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.