Borrowing and Reconstructing Cultural Practices

Tension often arises today between neo-pagans over the question of whether we are reconstructing an old religion or making up a new one. (As I have argued elsewhere, I don't believe there's any evidence that Wicca comes from a pre-Christian religion. However, some pagans are working to reconstruct pre-Christian traditions, such as Norse, Egyptian, or Greek practices). In addition, pagans frequently debate questions of "borrowing." There are those who feel that it is their right to borrow and/or adapt deities, concepts, and techniques from whatever culture they please; and there are those who feel that this is disrespectful to the cultures in question.

Among those who consider that "borrowing" is often disrespectful, there are two basic solutions proposed. One is that as Pagans, we are already engaged in creating our own religious traditions, and that we should continue to invent our own practices, concepts, and even deities. The second solution is that pagans should be as faithful as possible to old customs and practices which belong to our own cultural heritage.

The most obvious problem here is summed up in the phrase "as faithful as possible": no matter how carefully we do our research, the evidence of old pagan practices is at best fragmentary, and trying to recreate them will lead to a lot of quibbling over the fine points. But even setting logistical difficulties aside, we are not Ancient Greeks or Babylonians; we do not live in their world; and the extent to which we can participate in their mindset is necessarily limited.

(For these reasons, and for reasons of convenience, many neo-pagans have deliberately chosen to avoid the path of reconstructionism. Wicca, the most organized (or best known) group within modern paganism, is itself a jumble of ceremonial magick, folk customs, and "ancient" magical/ ritual practices.)

One major problem which arises from the practice of "borrowing" is the question of whether or not it is legitimate to use only one element from a given culture without necessarily considering the system from which it takes its significance. For example, is it fair for me to study the system of the Kabbalah and use it in my magickal practices, despite the fact that my belief system is not Jewish?

More thorny issues arise around the question of identity. To use the above example again, is it disrespectful for me to study the Kabbalah (a) without being of Jewish heritage and (b) being a woman, who would traditionally have been denied access to this knowledge? Others prefer to frame this as an issue of cultural understanding: can I, as someone brought up Christian in America, ever really understand Hindu philosophy and religion well enough to accurately honor Kali? Or does it matter whether or not it's "accurate"? Some would say no.

Personally I see a big difference between borrowing from a dead religion and borrowing from a living one. The Sumerian goddess Inanna no longer has living followers in Sumer. So I'm not really stepping on anyone's toes if I begin to work with her, even if my vision of her is not entirely accurate to the original Sumerian one (which it probably isn't, given the cultural gap involved). However, if I start appropriating pieces of Native American spirituality, I may be disrespecting a living culture. (Especially when you consider that White people like myself have exploited Native Americans and their culture countless times throughout American history.)

Since most pagans are White, I think it is especially important for us to be sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. We have to acknowledge that we benefit from White privilege, both individually and collectively. Because of our nation's history of prejudice, unfair treatment, violence, and outright genocide against non-White groups, it is our responsibility to work toward ending racism and social injustice. And this includes respecting non-White peoples' wishes when it comes to their culture.

Obviously I haven't come up with any easy answers to these questions. But in my own practice, although I love to learn about other cultures and other religious customs, I typically choose not to integrate them into my own, precisely because all of the above questions have not yet been answered to my satisfaction. I am not entirely consistent on this matter: for example, I play an African drum and I practice yoga, both of which I have integrated into ritual at various times. I am still working at increasing my sensitivity and awareness of other cultures' practices and attitudes, and avoiding a need to automatically adopt them for myself.

Here's a great piece on Native American Tarots which shows some decks and talks about their authenticity (or lack thereof); the page also examines some of the factors involved in cultural borrowing.

I enjoyed this WitchVox article about borrowing from indigenous traditions, which speaks to some of these issues.

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