The Elephants in the Room

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Of the smaller Pagan presses Immanion/Megalithica have really stood out as a place that isn’t afraid to tackle  difficult and unusual topics or thorny issues. From serious-minded explorations of Otherkin, to in-depth meditations on Ogam, to updated reissues of out-of-print classics, the company has carved out a unique identity rather than trying to clone the industry leader. Their latest offering, “Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Approporation”, is no exception. Edited by Lupa (“DIY Totemism”, “Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone”) , the book shines light on an often-contentious issue within the larger Pagan community.

“Talking About the Elephant is an attempt to shatter that stillness and to promote constructive communication about the issues surrounding cultural appropriation in neopaganism. The nineteen essays approach such practices and faiths as Celtic reconstructionism, neoshamanism, and ritual magic; and explore and critique topics ranging from academic appropriation of pagan and occult practices, to intra-community intimidation, and potential solutions to the problem of appropriation. The controversy surrounding cultural appropriation in neopaganism is nothing new; however, it’s time to stop pretending the elephant isn’t staring at us as we stand in silence. This powerful, diverse set of voices is poised to break open a new dialogue, one that must occur if our spiritual communities are to balance individual needs with concerned criticisms.”

It is safe to say that the issue of cultural appropriation is one that often generates more heat than light when brought up in  various forums. From Goddess worshippers trying to negotiate a manner in which to properly honor indigenous voices, to polytheistic reconstructionists balancing hisotrical and cultural fidelity with “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis) and syncretic urges, many of these discussions can end up as bitter flame-wars with both sides hurling brickbats at the other. “Talking About the Elephant” bravely steps into the midst of these simmering debates and attempts to both discuss the various forms of appropriation existing within modern Paganism (everything from Vedic Druids to Christo-Pagans), whether appropriations can or cannot be done respectfully, and the somewhat murky issue of authenticity. While there are a variety of perspectives on display in the collection, there is an overwhelming message here that modern Pagans do need to be more careful in spiritual seeking and how they present themselves. A message summed up rather well by Elizabeth Barrette in her essay “Braiding Pagans”.

“The responsible spiritual tourist, or pilgrim in search of a new religion, takes care to harm no one along the way. In order to survive and thrive in this increasingly multicultural world, we must learn to live together in harmony and respect each other’s traditions. That means sharing or trading our practices, not simply absconding with what we want and giving nothing in return. It means asking before taking, and sometimes, it means taking “no” for an answer.”

As for the contributors, the book features a veritable who’s who of rising stars in modern Paganism, including Erynn Rowan Laurie, Dr. Phillip Bernhardt-House, Lupa, and Kenaz Filan (among others). This is an excellent starting point in addressing this ongoing issue within our communities, and it would make and ideal centerpiece for a book discussion group. While I doubt we’ll ever completely settle the issues raised within this tome, I do hope that quality books like this will start to let more light in, and produce the constructive dialogue needed to move us collectively forward. The Wild Hunt recommended!