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Build, Borrow, Steal

I’m a word geek. I think language is important. I know that sometimes this can appear to be sheer pedantry and that it’s often deemed more important to read between the lines (ironic pun intended) than get hung up on discrepancies of detail. I even agree in general principles. But at the same time there’s an extent to which others can only understand our beliefs, our practices, our truth based on how we convey them. When we give the wrong impression, perpetuating misconceptions, misunderstandings and outright fallacies – even without intending to – it can reflect poorly.

I therefore get a bit triggered whenever there’s chatter in the pagan community about ‘reclaiming’. In this particular scenario there was dismay that a Google image search for ‘witch’ principally pulled up the storybook crones and hags of fairy tale and popular media, and that we need to ‘reclaim’ the term. My first problem with this is that someone deciding to repurpose the word ‘witch’ a few decades ago doesn’t suddenly mean all the archetypes known by that moniker before that point, whether Maleficent or Baba Yaga, are no longer ‘witches’. What should it show instead? Wiccan High Priestesses? Herb gathering cunning folk? Circles of athame-wielding acolytes? What, exactly, does a modern witch look like anyway in terms of a keyword search?
The second is the apparent contradiction. Essentially ‘reclaiming’ would imply restoring something to it’s traditional, previously accepted definition, understanding and context. And, traditionally, witches were conventionally the mystical magical hags (sometimes shapeshifting to beautiful women or otherwise) from myths and folk tales as represented in popular media imagery. Putting a modern veneer or spin on something that has a longstanding, pre-existing accepted meaning is not reclaiming – repurposing, reconditioning, redefining perhaps. I suspect this is a symptom of an earlier need to legitimise terminology, principles and systems by claiming more robust historical, spiritual and cultural provenance (particularly anything that could be asserted to be pre-Christianity) but where it’s not actually based on reality and fact it really doesn’t do us any favours.

Reconstruction, on the other hand, is something I can really get behind. Taking the time to really understand the origins, meanings and roots of a myth, a belief system, a culture or a practice is no mean feat, particularly where there is often little to go on, and a learning curve which rarely ends. Choosing which parts are meaningful to you and how to incorporate them into your world view is a massive – but worthwhile – challenge. Acknowledging that it will be an ongoing work in progress, accepting responsibility for interim misconceptions, being brave enough to fill in the blanks for yourself and braver still to continuously revisit, question and revise them is a rewarding and admirable undertaking. It’s possibly much easier to claim you are perpetuating an ancient wisdom that has come to you down the ages as a gospel truth than to concede that you’re kind of making it up as you go along. But when you look, really look, at some of the ‘facts’, ‘history’ and ‘sources’ often cited across pagan channels there is far more legitimacy in trusting your own insight and experience than relying on third hand anecdotes that fall apart at the first sign of reasonable challenge. Take and use whatever inspirations feel right, but don’t pretend they’re something that they’re not.

Which brings me to the currently controversial topic of appropriation. I don’t quite understand how the desire to understand, experience or emulate aspects of another culture transitioned from being a sign of curiosity and respect to an unforgivable insult. Yes, even in the fashion and music industries, even where the underlying reasons might be commercial, surely promoting understanding and awareness across cultural lines has to be a good thing? I concede that many will not go to the lengths of understanding history and meaning, and that this can result in misrepresentation, but then I’m not even sure current generations bother with the cultural significance within their own traditions. There’s certainly plenty of UK ‘traditions’ that are followed religiously by people who have no idea about the why’s and wherefore’s of how they came about (and might well be shocked if they did!) So, as with reconstructionism, provided you are approaching any such incorporations with the right degree of information, respect and self-awareness I fail to see the benefit in restricting anyone to a narrow scope based on what they ‘should’ identify with based on the circumstances they were born into, any more than claiming some kind of lineage through a great-great-grandmother’s-second-cousin-twice-removed creates any sort of natural heritage, supremacy or validity over someone who has built their own understanding and forged their own path.

Amazing progress has been made in getting the various strands of paganism acknowledged, accepted and respected by the wider spiritual and secular communities, particularly in the UK. We have constructive working partnerships with interfaith, with government organisations, with outreach programmes. However as long as we see missives posted about how our chosen path is ‘better’, ‘older’, ‘truer’ and more valid than any other, based on only incomplete records and half-formed theories, it not only tends to undermine our legitimacy rather than add to it but also puts us on the slightly worrying level of unquestioning doctrine, propaganda and even proselytising that is simultaneously condemned in other religions and faiths.

Whether it’s yourself, your community, your peers or your leaders – always question, always challenge, always investigate, always explore, even – and especially – when it’s in your own head and for your own growth.