Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
A number of years ago I was attending and presenting at a conference that was focused on physical and mental health concerns for queer people. I was in the audience listening to panel discussion on queer people, spirituality, and religion. At the beginning of the session they asked if there were any clergy present in the room. It turned out that I was the only person in the room that identified as clergy. They wanted someone to offer a prayer or a blessing of some sort to open session. I explained that I was pagan, and that I could do something that would be short and sweet and germane to topic at hand.
I then proceeded with calling of the four directions, the above, the below, and the center. This was done through simple chants that were taught on the fly, and brief visualizations. I improvised a simple drum beat on an empty waste bin. I chose language that would emphasize connection and unity between the physical world and the spiritual world.The group participated wholeheartedly, the panel discussion went about its work, and at the end a number of people came up to me to thank me for the opening and to ask a few questions. The last person to approach me, approached me with a stern face. I listened as he harangued me for a few minutes, as the room continued to empty, about how wrong I was for appropriating his cultural heritage. He said that as a Native American he was particularly troubled that this should occur at a conference that he expected to be more forward thinking. When he was finished, I told him that nothing in my opening had been borrowed from his culture. I asked what in my opening made him think that I had done so? He said that I had called upon the seven sacred directions, on the concept of “all my relations”, and used a drum beat.
We took the conversation out into the hallway as the room was beginning to fill for the next session. I told him I had not used the names of any of the Spirit Keepers. I had named no attributes from any medicine wheel nor had I said “all my relations”. I had spoken about the circle of life, the powers of the Elements, about the Three Worlds, and the unity of all life. I ran through a short list of places and peoples that had developed these sacred ideas on their own. I also said that the use of percussion is global. I stated my belief that there are some things that are perennial and universal and as such will appear again and again in many times and in many cultures. He was not completely convinced, nor did he soften his tone or demeanor. I suggested that if he did not trust my information that he could research it and determine the truth of what I had said. Although I would've been happier if he had trusted me and my explanation, I can certainly understand why he would be hesitant to do so. I gave him my contact information and hoped to continue our conversation, but we never spoke again at the conference or afterwards.
In my previous blog, I said that I would write something about PantheaCon in my next blog. One of the things they love best about PantheaCon is the amazing conversations that occur in the hallway, in the lobby, and in suites run by organizations. In one of those far ranging conversations at this past convention, I was comparing notes on ritual technique, divine embodiment/possession, and other sorts of shop talk. Later in the event, a person who'd been at the periphery of the conversation came up to me and asked me how it was that I knew certain pieces of oath bound material. I will omit the particulars and details of the discussion that ensued, because I will choose to honor the person's privacy and oaths. We danced around quite a bit at the beginning of the conversation, because they were not supposed confirm nor deny certain things or it would violate their oath. Even though you can find a great deal of this protected lore on the Internet and through other sources, they thought that someone must have spilled the beans to me. Firstly, no one had shared oath bound material with me in this case. So I explained to the person how I had gone about creating the magickal technology and ritual patterns that I had described in that roundtable conversation. Ultimately they were convinced that it was an example of parallel evolution. In other words, given certain common starting points and shared magical paradigms I had created something remarkably similar to part of their sacred lore.
There are always many threads and themes that run through a magickal conference both official and unofficial. For me this year's PantheaCon was filled with many conversations and dialogues about cultural appropriation*, about how far something can be modified from its original source and still be valid, and about who owns the spirits and the God/dess/es. These are all very complicated matters, especially when we take into consideration politics and cultural history. The reason I'm sharing these two examples from my personal experience is that as magickal people we need to consider more than politics and cultural history. We need to keep in mind that in addition to the specific, the parochial, and the indigenous that there is also the universal that can enter into our practices without direct borrowing or stealing as the opinion may be. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly travesties and dishonorable actions that qualify as cultural appropriation. However, I think that it is very important not to jump to conclusions about where and how people derived their practices. All these matters are already fraught and fractured by the state of affairs that exists between all our various communities. Let's try to avoid the misunderstandings that can be avoided while we work through all the other deeper issues. At some point I intend to write a blog specifically on what I believe to be appropriate borrowing and what crosses the line into harmful appropriation from my perspective.
* The term “cultural appropriation” started as a technical term used to describe the act of borrowing the iconography or practices of another culture. Many people now use it as a highly charged term implying cultural theft or misuse.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments