The morning sun rising in the east calls to the Bright Youth in me, and the Bright Youth responds. The full moon calls to the Muse, and the waning and dark moon to the Dark Maiden who is a part of me. The earth I touch with my fingers calls to the Mother, in both her guises, Nurturing and Devouring. The bright green shoots rising from the earth and the green leaves on the trees on my street in the spring, these call to the Stag King, while the red leaves fallen to the earth in the autumn call to the Dying God. The spring storm that rises up suddenly in the west calls to the Storm King. The night sky, the dark space between the stars, calls to Mother Night, my death come to make peace. The gods-without call and the gods-within respond.
July Blogfest: In Defense of Cultural Appropriation
I'm a Jungian and an eclectic Neopagan, which means that I am doubly vulnerable to charges of cultural appropriation. Jungianism and eclectic Neopaganism are criticized for their borrowing of symbols from other cultures for a variety of reasons. First, the removal of religious symbols and practices from their cultural context may be seen as trivializing. Second, the adoption of the traditions and practices of another culture may be seen as a form of cultural theft, and another form of Western colonialism. In many cases, these charges are well-founded, but I don't think it is fair or accurate to condemn eclecticism automatically as either trivializing or as cultural theft.
The trivialization of religious symbols
A splendidly ridiculous example of the trivializing form of eclecticism is an on-line game called “Create Your Goddess”. It's like a bad joke. The player is presented with a (nude) female figure who resembles a Barbie doll and the “player” is invited to mix and match skin tone, hair color, and clothing of “goddesses” from ten different cultures. The result is absurd at best. And, to be perfectly honest, sometimes eclectic Neopaganism can look like this to a traditionalist or reconstructionist.
[Goddess with Yemanja skin, Amaterasu hair, Lakshmi torso, Isis legs, and Corn Maiden feet]
In Pagan circles, the issue of trivialization often takes the form of questions of “authenticity”. I am an eclectic Pagan myself, so I have a certain perspective or bias about the question of authenticity. I left Christianity, in part, because I no longer saw the value in trying to imitate the values of people that lived before the Enlightenment, before liiberalism, before feminism, and before there was anything called “spirituality”. I came to Neopaganism after reading Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon. Consequently, I had no illusions about Neopaganism being the "Old Religion”. So I judge questions of authenticity differently than a reconstructionist.
In my opinion, there is nothing that makes eclectic forms of spirituality automatically any less authentic than those that are traditional or are based on reconstructed cultures from antiquity. Certainly, one cannot pick and choose deities from the pantheon of pre-Christian Ireland, merge them with a Neo-Wiccan ritual structure, and then claim to be practicing an ancient Celtic spirituality. But that does not mean that such an eclectic spirituality is any less valid than that of either Celtic reconstructionists or of the ancient Celts themselves. In fact, to the extent that eclectic spirituality reflects (post-) modern values, I would argue that eclecticism is better suited to people today than one that was created by people in a distant time and place.
A more serious charge, I think, is that of cultural “theft”. This criticism becomes especially acute in cases where the tradition borrowed from is a living one, like Hinduism. It is doubly problematic in the case of Native American spirituality, since Europeans have literally stolen so much from that group already. However, this raises the question whether it is actually possible to steal a cultural symbol or practice. Stealing implies that the thief has deprived the owner of something. In my opinion, if eclectic Neopagans borrow from other religious traditions, especially living ones, mix that tradition with Neopagan or Neo-Wiccan motifs, and then claim to represent the indigenous religious tradition, then they are frauds. Not thieves . . . but frauds. For example, IndoPagans should not claim to represent the cultural traditions of Hinduism.
In my opinion, if it’s not nailed down, then its fair game . . . as long as you are honest about your borrowing. I’m not going to buy a statue of Shiva and add it to my Neopagan altar and the then call myself Hindu. But if I like the imagery and myths about Shiva, then I will use them. When I take a name, a story, or an image from another culture, I remove it from its cultural context, and it is transformed. There’s no way to avoid it. In order to completely avoid any cultural “appropriation”, I would have to deny myself access to all the myths and imagery of the world’s religions, living and dead. This is what many Naturalistic Pagans do, and that is a legitimate choice. But for those for whom the stories and imagery of ancient cultures resonate deeply, it would be like amputating a spiritual appendage.
I do understand, though, how people from traditional cultures consider it disrespectful to use their words and images. I remember one time, when I was a Mormon missionary, meeting a woman who told me she believed the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, was a prophet. But she was not Mormon. (In retrospect, I think she may have been Baha’i.) I insisted that a belief in Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling logically compelled her to become Mormon. She just responded that she had incorporated my beliefs into her own. I was offended. (Note: Mormons don’t worship Joseph Smith, but they honor him like a prophet, like Jews do Moses.) I felt like she was trying to “steal” Joseph Smith from me. But looking back, I realize now that she wasn’t taking anything away from me. Her Joseph Smith wasn’t my Joseph Smith. And for that matter, my Joseph Smith wasn’t the Joseph Smith anyway.
The same is true of Neopagan borrowing from traditional cultures. If I invoke the “Trickster” in a prayer, I am sure I have a very different idea of what that means than do those Native Americans who use that name. I am not taking anything from them. Their religion is not in any way diminished by my use of that word. And the same holds true for ancient pagan religions. Sure, Celtic myth has a different meaning to people who lived in ancient Ireland than it does to those born and raised in North America. But does that make it meaningless to me? No. When I read the stories about CuChulainn and the Morrigan, something resonates in me. Is that because some ancestor of mine that I don’t know about was Irish? No, it’s because I am human. And I reserve the right to take that story, change it if it feels right, and incorporate it into my personal spiritual practice . . . so long as I don’t then call myself a “Celt”.
The one important caveat I would add is that those who “borrow” cultural traditions, must still treat them with respect. The lady I met in Brazil was respectful of the historical figure I honored. The Dress-Me-Up-Goddess game above, or the Lakshmi Whopper below, are not respectful. Not every use of another people's cultural icons is okay. I do have a problem with the commercialization of another’s religion. While, in my mind, my spiritual development may trump your cultural sensitivity, the profit motive does not trump anyone’s cultural sensitivity.
[“Lunch is Sacred”: a Spanish Burger King ad appropriates the Hindu goddess Lakshmi]
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