I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun–which motive seems to be imputed to me every time I say this–but I don’t care about seeing the new Star Wars movie and I would rather pretend it doesn’t exist. I discussed this with several people on Facebook, and it was interesting that with maybe two exceptions, everyone seemed to think I was saying that I thought the movie would be bad.
Instead, what I was saying is that I do not think this nostalgia that prompts us to relive movies over and over says anything good about our (American/Anglophone) society and its cultural projects. When I want to revisit the Star Wars universe, I watch Star Wars again. (Yes, it will always be “Star Wars” to me and not “A New Hope.” I know, I’m aging myself. It seems an appropriate way to celebrate finding my first grey hairs this month. You damn kids get off my lawn.) Don’t get me wrong. I get nostalgic like anyone else, and I enjoy a bit of escapist action cinema. Man, if I could recapture the sense of empowerment and inspiration I got from watching She-Ra as a kid I would not only magically leverage the hell out of it (something I am trying to figure out how to do), I would bottle and sell it. But I do not feel the need to constantly revisit-but-with-slight-cosmetic-changes-“improvements” the experiences of my youth. I certainly do not feel the need for a J.J. Abrams version of Masters of the Universe. I’m actually a little afraid that by having put that idea out there into the universe it’s going to happen. Please don’t let that happen.
Well, maybe if Wes Anderson had directed the new Star Wars, with Bill Murray as a jaded and cynical Luke Skywalker and Owen Wilson as Chewbacca…I might have gone to see that. But I digress.
My main complaint about the Star Wars prequels–which I refuse to acknowledge in my universe–is not that they were “bad” in so very many ways, but that they betrayed the whole worldview, philosophy, and cosmology of the original movies. I mean, midichlorians? Talk about selling out to scientistic-materialism. I know it’s not the ’70s anymore and the New Age is looking a bit tarnished and beat up, but it was so sad to see something mythic reduced to the merely fictive. So I want nothing to do with any further Star Wars elaborations, and the same goes for Star Trek (the Abrams version of which similarly betrayed/abandoned the mythos of the original–or to paraphrase some dude I don’t know on Facebook, Abrams made a good action movie, but he didn’t make a Star Trek movie), Tarzan, Point Break (not making that up), and all the other remakes, retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. I swear every time another Marvel superhero movie comes out an angel commits harakiri. Can we at least agree not to remake a movie until 25 years have passed since the original came out?
Setting aside my cantankerousness, I actually am dismayed by the way nostalgia has grown so out of control. I read an interview with Simon Pegg when The World’s End came out which I can’t find anymore, but basically he was complaining that
“…the growing consumerism attached to genre films that has preyed on audiences’ nostalgia for youth. Citing the philosophies of cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, Pegg explains how society has become infantilized to distract us from the real horrors of the world. ‘There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the “The Force Awakens” and the “Batman vs Superman” trailers,’ Pegg writes, ‘than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.'”
It’s ironic, if not maybe just a teensy bit hypocritical, that these words are coming from a guy who starred in both the new Star Treks and the new Star Wars, but I agree with what he’s saying here and for better or worse, the Cornetto Trilogy are among the very few films pointing out the extremes to which nostalgia has been leveraged by marketers and the mindlessness of the general populace in consuming it.
So anyway, that is my bad attitude to the whole thing. I feel a little vindicated that less-than-fawning reviews of the new Star Wars are beginning to appear. That (in part) is why I clicked on this link when a friend posted it on Facebook:
The juxtaposition of the two is interesting. The subtitle of the first article could with equal truth be appended to the second: “When fantasy sagas never end, we see the cycles of brutality and totalitarianism that fuel them don’t, either.”
American exceptionalism and EU/ECB/IMF/NATO’s various politico-economic just-so stories are our fantasy saga. In light of that, read this synopsis of America’s current chapter of the saga:
I realize this comes off as awfully pessimistic. I don’t want to make things harder for you this Bickanytide*. As when I first suggested to my Facebook acquaintances that perhaps a new Star Wars doesn’t really warrant pants-wetting levels of enthusiasm, I am only suggesting we widen our perspectives a bit to look at bigger patterns and maybe just maybe have a good think about it. But what am I saying? If you’re reading this, you are already my kind of weirdo. I wish you a happy midwinter and a wond’rous feast of St. Bickany!
*Totally stealing that from Gordon. Too perfect to pass up.
So I wrote my last post before reading Io’s latest over at Disrupt & Repair, and it turns out that he made some points that are directly relevant to the questions I closed with, and that led to some new thoughts.
“The weird/wyrd/almost fortean side of all this is that these ‘wrong’ names sometimes get responses from spirit and become functional parts of the living ritual world (probably no accident Dianteill stumbled across theis multiplication through Eleggua), though often at the cost of obscuring the conceptual order that animated the original. It’s always hard to tell when that’s a big problem (deceiving spirits [whatever that means!], etc.), just evolution (variation and selection) in action around our interface with the others, or something else entirely. This is one of the big reasons why I hedge around (2) problems usually being toxic; they can be generative, too.
“I don’t think there is an easy way to figure out when the error is just an error or when it turns productive….I will say that I think it [I think ‘it’ refers to plain ol’ error] becomes more likely when the textual exchanges happen outside of the dialogue that grounds a tradition alongside others.”
This “wrong name getting a response from spirit” is evidently what has happened with Elen of the Ways as I described in my post. And that can indeed be viewed as a case where the “mistake” was generative rather than toxic. Also, it’s not like this is something that has only happened in modern times; who can say how much theology is the result of this kind of process? We already know that we don’t fully understand what goes on in the spirit world, so if such “errors” result in mutually beneficial interactions, then from a practical point of view, maybe no harm no foul.
I couldn’t help but think of the evolution of Van-Van oil in this context. “Van-Van” refers to vervain (Verbena sp.), which is a medicinal and sacred plant from Europe. In New Orleans, the magical connotations of vervain were transferred to lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), which was more readily available than vervain. These plants are not closely related; both belong to the very large mint family–Order Lamiales*–but lemon verbena is native to South America. The transfer of vervain’s magical properties was textual, hinging entirely on the word “verbena.” And yet, Van-Van has been working for over a century now, and its lemony-ness has even been enhanced by blending with plants such as lemongrass, taking it ever further away from the original inspiration and context without reducing its effectiveness (or, presumably, compromising the effectiveness of vervain).
In my studies of herb lore, I have seen the same thing happening whereby the traditional magical and symbolic associations of myrtle (Myrtus sp.) are being transferred to crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.), which is native to Asia but commonly used in landscaping in the U.S. and thus more easily acquired here than true myrtle is. Again, both these plants belong to the same phylogenetic order but are not closely related. It remains to be seen whether the textual confusion will work in terms of practical magic. If you try it, let me know.
Although we are talking specifically about textual transfers/confusion here, analogical transference in general is basically how magic works. The part stands for the whole; the image stands for what it represents; metaphors, symbols, analogies. Maybe that is why these textual “errors” are turning out to be so fruitful in practical usage.
An article that may be of interest, good to think with, is Nicholas Saunders’ “A Dark Light: Reflections on Obsidian in Mesoamerica” (World Archaeology Vol. 33, No. 2, 2001, pp. 220-236). Unfortunately you’ll need access to a library with a subscription to the journal, or you’ll have to pay for it–I know, bummer. I don’t think I have a pdf of it anymore, but if you really want it, email me and I will see if I can hook you up. Anyway, Saunders actually has a number of articles on shiny types of material–stones, seashells, feathers, minerals, etc.–and how they relate to Mesoamerican cosmology. In the article on obsidian, Saunders shows–I think convincingly–how obsidian was linked to places, creatures, and other types of material through analogical connections. For example: Obsidian is volcanic, and being found around volcanoes it became linked with them and with caves near the volcanoes. It is dark and so linked to the darkness of those underground caves. It is reflective, linking it with water. It was used to make mirrors, which were in turn linked with the reflective eyes of jaguars. The jaguars’ glowing eyes were believed to demonstrate their magically powerful vision, which could be achieved by shamans. And so obsidian was linked with preternatural vision. The predatory power of jaguars was claimed by Mesoamerican elites–both shamans as spiritual elites and rulers as political elites, though these categories completely overlapped–and so obsidian was a precious and sacred material connected with rulership, and moreover obsidian had its own agency. The god associated with both obsidian and rulership was Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” who was represented by an obsidian sacrificial knife. Anyway the list goes on and on but the point is that in Mesoamerican ontology, you had a shared materiality, a shared nature, that connected the underworld/underground, night, shamans, jaguars, magical/spiritual vision, sacrifice, and more. That entire ontological circuit could be mobilized through magic enacted at any one point.
Just as–perhaps?–all forms of journeying can now be presided over by the ancestral spirit of a 4th-century Romano-British woman invoked as a Palaeolithic reindeer shamaness-goddess. And who knows? Maybe this “error” was being inspired or guided from the Other side.
But in my previous post I argued that we need to develop more rigorous epistemology. I don’t see any problem with analogical transference in magic or theology per se, but might we not at least aim to do this with intention rather than through carelessness? It seems to me the need to ground theologies, ontologies, magical practices in context is all the greater today because widespread literacy, the publishing industry, and the internet make the replication of any errors–and some of these will inevitably be, to use Io’s word, “toxic”–exponentially greater than it was at any other point in our history**. Unintentional, careless reproduction of spiritual/magical BS is kind of like opening up a party line where you don’t know, or evidently, care, who is on the Other end. What is the freaking point of that? Even worse, in a day and age when sheer volume grants authenticity and authority–all wrapped up and conveniently deposited in your news feed by an algorithm–reiteration of these errors has a tendency to fossilize them:
“Theology becomes deeply entangled with epistemology and ontology, the texts are treated with increasing literalism and their fluid esoteric dimensions supressed in favor of exoteric stability.”
The more we see it, the more we believe it. Worse yet, the more we see it, the less we see of other things. And if you find yourself trying to work with/worship what turns out to be a mere dried-up husk, how will you then find your way back to the vitality of the original vervain?
P.S. I have decided I don’t even like the terms god and goddess anymore. The more I think about them, the less I’m sure what they mean. Maybe I should move to using something akin to the Egyptian neter or Japanese kami. In trying to get away from forcing a Graeco-Roman model onto all other forms of spirit the last thing I want to do is arbitrarily impose some other equally foreign model. But the English language and hegemonic Christian theology are really hampering my ability to communicate here.
*To put this biological relationship in a more familiar context, humans belong to the Order Primates along with apes, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, lorises, bushbabies, etc. In phylogenetic terms, the relationship of vervain to lemon verbena is about like our relationship to a spider monkey. (However, I have no idea how much or how little genetic similarity that entails.)
**I say the same, incidentally, about the woeful loss of language skills these days. “Languages evolve” is no excuse for not understanding the mechanics of your own language and how to coherently express ideas using it.
Following are just some thoughts I’ve been working with. They’re probably not very coherent, and they’re certainly not intended as the last word on anything.
First of all, I suppose some might wonder why I write “Celtic” in quotes. In the field of archaeology, there are those who believe that there was sufficient cultural unity among the Iron Age peoples who lived in the area between the Mediterranean region in the south, Scandinavia in the north, and the Scythians in the east to call them by a single cultural name, which is Celts. The name is ultimately derived from the Greek name Keltoi, but no one knows if they used such a name for themselves, and anyway Keltoi went out of vogue along with Greek hegemony. The Roman version of the word was Gaul, but they applied it more specifically (e.g., for the Romans, people from east of the Rhine were Germans, not Gauls–even though archaeologically they look the same as their neighbors west of the river). The name Celts came out of 19th-century linguistics, when languages were being categorized and placed onto phylogenetic trees; a linguist (can’t remember his name off the top of my head, sorry) grouped Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Breton together and called them “Celtic,” figuring they were representative of the languages spoken by that particular flavor of barbarian the Greeks called Keltoi. So anyway, the archaeologists in this camp argue that these Celtic-speaking people’s commonalities outweighed their local differences, and they would have all recognized one another as belonging to a semi-coherent group relative to outsider groups (Romans, Scythians, what have you), so we can safely call them all by one general name.
There is another camp who believe that, while there is evidence from placenames to suggest that languages belonging to the so-called Celtic branch of Indo-European were spoken within the region described, and a decorative style (La Tène) which became widespread (notwithstanding local variations) there, that is not sufficient evidence to conclude that everyone in temperate Europe would have identified with one another. And if they didn’t, then there’s no reason we should. For this group of scholars, use of the term Celts requires that they define the term anew every time they use it, with the literature review and the dozens of citations, the arguments for and against basing cultural ascriptions on language, etc., that inevitably would require–so it’s just not worth the effort. It’s much easier to use a more specific term like “the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age population of Lower-Humpton-on-Doodle” for example, since academic papers always tend to be focused on one narrow little time and place anyway.
I find the second argument more persuasive–and would apply it equally to other putative unified groups like Scythians and Germans and Native Americans–but I recognize that Celts has a certain meaning for most people today: that is, Celtic-speaking people living in temperate Europe from the Iron Age up through the early middle ages, who made La Tène- or medieval Irish-style art. In modern times, people from Ireland, Wales, and Scotland and their American descendants have found common cause in Celtic identity, which in part has enabled resistance to British (English) colonialism, and that shared identity has been retrojected into the past. That’s problematic, if understandable, and if I were writing for an academic journal I wouldn’t use the term Celtic at all; but I use it since it has meaning for people today, though I put it in quotes to show the word has issues.
Wow, that digression was rather longer than I intended. But in a way, it’s emblematic of the entire problem that has been bothering me, which is:
We need to stop trying to shoehorn the past into our modern categories. And we need to get more rigorous about our epistemology.
I’ll be honest. There’s a side of me that is really bothered by historical inaccuracy. There is another side of me that is aware of all the myriad problems with “history” and “accuracy” but just doesn’t want to go there right now. I know how to keep my historical-reactionary side in her place but she is right that this need to apply modern categories to the past, or for that matter human categories to the divine, and the inability to recognize why these categories are irrelevant, have led to a lot of BS in paganism. By BS I don’t just mean trivial historical inaccuracies; I mean a complete unmooring from context. In the first Rune Soup podcast, an interview with Peter Grey from Scarlet Imprint, Gordon opines that if the current magical renaissance can be said to have a unique form or trajectory, it is the restoration of context to magic. That stuck with me because I have talked before about the pitfalls of loss of context, but to sum up my view, we don’t need to worry so much about accurate replication of some ritual practice or magical tech, but rather why we are doing it, why it even exists in the first place. And this should be an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and our spiritually significant others.
It’s cool to see people working to restore context to magic; is that happening within paganism too? I honestly don’t know as I’m not really a pagan. And the main reason I’m not is because of this lack of context.
What specifically do I mean when I say lack of context? In my last post as I was singing the praises of the Story Archaeology podcast, I mentioned (not quite in so many words) that the hosts have basically demolished the notion that Mór Rígain (a.k.a., the Morrigan) was a war or death goddess. Yet this is the prevailing view of her in modern paganism even/especially among devotees of Irish deities. (See the Wikipedia article if you don’t believe me. It is terrible even by Wikipedia standards.) Now I’m not going to tell the Great Queen what she can and can’t do; perhaps she’s happy to be addressed as a war goddess. But we can only see her that way by essentially ignoring everything she does and says in the extant texts, and what kind of devotion or scholarship is that?
Is our psycho-cultural need to shoehorn Mór Rígain into a war goddess role so great that we are going to let it blind us (1) to everything else she actually is and (2) everything we could learn about ancient Irish/”Celtic” society/beliefs/values through a better understanding of her? And if our need is so great, what effect does that have on our personal gnosis of Mór Rígain?
This gets to my point about having a more rigorous approach to epistemology. On the one hand, we must learn to content ourselves with the fact that very little is known about the “Celtic” deities–in most cases we don’t even know who is a deity! This makes it all the more tempting to try and force a modern (usually Classically-inspired) framework onto them, to create a pantheon and categorize them according to what they are god/desses “of.”On the other, we really need to interrogate the assumptions and psycho-cultural needs we are bringing to the table and how they limit our experiences of these deities.
I think the case of “Elen of the Ways” is one of the most egregious examples of lack of context leading us into neopagan fantasyland. Like a lot of people with British ancestors, I’m a descendant of Elen Luyddog, or Elen “of the Hosts,” a Romano-British ancestrix saint to whom–or rather, to whose putative husband, the 4th-century Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus–many families trace their descent. We don’t know much about her from history, she could even be a historical fabrication or pure legend; much as I would like to claim descent from her as a goddess, it is a leap too far to ascribe divine status to her. Elen is also called “of the Ways,” because according to one medieval text, “Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made.”
This article is a thorough and concise explanation of this epistemological quagmire. Elen appears in the tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion, in which Magnus Maximus (Macsen) is totally mythologized; there’s no reason to assume Elen didn’t get the same treatment. No one argues Magnus was a god, yet the magical elements of Elen’s part in the story are taken at face value:
“…which has led many modern pagans to proclaim her as a goddess of roads, ley lines, shamanic journeying etc….a goddess presiding over ‘dream pathways’ and the ‘Guardian of all who journey’….Some modern pagans see Elen Luyddog as a ‘goddess of sovereignty’…”
Oh boy. But wait, it gets better:
“…the modern pagan goddess Elen is often visualised or encountered as an antlered woman, often wearing deer hides or possessing fur herself. This image is as far from a cultured Romano-British Empress as is possible. Now, to take a sceptical view, this may be a chicken and egg situation. It happens that the Bulgarian word for reindeer is ‘elen’, and I wonder if someone has put two and two together and made five. To take a generous view, there is a remote possibility that Elen was originally a reindeer goddess whose name has miraculously survived into a modern language, and that she was the original ‘Elen of the Ways’ who later became conflated with Elen of the Hosts….For those looking for the oldest of the old religions, Elen becomes perfect. Not only does she appear to be a goddess of sovereignty, whom Macsen Wledig weds to gain the kingship of Britain, she also becomes a goddess of ancient pathways walked by a species of deer not seen in Britain since the end of the last ice age.
“This image of Elen, as far as I can gather, originates with Caroline Wise in the 1980’s…”
I think “someone has put two and two together and made five” sums this story up perfectly. Not only do we have the leap from politically powerful Romano-British woman to pre-Roman goddess of sovereignty, we also have the leap from commissioner of roads to primeval goddess of all forms of journeying. Now as far as that goes, it just seems to be a case of assuming every person in legend must be a god/dess and proceeding to inflate the case accordingly. A classic case of de-contextualization. But there is a weirder, more interesting, and potentially more problematic issue at stake:
“…it remains true that Someone out there, and possibly more than one Someone, is answering to the name ‘Elen’. This may be the ancestral spirit of Elen Luyddog, or it may be something else altogether….It is not unlikely that a goddess, perhaps because she likes the offerings being given, or because she is a powerful being in that particular locality, chooses to answer when a name is called. [It is not unlikely that a hungry ghost would answer, either.]…I have no problem believing that she could be a powerful ancestral being that has become attached to the roads that she has been associated with for at least eight hundred years, or that another entity interested in these roads has begun answering to the name of Elen.”
It’s that “another entity” that bothers me. We can never be completely certain, when we dial the Other side, who is going to pick up. To some extent that may even be a-feature-not-a-bug of the connection. But on a purely practical level, as a descendant of Elen, I want to know that when I call, it’s my 46th great-grandma who is answering and not some random stranger with no vested interest in my wellbeing. And if I reach out and touch someone who shows up as a reindeer goddess, I want to know who that being is–I don’t want to force a square peg into an Elen-shaped hole.
Improving signal strength and fidelity, however, is supposed to be part of what we are doing here, part of the whole point of magic. For those who are drawn to “Celtic” paganism, this all begs the question, do you want to know your deities (bearing in mind you’ll never have all the organizational details you would for Greek, Roman or Egyptian ones) or would you rather just play with Celtic deity paper dolls? And for all of us, what are we going to do to improve signal strength and fidelity? How are we going to improve our spiritual scholarship? How are we going to return context to what has been de-contextualized for 1000+ years? Are we really struggling down this old crooked path just to see our own psychodramas reflected back at us, or are we trying to do something greater here?
Seriously you guys, are you listening to the Story Archaeology podcasts? If you have any interest in “Celtic” mythology and/or spirituality, Irish myth and/or folklore, or Celtic or Druidic reconstructionism or revival, you really should be listening.
I’ve been interested in all kinds of myth and folklore since I was in elementary school, and got particularly into “Celtic” myth and folklore starting around age 12 I’d guess. It’s been an abiding interest, although I had to set it aside (along with everything else that wasn’t directly dissertation-related) for most of the decade* I was in grad school. So I was excited when a friend of mine pointed me toward the podcast after I had finished my degree and actually had time to read/listen to things out of pure interest. I used to know the Irish stories a lot better but forgot a bit over the years…
But I have been blown away by how Story Archaeology has changed and deepened my perspective on the values, social norms, cultural/mythic information (for lack of a better term), and persons represented in the stories. Chris Thompson (a storyteller and mythologist) and Isolde Carmody (not sure what her specialty is but she reads and translates Old and Middle Irish), the titular “archaeologists,” shy away from referring to any of the characters as gods or goddesses in order to try to break out of a Classical-style-deity framework that has for so long been awkwardly imposed on Irish myth by neopagans and academics alike. As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts this is something I strongly endorse. The content isn’t 100% academic, as each podcast usually involves a retelling by Thompson of the story in question, and both she and Carmody engage in plenty of speculation that will never be refuted or substantiated academically simply for lack of evidence. Much of that speculation is pretty persuasive though, at least I think so.
For me, they have been able to connect a lot of dots that would have forever been unconnected since I don’t read Old and Middle Irish. One of the things that Carmody does is to translate the meaning of people’s names; many of those names are allegorical, and by knowing what they mean you gain a sense of who that character is in a nutshell and it can totally change the meaning of a story. More importantly, when the names are etymologized and translated you see that what superficially appear to be different characters may in fact be just one who is called by synonymous or closely related epithets in various texts. I think this latter is important for two reasons: First, because I think we are all aware at this point of some of the excesses of neopaganism, specifically the tendency to ascribe god/dess status to every name that appears in any myth or folktale. Worse yet, to make them “god/desses of” this or that. And second, because you begin to see connected story arcs–real myths–rather than just isolated stories. This has been sorely lacking in Irish and Welsh literature (not for lack of trying on pagans’ parts though) because the versions we have of these stories were written down by Christians who no longer remembered the old myths.
Just to pique your interest, here are some examples of things that piqued mine:
The story of Airmed–usually called a “goddess of herbal medicine” or some such silliness–may actually be a version of a John Barleycorn-type tale about the agricultural cycle of cereals. You only see this if you know what the names mean.
What seem to be various characters called Eithliu, Ethlinn, Eithne, Étain, Boand, and possibly also Bé Find may in fact all be one person. I’m always wary of being reductionist, but I think we should regard god/dess (and ancestor figures’, culture heroes’) names as epithets in most if not all cases, and in that light, these are at the very least people who share the same epithet and their roles within their respective stories overlap significantly. And what they have in common is really interesting. I think this is a likely legit goddess, frankly, though your mileage may vary.
When you consider all the texts in which she appears, there is actually not much indication that Mór Rígain (Morrigan) is a “battle goddess,” even less a “fertility goddess.” Though she does appear at times of battle and offers aid to warriors, there is something else going on with her that I can’t quite put my finger on. The main themes seem to be prophetic poetry and shapeshifting. When you take all her textual appearances together, you get a sense of sorcery much more than of war or death. Almost (but of course not really) Hekate-like. Another one I think is a legit goddess. Similarly, there is virtually nothing to connect Macha with battle, but a lot that connects her with the fertility of livestock.
Some of the stories featuring Manannán mac Lir may have originally been about Midir. Thompson and Carmody show that Midir (his name means “Judge”) was closely connected with Irish concepts of fair distribution, right behavior, and those of course underlay the institution of kingship. They speculate that possibly Midir started being edged out of the stories in the middle ages at least in part because he stood for values incompatible with those of Norman rule.
Oh, and also–you can finally learn how to properly pronounce some of those names with their confoundingly counterintuitive spelling (from an English-speaker’s perspective).
*I would just like the record to reflect that a decade is still less than average to get a Ph.D. in anthropology in the U.S.