The Swastika -or- How Cultural Appropriation Hurts

I know I’m a little late to the party in addressing Tom Swiss’ claim that cultural Appropriation does not exist from a couple weeks ago. While I do still stand by my comments that dreadlocked hair is a poor example of “cultural appropriation” of African-Americans (a claim which allegedly instigated his post), as locked hair does occur naturally on the Indian subcontinent and certain Eastern Europen populations, in addition to the African diaspora (it’s even been suggested that locked hair is the real-life origin of the Gorgon mythology of Hellas), I wanted to blog about possibly the most widely-known symbol appropriated in a harmful way by white people that very few people even acknowledge as appropriation:

Artemis as Mistress of the Animals, Boeotian vase, circa 650BCE

Artemis as Mistress of the Animals, Boeotian vase, circa 650BCE

The symbol of the swastika is literally thousands of years old, with the oldest example on ancient artefacts going back to paleolithic Ukraine, about 15,000 years, in a maiandros (“Greek key”) pattern on the torso of a bird figure alongside phallic symbols, suggesting it as a fertility symbol (thus it’s clearest relevance to this blog). Most of the history of the symbol has been relatively benign: It’s apparently decorative or ornamental, showing little indication of strong meaning.

Most defenders of the symbol point to Hinduism, where the Sanskrit name “svastika”, is often translated as “Be Well”, and used as a symbol of austerity, peace, happiness, positive spiritual power (especially when associated with Ganesha). It’s also been given solar associations, and in the States is often acknowledged as a symbol used in some Native American tribes. It probably entered use in Hellenic art from the cultural descendents of the Vinca.

The swastika has also been associated with the triskelion and triskele, common symbols in Pagan circles, with the Triskelion especially prevalent in Sicilian and Manx communities, as it’s a feature on their flags.

Greek Boeotian Kylix

Greek Boeotian Kylix


While it’s been a long-established that the swastika is practically universal in its use, and one that has been established for having positive meanings and as a benign ornamental design for literally thousands of years, one thing that often gets ignored in defences of the symbol, is the fact that it’s only become so controversial in the West because of cultural appropriation. This fact is also often ignored in discussions of cultural appropriation and how it hurts.

While the symbol is practically universal to humankind, its use by the Third Reich was directly appropriated from its use in Hinduism. This is based largely on a bastardisation of linguistic connections between German and Sanskrit, and inherently racist misinterpretations of Sanskrit literature of the Arya. Hitler took the symbol most-directly from Indian culture as a symbol of political and military power, and with likely occult connotations that don’t actually exist in Hindu literature.

This is the very definition of cultural appropriation: Taking a symbol or cultural item from another culture, and inserting misunderstood, bastardised, or wholly invented meanings into it that the item did not possess, often while penalising the culture of origin.

In German, the Nazi symbol is referred to as the hakenkreuz, and I posit the use of this word to differentiate the Nazi symbol from the correct, traditional uses of the swastika, gammadion (“gamma cross” — a common name in the Anglosphere from the Victorian through 1920s, based on its resemblance to conjoined members of the letter Γ), and menandros symbols, and out of respect to Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain people, who successfully petitioned the EU to drop all plans to ban the swastika in its 25 nations — much like other polytheists have used the title “Daesh” to refer to the terrorist organisation out of respect to Kemetics, Graeco-Aegyptians, and others who honour the goddess Isis/Aset, Whose domains includes love and fertility, and Who is regarded as welcomming of all people, especially the persecuted. For the remainder of this blog, from this post onward, I will use this differentiating terminology.

The hakenkreuz was used less than thirty years as a symbol of Nazi power — less than thirty years! This is after centuries of use of the swastika by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains as a sacred religious symbol and good luck amulet. This is after centuries of use of the Whirling Log on Navajo blankets, and by other Indigenous tribes of the Americas for a wide variety of positive and benign meanings. This is after centuries of use of the gammadion and meandros borders in Hellenic and Graeco-Roman art. This is after centuries of use of the fylfot in heraldic European customs. In less than thirty years, Western people are willing to cave to cultural appropriation, take a symbol from its origins and meanings, and give it away to white Fascists.

This surrender to cultural appropriation is most glaring when the Navajo, Apache, Tohono O’odham, and Hopi tribes of the Americas issued this decree in the early days of WWII:

Because the above ornament which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples.

Therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika or fylfot on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sandpainting, and clothing.

This was referenced to me, earlier today, as a decree of solidarity with the Jewish and Romani and others persecuted by the Nazis (and implicitly made by “all” Natives, though a basic websearch has revealed that only four tribes had representatives sign this decree, but you know, people with white privilege making “Native monolith” racist assumptions are nothing new, to me), but in reading this decree, the populations persecuted by the Nazis are not mentioned. All that is stated is that a few hand-picked representatives of a tiny handful of tribes were going to relinquish the symbol and surrender it to cultural appropriation.

This is how cultural appropriation is so insidious: Reading the background on this decree, it’s said that white tourists to Navajo and Hopi and other reservations became nervous and apprehensive at the symbol on blankets and other items for sale. This was financially penalising Native tribes for their use of a symbol that they had used for centuries, that they had joyfully sold to those same tourists only a few years before, because the symbol had been bastardised in just the wrong way by powerful white people! The tribes were left with little choice BUT to surrender the symbol for their livlihoods!

Surrenders of the symbol to cultural appropriation are not limited there; Wikipedia has a very lengthy section of their page on use of the swastika in the West specifically about efforts, largely in the United States, to remove the swastika from historical structures. A search for “Hindu Swastika news” turned up an article about privileged soccer moms of Orange County pressuring a museum to remove a Hindu tapestry, lent by a local family, even though there was a plaque explaining the history of the symbol and its meanings in Hindu culture.

This is EXACTLY the thing that many have talked about over the last two weeks about the definition of cultural appropriation — penalising members of the culture(s) or origin for use of the appropriated symbol.

While it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge that, yes, the hakenkreuz continues to be used by Neonazis and Fascists (and the meandros even appropriated by Greek nationalist fascists), it is equally disingenuous to ignore the fact that it is cultural appropriation when they do so. The fact remains that cultural appropriation is a tool often used by racists, and side-swiping or even ignoring the fact that the Nazi hakenkreuz has been appropriated from Hindu symbolism is, at best, ignorant “accidental racism”, in that it’s giving preference to the white appropriators to the symbol that they stole!

When people reach a point where they are flat-out committing racism to avoid criticism of their ignorant opinions of the swastika, which they’ve decided is the same thing as the Nazi hakenkreuz, the surrender to cultural appropriation has become so insideous that I just don’t have words.

And, to make matters worse, in the West, that surrender to appropriation is so prevalent, that people who should know better, like people in the Pagan community, will avoid calling it the cultural appropriation that it is, either out of ignorance, or out of a useless sense of “white guilt” and fear of being accused, themselves, of being racists, when anyone with any sense will acknowledge that it’s the exact opposite.

The push to acknowledge that cultural appropriation does cause real harm to the cultures stolen from is, at its heart, a movement to avoid this again, but it really cannot be usefully addressed without acknowledging the appropriation of the swastika to the Nazi hakenkreuz as the most glaring example of how cultural appropriation is a tool of institutionalised racism that hurts people on an individual level and entire cultures outside of mainsteam Western whites.

By failing to defend the proper use of the swastika, and by failing to differentiate it from the Nazi hakenkreuz, one continues to surrender the symbol to cultural appropriation, and thus continues an act of institutionalised racism so insideous that one will fight tooth and nail to defend that racism.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

“We can never be certain of the Gods” –this argument is irrelevant

From a recent convo with Aine Llewellyn on FaceBook:

How do we know that anything we do for the gods is what they for sure definitely totally 100% want double triple quadruple-checked? Can we stop with the obnoxious excuse of ‘we can’t be sure the gods REALLY want this’ argument? It provides nothing, as it can’t actually be argued against, nor is it itself a coherent argument. It adds nothing, nothing, nothing, to any discussion I have seen it brought up in. All it does, is shut discussion down.

…to which I responded:

We also can’t be sure that when a couple says ‘I do’ at a wedding, that they really, truly, 100%, double-triple-quadruple checked meant it. Seriously, we can’t be 100% certain of anything in our lives other than ‘do I feel what I’m experiencing as real?’ …and even then, we can’t be sure of every factor that played into our experience of it, we can only be sure of how we feel of it at the time we experienced it. Thus the whole ‘we cannot be certain of the gods’ argument is, inherently, useless –cos if one wants to play that game, I can play it better.

Someone once said to me on the Internet, that they had more evidence from experience of the existence of their gods than they had of my own existence —which makes perfect sense from an empirical standpoint. For all they knew, I could have been, at most, a ‘fake’ person created by some one else to RP with online, or even an elaborate sock-puppet troll —at most. I could’ve also been a really odd mass-hallucination shared by them and several other people that the first person knew to exist and, at least sometimes, post to an email list under certain email addresses. If you want to get technical, i could’ve also been their own hallucination from a comabed they mightn’t have left for years, all the while completely unaware that they’d ever had an accident that put them there. It was that logic that actually helped bring me around to Hedonism, cos it’s technically correct —which, as I’m sure you know, is my favourite kind of correct.

And in all seriousness, how can we be certain that my ntural hair colour ISN’T L’Oreal’s 2.1 Onyx Sheen, and the “dying process” I perform every month is actually just an unveiling to release the true colour from the outgrown false one? Sure, we can say that the empirical evidence suggests that I’m adding colour onto the outgrowth of my natural auburn, but how can we be certain that what we’ve observed is what is true? Because we’ve seen it? The wealth of evidence that the human mind is very good at playing tricks on itself suggests that we can’t be. Because it’s what others observe, as well? Unfortunately, mass hallucinations are also a fairly common phenomenon, and we can only truly be certain of that which exists in ourselves, in other words: Do we feel it to be real? Does it meet our own criteria, which exists only for us, for something that is real?

My friend Phaedra had once remarked that her hair had been candy-red for so long, that for all intents and purposes, it was her real haircolour, and the process of changing it from her own auburn to a candy red was simply a “revealing” ritual. (Of course, last we Skyped, it seemed she’d switched to Black, but that’s irrelevant.) Every time I’ve changed my hair colour, I’ve essentially changed my reality —not just in how I look, but also in how I feel, and how people treat me. Reality isn’t merely what’s observed, reality is what’s experienced and known from that experience to be real.

The topic seemed to have dovetailed from a debacle of several weeks concerning the nature of sacrifice and the appropriateness of animal sacrifice.

True, I haven’t made any statements here on that topic, ever, but I’ve said enough in comments elsewhere that I think it should be well-known what my feelings are, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll say something about it here:

On all ethical grounds, I really have no problem with blood sacrifices; after all, while my default diet lately has been “semi-vegetarian” (if only cos meat costs too much to eat every day, much less with every meal, as many Americans believe is necessary), I do eat meat, and in my mind, an animal raised for the purpose of sacrifice to the gods tends to have a measurably better life than one raised in factory farming for the sole purpose of becoming meat.

The argument that we’ve come far enough as a species and/or a culture to no longer need either meat, blood sacrifice, or both, erases the experiences of those in the culture with certain food allergies who are also too poor to supplement their diet with the veg*n options necessary to make up for a complete lack of meat and/or dairy —in other words, it is an ableist and classist argument. Since the meat eaten in a feast following the relatively humane slaughter practises from a ritual sarcifice has had a measurably better, more humane and comfortable life than the factory-farmed animal, blood sacrifice therefore become the most-humane option for consuming meat —this still may not be a feasible option as the only meat one eats, and i’m not going to pretend I have any insights into how that may be balanced, but it’s like the poor gay kid shopping at Salvation Army thrift stores: They’re an incredibly homophobic organisation, but if that’s one’s only option for clothing and furniture, then one isn’t doing oneself any favours by depriving oneself to make a statement (that said, if one’s statement is more important to oneself than being properly clothed, that’s certainly a decision that one is free to make).

Furthermore, the argument that white people practising religions with pantheosn Whose worship originated in Western Europe and certain areas of the Mediteranean shouldn’t practise blood sacrifices, but that dark people practising religions of Africa and the applicale diaspora should be free to do all the animal sacrifices they please is an inherently racist argument. It’s not racist because it is an argument that implicitly forbids white people from a freedom that is extended to black people —it is racist because (especially when juxtaposed alongside a “we’ve come so far….” argument) it simply plays into the old “savage” archetypes and tropes of Africans and suggests that those of the African diaspora are an inherently “primitive” people. Basically, it’s a patronising sort of racism that really has no place in civilised discussions, especially from a group of people (being pagans, the Pagan community, and polytheists) that tends to fancy themselves as being inherently unracist. While true that forbidding such practises to the African diaspora (AD) and others is a product of colonialism (which, in some respects, is closely related to racism in ways that it can be difficult to tell one from the other), the apparent motivations behind allowing AD and other groups while forbidding it to white people is born of the same kind of racism that produces exotification and the “noble savage” tropes. If one doesn’t support white people practising polytheist religions that have a history of blood sacrifice traditions to actually practise those blood sacrifice traditions, but one supports blood sacrifices when practised by darker people practising traditional and syncretic religions that utilise blood sacrifice, then one must ask oneself why, and re-evaluate the inherent validity of that belief.

Furthermore, the argument for the sentience of plant life becomes more and more compelling with each new observation and study in the field. While this in no way diminishes what has already been known of animal central nervous systems, perception of pain and suffering, and inherent sentience, the average ethical argument against the practises of blood sacrifice do tend to absolutely ignore the very real matter of plant sentience, and even the basic fact that the average vegan diet relies on the deaths and mutilations of billions of plants. If all life were truly equal to such people, then frankly, they’d be fruitarian and eat only fruits and nuts, the only parts of the plant which are freely given and (especially in the case of fruit) is actually best for the plant to be eaten, than to be left to rot. To fool oneself into believing, in light of evidence for plant sentience, that excluding animal life from the deaths needed to sustain one’s own existence, is an adherence to a principle of “least harm” is to make a pact of intellectual dishonesty and speciesism. To me, the lettuce sacred to Adonis is no less worthy of its life than the cow sacred to Hera.

To bring this back around to what the gods want, the fact of the matter is that if one believes in the multiplicity, and also the inherent individuality and personal autonomy of the gods, then it is perfectly logical that different deities may have different opinions, and especially permissive deities may not care if one group or selection of individuals practises blood sacrifice, while another group does no, and each group conducts each practise in that deity’s name. If not one of us can be certain of the wants and desires of the gods, then logically that argument must be applied to all groups and individuals performing ritual, including sacrifices, to the gods. When someone counters an assertion of a divine request of blood sacrifice with “oh, but no-one can really be certain of the wants and desires of the gods”, then logically, that person can no more be certain that the first person is wrong, either; if the second is to foolishly add on “…and it’s been requested of me by [x-Deity] to only perform bloodless sacrifices…” or “and [x-Deity] doesn’t mind that my sacrifices are bloodless…” then the same argument of “we cannot be certain of the gods” works just as much as it would work against the person performing a blood sacrifice. “We cannot be certain of the gods”, as true a statement as any, applies to everyone, regardless of what, exactly, they are doing in a Deitie’s name —to assert that truth whilst implying that one’s own position may be a favoured one is not only inconsistent with the asserted statement, it is hubristic.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.