Cultural appropriation is about power

Cultural appropriation is always a difficult topic to get across in a nuanced way – and no-one seems to agree on what is respectful borrowing and what is cultural appropriation. Some people even go so far as to claim it doesn’t exist.

Aaron Muszalski - “Cultural Appropriation Illustrated” on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Aaron Muszalski –
“Cultural Appropriation Illustrated” on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

What many commentators miss, however, is the power differential in cultural appropriation. People forget that we are living in a postcolonial world, where non-European cultures are still routinely dismissed as “primitive”, “backward”, reactionary, and hidebound by tradition, and European culture is presented as the norm, and an ideal to live up to, despite its over-consumption, cycle of boom and bust, and exploitation of other parts of the world in order to maintain the expensive western lifestyle.

In countries with a majority white, western, Christian population, European cultural norms prevail. The rituals, clothing, and even hairstyles of other cultures are seen as outside the norm, “exotic”, and “primitive”.

Being regarded as exotic makes the products of other cultures ripe for commodification and packaging up as a consumer good. Consider the late 18th century and early 19th century craze for Chinoiserie. Lots of people made a lot of money out of that one. But it didn’t help actual Chinese people trying to survive in Western culture – they were labelled strange, weird, foreign, the “Yellow Peril”.

Being regarded as primitive makes the products of other cultures seem taboo. This means that countercultures within the European cultural sphere want to adopt them. However, whilst such countercultures have less economic and cultural leverage than the mainstream, they still have more leverage than the culture being borrowed from.

Either way, the economic power, social power, and cultural prestige of the European hegemony massively dominates the world in terms of what is seen as “normal”. In the religious sphere, Christianity is seen as the norm, and everything else (including Pagan religions) is seen as exotic and/or primitive. In the economic sphere, capitalism and commodification are seen as the norm, and other systems of exchange are seen as exotic and/or primitive.

This situation creates a massive imbalance where the products of other cultures are trivialised, fetishised, and repackaged as consumer goods for the amusement of Europeans.

Consider the way in which Hallowe’en has been commercialised, commodified, and trivialised, and you can imagine how people from other cultures feel when their treasured traditions, clothing styles, and rituals are repackaged as consumer items.

“Oh but I don’t mind the commercialisation of Hallowe’en”, I hear you cry. Fine – now imagine that it is on top of your land being taken away, your ancestors being enslaved and murdered, your economic, employment, and housing chances being severely limited by systemic racism – are you angry yet? (Oh wait, our pagan ancestors were killed for their beliefs – albeit a long time ago.)

So, if a person from another culture adopts a European practice or personal adornment style, they may be doing so in an attempt to gain some of the economic and cultural leverage that they lack; whereas if a European-ancestry person adopts a non-European practice or cultural adornment style, they may well be doing so because they want the “exotic” or “primitive” glamour conferred by it, which is why it is often disrespectful and erasing of the other culture, because it contributes to the “othering” of that culture.

This unequal power dynamic is why a white person painting their face black is considered inflammatory, whereas a black person painting their face white is not. In vaudeville theatre, the black-and-white minstrel shows presented a caricature of Black people which was deeply offensive.

In Morris dancing, the origins of black face paint may be because Morris dancing was originally an imitation of Moorish people brought back from the crusades; or it may be because the dancers wished to disguise themselves, and using soot to ‘black up’ their faces was effective as a disguise; or it may have been an imitation of miners and/or chimney sweeps, whose faces were black because of coal dust; or it may have been copied from vaudeville blackface; or it may have been a combination of all of these. It does seem likely that the introduction of black-and-white minstrel shows to England gave fresh impetus to Morris blackface. Therefore, many Morris sides have modified their face-paint so that it does not resemble vaudeville blackface quite as much; or they explain the miners / chimney-sweeps / disguise theory before they begin their performance.

This unequal power dynamic does not mean that we can never do anything associated with another culture; it does mean that we should approach other cultures with sensitivity and tact, and if we are told to back off, we should back off.

I don’t think that worshipping a deity from another culture is wrong – deities have migrated from one culture to another for millennia. I do think that it is disrespectful to take someone else’s ritual to that deity, or any ritual, rip it out of its original cultural context, and plug it into your own cultural context without regard for the differences between the contexts. The same applies to clothing styles, hairstyles, and artefacts which may have specific meanings and be associated with specific identities, especially if those identities have been crafted in resistance to European cultural hegemony, or are expressions of the sacred in a particular context. When the artefact, clothing, or hairstyle is ripped out of its context, the original meaning can be lost, diluted, trivialised, or erased.

In two previous posts on cultural appropriation, I explored the difference between respectful borrowing and cultural appropriation, and how practices are not plug-and-play components that can be easily transferred from one cultural context to another.

Further reading

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Combinations of Difficult Questions #PinkOut

What if Planned Parenthood is defunded and shut down– where should women and men go for the other 97% of funded services PP currently provides?

What if we notice a dropped stitch? What if we don’t?

What if Persephone eats that pomegranate on purpose?

What if we’re all more genderfluid than we admit?

What if sexuality isn’t a wound?

What if the nuclear family is not the only available model? What if it isn’t the best?

What if Black lives matter?

What if a question mark is a fish hook?

What if abortion is allowed to be an ambivalent and uneasy act, safe and legal?

What if women live into their sexualities as a source of power with, not power over?

What if men do that too?

What if you could say how unhappy you are?

What if a woman’s voice is the tree falling in the forest?

 

What if women’s voices weave another forest?

 

Epistemology of Mother, A Cloud of Permeable or #PinkOut

Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Sadie

 

Few topics have stirred as much passionate response

now there is a plank in the platform of the Republican party denying any place

in the short time I’ve belonged to this listserv as the one that exploded over the seemingly innocuous color pink, and

for abortion even in cases of rape or incest. This feels like the final thundering chord (although I know

although I didn’t join the discussion, I, too, feel strongly about the subject. Reading the posts on the color

it’s not—there is so much more they could try to do, try to take from us) of their grand crescendo,

and its associations—Cinderella, Barbies, stickers,

building for a year now. A year when

I was surprised by the emotional and political

terms such as “birth control”

connotations it carries

“sluts” “vaginal ultrasounds” “vaginas” have been bandied about

for so many of us and disturbed by the way

we debate the difference between “legitimate” and “forcible” as applied to

pink got tossed back and forth as if it were some uniform monolith

the act of rape.

when a moment’s reflection serves to demonstrate this obvious fact: pink is not one color.

What other qualifiers shall we hear?

My pinks are mostly dark, vivid, intense, like the other hues that fill the house of a recovering depressive

At last now we have it out: all abortion, any abortion, is never to be condoned, never to be pardoned,

avoiding medication. Color like exercise gives me a lift, so I have it everywhere and in unlikely combinations

never to be considered and never to be allowed. All of this has me walking in a cloud of permeable

that would probably overwhelm many people. Pink in multiple manifestations happens to be a favorite,

sadness, like a mist. It plunges me back to a time a few years ago

although I don’t like the pale variety by  itself, any more than large doses of other pastels. I do feel nostalgic

when these questions were live for me on a very personal level. One summer evening, blue sky endless,

looking at 1960s’ hot pink—my mother wouldn’t paint my bedroom that color decades ago,

my husband and I were out for a neighborhood walk. It was

attempting to satisfy me with a bright pink velvet pillow for my orange bedspread. Years later I painted

the sort of weather, the sort of evening, that draws people out of their homes and out into their yards

my dining room an intense sockeye-salmon swirled with orange, a nod to the years my husband and I lived

and the streets and sidewalks. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but

in Seattle, and saved my favorite deep pink for the kitchen,

for a number of days I had been wrestling with

patterning walls and cabinets with combinations of

difficult questions. Finally, I turned to him in the middle of the

fuchsia, yellow, lavender and deep red-violet. Dabbling in textiles I’ve paired pink with navy and turquoise, and

sidewalk, stopped for a moment, and said “I have come to a decision. If I ever were to get

lavender, blue, and red in hand-woven table-runners. I’ve sewn curtains, pillow covers, and clothes that include its different shades and echo those

pregnant again, I would abort the baby.” And then I broke down crying, there on the street.

in my great-grandmothers’ quilts hanging on the living room walls.

 

This piece was written in collaboration with my colleague and friend, Wendy Vardaman. I am so grateful for her ideas, her example and her friendship.Busse and Vardaman 2012 - 1

 

 

 

Shades of Racism

We are all immersed in the racist discourse and systemic racism that is endemic in our society. Even the most progressive people occasionally come out with some crass comment (I’ve done it myself). Even the most progressive people are, however unwillingly, complicit in the way society denies basic rights to people of colour.*

However, there are different levels or degrees of racism.

There are people who are actively working to unlearn racism. These are the people who show up in support of Black Lives Matter, campaign against deportation and immigrant detention centres, read Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and generally seek to amplify Black, Asian, and indigenous voices.*

Then there are people who believe they are not racist because they don’t say certain words, but they are actually propping up systemic racism by their denial. These are the people who just want Black people to be quiet and not rock the boat. These people are really not helping.

There are people who deny that racism exists, because race is a social construct. Well yes, racism is a social construct, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have massively harmful consequences.

Then there are people who actively express racist ideas and stereotypes, but would deny being racist. They uncritically absorb the racist narratives and stereotypes peddled by right-wing media, and repeat them in conversation and on social media.

Then there are people who are unashamedly racist, who think that the “white race is being persecuted”, and actively promote racism and racist ideology. At one time, the term racism meant a belief in the idea that races were biologically distinct. Now it means “power plus prejudice” (the power is conferred by the weight of systemic oppression).

And then there are those who are actual white supremacists, who actually think that the white race is superior and all that sort of rubbish. These are the kind of people who actually join extreme white supremacist groups.

There is a spectrum from the least racist to the most racist types, and of course they are all unhelpful, but some are actively harmful.

I wonder if part of the problem when someone gets called out for racism is that they could be being called out for any one of these distinct types – but everyone associates the term racist with the most extreme type of racism.

People also get very confused between racism on an interpersonal level, and systemic racism, which is the entire system of oppression throughout social structures such as the courts, the police, the schools, the prison system, and so on.

Could it be time to introduce some qualifying adjectives to indicate what level of racism we are actually talking about when we call someone out for racism?

Views of racism in the Pagan community

In the Pagan community, there is a wide spectrum of views about race and racism. I am so proud that so many people in the Pagan community have stepped up to support Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, and migrant rights.

But we urgently need to engage with those who still can’t see the weight of oppression that is crushing minority communities, who can’t see the connection between oppression, poverty, and the sheer desperation that gives rise to crime in marginalised communities.

If you are one of the people who can’t see those connections, may I recommend reading Like Water by T Thorn Coyle. As well as being a great insight into systemic racism, it is one of the most uplifting books I have ever read. It is an exploration of human nature and building loving and beloved community as much as an evocation of a life and the ripples of love and connection that someone leaves behind them.

I would also highly recommend reading Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. It has chapters by a number of well-respected Pagan authors, exploring racism and responses to racism.


 

* preferred terminology varies between the UK and the US and elsewhere.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore (Review)

Do you know the work of Alan Moore? If you’re a Pagan or an occultist, you should.

Moore doesn’t think of himself as a Pagan per se, but he’s a product of the same cultural and spiritual currents that have produced contemporary Paganism. A self-declared magician and worshipper of the “sock-puppet” snake god Glycon, Moore is deeply informed by the Western occult tradition. In particular, his graphic novel series Promethea (1999-2005) is written as a primer on the classical elements, the Tarot, the kabbalistic Tree of Life, and more—all explored within the structure of a Wonder Woman-inspired superhero narrative. With a loose group of colleagues who call themselves “The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels,” Moore has also recorded several CDs of ritual theater, some of which have been illustrated as graphic novels.

Lest this introduction make Moore sound like a writer who writes for a niche of a niche—comics fans deeply interested in the occult—I should also say that his mainstream appeal is well-established. Best known for Watchmen (1986), a grim and satirical take on the superhero genre, Moore has profoundly influenced the direction of mainstream comics while also working to advance comics as a literary and artistic form. Several of his graphic novels have also been made into big-budget Hollywood films. These have increased Moore’s fame even as he has distanced himself from the films, which he has come to view as crassly commercial. At Moore’s demand, the film version of Watchmen (2009) does not bear his name; Moore turned over his share of the profits to Watchmen’s original artist, Dave Gibbons.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan MooreAlthough Moore has been frequently interviewed over the course of his career, he has been relatively circumspect about his personal life. I turned to Lance Parkin’s Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore (2013) hoping for deeper glimpses of the man behind the work. In this I was somewhat disappointed, perhaps because, as Parkin portrays him, Moore’s work has largely been his life.

The book does spend time on Moore’s childhood and psychedelic adolescence in a working-class neighborhood of Northampton, a chapter I read with interest. In many places, however, the chapter becomes simply a history of Northampton rather than a history of Moore specifically—and this may be in keeping with Moore’s impression of himself. Moore is a lifelong resident of Northampton; his novel The Voice of the Fire is set entirely on the land on which Northampton is built, though its story begins in the Neolithic. Moore is profoundly interested in what Pagans might call “the spirituality of place,” as well as in psychogeography, a playful approach to urban geography that emphasizes the shifting relationships between people and environment. For the most part, however, Parkin covers Moore’s personal life in a handful of sentences scattered throughout the book, and usually only when it directly relates to his writing. For example, The Mirror of Love (2004), Moore’s poetic celebration of same-sex love, was originally written while Moore was part of a polyamorous marriage; he and his partners published the poem in 1988 as part of a protest against Britain’s anti-LGBT Section 28. About Moore’s daughters, the book says almost nothing except to note that Leah Moore is now a comics writer herself. Moore’s current marriage to Melinda Gebbie is mostly discussed in the context of their long-term artistic collaboration, most notably on the erotic trilogy Lost Girls (2006).

Magic Words is rich in detail, however, when it comes to Moore’s often troubled professional relationships. This level of detail may prove a barrier to the more casual reader; since I am not well-versed in the British comics industry of the late 1970s, I found my eyes glazing over a bit during the chapters that cover this phase of Moore’s career. I am much more familiar with the American comics industry, however, and I found myself engrossed in Parkin’s analysis of Moore’s loss of trust in and ultimate falling-out with his original American publisher, DC Comics.

Parkin also spends quite a bit of space on literary and cultural analysis. One chapter is dedicated entirely to Watchmen, which Parkin contextualizes within Moore’s earlier humorous and satirical work. Parkin’s argument is that critics have taken Watchmen far too seriously, producing readings that miss its irony and humor. Parkin also considers the adaptation of Moore’s novels into films, which he portrays as unsuccessful artistically, but nevertheless functioning to draw attention to the graphic novels on which they are based. Some, like the V for Vendetta film (2005), have had enduring cultural impact; Moore reported pleasure at hearing that the activist group Anonymous had adopted the Guy Fawkes masks used in the book and movie.

Parkin devotes a chapter to Moore’s magical philosophy and practice. Moore sees magic as a type of language, the proper use of which gives one access to the nature of reality. The book’s treatment of Moore as a magician is a good summary of the many interviews Moore has given on the subject, and it retains Moore’s playfulness and self-deprecating humor. Parkin is a little reductionistic, however; he sees Moore’s magical practice primarily as Moore’s way of describing and codifying his creative process, not as a potentially freestanding system of spiritual exploration and development. Readers who are primarily looking for insight into Moore’s occult work will probably be better served by reading Moore’s many interviews or by watching the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2003).

Overall, I was most impressed by the way Parkin ultimately used his detailed accounts of Moore’s professional relationships to allow the reader to evaluate industry perceptions of the writer. In the last chapter of the book, Parkin presents two competing perceptions of Moore: that his stubborn nature and blind adherence to points of principle have cut him off from the rest of the industry, leading him to create work that is increasingly inaccessible; or that Moore has distanced himself from an overcommercialized and failing comics industry, which has allowed him to concentrate on experimental multimedia work while continuing to garner critical acclaim and financial success. Parkin’s meticulous history of Moore’s working life provides the context needed to potentially make a case for either side (although it is probably obvious on which one this reviewer comes down!).

Perhaps my only real quibble with the book is that it does not fully convey Moore’s warmth, which is frequently mentioned by interviewers, and which I experienced myself in Moore’s response to a fan letter I wrote to him in my early twenties. (After sending the letter, I was floored to receive a reply package containing a kind and funny note from Moore, as well as a book, an article, and CDs relating to his occult interests!) To balance that lack, I’d like to close by relating Moore’s thoughtful advice to new magicians, which was given in 2012 as part of a group videochat to raise money for a Harvey Pekar memorial.

Well, I would say, be careful, and try to remember to keep the four basic magickal weapons–and the properties that they symbolize, more importantly–with you at all times. What you need to do is work upon your discriminating intellect, and your compassion, and your basic drive–your will, if you like–and your material circumstances, and to realize that you need to have all of these things under control if you’re going to be a successful human being or a magician, because basically a magician is just a human being writ large. […] Above all, you need compassion, because even if you’ve got the other three and everything is succeeding perfectly, if you don’t have compassion, you’ll end up as a monster. If you’ve got those four basic things, then I would simply advise you to, yes, be careful, treat all this with respect, because it’s all real, at least inside your head, and that’s the only place it needs to be real. Then, progress adventurously. Don’t be afraid to think new or unorthodox things. Try to make sure that whatever magickal insights you’re receiving are applicable to ordinary, everyday life. If they are simply describing conditions in some imaginary universe that only exists to you, they’re probably not of a great deal of use. If they’re telling you things that you can actually use in your everyday interactions with other people, that you can actually use in your own creative life, then they’re probably useful and genuine. Good luck with it, good luck with it!

[If you’d like to hear the entire group chat, there’s an .avi version with a fair bit of garbling and several cut-outs here; or, leave me a comment with some contact info and I can provide a nice .mp3 of the audio only.]


The Superhero AfterlifeFor those with a general interest in religion and comics, I’d also like to note the recent publication of American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife by my friend and colleague A. David Lewis. The book deals with portrayals of the afterlife in superhero comics–which often contrast with the afterlives of traditional Western monotheisms–as well as the evolving models of the human self that these portrayals reflect. I was involved in the editing process of the book, and I can attest that it is smart, accessible, and compelling. Plus, there’s a whole chapter on Promethea! Check it out via a university library, interlibrary loan, or Amazon.

Paganism for Beginners: Levels of Symbolism

According to CG Jung, there are three levels of symbolism: personal, cultural, and universal.

Personal symbolism is what things mean to you. So, depending on what part of England you live in, the symbolic colour of earth might be different for you. If you live in Devon, where the soil is red, due to the red sandstone geology, then the symbolic colour of earth might be red for you; whereas if you live in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where earth is black, then you the symbolic colour of earth for you might be black. Personal symbolism may also vary depending on your experiences, your preferences, and your outlook on life. A particular tree might represent first love for you because you experienced your first kiss under it, for example. Or you might have a strong leaning towards the element of water, and therefore it might represent something particular for you.

Personal symbolic associations are not “wrong” or “incorrect” – but they don’t necessarily have any meaning for anyone else, unless they happen to share those associations. Poets and novelists often make use of personal symbolism to create new and interesting metaphors and imagery in their poems and stories.

Cultural symbolism is the set of symbolic associations something has within a particular culture. For example, in Europe, the colour black represents mourning; in other cultures, white is the colour of mourning. In China, the colour red is particularly lucky; in English folklore, a bride should never wear either red or green, because those are the colours of the Fair Folk. In China, dragons are associated with water, live in lakes and wells, and bring rain; in Europe, dragons are fiery creatures that live under the earth. And so on.

Universal symbolism is a symbolic association that appears to exist independently of culture, or that occurs in all cultures. Universal symbolism is generally derived from our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. For example, a hearth-fire, being generally a pleasurable thing, is good and associated with hospitality; and cold/wet/dark/outside, being generally not pleasurable, is bad.

The hearth fire: a universal symbol of warmth.

The hearth fire: a universal symbol of warmth.
[Source: Pixabay. Licence: CC0 Public Domain]

When you are examining symbolism for use in ritual, it is a good idea to think about whether it is a personal symbol, only representing the thing symbolised for you and a small handful of others; a cultural symbol that is specific to a particular group of people; or a universal or very widespread symbol. It is of course fine to use a personal or cultural symbol in a ritual – but you may need to explain how you are using it, and what it means to you, or in the context of the culture or mythology you are drawing upon.

A related concept is that of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Substantiated Personal Gnosis (SPG). An Unverified Personal Gnosis is an insight or revelation that you have received about the nature of a deity, or the nature of reality. It can be verified by checking it against experience, and/or other people’s insights and revelations, and/or with reference to the lore of the particular culture you are working within. The Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) is similar to personal symbolism – it is not “wrong”, but don’t expect other people to agree with you unless it chimes with their experience, or with the cultural lore associated with the deity and/or pantheon you are working with.

Many people are dismissive of UPG, but there is no need to dismiss it as “incorrect” – you only need to say that it doesn’t chime with your experience, and move on.

Many people are afraid that their personal symbolic associations with particular things are somehow wrong – but again, there is nothing wrong with creativity and personal symbolism, but your personal symbolism may not work for everyone. This is why magic and the occult are an art and not a science.

Paganism for Beginners: Group Dynamics

The subject of group dynamics is complex, but one way of observing group dynamics is to ask the simple question, “Where does the power go in the group?” In other words, who is wielding the power?

In many groups, there is an elected or appointed leader. In most churches, the minister is officially the leader – but woe betide her or him if they upset the committee. In Wiccan covens, the leader is usually the high priestess. In a Druid grove or a Heathen hearth, there may be a small group of leaders, or a single leader. Quaker meetings usually have a group of elders.

In a small group, it can be an excellent idea to rotate the leadership role. Different members of the group take it in turns to write and facilitate a ritual. Most progressive and/or inclusive covens encourage their members to create and lead rituals.

Most people find that working in a group with a flat hierarchy is preferable to working in one with a very top-down hierarchy. Flat hierarchies are characterised by shared decision making and informal communication between team members.

Hierarchy in the gull world Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith. No prizes for guessing which one is boss!

Hierarchy in the gull world
Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith.
© Copyright Brian Whittle and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Groups often go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. First the group comes together (forming). Then there is a struggle to resolve the group’s differences (storming). Once that has been resolved, the group’s values, goals, and beliefs converge (norming). Once that process is complete, the group is ready to perform. These stages can actually be a cycle rather than a linear process.

During the formation of the group and the convergence of its ideas, who is in the group, and who is outside the group, will become apparent. This is known as the in-group / out-group dynamic. The formation of the in-group can be a positive thing, in that it makes the group feel closer together, but it can be dangerous, because if the in-group projects its shadow onto the out-group, this can result in persecution of the out-group.

The projection of group members’ shadows onto other people in the group can be a dangerous dynamic. If you are the leader of a group, this a thing to watch out for, as you don’t want one person to be demonised or outcast by the rest of the group. The shadow is the aspect of our psyches that we have repressed because we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, and we often project it onto other people, especially if they resemble the repressed aspect of personality.

Another interesting dynamic in groups is “somebody has to do it” syndrome. This is where one person takes on more responsibility than the others, and an expectation is created that they will always do the task that they have taken on. This might be always being the one who leads the visualisations, or always being the one who calls the quarters, or something else less obvious, like being the person who provides a ritual if no-one else is feeling inspired. The way to break out of this dynamic is for the person who always does the thing to let go of feeling responsible for it, and for the people who never do the thing to have a go at doing it. It also means breaking the ritual tasks down into small manageable chunks so that people who might find it daunting to take on the management of a whole ritual can build up gradually by doing a small piece at a time. Luckily, Wiccan ritual lends itself well to being broken down into manageable chunks.

It is a good idea if the locus of power in a group is visible. If it is not obvious who holds the power, then it will default to the person with the loudest voice or the most stubborn resistance to new ideas.

One way to ensure a fair and balanced approach within your group is to make the rules by consensus. In this exercise (preferably on the first session of the group), ask members to suggest what the rules should be. The purpose of the rules is to make sure that everyone has the power to ask questions, to feel safe in the group, to ensure confidentiality, and to prevent conflict.

The role of the leader of a coven is to empower others and enable them to develop as priestesses or priests. This model is sometimes known as servant leadership – because the leader is mindful that the group is not there to serve them; rather they are there to create safe space for the group, to hold the space, and to empower others to be creative in that space.

Further reading

In my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca, I explore the issue of group dynamics extensively in the chapter on running a coven.

Inclusive Wicca is not just about including LGBTQIA people; it is also about including people of colour, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and working the rituals in a way that includes everyone and enables all participants to contribute.

Wiccan ethics

Model policies, group guidelines, etc

Teaching and Learning in a Coven

Every new generation of seekers has some obstacle put in their way. In the days before the internet, the obstacle was not enough information. Now the obstacle is too much information. There are loads of websites and would-be teachers out there offering you all kinds of advice.

Then one day, you decide to take the plunge and find a face-to-face teacher. This is generally a good thing, as in my experience, most humans learn better from personal interaction than they do from online interactions or books.

However, due to the prevalence of books and people claiming to be the ultimate authority, and the prevalence of the counter-claim that the only valid authority is the inner self, we have a situation where many people can neither learn nor teach because they are too convinced of their own rightness to actually consider new ideas from their teachers or their students.

The theory of learning and teaching that I use in a coven setting is derived from Lev Vygotsky, who theorised the existence of a zone of proximal development. Vygotsky was a social constructivist; that is, he believed that learning was mediated through social interaction, and that our understanding of the world is socially constructed.

The zone of proximal development is the idea that there are some things the learner can do unaided (that they already know how to do); some things that they can do with guidance; and some that they cannot do. It also suggests that you need to build up from the things you can do, master the skills that you can do with help, and that this will provide the building blocks to access the next level (this idea was further developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross with the concept of scaffolding).

The teacher and the student build a bridge between them so they can exchange ideas and knowledge and skills. But it is important to note that the teacher can also learn from the student.

"Ponte Vasco da Gama 25" by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal - Merging in the mistUploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg#/media/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg

Ponte Vasco da Gama 25” by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal – Merging in the mist Uploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

This means that learning is a collaborative process between the teacher and the learner. It is not the case that the learner is an empty bucket that the teacher fills up with facts; rather, the teacher and the learner discover and elaborate the existing skills of the learner (and the learner may also be able to teach the teacher a thing or two). This is especially true of magical and ritual skills, which are often extensions of existing abilities.

So, if you are a seeker, find out from any potential teacher you meet what their methods are, and what they expect you to do. Do they expect you to ask questions? Do they welcome and celebrate your existing skills and knowledge? Do they recognise that you have a unique learning style? Do they invite you to bring prior experience to the table to enrich the learning process? Do they support students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or other differences?

Many seekers seem to assume that all teachers are going to dictate a prescribed way of doing magic and ritual which will destroy the spontaneity and joy of it. Perhaps there are teachers out there who behave like that, but the majority are rather more flexible than that. If you do find a teacher who won’t allow you to ask questions, who belittles your existing skills and prior experience, or who insists on doing everything in a set way, then run a mile – but don’t assume that all teachers are like that.

The method that I use for teaching conceptual ideas is the sharing circle. This is fairly accessible for people with dyslexia, because it gives people time to formulate their thoughts. There is a set topic for each discussion (such as reincarnation, the nature of deities, the idea of the sacred, the four elements, etc) and we use a token to indicate who can speak at any one time. The token is passed around the circle, and everyone gets a chance to air their thoughts on the topic. Sometimes I use other tools such as mind mapping to enable people to tease out their ideas on a topic.

In the circle, when teaching magical techniques, I encourage people to try different techniques, in order to work out what feels right for them. Some people prefer one set of gestures for calling the quarters, cleansing the circle, and so on; others prefer a different set of gestures. These may stem from a different physical relationship with the energies, or from a different philosophical concept of what energies are and how we might relate to them. None of these different gestures and words is necessarily wrong. Obviously your tradition might have a specific way of doing these things, but my BoS offers a selection of different words and gestures for calling the quarters, casting the circle, and so on, and which ones you choose may be different, depending on different circumstances and choices.

I always encourage people to make a connection with the energy they are invoking or evoking first, and then to speak the words. After all, the energy is more important, surely? It can also be helpful to use analogies from physical experience in order to get people sensing subtle energies. I have also noticed that different people experience subtle energies differently – some people see them as colours; others experience them as heat, cold, or other physical sensations.

Another thing that I have noticed is that people are either overly reliant on books, and regard them as the ultimate authority on magical matters; or they dismiss books entirely, and want to totally rely on their instincts. Surely there has to be a happy medium between these two extremes? If something you read in a book doesn’t agree with your experience, then examine why that might be the case, and either adjust your world-view, or discard what the book says. If the book is wrong in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate either that book, or books in general. If the book happens to be right in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate all personal experiences.

As with pretty much anything, it’s all about finding the middle way between two extremes.

Madness, Shamanism, and Wicca

The history of madness and attempts to treat it is long, convoluted, and fascinating. Different theories and treatments have come and gone, depending on the mood of the age. I think it is worth remembering that in many cultures, such episodes are not seen as mental illness, but a blessing from the gods. Many shamans have had similar experiences to what western medicine dismisses as mental illness.

In the Middle Ages, people thought that madness and learning disabilities were of supernatural origin. Holy fools were people who were ‘simple’, and were blessed and protected by God. The mad were either possessed or saintly, depending on the symptoms.

After the Reformation, people sought to control madness, and a medical model developed, and the mad were incarcerated. Various different ‘therapies’ were tried, some quite drastic.

By the twentieth century, various drugs had been developed, and both social and medical models of the causes of mental illness were discussed. The disciplines of psychotherapy (using the ‘talking cure’ to treat the social causes of mental illness) and psychiatry (for treating mental illness with drugs) developed.

In India, mental distress of various kinds was treated by giving the person a story or folk-tale to meditate on. The tale was a form of therapy which would help them to solve the issues which had given rise to the distress.

In the 1960s, the anti-psychiatry movement examined the ways that other cultures (both past and present) have treated mental illness of various kinds. Michel Foucault wrote a history of madness, Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, which was translated into English by R D Laing as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Some of the key insights of the anti-psychiatry movement were:

  • that madness can be a consequence of the disenchantment of living in a capitalist society;
  • that regulating the mad is a form of social and political control;
  • that seeing visions, hearing voices, and magical thinking are the traditional attributes of shamans and witches;
  • that behaviour which is considered normal in one culture may be classified as ‘mad’ by another culture;
  • and that different societies treat mental illness in different ways.

Several social historians analysed the content of the visions of witches and saints from the Middle Ages, and concluded that these would be regarded as “madness” in the modern context. One member of the anti-psychiatry movement analysed the content of schizophrenics’ visions, and found recurring images of the cosmic axis (the world mountain and the world tree) and the cosmic hero.

"FujiSunriseKawaguchiko2025WP". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FujiSunriseKawaguchiko2025WP.jpg#/media/File:FujiSunriseKawaguchiko2025WP.jpg

Mount Fuji is often seen as a cosmic axis. [“Fuji Sunrise Kawaguchiko“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.]

Mental health and Wicca

Some people have argued that people with mental health issues should not take part in Wicca, because the rituals are highly emotionally charged and involve a lot of shamanic practices which people feel might exacerbate mental health issues. I disagree – I think that the practice of Wicca can help people to integrate the psyche, which would be beneficial.

I think it is important to define terms at this point, as mental health and learning difficulties and learning disabilities are all different. None of them should be regarded as an automatic disqualification for taking part in Pagan or Wiccan rituals.

Learning difficulties such as dyslexia can be an advantage in magic, because dyslexia gives you a different perception of space and awareness of landscape and shape. Autism and Asperger’s may also give you a different perspective (I have less knowledge & experience in that area).

Learning disabilities – again, why not, if people are interested, and as long as they can understand the consequences of magical workings. The ability to understand depends on the level of disability, I guess. People with learning disabilities could certainly enjoy being in Nature and communing with Nature.

Mental health issues – people with depression can and do benefit from being involved in the Craft. Anything involving manic phases or hallucinations might cause difficulties – but again, such conditions should never mean an automatic ban on participation.

I think the best way forward (if it were possible) would be for the coven member, HPs & HP, and psychiatrist or psychotherapist, to sit down together, discuss the kind of activities that happen in circle, and whether or how they might adversely affect the person with the mental health issue. As Wiccan practitioners are generally not professional psychiatrists, I don’t think it is up to us to make these decisions.  The problem is that most psychiatrists would actually just assume you were deluded if you started talking about deities and witchcraft – because they are not educated about Paganism.

Ultimately, the best person to judge in these situations is the person with the mental health issue themselves. They know whether they can cope in a Wiccan circle, and can inform the high priestess or high priest of any warning signs (such as being extra manic) which may mean they can no longer judge their own fitness to be in circle, and may need someone else to make that decision for them. (This last point was actually suggested by someone with bipolar.) If the issue is severe enough to require medication, they do need to keep taking the medication, of course.

In any case, many people develop mental health issues after they have become involved in Wicca (not as a consequence of being involved, more as a consequence of various stresses and strains).

A couple of years ago, I experienced mild depression and anxiety as a result of a bout of seasonal affective disorder. The symptoms did not prevent me from taking part in rituals, and I found Wiccan rituals beneficial. During my “wobble”, Wicca was extremely helpful in keeping me balanced.

So why would we deny these beneficial effects to someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health issue?

Further reading on religion and mental health

Further reading on the history of madness and psychiatry

Support groups

Why Dowsing for Divinity?


We decided that the title Sermons from the Mound no longer quite fitted the type of posts we are actually writing. Technically, a sermon is a reflection on a text, and an exposition of its meaning. That’s not what we are actually doing with our writing.

So we had a very enjoyable brainstorming session via email, with a total of fifty-five different suggestions for names for the blog. But we kept coming back to dowsing imagery, with its connotations of looking for hidden currents, connections with the unseen, hidden waters, and hidden patterns.

We also liked the fact that divining is another name for dowsing, so there is a pleasing symmetry in the name Dowsing for Divinity. The divine, if we choose to listen for it, to feel for its presence, is hidden just below the surface of things, in the woods and the waters and the rocks and trees, hidden in plain sight in the land itself.

As W B Yeats wrote:

Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….

I love this quote, and it was for me the starting-point in the creative process of finding a new name for the blog.

— Yvonne Aburrow


When the three of us started brainstorming a new name together, once someone tossed out the word “dowsing,” we kept circling back to it. Dowsing is a form of divination sometimes known as “water witching” because it’s often been used to find ground water (though it can also be employed to find metal, lost objects, gravesites, and more). To dowse, the diviner holds a forked stick with one end in each of their hands, and then follows the motion of the third end to find what they’re seeking.

I love dowsing as an image for the kind of theological exploration we do on this blog. Dowsing is an intuitive, physical activity that requires a receptive state of mind. Of course, we bring our education and analytical skills to our writing—these intellectual resources provide essential structure for our theology and practice. But the heart of what we’re creating here is experiential, not intellectual: it reaches for a place that is beyond words, but as close as our own flesh. Through writing and thinking and living and being, we are seeking: Divinity? Mystery? Our Selves? Perhaps all of those and more.

Dowsing also appeals to me as a metaphor because of the close relationship between spirit and water in many cultures. Water is used for blessings and baptisms; it can be found in healing baths and holy wells; it makes up 60% or more of our bodies, and it is essential for life. To me, dowsing for hidden water is a perfect image for spiritual seeking.

— Christine Hoff Kraemer


 

Pick up the forked stick and move by feel and feeling, towards the secret source, the spring and springing. Suss out sympathetic resonances, wait for the dip, the tug and pull. Close the eyes and trust that there is water, that you will find it. Dare to step forward.

To dowse is to listen. To dowse is to walk, aware.

In this space, we do theology by gut, by feel, listening under the surfaces of events and words, making our way through the terrains of intuition, experience and reflection.

Reflection…another water word. Pointing us back to the original mirror, the calm pool, surface in which to see and seek.

Welcome.

–Sarah Sadie

Welcoming the stranger and the refugee

Homer’s Odyssey recounts the correct way to welcome a stranger who has been washed ashore: with food and drink, fresh clothing, and fragrant oil to clean the salt from the skin.

"Jean Veber - Ulysses and Nausicaa, 1888" by Jean Veber - Unkonw. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Veber_-_Ulysses_and_Nausicaa,_1888.jpg#/media/File:Jean_Veber_-_Ulysses_and_Nausicaa,_1888.jpg

Jean Veber – Ulysses and Nausicaa, 1888” by Jean Veber – Unkonw. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“[Odysseus said] ‘Yesterday, the twentieth day, I escaped the wine-dark sea: and all that time the turbulent wind and waves carried me here from Ogygia’s isle. Now fate drives me on shore, so that I may suffer harm here too, no doubt. I don’t expect my sufferings to end yet: the gods will inflict many more before that moment comes. But, Princess, pity me: since I come to you first of all, after my heavy labours, and I know none of the people of this land or its city. Show me the way to town, and give me some rags to throw over me, perhaps whatever wrapped the clothes you brought.”

“Then Nausicaa of the white arms answered: ‘Stranger, you seem neither unknowing nor ill intentioned: it is Olympian Zeus himself who brings men good fortune, to the virtuous or not as he wills, and since he has brought you this, whatever it may be you must endure it. But, now you are come to our land and city, you shall not go short of clothes or anything else a hard-pressed suppliant deserves from those he meets. I will show you the way to town, and tell you whom we are. This is the Phaeacians’ country and city, and I am the daughter of valiant Alcinous, in whom the Phaeacians vest their majesty and power.’

With this she called to her lovely maids: ‘Stop, girls, why do you shun the sight of a man? Surely you don’t imagine he’s unfriendly? There will never be mortal man so contrary as to set hostile feet on Phaeacian land, for we are dear to the gods. We live far-off, over the turbulent sea, the remotest of races, and deal with no other peoples. This man must instead be some luckless wanderer, landed here. We must care for him, since all strangers and beggars come from Zeus, and even a little gift is welcome. So bring him food and drink, girls, and bathe him in the river wherever there’s shelter from the wind.’”

Similarly, the story of Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VIII:621-96) recounts how the old couple were the only ones to welcome Jupiter and Mercury when they visited in disguise.

And in northern Europe, the Hávamál and the Sagas recount instances of hospitality and praise the generosity of the host:

“Fire he needs   who with frozen knees
Has come from the cold without;
Food and clothes   must the farer have,
The man from the mountains come.
Water and towels   and welcoming speech
Should he find who comes to the feast…”

Many ordinary people have not forgotten the virtue of hospitality, and do not sit counting the cost of welcoming and helping refugees from Syria and other war-torn parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Look at the Germans and Austrians welcoming the refugees who came through Hungary; look at the French people welcoming refugees into their homes; look at the British and Icelanders who have volunteered to host a refugee in their homes. Look at the Greeks helping the refugees out of the crashing waves of the Mediterranean.

The virtue of hospitality is one of the most ancient and sacred of Pagan virtues, and is also praised in the Abrahamic religions, of course.

At the same time, the miser, who accumulates wealth and then refuses to share it, was regarded as repugnant in every ancient culture.

The people of Northern Europe became wealthy by exploiting other parts of the world. We didn’t get all this wealth by our own merit; we inherited it from people who plundered it by conquering other parts of the world.

The instability in the Middle East and North Africa has been caused by the wars fomented there by the United States and Britain (among others).

So now that the rest of the world is knocking at our door and asking for our help, why are our governments turning them away? Because they believe that the public have swallowed the myth that the refugees are “scroungers” who are only coming here to claim benefits. Because we have been told the bare-faced lie that they are quite wealthy and are only economic migrants. But no immigrant who is not from the European Union can claim any public funds whatsoever; and most asylum seekers are locked up in immigration detention centres.

And the reason the people of Syria are paying people-smugglers to bring them across the Mediterranean in leaky boats? Because they can’t get a visa to fly here on a plane – because you don’t get given asylum seeker status until you have arrived, been locked up in an immigration detention centre (if you arrive in the UK), and assessed in one of the most bureaucratic and unfair processes in existence.

So what can we do to help?