Popular words and cultural appropriation
We have a problem in the Pagan community, particularly the branches that point toward indigenous European Paganism, and that problem is terminology. No, I’m not talking about the endless debate as to which labels are correct for which practices or what the difference is between a witch and a Wiccan. I’m talking about the unfortunate lack of terms for some kinds of ancient practices and the resulting tendency to borrow similar wordss from other cultures and traditions.
Here’s the thing: Due to a combination of factors, a major one being the Christian church’s ruthless bid to wipe out all evidence of Pagan practice, we simply don’t know what words many of our ancestors used to talk about what they believed and what they actually did in terms of their spirituality. It’s a good bet that all the indigenous Pagan practices included some form of shamanism at some point, but in order to tell you that, I had to use a word borrowed from the Tungusic cultures of North Asia (Siberia east of the Ural Mountains). There is debate over whether it’s appropriate to use that word, since it is the specific name for the person who fulfills the role of spiritworker and ecstatic Otherworld traveler in those North Asian cultures. Calling an ancient British (pre-Celtic) spiritworker a shaman and explaining this use by saying that the function in the two cultures is similar is roughly equivalent to saying that the titles imam, priest, and rabbi are interchangeable because their function in those traditions is similar and the traditions are related. Many people would bristle at interchanging the titles of the Abrahamic faith leaders but we use the Tungusic term for an ecstatic spiritworker without batting an eye. I haven’t heard how the Tungusic shamans (yes, they still exist) feel about the use of their terminology in traditions outside their own, but I would be interested to know whether or not they are comfortable with this borrowing.
Some traditions are lucky enough to have access to surviving terminology, and in some cases those words have been the keys to unlocking traditions that might otherwise have been lost. In Norse Paganism, for instance, the practice of seiðr and the position of the volva are noted in the surviving literature. Diana Paxson and her folks have done an amazing job of reviving those practices, using the Germanic terms as a gateway into the activities. They are roughly the same in function and, to some extent, in form as the shamanic practices of the Tungusic people, but they have their own name, derived from their own tradition and having particular meaning within it.
In addition to ecstatic practices, it’s pretty clear that most ancient peoples had a clue about the energy centers of the body and how to work with them. These are things we discover about ourselves over time as we do spiritual work, no matter where or when we live. As with shamanism, it’s a pretty sure bet that each culture had its own terms for those energy centers and the ways to work with them. But in most cases, we haven’t a clue what those words were. Since the introduction of the Hindu chakra system to the West in the early 20th century, chakra has been the most commonly-used term for these energy centers. But that word has specific meaning in Hinduism, which is a living spiritual tradition. Many Hindus are dismayed at the use of this sacred term outside the spiritual structure (the Vedic religions) in which it was born. They consider the western use of the word to be cultural appropriation, and we need to respect them in this regard.
So how are we supposed to solve this problem? We need words for these activities and functions, and it behooves us to respect other cultures and not use their terms if we can come up with our own. What about all the European Pagan paths that don’t have the kind of written records that Norse Paganism is so lucky to possess?
I have an idea.
One of the amazing things about ecstatic trance and journeywork (what many people call shamanism) is its practical nature. Everything that ever was is still ‘out there’ in one way or another. We can journey to find the terms our ancestors used, and bring them back to this world to let them live again. This method works especially well when a number of people do the work together and compare notes afterwards. Often it’s not terribly difficult to home in on some really powerful information this way. Sometimes the words come through in their original form, but more often, they translate themselves through our psyches and brains into whatever modern language we happen to speak. By this method I’ve been able to retrieve some of the terms my pre-Celtic ancestors from northern Britain used. I still have no idea how my ancestors of 5000 years ago pronounced the words, but I know their Stone Talkers and Mushroom Women and Granddaughters guided the people with grace and power, with one foot in this world and one in the next. And I learned something about their practices when I came in contact with the terms. Words are a power, so it behooves us to use the most fitting ones we can find.
Yes, retrieving concepts and terms like this is difficult. But each culture’s names for these functions and activities have meaning within that culture, meaning that adds depth to spiritual practice and that can open doors to a deeper understanding of that tradition. And yes, it takes time for new terms to become widespread enough that you don’t have to define them each time you use them. I’m sure Diana Paxson and her group got really tired of explaining what seiðr is before it became well known. But I think it’s worth the effort to find these terms and bring them back to life. It’s one of the ways in which we can reach back through time to our ancestors’ practices and continue treading the path into the future.