I had a great conversation recently with a former student of mine. We were talking about the challenges of balancing human ethics with spirit etiquette. How do we avoid cultural appropriation when a Power from a culture to which we have no other connection decides to drop in and say “Hi” for whatever reason?
Novice spirit workers who have only public blogs from other spirit workers, devotional polytheists, and reconstructionist pagans to work from can come away with an impression that it’s just not supposed to happen in the first place. As if we’re each only ever talking to the specific Powers we have some kind of cultural permission to serve, and that anything else is Against The Rules somehow, and you can either accept those rules or reject them outright and face dire consequences. But in my experience both in private conversations with other spirit workers, and in my own work, the picture is very, very different.
The first thing novice spirit workers need to realize is that spirit worker =/= hard polytheist =/= reconstructionist. The overlap is high within the Pagan movement, but those are three totally different aspects of a Pagan faith path. More than half of the spirit workers I know are on a reconstructionist-inspired path that leans more heavily on direct experience and gnosis than most strict reconstructionists are comfortable with. (Your
kink faith is okay too. As far as I’m concerned, all I need to know is where information is coming from, so that I can determine whether it’s appropriate to incorporate into my practice.)
Another thing to recognize is that many spirit workers play our cards very close to our chests, because we don’t want to deal with accusations of fraud, delusion, and/or heresy. Also, those of us who are reconstructionists tend to compartmentalize our practices out of respect for group focus.
So it’s not safe to assume that our blogs reflect our entire practice or experience. Our writings tend to reflect only those aspects of our practice that we are comfortable with sharing, and authorized to share. We may well talk with all kinds of Powers, but not much talk about most of Them.
So what do I actually do if an unfamiliar Power drops in to talk?
I offer hospitality, of course!
From all I’ve ever learned, that’s just What You Do. And sure enough, over the years in my personal practice I’ve encountered Powers from more cultures than I can readily count, from all over the world. (Nobody has dropped in from Australia that I know of yet.) But the vast majority are just passing through or have one message before moving on never to be seen again.
In practice, many spirit workers find that Powers prefer to be served in a manner appropriate to the culture They are known through, if possible. At the same time, many of us also find most of the Powers are pretty relaxed, and it’s humans who are worried the most about mixing and matching.
Honestly, some spirits never reference a specific human culture I can recognize at all. Animal, plant, and land spirits may only reference the environment They’re from. I assume spirits of all kinds have Their own cultures, but I also assume human and spirit cultures have interacted all along the same way neighboring and trading human cultures always have, so those aren’t necessarily totally separate questions.
Ultimately I believe each Power is an individual, and the preferences of one may not match the preferences of another. (e.g. Aset is much pickier about Kemetic forms than Bast, in my experience.) For that matter, Their preferences from one of us may not match Their preference in another case. (e.g. Odin does not expect the same behavior from me Diana Paxson, Galina Krasskova, and Laure Beth Lynch. We’re each on very different paths with Him.)
Now, I have yet to meet a spirit worker who says, “If the Power who started the conversation is from the wrong culture, ignore them!” But I know many who teach the less experienced folk to strongly question their assumptions that they’re getting lead to take up or re-create traditions from a culture to which they have no access. It’s also important to stop and question whether we’re being contacted by an important spirit from a marginalized-but-still-active culture vs. some other spirit playing shenanigans, or some other internal process muddying the signal. It’s one thing to be rude to a spirit who is just dropping in, and quite another to take everything we think at face value without discernment, eh?
It’s important to make a very strong distinction between responding when prompted and seeking out Powers of cultures that would be problematic to seek, much less claiming to represent the worship specific to those cultures. There’s a pretty big difference between being respectful towards that Coyote [spirit/god/I-don’t-know-it’s-freakin’-Coyote] when He decides to show up on my doorstep, and representing myself as some kind of authority on the True Word of Coyote.
The ultimate authority on Coyote is, no doubt, Coyote Himself. But the peoples who have been dealing with Him for millennia probably know better than I do what to expect outside of the specific direct interactions I happen to have had with Him, and that’s assuming I’ve accurately perceived Him in the first place!
Will I still pour a beer for that spirit claiming to be Coyote and listen to whatever advice He happens to have for me? Of course! Will I follow His instructions? Well, that would depend on the instructions. But what I won’t do is write up a book All About Coyote that flies in the face of established traditions around Him when continuous traditions are alive and well among people my ancestors have thoroughly abused and marginalized. Because really, that’s just fucked up.
Ultimately, my best bet will always be to take each interaction on its own terms. This is where the Gods Are People Too model is useful. If you wanted to know my favorite color, you’d start by asking me directly, no? If for some reason you couldn’t ask me directly, who would you trust more, someone who just met me, or someone who has known me for years and years? The same is true for Powers and the cultures that have developed around Them.
Research and discernment are my friend, and the folks who have known a Power longest generally know Them best.