Move over Easter Bunny, here comes the Easter Fox

Over recent years, Adrian Bott has become widely known for his annual deconstruction of the myth that Eostre or Ostara was a widely worshipped goddess in Northern Europe, and that she was associated with rabbits, hares, and eggs. In the course of his research, he has discovered a number of other interesting things, some of which are explained in his article for The Guardian, The modern myth of the Easter bunny.
 
So I asked him if he would like to do an interview on the subject of Eostre and Easter.
 
1. What got you interested in this topic, and returning to it every year?
 
My interest in festivals, pagan and otherwise, goes all the way back to my earliest involvement with these matters. Like so many others, I absorbed the myths uncritically and welcomed the ammunition they seemed to give against an overarching, oppressive Christianity. Being able to claim ‘we were here first’ is empowering for pagans, especially young ones. Back in those days, there weren’t nearly so many of us as there are now.
 
As for my interest in debunking the myths surrounding the festivals, well, that comes a lot later in life. I ran an occult bookshop in Manchester for ten years, which put me in a wonderful and enviable position: access to all the literature I could ever want! The more reading I did, the more holes appeared in the popular ‘Eostre’ narrative. I got into the habit of checking sources rather than simply accepting material at face value. It became rapidly apparent that a great many supposed ‘facts’ were nothing of the sort, and were only being repeated because they told people things they wanted to hear.
 
I wrote a rough-and-ready article for White Dragon magazine back in the early 2000s that started the ball rolling, and since then it’s become a sort of annual tradition to drag it out and get the weary work of debunking going again, because every year you see the same codswallop circulated. In my view, people deserve better.
 
2. Why do you think it is so important to be historically accurate in the presentation of myth and symbol?
 
Well, that really depends on the context. I’m not saying that anyone has to be historically accurate (which is hardly achievable, let’s be honest!) in their spirituality. People have an unassailable right to interpret the divine, however they may see that, in their own way. The last thing I want is to be seen as some sort of pompous pagan bureaucrat telling people the figures on their altar don’t properly reflect the latest archaeological or academic discoveries.
 
But I do think that pagans, of all people, have an ethical obligation to respect the historicity of the stories they tell, especially when they are telling them to one another. I think we have to do more than pay lip service to such things as lore, tradition, and ‘old ways’. That means recognising the boundaries of our knowledge. It’s no shame to say ‘We do not know what the absolute truth of this matter is’. Stories can emerge from the shadows. Where there’s doubt, there’s room to breathe.
 
As I see it, to say ‘We do not know for sure whether Eostre existed as a figure of worship’ is far more liberating, far more honest and far more empowering than to say ‘There WAS an Eostre, there HAS TO have been, she DID SO exist, and she had a sacred bunny too.’ The problem with the latter approach is that it standardises the myth. It reduces all that cryptic, compelling potential to a mere lump of monolithic propaganda.
 
The discipline of the historian, as I see it, is something to be treated with reverence, especially by people who purport to be custodians of the past. It’s bitterly ironic that so many pagans depend on the ancestral past for their sense of identity and yet blithely ignore the findings of academic historians in favour of flavoursome lies that they think empower them.
 
3. Do you think that a certain amount of the spurious notion that “the Christians stole our festivals” (CSOF) has fed into the modern Eostre myth? Do you think this idea is dangerous? Why?
 
Yes on both counts. I’d go so far as to say that the whole purpose of the modern Eostre myth is to undermine the Christian Easter, for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t think they are good reasons, but they are understandable.
 
There are many reasons why the idea is dangerous. Firstly, it peddles a facile and diminutising version of pre-Christian history. According to the CSOF line, there was one group of people called The Christians, and another group called The Pagans, and The Pagans had celebrations on the equinoxes and solstices, and these celebrations were usually about Fertility and about Goddesses, and along came The Christians and they forced all The Pagans to convert, and to make this easier they took all The Pagans’ festivals and Christianised them. All this is meant to have happened in some ill-defined but vaguely European space, during some unspecified time period when things were very muddy and bloody.
 
The second reason the CSOF line of argument is dangerous is that it’s flat out wrong. It treats Gregory’s letter as some sort of absolute rule obeyed by all The Christians at all times and in all places, rather than as the passing notion it actually was. In the particular case of Easter, it’s painfully easy to explain why Christians didn’t ‘steal’ it. The antecedent of Easter is Passover, Christ being seen as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the perfect Passover sacrifice, and the date of Easter was decided by the early Church in reference to that tradition (though there was a good deal of argument as to when the date actually was – google the Synod of Whitby, for example). For this reason, almost all countries call Easter some variant of ‘Pasch’. It’s only in a relatively small part of the world that people called it Easter, and the only reason why so many people call it Easter now is because of the dominance of the English language.
 
The third reason is that claiming Christian festivals as somehow ‘pagan’ is exactly what certain fundamentalist Christians want to do. In fact, a good deal of the impetus to deem Easter and Christmas essentially ‘pagan’ comes from that quarter.
 
4. Do you think it is acceptable to present Eostre and her bunnies and eggs as a modern myth, if we don’t claim that it is ancient?  Can we still have our chocolate eggs?
 
Absolutely! Again, the whole intent here is not to demolish anyone’s personal take on the season, or whatever Goddesses they may choose to honour. The provision of meticulously gathered historical research is meant to be a positive thing, not a negative one. I don’t really see myself as a debunker, when it comes down to it. I’d rather be the kind of person who opens the door to the rich possibilities of doubt and uncertainty. Let people see their own faces in the flames and forms in the shadows; let them make their own links with the mythic past and fill in the blanks with their own inspired imagination. We don’t need some standardised bubblegum Eostre, complete with bunny, presented as if it were a fact.
 
Debunkers in general need to be careful, I think. The late Terry Pratchett, who was a very wise man indeed, wrote a book called Lords and Ladies.  In it, the young witch Magrat Garlick encounters a painting of the famous Queen Ynci of Lancre, a Boudica-like warrior woman. She later finds Queen Ynci’s armour and wears it to defend a castle against attacking elves. In doing so, she feels as if the spirit of Ynci is with her, helping her, making her brave. Through Ynci, she is able to do things she normally wouldn’t dare to do.
 
Later, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are talking together, and we learn what Magrat didn’t know: Queen Ynci never existed. She was invented by a former King of Lancre to add a bit of romantic history. He even had the armour made, hammered together from an old tin bath and some saucepans. Granny Weatherwax asks Nanny Ogg ‘But didn’t you think you ought to tell her that?’ and Nanny answers ‘No.’ Enough said, I think.
 
5. Is there another myth associated with the Spring Equinox that people could create rituals with?
 
Nowadays, there are an abundance of myths about the Spring Equinox – take your pick! However, we do run into a bit of a problem in that the celebration of the Spring Equinox per se doesn’t have much of a European pagan precedent. You see, Eostre’s festival (if it existed) wouldn’t have been at the Spring Equinox at all. Eosturmonat, as Bede attests, was the FOURTH lunar month of the Anglo-Saxon year, corresponding roughly to April. This is how come the Christian festival of Pasch coincided with it. Pasch is dated from the Spring Equinox, but does not happen at the Spring Equinox; it falls in April more often than not.
 
The practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox in this context at all owes much more to the Golden Dawn than it does to ancient pagan tradition. Certainly, calling the Equinox ‘Ostara’ is an entirely modern practice. But so long as we’re aware of that, we can celebrate how we like. Easter traditions, whether or not they may be pagan in origin, are not ‘Spring Equinox’ traditions. If the German Ostarmonat and the Old English Eosturmonath do indicate a spring festival, then it is to those months we must look for the folkloric antecedents of Easter, and not to the Equinox in March.
 
Disclaimers aside, the one Germanic Easter tradition I do find fascinating is the Osterfuchs or Easter Fox. To quote:

Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox. Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter Fox was not disturbed during his visit – for example by shutting up pets for the night. Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that “… it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. ” Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.

I have no evidence whatsoever that the Easter Fox represents a survival from pre-Christian times. But wouldn’t it be a wonderful myth to work with?
 
The only reason anyone thinks Eostre had a rabbit (or hare) companion is because of Jacob Grimm, who in Deustsche Mythologie states ‘Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’ without any direct evidence at all. The notion has become incredibly popular, though, because everyone’s heard of the Easter Bunny, and claiming things everyone’s heard of in the name of Paganism is a tiresomely common activity nowadays.
 
Bluntly, there’s no more evidence that Eostre/Ostara had a hare companion than a fox companion, and the fox tradition seems to be older, so I think we should give her a fox. My daughter says she’ll be building two moss nests this year, one for the Easter Bunny and one for the Easter Fox. (She assures me she’ll label them so they don’t get confused.)
 

Fox sitting in a meadow

Fox sitting in a meadow
Image courtesy of Shutterstock


 
6. Can you tell us a bit about how you celebrate Spring Equinox (if you do)?
 
I like to say I’m celebrating the Spring Equinox in exactly the same way as my Pagan ancestors did, namely by ignoring it completely…
 
7. Can you tell us a bit about your Pagan/magical path?
 
I rarely ever talk about my own beliefs and practices. This is a consequence of my days running the occult bookshop up in Manchester. If you’re going to deal with all paths impartially, you can’t be seen to be on any given side. The moment you are thought to be part of a given group, people naturally and automatically assume biases and prejudices, whether you have them or not. So I always kept my own beliefs out of the picture.
 
I don’t really like ‘paths’, as a rule. A path, by definition, is something someone else has walked before you. Unless you’re hacking your own idiosyncratic way through the scrub, it’s not really your path at all, is it? On balance, I think I’d rather have a magical machete than a magical path.
 
8. Anything else you want to add?
 
The most pernicious thing about the popular Eostre myth – the whole spring goddess with the egg laying bunny bit – is not its falsity but its homogenity. Its purpose is to recast a globally celebrated Christian festival with secular elements in modern Pagan terms. But if we do that, our paganism is nothing but that same global Christianity with the numbers filed off. To reclaim ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘The Easter Bunny’ is to adopt mass-market icons.
 
I think we have to reaffirm the importance of the local, the personal, the particular. Don’t just accept the stories you’re told uncritically and circulate them. Embrace the uncertainty and tell your own stories. I have no interest in the rosy-cheeked smiling flowers-and-ribbons choccy-box Eostre with basket of decorated eggs and fluffy rabbit that you see all over the place on the pagan Internet.
 
But a wild-eyed Eostre, a survivor, young and rangy and half-starved from winter, clawing her way up a barren mountainside with her fox at her heels towards a blood-red Spring dawn, grinning in triumph, alive, unbroken, unbreakable? I’ll drink to her any day.
 
Articles about the Eostre myth by Adrian Bott

Books by Adrian Bott
 
Adrian has written numerous children’s books.

 

Many thanks to Adrian for this interview, and for all his research on this topic.

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Solar eclipse

Tomorrow there is a solar eclipse, and Nature’s Path invited me to write a chalice lighting for the month of March in honour of it.
"The Partial Eclipse" by Thephatphilmz - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Partial Eclipse” by ThephatphilmzOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here it is.
 
Light. We all depend on light.
Sunlight to grow our food,
Sunlight to warm our bodies,
A lamp to read by,
Candles for ritual,
A fire for comfort,
Moonlight and starlight for dreams and visions.
 
They say the moon is fickle,
But she keeps her course,
Steering her boat of dreams around the Earth,
Now a tiny fragile crescent,
Then a full glowing orb,
And sometimes she steers her boat
In front of the sun,
To remind us how much we need the light.
 
That moment of awe and terror,
When the moon eclipses the sun,
And those who watch below pause,
In a moment of stillness
Watching as the sun becomes a waning crescent,
Then beads of fire,
Then a corona of shining threads,
Waiting for the sun to come back,
Holding our breaths until she returns.
 
So we give thanks for light,
As we light our small flame,
A flame of gathering,
A flame for comfort,
A tiny sun resting in a bowl of space.
 
Yvonne Aburrow, 7:17 am GMT, 13 March 2015
 
 

Terry Pratchett: an accidental Pagan theologian

My collection of Pratchett books

My collection of Pratchett books

I have been meaning to write an article about Pagan theology in the work of Terry Pratchett for ages. And this will probably not be that article; my thoughts are still too befuddled to write anything analytical. I knew that he was suffering, and found his speech a few years ago about assisted dying very moving and convincing. But I had not expected his passing to be so soon. I first discovered his books at about the age of 19 or 20, and have been reading and re-reading them ever since, enjoying his wonderfully inventive ideas and witty turn of phrase.

He was one of the very few writers to speculate on how deities come into being, first as particles of energy, then accumulating more energy from the minds of worshippers (in the book Small Gods).  He was the inventor of the wonderful idea of the Dark Morris (the slow and silent dance that must be danced in the depths of the forest in order to make the wheel of the year turn again towards summer). Then there was Narrativium, the stuff of stories. He also had some really nifty ideas about ghosts (in Wyrd Sisters) and fairies (in Lords and Ladies), and what they are all about. I know he was an atheist, but he had a profoundly pagan world-view nonetheless. In any case, one can be both a Pagan and an atheist – and though he did not self-identify as a Pagan, I gather he was rather pleased that Pagans liked his work, and I think he did speak at a number of Pagan events. He was also a patron of the British Humanist Association.

Much of his work explores ideas of social justice. Earlier this year, I read his book Johnny and the Bomb, which had one of the best explanations of white privilege in it that I have seen. He also explored feminism in Monstrous Regiment, and gender identity in one of his other books.

He is one of the few authors to have personified Death as a kindly and merciful figure, indeed as a fully-fledged character. The only other one I can think of is Emily Dickinson.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

~ Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886

And he really really liked cats. I am comforted that he died peacefully in bed with a cat sleeping next to him. It seems strange to be writing about him in the past tense. He was so full of life. I never met him in person, but his work has certainly informed a lot of my thinking. As a witch from the chalk, I will always be grateful for the character of Tiffany Aching. I love the chalk uplands of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Sussex – my childhood stomping grounds – and the Chalk in the Discworld books is very evocative of that region.

If you haven’t read any of his books, you have a hefty treat in store. His characters – Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, Nanny Ogg, Greebo, the Oh God of Hangovers, the Tooth Fairy, Death, Susan, Polly Oliver, the wizards, are all brilliant.

If you wamt my advice, start with The Wyrd Sisters, then Witches Abroad, then Carpe Jugulum. Then there’s the Tiffany Aching series. And his other universes: the Long Earth, and the world of Johnny. And keep an eye out for Mrs Tachyon. Anything could happen when she is around.

It is obvious from reading his work that he was profoundly well read, and well versed in folklore and folk songs, very aware of landscape, and very interested in people. He leaves a tremendous legacy behind.

 

Tributes to Terry Pratchett

Edinburgh Eye: Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any good night

Discworld Emporium: On the passing of our friend, Terry Pratchett

The Guardian: Terry Pratchett quotes, 15 of the best

The Guardian: Terry Pratchett, author of the Discword series, dies aged 66

Dark Morris, Steeleye Span

Huffington Post

Articles about Terry Pratchett

Historical and Unitarian Musings: The true meaning of Hogswatch

Sex, death, and nature: Laurie Penny interviews Terry Pratchett

 

 

 

Making Meaning After the Death of Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr.

My town, Madison Wisconsin, is often on Ten Most Liveable Cities lists. Ten Best Biking/Living/Working/Foodie/College Town/This or That or the Next Thing lists.

Madison is also one of the very worst places in the country—the entire nation—to be African-American.

I had an essay to post today. It was all written and set to go on Friday morning, and I thought to myself, “Friday is sort of a dead day…I’ll hold off.”

Then on Friday night, Tony Terrell Robinson Jr. was shot and killed by Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny. Robinson was unarmed. The police officer was white. As Madison Chief of Police Mike Koval said succinctly, “To the extent that you have, again, a person of color, unarmed who subsequently loses his life at the hands of the police, I can’t very well distance myself from that brutal reality.”

Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr.

Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr.

But Madison is not Ferguson.

There are marches. The Capitol is again filled with protesters. But so far, as the song says, “We are a peaceful, angry people.” And because it’s peaceful, it’s not getting much play.

The mayor trusts the protesters, and says so. The police have been present but not antagonistic. Everyone admits anger is justified. Stories of lived experience deserve to be heard.

I dare to hope that Madison may show the world that there are better ways to come together. That Tony Terrell Robinson Jr.’s death may, in the words of Rev. Alex Gee, become more meaningful than he had even dreamed possible, if we can make it so.

Here is something else to consider: Officer Kenny was one of the officers who brought wedding cake to the first gay couples married at our Capitol. He is not a monster. He is one of us. It is very hard to face that truth and embrace it.

There are (at least) two Madisons. At this moment we have an opportunity—so very, very precious—to change that truth.

I hope we can face our fear, our defensive gut reactions. I hope we can check ourselves, breathe deep, and lean into the community’s sorrow. There isn’t a single person who can possibly be happy at this young man’s death. Let us grieve together. Let us be angry. Let us call for justice, and for change. Let us become radicalized in our own community.

And that change starts with each of us. This is how we do, in Madison. We do together.

This is not a well-written essay. The sentences don’t line up right. I’m still struggling for words. Still struggling to understand how this could happen in my town.

The evening Tony Terrell Robinson Jr. was shot, I was attending a poetry reading at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibit, the work of ChanSchatz, caused me to ask deep questions about community, how voices are heard and stories are told, whose voices, whose stories. Who gets to make the art. Who gets to be part of the conversation. Then the last reader, Oscar Mireles, came up to the stage and told us he just learned that a young man had been shot on Willy Street. We would only learn the details when we went home.

Artists make meaning. It’s our job. Right now, my city has a chance to make meaning together, as a community, by working towards real, meaningful and lasting change. I may be Poet Laureate of this city (one of them)…but it isn’t my voice that needs to be heard at this moment. It is the voices of those in our community directly affected and those who experience racism and injustice personally, on a daily basis.

The rest of us need to listen.

Here is the family of Tony Terrell Robinson Jr.’s family, speaking after his death.

Here is a poem read that night by Miona Short, an African-American student at the University of Wisconsin working towards her physics degree. As a physicist, she seeks truth. As a poet, she speaks truth. She has given permission for me to use her poem here. I can think of no better way to end this essay than to cede this space to her voice, and to lean into these painful truths.

Guide to New

 

Come to the liberal city.
Lean on her tit and ask
What makes her so free?
Other people will give you
Answers. Wait for them
To apply to you.

Go home to Chicago,
Whose streets you can
Already understand.

Come back to the liberal city.
Walk her curly streets and
Remind her that you have
Questions. What makes her
So giving? Other people
Tell you. Something about
“Such a low murder rate”
Something about “no one
Will rob you in this city”

Go home to Chicago.

Come back to the liberal city.
Be the only black woman in a room.
Be the optical feast that no one
(Not even you) expected.
Diversity is in her tea-time lexicon.
People say “welcome” until you
Enter where your statistical
Contribution is…unneeded. Ask
The city why her tongue is so
Hungry but eyes too willing
To spit you out for sport.

Go home

Come back to the liberal city.
Read about the demographics of poverty
And incarceration in the place. Again
Ask what makes her so free when she
Is nothing but a wrought iron cage to
People that look like you. Wonder if
You’re being trapped. How would you
Know? Notice she never answers.
Only her entourage does. And all
Them are fake or oblivious. Swear
To yourself that you don’t hate her.
It’s that you haven’t found your
Footing. Convince yourself of this.
And count down the remaining years.
Miona Short
Madison, WI
March 2015

 

Protesters, Madison, March 2015

Protesters, Madison, March 2015

#tonyrobinson #blacklivesmatter #fergusontomadison

Transplanting from one culture to another – appropriation or exchange?

Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Dandelion seeds in the morning sunlight blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock

Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context (the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions), and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe (an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism). If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted.

People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue. Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking.

Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context. If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially.  Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. I guess ‘respectful’ is the key word in all of that.

As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups. Imagine my horror when some eejit who did not even know what they meant (and I know he didn’t because I asked him) decided he was going to copy them for his profile. He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. (And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me.) Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture.

However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from? The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person? Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. Or should the criterion be the consensus view of many members of the tradition?

However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and (in the case of Native American spirituality in particular) the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them. Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West.

A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it. Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser (whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture) is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. The people who don’t want their practices taken out of context are not doing it to protect the practice as a commodity which they could package and sell – as far as most of them are concerned, their practices are not for sale. They are very likely to be trying to protect us from bad / shallow / poorly understood versions of the practices. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture – but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction.

There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions, and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange (as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto). When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed (like when Christianity met ancient paganisms) or subsumed (like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions).

Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. In fact, cultures are always exchanging ideas, inventions, material goods, books, food, recipes. There is clearly a lot of healthy and respectful cultural exchange. Hence the attempt to make a distinction between culturing borrowing and cultural appropriation, both in this article about decolonising your yoga practice, and in my previous attempt to write about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

Appropriation means claiming that you own something or have a right to it. Borrowing means acknowledging that the other party owns it. They are not synonymous.  Borrowing can be respectful. Appropriation is disrespectful. The trick is learning the difference.  However, if a person from another culture says, hands off, you cannot access this without going through the proper process – then proceeding to take it without their approval is theft.

If the culture which you had the misfortune to be born into goes around colonising other countries (both by conquest and via economic power) and you then come along and steal their spiritual traditions, despite them saying no: that makes you part of the colonisers.

If on the other hand you acknowledge them as the ones with expertise, and learn from them, and acknowledge their sovereignty, and they decide to give freely: that is respectful.

An obvious analogy is Wicca. There are practices in Wicca that I would not recommend to anyone uninitiated (because initiation prepares you for them) and that would not make sense outside of the symbolic framework of Wicca.  Although these practices are available from other spiritual traditions, invocation is also carefully situated within a symbolic framework and an initiatory process in those other traditions, too. It occurs in Buddhism, and they have a very elaborate system around it – with good reason. And the same with all the other practices.

I know there are things in Wicca that don’t quite fit in Druidry, and vice versa – and those two traditions are reasonably similar. Consider how difficult it is, then, to import a practice from a dissimilar tradition. I generally don’t do Buddhist practices because I disagree with the basic founding premise of Buddhism, that all is dukka (suffering) and that the only way to free yourself from suffering is to avoid attachment. If you don’t buy into this basic premise of Buddhism, then a lot of their meditation techniques don’t make sense.

In my previous post on this topic, I outlined some thoughts on what constitutes appropriation, and what constitutes respectful borrowing. When I wrote that post, I was largely unaware that sometimes people accuse non-Europeans of cultural appropriation when they try to join in with European forms of Paganism. I learnt this from reading the excellent book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so.

Cultural appropriation cannot be properly understood unless you look at it in the context of colonialism, power, money, exploitation, and capitalism. Although Pagan religions are not part of the dominant paradigm of Western culture (which is predominantly Christian with an overlay of Enlightenment rationalism and a big dollop of capitalism), and are often relegated by the dominant discourse to the realms of the “primitive” – white practitioners of Pagan religions still benefit from being members of the dominant social group much of the time. Cultural appropriation is usually done from the dominant position in any encounter between two cultures. So if you are not in the dominant position in the encounter, it will be difficult to appropriate the culture of the other.

To sum up, then: ritual techniques and practices are not universal, and it is difficult to lift them from one context to another; doing so without consideration for their original meaning and context is disrespectful; and it is often a continuation of colonialism, capitalism, and commodification.

 

Woman with the Pen: Five Moments On My Way Back to Patheos

I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.

But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…

So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.

 

One…

A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along withself portrait in five lines a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.

But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.

 

Two…

And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).

So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.

 

Three…

Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.

 

 

Four…

Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)

 

Five…

A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.

 

So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:

Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.

I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.

The question is courage.

office 2015