Questioning cultural appropriations in neo-pagan communities

Photo credit:pixabay/hnewberry cc0 public domain.

Neo-paganism is not a monolith. At the same time, it also lacks centralized authorities to standarize and regulate its practices.

Many solitary and group-based neo-pagans consider themselves as “eclectic” or simply pick-and-choose rituals, ritual tools, and deities from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

In North America, most neo-pagans are white and of European ancestry. Yet, many rituals and books used by them inappropriately misappropriate cultural heritage of other cultures, namely of the people of color.

Many neo-pagan rituals start with smudging and calling of directions, both stolen from First-Nation Americans. I have even seen women show up at rituals wearing a saree, make sounds with a Tibetan Buddhist metal bowl, and paint henna on their hands as part of their ritual. During Samhain season, it is common to see more Mexican cultural elements than Irish ones. They often choose to “work with” a certain goddess or goddesses for a ritual — which frequently include deities such as Kali Ma, Guanyin, Amaterasu-o-mikami, Our Lady of Guadalupe (a Mexican aboriginal goddess before she was appropriated by the Roman Catholic Church) or even Oshun. Never mind most of them know very little about Hinduism or Buddhism (and how misogynist they could be); nor do they understand how the worship of Amaterasu-o-mikami was closely tied to Japanese imperialism and genocide. Oshun is an African and Afro-Caribbean goddess that came with enslaved Africans to the Caribbean islands and to the American South.

Frankly I do not understand why they feel any need for stealing deities and rituals from cultures they have nothing to do with (and adopt them in such a way that has absolutely nothing to do with traditional observances in their proper national and ethnic contexts).

There is a wealth of deities, mythos, and heritage within European cultures: Baltic, Irish, Teutonic, and Nordic to say the least, plus Greek and Roman. White neo-pagans ought to limit themselves to European deities and rites. In particular, the Greco-Roman mythologies have a universal appeal because, until a few decades ago, every educated person around the world learned at least something about the Greek and Roman mythologies as part of the history of world’s greatest civilizations.

There is nothing wrong about European-Americans to feel proud of their own ancestry and heritage as long as they afford the same respect to other cultures. What is wrong, however, is to hide their sense of “white guilt” by pretending to be “multicultural” but in reality stealing from traditions of other ethnic groups.

The neo-pagan community must engage in honest conversations on the topic of cultural appropriation.