perfectly well in its home environment, so everything will be just fine. This cultural fusion and exchange is how new cultural forms and traditions arise. But just because this kind of creative fusion exists and is good, doesn’t mean that cultural appropriation is not an issue. In situations of cultural fusion and exchange, there is little or no power differential between the two cultures; there is probably no history of oppression (because they’re probably both formerly colonised cultures); and there is no loss of meaning, but mutual enrichment. As to making money out of it, as long as both sides are making the same amount of money out of it, all will be well.
The blues is an interesting example – sometimes the performance of blues by people who aren’t Black is respectful cultural exchange (e.g. when musicians from different backgrounds perform it together), and sometimes it is cultural appropriation (as when all-white radio stations would only play blues music performed by white musicians, and prior to that, the blues, and rock’n’roll, were dismissed and denigrated by white people).
Why does it matter?
It matters because if you accept the watered-down, stolen, distorted, or culturally appropriated version of the ritual or tradition as being somehow real, the meaning and value of the original and genuine practice is in danger of being lost, and it endangers the culture, and therefore the well-being, of the people whose ritual or practice or symbol it is.
Much recent research has shown that loss of cultural traditions and stories and language underlines and destroys traditional cultures. By eroding, erasing, and distorting those cultures’ precious cultural heritage, cultural appropriation threatens the well-being of those cultures.
And it must be remembered that there is a long and continuing history of oppression which leaves painful emotional scars in the memory of the oppressed group.
No single correct answer
Many people would like there to be a single easy-to-work-out formula to identify when something is cultural appropriation and when it isn’t. But I think you have to do the work of examining each and every situation to work out whether it is cultural appropriation or respectful cultural exchange. You can use my suggested criteria to help you decide (is there a continuing history of oppression? is there still a difference in power between the two groups? is there a loss of meaning when the ritual or symbol is transplanted? is there financial exploitation involved?) but even then, there will be differences of opinion.
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.