Talking about the Elephant is a collection of nineteen essays from seventeen different authors addressing various aspects of cultural appropriation in relationship to current pagan/wiccan practices. The purpose of the book is to open up communication regarding these issues, and break away from the idea that each individual is entitled to his/her own practices and beliefs to the extent that we cannot even question them (and thereby provide tacit approval to possibly inappropriate practices). It is an excellent compilation, Lupa is to be commended on her choices of articles to include.
I won’t try to review individual essays. That would take an inordinate amount of time, both for me to write and for you to read. I will say that, while each article provides its own unique perspective, each and every one was very well written and well-considered. There is a distinct difference between the two sections of the book, which is intentional on the part of the editor.
In the first section (Specific Cultural Concerns), the authors have each done significant research. They present clearly documented, relatively objective research in order to reach well-considered conclusions. I was impressed by the detailed references and footnoting from each author, as well as the extensive bibliographies provided for every article. In addition, these essays address specific, focussed issues, rather than attempting to apply their research to the whole of the neo-pagan community.
In addition, each author chose their topics based on their experience and expertise. Dr. Bernhardt-House, as just one example, explores Celtic appropriations and the reconstructionist movement. Understanding that he obtained his Ph.D. in Celtic Civilizations from University College Cork (Ireland), combined with his clear presentation of his observations, arguments and sources gave me genuine respect for his essay and views.
The articles in the second section (General Approaches and Other Perspectives) are primarily opinion essays. Although they contain little or no references, and much shorter bibliographies than those in the first section, for the most part they are still well-considered and well written. It is very clear that these are personal opinion more than research essays, however, illustrated by one author who presents (commonly accepted) misinformation that was thoroughly discredited by another author’s work in the first half of the book. That particular essay, on the whole, is reasonable, but this serves as a reminder to look for research and genuine documentation before fully embracing any concept.
Another virtue of this collection is its eclecticism. These essays speak from a variety of perspectives: Druid, Celtic, Wiccan/wiccan, Reconstructionist, Magic, Shamanism, Native American spirituality, and much more. Thea Faye’s research on the Wheel of the Year struck a particular chord in me, and I found myself questioning and re-examining why I embrace “this” versus “that” in my own spiritual practices.
Which is perhaps the best reason to recommend this book. The articles and essays will surely encourage you to think critically about both your personal practice as well as the issues of cultural appropriation in a broader sense. Why do we utilize ideas and practices from cultures that are not “our own?” In such a multi-cultural society, is it still possible to define “my own” cultural history? Can it truly be called “stealing” to adopt and adapt this or that holiday for a different spiritual practice? How often do we find ourselves criticizing what “they” have taken from “us,” while ignoring what “we” have taken from a different “them?” Which practices really came first, “ours” or “theirs?”
A practical plus to the book is that each article is relatively short. You can read a single article quickly, and think about it carefully before moving on. Or pass it around a group to facilitate a discussion. And, of course, you can read it through from beginning to end to really see the comparison and contrast of different ideas.
Depending on your own path and spiritual history, different articles will resonate with you (or not) in different ways. Yet an overarching idea of being cognizant of what we do and why runs throughout the entire book. It is an excellent book to add to your library, to revisit periodically, and to share with others.
~review by KatSai
Megalithica Books, 2008
pp. 242, $20.99