My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Symbolism, Fashion Statements, Pentacles & Pentagrams

This is a short post about my personal attitude towards wearing religious, political and philosophical symbols. 

I won't wear any symbol where I do not personally agree with or support what it symbolises. I won't wear rosaries as a fashion statement, nor Soviet gear, nor anything else that isn't something I personally believe in. I see a lot of Goths wearing various religious and political symbols, and sometimes I wonder if some of them might be doing it for what I would see as not the best reasons.

I do this for two main reasons.

The first is that in wearing a symbol you are communicating your support for what it means, that is why the symbols exist in the first place, to represent something and communicate association with what it represents to those who see it. People tend to see someone wearing a symbol and assume it is representative of the wearer's beliefs - it is often assumed that someone wearing a cross, for example, is Christian, or that someone wearing a headscarf is Muslim and not just keeping the wind out of their hair (or part of other religious groups who practice head-covering). I do not want to communicate to others inaccurate or mixed messages. I am Pagan, previously of Wiccan denomination, and do not want people to believe I'm Christian because, simply, it would be an inaccurate assumption. 

Secondly, I do not want to accidentally use somebody's symbol in a way that would cause offence, especially by inadvertently committing blasphemy, or by using a symbol in a context that would be offensive within its originating cultural context. Some things that we in ignorance perceive as mere decorative motifs can be religious or cultural symbols of great significance in their originating context. There are people (mostly Catholic) for whom a rosary is religiously important object, and who find wearing one as a fashion statement to be offensive and trivialising and commercialising the symbols of the faith that is very important to them. 

I also think it is wrong to use symbols in order to look 'cool', 'edgy' or 'shocking'. Doing so hijacks potent symbols, strips them of their intended meaning in the new context, and replaces that meaning with a statement of "look how daring I am!" on behalf of the wearer. Personally, I disagree with using shock value to make statements anyway, but that is not the point here. If you wear Communist symbols or Swastikas, people will  often assume that it is in support of those ideals, and not for shock value anyway, so firstly expect to get some strong negative reactions if you do wear such things, and also realise that in using the symbols of the darkest parts of history in order to appear shocking or make a statement, you are using that symbol outside of its historical context, appealing to its historical context on a superficial level of "evil bad guys" and thus reducing that symbol to a very black and white and simplistic pastiche of a history that ought to be remembered and understood in greater detail with an understanding that history and culture are full of nuances and complications. Yes, the Nazis, Fascist Japan, Communist Russia and Communist China all committed horrific atrocities, but that is not the full summation of 20thC world history or even the summation of those particular periods and regimes. 


A Tangent On Use Of Pagan Symbols
(I hope the Triple Goddess works on your browser)
Another pair of symbols used for shock value are the pentacle or pentagram, as a lot of misguided people believe those symbols to be representative of Satanism, regardless of orientation, or context and regardless of the fact that they are primarily used today by the Wiccan and Pagan community (and that they have a long history with other groups, going back to at least pre-cuniform Mesopotamian pictograms, and are used by other religious groups).  As a Pagan I am opposed to people appropriating the symbols of my religion for shock value, and I would imagine that there are Satanists who also disapprove of people using ignorant portrayals of their religion for shock value, too. 

These symbols have different names and variations in meaning.
As a Pagan, I feel very upset when I see people who mis-use pentagrams and pentacles, and tie them to things such as animal sacrifice, sexual depravity, and other things very alien from actual Paganism. I also feel very upset when I see people wear them to try and be 'spooky' and 'edgy'. I also dislike it when clueless people wear them and claim to be Pagan, yet spout cliches based on negative stereotypes of our religion. Paganism and Witchcraft are not well-accepted religions/spiritualities, and we face real discrimination, mostly from people who really believe we are fringe-crazies who worship evil, sacrifice things, are sexually depraved and altogether immoral - think of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. People have lost their jobs, their children, even their lives because of a misunderstanding of, and prejudice against, our faith, and misappropriating our symbols and using them in ways that reinforce the misunderstanding are thus harmful. So it is appropriative, and it is harmful to use our symbol in this manner. 

Also, and this is a minor aside compared to the point in the previous paragraph, Pagans are a religious minority, there aren't that many of us around, although the concentration in various alternative groups is higher than on average, but even so, many of us wear our Pagan symbols visibly as a sign of solidarity - so that we may identify each other as people of similar faith and feel a little less alone. Some of us get a little bit excited (even if secretly) on spotting someone else wearing a pentacle or Goddess symbol; we think we've found another of our kind, and there's a little bit of frustration and disappointment that can occur when we find out that the person wearing it has no idea what it means. 


I cannot stop people from wearing symbols, and in the end, it is mere clothes, mere fashion, but I think it is important to remember that fashion can convey meaning, and that there repercussions to the display of symbols. I feel that it is important to be understanding - to understand the meaning of the symbols, and to understand how people my perceive them, and to how the people connected to the original context may react. Also remember that one symbol can have more than one meaning, depending on context and culture. 

16 comments:

  1. I've been known to "pilfer" the cross symbolism from time to time. Very truthfully, I find it to be most beautiful and admittedly know very little about it-- enough to know that the cross didn't originally come from christian/catholic religion, and it is no longer a symbol of guilt and oppression.

    Wearing rosaries comes so naturally to me, since my mother grew up with them and eventually I did. I wore them before I really considered them goth. They make me feel at home.

    The ironic thing about that is both my mother and I believe in Paganistic views-- she taught me as her grandmother taught her, but her mother was fiercely catholic.
    I consider myself a student of Wicca. Like you, it irks me to hear that the symbolism is taken for "black magic" and "satanism", when really I find that the same openess and forgiveness that is preached in the bible runs along the same lines as in the Rede.

    I realize they're not the same, and have extensive friction in history. But I'm a huge believer of forgiveness, and if those mutual views were connected by all-- the world will be a little less stressful.

    That's my take, anyway.

    (btw I tagged you in my blog for liebster)

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    1. Crosses, as a very easy symbol to incise, have been around for millennia, and certainly predate their Christian use. I think a Christian cross is only a symbol of guilt and oppression to someone who has had predominantly negative encounters with Christianity - I'm sure there's quite a few people who see it as symbol of hope in Christ. Whether we agree with them religiously or not is a personal matter.

      To you, I guess, a rosary is symbol of family, and the Catholic heritage of your grandmother, and thus something meaningful, not something simply being worn because it's trendy.

      If you're interested in Neo-Pagan and Wiccan history, I recommend the book "Triumph of the Moon" by Prof. Ron. Hutton - it's very interesting!

      I've been tagged several times for these awards; I'm not sure whether I'm really into partaking in it as a circular, but I appreciate the sentiment.

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  2. Personally, I'm actually very irritated (and even offended) by those who hijack symbols and try to change their meaning. I once cam across a post insisting that the Peterine/Inverted cross was a Satanic symbol simply because that's how society now views it and society's view of the symbol negates its' original meaning!

    Personally, I try to avoid wearing symbols for movements I don't agree with -- or even those I do agree with that have been hijacked simply because I don't feel like explaining their actual meaning to those who are ignorant of it. Despite this, I regularly wear a cross necklace, even though I'm not Christian because of the emotional meaning it holds to me -- because my mother is a very strong Catholic and wearing them reminds me of the times I've gone to mass with her (which were really important moments to me...)

    So, I feel there ought to be a little bit of leeway about the whole symbol thing... One shouldn't HIJACK the meaning of a symbol and try to portray it as something it's not but if a certain symbol holds an important emotional meaning to someone then I see no problem with them wearing it... As long as they're not offended when people make an assumption about them for wearing it! (For example, a post on the "goth problems" tumblr complaining about people assuming they were Catholic for wearing a Rosary!)

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    1. You raise an interesting point. I think there definitely needs to be differentiation between people wearing something because of a personal connection (like you wearing a cross or Madame Mari Mortem's rosary) and people who are either wearing something to be trendy or wearing something with the intent of hijacking the symbolism or co-opting it for shock value.

      I think if you wear something, you have to remember the context you'll be wearing it in, and people assuming you're into fetish for wearing a collar with O-ring or a Catholic for wearing a rosary sort of comes with the territory.

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  3. This is really interesting. Swatikas always make me uncomfortable even when people try to wear them ironically, and i never would. I used to have pentagram earrings but I no longer have them, and while I am attracted to the power and meaning of the symbol, it does not mean as much to me as say the ankh, which has a myriad of meanings for me, both magical and personal.

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    1. I'm not sure how one can wear something like a swastika in an ironic manner. Yes, it's possible to use Nazis in a satirical manner (such as in Iron Sky, where there's a very good Sarah Palin parody too...) but to wear them in public? I'm not sure the majority of people will see any irony or satire, and will see either an attempt at being shocking or support for Nazis.

      The concept of the material elements and the spiritual in harmony that is embodied in the pentacle is special to me, and I wear at least one pentacle ring and my necklace at all times.

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  4. I agree with you about not taking other group's symbols and using them out of context inappropriately. I don't personally get upset when I see people wearing crosses/crucifixes a part of fashion, even though I'm Catholic- at this point if I see someone dressed in a non-mainstream fashion and wearing a cross I assume it's just for fashion. At the same time, I don't wear the symbol myself because I don't know if I'd be wearing it as a religious symbol or a fashion statement and for some reason that bothers me.
    People wearing swastikas drives me nuts though.

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    1. Interesting to read of your perspective :)

      People wearing swastikas drives me nuts, too, as do people turning up at the Goth club in S.S. uniforms...

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  5. Interesting post. I went to a Catholic school and I recall the nuns getting very upset should any of the kids slip their rosary over their necks. In the community that I grew up in, wearing anything bigger than a tiny gold or silver cross necklace (inside your shirt, no less) was considered to be ostentatious and disrespectful. I really don't wear crosses too much, but I tend to think that lots of people wear them ironically.

    Once upon a time I was a practicing Wiccan, too, and I appreciate your points about pentacles. Very annoying to have people assuming they have anything to do with cartoon Satanism. As time has gone by, I've become more completely atheistic, but I still sympathize most with Wiccan/ Neo-Pagan perspectives. Still, I occasionally wear a pentacle for its representation of the four elements surmounted by spirit.

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    1. I went to a church school, and we were expected to wear discreet crosses, nothing flashy, as there, too, it was considered ostentatious (at a school with three clashing colours in stripes on their blazers...).

      I don't get how you can wear something as an ironic statement.

      The worst problem with the "cartoon Satanism" interpretation is when people really believe that I engage in that sort of behaviour, and then won't listen to reason when I try to explain that I don't. I've been called "Whore of Babylon" in the street and continually get total strangers telling me to repent of my sins, asking if I know about Jesus, etc, as if I have be either ignorant of Christianity or practising its antithesis. Note that cartoon Satanism is a deliberately perverted denomination of Christianity - it acknowledges all the same divine beings and theology, just chooses to worship a different figure within that theology.

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    1. Sorry for the late response! I accidentally missed your comment. Thank-you for reading :)

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  7. I totally agree with you. If you don't know what the symbol represents/agree with it, then don't wear it, the same goes for pagan jewelry. As a pagan, I hate it when I see people wear a pentagram, and have no idea what it represents, but wear it just because it looks 'alternative', or 'shocking'. A lot of people already think that pagans sacrifice animals to Satan, we don't need any more misguided information about our group.

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  8. I just figured I'd leave my two cents on the matter of an old post here. I'm not a fan of misplaced religious symbolism, even in simple crosses. It seems to end up as being seen as decoration or a statement by those who wear them, and subsequently outside folks might grow to associate an alternative person wearing a cross as a person disrespecting a religious symbol, whether they belong to the religion/mean no harm or not. Of course there's the matter to ignorance to what you're wearing communicates to people around you in general and not knowing what a pentagram or pentacle is.

    Personally, my one religious piece (though I consider myself agnostic) is a simple, wooden necklace with a wooden ankh pendant, mainly because an ankh is hard to be misunderstood by onlookers if they know what it is and due to a deeply rooted fascination with ancient Egyptian symbolism and culture that I've had since childhood. It's the only one I consider acceptable for me to wear personally
    I was rather uncomfortable in a shop the other day when my father insisted I go in with him (babybat here) while I had a small sarong wrapped around my head due to hair dying. I felt like it would be misinterpreted if not just seen as silly by the people in the store, but got no comments.

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    1. The only religious symbols I regularly wear are my pentacles and pentagrams. I have an elemental knot-work cross, but I think it looks too Christian and rarely wear it.

      I tend to tie a scarf around my head when it's windy - a lot of older women do it here, and I think it's been a practical solution to wind + long hair for a while. I guess a lot depends on what you are tying around your hair, why you are doing it. If I'm wrapped up in all my outdoor gear and it's rather windy, having a scarf around my head with a quick knot is probably not going to misconstrued, especially in a place where it is quite frequently done. I also tend to put a scarf around my head when doing my makeup because a ponytail doesn't keep my fringe out of my way, but I don't wear it like that out of my bedroom or bathroom (although I did wrap my hair up for a make-up tutorial, with some random beady necklace tied up in it because I wanted to make an effort to be decorative for my blog).

      Head coverings for religious reasons are usually a specific style depending on the religion, and are done by various Muslim, Christian and Jewish groups, and I try to avoid those styles.

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