This is a touchy subject… not that I’m afraid to talk about it, clearly, if you have been reading my articles, you’ll already know that I have no bones about speaking my mind or hurting a few feelings in doing so. But let me begin this by saying that Cultural Appropriation is different things to different people, and more often than not, it’s solitary Wiccans (usually non-initiate) and non- Wiccan/Witch “Spiritually minded” Pagans, just treading their own paths, who are accused of this more than anyone else. When someone takes a practice (or several) from one culture and applies it to their own, they may see it as paying homage to that culture or practice and thereby incorporating it into their own spiritual journey, bringing them closer to the Divine (however they may view the Divine to be) on a more personal level. The problem with this however, herein lies with the culture in which the individual is borrowing from. I am not one to begrudge anyone of the spiritual choices they make, but I do see how some of these cultures have issue with this practice.
You would be surprised at how ugly this debate becomes, especially when it is between what we have come to know as Eclectic Witchcraft and say, Vodouists, who would prefer one not engaging in their practices at all unless you are committed solely to it… and these folks have a legitimate gripe, as do the Native Americans, which is where I believe this whole war on Cultural Appropriation really starts.
When you look at things from a religious standpoint, it is only natural that a Native American tribe would be troubled by and have some serious concerns about the adoption of Native American practices by someone who is not Native American, (the same with Vodouists) and has never truly had or lived the Native American experience. It makes sense. The majority base practices off of what they think it is and are basing their adopted practice off some imaginary or wishful interpretation of what being Native American really means. The truth is, the lack of social, historical and practical experience of this culture makes it impossible for anyone who is not actually from it to accurately understand what it’s like to be a part of the group and group’s practices they are attempting to emulate. Having a feather in your hair makes you no more a Chief than having a vintage badge you scored on ebay makes you a police officer. The most common one I see today is Shamanism, which used to frost my grandfather (who was Native American) like you wouldn’t believe. Today, you take some classes, go though and achieve different levels, maybe attend a few retreats and you are dubbed a Shaman, complete with a pretty certificate stating so. In tribes, it was similar to some extent, each tribe having their own way of determining whether or not one was suited (strong enough) for the job. But I assure you, there were no sterile facilities or classroom environments involved in this process. It often included days of fasting, a night of plant-induced hallucinating and if you survived the evening fighting off demons and other monsters that come to you, bringing messages that you had to determine were trick or truth, you then would have to hike far into the forest or desert with escorts and perform a series of other, miracle-worthy feats before they even considered you to be worthy of being a healer. (Again, different tribes had different ways of determining this).
Even if you were to take a religion such as Hindu, (for the sake of example) where each piercing and each Mendhi design has a significant meaning, a time-honored tradition among a group of people with practices and beliefs that have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years was suddenly taken by Western cultures and turned into something completely insignificant and then dubbed “Spiritual” can actually be insulting to the originating group. I imagine something as beautiful and traditional as this:
gets taken, melded, mashed and incorporated in with several other belief systems, looks like this in their eyes by the time it’s all said and done:
So how does this affect the Eclectic Witch? It affects them in a LOT of ways. Particularly, Eclectics have been under fire by just about every Pagan and non-Pagan Pantheon that’s out there primarily because they don’t fit into any specific definitive category. A Christian is a Christian, a Wiccan is a Wiccan, and Celt is a Celt a Druid is a Druid, so on and so forth. The Eclectic takes a bit from each (Christianity aside for a moment because that isn’t always the case here) and then forms his or her own tradition of beliefs and practices, and because this system can’t be defined as something else, it can be defined as eclectic….. which seems to have become a dirty word in the Pagan and Witch community, probably because of some of the points I made above and the perception of there being a lack of commitment to any one path, but I also think a bit of it has to do with the fact that we are human and because we are human, we need to place everything into nice, neat compartmentalized boxes with labels attached to them. If we cannot define it for sure, then it isn’t authentic or genuine… right?
While I, myself am somewhat on the fence about this entire subject, mostly because I believe in a person’s right to choose the spiritual path or paths that brings to them the most peace,and also because I myself am from a mixed bag of spiritual and magickal cultures, I am also a bit old-school when it comes to being respectful to the originating pantheon or culture in that, if you are to emulate one of their practices or incorporate them into your own, it should probably be done discretely and with as much reverence to it as possible. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a deep fascination with Vodou, but encourage as they might, my friends in the higher ranks of the religion who have suggested I look further into it and go through what it takes to be initiated, I simply will not do it for the fact that I cannot whole-heartedly commit to its belief system in its entirety, and so I have taken a fancy to the practices of Hoodoo and rootwork instead, allowing me to have my “fix” of some of the practices without completely insulting the religious aspect of it (they are the same, yet very different–much in the way that Wicca and Witchcraft are–one is a religion, the other is a practice). But simply because I cannot completely commit does not mean it isn’t genuine or real, and for the same token, also does not give me the right to pick apart the pieces of it that jive with me and incorporate it with the things I do believe simply because it will suit me. It isn’t fair. And so, out of respect for the religion and those who practice and have worked hard to preserve it, I ask questions for understanding and education, but I certainly will not besmirch it by picking it apart and bending it for my own needs.
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a Vodouist (translated in French to vodouisants, meaning “Servants of the spirits”) that began after he’d posted a photo to his Facebook page of an altar he’d erected to the Loa. Before I continue this story, allow me first to explain how this works, to the best of my ability, since I am not a Vodouist. Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable creator god, called Bondye, who does not intercede in human affairs. Therefore, vodouists direct their worship toward spirits subservient to Bondye, called Loa. (Any vodouists reading this, please correct me if I am wrong in anything I have attempted to explain here). Every loa is responsible for a particular aspect of your life, with the dynamics and changing personalities of each loa reflecting the many possibilities inherent to the aspects of the practitioner’s life over which they preside. Vodouists cultivate personal relationships with the loa through the presentation of offerings, the creation of personal altars and devotional objects, and participation in elaborate ceremonies of music, dance, and other rituals and practices, which as you can see, makes it quite difficult for an Eclectic or anyone else who is not of this religion, to truly grasp the meanings and practices of this religion, because if you believe in many Gods, how can you also only believe in one Bondye? Pagan witches seek to know and build relationships directly with their Gods and Goddesses, where the Bondye is unknowable, and doesn’t get involved with our day-to-day rif-raf. Can you imagine erecting an altar to honor the Loa, having all the appropriate statuary and offerings on there and then placing a statue of Pan up there with them? How pissed off would the spirits be?
And that brings me to the conversation, where someone commented under the photo asking if it would be appropriate to erect a similar altar to the loa but incorporating a few pagan touches. The answer was a resounding NO.
When it comes to Wiccans and Eclecticism, there is some argument about who is Wiccan and who isn’t (here we go again!).
The argument is typically over the existing lineaged Wiccan traditions, such as Gardnerian, and newer “eclectic” traditions. The argument goes something like, only those lineaged covens are permitted to call themselves Wiccan, and that anyone who claims to be eclectic is, by definition, not Wiccan but Neowiccan (labels, labels labels!!!). But lineaged is often used to describe more or less who initiated you and who initiated the person who initiated you and so on. While lineage is not of importance to some traditions, in those that count it, you can bet your bottom dollar you will find a whole lot of “Uppity-ness” over your eclectic practices if you are also calling yourself Wiccan while doing it. Lineage is more often than not however primarily found in the traditional groups and not so much in Neowiccan or other pagan paths, but you still might want to be a smidge pickier about what practices you take from what traditions… Wiccan or otherwise.
There is no easy answer to this debacle of eclecticism….and it is a bit of a debacle, at least until there is more tolerance for it. On one hand, your spiritual path is just that–yours. On the other hand, some religions have a real issue with parts of their beliefs and practices being picked apart and used in conjunction with others. Is there ever going to be a happy medium? A meeting of the minds? Probably not.