Cultural Appropriation, Syncretism and Magic

Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic these past few years and has been debated for better or worse depending on who you talk to. But what is “cultural appropriation” and why should we worry about it? Should we even worry about it when it comes to the practice of magic? The definition of “cultural appropriation” reads:

the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.(Definition by Oxford Languages)

Usually, this is applied to things like inappropriate and downright offensive costumes such as wearing a native American headdress for Halloween. We’ve seen many debates over the years in the media regarding this topic.

The debate on cultural appropriation has also entered the communities of witches, occultists, and magic practitioners. For instance, a lot of people will refrain from using smudge sticks made out of white sage, because it stems from a Native American tribe and ritual.

Today, people are quick to call a lot of magical practices “cultural appropriation” or are even afraid to openly practice because they don’t want to offend anyone. Most of the time those practices don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of cultural appropriation(except for few very specific cases, which I will go into later in this post); rather syncretism has been part of magical practices since ancient times.

But what even is “syncretism”? The definition of “syncretism” reads:

the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.(Definition by Oxford Languages)

One classic example in which we can see syncretism in a magic system is the PGM – Papyri Graecae Magicae(engl. Greek Magical Papyri). These papyri are collections of spells and rituals dating back as far as to the 100s BCE; in which the practitioner calls on Egyptian and Greek gods as well as the God of Israel. So we see a blending of different religions and schools of thought into one system.

The PGM – Papyri Graecae Magicae

If we go further into the Renaissance – which harbors one of my favorite magical systems – then we see a blend of direct Neoplatonism with Christianity and Jewish Kabbalah. If we read Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, then we see how he quotes Greek philosophy and other classical authors more than actual theologians of Christianity, except Origen who was a Neoplatonist Christian of the 3rd century. The system Agrippa lays out was not necessarily in line with the official church doctrine of Roman Catholicism at his time. The Neoplatonic theology of Origen was generally avoided and even deemed as heretical; with scholars during the Renaissance even arguing if the man was damned or saved.

Now as for the Kabbalah, Agrippa heavily relied on Johann Reuchlin’s works. Writings on Hebrew and Kabbalah were not widespread or easily obtainable by the Christian majority. So when we read Agrippa, we see how Kabbalah gets interpreted in a very un-Jewish way:

“The second name[sefirah] is Iod or Tetragrammaton joyned with Iod; his numeration is Hochma, that is wisdom, and signifieth the Divinity full of Ideas, and the first begotten; and is attributed to the Son[…].” Agrippa, Three Books Occult Philosophy, Book III, Chapter X.

“[…]Hence the Hebrews and Cabalists most skilfull [skillful] in the Divine names, can work nothing after Christ by those old names, as their fathers have done long since; ; and now it is by experience confirmed, that no devil nor power of Hell, which vex and trouble men, can resist this name, but will they, nill they, bow the knee and obey, when the name Jesu by a due pronunciation is proposed to them to be worshipped, and they fear not only the name but also the Cross, the seal thereof; and not only the knees of earthly, heavenly, and hellish creatures are bowed, but also Insensible things do reverence it, and all tremble at his beck, when from a faithfull heart and a true mouth the name Jesus is pronounced, and pure hands imprint the salutiferous sign of the Cross” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book III, Chapter XII.

Agrippa did Christianize his Kabbalah to a certain extent by interpreting Jesus into the Tree of Life and held the opinion that only with a conversion to Christianity the Jewish Kabbalah would be complete since according to Christian doctrine the name of Jesus would be the most powerful of all names. This is not really surprising since he was still a Christian, despite being an avid defender of Jewish communities at his time. So those passages are rather proof of a scholar trying to syncretize his sources than they are proof of anti-semitism on Agrippa’s part; quite the contrary. Agrippa was even heavily criticized for his appreciation of Jewish thought. Yet, both Agrippa and Reuchlin did kick off a “Christianized” Kabbalah. However, if we read his work “Three Books of Occult Philosophy”, we see that Jewish thought didn’t only influence his system in the sense of Kabbalah. He goes into the holy names of God, the Jewish angels, and much more; which all influenced the magical practice of the west!

Jewish Tree of Life(left) and Hermetic Tree of Life(right)

This could count as “cultural appropriation”. Agrippa was not trying to oppress Jewish people and steal their mysticism, nor was Reuchlin. But they were part of the dominant majority of Roman Catholicism, while Jews were a minority that even suffered pogroms throughout their history in Europe. By the definition of “cultural appropriation” it doesn’t really matter if Agrippa received criticism for his appreciation of Jewish thought, he was still part of the oppressive majority of society at his time.

Much later on this “out-of-context-Kabbalah” turned into Hermetic Kabbalah. S. L. MacGregor Mathers of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn went into how you can find the trinity through Kabbalah in his introduction to his “Kabbalah Unveiled” and named Agrippa as well as other Renaissance writers as inspiration and influence. This is now so far removed from its Jewish ancestor that we have to make a distinction between Hermetic Kabbalah and Jewish Kabbalah. So, it became its own tradition of “Hermetic Kabbalah” – often spelled “Qabbalah” in order to make this distinction clear.

We can’t really ignore that it turned into its own tradition. Why? Because a lot of people practice it today as part of their magical and esoteric practice. I would just refrain from calling it Jewish, because it’s neither Jewish nor close to Jewish Kabbalah in any sense of the word. And this is where throwing the words “cultural appropriation” gets problematic. We can’t change things that happened in history, especially if those events triggered new traditions that people practice today.

The PGM for instance is definitely not a Jewish tradition in itself, even though it took from pre-existing Jewish practices. But what we get was a syncretized magical system that people actually practiced. The same goes for Agrippa and the system of magic he laid out by syncretizing Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Christianity.

If we look into the 19th and 20th centuries, especially taking a look at the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; we see how people blended different schools of thought into a new system. Aleister Crowley for instance was quite obnoxious regarding this. If you read his book on Tarot “Book of Thoth” you’ll see that he tried to blend as many religions and myths into his cards as he could. That in itself sparked a new tarot tradition people practice today – Thoth Tarot.

So, should we be aware of “cultural appropriation” or not? In my personal opinion: It’s complicated. Would you knowingly take certain practices from other cultures completely out of context just because you can? The keyword here is “knowingly”. If you know what you’re doing is offensive towards that particular culture, then why do it? If you practice as part of an established magical tradition like Wicca, Thelema, or the Golden Dawn; then why worry about offending people?

If you don’t know if what you’re doing falls under the term “cultural appropriation”, then educate yourself on that topic. Talk to people who are part of the culture you are taking from. If you are practicing some sort of Paganism, then there is not much to offend. Most practices of pagan religions are part of history, some of which we know more about than others and a lot of people who do practice have to either blend their practice with pre-existing practices they already know or heavily rely on a very scarce number of historical sources. Some people do have to syncretize their practice with something else because the historical documents are lacking. That’s not a crime. One of the very few exceptions to this is Hellenic Paganism, which has the luxury of a plethora of sources; even down to worship and invocation hymns sung for the Greek gods.

I know that this issue can have many sides to it, and it can get really complicated. What do you guys think? Let me know your thoughts down below!

Literature

  1. “Three Books of Occult Philosophy” by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim.
  2. “The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Including Demotic Spells.” edited by Hans Dieter Betz.
  3. “Kabbalah Unveiled” by S. L. MacGregor Mathers.
  4. “The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic” by Israel Regardie.
  5. “The Book of Thoth” by Aleister Crowley.

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