Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Cattle Raids and Cultural Appropriation

As a storyteller, I tend to do much of my thinking through stories. In the ongoing discussion of cultural appropriation it seemed to me that abstract theorizing may well benefit from the wisdom of narrative. So I began casting about for a story that addressed the subject.

Theorist Cei Serith says, “When confronted with a new situation, first consult ancestral precedent.” The Received Tradition (or at least those portions of it with which I am personally conversant), has little to say on the topic of cultural appropriation directly, but in fact the practice has a surprising number of parallels with the grand old Keltic pastime (one could almost call it a sport) of the táin, the cattle-raid. The Kelts came by cattle-rustling honestly (so to speak): it would seem, in fact, to have been an ancient tradition of many Indo-European peoples (and, indeed, of pastoral cultures in general: compare the current problems with the self-same practice in South Sudan).

We have, to the best of our knowledge, no surviving mythology from the Dobunni, the Keltic tribe that inhabited the Severn basin and Cotswolds in what is now the south-west Midlands of England. (The “creation myth” that Stephen Yeates “recreates” in A Dreaming for the Witches cannot truly be called a story.) There seems to be good genetic and archaeological evidence to indicate that Dobunni population and culture survived into Anglo-Saxon times as the tribe known as the Hwicce. Maverick archaeologist Stephen Yeates would contend that the tribal religion of the Hwicce, with its strong continuities with the preceding Dobunni religion, is in fact what would become historic Witchcraft (and later, Wicca). Historical or not, it's a powerful story, for which I will admit a certain personal fondness, perhaps because some of my own ancestors hail from this same region.

So I've cast my putative origin-myth (to use the term loosely) for cattle-raiding in a Dobunni cultural setting. It is as authentic to both period and culture as I can make it. You can find a link to the story, Cattle Raid: A Legend of the Dobunni, below.

The fact that I lifted the story directly from Masai mythology only adds savor to the stew. (I hope I've managed to successfully recast and “naturalize” the story. Did I fool you?) As the Big Man (alias “Tombstone”) says: “This, my dear Spider Man, is what grown-ups call 'irony.'”

Call it a “raiding of intellectual cattle,” if you like.

The culture with the best stories always wins in the end.

For more on the Tribe of Witches, the early medieval Kingdom of the Hwicce, and Hwiccan mythology and religion:

Stephen J. Yeates, The Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce (2008). Oxbow Books.

Stephen J. Yeates, A Dreaming for the Witches: A Recreation of the Dobunni Primal Myth (2009). Oxbow Books.

For more on Indo-European cattle-raids:

M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (2007). Oxford.

For more on African and Indo-European pastoral societies and their parallels:

Bruce Lincoln, Priests, Warriors, and Cattle: A Study in the Ecology of Religion (2008). University of California.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Danu Forest
    Danu Forest Tuesday, 02 September 2014

    great stuff thanks for posting! the dobunni are thought to be the tribe where i actually live! hail the storyteller! ;-)

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 03 September 2014

    Thanks and hail, daughter of Dobunnia. Kindly give my regards to the Severn.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Friday, 05 September 2014

    Interestingly, I've suspected that the cattle-rustling in the American West, carried out in large part by Irish cowboys, was a cultural carryover. When I mentioned this possibility to a writer friend who wrote about cowboy culture, he dismissed my theory. It's as good as any, IMO.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 06 September 2014

    One wonders to what degree (if at all) memory of the tain remained current in 19th century Irish popular culture (before the literary "Celtic twilight" period, at any rate).

    One way or t'other, I suspect that the cattle raid is just one of those ideas that's going to re-invent itself in pastoral societies because wealth-on-the-hoof is so conveniently self-transporting in a way that agricultural wealth just isn't. As I write this, in traditionalist South Sudan there are cattle-raids going on because a young man can't get married until he can front the bride-price, and just about the only way to get it is to raid someone else's herd, a logic I'm sure the Irish ancestors would have understood. Or the Dobunni ones, for that matter.

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