Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Cultural Hijacking: the Svastika

Nothing makes my blood boil more than people who appropriate other people's culture for their own uses or with no understanding of the original culture. Let's be clear: I am a Canadian who studied Chinese History, and that's not a problem to me. It's cool to study and write about other cultures, just don't think I'm going to wander around in yellow face ever. I study and practice yoga, but no way am I going to start spouting off about ancient Hindu texts as I have zero idea on that.

Neither of these women doing yoga are me. (from Seattle Yoga News)

The absolute worst cultural appropriation award should go to the German Nazi Party of the early and mid-20th century. Why? Because not only did they decide that the ripping off the past glories of other nations and mythologizing their nation was a great way to cement their Fascist nationalism, but that stealing the icons of cultures that they barely knew about and probably would have tried to kill off anyways. One image was the Svastika.

Svastika, not Swastika You Idiot...

It's a Nazi horse? No you fool - it's a coin from Cornith, 500 BCE.
First, what is this odd cross like symbol? According to my go-to place of first blush information, Britannica Online (eat that Wikipedia) it's an ancient symbol always with with arms bent at right angles, all in the same rotary direction, usually clockwise.  The word is Sanskrit: svastika, meaning “conducive to well-being.” It was a favourite symbol on ancient coinage. In Scandinavia, the left-hand swastika was the sign for the god Thor’s hammer.(They missed that detail in the movies.)

The swastika also appeared in early Christian and Byzantine art where it became known as the gammadion cross, or crux gammata, because it has four Greek gammas [ Γ ] attached to a common base. The symbol is universal in that it occurred in South and Central America among the Maya and in North America among the Navajo peoples.

Here's where I laughed my ass off: The swastika as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune is widely distributed throughout the ancient and modern world. So...the Nazis were wishing themselves prosperity and good fortune. Ugh.

swastika on a temple
Peace and prosperity to you all, and...OMG what is that gargoyle doing up there?

In India the swastika continues to be the most widely used auspicious symbol of Hindus, Jainas, and Buddhists. Among the Jainas it is the emblem of their seventh Tirthankara (saint) and is also said to remind the worshipper by its four arms of the four possible places of rebirth—in the animal or plant world, in hell, on Earth, or in the spirit world.

A clear distinction is made between the right-hand swastika, which moves in a clockwise direction, and the left-hand swastika (more correctly called the sauvastika), which moves in a counterclockwise direction. The right-hand swastika is considered a solar symbol and imitates in the rotation of its arms the course taken daily by the Sun, which in the Northern Hemisphere appears to pass from east, then south, to west. The left-hand swastika more often stands for night, the terrifying goddess Kālī, and magical practices.

In the Buddhist tradition the swastika symbolizes the feet, or the footprints, of the Buddha. It is often placed at the beginning and end of inscriptions, and modern Tibetan Buddhists use it as a clothing decoration. With the spread of Buddhism, the swastika passed into the iconography of China and Japan, where it has been used to denote plurality, abundance, prosperity, and long life.

The legend goes that the Gautama Buddha (the historical Buddha) was inscribed with this symbol on the chest by his disciples upon his death. We often see statues of him with this symbol on the chest or on the sole of the feet. Many Buddhist texts start with this symbol, thus it has started being used in Japan as a symbol representing temples, especially on maps as the torii gate represents Shinto shrines.,+Kyoto+Prefecture,+Japan/@35.0228129,135.790626,16z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x6001a8d6cd3cc3f1:0xc0961d366bbb1d3d?hl=en
"My goodness there's a lot of Nazis in Kyoto. I guess they really were allies in WWII"

Goose-Stepping Thieves!!!

mom bought our goose at an estate sale and it
"Seriously don't associate me with those people"

The Holocaust museum has an amazing amount of research available on the acquisition of the Germans of the swastika. The advent of using the symbol begins pre-World War I. In 1910 a poet and nationalist ideologist Guido von List had suggested the swastika as a symbol for all anti-Semitic organizations; and when the National Socialist Party (NSP) was formed in 1919–20, it adopted it. They knew about the symbol from being nuts about archaeology: the famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the hooked cross on the site of ancient Troy. He connected it with similar shapes found on pottery in Germany and speculated that it was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors.”  His work soon was taken up by the NSP movements, for whom the swastika was a symbol of “Aryan identity” and German nationalist pride.

This conjecture of Aryan cultural descent of the German people is likely one of the main reasons why the Nazi party formally adopted the swastika or Hakenkreuz (Ger., hooked cross) as its symbol in 1920.
The Nazi party, however, was not the only party to use the swastika in Germany. After World War I, a number of far-right nationalist movements adopted the swastika. As a symbol, it became associated with the idea of a racially “pure” state. By the time the Nazis gained control of Germany, the connotations of the swastika had forever changed.

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote: “I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.”

On Sept. 15, 1935, the black swastika on a white circle with a red background became the national flag of Germany. This use of the swastika ended in World War II with the German surrender in May 1945, though the swastika is still favoured by neo-Nazi groups.

I said Neo, not Neon...

Screw You I'm Still Using It

Can the symbol be-reclaimed in the modern world? Well people use it still all the time outside of Europe and the Americas because fuck the Nazis. And they had it first. So when I went to China and Japan, I did see it on a few statues. There's a lot of people out there who want to reclaim the symbol from its misuse by the Nazis. But my friend John and I once talked about this and he was vehemently opposed, as it was a sensitive issue for many people. And I think he sums up a lot of what people feel: I'd rather just forget about it and never talk about it again.

I have to disagree: I watched a great BBC4 documentary on reclaiming the swastika and I think that's the better answer. I think we should commit to sharing information that reveals its long and varied history and the spiritually deep meaning that underlies it. For, if we allow the swastika to remain forever distorted, then those responsible will have won.
No way are we going to take this sitting....down...I mean....

If you haven't noticed, I didn't include one picture of a Nazi Swastika, because those assholes have gotten enough mileage out of stealing other people's stuff. And to more appropriately express my feelings, here's comedian Eddy Izzard on the Nazis and Hitler "the mass-murdering fuck head":

Books more your take?

Heidtmann, Horst. “Swastika.” In Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, 937-939. New York: Macmillan, 1991.
Heller, Steven. The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? New York: Allworth Press, 2000.
Quinn, Malcolm. The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. London: Routledge, 1994.