Politics of myth

Looking back over the trajectory this blog has taken, it’s kind of all over the place, but a lot of it is what I call, for lack of a better word, “mythologyology.” (I created a new category for that.) For example, when I write about deities, which I do a lot, it’s not devotional, nor is it a litany of their accepted characteristics or a retelling of their stories. I find that I mostly end up looking at how the deities and their myths have changed through time, been appropriated or renegotiated, what they mean to us. A bit dry and academic, perhaps, what can I say? I find that interesting and instructive.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how human politics and myths entwine–how it works, and what it means for us ethically and epistemologically–and while I’m finding it difficult to get my head around such a huge topic, I’m going to assay it.

It’s not the first time I’ve turned my mind to such things–many years ago I presented a paper on imperial politics in ancient Shinto–but my interest was reawakened by the backlash against Jupiter on the internets some time ago. Previously I wrote about how the goddess Brigantia seems to have evolved into both Brigid and Britannia: Only in the latter incarnation did she retain (what seem to be) her original ties to quasi-ethnic, quasi-national sovereignty, and how we got from what very likely was a goddess of hierarchy and military domination to an unusually empathetic saint and neopagan tutelary goddess remains mysterious. In passing I mentioned the fact that Amaterasu is the most important deity in Shinto in large part because she is the ancestress of the imperial family, and they comissioned the few extant recorded myths that exist in Japan. Chris Knowles did a long series on the mytho-politics of Lucifer and by extension, other liberating-civilizing deities who seem to have gotten shafted by the followers of angry storm gods.

I have a bunch of thoughts about the politics of myth and I’m just going to put them down in rough form and try to connect them as well as I can:

  • I wouldn’t go so far as to allege some kind of human universal here, but I can’t help but notice that a lot of ancient religions, as they have come down to us (i.e., as they were when they were codified in writing) have deities that represent/establish/dispense justice and social order as well as antinomian deities (“tricksters”) who upset or skirt around that order. The law-and-order deities range from kindly civilizer types to savage tyrants, and the tricksters range from naughty and oafish to highly destructive.
  • Often the law-and-order (henceforth L&O) deity is or becomes explicitly tied to social hierarchy. In their mythos social order may also be explained/justified in terms of natural order. From a socio-historic perspective, that doesn’t seem to happen unless the local human society is strongly hierarchical–does this mean we impose that scheme on the deities, or does it come from the top down? (Gnostics would say the latter.)
  • Storm deities seem to frequently be assholes, the terrorists of the ancient pantheons, typically ruthless, wild, destructive, vindictive, and scary. Accordingly, warriors seem to like them a lot. Once war became an industry (so, based on archaeology, beginning around 3500 BC) and professional and/or hereditary warrior classes started appearing, those asshole storm deities started spreading everywhere the armies went and becoming more and more associated with hierarchical power. Professional armies only exist for the purposes of conquest, and they require conquest of new territory to feed and pay them. Even when the army is not so much professional as hereditary, e.g., where the warriors make their living as farmers but go a-viking seasonally, there is still a constant need for new land in order to feed growing families and to provide a theater for young men to scale the socio-military ladder. Hereditary warrior classes go hand-in-hand with raiding and migration, while professional armies go hand-in-hand with empires. Military and political power become inextricably entwined in such systems. It becomes inevitable, then, that the warrior-god becomes the king-god.
  • Which is perhaps ironic, since my impression is that storm deities often start out as antinomian trickster types (albeit often of the nastier variety). But they do give boons to their followers, so as long as you’re a member of their constituency, you will probably regard them as Goodies rather than Baddies. A storm deity favored by warriors who retained some of his trickster ambivalence is Odin, though over time he has been moving ever-further toward the L&O/kingly role. (One thing I can’t stand about superhero movies is the way they bowdlerize mythology, but if we consider them part of the evolution of myth, it’s interesting to see how Thor and Odin are portrayed in the Thor series. Particularly in Thor: Ragnarok–SPOILERS–where Odin is entirely of the kingly, law-and-order type, until he dies and the kingship is assumed by Thor the storm god. Thor also becomes one-eyed, which anthropologically and historically was a marker of Odin’s Otherwordly vision; in other words, Thor not only gets the throne but the magical vision as well. Typical storm god.) A different storm god case study is the Shinto kami Susano-o. In some regions of Japan, Susano-o is the local tutelary deity, a dragon-subduing hero, and a protector against plague. In the imperial histories, however, he is violent, unpredictable, and destructive. Although Shinto is comfortable with ambivalence in the kami, I think it’s pretty evident that this is an inter-regional, inter-clan case of your-god-is-my-monster.
  • Just to make that point more clearly, often who is a L&O deity and who is a trickster or even a devil depends on where you are looking from, because…
  • …when deities are grounded in the local geography/bioregion, they are also usually tied specifically to the people who live there. It makes sense: They’re part of the ecology too. Deities can become explicitly political, in the sense that they are tied to the polis (the meaning of Brigantia is the same as the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form of polis and Britannia is, of course, the goddess of the British) or the demos. In Shinto this is expressed as the relationship between the ujigami (clan-kami) and the ujiko (clan-child–the human). You could say that “Brigantia” is essentially a short way of saying, “She of the people who rule this territory from the hillforts (and by extension those who pledge allegiance to them).” It’s the same deal with Athena and Athens and countless others. (If this stuff about Brigantia/Brigid/Britannia isn’t making sense, please see my post about that.)
  • Sometimes the king-deity supplants or subdues the trickster (e.g., Zeus and Prometheus, Yahweh and everybody else, God/Jesus and Satan/Lucifer, Odin and Loki). Other times the L&O deity and the trickster manage to operate more harmoniously, usually when the trickster takes a subservient role (e.g., Zeus and Hermes, Amaterasu and Susano-o). In human socio-historical terms, this might reflect the conquest of Group A by Group B, where Group B turns A’s L&O/polis-deity into a monster and then relegates them to hell or servitude, or simply to the dustbin of oblivion. Isolde Carmody and Chris Thompson of Story Archaeology speculate this happened to Midir (whose name means “Judge”), a classic L&O deity if ever there was one, who was essentially written out of Irish mythology during the medieval period. The indigenous Irish concepts of natural and social order represented by Midir, which had been so central to earlier tales, were incompatible with those of the recently-arrived Norman conquerors, and thereafter Midir just disappears.
  • On the other hand, sometimes the L&O deity and the trickster, in these cases often a magician, co-exist in a more-or-less balanced state of tension (e.g., Osiris and Set or–per Io at Via Gnostica, because I personally don’t know much about this–Ogun and Shango).
  • It is just as much a political move to view, e.g., Brigid as a goddess of the (neopagan) people as it was to view Brigantia as a goddess of the warrior-rulers. It’s just that the political values of her constituents are different.
  • Whether we like it or not, most of our known deities will have been ones of polis, kingship, or military because elites are the ones who could afford to erect temples, statues, altars, and inscriptions. Many of the rest will be deities of general fertility, prosperity, or sex because they’re fun and everyone likes them. Of course there will be exceptions to this. There are the deities from less stratified societies which the West only discovered recently through ethnographic study, for example, and the deities that were important to the ordinary people probably filter down to us, albeit much transformed, through oral folklore.

I don’t believe that deities are simply the products of human imagination, though it’s clear that the two interface in complex ways. Which came first, the storm god or the war band? I suppose in the end it’s impossible to say whether war and sociopolitical inequality began in our world and were superimposed on our understanding of deities, or began in the Otherworld and grew unchecked here like some sort of noxious weed. Maybe a bit of both. From my point of view (hating the fact that murder is the world’s main industry), I’d say that extensive dealings with oppressive storm gods were probably ill-advised. But humanity’s fraught relationship with those gods goes so far back, it is useless to mope about what might have been if we’d made a different choice. Also storms are a reality and I’m not arguing we should ignore these powers.

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Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology

Britannia

Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map
Source

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.

Brigantia

Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.

In search of authenticity

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

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

Totes magical.
They are, like, totes magical.

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

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

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

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

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

I propose:

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

Allow me to elaborate…

Authenticity as liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authenticity as historicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summerisle wicker man

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

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

Authenticity as functionality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parting thoughts

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

When the map draws the territory

Are there infinite parallel universes, and if so, do we move between them? Does the universe shape itself to meet our expectations? Does the territory determine the map, or the map the territory?

Thanks to The Daily Grail’s news briefs, I recently learned about something called the “Mandela Effect.” The term describes a phenomenon where large numbers of people remember past events that never happened, and takes its name from one of these alternate memories, that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s, prompting riots in Africa. What separates these alternate memories from just misremembering or being ignorant of history is (1) they are shared, down to the details, by thousands of people; and (2) for the people who have them, the memories are often embedded in the social matrix of their lives–they remember the discussions they had with others about the events, for example–and consequently, questioning these memories means questioning all the memories they are embedded in. It’s not easy for them to dismiss the memories as just an error.

Berenstain Bears

There are many of these alternative histories–here is a list–and it so happens that I share one of them. I remember having some children’s books featuring the The Berenstein Bears. I can remember my mom reading them to me, and I remember she pronounced the name Bear-en-steen. (She says she remembers it the same way. I specifically asked her to tell me how the name was spelled, and she said B-E-R-E-N-S-T-E-I-N.) Then I can remember, when I was a little older, wondering if it shouldn’t be pronounced Bear-en-STINE, since after all it appears to be a Germanic name. I started reading at age 3, I could read cursive from at least the 1st grade (the Berenst#in Bears name is always written in cursive script), was always a really good speller, and I read and re-read many times a Berenst#in Bears book in which the daughter has her first day at school. For some reason I really connected empathetically with that story. So I know I saw the word myself and am reasonably confident I would have remembered the spelling correctly. But as an adult I started hearing it pronounced Bear-en-STAIN, and assumed it was just an idiosyncratic pronunciation of Berenstein. When I first saw it written BerenstAin, I assumed it was a misspelling based on that idiosyncratic pronunciation. Later, I thought that, as implausible as it seemed, maybe I had just been mistaken in thinking it was spelled BerenstEin. Now I find out there are many, many other people out there who, like me, remember reading The BerenstEin Bears books as kids.

I am not the least bit surprised, with our incompetent educational system in the process of melting down and the shocking level of ignorance about history among the general public, that lots of people in the would be in error about many facts. Many of the alternative memories listed at Mandela Effect sound to me like things that might have been easily mis-heard, misspelled, etc.–for example, was the Sara Lee jingle “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” or “Nobody does it like Sara Lee”? I remember trying to figure out what that jingle was saying years ago when it was current. I couldn’t make out the words either way, I’m still not sure what it was supposed to be saying, so it’s easy to imagine people might have heard it one way only to find out later it was in fact the other wording all along. Reece, author of the Wood between Worlds blog, points out that many of these Mandela Effects center on things that happened far away. Americans are not exactly known for our in-depth knowledge of contemporary African cultures, so it’s not entirely surprising that a lot of us assumed Mandela died as soon as he stopped being talked about all the time on CNN. Besides, memory is notoriously unreliable (cf. the classic example of eyewitnesses in criminal cases). And sometimes there really are alternate versions of things. Maybe ten or twelve years ago, my mom and my aunt (separately) watched the movie How Green Was My Valley (1941) on TV. Neither had seen it in decades. They both were perplexed that it had a different ending than they remembered from when they saw it in the theater as kids. It turns out that two different endings were made, one bleak ending that follows the book, and one happy ending for 1940s American tastes which was shown in theaters when my mom and aunt were young. On TV a decade ago, they showed the depressing cut. But in that case, the existence of two endings is historically attested, so my mom’s and aunt’s confusion could be easily resolved.

Indeed, nothing would surprise me less than to find out that Hollywood would change their stories (e.g., the titles or endings of movies–the subject of many Mandela Effect claims) and then blatantly deny it. Same goes for Madison Avenue, politicians, 24-hour news networks, and sadly, a lot of scientists. What really blows my mind is that so many others (ostensibly half a million people in the case of the Berenst#in Bears) have the same seemingly mistaken memories, even in cases that don’t seem like simple misunderstandings, and that many of the memories revolve around the kind of trivial details that never make it into the history books. Needless to say (but I’m saying it), the implications for how we understand history, memory, magic, divination, and the entire nature of the universe are huge. Because if these alternative memories aren’t just mistakes, it means that the change happens retroactively, to rewrite history so that the bears were always BerenstAins all along.

I think all of us who are not reductionist-scientistic-materialists are pretty accustomed by the time we reach adulthood to constantly being told we’re wrong, and to never seeing our metaphysical perspectives represented in official statements on reality (e.g., in school, government, etc.). It’s annoying, but not exactly a surprise. I wonder if this makes us a little less easily convinced that we just remembered wrong? Maybe we’re just a little bit more likely to say, I know what I know. But the Mandela Effect doesn’t only happen to us weirdos.

The usual proposed explanations for the Mandela Effect include: (1) everyone with counterfactual memories is just wrong; (2) parallel universes, in which it is apparently possible to move from one universe to another and never realize it until somewhere down the road, some little detail doesn’t match up; and (3) paradox caused by time travel within the same universe (think Quantum Leap). I don’t find any of these remotely persuasive and I have my own hypothesis.

I suspect that the Mandela Effect is like synchronicity, in that the significance is all in how it affects the experiencer. In other words, it might look like coincidence (or ignorance, or credulity, or faulty memory…) to the outside observer, but the person having the experience knows what they saw and their world is a little unraveled when they find out they were “wrong.” They are forced to question not just the experience itself but the entire context they remember around the experience. I’m sure some people are just mistaken, probably 99 out of 100, but if even one of us is right, how do we explain it?

I am not impressed by the parallel universe model. That idea has a lot of currency in our culture because it’s such a standard sci-fi trope, and that’s why I think it’s easy (and lazy) to fall back on that explanation. But the multiverse model doesn’t actually explain anything (beyond apparent wave-function collapse) and it’s impossible to support or falsify because it makes no predictions that can be tested. Theoretically, these many ‘verses should be reducible to, subsumed within, some larger thing (megaverse?), and that then puts me right back to wondering what the unified theory might be that would explain both parallel universes and the apparent slipping between them. Not to mention, if people can slip between universes, why couldn’t some of the books that said BerenstEin? Over to Reece:

“As it is popularly understood, Everett’s model [the Many-Worlds hypothesis] seems more like what the Mandela Effect is describing.  They both revolve around these worlds of counterfactuals.  However, at a deeper level, Everett’s model isn’t like the Mandela Effect at all.  Everett’s model deals with quantum mechanical events.  The death of Nelson Mandela is not a quantum event, and seeing his death on TV is not a quantum observation.  The numbers are also hugely different.  The Mandela Effect’s universes focus on some specific key memories; they don’t even realize the entire space of anthropocentric counterfactuals (where is the universe where Plato never met Socrates?), but just a few specific Mandela events.  On the other hand, Everett’s universe splitting occurs essentially every time two or more particles are made to interact to a certain extent; this is way, way, way massively more universes than we can even begin to really fathom.”

Also:

“The many-worlds interpretation is a scientific theory, and the claims it makes about ‘alternate universes’ are very specific and take a very specific form, and they take a form that is at odds with the idea of jumping universes.  If Universe A were in fact a separate ‘universe’ in the many-worlds sense, then we can’t cross to it from Universe E.”

In other words, why aren’t there Mandela Effects for literally every human experience? I don’t buy the Quantum Leap argument either. (For those who didn’t grow up in America in the 1980s, Quantum Leap was a show about physicist Dr. Sam Beckett, who is bounced around to temporarily occupy other people’s bodies at different times and places, seemingly at the will of an unnamed omniscient force, “setting right what once went wrong.”) But there are a couple of glaring questions: Sam Beckett went back to save people from getting dead or discouraged so they could make Important Discoveries or find True Love and stuff. Why would anyone bother changing the spelling of some children’s books or the lyrics of commercial jingles? I mean I know about the Butterfly Effect but I have a hard time believing the spelling of the Berenst#in Bears had a huge bearing on the future. Our putative time traveler would have to have gone to Ellis Island in the 1890s to change how some immigration clerk transcribed the name of the Family Formerly Known as Berenstein to affect the spelling on the children’s books. It would require deliberate intent, not just an accidental typo (as has been suggested by supporters of this hypothesis). And why do some–but only some–people remember the pre-change version of reality? I literally cannot think of any reason why that would even be possible. It also presupposes either a lot of time travelers or one time traveler who jumps around a lot to make inane alterations, like inserting turkey legs into portraits of Henry VIII. This time traveler would be one jerk of a trickster. (Q, perhaps?) Not to mention, the possibility of time travel has yet to be demonstrated, let alone the creation of technology that would facilitate it.

blue sky

A much more interesting possibility, to my mind anyway, is that our universe–or rather, the parts of it we access with our embodied human minds–is a holographic or virtual reality, in which each person’s reality partly overlaps with that of every other person. (And of course I mean this in a metaphysical, gnostic sense, not in an aliens-created-a-fake-universe-all-for-us sense.) We know this latter part is effectively true because of the influence of subjective experience, and we also know that people from different cultures not only have different worldviews in the conceptual sense, but actually phenomenologically perceive the world differently.  Thus, some perceptions are influenced by consensus while others are not shareable and thus theoretically impervious to consensus. For example, by consensus we all agree that the color of the sky is called “blue,” however, we have know way of knowing whether what I perceive as “blue” is the same as what you perceive as “blue.” Consensus can affect the naming, and even to some extent the actual perception, but it will never be possible to know for sure if the perception is shared and thus it might be totally independent. When we think of consensus though, there is what we communicate through language (e.g., with other members of our culture), but perhaps there is also content communicated in other ways? Something like a Zeitgeist perhaps, or even a Volkgeist, if that’s a word. Is it possible that people “remember” things that did in fact happen, but which the perceiver could not have actually experienced at the time, accounting for experiences like remembering an alternate ending of a film seen in the theater, which alternate ending was never released in theaters but did appear later on the DVD release? Could counterfactual memories be contagious? Or, since time is not actually linear, could people be remembering things they actually haven’t experienced yet, but will in the future? Questions abound.

For my part, the consensus reality of the BerenstAin Bears has nearly got me believing that I really just remembered it wrong. This means that I have the rare opportunity of consciously witnessing the process of my memories being rewritten. Unless I resist it, in a few years I may not only be convinced that it was always BerenstAin, but have forgotten that I ever saw BerenstEin. It’s not only our present perceptions of sensory stimuli that are constrained by our mental models, but also our memories. The map is not the territory, but what’s on the map partly (though not, of course, completely) determines what parts of the territory can be perceived. Which is why it pays to have as big, as weird, and as diverse a map as possible. It also reaffirms that we need to be very careful about how much we let our reality be shaped by consensus, and choose our company wisely.

The Mandela Effect reveals itself to really be an internal Rashomon Effect. The Berenst#in Bears are not a glitch in The Matrix, a government conspiracy, a “John Titor” typo, or a universal switcheroo. They are a secret tunnel leading out of the Black Iron Prison. They are a rabbit hole inviting us to jump in. They rock our world out of all proportion to the significance of the memory because we need to see how easily rocked (because largely fictional and contingent) our worlds are.