“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” – Rumi
“But not that way, that way makes you a poopiehead.” – Rumi’s younger cousin Boomi
As I mentioned briefly in my last entry, there’s been some controversy around certain portions of the Pagan blogosphere about the intersection of fandom and faith. Some talk of whether or not writing fanfic involving a God from older mythology is appropriate. Others want to know if making an altar to Superman is the same as making one to Osiris, or if its okay to use comic-book-derived images of certain Gods (most notably Thor and Loki) on altars to those Gods.
What I hear underneath it all, is a strong bias. No one would blink an eye if I wrote about how a modern song deepened my relationship to a God from an older mythology. Or if something considered “high art”, like a painting, a photograph, or abstract sculpture was an acceptable addition to an altar if the art somehow related to the God or concept the altar was for; that wouldn’t cause a stir at all. But if you venture into any sort of pop culture art (except music, as I see many respected bloggers use popular music in their Work) all of a sudden it is considered irreverent, inappropriate, and ridiculous.
I smell snobbery. Somehow, someone who thinks it’s okay to make a rough-hewn altar out of sticks, rocks, and leftover candle snubs if that’s all a person has access to, freaks out if instead of those things, they use images or representative art that was made post 1960. Graphic novels – you know, the fancy title for comic books – somehow do not receive the same level of artistic respect, even if the artist involved also dabbles in “higher” forms of art as well. In some way, a declaration is being made as to what kinds of art are acceptable to the Gods, and well, I’m not one to get in the way between a devotee and their relationship to a God, including what offerings are found acceptable or not.
These same snobs have no problem if someone writes a tome of modern poetry to a Holy One, or a creative retelling of stories that already exist in the lore; heck, some of them are even open to new stories based on UPG, as long as they’re written in a certain format. But the moment that creative writing impulse is used in a way that resembles some of the fan-fiction that exists on the Internet, it is a totally different story. (Ha, get it? Story?) As if writing new mythologies in the first person, that stem from a person’s interaction or conception of a God or other spirit, cannot be reverent. They must be told in the third person, in an objective a way as possible, and the only other characters must be other Gods and spirits from that pantheon – never a modern-day human being, recording their experiences or creating morality tales. If I chose to write a heretofore unrecorded story about Loki, it better meet mustre or I’m just a lonely fanfic writer who doesn’t know their ass from their elbow. I also see much of this derision placed on writers who may not be prolific at their craft – that is, a well-crafted and grammatically correct tale is acceptable, but if it relies on hackneyed tropes and could use a good spellchecker then it must be “fanfic”.
Again, there’s this retched stench of snobbery coming across from those who reject certain art forms as being introduced to a religious or spiritual construct that they seemingly share. I don’t understand how other people haven’t made the connection between those who feel their precious Gods would never deign to ask a follower to undergo or perform ordeals in that God’s name, and those who feel it is exactly what that God asked them to do. In that debate, we can usually come to the understanding that the Gods are bigger than we can ever understand, and in that bigness we include that one’s relationship with Them might be radically different from devotee to devotee; therefore if Loki loves the little green and gold outfits on Moonbeam’s altar, but Sophia thinks the Marvel rendition is atrocious and disrespectful, who’s to say that Loki told Moonbeam (who is also probably younger, but I’ll get to that in a minute) one thing, and Sophia another? When did it become our jobs to declare what was Holy and what is Profane?
I also believe the fact that most (but not all!) of those who engage in these forms of devotion happen to be younger, come from a different generation that had a vastly different relationship to fan fiction than their elders, is part of the problem. I don’t think most of us old farts understand that although fan fiction did get much of its start in the fevered fantasies of Star Trek fans who wanted to see Kirk and Spock get it on, the younger generation grew up in an age where you only wrote fan fic for the Works you loved the most. It is considered an act of devotion, in and of itself, to write a story using someone else’s world. Granted, not all authors feel that way, but many have come around to seeing it as the flattery it is. Also, that only a small portion of fiction created in a shared world has anything to do with slash (slash: fiction written where two characters from a shared world have sex with each other, usually written when the characters did not have romantic or sexual relations in the referential work). Writing fan fiction, especially first person or “Mary Sue” stories (Mary Sue stories: When an author creates a character based on themselves and inserts that character into a shared world story.) In fact, many of these authors write side stories, exploring characters who were not given much time or attention in the referential work, simply because something about that minor character caught the author’s eye and inspired them to create a story featuring that character.
I bring this up when thinking about Loki in specific. Although he is mentioned often in the referential work in question, He rarely gets stories that are specifically about Him. He’s usually playing second fiddle in some way, helping Thor get his hammer back, or assisting Odin in getting a wall built. Not much is told about what Loki does when He’s on his own, but only in relation to when He decides to be chummy with the other Aesir. Although I admit I have not read much of this “Loki fanfic”, it doesn’t surprise me that it exists. Devotees of a God naturally begin to have curiosity about what that God does when They’re not playing second fiddle or providing a needed plot twist – these followers want to hear stories in which their God is the main character. And since I have not been present when one of these works has been written, I can’t say (nor can I not say) that there was a subtle Guiding Hand – or screaming UPG, for that matter – that inspires the author to write. It also harkens back to the idea that people who were raised in the generation of fan fiction were taught, some in early childhood, that writing fan fiction was an act of devotion. That writing stories where you insert yourself into the referential work helps them feel as though they have a personal connection with the characters, the story, the world, or all three. How is this any different than doing guided meditation with the goal of trying to figure out how you, a mere mortal, fits into a Holy One’s plans? The only difference is that these authors are writing it down, and sharing it with others in hopes that maybe someone else will glean meaning from what the author learned in their process.
Now, when it comes to revering modern day superheros as Gods in their own right, I go back to looking at how the older mythologies came to be. For sake of this argument, we can probably agree that most mythologies started out as a set of oral tales and traditions that were considered sacred by the people who told them, heard them, and began to shape their lives based on them. These stories were shared over time, and eventually some of the characters seemed to “come to life”, and before long there were offerings left to them, and altars and temples built, and places named after them. Ceremonies re-creating parts of the stories were considered spiritual and necessary.
Who has the stick-of-knowing-it-all to say that modern stories are exempt from this process? I’m sure the people who first started cults to characters from the sacred stories were also met with derision and ridicule. I’m sure the first family to put their shoes outside so a magical saint could fill them with coins or candy looked pretty fucking stupid to all of their neighbors. In the same way, when people raised in a Christian tradition see a bunch of people wearing renaissance faire clothing (if they’re wearing clothing) doing a ribbon dance around a pole with a penis on the top, they think we’re an embarrassment to the human race. So what do I care if a person decides to draw their moral and spiritual inspiration from Superman, or Star Wars, or My Little Pony? Rumi never clarified that only the solemn ways were the right ways to kneel and kiss the ground – sometimes what seems outlandishly ridiculous to one can be life-alteringly sacred to another.
Take a moment and try to look at some of your spiritual practices from the view of an objective outsider – when I do this exercise, I like to pretend I’m Penn Jilette. Not only because I have a huge crush on him, but because he’s an very opinionated atheist and objectivist to whom many people listen because he’s a celebrity. Whenever I need to get a good headcheck about whose spiritual practices are “right action” or “reverent” or “appropriate”, I try very hard to have a Penn moment. I’m sure he’d take one tour of my house, filled with altars, with magical items above the doors, and with some of the odd habits I keep in order to maintain the wards and spiritual life of the home, and decide I was a loony. And not only would he dismiss me for being crazy, but he would feel I was actively hurting other people when I talk to them about my faith, because I might encourage them to work magic in hopes of attaining a goal, or pray for guidance, when they could be doing something more tangibly productive. But I rest my faith in the spiritual choices I make, and so I don’t let it get to me that Penn thinks I’m a harmful goofus.
I do the same thing when other Pagans come at me for some of my practices and beliefs. I frequently remind people that “serious doesn’t always mean solemn” – one of the public rituals I helped write that got the most acclaim from my Pagan community involved two giant pinatas (a cock and a cunt) that were rigged to slam into each other until they rained condoms and candy on the waiting crowd. It brought joy and laughter to a holiday that frequently challenges people who still have shame around sex, body image, and attractiveness. Too many Beltane rituals that I have attended do not take into consideration that those attending might not feel comfortable in a sexually-charged atmosphere, so those Pagans lose out on the sacred fertility (both reproductive and otherwise) that comes from a Beltane celebration. So I wanted to write one that included everyone, from the dirtiest pervert to the most body-conscious prude, in celebrating a holiday about love and joy and creativity.
And yes, some people thought it was overly silly, and not “reverent”. And you know what I say?
Fuck them. It was magical for those who were present. And that’s all that matters.
As for this debate, I come to much the same conclusion. I’ll do my own spiritual stuff over here, and that includes believing in a Goddess whose mythology was written by a living author. I have a tattoo that is fish puns and butterflies, and to me it is as sacred as any other mark I have taken on for a God I serve. I don’t care that Her lore was published in the 1980’s; what I care about is that by being Her devotee, I have done more for the mentally ill and the spiritually lost than I would have otherwise. I truly believe that although Loki removed the majority of my crazy, it was Delirium who taught me how to live with the crazy that was left behind. Once a year, I release a balloon into the sky for Her. And yes, I have written non-canonical stories about Her, using Her character to help others understand how to better live with their mental illness (rather than fight it).
Because one of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground is writing new mythologies. New stories with Old Gods, old stories with New Gods. Looking at oral, written, and recorded stories that stir something deep inside of me and make me feel whole as a sacred human being. As long as I’m right with the Gods I serve, whose judgment should I really be worried about, anyway?
PS. I’m open to be corrected on this, but I believe that the original spelling of the Goddess of Death/Daughter of Loki was H-E-L, and that H-E-L-A was adopted by Marvel because the comic book censors wouldn’t let them use H-E-L because it was too close to H-E-L-L, which was a banned word at the time. So although I believe that it just bled into the mainstream, anyone who uses the H-E-L-A spelling is dabbling in their own form of fanfic.