Fakelore and Cultural Appropriation: New Age and Folk Religion

Taking the example of the self-declared Zulu shaman Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa, Hans Gerald Hödl reflects on the difficult task of classifying religions and draws our attention to the power relations that are always at play in this process.


In 2004, David Chidester—focussing on “Fake Religion” disguised as “Folk Religion”—used the expression “Fakelore” in an article on Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa (1921-2020), a self-defined Zulu “Shaman”, “guardian of the Zulu tradition”, and Sangoma (traditional Zulu healer). Credo Mutwa could have been all of that, but he also could have been none of that. But before taking a look at his career from an inventor of Zulu myths, a spokesman of race separation during Apartheid and Neo-Apartheid policies in South Africa to a propagator of conspiracy theories, an environmentalist, and a New Age celebrity in cyberspace, let us talk about collecting butterflies.

[…] once we have the umbrella term “World Religion” we need at least one residual category where we put in all the rest. In my lectures I use to compare this residual category with the one kind of drawer (almost) everybody will have at home […]

Rosalind Shaw once compared it to the classification of religion—or: the typologies of religions brought forth—in Religious Studies. According to her, the latter is done by a variety of criteria: geography, membership numbers, ethnicity or transcending ethnic boundaries and so on. Like “American butterflies”, “Admiral butterflies”, “large butterflies”, “common butterflies” and the like we have—I somewhat expanded the list given by Shaw on my own—“Eastern Religions”, “Western Religions”, “Semitic Religions”, “Monotheistic” vs. “Polytheistic” religions, “Abrahamic Religions“, “African-derived Religions”, “East Asian Religions”, “World Religions”, “Ethnic Religions” and the like. One could go on with that list for several pages. The point of Shaw is, that, once we have a category like “World Religion” it depends on how we define what the word “world” means, when used as the definiens which delineates one kind of religion from all others. It could mean, for example, “a religion found in most parts of the world”, “a religion transcending ethnic boundaries”, “a religion particularly strong in membership”—I leave the reader on his/her own thoughts about which of the so-called “World Religions” is left out by the one or the other meaning. I particularly like Shaw’s suggestion, that “World Religions” could also be simply contrasted with “Extraterrestrial Religions.”

However one decides to define the definiens, once we have the umbrella term “World Religion” we need at least one residual category where we put in all the rest. In my lectures I use to compare this residual category with the one kind of drawer (almost) everybody will have at home, wherein you find, let’s say, batteries, glue, spectacles, keys, scissors, a screwdriver, tealight candles, twine, your passport, matches et cetera. This is what “primitive“, “primal”, “traditional”, “ethnic”, “indigenous” or “folk” religions[i] look like: a drawer, wherein we find the Siberian shaman’s soul journey, Navajo healing rituals, West African divination systems, Norse myths, East African Sky-“Gods” (see Godfrey Lienhardt on the problematic translation of the Dinka word for sky[ii]nhialic—as “God”), Australian “dreaming”, Melanesian mana and tápu, Amaterasu ō mi kami, the Ojibwa shaking tent ceremony, Ndembu initiation rituals and so forth.

My point here is that what is commonly called New Age Religion shows some striking similarities with this kind of drawer. Credo Mutwa’s later career is a worthwhile example for that. His experience in Zulu traditional healing stems from his mother’s side—as a young man, he fell seriously ill and his father, a former Catholic who converted to Christian Science, did not succeed in healing him on the basis of the Christian Science doctrine that illness, in its essence, was an illusion. So his mother, who stuck to “traditional religion”, turned to a Sangoma who effectively restored young Credo’s health, who in turn later interpreted his illness as an initiatory crisis that opened the way for him to become a Sangoma on his own. From the mid-1950s on, Mutwa worked as a specialist for authenticating South African art, and as he proved to be an imaginative storyteller, his employer sponsored books by him on Zulu folklore. From the anthropologist’s point of view, these stories had no connection at all to anything that was known until then of Zulu mythology. It can be considered as the common opinion of academic cultural and social anthropology, that these stories are “fakes”—or at least imaginations by their author—and that their reference to “real” indigenous religion can be compared to such renderings as Carlos Castaneda’s reports on the Yaqui sage Don Juan[iii] or Eugen Herrigel’s portrait of the so called “Zen-Master” Awa Kenzō in his famous book “Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens” (eventually, kyūdō—“the way of the bow”—only became associated with Zen after the translation of Herrigel’s book into Japanese, as Yamada Shōji has pointed out).


Farther on down the road, we find Mutwa as a supporter of South African’s then government ideology of “racial separation”, a role he became eligible for by his status as an “authentic” preserver of Zulu traditions and which he fulfilled in various positions. There are doubts about Mutwa’s claims to authenticity, as some of them cannot be historically proven. In post-Apartheid times, while rather ridiculed by the South African press as a charlatan, his former employment in a Game Reserve—he cared for African religious art, inter alia keeping the objects “alive” by ritual means—gave him some international reputation as both a keeper of Zulu cultural heritage and an environmentalist—for example receiving the Audi Terra Nova Award and being invited to international conferences, where he spoke about the special relationship of Africans to whales and dolphins, sacred lakes and the like. As a Sangoma he was renowned in those New Age circles that tend to construct a common lore of “alternative medicine” underlying all “traditional” healing methods we find in diverse folk religions of the world.

In this vein, in 1997, Mutwa collaborated with Roy Little Sun, who, born as Roy Steevenz in Indonesia, poses as a Hopi healer by virtue of having been “adopted” by some Hopi tribe. In fact, he has been permanently expelled from the Hopi reservation in 1995 for frauds in which he illegally used the names of Hopi elders. The ritual jointly conducted by Mutwa and Steevenz is an example of merging different folk traditions—in this case of “native American” and “African” ones, suggesting that there was a common tradition to all Amerindians and all Africans—in the context of New Age religion. Finally, Mutwa became prominent on the Internet for reports of his frequent contact with aliens—which echoes the important role of UFO sightings in what has been called “Proto New Age” by some scholars—in support of the conspiracy theory of David Icke (who holds that the world has been ruled from ancient times on by form-shifting reptilian aliens).

This sketch of Mutwa’s career shows, that what is called “New Age” spirituality does not only lump together elements from the drawer called “Folk Religion” but in itself is an example of that kind of drawer I have compared with some of the categories we use in our typologies of religion. David Chidester, on whose portrait of Mutwa I have drawn extensively, puts the question of what a scholar of religion should do with that blurred line between “authentic” Folk Religion and fake religion, for example in internet fora dedicated to New Age spirituality. His point is twofold: first, he highlights the fact that folk religions are not “traditional” in that sense that suggests an unchanged religious tradition handed down from generation to generation. I would agree on that one: there is no such thing as a “traditional” religion untouched by historical change. Furthermore, Chidester writes: “a fake religion can do real religious work by establishing the kinds of relations among superhuman beings, subhuman beings, and human beings that are worked out in any folk religion.” For me, this sentence is accurate when—and only when—we do not care about whether the superhuman beings mentioned here really exist or not. This is the point of view of the scholar in Religious Studies, who takes religion as a cultural symbol system amongst others—it is not the theologian’s point of view, who, from the perspective of his/her religious tradition, separates truth from fake or illusion in religion. For the scholar in Religious Studies (as such, not as a private person), there is no such thing as “truth” or “falsehood” in the ontological claims of any religion.

[…] who rightly claims authorship and who should be accused of plagiarism in that kind of butterfly collecting that New Age spirituality resembles, in itself a mirror of that residual category in the typology of religion?


But this is not the whole story. Whether we believe in the truth obvious or hidden in one or the other folklore or fakelore tale, or not, whether we believe, like some “New Agers” do, that there is a common meaning and truth in all of the world’s folk, indigenous, traditional, ethnic religions or whatever we will call them, or not, one crucial question remains: who rightly claims authorship and who should be accused of plagiarism in that kind of butterfly collecting that New Age spirituality resembles, in itself a mirror of that residual category in the typology of religion? How do members of the Zulu ethnic group feel when confronted with invented “Zulu traditions”, what do “Native Americans”[iv] think about the use of their cultural traditions in contexts that have nothing to do with their cultural setting? There is a word for the unease felt towards that kind of “western” eclecticism that picks out myths, rituals and cosmological traits from various “indigenous” cultures for the sake of an “alternative” spirituality: cultural appropriation. This becomes most evident, when we become aware of the fact, that (not solely) “western” entrepreneurs in the field of alternative spirituality make a living on and earn good money with that kind of eclecticism.

Lately, in an excellent study on West African Vodún, Timothy R. Landry has thoroughly analysed the issues connected with the “global market” that has developed in the recent decades for this indigenous religion, a heritage of formerly colonised peoples that has made its way to at least a side stage of “World Religions”. This is mainly the outcome of the development of African derived religions in the Americas, initiated by slaves of African heritage, but more or less open to adherents of non-African descent. Interest in the African roots of those religions by “Westerners” brought about some kind of “spiritual tourism” (of spiritual seekers of African, mixed, or even non-African descent) to Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, and with it the question whether Vodún belongs exclusively to certain West African people or is “for everyone”. According to Landry, answers differ: whilst some say it is for everyone, some priests do not initiate everyone and also restrict certain initiations mostly to compatriots. For example, the oracle can exclude one person; or, initiation into a secret society in one town does not automatically lead to being accepted by cult-members in another town, and so on. And then there are those adherents to Vodún who hold that after colonialism, their religion is the only thing left that colonial powers haven’t taken from them.

Landry’s considerations go way beyond such questions as staged performances of rituals for the common tourist vs. “real” ceremonies. The issue at stake is cultural appropriation by initiated spiritual seekers that make a living by offering kind of “certified” rituals back home (using the religious authority they claim as initiates in West African religions). Landry points to the reaction of spiritual tourists when their expectations that “Africa is cheap” are confronted with the high costs of initiations. One might ask, why shouldn’t they pay those who give them the authority to make money by disclosing otherwise secret rituals to them? I remember the amazement of some of my students when confronted with the financial demands of West-African ritual specialists during excursions. My answer is: I make a living on giving lectures on and writing about those religions, and partly I rely on information I directly got from those “priest*esses”. Why shouldn’t they get their part of the money?

Can we, as Religious Studies scholars, simply describe the elements that New Agers have put into their drawer, and […] just maintain that […] what they do serves the same purpose as “real” folk religion, without taking into account the power-relationships involved here?

Here we touch another topic reflected on by Landry: the difference between the anthropologist’s and the spiritual seekers’ role in the field. Is it cultural appropriation when an anthropologist like Landry gets initiated in some cults? This theme has long been discussed in social anthropology, as the “insider/outsider” problem. But the apprenticeship method should not be seen merely as a matter of methodology. It is an ethical question of due respect for the persons who are the authors of their religious acts—as the idea of “guesthood”, as defined by Graham Harvey, shows. How would this apply to an initiation of spiritual seekers? Furthermore, there are spiritual seekers Landry brands New Agers, who are eager to create a kind of Vodún light for a Western clientele—for example, leaving out animal sacrifice or shaving one’s head in initiation rituals. Is this “whitening” of the religion, as Landry calls it, still Vodún or something completely different?

In the end, what we are talking about here are simply power relationships. How can the authors of “Folk Religions”, like “Native American”, “West African”, “Zulu”, and so on (whatever our drawer might contain) remain in possession of and power over their religion or culture? Is the New Age spiritual seeker from the Western world merely a post-colonial neo-colonialist? What about the power-relationships of “western” anthropologists initiated into more or less secret cults to the owners of these cults, after we had all those methodological discussions of the insider/outsider view in anthropology of religion, after postcolonial deconstructions of ethnography and the like? Can we, as Religious Studies scholars, simply describe the elements that New Agers have put into their drawer, and, whether those are fake or fact, just maintain that whatever they take out of their drawer to conduct a healing ceremony or some other kind of ritual, what they do serves the same purpose as “real” folk religion, without taking into account the power-relationships involved here?


David Chidester: Credo Mutwa, Zulu Shaman: The Invention and Appropriation of Indigenous Authenticity in African Folk Religion. In: David Chidester e.a., Religion, Politics, and Identity in a Changing South Africa. Münster-New York-München-Berlin: Waxmann, 2004, 69-87.

Graham Harvey: Guesthood as Ethical Decolonising Research Method. In: Numen 50 [2003], 125-146.

Hans Gerald Hödl: Im Dialog mit den Anderen. Religionswissenschaft im Feld. In: Thomas Krobath / Andrea Lehner-Hartmann / Regina Polak, Anerkennung in religiösen Bildungsprozessen. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven. Diskursschrift Martin Jäggle. Wien, 37-46.

Timothy R. Landry: Vodún: Secrecy and The Search for Divine Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Godfrey Lienhardt: Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Rosalind Shaw: The Invention of ‚African Traditional Religion‘. In: Religion 20 [1990], 339-353.

Shōji Yamada: The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 28/1–2, 1-30.

Hans Gerald Hödl is a Member of the Research Centre’s Council. He is Associate Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna. He also plays the drums.

[i] I do not discuss these terms here; in some way or another, all of them are problematic.

[ii] There is an abundance of meanings metaphorically linked to „sky“.

[iii] In contemporary academic anthropology, Castaneda’s books are held to be fiction, although some hard-core fans still believe in the veracity of his accounts.

[iv] In fact, they are neither „native“—as there are no strictly native people to any country in the world, when we take into account the ways in which humans have populated the earth—nor “Americans”, since they only became “Americans” after the so-called “discovery” of (the) America(s), a continent named after an Italian navigator by a German cartographer in 1507.

Bildrechte beim Autor

Rat-Blog Nr. 22/2021

One thought on “Fakelore and Cultural Appropriation: New Age and Folk Religion”

  1. If I understand you correctly, you don’t make a difference between the purposes of New Agers and „real folk tradition“. But do you also mean, that both have the same place value or the same significance? Or points this question in the wrong direction?

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht.