The Pagan Melting Pot – A little too White?
Central to most forms of contemporary Paganism are traditions and paths based on ancient European practices, but this ethno- and Eurocentrism could easily open doors to a dangerous process of differentiation based not only on ethnicity, culture and religion but also race. In a country such as South Africa, which has been marred by legislated racism in the past, contemporary Pagans should guard against any potential form of racism within the community. And Pagans should beware of racism wearing the cloak of culture and ethnically-based traditions.
Many forms of contemporary Paganism and Heathenism are not only predominantly based on European ideas and ideals, but are also mostly practised by people of Western European descent, and that stands in stark contrast to the professed diversity of contemporary Paganism. In contrast and contrary to our diversity because ethno- and Eurocentrism result in “non-Europeans” being pretty much excluded from contemporary Paganism – even if and when this is not done intentionally or with any malice.
Many modern day Pagans strongly deny being racist, claiming that although they are “ethnocentric” it has nothing to do with race, but claim that they are merely focussing on the culture of their faith’s ethnic origin – a follower of Asatru, for example, tends to follow Teutonic philosophies, spirituality, religious practices, etc. The Covens of British Traditionalist Witchcraft tend to centre on British (European) practitioners and the same holds true for most Reconstructionist Pagan traditions – even Wiccans tend to concentrate of ancient European practices, be they religious, spiritual or magical.
The question arises whether concentrating solely on ethnically-based traditions, paths and practices in fact means that these groups purposefully exclude people of other ethnic groups from practicing with them, or are some contemporary Pagans merely attempting to remain true to their “ethnic ethos” (the word Asatru, for example, means “Faithful to the Aesir” and is as such based on a very specific culture, but does this mean that is based on race?).
In “The Melting Cauldron: Ethnicity, Diversity, and Identity in a Contemporary Pagan Subculture”, Marisol Charbonneau writes that it is “within the construction of a religious identity that glorifies and romanticises a pre-Christian, European culture, that one can find the reason for the apparent lack of diversity in contemporary Paganism. That is, people who are not of European origin may either feel alienated or disinterested in a movement that stresses the cultural and religious norms associated pre-Christian Europe”.
Sabina Magliocco states, “Neopaganism, by definition, attempts to reclaim, reconstruct, and experiment with the pre-Christian traditions of European indigenous peoples.”
She also notes that upwards of 80% of the contemporary Pagans in her study (in the US) are of European descent. In South Africa I am sure that this percentage is much higher – in fact it probably touches on the 100%.
In “Weaving a Tangled Web: Pagan Ethics and Issues of History, Race and Ethnicity in Pagan Identity” The Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, Ann-Marie
Gallagher writes: “the links made between fascists aspirations and paganism appear to come from the provision, within the formations of pagan identity in Britain, of the racial specificity of what some pagan perceive to their past and their cultural antecedents”.
Some pagans will say that they have “nothing against” any of the other races or nationalities – but even such a statement merely makes one wonder whether these people are racists or merely bigots. What they certainly are is biased towards their own specific tradition, path and ethnicity.
One problem with “ethnocentric religions” is that many of the contemporary followers of these religions do not live in the countries where these religions originated, and many, if not most, of these followers can not even claim to be descendants of these ancient people. So when it comes to basing their practices on specific ethnicities linked to specific practices, should these modern day practitioners even claim to be culture specific? And if they do, why?
According to http://dictionary Ethnocentrism means: “… the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture. A tendency to view alien groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own.”
According to Columbia Encyclopedia and Bartleby.com, it can also be defined as: “the feeling that one’s group has a mode of living, values and patterns of adaptation that are superior to those of other groups. It is coupled with a generalised contempt for members of other groups…”
So it seems that ethnocentrism is based on the view that one’s ethnicity is superior to others. The “ethno” from the word ethnocentrism comes from “ethnos”, a Greek word meaning “people”. “Centrism” meanwhile refers to “centre”. So, ethnocentrism translates to people’s self-centeredness. So, does ethnocentrism differ from racism?
Ethnocentrism, is in many ways contrary to what I personally believe contemporary Paganism stands for, as anyone who believes that religion and spirituality is connected to a specific bloodline has at the very least the potential to be racist – religious or otherwise.
Ethnocentrism is often said merely to be pride in one’s own race, while racism is said to be the subjugation of a group of people by telling them that they are inferior by laws, imposition and an a ideology. This may be true in a political sense, but as far as I am concerned it is absolutely racist to exclude anyone on the basis of ethnicity or race from any spiritual or religious path.
Eurocentrism is said to be “the practice of viewing the world from a European perspective and with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, in the pre-eminence of European culture”.
And Eurocentricism is nothing new; in fact in the fifth century BCE the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned “barbaric” Asian hordes that, despite splendid architecture, “lack European individuality”.
Even Aristotle (384-322 BCE) regarded governments in Africa and Asia as despotic and peoples as servile and lacking in spirit. On the other hand, he regarded Asians as intelligent and was impressed with Egypt because leisure among the priestly caste had allowed them to found the mathematical arts.
Eurocentrism refers to a discriminating tendency to interpret the histories and cultures of non-European societies from a European (or Western) perspective. Common features of Eurocentric thought include:
• Ignoring or undervaluing non-European societies as inferior to Western;
• Ignoring or undervaluing what Asians or Africans do within their own society or seeing the histories of non-European societies simply in European terms, or as part of “the expansion of Europe” and its civilising influence.
There are certain beliefs that have led Eurocentric thinkers toward ignoring, undervaluing, or condemning non-European societies. These include the following:
• Non-European societies tend to be despotic and servile, as against the West’s freedom and individualism.
• Non-European societies believe in strange religions.
• Non-European societies are cruel and lack concern for human life.
• Non-European societies are inflexible and unchanging. Some European thinkers have attributed this lack of change to topography or climate, for instance extreme dependence on a major river, such as the Nile or the Yellow River, or extreme heat or dryness. Non-European societies are poor, backward, and underdeveloped, as opposed to the industrialised, progressive, and rich West.
• Non-European societies lack rational modes of thinking and scientific approaches.
On the blog The Political Pagan, in Rejecting Racism and Tribalism, Maelstrom writes: “… It is up to us all as Pagans to reach out and form relations across racial barriers and boundaries.”
He mentions that the idea among many Pagans reconstructing pre-Christian religious traditions also includes some attempt at recreating the tribal society of ancient times, which he defines as “a dangerous idea that plays right into the hands of racism”.
While the argument that the old religion was followed by people living in tribal communities may be true, it is pure nonsense to think that contemporary Pagans should do exactly the same by default. This is the 21st century and we no longer live in a closed tribal society.
Even though ancient Europeans functioned within the tribal paradigm, this should not be mistaken as a racist paradigm by contemporary Pagans. Old European myths are not racially motivated, they pointed to what has been termed cosmic realities and not tribal boundaries. In the Norse tradition, for example, Yggdrasil is the “World Tree”, not the Norwegian or German tree. It shelters all beings. Odin is called the “All-Father”, not the Norwegian or German father. In Wicca, and many other forms of modern Paganism, the Summerland represents a place of rest for souls in between their earthly incarnations – and surely not only for “European” souls.
Furthermore, while it is true that the old gods, and religious traditions, were often only followed within certain regions, among certain people who shared a common language and culture, there is no reason whatsoever for an originally tribal religion transplanted to modern times to remain tribal. As far as I am concerned all ancient religions now followed by contemporary Pagans should be adapted to the conditions of a modern multi-ethnic society.
As much as we may love having ancestors from this or that part of Europe, our heritage did not stop developing at some convenient cut-off point in history. To idealise that past society, to yearn to be in an ethnically defined and exclusionary tribe, is escapism from modern society and modern realities. And at the end of the day it is a very thinly disguised form of racism.
Looking at the history of contemporary Paganism, as a countercultural spirituality which embraces diversity, religious tolerance, inclusiveness and acceptance, it does seem that Pagans should not, and can surely not, be xenophobic or racist. Many Pagans and Pagan traditions in fact incorporate elements of historical religions, cultures and mythologies into their beliefs and practices.
In its infancy most, if not all, forms of contemporary Paganism were strongly influenced by not only Western thoughts but by Eastern, American and African religions, spiritualities and philosophies. As such modern Paganism started out as an ethnically diverse religious movement, and it should remain so.
The inclusiveness of some traditions and paths do not allow for exclusivity based on race because these practices are based on appropriation. Pagans also draw inspiration from non-Pagan traditions such as Christianity, Buddhism, etc, creating syncretisms such as Christo-Paganism or Buddheo-Paganism.
The well-known chant “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innanna” has African, Middle-Eastern, European and Asian roots.
So, if the religious, philosophical and spiritual structures and even magical practices of “non-Europeans” were “good enough” to borrow from, why is it now that the very people who birthed these structures and practices are seemingly no longer good enough to be members of the contemporary Pagan community?
As a South African Pagan, I would hate to think of future generations of Pagans feeling unwelcome because of the colour of their skin.
Or has “European blood” redefined Paganism as an umbrella term for a community of beliefs and practices that are tribal, ethnocentric, Eurocentric and racist?
answers.yahoo.com › … › Other – Cultures & GroupsCached – Similar
Mackerras, Colin. “Eurocentrism”. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (February 26, 2012) See http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3424300259.html
Cultural Appropriation by Patti Wigington The Religion of Ethnic Kinship
Gods of the Blood, The Pagan Revival and White Separatism by Mattias Gardell
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003