Anarchy in the UK…Archaeological Sector? A Brief Introduction into an Alternative Approach to Archaeology

One of my goals for 2019 is to try and make my work even more accessible – including conference and journal papers! I know that those can be hard to read due to jargon and the general sleep-inducing nature of the academic writing style, so I’ll be writing accompanying blog posts that are more accessible (and hopefully more fun!) to read with just about the same information. And if you’re a nerd, I’ll also add a link to the original paper too. Today’s blog post comes from a paper I presented at the 2018 Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference – you can find the full text here.

If you think about the word “anarchist”, you probably have a very specific image that comes to mind – some sort of “punk” masked up and dressed all in black, probably breaking windows or setting fires. And while that may be accurate praxis for some who wave the black flag (and also completely valid!), I’d argue that is doesn’t necessarily do the actual concept of “anarchism” justice…although, to be honest, I do love to wear black clothes

So then…what is anarchism? And how can it relate to archaeology?

tag2018(3)
A slide from my original TAG 2018 presentation on Anarchism and Archaeology showing various images of what most people consider to be “anarchist”.

To use Alex Comfort’s definition (1996), anarchism is “the political philosophy which advocates the maximum individual responsibility and reduction of concentrated power” – anarchy rejects centralised power and hierarchies, and instead opts for returning agency to the people without needing an authority, such as a government body. Anarchy places the emphasis on communal efforts, such as group consensus (Barclay 1996).

So, how does this work with archaeology? Why would you mix anarchy and archaeology together? For starters – this isn’t a new concept! There have been many instances of “anarchist archaeology” discussions, from special journal issues (Bork and Sanger 2017) to dedicated conference sessions (see the Society for American Archaeology 2015 conference). There have also been a few instances of anarchist praxis put into archaeological practice: for example, there is the Ludlow Collective (2001) that worked as a non-hierarchical excavation team, as well as the formation of a specifically anarchist collective known as the Black Trowel Collective (2016).

To me, an Anarchist Archaeology is all about removing the power structures (and whatever helps to create and maintain these structures) from archaeology as a discipline, both in theory and practice. We often find that the voices and perspectives of white/western, cis-heteronormative male archaeologists are overrepresented. Adapting an anarchist praxis allows us to push back against the active marginalisation and disenfranchisement of others within our discipline. This opens up the discipline to others, whose perspectives were often considered “non-archaeology” and therefore non-acceptable for consideration by the “experts” (i.e. – archaeologists) In Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf’s edited volume on archaeology and folklore, this sentiment is echoed by a few authors, including Collis (1999, pp. 126-132) and Symonds (1999, pp. 103-125).

And hey, maybe logistically we’ll never truly reach this level of “equitable archaeology” – after all, this is a long, hard work that requires tearing down some of the so-called “fundamental structures” of the discipline that have always prioritised the privileged voice over the marginalised. But adapting an anarchist praxis isn’t about achieving a state of so-called “perfection”; rather, it’s a process of constantly critiquing our theories and assumptions, always looking for ways to make our field more inclusive and to make ourselves less reliant on the problematic frameworks that were once seen as fundamental.

It’s a destructive process for progress…but hey, isn’t that just the very nature of archaeology itself?

screenshot_2019-01-08 (pdf) black flags and black trowels embracing anarchy in interpretation and practice
Enjoy this poorly Photoshopped emblem of Anarchist Archaeology!

References

Barclay, H. (1996) People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Kahn and Averill Publishers.

Black Trowel Collective (2016) Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: a Community Manifesto. Savage Minds. Retrieved from https://savageminds.org/2016/10/31/foundations-of-an-anarchist-archaeology-a-community-manifesto/.

Bork, L. and Sanger, M.C. (2017) Anarchy and Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record. 17(1).

Collis, J. (1999) Of ‘The Green Man’ and ‘Little Green Men’. In Gazin-Schawrtz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. (editors) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge. pp. 126-132.

Comfort, A. (1996) Preface. In Barclay, H. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Kahn and Averill Publishers.

Ludlow Collective (2001) Archaeology of the Colorado Coal Field War, 1913-1914. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. Routledge. pp. 94-107.

Symonds, J. (1999) Songs Remembered in Exile? Integrating Unsung Archives of Highland Life. In Gazin-Schawrtz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. (editors) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge. pp. 103-125.

Advertisements

What is Old is New Again: Heathenry and the Alt-Right

Heathenry is a particular movement within neo-paganism that draws upon Nordic mythology and folklore. It is arguably one of the largest alternative spiritualities practiced today. And, unfortunately, it also houses a large population of white supremacists.

img_3218
Rune stones, often used for divination purposes within Heathenry practises

To understand this phenomenon, we must first look at the roots of Heathenry as a neo-pagan practice. Arguably one of the earliest forms of this sort of romanticism was the 19th century volkisch movement, in which the Germanic past was viewed as a period in which nature and culture co-existed through emphasis of ethnicity, leading to the intertwining of romanticism and nationalism. To reach back even further in time, this could be seen as a reaction to earlier Enlightenment thought, which some saw as a mass disenchantment of the world due to the rise of rationality and reason (Granholm 2010).

Modern day Heathenry appears to have come into popularity in the 1970’s, alongside other alternative religions such as Wicca. Alternative names for the practice were developed as more Heathen groups were organised – this includes Asatru, Wotanism, and Odinism. Unfortunately, many of the most well known Heathen groups have fully embraced the racial politics of earlier Norse romanticism.

soldiers-odin
Alt-Right and Heathen group ‘The Sons of Odin’ protest against migrants (Photo Credit: AntiFascistNews)

Today, the Neo-Nazis behind the Alt-Right movement continue to utilise Heathenry – and its associated emblems and icons – as part of their political action. This includes the creation of various Heathenry-based Neo-Nazi groups, such as the Soliders of Odin, the Vinlanders Social Club, and the Wolves of Vinland. Emphasising the belief that Heathenry is the “masculine”, patriarchal alternative to the “feminine”, weaker Christianity, these groups utilise hyper-masculinity and violence as their politics (Weber 2018). It’s not uncommon to find these folks at Alt-Right rallies, wearing Norse-themed paraphernalia to invoke this “masculine” ideal of “barbarous” Vikings protecting their (white) homeland.

Pagan_Anti_Fascists
One of many calls for anti-fascist action within the Pagan community (Image Credit: Pagans Against Fascism Facebook Group)

However, it should be noted that not all practitioners of Heathenry associate with white supremacist beliefs. Recently, there has been a concentrated push by Heathen neo-pagans against the Alt-Right and all other forms of racism and oppression within their practice. Rejecting the so-called “racial purity” of these racist sects, these Heathen groups instead promote universalist values, embracing practitioners from marginalised groups, such as BIPOC and LGBTQ+. These groups include Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR), the anarchist collective Circle Ansuz, and the universalist Heathen organisation The Troth.

As an archaeologist, I’d argue that our discipline could learn from neo-pagan groups currently pushing against fascism within their spiritual practices – after all, archaeology is facing a similar misuse of our research by the Alt-Right movement and other right-wing nationalists (Elliott 2017). Perhaps we require more mobilisation and organising in order to combat the rising tide of fascist propaganda, or maybe even partnerships with Heathenry organisations? Either way, this is clearly a similar threat that both of our groups face – perhaps there is some common ground for fighting back?

References

Burley, S. (2016) Rainbow Heathenry: Is a Left-Wing, Multicultural Asatru Possible? Gods and Radicals. Retrieved from https://godsandradicals.org/2016/04/06/rainbow-heathenry-is-a-left-wing-multicultural-asatru-possible/

Elliott, A.B.R. (2017) A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages. The Public Medievalist.Retrieved from https://www.publicmedievalist.com/vile-love-affair/

Granholm, K. (2010) The Rune Gild: Heathenism, Traditionalism, and the Left-Hand Path. International Journal for the Study of New Religions. pp. 95-115.

Weber, S. (2018) White Supremacy’s Old Gods: the Far Right and Neo-Paganism. The Public Eye.

 

“I Love Dying and Being Dead” – Late Capitalism and Modern Perceptions of Death

Lately, archaeologists have been a bit concerned about memes. No, not because they’re trying to perfect their comedic skills – rather, there’s been a relatively recent rash of popular memes that were derived from several big archaeological finds. For example, a nearly complete human skeleton was recovered in Pompeii, originally interpreted to have been crushed to death while fleeing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The image used to publicise this excavation – a skeleton whose head has been obfuscated by a stone slab – ended up being used by many as a meme on social media like Twitter and Facebook. This led to a further discussion by archaeologists across the Internet on respecting human remains and whether or not it was ethical to make memes out of recovered bodies, regardless of the age and unknown identity (Finn 2018).

662
A Tweet from Patrick Gill (@Pizza_Suplex) commenting on the skeleton recovery that says, “Me to a panicked group of archaeologists moments after I drop a big ass rock on a perfectly preserved Pompeii skeleton: Chill. Let me talk to the press. I’ve got this.”

Although the main concern with this “meme-ification” of the dead is the ethics at play (for more on the ethics of human remains on display, see my blog post on selfies with human remains in the recent Tomb Raider game), I’m more interested in why memes utilising the dead – or associated with death and dying – are so popular these days.

Let’s talk about late capitalism and how it shapes the average young person’s everyday life, shall we?

An image of a tombstone that says “This Space for Rent” – the caption added above it says, “Capitalism even ruins the sweet release of death smh”

Millennials have had the utmost misfortune to reach young adulthood (the “pivotal years”, as many call this time period) during late capitalism. This means that, as a generational group, they are significantly poorer than previous generations (O’Connor 2018), with a growing number unable to even save money (Elkins 2018) from a severe lack of fair wages. This is the generational group that is leaving higher education with high amounts of debt, only to find a feeble job market that demands long hours for little pay. It’s a pretty bleak future that young people seem to have inherited, so it’s honestly hard to blame them for developing such a morbid sense of humour that utilises iconography and imagery associated with death to express such futility in a way that’s become palatable for everyone else.

DpPQkulUUAAgi4v.jpg large
A meme from Da Share Zone (@dasharezOne), a popular social media presence that makes images using stock photos of skeletons. This one depicts a (fake) human skeleton wearing a fur coat with a flower crown . The text around it says, “Looking Good, Feeling Bad”. Relatable!

What interests me the most as an archaeologist is how this affects our perception of death and dying in modern times. Morbid memes may be contributing to a sort of desensitisation of dying, to the point where it has become no longer taboo or fearful to speak of the dead – in fact, people actively make fun of the dead and the concept of dying. I would argue that this could be seen as the opposite effect that the Positive Death Movement is having, which strives to cultivate a more positive and respectful attitude towards death. I think, as archaeologists, we definitely need to push back against the meme-ification of the dead as violation of ethics – but I also think we should consider why this has become a trend, how the socio-political characteristics of the world at large can cause these things to become popular, and how we can take this approach and apply it to our interpretations of the past.

References

Elkins, K. (2018) A Growing Percentage of Millennials Have Absolutely Nothing Saved. CBNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/09/a-growing-percentage-of-millennials-have-absolutely-nothing-saved.html

Finn, E. (2018) Pompeii Should Teach Us to Celebrate People’s Lives, Not Mock Their Death. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/pompeii-should-teach-us-to-celebrate-peoples-lives-not-mock-their-death-97632

O’Connor, S. (2018) Millennials Poorer than Previous Generations, Data Show. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/81343d9e-187b-11e8-9e9c-25c814761640

 

Selfies with the Dead: ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ and the Dehumanisation of Human Remains

Content Warning: Discussion of human remains in this blog post. No actual images of human remains are used, however there are images of digital human remains from the Shadow of the Tomb Raider video game, so please be advised.

1536548849111-IMG-07.png
(Image Credit: Dia Lacina via Waypoint)

Recently, the third instalment of the rebooted Tomb Raider video game franchise was released. This game, titled Shadow of the Tomb Raider, places playable heroine Lara Croft in Meso-America and South America attempting to stop a Mayan apocalypse that she had unknowingly set into motion after stealing an artefact.

The game has received a fair bit of criticism not only for its gameplay, but for the content of the story itself. Despite being a property who has been in the public eye for over two decades, Tomb Raider has never been able to truly shake off its title – Lara Croft has always been a looter of tombs and ruins, despite any good intentions. Although this recent instalment has arguably made the most effort in confronting the inherent colonialism of being a “tomb raider”, the game still reproduces much of it itself (see Lacina 2018). Dia Lacina’s article on Tomb Raider and colonialism is a thorough breakdown of the game’s attempt to critique its own problematic setting, but only briefly mentions the problems caused by the game’s photo mode. What I would like to add, as an archaeologist, is how the photo mode plays into a well-known trope of colonisation: the dehumanisation of specific people, particularly their remains.

iaLO4Ny
(Image Credit: Resetera Community Member Sabrina)

Let me preface all of this by saying that I do not necessarily think the developers of the game intended for the photo mode to be used to take “silly” selfies with human remains! Photo modes in video games has been a relatively recent trend, with big name games like God of War and Spider-Man having their own versions of a photo mode as part of their gameplay. However, due to the context of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the addition of a photo mode touches upon an issue regarding human remains that I slightly touched upon in last week’s blog post: what are the ethics of displaying and photographing remains?

This question is a relatively recent one, coming as part of a renewed interest in the ethics of remains amongst archaeological bloggers, writers, and curators. Harries et al. (2018) write that although there are plenty of ethical guidelines for the handling and display of  human remains, less work has been done on creating uniform guidelines for displaying photographs of human remains. This is mainly due to a key debate that is still underway: are photographs and other depictions of remains equal to the actual remains? Or are they just a likeness, and therefore a separate thing? Is the very act of making the dead the subject of your photo (without their consent) an act of objectifying and dehumanising them?

To further tie these questions in with the themes of Tomb Raider, let’s consider dehumanisation. Dehumanisation of human remains, as well as living humans, was and still is a key component to colonisation efforts. The remains of Indigenous people across North America were often displayed as “educational tools” in museums or as “oddities and curiosities” in roadside exhibits. Regardless of the setting or the perceived intention, these places had commodified these human remains, removing any agency and “othering” them as objects on display, rather than people (Rewolinski 2014).

So, is the photographing human remains ethical? I do not claim to have any concrete answers, of course, but I think in the case of Tomb Raider, what changes the answer is the fact that the player, as Lara Croft, can take selfies with human remains. In this context, it could be argued that the human remains are used as props – the same way one would pose with a statue, a landmark, or any other object. Not to mention that many players use the dead in-game for the purposes of hilarity, juxtaposing a corpse with Lara Croft’s awkward smile (McGladdery 2018). I’d argue that the use of a dead body for one’s punchline would consist of dehumanisation, to be honest.

So perhaps the next time you, or Lara Croft, come across human remains…maybe put the camera away. And reflect on why you instantly “other” the remains before you, instead of treating them as what they represent: a person who once lived.

Screenshot_2018-10-01 Andy Kelly on Twitter
(Image Credit: Andy Kelly via Twitter)

References

Harries, J. et al. (2018) Exposure: the Ethics of Making, Sharing, and Displaying Photographs of Human Remains. Human Remains and Violence. 4(1). pp. 3-24.

Lacina, D. (2018). ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ Tries, but Fails, to Tackle its Own Colonialism. Waypoint. https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialismhttps://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialism

McGladdery, M. (2018) Grin in the Face of Danger: Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s Hilarious Photo Mode. LAD Bible. http://www.ladbible.com/technology/gaming-shadow-of-the-tomb-raiders-hilarious-photo-mode-20180913

Rewolinski, D. (2014) Remains to be Seen: the Disparate Disposition of Culturally Unidentified Human Remains under NAGPRA’s Final Rule. Unpublished Thesis. New York University.

Square Enix. (2018). Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

inside_paw
One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

siberian-foal-perfectly-preserved-pleistocene_1024
The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

siberian-foal-hooves
Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).

What is Old is New Again: Cultural Appropriation

Issues of cultural appropriation in “New Age” and holistic circles isn’t breaking news – over the past decade, there has been much in the media and news discussing appropriation of ritual garb, sacred herbs, and practices, often by white spiritual leaders who make financial gain through their appropriative acts without providing anything in return to those whose culture has been stolen. Although the material side of cultural appropriation is easy to spot (for example, the many, many examples of white people wearing indigenous war bonnets during festivals), it has also become far more engrained in some Neo-Pagan and modern witchcraft circles.

Cultural appropriation doesn’t seem related to archaeology at first glance, but because appropriation is mostly performed through the creation and utilisation of material culture, it arguably is an archaeological issue. Regardless, given that this writing series is focused on Neo-Paganism, it feels necessary that this topic is discussed first and foremost.

img_2422
Just a small example of clashing cultures – a Norse rune alongside an oracle card depicting Egyptian deity Bast.

Arguably much cultural appropriation could be traced to comparative studies of religions – for example, comparative Indo-European mythology, which has resulted in the use of aspects of Hinduism in Celtic reconstructivism (Michale 2008). In some ways, this could be seen as coming from a good natured place – by utilising a form of soft polytheism, or the belief that all deities across religions are all aspects of the same god, it places all religions on a similar level of “respect” and does not place one particular religion over another.

However, this masks the negative effects of cultural appropriation. In Peter Grey’s book Apocalyptic Witchcraft (2013), he writes that “the New Age is one such form of cultural imperialism”, referring to the violence that cultural appropriation does towards the very rituals and rites that are being appropriated, torn from the cultural context that they originated from. An “outsider” from the culture will gain from their use (or, in many cases, misuse) of their practices – in a sense, they are stealing what is not rightfully theirs, which in some ways can recreate imperialistic power structures, especially if the culture in question has a history of being persecuted for practising the very beliefs that have now been appropriated.

The more malicious form of cultural appropriation is seen in the commodification of spiritual elements from other cultures by outsiders. The term “plastic shaman” is often used to refer to someone (often a white, non-native) who peddles “Native American spirituality” in the form of manufactured totems, jewellery, or oracle cards. This commodification often results in the homogenising of all Native American practices as one singular tradition, rather than the complex and diverse cultures that differ based on tribe and region (Lelandra 2008). The commodification of appropriation further “others” a culture, often advertising it as something “new” and “exotic” to Western consumers.

Ultimately, it seems that most instances of cultural appropriation can be traced to a similar cause that also creates pseudo-archaeological histories (which you can read more about here) in Neo-Paganism: a need for authenticity. Filan’s paper in Talking about the Elephant (2008) makes a great point about the word “authentic”, noting that “it is an outsider’s word”. Those outside of a culture want something “authentic”, something that is proven to be real and true, as they will not have the background knowledge to truly connect with the practice. Authenticity also implies a sense of insecurity as well – someone who has grown up in a particular culture knows that it is real, while an outsider will need reassurance.

This insecurity is similarly reflected in the pseudo-archaeological histories that have come out of many Neo-Pagan practices. In order to combat naysayers and disbelievers, many feel that they need to prove that their path is authentic and valid. So, in many ways, these drive for authenticity in both history and practice feeds into pseudoarchaeology and cultural appropriation – for example, Gardnerian Wicca extrapolates from different cultures (Celtic, Egyptian, etc.) to formulate its rituals as well as provide the aura of an ancient, authentic religion that harkens back to prehistory. This is also seen in “eclectic” paths, or spiritual practices that tend not to follow one particular pathway – by utilising “authentic” cultural practices and their histories as “proof”, their path is more “valid”.

The discussion surrounding cultural appropriation in Neo-Pagan and other New Age communities is still very tense, as practitioners try to balance between cultural diffusion and appropriation – on one hand, those who find themselves “called” to their current practice may feel as though they are not appropriating said culture at all, but rather can be seen as part of the culture due to their spiritual connection. Others argue that so long as the practitioner follows the laid out traditions of the culture and is knowledgable of their history (more specifically, by an elder of said culture), it should not been seen as appropriation (Barrette 2008). But there is a growing number of people within these communities who are becoming more informed about cultural appropriation and engaging with it, both on a spiritual level as well as a more aware, political and social level.

References

Barrette, E. (2008) Braiding Pagans: Cultural Etiquette in a Multicultural World. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Filan, K. (2008) Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby…Cultural Appropriation and the Myth of Authenticity. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Grey, P. (2013) Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Scarlet Imprint.

Lelandra (2008) Devouring Kitsch: Image Collecting and Cultural Appropriation. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Michale, J. (2008) Druids and Brahmins: of Cultural Appropriation and the Vedas. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.