Working with gods from living traditions

The most popular gods in the Pagan community are drawn from the Norse, Greek, Egyptian, or Celtic pantheons. Loki, Apollo, Isis, and Brigit are incredibly popular deities. Their original cults, however, are long dead. Modern pagans and polytheists need not fear stepping on anyone’s toes when they invoke Odin or Bast. Certainly, there is a great deal of bickering between the reconstructionists, the eclectics, the Neo-Wiccans, and the people who were just minding their own business when the Morrigan showed up, but for the most part, the arguments about how one should properly honor Diana take place between people who were raised practicing some other faith. How then does one honor a pagan deity whose worship is still very much alive?

For one thing, one does not call them “pagan.” Ganesh is Hindu. Guanyin is Buddhist and not actually a goddess, so stop calling her one, because she worked really hard to become a bodhisattva. Hindus and Buddhists are not Pagan. Not all witches are Wiccans. Not all pagans are Wiccans. Not all magic is witchcraft. Satanists aren’t evil. They can be pagan if they want; a lot of them are pretty nice people. Are we cool here? Good. Let’s move on.

If you worship a god from a living religion, there is one thing you must keep in mind above all else: the practitioners of that religion are totally justified in telling you how they feel. You are worshiping their god. If they don’t like it when you pair Ganesh and Lakshmi on your Wiccan altar listen to them. Nobody can make you change what you’re doing, (Ganesh and Lakshmi might not even mind it – though I kind of think they’d find it weird, especially Lakshmi) but if you don’t acknowledge that Hindu (or Buddhist, or Shinto) gods belonged to the Hindus (Buddhists, Shintoists) long before you ever heard of them, you are behaving in a manner that is insensitive at best, and racist at worst.

4 thoughts on “Working with gods from living traditions

  1. An interesting post (the title caught my attention while browsing through the WordPress reader, and I thought I’d have a closer look). Your last paragraph left me with a few questions, and I was hoping you might consider fleshing that paragraph out a little more as a response to these questions?

    1. Your statement: “You are worshiping their god.” Ownership of a deity is an issue I’ve seen addressed elsewhere, and usually provides for some lively discussion. How do you consider it possible for gods to belong to people? Or do you see the matter more along the lines of gods belonging to a particular place, and that place belonging to the people who live there? Accepting the possibility of divine ownership: if a god belongs to someone because that god is in their life, and said god makes an entrance into your life; does that not mean that this god belongs to you just as much as to anyone else?

    2. I completely agree with your statement that failure to observe the rich history and tradition surrounding a deity is insensitive. I will go further and say that I feel it is unwise, as this failure ignores much of the wisdom a god has to offer. I am however confused as to how a position, in which the cultural context of a deity is paid no attention to, becomes racist? Would not the opposite, defining and (in some ways) segregating deities based on their cultural histories and traditions, be a more classical example of racism?

    I am looking forward to learning more about your position on these topics!

    1. Thank you so much for your reply.

      I will address both your points together, as your second one actually answers your first. When I say “you are worshiping their god,” to me it is not about “ownership” of a deity, but respect of a culture’s traditions and knowledge. As you said. it is unwise to ignore the culture a god comes from.

      You ask how it could be racist to ignore a god’s cultural context. I will say that it might not always be “racist,” depending on the context. Ignoring Greek mythology when honoring Aphrodite is not racist. It’s not *smart*, but it’s not *racist* either. What one must pay close attention to in these situations is the historical context that these religions have operated in. I am speaking now from my own field of expertise as a historian. I have a bachelor’s degree in Asian History, and am studying to complete a Master’s.

      What one *must* understand when working with deities from living cultures is that often these cultures have been systematically oppressed by Imperialism and Colonialism. This is the major reason that calling Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, or anyone else in that area of the world “pagan” is an *incredibly* bad idea. They have been called pagan before: not by people who meant to include them in a larger, positive religious community, but by white conquerors who threw the word at them to indicate that their religions were all the same – barbaric, Un-Christian, superstition. Hindus, Buddhists, and indigenous peoples have historically been oppressed by white Europeans who did not share their beliefs, and certainly did not respect their religions.

      Thus, when individuals in the pagan community (which is indeed largely white and Western, and displays troubling issues with acknowledging white privilege) wish to explore the religion of cultures that have historically been oppressed by Westerners, it is only fair that they should respect the native practitioners. This includes acknowledging that the Hindus worshiped Ganesh and Kali long before anyone in the West did, and that they thus are fully entitled to voice an opinion should they feel that their cultural practices are being appropriated.

      You also raise an interesting point when you say ask if limiting a god to his or her native culture and denying their worship to outsiders could not also be racist. I actually agree with this fully, as this has in fact happened in pagan reconstructionist circles, most famously with “Folkish” heathens who are little more than Neo-Nazis hiding behind mythology.

      I will say that there are few native groups that will actively keep their gods from outsiders. Native American Tribes do often exclude whites from their rituals, but this is not universal, and in any case given the history of oppression and attempted erasure of First Nation cultural practices, I feel they are fully justified in controlling who worships with them.

      My experiences with Hindus, Buddhists, and Shintoists has been that all three groups understand that their religion draws outsiders, and that, indeed, their gods don’t just speak to their co-religionists.

      Shinto is an especially good example of this. It is quintessentially Japanese, In fact, it doesn’t really work outside of Japan, or away from a large Japanese community. Yet on my trip to Japan, the Inokashira Benzaiten Shrine was one place where I felt consistently welcomed. In fact, thus far, I have been unable to find a similar feeling of “community” as I did in Japan.

      Even though the Japanese have a reputation as insular and xenophobic (which I feel is unfair. They are no worse than Americans – though that doesn’t make anything better, given America’s reputation for insularity and xenophobia…) my presence at the shrine was not simply tolerated. It was accepted…even welcomed. The women who tended the shrine eventually became very friendly with me, especially after I communicated with them in mangled Japanese that Benzaiten-sama was my “sensei no kami.” The lady who heard me say that suddenly lit up and began speaking to me very rapidly. I sorely wish I had asked her to repeat herself more slowly, because she had clearly been trying to tell me something she thought I needed to hear!

  2. I thank you, in all sincerity, for having taken the time to respond so thoughtfully and thoroughly to my comment and its contents! I wish you well in your academic endeavors – it seems just from the short introduction I’ve had to you, that you have found an academic path that you feel passionate about and motivated toward; and I am always happy to encounter such people.

    I think there is a difference of perspective between us, that presents itself in the opening of your reply. It’s a difference I welcome, because your perspective definitely provides food for thought (especially for this season, it’s the best diet food one could hope for!). I do not necessarily equate religious practice with deity. This may seem peculiar; but I regard the gods as being their own, independent beings, with the religions built around them (or, if you prefer, as a bridge to or means of communicating with them) being largely human creations. I also do not believe in so-called cookie cutter approaches to people: even within a tight community, people are different, as are their perspectives and relationships with the gods they revere. With this in mind, it might be easier for you to understand where I come from when I say that I think it very possible that someone coming from, say, Western culture might feel drawn to or even called to by a deity from the other side of the world, but have little concept or understanding for the culture and traditions with which that deity is historically associated with; and that I doubt this would trouble said deity, as it’s my belief that we need our religious practices a lot more than they (the gods) do. This is also why, in my previous comment, my second point doesn’t necessarily answer my first point. This is not meant to refute my own statement, that it is unwise to ignore the culture and practices traditionally surrounding a deity, as I believe this to be the case; but I’m also hesitant to suggest that working within these cultures and traditions is an absolute must – I think the gods can judge this for themselves, and respond to followers on their own terms. Someone else’s relationship with any of the gods I relate to is not for me to judge. Others see it differently, and that’s okay – we all come at things from different angles.

    You speak from the perspective of a historian; and although I doubt I can match your eloquence or familiarity from this perspective, I will try to respond in kind. The tendency for a conquering or otherwise oppressing culture to make their own changes to the religious practices of those they have subjugated is hardly something solely owned by white (here referring specifically to people from northern Europe) Westerners. Ancient Romans were skilled at this, for example, and they hardly invented the practice. White privilege, while currently a very en vogue term, would have drawn a lot of confused looks from all the white slaves who were owned in Europe or elsewhere for the majority of the first millennium; or from the indentured servants of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly those children who were sold against their will to masters in the Caribbean. The whites who were kidnapped and sold as slaves around this time to masters in northern Africa come to mind, as well. At some point in the future, for future generations, it would surprise me little to learn that this phrase would be equally confusing. As it is, as a white kid growing up, it seems my parents had a penchant for moving around to places where whites were constantly in the minority to populations who were not exactly friendly to white people. While I know this hardly qualifies as a release from the label of privileged, I can state with complete certainty that I did not feel at all privileged when I was being routinely beaten by groups of local kids (and young adults) simply because I was white. This is not meant to excuse the practice, it is simply meant to point out that at various times in our history, various dominant cultures around the world have engaged in the same behavior and will in all probability continue to do so into the future.

    The usage of the word, ‘Pagan,’ is a really good point: as it was first applied (as were, eventually, the negative implications you cited: UnChristian, superstitious, etc.) to whites in Europe. Not too long ago, I posted something to my blog, regarding the current Pope’s recent usage of the word to describe Christians who had, in his opinion, become too worldly and materialistic. I would contend here that in the end, it is the mentality and intention of the offender, rather than the actual word they use, that needs to be addressed. And I would also point out that, while many have couched these disrespectful mentalities behind a religious perspective, the source is less religious than it is political.

    I’d like to respond to a specific statement of yours: “I actually agree with this fully, as this has in fact happened in pagan reconstructionist circles, most famously with “Folkish” heathens who are little more than Neo-Nazis hiding behind mythology.” While I have encountered many who would definitely fit this description, I have also encountered some who would defy it. Generalizations and stereotypes are not usually a firm foundation for criticisms of racism, at least not in my experience. Of the exceptions to the rule of yours I just quoted, the folkish Heathens I have known who were not racist in the classic sense of the word simply believed that, as having been descended from the Germanic / Norse gods, that this provided them with a biological link to their gods. They had no problems or feelings of superiority with people from other races or cultures, they simply had difficulty crediting that people of other races or cultures could feel any kind of connection with the northern gods. It was my general impression, and I know I will make very few friends in the Heathen community by saying this, that some of this insistence on a biological link to the gods has less to do with antipathy toward people of other races, and more to do with finding a way around a feeling of insecurity and disconnect by living somewhere other than traditional Norse or Germanic lands. That being said, there are racists to be found in nearly every religion. The most famous racist in history identified himself as Christian. Racism is, like the disrespectful mentality toward subjugated cultures I mentioned in the previous paragraph, more political than it is religious.

    I really enjoyed your recollection of time spent at the Shinto shrine. “Sensei no kami:” my smattering of Japanese is rusty (I studied a form of jujutsu when I was younger, and we learned the techniques with Japanese names, and learned a few other things – mainly numbers to count exercise repetitions); but I’ll wager a guess that the phrase has something to do with a divine or revered teacher? I remember, while studying, that my sensei used to say that a teacher shares, rather than instructs. That comes to mind now, as I ponder the topics addressed in our conversation … it implies a two-way obligation, not only on behalf of the teacher, but also on behalf of the one who wishes to learn. The people you are critical of do not honor this obligation: you see them as simply taking what they want, and trampling on the rest. We agree that this is not only undesirable, it’s unwise. I do not see this as a transgression against the gods, however – or at the very least, not one that they would be incapable of responding to in their own way. I see it as a transgression against people, against traditions and customs; but I see it less as a problem of racism, and more a problem of people who are simply too accustomed to convenience shopping, and seek to apply this sort of approach to their religious practice. I’m wary of slapping such people with a racist label, lest I should come across as racist, myself.

    Thank you, again, for this conversation. I hope I have responded here in a way that is commensurate with your response to my questions; and I would certainly not be opposed to continuing this conversation or starting some new ones … I still have not made the time to really go through your blog, but would like to change this soon!

  3. Surprisingly, I am in wholehearted agreement with your points! You are completely correct about how the relationship between race and culture has changed dramatically over the centuries. Indeed, in Ancient times (say, in the Roman era), if one had tried to define another person by his or her skin color, it would have been seen as odd. There is even speculation that one of the later Roman emperors may have been black – he was African!

    However, I feel that in the present, “white privilege” is very much a relevant consideration for those who wish to approach the religious practices of other gods. It’s complicated, of course – not all pagans are white, and not all foreign polytheisms have historically been oppressed (Shinto is a GREAT example of this).

    And you are also correct about “folkish” heathens – I apologize for the sloppiness with which I made my point. There is nothing wrong with worshiping deities with one whom has an ancestral tie. However, there are an unfortunate contingent who use the “folkish” label to mean that they are the only ones who get to worship the Norse gods, and that anyone who doesn’t adhere to their blood quantum laws should stay away.

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