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Thoughts on Cultural and Spiritual Appropriation
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Pantheons, Patrons, and Guides
Article ID: 14260
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 2,119
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Author: Helena Domenic
Posted: November 7th. 2010
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One of the beautiful things about being Wiccan is also being a polytheist, or a pantheist. A polytheist believes in more than one deity, whereas a pantheist believes that there is divinity throughout the entire universe. As you become more familiar with Wicca and Wiccans, you will no doubt hear many personal stories from Wiccans about the Gods and Goddesses with whom they work.
Some questions that may arise for you:
Must I choose my own Patrons? Or will they somehow choose me? How will I know if I am chosen? What do I do if I hear the ‘call’ of a particular God or Goddess? Must I answer that call? What happens if I don’t?
May I choose a God or Goddess from a pantheon from other than my own ancestral background? (For example, you are a nice Irish girl, but Elegba is calling you) . What is respectful and what is cultural appropriation? Can’t I just worship the God and Goddess generically? Aren’t all the gods one god?
The answer to all of the above is yes. Maybe. Depends.
There are those who will tell you that you may only work with deities from pantheons whose cultures reflect your own ancestral heritage. Some will say that if you are a woman, you must choose a male patron, and if you are a man, you must choose a female patron. Some will tell you that you must have both a male and a female. I personally believe it is good to seek balance in all things, and to seek patrons of both genders. There are some deities whose sexuality plays with gender bending such as Chango in African Diaspora religions.
What is Deity?
Let’s first take a look at what deity means. In the Assembly, we view deity from several different angles. At the broadest, most open and universal level, there is a universal energy that pulsates through everything that one might call God. However, this energy is so vast and so un-individualized that trying to send prayers its way is difficulty at best – it tends to go off into the universe, only to not be answered.
At the next level, there are God/dess types – archetypes, if you will. These are ‘big’ energies, but with a bit more focus than praying to the all-encompassing universal life energy. These energies include Father, Mother, Moon, Sun, Earth, and other natural forces. In the Assembly, we believe that there are non-human entities of this type that are interested in human development, who do wish to help us. A few examples will follow.
A Moon Goddess who may wish to be of assistance to humans may look down upon earth, and find she happens to like the image of the Greek Selene – a Moon Goddess. This energy finds this particular ‘dress’ suits Her, so She will work with it, and adopt that dress. In other words, deity finds its way to us through the ‘clothing’ we humans provide for it.
A god or goddess who has existed for a number of centuries and been worshipped in many cultures will have larger energies than one who was worshipped only in one place and one time period. For example, a Goddess like Isis was worshipped for thousands of years in ancient Egypt. The Romans eventually conquered Egypt, and they adopted many Egyptian practices, such as Isis worship, which they took with them into other parts of Europe, which is why one can find temples to Isis in Great Britain. Another example would be the Celtic Danu, whose worship was spread through out Europe, and who has many places named after her, for example, the Danube River.
Whom to Choose? And How?
Some of us are fortunate, and will have a strong pull towards a particular pantheon. Many Wiccans are drawn to the Celtic pantheon, which is wonderful as there is a lot of information available on the Celts. The Asatru have a very strong connection with their gods, and are very thorough in their research of the existing literature. A thorough knowledge of the myths of a particular pantheon is crucial. Some pantheons are fairly peaceful and have good relationships with one another. Other pantheons have gods and goddesses who are at odds with one another, and you want to know this so that you do not invoke deities who don’t like each other into the same circle.
A friend once told me I should invoke Lakshmi, for creativity. I learned a few minutes later that I should NOT invoke Shakti at the same time (she is inspiration) because if I invoke one, the other won’t show up. Lakshmi and Shakti are part of the Vedic (Indian) pantheon. I decided I liked less complicated deities.
Another issue that often arises is that of cultural heritage. There are those who believe that you may not choose a pantheon from whose heritage you cannot claim ancestry. I wonder if anyone explained this to several African Americans I know who are very devoted Asatruar? My personal belief is that the Gods will call whom they will, and that we are all truly related. Having said that, I do believe it is important to acknowledge the possibility of cultural appropriation.
To quote Bruce Ziff from the book, Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, “The term cultural appropriation has been defined as the taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions, or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.” (Ziff, 1997, pg. 1) . This is a very broad definition – we as Americans, would be guilty of cultural appropriation on many levels if we applied this definition to ourselves.
In recent times, however, the issue of cultural appropriation has emerged at all levels of American culture – from the use of Indian names for athletic teams to the names of African tribes for cars. As such, it is a very touchy issue, and one that must be approached with caution.
In 1994, members of the Lakota tribe actually declared war on New Age spirituality groups for behaving as “wanna bes.” For peoples who are often oppressed by the dominant culture, seeing members of that culture appropriate their spiritual traditions as their own can be painful and horrifying at worst. Things become more confusing when we learn of Native American elders who are passing their knowledge along to Caucasians for the sake of allowing their spirituality to continue, by whomever wishes to practice it. I am also reminded of the Chinese invasion of Tibet – if the Chinese had not invaded Tibet, the Tibetan Buddhist monks might not have ever left their monasteries to share knowledge of their religion with the world.
How then, may we, as responsible and caring people, approach this issue, particularly when we feel a call from a pantheon that does not echo our own ancestral heritage? First, there must be an acknowledgment that at some level, there will most likely always be those who will object. Secondly, it must be remembered that we must be responsible and respectful. It goes back again to the question of fully researching whichever culture a particular deity comes from, and being respectful to that culture. We must not seek to romanticize whatever culture we are researching with the notion that somehow its ideals and aims are somehow purer and nobler than our own. We must realize that all paths are sacred, and humans created all paths, and that humans are flawed.
I found a wonderful quote on the Breathless Noon website:” The majority of spiritual seekers in North America are white, heterosexual, middle-class individuals, and as such, most have no real understanding of what it means to be a minority, to be in danger of losing one’s culture and/or community. It is difficult for many of us to understand that no one is entitled to the practices and ceremonies of other peoples. No one is entitled to free access to the inner workings of any religious and/or cultural society.” ( http://www.breathlessnoon.com/index.php)
I believe we must always remember to acknowledge where we found something, and to pay it homage. I believe that we can take inspiration from other cultures, but we must acknowledge that and pursue our beliefs in ways that do not damage or threaten existing cultures that may carry these same beliefs. I do believe this is possible – but it is essential to respect wherever you got whatever it is you have found, and to acknowledge it and acknowledge that you yourself are not a part of that culture.
Research, research, research!
If you feel drawn to a particular pantheon, be sure to research it as thoroughly as possible – spend time reading whatever literature is available, in particular, literature known as ‘first sources, ’ if it is available. This means finding literature that was either written by the ancient worshippers themselves, if they were literate, or finding the best translations available. A Greek scholar once explained to me that the difference between a good translation and a bad translation can be, “The rosy tipped fingers of dawn” versus “the sun came up.”
The best research is done at your library or bookstore. Don’t rely on the Internet for accurate information. There are some websites that may be trusted, however as the Internet is not refereed, we simply cannot rely on it for good information. You also want to be choosey about the books you read. As I mentioned earlier, try to seek out ‘first sources.’ If you are not sure what these are, talk with a more experienced friend, or read the bibliographies of books you find in the library. Often one good source will turn up another.
Some cultures did not have the benefit of a written language. The Celts, although highly intelligent, with their brehon system of law, did not have a written language. Instead, bards were trained in memorization, and told stories that were passed down generation-to-generation, town-to-town. This is very common throughout Africa as well. What these cultures lack in what we Westerners think of as literacy, they more than make up for in skills involving memory and story-telling.
In cases like these, what unfortunately happened is that someone else eventually wrote down the stories. In the cases of both the Celts and the Norse, Irish monks sometime around the 7th through 10th centuries wrote down the old saga and tales. Much of what we know about Celtic and Norse culture before that time was written down by the Romans – who were trying to conquer these people and may not have always recorded them in the most flattering light. In the case of the Norse sagas and Celtic tales, some elements of the old stories have been lost, or told in a light that is far more Christian. In cases like these, we must do our best to separate the wheat from the chaff.
There is something else the Romans did that has forever affected the way we look at mythology in the West. The Romans really liked everything – whether an aqueduct, the Roman Senate, or their mythology – to be very neat and orderly, and for like things to correspond to like things in a logical way. The Romans applied this to their myth structure, starting with when they appropriated Greek Gods and Goddesses and gave them Roman names. As the Romans conquered their way across Europe, they did their best to assimilate the local deities with their own, which is how we have compound deities like Minerva Sulis (a combo Roman/Celtic Goddess) and gods like Cernunnos – a compound of all Celtic horned deities neatly tied up into one Horned God. Sadly, this approach has tumbled over into the way we approach pantheons in modern times.
Many magical books will have lovely correspondence tables in which there will be a list of Moon Goddesses, a list of Sun Gods, and so forth. Not all pantheons are so neatly ordered. Many pantheons have Gods and Goddesses who have numerous attributes, and who do not fit neatly at all into the generic “god of love” or “god of war” category. Most pantheons have more subtle and complex relationships within their gods and goddesses. The more reading and research you do, the better these relationships and subtleties will come through for you.
The Dreaded Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis!
What do you do if you come across a God or Goddess that you feel a connection to, and about whom there is very little written information? This is an excellent question, and also one that has caused some controversy, in the form of something known as the UPG – the Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis. Let’s say one day you’ve discovered you have a connection with a little known Goddess from a little known culture and you sit down one day to meditate upon Her. You have the most wonderful meditation, one in which the Goddess not only reveals herself to you, but also reveals information about herself which has not been recorded anywhere, and there is nothing written anywhere to back up what you have experienced.
There are those who look very unkindly on the Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, and who would not accept anything that came from a UPG under any circumstances. Wicca does tend to be more forgiving, however you should always proceed carefully. If possible, try to find out what you can about that particular deity from what is written, and use your UPG to supplement that information. You may wish to limit who you share this information with – as I’ve mentioned, there are those who look very unfavorably upon the UPG. Having said that, however – it is YOUR relationship with the deity in question, and your personal experience – it is up to you to interpret it and do what you will with it. Do not try to put forth this information as something that is written in stone – UPGs are just that – PERSONAL. Someone else may have an entirely different experience with the same deity.
Working with Deity in Ritual and Magick
As a Wiccan, you will most likely find yourself working with different deities towards different purposes, whether those purposes are magickal or celebratory. If you are working with a coven, the deities invoked at each ritual may vary, especially if that group is eclectic, as many modern Pagans are. How, then, to choose Deity for ritual?
In my experience, it has always made the most sense to try and be consistent with pantheons within a particular ritual. In other words, don’t mix and match from vastly different traditions. If you choose a Welsh God, choose a Welsh Goddess. This also brings us back to compatibility – do research to ensure that the deities you are invoking actually like one another. Wicca does tend to be more forgiving than other paths, and the sky won’t cave in if you make a mistake, but your rituals and magick are more likely to function well if you work with deities who are compatible.
If you are doing celebratory rituals for specific Sabbats, it helps to call upon Gods and Goddesses who have specific connections to those holidays. Once again, research is your friend here. There seems to be no end to online lists of Gods and Goddesses for this or that purpose, so dig a bit more deeply and see what really works for you. If you are doing specific magick towards a specific end (for example, finding a job) , you may wish to call upon a God or Goddess from your chosen pantheon that would be effective in helping you with that task.
Is it necessary for you to have your own personal patrons with whom you have a relationship? Once again, different people will answer this differently, but I personally find having a relationship with a particular deity very satisfying and helpful. I have considered Isis a personal patron for years, and she certainly has been steadfast for me. I can’t say for sure if she chose me, or if I chose her. I do remember being enthralled and in love with photographs of Isis statues in my father’s copy of the 1962 Tutankhamen exhibition catalog, which is where I first encountered her.
Having a relationship with a deity makes it easier when you need to call upon someone for assistance. There may be times when other Patrons will appear in your life, for different reasons. When I first became Pagan, my focus was almost exclusively Celtic. Isis has always somehow factored into my life, but I wasn’t especially aware of her at that time. As I became more educated in Wicca and magick, she began to emerge more strongly for me as a Patron. Sometimes, a Patron will appear who may be in your life for a short period of time, for a specific reason. I have been working with Freya off and on – I went through years of relationship woes – something she understands – and am appreciative of her help.
Having mentioned Freya does bring up a certain caveat about certain deities and certain pantheons. Some pantheons are more demanding than others. For example, the Asatruar pledge themselves pretty much exclusively to their deities, to the exclusion of all others. If you follow one of the African Diaspora paths, you will find that the Orishas and the Loa are very demanding. (It must be said, in all fairness, that followers of the Orisha and Loa may also be very demanding of THEM) . As always…. do your research!
Can you have patrons from more than one pantheon?
Confusingly, yes, you can! It happens! For a time, the Native American Kokopelli was one of my patrons. Right along with Egyptian Isis and Yoruban Yemaya. Sometimes, your patrons will appear out of what your needs are, and this doesn’t always have much to do with a particular culture so much as what you are needing in your life.
I Think I Had a Patron Once, but She Escaped!
The above heading is a bit flippant… but for a reason. At this point in your search, you may not have any idea who your patron/patrons is/are. That is perfectly fine. My advice is to do lots of reading and research until you find the patrons with whom you feel comfortable. Fear not the Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, and meditate on the God/Goddesses you are interested in, see who you feel comfortable with. Do beware cultural appropriation, but do not fear exploration – remember the three Rs: Research, Respect, and Responsibility!
Copyright: 2010, Helena Domenic
Location: Exton, Pennsylvania
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