Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: September 2013

Book Review: “The Tradition of Household Spirits”

I am a huge fan of scholar Claude Lecouteux’s work. A professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne, his knowledge of European folk-customs, particularly those of the Germanic peoples, is simply encyclopedic, and every one of his books is a treasure-trove of knowledge both obscure and well-known, all put into a single coherent context that supports his narrative.

The Tradition of Household Spirits (Inner Traditions, 2013) continues this trend, this time focusing on the various house-gods, brownies, tomten, and other spirits of the house and hearth that populated (and, in places, still populate) Europe.

He begins with a study of the architecture of pre-modern European homes and other buildings, exploring how the physicality of one’s living spaces accommodates, and in many cases is influenced by, one’s beliefs about the spirits of place and home. The placement of corners, hearths, doors, and windows are all examined, setting the scene for an in-depth discussion of the spirits which inhabit those places.

There follows information on the nature of these spirits, how they differ from, and in many cases are related to, the various “spirits of place” which are more normally found outside and in more wild or agrarian settings. The origins of these spirits (often related to departed ancestors and the aforementioned spirits of place) is covered in depth, as well as how they were (and, incidentally, may be) approached, and finally how they relate to the spirits of the dead and their possible connection to the notion of the dead returning to haunt or otherwise interact with the living. The latter is a particularly important theme in Lecouteux’s work, and he has actually devoted entire books to the subject of ghosts, vampires, and the Wild Hunt.

The whole is rounded out with a collection of nuggets of folklore relating to house-spirits, the Alfar (Norse elves), and a thorough selection of recommended reading (often in French, of course, but with many works in other languages including English) and extensive end notes.

This book is invaluable to modern Ásatrúar who wish to develop more of an understanding of, and begin a practice of honoring, their house-spirits. All too often contemporary Ásatrúar focus on the Gods to the exclusion of those spirits who are “closer to home”, so to speak, which is a great shame and which robs us of a great deal of texture and nuance in our beliefs and practice. After all, what could be more “close to home” than a house-spirit dwelling in one’s own home?

Is this Pagan? (Part Three)

“They say, ‘I was an Indian in a former life.’
Well…you’re white now!”
– Charlie Hill, Native Comedian

In part one of this series, I discussed the Japanese religion of Shinto, and in part two, I discussed the West African religious complex of Yorùbá. Today I’d like to round out the series with a discussion of Amerindian religion. Four continents down, one to go (sorry, indigenous Australians; while the broad points in this series apply to you, too, I think the point is made without a specific treatment of your situation).

First, it should be pointed out that there is no single “Native American religion.” Each tribe and nation has its own specific system of beliefs and practices. Many tribal beliefs fit in well with an overlay of Christianity, some do not. Some lean more towards polytheism and some more towards monotheism (and some, sad to say, emphasize a more monotheist interpretation of what are, essentially, polytheistic beliefs in order to placate the broader Christian culture).

There are, once again, lots of parallels with contemporary neopaganism. Polytheism, a rich mythology, well-developed rituals and a long tradition of deep spirituality, as well as a robust tradition of what might be called “magical” practices.

Because of those parallels (as well as the phenomenon of the “white savior complex“), Amerindian religion has been used as the buffet for countless appropriations by New Age frauds and well-intentioned but ignorant eclectic neopagans looking to add something novel and (ironically) “authentic” to their own practices.

As a rule, though, Wicca and neopaganism are held to be a very different thing than the various faiths of the Amerindian tribes:

I’ve got nothing against shamanism, paganism, or the New Age, but a cow is not a horse: none of these things are traditionally Native American. Shamanism is a Siberian mystic tradition, Wicca is a religion based in pre-Christian European traditions, Tarot readings are an Indo-European divination method, and the New Age is a syncretic belief system invented, as its name suggests, in the modern era. None of them have anything to do with authentic Indian traditions, and anyone who thinks they do is likely to be wrong about anything else he claims about Native American religions as well. Wiccans and New Agers don’t have any more knowledge about actual American Indian beliefs than you do. 

Some tribes and individuals are fiercely protective of their cultural rights, and some are more open to non-Amerindians participating in sacred rituals. But the existence of the one does not negate the anger, frustration, and pain suffered by the other.

A lot of very prominent people in the Amerindian community want their sacred rituals locked down so that only members of the tribes in question can participate. They aren’t the fringe, either, unless you count a Lakota Chief as “fringe”:

It was decided, from March 9th, 2003 and forward, there will be no non-Natives allowed in our sacred Ho-c’o-ka (our sacred alters) where it involves our Seven Sacred Rites. The only protection with this decision in Government law; is that only enrolled members can carry an eagle feather. In all the Seven Sacred Rites, there has always been the understanding of earning and a requirement of an eagle feather while participating in these Rites. The eagle feather stands for Indigenous knowledge and guidance in our spiritual ways.

And that includes things like Vision Quests, the Sundance Ceremony, and other things that “plastic shamans” tend to mush together and market like they’re selling a cheap used Toyota with a motor from a Hyundai. Sorry, Wiccans, no Vision Quest for you.

Some Amerindians are even more strident:

We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. …  We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well-being of the people as a whole. We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any “white man’s shaman” who rises from within our own communities to “authorize” the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such “plastic medicine men” are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

A… erm… “sweat lodge”

And the Amerindian tribes are in something of a unique situation vis-a-vis who can and cannot consider themselves a member of the tribe. Unfortunately for many members of the “Wannabe Tribe”, reincarnation doesn’t cut it:

This trivialization of our oppression is compounded by the fact that, nowadays, anyone can be Indian if she wants to be. All that is required is that a white woman be Indian in a former life or that she take part in a sweat lodge or be mentored by a “medicine woman” or read a “how to” book. Since, according to this theory, anyone can now be “Indian,” the term “Indian” no longer refers only to those groups of people who have survived five hundred years of colonization and genocide. This phenomenon furthers the goal of white supremists to abrogate treaty rights and to take away what little we have left by promoting the idea that some Indians need to have their land base protected, but even more Indians [those that are really white] have plenty of land. According to this logic, “Indians” as a whole do not need treaty rights. When everyone becomes “Indian” it is easy to lose sight of the specificity of oppression faced by those who are Indian in this life. It is no wonder we have such a difficult time getting non-Indians to support our struggles when the New Age movement has completely disguised our oppression.

There is actually a whole body of law, much of it derived from and administered by the tribes themselves, regarding the standards that must be met to consider oneself a member of a tribe:

Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. … Two common requirements for membership are lineal decendency from someone named on the tribe’s base roll or relationship to a tribal member who descended from someone named on the base roll. (A “base roll” is the original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria.) Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe are common.

Once more, I pose the question. Should a group of faiths that holds itself as something unique unto themselves be forced under the “neopagan” umbrella? Should a constellation of cultures, with proud histories spanning back centuries or even millennia, be forced to give up the final aspect of their uniqueness to accommodate the fleeting desires of a bunch of “wannabes” and spiritual-salad-bar dilettantes?

Or do they have the right to retain a unique label for themselves, or rather a hundred or more unique labels, and to hold the bar for entry into their most sacred of rituals (and their very tribes themselves) as high as they want to hold it? After all that has been done to them, don’t they have the right to hold on to those things which allow them to maintain their own unique identity and proudly proclaim, “this is who we are!”?

Is this Pagan? (Part Two)

In the first part of this series, I discussed the Japanese religion of Shinto. A lot of contemporary neopagans like to bring Shinto under the “Pagan umbrella,” but the followers of Shinto certainly don’t consider themselves to be Pagans. Shinto is is rooted in ancient Japanese culture, and converts (especially non-Japanese converts) are rare.

Today I’d like to discuss another religion, or rather a constellation of religions, called Yorùbá. The name comes from the Yorùbá people of west Africa, who had a very successful empire between the 16th and 18th centuries, and whose cultural and tribal stamp remains strong today. It’s strongly related to both Voodoo (Voudou, Vodou, etc.) and Santeria and its cousins, through what is known as the New World African Diaspora (particularly due to the importation of black slaves into the Caribbean and South America).

On the surface, Yorùbá seems like a perfect candidate to fall into the “Pagan umbrella.” It’s polytheistic, has a well-developed theology, mythology, features ancestor worship and an involved set of ritual, and even has a robust magical tradition, Ifá.

And yet… among the followers of the Yorùbá faith(s), the term “pagan” is associated with the worst histories of the campaigns of extermination and conversion by both Islam and Christianity. Whenever the term “pagan” is used in connection with Yorùbá, it is invariably in a derogatory manner.

It is also the case that Yorùbá is seen as an extension of the native west African tribal culture. Especially when it is self-consciously adopted by blacks here in the United States, it is linked specifically to those of African descent:

About two years ago, he found a home in one of Yoruba’s esoteric branches, called Ifa.

“What brought me to Ifa is that how close this tradition is linked to us as African-Americans in this country,” he says.

This feeling is familiar to many black Americans who practice Yoruba today, just as it did with those who have been practicing for years. In New York City in the 1950s, African-American Yoruba communities began to grow alongside a surging black nationalist movement.

Tracey Hucks, chairwoman of the religion department at Haverford College, says, “for so many African-Americans, this tradition has been a space of freedom and a space of home.”

She says blacks in America have been drawn to Yoruba for more than a half-century because it offers them an ancient spiritual heritage, one that predates slavery in the United States. At the same time, she adds, it helps them affirm their racial identities in this new world.

“And it also allows them to be able to affirm their black physicality, in a place that has said that, ‘You represent anti-beauty in this culture,’ ” she says. “It is this religion that comes and says, ‘No, you look like the gods of Africa.’ “

Doing rituals for those gods, dancing for them, and finding fellowship with her community, Profit says Ifa just feels right to her. (NPR, August 2013)

To be fair, there are organizations, like the Ifa Foundation International, that consciously try to push a more inclusive vision of the Yorùbá faith. However, their authenticity is questioned in some quarters, being seen as outsiders trying to “infiltrate, hijack and pervert” what should be an authentic ancestral African faith. Others maintain that one of the criteria for being a “devotee of Obatala” is to be a direct descendant of him, and that lineage is meant literally.

So, again, I ask the question. Should Yorùbá, which has a lot of similarities to modern neopaganism, count as “Pagan” even though they don’t want to be so counted? Is it to be held under the same umbrella as Wicca and Druidry, even though they eschew such associations? Should a faith that was born in Africa, and followed by Africans, be opened to “caucasoid interlopers“, or does it have the right to pass along its traditions, which stretch back far beyond the era of colonialism, to those who wish to recover the “light of the Elder Ancestors“?

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