In which I rant about cultural misappropriation, cultural differences, and extreme self-sufficiency…

I’m not going to post about St Patrick’s Day again this year. My thoughts on that subject are much the same as they were last year (well, maybe a little more pro-Patrick – apparently ignorant Pagans villanising an Irish hero make me like him more!) And if you want to read something thoughtful on that subject, try this year’s Patheos Pagan post on St Paddy’s Day – I don’t agree with every word there, but it’s a good attempt at dispelling myths. Just don’t talk about this ‘All Snakes’ Day’ nonsense in my presence, OK? I’m celebrating my ancestors today, not a fiction that’s been created to make people feel better because they don’t like Christians and are in denial about the strong Catholic presence in the actual real Ireland (not the fairytale one you made up)…

But this post is not about thoughtless people around the world – but mostly not in Ireland – talking rubbish about an Irish saint. This is a post about privilege. (And also just about cultural differences – I will try to draw a line between the two.)

There’s been a lot of talk of privilege in the Pagan blogosphere recently. No one’s talking about what, in my humble opinion, is one of the biggest forms of privilege in online Paganism – North American privilege. Forgive me if I rant about privilege for a little bit. I’m not trying to be mean to anyone, or to put anyone’s back up. I’m trying to say what it feels like to be non-American in internet-based greater Pagandom.

It is entirely possible to be a ‘Celtic Pagan’ and engage in cultural misappropriation. I’ve seen people basically saying things along the lines of “Oh, I wouldn’t worship [name of deity] because they’re from a culture I don’t know much about, but Brighid is Irish, and my sixteenth great-grandfather was Irish, so that could never be cultural misappropriation.” Bollocks.

Firstly, lumping Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Manx and Cornish together and calling it ‘Celtic’ could be seen as cultural misappropriation. I certainly see it as racism. Scotland is not Ireland. Their cultures are not similar. In the past they may have shared cultural similarities based on movement of tribes. Today they are really very different. If you don’t know that Cerridwen is from an entirely different culture from Lugh, you need to do some reading and talk to some modern Welsh and Irish people.

Secondly, pretending Irish history ends with the arrival of Christianity could be seen as cultural misappropriation, and I see that as racism, too. (This also goes for assuming that the only important thing to come out of Wales was the medieval Mabinogi, or that Cornish culture is nothing more than romantic notions of country witchcraft.) People who pretend that Ireland is a magical fairyland that has disappeared into the sidhe and is now forever lost in the mists are being really, really offensive. It’s a living culture. It still exists. It is not your medieval fairyland depiction. Yes, if you go to Ireland you will see statues of Mary everywhere, and you may find that uncomfortable. Go anyway, and sit with your discomfort. This is Irish culture – not the stuff you’ve made up. Learn the difference.

There are things I could add for a thirdly and a fourthly and a fifthly, but I shall stop ranting and get to my point.

Here’s the point I was initially planning to make…

Most Gaelic/Celtic recon is, if we’re really honest, very North American. (I suspect that most recon in general is very American. It’s certainly not something that I’ve encountered in Britain, at least offline.) It’s not even just Irish-in-diaspora — it’s Irish-in-American-diaspora. This makes a lot of it seem very odd to me as Anglo-Irish, and no doubt it seems even more alien to people who are home-grown Irish. Here are just a few things that I find culturally alien in American Gaelic polytheism:

– A non-land-focused approach. My CR/GP is about the land. Well, lands, plural, in my case. For me personally, mythology comes second, as it’s mainly medieval. Talking of which:
– A highly literalist approach that elevates myth to the position of a bible. (Medieval myth. That was written by Christians.) That feels very alien to me. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m European, or a personal thing.
– An approach that tries to unify pre-Christian Ireland into one country, and (even more confusing to me) tries to unify pre-Christian Irish belief into one set of beliefs. Which leads to “What do we [GPs] believe about this?” questions that are impossible for me to try to answer, because the premise behind them is culturally alien to me.
– A majority of believers who have never been to Ireland or Britain, but who don’t acknowledge that there are therefore some things they will see VERY differently to people in Ireland and Britain. (No group is ‘better’ here. But things are very different.)
– An approach that privileges academia over mysticism in a way that doesn’t work for me at all. I’m very academic. I want my religion to be rooted in good scholarship. But there are other things besides academia. Other things that I’m called to. Not least because of my own cultural background.

The Pagan path of today that feels most Brythonic to me (although definitely not Gaelic) is modern British druidry. The ‘British’ qualifier is necessary because British druidry is TOTALLY different from US druidry – something that is rarely acknowledged over on the other side of the pond. (I’m always being told what druidry is like. The assertions usually come from a place where the speaker is familiar with exactly one kind of druidry – ADF druidry. That is by no means the only kind of druidry out there. OBOD is *much* bigger than ADF, if we’re just playing a numbers game. But still the assertions are made, using terminology that comes from Americans and based in situations that I don’t recognise.) British druidry is incredibly flexible and fluid. It is NOT ‘mesopagan’ or whatever Isaac Bonewits called it (presumably without having met many British druids), but it’s nothing like American neopagan druidry. It is very Pagan, but it’s very uniquely *British Pagan*. Modern British druidry is becoming its own thing, its own tradition almost – a new generation that has followed *after* revival druidry, rooted in it, but going in entirely different, entirely new directions. It is often very Brythonic, with a peculiarly British kind of polytheism that defies theistic definitions, but which ultimately doesn’t have to be about the gods (and often isn’t), because these are gods who emerge from the land, and you can believe in the land (and have relationship with it) without worrying about your theology. A lot of this is what I sort of imagine the Brythonic tribespeople were like – especially the non-priests among them. Ironic that a very real-life hearth-and-land spirituality has emerged from something called ‘druidry’, but it strikes me that that’s what it is for most practitioners. A few are on more of a priestly path, but only with the constant consent of their community. It is very non-hierarchical, very modern Pagan, very British.

And, yes, I get tired of having it complained about – mostly by North Americans – as not scholarly enough. From a perspective that really doesn’t understand where modern British druidry is coming from.

Druidry is my larger community. But I’m not sure if I can call myself a modern druid. Not yet, anyway. Partly that’s because of the misconceptions the term engenders, but that’s not the only reason. But that would be another journal entry entirely. The point is that I’m looking for a Gaelic path that works with this modern Brythonic one. And I’m not sure the answer is American-style Gaelic reconstructionism. So what is it?

Could there ever be a more European flavour of Gaelic reconstructionism? What would it look like?

I was going to do some more rambling, about self-sufficiency and the idea that everyone has to do everything (including learning all the myths and having a good understanding of the archeology and knowing the language fluently), but this post is already mega-long. Stick around for part 2, on extreme self-sufficiency and (dis)ableism and intellectual privilege, when I get round to finishing that part…

13 thoughts on “In which I rant about cultural misappropriation, cultural differences, and extreme self-sufficiency…

  1. Thank you for calling us Yanks (& Canucks) on our B.S. I’ve been trying to be more mindful of how my perceptions of spirituality and Pagan communities are biased to an American view and be more upfront about that. I admit I’ve had to work against a lot of these romantic “Celtic Noble Savage” mentalities myself. Getting the chance to interact with people from Ireland, Scotland and England helps- both online & in person. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to traveling there so far! Someday…

    My respect for OBOD and similar groups has also grown a lot- I used to think of them as too “new agey” and not scholarly enough, but I’ve come to understand and appreciate them better after (once again) interacting with folks from British druid orders.

    I have an idea of where you’re going with the extreme self-suffiency (that and hyper-individualism) they are very unhealthy American ideas.

  2. Yes, yes and YES! Thank you. Looking forward to part two…
    I especially like the bit about connecting with the land and develop a relationship with it… especially without a theology. And the fact British Druidry is coming into its own thing, quite right too!

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  4. A very clear-sighted and balanced rant, for which I thank you! I have to admit some aspects of this problem make me deeply uncomfortable, but I am still trying to work through the whys and the wherefores for myself, untangling my observations about the pagan community from all the strange hang-ups I have about being a lapsed Welsh speaker on the wrong side of the border (my attempts at working through my ambivalence ended up as a blog post here:

    Being Welsh doesn’t make me more innately mystical than the next human being, but it does give me a very different perspective on the stories (or ‘mythology’, or what you will), most of which took place in real, identifiable locations in the landscape of Britain. I do get defensive about the language, and that is mostly my guilt creeping in, but there are a lot of people in the pagan community who seem content to plunder it for the odd mystical-sounding phrase or questionable piece of etymology to bolster their elaborate theologising about Celtic spirituality. Mind you, I can’t complain too loudly; Tolkein started it…

    Looking forward to part 2 :)

  5. First off, thank you for this post. I think it’s timely, well warranted, and extremely poignant! While I don’t agree with your use of racism as a term in this article, I can definitely make room for your perspective on it.

    More importantly, I want to just offer my solidarity and support. I watched the conversation that unfolded on the ADF forum as a result of this post and was appalled at the words some of the people chose to use. It was interesting how the few people that needed to be negative ended up sparking some crucial conversations about privilege in general, including ableism – thankfully. There were some sincerity that came through and some really enlightening points of view that were revealing in many ways. I am grateful that you had the courage to present these issues in a public way on your blog to light a few fires whose lights we really needed to be illumined by.

    Your blog post being shared on that forum led to several other threads about privilege and marginalization (especially as they relate to ability, gender, gender ID/trans*, LGBT, race, and religion) which was amazing. While the ADF group admins chose to delete most of them to avoid having controversial content on their page which may turn away prospective new members, a lot got covered and many people were privately connected who want to look at these issues in more depth.

    As an American, I learned a lot from this post and it gave me a lot to think about. I am going to continue to sit with your words and absorb them – and hopefully make any positive changes in myself needed.

    Thanks again :)

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  7. Love the points you raised in your list, and they aptly put clear words to the feelings and thoughts I’ve been having lately, and how I resonate with OBOD’s land-based and fluid spirituality while most CRs tend to prefer the strictly rigid ADF (and I’m not even a druid! LOL). I have shared this post in my fb group, Creideamh Sí, for discussion there. Thanks for the great words!

    • Thanks! I’m a little nervous about the group seeing this, as last time this was shared on Facebook, a lot of people got very upset and angry at me! Hopefully no one will be nasty!

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