Review: Fire in the Head

Can we talk a bit about cultural appropriation in Neopaganism?

Because it’s everywhere, it seems. Take sage smudging, which is ubiquitously recommended across the Neopagan net (including at the generally-reliable Learn Religions) as a way of cleansing or purifying a sacred space such as a ritual circle. Very few of these resources mention that sage smudging is originally a Native American practice, and that at least some Native Americans are not happy about its widespread adoption/appropriation.

I found this out last week. I’ve been reading and thinking about Neopaganism (though, thankfully, not practising sage smudging) for eight months. What else could I be doing that is harmful without knowing it?

Look, Neopaganism is not an established religion. Even reconstructionists are filling in copious blanks with their own personal gnosis, which, yes! do what works! let a hundred flowers bloom! but also, “if it works, it works” is not an excuse for taking traditions we have no right to and stripping them of cultural context. Which is exactly what’s happened to sage smudging, it seems to me. Yes, I personally need to be more careful about researching the history of ubiquitous Neopagan practices; but I think Neopagan writers also need to do better at identifying the cultural contexts for these practices.

Which brings me onto Tom Cowan’s Fire in the Head, subtitled “Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit”. According to his website, Cowan “combines universal core shamanism with traditional European spirit lore”. I don’t want to get into these concepts too much, I am very much not an expert, but “core” shamanism, it appears, was basically invented by Michael Harner, a white American who took some drugs, read some books, wrote down some similarities he saw between Native American spiritual practices and Siberian shamanism and asserted these as universal (and therefore contextless) shamanic principles. I mean, this is pretty much textbook cultural appropriation: stripping minority religious practice of crucial cultural context in order to make it appealing to white wealthy Westerners. (Here are some people talking about Harner’s work from a Native American standpoint.)

Now, for me at least, if Neopaganism is about anything it is about context. Context and specificity: the idea of deity as immanent, present in all aspects of life, however mundane; connection with local landscapes and local ecosystems. I suspect that’s sort of where Cowan is coming from with the Celtic angle, but that’s still a category error, since in fact shamanism isn’t transplantable from the cultures where it was developed. (Incidentally, Cowan’s website says that he studied with Michael Harner.)

In short, I think the shamanism aspects of Fire in the Head are invalid and damaging. I think dressing core shamanism up in Celtic clothing so that Western readers can feel more comfortable because it’s “their” heritage is misleading and appropriative. I do not think you should read, much less buy, this book.

However – given the fact that I have read the book –

As a study of Celtic myth and motif, it does have some gems, such as the discussion of decapitation (cf. the magical head of Bran the Blessed) and of missing limbs, which it posits as a marker of an encounter with the Otherworld. These connections are occasionally tenuous, but as an ex-literature student I find them useful in showing possible approaches to the mythology, things to look for in constructing readings, Cowan’s bullshit conclusions notwithstanding.

But, seriously. Don’t read this. And don’t neglect your critical thinking skills.

2 thoughts on “Review: Fire in the Head

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