Narrative and the “Rashomon effect”

Toshiro in Rashomon
Summer in Japan. So hot right now.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while as I wasn’t sure quite where to take it. But Ivy at Circle Thrice just posted about narratives and it got me thinking about this again, so I decided this might be worth publishing after all.

Ivy refers to Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm theory, which basically says that people don’t make decisions or experience the world in terms of a rationalist evaluation of facts, but rather “The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument” (my emphasis; source). And of course “credibility” is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s subjective and subject to constant negotiation not only among individuals but within the individual as their idea of the credible inevitably changes.

The story is what we care about, not the facts. The story is the framework that gives, and relays, meaning and value. But in our creative Homo sapiens hands, it’s shifty, slippery, tricksy; as beautiful as it is dangerous.

If you read my post about my tentative ontology, you might be seeing where this is headed. But let me unpack it a bit.

I’m assuming you have seen the movie Rashomon, and while I won’t spoil the plot points, I will be talking about its philosophical take-away, so if you haven’t watched it, go do that now.

In the so-called “Rashomon effect,” different witnesses to or participants in a given event remember it differently. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truth of that; memory is notoriously malleable and fallible after all. I have often heard this effect described as the entire point of the film (or rather, the short story on which most of it is based, In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke)–that is, that the moral of the story is that memory is fallible and people have different perspectives. But that is the most superficial meaning that can be derived from the story. I mean–witch, please–this is Kurosawa we’re talking about.

The more fundamental point of the story is that individuals can become so committed to their personal storylines that they would sooner kill, die, even endure hell than imagine themselves not to be the heroes of those stories. At the end of the film, the truth of the events upon which the plot hangs not only isn’t revealed, it is revealed to be unknowable. No two characters give the same account of events because no two characters are living out the same storyline. Rashomon isn’t a whodunnit, it’s not just stating the obvious fact that people remember and interpret things differently–it’s a meditation on maya and suffering.


To make that even clearer, Kurosawa brilliantly set the story of In a Grove within another Akutagawa story (the one actually titled Rashomon). This frames the more dramatic, acute suffering of the events in the grove within a setting of more ordinary, chronic suffering–the stifling heat and humidity of a summer monsoon, poverty, and a haunted gatehouse ruined by war and natural disaster. Here a witness to the events in the grove, a Buddhist monk, and an ethically-dubious passerby consider the plight of an abandoned baby and debate human nature and the human tendency to lie, even to ourselves as is repeatedly noted. “I don’t even understand my own heart/mind/soul*,” says the witness. The redemption offered at the end of the movie is not the discovery of the truth about the events in the grove (as it would be if the movie had been made in America), but rather the observation that when we finally admit our own lack of understanding and let go of our death-grip on our personal narratives, we become more compassionate and suffer a little bit less.

You can approach the story at various levels. First, staying entirely within the world of In a Grove, you have the the basic level of human experience. At this level, the protagonists cannot face the possibility that they are venal, weak, and morally-challenged, so each rewrites the story to portray him- or herself in a better light. Lies are told (maybe, probably), memories flawed and finagled. It’s almost an organic process rather than a series of conscious decisions. Subjective truth is all, and objective truth doesn’t even enter into it.

Pulling back to a slightly wider scale, the scale of Rashomon-the-story-within-Rashomon-the-film, the characters are aware of the fallibility of memory, of the human tendency to deceive ourselves and others and to be deceived, and must acknowledge that objective truth is inaccessible.

At the next level, we can look at the authorial choices of Kurosawa as the director. By framing In a Grove within Rashomon, for example, he created space for reflection within the film. He also used the environment masterfully: The blazing sun in the In a Grove core contrasts with the torrential downpour in the Rashomon frame, while both are united by the characters’ ever-present sweat. (One time when I was in Korea during the monsoon season it was like 85 degrees and foggy. It’s like being in a sauna but with bugs and you have to wear clothes.) The scenes shot in the forest are disorienting, filled with broken patterns of leaves and light and blurred motion. There are only three sets–the gatehouse where the witness, monk, and passerby wait out the rain, the forest, and a courtyard where witnesses testify before an unseen magistrate. On the Criterion Collection DVD there is an introduction by Robert Altman who points out that the testimony scenes are shot with the characters speaking to the camera, so the audience is placed in the position of the magistrate or investigator. It’s as if Kurosawa is daring us to arbitrate or “solve” the mystery–which cannot be solved, so… It all combines to build a subtle but palpable sense of oppression, claustrophobia, and confusion.

We can pull back further (so meta!) and examine ourselves as the audience, considering Kurosawa’s direction and storytelling and how the medium of film makes it possible to tell these stories within a story within a story. We can try to take up the challenge to determine the objective truth of what happened in the grove (though that would be an exercise in futility) or we could settle for the easy way out and say the story is about people’s different perspectives. Or we can do the hard work and recognize we are looking at stories within a story within a story within our story (and so on and on and on, fractally) and think about how our own stories nest into wider and wider ones. And also, what it means to recognize and own them as stories.

Rashomon‘s are very Buddhist values, of course, but we are talking about a Japanese story/film. In writing about the power of narrative, Ivy points out some of the ways it can be weaponized against us (it is part of her Mind War series). Hijacking a narrative is the easiest and fastest way to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs, because you are effectively hijacking their entire reality. So it stands to reason that if you can (1) recognize your narrative as just one among a nearly infinite number; (2) recognize that you are a character in other people’s narratives, but your roles are not something you can experience, let alone control; and (3) reduce your investment in your narrative’s truthiness, you will have made yourself much harder to deceive or manipulate. And perhaps more importantly, it will be harder to deceive yourself.

When you put Rashomon‘s internally-focused narratology together with Ivy’s externally-focused one, it becomes clear how you can re-frame your narrative–and thus your reality–in astoundingly creative ways; i.e., magic. No, I don’t mean that magic is all psychological. I mean that when you recognize the narrative and take the reins, you can rewrite the entire meaning of your life. It’s one way to hack the code of your virtual reality, or to use my preferred metaphor, start dreaming lucidly.

But you have to be prepared for everything to fall apart, as it will. The Western world is extremely invested not only in the belief that objective truth exists, but that it is knowable and discoverable given the right techniques. One place you see this reflected is science, of course, another is the Bible, but it’s reified everywhere in our epistemologies. Reason and philosophical rationalism are highly esteemed here not only as intellectual projects but as personality characteristics. When you recognize your story as more creative writing than truth, shit goes upside down and you have the fun of sifting through and reevaluating (or sort of de-evaluating) everything you’ve taken for granted in your past and present. Undertaking this will put you (even more) profoundly out of step with most of the people around you and will definitely make you question your sanity on a daily basis.

On a personal note, my helping spirits have recently doubled down on the assignments they’ve been giving me. I have to keep a journal just to remember all of them. And guys. It’s all in aid of something I want and something I asked for, but the work is so hard sometimes. Recently I got slammed with a whole series of synchronicities that, while fun at the time, led me down a very dark rabbit hole. I have been encouraged to not only ignore but explicitly reject the evidence of my senses and the public written record (faith doesn’t come easy to me), while also dealing with some decades-old emotional junk. I wouldn’t have been given this task if I weren’t up to it, and the spirits are taking me through it step by step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fail (as I have before), and it’s definitely pushing my limits.

When I put it in words it doesn’t look like that big a deal, especially since I’ve been rejecting consensus narratives since I was little (like you, I expect), but this time I’m working not just on rejecting external narratives but internal, heavily-invested ones as well. Working on this is taking most of my mind/heart resources which is why I haven’t posted as much lately.

*Kokoro, which doesn’t really translate in English but corresponds to our notions of “heart” and “mind,” and to some extent “soul” (though there is another Japanese word, tama, which better fits “soul”).

A history of archaeological theory in 7 acts


Pssst. This is actually Part I of my review of Gordon White’s Star.Ships. (Don’t worry, no spoilers.) It was starting to look like my review would be very long, so I decided to break this part out. Anyway, it’s not technically a review per se. What follows is:

  • One archaeologist’s quickie review/opinions of archaeological theory and practice. It’s longish, but not technical.
  • A former insider’s view, but not an exhaustive one. I speak here in terms of general trends within Anglo-American archaeology. (For historical and economic reasons, English is the hegemonic language-of-record for archaeology, but there are regional differences that I’m not fully versed in.)
  • Possibly of interest as background/context for those reading Star.Ships. I am still reading it, but I find that it frequently motivates me to reflect on changes in archaeological theory, and how we got to where we are now, in terms of what we think we know, what information is canonical, and what is “anomalous”. I find myself thinking of what a non-materialist archaeology might look like, for example. The point of the book is to correct misapprehensions about the past which are there in part due to the fossilization of academic thought; my point with this summary is to give a former insider’s view of how the current (mis)apprehensions developed.

Act I

In the beginning there were antiquarians. They read a lot of (Classical) history and collected artifacts–and usually lots of pretty rocks, fossils, bird eggs, two-headed fetal pigs, and other curiosities of natural history.

There were some pretty remarkable ruins still visible on the landscape. Some of them, like Hadrian’s Wall, were known from historical records. Others, like Stonehenge, were mysteries and warranted further investigation.

Generally speaking, explanations came from either Roman texts or the Bible. If a ruin was big, and it wasn’t Roman, then almost by necessity it had to have been built by lost tribes of Israel or one of Noah’s sons.

At the same time, European countries were vigorously imperial, which was bringing Europeans into contact with very different cultures and people who looked very different. Racism was born, and so were the first stirrings that would one day become anthropology.

Act II

Antiquarians started to notice that artifacts and ruins didn’t necessarily match the received wisdom or historical texts about the past. There were civilizations where there shouldn’t be (i.e., where brown people lived), for example. Some started being more methodical when digging holes looking for artifacts.

Romanticism was all the rage. Wealthy young men went to the Mediterranean for a “Grand Tour” to sigh over the crumbling splendors of civilizations past, and stole the nicer bits for souvenirs.

A number of well-known antiquarians were Freemasons, then Druid revivalists, and instead of lost tribes of Israel, they credited the Druids with anomalous ancient ruins. There was an element of nationalism here–now, finally, Britain and France could lay claim to an indigenous civilization that, while obviously not as grand as Rome, was still pretty cool, and perhaps in possession of Lost Wisdom.


The scientific method was all the rage. If you were independently wealthy you could round up some young peasants and go destroy some poor farmer’s field looking for booty artifacts. The better digs actually employed painters to make illustrations of remains in situ.

Archaeology, geology, historical linguistics, and palaeontology diverged as separate fields of inquiry. (In the Anglophone world, especially in the US, archaeology aligned with anthropology, the study of all things human.) Now instead of just keeping your finds in cabinets in your house, though, you donated them to museums for the public betterment. Scholars were busy classifying everything into typologies: eras, cultures, language groups, and so on. They particularly liked tripartite schemes, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, or Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic.

It was clear from all the artifacts and ruins that had been found that there had been great changes over time, only a small portion of which was recorded by history. This correlated with the evidence for gradual change found by the geologists and palaeontologists, and even–galling though it was for some–with the theory of natural selection as posited by Charles Darwin. The Bible began to look not so credible as an explanatory framework.

Observed cultural changes were usually put down to migrations. After all, historical accounts were full of invading Gauls, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Mongols, Angles and Saxons, you name it. Also, as imperialism and global trade put Europeans almost everywhere on earth, I imagine the idea of migration and invasion as catalysts for change seemed rather natural.

In a reaction against the racism and ethnocentrism of previous eras, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) proposed the “stage” theory of human cultural development: all societies, left to their own devices, passed through stages of Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. This was a corrective insofar as it reminded the imperial powers they once were savages too, and tried to make them feel a little guilty for derailing the civilizational processes of the assorted brown-skinned societies whose heads they were busily measuring with calipers in between all the murdering and enslaving.

Act IV

Things continued apace until the era of the World Wars (WWII in particular). By midcentury, the Bible was right out and Science-with-a-capital-S was in. Science had just given the world chemical fertilizers, nerve gas, and the A-bomb so obviously was the pinnacle of human achievement. Archaeologists could rely on radiocarbon for precision dating, even.

In true scientistic fashion, archaeology became about finding out “what really happened”. It was still entirely historical in the sense that it was about establishing chronological sequences, but it was anthropological insofar as it looked for evidence of how humans interacted with each other and with their environment. There was also increasing interest in what ordinary people did (e.g., as revealed through trash piles) rather than grand narratives about the great and the good.

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was a Marxist and materialist who was very instrumental in formalizing archaeology’s nascent material bent. He mostly rejected the three-part stage theory developed by Morgan, but, being a Marxist, he did very much believe in the notion of cultural evolution. His big contributions were (1) to systematize, in explicitly material terms, the characteristics of categories such as “civilization” or “Neolithic”–in other words, he defined what these terms would mean as archaeological categories. And to a great extent, his criteria are still being used, because they are now efficient and convenient. (2) He attributed cultural change to purely material causes. And (3) while not rejecting migrations entirely, he argued for change due to other factors. I can’t help but think this was in part a reaction to the fact that a number of countries in Europe and Asia had literally just been invaded, and were feeling the sting. Also, the Nazis had revealed the dark underbelly of archaeology and anthropology.

Chief among these “other factors” was diffusion, which is basically just a fancy word meaning that objects and ideas can move without migrations, e.g., through trade. If you live in the West and own a Korean smart phone, that’s an example of diffusion. However, while it’s not technically part of the definition of diffusion, an underlying assumption was often that objects and ideas go from “more advanced” to “less advanced” cultures.

“Historical particularism” was very popular as a theoretical framework, basically rejecting the idea of human universals and attributing cultures’ specific features to their specific environments, prior histories, and internal dynamics. “Cultural-historical” archaeology has probably had more longevity, worldwide, than any other mode. It is constantly mobilized in the creation of both national identities and nationalistic propaganda. I would say it is the most popular form of archaeology for the general public, too, who mostly what to know “what really happened” for a given time and place. Chronology and treasure are the bedrock of archaeology.

Act V

In the US (which is what I’m familiar with), the 1960s saw the rise of hard-core scientism with the “New Archaeology” a.k.a., “processual” archaeology. (Processual because it focused on processes, you see.) Archaeologists were desperate to make it clear to all and sundry that archaeology was a (social) science, dammit, not humanities! When I say science I mean physics. It’s pretty absurd–nothing humans do is similar to what, say, atoms do; but it was the Atomic Age, after all. It was also the Cold War. No one knew what the hell was going on archaeologically in Russia or China, except that it was undoubtedly bad, and Marxism was very out of fashion as a theoretical framework. (It continues to flourish in Japan, and of course in China.) New Archaeologists desperately wanted universal rules that would explain human behavior, and if a proposed mechanism wasn’t general it was regarded as irrelevant.

On the positive side, American archaeologists developed extremely methodical and precise excavation technique which is, in my opinion, unequaled in other countries. They also developed the concept of “interaction spheres”, where it was observed that, in contrast to the assumption that ideas and objects diffused from “center” to “periphery”, interaction forms complex webs and things move in all directions. On the negative, the theoretical became incredibly mechanistic, materialistic, and and deterministic. Consensus opinion swung even harder away from migration as an explanation for change, and the attempts to put everything down to independent invention got silly.

Act VI

Beginning in the late ’80s we had “post-processual” archaeology, which was a straight-up reaction to the excesses of the now-not-so-new New Archaeology. Things got very postmodern, but also very philosophical, and therein lay the big contribution of this period. French philosophers like Foucault, Latour, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu were wildly popular. Archaeologists (and anthropologists) really began to question the epistemology of anthropology and of academia in general. Instead of just asking, “How do we know these people did X?” they started asking “How do we know anything at all?” Unfortunately, they did so with the worst kind of jargon you have ever seen. Anthropological texts became completely opaque, difficult even for insiders to understand. The attitude seemed to be that if it was clear, it was not worth publication (let alone a tenured professorship).

Popular topics of inquiry were “habitus” (borrowed from Bourdieu) and “agency”. Some archaeologists even considered whether artifacts have their own agency, although not, sadly, in the animistic sense. Instead of looking at cultures as collections of mechanistic “processes”, archaeologists became increasingly focused on the individual. Which is interesting, and a bit futile, since individuals’ concerns and acts are rarely visible in the archaeological record. Interpretation was focused on the hyper-local, in contrast to the universalism of the previous period; and interpretations were explicitly identified/confessed as such.

Archaeology remained “methodologically atheist” and materialist, but more attention was paid to people’s experiences, perceptions, and feelings. The processual archaeologists and the cultural historians laughed and laughed.


You will have noticed that during the 20th century, theoretical fashions started changing much more quickly in archaeology. Well, of course that parallels the rapidly changing fashions everywhere else. We seem to have settled into a series of reactionary swings of a roughly 20-year pendulum. Each new generation rejects the models of the previous one, but because the shifts are so rapid, the supporters of the previous theoretical framework are still around to heckle the young upstarts.

We are currently (since the ’00s) in a very scientistic mood, where more archaeology is done in labs than in the field. About the only kind of research that can get funding is research that involves some kind of physics or chemistry–isotopic analysis, X-ray fluorescence, genetics, microprobe assays, 3D scanning and printing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these techniques, and they have revealed new kinds of information we couldn’t get at before. For one thing, isotopic and genetic analyses have put migration back on the table in a big way. Cultural changes (such as the Bell Beaker phenomenon) that were first put down to migrations, then to competitive elite status displays across interaction spheres, are now turning out to have actually been related to migrations. Mathematical shape analyses of bones have revealed evolutionary differences that we previously had to pretend didn’t exist because they couldn’t be quantified.

Unfortunately, the theoretical, anthropological questions that used to motivate such analyses are getting to be scarcer than hen’s teeth. I feel that the current moment in archaeology has borrowed the worst traits of the two previous eras: the super-scientistic, materialistic bent of processual archaeology that naturalizes and legitimizes certain interpretations of the data; and the hyper-locality of the post-processual era that is so laser focused as to be virtually irrelevant to anyone who is not a specialist in the time, place, and individuals under investigation.

In our current anti-intellectual climate, ain’t nobody gonna get no funding for a project that ultimately seeks to investigate what it means to be a human, and what the human experience has been through time. Funding agencies want sexy results that will make the New York Times and National Geographic and in turn bring in even more money. This usually means either discovery of treasure (rich tombs with lots of gold, King Tut-style); something that claims to turn everything you ever knew about X upside-down (ancient Caucasian-looking mummies found in China); or discovery of a new civilization or fossil human ancestor (the latter isn’t even archaeology). You would think that would at least make for some exciting, Indiana Jones-style research, but that’s not the stuff that makes for tenured professorships: When I was briefly on the academic job market (before my mom getting sick saved me), it seemed like all the job listings were for people who would do some kind of lab-based sciency analysis of pottery and work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yawn. (Even so there are too many applicants for those positions.) Meanwhile the journals were full of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of this or that cemetery which noted that X% of the people interred were migrants from Wherever, but never bothered to tell us why we would give a shit and why it was worth grinding up some irreplaceable ancient teeth and spending tens of thousands of dollars to find that out. In the worst cases it’s just fill-in-the-blanks culture-history.

In conclusion

If you’ve read this far, it’s probably pretty obvious (if it wasn’t already) how and why archaeologists end up painting themselves into interpretive corners. To use Gordon’s analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga where, if you pull just one little log out, the entire edifice comes crashing down. And ultimately, it wouldn’t just be the edifice of archaeology, or even anthropology. All of academia could come down with it.

Addendum to thoughts on “Celtic” paganism: text, ontology, epistemology, theology

Verbena officinalis
Verbena officinalis

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.

Io says:

“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.

Mor Rigain, Elen, and thoughts on modern “Celtic” paganism

Elen of the Ways from John Matthews' Celtic Shaman's Pack
Elen of the Ways from John Matthews’ Celtic Shaman’s Pack

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?

Almost everything in this description is wrong.
With all due respect to the artist, almost everything in this description is wrong.

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?

Reality is a moving target

I couldn't think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here's a puppy.
I couldn’t think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here’s a puppy.

In his latest post on The Well of Galabes blog, John Michael Greer poses a question that, to judge from the comments, resonated with a lot of people–myself included.

“Abstract verbal thought…is a waste of time in operative magic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s of the highest importance when you’re outside the temple; a solid grasp of occult philosophy, which functions at a high degree of intellectual abstraction, is essential for success in ceremonial magic…but once you set foot inside the temple, raise your hands, and begin the opening ritual, how well you succeed will depend on how well you can set aside abstract thinking for the time being and participate fully, nonverbally, emotionally and sensuously in each moment of the work.

“That recognition leads into deep waters, which will have to wait for some other time. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out—as I’ve pointed out here before—that abstract concepts are further from reality than the experiences they attempt to describe and explain. In moving from thinking to experience, in magical practice or out of it, we’re moving closer to what’s real, and getting closer to what’s real seems to be essential to the effective practice of operative magic. I’ll close with a question: what does it imply about the universe if getting closer to reality makes reality more open to change?

(Emphasis mine.) I couldn’t resist replying to the post by comment but there are so many implications relevant to this here blog that I decided to expand that comment into a post.

For the purposes of this post, I am accepting a priori that it is accurate to say that reality is more open to change as we get closer to it. That requires that I define what I mean by reality. The only problem there is that I actually have no idea what reality is. Whatever it is, we interface with it through our physical senses (and through other, less well-understood senses) and then take the perceptual data, filter it through our expectations and preconceptions, and use whatever comes out the other end to construct scenarios (with our imagination?) that we think of as “real,” objective, and outside ourselves. Even when we know or suspect that this “reality” is more a subjective creation of our own mind, shadows on a cave wall are all most people will ever experience, so they’re real by consensus.

Of course, dear readers, we wouldn’t be drawn to magic, mysticism, and etc. if we were content to accept consensus reality. So we have to ask, what is causing those signals we perceive with our senses? Maybe it’s waves and particles. Or maybe the waves and particles are themselves phenomena of our perceptive apparatus. Who knows? I sure as hell don’t, and I don’t trust or respect anyone who says they do. So let us just accept for the sake of discussion that some kind of objective reality exists, which we are part of, but which we don’t fully experience or understand.

Now our starting premise is, (1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience; while we get further away from it when we try to name, describe, represent, or evaluate experience via abstraction and verbalization. (2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

So indulge me as I wax loquacious on the possibilities…

(1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience.

If this is true, then we need better models of reality than the popular ones produced by scientistic-materialism. At first blush, our premise and those of scientistic-materialism might not seem mutually contradictory, but if you think about it, scientistic-materialist models of reality are actually extremely abstract. Which is totally ironic since materialists are convinced matter is the only thing that exists and that everything else is merely mental abstraction (though usually they don’t put it that politely). But I ask you, what is more abstract than the formal scientific method? I don’t mean the process of forming a hypothesis and seeing if it stands up to experience–that’s an ordinary part of human life, also known as trial and error. I mean the notions that an observer can stand outside of what they are observing, that what is real is measurable and what is measurable must be real, that subjectivity is a mark of either unreality or lack of utility/value, and that relevant variables can be controlled or independent. Those are all essentially metaphysical propositions, ones that, in my experience, do not stand up very well to real-world tests. The entire method depends on a central proposition, which is that objective reality exists independent of the observer and the more observer and observed can be separated, the more accurate observations of reality will be. That is basically like saying that you can best understand something by not directly experiencing it.

I mean…what? That doesn’t…I don’t even.

I don’t mean to throw science in the crapper, because if you accept its foundational principles as givens, from within the paradigm you can actually generate some interesting descriptions of our imagined “realities.” Things that work perfectly well for navigating entirely within the imagined “reality,” though obviously they begin to break down once you start to question the underlying assumptions. But I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you don’t fully buy into scientistic-materialism and its wacky epistemology. At least you don’t accept it as given. So what does our premise mean with regard to magic? In terms of practical action, Greer says:

“Everything that makes for effective magic serves to focus the mage’s awareness on the wordless. Physical actions do that, especially if they’re actions that have strong biological resonances; scents, colors, rhythms, chanted words that don’t instantly communicate meaning to the mind all do the same thing; so does the deliberate cultivation of emotional states—for example, the practice of love and devotion in religious ritual, or the generation of emotions corresponding to the seven traditional planets in planetary magic.”

That is pretty consistent with opinions I have seen expressed by other occult practitioners–namely, that you have to find some way to blast past your abstracting mind in order for magic to work optimally. I mean, that’s the whole theory behind sigils. (And it actually adds another interesting dimension to my last post with regard to “named deities” vs. spirits or gods that are immanent in a place.) Interestingly though, there is another school of thought within the magical community, to wit that magic works because of intention. Check out this article on self-proclaimed witches in Seattle; assuming it isn’t just selection bias on the part of the author (which frankly I rather doubt), magic is all about “intentionality.”I’m not even sure what is mean by intention, nor am I convinced the witches in the article know either, but what I do understand is that intention comes from the abstracting mind.

Now if magic really were all/only about intention, I would say stop reading this blog right now and go out and buy yourself a copy of The Secret and get to wishing your way to a richer, thinner, sexier you. (Please don’t do that.)

Nevertheless, the issue of intention brings up some questions. It seems that our functional magical guidelines predicate that we select some goal (or if you must, intention) with our abstracting minds, then some activity is undertaken in order to get away from that abstraction in order to make it happen. It seems a little…overcomplicated? Perhaps more importantly, we know the (abstract) map is not the (real) territory; so why are we letting the abstracting mind steer the ship?

I don’t have a ready answer but it would seem that the first order of business is to cultivate the ability to more effectively silence the abstracting mind, which is why our elders are always nagging us to meditate more. (Sigh.) The second order of business would be to spend as much time in direct experience mode as possible in order to make a map that better approximates where the real shoals and islands and sea monsters are.

Could it be that our spells and rituals are just tawdry baubles that lure us toward a greater prize, rapprochement with reality? Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but just as a thought experiment, read this passage from one of Io’s recent posts on Disrupt & Repair, but imagine he is talking about ceremonial instead of science, and that “practice” here specifically refers to magical practice:

“The ability to interface with those systems of practice easily is one of the key features of expertise in any field, but it is important to highlight that…with that expertise comes a certain kind of blindness. Behind each of those techniques are decisions as to what is valuable and important for the practice.

“Those [abstract] value decisions start to become invisible, too, in ways that alienate the expert from a more complex network of experiential possibility. It is amazing what we can do technically, but it can sometimes strand us in dead ends, where the technique and its habits become less and less suited to a concrete situation. The application of such abstracted techniques can quickly turn into a sort of mutilation, as when a doctor subjects a patient to extreme medical procedures with little hope of success because it’s just what a doctor does, or when well-meaning scientists ‘modernize’ traditional agriculture in entirely unsustainable, resource-intensive, ways.”

(My emphasis.) I am beginning to think that direct experience–of whatever–may have a transcendent aspect that all too often goes unrecognized. And that it’s during our moments of direct experience, the physicality or the powerful emotion, the altered state of consciousness, that the magic happens–not in the intention. Though that then begs the question of how we get what we enchant for (in letter, if not in spirit sometimes). Whatever the case may be, I have to say that from where I’m sitting, it looks like magical-mystic-philosophical models better approximate reality than anything on offer in today’s mainstream culture. They’re certainly more parsimonious than the many-worlds interpretation.

(2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

But what about the other part of our premise, that getting closer to reality actually changes reality, or at least creates the potential to change it? Why might that be? Here again, I like where Io’s mind is at (and I’m not just saying that because he gave me a shout-out, I actually quoted him before I even saw that):

“Spiritual practices don’t just make certain experiences possible, they generate certain experiences by transforming the world into which the practice projects itself.”

Of course we have all the anecdotal evidence of magic that works, and our own gnosis, telling us that change occurs. Even if it remains subjective and can’t ever be completely communicated to someone else, we know it worked. It’s late and I’m tired, so maybe I’m missing something really obvious, but at the moment I only see two ways for reality to change as we approach it. Either there truly is no objective reality, and it’s all inside our heads–in which case I’d be tempted to doubt even your existence, dear readers, and think that all of us, including me, are just figments of my own imagination, which is so recursive that I don’t even want to try to follow that line of thought; or reality is meeting our efforts halfway. As in any relationship, one changes and is changed in return, simply through knowing an Other.

It suggests that reality has its own consciousness, its own will. Now that’s not a novel idea in magical or philosophical circles, and I admit this has been my opinion of the matter for years. I just never came at the problem from this direction before. As I mentioned in my comment to Greer, I used to think that Dion Fortune was weaseling out when she added “in consciousness” to Crowley’s maxim that magic effects change in accordance to will. I thought she was just psychologizing, which isn’t an unreasonable assumption given her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. But from within a conscious-universe framework, her statement is actually much more radical and comprehensive than Crowley’s. Of course, the will must inevitably also change. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

In search of authenticity

What is “authentic” in magic? In religion? Should we seek it, and if so, where can it be found?

This post was inspired by a conversation in the comments on my karma post. The topic turned to authenticity, and I was rightly challenged to define what I mean by that. So I thought about it for a while and this is what I came up with–other perspectives are welcome. I tried to keep it succinct, but failed.

Totes magical.
They are, like, totes magical.

First let me state that I am just as disgusted by hipsters buying Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles and mustache wax at Urban Outfitters, or setting up booths to read tarot badly, or selling spells on Etsy to attract a succubus who will think you are soooo hot, as the rest of you are. But then, I’m disgusted by hipsters generally because, in my experience, to be a hipster is to be a hyper-materialist. It is a subculture based on simulacra, on authenticity-posturing. For example, during the decade I lived in a large American city famously crawling with hipsters, I observed that the same people who would only drink crap beer at biker bars because anything else was “bourgeois,” who would pride themselves on riding a fixie or taking the bus to show how eco-friendly they were, but would fly to the other end of the country (America is a big country btw) just to get a tattoo. The very fact that so much energy is expended on aping blue collar Americana (e.g., western or denim shirts, hand-knitted scarves, caps sporting tractor or trucking company names) demonstrates how acutely status-conscious hipsters are. What is more bourgeois than slumming? In my book, that is called hypocrisy. It is doubly annoying and depressing now that, for the past three or four years, they have turned their predatory attentions toward the occult and its paraphernalia.

But I’m betting I don’t need to give you more reasons to be annoyed by hipsters. (And don’t worry, they’ll get bored with it soon.) Sadly, as easy as it is to point the finger at them, they are a natural outgrowth of the current values and priorities of the (post-)modern Western monoculture to which so many of us are unwilling, but nevertheless habitual, contributors. Or as Gordon so astutely put it, “Blaming hipsters for ‘special snowflake’ syndrome is egregiously unfair as we are the snowclouds.” Hipsters are irritating because they are so utterly unconcerned with authenticity or meaning, except when they are working hard to create a pretense of it. They somehow manage to appropriate from within their own cultures.

But why does it make us so uncomfortable? Why do we care about authenticity, and in particular, why do we feel the need to police others’ authenticity, or lack thereof?

To begin with a basic definition, the dictionary gives one meaning as “having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship” (in other words, something is what it purports to be) while another is “conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, and belief” (in other words, accurate and actual). So basically something that is honest about itself, and which has a known provenance.

Any particular magical technique or tradition can meet one of these criteria without meeting both. For example, a given claim could be faithful to its origin either in history or in UPG, yet never amount to more than religious dogma, abstract symbolism, or just plain BS. (Spirits say the darndest things.) Conversely, a claim could be erroneously represented as, say, “druidic” or “shamanic” yet still produce the desired and expected results. (The Virgin of Guadalupe might answer your prayer, even if you bought your prayer candle at Urban Outfitters.)

I propose:

  1. Hipsters make us feel yucky because they are distorting mirrors. They exaggerate practices that many of us are implicated in, and by doing so, bring them uncomfortably into our awareness. At the same time, they represent values of a monoculture we desperately want to escape and resist. So in a sense, the quest for authenticity is a quest to be liberated as victims/perpetrators of the monoculture.
  2. Authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable, and perhaps of dubious utility anyway.
  3. Authenticity-as-functionality is useful though subjective.
  4. Integrity is the promise of authenticity, and dogma is the pitfall. We have to shoot for the former while escaping the latter. I think we might need more specific vocabulary for this issue.

Allow me to elaborate…

Authenticity as liberation

Don’t you hate it when your nips get chafed by your appropriated Native American garb?

First and foremost we need to question why we even seek after authenticity. I am certain there are many factors intertwined in this subject and I doubt I could come up with a comprehensive list. I’d rather focus on one: I suspect that worries about legitimacy are a smokescreen obscuring a deeper need to both escape the world of simulacra and escape our own complicity in it. That is to say, the need to escape–or more proactively, to reject–the simulacra of the monoculture is very real and very worthwhile. It is arguably the first, though ongoing, task of the magician. But when the focus comes off the goal of liberation and shifts to controlling the terms of engagement, “authenticity” has turned into “policing.” For the apprentice wizard, it’s like just as you are breathing a sigh of relief at having finally broken with the monoculture, having passed the first gate, Fear of Attack, and the second gate, Fear of Being Silly, you hit the third gate, Judgy Fellow Magicians.

I know that many if not most people within the magical community oppose the monoculture. How could we not, when it opposes us? But so often we find ourselves caught in a bind, forced to choose the lesser of evils, operating half-blind without enough information (and that’s even when we use divination). Maybe I’m generalizing too much from my own experience but I think the very first obstacle we come to as baby wizards is our fear of going against the monoculture. Anyone who doesn’t experience at least a frisson of terror at the potential repercussions of disengaging from The System isn’t using their imagination. Disengaging from the monoculture entails very real costs, and it doesn’t have to be something as grotesque as burning at the stake, beaten to death with sticks, tortured to death, or being dismembered with machetes so your body parts can be sold on the black market. The subtler punishments can be a death of a thousand cuts.

Not surprisingly, the people talking a good game about sticking it to The Man greatly outnumber those who actually try to do so. I’ve always kind of gotten a kick out of hearing Western cultures described as individualistic, because I see plenty of demand for conformity in the US. Granted, our laws do provide for a certain degree of personal freedom relative to other places in the world–though you never know when those freedoms are going to be arbitrarily violated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies, especially if you aren’t white or rich–but this is not some El Dorado of unfettered personal expression. Here as in other parts of the world subject to the monoculture, there are people at every level and in every corner of society waiting to judge and condemn your every failure to live and endorse the capitalist dream.

No matter what the topic under discussion, those who set themselves up as gatekeepers of correctness are the ones who are feeling the most threatened by change and debate. Gatekeeping is self-aggrandizement, and a distraction from the hard work and loneliness of introspection. I see this little drama absurdly reenacted all the time here in the US. Certain jerks think that the freedom of religion inscribed in our Constitution means they should get to persecute anyone who goes against the jerk’s religious beliefs. In fact it merely means that, e.g., if an individual’s religion says they can’t marry a person of the same sex, then the individual can’t be forced to do so. It doesn’t give that individual the right to circumscribe the rights of others, on religious or any other grounds. Unfortunately, as currently interpreted in America, freedom means “I get to do whatever I want and everyone else can get fucked.”I guess that does look individualistic, but I think it’s more defensive. In fact a self-defensive attitude is so pervasive that anything that contradicts some interest group’s values is declared a “war” on those values. If certain conservative news networks are to be believed, the mere existence of people who aren’t Christian is a “war on Christianity.” I mention this as an example of the desire to gatekeep taken to extremes.

But I can’t help but think there’s an element of “you damn kids!” in our need for authenticity too. I remember reading a blog post once–sadly I can’t remember where, but it had nothing to do with magic, just life in general–where the author was talking about how hard it can be to make friends as an adult, especially in middle age. Sometimes one ends up with seemingly incongruous friends, with whom one has little in common, simply because hey, they showed up. Back in the late 20th century, Jason Miller assures me, it was similar with magic:

“We didn’t have social media then either. No Facebook. No Yahoogroups. No MySpace. Not even fucking Friendster. You couldn’t find the other people in the world with the exact same myopic opinions and interests that you have. No groups for just for Celtic Taoists, Thelemic Palo Mayomberas, or people following the Key Of Solomon to the letter. You just had to form a study group, cabal, or coven and put up with whoever showed up. You had Setians participating in Wiccan Circles, Tantrikas going to OTO meetings, Chaos Magicians showing up for Modern Magic practice sessions because that is all there was in your area, and at least it was something.

I wasn’t actively involved in the occult back then, but I was a young adult and I remember those heady days, getting dizzy from photocopier toner fumes, desperately hoping I had enough coins to finish the job, so psyched because I found some book in the library with one chapter on whatever I was interested in. Pre-internet and social media, college was the time when you got to surround and insulate yourself with others who shared your beliefs and opinions–once you graduated, you had to grow up and be nice to humanity’s irritating diversity. Nowadays, a whole slew of cultural factors, social media among them, have led to the ridiculous expectation that we should be surrounded by others just like us, and the perception that those who don’t think just like us are a threat. It’s as if the filtering algorithms Facebook and Google use to decide what should be important to you have bled out into the culture at large, and it may benefit someone, but it ain’t us. Gordon again, much more succinctly than my rambling diatribe:

“When did we all become such massive dicks? The instant we find something that isn’t a 100% confirmation of our existing worldview, we all take to facestalk and fizz with impotent consternation….If you have enough time to only consume stuff you agree with and then even more time to overreact to anything that slightly deviates from it then, humbly, you need to look at how you are spending your incarnation.”

You are in charge of you; why worry so much about what others are doing? It’s their business and moreover it’s out of your control. If you think a given practice is inauthentic, don’t use it and don’t teach it. Simple as that. Yes, poseurs–who by definition must call attention to themselves–will make the rest of us look bad in the eyes of the monoculture. Since when do we need the monoculture’s approval? Yes, they will do things we regard as dorky, lame, tacky, and just plain wrong. Ironically, they will even try to set themselves up as the arbiters of authenticity (they were into magic before it was cool, you see). All very annoying, most of all when our own behavior starts to converge on theirs, hmm? It’s not that I’m above tsk-tsking at others (you read the first part of this post, right?), but it’s precisely because it’s so hard for me to stay focused on my own path that I feel it’s necessary to do.

Magic is “occult” for a reason. Actually more than one reason: (1) to protect its users from negative social repercussions, (2) to allow sufficient solitude and freedom from distraction for practice and introspection, and (3) due to signal loss, the inevitable impossibility of putting any of this into words, and the fact that some don’t have ears to hear. I want to be clear that when I criticize the gatekeeping impulse, I am not talking about protective secrecy. To know, to will, to dare, to keep secret does not require the addition of “to demand the right to determine the terms of engagement and censure those who don’t comply.”

Authenticity as historicity

If you suspect there is a kind of crust of fossilized ideas and practices that has adhered to the occult–and I’m sure there is, because humans–you might figure that a worthwhile project is to cut through it to get to the juicy meat. From what I have seen, that crust is composed of a mix of things that once worked but whose purposes have long been forgotten; formal gestures that never worked but maybe made sense within a long-gone social, philosophical, and/or religious context; zany pronouncements from the less…er, enlightened?…denizens of the spirit world; blurry transmissions from the beyond and the inevitable losses-in-translation; dogma; and insertions by self-aggrandizers (both embodied and not).

How do you remove that cortex of bunk? Some try to go back to a time when the tradition was not yet corrupted by these accretions. I don’t really think that’s possible, for reasons I explain below, and moreover I think some of that junk has always been in magic–again, because humans. Another method is to largely ignore what anyone else has ever said and do it the hard way, figuring that the proof of your success or failure will be in the pudding, which I get to in the next section.

As has probably become painfully obvious to you, lovely readers, I think history and archaeology are extremely interesting, academically. If I had it in me to do a second Ph.D., it would probably be on the archaeology of the WMT (or rather, some tiny picayune aspect thereof, because such is the nature of dissertations). But from an experiential and practical point of view, what does historicity really matter? I mean, there is no reason to throw away the hard-earned knowledge of our forebears; but on the other hand, there’s no reason not to put it to the test, either.

We can’t ever really walk in our ancestors’ shoes because our consciousness and our cognition are different. For the purpose of my argument, let me define a culture as a set of more-or-less formalized mental models of the universe, plus behavioral guidelines for negotiating that universe, which together make up a worldview. It forms part of the context for a developing mind and brain, along with things like the mother’s health during pregnancy, nutrition, genetics, traumatic injury, inner dimensions of reality, and so on. Our brains are plastic, forming and eliminating neural pathways according to the stimuli presented to them and the uses they are put to, but the range of potential stimuli and uses is limited by prevailing mental models of what is “real” and “possible” (i.e., the culture). Although the mind is not the same thing as the brain, the mind does use the brain to interface (somewhat inadequately) with our material realities.

As for our own prevailing system of mental models, we latched onto reductionist materialism as our guiding philosophical paradigm, only to realize about 200 years down the line that it feels hollow and yucky and we were tricked into conspiring in our own enslavement and destruction. In the meantime, we let all the elders die without bothering to record their wisdom, and now that old-timey skills suddenly look a lot like the sort of thing one needs to know for survival when the proverbial shit hits the fan, we are rightly sad and scared. We want to jettison the façade and find something that actually works and doesn’t make us want to slit our wrists. There are a few left who can teach us how to make stone tools, thatch a cottage, or make a dugout canoe, but not as many who can teach us how to eat sin, or what charms to sing over a foundered horse.

So one way to look at magic is as forgotten knowledge that can be partially recovered through surviving texts and oral tradition, and partially through experimentation and personal gnosis. But as the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” They don’t do things different, they see and think differently too. I suspect John Michael Greer is on the right track when he proposes that it isn’t simply that we have forgotten certain skills; the bigger problem is that we have so narrowed our mental models that we have dulled our brain-tools and rendered them useless in non-human-created environments. And so, he argues, most of us are literally unable to think our way out of the box we made for ourselves, and keep doubling down on stupid decisions like, say, fracking:

“…civilizations by and large don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall; instead, they take that route with yells of triumph, convinced that the road to ruin will infallibly lead them to heaven on earth, and attempts to turn them aside from that trajectory typically get reactions ranging from blank incomprehension to furious anger. It’s not just the elites who fall into this sort of self-destructive groupthink, either: it’s not hard to find, in a falling civilization, people who claim to disagree with the ideology that’s driving the collapse, but people who take their disagreement to the point of making choices that differ from those of their more orthodox neighbors are much scarcer.”

Outside of our created buffer zone, when our ideas about how the world works are wrong, we tend to get dead, and cultural models get updated accordingly. Within the buffer zone, we are protected enough to generally stay alive and keep breeding. So we don’t learn when our mental models are a poor fit with reality because reality as we have come to know it is our mental models. Thanks to fossil fuels, modern Western society more completely shelters its adherents than any civilization before (think air conditioning), so the implication of Greer’s speculation is that we have not merely forgotten some stuff, but those of us alive today are now too stupid to learn it again. Now we must wait until natural selection has a chance to impose some negative feedback on our descendants’ worldviews.

Summerisle wicker man

My point with all this is that you can build a wicker man, but because the social, cultural, cognitive, and religious context for druidic human sacrifice is gone (outside of Summerisle anyway), you would arguably just be murdering people. This is the sense in which I mean that authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable. If the question is merely one of historical interest, then obviously accuracy is desirable–and yes, there are plenty of people out there making factually erroneous claims about the historicity of their magic–but that only bothers me (admittedly, it bothers me a lot) in an academic sense.

I think if we cannot fully replicate or reconstruct the past, we are released from the obligation to try. The primacy of ancient wisdom is just one among many metaphysical assertions that demand to be questioned if we are not just to accept them as dogma. Why should we think that the Western Magical Tradition is univalent, or that it stopped evolving?

Authenticity as functionality

This picture captions itself, really.
This picture captions itself, really.

When I was a kid my aunt used to laugh at me and say that I always had to do everything the hard way. I would never take advice. So if you are one of those people who must reinvent the wheel, I feel you. Mind you, I messed up a lot because of my unwillingness to listen to my elders.

Does a given method work without too many unintended undesirable effects? That’s always the most fundamental question in magical practice. I could tell…well, anyone…that a “haunted unicorn pegasus telepathy intuition spirit talisman” is probably not going to achieve anything but the emptying of their wallet, but I guess it depends on what effect the benighted purchaser is going for. Here again, those mental/cultural models are in play: If the ends were all the same, we could compare which means work best; but the ends are not all the same.

Look, I admit that if I were part of a lodge or coven, and the other members were hipsters doing Fauxhemian tarot readings, or if they were New Agers seeking crystal children to help them bring about the Ascension, I would be super annoyed and leave because I would not be getting what I’m looking for. I really hope I’m not coming off here as though I am above being judgy, because heck, judging is one of my hobbies. (I’m sure that will become apparent in due time if it hasn’t already.) And I don’t mean this as some can’t-we-all-just-get-along tolerance talk. There is also the question of appropriation, which I address separately. Relativism has its benefits, but the magical path is lonely enough without having to do everything by yourself from scratch. It’s kind of crazy not to take advantage of the human ability to learn vicariously. At some point, you have to take someone else’s method or metaphysical proposition and try it on for size. And it should not be dismissed simply because it makes you uncomfortable. I would have gotten exactly nowhere–and granted, I’m barely even onto the path at this point, but I wouldn’t be on it at all–if I hadn’t ultimately swallowed my pride and decided to work through my uneasiness.

On the other hand, UPG can result in some frankly bizarre stuff. I used to contribute to an internet forum that was mostly made up of New Agers. There were a couple other people more of my own metaphysical stripe, enough to keep me coming back and thinking I had something of value to contribute. But I finally gave up after I encountered (1) a woman who claimed to channel angels. One type of angels were the “Chantilly angels,” who told her that God’s ideal society was 1950s America, and these angels were here to return us to that golden age. (2) Someone who claimed to channel an extremely racist Archangel Michael. (3) A dude who thought the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization had flying cars and nuclear weapons (I have been hearing this lately from some Hindu Vedic fundamentalists; not sure if he was one). And (4) another person who claimed to have channeled an Atlantean who said that if you suck on seeds before planting them, the plants will absorb your DNA and then produce exactly the nutrients you personally need. (I am not making this up.) I also saw (virtually speaking) some people who were obviously being munched on by noncorporeal parasites, and were being told whatever they needed to hear to keep them compliant. In short there is a lot of crazy out there, and there are apparently plenty of individuals (embodied and not) who really, really want to share it with you. (I am a year late but I just found out about this book on the subject of channeled weirdness via Disrupt & Repair and cannot wait to read it.)

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of gnosis. I avidly seek it myself because there seem to be certain categories of universal esoteric knowledge that can only be obtained through gnosis. I just don’t think I can use my subjective experiences as a metric of authenticity that can be applied to everyone else. In this sense, we are like the blind men and the elephant. We grasp the truth, but never the whole truth.

Parting thoughts

I’m starting to wonder if, rather than authenticity, what we should seek in a spiritual and/or magical method is vitality. By that I mean does the practice or tradition not only function (accomplish one’s goals) but does it put one in touch with the numinous? Does it deepen and broaden our experience of life? Does it facilitate communion with other living beings, embodied and otherwise? Does it help liberate us? In my view, magical natural selection will ensure that, over time, what survives is what is vital and powerful. If you take a snapshot of any given slice of time, of course, there will still be a few fossils that have outlived their usefulness. By all means, abandon–or better yet, compost or combust–that shit. But help the strong survive. Our choices are part of the forces that will select the fittest, most adaptable magics. But, just as natural selection doesn’t work on individual organisms but on variants of genes (as one of my professors used to say, “fitness is a property of alleles!”), so we must expect that it’s not magical systems that will survive but smaller elements such as techniques and myths. I think that is reflected in the magic and mythology of street kids. The life-and-death selective pressures those kids face are far more intense than what most of us encounter, so you can be sure that whatever magics survive in their world have been honed to a knife-edge. They have to work. We may be perturbed by the remixed versions of magic that are espoused by the next two or three generations, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that Hollywood and hipsters will eventually get bored and leave us alone.