Appropriation and Tresspassing

Cultural (mis)appropriation among pagan and magical traditions is a pretty hot topic, and attitudes range from take what you will to don’t touch anything you weren’t born into. A middle ground of some kind is usually inhabited, but rarely solidly defined.

Gordon at Rune Soup, has a rather interesting take on the matter:

My uncertainty continued until university where I studied cross cultural film making, indigenous writing and all manner of topics that sat at the intersection between Anglo-academia and traditional cultures.

What I learnt was, essentially, non-engagement isn’t an option. You can’t just put cultural studies in the “too hard” basket for fear of being racist or insensitive. That’s ultimately more damaging because valid worldviews and modes of thought would be sidelined and forgotten.

What you needed were guidelines. Rules of engagement.

And so it must be for magic, also.

When I shot my underwater documentary in Micronesia I became aware that there were places I was allowed to go and places that I was not allowed to go without the permission of the Nanmwarki (chief).

The places I was allowed to go without permission were those places any lay person could go. Anything beyond that required a title or the permission of someone with a title. I was fine with all this because it’s a very familiar concept to us magical folk.

I was getting closer.


There is a little statue of Ekeko, the Andean abundance spirit, on my mantle piece. (If you live in London, I bought it here. Warning: World’s worst website.)

Now, it would be hard to find a tradition in the world I knew less about than the indigenous folk practices of the tribes around Lake Titicaca. (Not ‘curing cancer’ hard, but you know what I mean.)

And yet I have no problem housing and feeding Ekeko.


Because Ekeko statues are even given as gifts. They represent a very simple form of magic that absolutely anyone within that culture has access to.

Here then, is the golden rule I had been looking for:

Do not go further into a magical practice than a layman from within that culture is allowed to go without invitation or initiation.

If non-engagement isn’t an option, if cross-cultural magical practices are unavoidable in our global society, then this seems to be the best way to manage it.

Each culture has its own boundaries between what is initiatory and what is not. Culture belongs to the world. Initiation belongs to initiates.

An interesting take on the problem, although I’m not sure I’m totally convince. I think that part of the problem lies in the fact that for some cultures, even the laymen are initiates, and the cultural knowledge itself is initiate-level knowledge. Culture does not belong to the world: it belongs to the society it defines. Perhaps a better boundary would be going no further in a practice than a guest to that culture would be permitted without invitation?


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