The Gaean Path and Cultural Appropriation: Part 2 – Feeding the Spiritual Seeker

Feeding the Spiritual Seeker

The question of what to do with masses of spiritually hungry seekers of European descent is problematic in the light of cultural appropriation. Some Native Americans would like to reach out and invite their “White Brothers” to learn their ways, if they will be humble and respectful. Some of European descent accept this invitation, while others respond that they respect Native religion, but do not wish to become an Indian. And many natives see outreach as a slippery-slope to losing their cultural identity, handing over their cultural heritage to outsiders. So, sometimes the question is answered flippantly: “Get your own religion, and leave ours alone!”

This answer is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. One way to take it is “Why don’t you just find a way to live with the Christian tradition?” This is an unbearable solution for many, who feel that Christianity is fundamentally broken. Belief in salvation through Jesus is a concept that many simply can’t accept, and even more liberal interpretations of the Christian tradition require spiritual seekers to constantly “translate in their heads” from the antiquated, patriarchal, symbolic language of the Bronze- and Iron-Age symbols of the Bible to their contemporary lives and world-view. The hierarchical “God as King” concept from that era is incompatible with today’s more egalitarian values, and the ancient attitudes towards women, gays, and even slavery and genocide are just not acceptable to many today. The religions of advanced civilization just don’t feel authentic to them, and they seek a more primitive (although no less sophisticated) approach to spiritual expression. They feel a deep yearning for a spirituality that is unconnected to politics and social domination.

A second way to take the mandate of “Get your own religion!” is to forget the past, and just start fresh: with new ideas and new practices that are reflective of their values. Some new age religions embrace space-aliens, crystals, and spiritualism (for examples). A few have reached into the past for inspiration, such as Theosophy, but are really quite modern in their application. Still, those late 19th-Century to early 20th-Century spiritualist paths took advantage of the popularity of the new archaeological discoveries in Egypt at that time, and lean heavily on appropriating that ancient culture, sometimes in quite imaginative, but anthropologically false, ways.

One last way of looking at the “Get your own religion!” response, which many neo-pagans and heathens do, is to look to the Pre-Christian religions of Europe. Some of these religions claim an unbroken link to ancient peoples and practices. I’m sure that there will be some who disagree here, even vehemently (but hopefully not abusively) claiming that their British, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, or other path that comes out of Ancient Europe are “Native European”, but they struggle to make a convincing claim of an unbroken lineage. Many claims have been pretty thoroughly debunked, while others have been proven fraudulent through the admission of those who created them.

Most of those have been heavily influenced by Christianity. Some adapted their practices and beliefs to survive the various inquisitions and crusades. Others went into deep hiding, but also changed in their efforts to differentiate themselves from Christianity, and we have no guarantee that what some claim as a “surviving unbroken tradition” are authentically that. Although many try to make that case, many which have tried have also been effectively debunked to one degree or another. The traditions of Scandinavia, which were the last nations in Europe to be Christianized, are perhaps the most intact. It is also believed, due to evidence of runic systems similar to Futhark from other parts of Europe, that this religion was more widespread than Northern Europe. In fact, some believe that it may have originated with the Etruscans of the Southern Alps. If any surviving tradition could lay claim to being “Native European” it would be that.

However, these Anglo-Saxon religions such as Asatrú are questionably “Native European” in the first place. In literature, the Eddas of the Asatrú tell the story of how their sky gods, the Æsir, conquered and largely supplanted the native earth and fertility gods of the region, the Vanir. There is evidence to support that these new gods came with the horse-riding conquerors who originated from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe.

Celts, although they have a long history in Europe, arrived in Western Europe ca. 1000 BCE. Many had mistakenly believed that the famous Stonehenge was a creation of the Celts, but it long predates their arrival in Britain. Who built it, and why? Some Celtic traditions, such as Druidism, hold a similar allure as Native American Religions for people who seek a Nature-centered path. Druidism includes aspects of totemic animals, for instance, which are seen as being similar to Native American paths. While it would be incorrect to imply too much similarity, Druidism does go a long way to satisfy those nature-path yearnings. However, Druidism is also locked into a cultural paradigm of a particular people, and could not be considered a pan-European path.

Others work hard to reconstruct ancient religions. In particular, Roman and Hellenic reconstructionism have active communities. We applaud their efforts. They work tirelessly to find and reconstruct ancient rituals, with varying success. It should be noted that they are really reconstructing many religions, since Greco-Roman pantheism was a collection of dozens of cults to different gods, each with their own mystery rites and liturgical calendars. Given the Greco-Roman influence on Western Civilization, getting back “to the roots” of that civilization appeals to many. But even the Greeks are not “Native European”. According to Herodotus, the Greek gods of the Golden Age are the gods of the Egyptians, re-envisioned for the Hellenes. Modern scholars think they may have been the gods of invaders who conquered and largely supplanted the native Pelasgian gods of the Aegean region. With new pantheons of gods came new sets of values, beliefs, and world-views that are not “Native European”.

Even if we decide we’re going to invest our spiritual search and practices in one of these later pre-Christian religions of Western Europe, we are still investing into a specific cultural expression from a particular region, which raises its own issues of cultural appropriation. Some Asatrú believe that one must actually have Viking blood to lay claim to that religion. And the popularization of Marvel Comics’ “Thor” has led to a phenomenon of “plastic Vikings”, if you will.

It seems that, no matter the culture we choose, we risk stepping on someone’s toes. Even if we choose Christianity, the instant we try to define it in our own way, we’re declared as “heretics” by at lease a few denominations, perhaps even being labeled as a “cult”, and deemed to be dangerous to interact with.

“Get your own religion” places spiritual seekers into a serious difficulty. One explanation for the rise of neo-wicca is that it’s a “do it yourself” religion. Individuals can build their own faith tradition. Often, they’re called “eclectic”, because they borrow (appropriate) elements from a number of other paths. This works for some, but often leaves them strictly “solitary” and cut off from any semblance of community, except in the loosest sense of doing generic neo-pagan rituals. Even those have generated conflict as arguments arise about what’s appropriate to do in public ritual (do we mix pantheons, for instance? or incorporate fairies and dragons?).

The mix of culture and religion seems to make the spiritual quest into a minefield to be navigated. It would probably make the most vocal “get your own religion” types happy if those of European descent would just study Druidism, or Asatrú (the non-supremacist variants of it), or Greco-Roman Reconstructionism, or any number of other neo-pagan or reconstructionist paths out of Europe. But how well do these paths satisfy the specific kind of spiritual hunger that has driven people to study Native American religion? The desire to be deeply attuned with the natural world and peaceful coexistence? The Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures celebrate and revere conquering warrior-heroes, after all.

If that’s your thing, by all means, pursue it.

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