Initiatory Cultures 101
So many times in the witchcraft community, I see a lot of gatekeeping. This comes from a wide range of witches and it cannot really be pinpointed to any certain group or person. We, as humans, are often very quick to tell someone “no”; we like to refuse explanations just as much. And that, my friends, is a problem.
We see it on Tumblr all the time: Harriet is interested in *insert initiatory culture* and posts about how she is now part of said culture. Someone climbs onto her feed and shrieks, “You have to be initiated to participate in those cultural activities!” Harriet backfires with, “Why, though?” and is met without an answer. This is often followed with Harriet incessantly whining because she didn’t get her way and/or continuing to practice regardless of being told it is not okay.
And this situation doesn’t help anything or anyone.
That’s why your Saltmom is here to tell you the reason the WHY behind initiatory religions, practices, paths, and cultures. I find that the more educated we allow our community to become, the better off and the more diverse we will be.
So, what is initiation anyway?
Initiation is a rite of passage marking entrance or acceptance into a group or society. It could also be a formal admission to adulthood in a community or one of its formal components. In an extended sense, it can also signify a transformation in which the initiate is ‘reborn’ into a new role. Examples of initiation ceremonies might include Hindu diksha, Christian baptism or confirmation, Jewish bar or bat mitzvah, acceptance into a fraternal organization, secret society or religious order, or graduation from school or recruit training. A person taking the initiation ceremony in traditional rites is called an initiate.
Characteristics of Initiation
Mircea Eliade was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. He was a leading interpreter of religious experience, who established paradigms in religious studies that persist to this day. He discussed initiation as a principal religious act by classical or traditional societies. He defined initiation as “a basic change in existential condition,” which liberates humans from profane time and history.
“Initiation recapitulates the sacred history of the world. And through this recapitulation, the whole world is sanctified anew… [the initiand] can perceive the world as a sacred work, a creation of the Gods.”
Basically, the function of initiation is to reveal the deep meaning of existence to the new generations in a culture. It helps them assume the responsibility of being members of their culture and actively participating in their traditions.
I get that part. But what’s the problem?
The problem is that we live in a society that likes to participate in a little activity called:
(And yes, I totally used Comic Sans because I abhor both the font and the very act of appropriation.)
And for those of you who don’t know what that is: cultural appropriation is the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religion, religious symbols, etc.
TL;dr: Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture or community that’s not their own.
This is extremely damaging when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.
What do initiation and cultural appropriation have to do with one another?
You remember Harriet from earlier? Well, whether Harriet knows it or not, appropriating the initiatory culture of her choice does a great deal of harm to that culture. Why? Because she didn’t take the time to ask to be welcomed into said culture, which, in turn, means that Harriet is not privileged to be under the tutelage of an experienced member of that culture. Harriet, while not being properly guided, could potentially bastardize and warp the very culture that she found herself being drawn to.
Harriet did not take the time to show respect to that culture by requesting to be a part of it. The problem arises when somebody takes something from another less dominant culture in a way that members of that culture find undesirable and offensive. The point is that the more marginalized group doesn’t get a say, while their heritage is deployed by someone in a position of greater privilege (looking at you, Harriet)–for fun or fashion, perhaps, and out of a place of ignorance rather than knowledge of that culture.
Without initiation, Harriet is stealing. Period.
That’s horrible! How can I avoid being culturally appropriative?
If you are curious about an initiatory religion, path, practice, or culture, go straight to the source. Contact those that lead these communities. Great examples of these efforts include:
- Getting in touch with a First Nations’ tribe if you are interested in practicing a particular shamanic path that falls under their traditions.
- Visiting (or calling!) the New Orleans Voodoo Temple if you have recently decided that maybe Louisiana Voodoo is a practice you would like to pursue and asking questions.
- Taking classes and studying the religion you find yourself being drawn to before even remotely considering practicing it.
Little acts of respect such as these (and more) show us that we not only hold the cultures to high regard, but that we also honor traditions that do not inherently belong to us.
With a little more empathy and effort, we can make our community better by recognizing that we all have work to do. That means taking the time to explain why something might negatively affect our other witchy brothers and sisters, and doing our part to protect their traditions as much as we would our own.
That’s all for now!
Witch Haven Community Creator, Server Mom, BAMF
Find her @saltwaterwitchery