In Neos Alexandria today, we’re celebrating the Festival of Sobek, described as follows on the Neos Alexandria calendar:
This ancient Egyptian festival occurs on 4 Choiak.
This is a day to honor Sobek and respect his power. Consider your own fears and face some of them as a devotion to him. What is created when fear is no longer an obstacle? Go to a local body of water, especially a river if there’s one nearby, and consider its life-giving aspects, as well as its dangerous or harmful ones. Go somewhere where you can observe crocodiles or their relatives and learn about more about this amazing (and ancient) group of animals. Look and listen for Sobek in all of this.
As you may know, Sobek is a god that I quite like (as revealed here, here, and here, amongst other places). I wish I could offer him another new poem today, but I’m not quite in the mindset to be creating poetry…
So, instead, like Sobek in the depths, waiting to lash out and eat something that little suspects it, I think I might raise a subject that Lupa alluded to (in the title of one of her edited anthologies) as the elephant in the room in a great deal of modern paganism, and which many of us fear to speak about: cultural appropriation.
I’m rather sorry to say it, but I think that a great deal of the wider, modern pagan movement is based on way too much cultural appropriation that doesn’t even realize it is doing so. Sure, we who are “real pagans” criticize the New Age movement for being culturally appropriative of any number of things, including Hinduism and Buddhism (where would most New Age ideas be without one or both of those philosophical pillars, often involving monism, to support themselves?), Native American cultures, and any number of other things. And yet, general paganism often does this, too, with some of these same Asian traditions, to the point that they seem to suggest that “ultimate reality” is best explained via those systems rather than anything that has or could be understood via European or Near Eastern polytheistic philosophical and theological traditions. Most often of all, though, I think two particular cultural traditions get raided so often that they’re thought, to some extent, to be the “shared property” of everyone, to use and exploit however they see fit: Celtic traditions, and Egyptian traditions. The former are rarely distinguished by their very different geographical, temporal, and linguistic characteristics–find me someone who specifies “Irish” or “Welsh” rather than just saying “Celtic,” and very likely you’ve found a Celtic Reconstructionist (although some of them do it, too). And even though the latter is a culture which has its tourism industry built around its polytheistic past, nonetheless the culture itself has “moved on” from that to a large extent, and in its wake a whole ecosystem of over-simplified and cross-culturally-diluted (and deluded!) notions have arisen unchallenged–totally independent of the very legitimate instances of syncretism and cultural borrowing which the ancient Egyptians innovated themselves, or which their Greek, Roman, and other neighbors or conquerors engaged in later.
I’ve been noticing how little tolerance for both of these matters I have lately. Every time I see someone use the word “druid,” I have noticed lately that my hackles rise, because it is pretty easily demonstrable that almost everything that gets designated as such in modern spiritual practice has almost no connection with what can be known with even moderate certainty about actual historical druids, or wider Celtic cultures (and when “druid” gets used as a synonym for “Celtic religiosity” of any description, it’s even worse than using “Celtic” where “Irish” or “Gaulish” or “Welsh” or whatever other culture might be more appropriate and accurate). And while discussing Egypt in an apparently serious manner in the same breath as Edgar Cayce, Atlantis, or chakras is annoying enough, something that has been equally annoying me lately is anyone that I hear bring up the god Horus without acknowledging that he’s much more than just the son of Isis and Osiris–yes, he is that, but he’s also a great deal more, and often that identification is assumed to be the default when in fact a given instance may demonstrably be one of Horus the Elder’s forms rather than the one more familiar and favored by modern audiences.
There is, in each of these instances–on the one hand–what Erynn Rowan Laurie, at the beginning of her contribution to Lupa’s edited anthology referred to previously, raises as the question “What do you do with a dead religion? (other than turn it into a filk)”; in other words, these are religious traditions that have been abandoned by the indigenous cultures that gave birth to them, and thus no one can be said to really “own” them in the modern world. On the other hand, the biggest problem with this situation is that anyone and everyone can then be free to declare themselves a “druid” or some such title, and to say and do whatever they want with the labels of “Egyptian” or “Celtic/druidic” on them without question; and if they are questioned or critiqued by anyone who has academic knowledge about the cultures, languages, histories, and theologies involved, they can always default to what way too many pagans with persecution complexes say, i.e. “That’s just what they want you to believe“–as if anyone in the wider world knows or cares what the prevailing theories of interpretation are within specialized disciplines like Egyptology or Celticism, much less is regulating them to some conspiratorial extent to “hide” some TRUTH about them which would be dangerous to know on a wider scale. (Alas, if only it were that interesting in many cases…!?!)
Largely, it comes down to a problem that I’ve voiced on other occasions: the problem of actually claiming authorship for one’s own interpretations and suggestions, rather than defaulting to an assumed “authority” of “tradition” and attribuing one’s own ideas to an inheritance from “the ancestors” who very likely did nor thought nothing of the sort that is described by modern people. New Age hucksters do it all the time, selling expensive workshops on various topics that are either entirely stripped of theological and cultural context, or which are sold as rebranded watered-down teachings derived from one tradition but which are said to be of another. (Talking about Native American sexual magic, for example, and then having kundalini chakras be the way to discuss the practice…and yes, that and much worse can and does happen, in case you thought I was joking!) If someone started such a presentation by saying “This is a melange of teachings from a variety of cultures, as I understand them, synthesized into a system that I think works and makes sense for me,” that would be one thing; but, they never say that. Instead, it’s “druid” this and “Egypt” that, and just ignore how often I’m talking about “chakras” and “The Bible” and “shamanic medicine teachings” and so forth to make my points about Celtic and/or Egyptian cultures (much less how both are descendants of Atlantis, which would be so much clearer to everyone if they only would look at the Akashic Records–!!!).
While I know my own limitations of knowledge in the areas in which I’ve been formally and professionally educated (i.e. Celtic Studies, but also religious studies, medieval literature, and a few other things less-thoroughly or without as much depth), nonetheless it’s enough for the purposes I’m detailing here. Further, it was couched in a general context of a disciplined development of critical faculties and self-acknowledged humility before the material, deference and respect to what was actually written as opposed to what one assumes from it, and other such intellectual understandings which improve one’s apprehension of the material rather than cater to cherry-picking what pleases and supports one’s pre-existing position, which is a framework that is transferable to other areas of inquiry. Thus, I’m no expert in Egyptology, and have no formal training in it, but I can usually trust my critical instincts when a particular source or statement is in some fashion inadequate, lacking in nuance, or is outright fallacious on certain points. Greek and Roman matters are less remote to me than Egyptian, and knowing the languages involved in those cases improves matters greatly, though my comprehensive knowledge of even the most important sources is still more lacking than I’d prefer it, and my expertise in some areas is supremely selective. And–something, alas, relatively more rare than it ought to be–I try very hard indeed (and sometimes fail) to not hide behind my academic qualifications as a kind of self-assertion that what I’m saying is “right” or “of more worth” than what others might say on certain matters. (The number of recent publications I’ve seen that both bemoan the state of pagan academia, but then boast of their own validity and high standards, only to make ridiculous and highly unprofessional mistakes that would make Ph.D. advisors from horizon to horizon across the wide earth cringe in their elbow-patched tweed jackets…!?!)
And yet, I’m also prone to make mistakes from time to time.
It does sometimes bother me that, when people talk of returning to their “ancestral traditions,” and there is a suggestion that this is the best tactic for people to take, that what my own most definite ancestral traditions happen to be most recently religiously are Judaism, which is appealing and interesting, and a part of my identity whether I want it to be or not, and yet which is as far from my own orientation as a polytheist as one could possibly be, almost. (Though I do realize that, at least in late antiquity, and even in some cases today, Judaism is more henotheistic than monotheistic, and one need not “believe” many of the things which are assumed to be “true” about Iao Sabaoth, mostly from Christian and Muslim viewpoints.) It is, ironically, more likely to make me feel like I’m culturally appropriating something if it is from Judaism than if I am doing something Greek, Roman, or Egyptian, or even Irish or Welsh (though I have some ancestry in both of those cultures).
But, one of the reasons that this is bothering me most at present–and has been in the background for the last year or so–is that I’m being more and more moved to explore relationship with some deities that are pretty far outside of my ancestral or cultural orbits altogether–and no, I’m not talking about Shinto (which I still am doing at the larger seasonal festivals and enjoy greatly). What I’m talking about is ancient southern Egyptian and Meroitic cultures and their deities–better known (and very commonly misunderstood) in modern parlance as “Nubian” culture. The god Mandoulis is one such deity; and the leonine Apedemak is another. Part of me sees these gods as any other deities, and recognizes that they were known in Egypt through syncretism, and that Greeks and Romans in later eras certainly worshipped Mandoulis (as demonstrated in the post linked to previously–the inscriptions quoted there were written in Greek during the Roman period of late antiquity, c. 2nd-3rd centuries CE). Another part of me, that knows about things like racism and cultural appropriation and other realities of abuse and disrespect that have gone on and still persist today, is kind of horrified by the thought of this–not because “these gods are African!” or any aversion to them based on their associations and origins, but because I’m painfully aware of how white European colonizers and conquerors and enslavers have plundered the continent of Africa in every possible fashion, and thus my response to these nearly-forgotten and severely neglected deities can’t help but be tinged with a sense that I may be no better than a treasure-hunter or oil baron trying to get what profit I can out of the resources of Africa (even though no one is likely to stand to make a dollar by becoming devoted to Nubian gods!). Yes, ultimately all of our ancestors as humans came from Africa, but does that mean we’re all in some way “entitled” to a culture that existed several thousand years ago in one particular region of that continent? I don’t think so…but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel that I might be stepping on someone’s toes if I am at all public in my reverence for these deities, or if I share any further information I’m able to find out about them for devotional purposes.
While I could go on for several thousand more words on these matters, I think I’ll leave it there for now. There’s more than a small bit of fear stirred up from the depths where Sobek lurks to deal with for a while…
And if you have any thoughts on the above, I’d certainly love to hear them.
In the meantime…