Facing Forward: Atheopaganism and Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a concern of people who are (or have historically been) oppressed. It is the use of symbols, religious rites and/or cultural practices by members of the oppressing culture for their own gain or edification, without permission, invitation, or inclusion of those of the culture whose symbols or practices are being used.

This is a hot topic right now, and one of particular concern to Pagans who draw on different cultures for their symbologies and rituals. We’ve discussed the subject a lot on the Atheopaganism Facebook group, and I thought I’d write about it here so there was a more permanent capture of thinking about cultural appropriation as it relates to Atheopaganism.

As I’ve written before, Atheopaganism is a forward-looking religious path. We do not claim to be derived from an ancient culture or long-standing lineage; rather, we are developing our own path and culture through usage of ritual technologies which have been used by people all over the world since long before the dawn of history.

And there is where we must make a distinction. Here’s an example:

I use masks in rituals pretty frequently. I have posted, in fact, about making a ritual mask as a useful ritual tool.

I’m also a collector of African and Oceanic art. I have a bunch of amazing masks from various cultures in these regions. And I would never, ever consider using any of them in ritual. They belong to the people who created them, not to me, and I don’t have the knowledge, invitation or standing to use them.

See the difference? The technology is using a mask. Appropriation would be using those masks.

I take cultural appropriation seriously. Yes, human culture is syncretic: we steal stuff from those we encounter, and make it our own. But in the context of millennia of imperial oppression of indigenous cultures, I cannot in good conscience add to the list of all that has been taken or destroyed from indigenous people the very religious symbols and practices that define these people to themselves.

It is wrong for the Chinese to crank out “Navajo” rugs and “Puebloan” pots. It is wrong for self-appointed white “shamans” to charge money for conducting sweat lodge ceremonies invoking the cultures and symbologies of people they have never trained with, and who have never given them the permission or right to conduct these ceremonies.

Now, there are some in indigenous cultures who are (rightfully) angry, and as a result go overboard with claims of cultural appropriation: claiming, for example, that no one but indigenous people may use feathers in their rituals for example, or drums. This is an overreach: people all over the world have been using pretty objects from Nature and drumming since prehistory. Such practices belong to all of us.

But that raver woman rocking out in a Plains Indian feathered eagle bonnet?

That ain’t cool. At all.

Speaking as a very white guy, I acknowledge that my forebears and their cultures have done what they could to slaughter, crush, and forcibly assimilate indigenous people all over the world. I believe that the very least we can do is to respect the sacred symbols and rites of these peoples, and leave them be unless invited to use them.

In Atheopaganism, we are creating new culture: defining our own symbols, using ancient technologies in new ways to alter our consciousnesses and render our rituals powerful and transformative. We don’t claim to be recreating something from another era or geographical area: we are creating the Pagan spirituality of here, as defined by each of us, with some core principles and shared resources to help us along the way.

So let’s just be considerate out there. I choose to err on the side of caution, not using any indigenous symbologies in my rituals at all. It just feels cleaner that way.

I know there are many opinions on this topic, and the discussion can get heated. Please be considerate and kind in the comments thread–thanks.


Shown: Diné (Navajo) Ganado red blanket


Toward Atheopagan Mysteries

Sacred Mysteries were initiatory rituals or ritual cycles in the ancient world which revealed secret wisdom to participants. Some examples include the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece and the Mysteries of Dionysos in Rome, and the initiatory mystery religion of Mithraism, also from the Roman period. These rituals and ritual cycles were characterized by solemn oaths of silence, so many of the secrets revealed in them are now lost, or can only be pieced together through comments made by initiates who later converted to Christianity and rejected their prior pagan experiences.

Modern Pagan practitioners have resurrected some of these Mystery initiation traditions by creating new rituals that draw on the symbology and what is known about the meanings of the ancient ones. I am an initiate (a Mystai) in a modern recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and participated as a cast member in two more Eleusinian ritual cycles in subsequent years. We had the advantage of being able to use as a site a complex of caves in a national park, so when it came time to “descend into the Underworld”, that involved a pitch-black staircase of nearly 100 steps.

This was all nearly 20 years ago, mind you. But being involved in these resurrected traditions got me interested in the idea of Mysteries: what they’re for, why they were important in ages now gone. And it showed me that rituals that “reveal” or highlight meaningful “secrets” to initiates can be deeply moving and impactful.

So that got me to wondering: If I were going to create “Atheopagan Mysteries”, what would they be intended to reveal? Typically, there are a small number of meaningful concepts revealed in a mystery ritual—say, four or five; what would they be?

Perhaps the Four Pillars of Atheopaganism? Or a selection of the Atheopagan Principles? An all-night ritual in which initiates are introduced through symbolic, metaphorical ritual activities to the emotional heart of the practice, what makes it meaningful and true?

Time the final revelation for sunrise, and that could be really powerful.

Definitely something to ponder.

Worth fleshing out, for certain. I have a lot more ideas but don’t want to telegraph them here, so someday I can put the event on and the contents will still be a surprise…

I will put more thought into it.

Perhaps, if you like, you can develop your own.


The Miracle of Dirt

Of all the many factors on planet Earth that enable us to live and thrive, there are two which border, in my opinion, on the miraculous*: the conversion of sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis, and the mysterious alchemy of microbes and nutrients and water that makes dirt into the life-giver to us all.

Yet we take dirt for granted—even denigrate it.

It’s “dirty”, after all.

We walk on dirt; we scrape it off our shoes and sweep it from our houses and porches. It’s gray, or brown, or yellow, or red, but generally not the popping, pleasing colors we are hard-wired to find breathtaking, like sunsets or flowers or bodies of water. It’s so easy to forget that it is down there, weaving Life from not-Life in every second, breathing oxygen, fostering plant growth so we may eat and breathe and marvel at the magnificence of all the plant kingdom arrayed before us.

It turns out, in fact, that exposure to soil bacteria increases serotonin in the brain, reducing incidence of depression. There is a reason why people find gardening therapeutic!

Having a robust relationship with dirt is a good thing for Atheopagans. Watching seeds sprout and become plants is a reminder of the miraculous nature of life on Earth, the extraordinary story of tiny packets of DNA which draw lifeless material from around themselves to assemble gigantic structures, sometimes billions of times larger than they were when they started. And those structures bring forth food for us, material for building our shelters, and mighty forests that inspire us with their beauty and mysterious depths, that house and support entire ecosystems of incredible creatures.

Bear in mind, too, that exposure to ordinary dirt helps young people to develop their immune systems, and appears to reduce adult incidence of conditions like allergies and asthma. Please: don’t use bactericidal soaps and cleansers–they just help to breed “superbugs” that are resistant to them, and reduce this healthy effect on developing children. Ordinary soap and water for hand washing are more than adequate, and are far better for our own health and that of our environment.

Healthy soil absorbs carbon, too, reducing the impact of global climate change. There are six billion microorganisms per tablespoon of soil, and nearly all of them consume carbon dioxide to live. They produce minerals that support plant life as they metabolize this carbon.

So plant some seeds for spring time for your window sill, or a planter or two, or an entire garden if you have the space. Having our hands in dirt is a way to remember that we are all composed of these miraculous minerals, microbes and nutrients, and they serve us every day.

It is the miracle of Sun on Earth that sustains us.

Praise be to dirt!


*By which I mean that even though we understand how they work, they seem utterly marvelous.