The gong echoes across the land and immediately silences the anticipation of the public gathered in their seats. Only a distant songbird is heard somewhere in the low, morning fog. The hot breath of the nearby hounds is captured in the wet, cold air as they search the grounds for scent. No breath can be seen from the audience however, for they hold it to better focus on the voices that can now be heard. It begins low, barely audible and ubiquitous. And then they appear, as though from the Otherworld. They are clad in ambient white as they walk slowly to the center of the field, the center of the audience. Their chanting grows louder as the burning herbs and branches they clutch release great pillars of smoke and mix with the fog. The crowd, respectfully reticent, simply observe them walking in a circle, as a single row, and then exit the field from where they entered. The gong is heard again and the crowd pierces the silence with cheers, for the Tailteann games have begun.
This sporting event began as funeral games in ancient Ireland when Lugh’s mortal foster-mother, Tailtiu died. She was buried in a mound in an area that eventually became Teltown. The god, Lugh, started the Aonach to honor her and commemorate her life and people from all over Ireland would gather to watch or participate in this cultural and religious ceremony. The games would include boxing, spear throwing, horse racing, swimming, archery, sword fighting, chariot racing, arranged marriages, singing, and craft competitions, as well as many others. Eventually the games died out, with a temporary revival in the early 1920’s in a time when Ireland needed a reminder of who they are and where they came from. “It’s the elite of the free state of demonstrating that even if they’re not a republic, they are culturally independent. …With much more than a sporting event, it was part of this process of nation building of a certain Irish nationhood.” -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5FKzyvzNco
I have always wanted to create my own Tailteann games for the pagans of Seattle. Held on Lughnasadh, it would be in a rented arena or soccer field where we would open and close with a small ceremony by the local Druids. The games would vary from mud wrestling and obstacle courses, to racing and children’s performances. Most of all, however, it would be a chance to reintroduce sports and exercise, as well as teamwork and camaraderie, to our ceremonies and rituals. So why haven’t I? Simply put: Because I’m not Irish. The Tailteann games were more than just honoring Lugh and the Irish-Celtic pantheon; it was a symbolic representation of culture, history, and the political obstacles of a people over ages that I have no blood ties or connections with whatsoever. It was the very essence of the free spirit of Ireland. So if I did this, it would feel to me as though I were appropriating them. And not just because there are full-blood Irish in Seattle today, but also because it’s not my place or my right.
Which brings me to cultural appropriation. Is the Wiccan Indo-European man who decides to host a public ritual in his basement to perform a Native American coming-of-age ceremony appropriating or simply honoring? What if it was strictly a Wiccan ritual instead, but casts his Circle by burning white sage and sweetgrass? It’s smaller, but does that make a difference?
White Americans lack a cultural identity and history that we can call our own, and we thirst for it. So we have a tendency to take others’ and claim them as ours. This can be done with our hair styles, our clothes, food, conversation, make-up, and even our religions. I can’t help but be hesitant when I hear someone is performing a ritual the exact same way it was done in ancient Rome, and using the exact same language. Do they really have that right or are they simply honoring? And is it really all that important and effective if something so old was itself at one time, new? I struggle with this constantly. The problem I have with many Pagans is that they tend to “pick and choose” from various cultures and religions to better suit their needs. They want the prize, but not the sacrifice. Now, religion is the language of the soul. It is not skin or blood deep. If an Iranian wants to practice Santerian and go through all the devotions, prayers, and sacrifices to become this, then who am I to say they’re appropriating? If Kali tells a white woman to give everything up and devote themselves completely to her, why can’t she? If I want to get a tattoo of a Nordic rune on my shoulder, even though I’m not Norwegian or a Heathen, but because it symbolizes something very deeply personal to me, should I be able to? And when does cultural appropriation start to bleed into racism?
My friend attended a wonderful panel at Pantheacon 2015 about appropriation versus honoring. If you get the chance, I recommend hearing the podcast here:
I don’t know the answers to these questions I’m presenting and I may never. But I do know that I will constantly question everything I do in my practice to be sure I am not appropriating a culture or a deity or an idea by choosing something, stripping its identity, and making it mine. My own identity deserves better and so does theirs. So should I recreate the Tailteann games or should I create something alternative altogether? If we question our beliefs and practices and work toward honoring instead of appropriating, I believe we can grow as better individuals, as a better country, and as better Pagans. I challenge you to look at your own beings and dissect yourself. Start these conversations with your friends and get their opinions, and start talking about it. If we keep our mouths and our minds shut, we won’t grow and develop as humans.