A question I ask myself and we also asked in our cultural appropriation talk is this:
“If we limit ourselves to European-derived histories, perspectives and stories, do we further marginalise the histories, perspectives and stories coming from other parts of the world and other peoples who live with us, in our beds, in our hearts, indeed – who we may be?”
I think all pagans and witches would agree that all things are interconnected.
In the middle of this discussion at this year’s BC WitchCamp we began to speak of how collectively European peoples all over the world are suffering from deep dispossession trauma. We are severed at the roots. Our roots were systematically and in some cases violently torn from their holy ground. Christian conversion was sometimes by sword and fire and though it was gradual in some places in others it was fast, violent and for entirely commercial and capitalist interest in order to open trade between countries. The witch trials, what some people call the Burning Times, was a dark chapter in European history in which for various reasons people identified as witches were killed in their tens of thousands. Eighty percent of these people were female, though in a few regions males and men suffered disproportionately more. Starhawk has written about her understanding of why this atrocity occurred in an appendix of her book Dreaming the Dark. I am a fan of the multi-layered, many-reasoned approach.
The witch trials happened for a number of reasons. Misogyny, land, money, religious and social tensions, a dramatic shift in approach to health and healing, cultural hysteria and nightmares and yes, actual witchcraft and sorcery upon which it all sits, are some of the roots. As witches and inheritors of the ideologies and transformations that successfully enabled* this to happen, these histories – revisionist or academic – exist strongly in our group-mind; we fear that it might happen again. Still to this day many of us will not publicly associate with our own communities or witchcraft as a term because our quality of life may suffer. There is still prejudice in this world; though largely we live in post-industrial, consumerist, rationalist societies which balk at the idea of witches and witchcraft as having any life outside of fantasy books and television shows.
It is not just cultural dispossession we suffer from; in fact native European magic and paganisms continue to survive through and alongside the Church, folklore and legend and common ‘superstitions’ throughout Europe and its diaspora/colonising. We are collectively suffering from a miasma of dis-enchantment. We live in worlds in which the power of story, the wonder of children and the wisdom and intelligence of the non-human is relegated to sheer stupidity and ignorance. Our over-culture denigrates Earth-centred, land-based, body-oriented wisdom-traditions as hippie tree-hugging, wishful thinking, ridiculous or dangerous non-thinking. The term pagan is regularly used as a pejorative in Hollywood films and journalism meaning backwards. Witches in the West are not thought of as credible spiritual technicians or magical advisers, healers or teachers. Witches used to inspire awe, suspicion and dread. Read the old stories, we weren’t all that light-hearted either. Witches walk where others often fear to tread and collectively our archetype challenges any human condition which seeks to cleanse the wild and more-than-human from our lives.
In our cultural and ancestral dispossession two overall reactions seem to happen. Largely those who identify as Pagans and Witches will look to European and Western sources for their inspiration and guidance. This may have a lot to do with identity, ancestral orientation, family stories and context. Perhaps more prevalent than this however and more common outside the Pagan communities is the seeking and exploring in non-Western, non-European traditions and cultures for spiritual guidance, answers and inspiration. Millions of people in the West now practise some semblance of the ancient tradition of Yoga. Many receive treatment from Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners. Some even go to indigenous teachers and communities to learn or partake in celebrations, ceremonies and sacraments. Sometimes this is called cultural appropriation.
A personal working definition:
Cultural Appropriation – A knowing or unknowing act or choice which lifts/removes a culturally-specific custom from an ethnic people for the purposes of one’s own benefit without conscious communication or exchange. Cultural appropriation usually de-contextualises culturally-specific customs, practices and teachings and may make no effort to acknowledge, thank and honour the origins or the people.
It is obvious as to why seeking through our own bloodlines, ancestral traditions, cultures and lands would bring some healing. However many of us no longer live in the places our ancestors did. We no longer know where the power places are that meant so much to our forebears – the faery tree, the healing well, the initiation cave, etc. We are in different lands, with many different peoples from other lands living alongside each other. Many of us are also living in colonised, invaded countries in which unceded, stolen and exploited lands have been removed brutally and systematically from the first peoples~. Most of us do not grow and eat our own food anymore. Most of us do not live in active and immediate community with other humans let alone nonhumans. We live in urban houses and apartments divided from each other and if we do find community it is probably not within our blood families. This is definitely so for many modern pagans and witches as our own spiritualities and cosmologies may make no sense to or estrange us from our families of origin. We are dispossessed again, or rather dis-located.
There is also a marked and important difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.
A personal working definition:
Cultural Exchange – A knowing or unknowing act or choice in which people of different backgrounds, cultures and traditions communicate or engage in a mutually-beneficial exchange of teachings and practices. This may be something that has been passed on to specific individuals and then shared in honour with others. This may be a naked exploration of teachings and practices on one’s own or in community that is engaged with members of that culture or tradition. Exchange may be in time and energy, financial prosperity, oaths, vows and promised and artfulness and dedication.
There is an important distinction of integrity, complexity, relationship and transparency in being honestly inspired by a particular being and their lore in the case of being a spirit-worker and a deist and meeting that with one’s own collective tradition as engaged with by a community of various peoples of various backgrounds and attitudes. In the case of WitchCamps and the choosing of potential stories which usually involve powers to be invoked and called to for guidance and inspiration many processes are worked with in order to deeply listen to what may be significant for the magic. Visionings, divinations, trances and community discussions in magical containers and ritual spaces are often the platform for story-scrying and choosing. How to balance the responsibility of such a potent choice with social implications, community logistics and magical integrity, knowing full well not everyone will be pleased on every count at any time? It is always an interesting process and we many ‘filtering’ processes have been co-developed.
This brings us into issues of a continuously-growing community in which generations of change and philosophy happen faster. This is well-noted in magical traditions and countercultural social movements. For instance, some newer Reclaimers are not necessarily connected to the concept of deity or potentially spirit-beings with perceivable personhood and agency unto themselves (neither are some long-time Reclaimers). Witches have always conjured spirits and journeyed to them in the land and the otherworlds. This is a proud and important aspect of Reclaiming magic and witchcraft. Perhaps it is that it would be easier and less messy to work with stories and lore deriving from the most obvious places and somewhat more culturally or ethnically related to most of the people present…
Therefore WitchCamps have often drawn from the European and Near-Eastern sources, cultures and traditions for story-inspiration. There are people who aren’t white or European who come to WitchCamps. There are heritages flowing through many of us that aren’t Europe-derived. Sometimes we marginalise the perspectives of non-Western, non-European peoples and cultures by doing so. Sometimes there are stories, concepts and magics calling for us to come to them and try as we might we can not find comparable stories from European cultures. Sometimes, restrictions and limitations by way of certain ideologies, in the context of where we are at now as a species, can limit our visionary and magical ability. Witches speak with the spirits, pagans notice place; we venerate our ancestors of blood, of story, of land, of inspiration, the mighty dead…
I feel the need to turn to non-European cultures and histories much of the time on a broader social level. Especially now.
Colonial history is not simple; it’s not always a case of evil white invader and simple, unarmed, non-violent tribes. Revisionist and reductionist histories tell these stories, perhaps because it is simple, it’s easy; we can feel guilty together and then attempt to make reparations based on that guilt. (I would argue that is not guilt – or shame – that is useful or instructive in making reparations with indigenous peoples whose lands, to this day, are colonised and invaded with great force and violence.) What is less commonly known is that the first peoples of what Westerners call Australia, South America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands and North America usually fought back and did not surrender their territories or their ancestral and custodial lands. Most of them fought – and continue to fight – long and hard to defend their families. Most of them died – and are dying – were slaughtered, raped, tortured in the night, in the morning…were utterly destroyed by foreign illnesses. Most of them were not given the dignity of equality – and often are still not – open communication, inquiry or graceful and polite askance of entry. Furthermore, the same systems we used to oppress, divide and marginalise the peoples of European lands were then internalised in the collective psyche and outwardly wielded against the people of the rest of the world. I can not do justice to this history or colonial madness – slavery, rape, forced conversion, stolen land and children, poisoned water, destruction of entire ecosystems and brutal killing of non-humans for the sake of sport, trophy or manic fear…
The horrors and the evils that happened to many of our ancestors they/we then inflicted upon the rest of the world.
…Toxic and divisive ideologies of the separation between body and spirit, doctrines of the inherent or divine superiority of men and then humans over all others, subjugation and control of ‘natural resources’ and the hunting, torturing and killing of community spirit-workers, magicians and priest/esses of older ways…
These are real histories, they happened to us, with us, because of us, inside of us. We are still haunted – still.
Trauma is multi-generational. We see how multi-generational dispossession, grief, fear and confusion disintegrates and undermines once-proud and deeply-rooted indigenous communities today. Those of us with European heritage, those who appear white – or don’t look – are required to look back into the stories that still may haunt our ancestors and learn from those experiences, seek the wisdom in our roots and ask the questions we need to desperately ask. In this world; the world in which we share space and time with others, not just of our species.
The lands we are born into now, that we live with, the people and animals, birds, plants, mountains and rivers who live with us – we need to listen.
A few months ago I had a conversation with a good friend of mine and we were speaking of Paganism, indigeny, cultural appropriation, dispossession and magic. We spoke of how we knew of certain tribes in Turtle Island (North America) whose rituals and stories did not mean much at all away from the lands from which they arose, in which they were woven. The concept of embeddedness is one way to speak of this sacred truth and also further reinforces an older understanding of the Roman word paganus which originated in a still older Greek word pagus referring to region, to locale, to place. This is the history and sacred truth of the people we now call pagans too.
How to make sense of ancestral inspiration and wisdom when many of us no longer dwell in the lands that nurtured and challenged our people? How to forge new and authentic relationships with the places in which we now love, rage, enact our choices, listen and make our magic? How to hold both in integrity together whilst also remembering that we may not have the privilege – not in this time, in this world – to only refer to our ancestors, or people who look like we do.
In a room of 80 people, in an allies circle in a ritual in which Ganesha, Parvati, Shiva were present along with other spirit-allies and human witches and magic-workers, a statement was read:
I am biracial, I am a person of colour…
Five or six of us stepped into the centre. Two of us actually have origins in the cultures and the people that still do venerate Ganesha and his kin. Almost all of the people who stepped in for this statement spoke of a willingness to listen to these gods and to open to the wisdom that was brewing in the cauldron we had cast for camp throughout the week. I heard also there were people of colour (I’m trying to find a term I resonate with) who were not pleased, but we – the teaching team – or the organiser and BCWC community never heard directly from these people.
Things are complex, highly nuanced. There are no absolute answers anymore. There were once easily-perceived protocols within the limits of particular human communities living with land in direct relationship with the rest of Nature. And we have made the first steps. We are listening to the land, we are coming to the wild places, we are opening to the shadows inside and speaking with our darkness. We are hoping for different futures, but first we need new stories and perhaps they will sound or seem like the older ones from which we draw such strength and vision…and perhaps, some of them – for there are many great stories – will be different because we are different now. The world is at the edge again, as always. Luckily that’s the place you will find witches. That’s the place we dare to tread.
I am also proud to share in this work with others who have committed to the works of justice, healing, sovereignty and the arts of connection and consciousness. I feel power in our willingness and our daring and I feel we are able to drink from that well that some say the mythopoetic – the realm of the gods – stems forth from.
We will never lose our way to the well of memory…
~posted from the US terminal in Vancouver airport, technically considered ‘American soil’, the native lands of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam First Nations Peoples, the Coast Salish Peoples, where bears, crows and orchas wander, fly and swim…written by a coffee-caramel-brown queer witch who lives in Bali where pudding was born, though she was raised in Australia by one of the best people he has ever met and will probably ever meet. He is also the proud and radical son of the witches and holds the memory of the Mighty Dead strong in his heart – may we preserve the Craft.
Deep thanks goes to my co-conspirator, Ravyn Stanfield, in the BCWC 2014 offering on cultural appropriation who is always an inspiration to me.
I will be posting again on Privilege in the next few weeks.
*Please read the first chapter of The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
~Please read A Language Older than Words by Derrick Jensen