5 Misconceptions about Wicca for Pagans

I feel like I have to make this blog because there is just so much misinformation/disinofrmation that still pervades the Wiccan and pagan community, as a whole. I have absolutely no problem with people who use some of these as a personal practice or beliefs. (Also, this blog will be a list because yay! Lists are fun!)

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The Wiccan Goddess in one of her many guises

Most of the time I see a lot of these words, oft repeat, ad naseum, by Neo-Wiccans. It’s usually not by Trad witches. (Thanks, Llewellyn.) These misconceptions are outdated and intolerant. Especially, to the greater occult communities. At this point, I don’t think we have to aim to please Christians, anymore, for the most part. (Long post ahead)

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“Reclaiming” Heathenism & other forms of Paganism

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A painting of Thor, the god of thunder

Disclaimer: I am not a Heathen, I do sometimes work with Nordic gods but I do not consider myself a Heathen in any sense of the word. (I am however, a pagan.) This is completely an outsider’s point of view when concerning Heathenism and it will mostly focus on this. (It could be applied to other forms of paganism, though.) Also, this is an American perspective and focal point. (I know next to nothing about modern pagan communities inside Europe or abroad and their problems.)

“Heathenism” is an umbrella term, much like the term “paganism” is, for many unaware, referring to a plethora of religions with common ground. The main difference is that Heathenism concentrates more on a specific area of the world; Germany, Austria, Nordic practices, etc. (This much like Hinduism is used to denote the religious indigenous practices of India and abroad, despite their diversity.) According to Wiki it used to be called “Germanic Neopaganism”.

One of the biggest problems in the broader community is racism and “Far Right Paganism” that is very concentrated in Heathenism circles. A recent article on Wild Hunt caught my eye about how Heathens are trying to distance themselves from the white supremacists of the movement. To me, this is not just a Heathen problem but a pagan one as well. (If one considers Heathens also under the category of paganism.)

It’s knowledge now, that while the huge right leaning groups are Heathen, it seeps into other forms of paganism as well, which is a problem for us all. There is whole sites dedicated to exposing Far Right Paganism and their groups. (I don’t totally agree with everything left leaning in the link, I do applaud them on combating the problem though.) There is also Heathens United Against Racism, [HUAR] which recently issued a statement about the Portland killer. The killer himself, seemed to be an eclectic pagan/Heathen, however, HUAR still felt responsibility. Likewise, a rather funnier incident, is documented here with Heathens Against Hate. This has been a problem spanning decades.

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Fenrir and Tyr by John Bauer (One of my fave artists)

What inspired me for this article, was the little bit towards the end of the Wild Hunt post:

One interviewee who wished to remain anonymous keeps his religious practice hidden from coworkers and superiors, not because he’s worried about being labeled a devil worshiper, but because he is concerned, due to the public opinion, that he’ll be called white supremacist.

This is a problem. I am fairly certain, the interviewee, is not the only one who feels this way. Despite the fact that there are plenty of others doing something to combat the problem, there is too much media attention on the racist/hate issue. There is just too much negativity in the communities. It’s such a mess to be in something now associated with the “bad apples”, so to speak, of the movements.

I am reminded of how bad the reputation of paganism and witchcraft was in the earlier decades of the 1900’s. (And to a degree, Heathenism as well because it has more of a positive meaning now.) Many people sought to regain control over this public image. This was particularly a point in early Wicca movements with Valiente and Gardner, and then later in the 1980’s with Satanic panic. It got so bad that Wiccans, some of which to this day still do it despite the fact most people don’t care, tried to distance themselves from any notion of “devil worship”, literary and modern Satanism, and “bad apples” of the occult communities who sacrifice peoples’ pet cats on Halloween. (At least the stereotype. I don’t think we should distance ourselves from modern Satanism, either. But I will save that for another post.)

While I agree with them largely, that they are not literary Satanism or the form of paganism the monks of the medieval period made it out to be, I think they should be more welcoming of modern Satanism. In the previous decades, introducing yourself as a witch/Wiccan or pagan, citing no devil worship and the like, is acceptable for the time period. Now, I think it is outdated with how well known Wicca is, post-1990’s. No one really associates Wicca or even most paganism with that anymore, except evangelicals and similar Christians who don’t care to understand it. (Can’t please everyone!) However, the effort of the communities did pay off by explaining to people what they are about and how they were not Abrahamic as the majority.

In this sense, as modern pagans and witches reclaimed their image from literary Satanism and Christianity, I believe the same could be done from the hateful groups that are attempting to hijack the spiritual growth of the community and the communities themselves. It is because of the efforts of many Neopagans, over the decades, that the word “witch” now has an entirely new meaning that is beyond the original dictionary and academic definitions. (The original meaning was “one who practiced harmful or black magic”.) Most people who use the title are not going about trying to conjure demons or curse people on a regular basis, as the mythology originally implied and said.

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A painting of Odin. A good symbol of inclusiveness.

So, what did they do? Educate. Keep espousing the traditions. Keep being friendly, open, and welcoming to people. Keep being inclusive. Be patient when people don’t know, ask, and inquire about your religion and beliefs. You attract more flies with honey, than vinegar. Meaning the “hate” is not as effective as love/friendliness (And all those gooey, warm, positive emotions.) in attracting and keeping people.

Educating (And correcting) people and removing ignorance, removes criminal behaviors, racism, transphobia, anti-feminism, hypermasculinity, and so forth. These things need to be backed in science and there is plenty of resources in introductions to anthropology alone, on inclusiveness/diversity of homo sapiens, to help back debates up, which everyone should do. Even if you don’t change a mind by publicly debating online with the person, remember, that the message has the potential to change someone else’s mind who is lurking and reading.

It is best to correct and educate, when you can and when relevant, to spread the good ideas. Voices of the other side that is inclusive, on an individual level, need to be heard, and not just the voices of racists/hateful members in the community. (Remember, you still have to pick and choose your battles. Some people simply are not worth it or the effort.)

I am a realist though. I do not expect such measure to completely eradicate hate and exclusiveness in the community, that would be unrealistic. But it could curb stomp it’s teeth in. I mean, hell, most Wiccans/witches, I’ve met, are inclusive, but it doesn’t stop Z.Budapest and Maxine Sanders from being anti-trans.  It does need to be said that Asatru and other Heathen/pagan religions are NOT inherently exclusive, racist, transphobic, etc to people. I know it’s not usually coming from the pagan community, the public does not know this, however.

Ishtar: The Feminist Symbol

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The Burney Relief (Old Babylonian period) – Often Identified as Ishtar

Introduction

(Warning! Long post! Also, Trigger Warning for discussions of rape, violence, gender, and sexuality!) Ishtar, the ancient Babylonian goddess of love, war, and sex is a complex figure. She evolved from the goddess Inanna in the earliest civilization in the world; ancient Sumer. (Modern day Iraq.) Her figure is at least 5,000 years old and her worship enjoyed popularity throughout all ages of Mesopotamia. (Unlike many other goddesses whose popularity waxed and waned.) She had many aspects, that added to her character over the ages. It was because of this some scholars theorize that Ishtar may have originally been a combination of several local goddess, which explains the complexity of her character.

While the mainstream academic view is that of Ishtar being a spoiled “brat”, trying to get what she wants, and that of a capricious teenager in mythology, this view ignores what could be garnered from modern  feminist interpretations. Looking at it from an ancient perspective, Ishtar is an independent woman in patriarchal societies that frowned upon that sort of thing. In a modern perspective, Ishtar stood up for herself when she was raped, back in time when rape wasn’t always a big deal,  owned her own sexuality, was independent of men, and remained an important figure of fertility in nature.

It was because Mesopotamians didn’t like demonizing and oppressing their goddesses too much, even if they went out of the gender norm, that the wild aspect of Ishtar’s lust (Killili) and violence seem to have contributed to the myth of Lilith, a more popular feminist figure of the modern age. Lilith (Babylonian Lilitu) became then, and subsequently in cultures who inherited the myth (Israelites),  a woman that was used to warn other women about the dangers of being independent woman in a society where women were owned by the males of their respective families. (In fact the Babylonian word for “prostitute” and “independent woman”, both of which Ishtar and Lilith typically identify, are similar for such reasons because both ideals are looked down upon in their respective societies.)

This essay will explore Ishtar’s character and myths in the ancient world, while offering a modern feminist interpretation of such mythology. She can be used a modern symbol of female empowerment, much in the same way her maiden Lilith is used by feminists. (The main reason why Ishtar is not viewed in the same lense of Lilith, is because Lilith enjoyed being interpreted by Romantic artists of the Victorian period and evolved into a symbol of modern Jewish feminism. Whereas, Ishtar became hopelessly lost in the veils of time, mostly.)

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History

It is important to note the historical background of Inanna’s (Ishtar) as it is a necessary component of her character. The goddess Ishtar is probably the most substantial goddess of the Ancient Near East in the Mesopotamian region.  She is connected to a plethora of goddess, like the Persian Anahita. But most particularly, she is identified with the Syrian-Canaanite goddess Astarte.

Tradition in the ancient world split Ishtar’s origins in two. In the priestly tradition she was regarded as the daughter of the principle god and ruler of heaven, Anu. (Sumerian An) The folk tradition offers the idea that she is the daughter of the moon god Sin (Sumerian Nanna) and as a consequence, the sister of the solar god Shamash (Utu). In Babylonia, these three made a triad, Sin of the moon, Shamash of the sun, and Ishtar of the earth. Ishtar here, is represented by the eight pointed star, Shamash by the solar disk, and Sin by a crescent moon symbol. She received the title of “Queen of Heaven and Earth” because of this.

Ishtar’s two most important aspects are fertility and war. The Babylonians emphasized her sexual aspects, while the Assyrians chose to focus on her power as a goddess of war. Prior to the rise of Marduk, Ishtar was the main deity of war. (Marduk eventually replaced her in Babylonia.) As the goddess of sex and fertility, Ishtar’s cult was comprised of priestess-prostitutes, in what is called “sacred prostitution”. The goddess herself being the goddess of prostitution.  In her war aspect, she vied for power and the battlefield was titled “the playground of Ishtar”.

Inanna’s capital was the city of Uruk. This is where her principal shrine was held. It was named “E-ana” or “House of Heaven”. Here is the origins of her as the daughter of Anu himself. She is also connected to the “morning/evening star” or the planet Venus.

The high priestess and daughter of Sargon of Akkad revered Inanna, and helped raise her to prominence. The priestess’s name is Enheduanna. She is considered the earliest poet in the entire world, who was not anonymous, she was also the first woman to hold the title of EN which was of great political substance. Even though Enheduanna was a priestess of the god Nanna, her most famous works are about Inanna. (It is likely Sargon moved her to the city of Ur to secure power in the Sumerian city-state.)  ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ is her most famous work and this work influenced the conceptions of the goddess.

Ishtar’s popularity continued to grow over the region. Eventually, her cult spread to the Mediterranean. She evolved into the great goddess Aphrodite, where the cult of sacred prostitution spread. Inherited from the Ishtar mythologies, the Greeks began to think of the evening and morning stars as one star, instead of two separate ones. Later, Aphrodite survived as the Roman goddess Venus.

Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar offers Gilgamesh sex. In which he spurns her advances, citing a long history of her cursing her former lovers:

“For Dumuzi the lover of your youth
You decreed that he should keep weeping year after year.
You loved the colourful allallu-bird,
But you hit him and broke his wing.
He stays in the words crying ‘My wings!’
You loved the lion, whose strength is complete,
But you dug seven and seven pits for him.
You loved the horse, so trustworthy in battle,
But you decreed the whip, goad, and lash for him
You decreed that he should gallop seven leagues (nonstop),
You decreed that he should be overwrought and thirsty,
You decreed endless weeping for his mother Sililu.
You loved the shepherd, herdsman, and chief shepherd
Who was always heaping up the glowing ashes for you,
And cooked ewe-lambs for you every day.
But you hit him and turned him into a wolf,
His own herd-boys hunt him down
And his dogs tear at his haunches.
You loved Ishullanu, your father’s gardener,
Who was always bringing you baskets of dates.
They brightened your table every day;
You lifted your eyes to him and went to him
‘My own Ishullanu, let us enjoy this strength,
So put out your hand and touch our vulva!’
But Ishullanu said to you,
‘Me? What do you want of me?
Did my mother not bake for me, and did I not eat?
What I eat (with you) would be loaves of dishonour and disgrace,
Rushes would be my only covering against the cold.’
You listened as he said this,
And you hit him, turned him into a frog (?),
Left him to stay amid the fruits of his labor.”
– tablet VI, SBV ii

Ishtar is shown as sexually independent and bound to no man, in the texts. This is not normal of Mesopotamian women. However, she tends to curse her many lovers in the end. Gilgamesh enrages Ishtar through his rejection. She sends the Bull of Heaven out at on him and his friend as revenge. Gilgamesh manages to slay the Bull of Heaven, at the cost of his friend’s life.

It is because of this event that leads Ishtar to perform the necessary funeral rites. The Bull of Heaven was the consort of the underworld goddess Ereshkigal–Ishtar’s sister/rival. Thus, Ishtar must descend to the underworld, since she is responsible for her sister’s husband’s death. However, Ishtar’s appearance in the underworld is two-fold. She is after obtaining power over the underworld by seizing Ereshgikal’s throne. This would make Ishtar the Queen of Heaven, the Earth, and the Underworld.

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A Sumerian relief showing Inanna (Ishtar) in the middle, worshipers above her, and underworld creatures below her.

But in order to pass through each seven gates, Ishtar must remove an article of clothing. This is symbolic, as it stands, to show Ishtar’s loss of power as she keep descending to lower levels. Once she passes to the last gate, she is completely naked.

After the final gate, seeing the throne, Ishtar attempts to seize it from Ereshkigal. Angered, Ereskigal and her demons slay Ishtar and hang her corpse on a hook. Ishtar once dead, husbands will not copulate with their wives, animals will not mate, and crops will not grow. It is Ishtar whose power is so great that she is imperative to existence in the world. The gods see this and decide Ishtar must be revived to restore order, so they bargain with Ereshkigal, who demands a replacement for Ishtar.

As Ishtar travels to the surface, newly brought back to life thanks to the other gods, she checks to see who is mourning her. All the gods mourned her except, her husband Tammuz (Dumuzi) is seen enjoying her splendor while she was dead and not mourning her in any way whatsoever. So, she sentences him to death as her replacement in rage. The demons gather their strength up and take Tammuz from Ishtar’s throne. Gestianna, Tammuz’s sister, offers to exchange places with Tammuz every six months to appease Ereshkigal.

Here Ishtar is a great symbol, she attempts to seize power for herself and she removes that which threatens her power. She does not allow those to disrespect her, even if that disrespect comes from her own husband.

She has many lovers and even her relationship to Tammuz can be ambiguous at times. She does not seem to have a permanent mate. Nor are any real children ascribe to her, with a possible exception of Shara. Bound by no man, bound to no children, and certainly she is not bound by traditional family life as the patriarchal Mesopotamian society would have it. She usurps it. She retains this independent character throughout her entire mythology; no children and no permanent lover is a prominent theme. She takes the power she can for herself and she removes all which is a threat to her independence. Not even if the threat is from someone of the same gender.

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Inanna (right) being presented a king-worshiper

Ishtar vs Mount Ebih

Ishtar for the record, formerly would bow to Anu. Now she has taken her own path. Swayed by her anger at mount Ebih for dishonoring her. She has decided to take matters into her own hand, even at the cost of disobeying the top god. This makes her wholly independent. She chose this and she takes responsibility for her actions.

The poem “Inanna and Ebih” is very interesting as Anu the sky father, refuses to help Ishtar. Very similar to Yahweh in the Garden of Eden with Eve, the patriarch Anu is not so tolerant of women’s equality even when Ishtar requests aid. But unlike Yahweh, An gives up and breaks his alliance with Ishtar when she disobeys. Anu is typically a key source of Ishtar’s divine power, this act however, seems to shake cosmic order.

O maiden Inanna. I will not set my head with yours against the fiery radiance of the mountain.

An say this to her:

INANNA! PORTENOUS ONE! HOLY! ILL-BODING!

FURY OVERTURNS HER HEART!

When academics look over this characterization between Anu and Ishtar, it is interpreted as Ishtar being a spoiled child to her father and throwing, what could essentially be called, a “hissy fit”. This is how some scholars now see Ishtar, which would be a very classical and patriarchal view. Rather, than looking at it as a woman standing up for herself against one who has dishonored her, to the point of disobeying the head of the pantheon; Anu. She challenges Anu’s patriarchal authority. There is no other goddess in the same mythos that does this. (At least that I know of!)

In Mesopotamian (Ancient Near East) societies, similar to historical biblical ones mentioned in the bible, women were typically owned by the head male (patriarch). Unmarried women would be owned by their fathers. Married women by their husbands, and if they are widowed, then by his brother or their uncle, if there was no male heir. Noble women usually had more freedoms, however, the society was emphasized that women be groomed to be wives, mothers, and caretakers. Men were thought to do this to preserve “legitimate” lineages and to curb adultery.

There are many tales told to women of the dangers of being an independent woman. Ardat lili (Akkadian for Lilitu) was typically used for this gesture. Themes of prostitution, women owning their sexuality, and adultery were commonly told tales of caution. This increasing sexualization of Ardat lili and Lilitu definitely came over from the Ishtar aspect. Despite this matter, Ishtar’s cult thrived and so did prostitution. It is amazing that Ishtar’s mythology preserved a more positive look for women outside of societal norms.

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Ishtar’s Rape

One of the most notable stories about Ishtar is the one that occurred about her rape. It is not just the fact that rape had happened to Ishtar in the story, it is also very note worthy that Ishtar sought to punish the rapist, personally. This was back in an era when rape was identified as offence against a man’s property if a married woman was raped, and when the rape of an unmarried virgin forced the girl to be married to her rapist.

In the code of Hammurabi of the Ancient Near East, the rape of a betrothed virgin woman was a crime punishable by death, but this is more because of the husband. However, if a married woman was raped, this was considered “adultery” and punishable by both the deaths of her and the rapist.  Similarly, in Ancient Hebrew law, if the woman was raped within city walls, cries of help would be assumed so someone would help her, if not, then the victim and rapist were executed. Outside the city walls, especially of a virgin, the rapist was required to pay for and marry the victim. There was no justice for the survivors of rape in the Ancient Near East.

This is why this particular story is very important when examining Ishtar as feminist symbol. She sought justice where there was none. She punished what was fleeing from punishment. Even when the water god, Enki (Babylonian Ea) hid the rapist. Ishtar did not give up searching for such a man.

In the setting of the story, Ishtar goes on an adventure to learn justice and falsehood. Soon she becomes wary, and falls asleep underneath a tree. A man takes advantage of this. Ishtar awakes dismayed and filled with vengeance. The man flees with the help of Ea, who helps all those he petition him. Ishtar cannot find this man as she destroys the land. Finally, she too, petitions Enki who revels his location.

Then the woman was considering what should be destroyed because of her genitals; Inana was considering what should be done because of her genitals. She filled the wells of the Land with blood, so it was blood that the irrigated orchards of the Land yielded, it was blood that the slave who went to collect firewood drank, it was blood that the slavegirl who went out to draw water drew, and it was blood that the black-headed people drank. No one knew when this would end. She said: “I will search everywhere for the man who had intercourse with me”. But nowhere in all the lands could she find the man who had had intercourse with her. – Now, what did one say to another? What further did one add to the other in detail?” – Inana and Shu-kale-tuda: translation 129-138

[…….]

When he had spoken thus to her, …… hit ……. …… added (?) ……. …… changed (?) him ……. She (?) determined his destiny ……, holy Inana spoke to Cu-kale-tuda: “So! You shall die! What is that to me? Your name, however, shall not be forgotten. Your name shall exist in songs and make the songs sweet. A young singer shall perform them most pleasingly in the king’s palace. A shepherd shall sing them sweetly as he tumbles his butter-churn. A young shepherd shall carry your name to where he grazes the sheep. The palace of the desert shall be your home. – Inana and Shu-kale-tuda: translation 290-310

It is simply wonderful to find a story that is thousands of years old, where a goddess seeks justice for the rape at hand. In many stories, rape is not punished and is somewhat socially acceptable. In some myths, such as Poseidon and Medusa, the victim is punished. (In this case Medusa was punished by Athena.) Even Hera, Queen of the gods in Greek myth, is said to have married her rapist, Zeus, to cover her shame. (Zeus being the epitome of what a man is in Greek culture.)

Ishtar is empowering as a Feminist symbol, here, because she refused to be a victim any longer. She didn’t just kill the man, either. She likewise, had the man remembered for all eternity because of the shame he brought on himself for the act. This is why she mentions this, and it should be taught as a lesson. But most of all, as with her other stories, Inanna refuses to take any shit, especially from a man.

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Sumerian image of Inanna (right) ready for battle

Ishtar and gender

One of the most interesting aspects to Ishtar and her cult, was the androgyny/gender crossing in her character.  Inanna, in her warrior aspect, takes on the role of a male.  She “appropriates” this role by striding into battle, a completely male dominated domain. She is referred when she is off to battle as embodying that of a young man. All the while, she is still considered a woman. But she is far outside the domestic domain of the Ancient Near East, a taboo in and of itself.

This part of it trickled into Ishtar’s cult. Ishtar herself, challenges the social norms. Even to the point of welcoming the “manly woman”, who was usually socially ostracized in Mesopotamian society. There may have been cross dressing women, and men, as a portion of Inanna’s cult. In one poem Ishtar is described:

Inanna… Dressing as a maiden, within the women’s rooms. Embraces with full heart, the young girl’s handsome bearing.

Here, “handsome” was used to explain “cross gendering”, in the translation. One could summarize this is what would be called a “dyke” in modern culture. We cannot say for certain about lesbianism in such a context, because of how ancients defined their own sexuality and how the texts were written. But at least, some of these “handsome women”, were not just simple tomboys or cross dressers.

Many texts exist that make reference to Ishtar’s cult personnel, in temples, as being eunuchs, androgynous, sexually ambivalent, intersexed, or trans because she embraces them. In the poem “Lady of the Largest Heart” we learn that Inanna “turn man to women/woman to man/are yours Inanna”. In this, her cult also challenges the hetero-normative Mesopotamian culture. She breaks sexual boundaries and gender boundaries–all taboo.

  Conclusion

Ishtar welcomes all gender identities and sexual identities into her cult. She is a social justice symbol from an era when such a thing never existed. In a time when this sort of thing was shunned and people were socially ostracized for it; Inanna embraced all the social misfits of society. Even the goddess herself crosses gender boundaries, breaks taboos.

As Betty De Shong writes in her book “Inanna: Lady of the Largest Heart“:

Inanna represents the full expression of whole range of possibilities for woman’s identity. That range includes same-sex unions. Inanna is free to travel throughout the landscape of her sexuality, enjoying each scene to the fullest. She sanctions sexuality in its many forms as the surging of the life force itself. To suppress a viable expression of sexuality, such as same-sex unions would be anti-life to Inanna and would go against the creative force of her nature.

Likewise, she is a symbol of justice for rape survivors. She does not stop searching for the perpetrator until she punishes him. The punishment befitting of the crime, for the era, she destroys him. Humiliates him for all time by letting the story circulate as a lesson. She is the refusal to remain a victim, she inspires those to empower themselves against those who committed such injustices.

When she battles the mountain, she is taking on patriarchy itself, symbolically. Not just by the fact that she had disobeyed the authority of the father god An, she also took on the embodiment of a male mountain. The gods, especially An, were in awe of Ebih and fearful. Inanna challenged this as well, she destroyed the mountain that was not respecting her. This could inspire many women to take on their own patriarchal cultures and remove their own mountains. Especially, if they block their paths in life. They too, like Ishtar, can fight to keep their autonomy.

Lastly, in the Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, she even challenges another female’s domain. Inanna lusts for power, why is this considered a bad thing when so many women suffer from a lack of power in their own lives? Even other women can bring down patriarchal norms on females. Can’t we be like Ishtar and seize the throne ourselves? Why must we lay down? Ishtar is the embodiment of what we should seek; the power we need/want, even at the cost of usurping it from someone else. Though she did not get what she wanted in that particular story, she did get power later from Enki by stealing it successfully for herself and her people. This is how we should be as feminists.

References:

  • Inanna Lady of the Largest Heart by Betty De Shong Meador
  • The Hebrew Goddess (3rd Enlarged Edition) by R.Patai
  • Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia by Black and Green
  • DR: Ishtar/Inanna
  • Herstory on Rape
  • Wiki for Greek myths

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural Appropriation, Political Correctness, & Harm

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When accusations of cultural appropriation back fire!

Note: This is from an American perspective and is about American politics. I am not going to touch many international politics.

This is a discussion I think the internet needs to have because, apparently, the internet cannot pick and choose their battles real well, which is extending to real life. I am not here to call out specific person or tell them how to do things. You’re allowed to do whatever you wish. I am allowed to criticize you, in that regard. I cannot tell you what to do. But I do want to talk about cultural appropriation; when it is “acceptable” and when it is not. Basically, as stated earlier “picking and choosing your battles”.

So far, online and irl, I have seen people call others out citing “cultural appropriation”. They seem to aggressively take such a stance that they got a Taco stand business to go under in Portland recently, because it was ran by a pair of white ladies and that did offend some sensibilities. But I have also seen, first hand story on Tumblr, about the lady above, to what I assume her adviser is probably a white person, (because the young lady with her fair skin was what they call “white passing”.) and couldn’t possibly have a connection to India. This cultural appropriation thing has become all about race, when it should not be.

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A Victoria’s Secret model being offensive

First of all, I’d like to point out that culture and race are entirely different things. Race is supposed to be biological, and most people judge based on phenotype, which are those obvious details such as skin color. However, per anthropology, this is incorrect. You cannot simply tell someone’s origins on this planet based on phenotype. Skin color can totally lie to you. (As I said by that girl who is from India.) Growing up in Oklahoma where the five great tribes are at, I can personally attest to seeing Native friends that have blonde hair and blue eyes, on more than one occasion. (I also know some people who are Native and very light skinned.) Maybe it’s because they mixed with Caucasians, but you know what, I don’t care and their tribes usually do not either. Most “race” ideals by the general public are completely socio-cultural. Races tend to be construed as ethnic groups, by members of a certain culture, to have a biological basis, even when they may not.

So, where does this leave culture? Culture, as it turns out, is completely learned behaviors. Culture is symbolic. Culture is shared. Cultures are integrated and patterned systems. Culture is not from an individual, but members of a group. And culture can even be adaptive and maladaptive. Yep, culture is not biological. It never has been “race based”, despite what many would have you believe. Some cultures may require you to have a biological background the same as them, but a good chunk of them do not. I noticed that at least, with Americans, they cannot see that culture is separated from race.

While I am at it I need to point out that a sub-culture is not the same as regular culture. A sub-culture uses different symbols, patterns, and traditions associated with particular groups “in the same complex society” as my textbook adequately notes. That is to say sub-cultures still have an element of conformity to the main culture they deviated from. A good example would be the LGBT various sub-cultures. Cultural appropriation doesn’t usually refer to these types of cultures, so we are going to skip them as well, since they are technically part of the majority culture.

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Ancient Sumerian picture of the goddess Inanna in her descent into the underworld – ex. of “dead culture”

Cultural appropriation also does not refer to dead cultures. Dead cultures are on whole other level. I have seen some Heathens and pagans, of the reconstructionist persuasion usually, try to control others by shouting cultural appropriation at them when they get curious about a certain dead culture. But really, it’s hard to offend that which is gone. On this note, I need to point out two divisions in anthropology; 1. Cultural anthropology, the study of living cultures. 2. Archaeology, the study of dead cultures. Whenever anthropology seriously uses ‘cultural appropriation’, it is never in reference to dead cultures.

What cultural appropriation does refer to, is when a majority culture borrows, steals, capitalizes on, and/or misrepresents a minority culture. (Usually disregarding the symbolism all together.) One of the best examples, that was even taken seriously by anthropology for awhile, is Carlos Castaneda. (Seems like a lot of people have no clue who he is.) The most popular example of this is that model I posted above, which many attack constantly. In many Native traditions, those headpieces are sacred. It would be improper therefore, to assume this as a fashion trend given the history of Native peoples in America not even being allowed to practice their own indigenous religions until the 1970’s and many being forced to Christianity. (Although, there are some Natives who still don’t care about models.)

Another problem is faux shamans, which in my opinion, are more dangerous to their living cultures than a model with a bad fashion choice. Natives even got together and made a website spelling at the dangers of these frauds to the general populace. I feel like these New Age frauds are far more harmful than a fashion model, but I have absolutely never seen anyone who gets offended by appropriation, in the social justice blog sphere, ever call or point them out. (Except actual Natives.) No, instead I see more people bitch and moan about fashion, or people eating ethnic food. (Trust me, they are not really killing the cultures with that.)

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Food for thought

Cultural assimilation, the opposite, is not the same. This is when the minority culture assimilates with the majority culture. They may do this to fit in, and thus this is not what people define as appropriation. So, this comparison does not work.

Sometimes the lines between cultural diffusion (borrowing/exchange) and cultural appropriation, and even cultural appreciation blur. Even among the tribes, they can disagree about what constitutes actual cultural appropriation. And so do anthropologists, who do not seem to see cultural appropriation as this black and white issue, where it is all bad. It’s more like a gray issue.

We must keep in mind that cultures have and will not ever exist in vacuum and that cultural purity retention can have downsides. The biggest downside I have seen is how accusations of cultural appropriation have suddenly turned into these ideas of racial segregation and cultural purity, under new guises of being “progressive”. There we need to stop and think.

Even tumblrs getting sick of tumblr _d7bcb4_5281827.jpg

Now, for examples of “cultural appropriation”, that benefited said culture… We have Japan. Foreigners have literally saved the kimono market. People actually cater to them. Many Japanese people do not care at all about cultural appropriation, they invite foreigners to participate in the culture. It is actually encouraged to do so.

Some may argue that this is not “cultural appropriation” because Japan did this to themselves. Back in 2015, however, protesters took it upon themselves to lecture actual Japanese  people about sharing their culture and inviting the West to participate. (Including wearing kimonos.) Being that it was “appropriation” to do so, and therefore also wrong. (And also racist.)

This reminds me of when the majority people would claim to speak for minority groups, claim to represent them. When the minority groups were perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and called out the majority for misrepresenting them. Why should we control people in such a manner when we are supposedly “helping” them? Doesn’t this sound like we’re pushing our cultural values and outlook on them? I think it’s awfully pretentious to always know what minority groups want, because there are definitely minority groups who just don’t care about cultural appropriation.

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The idea of POC vs white, also needs to be addressed quickly. This is a very American thing. The world is not represented by white vs everyone else. But Americans keep acting like it is. For example, in China, the majority is completely Han Chinese. China has about 55 ethnicities that are NOT Han Chinese. Whites are a minority in their culture, so the argument simply does not work.

Context is important and especially important in the controversial gray area topics such as cultural appropriation. It is perfectly fine to be eclectic in religious or spiritual practices, but know what you’re doing at least. It’s fine to learn a language, culture, dress style, and food. If you’re confused about it, you can always take the advice of my professor in anthropology: “If you want to appropriate, get it from a culture where no one cares about appropriation [in said culture] or else try a dead culture.”

References, besides the links:

Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity (4th edition) by C.Kottak

I really like this, but feel as though it is merely a dream.

Since the U.S. has elected a reality TV show billionaire to represent our nation, we should be no longer be able to shy away from the ignorance, violence, and frivolity that is within us. Happiness and peace in humanity seem to be in short supply. How many of us experience continuing bliss, or do we […]

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