Exoteric Magick: Pop Culture Practices for All

An exploration of pop culture magick in all its forms for practitioners from any path. Including how to's, Q & A's, reviews, and shared experiences.

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New Faces for Old Gods


What does it mean for old gods and their worshippers when the old gods are given new faces and personas in pop culture media?  The recent upswing in portrayals of old mythic figures in pop culture (think of the Marvel movies, comic books like The Wicked and the Divine, TV shows like Supernatual, books like The Gospel of Loki, etc.) has put modern practitioners, especially polytheistic pop culture practitioners like me, in a bit of a quandary.  What do you do when you’ve been working with a deity for years and suddenly a character with their name, but a whole new mythology and personality, becomes a pop culture sensation?  If you’re introduced to a mythic figure via a bit of pop culture can you work with the old god with the same name?  It can be more than a little confusing.  In this article I’ll try and clarify a few points and, hopefully, soothe a few ruffled feathers.  

I recently attended Many Gods West, an amazing new polytheist conference held in Olympia, Wa.  During what turned out to be my favorite presentation of the weekend, Winning the War presented by Sobekneferu, an attendee asked the presenter the following: “So how do you feel about modern stories about our deities?”  The attendee pointed out stories like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Joanne Harris’s Gospel of Loki as examples.  The presenter took a sip of water and then very carefully replied that she personally found them disrespectful, but understood that other people could feel differently.  I could see several heads bob in agreement as she said so.

A major theme from the conference’s keynote speech the night before, given by Morpheus Ravenna, was that we need to respect the gods by embracing their personhood rather than treating them as mere archetypes.  It was easy to see how someone who devoted themselves to a deity with a fully formed history, personality, and system of worship could feel disrespected or written off by a pop culture portrayal of that same deity with an entirely different personality and mythos.  It’s a lot like when we see a biography of a favored historical personage that utterly changes the facts of that figure’s life for the sake of selling more books.  I can certainly understand and empathize with those feelings.

However, I don’t see those pop culture portrayals as necessarily disrespectful.  For most of the non-polytheistic world the myths and stories of the old gods are just that – stories.  For most artists and writers the old Pagan gods are no more sacred than Cinderella or The Princess Bride.  Getting angry with them feels a little like right wing fundamentalists getting mad at cartoonists for parodying their religious practices.  I get it, really I do.  If I saw some pop culture portrayal of the Cailleach with her wearing pink and dancing through the daisies I would want to punch someone, but I would be really uncomfortable with those feelings.  I prefer to see modern portrayals of the old gods in an entirely different light, as totally new characters that may or may not have anything but the most tangential of relationships to the old deities whose names they share.

I decided to risk going against what seemed to be the prevailing opinion in the room and raised my hand to present my point of view.  In general, I see most pop culture characters as thoughtforms of varying potency.  When I think of Thor from the Marvel comics or movies, he has very, very little to do with the actual Norse deity.  They share their name, title, and favorite weapon, they both come from a place called Asgard, and they both have relationships with other deities with familiar names, but that’s just about where the overlap ends.  Marvel Thor and Deity Thor have vastly different personalities, different abilities, different histories and the nature of their relationships to other deities and with humans are quite different.  Nor would a practitioner want to approach working with these two Thors in the same way: an offering appropriate to one might not be appropriate to the other, a petition easily answerable by one might be laughed off by the other.  These are not the same figures at all.  The Thor from the Norse traditions is a fully formed deity with a long history and established devotional practices.  The Thor from the Marvel is, most likely, an advanced thoughtform that can be worked with in its own unique way.  This is why I so often stress the importance of version control in your pop culture workings.  As I expressed this opinion I took the lack of fruit flying at my head as a good sign.  Unsurprisingly, hard polytheists seem a lot more comfortable thinking about cape wearing superheroes as being entirely separate from their ancient deities.  

Now, that’s just one way of looking at things.  In reality, I’m not so sure pop culture characters are always so removed from the deities that inspired their creation.  Deities have their own unique thoughts and personalities and they tend to have vastly different opinions about the characters that share their names.  Some deities are appalled by their pop culture portrayals, while others are pretty happy with them, and yet others (*cough*Loki*cough*) find them utterly hilarious.  Back in the ‘90s the TV shows Hercules and Xena were very popular and a lot of different deities popped up as characters.  One of the recurring deities on both shows was Ares, and I must admit it was this characterization of Ares that first drew me to the deity.  There were parts of his characterization that were straight out of ancient myth, like his strength, his importance in guiding the aggression of humankind, and a certain ruthlessness.  Other parts of his characterization were pure modern imagination.  In my work with Ares, he’s never minded that I picture him as the actor from television and I’ve often thought that he might have had a hand in nudging the show writers when it comes to how they portrayed his sense of humor.  Some pop culture characterizations have nothing to with the older deities that share their names (e.g. any television portrayal of Hecate ever), while others are a little closer.  I say talk to the deity in question and see how they feel before either rushing to combine them in your practices or shunning the pop culture portrayal.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not an epically popular modern conception of an older power can actually affect that power.  This is a rather thorny issue that really comes down to what we think the deities and powers that we work with really are and how they relate to us.  Are the Gods fully independent of the worship they receive or are they fed and shaped by the energies we give to them?  I think it’s possible for humanity’s perception of affect deity, even if it’s only to give them incentives to appear or act a certain way.  Let’s look at the TV show Supernatural.  On that show the archangel Castiel is a major character and is immensely popular.  I think it’s quite possible that the energies generated by hundreds of thousands of fans has reached the actual Castiel and affected it.  Just what effects it might have and to what extent, I do not know, but it seems a lot more plausible than all that energy just floating around not doing anything.  How one looks at this issue really depends on one’s beliefs, so I’ll just leave it with “it’s possible.”

How much pop culture portrayals of Pagan deities affects our practices and devotions really depends on how much we allow it to.  If you’re a pop culture practitioner you might have a chat with the powers you work with and see how they feel about their pop culture portrayals.  If they like what pop culture’s doing, then you might add some pop culture elements to your practices.  If they don’t like it, then you’ll need to treat the pop culture characters as totally separate entities if you want to work with them.  Be very specific in your workings!  If you’re not personally comfortable with how pop culture has portrayed your deity, then keep those elements out of your workings.  No one’s going to force you.  All in all, be respectful of sentient entities, whatever they may be, and the feelings and beliefs of your fellow practitioners and you should be alright. 


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Emily Carlin is an eclectic witch, attorney, and mediator, based in Seattle, Washington. She works extensively with the Crone and her specialties are shadow magick, defensive magick, and pop culture magick.


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