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Appropriation from African Traditional Religions

Updated: Jul 18, 2018


By Papa Pimenta


In the modern internet-based society, cultural appropriation from African Traditional Religions occurs often. Everything from eclectic Paganism adopting deities, to commercial "New Orleans Voodoo" claims of being an expert on Orisa traditions (and everything else) have collectively jumped on the bandwagon of adopting practices derived from African religions. The argument can be made that persons seeking enlightenment do so with a clean heart and good intentions. Unfortunately this is not always so. Honest seekers of the way are a good thing. When the seeking becomes assumed authority and then a business even though the right has not been earned that is another entirely.


The original title of this essay, originally published in 2013 on the Mystic Cup blog was “Cultural Appropriation in the ATR Community.” I’ve since updated the article and changed some things. For one, you can’t appropriate from a community you are not part of. The problem is not in the community, it is in the outside of the community or “kanda”.


One symptom of appropriation is the monetary aspect. Yes our beloved ATR faiths do charge for certain things and rightly so. It takes time, hard work, and experience to learn the correct way of doing things within each House or group. Derechos have to be paid. Would a person consult an expert in any other field without having to pay? Teachers have to eat, and they paid for what they have too.


However, monetary goals seem to be at the forefront of appropriation-based issues especially from commercial internet shop owners. Fraudulent “Damballah Elekes”, “Oya grave dirt bottles”, and “Pomba Gira Gris Gris bags” among other foolishness seem to be perpetually increasing on the internet. This is an unfortunate aspect of appropriation as far as fabrication of things that do not exist within the traditions being supposedly drawn upon. Caveat Emptor, indeed.


Syncretism is another argument often bandied about. As stated, the argument usually goes thusly: “If African Traditional religions used syncretism, why can’t I?” Such things as Esu, St Michael, Exu, Ellegua, and Legba all being lumped into one crowded container of description and being called the same being by persons outside of tradition occur often. There are numerous reasons why this is not generally appropriate. None of these deities are the same thing. Orisa sigils are not called Veve, Lwa are not Orisa, The Pomba Giras are not a Lwa… the list is long. Syncretism comes from within and not without of a tradition and happens for a reason. We do not live in the times where deities have to be hidden under the mask of a Saint, or any other deity. Let them be what they are.


Synthesis is another aspect of appropriation. Things completely new are attributed to deities by persons outside of a proper tradition. Usually this fabrication results from a sense of ego, greed, personal empowerment or ignorance. A common thread today is Pomba Gira being called the Goddess of Homosexual Love. There is so much that is wrong with this statement. Pomba Gira is not a Goddess. There are legions of them, and not just one “Goddess”. Each of them is different and has different tastes and personality. Some of them are downright mean and do not like some people, and none of them appreciate being approached without respect.


But yet the appropriators state with venom that this is the way, even though they invite disruptive energy into their lives with such assumptions about a beautiful tradition. Another example recently witnessed was a Palo Mayombe firma for Nsasi being used by a non-initiate as a “Road Opener” firma and drawn on pieces of cardboard and sold in her shop. No credit was given to the tradition or entity involved and likely monies changed hands. This seems highly disrespectful as well as inappropriate and potentially dangerous from a non-initiate. Palo is well-known to be a “closed” system and cannot be worked outside of initiation.


Cyber bullying is another sad aspect to this trend. Persons who stand up for tradition are inevitably called “bullies” by the appropriators. It's a form of displacement too often seen, accusing someone of doing the very thing a person is doing themselves in order to validate negative behavior. True, sometimes a vigorous defense of tradition can spill over into that realm and that is unfortunate. However intelligent discourse on the subject as well as pointing out politely that something is wrong is not bullying. Especially in regards to honest people being potentially damaged or taken advantage of financially or otherwise.


There is an interesting phenomenon right now on the internet of the very bullies themselves crying that they have been bullied when the chickens come home to roost. It’s a rather fascinating topic with one person a few years back even encouraging their followers to attack someone with group candle work. Ironically clever: the bully convincing their followers to lend their life energy to a group-bullying being called “defense". Persons encouraged to do group candle work to attack another who has done them no ill because of a personal grudge on behalf of the leader should seriously question the motive of the work. It does not make for good character. It is the duped lending their energy to a bully to attack someone, literally doing the dirty work for a thief.


Many of us have to swear to uphold tradition as part of initiatory rites. As students of tradition and good character it is our collective duty to stand up for tradition. Do it politely, and with a cool head. And you can do it kindly, with a good heart. Standing up may prevent someone else from being taken advantage of or being hurt. Complacency however does not lead to positive change.