Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

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Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.

References

Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

What is Old is New Again: A Primer on “Ritual” in Archaeology

When writing the previous instalment in this series, I realised that I never wrote a proper post on ritual in archaeology! Which is a mistake on my part – its an important discussion that will need to be addressed before we continue talking about neo-pagan material culture. So, without further ado, read on to discover one of the more “hot topics” in archaeology…

Screenshot_2018-10-03 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

The term “ritual” has a bit of a reputation among archaeologists. Well, less of a “reputation” and more of a “running joke”, if I’m being honest…one of the first things I learned as an undergraduate taking an “Intro to Archaeology” class was that “ritual” is what archaeologists write when they don’t know what’s happening at a site.

And, to be honest, that makes sense. How do we even define the word “ritual”? Let’s take a look at some examples:

Colin Renfrew (1985) identified the “Four Aspects of Ritual Practice” as:

  1. An attention-focused activity that can be seen in the physical record
  2. A liminal zone that can be correlated with the remaining material
  3. A focus on transcendence and symbol in the material record
  4. Archaeological evidence for participation or offerings

Peter Tompkins (2009), on the other hand, highlights the main elements used for “ritualization” to further define “ritual”:

  1. Temporality – Experiencing time differently
  2. Spatiality – Restricting space
  3. Fragmentation – Relationships between parts and whole
  4. Distance and Scale – Enlargement and minimization for emphasis
  5. Value and Substance – Setting “ritual” importance
  6. Food and Cuisine – Associated with and used to designate “ritual acts”

More recently, Ronald Hutton (2013) adds that ritual, as well as religion, can be differentiated from other acts due to the need for imaginative processes, arguing that finding evidence of early ritual will correlate to the oldest instances of the development of an imagination and symbolic behaviour.

To round these definitions off, Joanna Bruck (1999) provides her perceived definition of “ritual” in her critique of its use in archaeology, arguing that the discipline sees it as something “non-functional” and “impractical”, mutually exclusive from functionality.

In some respects, there are some commonalities in these definitions – for most, ritual is something associated with more abstract, often spiritual concepts that can be differentiated in some sense from what we consider “normative”. Except…that’s a bit problematic as well. After all, what’s “normal” then? This has led to some archaeologists, such as Joanna Bruck (1999) to consider these dualities – “sacred”, “profane”…are these always separated?

This has been discussed specifically with regards to prehistoric rituals in Europe, where “ritual” and “domestic” contexts have been found intermingled at sites. Tompkins (2009) theorises that by drawing from the domestic sphere, rituals allowed prehistoric people to gain new insights and new experiences from their everyday life. Bruck (1999) further argues that perhaps the need to differentiate between “ritual” and “non-ritual” is simply born from the bias of Post-Enlightenment rationalism, and that we should accept that they can co-exist simultaneously in prehistoric life.

Unfortunately, we may never truly agree on what “ritual” is. Based on textual and ethnographic evidence, rituals in the past would most likely utilise tools and offerings that wouldn’t leave behind much of a trace within the archaeological record (Wait 1985), rendering the act as “archaeologically invisible” (Bruck 1999). Ultimately, we will never really have material evidence to base a definitive definition of ritual on – of course, it would be impossible to have one anyway, as ritual will be variable by culture!

So, as we return to modern day paganism, we find that many practitioners of alternative spiritualities will often say that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016). Its a common phrase, promoting a popular concept among modern spiritual communities that one should infuse reverence for the divine into all aspects of everyday life. So perhaps future archaeologists will actually be able to call most things “ritual” and not be joking? Who knows. That’s the beauty of abstract concepts like “ritual” – they’re always changing with the times. And so will our interpretations of them.

References

Bruck, J. (1999) Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology. 2(3). pp. 313-344.

Hutton, R. (2013) Pagan Britain. Yale University Press.

Renfrew, C. (1985) The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi. British School of Archaeology at Athens.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Tompkins, P. (2009) Domesticity by Default: Ritual, Ritualization, and Cave Use in the Neolithic Aegean. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 28(2). pp. 125-153.

Wait, G.A. (1985) Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series 149.

What is Old is New Again: The Altar

Previous instalments of this series have now touched upon some of the more general aspects of Neo-Paganism, Wicca, and modern witchcraft that I felt needed to be discussed upfront before we dive into more specific aspects of the material culture. But today marks our first foray into that very thing! Read on to learn more modern day altars and how we can look at them through a more archaeological perspective.

If you peruse a few Paganism for Beginners-type books, you’ll find that nearly all of them start with the act of assembling one’s altar. This isn’t surprising – altars are arguably, in some form or another, a ubiquitous element across religious and spiritual practices. It is a centre for activity, a focal point for one’s devotional exercises…in short, the altar may be one of the most important physical features of a religion or spiritual path.

A quick glance at the Instagram #altar hashtag reveals that most altars consist of small, dedicated spaces in the practitioner’s home. However, those who have easy access to natural space may also create an altar space hidden within the landscape; given that many neo-pagan and spiritual practices emphasise the need to reconnect with nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that many practitioners consider this an ideal to strive towards.

A more recent phenomenon within neo-pagan circles of today is the creating of hidden or minimalist altars; this comes as a response to a variety of issues, including smaller living spaces and the need for hiding one’s practice from others. For the latter case, digital altars have also become popular (McSherry 2010). By utilising social media networks that encourage collating images and posts from around the Internet (for example, Tumblr or Pinterest), an altar can be creating in the digital space, easily hidden from others.

Components of the average, modern day altar (read: not based on any particular, non-neo-pagan religion or pantheon) seem to take inspiration from popular practices such as Gardnerian Wicca, which in turn arguably appropriates from many other religious practices (Sylvan 2016). Ritual tools such as the athame, the pentacle, and the chalice are usually on hand, often consecrated with oil or water prior to use (future blog posts will discuss each of these tools individually). Again, there is also an emphasis on nature worship in many of these spiritual practices, so altars may often have representations for each of the four elements (i.e. candle for fire, incense for air, a seashell for water, and a plant for earth). Additional altar items will often depend on the particular focus of one’s practice – many neo-pagans associate with particular pantheons, which may in turn dictate how they adorn their altars, for example.

So, how could we look at the modern day altar through a more archaeological lens? In some ways, this can be problematic – the use of the word “ritual” has been contested and debated amongst archaeologists for years, and probably requires its own post to fully discuss. But, if we consider the altar as a place of ritual, this requires that we consider the entire space as well in our archaeological investigation. Moser and Feldman (2014) have discussed ritual as a “performance” that cannot be studied without spatial context included.

In Wicca, for example, the acts of “Casting the Circle” and “Calling the Corners” are important components to ritual – this refers to the act of either physically or metaphorically creating a sacred space to perform one’s ritual, and then calling in the four “corners” (North, South, East, and West), sometimes along with reciting the four elements, although this varies amongst practitioners (Sylvan 2016). Given the emphasis on creating one’s sacred space, you could understand why spatial context is important for discussing an altar. As previously discussed, many modern altars are created in specific rooms or natural landscapes – this echoes a recurring theme found in ritual archaeology, where sacred spaces play with this dichotomy of built/natural places (Dematte 2014). It also provides a clue as to what the focus of the practice was on – a modern day altar created overlooking an ocean, for example, could indicate that the practitioner considers themselves a “sea witch”, or someone who worships a particular sea deity. Further clues could be discovered by the materials found within the altar space, but it is the spatial components that provide much of the background information (Williamson 2014).

But what about altars that are found amongst the everyday? Those that are found tucked in between bookshelves, or hidden in closets, or found in digital form only? Spatial context is still important, but now we move onto practicality – what is feasible? What will work within the individual context? For many, including modern witches that keep their practice secular (non-religious), ritual and practicality are one and the same. A ritual (or a spell) is performed in order to achieve a particular outcome, so it would make sense that certain altars may be placed where that practicality makes most sense; for example, there are many instances of altars made with the intention of focus or prosperity that are then placed in an office or similar working environment. Some modern practitioners of witchcraft may specialise in a particular kind of magic, so their altar may make more sense in a particular room; kitchen witchery, for example, would obviously require an altar in the kitchen.

Altars found within what we may call a “domestic” sphere also brings into mind another archaeological debate: should we consider the sacred and the profane as separated? Or can these spheres be one and the same? Many sects of neo-paganism, as well as Wiccan and witchcraft practices, would argue that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016); from the way one stirs their coffee to the way they dress for the day, there is a possibility to place purpose behind every action. Again, there may also be a “practicality” factor at play here: as we live in a period of late capitalism, where many work longer hours (and/or multiple jobs!) with less pay, maybe there is a need for making everything ritual. When you lack the time for spirituality, you make do – perhaps by combing your spiritual practices with your secular ones.

The altar is simultaneously both a simple and complex concept to understand and discuss: on one hand, it simply represents a place of ritual and spiritual focus. On the other hand, there are many complex factors that are at play: is it a consecrated and/or removed place from the everyday and profane? Or is it an immersed experience that reflects the idea that everything is sacred? Is it an altar of practicality and functionality, where ritual tools are stored and used? Or is it more meditative, with items to allow for focused mediation and prayer? Or both? Perhaps these considerations can be applied to current archaeological debates regarding past religions and rituals – maybe things are more complex (or more simple?) than we all thought?

References

Dematte, P. (2014) Itinerant Creeds: the Chinese Northern Frontier. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.

McSherry, L. (2010) Cyber Altars: Using New Technology in Traditional Ways. Llewellyn’s 2010 Witches’ Companion: An Almanac for Everyday Living. Llewellyn Publications. (p. 72-78)

Moser, C. and Feldman, C. (2014) Introduction. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Williamson, C. (2014) Power of Place: Ruler, Landscape, and Ritual Space at the Sanctuaries of Labraunda and Mamurt Kale in Asia Minor. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.