The safety pin: a reminder to resist bigotry

Just before the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union, Jo Cox, a Yorkshire Member of Parliament was murdered by a right-wing extremist with a gun that he had constructed himself. Shootings are rare here because we have strict gun laws.

That murder did not happen in a vacuum; the shooter was part of a wider discourse of rising racial hatred and bigotry. The campaign to Leave the EU was particularly virulent in its racism, with posters of refugees labelled as a “swarm”, and claims that Turkey would soon be joining the EU, together with maps showing that it is next door to Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Many people voted to leave the EU because they thought it meant that we would be ejecting all the immigrants – not just people from the rest of the EU, but people from India, Pakistan, Africa, and the Middle East. The Remain campaign also mentioned the ability to ‘control our borders’ but said that we would be better able to do that if we remained in the EU.

It is hardly surprising then, that in the immediate aftermath of the vote, there was a wave of racist hate crimes. Hate crime increased by 57% in the first month, and 42% over the next three months. People started collecting incidents in a Facebook group and Twitter feed called Worrying Signs, and on a Tumblr site called Brexit, this is what you have done. The people who voted to leave the EU didn’t all do so because they are out-and-out racists; the main reason given was the desire to ‘take back control’ (also deeply problematic) and the second biggest reason was wanting to decrease the number of immigrants.

In response to this rise in racist and xenophobic attacks, Allison, an American woman living in London, suggested people wear safety pins to show solidarity towards EU citizens and other communities who are targets of racist abuse.

The safety pin idea was inspired by the “I’ll Ride with You” campaign in Sydney in 2014, which was to protect Muslims from a wave of bigotry aimed at them on public transport.

Similarly, in World War II, Norwegians wore a paperclip as a sign of resistance to the Nazis.

The safety pin campaign in the UK was criticised by people who have been on the receiving end of racist abuse, because no-one would listen to them before, and they were accused of exaggerating the amount of racism that exists, and they were understandably sceptical that it would make any difference. They felt that it was just there to make the safety-pin wearers feel they had done something. It was also labelled ‘the visual symbol of #notallwhitepeople’.

My immediate response was to think that the safety pin is not there, as it was originally described, just to say  ‘I am a safe space, you can sit next to me, you can talk to me, you can ask me for a help.’ That’s not enough.

What the safety pin should be for is a reminder to the wearer to do something if they hear or see racist, misogynist, homophobic, or transphobic attacks.

As Twitter user Hev (@SpareMeMary) wrote:

If you’re gonna wear a pin, make sure you’re ready to step in when you witness racism in public. Don’t you DARE wear it and stay silent.

If you don’t feel safe to challenge the perpetrator, at least move to be with the victim. Get them away from the perpetrator and to a place of safety.

The safety pin in the USA

In the wake of the election of Trump to the presidency, there was a huge wave of racist, transphobic, misogynist, and homophobic incidents. In response, people in the USA have started wearing safety pins too. The #safetypinUSA campaign comes with a pledge:

The Promise

If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.

If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.

If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the cops stop you and/or whenever you need me.

If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.

If you’re LGBTQ, I won’t let anybody tell you you’re broken.

If you’re a woman, I’ll fight by your side for all your rights.

If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.

If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.

If you’re a Native American, I’ll stand with you to protect our water, your burial grounds, and your people.

If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.

If you’re a union member, fighting for one, or fighting for $15/hour, I’ll be there.

If you’re a veteran, a college student, a member of the working or middle class, I’ll fight against austerity measures and for more publically funded assistance for all.

If you’re sick or just human, I’ll take up the fight for universal healthcare.

If you’re tired, me too.

If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.

If you need me, I’ll be with you.  All I ask is that you be with me too.

People who are already wearing safety pins as part of the U.S. campaign have said that people of colour have thanked them for their solidarity.

Some other people have expressed concern that the safety pin may be worn by violent bigots to lure people into thinking they are safe.

The safety pin is just the beginning

Things have already been terrible for Black people, indigenous people, and other minorities in the US. Racism is far from over. For the next four years at least, the USA is going to be an even worse place to live for women, LGBT people, Black people, Muslims, Native Americans, Latino/a/x people, and other minorities.

When members of these groups tell you that they are terrified by Trump’s election, don’t just say that they are exaggerating or over-reacting. Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’. Ask them what you can do to help.

When one of your relatives makes a racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-disabled, or misogynist comment over Thanksgiving dinner, don’t just roll your eyes and sigh inwardly. Challenge it, and make it clear that their attitude is not acceptable. Yes, I know that they will lapse back into their bigoted views the next day, once they start hanging out with their Trump-voting friends. But the failure to consistently challenge that kind of bigotry is one of the factors that got us where we are now.

If you hear a bigoted remark whilst out in public, challenge it. If you see someone being attacked (whether physically or verbally), don’t stay silent. If the perpetrator is too scary to tackle, try to get the victim away to safety, and make sure they know that you don’t agree with the perpetrator. In these situations, silence from bystanders is assumed by the perpetrator and the victim to be approval of the perpetrator’s actions.

It would be a good idea to set up a Facebook group, Tumblr, and/or Twitter hashtag where post-election bigoted violence can be collated.

Someone has already set up a website where post-election resistance actions can be collated: it’s called “And Then They Came For Us”.

ICAAD (International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination) reports that under the current Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), only 3% percent of all hate crimes are documented. The FBI has a victim assistance program, but I cannot find a simple way to report a hate crime to any central body, as there is in the UK.

If things get even more unpleasant, as I suspect they will, more organised resistance will be needed. Safe houses for Muslims and LGBT people, for instance, and maybe for women who have had abortions, and the doctors who carried them out, as well. Civil disobedience campaigns will be needed. Solidarity networks are being created (see Rhyd Wildermuth’s article on forming solidarity networks at Gods and Radicals).

The safety pin is a reminder to act. [Photo by Yvonne Aburrow]

The safety pin is a reminder to act. [Photo by Yvonne Aburrow]

Civil courage can be learned

Some people have commented that they don’t know how to respond in cases of racial harassment and violence. Fortunately, there are resources for those who find this difficult.

There is an excellent cartoon guide to what to do if you witness an Islamophobic incident (which would work well for any form of bigotry).

There is also an excellent workshop outline for developing civil courage available from Unite Against Fascism (and I have made a copy of it on the inclusive Wicca website, and added a new section called Resisting fascism, where I will add more links as they become available). I would strongly suggest holding this workshop in UU churches, Pagan camps, and wherever there is space available.

First they came …

Just about everyone who knows their history is aware of the First they came… poem by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

They (in the form of vicious thugs who believe that the vote for Trump has given them licence to attack minorities) are already coming for Muslims, LGBT people, Native Americans, women, Black people, and other visible minorities.

We know how this goes. Let’s speak out against hatred and bigotry and violence now. Consider it a practice-run for if/when Trump sends in the highly militarised police and starts rounding up Muslims and undocumented immigrants; or if/when they begin to implement Pence’s horrible anti-LGBT ideas.

Further reading / resources

Creating Meaningful Public Ritual

If I had a dollar for every bad ritual I have ever attended, I would have a lot of dollars. And I tend to spend a couple of hours after every bad ritual going over the reasons that it was bad. So all in all, that could be three or four hours of my life that I won’t get back.

We have all been to rituals that fell flat, or didn’t work as intended. We have all facilitated such rituals, and hopefully learnt from them.

John Halstead wrote that the aim of a good ritual is

to put us in connection with something bigger than ourselves — whether that be the Earth itself, the wider Cosmos, the community of more-than-human beings, our deeper Selves, or even just one another.  Good ritual takes us out of our little isolated egos and expands our souls.

I agree with John H that half-assed elements in your ritual will make it bad – but often it is because the facilitators haven’t thought through what those ritual elements mean, or don’t know how to make the energetic connection necessary to make them work, not because those ritual elements are inherently bad in themselves.

Jason Mankey replied that sometimes the aim of a large public ritual is just to create community, and might not be focused on putting us in contact with something bigger than ourselves.

Well, even connecting with community is putting us in touch with something bigger than ourselves, so the ritual really ought to get that right.

John Halstead replied that

Pagan ritual facilitates the incarnation, consecration, and integration [of] the daemonic or shadow elements of our individual or collective psyche.  And finally, on [a] “mystical” level, Pagan ritual can be used to effect a (controlled) dis-integration of the ego.  This is the ego-death and the oceanic sense of oneness that the mystics describe.

And I agree with John that all Pagan ritual should have this effect, not just rituals for initiated Wiccans.

One difference that I have observed between a small group of Wiccans who are experienced with focusing energy and a large group of people who are not so experienced is that the less experienced group will create fuzzier energy, but that’s not a massive problem.

Both authors are right that the techniques used in small-group Wiccan ritual don’t translate well to a larger group.

So here are some techniques that I have developed for getting everyone involved in the ritual, not just standing around feeling bored and watching a small group of people do the ritual (which will probably be inaudible anyway). Note that none of my suggestions include drumming, because I hate drumming.

Check-in

I stole this idea from the UUs. Go round the circle and everyone says their name and one word to describe how they are feeling.

Creating sacred space

Get everyone to join hands and pass energy around the circle. For added effect, they could also stomp around in a clockwise direction (don’t let it get too fast though, as slower movers will find it uncomfortable).

Ask all the participants to go to the North if they feel Earthy; East if they feel Airy; South if they feel Fiery; West if they feel Watery (or to the appropriate quarter if you have assigned different elements to the directions). The people in each quarter then meditate on that element, and when they have finished, open their eyes. Then everyone moves round to the next quarter (moving clockwise) until they have meditated on all four elements.

The main ritual

Various different techniques can be used here. Keep things like visualization very simple and short. One visualization that I use is to close your eyes and visualize your aura changing color from red, to orange, to yellow, to green, to blue, to violet. I also use grounding and centering.

Raising energy: There are many different ways of doing this, including synergy (the energy of everyone in the group forming a whole), resonance (the coming-together of similar energies), and polarity (the interaction of two opposing energies). If you are using polarity, it is more inclusive to divide the group into groups other than male and female (e.g. morning people and evening people, tea-drinkers and coffee drinkers, etc) and ask them to focus on the idea of the thing they like, merge their energy together, and then bringing the energy of the two groups together.

Mime: I once facilitated a Lammas ritual where I divided a group of thirty up into five groups of six, and asked them to come up with a mime describing an aspect of the John Barleycorn story. One group mimed the death of the Corn King; another group mimed the wheat being cut down by reapers; and so on. It was very moving. You could also do this for Autumn Equinox, perhaps with the story of Hades and Persephone.

Games: Another Lammas ritual idea is to divide the group into reapers, wheat, and a hare. (I did this by putting a lot of twigs into a bag. Twigs with bark on them were reapers; twigs without bark were wheat; the hare was a twig wrapped in silver foil. Parts were allocated by people pulling twigs out of the bag.) The game is that the reapers must try to catch the hare, and the wheat must try to hide him (it’s a bit like the game of Tag, or “It” as it was called in my childhood). This is based on the idea that the hare is the vegetation-spirit who hides in the last sheaf of wheat, and the reapers would always treat the last sheaf of wheat with special ritual. When the hare has been caught, all the reapers throw darts of grass at him, and he falls over, and is carried off with great lamentation.

Extemporized contributions: invite people to contribute their thoughts on the meaning of the festival, or a short devotional call to a deity.

Closing

Shared food: have the whole group bless the shared food, whether it is cakes and wine, or something else. Make sure the blessed food and drink can be distributed quickly so that there isn’t a lot of standing around. The easiest way to do this is to have four people and get them to serve a quarter of the circle each. Another way is just to pass the food and drink from one person to the next, perhaps with some kind of blessing.

Farewell to the quarters: gather again in the quarter where you started, face outwards, and say “Hail and Farewell” (or something similar).  Then move around to the next quarter, until you have said goodbye to all of them.

Closing the sacred space: Have people hold hands again and say some kind of closing words (either all together, or the facilitator can say them).

Public ritual doesn’t have to be dull and lacking in transcendence, and it needn’t involve a lot of standing around being bored. And it absolutely should be a transformative and meaningful experience that makes us feel more connected to the numinous, to Nature, to the gods, and to our community.

"The Golden Bough" by J. M. W. Turner, Public Domain.

“The Golden Bough” by J. M. W. Turner, Public Domain.

 


THE ALLERGIC PAGAN: Gods Save Us from Bad Pagan Rituals: 10 Signs You’re Half-Assing Your Mabon Ritual

RAISE THE HORNS:  Do Your Bad Pagan Ritual (bad ritual is better than no ritual)

Living Traditions

Why cultural appropriation doesn’t work 

A culture, and a religion, is a massively complex system of interlocking ideas, philosophies, symbols, and practices.

If you take one of these ideas out of context and try to shoehorn it into another tradition, it’s like taking a complex part out of a clock, and trying to put it in a completely different clock, or even a completely different machine.

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Steve Collis. CC-BY-SA2.0

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Steve Collis. CC-BY-SA2.0 (wikimedia)

Or it’s like an organ transplant – the new organ may be rejected and you need to take lots of drugs to get your body to accept it.

The New Age, which has lots of different parts cobbled together, is basically Frankenstein’s monster.

Or it’s like looking at a completed jigsaw puzzle and taking one beautiful rose from the middle of the picture and trying to put it in a completely different jigsaw. No two pieces are exactly the same, and it doesn’t fit the picture in the other jigsaw anyway, and so you have to hit it with a hammer and file off the edges to get it to fit in the other jigsaw.


Thanks to Bob for the ideas of the jigsaw and the organ transplant.

Hospitality for the Stranger

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Immigration and Refugees. Read other perspectives here.

What does your faith perspective teach you about refugees? How do your politics and your religious convictions come together to inform policy and shape your attitude?

Every ancient pagan culture had very strong traditions of hospitality. These were often reinforced by telling stories of gods, goddesses, and angels disguised as mortals visiting people.

The Greeks had a strong tradition of xenia care for the stranger. This carried its own obligations and traditions. When Nausica found Odysseus washed up on the shore, her care for him was very much in the tradition of xenia.

Jacob_van_Oost_(I)_-_Mercury_and_Jupiter_in_the_House_of_Philemon_and_Baucis

Mercury and Jupiter in the House of Philemon and Baucis, by Jacob van Oost (I)Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Public Domain.

The Hávamál, which means ‘the speech of the High One’ (Odinn) also contains stanzas about hospitality, and the duties of both host and guest.

Ultimately, the two words, host and guest, are derived from the same Indo-European root word, and so imply that they were viewed as inseparable parts of the same relationship. I like to think of them as the two halves of a hinge. The relationship of guest and host is reciprocal, with sacred obligations on both sides.

The concept and practice of hospitality are very important in India too, which suggests that the practice is very ancient indeed. Both Pakistan and Germany (and other places too) have the tradition of the guest-gift, where a guest will give you a gift the first time they visit your home. People from Latvia have a tradition of giving bead and salt as a gift when you have a new house. The sharing of bread and salt are considered sacred in many cultures. Once they have been shared, the relationship of guest and host is established and sacred.

If we think back to the times when small villages were scattered among great forests, the arrival of a stranger with news from other places, new stories, new songs, and new jokes, maybe even new farming or weaving or metalworking techniques, must have been very welcome.

There were also great movements of people in ancient times: Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Alans; settlers from the rest of Europe and North Africa who came with the Romans; Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who fled the rising waters of the North Sea and settled in Britain. More recently, there were silver miners from Germany who settled in the Mendips; many African and Middle Eastern people; the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France; Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, who began to arrive after the interdict against Jews was lifted in 1654 (it was put in place by King John in 1290 because he didn’t want to repay loans from Jewish bankers – who were forced to enter banking as other professions were closed to them).

Everyone in Britain probably has a refugee or an economic migrant in their ancestry somewhere, if you go back far enough. Even Kate Middleton is related to a prominent Huguenot family. And both refugees and economic migrants have contributed hugely to the UK by creating jobs and boosting the economy with their spending power and tax contributions (and if they are not from the EU, they have “no recourse to public funds” stamped in their visa – so they receive no benefits and no free NHS).

And in the US and Canada of course, unless you are 100% Native, you are an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

I feel instinctively that openness to other cultures, and welcoming the stranger and the refugee, are good things. What kind of civilisation would we be if we were not open and hospitable? One that was both ethically and culturally impoverished, would be my answer.

But I think that the gods and goddesses of Paganism – who frequently come to Earth to test the hospitality of mortals, and reward those who are hospitable, and punish those who are not – would agree that hospitality is a sacred practice and should be held in high honour.

Of course, in the case of migration to other lands, there is the point of transition from guest to resident. Here again, we see the process of reciprocity at work. The migrant has paid their tax, contributed work and money to the system, and in many cases their food style and folk customs to the culture, and so after a time they become a member of the community. In societies that welcome immigrants, such as Canada, this is expected and encouraged; and education has been geared towards welcoming diversity for the last 25 years. More xenophobic countries (such as the UK) go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the transition from guest to resident.

Both hospitality and reciprocity are Pagan virtues and have been since ancient times. Honour is also important in many Pagan traditions, and I think the honourable thing to do is to welcome the stranger. Hoarding wealth was frowned upon in ancient societies; wealth was displayed by the generosity of the ‘ring-giving lord’ who gave gold arm rings to his thegns, and the loaf-giver (hlaf-diga, the origin of the word lady). The social fabric was woven through the sacred practices of hospitality, fosterage, gift exchange, and reciprocity. We would do well to cultivate these virtues instead of xenophobia and suspicion. So I would definitely say that Pagan religions encourage us to show hospitality towards migrants and compassion for refugees.

See also:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2015/09/welcoming-the-stranger-and-the-refugee/
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2012/12/pagan-ethic-of-reciprocity/

What Does An Inclusive Coven Look Like?

A lot of people seem to think that inclusive means “I’ve got some gay people in my coven”. That is certainly welcoming – but is it really inclusive? I think there’s a spectrum of inclusivity – so one coven might score 100% and another might score 80% – but I think we have to accept that different people will have different ideas and priorities. However, it would avoid a lot of heartbreak all round if people stated upfront how inclusive their coven actually is.

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

An inclusive coven ticks some or all of the following boxes:

  • Understands that diversity has a place in celebration, theology and cosmology.
  • Understands that gender identity, gender expression, sex/gender assigned at birth, and biological characteristics are distinct (when I say distinct, I mean noticeably different, but interpermeable and with fuzzy boundaries).
  • Understands that you can make energy through polarity (tension of opposites), resonance (two similar people), or synergy (joining the energies of the whole group).
  • Understands that polarity can be made by two or more people of any gender and sexual orientation, and by two or more people of the same gender, and that polarity exists on a spectrum where Person A may be yang in relation to Person B, but yin in relation to Person C.
  • Understands that you can make polarity with any pair of opposite qualities (e.g. morning people and evening people, cat lovers and dog lovers, tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, air signs and earth signs, fire signs and water signs).
  • Understands that fertility is not strictly biological and may refer to creativity (and that you don’t need a male body & a female body to produce fertility on a symbolic level – e.g. when blessing crops).
  • Allows invocation of any gender deity onto any gender human.
  • Allows gender fluidity in ritual roles & doesn’t make people stand boy/girl/boy/girl in circle.
  •  Does cakes & wine with reference to lover & beloved, or using two cups, or on the understanding that we all contain both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies, or some other inclusive variation, and can be done by two people of any gender.
  •  Accommodates difference (e.g. neurodivergence, dyslexia, left-handedness, aphantasia) and disability. Bonus points for embracing the social model of disability.
  •  Is open to other cultures and ethnicities and does not insist on a genetic basis for culture (e.g. anyone can worship gods from any culture). Bonus points for being aware of the concept of systemic racism.
  •  Tries to avoid cultural appropriation.
  • Is accepting of kink, polyamory, and monogamy.
  • Promotes consent culture.
  • Welcomes members of all ages (over 18) and accommodates older members’ needs.
  • Does not automatically exclude people with mental health issues.
  •  Accommodates different theological perspectives (animism, atheism, pantheism, polytheism, duotheism etc).
  • Body-positive: does not allow fat-shaming or body-shaming.
  • Is prepared to accommodate coven members who are less well-off (by not organising expensive social activities, or having a massive and expensive reading list, for example).
  • Does not insist that its members reach a particular educational level or belong to a particular socio-economic class.
  • Listens to the views of all the members.
  • Values the contributions and ideas of all the members.

Summary

Inclusive Wicca is about being inclusive towards everyone.

There isn’t a competition over who is more oppressed, and there is no queue for liberation. We can work on small issues and large issues at the same time – I am not suggesting that all the categories mentioned in the list receive the same degree of oppression in society – they are included in the list because at some point, they have been excluded from some Wiccan circles for some reason.

Also, please note that inclusive Wicca is not a new or separate tradition; it is a tendency within existing Wiccan traditions. (Though just to confuse matters, in Australia, there actually is a tradition called Inclusive Wicca, which is unconnected to the inclusive tendency – though it may have similar goals.)

Double rainbow in Alaska

Double rainbow in Alaska. Photo by Eric Rolph at English Wikipedia – English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 


Thanks to Alder Lyncurium, Anna Hammarlund, Anya Read, Brian Paisley, Francois Schaut, Lirilin Lee, Susan Harper, for suggestions and comments on the first draft of this.

 

UPDATE: I have now created an inclusive Wicca website.

Creative Endarkenment: the Need to Ground and Shield

 

 

The common idea of “grounding” literally and figuratively sends us earthward. To the very real dirt we walk upon. Spirit is in the compost and in the leaf mulch, in the decay in the gutters and the dust under the couch. In the way things fall apart. To make new life, DNA breaks down and recombines. To make new families, households break up and recombine. It’s painful and messy and necessary.

This is not what most of us are taught. Re-visioning (human) nature as dynamic and always-changing helps us re-vision our own spirituality. Charles Eisenstein says in The Ascent of Humanity:

When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative, and growing, then we need no longer transcend it, but simply participate in it more fully.

***

Participation takes a little precaution, however. Ground and shield. The advice is almost always applicable. desk

It’s difficult to remember to ground and shield when lives are busy and pressure is high, when people are shouting. When we are shouting. And that is also possibly when it is most important. Here is a simple technique that anyone can practice. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a bit. Feel the rhythm of your breathing.

Feel the breath of your body circulating. Feel the blood circulating.

Identify where the energy centers of your body are, at this moment. Where the tension is. Identify the emotions, the kinds of energy you are feeling.  Exist there, still breathing deeply and regularly.

Feel those tensions slowly begin to stretch. Feel the energy begin to circulate with the breath, the blood. Let the energy of your body root itself, streaming down through your feet, into the ground. Let it sink and reach down deeper into the earth under you. Feel the roots of your being stretch downward. You are connected to the earth by this stream of energy. You are secure.

Take a moment to breathe in that space of security and sure knowledge.

Then, when you are ready, draw the healing and protective energy of earth up, even as your energy continues to descend. Visualize that energy shimmering around you, a shield. Does it take the form of water? Pellets of ice? Braids of fire? Woven flowers or pure light? Whatever elemental or visual image feels personally right for you, allow your shield to grow and strengthen around you.

Know that within that shield you are safe from others’ negativity.

Breathe, feel the flow of energies down into the earth and up into the shield.

With gratitude, still feeling your shield around you, slowly rise into the day, centered, focused, rooted and protected.

***

There are many ways to do it of course. The need to ground and shield has been brought home to me recently in various contexts, everywhere from Facebook threads that disintegrate, to my son’s slammed door over my head. It’s a loud and reactive world these days, with an unending stream of stimulation at our fingertips. We lose track of ourselves.

All this energy–which could be put towards our work–expended in arguing and memes and othering. We have a long way to go. There are as many ways to go about the work as there are people going about it. Look around at where you are, figure what you can do from here. Then ground. Spend some time with the grasses and mosses. The roots of dilemmas and the roots of trees. This season,  bend close to the ground, focusing on the local, the small, the neighbors you can directly affect (and I mean neighbors in the most generous sense of the term: peoples and species and rocks in your immediate vicinity). The work is humble. Revolution starts where you are, with whatever size canvas you work with.

Creativity is by its nature radical (revolution and roots): poetry, justice advocacy, meal preparation, the crucial conversation with your high school son about how to get caught up on English homework—all of these have value, and dignity, and real worth in the world. Grounding and shielding helps us protect ourselves when the work gets messy, gets dangerous. And it will. As the poet Robert Frost said, creativity is “play for mortal stakes.”

The work looks different for each of us, but we each have work to do. Let’s try to honor each other as best we can, remembering the world needs our many diversities–and even our disagreements–to thrive.

dandies

 

 

Finding a Compromise: Keeping Places

Respect For the Dead

In any discussion of what to do with human remains, I think we should start from the assumption that almost everyone respects the dead. But it is how that respect is expressed that is currently a source of conflict.

Some have argued that respect can only be expressed by not disturbing the dead; or if they are disturbed by accident or because of development work, then they must be reburied as soon as possible. This is, however, a view that was not necessarily held by our ancestors. It may also be a result of squeamishness about death, not wanting to see human remains on display. It is certainly true that many cultures prefer their remains not to be disturbed, and indeed the integrity of the burial is one of the duties we owe to the dead (de Baets, 2004), along with memory and justice. But if the resting place is long-forgotten, then the person has long since passed out of memory, and so archaeologists are at least benefiting the ancestors by perpetuating their memory.

Burial Practices

There are few burials from the Mesolithic, but one of them that is known is the remains of a man found near Tormarton in Gloucestershire, who appeared to have been murdered: he had an arrowhead in his spine, and was left in a ditch (to be discovered in the 1960s when a gas pipeline was cut through the site).

In the Neolithic, some of the dead were placed on wooden platforms on causewayed enclosures (such as Windmill Hill near Avebury) for the birds to pick the flesh off their bones. Some of the smaller bones would have been lost in the process. Any remaining flesh was scraped off, and then the bones were placed in a burial mound. In some cases the skeletons were disarticulated, all the thigh bones placed together in one section and all the skulls in another, and so on. Later, rituals were performed in the mound and with the bones.

In the Bronze Age, individual burial mounds started to appear, and some of the Neolithic barrows (such as West Kennett) were deliberately closed off. Nevertheless only high-status individuals received burials in mounds.

In the Iron Age, all sorts of bizarre burial practices were used. There were chariot burials in Yorkshire, bog bodies in Ireland (possibly victims of sacrifice or murder), bodies left in disused grain pits (at Danebury Rings, for example), and so on.

The Anglo-Saxons had individual burial mounds in their pagan period, and graves aligned east-west in their Christian period (though confusingly, some of these burials included grave goods, which is normally taken as a sign of a pagan burial). Also, some Anglo-Saxon pagans were buried in an east-west alignment; there is considerable variation in burial practices, and it is difficult to tell which graves are Christian and which are pagan.

All these burial practices presumably indicate different beliefs about the ontological status of the dead – whether they are things, quasi-persons, former persons, or persons (de Baets, 2004), different beliefs about the afterlife (where it is located, who presides over it, whether the dead need objects there that they needed in life, and so on) and the journey of the soul to that afterlife (whether or not the soul travels via some central omphalos or gateway, whether it requires a chariot or a horse to get there, and so on).

What do we Mean by Respect?

Most societies regard memory as a key factor in respecting the dead. The well-known saying “Mustn’t speak ill of the dead” indicates that most people feel that the good reputation of the dead person must not be undermined. Indeed, the Hávamál speaks of the individual’s reputation as more precious than material things:

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead

The Quiché Mayan poem Popol Vuh (quoted in de Baets, 2004) contains a plea from the dead to be remembered:

Our days are ended. Think, then, of us.
Do not erase us from your memory, nor forget us.

The building of funerary monuments in Pagan and other cultures around the world indicates a desire for the memory of the dead person to be perpetuated.

Many archaeologists speak of recovering the memory of the ancient dead as part of their motivation for excavating them and carrying out research to find out how they lived and died. Archaeological research has also brought about a deeper respect for the peoples of the past, since it has shown how they survived and flourished in an often hostile environment and how they created art and culture and tools and clothing to help them survive. The excavation of the “Ice Man” (a Bronze Age man discovered frozen at the edge of an Alpine glacier, also known as Ötzi after the valley where he was found) has shown that Bronze Age people had advanced tools and clothing, and that they had acupuncture and knowledge of herbs. Ötzi is now enshrined in a special museum. Another example of increasing respect for the ancient dead by rediscovering their stories is the TV programme Meet the Ancestors, which reconstructed the lives of people of the past, giving an insight into their experiences and feelings. Similarly, an archaeologist who excavates bog bodies spoke movingly of how she wants to create some form of restorative justice for the oppressed and marginalised – which some of the bog bodies may have been – by recovering their stories (Giles, 2006).

Others feel that respect for the dead primarily means not disturbing their place of rest, or returning them to the earth as soon as possible. Emma Restall Orr (2005) speaks movingly of the individual’s song being restored to the greater song of the earth:

Each individual’s song is made up of notes given them by the ancestors, by the tribe, by the landscape, by the wind and the food that is eaten, by the rain that falls, that is drunk and pissed. The physical body, then, is crafted of all these songs. It is the totality of experience, it is every single story of every relationship a person forges throughout their life. With each breath and footstep, in every cell, the body sings its relationships with the environment. With each heartbeat, the body is retelling the stories of its tribe, history and heritage, upon the land. … Slowly, given the opportunity through burial, the waters of that pool seep back into the earth, cell by cell dissolving. Even that which remains the longest – the bones, still holding those songs – silently lets go, whispering them into the mud and the flow of time.

This is a poetic vision of the process of decay after the body has been buried, but only mystics would be able to recover the individual stories from the greater song – and unfortunately, mystic visions are not verifiable, and whilst they may be psychologically and spiritually true, they are often not factually true. I do not mean to say that all visions are factually untrue, just that they generally need to be verified by other sources before we can act on them. So, in order to have genuine respect for and understanding of our ancestors, we need to remember them as well as honour their resting places.

But not all Pagans view people and landscape as a holistic unity in this way. Many subscribe to a dualistic view that the dead go to another plane of existence, and that the once the soul has left the body, it is no longer important. Many Pagans find archaeological research to be of immense significance to their sense of who they are and where they come from, and believe that perpetuating their memory is the most important form of respect we can give to the dead.

Practicalities

Sometimes it is impossible to return the dead to their original resting places, or to a nearby burial site, either because the landscape context has been destroyed, or because it is likely that the bones and grave goods would be stolen for nefarious purposes. Given the large amount of bones stored in museums, it would be a lengthy and expensive process to rebury them. It is also expensive to store them, and some museums are investigating the possibilities of reburial, and reviewing the remains that they have in store.

Also, in order to get reliable data, archaeologists require access to large populations in order to be able to ascertain movements of populations, what they ate, how they lived, what diseases they had, and so on(Slater, 2006). All of this information helps us to reconstruct a picture of ancient people’s lives, which arguably benefits modern people wanting to return to a life more in harmony with nature, as well as helping us to remember the ancestors.

A possible compromise solution to the various requirements for respecting the dead (perpetuating their memory and respecting their privacy) is the idea of a keeping place, which would also be in keeping with the Neolithic practice of allowing descendants access to the bones.

I put forward this idea in a letter to British Archaeology in 2004:

‘Perhaps the bones could be stored in a burial mound (a national repository), consecrated by Pagan priestesses and priests, but with temperature and humidity controls to ensure preservation and access for study.’

This idea has actually been implemented in Australia (Cantwell, 2004: 101), where special underground repositories have been created, with shared access for archaeologists and Aborigines. These are called keeping places. This idea has also been proposed by Melbourn Parish Council in Cambridgeshire.

Another way of achieving compromise is to proceed on a case-by-case basis, only reburying when the bones are no longer needed for archaeological study, or their context has been lost (this is the approach advocated by HAD). The idea that ancient human remains may be kept indefinitely without any scrutiny by an external body has clearly had its day, though.

It would be wonderful if a keeping place for the ancient British dead could be specially constructed, perhaps in the form of a very large Iron Age roundhouse, or a burial mound, where the dead could be kept in special shrines, with all the details known about them and their lives displayed near them, but still allowing archaeologists access for research.

Tiwi Island art gallery ceiling - By Satrina Brandt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Tiwi Island art gallery ceiling. Photo by Satrina Brandt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

As this dream is unlikely to be realised, other possible solutions are that museums, which should (according to new DCMS guidelines) already have specially designated spaces for storing human remains, could allow Pagans into the museum store to consecrate the space, perform rituals for the dead, and perhaps even paint sacred designs on the cardboard boxes in which they are stored. Where the remains are on display in public galleries, Pagans could be consulted about the way in which the remains are displayed (as has happened recently with the way Lindow Man is displayed at Manchester Museum) to ensure that this is respectful. One possible way for museums to ensure that displays are respectful is to make them feel like a shrine, perhaps using restricted visual access to heighten the sense of sacred space, and again, to allow Pagans to ritually consecrate the space in which the body is displayed.

Emma Restall-Orr and Piotr Bienkowski (2006) have also suggested that Pagans be allowed to perform brief rituals during excavation of human remains, and be involved in the whole process of transfer to museums, decisions about which human remains to retain and why, display, storage, and (in some cases) eventual reburial. They have outlined a series of guidelines for involving Pagans in the whole process.

Conclusion

There is by no means a consensus among either Pagans, archaeologists, museum curators or the general public on the subject of how to treat human remains, except that most are agreed that respect is important – but there is disagreement on what constitutes respect and how that respect should be expressed in practice. Discussions about this that I have seen on Pagan forums and mailing lists have generally been in favour of archaeology and continued study of human remains. Most Pagans recognise the value of archaeological research and remembering the dead. Even those who would like to see more remains reburied still acknowledge the need for research (or the majority of them do). Conflict between archaeologists and Pagans is not inevitable in this area, because museum curators and archaeologists themselves have been reflecting upon the ethical aspects of the storage and treatment of human remains (there have been two recent archaeological books with chapters on this issue).

It is a mistake to see either the archaeological community or the Pagan community as two discrete monolithic entities. There are significant overlaps between the two groups, and different factions within them, and cultural shifts occurring all the time. Both groups have become more aware of postmodernist thinking, which calls into question the notion of scientific objectivity. Archaeologists have also become interested in the phenomenology of landscape, something which was previously regarded as a fringe “earth mysteries” activity (Hutton, 2007). Pagans have learnt a lot from archaeology through TV programmes like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors, and magazines like 3rd Stone. It is also important to be aware that there are two strands in contemporary Paganisms (Hutton, 2007): the countercultural strand, which is epitomised by rave culture, for example; and the religious strand, which is more interested in developing spiritual and cultural forms associated with Paganisms (epitomised by organisations like the Pagan Federation, which seeks recognition for Paganisms by the existing establishment).

Therefore, we need to proceed carefully through the many complex questions raised by this issue, checking our assumptions and presuppositions, and listening to the multiplicity of voices in the discussion – not just assuming that we know what they are thinking. Consultation with all Pagans, the general public, archaeologists and museum curators will be necessary before we can assume that a consensus has been arrived at. It is necessary to examine what is meant in each cultural context by problematic terms such as ‘landscape’, ‘ancestors’, ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘sacredness’ and ‘respect’, and to look at the philosophical basis of the arguments employed by all parties in the discussion.

Yvonne Aburrow
15 March 2007

This article was originally published on the Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) website.

Bibliography

Cantwell, Anne-Marie (2000), ‘ “Who Knows the Power of His Bones”: Reburial Redux’. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 925 (1), pp. 79-119. [online] available from: Blackwell Synergy (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/) [accessed 18.10.2006]

De Baets, Antoon (2004), ‘A Declaration of the Responsibilities of Present Generations towards Past Generations.’ History and Theory, Theme Issue 43, pp. 130-164. [online] available from: Blackwell Synergy (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/) [accessed 18.10.2006]

Giles, Melanie (2006), ‘Archaeology of Human Remains: Paradigm and Process.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) – available as a document or from  Manchester Museum.

Hutton, Ronald (2007), [title?] Leslie Grinsell Memorial Lecture, Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society.

Restall Orr, Emma (2005), ‘A Theology of Reburial.’ [online] available from: Honouring the Ancient Dead [accessed 27.10.2006]

Restall Orr, Emma and Bienkowski, Piotr (2006), ‘Respectful Treatment and Reburial: A Practical Guide.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) – unpublished

Slater, Elizabeth (2006), ‘The Benefits of Scientific Study and Analysis of Ancient Human Remains.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) ? unpublished

Respect, Memory, and Human Remains

In 2008, I founded a group, Pagans for Archaeology. I did that because I believe that without archaeology, we would know considerably less about ancient pagans and polytheists than we do today. I even wonder if the Pagan revival would have happened the same way without input from archaeological research.

The Pagans for Archaeology Facebook page now has around 15,000 likes – so even if many of those people haven’t read the “manifesto” of the group, that shows a very big interest in archaeology among Pagans.

place

Bryn Celli Ddu – “The Mound in a Dark Grove”. Originally a Neolithic burial chamber, later a passage grave. © Copyright Paul Allison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

What Pagans for Archaeology stands for

  • We’re Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.
  • Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved frequent human sacrifice.
  • In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.
  • Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.
  • We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.
  • We are also vehemently opposed to people leaving tealights, candles, crystals and other non-biodegradable “offerings” at sacred sites. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Follow the Country Code.

The case for retaining human remains

The case for studying remains

  • Osteoarchaeology can tell us a great deal about past people, both populations and individuals: what they ate, what diseases they had, where they lived, how far they travelled, what they worked at, where they were born. Putting all this information together for a large number of people gives us a picture of a whole society and the lives of individuals within it.
  • Associated grave goods can also give us a picture of what mattered to the individual who was buried there. Grave goods should remain with the skeleton where possible, as they are an integral part of the assemblage, and may have been intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
  • The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that’s why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person’s name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).
  • There was a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity in the past, and because human remains can tell us where people came from, this prevents fascists from claiming that Britain was ever inhabited solely by one particular ethnic group.

The case for displaying them in museums

  • Neolithic long-barrows were not private; people interacted ritually with the remains after they had been placed in the mound.
  • It helps to perpetuate the memory of the dead person.
  • Museums are Pagan shrines; the name means “temple of the Muses” (okay so the proprietors of the museums may not see it that way, but we can choose to do so).
  • It helps us to understand their culture and connect with them.
  • It might help us to come to terms with death.

The case for not reburying

  • In many cases, the original burial context may have been lost or destroyed. The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves in their own language) people of New Mexico see no point in reburying remains, because disinterring them destroys the sacred context of the original burial
  • Looters might steal the grave-goods or the bones
  • We don’t know what ritual the dead person might have preferred
  • The remains should be stored for future study (analytical techniques are improving all the time)
  • Reburial means that we will no longer have access to the knowledge and memory of the person, and will quickly forget them
  • It is difficult to know which group of contemporary Pagans should receive remains for reburial, since we do not have cultural continuity with pagans of the past (who may well have had very different beliefs from us about the soul and the afterlife, and definitely had different practices from us).

Remains from other cultures

I think that human remains from indigenous cultures (such as Native Americans / First Nations and Australian Aborigines) are a different situation than that of British prehistory.

One of the ways in which indigenous peoples have gained political and cultural leverage is by campaigning for the return of their ancestors’ human remains (and British reburial campaigns often appropriate the narratives of indigenous campaigns). Very often, these remains are more recent than prehistoric British remains, and the indigenous people still have cultural continuity with the cultures that buried these remains. The people excavating these remains are usually from a different culture which has a history of colonial oppression towards the indigenous people.

In the case of British prehistoric remains, everyone in Britain is culturally (and genetically) descended from them, including the archaeologists doing the excavating. In the case of indigenous human remains, only the indigenous people are culturally (and genetically) descended from them.

Why archaeology is important

Archaeology matters to us because:

Archaeology means the difference between fantasy ideas and facts to me, okay they don’t always get it right, but they do try.
History is something we need to learn things from, in my opinion, not because I have this vision of some sort of golden age of yore, but that there are skills and mistakes that we need to learn from.
Many of the basic skills we all once would have had are gone and are now only known to a few, fire-making for one instance. Society might not require those skills right now, not with all the technology we have, but that does not mean they should be lost totally and that’s what archaeology means to me, the saving and keeping of our past, because one day we may need that knowledge again.
~ Blu, PFA member

I find archaeology fascinating, like a little kid in a candy shop discovering new and exciting pieces of our evolution and our history.

Whilst I haven’t formally studied archaeology at university, I have always found it interesting and particularly in high school studying art my interest was piqued by Ancient Egyptian and Roman crafts and ideals, and now especially as a Witch and a Pagan the Gods and Goddesses and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians.

It is amazing to see how we have developed from those times in each little piece we discover. I am in awe of prehistoric times and little pieces of skeletons of dinosaurs that form the now extinct creatures.
The evolution and growth of plant life and animals, and of humans…

I love hearing about medieval times and the discovery of beautiful pieces of silverware, pottery and jewellery which ties into the history of the Celts and Avalonian times, a magical period that really resonates with me.

History is an important part of our development, our past, our present and the future in both advancing technology and in terms of our spiritual development as we can call on our history, our Gods and Goddesses to help with our present and our future…
~ Kali Cox, PFA member

Part of my Pagan outlook is a respect for the wisdom of the past, and the people of the past, so I think we need to know the real stories of past people. Not the history that was written by the winners. The only way we can do that is through archaeology, because ordinary people did not often leave written records (the exciting exceptions being the Paston letters, the Vindolanda Letters, the Book of Margery Kempe, and not much else that I can think of).

I also think that as Pagans we draw on the cultures of the past, and archaeology can really help us make sense of those cultures.
~ Yvonne, PFA member

For me, it adds to my understanding of the present. By studying the past I get a better sense of why and how we came to be as we are now.
~ Kim Hunter, PFA member

Cultural Appropriation and Racism

In my last post on cultural appropriation (Cultural Appropriation has nothing to do with “Race”), I made the point that the issue is about culture, not genetics and not “race”. People are part of a culture if they have been brought up in and immersed in that culture – it has nothing to do with their genetic background. Völkisch racists want you to believe that only people who are descended from Northern Europeans can worship Northern European gods, so they have taken the discourse around cultural appropriation and twisted it to their own ends.

However, when the Patheos editors shared the post on the main page (which was very nice of them), they changed the title to “Cultural Appropriation and accusations of racism”. I wasn’t sure how they got to that title from the content of the post, but in the post, I was trying to deconstruct the notion of “race” as a biological or genetic characteristic, and to point out that people shouldn’t culturally appropriate, not because they are a different “race”, but because they are from a different culture. And cultural appropriation can be distinguished from cultural fusion (a respectful blending of cultural forms) by the power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one.

Culture is rich and complex and deep, with its own history, traditions, folklore, and layers and layers of meaning (as the picture below of women in Mali illustrates). Lifted out of context, it loses meaning.

By Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland - Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6120091

Women in Mali. Photo by Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Interestingly, a friend who commented on the previous article expressed the concern that would-be cultural appropriators might take the title of the post as carte blanche to carry on appropriating, or as a denial that cultural appropriation is a form of racism (which is implied even more strongly by the changed title that I mentioned above).

I have outlined what cultural appropriation is in previous posts on the topic: the exploitation and commodification of other cultures’ sacred rituals and artefacts, often resulting in a trivialising effect on their meaning. Here’s my definition again:

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a colonising or culturally dominant culture takes a ritual or sacred or meaningful practice from a subjugated or devalued or colonised culture, lifting it out of context and draining it of meaning. And probably making money out of it.

If you’re still not sure what cultural appropriation is, please go back and read those posts again. Or read Crystal Blanton’s excellent post on why cultural appropriation is hurtful and damaging. Here’s her definition:

What is cultural appropriation? It is the borrowing and using of another person’s cultural treasures without permission, without necessary cultural context and without employing the respect due. Many times cultural appropriation is the means of monetary gain by the exploiting of things that should not be for sale, and sometimes it is to gain prestige or credibility. It is also a way that white people have gotten fame or credibility by the very use of cultural attributes that others from the culture are criminalized, villainized and demonized for.  Either way, cultural appropriations takes the valuable pieces of marginalized cultures, those who have already suffered at the hands of painful oppression, and further takes what is left for them to have agency over. When one’s culture is gone, all things are lost.

A subtle form of racism

Why is cultural appropriation a form of racism?

  • It is an extension of colonialism. First the colonisers stole land and natural resources, and persecuted the colonised and enslaved, trying to prevent them from continuing with their cultural practices and lifeways; and then, having destroyed and commercialised our own cultural icons, their descendants plunder the remnants of indigenous cultures for meaning. Obvious examples here are the destruction of Native American / First Nations culture, and the way that whites tried to prevent slaves from having any kind of family life by splitting them up.
  • It exoticises other cultures, regarding them as inscrutable, mysterious, alluring, and barbaric. Take for example the Chinoiserie craze in 18th century England, or Orientalism in the late 19th century. Neither of those was particularly respectful towards the cultures being commodified; it was the exotic and strange that people were attracted to.
  • It commodifies other cultures, regarding them as a resource to be plundered, and a marketable product to be repackaged and sold.
  • It erases the complexity of other cultures. The idea that “all cultures are the same really” erases centuries, possibly millennia, of subtle and complex thought. Examples here include the Perennial Philosophy (the idea that all cultures have the same central core idea), and New Agers who make this claim. The idea that “yoga could have been discovered by anyone” erases the genuine achievement of Indians in inventing it (not discovering it). The idea that you can understand Buddhism well enough to teach their spiritual practices without proper study, and without learning about Buddhism in depth, is another manifestation of this erasure of complexity.
  • It trivialises other cultures. Dressing up in a bastardised version of someone else’s sacred garb, or painting your face in a parody of their skin tone, is offensive.

    “You take a part of a person’s culture that means everything to them, and you make it meaningless. You wear the symbols that represent their cultures without actually understanding the power of what these facets of their culture means to them.” – Udoka Okafor

  • It’s arrogant. It assumes that everyone has a right to everyone else’s cultural forms. There’s an idea floating around that all culture is public property, and everyone should have access to it. Several spiritual traditions with initiations and gradual revelation of mysteries beg to differ. And where one culture has a history of violently persecuting another culture, it’s downright insulting to steal their rituals on top of that.
  • It rides roughshod over the feelings of people of colour. It denies the agency and the feelings of oppressed and marginalised people. It says “I don’t care if this thing is sacred to you, I want it, so it’s mine.”

So, just in case anyone was wondering, yes I do think that cultural appropriation is an extension of colonialism and racism.

Plain Speaking on Polytheism

That’s enough apple pie metaphors… let’s get down to brass tacks.

It’s good to have descriptions of what a word means, so that labels are mutually comprehensible. It’s also quite nice when the meaning of a word bears some vague resemblance to its etymology. But there’s a conflict between creating a meaning that is inclusive enough to include the majority of people who want to identify as that label, and making a word completely meaningless.

A definition is a fairly precise meaning or set of meanings that are generally agreed usage(s) of a word and what it denotes.

However, language usage is fluid and changeable, and different groups of people use words differently in different contexts. That’s why it is a good idea to examine the connotations of a word, so that we can describe how it is used in different contexts.

Examples of words that have highly fluid — and thus highly disputed — meanings: Pagan, polytheist, and Wiccan.

Part of the reason that these words are disputed is because the dictionary definitions are largely unhelpful and out of date.

Why are the meanings disputed?

If a group of people wants to describe its practice, beliefs, and values as distinct from those of another group, it becomes helpful to have a name that describes only that group, and is not in use by another group. This is why the various denominations of Christianity have created labels to distinguish themselves from each other. It’s why there are umpteen different varieties of witchcraft, Druidry, and Heathenry. You can recognise some common factor that makes them fit in their respective categories; but there’s enough difference between them that it is worth adding a qualifier to the label.

Wicca

The word “Wiccan” has a fairly chequered history. Gerald Gardner referred to all witches as “the Wica“. Charles Cardell described his group as “Wiccens“. Gradually, in the USA, Wicca came to refer to any Wiccan or “Wiccanish” tradition. In the UK, it tends to refer to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans — but many people identify as Wiccan who have never been initiated into those traditions. (Part of the reason for this is that it became very difficult to identify as a witch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wiccan became a handy euphemism for witch.) The word “Wicca” has become so broad and confusing that it may be impossible to restrict its meaning to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans.

There are also other witchcraft traditions (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA) such as the 1734 tradition, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and so on. Most of them are initiatory. Fortunately, hardly anyone disputes that the word “witch” applies to all these different traditions.

It is also worth noting that uniformity of belief is not the prime focus of witchcraft traditions. You can be a polytheist witch, a duotheist witch, a pantheist witch, an atheist witch, an animist witch, or some combination of these. (Some readers of All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca were surprised that I said that you can be an atheist witch. It’s more difficult to be a materialist witch, not believing in or experiencing energies; but not believing in gods is not a barrier.)

Polytheism

To my mind, polytheism just means “many gods” or “belief in many gods”. It doesn’t say anything about how you worship them, or what type of rituals you perform to get in touch with them. Some people want to define polytheism as “religious regard for many gods” (in order to exclude those who acknowledge that gods exist but don’t have any truck with them – but I think that is redundant, as even if a Christian acknowledges that our gods exist in some way, they don’t acknowledge them as gods, so their view is irrelevant to the definition of the term).

If you want to describe a particular way that people interact with the gods, or a particular concept of what they are, then I would argue that you need a qualifying adjective. Various qualifying adjectives have been suggested (hard polytheism, soft polytheism, devotional polytheism, relational polytheism, Jungian or archetypalist polytheism, monistic polytheism, henotheistic polytheism, mystical polytheism), not in order to split polytheism as a whole, but to provide more accurate descriptions of how people relate to the gods.

Various people have different understandings of what polytheism means in their religious context. If someone else’s meaning of polytheism conflicts with your meaning, then you have two possible options:

  • claim that their meaning / usage / understanding is wrong;
  • add a qualifying adjective to distinguish your usage of the term from theirs.

Over recent years, there have been various online arguments about how to do polytheism “properly”, such as:

What’s really going on?

It is probably not possible to “win” one of these arguments, or answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is always someone who wants their definition of a concept to be the only valid definition, and to be a gatekeeper of who gets to identify as a particular label. Being a gatekeeper or the person who gets to define a term is a position of power and control, potentially with authority attached to it.

Whoever gets to define or describe what polytheism is will have a huge influence on its future development. If it is a broad-brush movement with many different ways to be polytheist, it will become large, nebulous, and hard to control. If it is narrowly defined, it will be much smaller, but possibly easier to control. And it will end up excluding people whose insights, ideas, and practices might have been valuable to it.

My own position is that I  don’t want to control anything. I am inherently distrustful of authority (including any authority that I myself may accidentally have acquired). Any authority should have checks and balances with it. If you are the high priestess of a coven, or the leader of a religious tradition, there should be a process for consultation and establishing consensus, and in large groups, for democracy and accountability. For example, in the Inclusive Wicca Discussion Group that I founded on Facebook, I created a set of group guidelines and invited members to vote on them and add to them; and there is more than one moderator for the group. In my coven, we take it in turns to write rituals, so everyone gets the kind of ritual they like; and whoever has written the ritual is the facilitator for that ritual. Whilst I am the most experienced witch in the coven, so the buck does tend to stop with me, I do try to empower others. The process of teaching and learning that we use is all about sharing ideas.

If you want to create a sub-tradition of polytheism that has a set of beliefs, practices, and values that meet your expectations and requirements, that’s fine. But don’t try to label it as the One True Way of polytheism. You will need to give it a more specific name. Some have argued that if polytheism is seen as a catch-all term that includes soft polytheists, archetypalists, and so on, then it becomes a less useful term. Maybe so, but that’s just how language and terminology work.

That’s why Niki Whiting proposed the term ‘relational polytheism’, and others have proposed other qualifying adjectives: to be clear about how our polytheism works out in practice and in context. Similarly, there are different flavours of Wicca and witchcraft, each with their own label, to enable people to find a flavour of Wicca that’s right for them.

People are confusing denotation with connotation, as often happens when the meaning of a term is contested. The term polytheism denotes ‘many gods’. To a devotional polytheist, that has connotations of devotion, religious regard, and so on. To a relational polytheist, the connotations are forming relationships with the gods. In order for different groups of people to find the polytheists they want to hang out with, we need those qualifying adjectives so that everyone who honours many gods can call themselves polytheists, without insisting on a particular definition of a god, but if you want to be more precise about how you want to honour the gods, or what you think gods are, then use a qualifying adjective.

The alternative is that a tiny group of people get to define what polytheism is and who gets to call themselves polytheist, till the whole thing turns into a clique and everyone else loses interest.

Polytheism isn’t yours

As Bekah Evie Bel points out, polytheism isn’t yours. And it’s not mine either. It belongs to everyone.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.  © Copyright Pip Rolls and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence