by Tim Johnston
Editors’ Note: This article deals with an often controversial topic – cultural appropriation. Readers who wish to offer an alternative perspective are invited to submit their pieces to the Temple Bell. If you are interested in writing a response , please contact editors-in-chief Tina Whittle and Raye Snover at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the Yahoo group – this group is where you will find our submission guidelines. Thank you.
In an increasingly connected and interdependent society, the word “appropriation” has become nothing short of dirty. It incites rage from those who feel something has been appropriated from them, and defensiveness and ex post facto justification from groups or individuals accused of this act. The loosely related but often communally associated pagan/ heathen/ occult communities (henceforth referred to as “pagan” for simplicity) are no different from the warring subcultures of larger society and rise to the occasion of solving this issue about as poorly. Property lines between traditions are drawn and fought over and social contracts are settled in an attempt to determine what is material from “my” tradition and what remains in “your” providence. Yet a fatal flaw in this line of thought rapidly presents itself. Appropriation is a natural human phenomena and is as preventable as the retracing of nations’ border along local topography. Cultures adapt to new ways of living with constantly changing resources, new social practices find footholds from the movement of peoples, and new forms of religion, politics, and art flourish as ideas meet and intermingle. Appropriation is the way of growth ,and consciously directed, it can be a force of positive evolution and new understanding in the pagan community. Understanding how to guide this growth first requires a common agreement on the shape of the community.
The pagan community is too large and multifaceted to be accurately described with a single unifying belief in Deity or code of conduct. However, most of us can agree on the importance of recognizing the Earth as sacred in some sense and usually find ourselves celebrating the seasons in a spiritual or religious context. This is the closest common core we have and forms the hub of the wheel of the community. Travel along the wheel to any specific flavor of paganism and you will likely find some recognition of these tenets, even if the specifics vary. From this inner spoke, we can find an outer core of basic values such as honoring of self, honoring of nature, and seeking to live by ethical behavior. The further out we go, the less commonalities we find, to the point that we leave the common hub of the wheel and develop into discrete practices/ traditions that do not have common ground with other spokes along the wheel. Beautiful and novel ways of understanding the world develop, and with them, practices that are elegantly suited to engage with the world in ways otherwise impossible. Elements of practice such as climbing the Tree of Life would have baffled the shamans of prehistory with the intricacies of ceremonial magick. The profound efficacy of Vodoun practice might have inspired and reshaped Enochian wisdom had Dr. Dee or Kelly been able to witness such rituals. Each system possesses unique qualities that engage the world in different ways. The Tree of Life provides a practical and useful roadmap of spirituality that has been refined by the work of many magicians, but this does not discount the sacred work done around the campfires of our ancestors. In the same way the inner changes that come by seeking the Divine are no less meaningful in our lives than the outer changes we tweak with spellcraft.
The question that arises from this point, then, is why appropriation has been found reprehensible within the community. It’s a fair point, and frankly, one whose discussion is long overdue in American culture. It is most evident with the rise of a majority-minority, where the unfair advantage of a massive and homogeneous majority must recognize valid worth outside of itself in the minority. As the nation moves from a collection of straight white men dominating social conversation to an increasingly diverse group of nationalities, races, sexualities, religions, and forms of gender having a say, the unique qualities of each group need to be acknowledged and celebrated before meaningful dialogue can occur. In this developing pagan community with a growing sensitivity to Wiccanate privilege, it is crucial to consider the discrete identities and needs of the members of our community and honor their differences. We would do well to celebrate our Reconstructionist, Asatru, Druidic, Egyptian, and BTW brothers and sisters as well as those not covered by these labels. Often they are robbed of the context of their sacred traditions and their practices are absorbed and subsequently bastardized by an insensitive majority, ignorant of the roots of the belief or practice– in this way beautiful and meaningful tenets of a tradition become shells of themselves at the hands of an unappreciative culture lacking the necessary skills or perspectives to handle delicate and precise beliefs and practices. This is appropriation at its worst and needs to be stopped.
That is, however, not the full story. The simple and unavoidable truth is that no matter how esoteric a tradition or group becomes, they are undeniably co-conspirators in another layer of appropriation from someone else. Contemporary Wiccans must see that the heart of their tradition comes from Gardner’s work, even if only as a reaction to it. Even traditional Gardnerians should be able to see that some of the material from the New Forest Coven was at least inspired by Crowley. In the same way, Crowley’s work is descended from and related to the theosophists that predated him. The spiritual ancestry of a group or movement may not always be directly obvious but what remains clear is that roots exist somewhere. Fortunately, we are not the only community where this phenomena can be seen since it has been shown that the ancients are culpable as well. The god Jupiter is a direct relation to the earlier form of Zeus. Zeus likewise seems to be related to the “sky father” of proto-Indo-European religion. Appropriation is accepted here and remains unperturbed by any sense of moral discomfort. It is simply a fact of history. Even more confusing is the delight that many in our community take in reminding Christians that their savior is a conglomeration of ancient deities that modern pagans themselves have appropriated from said parent religions. Why is the appropriation of Osiris into the Christ figure wrong or worth ridicule, but the whole cloth appropriation of Osiris into modern Wiccan context perfectly acceptable? Why do we get away with it? Frankly, it is because there are no ancient Egyptians to raise a stink on our blogs or at our festivals.
Since it is a clearly unavoidable human practice with often damaging results, our aim as individuals and as a community needs to be careful and beneficial direction of who, what, how, and why we appropriate. There needs to be common ground between those who take and those who are taken from to prevent imbalance of power and potential abuse of others in our community. First and foremost, those that borrow from others carry the heavy burden of responsibility in what should be a twofold approach. They are firstly responsible for actually understanding what they take as their own. This cannot occur without a large dedication of time to reach substantial understanding of a practice or belief from the eyes of the culture where it resides. It is not enough to like Thor’s hammer and begin to worship him for that reason; that ignorance is a disservice to any serious practitioner and disrespectful of the culture and identity of Thor. Instead they would be wise to speak at length with Asatru practitioners to learn more from their eyes, then move backwards and seek to understand the cultural roots of Thor before he came to reside with Asatru. Read his written mythology. After this, seek personal experience. It is possible that one may be called to work with him outside of the typical cultural framework in which he appears, but if all that is known about him is that he has killer abs, then disaster looms for all involved.
The other portion of responsibility that borrowers carry is the maintenance of what is borrowed. The more a practice or a belief is changed or warped, the more significantly it is destroyed within its original context. Let us consider the metaphorical repository of pagan knowledge and thought as a library for a moment. The larger it grows with time, the more librarians are needed to preserve the information correctly. Though our own repositories are living and dynamically changing, they are also fragments of reclaimed ancient knowledge that we are duty bound to preserve. Yes, they are fragments muddled by modern thought. Yes, they cannot reflect actual ancient sentiment, but only the modern understanding of the former. And yes, we reformat our own beliefs from time to time, some more often than others. These are all true, but that does not nullify the fact that though our records and knowledge are imperfect, they are all that we have to give to the next generation. That is something sacred and holy.
We are responsible for the transmission of what we know, and by that virtue, correct preservation of what we possess becomes a sacred act of respect and wisdom. This burden is even heavier for those that borrow from others. Not only are they responsible for preservation of their own knowledge but they become responsible for someone else’s as well, in the event that the original source fades from history’s eye. The more that it is changed, the less they fulfill this second duty. That is not to say that some adaptation cannot take place. Translations must occur; things have to be tweaked for them to be successfully transplantable in different contextual practices. But one must ask this question: if a practice or belief needs to be radically changed for it to be personally useful, should it be included in this new context? Wouldn’t generation of something new be a wiser choice than the stripping of something old?
Those borrowed from do not walk away from this exchange without some responsibility, however. They, likewise, have two core duties: acceptance and diligence. Appropriation must cease to be a dirty word or morally faulty practice. We as a community must let go of the mindset of personal ownership of information. We are stewards at best. Further, it is arrogant to have something beautiful and life-changing and not share it with fellow brothers and sisters when such sharing harms neither you nor your beautiful thing. Like a candle flame, yours is no dimmer for lighting your neighbors’ candles. Acceptance of your responsibility to the community and of the unavoidable reality of appropriation will go a long way in fostering healthy and beneficial soil in which a large community can flourish.
The other duty, however, runs counter to this. Diligence in the preservation of knowledge is necessary. Just as we must learn to let go of our wisdom for it to find purchase in the world at large, so too must we understand that perfect dissemination is not even possible, much less preferable. Growth must be preceded by change or death of something else and that is true in this case as well. It should not be necessary, however, to radically alter knowledge or tradition to make it palatable for the masses. Therefore those who share their wisdom with the world must be prepared to interject when the spirit of that wisdom has been corrupted. Not for the sake of ego but in the service of preventing misinformation and the deafening din of plurality. It is up to us to ensure that practices do not become unrecognizable by the clumsy hands of others. Being a steward includes both the ability to release the throne and the ability to defend it from harm. In this way, we become advocates for the next generation by insisting they receive the very best from us and for ourselves by insisting we receive the best from each other.
Appropriation can be a beautiful, affirming, and sacred process. Or it can be ugly, disrespectful, and clumsy. It can’t be stopped any more than we can prevent the tides upon the shore. We can, however, use that inevitable force to radically redefine the structure and coherence of our community as well as create a living gift for the next generation. Appropriation must cease being a force to fight against. We have the chance to transform it into one of the most useful tools available.
Tim Johnston is a longtime resident of Texas and lifetime seeker of the truth (whatever that is). He is currently enrolled in the Temple of Witchcraft as a student and has pursued a solitary path prior to his involvement in the Temple Tradition.