Adapting an "existing" pantheon.

Joshua Jones

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Working on the universe of my pseudo-meso-American fantasy WiP, which, for plot reasons, needs 15 gods/goddesses with different roles and alignments. The plan was to borrow the Aztec pantheon, change around a few things, and build from there. I don't, however, especially want to be accused of cultural appropriation. Do you think I should just invent deities for this, or stick with the current plan?
 

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I would ask 'how far out of the realm of actual history is your story?' If it is 'historical' save for some fantasy aspects (like Bob can shape shift or use magic), then I'd leave them as they are... being 'careful' to get their historical information right. If there isn't a lick of historical reference to it, then I'd make them up from scratch and how you'd like them, including the names.

Yet that's just me... Keep in mind, just because the Aztecs may have had X-gods that were Y-ways, that doesn't mean that some obscure (made up) tribe didn't have their own set of Gods. That gives you a lot of flexibility.

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Brian G Turner

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I don't, however, especially want to be accused of cultural appropriation.
That charge usually comes up where the person has made little effort to properly research or represent the figures/concepts/peoples from a different culture - in effect, it's comparable to a charge of "lazy writing".

The big question to ask yourself is why you've chosen to represent Mesoamerican beliefs in the first place - something you're passionate about, or simply something you require as exotic?

Either way, it usually requires a significant audience for such criticisms to come up in the first place. :)
 

Joshua Jones

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I see no reason why this could not be done in a respectful manner. People have been writing fantasy using concepts from various myths and religions for a long time. You can write about angels without insulting the Abrahamic faiths, for example.
True... and I am trying to stay reasonably close to the originals. I think I am hung up on the fact that I am forcing a foreign organization into the pantheon, where there are five lords each of Light, Darkness, and Chaos, who are over Sky, Water, Earth, Life, and Death. Also, I am changing core attributes of some of the gods, such as the gender of Tezcatlipoca to be a goddess (the symmetry works too well of the female protagonist becoming identified with a male sky bird god, and the main, male antagonist being identified with a Earth jaguar goddess) and splitting Quetzalcoatl into two deities (Quetzalcoatl and Koel). Do you think these changes are significant enough that I ought to change the names entirely?
I would ask 'how far out of the realm of actual history is your story?' If it is 'historical' save for some fantasy aspects (like Bob can shape shift or use magic), then I'd leave them as they are... being 'careful' to get their historical information right. If there isn't a lick of historical reference to it, then I'd make them up from scratch and how you'd like them, including the names.

Yet that's just me... Keep in mind, just because the Aztecs may have had X-gods that were Y-ways, that doesn't mean that some obscure (made up) tribe didn't have their own set of Gods. That gives you a lot of flexibility.

K2
Well, seeing as my story spans 10,000 years of cataclysm as a three way proxy war is waged in Central America between 15 deities and their naguals/demigods/avatars... I am going to go with pretty far away from history. What I really don't want to do, though, is spend 8 years creating a mythology/universe for this like I did with my SF WiP. I would like to be actively writing the story by January and ready for betas by next December, so that doesn't leave much time for creating an entirely new pantheon. Hence, it is appealing to borrow and adapt an existing one... but I don't really want that to backfire on me.

That charge usually comes up where the person has made little effort to properly research or represent the figures/concepts/peoples from a different culture - in effect, it's comparable to a charge of "lazy writing".

The big question to ask yourself is why you've chosen to represent Mesoamerican beliefs in the first place - something you're passionate about, or simply something you require as exotic?

Either way, it usually requires a significant audience for such criticisms to come up in the first place. :)
That's true, and of all my faults, not doing enough research is not among them... the story is Mesoamerican because the characters are. This is an expansion of a 100 word anonymous story I wrote on this site called Dies Irae, and everything about it is loosely Mesoamerican. So, it isn't so much that I am either passionate about the subject or that I am looking for something exotic as my characters chose this setting for me.

But, your last point is absolutely right; the likelihood of this becoming read enough to find someone who is passionate enough about Aztec deities to get worked up over me making Tezcatlipoca female and stripping Quetzalcoatl of his storm associations is pretty low... heck, I'll be happy if someone other than the beta readers picks up the darned thing.
 

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No less a towering figure of imaginative fiction that Roger Zelazny played free and loose with many different religions. Egyptian mythology in Creatures of Light and Darkness; Hindu and Buddhist themes in Lord of Light. I suppose there might be some devotees of these faiths who would not be pleased by by this. (There may not be many who follow the ancient Egyptian religion, but there are millions of Hindus and Buddhists.) I have not heard any criticism of these works from such. One reason might be that they are so excellently written and playful; certainly the author is not attacking anyone's beliefs.

At another extreme, one might consider Salman Rushdie's famous/infamous (pick one) novel The Satanic Verses, which so inflamed some Muslims. (I choose this example deliberately, as the book resembles Zelazny's work in that it is exquisitely written, plays freely with religious concepts, and is often very funny.)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I suggest you go for it. Play with the themes of the ancient MesoAmerican pantheon as you please. Just do it well.
 

The Big Peat

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Way I see it, once you've started writing about a culture other than your own you're open to the charges of cultural appropriation regardless off whether you include their religion or not. So either you write it or not and if you do write it, might as well use the gods as you see fit and respectful..
 

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Research, research and research.
Depending on where the book ends up going you could get criticism from someone sensitive to the culture you are appropriating. The only way to escape is to be of that culture and in that case one would assume you know all about the myths legends and history. Its not fair and I try not to jump down peoples throats when they vastly mislead people about things within my own culture--which I've been told is no culture at all.

However if your audience is small enough you may never hear those complaints.
Lastly, if you avoid reading reviews then there might be less impact on you initially.
Still if you do the research, then no matter what, you know you did the best you could.
 

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Keep in mind, regarding your concerns about cultural appropriation, that some people will seek to find offence no matter what. IOW, no matter how right you get it, how perfect of a portrayal and how accurate your facts, if you're not of that race/culture/nation/community, those few will accuse you of cultural appropriation. As an example, I believe recently (trying to recall the story), an actress was criticized for playing a transgender individual, because she was not actually transgender.

It's a sad state of affairs, when who we are is so fragile that no one except us, can talk about us. Eventually, that whittles down from we to me... So ends enlightenment.

K2
 

The Bluestocking

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Keep in mind, regarding your concerns about cultural appropriation, that some people will seek to find offence no matter what. IOW, no matter how right you get it, how perfect of a portrayal and how accurate your facts, if you're not of that race/culture/nation/community, those few will accuse you of cultural appropriation. As an example, I believe recently (trying to recall the story), an actress was criticized for playing a transgender individual, because she was not actually transgender.

It's a sad state of affairs, when who we are is so fragile that no one except us, can talk about us. Eventually, that whittles down from we to me... So ends enlightenment.

K2
Please do not make light of the fact that cultural appropriation does exist and happens when someone outside a culture (usually White) profits from using said culture for their business or art (usually by exoticising selected bits of the culture and/or using lazy stereotypes).

If someone from the culture whose myths, legends, and motifs you're using calls you out on cultural appropriation, they usually do so only if you don't do it with careful thought and respect. Do you think people like to do these call-outs? It takes a lot of time, energy, and hassle to do so. Nobody does it for fun or for the sake of making a mountain out of a molehill - they only do it when the artist/author doing the portrayal isn't doing it well and/or are perpetuating damaging stereotypes or erroneous ideas about their culture. For example, Jason Momoa launched his recent blockbuster AQUAMAN with a Maori haka and Tina Ngata, a Maori writer, wrote a very thoughtful piece on how Momoa's mistaken belief that the Maoris were aggressive and warlike has its roots in the colonial narrative of indigenous people as "savages" and that him using his international platform - powered by his stardom - to spread such stereotypes is damaging. Ngata isn't running around with wild accusations and being all dramatic about it - she's making the point that if he was going to do the haka, he should at least have done his homework about it.

Personally speaking, I'm ethnic Chinese and I can tell you now that I would never call out Guy Gavriel Kay for his Chinese-inspired alternative history fantasy UNDER HEAVEN because guess what? He did his research and he treated Chinese culture and history with respect. You can see and feel it in his writing.

And therein lies the key for writers - especially those from the dominant classes - who are afraid of being hauled up about cultural appropriation: Do. Your. Damn. Homework. Do your research, check in with people from that culture/class/ethnic group. When you have a manuscript draft, run it by someone from that culture. Failing that, engage a sensitivity reader.

I'm not doling out this advice as an armchair critic - I'm doing it as someone whose story world is a cosmopolitan mash-up filled with supernatural figures of myth, legend, and religion from across the world. For the figure of Baron Samedi, I ran it by a fellow writer who is a black man. Why? Because:

1. I am not a black man nor even a black person and so while I am aware of the history of slavery etc, I do not actually walk in their shoes or live their lives.
2. I did not want to accidentally perpetuate racial stereotypes about black men.

And I'm glad I did - he found a couple small things that were fixable and which might otherwise have tipped my take on Baron Samedi into a semi-caricature... and so I fixed it. The point is: I did NOT realise these were in there because of a cultural blindspot which we all have - usually subconsciously thanks to the way our culture relates to others - in terms of other social, ethnic, and religious groups.

It doesn't hurt anyone to do the extra legwork and to go extra lengths to check for stereotypes, authenticity, and any personal blindspots. In fact, it makes your stories stronger. An example of this is MAD MAX: FURY ROAD where George Miller made sure to hire Eve Ensler - one of the best-known anti-violence against women activists in the world - as a consultant to educate his cast and crew about violence against women, which is one of the major themes of the movie. The result is a sensitive and powerful treatment of the theme which did NOT interfere with the rip-roaring action of the story itself. The movie was all the stronger for it and had a lot more depth than the typical action movie.

If this sounds too politically correct for anybody here, I'm going to repeat what Neil Gaiman said about political correctness:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile. You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”

To sum things up @Joshua Jones :

Treat the culture(s) and traditions that you're sourcing your pantheon from with respect and you will be fine... but making sure you do so does take work on your part. And it's the same for anybody who wants to include/incorporate stuff from other cultures in their art.

Representation matters and it matters if you do it right.

ADDENDUM: Just scrolled up and saw that @tinkerdan also made this point. Hope that my more extensive unpacking of this point helps, @Joshua Jones !
 
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Joshua Jones

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Please do not make light of the fact that cultural appropriation does exist and happens when someone outside a culture (usually White) profits from using said culture for their business or art (usually by exoticising selected bits of the culture and/or using lazy stereotypes).

If someone from the culture whose myths, legends, and motifs you're using calls you out on cultural appropriation, they usually do so only if you don't do it with careful thought and respect. Do you think people like to do these call-outs? It takes a lot of time, energy, and hassle to do so. Nobody does it for fun or for the sake of making a mountain out of a molehill - they only do it when the artist/author doing the portrayal isn't doing it well and/or are perpetuating damaging stereotypes or erroneous ideas about their culture. For example, Jason Momoa launched his recent blockbuster AQUAMAN with a Maori haka and Tia Ngata, a Maori writer, wrote a very thoughtful piece on how Momoa's mistaken belief that the Maoris were aggressive and warlike has its roots in the colonial narrative of indigenous people as "savages" and that him using his international platform - powered by his stardom - to spread such stereotypes is damaging. Ngata isn't running around with wild accusations and being all dramatic about it - she's making the point that if he was going to do the haka, he should at least have done his homework about it.

I'm ethnic Chinese and I can tell you now that I would never call out Guy Gavriel Kay for his Chinese-inspired alternative history fantasy UNDER HEAVEN because guess what? He did his research and he treated Chinese culture and history with respect. You can see and feel it in his writing.

And therein lies the key for writers - especially those from the dominant classes - who are afraid of being hauled up about cultural appropriation: Do. Your. Damn. Homework. Do your research, check in with people from that culture/class/ethnic group. When you have a manuscript draft, run it by someone from that culture. Failing that, engage a sensitivity reader.

I'm not doling out this advice as an armchair critic - I'm doing it as someone whose story world is a cosmopolitan mash-up filled with supernatural figures of myth, legend, and religion from across the world. For the figure of Baron Samedi, I ran it by a fellow writer who is a black man. Why? Because:

1. I am not a black man nor even a black person and so while I am aware of the history of slavery etc, I do not actually walk in their shoes or live their lives.
2. I did not want to accidentally perpetuate racial stereotypes about black men.

And I'm glad I did - he found a couple small things that were fixable and which might otherwise have tipped my take on Baron Samedi into a semi-caricature... and so I fixed it. The point is: I did NOT realise these were in there because of a cultural blindspot which we all have - usually subconsciously thanks to the way our culture relates to others - in terms of other social, ethnic, and religious groups.

It doesn't hurt anyone to do the extra legwork and to go the extra length to check for stereotypes, authenticity, and any blindspots. In fact, it makes your stories stronger. An example of this is MAD MAX: FURY ROAD where George Miller made sure to hire Eve Ensler - one of the best-known anti-violence against women activists in the world - as a consultant to educate his cast and crew about violence against women, which is one of the major themes of the movie. The result is a sensitive and powerful treatment of the theme which did NOT interfere with the rip-roaring action of the story itself. The movie was all the stronger for it and had a lot more depth than a typical action movie.

If this sounds too politically correct for anybody here, I'm going to repeat what Neil Gaiman said about political correctness:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile. You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”

To sum things up @Joshua Jones :

Treat the culture(s) and traditions that you're sourcing your pantheon from with respect and you will be fine... but making sure you do so does take work on your part. And it's the same for anybody who wants to include stuff from outside their cultures.
Thanks for your input! It sounds like the core thing is doing research into the culture being represented to ensure I am avoiding stereotypes and writing a story about people, rather than caricatures. So, in other words, writing a story about another culture in the same way as I would want others to write a story about mine. If I don't like it when people depict all Irish-Americans (the ethnicity I belong to) as drunken filanderers, perhaps I shouldn't depict Hispanic ancestors as Sombrero wearing, taco eating border jumpers who seek to participate in petty crime and whose vocabulary primarily consists of first semester Spanish? Sounds pretty straightforward...

Let me elaborate a little on what I am working on. My story isn't set in a particular ancient Mesoamerican culture; rather, I mix in elements of Aztec, Maya, and Inca cultures and beliefs to create a fictional group of societies. The pantheon is inspired by the Aztec pantheon, and for the most part uses their names and attributes. I do reduce some of their powers, but do so in ways which balance things out a bit and focuses on their core essence, rather than their stereotypes (Quetzalcoatl, for example, is a feathered serpent god of life and storm in Aztec religion, but in mine, becomes a feathered serpent god of life, while an invented god named Koel is a storm bird god). I am not as much concerned about cultural appropriation regarding the characters, as the culture of the story never existed, the cultures which inspired culture no longer exist and only appears in loose bits in their descendents, and I am (hopefully!) writing a story about people (in this case, two lovers caught for 10,000 years on opposite sides of a proxy war between gods, which one of them actually started...). I did, however, research daily life, beliefs, customs, dress, cultural and religious beliefs, and understandings of magic in the process of creating my world, in an effort to be as authentic as possible.

Where my concern lies is in my changes to the pantheon being interpreted as a lack of research. I know, for example, that Tezcatlipoca, in Aztec mythology, is male, but it works better for the story for him to be female. What I don't want is for this adaptation to be interpreted as a lack of research. I think it won't be an issue, especially if I put something of a preface page to it saying that while adaptations were made, every effort was made to stay true to the heart of the source mythology (and then actually follow through on that, of course!). But, I don't pretend to know how other people see the world; hence this thread, so I can get feedback at an early point in my world building.

All that to say, researching the subject matter is something I have been doing rather zealously and anticipate continuing to do. I just wanted to ensure my adaptations don't come across as a lack of research, and the very depiction of Mesoamericans by an Irish American isn't intrinsically considered cultural appropriation.
 

The Bluestocking

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Thanks for your input! It sounds like the core thing is doing research into the culture being represented to ensure I am avoiding stereotypes and writing a story about people, rather than caricatures. So, in other words, writing a story about another culture in the same way as I would want others to write a story about mine. If I don't like it when people depict all Irish-Americans (the ethnicity I belong to) as drunken filanderers, perhaps I shouldn't depict Hispanic ancestors as Sombrero wearing, taco eating border jumpers who seek to participate in petty crime and whose vocabulary primarily consists of first semester Spanish? Sounds pretty straightforward...
It is mostly straightforward. But keep in mind your own blindspots - I didn't even realise I had those two bits that could've tipped my portrayal of Baron Samedi into a semi-caricature until my black male author friend pointed it out.

He was actually really pleased to help with reading the character to check for stuff like this. If you ask someone from the community/culture you're borrowing from/writing about, they are usually most likely to be happy to help (or would know someone who can help) because you're making a sincere effort to get things right and not misrepresent them and their culture.

But please - do your reading first. I did it for Baron Samedi before I attempted including him as a character in my novella. Then running it by my friend was a matter of making sure everything's on point.

Let me elaborate a little on what I am working on. My story isn't set in a particular ancient Mesoamerican culture; rather, I mix in elements of Aztec, Maya, and Inca cultures and beliefs to create a fictional group of societies. The pantheon is inspired by the Aztec pantheon, and for the most part uses their names and attributes. I do reduce some of their powers, but do so in ways which balance things out a bit and focuses on their core essence, rather than their stereotypes (Quetzalcoatl, for example, is a feathered serpent god of life and storm in Aztec religion, but in mine, becomes a feathered serpent god of life, while an invented god named Koel is a storm bird god). I am not as much concerned about cultural appropriation regarding the characters, as the culture of the story never existed, the cultures which inspired culture no longer exist and only appears in loose bits in their descendents, and I am (hopefully!) writing a story about people (in this case, two lovers caught for 10,000 years on opposite sides of a proxy war between gods, which one of them actually started...). I did, however, research daily life, beliefs, customs, dress, cultural and religious beliefs, and understandings of magic in the process of creating my world, in an effort to be as authentic as possible.

Where my concern lies is in my changes to the pantheon being interpreted as a lack of research.
Then talk to archaeologists and anthropologists who specialise in those particular ancient cultures and histories and read, read, and READ. Most cultures have subcultures and variations depending on the region in the country/empire. I've found that when you do enough digging, you can often come across variations that would work for your story's purposes.
 

The Big Peat

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the very depiction of Mesoamericans by an Irish American isn't intrinsically considered cultural appropriation.
Some people will tell you yes. I think they're wrong (or at least wrong to say its an automatically bad thing), and I think its quite a minority, but that's definitely a live viewpoint. How much that bothers you is your call, but if you're looking for an answer of "You'll definitely not face cultural appropriation criticism" then you're not going to get that. I think you know that and I apologise if I'm restating the obvious, but just wanted to be sure.
 

Joshua Jones

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Some people will tell you yes. I think they're wrong (or at least wrong to say its an automatically bad thing), and I think its quite a minority, but that's definitely a live viewpoint. How much that bothers you is your call, but if you're looking for an answer of "You'll definitely not face cultural appropriation criticism" then you're not going to get that. I think you know that and I apologise if I'm restating the obvious, but just wanted to be sure.
You are fine; at the end of the day, someone holding to that position isn't going to dissuade me from creating this story. I would rather demonstrate what I perceive is the absurdity of that position by demonstrating a cultural representation done well. But, it is also nice to know how widespread a position is which I will be indirectly thumbing my nose at...

The rest of it is to make sure I am doing my due diligence in taking inspiration from another culture, so that I can mitigate the legitimate criticism. I pretty well know the steps for human characters, but a religion is a different animal altogether. It sounds like the same basic principles apply, but I wanted to be extra sure simply because of how sensitive this subject can be. Given few, if any, still practice ancient Mesoamerican religions, and that this is a smattering of multiple, I think it is relatively safe, but I would rather have a thread than a picket...
 

Brian G Turner

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Just a heads up that I'd really like to stay on topic with the original post about writing, rather than let it be dragged into a wider discussion of social politics, thanks. :)

EDIT: This isn't directed at the above posts. :)
 
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