Friday, April 17, 2015

Broom With A View: Is It Appropriation Or Adaptation?

photo courtesy

In the lexicon of modern Paganism, the term appropriation has become a bit of a dirty word, especially when applied to the ‘borrowing’ of methods and elements of culture and spirituality which is not our own, and more specifically when concerning holidays.

In America, we live in a multilingual, multicultural country, the hallmark of which has always been the ‘melting pot’ society; we are rather proud -rightly so- of our ability to blend iconic characteristics of the nations from which our millions of citizens have come.  We happily celebrate Christmas (a Christian holiday) by setting up Christmas trees (a German practice by way of Victorian England) sing Christmas carols (written in many languages from England, France, Germany, Italy and an exhaustive list of other places) about an event concerning a Jewish child imbued with deity (a Hebrew, Muslim, and again, Christian belief) that historically and mystically took place a couple thousand years ago in the Middle East according to a variety of sources.  We do this through public religious expression which has its origins in the Latin and Orthodox Rites,( later influenced by European Protestantism), blending the religious aspect of piety with a secular one concerning the persona of Santa Claus (forged from the folklore of many nationalities), reindeer, sugarplum fairies, snowflakes, and children’s toys, with a smattering of morality (“Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good”) thrown in for good measure…and other than the occasional cry of a few crabby fundamentalist Christians that there is a ( non-existent) ‘War on Christmas ‘, we suck it all down like a Winter Wonderland-flavored milkshake and nary bat an eye. And we not only deliriously enjoy every slurp, we revel in it.

As of late, the Pagan community in general has been pointedly vocal about how many of the things traditionally thought of as an expression of Christmas spirit (by Christians in particular) have been ‘stolen’ from ancient pagan sources, and that indignation has now spilled over to other holidays on the calendar, like Easter and Halloween. The more literally and fundamentally minded devotees of Christianity ( a la Kirk Cameron and Fox News) have retaliated by creating an imaginary “War on Christmas’ fueled by mass paranoia. To be absolutely honest about it, there has been self-righteous bellowing and finger-pointing from all sides concerning the subject, which is simply making me tired and slightly nauseous from buzzword sickness. The fact is that societal/religious/governmental groups have been picking and choosing, appropriating, adapting, borrowing and blending elements from cultures and spiritual practices other than their own from the beginning of time. Since this is nothing new and universal, it should not only not come as a surprise, it should not be warranting the attention or indignation the subject has been getting as of late. Whether or not it is ethical or moral is a moot point her and another discussion someplace else…we’ve all done it in some way at some time, folks. Taking that into consideration, let’s move on to other things, like solving the problem of not enough clean water on the planet or what we’re going to do with all the trash we’re generating, or what to do with the idiots we’ve elected to Congress.

To be sure, there is a fine line between appropriation and adaptation. Neither is necessarily negative or the act committed maliciously. Disregarding the old saying about “imitation being the best form of flattery”, there is also the truth that if something contributes to your spiritual growth in a positive way, there is no reason for you not to create your own individual version of a practice-hasn’t that been a rallying cry in the modern Pagan community since its inception?

We smudge ourselves, our tools and our circles; bestow blessings, offer up prayers with incense, chant, dance, sing and make music; wear robes sewn from fine fabric and richly embroidered with mystical symbols, crown ourselves with fancy tiaras fit for royalty, brandish ceremonial knives and swords to cast the boundaries of our sacred spaces, and acquire degrees, pedigrees and titles such as Lord and Lady…and I have never heard a single damn one of us express any remorse over how we appropriate the cultural or spiritual icons or spiritual elements of the Celts, Greeks, Romans or any other ancient people- including and especially those of indigenous native heritage. We wear feathers woven in our hair and not one of us gives a second thought that we might be appropriating a style or spiritual practice from Native Americans, Africans or Aborigines, because we see it rather as a personal adaptation of individuality. The wearing of feathers alone doesn’t mean we are intentionally appropriating an element of the a fore mentioned groups in a disrespectful way…maybe we just like the look or feel of feathers in our hair. The act of sweating in a sauna is healing and restorative for many who, although perhaps mindful of the similarity of the sweat lodge, would hardly consider it stealing a sacred act from Native Americans or those of Swedish heritage-as long as it is not represented as such. Just as much as I suspect donning a ceremonial Elvish-inspired, jeweled headpiece doesn’t make you an Elf Princess, a Hobbit, or give you special magical powers…but it may help you spiritually transcend between the worlds, or assist in creating a mindset beneficial to a successful ritual experience. I happen to like loose-fitting, draped robes (and if they have a pretty embroidered pattern on them, all the better), but wearing one doesn’t make me an ancient Celt, a Roman goddess or a Greek oracle wannabe-it just means I like to be comfortable when in the circle.

Do by all means consider what you borrow and adapt- to understand why you’re doing it-but try not to over-think things in the process…because what you unjustly project upon others says more about your motivation and shadow than theirs.