Talking About the Elephant

talking elephantTalking about the Elephant by Lupa is an anthology of essays on neopagan perspectives on cultural appropriation. The essays cover various paths from Celtic Reconstructionism to Egyptian mysteries to eclectic paganism.

Cultural appropriation is where members of a dominant culture take sacred aspects of another culture and appropriate them for aesthetic purposes. A good, and recent, example is white people wearing traditional American Indian headdresses. Each feather in a warbonnet means the person wearing did something. It’s like wearing medals you didn’t earn. Members of the tribes of American Indians are very vocal about the appropriation of their sacred rites, such as dream quests and sweat lodges, and the people who use them without understanding the culture. They make the very valid point that religion is about community and you can’t separate the practice from the life.

Neopagans draw from any religions going – including the dominant Abrahamic religions – and they do it with the full range of motivations. Some neopagans are all about community and some are all about the individual connection with the divine. These essays are from people practicing various paths and talk about their experiences of cultural appropriation. In many cases, that means working through a rationalization for doing whatever you want and not feeling guilty about it. There is an interesting discussion about academic bias and lots of tidbits about various traditions and where symbols are derived from. While the essays are engaging and, I believe, genuinely try to tackle the issue, this anthology feels like it failed to get to grips with it.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I understand the desire not to give up the objects and activities that you’ve become attached to and have a connection with. I also feel that’s it’s not enough to say, well it’s ok to violate the living culture of a people who have been colonised and are still experiencing oppression so long as you do it respectfully. Maybe, the answer is to address the social issues that make cultural appropriation so harmful.

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