Cultural Appropriation: a long view

Some stuff about cultural appropriation crossed my inbox this morning again, in the form of this blog post, which I rather liked.  And given that it crossed my path on Facebook, I commented on it there, on Facebook, before I realized that maybe this idea deserves a bit of wider play and awareness.

See, I’m a history teacher, and while I don’t deny that there were a series of different directed campaigns against “witches” in Europe and the Americas at various points, I think that to characterize the Catholic Church’s efforts to stamp out pre-Christian religions as the “Burning Times” is kind of to miss the point.  I mean, if we look at the last few hundred years — actually, no, let’s look at the last 1,800 years in the context of pagan issues, and just highlight a couple of the big issues by five-decade stretches.

  1. 300 AD —  Roman Empire ‘converts’ to Christianity as a way of establishing a social norm
  2. 350 AD — Roman Empire’s conversion results in a huge internal fight over what those norms are, anyway (arianism vs. ‘orthodoxy’ vs. pagan)
  3. 400 AD — Military incursions into the Roman Empire result in the collapse of frontiers
  4. 450 AD — Roman successor states start to appear
  5. 500 AD — Germanic (Visigoth, Ostrogoth, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Jutes) kingdoms emerge all over Europe
  6. 550 AD — War among the Germanic kingdoms
  7. 600 AD — Era of Culdee Church (half-Druid?-Half Christian?) in British Isles
  8. 650 AD — Wildfire spread of Islam across southern Mediterranean
  9. 700 AD — Islamic incursions into Europe
  10. 750 AD — height of the Muslim Caliphate in Spain
  11. 800 AD — Charlemagne’s mini empire
  12. 850 AD — Norse (Viking) incursions begin
  13. 900 AD — height of the feuds of the feudal era
  14. 950 AD — Danish invasion, partial conquest, and partial driving-out from England
  15. 1000 AD — Milleniarian movement
  16. 1050 AD — Crusader era, sorta
  17. 1100 AD —  Crusader era, sorta
  18. 1150 AD — Reconquista in Spain
  19. 1200 AD — Western Europe starts trying to cope with Aristotle as an intellectual meme; Albigensian Crusade
  20. 1250 AD — Condemnation of Aristotle, intellectual retreat into mathematics
  21. 1300 AD — Templar controversy; English imperialism vs. Wales, Scotland and Ireland; Teutonic Crusades agains “Europe’s Last Pagans”
  22. 1350 AD — the Black Death, the Great Schism
  23. 1400 AD — the 100 Years War, Wars of the Roses
  24. 1450 AD — Contact between Europe and India sought; anti-Islamic war at its terminus in Spain; end of Byzantine empire
  25. 1500 AD — New World Contact achieved; decline of the Irish bardic movement; Lutheran/Calvinist separation
  26. 1550 AD — Wars of Religion, exploitation of the New World in progress; Anglican separation
  27. 1600 AD — Wars of Religion, protestants vs. Catholics
  28. 1650 AD — height of “witchcraft trials”;  Separatists move to America;
  29. 1700 AD — Enlightenment and beginnings of Scientific Materialism; African slave diaspora to America
  30. 1750 AD — Industrialization and Enclosure, African slave diaspora to America.
  31. 1800 AD — Napoleon Bonaparte, and rise of Atheism as a legitimate movement; Anglo-American wars vs. Mexico & Indians (continuing)
  32. 1850 AD — Invention of “modern warfare”, full industrialization, (some) Chinese migration to America.
  33. 1900 AD — Glittering era of European imperial power world wide, followed by disastrous World War I. Communist revolutions
  34. 1950 AD — Hardship and difficulty post World War II; Pax Americana; Pax Sovieta(?)
  35. 2000 AD — rise of computer society; Banking scandals reveal modern finance as a form of cultural imperialism; drug wars

I don’t want this post to turn into a “Those poor Europeans and Americans of European descent had it rough! and they’ve had it rough for a long time!” post, because a) it’s not true, and b) that’s not what I’m trying to get at.  What I am trying to get at, is that the “Burning Times” suggested in Pagan and neopagan circles have in fact been going on in a series of small, and relatively loosely-organized and local anti-Witch and anti-pagan movements that were part of larger political issues for close to two thousand years. I haven’t even touched on Caesar’s campaigns against Druids, or later Roman opposition to Gaulish and British paganism, or Catholic missionaries like St. Boniface, or Charlemagne’s forcible baptisms and burning of sacred groves (as part of his larger political conquests and goals, mind you).

This is a whole lot of political, social and economic turmoil — migrations, changes in food and diet (potatoes in Ireland, anyone), collapse of traditional medicine (Avicenna was a popular and useful medical textbook almost until 1900 and the beginnings of bacterial-based medicine), changes in the land under the feet, people moving to get away from the “pagan traditions” of their villages because they’ve become Protestant Separatists, criminals getting shipped to Australia, the Industrial Revolution changing how everyone lives (moving from subsistence farming in the villages to living in dingy apartments in the cities), massive pollution, modern chemistry, automobiles and airplanes and mobile phones and…

Oh, my.

Even if we go back 500 years, just to the beginnings of the cultural, economic, social and economic exchanges (unequal though they were) between Europe, the Americas and Africa, we see the utter transformation — through disconnection, disappropriation, disenfranchisement, dislocation, disfamiliation, and discommunication — in short, the full range of dysfunction — of the land on which people live, the lifeways with which they live, their food and drink, their schooling and education, modes of work and creativity, their symbol-set for understanding the universe, their religious patterns, and their magical minds.

And I wonder if at least part of the reason why Hoodoo and Voudou and African Traditional Religion (ATR) are growing so popular among occult-minded ‘white’ Americans these days, is that the traditional memes and mindsets of their ancestors have been broken — and have been broken for a LONG time.

I don’t say this because I want to excuse ‘white’ American or western European cultural appropriation, or because I want to overturn the myth of the “Burning Times” or because I want us all to say “oh those poor Europeans, with their broken culture.” But I do think there’s evidence of an elongated era of change and overly rapid disturbance in the affairs of the small, who only hope for a long summer as Gordon says.  It’s evident, I think, that between the Myth of Progress and the shattering of the old ways, and the challenges of the Catholic story through Luther, Cranmer, Agrippa, Calvin et al., that I have to go back almost four hundred years — almost twenty generations — before I can be entirely sure that all my mother’s and father’s known ancestors were living on the European side of the Atlantic.   More, I can pinpoint three ancestors in that chain who had to abandon everything — home, land, furnishings, family, church, community — to search for a better life somewhere other than where they were:  Richard, who apparently came to this country in possession of two suits of clothes, three “long guns” and his two sons, in 1645; Sarah, driven from her husband’s home and land with her two young children in the (Bank) Panic of 1837;  Josiah, who abandoned the new family homestead in Ohio to try his luck in Oregon, alone; Albert, who grew up alone in Japan while his (ahem) ‘zealous’ parents did missionary work in the upper reaches of the Yangtse River valley for the Presbyterians.

If my grandparents had tried to initiate me into any family mysteries or ancient pagan cults, I’d have known them for a lie before too long. The family records refuse to hold anything resembling an unbroken lineage from pre-Christian days to the present:  and the wide-gaping Atlantic Ocean itself declares as solid a break with the past as any frontier yet named in human history, saving only the gap between Earth and the Moon.

There’s no lineage here, no elder tradition.  But I think there’s something in human beings that longs for lineage and ancient tradition.  And I think that in part, the modern “witchcraft” movement is an attempt to invent it, just as the attempts to link Freemasonry with the Druids and the cathedral-builders and the architects of Solomon’s temple were part of that same invention.

So, again. I’m not really sure what to do with this information.  I’m pointing out that European relationships with spirit realms have been deeply disrupted for centuries, and that the hunger for that connection, generation by generation, is likely to be in continuing turmoil for some time to come. We can remember the issue of the Samaritans in II Kings 17:24-28, who have no idea why the land doesn’t let them live in peace:

24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah,Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord.

There’s going to have to be a lot of long, slow, hard work to develop anything resembling the magical or pagan or educational or martial lineages that still survive in Asia, and that survive among some Native tribes of North and South America, and elsewhere. Because first, we’re going to have to learn to value them for their own sake. Then we’re going to have to agree to let go of our egos enough to agree to follow someone else.  And that’s not going to be easy for people who’ve been raised in a vacuum that separates us from understanding our own history of separation and disunion.

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9 comments

    • Yeah, Tony… I’m still thinking about it too. I don’t think it excuses any behavior on the part of my ancestors in terms of racism, sexism or general villainy — and I’m talking about both my actual ancestors here, as well as a ‘general crowd’ idea of ‘ancestors’ — but it seems to me that a few hundred years of rejecting anything non-Catholic, followed by two hundred years or rejecting anything Catholic, followed by a century years of rejecting anything “spiritual”… well. It’s bound to leave a big, freaking mess.

      • No question. Thinking about it some more…it’s connected to a whole series of thoughts related to polytheism that I’ve been having. I’m getting closer to calling myself a polytheist, and some of it has to do with this issue…

  1. As best I can tell, this is still The American Century, so that’s a reasonable assessment… although I would maybe split the difference and say the ‘longer run’.

    All national history curricula are fundamentally a bit too ‘rah rah’. And world history, IMHO, unavoidably enphasises the decline phase… if only because it’s more interesting and easier to discern in the historic record.

    Both seem built in, as you point out.

    • Well, I’m interested enough in the history of ideas that I THINK I cover the core philosophies of each culture my students study… but it’s been a challenging exercise these last three years to teach American history for a while. As for “American century”, yes, well… no one is looking to Brazil to solve the North Korea mess quite yet, nor China. But there’s also a growing reluctance to let the US solve the world’s problems or be the world’s cop — if there ever was a willingness for that, which I’m not at all sure I believe, anyway.

  2. Heard this in a recent ‘Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole’ podcast:

    The difference between an Englishman and an American is that an Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long way and an American thinks a hundred years is a long time.

    You, sir, are decidedly un-American. 🙂

    • Dear Gordon, how nice to hear from you!

      Yes, it’s a side effect of having done a master’s degree in ancient and classical history, and teaching seventh grade world history for nearly two decades.

      World history in America is taught largely along the lines of, “This is an ancient culture in the past. This is how they rose to power. This is their contribution to the world’s store of technology, science and ideas. This is how they fell.” It gives one a unique sense of how cultures rise and fall, and how ideas are transmitted.

      Meanwhile, American history is taught largely along the same lines as Design Thinking: “This is the problem our society faced, this is how a variety of forces prevented a solution to that problem, this is how the forces of progress eventually triumphed, this is why America is great.” Perhaps it’s the same in other countries — but world history teachers in America seem to be universally gloomy about America’s prospects for the future; and American history teachers are universally optimistic.

      But, as your recent archonology posts have suggested, if “we” are the winning side, then the ancient history teachers in America have the right of it in the long run.

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