For many followers of minority religions in America, we are converts who likely didn’t grow up in a similar culture to that from which these religions originated. For this reason, when desiring to have an effective and smooth relationship with a spirit from another part of the world (and often another time), it is going to be very helpful to study the culture they’re originating from and the practices they are accustomed to for communicating with their devotees.
This topic came to my attention again recently when I was looking for a better statue to use for Dà Yé, only to find that many people were confusing him with Tù’er Yé. You see, “Dà Yé” is an endearing title modernly given to the spirit often known as Tù’er Shén, a name that translates as “Rabbit God”. As you can guess, the name Tù’er Yé translates similarly. Now, this is where cultural and historical knowledge would have made the difference between these two spirits glaringly obvious. Tù’er Yé is named such because he is actually a rabbit; he lives on the moon with the goddess Cháng’é and is often depicted as a somewhat anthropomorphic rabbit riding a tiger or other mount. Tù’er Shén is not literally a rabbit god, god of rabbits, or anything like that; “rabbit” was once a slang term in China for a gay man, and this is what Tù’er Shén truly refers to. Because this slang term means that “Tù’er Shén” would be comparable to saying “Fag God” in America, he is often more respectfully addressed as Dà Yé instead. Accordingly, he is also represented as a man.
And this is what cultural context is, and how it’s applied.
Iconography usually cannot be taken at face value; imagery found in Hinduism or Buddhism are great examples, as the representations and items/symbols present often tell a spirit’s entire story or relate their area of focus, if you know how to read it. More importantly, if a potential devotee can be thrown off this easily with just a glance, then reading myths or trying to understand practices is of course going to seem nonsensical without any cultural understanding for all the things written between the lines. For instance, if you come across common hoodoo practices involving using gator paws for luck or holding onto your money, but you personally come from a place where gators are just a foreign danger, you may be wondering what gators have to do with money; part of this is because, in the cultures where these practices (and the gators in question) can commonly be found, a gator is good eating and leather.
In short, do your homework. It’ll come in handy.