Pagan heritage: Connecting to your roots and finding common ground

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Hampstead Heath, photo by OlivierMy spiritual practice is something that has changed, evolved, and grown over the years, and I’m sure it will continue to do so. After all, our paths are just that: paths, and all paths lead somewhere. My Pagan heritage wasn’t something I suddenly discovered, fully formed.

Along the way, we each find things that might interest us, sometimes to the point of obsession and sometimes momentarily.  There is so much knowledge out there, and sometimes incorporating the bits and pieces we pick up along the way can be something of a struggle. There are so many issues within the Pagan and witchcraft sphere, so much so, that sometimes, quite often in fact, we leave out practices and belief systems because we just don’t know how to or are afraid to incorporate them into our practices.

I know firsthand just how difficult this can be, and so here I will share those thoughts, feelings and insights that were particularly helpful to myself.

Pagan heritage

When I first got serious about the whole witchcraft thing, my practice was very firmly rooted in Traditional British Witchcraft, and as much as I loved practising, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing — that I was ignoring some part of myself. I am mixed race, my mother is white British (English, with Irish and Welsh heritage) and my father is Jamaican, and for a while I wasn’t sure how to honour my paternal heritage in my craft. Today though, my practice is a unique blending of Traditional British Witchcraft, Obeah, which I liken to Jamaican witchcraft, and Vodou, and I feel that this fully incorporates my heritage.

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Before you begin, you will have to decide a few things for yourself. For instance, you will need to think about how far back in your lineage you want or are willing to go. I often say that if you go back far enough into anyone’s familial lineage, then most people are “mixed” somewhere along the line. For some, going back only as far as grandparents is good enough for them, especially if that relationship was particularly close. Some though, might feel a particular calling to look deeper into their heritage, with some even taking ancestry DNA tests. For the record, there is nothing wrong with either way: personal choice is key.

However deep you wish to go, the first step can often be to talk to family members. If you have grandparents or older aunts and uncles you can talk to, then great! These people will remember their own grandparents and great grandparents, their own uncles and aunts, and as well as having a good old laugh at some of their stories and memories, you’ll also discover a wealth of hidden information. Even talking to your own siblings or cousins can yield useful information, after all, families will have different relationships within them, and so you might find a gem you knew nothing about.

Creating a family tree can be extremely helpful in mapping your family’s heritage. Sure, you’ll need information to go on, and even if your older generation are no longer living, there are a wealth of tools available online to help, whether that be ancestry websites or government records (birth, marriage and death certificates and so on), or even social media.

None of this is easy or quick, but is rather a process that might take weeks, months, or perhaps even years. Don’t read that and feel disheartened, instead view it as a progression within your path. Enjoy where this journey leads and try not to rush it along as much might be missed. Take the time to work with those ancestors that you do find, and enjoy the process of doing so. There are many ways in which this might be done, such as ancestor worship or veneration, keeping an altar or shrine to them (I have an ancestor altar with spirit bottles, photos and some of the things they enjoyed in life). By doing these seemingly small things and adding them to your practice, you will already be honouring your heritage and when you look back on these initial forays, you will realize just how important and truly meaningful these small things are.

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A Pagan heritage is not the only reason as to why you might want to involve other practices or traditions within your own craft. You might be interested in Vodou but have no trace of African ancestry, or perhaps Romany magick calls to something within you, but you yourself might have no links at all to that culture. What then? Does this mean that you can’t add these elements to your own craft? No is the short answer, but the reality is you will face some sort of questioning over your choices, and this leads on to what is something of a hot topic within the witchy world.

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Birds on a wire, photo by Collin KeyAppropriation and racism

Now, before I get on to the next part, I want to quickly talk about appropriation, in particular, cultural appropriation. Whether you are new to the craft or an old-time veteran, you will have heard arguments for and against cultural appropriation.

One of my close friends truly believes that cultural appropriation is not even a thing, that it doesn’t exist. He says that humankind have always taken and borrowed from one another, and in this sense he is right, but I also think that he has it confused. The borrowing and sharing of ideas and knowledge has indeed always happened, but that is not what cultural appropriation is. So, what is it then?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, appropriation is the act of taking something for your own use without permission. If we take this definition a step further, then cultural appropriation is the exploitation of the minority culture by the dominant culture. When you consider the issue of race, especially in countries such as the United States where there seems, at least to those of us on the outside looking in, to be a huge problem with racism, it’s no wonder that the whole issue of cultural appropriation is such a sensitive issue.

In today’s society, with the issue of appropriation,  this can have a negative impact upon witchcraft because it stops those who truly feel a pull, a connection towards a particular practice or tradition from following it, and that is a true shame.

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Racism is another one of those things that stops people from pursuing something that means a great deal to them.

In my town, there is quite a large Pagan community — I was certainly surprised when I was new to it all. A few years ago, a Odinist temple opened, and their website encourages those from other ethnic backgrounds to seek a relationship with their own ancestors. Whenever I hear this I always think, “What about those of us with mixed heritages?” A long story short, if you ain’t white, you ain’t getting in. At a recent moot, members from said temple chose to ignore my mixed race friend and his husband.

There will be those who do indeed suffer from hatred of one kind or another, and it would indeed be a crying shame if we all remained closed off and separate from one another. Traditions  enable us to live a more magical and spiritual life,  as I firmly believe in the science that there is only one race: the human race. Belief systems should be available for those who have a desire to learn and treat them with respect. Besides, as a Heathen friend recently said, ‘”It’s not for someone to tell the Gods what to do. If the Gods’ call to you; they call to you.” The only choice you have is whether to follow that call or not.

Whatever you choose to practice, so long as you do so in a respectful manner, as anyone truly interested would, I don’t think you’ll go far wrong.

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Forest, tree trunks, photo by Stiller Beobachter

What’s next?

So, we’ve moved past those stumbling blocks of racism and appropriation, you’ll need to spend some time working out what it is you want to achieve. Perhaps you have always been interested in a certain pantheon or tradition, maybe an individual practice. Whatever the case, now is the time for action. Read all you can on these subjects, and make yourself aware of all of the issues and subtleties within that area, but remember that at some point, you will have to put into action all that you have learned.

I thoroughly recommend that you search out local Pagan or witch groups in your area. Not only will you have the friendship and camaraderie of like-minded folks, but these people become a wealth of information in and of themselves, a resource. Someone will have a recommendation for a certain book, or a teacher perhaps, and their ideas and opinions will act as a springboard for your own explorations.

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Container garden, photo by Cristina Sanvito

Finding common ground

One thing that I have noticed is that, between the three main aspects of my practice, there is a lot of crossover and similarities between them. There are also a lot of differences too, but by finding the commonalities of the differing traditions you are interested in can be a good starting point.

Within Traditional British witchcraft (think the wisewoman and the cunning man), Obeah and Vodou, there is a lot of emphasis on local plant knowledge and lore, knowing what parts to use for what purpose, healing, ancestor veneration, among other things. There are also subtle differences in how these things are executed, and these difference do have meaning, but the fact that there are similarities should hint at the innate link between humans as magical practitioners and nature.

This common ground is also the way in which you can begin to weave a practice unique to you. Take those elements that mean the most for you, and bind them together to create something new, after all, your practice is nobody else’s but your own.

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Conclusion

One thing I have learned is that no matter what practices and belief systems you decide to incorporate into your own witchcraft, the important thing to remember is that there are no right or wrong answers — not really.

It’s all a learning curve, and you’ll learn valuable lessons from those things that do not work out. As my boxing coach often says,”A loss isn’t really a loss if you learn from it, and come back better and stronger,” and the same is true for your witchcraft practice too. Mistakes will be made, and any witch worth their salt will tell you that is where they cut their teeth, and learned their hardest lessons.

Image credit: OlivierCollin KeyStiller Beobachter, Cristina Sanvito

1 COMMENT

  1. Since I was a child my leaning in magick was toward English magick, in particular that of Mr. Aleister Crowley (Perdurabo). I come from Irish and Danish roots primarily, with a dash of Native American blood. As a young man I was not aware of Traditional British Witchcraft, although in later years I have grown to admire the work of Andrew D. Chumbley and Nigel G. Pearson. In researching my roots I have seen parallels within the magic traditions of my Viking, Celtic and Native American ancestors. The place of nature (herbs, trees and the environment) in these traditions and rituals, and the importance of blood and sacrifice, are strikingly similar. However, as I noted, I was drawn to Crowley early on and over the years I have found myself happy with my companions in Thelema who come in all shapes and sizes, colors and sexual proclivities. The practice of religious and magical syncretism not only accomplishes development of a powerful system, but also acknowledges the wide variety of traditions and their importance to magic around the globe. While I might take note of rune divination, or read up on the poison path, however closer to my genetics a system of magic might be, I can’t let go of Thelema and the richness of its evolution to date since Perdurabo gave it to the world, a combination of his Work and that of other cultures around the world. I like your combination of magical traditions, Emma. May your path be guided by True Will.

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