Pop Culture Paganism

Warning: This post is one of those posts, the ones that will probably piss some of you off.

I promised myself I would try not to jump on too many bandwagons, but, well, screw that, this is important.

Let me tell you a story….

A woman who posts on one of the fora where I lurk had been trying to get pregnant for a year without success. At the end of the year, she remembered a particular ritual from the Kushiel’s Legacy series, wherein D’Angeline women (who can’t get pregnant otherwise) light candles and pray to the goddess Eisheth to “open the gates of their womb”.

She decided to perform the ritual, and the following cycle, she became pregnant, and has had no problems since.

I’m telling you this story because lately it seems as if some people have it in for pop culture Paganism. In case you aren’t up to speed, see here, here, here, here, and here, and a whole lot of posts on tumblr.

The arguments against pop culture Paganism range from the straightforward “these deities, as products of fiction, don’t exist, so why would you worship them over *real* deities?” to ranting about the impact of fandom on Paganism (see Marvel Loki) to asserting that pop culture Pagans are frightened of *real* deities, so they choose to honour figures from pop culture as a substitute for engaging with *real* pantheons.

Let me tell you another story….

Once upon a time, in India, a film came out in the 1970s (1975, actually) called Jai Santoshi-Maa all about a little known goddess known as Santoshi. Before 1975, there was one documented temple to this goddess (that was previously dedicated to a different goddess) and a special vrat (a ritual involving the taking of vows) performed by women on Fridays.

And then the movie became ridiculously popular, and her cult exploded.

Remember, this is India we’re talking about, so we’re talking millions of adherents almost overnight.

Because of a film.

Because of popular fucking culture.

Screenings which, by the way, took on the characteristics of ritual (entering the theater barefoot, as one would enter a temple). This also happened during screenings of the Mahabharata, Western journalists snarked at the rituals people were performing in front of the TV as (paraphrased) “people worshiping their television sets”.

But, okay, I get it, at least there was some sort of cult dedicated to Santoshi prior to the film, whereas the entities most people are talking about have their origins in fiction. Pop culture Pagans invoke Princess Celestia from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or perform rituals based on Wraeththu (Storm Constantine even authored a grimoire for a Wraeththu-based tradition). There’s chaos magic, which I don’t know that much about, that goes into this in depth, but I don’t know that much about it. Suffice it to say that I’ve heard of people working with Cthulhu and co. in rituals, I think this isn’t a very good idea, but if it works for them….

The thing is, I don’t buy the assertion that pop culture Pagans are scared shitless of *real* deities. Most of the pop culture Pagans I know honour historical deities in addition to pop culture figures, or use pop culture imagery in their practice. The woman I spoke of in my story also maintains an altar to Dionysos, the wonderful Grumpy Lokean Elder uses Batman and Joker to represent Heimdall and Loki and their altars.

And GLE knows his shit, okay?

Then there’s the big question: Who cares?

If someone invokes Eisheth for help with a pregnancy, and they get results, how is that not a good thing?

or

If someone decides to invoke the Four Gods from Fushigi Yugi in their work with the elements, does it really affect anyone but themselves?

and even

If Loki decides to appear to someone as the Bastard from the Chalion series, why the fuck are you questioning His choice of mask?

I also feel inclined to point out that there are plenty of “historical” figures who people readily honour who….turn out to be not all that historical. Take St. Christopher, for example, in the Middle Ages, it was thought that St. Christopher had the head of a dog.

And then the church came out and said “oopsie, we made a booboo, he doesn’t actually exist”.

Not to mention the many saints who are so obviously reworked Pagan deities that you wonder if the clergy really wanted to hide that fact.

The thing is, that if you tell my mother saint so-and-so didn’t exist, she doesn’t really give a shit, because so-and-so helped her find lost things or helped out when she was sick. Regardless of the saint’s historicity (or lack thereof) you’ll still hear stories about these saints helping people out when they really need it.

Seriously, if you tried to narrow down the list of saints to saints with actual verifiable historical data, the entire list would be gutted. They might have a few centuries worth of veneration, but the long and short of it is that at some point, they were the product of someone’s imagination.

I mean seriously, an entire race of people with dog heads?

Okay, Egypt gets a free pass on the animal head thing.

I know pop culture Paganism is this odd thing and it’s raised some hard polytheist hackles somewhat, but seriously, all this “I’m a bigger polytheist than you because I worship REAL deities [when the divinity of at least one of those deities *coughLokicough* depends on who you ask] so NYAH NYAH NYAH!” is just….disappointing….

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19 thoughts on “Pop Culture Paganism

  1. Reblogged this on Weaving the Net and commented:
    Halleluja. Seriously, this post. Read it, no matter what your stance on “pop culture paganism” is. It’s about ***ing time that someone says something. This “my polytheism is harder than yours and therefore you’re WRONG and you all need to listen [to me is implied]” attitude is nothing short of a conceited, self-indulgent load of codswallop.

    To be quite straightforward—Marvel-Loki has brought me Loki (the Real Deal, and very distinct from the poppy version). The way I see it, I owe pop culture paganism, even though I developed quite a distaste for Marvel’s portrayal of Loki. So, thank you, fandom, pop culture deities or egregore or whatchamacallthem. I hope I will never be so full of myself as to forget what brought me where I am.

  2. People get so hung up on canon and dogma that it takes the spirit out of it. Anything that is going to make Spirit more real for you is what you should practice, and to hell with labels and stereotypes.

  3. Reblogged this on Tried by Fire and commented:
    This is exactly why I keep mostly to myself in my practice. So I can keep it real and don’t have to argue or justify my path to anyone.

  4. Ive been Lokean for decades & have to admit at first i was irritated after Thors / The Avengers releases-i felt a little miffed that my Gods had been ‘reduced to comic book characters’ i so energetically spat out 1 time during a conversation, but then Loki told me flat out to lighten up…yes, get over it, have some fun with it, so i finally watched both movies 3mo ago & i love them!!! When Loki says something i do it! Again he made it very clear to LIGHTEN UP about it & who am i to say how Loki or the other Gods can come into peoples lives?

  5. Holy shit on a stick, I’m just catching up on all this now (I was taking a modified ‘break’ from the internets/reading/whatnot to do some of my own stuff) and yours is the first truly reasonable post of them all.

    1. Thank you, I do try to be as reasonable as possible, but mostly I think this whole debate is pretty stupid and people just aren’t listening to each other.

  6. I have a couple of things I would like to ramble. They may add something, and even if they don’t I still feel like rambling.

    Considering Fushigi Yugi, I don’t like the toss-up for how the wishes are granted, so I wouldn’t summon those versions of The Four. I won’t spoil it, but the fact you mentioned THIS series it brings up a giggle in my mind in regards to the debate.

    For those who don’t know the story, in a nutshell: Two friends find a book in the library that looks like a “fictional” book. They start to read it and are transported to a world that functions like ancient China. The book is being rewritten based on the events occurring due to the main characters. It does deal (granted in a 90’s shojo way) what happens when fiction isn’t really fiction, and how powerful people are to manifest both blesses and curses. I won’t say anymore, because yeah, people should watch it.

    Okay, soapbox time:

    I believe people manifest or envision what we feel strongly about. If someone feels strongly about a “character”, that persona takes a presence in our minds. Whether the source is “old” or “new” shouldn’t matter.

    I have read a few of the blogs and responses on this matter and coming from the perspective of someone who went to school to learn how to use new mediums to tell the stories of the deities I call family, I just shake my head. What good is there for those of us who want to KEEP the stories alive and spread them to others if we ourselves don’t adapt to sensibilities? I could go out and go for the audience who probably already knows the stories I am telling (in fact, some might know more), or I could make it ACCESSIBLE to a broader audience by translating it to a newer medium like film, or video games, or comics. The stories of old and new are there to TEACH us. If it takes “fiction” to find the lessons, who gives a crap? If a person doesn’t like it, they don’t have to go that route, but they also don’t need to lecture anyone else on their own issues with justification of their path’s source materials. I don’t want it.

    Anywhos, I’m off the soapbox now.

    Just my thinky-thoughts and ramblings. 🙂

    1. TBH, I saw someone else mention the Four Gods and this is the first thing I came up with. My friend had a massive crush on Suzaku.

      I probably should track it down and watch it.

    2. Beautifully said & i personally do see aspects of Loki in the pop-culture version, In softening my views, (I was told to very bluntly by Loki) ive had some very real inspirations from listening to Mr Hiddleston speak on the “craft” of bringing that which is in the mind & heart into physical reality-especially in his RADA interview. So my point is if i would have held onto to the hardness of what is going on right now, i would have cheated myself out of some very blissful insights! I was brought to Marvel Loki by Loki!!!

  7. As someone who is kind of iffy on popular culture Polytheism/Paganism/whatever-people-call-it-now, here’s where I am at with this:

    The Gods have forms They are not limited to (the Egyptians pin this concept down with their concepts of “kheperu,” or “becomings” which are limitless in number, and “iru” or “articulate manifestations with identifiable attributes taken on to illustrate or carry out a specific role and function”). These can conceivably (not definitively, but conceivably — I personally won’t rule it out entirely) include characters from man-made fiction, ESPECIALLY because these fictitious characters are identifiable and tangible to Modern people.

    Fictions such as Frank Herbert’s “Dune” pull a lot from religions such as Islam.

    Marvel’s “Thor” comics were inspired loosely by the Norse Gods, even though the comic was likely never intended to treat Them as legitimate objects of cult with legitimate belief.

    But these are *external* influences. Religion/the Divine finds its way into and shapes the popular culture from the *outside.*

    My inability to grok the other part(s) of the PCP rationale lies primarily in the idea that fictitious characters and fandoms or whatever is in question *has its own inherent Divinity and religiosity that doesn’t come from an outside source.* I am unable to grasp the idea that Sailor Moon is her own Goddess. By herself. Spontaneous, self-sufficient Deity. Not a God investing Herself into Sailor Moon’s image, but Sailor Moon being her own self-aware, free-acting God.

    Which isn’t to say this cannot be real or feasible, or at least defensible as an idea. But, how do supporters of this aspect of PCP explain this?

    Now, if that is all coming from a Jungian perspective that “every character and being fits an archetype and LOOK OVER THERE the Collective Unconscious,” while I understand the arguments for that, I don’t agree with or accept them. I won’t try to rob anyone of their practice or beliefs (as if I had the power to do that anyway, even if I were dickish enough to *want* to); the Jungian bag is just simply not my thing.

    Anyway, failing that, are there any remotely organized explanations as to why this is, or is at least possible? Other than “well we can’t know for certain, so why the hell not”?

    And for the record, while I’m not keen on these ideas, despite popular belief I’m not being a cock. I’m genuinely curious and want to understand where people are coming from with this.

    1. I honestly wish I had an answer for you, but this is more in the realm of chaos magick, which I am definitely not familiar with, and TBH, my take on it is more deities/spirits using fictional characters because it helps people relate to them or using fictional things as a useful framework for spiritual development, for instance, using the Litany Against Fear from Dune as a sort of mantra to help someone concentrate before a test.

      My understanding (and I could be way off base) is that there is this idea that belief in something can give that something its own sentience. I think it has a lot to do with the power of symbols in general. I don’t think it follows that since a pop culture deity is made, therefore all deities were made by people, but in my mind, trying to figure out the “when” of my deities just leads to a massive mindfuck, and I think what is vastly more important is the fact that they are here, right now.

      Let’s take Lilith for example. I know you love talking about Lilith. I used to be into that whole feminist goddess worship thing, and they were like, really into Lilith, first feminist, blah blah blah. Then I did some research, and I was like “Waitaminute, the Alphabet of Ben Sira was a parody text! WTF?” among other discoveries, and so I dropped the Lilith thing.

      The thing is, to someone like Anya Kless, the historicity (or lack thereof) of Lilith doesn’t matter so much as the fact that there is a being calling themselves Lilith who is about as goddess-like as any other goddess. I have her Lilith devotional, Queen of the Desert, an interesting book, and actually, she does (IIRC) admit that while Lilith was never a goddess as feminists claim, she’s pretty much become a goddess by modern times.

      Now perhaps all the people being called by Lilith are delusional, or there’s something more. I suppose it’s similar to the kinds of things asshats say about Lokeans.

      But, again, to be completely honest, I don’t really care if other people want to worship a character as a deity in and of themselves. If they’re soft polytheists, obviously they will have an easier time of it, but even if they are hard polytheists, if their deities don’t care, well, then they don’t care. I think this is one of those things where we humans are the ones freaking out, and deities well, don’t give a shit, really.

      As for concrete reasons, maybe there is some mechanism in the universe by which fictional characters attain sentience, maybe it’s just a giant placebo effect. It almost seems to me like you are trying to apply a more scientific logic to something that requires a bit more “fairy tale logic”.

      This is probably going to sound horribly anti-intellectual….

      It’s like when I was in library school and I took this class on storytelling, and the instructor was telling a story with talking animals, and one of my classmates was just like “Why are the animals talking?”

      And it’s a fair question, you know? The thing is, that’s not really how fairy tales work. The animals talk because….that’s what animals do in fairy tales, they talk. You could probably go on about what the animals represent and such, but the fact that they talk is kind of a given. It’s not something that you can really explain using conventional logic, because fairy tales don’t operate on conventional logic.

      Or it could just be that I don’t know enough about the subject to talk about it, that’s probably it, because now that I think about it, that probably looks to you like the biggest non-answer ever.

      I do think, however, that PCPs are being painted with a VERY broad brush, and that just because someone has a shrine to Green Lantern doesn’t mean that they don’t have deities that were definitely *not* created by humans. I certainly don’t believe that all deities are thoughtforms, but I do find things that are of spiritual value in fiction.

      TL;DR I don’t have an answer for you, I’m sorry. Let me ramble for a bit.

      1. ::nods:: I’m picking up most of what you’re putting down. I think. You tried, and brought up some good points of discussion; that’s what counts.

        I’ve used the Litany Against Fear myself as an anti-anxiety thing. I see the value in that. None of it was inspired by Gods like Set and Pazuzu, I don’t think, but I see a lot of Them in Herbert’s words. I don’t think of it as inherently religious, per se, coming from a work of fiction that was indeed inspired by religion(s) but not intended to be of liturgical/theological value. Still, the Litany is relevant and useful (which I actually mentioned in an article I wrote no longer than two weeks ago), just as any short, repetitive prayer I have for my Gods is useful in the same manner. I think it has much more to do with the mechanics of prayer and ritual mindfulness than with religion, though, if that distinction makes sense.

        I’m definitely not the paranoid “OMG YOU’RE LOWLIER THAN ME I AM HIGHER ON THE NERDTHEIST HIERARCHY” sort that thinks anyone is out to replace Gods or anything similar. I understand that (many, I can’t say all, because I haven’t spoken to all) PCPs aren’t equating “man-made” with “organic,” let’s call Them. So, no worries there. I’m not out to visit the Polytheist Inquisition on anybody. 😛

        Because no one (I mean by this any scholar or scientist, that I am aware of at least) has yet established what consciousness exactly is and how it works and where it comes from, I don’t think we can answer that definitively — though part of the reason why I asked about consciousness in my response to Gwen Idasfotri’s post on my blog was to help arrive there. Not strictly in an empirical fashion, but through reasoning (because that’s all we have in regard to consciousness, at least for now). I don’t have any answers, really, mostly questions. It’s something that needs to be explored more than it has been, if we *can* effectively explore it.

        I don’t buy the idea wholesale, it’s not my kind of thing, but people worshiping Sailor Moon as her own God on the basis that “my giving her worship and believing in her endows her with consciousness” — I can accept that as a premise. Not its own proof, but as a premise that is beginning to form the basis of a body of reasoning.

        And in regard to liliths/lilitu . . . one has to wonder if past associations and beliefs, if theories about “group belief” are in any way literally true, don’t have an effect on the being. i.e., That liliths/lilitu and the Biblical Lilith built upon those demons (and Lamashtu) aren’t in fact baby-killers/disease mongers in spite of the Moderns who worship them believing they are feminist, positive entities of woman-power. And it also begs the question as to whether the total *number* of believers (either at any given time, or cumulatively) is the rule of influence, or if it’s a matter of *quality* of belief. Either way, while I feel strongly about the issue being a “Pazuzu Kid,” I won’t try to tell people they’re “Satan” for worshiping these entities. I think it’s dangerous and I don’t approve, but you know, I don’t decide shit for anyone. Not my judgment call.

        And while it’s a separate can of worms that’s not wholly related to the dialogue here, I don’t think comparing Loki to Lilith(s) is an entirely fair or accurate one, given cultural beliefs and practices surrounding either. Malevolent Mesopotamian demons and Scandinavian Jotuns/Gods are entirely different classes of being, and on top of that, the two religions that maintained belief in their respective entities were waaaay different (Mesopotamian cultures having a far more definitive sense of what was “evil” than most cultures did and do).

        Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I’m curious as to how “worship” actually works — i.e., what/Who is capable of receiving it based on what standards (what makes a God a God, for instance), and whether worship benefits the either the giver or the recipient more, or both in equal measure.

        . . . If any of that makes any sense. 😛

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