R.E.S.P.E.C.T. …for the Gods, imagine that.
I was recently cued in to a pretty unfortunate post by author John Halstead and I have decided to weigh in. While it’s no secret that I dislike Halstead’s position on almost everything, this is not a personal attack against him. I want to make that clear from the beginning. It’s far too easy to turn our disagreements into a battle of personalities and doing so ignores and dismisses the real issues at hand: respect for the Gods and appropriation of polytheistic iconography by outsiders. In fact, I think Mr. Halstead is very, very good at using well-crafted rhetoric to shift the focus away from these issues. It’s so much easier, after all, for the average reader (don’t be average, folks!) to argue personalities (polytheists are so mean!) than to engage seriously with the issue of disrespect. I think we all critique ourselves a little bit, uncomfortably so, when such issues arise and who likes to do that? Instead, I’m interested in the actual theological issue here, and that is why I am writing this article.
Polytheisms are under attack worldwide. Daesh, for instance, has been quoted as saying that “Whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism in it.” – an ISIL terrorist (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” Symbols are obviously important and Daesh has made good on their word too, looting and destroying (as in reducing to rubble and dust) polytheist sacred sites. Within our own communities, a large majority of Pagans are not only diametrically opposed to polytheism, but I believe dedicated to its eradication (how else is one to interpret the constant breech of our traditions, the ongoing attempts to co-opt our religious terminology and to water down our traditions until they are meaningless, and the insistence from so many quarters that atheism – a religious position in and of itself—is part of Paganism?). Respect for our religious symbols is important. Is it so much to ask that we stop treating our religions as social outlets and start instead treating them as actual religions? Looking at our communities, it’s easy to assume, that yes, it may be.
Some Polytheisms don’t really care so much. I was talking to a Hindu friend last weekend about just this issue and we touched on the question of Western appropriation and he said he was fine with it. He said any little bit of Hinduism people are able to take into their religious world, will ultimately benefit them and he’s ok with that. I pointed out, that while I got that, and found it laudable, he has the advantage of having an unbroken tradition, the security of thousands of years of lineage and inter-generational transmission of tradition. Those polytheists whose traditions were devastated by the spread of Christianity don’t have that luxury. We are in the ideological position of having to fight and defend every inch of ground gained. We do not have the ingrained theological mindset, nor the numbers, whereby we can sit back, relax, and say: “it’s ok. Go ahead, use that image of Ba’al in your atheist ritual.” We are still in the process of preparing the ground and sowing seeds that we are hoping to nourish into a sustainable tradition. We’re still in the process of sifting out the threads some of our ancestors broke, and doing the hard, emotionally grueling, painful work of reweaving them back into being. We don’t have the luxury of allowing our traditions to be appropriated by the thoughtless because there’s so little reservoir of the tradition as a living one upon which to draw. We are, instead, tasked with guarding carefully every metaphorical stone that we have again unearthed and set in place as we restore these sacred containers of our mysteries and mystery as any good polytheist knows, is not open to entitlement. So we get a bit testy when we see evidence of such disrespect from those in the community who would set themselves up as our peers.
A couple of weeks ago, Tess Dawson wrote this piece. It’s a measured, restrained response to a provocative act of appropriation and disrespect. I leave you to read that piece for yourself. She doesn’t mention Halstead because this isn’t about Halstead specifically. He is simply the latest incarnation of a culture of disrespect: for our Gods, our traditions, the process of restoration itself. This piece wasn’t about him. It was about something that he did, thoughtlessly, feeling – as he himself says here – entitled.
I was told yesterday – I’ve not been following it myself – that the issue of appropriation has become a hot-button one on Patheos Pagan Channel recently. When you take an image, sacred to a particular tradition, and twist it –however well meaning you may be—into something that is perceived as intensely disrespectful by practitioners of that tradition, well, that is an unfortunate act of appropriation. It’s the religious equivalent of prancing around in black-face and perhaps we should ask ourselves why that’s not ok, but co-opting the sacred is. Social justice warriors get all up in arms about perceived attacks and micro-aggressions on people but rarely raise their voices (at least insofar as I have seen) against perceived attacks and micro-aggressions against their Gods and traditions. It would be nice to see the same level of concern over our traditions. After all, while I may be suspicious of Halstead’s motives (after all, anyone promulgating something like non-theistic or atheist Paganism is clearly attempting to water down the word Pagan until it means nothing at all), in general, people who appropriate our sacred images aren’t intentionally doing something bad or hurtful to us and the traditions within which we’re working. They are very likely attracted to the beauty of the holy and nine times out of ten, most of us have no problem with that. Like my Hindu friend, we’re of the attitude that it’ll be beneficial. There’s always that exception though and when one takes a holy image and turns it into a disrespectful joke, that’s a pretty glaring exception even if it’s being done with protestations of respect.
I’m objecting to the commodification of our Gods. I have another friend, who is fighting just this. My Australian friend Markos discovered recently that apparently third party sites like ebay won’t allow the use of the certain God-names. Why? Because apparently they are shared by companies like Hermes Paris. You can read about his fight here too (and I’m told Wild Hunt is currently looking into this as well, so stay tuned). Where is the public outcry about this erasure and disrespect of our Gods? In fact, Markos is getting harassed by other Pagans about his attempt to fight this, harassed by our own fucking people. We’ll come together over [insert social controversy of the day] and raise a fuss but won’t say word one about the co-opting and commercialization of our Gods, even when it harms our own people: our artists and craftsmen. So yes, the appropriation of an image sacred to Canaanite polytheism is a big deal.
(image courtesy of Wayne and Markos)