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.
I thought regular readers of Dowsing for Divinity might like to know that I now have a public Instagram account, @birdberrybooks, where I will be posting videos, talks, photos, book reviews, and news of upcoming events and workshops.
It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
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.
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.
I have been trying sporadically to get into praying to Pagan deities for some time. I started with Ceisiwr Serith’s A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is excellent. I have also occasionally practised lectio divina. Pagan prayer does not assume that we are the passive recipients of favours from the deities; nor that Pagan deities are all-powerful or rulers of the universe. Pagan prayer is about an encounter with deities.Being a fairly lazy person, and not that great at keeping in touch with people (except on Facebook), I am not that great at maintaining a spiritual practice. Therefore, any practice that I engage in has to be simple, with no barriers to engaging in it, no effort to set it up, and of variable length.
Contemplative prayer is a practice that is fairly simple to understand, but which may take a lifetime to master. The person doing the prayer sits quietly, usually upright on a chair, and often uses a prayer word to focus the mind. When thoughts arise, don’t follow the train of thought, just let it go, and refocus on the prayer word (or your breath, if you are not using a prayer word).
In contemplative prayer, we descend into the depths of the psyche, and encounter the collective unconscious, and thereby the formless depths of the divine realms. Contemplative prayer is not solely an internal experience; it is an encounter with the divine that transcends the individual (note that I am referring to epistemological transcendence, the experience of something greater than oneself, and not ontological transcendence, which is the idea of something existing outside the universe).
I learnt a lot about contemplative prayer from reading two excellent books from the Christian tradition: Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. The first book (Into the Silent Land) deals with the stages of contemplative prayer and how one can deepen one’s practice. The second book (A Sunlit Absence) deals with the pitfalls and difficulties of contemplative prayer (boredom, distraction, feelings of dryness, lack of a sense of divine presence). Both are written entirely in the context of the Christian tradition, so as a Pagan and a polytheist, I needed to “translate in my head” as I went along. Nevertheless, these are outstanding books which explore the techniques and mental states of contemplative prayer in great detail.
In Pagan contemplative prayer, the focus of the practice might be the name of a virtue that you wish to cultivate; the spirit of a place you wish to connect with; the name of a deity whom you worship; an image or statue of a deity; a rune or a Tarot card; or a mandala. Focusing on an external image may make you reliant on the external image for maintaining your focus, but it can be useful, especially if the image is seen as a gateway or window onto the Otherworld, rather than merely an image. The point of contemplative prayer is not necessarily to ask for anything, but just to enjoy the presence of the deity you are communing with. You can, however, combine it with other forms of prayer if you wish.
My personal practice is to sit quietly, saying the name of the deity I wish to commune with, and maybe adding a few words in praise of their deeds, attributes, or qualities. I then recite their name, saying it once on the in-breath and once on the out-breath. I find I need to spend at least five minutes, preferably ten or fifteen, to really experience the presence of the deity. I usually try to commune with at least two deities (the patron deities of Wicca, and some of the deities with whom I have a personal connection).
Many rituals begin with this simple practice, especially Pagan circles. It comes from the Taoist tradition originally, I think. There are several different versions of it.
Its purpose is to allow you to feel connected to the Earth (grounded), not floating away into fantasy-world, not obsessing about the past or the future, but being present in the now. The centring part of the practice allows you to feel connected to the cosmos and the four sacred directions, which are associated with the elements.
Begin by focusing on your breathing. Don’t breathe in any special way, just notice how your breath comes in and out of your nostrils, and how your belly rises and falls.
As you breathe in and out, feel your feet planted firmly on the ground. Relax your hips and your knees and imagine a thread extending from the top of your head to the centre of the sky (this helps to align your spine with the axis of the Earth).
Imagine that your feet are tree roots, and extend your roots deep into the earth. Your roots push down into the earth, through the rich soil, finding their way among rocks, and down deep into the molten core of the Earth. As you breathe out, extend your roots; as you breathe in, draw up energy from deep within the Earth.
As the energy makes its way into your body, draw it up through your legs and feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus. Note the colour of the energy.
Now extend a tendril of energy up your spine. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a tree, and extend your aura at the top of your head, growing branches. Extend your branches up into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, and reach for the energy of the starlight. As you breathe out, extend your branches; as you breathe in, draw the energy down from above. Feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus, mingling with the energy from below.
Now draw energy from both above and below at the same time, and let the energies mingle in your solar plexus. As you breathe in, draw in the energy from above and below; as you breathe out, feel it spiralling and swirling.
Now allow the energy to fill your whole body, extending out to your feet, your fingertips, the top of your head. Feel how you are aligned with the cosmic axis.
Now acknowledge the four directions: North for Earth, representing the body, sensation, physicality, and structure; East for Air, representing intellect, thought, inspiration and breath; South for Fire, representing passion, intuition, and spirit; and West for Water, representing emotion, the Moon, dreams, and the blood that flows in your veins.
This post was originally published at UK Spirituality.