Photo by Jemma
Is western magick culturally appropriated? It’s a question Western practitioners should be asking. Perhaps it’s not as simple as declaring all western magick as culturally appropriated. It’s certainly important to understand what is meant by cultural appropriation and how cultural appreciation might fit in.
Witch as a term
Let’s first consider the terms “witch” and “magick”. At Magenta, our dominant demographic for the people who work here is Western, white and cisgendered. Here we don’t mind the terms “witch” or “magick”. We’re keen to claim these terms back from the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, who used these terms to persecute people.
However, not everyone who practices “magick” identifies as “a witch”. In some cultures labelling sacred rituals as magick is quite offensive, and these labels can sometimes used to justify violence against others. So whilst from our white, Western perspective we are fine with these terms, we don’t expect everyone else to be. We use these terms very carefully outside of the Magenta school. Especially when understanding the practices of others.
Cultural appropriation or appreciation
So, appreciation or appropriation. What do we mean? Well, we googled “What is cultural appropriation?” and there were pages and pages of slightly different, yet samey definitions…so we went with this one:
“the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society”
We’re using this one, for no reason other than it came up at the top of the search. There’s many many others….but there are some key words that leap out. Unacknowledged is one massive word to consider and the other is dominant or (and let’s not skirt the issue) the winner of the war.
So is Western magick culturally appropriated or appreciated?
We would suggested it’s terribly complicated. But let’s start with the moon.
The moon is a true icon of magick if ever there was one. The full moon is considered to be one of the most optimal times to practice magick, have a ritual and work with nature. The moon itself we’re not suggesting has been appropriated by the West, but how about the full moon’s name convention?
Most Westerners follow a Gregorian calendar, starting off in January and finishing off in December. The full moon in any Gregorian month is usually, unoriginally, named after the month. For some cultures who do not use a Gregorian calendar, the full moon in each month has its own name, often drawing on the natural environment for naming conventions. For example, in North America the moon’s names, such as Wolf Moon or Strawberry Moon, were named after the various events of the season such as when fruits were ripe or when animals called out to each other.
These names then found their way into Western cultures when Europeans came to the region where the indigieous people lived and started to use the same names. Was this credited at the time? Unlikely. So here we are experiencing our first look at the ‘unacknowledged’ part of the definition we’re using. Certainly the Europeans ended up as the dominant society in North Amercia. It’s always worth pausing to reflect on whether any names used to describe the full moon have been appropriated, based on historical factors.
Are western magick correspondences culturally appropriated?
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn took a lot of their teachings from practices such as Jewish Kabbalah. They took from Middle Eastern and East Asian systems for alchemy and astrology. They also took lots of deities from all over the world.
The Golden Dawn then drew up tables of correspondences from a whole mix of these practices and built them into the fabric of their work. Some of these original practices were shared, others were taken through conquests. Some were just used because it suited the Golden Dawn to do so without credit. So we’re again into the ‘unacknowledged’ part of the definiton above. The Golden Dawn then inspired other religions such as Thelema and Wicca, who also added in their own correspondences to their practices.
How the New Age movement contributed to western magick’s cultural appropriation
The Hindu concept of chakras was appropriated by the West in the 1920s after C.W Leadbeater’s book on the subject attributed seven colours of the light spectrum and the human endocrine system to 7 of the chakras. As a 2017 article by The Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan author Kurt Leyland explains, by the 1970s and 1980s Westerners started to use these “chakra colours” for meditation and aura work, right through to the 21st century. So this idea of “chakra colours” is now used both in a magickal and non magickal sense.
So it’s all very complicated.
Some of the magickal practices that found their way into the West were shared freely by other cultures through the publication of ideas and knowledge sharing. Often at a point in history when these ideas were considered to be the accepted science of the day, rather than magick. But certainly not everything. Certainly some of today’s western magick is culturally appropriated through conquest and colonisation. Some were popularised through the media age and societal change. So the question is Western magick culturally appropriated or appreciated can get really complicated really quickly.
Is our western magick culturally appropriated?
The Middle Eastern systems for astrology and its intersection with folk magick was what first interested us in this question. Astrology as a practice is thousands of years old, probably created by the Babylonians, definitely exported to North Africa and Europe through conquests.
Our astral magick comes from an Arabic practice, one that was shared openly when Baghdad was the world authority on the stars. This was at a time when astrology was thought of as science. But even this practice was translated from Alexandrian texts into Arabic. So its really difficult to know for sure whether it was orginally freely shared or taken by a dominant society.
At Magenta, we also like some aspects of Thelema and Wicca. However, we didn’t really understand the deities in the same way Wiccans would and we didn’t feel connected to the Kabbalah the way those who practice Kabbalah might. For us it didn’t feel right trying to connect to either of those religions. Once we recognised that having no cultural context to the words or the deities was the core to this struggle, we stopped.
We know modern Wiccans take the bits from Wicca they like and leave the rest behind… So we followed suit. And we conducted lots of research.
For example, in our Magick Discovered course we explain where our ideas and practices have come from. We try to only use teachings from other cultures where we believe this practice is open. For example, if we see something interesting but our research shows it’s from a closed practice, we respectfully leave it. If we see something that our research indicates was shared by the original culture with openness, we use the practice respectfully and sensitively. Then we credit where it comes from.
A lot of our magick uses source material from the open practice, rather than the culturally appropriated versions from later practices. We always explain when and if we are using a massively Westernised version of a system. We are always mindful that the Internet is not a cultural ambassador. So, one website does not speak for an entire culture, so just because a magickal practice can be researched using the Internet it does not mean it’s an open practice.
That said, we also know there is more we can do to improve our knowledge even with our hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of research. We encourage you to research where your practice comes from. Only use it if it truly speaks to you, if it’s open for you to use and only use it in the way it was intended…then absolutely credit it. Always ask the question is my western magick culturally appropriated or appreciated?
Blessed Be, kids.
*Like Crowley, we spell magick with a ‘K’ to distinguish our values and beliefs as different to stage magic. Appropriated or appreciated? We still don’t know.
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Edited July 28, 2022 to include Headings and Subheadings