More thoughts on cultural appropriation

Crow Fox M

Periodically, the OBOD forums I participate in see discussions arise about cultural appropriation.

I’ve already made my position clear on this: it annoys the heck out of me, and I get really angry at people who take elements of Welsh language and culture and casually try to redefine them turn them into something they are not – which most often seems to be a rebranded version of common pagan themes. For example, there are currently a number of people trying to treat Gwyn ap Nudd as a rebranded, touchy-feely, Cernunnos, when the extant body of myth clearly depicts him as quite different.

I want to add some more thoughts, though, triggered by the latest OBOD discussion.

The thing is, if we accept that gods exist, or that spirits of place and the land exist, then they exist independently of humans. A given culture, be it the Welsh descendants of the Britons, or the Lakota Sioux, or the Yoruba, will have interacted with these gods and spirits for generation after generation. The names, myths and rituals they have used to interact with these beings, and to worship them, will have developed in the context of their particular language, and the broader features of their culture. It simply isn’t acceptable for outsiders, who do not belong to, or participate in, that culture to step in and attempt to appropriate the specific rituals etc wholesale.

However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take inspiration from other cultures, and legitimately include that include that in our own practices. The rituals of a given culture belong to that culture – but they also include insights and understandings that have been transmitted to that human culture by the gods, and that knowledge is theirs, to give to those who praise them – or who are willing to learn from them.

Iolo Morganwg, as I’ve mentioned, had access to the translations of Hindu philosophy and myth which were being published by the scholars of his time. His papers show that he put considerable time and effort into comparing what he learned of Hinduism with what was known about the beliefs of the ancient Druids. He tried to match concepts and terms from Hinduism with ideas and vocabulary from Welsh poetry and legend. Hinduism gave him the framework and the glue with which he was able to create the Druidry of Barddas: a Druidry which was of his own creation, but which was joined the disconnected fragments of the past into a powerful, valid, and functioning new system.

Iolo did not declare himself an Hindu pundit and start to conduct pujas using ceremonies copied from journals. He used Hindu thought to identify parallel and connected ideas  already existing in Welsh lore, which enabled him to create a uniquely and genuinely Welsh system. Was this cultural appropriation? Of course not!

The question of appropriation seems most pressing to those living in a land where their culture is new and ill-fitting. I mean, particularly, the descendants of European settlers in north America, or in Australia. The land is different; the weather is not the same; and the spirits and the gods are not those of Europe.

It’s possible to continue the old religion, of course. The old gods of Europe can be worshipped in new lands – but they will change, or be changed. The struggles of the Aesir against the Ice Giants has powerful meaning in icy Scandinavia – but in Nevada or Western Australia… not so much. The stories need to change, or to be refocused, if they are to have meaning and power, and before long it’s not the same religion any more.

Of course, humans have lived in these places for a long, long time. The tribes of Australia or the Americas have well-developed beliefs and rituals. It’s not OK for Europeans to use them, unless invited to by members of those cultures.

But.

Crows exist independently of the native Americans. Coyotes are coyotes regardless of the ancient tribes. Their characteristics and behaviours are the same, regardless of whether they are observed by Sioux or settler. How all of these are interpreted depends on the way a culture lives, and the values that guide its thought. The ancient Scandinavians fought pitched battles, and so they experienced Crow and Raven as feasting on the dead, connecting humans with the knowledge of the Otherworld. The ancient Welsh observed the longevity of ravens, and connected them with wisdom and knowledge. The tribes of the Americas found their own meanings.

So, if a person is of European descent living in the USA, for example, it’s OK for them to worship Crow. Just don’t call him Mànàka’has. You can worship Coyote. Just don’t call him Mąʼii. The spirits exist independently of humans. Those names, though, express the relationship between the spirits and a particular culture – a relationship to which you have no right and in which you play your own part.

You can, though, do what Iolo Morganwg did. Observe the behaviours of the spirits. Use the legends of the native peoples to identify elements of your own tradition which are fitting. You may need to refashion your own tradition, making it fit for the new context. Perhaps the Vikings of old would not recognise your Odin, but the old Vikings didn’t live in Nevada.

The same is true for the unseen gods, the ones who are not physically represented by animal or landscape. Find the archetypes that fit the land. Use divination to seek guidance.

Perhaps you will need to develop new names. You will definitely need to write new prayers and rituals, just as Iolo did. The question is: which names do the gods respond to when you call them? Which offerings please them and gain their favour, and which do not? Draw upon the inherited knowledge and wisdom of your own traditions, and fill in the gaps with your own inspiration.

The Awen will guide you. It will work better if you already have a framework available, but it will guide you nonetheless.

Image credits: Bat-Eared Fox and Pied Crow Eating Dinner, Namibia by Y Nakanishi on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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