A Pagan writer considers how magic and the occult has seeped its way into pop culture. The TV adaptation of American Gods adds another deity to its roster. And a look at how the new movie Doctor Strange differs from its source material. It's Airy Monday, our weekly segment on magic and religion in pop culture. All this and more for the Pagan News Beagle!
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Into every life a little rain must fall. Unfortunately, sometimes that little bit of rain becomes a deluge or tsunami. Some of us aren’t exactly chipper little rays of sunshine to begin with, so life’s little stumbles can make things more challenging than they really need to be. I’ve battled functional depression for as long as I can remember and there are few things that I take more refuge and comfort in than my pop culture fandoms. For people like me fandom is a lot more than a fun way to spend your time; it’s an escape from the pressures of the mundane and a protected retreat. It’s the ultimate safe space where you are free to let all your weirdness hang out and just enjoy yourself. The power of pop culture magick is to allow us to literally bottle a bit of that joy and take it with us.
For this spell you will need to choose a favorite fandom or two. There are an amazing number of pop culture fandoms out there, so choosing just one or two to work with can be a bit daunting. Think about what is resonating with you right now. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a favorite fandom for the past decade - what book, movie, music, tv show, series, comic, manga, etc., really resonates with you right now. What bit of pop culture brings you joy today.
Think of a character, scenario, episode, song, etc., from your chosen fandom that really makes you happy. For example, I’m doing my version of this spell using Firefly, particularly the character of Kaylee. In a cast of misfits and anti-heroes Kaylee stands out as being not only a kick-ass mechanic, but as being genuinely sweet and happy more often than not. I greatly admire her ability to look on the bright side of things and enjoy what she has while she has it - something I’m not great at.
- One candle (in your favorite color) - pure beeswax is best, as the honey in the wax adds a bit of sweetening to the spell. If you choose a large candle you should repeat the incantation each time you burn it. If you cannot burn a candle for whatever reason, choose a tealight or small chime candle that you can carry with you.
- One wearable/carryable object representing your bit of pop culture - if you have something overt like a fandom t-shirt great, if not something as simple as a sigil drawn on a piece of paper will do.
- One small bottle of drinkable liquid - This can be tap water or anything else, just be sure the bottle seals well enough for you to carry it in a pocket without worrying about leakage.
Ground, center, and set your sacred space however you usually do. (If you don’t usually do those things that’s ok too!)
Set your candle on your altar or whatever prepared space you have. Set your wearable object (a leather bracelet for me) and your bottle of liquid next to the candle. If your bit of pop culture has a video or audio form, play it in the background. Meditate for a few minutes on your bit of fandom and what about it brings you joy.
Light your candle (or not) and speak an incantation like the following, with the specifics changed for your fandom and your personal needs:
Light of flame bring me joy, allow me the happiness and good nature of Kaylee.
I will overcome my obstacles with a smile, as she does.
I will enjoy the good that flows into my life, as she does.
I will find solace and comfort in hard times and emerge the stronger for it.
I will shed bitterness and resentment, as she does.
I release negativity and depression.
I find joy in everyday life and dance with joy.
Let the essence of happiness flow into my bracelet and my tonic.
In times of sorrow, stress, anxiety, or fear I will wear my bracelet, sip my tonic, and find happiness.
I embrace joy.
So must it be.
Let the candle burn down, then close your sacred space as you usually do. Carry/wear your charged object and sip your charged liquid when you need a boost. Feel free to repeat the spell as often as necessary.
When I started watching The Path on Hulu the other day I was not expecting to get smacked right in my Pagan Community feels. Yes, I know The Path is about a cult rather than about Pagans, however it is filled with the dynamics of a small, insular, religious community and that is very, very relevant to our interests. I’ve been a part of many healthy and less than healthy Pagan groups and I think we can all benefit from stepping back for a minute and looking at some of the the issues raised in The Path.
***This article will contain spoilers for The Path episodes 1-7***
The first thing that really got me while watching The Path (within minutes) was the issue of super special secret teachings that will lead to happiness/enlightenment/personal power/etc. that are only revealed once someone get’s to the highest levels of initiation - once they’re far too invested to walk away if they’re disappointed. This is possibly my biggest issue with large chunks of the magickal community and the mystery traditions of Paganism. In The Path the cult that is at the center of the story is the Meyerist Movement. Their teachings are called The Ladder and as people are initiated into the group they move up the ten rungs of The Ladder (one being the lowest, ten being the highest). As people move up The Ladder more of the group’s secrets are revealed, with the promise that the highest rungs will hold the secrets to true happiness - the only problem is that the highest rungs haven’t actually been created yet and the group’s founder is dying and in a coma. No magickal group has ever promised higher levels of secret teachings that they haven’t actually written yet - right? I was part of a well meaning group that basically did a less horrendous version of exactly this. I do respect mystery traditions to a certain extent. Yes, there are religious and magickal mysteries that require a seeker to have certain trainings under their belts in order to make sense of them safely and fully. However, before I get involved in a group I want to know what I’m getting myself into. If there are super special secrets that are essentially my reward for doing the lower levels, I want to know what they are (at least enough to decided if they’re worth it). However, having questions answered with a dismissive, “well, you’re not a high enough level for those teachings to be revealed” feels a lot like an adult dismissing a child with, “You’ll understand when you’re older.” That kind of condescension triggers all kinds of not-so-fun memories for me. Further, I feel like a lot of groups use higher level teachings as a lure to get and keep members, rather than having them be the genuine tools for growth they’re meant to be. I don’t want my Pagan groups promising me the secrets of enlightenment of the low low price of just four installments of $19.95 or the attendance of ten meetings and endless potlucks. This behavior isn’t true of all groups certainly, but it’s common enough to be a problem.
An issue from The Path that grabbed me right from the get go is the cult of personality. Many Pagan and magickal groups are founded by a charismatic leader that has the ability to bring people to their work through the sheer magnetism of their own personality and power. Sometimes that leader is so charismatic that a well-meaning spiritual or magickal group becomes little more than a cult of personality - doing whatever the leader says just because the leader says so. In The Path we have the character of Cal, the groundroots leader of the Meyerist movement. Cal has the wonderful gift of being able to make anyone feel special, recognized, and valued - an invaluable skill for any leader. However, it leads to people doing pretty much anything he says just because it’s him saying it, regardless of whether it’s really the right thing to do. I’ve seen plenty of groups where the members blindly follow a leader’s direction long past the point of that leader’s actual ability to lead. The point of religious/spiritual/magickal groups, in my opinion at least, is to further personal growth and create community, not just follow a leader like ducklings. No leader is infallible and no human is perfect. In fact, plenty of charismatic leaders get a little drunk off their own power over people and fall to the temptation to abuse it. Cal is a wonderful example of a leader who gets caught in his own propaganda and starts to act like he can do anything just because of his position - and people let him get away with it to a shocking extent. Even the most benevolent of leaders can fall to the temptation to just “shade” their words in a way that will get people to come around to their way of thinking, particularly if they can tell themselves it’s for the people’s “own good.” I know I have a time or two (fortunately I had people call me on it so I could correct myself). Sadly, there are plenty of less than virtuous folks out there just waiting for people to fall into their sphere of influence. The Path reminds us just how very easy it is to manipulate people if you’re in a place of spiritual power over them. Anyone who’s ever led a group will see shades of themselves in Cal (and if you don’t you are probably lying to yourself).
Another issue that hit very close to home for me was the issue of prioritizing the structures of a community versus the personal growth of community members. There comes a time for every well-established group where the leadership of that group becomes so invested in the structures/traditions they have created that they lose sight of why those structures were created in the first place. In The Path there are very specific sets of procedures that people must go through in order to advance their spiritual development. Those procedures were created by the movement’s founder and are virtually sacrosanct. Very early on in the show the main character, Eddie, is falsely accused of infidelity and is forced to go through what amounts to mental reprogramming to “unburden” himself. It is not a pleasant process. However, because the Meyerist community is so invested in the methods they’ve established to “help” people they never stop to ask whether or not they’re really necessary or if there might be another way of doing things. Further, while the process makes the community feel like it’s doing “good work” it completely emotionally eviscerates the individual undergoing it - stunting his own personal growth. In a much more extreme example, in Episode 7 we see Cal confronted with an extreme threat to the Meyerist community as he knows it and he takes even more extreme measures to eliminate that threat - not because the threat was invalid or wrong but because it was dangerous to the structures and institutions that made his life comfortable, predictable and gave him power. I’ve seen plenty of groups where traditions were held so dear that they were held onto long past the point of them being helpful or even healthy. It’s perfectly natural and understandable for people to feel protective of and invested in the structures they’ve created and nurtured over time. However, it is critical for any group/community member, especially those in leadership positions, to remember that structures and processes are created for a reason and once they cease to serve their purpose it’s time to come up with a new process. Respectfully asking “why” is critical to the health of any group. People change over time, communities change over time, the world changes over time and so must the process, structures, institutions, and traditions that we love or they will lose all meaning and fall to dust.
Turns out that spiritual/religious groups all seem to have the same issues of secret keeping, leadership, and ossified structures. In The Path we see these issues writ large in a “worst case” scenario of a group straddling the line between a religious movement and a cult with a leader slowly losing control. While the problems faced by most Pagan/magickal groups are less extreme (at least I hope so), we can still learn a lot from The Path. What secrets does your group hold and why? Are your leaders serving your group or are they lording over you? Do your traditions still make sense? Take some time and really think about how your group and the groups you’ve dealt with in the past take on these issues. Ask yourself if your group is dealing with its issues in a healthy and productive manner or if personality issues and protectionism and fear are fighting for the status quo. When our communities are healthy we all benefit and we all suffer when they’re rotting from within.
I've always been fascinated in the predictive aspects of pop culture. Recently I watched the latest season of House of Cards and found that it eerily predicted some of what was happening in the current political climate. Even the actors of the show noticed those same parallels. Such predictive aspects aren't limited to the latest T.V. shows. Jules Verne wrote about submarines before the first one was invented. In various fiction books, games, and shows you end up finding that pop culture is predictive of something that shows up in our lives down the line.
I think that what pop culture really does is orient the consciousness of people toward manifesting what it shows. So it's not even so much of a predictive function so much as it plants a seed in your mind and if that seed is planted in many many minds than it makes an imprint on the superconsciousness of humanity and from there finds its way to someone who can create it....
This year I once again had the great pleasure of presenting pop culture magick at Pantheacon. This year was all about the importance of doing pop culture magick and how to strengthen your practices. An amazing group of familiar faces and new friends attended and reminded me just how awesome you all are. I always learn so much from workshop attendees - big hugs to you all. For those who weren’t able to attend, or who attended and want some notes, here is a summary of the major points.
Pop culture magick is important work
We are constantly bombarded by media just by virtue of existing in the modern world. Everything from billboards, advertising, supermarket merchandising, to pop music comes into our brains whether we want it to or not. All of these things create pathways and links in our minds with the aim of making certain thought patterns more natural. When we learn to do magick we are deliberately doing just that - forging new pathways in our brains in order to make certain actions (e.g. spellwork) easier and more natural. Why not take advantage of the trenches that have already been dug? Pop culture magick is one of the most energetically efficient types of magick out there.
Similarly, mainstream pop culture phenomenons (think Star Wars, Harry Potter, giant pop stars) create massive amounts of energy that can be harnessed by those in the know. Anyone who’s ever been to a sold out concert or a heavily anticipated blockbuster movie knows that they create massive energetic outpourings, far more than could possibly be used in the normal course of events. Anyone who’s ever watched a group of toddlers running around has heard and probably said the following, “...if I could just bottle that energy…” By doing magick with huge pop culture phenomenons you’re doing essentially that - harnessing and using the energy that’s hitting you like a tidal wave any time you walk past a movie theater or, gods forbid, go to the mall.
Further, by using those externally forged channels in our brains for our own purposes we take control of them. Pop culture magick can essentially overwrite the messages implanted in our heads by advertising by deliberately altering their effect. I’d bet good money that everyone reading this article can sing at least half a dozen advertising jingles right now. Take one of those tunes and sing a little incantation to it and suddenly instead of wanting a cheeseburger every time you hear the stupid Red Robin jingle you empower your spell - better for your magick and your budget. Pop culture magick empowers the practitioner to take control of the subtle mental effects of media exposure.
Levelling up your practice
There are as many ways to practice pop culture magick as there are individual practitioners times the number of fandoms they work in. Ultimately every practitioner needs to find the practices that work best for them, but there are two techniques that I feel have tremendous potential and are generally underrated: cosplay and fanfiction.
Cosplay is the modern equivalent of ritual aspecting. Think about it. Cosplayers spend huge amounts of time, energy, and often money in order to really become the characters they’re playing. It’s not uncommon for serious cosplayers to spend months creating costumes, props, and working out to more perfectly resemble their characters - just as much, if not more, than a practitioner would before attempting to draw down or embody a deity. A good cosplayer quite literally becomes their character so long as they’re in the costume. Done with magickal intent this can be incredibly potent. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting a woman who is a strong advocate for equal representation in comics and does so in full batgirl cosplay. She told me that she would never have had the courage to speak out of fight for what she believes in without the extra strength she feels from wearing the costume. I’m a little shy for full cosplay, but subtle costuming (a t-shirt here, a bracelet there) can have the same effect when used with magickal intent. Get creative and do what you’re comfortable with.
...and then there’s fanfiction, the odd cousin that people in the fandom don’t talk about to outsiders. I like to think of fanfiction as an advanced bardic manifestation technique. If you want to do a spell where Tony Stark helps you pass your computer science exam or Spiderman helps you stand up to a bullying co-worker why not write it all out as a story? Stories told in any form (written, drawn, sung, spoken aloud, etc.) have tremendous power. Bards of old certainly knew this and bards of today are figuring it out pretty quick (think modern “news” narratives and their power in our society). Use whatever medium works for you and create the story you want to see play out, infuse it with your true intent, and let the energy of the story itself move your magick into the mundane. Now I can’t write fiction to save my life but even I can think up a story and let it play out in my head (after years of practicing witchcraft I can visualize like a boss), so you can too. Mary Sue your way to better magick.
Let your fandom be your guide
Once you’ve been doing pop culture magick for a little while you’ll likely find yourself settling into one or two particular fandoms for the majority of your workings. When/if that happens, or if you just want to deepen your connection to a particular fandom, I suggestion looking to the fandom itself to determine how you focus your workings. If you’re in the Supernatural or Buffy fandoms it’s probably a good idea to look into defensive magick and working with the paranormal (even if you’re not particularly interested in it) because it’s so intrinsic to the fandom itself. If you like the X-Men you might look into activism magick; if you like Star Trek think about diplomacy and communication magicks. Let the intrinsic energies of your fandom direct the focus of the next phase of your magickal development, after all there’s a reason you like the fandoms you do.
Beyond that it’s just a matter of inspiration and creativity. Take a closer look at your favorite aspects of your fandoms. What is it about them that makes them so special to you? What does your fandom have to teach you and how can you incorporate it into your practice? Take some time and journal about it in order to really organize your thoughts. This is a great trick for helping you deal with problematic fandoms. For example, I’m a huge fan of the Hannibal series but since pretty much everything about it is more than mildly psychotic it can be tricky to work with magickally. After much contemplation about what I liked I was able to figure out how to do safe and sane magick in that fandom. I figured out I could work with that particular portrayal of Hannibal Lecter (version control people - version control!) as a model for mindful consumption. (Yes, I’m weird and a little depraved; I’ve come to embrace it at this point.) Examine your relationship to your fandom and let that inform your practices.
More than any other practice, in my experience at least, there’s no right or wrong way to do pop culture magick. It’s all about what resonates with you, what feels the most natural, what feels empowering, and what gets the results you want. Pop culture magick is getting a lot of attention these days, which means it’s also getting a lot of flack from traditionalists who call it lazy magick. I say if you don’t like it, don’t do it. I just want to share what works for me because I think other people might find it helpful. No one form of magick is right for everyone. Give it a try and if you don’t like it don’t continue doing it, but if you do like it then come and talk to me :)
As you begin to wade into the world of Pop Culture Magick it’s important to understand the difference between Pop Culture Magick and Pop Culture Paganism. You’ll often find these words thrown around interchangeably (I’m certainly guilty of doing it on occasion), but they’re actually distinct terms. While every practitioner will define them a bit differently, the definitions below should help you to navigate these fundamental concepts.
Pop Culture Magick (PCM) is the use of pop culture stories, characters, images, music, toys, etc. as magickal mechanisms – the tools and techniques you use to bring your magick into being. That might mean doing a guided meditation to talk to Abraham Van Helsing about vampires, using an action figure of the Hulk to house a protective egregore, invoking the fortitude of your level 10 Paladin in Dungeons and Dragons, performing a prosperity spell that calls on Daddy Warbucks, or myriad other actions. PCM isn’t a new way of doing magick, it’s magick that calls on powers and ideas that are more immediately present in most peoples’ everyday lives than most of the mechanisms in more traditional magick. PCM may or may not have religious elements involved, depending entirely on the practitioner. In and of itself PCM is no more religious, Pagan or otherwise, than any other set of magickal techniques like candle magick or herbal magick. PCM is just the use of pop culture elements in magickal practices.
Pop Culture Paganism (PCP) is the use of pop culture characters and stories as either an approachable face for traditional Pagan deities and powers, or as a substitute for more traditional powers and mythologies. That could mean communing with Eros via the character of Capt. Jack Harkness (from Doctor Who and Torchwood), working with Diana in the guise of Wonder Woman, using Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a spirit guide, etc. It can also mean worshiping Tolkein’s elves as representations of nature, working with the Small Gods of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or creating your own path using various pop culture elements. PCP is all about working with the powers you find that resonate with you, regardless of whether or not they’re accepted by the larger magickal community. PCP may or may not involve PCM or more traditional magicks, depending entirely on the practitioner. On its own, PCP is simply the use of pop culture in the furtherance of the practice of Pagan religions.
My current personal practice uses a lot of Pop Culture Magick, but not a whole lot of Pop Culture Paganism. As a person who loves books, movies, graphic novels, and gaming it seems natural to use the things I love as part of my magickal practice. If I’m going to have a plushy Chtulu sitting in my cubicle at work, why wouldn’t I infuse it with a spell to ward off annoying co-workers? After seeing Doctor Who wield a sonic screwdriver like a magick wand in episode after episode, why wouldn’t I use my sonic screwdriver flashlight as a wand? These are things that I have a deep personal connection with (in Tumblr speak: my fandoms give me feels). The fact that I can have these things sitting openly on my desk at work without anyone looking twice is merely a bonus.
I don’t currently do much with Pop Culture Paganism, but I used to. As I talked about in my last post, when I first started getting into Paganism I had a hard time connecting with various deities and traditional powers because I felt that they were pretty far removed from my everyday life. Honestly, how much deep and meaningful reverence does the average computer nerd have for ancient agricultural deities? These days I do have that kind of connection with my deities but it took a lot of work. For me it took years of study and repeated workings with the traditional powers to build a strong connection. I can achieve that same level of connection with a pop culture figure by reading the books I love or watching my favorite movies. That’s not to say that I regret taking the time to forge the relationships I now have with deity, far from it. However, if back then it had been openly acceptable to do Pop Culture Paganism I probably would have run down that path as fast as I possibly could.
The beauty of Pop Culture Magick and Pop Culture Paganism is that they are so very individual. Each practitioner gets to pick and choose their very favorite things to work with in the best ways possible for them. There are basically no rules, no dogma, about how to work with pop culture, what is or isn’t “correct.” Each practitioner gets to define PCM and PCP for themselves, choosing to mix them or keep them separate as works best for them.