On appropriation

What is appropriation? And what does it mean for magic?

Appropriation is a topic that circulated through the magical blogosphere a couple years ago, but it still gets referred to frequently in passing. Honestly, I am tired of it. But it seems de rigeur that one should articulate a position on the topic, and I kind of promised I would when I wrote about Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival. I hate to conform to trends, but on the other hand, the worries about appropriation are a reflection of wider social trends in the West and I do think it is useful to critically consider the issue, so here I go…generating more questions than answers.

I am not even going to address the ubiquitous hipster violations of good taste. I’m talking to, and about, people making respectful, good-faith efforts not to trespass on or steal from others.

appropriation

Just to get straight to the point, my opinion is that the real problem is usually not appropriation per se, but alienation or de-contextualization. I guess you could say that I am turning the point of view around, from focusing on the alleged perpetrator to focusing on the implications for the relationships involved. There are two areas of concern: operational and ethical.

Appropriation means co-opting elements of other people’s culture without consent. There is a lot of hand-wringing about it in well-meaning, liberal or “progressive” circles, but mostly it stays in the realm of talk. Calling an injustice out as such is an important task and I don’t want to denigrate that or discourage anyone from doing that, but most of what I see nowadays, from all political sides, is more group-identity-signalling as opposed to any attempt to actually change anything. I don’t intend to go into all the ramifications of white privilege here, because I’m only addressing one aspect of that, I could not possibly hope to cover it comprehensively, and I feel it’s already been done more eloquently than I am capable of. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the issues involved. The only reason I am addressing this topic at all is that I want to bring up some points I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere, that I think are worth consideration.

Operational issues

We in the West are heavily invested in essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, gender, and race that developed along with our imperial ambitions. But contrary to our wishes, cultures are not bounded entities. They have always been permeable, negotiable, in flux–they form, separate, regroup, identify, and reinvent themselves with reference to other groups of people. Even when human population density was very low, due to Homo sapiens’ propensity to move around and covet shiny stuff, human communities were in direct and indirect contact with other groups, exchanging stuff, ideas, and bodily fluids. Yet for some reason, even though reality keeps slapping us in the face with the inadequacy of our models, we don’t easily let go of them.

Archaeologists call the spread of technologies, styles, and objects from group to group “diffusion.” Sometimes it happens through imitation of something seen at a distance; sometimes it happens through direct teaching. At what point does this normal human behavior become the dreaded appropriation?

Anyone active in the Western Magical Tradition is the beneficiary of cultural diffusion. Some major cultural threads in the WMT include Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian, just to name a few. The populace of Alexandria 2000 years ago don’t seem to have been too fussed about the potential ethical perils of syncretism–their focus was operational: Does this work, or doesn’t it?

Abraxas stone
Abraxas stone

These are the operational questions as I see them:

1. If you take X out of its original context, will it still work? Will there be undesirable blowback?

It’s in the magician’s best interest to tread carefully, since we may attract more than rolled eyes and tsk-tsking if we err. (Though–full disclosure–I have not yet been smitten by any wrathful beings. As far as I know.) Magic tends to bring one into the orbit of the sacred, or at least the uncanny. And though globalization is nothing new, its scale is certainly magnified compared to pre-steam engine days; so all of us are constantly within the orbit of other cultures, ethnicities, and identities. Safety requires knowing what you are doing, and more importantly, knowing when you don’t know. Working with magical “tech,” deities or spirits, or charged objects outside their original context means you are taking them into terra incognita. You won’t know how they are going to react until you try, and hopefully you understand there is risk attached to that. Then it’s a matter of pivoting and course correcting as necessary to avoid calamity.

Of course, not everyone is agreed as to what works: e.g., some have argued that deities from different pantheons can’t play nice together; others say it’s no big deal, and rightly point out that pantheons have been mixed since forever. Some have argued that you can’t cherry pick deities from a pantheon, but must work with an entire pantheon together (e.g., multiple posts on this blog); chaos magicians would beg to differ. If we assume that deities and spirits are sufficiently au courant to understand the workings of, e.g., cars, vaccinations, and paper money, why wouldn’t we think that they understand globalization?

2. Can X be known/have meaning outside its original context?

Every attempt to reconstruct or revive religions of old involves de-contextualization (and re-contextualization). Take druidry for example. What we really know about druidry in ancient times pretty much boils down to something something oak trees something something mistletoe something something wicker men. The rest is cobbled together from the testimony of lying and/or baffled Romans, de-contextualized interpretations of de-contextualized oral literature, and UPG. Authenticity is really unattainable, and every act that makes these religions more relatable for us probably alienates it from its original setting. This doesn’t make revived religions invalid, but these uncomfortable facts should not be allowed to go unrecognized. If results is your only metric of success, then the proof is in the pudding. If, on the other hand, your magic is theurgic or goetic, you would presumably care about the answer(s) to this question. Which brings me to the third issue…

3. Are the deities, or spirits, or ancestors, etc. ok with it?

When it comes to dealing with Otherworld beings, I’m not particularly swayed by humans’ dickering over legitimacy and authenticity. If I’m going to be working magically with an inner contact, deity, etc., it seems to me the only person who’s qualified to determine if that’s ok is the being in question. Of course, since my conversations with that being would be UPG, I wouldn’t presume to tell others that my way is the right way for all.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to serve a deity in a religious context, and that religion were still a living tradition, then it would only make sense to become initiated within that tradition. If that were not possible, I wouldn’t claim to be a priestess of that deity.

Ethical issues

The main ethical issue with appropriation in the modern context is whether an empowered group, by co-opting material culture or traditions from a disempowered group, is effectively using that theft as a club to further beat the subaltern down. (Intentionally or not.) Most complaints about appropriation–so far as I have seen–are triggered by the dominant group secularizing and commodifying something sacred to the marginalized group.

1. Is it possible to not appropriate from others?

I think it’s impossible not to appropriate, and that being the case, the term becomes useless. We need vocabulary to distinguish qualitative differences in “appropriation.” To my view, this complicates discussion of the topic. In cultural studies parlance, it’s impossible for, say, African-Americans to be “racist” towards whites, for for women to be “sexist” towards men, because African-Americans and women don’t have the power of an entire social system behind them. In other words, they can feel the bias, but they can’t enforce it.If we extend the same rationale to appropriation, then a disadvantaged group “borrowing” from the dominant culture is not appropriation; and conversely, no matter how innocent the intent, when the dominant group “borrows,” it is always appropriation. So you can see how neither “diffusion” nor “appropriation” really works to cover all aspects of the dynamic.

Globalization is nothing new, and neither are differential power dynamics. Like it or not, de- and re-contextualization are an inevitable part of the interaction of human communities. You don’t think Gravettian mammoth hunters were complaining about those tacky Neandertals appropriating their backed foliate side scrapers or whatever? Well maybe not, but I’ll wager it started up not too long after that.

Consent or permission seems like a pretty good rubric for what is ok to use and what isn’t, but what if we’re talking about the culture of dead ancestors? I mean, we can and undoubtedly should ask those ancestors, but the answer will always be UPG and thus not necessarily universally applicable. I look at this problem much as I do at eating: Since humans are not autotrophs, it’s impossible for us to eat without killing something; but it’s still possible to approach the issue consciously and conscientiously and define a system of personal ethics in light of one’s values. Similarly, viewed in the long duree, appropriation may be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we get free license to be dicks about it.

2. Does using X out of context cause unintentional harm? Who gets to determine that? And who then determines the appropriate remedial action or laws?

I know who should not determine those things: The privileged, young, white, liberal, “progressive” Westerners who would like to. As much as they like to think they have the moral high ground for calling attention to the evils of appropriation, there is danger inherent even in anti-appropriation stances: to wit, racial or cultural essentialism and white-guilt-as-noblesse-oblige. Declaring an anti-appropriation stance requires drawing unrealistic notional bounds around cultures–mistaking your abstract heuristic model for reality. This has always been a prerogative of the empowered. Another prerogative is the claim to speak for the disempowered. Even if my intentions are good, if I as a white American draw the boundaries, am I not just reasserting and reifying my own relatively more empowered status? It’s all fine and good to recognize one’s own privilege, but who gives me the right to be the appropriation police?

It is for the harmed to determine whether harm has been done; and yet I have seen claims of appropriation that I think are frankly a bit of a stretch. Just because you personally are offended by something does not mean it is systemic oppression.

In any event, the best remedy is probably going to be an honest assessment of just how much one doesn’t know, and then a respectful, kind, but wary approach to finding out more. A sincere effort not to be a jerk combined with willingness to take responsibility and make amends if necessary seems to me like a good general policy in human relations.

So that is my statement on that.

My 7 tips for students of anything (but especially magic)

Harry Potter charms class
Hmph. Teacher’s pet.

A couple of months ago there was a bit of a to-do regarding various attitudes toward teaching and students in the occult community, especially the WMT. (See for example here, here, here (and also the comments), here, here, and also here, although the last link doesn’t address the issue of the original proposed “ten tips.”) As a former teacher of academic subjects, now a student of the occult, I thought I’d turn the telescope around and offer a holistic point of view. I was inspired by the 10 tips format, but since some of the original points were redundant in my view, I have condensed my list to 7.

1. You know a lot of stuff. Your teacher knows more.

It’s not a matter of hierarchy or of your relative ages, grades, or statuses. Quite simply, there’s a reason you wanted a teacher–you wanted to be taught. By definition, if you accept someone as a teacher, you are accepting that they probably know a lot more about this subject than you do. But occult learning isn’t grade school–no one should force you to accept anyone as your teacher. A good teacher is an eternal student, and will learn from their students in a reciprocal exchange. At the same time you should respect the amount of time, energy, and work that has gone into forming their expertise. If you already knew the material, you wouldn’t be here.

2. When you ask a question, listen to the answer. That’s what you came here for.

Every student should feel comfortable asking any question, including ones that challenge the teacher. However, it should always be remembered that the goal of the question is to further learning. I once took an online free course about Mexican curanderismo. Venturing into the student discussion forum, I witnessed a display of immaturity that I found embarrassing as a fellow student. One student–a self-described Wiccan–had started a discussion to complain about one of the teachers using the word “witch” in what he took to be a pejorative manner. (The curandera had stated that curandero/as are not witches.) Now, from my point of view, the teachers were graciously offering–free of charge!–to share their knowledge with us. Since no one was forcing us to take this course, all of us students were presumably there by choice to seek that knowledge. To then try to control the teachers’ use of language seemed bullying and self-aggrandizing to me. Especially bearing in mind that because of the subject matter, the teachers were frequently moving back and forth from Spanish to English terminology, but also attempting to make concepts from Mexican, Spanish, and Southwest Native American cultural contexts intelligible to Americans. It would have been perfectly appropriate to ask for elaboration of what the concept of “witch” means within the context of curanderismo, to open a dialogue about differences in terminology and religious perspective. It also would have been an excellent opportunity for the Wiccan student to examine his own biases and “triggers.” But he only wanted to make himself the center of attention.

3. Not every question has an answer. Even when there is an answer, the teacher’s job is not necessarily to give it to you.

When I was teaching this was probably my biggest frustration. After 12 or more grades focused on passing standardized tests, my students came to me believing that teaching is all about giving students facts, and learning is the memorization and prompt forgetting of those facts. It is unfair to expect students to transition from that style of “learning” to the old-fashioned humanistic model of the university, but that’s what we have to deal with. I found that many of my students had effectively been cognitively hamstrung by never having developed the neural networks for basic critical thinking or logical inference. In school, they learned half-assed memorization and obedience to authority; outside school, they learned that accuracy is irrelevant, and what matters is what makes you feel good or who can shout their opinion the loudest. Coupled with their belief that teachers are service providers who work for the students’ parents (as taxpayers), late-20th century “special snowflake syndrome,” and our tl;dr culture, you have a recipe for misery for both teachers and students.

From a more empathetic standpoint, imagine how scary it is for a student who has never learned to make logical inferences to suddenly find themselves in a milieu where their grade depends on being able to weigh competing arguments and thoroughly explore material that may challenge their personal beliefs. To discover that life is full of questions without answers, leading only to more and more refined questions, must be utterly unnerving. No wonder most bury their heads in the sand and carry on pretending. That doesn’t mean this trend should be allowed to grow unchecked–what passes for civilization is already showing signs of disrepair due to these failures of the educational system.

When I was a kid, if I didn’t know what a word meant, my teachers told me to look it up in the dictionary. But I didn’t stop there. I didn’t just look up the meaning–I also learned the word’s etymology and its component parts (prefix, root, suffix, etc.). I did this because I always wanted to know more and understand better. As a result, whenever I encounter an unfamiliar word–sometimes even in foreign languages–I am frequently able to figure it out based on its components. If you have accepted the reality of magic, that attitude should sound familiar. You should already have experience with looking beneath the surface, doing your own research, and breaking with convention. You should have figured out that nothing worth having comes for free (it might not cost money, but it always involves work). You should regard pushing and stretching your abilities as fun, because magic requires a lot of it.

4. The student’s role is very important, and should be taken seriously.

Good teachers regard it as a solemn responsibility to guide the next generation. It’s such a big deal, it can lead to big egos. Students should never feel embarrassed by a relative lack of expertise but should recognize the gravity of the project they are undertaking and their role as the next generation of teachers.

When I was teaching university courses, I frequently heard that the problems of academia would be fixed if it were treated as a marketplace and the students as customers, with teachers forced to compete for their attention. In fact, this is the root of the meltdown of the Western educational system currently in process. The undergrad students I knew mostly regarded class as onerous, the teacher as a terribly boring burden to be endured. If the teacher had to cancel class for some reason, students were thrilled. When was the last time you went into a retail business looking for a good or service for which you had already paid an extravagant amount, and were happy that no one showed up to serve you? Exactly. University is not a “service,” teachers are not “knowledge-delivery solutions,” and students are not “customers.”

It is well to remember that undertaking magical learning is a great responsibility, but no one forced it on you. You wanted it–now embrace it.

5. Use discernment in choosing a teacher.

Since no one is forcing you to take on a particular teacher, make sure you choose a good one, who recognizes your unique gifts and wants to see you bloom to your full capacity. Make sure what they are teaching is worth learning. That said, nobody’s perfect.

6. Do the work.

You have to do the work, no one else can do it for you. It’s hard because it is by nature challenging. Anything worth learning will take you apart and put you back together again in a new configuration. Anything worth learning forces you to take a long hard look in the mirror.

7. Keep your sense of humor, fun, and adventure.

You’ll need them all.

To arms, to arms

True story: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.
Fun fact: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.

Recently there have been a handful of calls to arms in the magical blogosphere, which have stuck in my memory because they resonate with an urgency I’ve been feeling. It’s time to get to work.

The first place I encountered the call (other than in my own mind and heart) was Josephine McCarthy’s blog. You may know that she has been developing an entire course in magic called Quareia. Back in February she wrote:

“…I was not planning originally to have [Quareia] apprentices working on anything but themselves and their immediate surroundings. But over this last year, powers that are out in the world have gathered to polarise heavily and this is playing out through the barbarity we see in the near east, the corruption of our own officials, and the general blights of poverty and cruelty that are marching across our planet with such power and speed.

“So maybe it is time while writing the last module, to put the apprentices to work magically. Through the module on destruction, the apprentice will learn first how to spot real destructive power (it is not as simple as it sounds) and then they will learn to take action. No one magician can stop what is happening, but collectively, small but powerful magical actions done in a focused and knowledgeable way can start to halt and then turn the tide.”

Hmm, interesting. Then in June, Rachel Izabella counter-cursed a transphobic preacher who declared his intention to basically psalm-magic Caitlyn Jenner to death (which, by extension, is a threat to other trans* people who, if they crossed this preacher’s radar, would likely get the same treatment). The counter-curse is an ongoing project. This preacher may just be one guy, but if he is calling his fellows to the fight, then maybe it’s time we started mustering our fellows against their ilk.

Clearly, that post has gotten others thinking about their own line in the sand, the crossing of which would prompt them to action. Just a couple days ago, Kalagni wondered why it is that more magical folk don’t seem to put their magic to work on the big issues?

“…I challenge all of you, to find some injustice in the world, something big, something beyond your life, your neighbourhood, your city, something so big you’d never think of trying to fix it. Then make a plan, find a specific element in this injustice, and make a magickal plan, figure out how to attack it, how to shift it, how to heal it. Piece by piece we nudge the world toward a better place, we make change more possible, we make it easier for those of us working on the mundane to succeed to improve these things.

“…this is raw, desperate, but targeted magick, trying to throw a wrench in the gears of a systemically corrupt status quo, and bring some good into the world.”

Now, I am all for rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, though at this point I don’t have much skill or knowledge to bring to bear. Still, it has often been commented that when one is planning a magical working, it often seems that the “effects” start manifesting before the “cause” has been enacted. So maybe even just bringing our minds to bear on magical action for a better world starts the wheels spinning. Or even more likely, the wheels are already spinning, and that works on our minds.

But there’s one thing that has often stopped me from applying magic in what is customarily called “practical” ways, and that is the fact of limited vision. We as embodied humans cannot see all the pieces in play in any situation. It’s not that I just trust “higher” powers to take care of me without me doing any work, but even just from my human perspective, I can look back on my life so far and see many episodes where my limited view caused me to make a really dumb decision or would have, had it been in my power to decide.

Mistakes are part of magic, like anything else. And you don’t get on this path because it’s easy, safe, or secure. But if one habitually acts from a relatively short-term and narrow point of view, one gets caught in an unending cycle of screwing up and then scrambling to clean up the mess, in the process only screwing it up even more. (This is pretty much the story of civilization, by the way, which is why I don’t believe in “progress.” But that’s a tale for another day.) If one is lucky, it only effects you and not the rest of the planet.  The potential of getting trapped in that cycle is always there. To break free of it and change things at a level where it really counts, it seems to me we need a bigger perspective. That, I presume, is why there has always been a mystical current in magic, and also why we practice divination. Otherwise magic would be like giving guns to a bunch of toddlers. So, you know, about like 21st century America.


I woke up early this morning, not by choice. It is a rare luxury for me to have time by myself to think, so there I was, thinking hard about this issue of well-directed magical action. Or at least, I thought I was awake and thinking. As it turns out, I wasn’t really fully awake. When I did wake up I realized I had been in a hypnogogic state all along…and as is so often the case in that state, some weird shit went down.

I found myself, uh, thinking? dreaming? about how nice it would be if the magical community could cut some evildoers–say, the Koch Brothers–off at the knees. As I was imagining? (dreaming?) what that might be like and what bad dudes those guys are, I heard in my mind’s ear a sort of combined roar-growl, something like the sound an angry big cat makes. At the same time in my mind’s eye, something flew at me. It only lasted a split second, but the message was clear: Do not go there. I have no idea who sent the message. Was it my guardian angel or an ancestor saying, do not even think about it, grasshopper? Maybe it was my own better judgment. Maybe I had slipped into pure dreaming for a moment. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past the Koch Brothers to have magical wards up to keep out even the wandering minds of half-asleep apprentice sorceresses. (They wouldn’t be the first corporate bad guys to do that, from what I hear.)

So make of that what you will, but it sent my mind off in a different direction. I then thought, what if the Koch Brothers and their ilk are part of a necessary balancing destructive force? (I strongly doubt this by the way, but I still think it’s a useful thought exercise.)

(Sidebar. This line of thinking would probably make more sense if I told you the background context, but it’s a long story so I think I’ll save it for the next post. So if you’re especially interested in my new acquaintance with universal destructive powers, or if this post sounds crazy, you might want to read the next one.)

In light of these questions about magical action for the general betterment, I thought the latest post at Circle Thrice was interesting. Ivy writes (my emphasis):

“I’ve heard it suggested that the reason there are copycat crimes is that the original criminal gives other’s [sic] ideas. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s that evil is contagious, just the same way that violence or panic is contagious in a mob. There are currents of violence and destruction just as there are currents of cooperation and love. When someone taps into a particular current, others find it easier to tap in as well.

Destruction always seems cruel when you’re on the pointy end of the stick. I don’t like seeing baby antelopes die, but I know lions gotta eat. How does one know when the destruction is part of establishing natural balance at a scale too big for a mortal to perceive or understand, or even just an inevitable cyclical eschaton, versus when it is out of place and time and, to put it in Kemetic terms, contrary to ma’at? (Or as I like to call it, wrong or bad.) And even when one is confident of the need to take action against evil, where does one best apply force?

These are questions I am not qualified to answer. I am still learning to walk in magical terms, and any effect I could have on the abundant nastiness in the world today would be pretty small. In a way I get a chuckle out of me asking these questions at all, because I swear I came into this world banging a gavel with one hand and pointing the finger of shame with the other.* When I was a little kid I had few friends because I was a narc. I was not only a tattle-tale, but a self-righteous one at that. If I couldn’t stop someone from wrongdoing, I took it straight up the chain of authority to someone who (I thought) could and would. I mean, I thought that’s what adults were for. Bullying particularly pissed (pisses) me off. When my mom suggested that maybe I might want to dial it back a little, I said in high dudgeon, “But how are they supposed to face the consequences of their actions?!” I was six. My name, in the more popular translation, means “Defender of Men” (as in humans; the Greek is gendered like the English). The less popular, but I’m told more accurate, translation means “She Who Wards Off Men.” Most of the stuff in my horoscope is in the 8th and 9th houses and my whole chart is ruled by Jupiter, the planet of Justice.

Point is, I’ve never been able to identify with the white-lighter crowd because my own experience tells me some people are born to walk right up to badness and slap it across the face with a glove. It doesn’t go away because you turn your back on it–we’ve tried that. But we have to work smart, not just hard–and it’s never too early to start the reconnaissance mission.

*Technically I came into this world asleep.

Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival

Tanabata streamers and wishes.
Tanabata streamers and wishes.

Tanabata, or the Star Festival (the 7th day of the 7th month, by either the lunar or solar calendar), is a holiday I was introduced to while staying in Japan. According to legend, on this day each year, two mythic lovers separated by the Milky Way are reunited. In China, where the story originates, the festival is known as Qixi or the Festival to Plead for Skills, and in Korea as Chilseok. When the festival is celebrated according to the solar calendar, it corresponds generally to the beginning of the summer monsoon rains, when the oppressive heat and humidity becomes slightly more tolerable; however, in the lunar calendar it falls around mid-August and was originally the beginning of autumn.

Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way

In brief–Orihime (the star Vega), the weaver-princess, was the daughter of the King of Heaven. She fell in love with Hikoboshi the cowherd (Altair). But when they were together, Orihime neglected her weaving and Hikoboshi his cattle, so the King of Heaven cast them apart and created the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) to keep them apart. Orihime was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, so the King of Heaven agreed to let the couple meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. But neither could cross the river, until the magpies, or in some versions the magpies and crows, made a bridge for them.

In one Chinese version of the story, Orihime (or as she is known in Chinese, Zhinu) is the daughter of Xi Wangmu (the Queen Mother of the West, or Great Female Ancestor of the West) rather than the King of Heaven. Xi Wangmu is a very ancient deity, whose cult exploded in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and one that I find particularly fascinating. I am indebted to the webpage “Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China” by Max Dashu for the following information.

Xi Wangmu lives between heaven and earth, in a paradise garden among the clouds on Jade Mountain or She Wu (“Female-Snake-Shaman”) Mountain. In her garden grows the World Tree which bears peaches of immortality. With her are various magical animals, including the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, the rabbit in the moon, phoenixes, and qilin. In a 3rd-century AD scroll, Xi Wangmu describes herself thus: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.”

“Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.”

Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard's tail.
Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard’s tail.

In the earliest representations of her, Xi Wangmu looks like a human but has the teeth of a tiger and tail of a snow leopard. The tiger is the directional symbol of the west, and may have been since the very dawn of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic. She bears a staff, and wears a sheng headdress marking her as a weaver “who creates and maintains the universe” and controls the stars and constellations. The involvement of Xi Wangmu in the myth of Tanabata might indicate that it was originally a festival in her honor:

“This sign [the sheng headdress] was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, ‘the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.’ [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, ‘when the divine and human worlds touch,’ and cosmic energies were in perfect balance.”

(My emphasis.) After the Han Dynasty, the worship of Xi Wangmu was blamed for inciting ecstatic peasant movements and especially for too many uppity women peasants, so the goddess was “civilized.” Gone were her wild hair and fangs, replaced by royal robes and jewels, and her opposite, the Queen Mother of the East, was replaced by the King Father of the East to balance out what was perceived as an excess of feminine directional power and yin. In some literature she was demoted to mortal human status, or even depicted as a kind of succubus. Nevertheless Xi Wangmu remained beloved by the people, who often referred to her as “Nanny.”

tanabata streamers

Inspired by a miraculous tale of love, or by the awesome cosmic powers of Xi Wangmu, Tanabata is a day to make wishes for the fulfillment of long-cherished dreams, in particular the desire for new skills. People write these wishes on slips of paper and hang them on tree branches, and colorful streamers decorate the streets. Japanese festivals are open to all comers, being a matter of community participation rather than religious or cultural identification, while the stars are visible from all over Earth (albeit different ones in different hemispheres), so I don’t think there are any issues of appropriation to fear here.

If you wish to celebrate the Star Festival, you can complement the colorful modern traditions with more ancient ones, including:

  • Nine lamps dedicated to Xi Wangmu
  • Propitiating ghosts and the dead
  • Sewing fall/winter clothes, embroidery, weaving
  • Offerings of melons and fruit, candles, incense, and miniature clothing, shoes, or furniture in groups of seven
  • A “wish-fulfillment banquet”