Some people within the Pagan community object to instances of what they consider “cultural appropriation.”  Smudging with sage, seeking a power animal, celebrating Day of the Dead, is somehow stealing. To my mind they are confused about culture, confused about appropriation, and even confused about what it is to be a human being. In their confusion they attack other Pagans, creating a problem for all of us.

No NeoPagans practice traditions with an unbroken connection to pre-Christian times. Almost all old Pagan traditions have been mostly oral, and the core of those teachings have been lost. When once Pagan practices have survived, their interpretation will have changed, as Sabina Magliocco has described in rural Italy.         

To more deeply develop NeoPagan practices some of us have studied living Pagan traditions, hoping to learn what may be useful for ourselves. And it is here that the charge of “cultural appropriation” arises.         

Most contemporary NeoPagans are citizens of countries that long collectively subjugated most of the world to their will. During the centuries of Western domination, other ways of life were often attacked and undermined and religious traditions other than certain kinds of Christianity were suppressed, often violently. Sometimes genocide followed subjugation.            

The best among us are seeking to come to a balanced understanding of the West’s crimes as well as its achievements. Our task is not an easy one.           

At the same time, people within cultures once subjugated and still dominated by Western powers seek to preserve as much as they can from their former way of life, either adapting it to the modern world or trying to safeguard it from Western modernity’s homogenizing and secularizing impact. Theirs is not an easy task either.          

It is within this larger context that issues of “cultural appropriation” arise. Many of us seek to fill gaps in our own knowledge and traditions with what we have learned from teachers or books, about other non-Western traditions. Consequently, when we smudge with sage or seek out spirit animals, integrate decorative skulls from day of the Dead into Samhain, or even meet in circles, we are supposedly engaged in “cultural appropriation.”           

I am as aware as most anyone of the injustices of the past towards other peoples, but this is not a good way to think about the subject. There are much better ways. 

What is cultural appropriation?                 

           Jarune Uwujaren defines cultural appropriation as "when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that's not their own." In addition, a "power dynamic" exists because "members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group."  Maisha Z. Johnson agrees, writing "Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” Cultural appropriation also “refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”              

               Let me offer two counter examples to the claim this is always a bad thing.                The Romans conquered and sometimes enslaved Greeks, and in the process ultimately incorporated much of Greek philosophy and art into their own culture. The Roman writer, Horace, said Rome’s military dominance was ultimately second to Greece’s influence: “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive and brought the arts into rustic Latium.”          

             The Romans practiced “cultural appropriation.” However, by adopting so much Greek culture, Rome strengthened Greek cultural influence in the Western world. It was not Rome’s adopting elements of Greek culture within their own culture that was bad, it was their military conquest of Greece. One could easily argue the Renaissance might never have happened had not Rome preserved important elements of Greek culture.                             

             My second example hits closer to home.                    

             Christian Rome and the Catholic Church culturally appropriated many Pagan sites and practices.  Where did the date Dec, 25 come from? It was not when Jesus was born. What about Christmas trees? Magnificent churches are built on the sites of destroyed Pagan temples or places of veneration.  It is not just by chance Easter and Ostara are similar names.  St. Brigit was an appropriation of Bhride, a wonderful Irish Goddess.  Old Pagan folk rituals have been wrapped in Christian terminology while otherwise remaining the same.              

           At another level, some of Classical Paganisms greatest work survived the monotheistic holocaust that destroyed much of the older culture and knowledge.  Plato and Aristotle, to name the most important, were reinterpreted to fit Christian priorities. They were also preserved, and as they were reinterpreted, their writings became more generally available. Our history would be much different if all Classical Pagan writings had been consigned to the flames, as so much was.                  

            If the Christian world was to dominate the Pagan one we are glad it appropriated so much and wish it had appropriated more.  It preserved seeds from the past we could study, water, nourish, and sometimes revive. Had the Christian West utterly destroyed these remnants we would have far less to work with, and that they survived speaks to the power and magic in our heritage.

What is appropriation?                     

          To appropriate something from someone is to take what does not belong to me. If I appropriate your car, I have it, and you don’t. I can also appropriate your identity, as happened to me once when my wallet was stolen. You may have my ID and credit cards, but you are not me.  The first kind of appropriation is theft, the second kind is fraud aided by theft.                

           Can I appropriate ideas? Unlike the stolen car, in every case, you still have them, even if I am now also using them. If I claim expertise in a field or to understand an idea I know little about or to like something I do not like, or believe something I don’t, I am lying and perhaps committing fraud.  But if I have truly made these ideas, tastes, and beliefs my own, I am not pretending to have incorporated a cultural element from elsewhere, I have in fact done so.  If I also give credit to my sources I am not committing fraud or lying. If anything, I am praising those who introduced me to something I find valuable. By adopting these ideas I have not only not deprived others of them, I have expanded their scope and made them more available to others. If ideas were life forms, (an issue I will return to), they would be pleased at this expansion.           

           The language of possession does not fit regarding ideas, tastes, beliefs, and other contents of our minds. Ideas are not things. A specific creation can be copyrighted for a period of time and a discovery can be patented, but both are narrowly defined and temporary, existing to reward the creator for their contribution to the larger community. Whatever ideas are, they are not property.               

            There is one example where the term “cultural appropriation” might make sense, and it is related to these examples. In some cultures, songs and stories are the recognized property of a family or other group.  They are shared with others as gifts.  Using these stories and songs without permission is akin to stealing another’s story or song in the West, and I agree the legitimate owners should have legal protection, just as creators and inventers do in the West with copyrights. But we already have a clear term for these acts: theft. The stealing is not from ‘a culture,’ it is from a specific person or group of people. Without their permission, no one else in the culture would know of it.                 

            Ironically the only group in the modern world seeking to make ideas permanently controlled as property are corporations seeking to extend copyrights and patents indefinitely- and they are not creators. They buy this ‘property’ from the creators. In this important respect the advocates for cultural appropriation endorse a capitalist conception of society.    Ideas’ meanings are influenced by the different contexts within which they exist, both between and within cultures. In the West, at one time, marriage was usually for creating a family, making an alliance, or assuring security in old age. Love didn’t matter. Montesquieu observed, a “husband who loves his wife is a man who has not enough merit to engage the affections of some other woman.”   In such a context, gay marriage was unthinkable. Once marriage increasingly focused on love, it was only a matter of time before gay marriage became thinkable, and now, a reality.                

           An idea can be either yours, someone else’s, or culturally embedded so we have no idea where it originated.  Most ideas within a culture are the latter.  It makes sense to say I stole your idea, if I do not give you credit. But it makes no sense to say I stole a culture’s idea. Cultures do not have ideas, they are composed of ideas in relationship with one another in ways independent of anyone’s control.             

But what are cultures?

They are ecosystems. (Next installment: ecosystems, memes, language, thoughtforms)