I generally limit my discussions of my own gnosis to those things which are helpful to whatever point I’m trying to make. However.
When mystics get together to discuss their experiences, and when, in that discussion, patterns emerge, I generally tend to move those commonalities out of the “crazy astral shit” category to the “possibly helpful to explore more deeply” category.
I understand why pop culture spirits make people uncomfortable, but they are real.
From the moment a baby Pagan takes their first steps into the world of Pagan community, they are fed messages about who they should and should not scorn and make fun of. They catch on, pretty quickly, that there are respectable ways of practicing, and ways that will make you a social pariah. This stems from one of the uglier facets of community. We make ourselves feel better by putting others down; we create a feeling of belonging by excluding people. Those people whom we exclude, of course, whether we exclude them for reasons of race, gender, political beliefs or manner of practice, all have something to contribute. Whenever bigotry comes into the mix, the community is impoverished. This is doubly true when that community is reliant of volunteerism to get anything done.
To pursue thaumaturgy of any kind, for example, will get you labelled a crack-pot. That makes sense. Look around you. How many “respectable practitioners of magic” are running around hucking fireballs and levitating? Zero. That is an exact statistic. By definition, in order to succeed at something, you need to throw out what doesn’t work. If you want to do something that no one has done before, you need to try things that no one has tried before. That makes people hella uncomfortable.
Is it dangerous? Oh fuck yes, it is dangerous. Was it totally safe for Benjamin Franklin to go playing in lightning storms with kites and metal bits? No. Is it safe to smash atomic particles together to find out what will happen? Probably not. Madam Curie died from long term exposure to radiation. Did that make her work a bad idea? New technologies are always dangerous until you’ve explored them well enough to create safeguards. You can’t know what the safeguards should be against, even, until you’ve blown yourself up a little. I digress. My point is that “not being respectable” doesn’t make something invalid. It’s just a measure of how uncomfortable people are.
So, new beliefs and new practices, generally, make people uncomfortable. It goes deeper than that, however. Religious people believe in stories. They venerate the beings described in those stories. In order to do that, they need to separate those sacred stories from fiction. This process happens from a very young age, with the game of “real” and “not real” that we play with young children. Except that the schema which we give them is completely nonsensical and inconsistent.
Unicorns? Not real.
Aliens? Not real.
Santa? Easter bunny? Totally real.
Superman? Not real.
Invisible man who lives in the sky and judges you for masturbating? Absolutely real.
There is no logical unifying factor among the things considered to be fictitious. What we do, in our culture, is just give children a set of knee-jerk reactions to various concepts. We teach them to hold on to ideas that are emotionally or culturally important, or discard ones that make them uncomfortable, or which disturb the cultural paradigm, all completely without evidence of any kind.
Logically, when we make a comparison of the evidence for the Christian deity and Superman, in terms of realness, there is very little difference. They both figure in culturally important stories. They have made their impact on how people think about strength, power, fear and morality. You will not meet either of them walking about on the street.
The main difference is that almost no one lives their life in fear of Superman.
When we have experiences of deities like Poseidon or Thor, we can say to ourselves, “Oh, well, other people in the past did this, so it’s ok for me to do it.” When people start having experiences of Superman or Captain America, when we start to note similarities between their experiences and our own, everything starts to feel topsy turvy.
Even moreso, we know for a fact that these characters were some human being’s creative invention. The gods, on the other hand, are forces of nature which have been around forever and ever, right?
Watching a story spring to life, while a totally normal experience for a writer or RPG gamer, is an utterly disturbing experience for a religious mystic. After all, if you need to believe that deities are beyond human comprehension, that they are enormous and inscrutable, watching something which manifests similarly to a deity being created directly in front of your face kind of challenges that notion. All of a sudden, deities become a lot smaller. It inherently puts obeying Zeus without question on the same level as obeying Professor X without question. One of those sounds like religious devotion, the other one sounds like the product of a psychotic break, and logically articulating the difference between the two is harder than you might at first imagine.
Pop Culture Paganism challenges piety. It challenges theism. If you are a pious mystic, and the idea of people invoking Magnito — and getting a reply! — doesn’t make you itch a little, you probably haven’t given the whole thing enough thought. If you sum it up by telling yourself that their mystical experiences are clearly delusional, while yours of Sekhmet or Brigid are totally not delusional, you are just whistling past the graveyard.
I can’t really say, for sure, at this point, if there is a difference at all. I’m not a faith sort of person. I’m a natural philosopher. I look at things in terms of repeatability and evidence. I have relationships with deities, and I respect them, but I am loathe to lean on systems of belief, because I must, in my own estimation, be open to having my beliefs utterly shattered, because that is an inevitability. A pursuit of knowledge will do that to a person. I must be emotionally solvent, even if I discover the worst.
Pop Culture Spirits and Empty Gods
So, in terms of pop culture spirits, we’re in relatively new territory. We’re just in the stage of aggregating anecdotes, and will, perhaps, be able to make sense of them later. As per my usual disclaimer, I am not claiming that my gnosis is true. The experiences say something about me, and maybe something about the nature of the astral. They will raise interesting questions and angles to explore. The use in relating them is that, if others have similar experiences, we might be able to aggregate the data and start making some sense from the patterns which emerge.
“Peitho is Dead”
So, here is a very weird experience that I had several years ago. I decided to trust my Etruscan instincts, and to work with Hermes and his wife, Peitho, as a unit. Totally reasonable course of action, right? So I set up a lovely, sparkly altar to her with all sorts of beautiful silver objects and a painting that I made, and set about the process of calling her.
Hermes looked weirdly displeased. “Don’t do that,” he said.
I was baffled. “Why not?” I asked.
He shook his head. “You’re not going to get an answer, is all.”
“Because I’m sleeping with you?” I ventured. “Hermes, I have no desire to cause strife in your household. I don’t want to continue doing this if it means that I can’t be friends with your wife.”
He shook his head sadly. “It’s just… That number has been disconnected. I mean, ok. Go ahead and try it, I guess.”
Then, he left. I want to stress that he very infrequently leaves. He’ll give me space, if I need to work with another deity, but he’ll still be hovering.
So I did call Peitho, and I did get a reply. A deific presence showed up, feminine, pretty, maybe a tad roguish. I brought up my relationship with Hermes, and she said she was cool with it. Totally normal sort of conversation you might have a with a deity.
Afterwards, I called Hermes back. “I talked to your wife,” I told him. “She seems really nice.”
“Yes,” he said. “She was.”
“Very bright. Kinda funny.”
He smiled sadly. “Yeah. You know what? I don’t want to talk about her. Let’s go play a game or something.”
So, I called Peitho again, and continued the conversation. I mentioned, off-handedly, my relationship with Hermes, because we had already discussed it. She seemed taken aback and surprised, like it was the first she’d heard of it.
“You weren’t afraid that I’d be angry?” she asked.
Because we totally talked about this two days ago, I thought. To her, I said, “Well, I mean, I presume that you’ve met your husband. He’s a busy dude.”
We laughed about this, and she recounted a few stories about his trysts with various people. We had a conversation about healthy polyamory, and I stressed how important it was to me to be on good terms with her. She seemed extremely pleased, and said that this would be most agreeable to her.
By this point, I had a fairly good beat on her energy, and as I often do with deities, a day later, I poked Peitho to talk, and she had no idea who I was.
I confronted Hermes about this. He, a deity often so quick to speak, especially when a clever explanation is needed, sat down before speaking, took a moment to tamp down emotions, to fight back tears.
“I told you not to call her.” He said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Peitho,” he said, looking not at me, but at his hands, folded in his lap. “She was the most splendid and cunning goddess I ever knew. I loved her very much. I still do. I still miss her. But when our religion was outlawed, she saw the writing on the wall. She left. A lot of gods did. What you talked to was … just… an echo. A corpse, I guess. What’s left of a deity after they do the equivalent of dying. Lights are on, but nobody’s home.”
There were not words to express how sorry I was for putting salt in that wound, or how horrified I felt at the idea of a deity-corpse wandering the astral, soulless, but still just… ticking about, responding in some way that makes sense with what they stood for. I wondered how many others there might be, what was driving them and how, if any of this was actually true, and not some crazy astral acid trip, it might be affecting mystics who call on them.
Not wanting to bother Hermes any further with the matter, I talked to Apollon about it.
“Ah yes,” Apollon said. “You… even you, a mortal… can tell by the eyes. Look at me. Look straight at my face.”
I did so. He, like many Olympians, has eyes the exact color of the sky. I could see expression, the gleam of intelligence, thoughts flickering through his vast and immensely orderly mind. Not an experience for the faint of heart. I physically started to sweat, and my heart-rate surged. I pressed through discomfort, because I sensed that he was about to make a point.
“Note,” he said. “Inner conflict. A sentient being is never wholly at peace with themselves. They are eternally struggling with their own essence. Do you feel the sparks inside of my head as passion and reason repeatedly strike against one another like flint and steel? That’s what consciousness looks like. That’s what free will looks like… now look at Peitho.”
I was really glad to look away. I kinda felt like locking eyes with anyone that intensely was not a thing that was supposed to happen unless two people were either going to fight or make out, and I did not want to do either of these things with him. I looked to Peitho again. I could see it. Her presence was intact, but her head was empty of those sparks which Apollon described.
“That,” Apollon concluded, “Is what it looks like when the soul of a deity leaves… or, of course, also what it looks like when a presence never had a soul to begin with, I suppose.”
Gods Riding Fictionaries
After that conversation with Apollon, I started taking studious notes about other entities, some divine, some fictional. Fictionaries, on the whole, tended to be a lot more like Peitho. Deities were more like what I saw with Apollon. There were notable exceptions on both sides.
I had, of course, seen deities appear to me, and to others, using fictional faces. Dionysos has appeared to people as Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or as Frank from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Hermes has shown up to people as Jared. I figured that they were just borrowing a face for convenience. It goes a little deeper than that.
“Hey, Thenea, want to play cards?” Hermes asked one day.
“Naw. Bored of cards. Let’s do an RPG. The astral is kind of an ideal format for that kind of thing. No physical props required.”
“Sounds fun,” he said.
“Absolutely no cheating. I know you can read my mind, but if you do, it will ruin the game.”
I decided on a Doctor Who RPG. It required only two people, The Doctor and his companion, and a bunch of alien NPCs. I created a unique companion: a woman who lived many times, and whose every incarnation ran into the Doctor. This was years before the introduction of Clara, never mind the big reveal about why or how she was “the impossible girl.”
Hermes wasn’t just pretending to be the Doctor. The two of us hopped into that fictional universe and made it our playground. We took turns DMing. Crap from our game, which we stopped playing a long time ago, is still showing up in the show today. The Doctor is not a sentient creature. Hermes is. And Hermes can ride that fictional character.
What would it look like if someone invoked that fictional character while Hermes was riding him? What might happen if that same person later ran into Hermes? Might they see that fictional character instead of his persona from Greek mythology?
Why, Hello, Magnito!
The very first time I got a glimpse of Neanika’s vigilante aspect was when a group of Bostonian friends of mind decided to invoke Magnito, during a trance workshop. The focus was mainly warding and spiritual safety. Invoking something which I was sure wasn’t a super-powerful supernatural entity seemed like a good, safe bet. We made up a version of the LBRP which invoked various good-guy X-Men, and called upon the power of Sorcerer Supreme — laughing our asses off the entire time, and generally enjoying the process of doing non-serious ritual, based on solid occult principles, with comic book characters. You know, for practice.
What happened next was a little unsettling.
Magnito was invoked, and more power than any of us expected flooded the space. The power then converged and coalesced inside the medium (a well-seasoned Wiccan who, at that time, had his second degree). He made a Magnito-like gesture, and at that moment, there was not a single person in the room who did not expect him to start levitating.
“By what means have you bound me that I cannot use my power?” Magnito demanded to know. To that entity, X-Men cannon was absolutely real, an absolutely valid reason to do things. I have had experiences like that when speaking to certain deities — this sense that mythology is absolutely, literally real. Thankfully, the ones I work with most frequently are a bit more circumspect.
In looking for that spark, as Apollon described it, I saw two. I saw, firstly, the sparks emanating from the consciousness of the fictionary, and the second, somewhat muted spark of the medium.
What I’m saying is, as near as I could tell, this entity was sentient and had free will. How did that happen? I can’t even begin to hypothesize.
Magnito began making threats toward the medium’s well-being, and I was absolutely ready to throw down.
Thankfully, the most level-headed magician on the planet was taking point on warding, and completely diffused the situation. Everyone was fine. No one was harmed. Magnito was eventually banished, and there were no lingering effects.
Ideas, Not Conclusions
I don’t have an over-arching theory for these various things which I have experienced. Sentient/Not-Sentient does not break down cleanly along Deity/Fictionary lines. I do feel strongly, however, that exploring Pop Culture Spirits, as a phenomenon, will be really instructive in understanding what deities are, and by extension, how we might best work with them. Working, particularly, with non-sentient fictionaries might be a good testing ground for theurgic techniques, since they cannot, by definition, assert any will of their own in the situation.
The one thing that is for absolute certain is that Pop Culture Paganism exists for a reason, and we’d be fools not to explore what that reason is.