“An Orthodoxy of Fear”

First off, I have updated the FAQ page; some things have changed since I last poked at it, and it’s worth taking a peek, if you like. Ever growing, ever changing, and all that good stuff.

My dear friend (and all around awesome person) Erynn wrote this wonderfully thought-provoking post on what she terms “an orthodoxy of fear”. She is one of the foundational folks involved in Celtic Reconstructionism, and the above essay details her thoughts on the growing trend in CR (and which can be seen in other recon religions) where certain tight-laced members will essentially bully anyone who is “out of line”, so to speak. Read it before you go on if you haven’t already; it’s a great set of thoughts, and this post is my rumination on what she said.

I’m not a reconstructionist by far, believe me. I know damned well that what I’m doing is my own creation, and not specific to any culture other than modern mainstream American. However, the concept of shamanism has become particularly contentious these days, especially within dialogue about cultural appropriation, and how much borrowing/inspiration is too much. As I wrote last month upon my return from Arizona, one bad habit I’ve worked to break has been worrying overmuch about proving my authenticity. What Erynn described hits home for me in that regard, because I think I really hobbled myself sometimes for fear that the cultural appropriation police would come along and scream “PLASTIC SHAMAN!!! OMG!!!” Now, don’t get me wrong–I do believe strongly that appropriation is something we do need to continue discussing, and taking into account in our thoughts and actions.

However, reading through what Erynn said about people being afraid to talk about what they’re doing for fear of destructive criticism reminds me very much of myself at times. You know why it took me so long to accept the calling to shamanism? It wasn’t because I was afraid of the hardships (though I know those are a very real possibility). It was because I’d heard so many times that because I was white, because I didn’t have any connections to any indigenous culture, and had no one to teach me, that I shouldn’t ever call myself a “shaman”.

And what did that get me? A lot of years where I could have been answering the spirits when they repeatedly asked me to take up this path, but instead got distracted by other things. Now, I don’t think that my time was wasted; I learned and did a lot of neat things in that time. However, I have to wonder what might have been if I’d answered sooner; would I have been able to make more of a difference? I’ll never know for sure; what’s important now is that I am doing what I need to be doing, and learning more about what I can do further.

I understand the need for accuracy, believe me. We don’t need more “Fiftieth generation family tradition witches” and “Atlantean Crystal Loa Celts”. We don’t need more questionable books talking about how nine million Wiccans were burned at the stake at Salem. And we don’t need more people taking New Age beliefs and calling them genuine indigenous practices. However, how far do we really need to go when making sure that good information is put out there?

We need to stop discouraging non-indigenous people who want to practice a form of shamanism. If any culture could use shamanism–as well as the belief infrastructure that comes part and parcel with it–it’s the U.S. We are the most wasteful, destructive, screwed-up society out there. We consume more resources than any other country, and since the current administration came into power, we have alienated more and more countries (though Bush’s predecessors were far from innocent). We are a society stuck in long-term adolescence, lacking in true rebirthing rites of passage (and no, getting drunk on your 21st birthday doesn’t count). The fact that so many Americans are seeking something beyond what we currently have is a good sign; that many of them “steal” indigenous beliefs because they feel those are the most spiritual is usually a matter of ignorance, not deliberate malice. I think sometimes the critics come down too hard on neoshamans as a whole; don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (no matter how dirty that water may be). I may have a personal dislike for core shamanism as a freestanding system, but this is for me alone–I can’t say that others can’t practice it or get anything out of it.

Discouraging people from taking indigenous beliefs without understanding their context–or the people they originated from–is a good idea. Telling them “Look to the culture of your ancestors” only does so much good–the ancient Celts, Slavs, and other such folks did not have the same culture that we have today. Encouraging people to create a shamanism for this culture–that’s where I believe the answer is. I think sometimes many seekers distance themselves from American culture because they can’t see past the strip malls, and maybe they’re afraid of the immense amount of work that’s needed. But telling them “You can’t be a shaman” isn’t the solution. Then you just end up with people who A) become sick with despair, or B) take what they want anyway.

Being a rabid critic doesn’t help the situation. Setting yourself up as an uber-authority, telling people what they can and can’t believe or do, just makes you look like an insecure wanker with a chip on your shoulder (whether that’s what you are or not). Destructive criticism just turns people away; one can only handle being told “You’re doing it ALL wrong!” so many times before they stop listening out of self-defense. Cultural appropriation is given birth by a sick society seeking healing; if you want to help put a stop to it, there’s a better way than intimidating people to the point where they take their ball and go home.

For that matter, if you are a modern, nonindigenous shaman, take a good look at your cultural influences. How are you interfacing with the culture you are a part of–not just one halfway around the world in a remote area that has unblemished secrets, but whatever industrial/postindustrial, techno-heavy culture you may or may not enjoy living in? How is your shamanism helping the people around you–not just the pagans and the New Agers, but the folks next door, or the people in the local homeless shelter, or the schoolkids down the street? For that matter, how are the local spirits doing these days? Have you even talked to them? What about the Land you live on?

If someone is criticizing you, how are they doing it? Are they being openly antagonistic and insulting? Then chances are there probably isn’t that much to what they’re saying. Are they being calm (if opinionated) and supporting their claims with various sources and commentary? Read it over, think about it, and draw your own conclusions. Consider the possibility that they may very well have a good point; it’s easy for us to get defensive when we perceive someone criticizing us “for no good reason”. However, the method of conveyance can be a major tip-off in how much you really need to listen to someone. Hurling insults just turns people off; making a measured, calm argument is more likely to get a constructive response (honey and vinegar, folks).

In the end there are more important things, I think, than worrying that someone will attack you for daring to use the “S” word; with all the problems in the world, a label doesn’t seem all that important, especially if you don’t attach someone else’s culture to it (one in which you are not actively involved in any way). And I have to wonder if time spent surfing the internet criticizing anyone who is wrong wouldn’t be better off put to more constructive uses. There are bigger problems out there than making sure people stick to the standard dogma. Yes, we need to be aware when we’re overstepping our bounds when it comes to factual claims, and we do need to be aware of the impact on others. However, those of you who feel the need to terrify anyone who doesn’t do things the way you think they should, perhaps you ought to be more concerned with the impact you are having on others, as well. Because in the process of intimidating others, you may very well be contributing to the hindrance of people who could be very instrumental in improving the lot of us all.

6 thoughts on ““An Orthodoxy of Fear”

  1. Great post. I so agree with this: “If any culture could use shamanism–as well as the belief infrastructure that comes part and parcel with it–it’s the U.S.” I’m new to shamanism and I deal with all the fears you mentioned. But I’m following this path anyway! What else can I do? You also bring up some good questions/challenges for those of us on this path, particularly listening the local spirits. I try to do that but need to be more patient, attentive. Thanks.

  2. I agree with Riverwolf- that line he mentions affected me strongly too. I think it’s accurate, though I can imagine some of us (especially those who believe in some form of behaviorism) would be appalled by the idea of Americans rejecting modern “scientific” thinking for a primitive mode.

    As for the idea of cultural appropriation, I also think it should be discouraged. But let’s clearly define what appropriation is!

    Is having a dreamcatcher above your bed truly that abhorrent to the Lakota people? Where do you draw the line? To me, this is a case of the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. And how do you define the spirit of the law? It’s difficult, unless you are willing to take the time to analyse every individual shamanist’s every action. Most would say that’s impossible in today’s world, and I’d tend to agree. But an overall, generic ban on anything that could be labeled as “indian” being used by a non-Indian would require the sort of ultra-powerful police state none of us would desire. So what’s the answer?

    My own response is “focus on the individual.” If you’re buying corporate products made in China by wage-slaves, and calling yourself a “shaman” because you have a mass-manufactured dreamcatcher hanging from your rearview mirror, that’s appropriation.

    But if you are carefully harvesting grapevine from your own land, with the spirit of the vine’s permission, then constructing your own dreamcatchers from organic materials, and truly endevouring to work in harmony with the spirits, then you are not appropriating someone else’s culture- you are creating a bridge between your own life and their’s, honoring the culture that created “dreamcatchers” at the same time you are continuing the tradition in your way. How can anyone be angry with that?

    My own opinion is that shamanism is humanity’s natural spirituality- it is eternal, and as long as humans survive, they will attempt to stay in contact with the spirits, using some form of shamanism. No one culture has a monopoly on that. Don’t forget- until the Romans invaded western Europe, all the so-called white people (Celts, Gauls and Nordics) were also tribal and shamanic. My own shamanic journeys to contact my ancestor spirits have made this very clear. But if you go back far enough, all human cultures were shamanic and tribal.

  3. Riverwolf–Good luck on your own journey!

    Korak–You make a good point about the dreamcatchers; a lot of it has to do with *how* something is done. The big issue with appropriation today is that rather than two relatively “equal” cultures passing information between them, you have members of a very powerful culture drawing from more disempowered (through the actions of the powerful culture) cultures, and often ignoring the protests entirely. It makes it tougher to navigate, because of the politics and so forth.

  4. Personally, I’ve always wondered about people who hung dreamcatchers on their rearview mirror. Are they expecting to fall asleep and have nightmares behind the wheel? Seriously, WTF?

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