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17 June, 2007

The Shipwrecked Sailor Considers Sinuhe

So one of the things that I think about a lot is the threads of cultural appropriation potential in religion. On a number of different levels.

I'm on this mailing list for discussing forms of Slavic paganism, for one. And ... I don't post to it, really. I skim information as it comes by, but I don't post, because I don't feel welcome there. Because every time someone mentions, say, Wicca, they get hit with at least three, "Remember Wicca is not a Slavic religion and while you can do whatever damnfool thing you want on your own time this is for Slavic discussion, you hear me?" Maybe less strident than that, a little, but they all run together into this silencing morass.

But mostly because it's full of language about how the people there are all giving due attention to The Folkways Of Their Ancestors. (To the point that asking a question about how one goes about actually doing anything in the religion gets a, "One follows the folkway!" Without, y'know, actual information about stuff like ritual structure. And I'm a liturgy addict.) And the assumption that the only people who would be interested in Slavic gods are those with Slavic ancestry (as opposed to, y'know, the far more plausible "Slavic gods are so goddamn obscure that someone who is, say, tapped by Perun may never stumble across the right set of search terms to discover His name").

Folkways of the ancestors, eh?

Okay, so, I have Polish heritage. And German heritage. And English heritage. And Scots heritage. And Irish heritage. (And if I have anything else, it's not in the Official Genealogies.) I'm a northern European moggy, half-Yankee (because damnit, when a chunk of the family's been in New England since the 1600s, Yankee culture is overwhelmingly more important than which handful of European nations supplied the genes), and any sort of majority ruling on what my ancestral folkways might be would require the construction of a coalition vote. (And I think the only two-party combination that manages a majority would be the Irish and the Poles. Uh.)

And, as the blogger handle might suggest, I deal with ... the gods of Egypt.

Which is not in any way northern European, to say the least.

But there's this sort of moral weight that gets put on The Folkways Of The Ancestors in some conversations, a sense that this is one's natural home -- or that falling outside of that is probably appropriation, though it is probably acceptable if one's dealing with a European culture (because all of that is White People Stuff, I guess, so drifting within White People Stuff is okay). (Never mind the whole process of ethnic differentiating among those groups, and "How the Irish Became White" and all. And my Polish grandmother tried to obliterate her ethnicity and just be American -- anti-immigrant sentiment, ethnic bigotry, and all of that. I think that's the only basis I have for a coalition: immigrant groups who were treated like shit just outside of living memory ....)

Someone on a pagan discussion forum I read started a thread recently asking if there was a stigma on black pagans, a sense that they shouldn't be involved. And someone raised a point that I think is accurate, and goes back to the ranting that was my first post on this blog at all, the sense of who has "a culture" and who doesn't. "Why would you want to go outside the religions of Africa?" has this strange privilege-encoding of, "But you have a culture, you have a history, you have a background; you don't need to seek elsewhere for fulfilment." And I know a couple of pagans-of-color who have said, straight out, that the gods of their apparent ancestors don't speak to them -- they are called by European gods, or the gods of other peoples-of-color. Or, from that thread, someone who is mixed-blood with ties to a particular tribal reservation, who takes flak for blending the practices of her tribe with those of miscellaneous modern pagans -- when people don't know she has status there, as an appropriator; when they do, as someone who should be content to be the exotic.

And there are groups who deeply resent the exoticisation of their culture, especially when it comes with the assumption that their faith can be truly adopted without being adopted as a member of the tribe and steeping themselves in that culture. And that's a real concern, and one that is often masked by the number of colonising group members who fancy that a few shiny toys from those faiths will make them authentic. And at the same time, cultures blend; a homage to other people's practices that seem to speak to the soul or meet a particular need is almost inevitable in someone's space, and the line between inspiration and theft is not a clear-cut one.

Egypt sat, historically speaking, between the Mediterranean and Africa and alongside the religions of the Middle East, and it partakes of the cultural expectations and theologies of all of these. It was an insular nation, and its artwork emphasised ethnic differences between its people and outsiders -- but its reality was racially mixed, ethnically complicated with all the flows of population of the region. The Greeks and later considered it the paragon of the exotic and mystical, and reinterpreted it to suit their beliefs about what that meant. But those first appropriators are gone, culturally, almost as much as old Egypt herself.

There are Egyptian stories about finding gods elsewhere and bringing word of Them back to home, so that more people could partake of Their worship. And there are stories about Egyptians living in foreign lands who, when they grew old, desperately wished to return home to be buried with their people. Always, this sense that there is a place where people belong, to which all valuable things return: Egypt, in that cultural setting, the homeland and center of things.

Mostly, when I think about this, I wind up feeling uncertain how to judge which people are mine. My personal tribe is full of people who are called by a variety of gods. (My personal self, likewise, as I also deal with a particularly American religion, with its own questions of appropriation and appropriateness as shaped by a culture that assimilates and recasts everything it sees into something more like its own self-image.) In my home, I honor a goddess Who I do not serve because She looks over another member of my family. I am mongrelised, my faith is mongrelised, and when I consider "the folkways of my ancestors" I am torn in a dozen directions.

The gods Who called me are the gods Who called me; in the end, I put my trust in Them.

1 comment:

Eagle said...

Oh, yes.

This one's a keeper.