Community, Culture, and Identity in Western Polytheism

There’s something that’s been bubbling under the surface in our Western polytheist spheres that I’ve been feeling in myself and watching others work through for some time, and I’m seeing it begin to breach the surface. It’s essentially a struggle for identity, a tension between authentic expression of our unique spiritual needs, values, and experiences and a deep desire to belong to something bigger, something deeper, with a longer history.

I see this both in the white tendency to misappropriate traditions and material from other cultures as well as in hard historical reconstructionism. While very different in nature, they both seem to stem from the same deep-seated need for culture, for a community-based context for our beliefs, for a storied, embodied connection between our appearances and behaviors with others in community, past and present. But, too often, we forget to go through the process of internalizing, contextualizing, and integrating these things because we’ve also lost the faculties to do that. Marc from Of Axe and Plough has written a high-level and in-depth post about how this is both a symptom and engine of the capitalist consumerization of culture that we have long been subjected to in the West:

At the same time as it is being stripped, ‘identity’ is often commodified.  Whether for retail sale and sightseeing (including fetishization), the proffering of “authentic” products targeted to both diasporas and voyeur tourists (Heller, 2003), or even in the case of for-profit genetic testing kits. The latter is particularly representative of the dystopian capitalist landscape, a product developed which capitalizes on this very insecurity and lack of historic ties in order to ‘aid’ individuals in finding some sense of themselves.”

We’ve been taught to see culture as something that can be bought and worn, a badge pinned to our surfaces, rather than grown and expressed from within. Where the New Age compulsion to misappropriate from Native, Eastern, and Black cultures is a subconscious attempt to latch onto and align with an extant cultural wholeness that is envied but only superficially understood, the reconstruction of historical polytheist religions of extinct European cultures is an attempt to reach back through time to uncover something that was lost through coercion, force, and even a strategic, consensual willingness to align with power through religious assimilation. In both instances, this is often done with a focus on the material consumption of culture through outward trappings (including physical acts, language, and arts and crafts). Generally speaking, both tend to lack an interwoven, embodied context. And both are acts of grief for the culturally bereft. These motivations are understandable: the need for culture, for a community-based context within which we can place ourselves, is an essential human need.

Beyond the Ivory Towers

Some of my friends who have previously been very oriented toward reconstructionism have been writing about how reconstructionism has inadvertently created a wall between them and their Gods, rather than a bridge. Practicing a reconstructed religion fails as an authentic expression of their lived experiences because the focus is entirely on rebuilding an ancient, extinct culture and religion to which they have to conform. Doing so requires us to give up the parts of ourselves that don’t fit within that constructed framework and, by giving up those parts of ourselves, we end up feeling a disconnect. Religion becomes something outside the rest of our lives, rather than an integral part of it. And this, in turn, distances us from our Gods. In response, they have begun moving away from “hard” reconstructionism, placing more emphasis on what is relevant and satisfying to them, rather than what is believed to be historically accurate, and synthesizing it with the details of their lives. In essence, they are returning to themselves and their lives in order to build more meaningful relationships with their Gods and more satisfying practices within their religions.

I think this is wonderful, but I still think we need something more, something to answer that integral need for belonging to a history and a community. To do this, we also need to rediscover and rebuild other lost connections: to our ancestors, our communities, and our cultures. That’s why people are drawn to reconstructionism in the first place – attempting to make (or remake) connections to something bigger and older than us, something real, sacred, and interconnective that Western capitalism has severed from us.

The first step (which my friends have already done) is realizing that whiteness is not, in itself, a culture. It’s an umbrella classification incorporating many different cultures and ethnicities based on socio-political power dynamics. The whitening of a culture – which has happened to many different peoples in America, including Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans, the Scottish, and the Irish – requires assimilation to the over-culture, which necessitates “forgetting” the cultural details that bind peoples together and give them an organic and embodied sense of identity, belonging, and communal history. Gerlach writes, for example, that

the Scotch-Irish [in America] lacked a visible identity as an ethnic group. This did not mean, however, that they were not carriers of an ethnic culture. What was lacking were the overt behavioral manifestations attributable to the original ethnic group, and what remained was an ethnic culture characterized by cultural traits that were transmitted across generations through family structures and socialization processes and were so deeply imbedded in the subconscious fiber of individuals that they were unaware of their existence.”

(qtd. in Brown, Hirschman, and Maclaran 23-24)

In essence, the Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia lost their cultural self-awareness, which isn’t the same as not having one. The good thing is that we can regain that awareness. In Two Continents, One Culture: The Scotch-Irish in Southern Appalachia, the authors make the point that awareness of one’s own culture, and the resulting reshaping of it, is linked with an awareness of other cultures and the observed differences between them. In other words, the more we explore and understand other cultures, the better we can understand our own. We can observe and celebrate commonalities and differences in a welcoming, appreciative, and curiosity-fueled way. We can learn to see our own cultures by applying the same lenses to ourselves and our own communities, in part by listening to how people of other cultures view us.

Rediscovering Who “We” Are

Identity for me is something to be discovered rather than constructed. It is already present, whether we see it or not. I want to see myself and my people more clearly. I want to understand where and who I come from, and the influences around me that shape me: my ancestors and their cultures, my present community’s culture and history, and the environment that surrounds me, including how it’s changed over time. I am a part of a whole, and I want to know and operate within that whole as best I can. What’s important to us? What do we value (and devalue)? How do I fit into that framework? What of the above do I personally embrace, and what do I reject? What other influences guide me as an individual? I weigh older cultural traditions against my circumstances and experiences, negotiating between the two to create and maintain a unique, evolving balance.

I grew up as an Army brat, and while it had benefits, it instilled an extreme level of social and cultural disconnect in me. When I was two, I was taken out of my birthplace, where much of my extended family lives, and moved every few years until I was 10. Military bases are tight-knit and self-sufficient but fluid communities segregated in many ways from the outside world, and the military all but operates on its own plane of existence. I didn’t have time to build long-term relationships with the host communities I temporarily occupied, and I always saw myself as separate from them. But I also didn’t belong to the place in which I was born. When I reached maturity and had no intention of joining or marrying into the military, I lost my connection to the only community of which I’d ever really been part.

I moved around a bit even as an adult, and four years ago, my then-husband and I decided to settle down in Appalachia before our oldest child reached school age. We’re both mountain people in our cores, and we decided it’d be better to do it while we were young rather than waiting to retire. Now, I’m surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny subranges, and I feel a sense of rootedness that I hadn’t felt in a place I’d lived before. Mountainous areas speak to me in deep soul ways that flat lands simply don’t. I love the mystery, visual drama, and wildness of mountains, which can never really be tamed, not even now. I love the many rivers, creeks, and pockets of swamps, the innumerable trails, the chance encounters with wildlife. I love how mountain cultures are preserved in an intimate and commonplace way because of their geographic insulation, and how mountain dwellers deeply love and respect their mountains and their cultural heritage. It lives in them; it’s celebrated in many ways. I feel at home in this place and the folk culture that has grown up within it.

Once I got settled in, I started working again on the genealogy that my mom and I have been doing since I was a child. I realized that a large portion of my ancestors – my grandmothers’ paternal family (yes, the grammar is correct, my grandmothers are sisters…) – had lived only two and a half hours south of where I live now before they moved West, and we still have distant (fourth and fifth+) cousins there. Deeper genealogical digging brought me from South Central Appalachia to southern Scotland and the border with England. It was the beginning of a journey exploring Appalachian cultural traditions and the elements of it that originated from Scotland, Ireland, and northern England. Arts and crafts, music, dances, cuisine, holidays, folklore: it’s all still there. As British and Irish settlers engaged with Native and Black peoples in Appalachia, traditions evolved with new traits and flavors while retaining important core elements. That’s the thing with living folk traditions: they adapt, change, and grow, while keeping the threads to the past intact. In fact, folklorists have pointed out that traditional songs that had been lost on the British Isles were still sung in Appalachia even into the 20th century.

Of course, I have ancestors from other places. My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s paternal side immigrated from Norway to the Midwest, and he married a German American woman whose grandparents on both sides came from Prussia. They are a part of my story, too, as are the Welsh ancestors who converted to Mormonism and settled in Utah, and the English Puritans who colonized the Northeast. But I most closely identify with my Scotch-Irish Appalachian heritage because not only does it make up such a significant portion of my family story (at least through the 18th-early 20th centuries), but it is also the predominant culture in which I currently live. It is all around me, and it comes through me as well.

I realized over the last couple of years that I must have finally acculturated here because nobody asks me where I come from anymore; it’s always, “Did you grow up here?” with the implied expectation that the answer is yes. I like this, being perceived as belonging. It’s something I’ve yearned for and yet resisted doing intentionally because I didn’t want to give up my other stories. But, over time, it happens naturally; the stories synthesize.

To be clear, I don’t idealize Appalachian culture: the cultural intersections that gave us quintessential Appalachian things like the banjo are rife with a history of slavery, oppression, and genocide, in which my ancestors directly and indirectly participated. I carry the burden of that even while I celebrate the creative heritage of my people, and I believe in making reparations for the ongoing generational traumas that have been inflicted on Black and Native peoples, especially in my community, and in creating a more just, equitable, and healthy world. Belonging to something means taking responsibility for it: for continuing that which is healthy and nutritive, and destroying that which poisons us and harms others.

But I find value in being able to say: This is my culture. It’s the culture of many (though not all) of my ancestors and the culture that still thrives around me at events like the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store, where people flatfoot to bluegrass; the distilleries and breweries in the counties; and the nearby farms and mills that produce corn meal for the grits and cornbread I make for my kids. It’s in my slight twang of an accent that inevitably developed after living in the South for the great majority of my life.

Integrating Culture and Self in Polytheism

For a couple of years, I’ve been teaching myself to flatfoot. I love to dance and studied various forms of dance in middle school and high school. I love how dance celebrates my body: how it’s able to embody and express emotion through movement. I like the feeling of being very physical, very interconnected to my environment – the beat of my feet hitting the ground, my skin and hair caressed by the air and light, my body a vehicle for sound. Dance is a way to reconnect with my roots and celebrate being alive. Flatfooting is a traditional Appalachian dance style with many origins: Cherokee, West African, and British and Irish. It’s a percussive, subtly complex form of dance that makes the body of the dancer into an instrument accompanying a string band. It belongs to all of us in Appalachia.

I’ve been yearning to take the things I love about my culture and incorporate them into my rituals and holy days. I love the idea of powerfully celebratory seasonal rituals, like sacred parties: initiated with a bonfire or hearth fire and prayer; food and drink given to the Gods and spirits and enjoyed by participants in a feast; music and dance performed to honor Them and raise energy to be given to Them. I’d love to have a small string band playing bluegrass through the night, dancers pounding and shuffling against the sacred earth with their boots, hands clapping. We’d cast our gifts to the Gods into the fire with our prayers and make toasts to confirm our bonds and blessings. I believe in using the gifts of our ancestors – our familial, cultural, and local ancestors – to honor them, our Gods, and other spirits. These gifts are our cultural heritage that ought to be treasured and preserved, even as we make necessary changes in the present to create better futures.

Sometimes I ask myself, “If my culture’s – my people’s – polytheist religion had survived over time, intermingling with neighboring religions (as happens naturally), what would it look like for me, in this place?” There’s no possible way to tell for sure, but it’s a good exercise. It keeps me focused on my values and oriented toward the relationships that have made and continue to shape me.

We are, after all, a composite of all our relationships. Our circumstances, our loved ones, and our environments have created us. We all have family stories, family traditions, community rituals and folklore that bind us together and make meaning. These matter; they have a place in our religions. They connect us to a greater web of being that we are already naturally a part of, and it’s ours to embrace.

By thecunningwif

An ageless forest spirit. A whole ass Virginian mountain witch. You can also call me Heidi. Animism, polytheism, folklore, spirit work, & witchcraft. She/her.

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