The Dark Side of Spirituality: Appropriation


Hannah Cohen

Another common tradition surrounding the evil eye is to have it hang over entryways, supposedly preventing evil from entering the space.

Since the pandemic began, spirituality has observed a massive increase in popularity. People from all age demographics have found themselves drawn into the world of crystals, incense, and guardian deities. However, along with this uptick in practicing spiritualists has come an increase in cultural appropriation. 

Due to spirituality being practiced in such a high variety of foreign cultures, it isn’t uncommon to see spiritualists, old and new, unknowingly appropriating different cultures. While some may defend themselves with the argument that because they are appreciating those elements, it’s cultural appreciation, there are certain cultural factors that just can’t be appreciated by those of other cultures. Spiritualists’ newfound desire to purchase items to help their “spiritual journey” ends up exploiting many cultural traditions.

Items such as white sage & palo santo smudge sticks and the evil eye are only a few of the examples I frequently see being severly appropriated. Though the items have their place in other cultures as the main tenet of their spiritual practices, I see many people on social media using these items inappropriately. 

Those who are not of Indigenous descent are actually not supposed to use white sage or palo santo smudge sticks at all. Smudging with these plants is a closed practice, meaning that those who are not Indigenous should under no circumstances participate in it. Regardless, people often use white sage without knowing the culture behind it, having simply picked it up at their local “spiritual store.” Due to the boom in demand for white sage, it becomes more and more endangered, with no way to tell if it has been ethically harvested, regardless of if you qualify for using it. 

The same goes for palo santo; using smudge sticks of palo santo is considered a closed practice whose exploitation has led to over-harvesting and appropriation. However, despite these two plants being off-limits to most people, there are many other options as far as culturally appropriate smudging. Good alternatives are juniper, rosemary, and lavender. They will accomplish the same objective. According to lore, using the wrong kind of smudge stick can actually negatively affect your energy and life, so it is in your best interest to steer clear. 

If you have white sage or palo santo and are not Indigenous, a common solution is to bury the sage, returning it to the Earth and showing you recognize that you are not someone who should possess the herb in this way. 

Another very commonly appropriated spiritual symbol is the “evil eye”. The evil eye is actually what the popular blue eye symbol protects against. Surprisingly, most cultures possess a curse that is inflicted when people are gazed upon with envy and jealousy as a result of their success. The amulet and symbol then evolved as a means of protecting the wearer from this curse. Even non-spiritualists are donning the amulet for its aesthetic appeal, without knowing the value and history it holds. The protective symbol is meant to be given as a gift in order for it to serve its purpose most effectively. Despite this notion, the amulet is frequently bought by the person using it, rendering its purpose much less powerful. The symbol has also seen a massive increase in popularity as a vain fashion symbol. Phone cases, clothing, and more are draped in the image.

While this is not necessarily desecrating the symbol, it is still being used without any heed for its true and original purpose. An old superstition is that this can even backfire on the wearer, as utilizing spiritual objects and symbols without recognizing their purpose can have negative repercussions. As long as those wearing the amulet have been gifted it and recognize its true use, the amulet will serve its function without being appropriated. 

Increasing commonality of spiritual symbols and objects has put many symbols and items in jeopardy of appropriation. Ensuring that cultural practices are properly respected and honored is as important a part of spirituality as actually embracing spirituality. Before you buy a spiritual item, do some research about its history and significance to make sure it’s not only okay for you to use, but also is going to serve the purpose you want it to.