Today is a magical day! It’s Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, or you know, Halloween. For some pagans (not all though!), it’s a big deal, it’s like our New Year. I asked four WWAC pagans, which would include me, your lifestyle editor, to talk about their pagan identities, their favorite practices, and cultural appropriation in paganism. Not only is it appropriate for the day, but it looks like the witchcraft trend isn’t going anywhere at least for now.
Since pagan has a lot of variability, contentious variability at that, can you specify where your identification falls on the pagan spectrum?
Emma Houxbois: My primary practice is Chaos Magic. It’s pretty indistinct as a self identifier because it can mean just about anything in practice, but witch works just as well for me.
Jen Grogan: If I had to name what I am, I’d call myself a pragmatic pagan with pantheist leanings. I don’t cast spells, and I sometimes wobble into agnosticism and (in the more distant past) atheism, but I seem to always circle back around to a comfy but hard to explain place where I believe places and things have some degree of spirit to them, and where I worship multiple old gods who I (mostly) consider embodiments of aspects of the universe. Is that fuzzy enough? I could probably make it worse if I really tried…
Katriel Paige: If I had to name what I am… I always blunder at this part. I cast spells and create ritual, and I believe places and things have some degree of spirit to them, but I also can’t seem to shake the idea of a large Creator God or Origin either. I just think this Originator is so far removed from our understanding, though, that other deities sort of serve as conduits or aspects that we can more easily understand, given how we relate to the universe as humans. I guess I’m more Campbellian or Jungian in seeing archetypes everywhere, and using them to ask questions of how I relate to them and the world I inhabit.
Ginnis Tonik: Katriel, you say you always blunder at this part, but the way you put that really sums up my own paganism — I find paganism appealing due to its focus on archetypes and symbolism, especially from the influence of Campbell and Jung. I don’t think belief is so important as practice – and getting so concerned with the Originator, if you will, just makes it harder for me to relate, so I generally approach things from a more pantheistic view. So, I’m like a pantheistic pagan in a Wiccan coven…yay, fuzzy definitions/identifiers.
Why this form of spirituality/religion?
Emma: Initially it was pretty much just that I started reading The Invisibles, and Morrison laid out a simple and non-dogmatic means of getting into paganism and occult practice, but the emphasis on personal development over worship that Chaos Magic allows for is probably the biggest thing that keeps me in it.
Jen: I was a talkative, bookish kid who loved dinosaurs and asked a lot of questions, so I didn’t really fit in the few times my mom tried to take me to church. Mythology (Greek, Norse, Egyptian, whatever), fantasy, and science fiction spoke to me more than the Bible ever did, and I was always deeply in love with the natural world, so I basically was thinking of the gods as the old gods, the ones who were of nature rather than outside it, before I knew there were words for that. And since nothing else ever fit as well, it stuck.
Katriel: Every religion has rituals: for example, candles. Candles are a basic form of ritual tool nearly everyone has had experience with, whether in a formal religious setting or not. As someone interested in folklore and the common threads of spirituality, I suppose it’s natural for me, at least, to settle into an eclectic practice.
Ginnis: Again, what Katriel said! I think we may be spiritual soulmates. Yeah, I am going to go with that. I love the universal themes and archetypes that emerge from spiritual practice — and then discerning the particularities of the differences as the emerge from the different contexts. Unsurprisingly, I approach a lot of this like a scholar, but I suppose the idealistic in me who has feelings likes the potential for a human connection that values difference.
What are some of the practices you do related to your spirituality/religion? (i.e. tarot, spellcraft, ceremonial magick, etc.) Why do they appeal to you?
Emma: Spellcraft is a big one for sure. I started out learning basic sigil magic which is kind of a mercenary thing, like here’s a way to focus intent to get what you want, but after a while I gained a lot more of an appreciation for if not outright ceremony than creativity and imagination. Magic, of any kind, should be fun and spellcraft is one of the places where creativity can flourish the most.
Jen: I’m a little odd in that I don’t cast spells or do ceremonies. At the moment I can’t even light candles, because of apartment building rules, and that pains me sometimes because candle flame has always been part of prayer for me. I’ve dabbled a little with rune-casting in the past and had some moments of really interesting insight that way, but they were generally not pleasant experiences, so I’ve decided to leave that alone. My “practice” consists essentially of the names and ideas that I put to prayer, the faces and names of the gods I keep on my little bookshelf-top altar, and the fact that I treat trees, animals, and natural places as the best conduits to the divine–pouring out a beer to the gods on the roots of a tree, etc.
Katriel: I do read tarot, but I view it as more of a meditation practice — not related to a particular spiritual path — than anything else. In terms of my spiritual practice? Spellcraft is a big one, though how formal I get with it varies — some nights I write an idea or concept down, some nights I have more time and can light candles. There are some nights of the year where I do more elaborate ceremonies, though, to honor the seasons.
Ginnis: Tarot is my biggest connection to the spiritual world — the physicality of the cards and art helps me feel grounded in my practice, but the history of the tarot, the archetypes, all that makes me feel connected to this larger spiritual plane. Tarot is a great balance of research and scholarship with actual practice!
As for ritual and other magickal practices, I participate in more elaborate ritual in my coven, but on my own, my practice tends to be pretty simple — otherwise, I won’t do it, or I get wrapped up in endless researching rather than just doing it. Kitchen witchery and the centrality of the hearth is important to my day-to-day practice. I look for the divine in everything.
I think it’s important to talk about cultural appropriation and spirituality since paganism can be a hodge podge of things and a lot of different spiritualities and religions can get lumped in under the umbrella term of pagan, even if they don’t quite fit. Is cultural appropriation a concern for you in your practice?
Emma: For the most part I build my practice around traditions and belief systems within the Western sphere because that’s what appeals to me more, but also to avoid the widespread issues of misappropriation.
Jen: Yeah, cultural appropriation is an issue I’ve grappled with, and one I’m still trying to handle. I feel a significant connection to Shinto practices, for instance, but I’m not especially comfortable engaging with them directly because I’m very, very white and that feels potentially awkward. I really enjoyed visiting Shinto temples in Japan and going to a New Year’s ritual at one here at home after I returned, but I would never want to impose my presence on them regularly.
Katriel: Here’s where I seem to differ, I think… cultural appropriation is definitely a big issue in the pagan communities, but (especially in some of the northern European neo-pagan traditions) so is toxic, racist nationalism. The deities call whom they will, but at the heart, I think, is respect for them and your fellow human beings. If you’re being a jerk — especially with regards to sacred practice — people will see, and hear that, and turn away from you. Interestingly, Shinto was brought up — using that example, I know that there are non-Japanese Shinto priests, outside of Japan (United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom) but in these cases, they were very careful about engaging with the Japanese roots and traditions with respect.
Jen: I absolutely agree that there are some veins of racism and nationalism running through some northern European neo-pagan traditions, and also that there are Shinto practitioners and temples around the world outside of Japan. It’s something to be aware of from every angle. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that Shinto shouldn’t be practiced by people who don’t have Japanese heritage, only that I myself feel like doing more than respectfully visiting Shinto shrines and ceremonies come across to others as appropriative. I’m probably overly cautious on that count.
Ginnis: Recently, I read this quote from the Hoodwitch in an article: “Let’s expand past Eurocentric goddess archetypes and traditions. Let’s see more representation for the stories of women of color as goddess, share her stories and traditions.” While I am concerned about cultural appropriation as a white woman, a lot of the image of paganism is Eurocentric gods and goddesses, and I think that should be expanded to challenge and subvert this erroneous representation — as well as just to share these stories and traditions like the Hoodwitch says.
I am not sure if I am doing it “right,” as when something is or becomes cultural appropriation is very hard to define. The origin stories of so many deities is bound up in cultural assimilation and the historical context really disrupts how we define culture, so I am constantly thinking of this historical context with the material realities of the current day. It’s always on my mind.
Do you have suggestions for how pagan-types can ethically and honestly deal with cultural appropriation in their practice?
Emma: Buy as few books published by Llewellyn as possible. In all seriousness, a lot of people, young people especially, have been coming into pagan practice for the last decade through books they find at big box retailers or new age bookstores, and the most popular stuff trades off Wicca, Celtic, and indigenous beliefs as brands to exploit. The attitude that it’s all just a buffet gets inculcated into people almost immediately, and as long as that kind of publishing stays lucrative, it’s going to be embedded in the culture. Paganism is more or less constructed as a subversive, minority religious practice in North America, so there’s kind of a blind spot that Paganism doesn’t perpetrate the kind of hegemonic behavior attributed to the Constantinian Shift. Which is nonsense because pagan authors can and do commodify and exoticize things like indigenous beliefs. It’s like anything else in that you have to understand your positionality relative to what you’re engaging in. Do the work, dig in and truly seek to understand what you’re working with, don’t just follow the instructions in a book.
Jen: I’m not sure I’m qualified to say what others should do, but for myself I tend to stick close to the pantheons my ancestors would have been familiar with, although I have a deep respect and affection for a number of more far-reaching deities. That’s more to avoid insulting anyone else than it is out of any discomfort with the broader spectrum. The Egyptian gods were among my favorites when I was young, but I don’t feel like I have any right to lay a claim on them, so I greet them politely and with much love when I meet them in a book or museum, but otherwise pretty much stay away. Same with the Hindu gods and Shinto kami — I have immense respect, and I’m happy to visit them, but I don’t feel right claiming them as mine. I feel like people who were born into Hinduism would be justifiably angry if I said I was a worshipper of Parvati or Shiva. Since my family’s background pretty much comes from northwestern Europe, I feel most comfortable dealing with the gods from that same area — I feel like that’s the best way to avoid any feeling that I’m borrowing from other people and misappropriating their history.
The other thing I feel really strongly about that’s attached to cultural appropriation in a way is that I feel like I have a very serious responsibility to real history and accurate historical study of ancient beliefs, and to the clear delineating of lines between what ancient people believed and practiced, to the best of our knowledge, and what modern pagans believe and practice. There’s a lot of irresponsible writing on that subject out there, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable as a person who loves history and cares very much about the past and how people really lived and thought in ancient times. For modern practice, I think it’s totally okay to shift things around and take different angles on the gods. Beliefs have to grow and change over time. But I think it’s very rude to pretend that people in the past believed things that they really didn’t, and not respect the way they thought about their gods.
Katriel: Do the work. Paganism has a lot of heteronormative behavior, a lot of racism, a lot of sexism… and a lot of exploitation. And really, that goes for any religion I’ve seen, too — there’s a lot of irresponsible writing out there, and no one person can speak for an entire movement! So do the work, and keep learning. Never say “I know all about X”, because — as Murphy’s Law and various sacred beliefs will tell you — something’s going to come along to knock you down from that pedestal you put yourself on, if you’re not careful.
Ginnis: I am actually currently working through the reading and practices in this zine from the Reclaiming Tradition on cultural appropriation and spirituality. And, Little Red Tarot is one of my favorite sites for getting multiple perspectives on pagan practice with an emphasis on diversity. One of my favorite things that she does is queering the tarot. Like everyone said, there are some great resources out there, but they are often harder to find than the big ones. I think this is where finding a like minded community is crucial because they can expose you to these harder to find sources, as well as their own unique ways of resisting heterosexism, racism, and sexism in paganism.
What about you, readers? Any pagans out there who want to shout out or share their own resources, ideas on paganism and cultural appropriation?