Updated: Apr 12
This article is the first on the series of articles on Getting-To-Know the WOOP's Team of Authors. WOOP is created by a team of women from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Here you can learn more about these women while diving with them into their spiritual journeys.
I’m standing at the beach of Copacabana. Sand between toes, sun on skin. It’s the last day of the year, and I’ve just jumped over seven waves while throwing eight white roses into the water. The flowers were a gift to Iemanjá. According to Brazilian belief, this Queen of the Sea and Goddess of Fertility and Motherhood gives us the strength to overcome the obstacles we will have to face next year.
Am I Brazilian? No, I’m not. Am I a cultural copycat gringa? I like to think I’m not. This country was my home for many years, and I couldn’t help it - its many myths, rituals, beliefs, and traditions became mine too. Even if only slightly.
These kinds of ‘spiritual’ things are not natural to me. Growing up in a Dutch atheist family, we didn’t do myths, rituals, beliefs, and only a few traditions. However, after I moved back from Brazil to the Netherlands a few years ago, I became increasingly interested in the journey beyond the self. I started to have questions such as how to explain the universe and our existence in it; wondering about higher powers, mystical experiences or insights.
Was it the many Brazilian myths, rituals, and beliefs that had triggered my curiosity? Was it my spiritual encounters on psychedelics that had awakened a sparkle inside of me? Was it the fact that I was getting older – and the changing needs that go with it? Or was it a combination of the three?
My definition of spirituality
If someone were to ask you what the word spirituality means to you, what would you say? Something mysterious? Anything to do with the soul and spirit? Some wishy-washy paranormal thing? The search for the divine? Or maybe anything beyond the physical world? It’s difficult to find a definition, right? In reality, spirituality is different for everyone. And it depends on your cultural background and your experiences in life.
I like the definition Philip Sheldrake gives in his book ‘Spirituality. A Very Short Introduction’. “‘Spirituality’ is a word that, in broad terms, stands for lifestyles and practices that embody a vision of human existence and of how the human spirit is to achieve its full potential.”
For me, more specifically, spirituality has become a way of exploring the deepest self, discovering the very core of my identity, and the ultimate purpose of life.
A favorite rockstar saint or orixá
Brazil fascinated me for various reasons, but surely one of them was its spiritually diverse crowd. Virtually everybody believes in something - and there’s a significant choice of faiths to express this belief. There are the institutionalised religions, such as Catholicism and Protestantism, but there’s also Allan Kardec’s Spiritism, Santo Daime - known for their use of ayahuasca, Candomblé, Umbanda, Batuque, Xango, Jurema Sagrada, Tambor de Mina - just to name a few - and a multitude of contemporary native Amazonian religions.
And if you belong to the small percentage that doesn’t adhere to any of the above, you have at least one or more favourite rockstar saints or orixás. The latter are supernatural beings, brought to Brazil from Nigeria by enslaved Yoruba people. When Catholicism was enforced on them, they kept their orixás alive by associating each of them with a Catholic saint. This way, they could hide their faith and not lose their right to worship.
The spiritual impoverishment of modern Western society
Iansã is the orixá of wind, lightning, storms, death and rebirth. For some reason or another (although I assume my Dutch directness has a role in it) different people have told me I’m a daughter of Iansã. I like it - to be compared to this fierce lady dressed in a bright red strapless dress. In her hands, a sword and a torch. On her head, a crownlike tiara, with a curtain of beads to hide her face.
I like listening to tales about her and the other orixás. This, and other ‘spiritual stuff’, is not an uncommon conversation topic in Brazil. In the Netherlands, it’s slowly becoming a more common one. Although you still stand a chance to be considered weird, a touchy-feely-vibe type, or ‘just a hippie’.
In my opinion, Western society, with its industrialization, technology, and excessive consumerism has been spiritually impoverished over the centuries. But with fewer and fewer people finding strength and inspiration from its institutionalized religions, the way has been paved for other religious and spiritual beliefs. At first, in the 1960s, through New Age - the famous movement that, amongst others, exoticized the wisdom and practices of Hinduism and Buddhism.
An estimated 35,000 to 100,000 women were burned alive
When I think of the New Age movement, I cannot help but wonder why they mainly built on these Eastern religions and practices. Don’t get me wrong. I see much beauty in them. I’m a dedicated Vipassana meditator myself after spending 10 days in a silence retreat in Sri Lanka a few years ago. A memorable experience that I would not want to have missed.
But what about my own spiritual roots? What traditions, rituals and beliefs did my ancestors have? Can I grow and learn from their spiritual wisdom without having to appropriate customs from another culture and be a cultural copycat gringa… again?
Unfortunately, there’s little information about ancient pre-Christian Western European rituals and customs. This is partly due to historical falsification and pseudohistory, shamelessly executed by religious fanatics who wanted to eradicate and destroy these ancient cultures. After the fall of the Roman Empire, missionaries began to spread Christianity. Everything that was not Christian was labeled ‘heathen’.
Over time, they also started to hunt witches. These wise women who often held special positions within their community were suspected of having a pact with the devil and terrorizing Christianity. An estimated 35,000 to 100,000 women were burned alive because they maintained their spiritual practices and traditions that were no longer tolerated. In the 15th century, some Roman Catholic fanatic clergy even wrote a witch-hunting manual: the Malleus Maleficarum. It contained the most effective methods of how to torture these “women of Satan”.
A revival of witchcraft could change the world
I often joke that I used to be a witch in a previous life. Interestingly enough, the more I learn about this ancient pre-Christian Western religion, the more I think that this actually might be true.
Witchcraft* totally resonates with me: it worships the feminine, considers everything on earth to be connected, has faith in the power of the cosmos, does not need churches, nor temples, and most importantly: it has a deep respect for nature. Witches work together with nature, as opposed to the (failing) materialistic Western development model that keeps working against it. With increasingly dangerous consequences. Isn’t the current pandemic a proof of this?
According to Dutch writer Susan Smit in her (fabulous!) book ‘Witch - A Magical Journey through Western Spirituality’** a revival of witchcraft could change the world. “It suits our modern times because it is individualistic and there are no gurus or prophets. People are looking for tools and techniques wherewith they can make their own spiritual journey - and witchcraft can offer these to them.”
Opting for a more spiritual, natural lifestyle
Besides witchcraft, there were more religious movements in ancient pre-Christian Europe. Without any authority structure, these spiritual and polytheistic*** traditions all worshipped nature. Today several (neo)religious movements try to revive these ancient religions. There is Wicca - a more organized form of witchcraft, Ásatrú - based on ancient Germanic mythology, and Hellenism - which reconstructs Greek mythology and the ancient Greek religion. These so-called ‘neo-pagan’ movements have some striking commonalities: they oppose the modern, hectic way of life and its rationalist, linear, competitive way of thinking, seeking closeness to nature, and opting for a more spiritual, natural lifestyle.
After a period of darkness, the light returns
Another notable common ground is that all these (neo)religious movements celebrate the Wheel of the Year - an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, such as spring and autumn equinoxes, and winter and summer solstices. In doing so, they honor the changing of the seasons and the moon phases – just like our ancestors did.
Take winter solstice. It is the moment when after a period of darkness, the light returns and the days gradually begin to lengthen again - our shortest day of the year. You can imagine the importance of light returning in those ancient times when everybody depended on agriculture for their survival. The reason why they celebrated the winter solstice exuberantly, with feasts, fire and light.
This is not some wishy-washy bullshit
I'm caught by the richness and beauty of my spiritual roots' myths, rituals, and beliefs. They do exist, and I totally resonate with them. I keep wondering why we don't learn these things at school. This is not some wishy-washy bullshit. It's part of our DNA. Our history. And it should have an essential part in our upbringing too.
My first winter solstice celebration
A few weeks ago I was over the moon to receive an invitation for an (online) Winter Solstice. My first one! I joined curiously and eager. And.I.Loved.It. It felt if someone tenderly laid a soft blanket over my shoulders. And as if I were consecrated into the next phase of my spiritual awakening.
Ready to continue my spiritual quest ‘back home’
So what about Iemanjá? For sure, I will keep throwing flowers for her. Both her and Iansã will always have my back - and I know I will have theirs. I admire them, worship them in my very own ‘gringa’ way. They are a heritage of my years in Brazil - just like many other customs, beliefs, rockstar saints and orixás. They were partly responsible for my growing curiosity for spirituality, and now I’m ready to continue my spiritual quest ‘back home’. Without having the feeling of being a cultural copycat gringa of something that was never originally mine. Or even only slightly.
Spring equinox, here I come!
*Witchcraft is a broad term that varies culturally and societally and thus can be difficult to define with precision. In this article I’m talking about Western witchcraft.
** (Unfortunately) only available in Dutch. Original title: ‘Heks - een Magische Reis door de Westerse Spiritualiteit’
*** Polytheism is the belief in multiple gods
Marlies van Exter is a Dutch professional trainer and writer who loves to explore and inspire. She is one of WOOP's regular writers. Through her work, she wants to contribute to a world where everyone understands, respects and builds on their different perspectives. She believes that by digging deeper and going beyond cultural conditioning, it’s possible to create real connections and a better world. Marlies has always had an insatiable curiosity and eagerness to get the most out of life. In psychedelics, she found a travel companion for this and a guide to know herself on a deeper level.
Want to know more about Marlies’ work? Check out her website Magpie Communications.