Cultural Imperialism on Steroids
Over the last few years I’ve been grappling with unlearning and learning about cultural appropriation, especially with regard to religious beliefs and practices. This combined with decolonisation in religious studies has opened up so much healing and helpful reconciliations.
So much has been done already on how to steer away from appropriation by asking what are the things not to do? The natural partner to this was to ask the question: what should I do instead? And the resounding answer to this was decolonising your practices.
But what hasn’t so much been discussed en mass culturally is how the hell we even got here.
How and why did and does cultural appropriation become so widely acceptable? The short answer is colonisation and white supremacy culture’s innate cultural imperialism.
I’ve spoken about cultural imperialism so much over the last five years, but it has mostly been in a way discussing again what not to do, and not so much getting to the root of the problem with specific examples or a historical breakdown for clarity.
I myself have been working to decolonise my own religious practices, and a foundational bit of information was what I learned from an online course: Decolonise Your Druidry & Spiritual Practice at the Irish Pagan School based in Waterford Ireland.
Not to give too much away, we were given a breakdown of the history of Neopaganism. How many of the founders of modern day pagan religious groups are steeped in colonialism. In fascist occultism. In antiquarianism. In romanticism. In dualistic binaries and fake-lore fertility cults. In patriarchal sexual exploitation. In racist Anglo-Saxon centric nationalism. Basically a bunch of white English men in social clubs with really big egos who appropriated from cultures all over Europe, Asia, and Roman-controlled-Egypt; making up things for their own convenience along the way.
1781 was when the Ancient Order of Druids was founded. But the kicker is that they weren’t a religious organisation, they were a social club with a lot of Freemasonry.
1874 was when the Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids was founded with one of the members being Gerald Gardner. Again a lot of influence from Freemasonry and other Occult social clubs.
In 1964 The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids was founded in England.
The thing that we really need to start out with here though is the innate fascism within western occultism. The need to manipulate and control, and have power-over other beings, elements, and the natural world for your own benefit. It’s a majour reason the Nazis were so fascinated in the occult. To gain power over others. The authoritarianism within western occult studies has always had an underbelly of white supremacy.
Stepping farther back Hermeticism is in my opinion where all of this starts. It has come in and out of popularity for thousands of years, but is ultimately the founding father of eclecticism in the fusing Christian mysticism, Greek and Roman-Controlled-Egyptian esoteric philosophies. This is where the urge to find a single true theology from God comes from. This is also where the well known phrase, “As above, so below” comes from. It is where reincarnation is first seen outside of Kabbalistic Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhist worldviews.
Hermeticism is what influenced late 1300s Freemasonry (though the oldest proven Masonic Lodge is in Edinburgh Scotland known as “Mary’s Chapel” built in 1599), 1600s Rosicrucianism, the 1717 Grand Lodge of England, and in the late 1800s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn society.
Another fusion is seen in the Theosophical Society, founded in the United States in 1875 New York City. It fused Buddhism, Hinduism, and Neoplatonism. Theosophy would be a huge contributor to Nazism in Germany, as the founder of Theosophy herself was anti-Black and anti-Semitic believing in racial hierarchies.
A reminder of the global cultural world at the time, this is again when the Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids was founded in 1874 by Wentworth Little, a Rosicrucian and Freemason, with the intent of studying the links between Freemasonry and ancient Druidic tradition.
This brings us to Gerald Gardner, founder of modern Wicca.
In 1900 he moved to British colonised Sri Lanka, then known as “Ceylon” and after a decade moved to the British colonised “Malay peninsula” in what is now Malaysia in 1910. He also spent time in the Canary Islands, Ghana, and Borneo. “It was during these years that he became interested in anthropology, weaponry, and indigenous spiritual practices; all of which would later influence his work.” (Penelope 2017)
He would go on to move to Cyprus with his wife in 1936 and joined a nudist club. In 1938 they moved to London, and joined a Rosicrucian order, and was supposedly initiated into the New Forest Coven of witches in 1939. This coven is what we could refer to now as an antifascist coven as they were documented to use witchcraft to repel German Nazi invasions into England during skyclad(nude) rituals. It is with this coven that Gardner designed rituals around practices from Freemasonry, ceremonial magic (Hermeticism), and the writings of Aleister Crowley (The Golden Dawn).
In 1951 Gardner is said to have founded his first coven: the Bricket Wood Coven after purchasing a nudist country club on the Isle of Man where he would hold rituals. It has since become a museum, but I think it is important to acknowledge the history of a place, and where some see a museum I find it important to call a nudist country club. It can be both.
We can see clearly here the innate eclecticism of Wicca. In truth it isn’t a tradition, but a selection of traditions, plural.
You have the Hermeticism: Christian mysticism, Greek and Roman-Controlled-Egyptian esoteric philosophies. You have the Freemasonry elements: Geomancy, Hellenic, Greco-Roman, Roman-controlled-Egyptian philosophies, Christian, Kabbalistic, Islamic, and Hinduism philosophies. (In most jurisdictions, a Bible, Quran, Tanakh, Vedas or other appropriate sacred text (known in some rituals as the Volume of the Sacred Law) will always be displayed while the Lodge is open). You have Rosicrucianism: Hermeticism + Kabbalah, alchemy, and more Christian mysticism. You have the Golden Dawn as well: the geomancy, hermeticism, Kabbalah, alchemy, and tarot. It even has elements pulled from “Celtic” traditions too… (we will get to this later).
Wicca isn’t just about the mythologies though, it’s about ritual design, the phrases; and the meanings behind the traditions. The nudism, the tarot, the casting of circles as a kabbalistic practice. All of these traditions and forms of ritual influenced Wicca, and continues to influence it today.
These traditions have all impacted and influenced Gardnerian Wicca (1954) Alexandrian Wicca (1967) Central Valley Wicca (1969) Algard Wicca (1972) Chthonioi Alexandrian Wicca (1974) Blue Star Wicca (1975) Eclectic Wicca and Inclusive Wicca, Celtic Wicca (1968), Saxon Wicca (1973), Dianic Wicca (1971), McFarland Dianic Wicca (1971), Faery Wicca (1994), Georgian Wicca (1970), Odyssean Wicca (1979), etc.
However, I want to point out here the question I am trying to steer us towards: how do we decolonise Wicca? How do we decolonise our personal and the various institutional forms of Wicca mentioned above?
Because all of them fall under the eclectic umbrella, completely divorced from Reconstructionist forms of Neopaganism, a good place to start would be to begin by looking to history.
Just looking at The Feri Tradition of the 1960s, The Radical Faerie Movement beginning in 1979, and Faery Wicca (1994); all being founded in California we start to see a pattern.
The Feri Tradition takes from Huna, Vodou, Faery lore, Kabbalah, Hoodoo, Tantra, and Gnosticism (Christian mysticism).
The Radical Faerie Movement takes from “Marxism, feminism, paganism, Native American and New Age spirituality, anarchism, the mythopoetic men’s movement, radical individualism, the therapeutic culture of self-fulfillment and self-actualization, earth-based movements in support of sustainable communities, spiritual solemnity coupled with a camp sensibility, gay liberation and drag.” (Hennen, Peter (2008), Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen, University of Chicago Press) They are also known to incorporate the work of Starhawk’s Spiral Dance as well.
None of these have connections to Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Brittany, or Cornwall living-cultures. Where are the folk practices? Where are the living Fairy-Faith/ Sidthe customs and practices? What are the holidays called in the original Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Gaeilge? And when we are talking Ireland and Gaeilge, which dialect, and which county? “Celtic” is no longer acceptable by scholars and the peoples of these places, if they ever were. Lumping and universalising is a huge disadvantage and erases whole groups of people from the conversation and from the full measure of truth. It always advantages the colonisers.
Faery Wicca is a great example of this as it is by far the most transgressive example I have found. Faery Wicca began in the 1990s and clearly appropriated Irish culture to prop itself up as “authentic” Irish Fairy Faith tradition. They went so far to stoop to Irish stereotypes where the High Priestess and Priest are called “Banshee and Leprechaun” … *blinks* *Excuse me??!*
Founded by Kisma Stepanich in 1994, we now know that not only is Stepanich a “Reiki Master,” but was notoriously outed for being abusive and a plagiarist. A former member shares the following in 1999:
“she runs a coven is based on “cult” brainwashing techniques. (see Isaac Bonewitz’s Cult Danger Evaluation Frame) For instance, students are restricted from contacts outside the group, (told who they may or may not remain friends with) and also from contact inside the group (she doesn’t want them to compare notes with each other or talk about her when she isn’t there) so all situations are managed by her. Like a tin-plated dictator with delusions of Goddesshood (and with a really nasty temper), she uses public humiliation coupled with saccharin-sweet compliments, and then more humiliation, she keeps people off-balance so they don’t know where they stand and must turn to her (and only her) for guidance. Family commitments and health issues take second place to all group/coven activities, and woe be to you if you question her. She charges monthly coven tithes as well as admission to each moon gathering, and sabbat. A mandatory part of the training for all students is attendance at ALL her outside classes at locations other than her home, (local bookstores, meeting halls) about $70 to $90 each. And there is a $50 charge for initiation, which MUST be renewed (and paid for) each year.”
All of this is enough to make your head spin around and around. Again I ask the question, how does this happen?
Eclectic Paganism, or Universalist, Non-denominational Paganism all allow practitioners to “blend paganism with aspects of other religions or philosophies.” In the book “Handbook of New Age”, Melissa Harrington states that “Eclectic Pagans do not follow any particular Paganism, but follow a Pagan religious path, that includes the overall Pagan ethos of reverence for the ancient Gods, participation in a magical world view, stewardship and caring for the Earth, and ‘nature religion.’” The practice of Eclectic Paganism is particularly popular with Pagans in North America and the British Isles.”
And I wonder why?? Could the answer possibly be an ethos of white colonialism entitlement? Is it any wonder that after WW2, this eclectic spiritual environment founded upon the Beat Generation’s obsession with Asian and Native American culture would bring forth the counterculture of the 1960s, coincided with the US’s heavy involvement in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the rest of the South Pacific? Is it any wonder that antiwar but oriental fetisation would inspire West Coast American Holistic Health interests in occultic Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Korean “Shamanism”, and Japanese Reiki?
Is it any wonder that Raymond Buckland would form the Gardnerian Brentwood Coven in 1963 in Long Island, NY? And all the other forms of Wicca in the 1960s and 70s?
If this was the established design, is it any wonder that the Rainbow Family of Living Light formed in 1970’s Oregon with their Native American inspired drum circles and Evangelical Christian calls for universal peace?
Is it any wonder that one of the most well known prophecies, “The Legend of the Rainbow Warrior” was created in 1962 by non-Natives as part of an Evangelical Christian agenda with “a covert anti-Semitism throughout, while evangelizing against traditional Native American spirituality.” (Niman, Michael (1997). People of the Rainbow: Nomadic Utopia. University of Tennessee Press. pp. 136–137)
In 2015, a group of Native American academics and writers issued a statement against the Rainbow Family members who are “appropriating and practicing faux Native ceremonies and beliefs. These actions, although Rainbows may not realize, dehumanize us as an indigenous Nation because they imply our culture and humanity, like our land, is anyone’s for the taking.” The signatories specifically named this misappropriation as “cultural exploitation.” a group that cites a fictitious “Native American prophecy” as informing their self-identification as “warriors of the rainbow” and willfully appropriates Native cultural practices, is not only adventurist and dangerous, but offensive to many of us who advance and continue to defend the spiritual, the cultural, the sacred, and, most importantly, the political vitality and vision of the Oceti Sakowin.”
It comes as no shock that “those who attend the Rainbow Family Gatherings usually share an interest in intentional communities, ecology, New Age spirituality, and entheogens. Adherents call the camp “Rainbowland” and, in an appropriation of Rastafarian customs, refer to the world outside of gatherings as “Babylon.”
Is it any wonder that Burning Man, beginning in 1986 would become one of the most well known places globally for radical self-expression via sex-positivity, nudity, psychedelics, holistic health modalities, New Age Neopagan spirituality, steampunk and rave culture while also being one of the most well known places for anti-Black racism and cultural appropriation (prevalence of wearing dreads and headdresses is just being the tip of the iceberg)? Even though they have a mission statement in favour of inclusivity, I don’t think they get it still.
Because inclusivity does not mean tolerance of diversity nor does it mean the practice of eclecticism. Inclusivity means not treating non-white people as anthropological thought experiments. Inclusivity means not getting defensive when discussing open or closed cultural practices. Inclusivity means treating others with respect and acknowledging their agency over their cultural practices and traditions. Inclusivity means building authentic reconciling relationships built upon mutual reciprocity. Inclusivity requires us to stop eclectically appropriating religious technologies.
Just because it has always been there doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives.
Throughout all this time Reconstructionist paths have run in tandem along the Wiccan timeline. As have Living-cultures with Living-traditions with Living cultural stewards.
Honestly, there is a big shift in Reconstructionist pagan spheres to deconstruct and decolonise as well because so much has changed in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. Much has changed since Gardner’s age of fertility cults. New information is at our disposal that is overturning many Reconstructionist foundations. Indigenous archaeology, Queer archaeology, Postcolonial archaeology, new Ontological archaeologies abound that break archaic foundations that were and still are based sometimes in nationalistic fascism and racism and cisheterosexism and classism and ableism.
This is the second decade in a new millennium. White holistic health practitioners and spiritualists are being called out and in to do better. To stop profiteering on Black and Indigenous pagan practices and spiritual technologies. Because theirs are closed power-with magics based in liberation and survival where our magics have always tried to control and manipulate power-over others. They have been closed as acts of survival because they have seen what white practitioners do with the knowledge.
It’s time to fully hear this call to authenticity and accountability. It’s time to decolonise and embrace a new wave of Neopaganism. We have the power to stop this age-old white fuckery.
What’s so cool is that when we are confronted about these things in our faith or in our practices; it offers us chances to not only reflect but to connect with others who have for so long been exploited at the hands of cultural imperialism. We can choose to continue to hold multiple truths at once, allowing everyone their pluralistic and beautiful though different beliefs and abandon eclecticism. We can trust and honour Black and Indigenous sovereignty in their practices to keep us in check, while we continue to do what needs to be done to upend what white people in social clubs and cults created for us to consume.