Samhain just around the corner, its relation with Day of the Dead is an issue
of some importance to many Pagans. Taos, where I now live, is famous for the
ubiquitous presence of decorated Day of the Dead skulls in many shop windows,
all over town, all year long. Of course,
Day of the Dead themes have been integrated into Halloween celebrations as
well, even though Mexicans are a small part of the population. The dominant
Hispanic community had been here for centuries when Mexican people brought Day
of the Dead with them. Since then, elements of it have caught on, particularly
with the White population.
As it has, the issue of cultural appropriation has arisen. Cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture, or members of it, borrow and use aspects of minority cultures outside of their intended context. Recently, Aya de leon offered a thoughtful critique of Anglo celebrations of Day of the Dead as cultural appropriation.
Leon writes she was shocked “to find Day of the Dead events in my native
Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by Chican@s or Mexican@s or
Latin@s, but events with zero Latin@ artists participating, involved,
consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with.” She criticized this as an attack on both
Mexican culture and a deep disrespect for the celebration’s meaning, arguing
“Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death,
a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation. Do you really not know how to
sit at the table? To say thank you? To be a gracious guest?”
nature of this controversy has great relevance for we NeoPagans everywhere, for
some have criticized us for those aspects of our daily practice inspired from
other cultures. I agree with de Leon to a point, and disagree past that point.
I think the reasons why I both agree and disagree shed light on these issues
within the broader NeoPagan community.
There are clear examples of cultural appropriation as de Leon describes it. Consider a blackface minstrel show pretending to present Black American culture as entertainment. It appropriates elements of Black culture for White amusement by emphasizing its strangeness as inferior to ‘White culture,’ and in doing so, helps keep Black Americans subordinate to them. One could defend blackface as satire, but it is the dominant satirizing the subordinate, the strong the weak, by a direct assault on their feelings of worth as selves and as a culture.
simply arguing employing Day of the
Dead symbolism in White culture as constituting cultural appropriation such as
this is a mistake.
What is Day of the Dead?
of the Dead’s celebrations honor deceased relatives and friends. People bring
food, candles, and sugar skulls (calaveras) as offerings to the graves of loved
ones who have died. Marigolds invite the
departed spirits back to earth. The
altars created for this time are colorful, bedecked with portraits of the
departed, and offerings connected with their favorite pastimes while among the
living. In more rural areas people visit
cemeteries and make their offerings there. In cities and in the US, much of
this takes place at home.
of the Dead is both a deeply personal and a family event, one whose mood is
upbeat and depictions often spectacularly colorful, with the celebration often
accompanied by dancing and large puppets.
On the one hand people invite back and honor the departed. On the other
hand, the skull masks and humor help them to “laugh at death” as some celebrants
explain. Death is not the end of life,
it is another step along our path.
Day of the Dead is not Samhain under another name, nor is it simply a Mexican Halloween. When it came out, my Mexican friends urged me to see the movie The Book of Life to get a sense of how they view Day of the Dead. I did, and the was delightful and beautiful.
a common focus on death and the humor often present in the costumes, there are
few if any connections between Day of the Dead and traditional Halloween
trick-or-treating, which has lost nearly all connections with its early
the other hand, Day of the Dead shares many similarities with Samhain, but with
differences as important. The time of year is virtually identical, both honor
those who have passed on, and in the coven with whom I have most often
celebrated Samhain, we celebrate a dumb feast, where favored food is offered to departed loved ones.
However, the dumb supper is not treated as a happy reunion with those who
passed on and, while Day of the Dead is celebrated during the day and night, we
generally celebrate at night. There are
honors Death as a crucial part of the Wheel of the Year, and does not just
focus on those who have passed on. As a time when Death will dominate at least
symbolically until Yule, or the Winter Solstice, colors are usually dark, we
make offerings to Hecate at night, where three roads come together, and I have
never seen Samhain treated as a fun family event. Day of the Dead is filled with humor and Samhain
these differences as well as the similarities, are NeoPagans engaging in
cultural appropriation if they include a colorfully decorated skull on our
altars, or otherwise employ some of its symbolism and art?
usual, context is everything.
Halloween in America
60 years ago, when I was a kid, Halloween focused on kids going door to door
collecting candy and fruit, while dressed up as princesses, pirates, ghosts,
and other fun outfits. Halloween
decorations were usually made by the children, perhaps along with their
parents. It had already changed from
many of its earlier manifestations. Since that time, two big changes have
happened to Halloween.
corporations have made Halloween a holiday profit center second only to
Christmas. Over-the-top yard decorations overwhelm its once dark atmosphere
illuminated by jack-o-lanterns. Store shelves filled with all manner of ‘scary’
stuff begin appearing in early Fall, far from Oct. 31. As with Christmas, capitalism is polluting
Halloween by seeking to subordinate all cultural symbols to the corporate
desire for wealth.
is one big change, but there is another.
now get more involved than the past in parties and celebrations. It seems to me this enhanced involvement
reflects at least to some degree the concerns of people for whom traditional
Christianity no longer speaks, but who still must come to terms with two of
life’s most unsettling truths: we all will die, and we will (almost certainly)
never again see those we love who have preceded us in death.
capitalist degradation and the increasing role of adults in Halloween’s
celebration are signs of a weakening Christian hold on a culture long dominated
by it. But the two have very different foci, and it is this context that we
should think about Day of the Dead, our own Samhain, and how they fit into the
needs of modern America.
Day of the Dead – a second look
of the Dead’s roots are in pre-Christian central Mexico. The indigenous Aztec and other peoples
apparently had a similar celebration.
The conquering Spanish first tried to abolish the celebration, and when
that failed, integrated it into a Christian context. Originally taking place in
August, it was moved to November, focusing on All Souls Day. Today Day of the Dead altars will often have
Christian symbols such as crosses, which would have been absent in celebrations
500 years ago.
So Day of the Dead is itself a kind of hybrid where, on the one hand, conquering Catholic Spain sought to appropriate a Pagan sacred observation into their traditions whereas on the other, the indigenous people of central Mexico sought to assimilate enough of this effort into their traditions to be able to preserve the core of their ancestral celebration. In addition, Day of the Dead’s success in addressing universal human concerns and ability to harmonize what in most respects were antithetical spiritual traditions gave it a life of its own. It has spread throughout modern Mexico and Central America, far beyond the culture of its origins.
some Mexican people, Day of the Dead is mostly Christian, with a veneer of
traditional practices as well. For
others it involves returning to their Pagan roots. For most Mexicans I suspect
such issues are of little interest: it is a time to celebrate the lives of
their departed loved ones and invite them back at a time when the veils are
thin. In short, Day of the Dead does not have a universal coherent spiritual
framework beyond the core of celebrating departed loved ones, even among Mexicans.
With this comment we return to the issue of cultural appropriation.
I will never forget a 2014 Day of the Dead celebration I attended in Santa Rosa, California. Many beautiful altars had been erected in the center of the city, and various Mexican dance groups put on performances while food vendors made sure no one would be hungry. The dance troupe Danca Azteca closed the evening with a spectacular performance. The group is a well-known and apparently widely spread Mexican group. (I have seen another Danca Azteca troupe perform here in Taos as well.) Day of the Dead is far from their only celebration as a group. For example, they also honor Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess. Many are quite clear in their intention to honor the preChristian deities of the past.
Santa Rosa, during their Day of the Dead performance, their second to last
dance was a . . . Spiral Dance, with the audience invited to enter and
participate. This dance was Wiccan, not
Mexican. I felt very much at home! This dance was not appropriation, for the
culture Dance Azteca celebrates is hardly a dominant force in this country. Nor
was it cultural assimilation, for there was hardly any need for one culturally
weak group, Mexicans in America, to seek to preserve its traditions by
incorporating elements of an even weaker group, Witches.
else was going on.
Beyond appropriation and assimilation
ago I had a conversation with a Sun Dance Priest on the Crow reservation in
Montana. I had taken a German friend there at the end of a road trip exploring
Yellowstone. Ellen had friends who had studied with Larsen Medicinehorse in
Germany, and urged her to meet him. I provided the transportation, since Crow
Agency was not that far from Yellowstone.
and I got along well, and at one point he told me if he were to teach me how to
conduct sweat lodges, “there will come a time when you change it.” I waited for some words critical of
EuroAmericans appropriating Native traditions. They never came. Instead he said
“And that is how you make it yours.”
this, Medicinehorse did not mean anything goes. For example, he told me he had
stopped teaching some Germans because they had started charging for Sweats.
“Making it yours” involved respectfully
integrating one tradition into another context. Something important at the core
was preserved but something new would also emerge.
Day of the Dead/Halloween/Samhain in
think we are seeing something hopeful emerging in the changing context of how
Halloween is celebrated in America.
Before moving to Taos, I conducted joint celebrations of Samhain and Day
of the Dead with Mexican people in Sonoma County. We had side-by-side altars.
and people were encouraged to light votives honoring their deceased loved one,
and to place them on the altars of their choice. My Wiccan-style altar had marigolds on it,
and the skull was a colorful one, in keeping with Day of the Dead symbolism.
Otherwise it was very traditional. Beyond the flowers and skull, their had
little in common visually.
generally, when people paint their faces to resemble skulls, there cannot help
but be a recognition that in time our skulls will probably be the last evidence
we existed here. White celebrants have
the opportunity to laugh at death, something lacking in our culture. This is neither assimilation nor appropriation.
It is creative integration.
a culture we are rethinking the place of death and the departed in our lives
and this time of year provides a great framework for it to happen. Already in
many more liberal parts of America there is growing recognition of Samhain as
well as Day of the Dead, and I am sure it will not be celebrated by non-Wiccans
in the way we traditional Witches do.
This bothers me not in the least.
there is also a point to the worries of those who, like de Leon, worry about
cultural appropriation. Cultural
appropriation as a bad thing is not mixing compatible symbols and practices in
new ways, it is in using such practices and symbols removed from any
traditional context, and in ways that are not respectful of their origins. For example, a contest as to who has the best
skull face decoration. The risk is the commercialization of this time of the
year, or of its symbols.
excluding Mexican people from planning and participating in celebrations, such
as Aya de Leon described, can easily become a version of the Blackface Minstrel
shows. Customs and images taken out of context can be played with and used to
emphasize the strangeness of those for whom they are an important part of their
lives. Fraternity Blackface parties are
the opposite of any honest engagement with African American culture. This is
genuine cultural appropriation reinforcing power and domination as
year I will once again have a colorful skull on my Samhain altar, and marigolds
as well (if I can find some- mine died a few days ago in a hard freeze).
On the Fourth of July it is traditional to think at least a little about the founding of our country. In a country that replaced the birthdays of specific presidents of great historical importance with the anonymous “Presidents’ Day” holiday, this doesn’t require much thinking, and still less learning. Flying the flag is popular, but less popular is thinking about what it stands for. When we occasionally do think about what it stands for, the issue quickly gets complicated.
Many of us were appalled when we learned of the massive crimes committed by our ancestors. The destruction of Indian societies, the curse of slavery, and the many aggressive wars and subversion of other societies no threat to ourselves, the better to serve corporate interests, all give decent people reason to pause at the more unthinking forms of patriotism that have been the norm. The hypocrisy of claiming something superior about our society while thoughtlessly approving such crimes is over 200 years old and seemingly unending.
Why then, celebrate? Is it not like celebrating the marriage du jour of someone like Donald Trump?
I think there are three very important reasons.
First, the Declaration of Independence based its arguments on the rights of human beings, and not of Englishmen, which would have been a traditional reason for seeking independence. All were equal in their rights.
Second, and related, the absolute right to religious freedom was made a basic principle of our constitution. The United States even ratified this principle in a treaty with Tripoli stating we were in no sense a Christian nation, a treaty where Washington and Adams both played a role in its writing.
Finally, given that our Declaration justified government by consent of the governed, adopting the constitution required the consent of every state to enter. It could not be imposed. Tiny Rhode Island was a continual thorn in the Founders’ side, but rather than incorporating it into any of the much larger neighboring states, as was the European precedent, it was accommodated.
These three reasons lie at the core of what is most accurately called liberalism. Liberalism is rooted in two principles: individuals are the basic moral unit in society and all are equally so. It is a political philosophy with its most important roots in John Locke, and includes Americans with such different political agendas as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Franklin Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Dole. Two call themselves Democrats, one prefers the ‘socialist’ term, and two were Republicans, Their policy ides differed greatly. And yet, all were liberals.
What made them liberals was that all believed the individual was the fundamental moral unit of society, the right to vote was sacrosanct, and no religion had any legitimate role imposing its views by law.
Of course these people would criticize one another for failing to adequately understand liberal principles. People will always have different views on how basic principles apply to life. And America’s first liberal leaders were often deeply inconsistent in how they applied these principles. Slavery, the dispossession of Indian lands, and women’s inequality under the law were examples. Some even knew of such contradictions, but could not for the moment figure out how to deal with them.
Today we are so aware of our Founders’ failings to fully institutionalizeliberal principles that we have forgotten, or never knew, of the degree to which these principles actually changed society. A majority of American states abolished slavery peacefully, and those that did not explicitly repudiated the Declaration of Independence as mistaken. Its veneration undermined their tyranny. Women were able to vote in a number of northern states, with New Jersey using the terms “his or her” in its constitution. Within a short period of time property qualifications were abandoned for voting in all states. Tiny Rhode Island had been ahead of its time.
Not every liberal innovation lasted. Women’s right to vote was a step too far for those states to incorporate it, and failed to last. But remember, even today a majority of Southern White women support taking away women’s control over their bodies and adhere to a religion more at home with denying them the right to vote than to giving it. And, of course, the issue kept returning until the right to vote was guaranteed even for Southern White women who never would have managed to establish it on their own. In making their arguments, the suffragists always emphasized the country’s failure to abide by its own founding principles.
The influence of
No ideology so completely dominates a society that all its practices are defined by it. Calvinist New England tried, and failed. Marxism Leninism tried, and failed. I am sure that when we learn more about Iran, we will find the same is true for Shiite Islam there. Ideas, good and bad alike, are players in a complex social ecology.
The US inherited deeply illiberal practices, and with that inheritance, a great many people who profited from those practices. Ideas have always had to push against or modify other ideas and interests in seeking to influence the world, and liberalism was no different in this respect. For example, the anti-slavery North benefited from Southern cotton, picked by slaves. So what matters, I argue, is the direction in which ideas push change. They will never be all powerful, bit neither will they be simply window dressing.
What matters, to my mind, is their influence over time.
By basing the new nation on universal moral principles applicable to every person, they incorporated the grounds for criticizing our failures into its foundations. And these are the strongest grounds possible. They have empowered all movements that, in retrospect, have gradually expanded human well-being in this nation. There were no such internal principals able to criticize South Africa’s apartheid constitution or the Soviet Union’s Leninist one. For them, change came from repudiation of the founding values, not efforts at their perfection.
Today liberalism has fallen on hard times. The Republican Party has repudiated our founding principles on all three levels. The political and moral travesty that is called ‘neoliberalism’ subordinates individuals to the dictates of corporate interests and their need for profit. Critics of the status quo increasingly use collectivist concepts to frame their objections in terms such as White men or gender while abandoning talk of rights, preferring the term “privilege.” (Imagine building a movement based on “civil privileges’ rather than civil rights.)
I think I is important for Americans to honor our liberal founding principles, and we Pagans have a particularly appropriate symbol enabling us to do so. Today the Statue of Freedom, whose original stands atop our capitol dome, also adorns my altar.
One of the more disturbing things about the uproar among some mistakenly calling themselves ‘woke,’ while attacking natal women-only rituals in a Pagan context, is their failure to distinguish between universal human standards and those focused on honoring a particular dimension of the sacred.
Treating trans people as moral and intellectual equals in the context of daily life as well as the law, is a position I and most so-called ‘TERFS’ have always held. Further, the argument that in a spiritual or religious context honoring the sacredness of embodiment and the cycles of life, it is appropriate in some contexts for those who have actually experienced those cycles to engage in ritual among themselves in no way disparages those who do not qualify in this particular context- for we all have contexts of greater or lesser individuality where the sacred speaks most distinctly to us.
I am a man who is not welcome on women only rituals, and am in no way offended by that. Were I to design a ritual for young men coming into sexual awareness, I would not think of involving women in its planning, but neither would I think women were in any sense inferior.
Increasingly I find myself wondering whether the most rabid among those who criticize the legitimacy of natal women only rituals are also attacking the legitimacy of NeoPaganism as it arose and is practiced. They are not ‘companions on the path’ but rather taking a different path, while attacking ours.
One can be a Pagan and not be a NeoPagan. Conservative Hindus are as sexist and patriarchal a group as any on earth. Some (not all) modern Norse traditions are deeply patriarchal. Both clearly distinguish themselves from NeoPagans, even if by a more abstract standard we are all Pagans. I think the same is true for those attacking natal women only rituals. They are different from all of these- focusing on far more abstract and mental dimensions of spirituality. Which, of course, is their right.
But it is not their right to seek to control the practices of others with a different focus.
They should mind their own business, for we certainly do not tell them how to practice whatever it is that they call their religion. We can criticize one another – that’s fair – but a fair criticism is that a belief we have that shapes our practice is not justified in terms of the larger context of that practice.
For example, one could argue, (though I have no idea how), that honoring the cycles of fertility in a natal woman’s life, including first menses and menopause, are inappropriate for a religion that honors the sacredness in embodiment. That would be a legitimate approach to criticizing practices some trans activists find objectionable, though I think my simply stating it demonstrates its pointlessness.
One could criticize honoring embodiment as a dimension of the sacred. Many Buddhists and apparently some Hindus and Christians do. But such people have no business considering themselves in any serious way connected to those of us who do. If it exists, our common ground is at a more abstract level – such as acknowledging the centrality of kindness/compassion/love.
All of a sudden, some right wing online commentators are emphasizing that Scandinavian nations are “not socialist.” I am seeing this claim in many places of late. But for years, decades even, right wing commentators have called Sweden in particular and the others in general “socialist.” Some have gone so far as to call Sweden a new totalitarianism. Now suddenly this is stopping.
Is something interesting going on?
I think so.
Pretty much everyone able to read has easy access to evidence that, on balance, Scandinavian societies are much more successful than ours. The scary predictions of right wingers for decades that they would devolve into tyrannies has most obviously not happened. Further, Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians have spent more years than I am alive (71) denouncing every attempt to solve or ameliorate social problems with governmental action as “socialist” and tending to tyranny. But the countries they warned us about, mostly Scandinavian, are now glowing examples of success compared to us.
How do Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians hope to avoid people noticing what is now obvious to all that look at the facts? Confuse the issue. Make Sweden capitalist while describing its actual policies in an American context as socialist tyranny.
This trick is based on conflating two meanings of the word
“socialism.” One, as with the Soviets, is government control of the
economy through central planning. The second is government or
non-capitalist ownership of businesses within a market economy. As
libertarians will be the first to say, the Post Office and our highways
are socialist- and they are in this second definition.
Both meanings are legitimate if the differences are kept in mind. I do this by distinguishing “state socialism” (meaning central planning) from a more generic “socialism” that accepts markets and even private businesses. But there is another wrinkle here. Today in common parlance “socialism” often means different things in Europe than in the U.S.
In Europe Social Democratic parties are often rooted historically in Marxism- but for many good reasons chose to go leave revolutionary goals aside and sought to work peacefully within the existing system. Revolutionaries still wanted to establish state socialism as on the road to communism. Consequently the term “socialism” for many Europeans means state socialism as contrasted to social democracy.
The U.S. never had a strong Marxist movement at the popular level, but we did have many socialist movements in the second sense. So terminology here is different than in Europe. The equivalent of social democratic ideas in the U.S. did not emerge out of struggles with revolutionary Marxists. They arose rather more spontaneously from our own cultural dynamics. So what is called social democratic politics in Europe is often called just socialist politics in the U.S. For example see this statement by the Democratic Socialists of America.
With the Soviet Union’s demise and communism’s general discrediting, there are no state socialist nations of the first sort to use as examples to scare us. Venezuela is a right wing attempt to replace the old USSR as a bogeyman, and it is a pathetic one. And democratic socialist nations are successes. More and more of the younger generation are not only not scared by socialism, they are attracted to it.
So, what are these right wing oligarchs and their servants to do?
Change the framing.
Sweden is now ‘capitalist’ because it has a market economy! Of course,
it ALWAYS has had a market economy, but the right wing is seeking to
dissociate Scandinavian success from socialism. But what about Swedish
The right wing is now claiming all who call themselves socialist in this country want to abolish markets and substitute central planning when, so far as I know, there is not a single prominent American socialist who wants this. Socialism must continue to be demonized while changing its meaning to reflect the latest set of lie by capitalist oligarchs and their servants.
This is too sudden a change to be accidental, I think.
The NeoPagan community has been divided over issues of gender and sexuality, particularly the appropriate relations between natal and trans-women. While this controversy deals with important issues, its vehemence is due to mistaken ways of thinking about it, ways rooted in Christian styles of thought which strengthen looking at the issue in dichotomies. The result is framing the discussion in zero-sum terms.
When we deepen our understanding to grasp issues of sex and gender are shaped by context and relationship, they can be addressed fairly and reasonably for all sides. In particular, many Pagan societies have viewed their world as involving many genders, all of which are respected. Using examples from Native American societies in North and Central America, we can grasp that the term “Two Spirits” describes trans-people in ways fair to all. It recognizes the legitimate differences and similarities between natal women and transwomen.
To make its case, this paper – presented at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies, Jan. 26-17, 2019 in Claremont, CA – weaves together actual cases and ongoing controversies with philosophical analysis.
The controversy over appointing a ruthless political operative, perjurer, and probable sexual predator to the Supreme Court has led many people to put the blame on old White males and their culture of privilege. While there is some truth to this argument, it does not go nearly deep enough to shed adequate light on these crimes against the constitution. Going more deeply also sheds light on the rise of NeoPagan religion in this country.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote a particularly good analysis of the issues underlying the Kavanaugh controversy from a mainstream progressive perspective. Krugman emphasized Trump’s base is not motivated by economic issues, but rather from rage at losing their accustomed status in a society where more and more Americans are people different from themselves. The result is hatred of others, racial resentment, and a deep rage by white men in particular. more »
This post is from my August 8, 2018, blog at Witches and Pagans.
Z Budapest once stirred up strong feelings, ending in a demonstration, by holding a biological-women-only ritual at Pantheacon. The previous year another group had also excluded trans-women from an all women ritual. Some people decided it was time to challenge the legitimacy of such practices. It was quite the kerfluffel for a while. I was one of Z’s defenders.
Since then, more than a little ill-feeling has erupted between some biological women and men and some trans women and men. One group claims only biological women are women and the other that trans-women are as much women as biological women. Representatives on both sides have used abusive language towards the other. It has gotten ugly.
As a straight man, at one level this is not my fight. I am not welcome at either kind of women-only ritual.
But at another it is. It disrupts the Pagan community about which I care deeply, and reflects what I consider to be a deeply mistaken view of what it is to be a human being, ironically, a mistake with Christian roots.
I am struck with how the debate over whether or not abortion is morally acceptable has become a battle of slogans rather than of reason. I think the major culprits are on the so-called ‘pro life’ side, but at this point there is little rational discussion on either side. This paper seeks to correct that shortcoming, and will argue there is NO good reason for opposing abortion as murder, or anything like it. Because I give reasons for this claim, the anti-abortion folks have an opportunity to rebut me. They can’t.
Social institutions viewed from a Hayekian perspective closely match evolutionary and ecological perspectives in biology. All rely on the same systemic relationships of variation, selection, and inheritance. What Hayek called spontaneous orders are variations of a larger range of related phenomena. Concepts developed in one such field can enrich our understanding of analogous phenomena in others. Among the most important concepts explored here are individuals, organisms, species, and ecosystems. This integration carries important implications for how human societies can exist sustainably on the earth.
To read more, find the article here.
The common academic issue of whether or not one engages in ‘cultural appropriation’ has divided the Pagan community. I have been very explicit in my dislike of the idea, but in working out just why I dislike the concept I have been led to a very different understanding of just what culture is and what our place in it amounts to. Exploring this issue transformed my understanding of culture- and in a way deeply enriched with some common magickal and Pagans insights.