Cultural Integration and the Prisca Theologia

The following is an excerpt from The Book of Maps, the companion guidebook to the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot, a hand-illustrated black and white tarot deck crafted with practitioners of the mystic arts in mind. The pen and ink drawings were inspired by woodcut prints from the late Renaissance. Symbology called upon is based predominantly on medieval European alchemy, astrology (the Sacred Seven), Hermeticism, Zoroastrianism, Abrahamic angelology, Kabbalah, Catholicism/Christianity, Sufism, and Egyptian mythology.

For more information about the deck, go to:

Excerpt from The Book of Maps

Cultural Integration and the Prisca Theologia

I commented on cultural appropriation in my second book, The Tao of Craft. So this chapter is not about my thoughts on cultural appropriation, of which I have many. This chapter is on cultural integration and its necessity when it comes to the doctrine of prisca theologia.

Medieval philosophers and mystics on the quest to memorialize a single, universal theology searched beyond the borderlines of their own traditions. While their doctrines were based largely in Christian and Jewish mysticism, metastasized by the integration of Platonic philosophy and Sufism, the quest for that universal theology led these thinkers to consider Hinduism, Buddhism, and even a return to unearth the deeper heritage of their own pagan roots.

Cultural integration is conceptual alchemy that blends what had been separate artistic, intuitive paths of wisdom into one unified system of evolved thought. Integration of diverse doctrines is necessary for the advancement of metaphysics and science. That which closes itself off from integration will not evolve, and if you don’t evolve, then you can’t transcend.

The advanced civilizations of history were products of cultural integration. At the age of twenty, a Macedonian king—and a student of Aristotle—succeeded his father to the throne and with his newfound reign, expanded his father’s empire across Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great launched the Hellenistic Period (323 BC to 31 BC), when Greek culture, religion, mythos, and esotericism spread throughout Europe and later to the New World out West, changing the ideologies of the societies that Greek thought integrated into. Consequentially, the Hellenistic culture was indelibly changed by the people that Alexander’s army conquered. Alexander himself personally adopted many of the customary practices of the Egyptians and Persians. Thus, Egyptian and Persian culture wove their way into the global fabric in ways that now cannot be untangled.

Greco-Buddhism, a religious syncretism between Hellenistic and Buddhist philosophies, produced mutual, tempered change in both the East and West. Alexander’s reign changed the spiritual landscape of Central Asia, leaving notable Greek influences over the Buddhist art of antiquity. For instance, 4th century Mahayana Buddhist depictions of the Vajrapani bodhisattva—a divinity associated with the golden thunderbolt, heroic in character and a great protector of the Gautama Buddha—were influenced by the Greek depictions of Hercules/Heracles. The Hercules-inspired Vajrapani bodhisattva depictions then in turn inspired the Niō, divine guardians in Japanese Buddhism.

Reciprocating, Buddhism made its way into Christianity. The Greek orthodox Christian story of Saint Barlaam and Prince Josaphat that was popular in the Middle Ages is just one example of that syncretism. The story of Barlaam and Josaphat is based loosely around the life story of the Gautama Buddha.

As permeating as Greek thought was across the ancient world, ancient Greek mystery traditions themselves were a syncretic blend of Mesopotamian and Persian thought, with Zeus being a Hellenized version of the Egyptian god Amun. During the Roman Empire, the polytheistic Roman traditions evolved to fold in Celtic and Germanic mythologies, in addition to the intimate syncretism between Greek and Roman mythology.

Gnosticism in the first and second centuries was a blending of Jewish and Christian mysticism and even religious thought from the East, such as Zoroastrianism, Aramaic and Mesopotamian thought, with modern scholars speculating syncretism with Mahayana Buddhism as well, given the undeniably strong parallels between Gnosticism and Buddhism.

The Byzantine Renaissance (867 to 1056 AD) was another period when cultural integration (and thus the arts and sciences) flourished. Greek and Roman aesthetics intersected with Latin, Persian, and Egyptian culture, all blending in to Orthodox Christianity, giving rise to Byzantine art, which later shaped the Italian Renaissance.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Genghis Khan’s reign over a broad and diverse empire brought about another wave of cultural integration. Though he was a tengrist (a form of Central Asian paganism that consists of shamanism and animism), he nonetheless invited a diverse range of thought leaders into his court. Genghis Khan is credited by historians as crystallizing the irrefutable economic relevance of the Silk Road, a trade network connecting the East and West, and the source of profound syncretism between Eastern and Western cultural thought so that the invention of playing cards could travel from China, through the Mamluk empire, and into Renaissance Italy.

However, the Silk Road precedes Genghis Khan by almost 1,500 years, its namesake coming from the precious silk trade during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) and enduring for dynasties thereafter. In antiquity, spices, such as Ceylon cinnamon (which was also imported from Egypt into Europe), cassia cinnamon, and frankincense moved from East to West, becoming so prized in the West that the Abrahamic religious traditions considered them holy. The ingredients of the Biblical holy oil in the Book of Exodus, and even the ingredients listed in the later version memorialized in the Book of Abramelin, are all spices native to Asia brought to Europe through the Silk Road.

Still other cultures showcase fascinating instances of cultural integration. The Kingdom of Aksum, situated in what is now modern-day Ethiopia, was a formidable global power, in significant part because it was a critical connecting point between the Mediterranean and the Orient. It was also a kingdom open to integrating Judaism, Christianity, and Hellenism. Even the civilizations of antiquity were culturally integrated, such as ancient Egypt, where Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, was of Greek ancestry, and her society was one that integrated Libyans, Berbers, Nubians, and Parthians.

Tarot itself is the product of cultural integration. It arose in popularity during the Italian Renaissance (between 1300 and 1600 AD), evolved from the Mamluk playing cards of Persia, which came from the invention of playing cards in China. The interest in tarot took a notable turn during the Age of Enlightenment (1685–1815), when the occultists of the time saw patterns of Egyptian magic, Jewish mysticism, Greek mystery traditions, and Hermeticism in the symbols on the tarot cards, paving the groundwork for the Victorian and Edwardian eras when the tarot became culturally integrated into Western ceremonial magic. Thus, although the tarot is not occult, study of Western occultism is tethered to the study of tarot symbology.

Aleister Crowley’s work was influenced heavily by Eastern esotericism, from Hinduism to Taoist ceremonial magic. Crowley himself believed that he was the reincarnation of Ge Xuan, a 2nd century Chinese alchemist and occultist. During his travels through China, his magical work focused heavily on invocations of his Holy Guardian Angel, namely through recitations of the Bornless Ritual (adapted from a Preliminary Invocation, which Crowley and Macgregor Mathers linked to the Goetia, or the Lesser Key of Solomon).

Carl Jung, who seemed likely to have subscribed to a pantheistic spirituality, was convinced as a psychologist that the fundamental purpose of human life was spiritual transcendence, and to evolve beyond our physical bodies into a form of psychic or spiritual union with a Divine. His conclusions came from dedicated study of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, which he integrated with his studies of Christianity and Gnosticism.

Another renowned figure in occultism, Gerald Gardner traveled to East Asia in his 40s, making his way through Vietnam, China, Singapore, and the Philippines, where his primary interest was cultural anthropology. It’s hard not to notice the remarkable similarities between Taoist esotericism and Asian folk magic with Wiccan thought.

Today in contemporary times, neither Eastern occultism nor Western occultism exists in pureform devoid of the other. Rather than decry it, I say let’s embrace it.

I am going to assert that not only should we give wide latitude and bestow sympathy to those who integrate disparate mystery traditions, especially in the sphere of personal occult practices, but it is required. It is required.

The Holy One has many names and Spirit manifests through multi-dimensional faces. Anyone tuned in to the force field of Spirit is going to channel a pluralistic view of that Spirit because Spirit is pluralistic. As a human receiver of that divine wavelength, sometimes you’re going to pick up Spirit through the vocabulary of one cultural system of beliefs and other times you are going to pick it up through the vocabulary of another altogether different system of beliefs. I dare say if you have always and only, exclusively picked up on the Voice of Spirit through one monochrome and homogenous ideological perspective, then perhaps it is not the Voice of Spirit you’re hearing, but the voice of your own ego.

Emboldening cultural integration is not to dismiss cultural appropriation. The balancing plank between the two is a socially dangerous one to tread, with an ever unreliable fulcrum. To seize upon the ideas of a culture and not genuinely honor its people is to lack the compassion and empathy necessary for transcendence, and so that attempt at integration fails. To construct theology beholden to accommodating the materialist accoutrements and socialized dogma of the people chains the spirit to the body, binding it against transcendence, and so that attempt at integration also fails. Where is the Middle Path? Damned if I know.

To not know doesn’t mean you don’t dare. And yet when you dare, you need to acknowledge that there will be consequences if you fail. The seeker of the divine mysteries must dare to push boundaries and comfort zones, but also must accept the risks of treading so close to the tiger’s tail. When the tiger bites, you cannot then say in retrospect that you had no idea you would be bitten.

If social inhibitions disempower you from daring to tread upon the balancing beam of cultural integration, then it is still a distant day before you can come to know the prisca theologia for yourself. Will you find yourself accused of doing the sinister rather than the divine? Probably. Does that mean you are doing the sinister rather than the divine? Probably not. I’m quite confident that the gods will let you know, one way or the other. So why give attention to the judgment of public opinion?

During earlier stages of my path, I believed ideas needed to be packed in boxes based on heritage and origin. I would not have been in favor of cultural integration at that time in my life and probably would have called it the dilution, even the pollution of my culture. I would have propped up the political consequences of cultural integration gone awry as validating my point of view, calling it cultural imperialism, not integration.

In every preceding historic instance of cultural integration I mentioned thus far, I only mentioned the positive and the light side. The negative, insidious, and the dark side is the subjugation, enslavement, and suppression of people, how cultural integration often leads to the erasure of parts in the conquered culture that the conquerors reject. Aborigine languages and shamanic practices have gone extinct because cultural integration kept the parts and not the whole, wiping out what the conquerors chose not to keep.

The extinction of native practices is a profound human tragedy, and as a global society, we need to do better. The more of shamanic intelligence we lose, the more out of touch with the spiritual dimensions of our world we get, and the farther that divide, the more inhibited we will become, constricted to the material world, which mystic thought of all cultural origins have warned us is evil, the true devil, is what’s corrupt. Our contracts binding us to the physical body is what make us the beast.

Arriving critically to a mindset of endeavoring for cultural integration isn’t and shouldn’t be easy. If it’s easy for you, then you’ve missed the crucial journeying through consideration of your accountability to others. And you have to be accountable to others. Absolving yourself of that social responsibility is spiritual poison.

It took me a long time to arrive at a mindset that invited cultural integration with the mystery traditions of my ethnic heritage. I am a person of color, and every day I walk out into the world living the dissonance between how I look and how everyone around me looks, how I perceive equality and opportunity versus how the dominant culture gets to perceive equality and opportunity. That is the exhausting lived experience of the physical body my spirit is confined in. And so that is one of the greater shadows I personally have had to work through so that my spirit can transcend beyond its physical body, because body is limitation.

Cultural appropriation is a reality. It is as real as our perceptions of it, and those perceptions come from an exhausting, often inescapable lived experience of marginalization and in many cases, outright oppression. I’ve had quite the difficult time with breaking free from the chains of my body’s lived experiences—and continue with the struggle even to this day. And yet it is absolutely and painfully necessary to let go.

Spirituality is shallow when you try to play matchy-matchy with culture, race, and religion. Yet it is just as shallow when you wear exotic spiritual customs as you do cosmetics simply because you’ve found the aesthetics to be fashionable (or perhaps you see exotic spirituality as a plausible alternative to the religion of your own native culture, because due to the shadow of the lived experience of your body, you reject your heritage with that religion). Both still place too much emphasis on the body and not enough on the mind.

It’s self-evident that Spirit Keeper’s Tarot is the product of cultural integration, because it is my thesis on the prisca theologia.

Your engagement with cultural integration will be necessary to read competently with the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot deck. The line drawings of the cards are encoded with a universal intention so that specific divinities can enter those line drawings and fill the blank spaces with the colors of their tradition-specific identity. The lines of the Archangel of Healing card in this deck, for example, could be Archangel Raphael, or Kuan Yin, or her protégé Mazu, the shamaness immortalized as a sea goddess, or Brigid, or the Vedic water goddess Danu, Anahita, the Avestan divinity of the waters, and so on, through the many holy names of divinities associated with Water, or healing, or both.

When the Seven of Swords—The Rogue—shows up, a trickster divinity may be interfering or present in a very specific situation in your everyday life. The specific manifestation of that trickster divinity by holy name will differ depending on who you are, notwithstanding the culture-specific mythology that inspired the illustration.

I see the presence of several different deities from different pantheons staking claim in The Tower card. Weaving in symbology of animal totems is also rampant throughout the deck. When cards show up in a reading with depictions of herbs, check this Book to identify it; perhaps it is a message from Spirit with metaphysical recipe instructions on how to craft.

Thus, the many names of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s many faces will appear in varying forms, depending on who is looking. That strikes at the core of the programming I’ve intended for this deck.

For those interested in further commentary by me on the topic of cultural appropriation:

Index of Sub-Pages

8 thoughts on “Cultural Integration and the Prisca Theologia

  1. sylvanmoon

    It is a fine line between cultural integration and cultural appropriation. I feel that understanding the various cultural beliefs brings one (my own opinion) to realize that all paths lead back to the One. With gentle weaving and seeing, it’s good to be true to ourselves and respect what others may be going through. My own journey has been expansive and contractive, repeatedly. So much so that I thought I was a spiritual flake! With the repetitive “Why can’t I commit to one spiritual path?” spiraling in my head.

    Have you ever heard of Leigh McCloskey? He created a 22 Trump deck called Tarot Re-Visioned. The images of the Trumps are fascinating and beautiful. The book is a masterpiece and reminds me a lot of your work Benebell. His is more from a Western Esoteric view, while yours if from an Eastern Esoteric one. But you both integrate what you’ve learned and still are learning into fascinating views of the world. Thank you for all that you do (and it’s a lot!).


  2. Kalliope

    I get very confused between cultural integration and appropriation. Mostly because I’m a first generation Australian, with a Scandinavian father and Asian mother. I don’t look like either of them, but I don’t look like the people around me either. And to foreigners I sound Australian, but there are some syllables I pronounce a bit differently that I don’t sound like a “real Aussie”. And the location of this nation along with its history make it awkward or difficult to pin down what it means to be “australian”, there is such a disparity in national identity. So everyone just picks crap they like from other nations because that’s what we do… what do you do when you don’t have a cultural identity to belong to?
    I feel I have digressed from the intention of your blog post though..? I want to say “I get it”. It’s actually… every thing I’ve been looking for. I’ve been independently doing my own research into following the symbols and historical traces of “the gods” through various cultures and countries… But I kept getting side tracked, or whatever. I didn’t know what I was looking for so I would just look into whatever. Haha. But then you came out with this. And I’m like “of course!” So… thank you a butt ton (a metric ton of butts). It’s such a relief to see it on the screen, but I have no idea how to print my own damned copy here in Australia because everything sucks lol. So I’m just waiting for you to start distributing.


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