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.