This is just some off-the-cuff musing here… I’ve noticed that among Western followers of Shinto or hybrid Shinto-paganism (example), Inari seems to be the most popular “patron” deity. My initial take on this, and this isn’t meant disrespectfully or judgmentally, is that this is because (1) Inari is very popular in Japan, one of the few kami that isn’t rooted to one particular locality, and is associated with a host of life events and activities that tend to be important to people, especially food, fertility, and general prosperity; (2) Inari is incredibly polyvalent so there’s lots of room for individual interpretation, which while rather unusual in Japanese culture, fits well with generalized Western values; (3) Western pagans seem to have a real attachment to the notion of matron/patron deities and to explicitly devotional polytheism; and (4) Inari is associated with foxes which are adorable.
But I recently finished reading Karen Smyers’ The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship (very good, check it out if you’re interested in Shinto, Japan, anthropology, or Inari), and along with some UPG of my own, it’s clear there is more going on.
I think Inari is on a mission, though to do what I don’t know. And I should say, it’s clear from Smyers’ research that Inari is not one deity but many grouped under a collective name, some of which are represented in only a single inscription, or a single person’s narrative of their UPG. (That, incidentally, should be a lesson to us when we think about just how many deities are actually represented in, say, Romano-British inscriptions or early medieval Irish literature.) It’s really difficult to wrap your head around–well, it is for me–and I suspect that’s partly linguistic. Japanese allows for distinctions between singular and plural if needed, but doesn’t normally make them. You figure it out from context, or you don’t. No big deal. English is not so comfortable with that lack of specificity. It’s unclear to me whether there is a unitary being that is Inari with maybe a lot of different outlets to plug into, or if Inari is almost more like a class of being, or a role, or if in English we should really be saying Inaris.
For all the reasons I outlined above, I think of all the Shinto kami Inari is best placed to make the jump to the West. Inari has clearly been evolving since his/her/its/their first appearance in written history (which dates to the 7th century AD if I remember correctly), becoming more personally accessible to individuals and indeed making that a hallmark of–I’m just going to say “her” for simplicity’s sake but let’s all agree that it’s not simple–her character and method; less locally-specific; and more involved with general wish-fulfillment in return for human devotion. Inari also seems to really like working with and through women, including female shamans. A further characteristic of Inari is a propensity toward shapeshifting: among the various forms Inari takes are a young woman, an old man, an ordinary fox, a white fox, a golden fox, a dakini riding a flying fox, a dragon, a snake, and a dove. In Japanese culture, foxes themselves are shapeshifters and tricksters. I think all of this further puts her in a position to be more widely embraced in the West.
It will be interesting to see what further changes this brings, and what projects Inari has/have in mind. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened, but would be the first case, as far as I know, of a Japanese kami integrating into the Western cultural context (as opposed to being transplanted to a shrine which is geographically located in the West but is otherwise culturally Japanese).
The thoughts that follow are provisional and tentative: I think of them as operating assumptions and working models undergoing beta testing. They’re based on my personal engagement with and experience of the world, my UPG, and are not meant to be anyone else’s model. I have a great interest in the work of philosophy (I take the Ph in my degree seriously) but I don’t claim to be trained in the academic discipline. If I sound like I’m parroting some specific philosopher but don’t attribute it, it’s probably because I didn’t know that person said it first. At the same time, I’m not claiming to be the first to think these things. None came from a vacuum. Some of this, such as the metaphor of Indra’s Net, I already outlined in my post on karma. I’m assured that my worldview, by conventional standards, is “weird,” “crazy,” and “stupid,” and some have found it quite alarming, so I guess that means it’s pretty challenging to the ontological status quo. It feels only obvious to me, which makes it difficult to express; but I’ll do my best. I reserve the right to change my mind…indeed, I think that’s the whole point.
1 – Dreamworlds with no access to objectivity
We’re not able to get out of our own “heads” to observe whatever objective, independent reality might exist. By that I mean, everything we know comes to us through some sense or own mind and there’s simply no way for us to gauge whether those senses are in any way accurate. We are, as it were, trapped in a totally subjective dreamworld which I suspect is co-created by all conscious beings. I think all sentient/conscious beings have a spirit or soul (perhaps more than one, some perhaps shared), which is not the same as the ego/self. The ego/self is conditional and ever-changing according to stimuli filtered through the physical senses and the mind and memory. Thus each individual self lives within a particular iteration of the co-created dreamworld, and while hypothetically we might captain our own dream-ship, in reality most of us are not lucid dreamers. We are absorbed by and largely passive within the dream, and our ego/selves are at least as much a product of the dreamworld as it is of us. I would agree with the Buddhists that our ego/selves are, in that sense, illusory. The spirit or soul(s) is something which I imagine to be essential and permanent, but what it is exactly and how it relates to the ego/self I am not sure.
For some reason, our dreamworlds seem to be filled with suffering. If you buy the metaphor of Indra’s Net for the sake of argument, once suffering first got started it inevitably spread through the whole web. But why it is there in the first place I don’t know. In the New Thought/New Age, it’s believed to simply be a mistake, a delusion, limited to our dreamworlds but not a part of ultimate reality. But that doesn’t explain how and why it exists in the first place.
The fact that our dreamworlds are subjective and illusory does not justify people’s horrid behavior. You can’t simply say, no matter, it’s not really real, because it is real as long as you are dreaming. (As real as anything else, anyway.)
Our relationships with other sentient/conscious beings are nexus points where our private worlds link up to and reflect each other, Indra’s-Net-style, and we get a glimpse of others’ worlds. Based on these glimpses we modify (and are further modified by) our own dreamworlds. Our subjectivity is thus an intersubjectivity. Maybe our spirit-selves transcend this dreamworld, or maybe they move into a different dreamworld (like the bardo?) when our physical bodies die. Maybe we are in the bardo now, that has certainly been suggested. The dreamworlds seem to be able to take virtually infinite forms, just like the ordinary dreams of sleep (dreams within dreams), as evidenced by some of the Bosch– or Carrington-like surreality one can experience during shamanic-type journeys. The forms are clearly not bound by earthly physics or biological evolution. As far as I can tell, the laws of physics and biology only obtain within certain dreamworlds. I guess this could be considered a form of idealism, but a better fit are the concepts of maya as used in Advaita Vedanta and sunyata as used in certain schools of Buddhism. I see this as a form of Skepticism (in the Classical sense) as well.
EDIT: I guess this could also be considered a soft form of subjective idealism, in that I’m not stating that the non-mental doesn’t exist, only that we have no means of knowing whether it exists. And you could say, well in that case, it might as well not exist as that is a purely academic distinction. But I think the distinction is meaningful.
If they aren’t completely solipsistic, our dreamworlds do overlap. We just can’t be sure how much or in exactly what ways. We are interacting with other sentient beings at all times, but (1) we may or not be aware of that, (2) we may or may not be able to perceive them within our dream, and (3) we just don’t have an objective rubric by which to determine how much they are filtered through our dream. It’s sort of like when you’re sleeping and the telephone rings, so you dream that you answer the phone. In this metaphor, an external phone exists, but the one you answer is only in your mind.
3 – Gnosis
Gnosis is something like waking up from our private dream, possibly into a bigger more widely shared dream, possibly into some kind of objective, independent, transcendent reality (if such exists). While we are embodied, at least, it seems to be exceedingly rare for a person to be able to stay in this state of enlightenment all the time, but with dedication we can learn ways to visit it and to stay there longer. Cultural opinions vary on the best means and ends (there are more than one of each).
ANOTHER EDIT: I often hear idealism bashed as mere navel gazing and a pointless waste of time because ultimately you get to a point of having to say “who knows?” and apparently, not generating a conclusive answer is a failure. I would counter that nothing (that I can think of) that we ever experience has a conclusive answer. Everything that enters our consciousness is so inextricably bound into our intersubjective dreamworld that any “thing” is inevitably many “things” and no “thing.” I would also point out that adopting a “who knows?” attitude can be a great boon to mental health, the foundation of establishing truly compassionate and non-judgmental relations with other beings, and–this is important in terms of praxis–a radical opening to gnosis.
On a personal note, I find it very interesting that when I have tried discussing these ideas with Americans and I couch it as a discussion of, say, Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Yogacara or Madhyamaka), my interlocutor will often receive it with a certain amount of respect and curiosity, if not agreement. But if I made the same arguments but described them as my own opinions, the reaction is generally a mix of derision and worry about my sanity.
4 – Magic
Magic, in my humble opinion (actually humble for once), is pert night useless if it doesn’t help us at least understand that our private reality is a kind of dreamworld among many dreamworlds (“jailbreak your mind”). I see magic as akin to lucid dreaming in the sense that it lets us change the rules, manipulate the architecture, of our dreamworlds as well as peek into other dreamworlds and achieve or receive gnosis. In this sense I think Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “a change in consciousness in accordance with will” is quite accurate. The New Age notion of “creation of reality” is thus both true and untrue–yes, we are co-creating it, but so is everyone else. No one has full control over or clear perception of their own dreamworld, let alone anyone else’s. You have to be a boss wizard to even put your hands on the steering wheel. Yet knowing it’s a dream gets you that much closer to waking up. The more cognizant you become that it’s a dream, the more dreamlike your dreamworld starts to behave, with time getting more wibbley-wobbley and timey-wimey and non-linear and synchronicities multiplying and strangely allegorical and symbolic events happening. Stuff gets weird. At the same time, this is why magic actually does work. Magic is simply how dreams work.
One implication of this is that we don’t actually need any ritual trappings or spells, and I suspect that is true, but perhaps you have to get way more lucid to do it reliably without the props.
5 – A singular, panpsychic, fractal-ish universe (monism)
I find the notion of a multiverse entirely unpersuasive. I mean, there’s not even any proof of it (nor can there be, as I understand it) within physics–it’s purely a hypothetical thought experiment designed to try and wiggle out of the otherwise-inexplicable. “Universe” by definition means all things, so if we found another one, we’d have to subsume both of those in a greater universe, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, I am a monist and non-dualist. This could be considered a form of pantheism, but I guess that depends on how you define a theos. However, I suppose there might be other dreamworlds in which you have other egos/selves. That would be cool. I’ll have to think more about that.
I like the idea that the Monad possesses, or better yet is, some form of consciousness (panpsychism in the broad sense, not the ridiculous version some materialists are trying to palm off on us). I find the concept of lila in Indian philosophies to be a very appealing way of modeling creation and existence (a sort of outflowing of pure divine bliss). My experiences of gnosis so far have been blissful, but ultimately I guess I don’t have any way to know.
It could be argued that, insofar as I’m in a dream, I can’t really know who is actually sentient/conscious and whom I merely dream to be so. I have to concede it. Skepticism (in the Classical sense) ultimately leads on to solipsism, and there’s really no way to argue your way out of that. I believe others to be real because if I am real, it only makes sense that others are too; however, it’s possible that I only ever interact with/relate to my dream-versions of others. Regardless, I think the best operating assumption is that everything else is as much a sentient, agentic, in/spirited entity as I am and that we are all part of a Monad/Universe which I would prefer to believe is conscious. I mean why not? Consciousness exists, it has to come from somewhere. If it exists somewhere, it is at the very least part of the Monad/Universe. Does this mean that we are one and the same as the Monad, or are we derivative yet within it? Damned if I know. How would you even divide a monad, isn’t that an oxymoron? I think it might just be a question of your scale of analysis, fractal-like. It’s turtles all the way down.
In my dreamworld, I have had experience with sentient/conscious non-embodied beings just as I have with embodied ones. So from my experience, at least in my dreamworld, consciousness is not consubstantial with nor confined to physical matter. And I have felt/sensed what seemed to be consciousness or maybe something like mana in ostensibly inanimate “things” such as stones, water, and so on. Of course, though we may identify these as single entities, like us they are full of smaller beings–bacteria, fungi, moss, algae, etc. Their consciousness may be manifold, and so might ours. Again, it is fractal and a matter of scale. As above, so below. In “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (Current Anthropology 40:S1, 1999), Bird-David proposes the concept of the “dividual.” Unlike an individual, the dividual is not atomistic but constituted within and by his/her relationships. This is one reason why ego/selves are contingent and illusory and not bounded or permanent.
If spirits can be without physical bodies, I suppose one could make the argument that there could be physical bodies without spirits and without consciousness (i.e., inanimate things), but as I said I think best practice is to treat “everybody” as “somebody.” Just in case. I can’t see any a priori reason to assume that a rock, say, or a tree, or the entire Earth, or the Sun, etc. etc. don’t have sentience/consciousness. In order to make such a claim, I feel I’d have to fully understand all the possible dimensions and manifestations of consciousness, which I don’t. Not even within my own particular dreamworld. Perhaps all consciousness is just a fractal iteration of the Monad? If that’s true “we” (the Monad) would be effectively looking in a mirror whenever we perceive or interact with “other” consciousnesses.
6 – A few practical implications
As I said, I think best practice is to err on the side of compassion and treat all the “others” in our dreamworlds as objectively real, conscious/sentient, and intertwined with ourselves. Dreamworlds are best viewed as interpenetrating. I honestly believe that’s as good an approximation of reality as my brain is likely to ever get to, but I also think it’s a major part of just not being a jerk. To paraphrase Uncle Al, Love is the Law–or might as well be. Everyone else is suffering already, let’s make an effort to not add to it and even to alleviate some of it.
In my view, given the nature of karma as previously described, every time a being realizes the impermanence, illusion (maya), and emptiness (sunyata) of their dreamworld it benefits every other being. Waking up is a legitimate way to help alleviate the suffering of all.
Speaking of which, this seems like a good point to correct what I think is a misapprehension of Buddhist philosophy, with the inevitable caveat that there are many schools of Buddhism. It’s a big, big tent. But all the schools I know anything about are united in this: Buddhism is not about resigning yourself to your place within the status quo and learning to be happy with it. Like Gnosticism, Buddhism is a set of techniques for lucid dreaming and ultimately awakening. It was, and remains, radical because it doesn’t require gods, gurus, lineages, monasteries or temples, marriage or celibacy, poverty or wealth–but it also doesn’t preclude them. It doesn’t even require that you accept a single article of faith except for the possibility that if you try the techniques, they might reduce your suffering. Reducing pain is just the entry point, though. Now like every religion, or set of techniques that evolved into a religion, Buddhism as we know it has all those lineages and temples and hierarchies and so on that its own teachings emphasize you don’t need. I don’t think that invalidates the teachings. (I would say the same of Christianity.)
Seeing this all spelled out in writing, I ask myself (yet again), why magic? Honestly, I go back and forth with magic. We have an on-again, off-again relationship. Magic is a lot of work, much of it dull as dirt, for very unpredictable, strange results. It’s rarely the shortest or simplest method to get from Point A to Point B. I would argue that the reason magic has the weird results it does is because that is how dreams work. Dreams are a mysterious combination of the inappropriately and inconsistently logical leading to the totally absurd, coupled with liberal symbolism, allegory, and analogy. Magic makes connections bizarrely in the same way our minds make connections bizarrely.
However, if you’re only using magic to manipulate the dream, without realizing that it is a dream, I would respectfully ask why you bother. For example, in my dreamworld, you have to have money to eat, and I like to eat, so I need to acquire and use money. I don’t see any reason not to use magic to hack the dream so that becomes easier, and lord knows it is more interesting than the drudgery that is known as “earning” a living. If magic reduces that drudgery and adds a little color, that’s reason enough. But only because I also am learning to dream lucidly and even awaken entirely, if that is indeed possible. Of the two, I put the greater emphasis on the latter set of methods, because otherwise I would just be magically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Returning to the topic of animism, I think the metaphor of Indra’s Net, taken to its logical conclusion, presupposes animism (sensu lato) because literally nothing exists which is not in the net and no one jewel on the net is ultimately different in nature from the others. Therefore if any one is animate, all are. And in this sense, I can call myself an animist–but I’m no longer sure if that is the most useful descriptor.
I seem to get some of the most in-depth comments as replies to posts I write about deities. Often these comments are challenging, but I welcome them. Some of them disagree with me on perfectly valid grounds but I also think I haven’t made my ideas completely clear, which is probably because they aren’t very clear to begin with. So I’m revisiting the topic today to make clear my deity manifesto, partly to better understand my own thoughts and partly to make it explicit where I stand, in case it isn’t already.
I’m not trying to tell you what to think
First and foremost. I hope this goes without saying, but sometimes people seem to react as if I’m saying they need to realign their personal gnosis of Deity X to fit with my (typically historical, intellectual, and abstract) suggestions. Nothing could be further from the truth, because…
I have no idea what deities are
Beyond saying that deities seem to be powers bigger than what we usually call “spirits” and smaller than the full totality of all that exists, I sincerely do not know what they are. I have been in the presence of some big powers, in places that were supposed to house or represent deities. And it is manifestly clear that when people dial a god/dess’ number, someone answers. But who is on the other end of the line? This is part of why I’m a polytheist–I believe, as much on the basis of probability than for any other reason, that more than one of these entities exists–but I’m not a devotional polytheist. I don’t know what or whom I would be devoting myself to.
In fact, I’ve arrived at the point where I find the words god and goddess pretty much useless. It is pretty clear that as abstract conceptual categories, they are not at all helpful, as I have argued before (also here). These words are packed full of so much baggage, yet at the same time they don’t really explain anything; every time I use them I feel I should specifically define them, which would take ages. I think from now on they have to be put in problem-quotes like “Celtic”.
I have no idea what deities want
I don’t even know that they “want” anything as we understand that, but what I mean is, who the hell knows what they are up to? Dogs will sooner understand algebra than we will understand deities’ motives. This was actually one of the most disturbing realizations I’ve ever come to. It took me probably a year to stop feeling creeped out all the time (now I’m just creeped out when I think about it).
I’m certainly not going to tell deities, whatever they are, what they can and can’t do. I am very cognizant of the fact that there’s no such thing as coincidence in magic, and maybe no such thing as an accident either. If you accept the proposition that deities exist, you have to also accept that they have agency and consciousness; to what extent, then, are they involved in changing perceptions of them?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know our history/myths
Nevertheless I guess I’m just not postmodern enough to feel ok with wholesale embrace of any and all UPG and rejection of historical accuracy such as we know it. It drives me crazy when fundamentalist Christians spout nonsense that is diametrically opposed to the Christian theology they claim to believe, evidently out of rank ignorance if not anti-intellectual know-nothingism. We should do better. For too long in the neo-pagan community the same ideas–e.g., ones from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess–have been recycled, frequently plagiarized, over and over. Perhaps it is the case that Mór Rígain is happy to be conceptualized as a war goddess; but even if that is true–and I for one have no idea if it is–does that mean we shouldn’t be aware of earlier conceptualizations/representations of her? I wrote a post on my herbal blog a couple years ago about how the caduceus came to replace the asklepian as the symbol of medicine, and a commenter suggested that maybe it was no accident, as Hermes could reasonably be considered a patron of the healing arts. And indeed, I agree that is possible and a legitimate way to interpret the history–but I would still argue that we should know what the facts are (to the extent that we can–I realize history has its problems).
Also, I like to study and analyze myths. I have since I was in the 4th or 5th grade (to answer the question Gordon asks his podcast guests, “Were you a weird kid?”–yes, yes I was). Myths don’t tell us what the deities are, but they have many layers and facets and if we squeeze them we get wonderful new insights into the Nature of Things (and what is history but another kind of myth?). That’s all I’m doing with these posts.
What are the implications?
That’s it. That’s the question, the whole reason I keep nattering on about deities in the first place. If we accept that deities are real, what does it say about Reality that they seem to be more responsive to our expectations than they are to facts?
(I am reminded of the scene in Labyrinth where Jareth says, “Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”)
What does it mean for us if our calls are always answered, but we don’t know by whom? What does it mean that no two people’s UPG is the same? Shouldn’t we be concerned when we find ourselves getting defensive or unsettled in the face of someone else’s conflicting experience of a deity? (I know I sometimes do.) On the grand scale, the historical facts mean nothing compared to the potential implications of these, but for me they provide a necessary reference point against which to frame the questions.
I don’t have anything invested in making people agree with me on deities because I’m interested in dialogue. You might be surprised to know–given how much I’ve blathered about them and how much I love myth–that for the most part Working with deities doesn’t play a big role in my life (though like everything else this may change). I don’t usually feel the need to put names or personalities on forces of nature and landscape, and when I address them I just use the commonly accepted name of the phenomenon or species (e.g., “wind”, “rock”, “oak”).
So I don’t need a unified theory of deities, I don’t need for the mysteries to be solved, but I do crave some philosophical conversation about them. Why do we say “armchair philosophy” like it’s a bad thing? I don’t see why we can’t philosophize in comfortable furniture. So let’s do!
Were pre-Roman British god/desses tied to places or landforms? If so, does this make them not gods but something else (e.g., genii loci, spirits)? What does one’s answer mean for one’s practice of Brythonic-flavored polytheism, or for how we understand polytheism in general?
I’m not sure if the subject matter of this post will be controversial or a whole lotta so-what. I don’t have enough (embodied) people to discuss this sort of thing with so perhaps I’m just reinventing a wheel that has already been worn down to the rim. But the conversation isn’t over until I weigh in, right? (Right?)
Speaking purely from gut instinct, intuition, opinion, and UPG, I have this persistent feeling that 20th-21st century polytheists are much too limited in how they/we define “god/desses.” And at the same time, not nearly limited enough.
This idea was ratting around and then today I came upon this (in internet terms very old) discussion on the Caer Feddwyd forum. Thematically, it’s consistent with many others I’ve seen there and in other polytheist theological discussions. This particular iteration of the theme revolves around author Dorothy Watts’ (Religion in Late Roman Britain, Routledge 1998) argument that pre-Roman religion in Britain was animistic and tied to local places and landforms, and it was only after the Romans came around naming things and trying to make them equivalent to Roman deities that the British gods came to be represented as human (-ish). User Heron, who opened the topic, writes:
“There has been much debate in the past on this forum about the distinction between gods and spirits of place. I’m not sure that the early Romans, before they absorbed the Greek pantheon, made the distinction in a particularly hard and fast way. But what about all the named gods? Watts suggests, for example, that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring.”
Another user then opines:
“If the comparative evidence is of any use at all, I think all of our core gods must be fairly human. Okay, Lugus was born from an egg, Belgios was a giant serpentine cyclops, and Rigantona occasionally turns into a horse, but the essential nature of the gods is human.”
And finally a third adds:
“If the pre-Roman populations did not tie identity strongly with the individual because the survival strategy relied on the communal tribal identity, then I would suggest that the synopsis presented would have a very good basis to take it forward.”
(All emphases mine.) I don’t mean to reduce these forum users’ entire polytheistic lives to these three quotes, but I do think there are assumptions underlying these quotes that deserve to be, as the academics like to say, “unpacked.” Regarding this topic, religion in pre-Roman Britain, or “Celtic” religion as some like to think of it, I think we can learn a lot from Shinto. I’m not alleging a prehistoric connection between Britain and Japan, nor am I arguing that Shinto can somehow be a stand-in for all ancient religions. Rather, I believe that as a thriving, non-diasporic, non-colonized*, never-Christianized, polytheistic religion**, one which has been around in some form for a good 2000+ years and possibly since the Upper Palaeolithic if Japanese opinion is to be believed, Shinto may be the only comparand we have for understanding the lived experience of a pre-Christian polytheism. (There might be others, and if you know of one I would love to hear about it.) For me, Shinto is doubly useful because it’s a religion I have some personal experience of.
Shinto is a religion such as Dorothy Watts described–animistic, and focused on local landforms that are recognized as embodying spiritual power. Once when I was visiting friends and doing research in Japan, my friend’s mom, knowing my interest in Shinto, pointed to a mountain and said what I took to mean, “There’s a kami on that mountain.” Kami can be translated “god” or “spirit,” but Shinto makes no distinction between the two. I asked where the kami was; I could see the vermilion torii gate that denotes a sacred shrine precinct in Shinto but didn’t see a shrine. “No,” she said, “the mountain is the kami.” I don’t know exactly where we were–we were on the road at the time–nor the name of the mountain, but the story stuck with me because it was the first time I realized what kami are.
How does this relate to pre-Roman British religion? Well, note that the first user brings up named gods specifically, evidently presuming a contrast between animated places in the landscape and gods with names. I don’t understand where the perceived dichotomy comes from. Major landmarks typically have names. Heck, even tiny hills and creeks have names. In Appalachia, where my maternal family is from, every “holler” (hollow) has a name. In Shinto, the landform and the kami are coterminous and consubstantial; naturally they share the same name because they are the same thing. So when we read that “Watts suggests…that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring,” in reference to our comparand Shinto, we might speculate that “Coventina” was the name of the sacred spring who was the goddess/spirit. Not a water goddess, but water-as-goddess. Much in the way that Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji) is the name (one of the names, actually) of the kami who is that mountain.
Shinto does have more universal kami, who are linked less to landforms than to natural things or processes which exist throughout Japan: for example, Amaterasu (embodied in the sun), Susano-o (a god of plague and storms), and Inari (god/dess–gender varies by region–of growing rice plants). Whether or not these deities are viewed as greater, higher, or more powerful than the local kami depends on where you live and what your goal is. Though Shinto doesn’t distinguish, as outsiders we might draw a distinction between the deities of myth (such as Amaterasu, Susano-o, Izanami and Izanagi) and those represented and honored only in local practice. The mythic deities appear in cosmological stories such as the creation of the Japanese archipelago and of other deities (as recorded in Nihon shoki and the Kojiki), but we would do well to bear in mind that the only reason these myths were written down, and not others, is because they served the hegemonic purposes of the ruling dynasty. They were, in effect, the royal family’s genealogy and ancestor stories. As far as I know there is zero basis for assuming that these myths were widely held, or these deities widely worshiped, throughout ancient Japan. This reminded me of Lewis Spence’s hypothesis regarding druids (in The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain), viz. that they were the priests of a cult of divine kingship, and not representative of the religion or practices of your ordinary Brython or Irish farmer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to substantiate that hypothesis, but given that all the extant “Celtic” myths pertain to royal and/or divine lineages, I think it’s pretty darn plausible. It might be that pre-Roman British religion “on-the-ground” was a more animistic, idiosyncratic, shamanistic affair.
Supposing that there were local landform deities in pre-Roman Britain; would they have been “human”? I am of the opinion that no deity is human except insofar as this is our frame of reference for them. A human, or partly-human, shape makes a good interface allowing us to relate to beings that are ultimately beyond our ken. In Shinto, some deities are represented in human form (e.g., Amaterasu, Susano-o), others are indicated by the presence of their representatives or images thereof, usually animals such as deer or foxes, while still others have no physical form other than their shape in the landscape, but may temporarily occupy objects called go-shintai神体 (literally “god/spirit-bodies”). Go-shintai are seen only by priests but during annual festivals are carried around outside the shrine on palanquins. Amaterasu is represented by/embodied in mirrors. All of these various representations or symbols are designed to facilitate contact and communion between the kami and the human community. They are a way of making mountains, diseases, thunderstorms, and trees relatable for humans. In return, the kami get attention, honor, music and dance, and offerings. Without these, my understanding is that a kami can degenerate into a “monster” or demon, or even die. Sometimes, one community’s kami is the next town’s monster***.
I find that last bit interesting given the fate of the Romano-British temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, which survived for quite a while after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, but once the Romans had left Britain, came to be regarded as the abode of scary faeries and goblins.
The notion that gods/spirits embodied in an animated landscape would be predicated on a prioritization of group vs. individual identity is intriguing, but I don’t see any evidence for it. I mean, even societies that strongly emphasize the individual’s communal context (Japan being an oft-cited example) don’t lack a concept of individuality, or of individual deities. I have no doubt that pre-Roman British concepts of the individual were different from ours, but in ways we’ll never fully know, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the question at hand. However, in this brief article on the Green Shinto blog, the author speculates that the much vaunted Japanese consideration for others might derive from the values of Shinto. As the author puts it, kami is the word for “mirror” (kagami), minus the ga (“ego”). (The Japanese language elevates puns to an art form.) In a world amply populated with spirits, on whom the people’s dependence is recognized and performed daily, mutual respect and responsibility is a high priority.
I do think it likely that the Romans introduced a new way of relating to deities, specifically, through representing them in human form. Iron Age Europeans had the technological chops to create representations of deities had they so desired (and maybe they did, only we don’t recognize them as such). Especially in the metallurgical domain, the La Tène culture’s skills were unrivaled at the time. We must therefore conclude that the dearth of human forms represented before the arrival of the Romans was due to a lack of interest in them. Evidently, however they related to their deities was good enough without statues and carvings. (And after all, how would you make a statue of a river? Why sculpt a mountain when the mountain is right there before you?) Instead, we see a preference for swirling, ambiguous curves that morph into any number of shapes depending on the light and the angle and the state of consciousness the viewer brings to them. This ambiguity is so prevalent, so clearly intentional, that I find it unsurprising that we still get confused trying to imagine how these peoples might have related to the natural and numinous worlds. But the peoples of the Mediterranean region all seemed to share a love of representing their deities and interacting with those representations, and clearly that practice was so essential to their religious practice that the Romans (and Christians) took it with them wherever they went.
I think what we are seeing here is the difficulty that people raised on a 19th-20th-century model of the Greek model of polytheism within a Christian milieu have wrapping their/our minds around other polytheisms. I think for most of us in the West, our first encounters with gods other than Yahweh or Allah are stories from Greek mythology, which portray the gods in very human terms (unflatteringly so, even). We think of deities as characters. We imagine them as gods of–goddess of love, god of music, etc. I very much doubt that the Greeks understood their gods in this way, but I certainly don’t think it’s representative of what other cultures did and thought. For one thing, we might consider the possibility that the reason we have no surviving “Celtic” cosmologies is not only due to Christianity and colonization, but possibly because their stories never fit neatly into that package to begin with. I have always considered the assignments of figures from Welsh and Irish myth as gods of to be extremely tenuous, generally based on very reaching interpretations; now I think it’s time we chuck them and start over with radically different polytheisms. Ones where the gods aren’t characters, but presences; ones where the gods aren’t human, but, well, gods; ones where the distinctions among “god/dess” and “spirit” and “land” and “animal” and “ancestor” are porous at best; ones that are deeply, intensely local and consubstantial with place–and simultaneously, the land is equal parts animate, ensouled, inspirited, haunted, magical, genealogical, numinous, and mundane. There will still be room for universal deities, but even then they will have local interfaces. More importantly, they will be understood as part of a complex but more immanent network of relationships rather than as the default deity model.
Consider the huge number of Celtic deity names that are only attested in one inscription (e.g., Cernunnos), or in one region, and/or which we know are cognate with the name of a single landform. There are others that appear in different regional variations across a broad territory where Celtic-family languages were spoken, such as Dôn/Danu. What if the deities we so long to make universal, to render gods of abstract notions like “nature”and “sovereignty” are local landforms? What if the wide distribution of names like Nodens (and cognates thereof) and Danu is as much, or more, due to the habits of Roman soldiers and scribes as it is to some putative pan-Celtic (or Gaulo-Brythonic, or Germano-Celtic, etc.) belief, as we know was the case with Epona? Or what if these more widely-distributed deities are those claimed as ancestors by royal families, like Amaterasu in Japan? My point is not that any of these is the answer but that there are many answers, some of which haven’t gotten enough airtime. Similarly, one doesn’t have to approach polytheism via Shinto–light can come from other directions too. My questions are intended as food for thought.
This is not just anthropological navel-gazing. It’s not just about more closely approximating how our ancestors may have seen their relationship to deity. It’s about setting our own relationship to the land and cosmos in better order, evolving our “religious sensibility” (sensu Greer) to something less ontologically reductionist and abstract. I think what Shinto as a comparand can teach us about polytheism is:
There need be no dichotomy between gods and spirits, or named gods and ensouled landforms, or animism and polytheism. We maybe should question why we like those dichotomies so much.
Universality and the hyper-local, the abstract and the super-specific, both have roles to play in polytheism and their relationship is not necessarily a hierarchical one.
Social machinations of elites, cultural contact, movements of armies, and many other less-than-divine processes are formative in the evolution of a religion and put the lie to culturally-essentialist notions of spirituality. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded of it and sometimes it’s easier to see clearly when you are an outsider looking in.
Although I didn’t get into details of Shinto practice, it gives us a model for ways of relating to deities that are different from what most Western, non-African-diasporic polytheists know. For instance, belief is very much secondary to participation, and who a kami was “originally” is less important than what they do now. It’s not that we should replicate these ways of relating–and we couldn’t, because in the West we don’t have a widespread network of temples and professional priests and shrine attendants, but I think it’s refreshing to see a flourishing polytheism that isn’t consigned to “alternative religion” status.
There are few gods of. Rather there are gods as, gods in, and gods who. Kami are phenomenological. For me at least, this makes their presence and nature more immediate and more intimate, though thoroughly ineffable.
*Shinto and Buddhism have influenced one another in Japan, and to some extent been syncretized, but the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and its subsequent spread was not so much a result of colonization as royal dynastic strategy and diplomatic relations with Chinese and Korean kingdoms. It’s interesting, but too big a topic for one blog post.
**It depends how you define “religion,” but here I’m defining it on the basis of participation in community rituals that are aimed at communing with numinous, supernatural, or divine presences.
***Sorry, I know it’s bad form but I can’t give you a source on that. It may have been personal communication from an acquaintance who is a particularly devout Shintoist, whom I once helped with translating a presentation on kami and concepts of spiritual purity and pollution. Or possibly it was in A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine by John K. Nelson?
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.
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.)
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.
Authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable, and perhaps of dubious utility anyway.
Authenticity-as-functionality is useful though subjective.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
The difference between sympathy and empathy has always been a bit vague to me. My understanding is that sympathy can be a matter of natural affinity (though not necessarily), while empathy is a conscious choice to try an experience a situation from another person’s perspective. It’s easy to see a conscious choice to empathize as a virtue, but we should consider that critically, rather than taking it as a given. Furthermore, what about when empathy isn’t a conscious choice?
Let me back up a bit. In Western cultures, between five and six senses are recognized: taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell, and sometimes, a “sixth sense” or “second sight.” But this sixth sense has in turn been broken down into various kinds of “psychic” ability. In parapsychology and paranormal research, it has been customary for the past century or so to refer to these abilities as clair-whatever. Clairvoyance, claircognizance, clairsentience, clairaudience, etc. Collectively, I call these the clairs. The idea is that these result in the same or similar kind of sense impressions as the other five senses, but are not mediated by the body’s sense organs. The information comes directly into consciousness, as it were.
Another category has been recognized in the past 25 years or so, that of the empath. An empath is someone who feels the emotions of other people, not in the ordinary way that humans, as social primates, read each other; not in the sense of inferring or imagining what another person feels, but actually feeling it exactly as if it were your own emotion, to the point that it is often difficult to determine with whom the emotion originated in the first place.This includes “feelings” in the sense of emotions, in the sense of physical sensations, and in the sense of “vibes.”
I am one of these people, but I don’t particularly like the term empath, for several reasons: (1) Note that “empath” refers to the person having the ability. What would the ability itself be called? Empathy? But empathy is a normal ability that pretty much everyone has and uses on a day-to-day basis. Those who don’t have it are typically regarded as mentally ill (e.g., sociopaths) because their behavior is so far outside the expected. How do we distinguish between the two? Are they qualitatively different, or merely a matter of degree? (2) I’m not sure where the term “empath” originated. I first encountered it in the person of Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fairly or unfairly, the pop-culture and sci-fi associations don’t enhance the credibility of the category when you come out of the fortune-teller’s closet to your friends and family. (3) There was already a term for this ability: clairsentience. (Some empaths dispute that it’s the same thing as clairsentience but I think it is, at best, splitting hairs.) (4) Though this would be a problem regardless of terminology, it deserves mention: There is confusing overlap with a category recognized by some (non-mainstream) psychologists, the “Highly Sensitive Person” or HSP, which in turn overlaps with what used to be called “neurosis” and with cultural factors such as how much empathy is rewarded or punished by one’s peers.
Does being clairsentient/empathic make me virtuous? It does make me painfully sensitive to others’ feelings, and I sincerely try not to cause suffering. But I’m not saying that I’ve never done anything to hurt someone else. In fact, I regret to say that in moments of rage I have a special talent for finding the exact most vicious and mean thing to say and blurting it out. It’s just that afterwards I feel beyond-horrible when I start to sense the other person’s feelings and realize that I caused that. Guilt and shame do not even begin to cover what that feels like.
And lest you think that I am bragging, let me tell you clairsentient empathy is no bed of roses. My sensitivity is not only emotional, it seems to be part and parcel of my whole nervous system. I’m intensely bothered by certain sounds and all bright lights. I’m a supertaster and supersmeller. I get drunk practically just from looking at alcohol (possibly the best thing about this clairsentience gig is that I don’t actually have to buy booze, I can just hang around drunk people to get a buzz), get all the side effects of pharmaceuticals including the rare ones, and my skin is uncomfortably sensitive to certain materials (polyester does not touch this body). Highly-charged emotional situations are a problem, especially sex because it combines both emotional and physical stimulation. It is virtually impossible to sleep in the same bed with another person. I need a ton of alone time. I am a people-pleaser and over-nurturer and often despise that about myself. Perfectly ordinary situations make me want to scream and run away.
In fact, I regard uncontrolled clairsentience as bordering on a disability. Maybe not even bordering. It’s a pathological lack of boundaries and there are undesirable tendencies that frequently accompany strong clairsentience. I base this not only on my own experiences but on conversations with many other self-described empaths. They are generalizations, and of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is what I’ve observed in broad strokes:
Most people are agreed that having boundaries is a good thing; empaths have next to none. This can lead to extreme emotional lability–imagine constant PMS-like moodiness.
With such raw senses, empaths frequently expect everyone to tiptoe around their triggers.
For those in relationships or sharing a residence with an empath, you can pretty much kiss your emotional privacy goodbye, but woe betide you if you lie, attempt to obfuscate, or trespass on the empath’s privacy.
Many empaths love the feeling of total merging with another person for a while, only to become super-irritated when that other person is “too close.”
Empaths often think they are attracted to another person when in fact they are picking up the other person’s attraction to the empath. Inevitably the empath realizes they aren’t really interested in their partner after all. Woops! Do they then abruptly break off the relationship? Or continue so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings?
Empaths can be manipulative without even realizing it, and though most will avoid a fight to the point of being passive-aggressive, when they want to, they know how to wound.
After a fight or break up, there is nothing an empath hates more than lack of closure or a solution, and they may hound the other person until they get it. Similarly, many empaths seem to feel it’s their mission to fix everything and everyone. But knowing what others are feeling does not mean understanding how and why they have come to feel that way, or what to do to fix it. Therefore the empath’s attempts to solve the problem can just make it worse.
Even when it comes to identifying emotions, empaths do sometimes get it wrong–they are just as subject as anyone else to errors of interpretation. As Ingo Swann has said, getting information psychically is one thing, but it is then subject to the mind’s “analytical overlay.” The more you think you know about something, the more likely you are to filter it through your preconceptions. Or as Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that get’s you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” After being right about others’ emotions for years, some empaths become convinced they are never wrong.
Some empaths develop an unconscious ability to shield themselves by becoming numb or closed off; they can be incredibly difficult to connect with.
Two words: martyr complex.
Finally, there are empaths who think they are the epitome of virtue and goodness.
Don’t strain yourself trying to pat yourself on the back while tooting your own horn, empaths. You need to get your shit together (says the voice of experience). Every empath needs two things: (1) to learn to modulate their sensitivity according to the context, and (2) a system of personal ethics and self-care. And although I won’t presume to tell you what your ethics should be, I will say that taking care of (1) takes care of most of (2). That’s why meditation is so essential to the Great Work. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that I said self-care–no one else is responsible for your sensitivity. But you also don’t have to be a sucker and give people a hundred chances because you can see the tiny seed of goodness somewhere within them. If you don’t have natural, instinctive barriers, perhaps try putting up some arbitrary ones just to see what it feels like.
And this brings me back to Fr. Acher and the question, is empathy a virtue? He argues that empathy has been fetishized as a “universal solvent” that can heal all ills, but such an extreme attitude risks making empathy “isolated, imbalanced and ultimately deformed–over time equally deforming its devotees.” He also worries, understandably, about the negative fallout that may happen to anyone who is perceived to not empathize correctly or enough. The command to empathize could all too easily become a demand for conformity, which is anathema to magic folk.
On this latter point I am 100% in agreement. Lately I can barely hear myself think for the din of well-meaning but lazy “progressive” speech-police jumping on each other and everyone else for innumerable perceived transgressions. As in so many other aspects of life nowadays, the pretense is what matters, not the actuality. Real compassion for others prompts you to make real change; pretend compassion prompts you to bloviate about everyone else’s failure to make cosmetic changes. This is an example of the deformed empathy Fr. Acher mentions.
But there are two claims I need to dispute. The first is that highly empathetic people are obnoxious and impose themselves on others. The second is that empathy is projection. Neither is one of Acher’s main points, but I still feel they need addressing.
First, he cites an example of a supposedly highly empathetic person who is lauded, but who obviously sets off Acher’s alarm bells*. The characteristics that are extolled as virtues strike Acher as invasive, manipulative, infantilizing, needy, and un-self-reflective.
His critiques are not entirely unfounded. I have to admit the way the person is described, she sounds irritating. And as you read above, there are pitfalls that go with extreme sensitivity. On the other hand, Acher’s reaction seems overly defensive. When empathy is working, one realizes when one is making others uncomfortable and, hopefully, changes one’s behavior. So it seems to me that what Acher is complaining about is a failure of empathy.
Secondly, Acher implies (in both articles linked above) that empathy is merely projection. For example:
“…what magicians need to function well in society can be described as a different kind of empathy: They need the ability to NOT conclude from their own inner states on other people. As magicians we need the skill to NOT project our own feelings and emotions onto other people.”
“So learning to be empathetic…requires us to being [sic] with a pretty counter-intuitive first step: that is to tame, to hold back and comtain [sic] our own emotions – so they do not cloud our ability to observe objectively and unbiased….only once we are ready to let go of our own needs and stop projecting them on beings around us that are essentially different to us, have we built a first maiden-fundament for future magical practice…”
I am not sure where this notion of empathy-as-projection comes from, but it makes little sense to me. I’m not denying projection happens, and that it’s undesirable. But what makes Acher think that it is specific to empathy? I have considered the following possibilities:
Perhaps what Acher means is that, when consensus pressures people, their attempts to achieve a higher level of empathy leads to projection.
Or perhaps there’s a difference in how “empathy” (or for that matter “virtue”) is conceived in Germany, which I believe is Acher’s native country, versus in the Anglophone world. For example, perhaps he is thinking of empathy in terms of the effort to feel from another’s perspective, rather than the process of actually doing so.
Or perhaps he is actually thinking of the “analytical overlay” that gets applied to empathy, that distorts the raw sensations.
I don’t know. I do know that in a social species living in large, complex groups–such as Homo sapiens–there is a major selective advantage in being able to accurately assess the emotional state of other members of your group. As any primatologist can tell you, even monkeys empathize. If all empathy were just a matter of projection, there would be a large number of false attributions of emotion that led to disastrous consequences, and the ability would never have come to be common in primates. In other words, empathy is a real process, and while projection is an ever-present human issue, I don’t think empathy predisposes anyone to it–in fact, it’s the cure for projection.
Acher’s ultimate argument seems to be that you have to turn your empathy off in order to become truly empathetic. I read this as meaning the process has to be brought under control and made subject to conscious application. As he puts it, in magic, empathy “is a tool and not a virtue.” Though I don’t think of it as a tool per se, I certainly wouldn’t call my empathy/clairsentience a virtue, any more than farting or burping is. It happens whether I want it to or not; I don’t have to work at it, in fact, I have to work at restraining it. Strongly empathetic/clairsentient people may have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing inner stillness and learning how and when to turn their sensitivity up or down (that’s certainly how it has been for me…sigh), but provided you are willing to put in the work, I don’t see why you can’t become a kick-ass magician. (Or whatever.) On the other hand, strongly empathetic people may find it easier to accept and experience the emptiness, in the Buddhist sense (sunyata), of the individual ego-self. I understand this comes in very handy as protection.
Suffice it to say, for those who are clairsentient empaths or strongly empathetic, it is imperative to get your sensitivity under control, because not only will it make you miserable otherwise, you will in turn make others miserable. Not to mention you won’t learn anything from it. I find the Thelemic motto, “Love is the Law. Love under Will.” to be a very useful mantra/mnemonic. If, on the other hand, we become absorbed in stroking our own egos for our supposed innate virtue, we will stray from the path faster than you can say “lightworker.” Fortunately, the very things that make you a better magician–meditation, solitude, exploring your shadows with compassion but also with discipline–will make you a better, and happier, person too.
*The example comes from The Science of Evil – on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen.
“But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.”
– W.B. Yeats
Apparently, someone thinks I need to learn about creation and destruction–especially destruction. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is the general context of my questions regarding how to overcome the limited vision inherent in the human condition in order to distinguish between true evil or wrongness, and larger cycles of destruction. (By the way, if you have come back for more, you are a discerning person of sophisticated tastes and I love you.)
So, about two weeks ago my attention started being called to the destructive side of balance, specifically in the form of Shiva. I am not quite sure what got me thinking about it; it just happened in the way it does when you are being directed to look into something. I started googling around and looking at images–my first stage of research–and the sense of direction and the push-pull to look deeper into the theology of Shiva got stronger and stronger. After some hours of this, I went to bed with not much more than an intuition that destruction, as embodied by Shiva, is inextricably bound with creation, and that the apparent duality obscures a deeper unity, although I don’t and probably will never fully understand how that works. Although I would certainly have said it was an interesting topic, it’s not something I ever felt called to delve into before, nor is it something that I would have said resonated really well with my personality. And yet, here I am and it seems here I am meant to be.
The day after beginning this research I woke bolt upright at 5:55 a.m. knowing with unshakable certainty that the Shiva linga is an axis mundi. I realized that there were even deeper cosmic dimensions to Shiva than I had read about. Content in this sudden understanding, I fell back asleep. As I later found out, that is not a novel assertion, but is well-known within Shiva theology/cosmology. But it was all new to me and the information hit me like a download from the Great Beyond. Incidentally, my research says five is a sacred number associated with Shiva, e.g., in some representations he wears five serpents, has five heads representing five elements, etc., so the timing seems synchronicitous.
Two days later, I was woken up by an earthquake–at 5:55 a.m. I’ve lived in earthquake country most of my life but this is the first time I can remember being woken by one. It wasn’t a huge one (4.2 on the Richter scale) but the epicenter was close by. If you’ve never experienced one, I only say that earthquakes are a very unsettling mix of fun and scary. I mean, on the one hand you’re being jiggled around like on a ride at the amusement park, and on the other you are wondering if this will be the Big One and should you be heading for the door? I cannot think of a better embodiment of the destructive power of nature than an earthquake, especially in this part of the world. (Is that a Ring of Fire surrounding Shiva in the picture? I’m pretty sure it is. I could be biased.)
Five days later I stumbled upon this fantastic post about W.B. Yeats. Yeats has been one of my favorite poets since I was a teenager, and so many of the lines quoted resonate with the themes of creation, destruction, inspiration, and the union of opposites which have been uppermost in my mind these days–clearly of a piece with the rest of the curriculum. So much so that one of these bits of mystic wisdom appears at the beginning of this post.
But I feel a little weird about it because Shiva is very much a part of a living religious tradition (Hinduism), of which I am mostly ignorant and not interested in joining, yet do not wish to appropriate. No disrespect intended–it’s just not my path. In fact, I am not quite sure how to articulate this, but at the moment, the Shiva current that I am tapped into feels…I guess I would say not exclusively Hindu. With any deity of course, the religion is a human-made interface for communicating with the deity. I have to assume that, through millennia of practice and dedication, members of that religion are the most familiar with the deity in question; but I am not the least bit impressed by religious leaders who claim the exclusive right to access or interpret for a deity. I guess to put it in Christian terms, I wouldn’t take communion because I’m not a baptized Catholic; but I wouldn’t see that as an impediment to getting to know Jesus or the Virgin Mary. It may be a moot point because I am not talking about entering into a devotional relationship with Shiva. If that looks like it’s going to happen at some point, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I think I’m just being called to shut up, listen, and learn.
And boy is there a lot to learn! I often lament that there is so little extant information about the Celtic deities of my ancestors (in fact, if genealogy can be believed, some of them are my ancestors) and their cosmology. But the downside with a deity that has a several-millennia-long relationship with a literate culture that has many esoteric religious and philosophical schools is that there is too much information. Personal gnosis is always the most direct route, but I do try to keep some intellectual rigor and do my research. I feel a little overwhelmed by this enormous body of knowledge and belief.
I’m also, I admit, a little scared of the lessons that may come with this particular course of learning. Destruction is not a concept humans are that comfortable with, even though we are so good at causing it–we don’t like when it comes calling at our own door. I see it every day around here at every scale, from caring for my dying mother at home to the climate of the entire planet rapidly changing. This year I got a plot in a community garden and have been diligently trying to grow some food and medicinal herbs. Partly I view this as a survival skill; partly as a way to connect with my forebears; partly it’s a way to save money; partly it’s a chance to get out of the house and get some sun and fresh air and exercise. I love gardening and it is located in a beautiful spot. The river is nearby, and in the evenings the snowy egrets come to feed. The bushes are full of little tittering birds, and the sunsets are amazing. Wild medicinal plants grow all around, the soil is fertile and drains well, and I swear the spot has its own microclimate that is several degrees cooler than the furnace where I live a couple miles away.
Unfortunately, almost everything gets eaten before I get to it. Because of the drought, the critters–in our case, grasshoppers, rabbits, tree and ground squirrels–are going way outside their usual haunts to find food. The garden is their supermarket and it has been a banner year for them, reproductively speaking. I’d be willing to share with them, but they like to eat half of every vegetable and leave the rest to rot. To make matters worse, in 2008 a container ship came into LA bearing an African insect called the bagrada bug. They prefer wild mustard and members of the Brassica family, but when those are gone they will happily eat everything else. And I do mean everything. There are so many of these bugs in the garden that you can hear a constant rustling as they climb over one another and drop to the ground. They reproduce at a rapid rate, and there are no organic methods for killing them.
When I went to the garden a couple days ago, I was heartbroken to find that half my plants had been ripped out. Although no one told me why, I’m pretty sure it is because they were infested with bagrada bugs. (It obviously wasn’t random vandalism.) Mine was one of the first plots to be attacked this year. I was particularly saddened to lose two of my favorite native perennial medicinal plants, which happen to also be beautiful flowers. In time, the plethora of small mammals will attract more coyotes, snakes, feral cats, and maybe birds of prey, and the system will balance itself out; but in the meantime, no one is going to get much of a crop. If we were dependent on these gardens for subsistence, this would be a famine year.
Meanwhile, forests are being destroyed by bark beetles. With the warmer winters, the beetles (actually a variety of beetle species) are able to reproduce twice a year instead of once, and they are not going dormant for the winter. Also, drought-stressed trees are particularly vulnerable. The beetles introduce a fungus which they basically farm to feed their larvae (which admittedly is super cool), and the fungus kills the trees. In some areas, as many as 100,000 trees per day. And it’s not just forests, it also oaks and sycamores, even avocados (though honestly I wouldn’t mind fewer avocados, yuck). In turn, grizzly bears are threatened because they don’t have enough pinecones to eat. Eventually, natural selection will create more fungus-resistant varieties of trees, even entirely new species.
The bark beetles are just one example from a long list, the trees just one casualty from my little corner of the world; at this point I think we all know the stakes involved with climate change so I needn’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say, this area is becoming desert, and as such, it will not be habitable for human purposes for much longer. If there were unlimited sources of energy and water, it wouldn’t be an issue, but energy and water are limited and we are already running out of them. Many of us humans put our faith in future technology, even colonization of other planets, to save us. Well, there will soon be lots more sand for us to bury our heads in, because that isn’t going to happen (and if it did, it would only be for a wealthy few). I have no doubt our species will survive, but our numbers will decrease, and probably in the not too distant future. Loved ones will be lost, and if I sound blase it’s only because no one yet knows exactly how it will play out. It seems typical for us humans to be inordinately optimistic about our futures.
But even while civilizations meet their inevitable fall, life goes on, and so do we. We just don’t know what we may become. I read an article recently that was bemoaning the hybridization of coyotes and wolves. (It wasn’t this article, but it was the same argument.) Coywolves are so well adapted to their environment that they are “fitter” than wolves. The worry is that wolves could be out-competed by coywolves and go extinct. But it only looks that way if you look at a snapshot in time. At some point, long ago, wolves didn’t yet exist, and something else did. That something else adapted, and became the wolf (and other species too like the coyote and the jackal). Things change, in other words. We want to keep them just the way they are, just the way we like them, but is that ever if life’s best interest? So grieve the wolf, but welcome her beautiful child.
I see creation and destruction woven all through all these stories. In the long term, I see creation, but in the short term, only destruction. We trashed the garden of Eden and its renewal is not going to be quick or pleasant. Evolution has its tragic face. And yet this planet is still so achingly beautiful, I really can’t imagine any heavenly reward that could be better than Earth’s biosphere restored to harmonious functioning and Homo sapiens restored to sanity. Now is the time when we choose whether that happens in spite of us, or with our willing cooperation. Maybe that is why I hear Shiva calling. Maybe, if they had ears to hear, everyone on earth would be hearing that call.