Out of curiosity a few months ago, I watched a “trends of 2023” video on YouTube from the Economist. One of the big topics was re(p/m)atriation, and this has been an escalating trend worldwide over the past few years. In Europe, this most often involves looted goods from South Asia and West Africa, such as the Benin bronzes and other objects that have sacred meaning and whose looting contributed to Christianization. In Britain, which is officially not in Europe, I guess, the most news-eyeballed repatriation controversy is over the much-contested frieze marbles of the Parthenon, as Britain exploited Greece following the liberation of part of Greece (except Greek areas in Asia Minor) when the country was suddenly available to be looted due to the tremendous cost of war and the tremendous desire of Western Europeans for cultural objects related to the philosophies, myths, and Gods we’d fallen in love with from the region.
The way I think about worshipping Hellenic Gods (and, for the most part, this post is about them; however, I’m sure some parts of this are applicable to other worship contexts) is informed by all of this discussion of re(p/m)atriation. I work in the library field, and in the United States, libraries and museums are often grouped together as similar cultural heritage institutions. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is the entity that gives us most of our grants, and when we talk about collections, metadata, and the like, professionals from both types of knowledge organizations come together to present at webinars, conferences, and symposia. A big anxiety of museums is how they can present the world’s history together without the loot they’ve accumulated unjustly, and this year, many painful reckonings are coming to light as more and more museums share the results of their collection audits.
The important thing in the cultural heritage institution conversation is that nobody questions (at least, to my knowledge) the importance of a museum showing a balanced and holistic view of the world. The question is about how the looting contributes to the continued disenfranchisement of peoples who have been victims of colonization. Benin, for example, sees itself as the ideal place where its cultural material is kept in its national museums, both as a draw for tourists and as a cultural hub from which things should be loaned out, with a clear delineation between where the home of these materials is and where they are simply being housed abroad. Other places want their spiritual objects to return to active use or to rebury their ancestors’ bodies. Many museums are in deep discussions about how to make materials usable for people in religious ceremonies, especially since preservation materials in the Victorian era are toxic and make many materials hazardous to come into contact with. There has been so much abuse.
When we think about these difficult issues, and especially when we start to think of religion, it’s very easy to come into an all-or-nothing mindset instead of ask a religious version of that “how do we do our thing better” question. The religious conversation, instead of being about re(p/m)atriation and how we can be most ethical in a given situation, becomes about whether or not we are “excluded” from something that was never actually ours. It activates freeze, appease, fight, flight (FAFF 😎) pathways, which leads to unproductive conversations in which people feel like their relationships to Gods they love are being ripped away from them. The underlying issues are thus not addressed.
As I said in The Soul’s Inner Statues, it doesn’t have to be this way.
There are definitely some peoples — particularly those colonized over the past 500 years — who do not want any engagement with outsiders regarding their spiritual practices without (actual) extreme vetting, and we can see the Lakota Declaration of War against those exploiting Native spirituality for one real and important example. Theirs is not the only model or the only way to deal with cultural appropriation and escapist play-acting. The fear many people have about appropriation is that we automatically assume that that’s what other people want when we’re called out about improper, appropriative conduct in religious spaces — especially when influencers get called out for mislabeling themselves as connected to a cultural group and when they falsely say they’re transmitting genuine teachings from a culture they’re not even part of. Many cultures around the world trace long history of cultural reception of Greek philosophy, religious practices, and so on, including some of our cultural predecessors who decided to be creepy and exploitative in the 19th century. In those cases, due to the deeply-knotted cultural transmission throughout millennia, the Lakota model doesn’t work, so we need to think of other models for how to get to a similar ethical place by addressing the parts of the reception that are actual problems.
In other words, thinking in terms of cultural reception gives us the best of both worlds: a realistic look at the ways in which concepts, ideas, cultural practices, and materials were transmitted to us, the good and the bad, and a solid place on which we can base our identity moving forward so we can avoid rejection-based fear responses.
What we need to do is to come into conversation with the way our own culture relates to these things. Milton, best known for Paradise Lost and for being a hardcore Christian, had many short verse-plays and poems in which he is definitely transmitting forward the Gods and an ambient paganism no different from the coronation invitations that Charles III just dropped (I eyerolled so hard when I saw that a few days ago); John Keats, Lord George Gordan Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary Shelley’s husband) all transmitted stories and concepts about the Gods in their own unique ways. We can brainstorm so many interpretations of the Gods’ myths and cultus in our culture, good and bad! (I find Marvel’s content both impious and infantalizing.) Thomas Taylor even revived the Gods’ cultus in his own personal life and polemic discourse, and he started the Platonic transmission into the Anglosphere. We have so much that is actually part of our cultural transmission that we can look at. All we’re doing that’s different is engaging with the Gods as Gods, and that is deeply empowering.
When we look at the transmission in this manner, we are doing right by our ancestors by not shunning them. We are avoiding spiritual bypassing and spiritual materialism — we are not play-acting as ancient peoples while ignoring the eye-rolls and anger from their descendants — by putting our worship in our own lived context. It is not treated as some fandom thing where we materialistically buy up things and dress up for conventions and treat it as a hobby (Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi, anyone?), but integrated into every part of daily life: from how we choose to spend our time and observe the rhythms of the seasons and daily cycles to how we integrate our shrines and spiritual practices into our living spaces.
Reception is also freedom. Just as Avalokitesvara, a male Bodhisatva, became the female Bodhisatva Kuan Yin during cultural transmission and reception — whatever deity is super-essentially there proves my point that Gods don’t have gender and that we just interpret what we know about them using cultural stereotypes — so too can we decide to listen to the Gods in our own cultural contexts and move our own reception of them forward. Gods start their theophanies in particular places, and Gods travel. I highly doubt there are that many people in South Asia upset about the Chinese reception of Avalokitesvara or who think Kuan Yin is a cringe take on him/her (them?), and I haven’t read anything that indicates that Chinese culture is self-conscious about that change, either. They moved forward with their own conversation with the teachings they received through cultural reception.
Our situation is slightly different because they’re all in different denominations of Buddhism, whereas those of us American (or whatever) polytheists who worship a lot of Greek Gods should avoid terms like Hellene/Hellenism/Hellenismos for cultural appreciation and re(p/m)atriation reasons, as those are cultural and not religious terms. We can’t just look to a historical period (as much as I love Emperor Julian) where they were used differently. We’re in 2023. We should observe the 2023 usage. There are other faiths, like Asatru/Heathenry, where the terminologies are stable across world regions because the same issue is not at play; any denominational differences resemble the Buddhist analogy regarding Avalokitesvara/Kuan Yin a bit more closely. And the veneration of Egyptian Gods is even more terminology-complicated due to the number of groups with cultural reception investment in worshipping them.
Some pagans and polytheists are trying to avoid this “Gods/teachings from elsewhere” issue altogether by temporarily praying to archetypes of specific Jungian functions and hoping that a Henad says hello (Henad Says Hello would be a great children’s book title), but in the spirit of the historical example I just gave, maybe the place to start is to get to know a deity and their cultus and just see where things go in your own environment. To use a more relevant example, I actually see Apollon sometimes as male and sometimes as female. I already have a male icon of him. I’d love to commission art (eventually) that does a Byzantine icon-style image of a female Apollon with a solar disc halo bordered by laurel in flowing robes standing on a stone (the navel of the world) and a dead python — with by a black hole (bottom), star (top), stellar nursery (left), and nova (right), her hair partially bound (held by arrows), and her holding a lyre. And I have a feeling I’m not the only American Apollon devotee who would find that icon really awesome. That is sometimes how I envision the God in meditation, and I’m totally confident with that reception of Apollon.
Beyond that, thinking in terms of cultural reception has freed me up to explore what my own household worship practice looks like in my embodied context, which cannot be brushed aside, and which has led me to venerate Gods from a range of origins, connected to both ancestors and affinity, and I’m feeling far happier about my spiritual practice than I did when I was trying to imitate Ancient Greeks.
Basically: We are our own thing. Embrace it. Live the present … because it’s the only route to the future.
I’ll end on that note. I hope everyone has a wonderful remainder of the weekend.