Monday, September 29, 2014

Occult And Sanctioned Reality

Since the enlightenment, supernatural or indeed, spiritual belief has been attacked as nebulous superstitions propagated by irrationality. Philosophers of the time looked at supernatural belief as something to be discarded in favor of reason and logic. This attitude prevails even today as mainstream academia and science strive for secular supremacy in modern culture. Hufford makes this point when he states that “the conventional view assumes that there is no distinctively “spiritual” set of experiences, that there are, rather spiritual interpretations of ordinary experiences that vie with secular interpretations of the same things” (27). By this viewpoint, one person’s demonic attack is another’s undiagnosed ‘night terror’ and so on. Although this view is persuasive, if doesn’t work in reference to the occult because the occult actively seeks to be part of the folk process. Unlike a UFO abduction narrative or an Old Hag attack, the occult practitioner willfully uses his belief to shape the experience. That’s not to say that somebody who wakes up aboard an alien craft or paralyzed by a ghostly hag doesn’t draw upon belief to interpret their experiences, only that the occultists uses belief to sanction his chosen interpretation of the experience.

Another way in which occult-lore differs from other forms of supernatural narratives is in the legitimacy granted to it by consensus reality. Unlike a ghostly haunting or UFO abduction, society at large believes in the power of the occult. And always has. Whether it be the fear of diabolic ritualization or abduction of our children, the occult is accepted as a tangible or at least feasible institution. Often times, supernatural elements of the occult are set aside and the belief in brainwashing misguided or marginalized members of society becomes a catalyst for rumor panic. For those who believe in the magic and mysticism of the occult, rationalization of their belief parallels that of the church. Belief in the occult is analogous to belief in the power of prayer, holy relics, or communion. Although the occult is largely tabooed belief, it negotiates the same beliefs as any religious institution. Because of this, faith in the occult is no different in principle than faith in Pentecostal snake-handling or charismatic Christian revivals.
In fact, the snake-handling practices of southern Appalachia is so similar to supernatural experience that the two are intrinsically connected. For example, when author Dennis Covington asked a member of ‘The Church of Jesus with Signs Following’:
“What’s it like to take up a serpent?”
“It’s hard to explain,” Uncle Ully had said. “You’re in a prayerful state. You can’t have your mind on other things. The spirit tells you what to do.”
“But why do people get bit?”
He thought about it a minute. “In that situation, somebody must have misjudged the spirit.”

This misjudging of the spirit is no different in principle than the occult belief of misjudging a demonic entity. Both negotiate the supernatural and make use of folk belief to interpret the experience. Also, consensus reality accepts that there are dangers associated with both experiences. Although the snakes are a very real, physical danger to the handler, the occult ritual carries the threat of psychological manipulation or damage.

By assigning the modern occultist the designation of ‘folk’, we reaffirm the need to take into consideration the actions and ritualization of the occult as part of the academic mainstream. Occultists are held together by their similarity in narratives and in their performance. Occult-lore also makes use of traditional folkloric forms in its commercialization and dissemination. When we read of modern demonic invocations, we are implicitly reminded of ancient Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman motifs. As survivals from the past, these rituals have adapted to fit the needs of modern belief. The occult is the agent provocateur of past mythos and ritual. In it lays the secrecy and mysticism of symbols long thought dead. As a cabal of supernatural thought, the occult folklorist protects the mirth and magic of ancient mysteries only to find their symbolic and psychological correspondences in everyday experiences. It is these perceptions of belief that make the study of occult-lore viable for academia. The narratives are simultaneously informative and entertaining.     

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pre-Islam, ISIS and Idolatry: A Mimetic Rivalry

Pre-Islam, ISIS and Idolatry: A Mimetic Rivalry by Jack Vates

“You sat that a good cause makes a good war, but I say that a good war makes a good cause.” Nietzsche-Zarathustra

It’s not often that current events demand a response from occult milieus. Sure, we get the occasional Satanic Church espousing a Black Mass in Oklahoma. Or there’s always a possession just waiting to happen in the ranks of the West Baptist Church. These things happen. But rarely do what we see in the News pertain directly to the trajectory of occult thought. This has happened just recently with the advent of the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Modern media is quick to blame Islam for actions of the arguably secular group known as ISIS. That’s not to say there are no socio-religious nuances in ISIS but perhaps it’s not Islam that’s being invoked. As a matter of fact, the actions of this group seem more aligned with a pre-Islamic pantheon still practiced in large areas by indigenous peoples. As Emile Savage-Smith remarked, “this assumption of the existence of evil beings including a pantheon of demons, was inherited from pre-Islamic societies as were many of the methods of counteracting them”.[1] Entities such as Jinn and other tribal spirits are very much ontologically relevant to this day by groups of Iraqis and Syrians. It is these beliefs that ISIS has sought to manipulate in their onslaught.

It’s important to know that Muslims accept the existence of demons such as Jinn as part of their faith. In fact, Muhammad shared his contemporaries’ beliefs concerning Jinn and integrated them into the Koran without qualms insofar as they did not endanger God’s uniqueness.[2] So what are these demonic entities known to Islam and still interacted with or ritualized in modern times? According to Wellhausen, “while the Jinn are not made of flesh and blood but are mysterious and generally invisible, they are, in some way, physical beings”.[3] Jinn can eat, drink, marry and even be killed. They are in some way corporeal and on the same ontological level as humanity. Is it so hard to believe that ISIS may be attempting to re-embody this entity in their exploits?

Although this may seem like the ranting of a paranoid occultist, the evidence comes from ISIS themselves. Sacrifices are not unheard of in areas that ISIS inhabits. Sacrifices to spirits are most important, and are still found, sometimes very clearly, sometimes only in a weakened form.[4] No clearer example of ritual sacrifice can be found than what has happened in the past few weeks concerning two American journalists and a British aid worker. For those of us who watched these videos, it was clear that what was occurring was a ritual. Think about it. Each murder was filmed in the exact way by probably the same murderer. The backdrop was identical as was the process of the killing. After all, a simple beheading could be accomplished without the exactness of the event. No, what occurred was ritual. It was a ritualized beheading. Whether this was a deliberate invocation to a pre-Islamic entity or way of embodying the Jinn as a way of securing Mana, either way is certainly un-Islamic. The local Iraqi and Syrian population know this. This is the reason for local parodies and dissent by large groups in the area. These people inherently know that something is very awry with how ISIS is attempting to gain political power. And perhaps the ISIS goal of performing horrifying atrocities is to enrage the U.S. so that the Western powers will invade Syria and finally remove Assad from power. Then ISIS can claim ‘moderate’, and instill their own chosen leader in power. In essence, let the U.S. do the work for them and still accomplish their bid for control. In either case, what they are perpetuating is a form of idolatry.

And this is only the proverbial tip of the idolatry iceberg in regards to ISIS. Rene Girard’s idea on sacred violence and mimesis lends itself perfectly to the action of this terrorist group.[5] In Girard’s theory, all desire in mimetic. In other words, desire and mimicry of another’s prestige or goods go hand in hand. Because of this, all conflict originates in a mimetic rivalry. The other person is the model or mediator between what is desired and the status quo. In the case of ISIS, they desire the prestige, power, and respect that come with ‘statehood’. They desire the recognition of ontological relevancy and yearn to be accepted. Through the object (statehood), they are drawn to the mediator (The Western World). They want to mimic the West’s success as a powerful socio-political and religious entity and project superhuman virtues while depreciating themselves.

This is made perfectly clear in their ritual sacrifice of American and British citizens. In their desire for statehood, they are aroused by the mediator and it’s not long before that desire is perverted or re-located into hatred. Elimination of the mediator by beheading appeased the group. But again it’s the mediator (sacrificial victim) that is responsible for renewed peace within the group. He becomes sacred. As Hamerton-Kelly remarks, the “state of a mimetic rivalry is the pathology of a “deviated transcendence”, of a desire that should be aroused from a truly transcendent spiritual source but instead is aroused by the immanent neighbor. The biblical name for this is idolatry”.[6] The bondage of sin is where the idolater falls in their perversion of mimesis. This is how ISIS fell by making beheading a ritual sacrifice. They became idolaters in the eyes of Islam and criminals in the eyes of the world. No longer relevant to Islam, they cannot claim Muhammad as progenitor. At best, they are attempting a pre-Islamic interaction with Jinn, and at worst they are a purely secular and petty gang of idolaters. They can take their pick.

[1] Magic and Divination in Early Islam. Ed. By Emile Savage-Smith. Ashgate Variorum. 2004. Burlington. Xvii.
[2] Ibid. Pg 40. See Surat al-Ahqaf 4b vs 28-31; Suarat al-Jinn 72 vs 1-19- Muhammad even preached to the jinn.
[3] Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums. 148-49.
[4] Belief in Spirits Among The Pre-Islamic Arabs. Joseph Henningen. In Magic and Divination in Early Islam. pp. 21.
[5] See Sacred Violence by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly. Fortress Press. Minneapolis. 1992. –For a detailed analysis of Girard’s thought..
[6] Ibid pp. 21.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Imagery and the Occult: Sandman as Articulation of Occult Agency.

Imagery and the Occult: Sandman as Articulation of Occult Agency. by Jack Vates

“For the paths are long, and even in death there is no ending to them.” – Sandman #21

It’s not farfetched to assert that imagery is the most important aspect of occult representation.  Art and iconography have always been an essential way to re-present the occult in pictorial form. In fact, modern occult art is a living enterprise designed for inter-action. It is meant to remain anew. However, it can only remain new by being continually re-interpreted, re-translated, and re-conditioned to meet current needs. This idea presupposes the assertion that the occult is a socio-religious network of correspondences and associative artifacts. Like any religious group, the occult is in negotiation with the numinous. This appeal for the sacred to remain anew isn’t exactly a “new” concept. Bruno Latour has done extensive work on articulating religious speech in modern times. (See Latour- “Thou Shalt Not Take The Lord’s Name In Vain”: Being a Sort of Sermon on the Hesitations of Religious Speech. 2001.) However, the occult is even more in need of a continual testing of conceptual re-applicability because it is completely entwined with all areas of popular culture. Sure, religion has important connections to the media, internet, and society but still can afford a demarcation that allows it exclusivity among cultural milieus. The occult could use the same invisible boundary between profane and sacred but chooses not to. The occult is the product of everything from myth and folklore to religious ideology to Goth horror and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. And it has been continually made anew to meet the spiritual needs of adherents. The occult of 2014  is different from the occult of 1960 which is different still from the occult of 1904. In some cases, there is barely a resemblance. Thank every god and goddess in every pantheon for that! In its continual re-definition, the occult enjoys constant epistemic relocation. In other words, what gives it meaning is in constant flux. It moves according to where it is needed and where it can remain a fresh archetypal model.
A good way to explore this concept of epistemic relocation is in the Sandman comic book. Written predominantly by Neil Gaimon, Sandman is a comic that ran from 1988 until 1996. The narratives showcase an atypical comic hero. Sandman doesn’t solve crimes or foil capers. He is the incarnation of dreaming and his power comes from the dream world. Gaimon reasoned that, “If there was a being who embodied dreaming, he would not be alone, but would be joined by other supernaturals who would represent the diversity of human conditions…his pantheon would include Dream and his six siblings: Death, Destruction, Destiny, Desire, Delirium, and Despair” (Stephen Weiner 2004). The story arc of Sandman issues 20-25 asks: What if the Lord of the Dreamworld entered Hell to release a lost soul? In the narrative, Dream informs Lucifer that he will require a parley for the soul of a loved one. He ventures into the void just to discover that his beloved is no longer there and that Lucifer has quit as overseer of Hell. There begins the action that encompasses Bible mythos, dreaming, demonology, and an intertwining of mythological and archetypal associations. The plot turn occurs when a host of deities and demons come to claim the real estate that was once Hell. Everybody from Odin and Loki to Choronzon and Azazel arrive in the Dream to make an argument for ownership. The occult connotations are rampant! As is the cross-pollination of religious, mystical, and mythological personas forming a clear network of mediators all serving to re-present or present anew occult thoughts and processes.

Art and iconography are an integral aspect of occult representation. The career of an occult symbol depends very much on its trajectory as provocateur of meaning. Because it will change. All symbols are born, grow, and are replaced as their need shifts in the network. In this way, each symbolic presentation is incommensurable from any of its past incarnations. They cannot be compared in any way because the entire network has changed. And these changes or shifts in occupation, do not occur gradually or in gradated steps but cataclysmically. Revolution occurs in which a symbol's previous meaning is usurped by a new agenda. An example can be found in 1624 Kotter etching that holds Rosicrucian connotations and motifs. Entitled 'Vision of a Lion with Angels and Roses', three angels sit reverently at a table with roses and a lion. The image of the lion is both a focal point and abstract symbol of the arcane. However, there is more. The form of the lion is an articulate of meaning. In other words, something is encoded or implicitly hidden in its shape. Obviously, the lion sits in the form of the Hebraic letter Alef. A rose-cross image that conceals subtle Judaic mysticism is certainly not surprising given the wealth of cultural traditions that influenced early Rosicrucianism. However, the “A ha!”- moment occurs when realizing the form of the lion is a sudden shift in the viewer's awareness. The image takes on a whole new meaning and cannot even be compared to its previous interpretation. Not because it is so much more profound or esoteric now but because the symbol has re-located. What the symbol means has moved with reference to Judaic mysticism. Now its network comprises of Rosicrucian allegory as well as Gematria.

We also see movement occurring in the Sandman 'Season of the Mists' story arc. Although Lucifer leaves and ultimately ends up on a beach thanking god for the beautiful sunset, Hell isn't left vacant for long. Dream holds a conference with all interested parties seeking to occupy the domain. Ultimately, God decrees that Hell must remain a contrast to Heaven because the latter is given definition by the former. Subsequently, the two observer angels that were charged with watching the conference proceedings are tasked with being the new rulers of Hell. Slowly, the demons and the damned file back into Hell to resume their previous roles. However, a depth of meaning is also achieved by Gaimon in the narrative. Whereas our etching is encoded with Judaic and Rosicrucian mysticism, Sandman explicitly explores the interactions of various pantheons. Gaimon asks: What if Azazel was allowed to mingle at a party with Thor and Fae folk? By allowing a network of various religious traditions to interconnect, Sandman has created a pluriverse of occult thought and illustrated the many locations where meaning can be found. For example, Dream could have given Hell to the Norse and Loki would now be sovereign ruler. Or, he could have bequeathed it to Choronzon and the demons would be running amok. The point being that the many possibilities is indicative of the various epistemological nuances that are implied in the narrative. Each of these possibilities are equally true and equally valid. As Goodman once remarked, "there is no one correct way of describing or picturing or perceiving the world, but rather that there are many equally right but conflicting ways-and thus, in effect, many actual worlds" (14). Although Goodman's Worldmaking goes well beyond comic book narratives, the principle remains the same: The trajectory of an occult symbol must include a re-locating of meaning as it moves from one world or world-version to another.