Cultural Appropriation and the Western Mystery Tradition

A recent post in a Golden Dawn forum made me think about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation as it applies to the Western Mystery Tradition. It always amuses me a bit when I hear “hard-core” occultists complaining about the “hodge-podge” nature of the New Age movement. Kabbalistic frameworks that incorporate Tarot and Egyptian deities they’re fine with, but Buddhism and Bach flower therapy they just won’t do.

Let’s not kid ourselves. What we know of as the Hermetic “Tradition” is just as much a jackdaw affair of cobbling together elements of different mystical paths as the much maligned New Age. To begin with, the “Tradition” as a set of formal doctrines really doesn’t predate the 19th Century. Before that, you had various strains of esotericism in Freemasonry that largely borrowed from the mythology of the Rosicrucians. Looking back into the dim past to the early 17th Century you find not a single monolithic Hermeticism, but rather numerous Hermeticisms, each putting a particular spin on a loosely connected set of mystical beliefs.

The Early Modern Hermeticists were literally Bohemians, since the movement centered around the Hapsburg court of the Elector Palatine. Folks like John Dee borrowed from what was then the marginalized culture of Judaism and its mysticism, in much the same way that hippies in the sixties took ideas from Hinduism or the Hopi religion. The main difference is that Dee and his associates lived in a past remote enough that the “system” originating with them has been around long enough to have built up an egregore of its own. It has a pedigree.

As long as we’re on the subject, lets look at Christianity. It too arguably started out as a syncretistic “hodge-podge” of Apocalyptic Jewish Heresy, Late Roman and Greek Paganism, and some Neoplatonic mysticism. All of these elements probably contradicted each other more than they agreed at the time. History tends to smooth over these contradictions.

The big difference between the past acts of “theft” and the modern is, I think, that we can be honest about it. Yeah, Hermeticists took the Kabbalah and totally deracinated it from Orthodox Judaism. We grafted in a number of elements that simply would not be countenanced by a traditional Rabbi. But that’s one of the reasons you run into multiple spellings: Kabbalah, Cabala Qabalah. The “Q” and the “C” refer to the Hermetic and Alchemical variations respectively, while the “K” refers to the Orthodox Jewish one. It’s when we find people trying to run everything together that it starts to look less like a variation on a theme and more like outright appropriation.

Qabalah simply forms one version of the Great Chain of Being or the Perennial Philosophy. As such, it contains a universality that transcends the culture which created it. “Appropriation” I think begins, not with the usage of certain diagrams or a particular alphabet, but at the point that the borrower claims that their version is the final, authoritative word on the subject. Devices such as spelling the name differently may seem like “gimmicks,” but they do help to signal “different.” Not better, just not the same.

Frankly, I think “Tradition” is a form of necrophilia. It idolizes a hypothetically “pure” past, and freezes the prejudices we project backwards into that past into doctrine. Adhering to the notion that some variation on an idea is “real” or “authentic” requires one to forget that every spiritual path, mystical system, or religion is made up of different parts of other, older, heterogeneous systems. The only conceivable exception to this would be the tribal customs of a group that has remained isolated for their entire history, or at least so long that their origins are irrelevant.

So, I feel we just need to be transparent about what we are doing. All too often, both “old school” occultists and the more faddish New Age paths present their interpretations as though they were “Traditional.” In neither case is this a valid statement. We’re all “thieves” trying, as others in the past did, to put together a patchwork set of wings to take us back to the stars. Let’s not try to cover up the stitches that everyone else can see.

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3 comments
  1. Di said:

    Thank you for this – it needed to be said!

    (From someone who DOES do Bach flower therapy – but not as a spiritual thing, really.)

  2. Nicely said – I’ve been groping with this concept for a while, especially trying to understand why ‘traditional’, ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ are considered good things in a magical or spiritual context. Consider me a fan of mongrels and hybric vigour!

  3. Margaret said:

    As a Chaos Mage, it’s really hard for me to not see all the connection between all these systems anyway. They are, after all, attempts (or successes) of humanity to KNOW.

    Plus, what ‘pure’ system exists anyway, besides those that are no longer used? Evolution occurs in all things, especially paths that are used – due to having to craft them around people who change.

    Plus, it just smacks of all the wrong kinds of elitism. We got it already, you’re the most 1337 spiritual being ever, now go face your ego in the mirror.

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