Reclaiming the Hidden Sacred

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

There are multiple ways of telling the history of humanity for the last three-hundred years.  We all know at least a few of them, and embrace at least one of them. Whether we are consciously aware of the narrative we’ve chosen, it affects not only how we see history but also our current society.

For a person of european descent living somewhere besides Europe, there are various tales we tell or have been told regarding how it is we happened to be in the lands we were born.  I won’t go into every one of them, and I’ve little interest in addressing what one might term “conservative” narratives (that is, God led our forefathers across the ocean, etc..) here, nor do I think many who hold those ideas would be reading this.

We choose these narratives both consciously and unconsciously, inheriting them from our cultural and educational history (parents, media, church, friends) and refining them or adopting new ones when they no longer seem to fit our need to understand both our history and our current world.  The dominant one in America seems often enough that europeans (and others) came across the ocean in search of “religious freedom, “better lives,” and “opportunity.”  Whether or not you accept this idea, I think it’s interesting to note what isn’t said in the narrative: “what were they leaving?”

The Great White Hope of Puritans

The question of (early) religious freedom is easily addressed: several religious groups, particular the Puritans, were expelled from the places they lived because their repressive ideas were no longer welcome in certain cities.  Few think of this: the Puritans had to flee from England after Oliver Cromwell lost power, went to the Continent for a little bit until they were expelled there, and then finally settled in the Colonies.  

But if people were looking for better lives, opportunity, jobs, work, and all of that, why weren’t they finding it in Europe?

Displacement and the Sacred

We all mostly learn the story of the rise of industrialization in Britain from high school.  The story goes as such: we were once all living under Feudalism, slaving away for little to anything of our own, and then suddenly the factories came about.  Our ancestors had a new way to live, and fled from the countryside in droves to towns where we no longer had to live such horrid, menial lives.

In the towns, they learned ideas, they learned to read, they learned that they didn’t have to live under Feudalism anymore.  The towns got bigger, the markets got full of new, shiny things that we didn’t have to make ourselves anymore.  And because there was a “new land” across the ocean, people left Europe to flee from crowded towns to wide-open spaces with even more economic chances.

Essential to this narrative are two things: progress and choice.  As far as progress is concerned, the story says that things have gotten better, we went from monarchy to democracy and from hand-sewn to factory-churned, from cramped huts on the edge of the forest to better homes in the cities, and from oppressive religious societies to open, tolerant societies.

And regarding choice–well, how much choice did our ancestors really have?  Though we say “we no longer had to make our own things,” we forget that “we no longer can.”  We don’t have the time to do so anymore, for the only way to make a living is to work for someone else.  Though we “don’t have to” grow our own food anymore, it is also true “we don’t have the land to,” nor can we survive on what we grow (remember, people used to do this All the Time, and not just thousands of years ago). 

That is to say, we have no choice in the matter now, nor really did our ancestors.  We had to sell our labor in the factories, we had to rely on stores and markets for our food and clothing, and living a simple, self-sufficient life is now only possible if you’ve the money to buy land.

The market, in essence, replaced much of what we did “for ourselves,” and while we usually tell us that we were freed from the constraints of the old ways, we forget that we now have no choice in the matter.

And thus far, I’ve only been speaking of material matters.

The False Narrative of Progress

Though Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is credited as being the first to describe capitalism’s “dis-enchantment” effect upon social and spiritual relations, another well-known writer did much of the work beforehand.  Karl Marx’s Das Capital and The Communist Manifesto are both rife with descriptions of how the engines of capitalism disrupted social relations, and I intend to write more in-depth on this in another post. 

Suffice it to say, for now, that as people were displaced from their lands (usually because they could no longer afford the rents), moved into the cities and began working in the factories (whole families, not just men), their relationships to each other, to their ancestral knowledge, to the land, and to the sacred changed.  Enlightenment thinkers and those inspired by them typically see all these changes as being good, and it is from them that we derive the very notion of historical Progress.  It is telling that none of them worked in factories.  But no-one wants to be against the Enlightenment and Progress, right?

Maybe we should all be.  Attempting to find the Sacred now is incredibly difficult, and all most of us ever have to rely upon is The Market.  We may have found certain books that inspired us to look on the world as a more magical place, or maybe music or films, rarely a teacher.   I know for many people my age, it was Loreena McKennit or Dead Can Dance which got them into paganism, or maybe (the incredibly problematic) Braveheart.  The Market has, from time to time, managed to disseminate ideas to those of us who may not have come to them from our families, friends, or personal revelations.  But this is not a good thing; this is a consolation prize, and worse, the capitalists get to claim that it was because of them that we discovered our ancestral knowledge.

We should counter, rather, with this: it is in spite of Capitalism and the displacement of our ancestors, it is despite the homogenizing affect of materialism and the market that we have found and fought for the Sacred.  And despite the narrative of Progress attempting to re-write our histories into a story that asserts “we are better off now,” we have begun to recover the histories of the sacred that linger just beyond the pretty, meaningless words.

Worker’s Maypole

Other things which get caught up in the Progress Narrative include Rights: Capitalism and its narrative claim to have made life better for us all, particularly minorities.  Women’s rights, Abolition, gay rights, etc., are all supposedly derived from the transformational force of industry, commerce, and capital.  We should do better by our ancestors than to believe this.  People who fought and died for the 8-hour work day, for the right to vote, for the right to love who they want–they didn’t do this because capitalism made it possible.  In many instances, they had to fight directly against capitalism.  And, interestingly enough, many of them were both “radicals” (usually socialist or anarchist) and also occultists.  One of the early founders of the Druid order to which I belong, MacGregor Reid, was a socialist who’d spent much of his time helping to organize dock-workers in NYC.  The painter of the Rider-Waite Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith  (who’s name is sadly rarely mentioned), was a Suffragette.  Much of the early history of worker-resistance in the UK and the US was rife with pagan imagery, there was a vast nexus of relationships between the Golden Dawn and Anarchists in England (and by nexus, I mean Oscar Wilde–see Lela Ghandi’s Affective Communities), and many of the early gay rights pioneers, particularly in Europe, used the pagan gods to justify their love (see this fascinating paper).

Recovering Without Theft

Much of the rest of the world are fortunate enough to live near the relics of their ancestors. In America, unless we are First Nations, we are not.

It’s tempting, because of our history of displacement and the scrubbing of our history, to give up completely on the search for historical veracity.  When everything seems to have been taken from us, it almost makes sense to either make it up as we go along or to borrow from whatever authentic-traditions are on hand.  The first option is lazy, and the second one is called appropriation.

The first option implies a sense of despair, or embraces the narrative of Progress and Capitalism that the old ways are either lost or unworthy of our attention.  The question of pagan continuity is thorny and debated, but there are enough “reconstructionists” around that no one really needs to look very far to find people who’ve already done much of the work on digging up the traditions, beliefs, rituals, and gods of our ancestors.

The second is what spurred me to write this post in the first place.  The question of cultural appropriation came up in this blog, as well as a few other places on the Internet where it was re-posted.  The reaction to the writer’s piece was surprising to me, because I live in a hyper-sensitive, “liberal-left” environment where people break the windows of stores that sell Ghettopoly and “Navaho Underwear”, both undisputedly racist products.

But products are just products, items outside of ourselves, easily disowned.  Beliefs are stronger, are considered not just part of ourselves but integral to who we are.  And the search for spirituality is deep within many of us, as is the desire to have authentic spiritual experiences.  In the Northwest, where I live, Buddhism (or what some have termed “Western Buddhism”) is very popular, though much of it reflects only the outward rituals of the practice, as with Yoga, which was a preparatory ritual for spiritual work, not the spiritual work itself. I sometimes play a game at the local organic food co-op, called “find-the-non-white” in Eastern-Mysticism magazines.  The game is this: you open up the magazine and flip through the pages until you see the first photo of a non-white person not in an advertisement.  I usually get to page 50.  I once modified the game (I should note, I do this aloud, boisterously) to find the first non-white person who was photographed in color, and gave up.

Um, yeah.

This is very rude of me, I admit, but there’s a point to it.  We white, european-descended spiritual seekers face not only the displacement of our ancestral lines into a land that was stolen from the indigenous inhabitants, but we also suffer in our search for authentic spiritual experiences from our own racist perceptions of other cultures.  That racism filters and mediates our approach in multiple ways.  We tend to approach the Sacred in the other as something frozen in history, something from an ancient past that no longer exists (we are not the only ones guilty of this, by the way–I remember the utter shocked delight when I told a pagan friend in Europe that not all the natives were dead.  She asked me “have you seen one?” and seemed likely to die when I told her I knew many).  A lot of the appropriation in Western society comes from our refusal to acknowledge that there are still living traditions around, and not very far off from where we live, and that there are still people who can teach us about spirits, the gods, and traditions of magic.

The other problem we encounter is just as negative.  We are the inheritors of a dominant culture, of political, cultural, and economic imperialism.  Capitalism originated in England in the 17th century, and from then on, white Europeans, displaced willingly or unwillingly, have been part of the destruction of other cultures.  We have been the dominant one, and are horribly unused to being changed by cultures we encounter.  We encounter Buddhism and Hinduism and suddenly plaster billboards with pictures of white women, seated lotus-style, in front of their laptops checking their bank balances on-line.  We encounter a Mayan time-keeping system and foist our own apocalyptic fantasies upon it.  We see Native sacred crafts and fill our living rooms with them.  (And here, Capitalism and its consolation, The Market, rear their heads again.)

The problem isn’t the search for authenticity.  The problem, I’d argue, is the refusal to allow ourselves be changed by the cultures who birthed the spirituality we embrace.  We pick and choose what we want to cobble together a system that does not actually change our way of life, and when the teachers of some of those beliefs demand the right to teach them to us, we hide behind pretty notions of truth belonging to all people, of universal teachings, or just utterly deny our condition altogether.

There are better ways to go about this.  The fact that there are still indigenous traditions, real, living traditions, means that we actually still have access to people who can teach us.  And in the experience of many people I have known, these teachings are willingly given, but they aren’t given out in pamphlets or books or seminars.  A former lover was invited to partake in such things, but the expectation was not only that he be open to the teachings but that he maintain a connection to and take on a responsibility for not just the teachings but the tribe who offered it.  As far as other traditions go, the situation is similar.  Also, there are many orders who focus on reconstruction of traditions and avoid taking from others unless it is offered or given.

And maybe even better, we can reclaim our own Sacred.  Not just the folk-ways of our ancestors (not many of us can even accurately be certain who our european ancestors are), but the still-living traditions hidden in our current culture.  One of these is the pagan resistance still evident up to the early 1900’s in America and Europe. Besides the aforementioned examples, it was recently brought to my attention that the Molly Maguires posted eviction notices to landlords in the name of local land gods. Also, despite all the horror that Catholicism has wrought, pagan gods are still worshiped as saints within their traditions and can be re-discovered and reclaimed from there, and is some of the work I hope personally to do in September when I go to Bretagne.  (And as an aside, for those following the saga of my impending pilgrimage,I recently learned that I’ll be traveling to Europe on the day of one such hidden-god, St. Dionysos, revered on September 6th)

Nature is also a great place to look.  If gods or spirits introduced themselves to people 100 years ago, it seems unlikely they would have stopped now.  But we must be careful with this, because almost every spirituality teaches that one must first delve into our own mind to find what is hidden there, what motivates us and what prevents us.  Learning to hear the Sacred requires learning to distinguish our own thoughts and their foundations from what is outside of us.  Relying on established traditions is an important safeguard against both appropriation and error.  Making it up as we go along is sometimes necessary, but it should not be our only method of finding the Sacred, otherwise we are merely “making it up.”

*the source of the quote at the top: Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles,  from The Communist Manifesto

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Hidden Sacred

  1. So much of modern neo-paganism, as taught to white people by white people, appropriates from Native Traditions without even lip-service. (Totem, Medicine bags, dreamcatchers …) You could argue that smudging is appropriation, even if no tribe specifically uses commercially harvested white sage with Lavender oil. Not that I'm aware of anyway.

    And yet, here I am, a pagan who has had experiences based off the sacred ground I tread, and I live in the land of Dkhw’Duw’Absh. If I believe this land is sacred, and I believe in honoring the native voices and native spirits of this land, how can I not commit cultural appropriation when I go yell at the trees?

    Given the history of white people interacting with the First Nations of our area, how can we expect good faith and trust? There will always follow us the crimes of our ancestors. Paralysed by fear, I stay at home and mull these thoughts on websites, featuring, even more white people.

    Ahh, modern racism in my spiritual beliefs. Fucking hell.

  2. I work hard everyday, Working for a man,
    Who when I'm old and grey, Will steal my pension plan,
    Sometimes I ask myself, I ask myself what's the point?
    Two weeks in the sun, For a lifetime in this joint….

  3. Smudging: Saining. Different herbs, same concept.
    Medicine Bag: Crane Bag.
    The big thing to remember is that there are First Nation Elders willing to teach their practices, but they require commitment to their ways and the right to teach them (rather than us buying books on it…). And there are plenty of natives who will gift dreamcatchers if you ask, but friendship is required (in the same way that friendship is always required everywhere). It's an almost frightening honor to be given one.
    It isn't all so hopeless, and the land spirits don't seem to mind who is respecting them, assuming we're approaching them without cultural arrogance.

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