Tradition, appropriation and spiritual legitimacy

Dr. E recently posted an article on his church website addressing cultural appropriation, which has caused much discussion on Facebook. As can be expected those who are sympathetic to incorporating disparate elements from living religions such as Lucumi and Haitian Vodou into an otherwise non-traditional practice are unhappy about Eddy's tone in that article. Initiates on the other hand are praising him for speaking out against the mercantilist appropriations of Lucumi and the other diasporic traditions that we find spreading all over Etsy and elsewhere online.

Let's put aside for the moment the potential harm that cultural appropriation can do to a living tradition.

Those who are working outside of the initiatic tradition but still decide to make use of said tradition's symbols and spirits (either for their own practice or for financial gain) face a conflict - both spiritually and culturally. On the one hand there is the idea that their practice has value and power for them, personally. That they can and should be able to do as they please in their own spiritual life - especially if it feels like it is working for them. Who are they harming, after all?

On the other hand they are faced with the question of validity. Is what they are doing then valid even though it isn't traditional? And here is where it becomes slippery. Once they deem their work valid based on the criteria that what they do has meaning and efficacy (subjectively), they might feel entitled to be acknowledged as legitimate by others. If they feel their work is spiritually legitimate should they then start offering rituals, products and services of a similar sort, using the same signifiers along with cultural currency that those signifiers carry? As can be expected, this kind of validation and approval from initiates is quite unlikely to happen and it generates conflict. Outrage even.

Complicating matters further, we usually see the same strategies that neo-pagans and occultists use to reconstruct or simulate extinct ancient religions applied to simulating religions that are still very much alive - since this is the toolbox at hand for those who would attempt such a thing.

More often that not these strategies entirely miss the mark - both in terms of form and metaphysics. The main reason is that they are constructing their practice largely from the perspective of an outsider looking in. As such what they create for themselves can only be contrived based on what they see, and therefore necessarily must latch on to what constitutes an aesthetic veneer, because the real meat and marrow of the tradition is completely opaque to a non-initiate - since it defined by a continuity of experiences, gestures, materials and relationships that act upon the initiate; and not merely by outer symbols and paraphernalia.

The reason for this is that Lucumi and Haitian Vodou are religions of secrets. Even for initiates there are ever deepening layers of obfuscation and misdirection that only become clarified by ones elders over time through direct ritual experiences and work. And this process never ends since there will always be elders who are more senior and therefor hold more knowledge to reveal. Even those who are legitimately initiated are not entitled to propitiate all the spirits in the pantheon - only those that they have been given access to in various ways, ritualistically.

Additionally, these spirits - much like their worshippers - tend to exhibit insular relationship patterns. They usually demand introduction through an intermediary figure who already has a trusted relationship with them.

Like most humans do, I might add.

This stands in stark contrast to the popular conception that all deities are kind of hanging out in the astral hoping that someone will pray to them, and are pleased at any and all attention they receive. They may not even be willing to acknowledge (much less shower blessings) on anyone who approaches them out of the blue!

Some complain of a lack of access to the traditions, even though they want to get initiated, they say they can't find godparents or a reputable house. Resultantly, they feel therefore  they are serving the spirits and doing the work in their personal way out of love and dedication. In principle this is admirable of course. however, lately I'm starting to worry that this isn't a little disingenuous. Here is why:

With Lucumi for instance, I think there is a lot more potential access to the religion (even in UK and Europe) than many realize. If anything what is lacking is the correct approach from applicants. In the UK there are quite a few reputable houses of various blends of nationalities. Here in Amsterdam there are three, perhaps four houses that I'm aware of. There are more in Spain and France. In the US, there are many, many options indeed. So there certainly are routes of legitimate access. The question is: do the various types of people whom find the religion's aesthetic appealing actually WANT legitimate access to the tradition? Are they willing to to submit the process? From what I have seen with those who approach our house (usually the occultists) is they come with a certain attitude. They come with their cups full, as they might say in zen. They want their own trip validated. And let me tell you, that rarely happens in this tradition. Its not easy on the ego. So, then if you are brittle I think it's more comfortable to sit in the liminal zone making your own stuff up because none will be the wiser for it. Certainly you can sell products on etsy and ebay that way.

This is not to say that some people just don't have trouble finding the right house, and not all houses are reputable, welcoming, or even a good fit - but I think if you really want it you can find a house, and most certainly so in the U.S.

And for those who are doing their own freeform thing with an eye on some day getting initiated I see another major obstacle, especially if they are setting themselves up as figures already in some way. Once they do get initiated into reputable house they will find all their dearly held beliefs and personally formed opinions about their practices will almost certainly be broken down completely by their elders, or at best turned upside down in a very disturbing way.

If you have been doing your own thing for some time it's probably going to be a serious blow to the ego. From what I've seen - people who have built up elaborate personal castles of this sort tend to be very reluctant to let their own trip go in favor of the genuine article.


  1. Excellent piece Balthazar, the issue of appropriation is only going to become more hotly contested. This is one of the reasons we put out At the Crossroads. Respect is needed, and often lacking, in those whose own culture has been stripped of meaning and are then lead to take from others indiscriminately.

  2. I'm wondering about what you say regarding European houses. I tried to use the internet to find some in France, but when you google vaudou or else, you only get shitty stuff... Plus, how do you know if the house (if you find one) is "sane" ? It does not seem easy to me.

  3. @scarlet imprint: thanks friends, glad you found this to be of value. You raise a good point about one of the forces that drives the appropriation impulse. Loss of meaning or value in ones own traditions and heritage. I would argue a general loss of meaning in mass-culture, even.

    @valiel: certainly not as easy as ordering a pizza online, no. Googling is very unlikely to produce all that much, because most houses don't advertise their presence online. You will have to walk around neighborhoods where you are likely to find Caribbean migrants. See if you can find a botanica or something similar. TALK to people. Ask where you can find a good reading. And then when you do find someone - approach them with a mixture of caution and respect. there is usually a transactional underpinning that has to be honored. So buy some products in their shop; book a reading or go to a public service (if its offered). Ask intelligent questions. Put some skin in the game. Don't swagger in proclaiming that you will be their new initiate and you have XYZ credentials. This is unlikely to inspire interest form anyone respectable. Most of all take it slow. Be patient and keep talking to people - if your intentions are pure people will point you in the right direction.

    1. Thank you VERY much for your answer. I was thinking about founding cultural info online because I live in Paris and sometimes they make processions (like the Chinese New Year) or public services (Taïhiti last time). It will take time, but I will try to find where they are and have a look. Fortunately, I have nothing to proclaim. ;) I'm just me, and I would like to have a look inside, from the "real" people. Finding a shop sounds good too. Thank you.

  4. Dear Balthazar,

    I'm wrestling with issues of cultural appropriateness and appropriation these days, myself. Nearly all magic is on the cutting edge of cultural appropriation, simply because it's after tools and techniques and tech that works. And if a tech works in one tradition, it's likely to be borrowed into another.

    But there's a difference between inspired borrowing and outright theft. I can see a Lucumi (sp?) spirit house, and think, "wow, we don't have those in my tradition, but they work great...
    How would I adapt that basic form and intent to be useful within my own metaphysics and practical tradition?". Likewise, I wouldn't go to the local Asian market here, and try to buy a household shrine for Shinto with its mirror and salt and sake and water jars. But I might see such a thing at my local sushi restaurant and be inspired to build such a thing for my own local spirits as I understand them, with appropriate symbolism and patterns of construction drawing on Western/European/Hermetic or Druidic models,and try to build such a shrine for my home and its local spirits.

    But if I understand you correctly, you're not objecting to someone looking at yours spiritual practices and trying to figure out how to do something similar in their own traditional framework. You're objecting to non-initiates claiming that the way they work is how you work. And you're objecting to these non-initiates using the same la gauge and explanations of how something works or what it does, cosmologically speaking, and not trying to enter the study of the lore around this material. In essence, you're not objecting to me putting a glass of water by my bed and asking Hermes to trouble the waters if someone tries to disrupt my sleep... You're saying I shouldn't build a spirit bottle and then call it a Ngami or declare myself a Santería priest or a Lucumi root doctor or whatever the terminology is.

    I ask because I agree. It's a very complicated slope. I'm not an initiate of any tradition, though I'm a very junior member of two Druid orders, and a member of a ... A coven, of sorts, I guess, though we don't call it that, and some would object to the name. And someone asked me about my practices recently, and I realized that calling myself a Druid wasn't right, because that's a specific title in my orders. And I'm just a "member" in this other group, though I've been an officer at times. And I've done divinations for folks, and some other bits of work. But Theresa real difference between being a member, and being an initiate. And an even wider difference between a member and a visitor.

    Anyway, I'm rambling. I guess I'm just asking for further clarification on the line between inspired imitation, and cultural appropriation?

  5. Andrewbwatt, on what basis can you claim that "Nearly all magic is on the cutting edge of cultural appropriation"???

    What you probably mean, is all of YOUR magic is cultural appropriation. Globally, what you call "magic" is always part of the fabric of society, culture and religion. The notion that it is some sort of distinct enterprise outside of culture, is a concept unique to contemporary WASP occultists. And more specifically, the concept of magical "tech" as a free floating resource to be grabbed, is very much the byproduct of the 'chaos' magic sub-culture and its various descendants. Entire cultures DO exchange practices but this is a slow painful cultural process not an individual enterprise.

    Historically magic is always connected to culture; to groups of people and their identities and lives. Which is why cultural appropriation is called CULTURAL appropriation and not cool "tech" appropriation. The very idea that you can reduce another culture's traditions to nothing more than a resource which you have insultingly dubbed "tech" IS in fact the whole problem. It's disrespectful. It's what we humanities graduates from Africa refer to as "colonial project", and its wrong. Think about it.