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Soft Polytheism: Cultural Appropriation for a New Age

Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: August 7th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,162

Per Wikipedia, Cultural Appropriation is defined as: the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. In modern Paganism, this would mean taking rituals and iconography out of their intended cultural context. It is generally frowned upon to take things from Native American spirituality or Voodoo and overlay it onto your own form of spirituality without the permission from those respective communities. However, major instances of appropriation still occur and are sometimes encouraged.

This won’t be a popular view, but I’m talking about the common belief that, “The complex pantheons which arose in many parts of the world are simply aspects of the two (the Goddess and the God of Wicca) ."¯ (Cunningham, Scott; Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner; Ch. 2, Pg. 9. Llewellyn Publications 1995ed.) . Don’t get me wrong; I love Scott Cunningham… his writing style was superb and he was very sincere in his beliefs. However, as a hard polytheist, I cannot accept this view and think it is damaging to the foregone cultures of our ancestors.

Now, I don’t have a problem with duo-theism, if you believe in “The God”¯ and “The Goddess”¯, that’s fine. What you need to understand is that your “Great Duo”¯ are not the gods of your ancestors; they are not every god and goddess from every culture ever.

The negative connotations of cultural appropriation have to do with the imperialist mindset that was still very much alive when Gardner formed Wicca. Let me explain; Wicca was developed in Britain at the end of the Empire, the ideals made popular by such authors as Kipling were still rampant within the society. Despite the current tendency of Wiccans to be liberal-minded, back then they tended to be fairly conservative, wanting to get back to the “good ol’days”. ¯ (See Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon) . Looking at modern Wicca, much has been appropriated and the level of respect with which it was done varies from Tradition to Tradition.

Venerating all gods as “aspects”¯ of your gods is insulting to the intelligence of your ancestors. It insinuates that the concept of “One Goddess” and “One God” was too complex for their uneducated brains and therefore they had to break them down into simpler pieces. This would be believable if the gods they believed in had one-dimensional personalities and never crossed paths in mythology. However, the myths paint the gods as very complex individuals with their own driving wants, needs and ambitions. If the myths only ever showed one god and one goddess interacting with each other at any given time, this thought could be forgiven, but that is not the case.

One of the most famous tales we have from the ancient world is Homer’s Iliad. The war it recounts is actually started with a myth involving the gods:

The gods of Olympus were having a party and chose not to invite Eris, goddess of Chaos. She decided to ruffle some feathers and threw a golden apple into the festivities marked, “For the Fairest”. ¯ This started an argument between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena about who deserved the prize and they chose Paris as judge. The rest is history.

Homer is one of the (if not the) greatest epic poets. The philosophical, mathematic, scientific, and artistic contributions made by ancient Greece are still lauded in modern society. How can such a scholarly culture be viewed as lacking the intelligence to grasp complex religious theory? I don’t believe they lacked that intelligence; and if that is the case, then the common view that the ancients had to simplify the gods in order to understand them is false. I’m using Greece as an example, but the same can be said of almost any of the ancient societies modern Pagans derive their beliefs from.

So why is it acceptable to assimilate all ancient cultures’ gods into two great ones when it is clearly unacceptable to appropriate Native American and Voodoo beliefs? The ancients aren’t here to defend themselves; they can’t speak to us directly and express their anger at our misuse of their gods. Members of Native American tribes and followers of Voodoo can and do.

Am I saying that there are no cultural connections between pantheons? No; in fact, many of the gods from the most popular pantheons can be traced etymologically back to the Proto-Indo-European invasions of Europe and India. If you notice, many of the peoples whose language group is spawned by this invasion also have tales of invading gods overthrowing the previous “evil”¯ gods of the region and taking their place. The Aesir conquered the Vanir, the Olympians conquered the Titans, and the Tuatha de Danann conquered the Fomorians. (For more information regarding the history of the Indo-European journey, see Our Troth, Volume 1) .

One can make the argument that the etymologically cognate gods may be one and the same, but that does not change the fact that the entire complex pantheon moved into the new region. It must also be said, that while linguistically connected, the gods have become very different based on their culture. Zeus is the King of the Greek gods and the lightning bearer. His Norse cognate god, Tyr, has no powers over lightening and is not King of the Aesir. Though both have governance of Law, these gods are very different (even in their classic mythology without modern personal gnosis interfering) and yet their names have the same Indo-European root. (Again, for more information on this, see Our Troth, Volume 1) .

The Romans appropriated the Greek gods, but did so (mostly) out of great respect for the culture they had conquered, and even today, they are often referred to as the Greco-Roman pantheon and the names given are seen as interchangeable. The Romans (until they began enforcing Christianity) were happy to allow their subject regions to retain their gods, as long as the people also acknowledged that the Roman gods were as real as theirs (This is what got the Christians in trouble in the first place) .

Appropriation can be done respectfully (as seen above) , but to willfully ignore the myths and beliefs of our ancestors in order to make it fit your own view of deity is disrespectful of our ancestors and should be stopped if we are to continue to mindfully grow and flourish.

Scott Cunningham, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.

Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon

Our Troth Volume 1 (a compilation edited by Edred Thorsson and the Troth Organization)

Homer, The Illiad


BellaDonna Saberhagen

Location: Sunbury, Pennsylvania

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