Cabinets of Wonder :: move over new age altars

I went to the movies the other night . . .

The film was called Wonderstruck and it was loosely related to museums.

Anyway, at one point in the film, one of the narrator explained the phenomenon of “Cabinets of Wonder”. Wikipedia defines them like this: Cabinets of curiosities (also known in German loanwords as Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer; also Cabinets of Wonder, and wonder-rooms) were encyclopedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined… “The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater.”

Lately I have become slightly obsessed with thinking of my altars as “Cabinets of Wonder” and wondering at wonder.

Within the whole cultural appropriation debate (which I think is at once necessary and also dangerous) it can be difficult to move beyond complete paralysis (at least this is my experience and I’m bonafide brown-something). Over the last 3 years I have been very serious about thinking through many questions relating to cultural appropriation and fraud and who gets to decide etc. I have generally come to the conclusion that every moment is a new moment to ask permission to imitate, be inspired by, or incorporate cultural elements even when they were passed to you or belonged first to your ancestors. There is never an end point where one is completely liberated to just do whatever one wants. There is a discipline and practice that is required.

As you may know, or guessed, I am not a huge fan of the New Age movement for this very reason and so I often cringe when I hear folks taking about their “altars”. I don’t feel this was when I am at a sweat lodge ceremony or in a Catholic mass, but I still find myself feeling uneasy using the term myself outside these contexts – which I often am.

So, this idea of cabinets of wonder has been working on me?

As I leaned into the definition and depiction of these cabinets, I began to feel a loosening of the gag that has bound me in my relationship to re-claiming ceremonial praxis. For example, I have had a slightly strained relationship with the Mexican cultural icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe / Earth goddess Tonantztin. I was gifted my paternal grandmother’s framed Guadalupe at our first meeting and I have been placing her on my “altar” since then. Still, I felt I had no right to her, or somehow she was hiding from me.

The idea that Cabinets of Wonder are a “theater of the world… a memory theater” has such a ceremonial feel to it. Wikipedia (please forgive me I am not in scholar mode right now) describes “ancient tragedy as we understand it today, was not merely a show, but rather a collective ritual of the polis. It took place in a sacred, consecrated space.”

Ceremony is, or can be, for everyone, and the term cabinets of wonder is helping me un-freeze and find a way to be with, and speak about it, when I am outside a traditional ceremonial context without appropriation. It is also helping me feel better about calling an altar an altar when that is actually what it is.

Cabinets of Wonder = sacred theater of memory = community ritual

The “gathering of wonder” is a way to traverse memory in community and enact the world, be enacted in, and by, the world in a sacred way. Apprehending this has allowed me to organize an opening inside myself where Guadalupe/Tonantztin can rest and express and connect. And since I am contemplating my place in the world as a female human animal in relation to all things, this support is most welcome.

If you have European ancestry perhaps this appeal to wonder can be a guide to you as you search for your honest and humble way to participate in re-viving yourself and our world. No need to appropriate anything. Wonder can be a guide.

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