Patreon Topic 39: Decolonizing Magical Practice vs Honoring Ancestral Traditions

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From Elfwort comes this question:

“Would you talk about decolonizing magickal practice vs honoring ancestral traditions?”

I am going to start with the point that I do not view this as an either/or. I look at this with the perspective that this is an ‘and’ approach. In my view honoring Ancestral traditions requires we decolonize them. We also need to be clear when borrowing has occured vs appropriation. If information, techniques, or inroads into relationships were shared that would be one thing, and quite another if these were gained by pressure, stolen, or obtained under false pretenses.

Decolonizing our practices may require us to do a lot of work, including digging, soul searching, and work with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Lots of websites feature discussions of decolonizing ecology, education, and so many more ways. I like to define terms before digging into how we are going to apply them. So, what is decolonizing? To briefly summarize, it is deconstructing white Western European methods of thought, reasoning, understanding, worldview, and perspectives as the dominant and privileged ones. It is bringing in other modes and methods of thought, reasoning, understanding, and perspectives as co-equals, and centering them.

Each Pagan community and person will have its own decolonizing to do. This work, in and of itself, can have many layers. At the least we Heathens have to separate out Christian, atheist, nationalist, and racist influences on our communities. Decolonizing our worldview and personal mindset requires us to reckon with the nationalist and racist history behind modern Heathen revivals. It also requires us to approach the stories and myths we have with a critical eye, as many of these were originally written down by Christians, and later interpreted through Christian or Christian-dominated frameworks. Doing this work gets us closer to our Ancestors’ worldview, and so, doing the decolonizing work and honoring Ancestral traditions goes hand-in-hand.

Taking off that many layers in front of our understanding of the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the root culture we are reviving can seem like a lot at first. In practice we begin with the best information we have, make our cultus as good as we can, and that as new and useful information comes to light we integrate this new understanding. Not all information is useful to our endeavors, even if it is based in history. Likewise, we have to be critical with what information we take in and apply. A given author may be furthering outmoded or historically incorrect ideas, and this can be true of modern Heathen authors as it can scholars. A given author can also be speaking for or on behalf of the Ginnreginn and the information they are sharing does not apply to us, our situation, or is wrong for our relationships with the Ginnreginn.

Decolonization of our mindset also requires us to look at what spiritual tools, technologies, ideas, and work we employ, why, for what reason. If we have learned these from someone else we need to ask if they have the authority to teach it to us and we have the permission to use it and/or pass it on. For instance, I do not do smudging. It is a ritual unto itself. I have not been taught how to do it. What I do with mugwort, aka Ama Una, whether I work with Her as an offering, cleansing by reykr (smoke) as incense or by smoking Her, etc, are not a Native American teachings, rituals, or relationships. When we are firmly rooted in our own relationship with the Ginnreginn we have no need to appropriate others’ cultures, practices, relationship, ways, or spiritual technologies.

This is not to say that we should not look to Native Americans for how to live with the vaettir we share this world with. An example: I offer the landvaettir tobacco, something I picked up by observation and teaching from Native American friends of mine. However, I also offer alcohol to the landvaettir, and this is something that is generally acceptable in our relationship with Them as Heathens that would not be with the Native folks I know. So why would I offer tobacco and not engage in smudging?

Smudging is not merely the burning of herbs in a shell or other fire-safe holder. It is a ritual, one I have not been taught or cleared to do. Offering tobacco, so far as I know, is open to everyone, and a good gift to almost every vaettr I have encountered. One is a closed practice, the other is not. Smudging would be theft of a spiritual practice while offering tobacco is being a good neighbor with the vaettir. Decolonizing our ways excludes those practices that harm, diminish, or marginalize Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC) while also including those practices that center their voices, experiences, and practices as they are appropriate for us to engage in.

Honoring Ancestral traditions can be a powerful, lived experience. Since a good many of us Heathens are reviving our own, and some of us are starting to pass on our ways to a second or even third generation, this is a huge responsibility on our parts. Decolonizing our traditions as much as we can before passing them on, and being willing to correct ourselves and our descendents when we err is our responsibility. The creation of Ancestral traditions is also very much in our hands and that of our Ginnreginn. Perhaps the older ways no longer apply because we live in radically different climates, or our relationships with Them are so different that we have to develop new traditions.

There is NOTHING wrong with developing new traditions when the old no longer can apply to us. Given how many of us are taking up broken threads across a good expanse of time in reviving our Heathen religions, there are a lot of traditions that are next to impossible to revive, and then there are traditions we cannot revive because we live in a wholly different society. We are going to have to develop new traditions in many cases, and this provides both us and the Ginnreginn with powerful opportunities to turn aside from the colonization that has marked a lot of modern Pagan religions.

One example that comes to mind is the establishment of vé, sacred space. We know our Ancestors had them outside, and given the role of hearth cultus, they likely had them inside as well. Each of us has the ability to develop family hearth cultus, and traditions that unfold from that. We have the ability to bring in old customs with respect to how to worship and treat the húsvaettir (house spirits), and together with Them, we can make new ways forward. After all, few of us live in a farm house so a lot of the ways you would build a relationship with, interact with, and/or ask for help from a tomte, nisse, etc may no longer apply. Those that we interact with might be totally different since They are likely not attached to a farmhouse, but apartments and single-family homes. Hearth cultus itself has had to change over the years since vanishingly few Heathens even have a literal hearth!

These subjects can range far and wide. Just the two websites I linked on decolonization go over education and ecology. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s books Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass are powerful explorations of her lived Native relationship with science and ecology. Erika Buenaflor covers Curanderismo centered in Mexica and Maya cultures in her book Curanderismo Soul Retrieval. Sade Musa does ongoing education and anti-colonialism work for African American diasporia, especially with regards to herbs and healing ways with her Roots of Resistance. We had both Erika Buenaflor and Sade Musa on Around the Grandfather Fire.

I cannot hope to cover all perpsectives with this post or to do them justice. Whatever our paths forward, we can decolonize our paths while honoring our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, and the traditions we build with Them.

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