The 14th Thing to Love about Pagans

Writing at Pantheon, “the Pagan blog at Patheos.com,” Star Foster lists “13 Things I LOVE about Pagans,” for example, “Smaller is Better” and “Many Gods, Few Masters.”

I agree with all of them. But I could add one more: “Borrowing” with both hands. Mad eclecticism.

It is  illustrated by her embedded video of the “Celtic rock” band Coyote Run (American name, post-18th-century Scottish kilts) performing a musical version of Rudyard Kipling’s “A Tree Song” with no credit to him at all. (Maybe there is a credit in the printed liner notes—I hope so.)

Witches have been using that poem ritually since the 1960s, at least. You will find it in the Internet Book of Shadows.

As a newcomer to the Craft, I  actually thought it was indeed old  lore—a Pagan survivall! oral tradition!—instead of having been written by the India-born Kipling in the early 1900s, after he finally moved “home” to England. It was published in Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906.

Because of this 14th characteristic, I just laugh when some earnest Pagan starts lecturing about “cultural appropriation.”

12 thoughts on “The 14th Thing to Love about Pagans

  1. I didn’t know modern Pagans use the Tree Song, but it is interesting that you bring up Kipling. I think that Kipling is one of the roots of modern Paganism, but is normally recognised as such, because of being politically conservative. I think that E.M. Foster, Kenneth Grahame, and also Baden-Powell and the Scout Movement, can be seen as part of the same broad stream.

    A lot of Kipling’s writings are very much what we would now label “Pagan”. He was also adrift culturally – he toyed with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, but never really settled for any. He was also influenced by Theosophy. Racially, he was probably partly Indian. In some ways, one could see him almost as the first postmodernist.

    Kipling never really settled in England, and his jingoism was an over-compensation for that – his whole thing about being “British” sounds a bit fake – people generally talk about being “English”, “Scottish”, etc. All this faux-antiquity stuff like “Puck of Pook’s Hill”, seems to me to a bit similar – faking an identity, rather than being relaxed about it. There are actually points of similarity with Gerald Gardner, who was himself an imperial administrator.

  2. Rombald, I agree with most of what you say. Actually, quite a bit has been published about literary roots of modern Paganism, but it is in places like The Pomegranate. There, saying Kipling influenced Paganism’s growth is rather old hat.

    “I think that Kipling is one of the roots of modern Paganism, but is normally recognised as such, because of being politically conservative.”

    Again, this is not an issue. He was no more conservative than Gardner, Robert Graves, or many of the others who influenced or created modern Paganism.

    Gardner, after all, had the distinction of being attacked in the Nazi-controlled German press — for being a jingoistic Englishman! (Not because of Wicca, which I argue did not yet exist in 1940.)

  3. Cultural appropriation was going on long before today’s Neo-Pagan movement got rolling post-WWII. The early movers and shakers and the later discoverers of a comfy spirituality found lots of borrowed elements already in place, no matter that they borrowed more elements themselves.

    We all of us live in a messed up, mixed together, colonialized, co-opted, and ruthlessly conglomerated world. Human culture exists to jumble stuff up.

    That, however, doesn’t mean that some folks, living and creating in the mixture, cannot have some legitimate concerns about who borrows what from whom and how that borrowing gets accomplished. Different ways do exist, from pillage to reverent translation to inspired new combination, after all.

    I’ve always looked at Neo-Paganism as I practice it as more of the reverent translation once in a while leading to inspired new combination. Not pillage.

    A couple of other observations.

    First, I was a Neo-Pagan of some stripe beginning at a very young age (6-7) during the immediate post WWII years. A decade of so before any British influenced Craft is reliably believed to have showed up in North America. My earliest influences toward Neo-Paganism came from personal experiences of my homeland and of living beings on that homeland. Formalized Craft simply offered me (and lots of others, probably) a useful framework for already growing beliefs, sensibilities, and world views. I was in no way awaiting BTW to make sense of the world I lived in!

    Second, the Native Americans of my little patch did not long survive contact with colonizing Europeans. For all intents and purposes, they all died out and their cultures were extinguished. I would much rather have had them around to borrow from, and to have cobbled together a Neo-Pagan quilt that used elements of their culture and wisdom than to know that European immigration snuffed them out.

  4. I’m about the same age as Pitch313 and from the same part of California, and there certainly was something no too unlike modern Paganism flourishing there all through the 20th century. It didn’t call itself Pagan(ism), much less Witchcraft, but it was definitely nature religion and definitely made use of magic (though it didn’t call what it was doing Magic). Actually, “words get in the way,” and these people didn’t put any label on what they did, so as not to diminish its power — as a matter of principle. Even now, I won’t put any label on myself or my ancestors, or accept one for them.

    When you needed a respectable “cover” religion to explain your views to clueless outsiders, you might say that you were “something like” one of the “New Thought” religions that were pretty well known at the time, like Home of Truth, Divine Science or even Christian Science; or you might speak vaguely about Pantheism. Or you might point to John Muir and Joaquin Miller as inspirations.

    This “movement” had no organization whatever, so far as I ever knew. Kindred spirits recognized one another when they met, and could easily find common ground; but they emphatically didn’t “do” community — again, as a matter of principle — or make a point of hanging out with one another more than with others. Communities were for people who followed organized religions, and that wasn’t our path. It still isn’t my path, though I enjoy reading on Pagan blogs and sometimes comment.

    Personally, I can only speak to the years after WWII, but my mother saw fairies in the garden of her house, first on Woolsey Street and then on Monterey Avenue (in Berkeley) until the 1930s, when she got married — they stopped appearing to her once she was married. Her mother, who died before I was born, and her mother’s mother, who lived until I was 10 years old, had the same religious views, and had had similar experiences. Old scrapbooks push all this back one generation further, to my great-great-grandmother, who came to the Bay Area from Joliet, Illinois, in the 1880s, and who died a decade before my mother and her sister were born.

    My great-grandmother kept a human skull (which I now have), which she brought out every Hallows. She did some sort of personal ritual with it and with the photographs of her ancestors back two generations before her. (I never saw what she did; my mother and aunt did, but weren’t curious enough ask her about the details. Whatever it was, I’m pretty sure she invented it for herself.) The rest of the year the skull “lived” in the box with all the ancestral photographs (which I also have). In contrast to all this interest in ancestors, we didn’t “do” funerals, or put tombstones on our graves. One person made the necessary minimal arrangements to dispose of a dead body legally, and that was that. Once cremation became an option, we cremated our dead; and as soon as we heard of scattering ashes in the ocean, we started doing that to the cremains — so now we have no more graves at all. But these are mere details. I daresay that Pitch313’s people had a different take on these kinds of things.

    One way in which all this differed very sharply from current Paganism is that the idea of a common, shared ethical and moral code was de-empathized, perhaps even rejected outright. (This was part of not “doing” community.) People necessarily developed standards of conduct and rules of life for themselves, but these varied from one person to the next, and were expected to vary. You didn’t push your own code on others, not even, really, on your own children. So ethical issues that are now of concern, such as cultural appropriation, simply “did not compute” within the “movement” that I am describing from my own family’s perspective. In my own family, at least, religion was a thing “not for children.” What children needed to learn was how to deal with power first. To put it in outsiders’ terms: magic is for children, religion for adults.

    All this is now, I think, just a fading memory. What remained of it in the 1960s has probably all been assimilated into the current Pagan religious movement by now.

  5. Pitch & Robert, you should both drop in on the Pagan Studies meeting at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting next November in San Francisco. We are sponsoring a session on Pagan history of California in the 1960s-1970s. Fritz Muntean will probably be the moderator.

  6. I’d need to travel by air to get from Rhode Island to San Francisco, but — unfortunately — my days of flying are over, for reasons of health. I would really like to hear what the presenters have to say. I left California in the summer of 1964, right after my 22nd birthday, so I missed pretty much everything that has happened there since then.

    Will the session papers be published eventually?

  7. “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” (It’s disputed who actually said that…but I’ll steal it anyway.)

    Not all cultural appropriation is bad. Some is, like doing sweat lodges without enough knowledge and background.

    But much of it provides us a way of peering around corners and giving reality, the arts, and a lot else a few healthy tweaks, perhaps some paradigm chances, and some much needed levity. Gives us a chance to clear away the cobwebs from time to time.

  8. As Robert describes, there was a presence in the cultural background of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California that was “Pagan” in feel, but not expressed in membership in groups, organizations, or meetings. Adherents did recognize kindred spirits or felt affinities, but probably kept various things to themselves. I certainly believed myself to be a part of something like this, but equally certainly kept lots to myself.

    Whatever this was, I think that it arrived with or arose from the European immigration. I don’t think that i was much borrowed from the Native American populations and cultures. It may have been a widespread cultural predisposition and path that different folks could take up more or less as much or as little as they pleased. Not anything much more formal.

    SF meeting…I’ll keep it in mind. thanks, Chas,

  9. Pingback: cultural appropriation/what it is and isn’t | Tailfeather

  10. I think Pitch313 has got it right when he says that “it arrived with or arose from the European immigration” (meaning the English-speaking immigration, I take it, rather than the earlier Spanish-speaking one). Certainly my great-great-grandmother’s scrapbooks show that she already had some interest in these things back in Joliet, Illinois. But when she got to the SF Bay region, her interests really came into their own. Nellie Beighle, “the little doctor” of San Francisco, author of “The Book of Knowledge: Psychic Facts” (1903) had a huge influence on her.

    Yet the land also had its way with everyone who came there, I think. The small beings that my mother used to see in her Berkeley gardens on Woolsey Street and Monterey Avenue, that she thought were fairies, were probably there all along, and did not come from Joliet with great-great-grandmother.

    Climate matters, too, and the shape of the beauty of the land. The place where the old shell mound had once stood, near Spengler’s Fish Grotto Restaurant, didn’t have any power left that I could ever sense, but the half-dozen or so old piles of three or four flat stones each, hidden away in a pine grove in Tilden Park, were another matter altogether. The person who showed them to me said they were “Indian” graves, but that might just have been an old guess that he was passing on to me.

    And I never could bring myself to go to the park below Cragmont Rock after dark, where there was a small crevice in the base of the crag, deliberately blocked with stones and mortar a few feet inside the entrance. The story was that a small boy had crawled way in there once, gotten stuck, and died, and was still in there. (The crevice did seem too small for any adult to have rescued such a stuck child, or even to have retrieved his remains.) Children told that tale to one another. I have no idea whether any adult ever heard the story, or indeed, assuming it was a true story, whether any adult have ever been told what happened to that child by the children who witnessed his plight, way back when it happened. But the foot of that crag had an air of terror, despair and hopelessness to it.

    (Of course, the terror and so forth may have been there all along for anyone to feel, and the story may have been made up much later by some child to explain what he could feel in that place. Places sometimes are like that, in consequence (I think) of the shape and smell of the land rather than because of any particular thing that happened there.)

  11. On the Kipling song – I still remember the reaction of one of my friends to finding out its actual origin, years ago:

    “You mean my favourite pagan song was written by some gin-soaked old bastard in a pith helmet?!”

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