Blurred Lines – my personal gripes with Cultural Appropriation (and how I found answers)

I have a real issue with the idea of Cultural Appropriation.

I’m a white American girl with a muddled (mutt) bloodline and no family culture of my own to work within as a pagan. Too often, discussions of cultural appropriation feel uncomfortable to me. For the longest time, I’ve been uncomfortable with that discomfort, because I couldn’t place where it originated from… until yesterday.

I had an “ah ha!” moment.

The reason I don’t like the idea of cultural appropriation is due to the lack of boundaries. When I ask questions to try and determine what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, the best anyone can answer is “well, if you aren’t [fill in a culture name here], then don’t use their stuff”. That’s great… except it’s not. How does that help me to determine if my use of a practice like smudging is valid spiritual expression or lazy cultural appropriation?

Unclear lines to cross (or not cross) make for a huge discomfort in learning new practices. As someone familiar with the privileges being white can afford me, I feel hampered from spiritual exploration by my own desire not to commit an apparent cardinal sin of paganism and appropriate random things from someone else. Without clear direction, I instead get to try new things in private or not at all.

The “ah ha!” moment came to me yesterday while researching and contemplating reconstructionist Greco-Roman religion versus standard Wiccan-flavored paganism*[see footnote]. I finally found the elusive lines between respectful cultural adaptation and cultural appropriation.

Look at the Greek gods. In the ancient religion and its modern reconstruction, Hestia is honored first and last at every ritual. Solitary home practitioners are told to at least light a candle to Her before anything else is done. Hestia is the keeper of the Sacred Flame, the spark of life itself. All of the gods respect Her, so it is fully accepted (and expected) that your first words and offerings be given to Her.

Now look at a modern Wiccan-flavored pagan ritual. Tradition dictates that you call a god and a goddess for most rituals, though moon rituals (esbats) give more leeway in calling just a goddess. If a coven decides to stick with Greek gods, they may choose Zeus and Hera to call into the circle; after all, they are the King and Queen of the Gods. However, that same coven is very likely to call only Zeus and Hera. The altar may have a candle for each, as well as some image or statue. But… the likelihood of Hestia also being represented is actually pretty small.

Modern paganism doesn’t require you to follow the old ways of deity worship. It’s seen as acceptable to research a deity and then work with them alone. No one questions why someone might work with Apollo and ignore his sister Artemis and mother Leto, even though their mythology is very intertwined and nearly impossible to disassociate as a pair or group. It’s not weird to most modern pagans for you to say you work with Artemis because She called to you, yet you don’t interact with anyone else from Her pantheon.

In a way, large portions of how Wiccan-flavored paganism approaches deity worship can be seen as cultural appropriation.

The Greek culture and religion that those deities come from is alive, which means you’re borrowing from an active thing. When doing so, you should be doing enough research to know about Hestia being first and last in all things; even reading through one or two decent sources would tell you that! Choosing to skip her and work with Zeus and Hera alone, then, is purposefully ignoring the cultural and spiritual importance of Hestia to make use of other gods. It’s about convenience, not belief.

However, the line becomes more flexible in certain situations. If you are the type of pagan who believes ALL goddesses are faces of the Goddess, and ALL gods are faces of the God, and ALL gods are One… then your decision to borrow Zeus and Hera is based in your spiritual belief that they only exist as faces of the same thing; you aren’t appropriating them, so much as you are using them in accordance to your non-belief in hard polytheism.

Likewise, doing a meditation in a suana isn’t appropriation of a sweat lodge. Sure, you are using incense and steam to relax and cleanse your body and spirit. However, the idea of meditation is found in many cultures. By calling it a suana meditation and working to connect your Higher Self rather than a deity or spirit guide, you are specifically using the “universal remote” or generally applicable pieces of a sweat lodge without appropriating the full Native American ritual.

See the lines I’ve found?

  • If you know what you’re doing and why, then you aren’t culturally appropriating.
  • If your core beliefs create a place where the thing you’re doing is standard and applied to all related practices, then you aren’t culturally appropriating.
  • If you strip down a cultural idea and use the structural framework (i.e. things that all people, regardless of culture, can relate to) to develop something unique, then you aren’t culturally appropriating.

But… if you just take a thing that “sounds cool” and do very little research into what it’s actually for or about, you ARE culturally appropriating in the laziest way. It’s disrespectful to the gods and yourself.

A final guideline: If it doesn’t feel right, you shouldn’t use it. If you feel bad using a thing, examine why you feel that way. Are you honestly sure of your intent? Remember that, in magic, intent is key to everything.

* On Wiccan-flavored paganism: I use this phrase to refer to the modern, New Age paganism movement as a whole. Look in the New Age or Metaphysics section of any bookstore, and you’ll see the same kind of magickal and ritual practice over and over. God and goddess duality, elemental correspondences, altar setup and tools, and so forth. These are all done in generally the same way, with minor variations between traditions and authors. Most non-reconstructionist, non-tradition-based pagans will end up practicing something related to the Wiccan style of ritual, mostly because of its prevelance in the resources a solitary pagan has access to.

An additional note: I am personally guilty of working with deities without doing research into their pantheon, though this has happened most often in group rituals I have little or no control over. The Celtic, Welsh, and/or Gaelic pantheons (I can’t tell the difference due to lack of study) have been present in my coven’s rituals; similarly, I’ve stood in circle while someone called Loa to attend a Samhain ritual via a horse (someone prepared to be “ridden” or purposefully possessed for a short time). I point this out to remind you that no one is perfect, and most offenders aren’t aiming to be offensive. Sometimes you have no control over the ritual at hand, but when you do… try to be fully prepared and respectful of the ideas, practices, and deities you’re including in your circle.

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