There are no dead cultures.

There’s an idea that has been bothering me a lot lately when I make my rare forays into the Neopagan blogosphere, and that’s the idea that supposedly dead cultures are up for grabs for everyone to take just because they’re considered dead. Egyptian and Greek being a common example, but there’s also Aztec and other indigenous ways that have been considered dead since the Europeans invaded the Americas. Even European religions are considered dead despite having records of up to 50 years ago in some cases.

To me that’s unacceptable.

For starters, cultures are created by people. They cannot truly die if the people are still alive, and in all the cases I’ve seen so far, they are most definitely still alive. There’s still Aztec, Mayan, and Egyptian people around who are the descendants of those who practiced the old religions. Hell, there’s even Taino people still, despite US history classes’ insistence that Columbus wiped them all out. Even if the Egyptians are mostly Muslim, that doesn’t mean their ancestor’s ways aren’t still a part of them and their current culture’s manifestations, or that they don’t have pride and ownership of their ancestor’s culture. That connection and that ownership should be respected.

Furthermore, even if a culture actually is dead, that still doesn’t mean everyone else can have at it. Do you rob graves to take the dead’s jewels and clothes? Hopefully not, that would just be plain disrespectful and gross. Dead cultures, and the people who used to live them, deserve respect too. There are ways to incorporate various symbols and ideas into a syncretic religion, but putting Bast, Thor, and Baron Samedi onto an altar with a smudge stick, a dreamcatcher, a pentacle, and Buddhist prayer beads and chanting from the Tibetan Book of the Dead ain’t it. That’s just making a fetishistic collection of exotic-looking items to fill a spiritual void in your life.

Cultures are not a free-for-all, dead or alive. Cultures are not meant to be “shared” by random people all over the world. That is a lie perpetuated by Western colonialism to turn exotic cultures (and the people within them) into commodities to own and exploit. Taking exotic sacred items and ideas and reducing them into something else is not true sharing. Thinking that a god from a foreign culture “called” you is not an excuse.

At the VERY least, if you’re that insistent upon worshiping a god or using an idea from a foreign and/or “dead” culture, put some effort into understanding the context of the culture(s) and the various reasons for why the god or the idea is what it is. Don’t just collect things for your personal benefit, actually learn all that you can learn about them. Put effort into showing respect for the culture(s) you’re taking from.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “There are no dead cultures.

  1. In most traditional polytheist cultures, the spirits of the dead are believed to have power and agency of some sort. So when one interacts with supposedly “dead” cultures, one is also interacting with the spirits of the dead people from those cultures…

    • Excellent point I didn’t even think of that. Another one that just came to mind is that sometimes there’s misinterpretations of when a God is “calling” you, as some messages might actually be “leave me/this place alone, it’s not for you”. I’ve gotten those feelings before when entering new woods and certain churches.

      • Yes, that’s certainly possible, and I’ve had similar feelings before as well. Sometimes, there is a real “call,” and I think it’s a test to see if the person called will answer it in an honorable and thoughtful way or not. What god wants dishonorable followers? Unfortunately, too many gods get them…

  2. I think you’ve got it right though, that a person can be contacted/called by the Spirits/Ancestors of another culture for whatever reason. The person can honour that call, respond to it yet doesn’t have to ‘take’ it or claim that culture. An example from my own life: A series of dreams and meditations took me to a cave in a mountain where the Spirits of a northern Korean culture reside (they showed me the place which is now a north Korean tourist spot – a bus park!). They were not happy and reaching out to anyone who was open. They showed me what offerings to make, which I did and where to find information. It doesn’t, however, mean that I now claim a Korean link in my heritage, dress like a Mudang or collect Korean spiritual items. It just means there is a connection to honour and respect and an opportunity or request to help and understand. Sometimes the living descendents of a culture share something with visitors such as the Lakhota word ‘Aho’. One may argue that it would be respectful for an outsider to use that word when present at a first nation event where invited to do so but it doesn’t give outsiders the right to adopt it as an exotic ‘badge’ to use elsewhere. It comes down to acceptance of one’s own self, culture and Ancestors. Once that is established there is no need to go searching for and taking anyone else’s.

  3. Most of us, at some point, hear a call to learn about, investigate and learn from the spiritual beauty of other cultures (dead or alive). It is a wonderful treasure and it is incredibly helpful to find out that there are parallels and similarities; it starts to underpin our own beliefs and elicits compassion and understanding. But there is a difference between Spirit bringing a gift associated with that culture, an item lets say, and a person actively searching Ebay for it! Great article – thanks.

  4. Pingback: Linkage: Grimoires, demons, and lions || Spiral Nature

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