Guttershaman – Of Avatar and Otherkin…

8 April, 2010

“…stories dramatize ideas and truths that we all intuitively recognize. Although these stories are not exactly ‘true’, they nonetheless offer a kind of Truth that is more compelling than hard facts.”

Rabbi Cary Friedman, ‘Wisdom from the Batcave

“Believe nothing,
No matter where you read it,
Or who has said it,
Not even if I have said it,
Unless it agrees with your own reason
And your own common sense.”

The Buddha

———————————

It’s an interesting time to be writing about belief and religion.

Consider, for example, the Avatar Otherkin.

Otherkin, for those of you who’ve not come across the concept, are people who believe they are (in some sense, be it spiritually or literally) non-human. There are lots of variations of this belief – some feel they are elves, vampires (in all flavours from Anne Rice-y to Twilight-ish), werewolves or dragons – others believe they are entities from what we usually call fiction – such as inhabitants of the Matrix, anime characters… or, recently, Na’vi from Pandora.

I trust I don’t have to explain what Avatar is.

What’s especially interesting to me (as someone who not only has a lot of sympathy for people looking to fiction for their spiritual metaphors but also who was involved with Otherkin earlier in my occult life) is not just how quickly this particular strain of Otherkin have emerged, but how vehement some of them are concerning their rights.

The Na’vi Anti-Defamation League were founded only a few weeks after the film was released. Their purpose is “to monitor and take action upon groups and individuals who are promoting hate speech and anti-Na’vitism against fans, Na’vi-kin, and followers of Eywa.” Now admittedly they’re a small group on Live Journal… but nonetheless, that they exist at all is interesting to me.

Why Avatar was the film which stimulated such strong feelings – among many people world-wide, not just the rather specialised area of the Otherkin community – is of course not entirely known. Some have suggested it was the exaggerated realism of the immersive 3D environment and computer graphics, or that its (to some folk) rather diluted version of classic mythological themes allows it to appeal to a wide range of viewers – or it could be simply that it’s the biggest hit movie of our time. For whatever reason, it’s become a major metaphor – to the point where Palestinian protesters in Gaza dressed as Na’vi when on protest.

After seeing Avatar, I have to say that all the criticisms – from plagiarism to white guilt – have justification. (A nice cumulative bitchslap version of them all here.)

But, you know, Smurf Pocahontas jibes aside… parts of the film still made me weepy with the sheer mythic aptness of it all. That much-maligned plot – a crippled warrior, twin of a dead scholar, seeks healing & truth in another world he enters through (more-or-less) lucid dreaming, finds magic powers after trials and ends as a fusion of his old and new cultures – None More Miffick.

You can certainly make a case that Na’vi spirituality is a watered down appropriation, a morass of once truly authentic cultural memes reduced to their lowest common denominator… but probably not to someone like me, whose view of the value of authenticity in mysticism is, shall we say, a tad harsh. It could be that the diluted Deep Green/Gaia Consciousness of Avatar simply fits some folk better than anything that other mythos of the world can offer.

And of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.

I wouldn’t.

For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.

For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.

The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer  – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)

But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.

Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.

Why not draw inspiration from a myth you know isn’t based on fact? Why does that idea harm your beliefs? For some folk, it just suits them more than the half-true (at best), ‘legitimate’ religions of the world. Some mystics would bluntly state both come from the same source (one version of which is Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace). Some would even say it’s more honest than insisting a blurry, ancient myth structure is unassailable truth. At worst, it’s a new perspective, a different angle from which to view the numinous signals that inspire all faith. (Assuming of course that you’re not one of those believers who’s utterly certain theirs is the One True Way…)

There’s nothing at all wrong with drawing on avowedly fictional sources for definitions of your personality, mysticism, even sexuality. The trick is, as I’ve said often before, being able to step away from that viewpoint from time to time, to consider it as if real, not as real. And to be fair, many of those who identify as Otherkin do so. It’s nowhere near as simple as these people suddenly deciding they’re a dragon and not actually thinking about what that entails…

From my experience in these realms, that’s actually hard to do. There’s something deeply attractive, even intoxicating, about getting some confirmation that not only are you not like everyone else, but that there are people similar to you who feel much the same way. The dichotomy of being an individual and being part of a tribe, combined. For me, finally, it was a good and beneficial place to visit, but I couldn’t stay there. For others, it’s a perfect fit. Same could be said of any faith or perspective, really.

But there’s no question that once you permit the possibility of a belief based on fiction having as much validity in consensual reality as established religions, all sorts of interesting problems occur.

Such as the one which sounds an awful lot like a bad joke, that starts “this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…

More on that next time…

“The movie is the modern equivalent of oral tradition. The indigenous people would transfer their theology and ancestral through storytelling. Those stories were mythological from modern standpoint, but still maintained identity in their cultures. Avatar is our equivalent of oral tradition.”

http://nadl-org.livejournal.com/1011.html

———————-

Post Script:

I’m far from the only occultist to note and draw inspiration from the Otherkin – the clear leader in this field is Lupa, whose drawing together of the Otherkin impulse and older shamanic aspects (such as shape-shifting) is well worth your time. Start here with her piece on Shamanism & Subjectivity. This old thread at Barbelith is also worth reading.

If you feel drawn to looking at the Otherkin community further, you could do worse than looking at the forums at Otherkin.com. But if you’re going to comment, don’t be so impolite as to troll or stir it – for one thing, they’ve heard it all before.

And a big retrospective thanks to the Elves – you know who you are…

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Past rants – Christianity is stupid

26 May, 2008

…and sometimes I just get downright pissed off.

Please – if you are (as Stephen King put it in the Dark Tower series) ‘for the Jesus-man’, read the whole piece before throwing stones.

(From 6 November 2006)

Christianity is stupid

(part of the xtianfuckwitwatch service)

I have finally fucking well had enough. It’s time to say it how it is.

Ever since the ‘election’ (which I do not for a second believe was free or fair, but that’s moot), there have been continuing reports that the Democrats want to try and appeal to ‘faith groups’ to try and win the next one. Specifically, to become more acceptable to the particular breed of Protestant Christian fundamentalism that seems to be taking over their country – just so they can be elected next time. And that this Christian hegemony are taking this ‘victory’ as a mandate to push their life-hating, woman-and-gay-phobic, world-crushing agenda.

They – and you – need to remember something important.

Christianity is Stupid.

(OK, here’s the disclaimer. Individual Christians can be perfectly intelligent and good people. But this can happen with anyone, from any faith or none at all. I never met a person who was a good person solely because of their faith. Usually, it was in spite of it.
Christians can be clever. But Christianity, like any hidebound monolithic faith, is Stupid.)

Christianity is, at root, saying that the Bible is the only source of truth possible. The only source of moral, philosophical or political validity.

Let me rephrase: A multiply (and badly) translated outdated desert survival manual for a nomadic people, full of contradictions and myth-masquerading-as-fact, metaphor-accepted-as-history and sheer hypocrisy… is The Truth and The Only Truth.
And that only those who agree with this claim have any moral code worth accepting.

Fuck off. Just fuck off and die.

There is no clear moral code in the Bible. It all depends on what you choose to emphasise. You can say the Bible teaches us to love our neighbours, to forgive sins, to try and be as a little child in order to achieve spiritual grace.
Or you could just as easily say the Bible tells its followers that throwing the priestesses of any other faith from a high building for their remains to be eaten by wild dogs, allowing your daughters to be raped by friend and foe alike, incest, child sacrifice and murdering people with tattoos who eat shellfish are acceptable moral acts.
You can take from it that Jesus loved the poor, the meek, the downtrodden, even women in the sex trade – or that the whole Sermon on the Mount thing was all about making money (as the Prosperity Theology branch claim…).
And before you mention it… it’s clear that the Ten Commandments mean fuck all to the Bush-supporting Christians. Especially those little bits about murder and theft.

(Obligatory Bill Hicks Quote; “They say the Bible is the exact word of God.. then they change the Bible. Pretty presumptuous, don’t you think? ‘I think what God meant to say was…’ “)

And then, most laughably, they call the newer multi-model modes of belief ‘pick and mix religion’ ! When practically all their rituals, saints and demons are stolen from every religion they exterminated or country they conquered – all in the name of their Prince of Peace…

It’s times like this that I understand why the theory of evolution scares them so much.
It’s not so much that the theory challenges their version of history, or their precious Book. I think it’s far more the idea of evolution as a metaphor, the concept that societies and individuals can move away from past moribund structures and adapt to new conditions, that they must change, that really puts the fear in them. Because their ideas, their ‘faith’, are all inert. Only capable of retrograde movement if any. Dead words mouthed by dead souls.

Their whole life view is so totally removed from anything in the actions of their supposed prophet, or life in the modern world, it would be laughable if it wasn’t for the current re-enactment of the Crusades.

It’s literally like watching Future Shock enacted in front of your eyes. The main reaction to fear of the future, of a complex changing society, is to retreat into simple, narrow, fundamentalist beliefs and try to deny all other realities. The United States has, in the term coined in Judge Dredd, ‘Gone Futzy’.

So, to recap:

Believing the Bible is anything but a set of myths and outdated behavioural codes is stupid.

Treating those who act in such a stupid way as possessors of moral superiority – stupider still.

Accepting the moral authority of someone giving that belief as justification for their actions, especially actions which involve mass murder, the deaths of countless children, lying on an epic scale, corruption and the blending of church, state and money (the last of which I seem to recall was the only thing that ever got Jesus angry…) – complete fucking idiocy.

Thinking you are always right if you believe the above and everyone else who disagrees with you in the slightest way is wrong and evil – clinical brain death.

Despite the above… I do have some sympathy for those Christians in the US who are anti-Bush, not afraid of the modern world or complex thought and do not use their belief as an excuse to persecute those who differ in faith. Theirs is a tough path right now. But they won’t find their answers in that book of theirs – or in any single book, belief or perspective.
The only answers for times like these are found within, and from talking to people of good conscience and moral honour, whatever they believe God to be. From learning, adapting, evolving.

Even the Bush regime itself has bluntly said they are ‘creating their own realities’ these days.
They should not, can not, be the only ones.

And most of those realities, the healthy ones that will endure and thrive, shall come from living minds, not dead books.

Though it’s not very ‘wound-healing’ or ‘bridge-building’, I think the best thing that can be done in America right now is to emphasise everything non-Christian (or at least their idea of Christian) that you can.
(Not ‘Satanism’ – that’s just Christianity’s Loyal Opposition.)

For example…
Ever wondered why Christianity is so down on gay sex, masturbation, contraception, abortion and such?
It’s ‘cos in a nomadic desert community, the gene pool is really, really shallow. You can’t waste food and resources on any members (pun intended) who have non-reproductive sex. The reason for the rules was forgotten by the priests ages ago – only the phobia remains.
Plus, of course, non-reproductive sex (especially the Great Unmentionable Taboo of sex with a menstruating woman) are powerful acts in sex magic…
So use that magic! Raise that orgone! Live and love freely, banish the fear with your desire – and be as out about it as you can. Show them they don’t live in the world they think they do. Protest your right to consensual love and sex as a religious freedom – because it is.
(Sod the Left Wing – long live the Left Hand Path!)

Challenge them every step of the way.

If they insist on the Ten Commandments being in your courthouse, demand Buddha’s Nine Truths be there too. Or quotes from Harry Potter, Dune, Star Wars! Any book or story you find any kind of truth in can be spiritually valid – especially considering their example…

If the local church gets funding from the government for ‘faith-based’ social initiatives, found a church yourself and go after the same cash! Use their self-proclaimed rights against them.
Never ever let their words, their memes, stay unchallenged.

This is cultural Germ Warfare. Mind viruses battling. Unless you can get the immune system of your culture active, America will die of something worse than any physical disease.
It’ll die because it has poisoned its own soul.

And if you still believe in your soul you are a Christian – then listen to what Jesus said, act as Jesus did – not how his posthumous corrupt priests want you to act. It’s the priests, not Jesus, who want you to be unquestioning obedient sheep for them.

It’s Christianity, not the following of the way of Jesus, that is Stupid.

“It is easy to be a criminal. In this world, it is very hard work to be human.
They are drunk, and they do no work, and they are all criminals.
If you try and wake them or sober them, they will be terrified and try to kill you.
Be as gentle as doves and as subtle as serpents.

“These words shall not be understood until the male becomes female, and the female becomes male.

“If you fast, you will create great evils. If you pray, you will be cursed. If you obey the law, you will lose your souls.
But act from the light within and you will do well. Heal the sick, console the dying, make jokes in the face of the wise and teach only one thing: the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. Smash, smash the old laws and wake from the lie that all men believe.”

Jesus, Nag-Hammadi Scrolls.


Past rants – ‘Stories’

26 May, 2008

Best way to give an idea of what sort of thing you’re likely to find here is to put up a few of my older LJ posts.

This is first in a loose series where I am trying to get a handle on the role myth, stories and metaphor has on us – and what happens when people mistake story for The Truth

The first is from 10 February 2006

Stories – a rant

Over the years, I have tried to describe, to myself and occasionally to others (who have my sympathy!), just what it is that I believe. I’ve spent most of my life looking for answers to this, like we all do. My path has gone on some twisty routes along the way – and the more I see, the less I ‘believe’.

But today one of those beliefs has started to come into focus more clearly than ever.

It’s all stories. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The things we believe. The memories of our past. The news. Religion. Politics. All stories.

What do stories do? Ever since we’ve had them, told them to ourselves and others, they have taught and guided us, given us joy or fear or pride or wonder when we needed it – and sometimes when we didn’t. They give us most of what we call our ‘culture’, our entire spoken and symbol-enriched world. Which, since we’re such a symbol-minded bunch, is pretty much everything we say and do.

But the thing is…
Stories aren’t perfect. Stories aren’t The Truth.
And stories differ.
And stories can change in the retelling. They have to.

I know that even saying something like ‘Religion is a story’ will immediately offend some people. I think I know why… when they hear an idea like that, I suspect they interpret it to mean,’Your religion is just a story – and my religion is The Truth.’

But that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is that all religion is a story, or group of stories. Metaphors for the world. None of it is any kind of Single Perfect Truth.
Even mine. Especially mine.

That’s why seeing angry religious protests about ‘offensive’ cartoons, or musicals, or books or whatever just confuses me. The people screaming for Danish newspaper editors, or those who dare to allow performances of ‘Jerry Springer The Opera’, to be murdered are saying their belief, their Story, is more important than the life of another human being. And I guess it has always been this way – but I just don’t understand why.

I am not saying that their stories (or mine) don’t matter, or aren’t important or meaningful.
I’m trying to say that those stories simply aren’t the Whole Truth, aren’t the only story – and the quickest way for people, cultures or even our whole mad species to grow up is to be able to better deal with this idea, to listen to the stories of others without just running away from them (or towards, angry and armed).

All stories are equal – or at least, they’re equally stories. But not all stories are as useful as others – at certain times, in certain places. And right now there’s a lot of news about various Stories battling for supremacy – and many of those are the Big Stories we call ‘religion’.

For instance:
We have two versions of a most basic kind of Story competing right now – Origin Stories.
The Story of Evolution versus The Story of God’s Creation.
Both sides equally vehement that their story is the only real one and that the opposition story is wrong. Both sides feeling that if the other gains ground, their story is lessened somehow. And since this is that fundamental story, ‘where we all come from’, the stakes are pretty high.
(The way we can tell that this is such a divisive issue is how those involved on either side react to the idea that both stories could possibly coexist…)
But which one is True?
I dunno. And, if they’re honest, nobody knows.
(And I’m tempted to add – if they say they Know, they’re not honest.)

Perhaps we can better ask, which story is more useful in this time and place.

To Scientists, Evolution is the more useful story – it explains a lot of stuff, it can be clearly seen to happen in a laboratory, without it a lot of biological science just doesn’t make sense.

To Christians (at least those involved in the debate), it seems to me that God Made Us is the beginning of their entire story, the whole saga – and if they give up that part (or it seems, any part), the Truth of the rest is called into question… so to those entwined with that story, it’s very important. Vital, more than merely useful.
(Yes, I’m sidelining the knock-on political ramifications, the use of ‘Intelligent’ Design as a wedge driven into the secular world and all that. That’s a whole other story.)

In the above example, I have problems with both versions of the Story…
I think though evolution as a process is pretty much proven, the models describing that process are not yet complete (the born heretic in me thinks elements of Lamarckianism may turn out to be valid).
The xtian creation myth only works for me as metaphor, as a story. And not very well.
To me, evolution as a metaphor is so much more powerful and useful than ‘God did it’…

So which one is more useful depends on who asks the question… and what questions they ask next.

Another example:
I’ve always found it hard to understand why people raised in a heavily religious manner who discover they are gay or have some other kind of sexual preference their religion/culture/Big Story doesn’t like, manage to alter their belief system to allow for their sexuality, but not to actually question any other aspect of their faith.
(The recent heart-breaking duet of documentaries about gay Muslems and Christian priests on Channel 4 brought this home to me deeply.)
Surely if you’ve managed to change your mind enough to question the Big Story in regards to your sexuality, you can start to question the rest of it? But most folk don’t.
Certainly it takes a lot of energy and courage to get that far, and the comfort of keeping at least some of their religion-Story must be a great aid to them…
…but I don’t understand why the new Story, the one where they’ve make their own mind up about the nature of God instead of just retelling the Stories of others, ends there. They’ve already done the hardest bit – they’ve rewritten a key part of the Big Story that their culture has reinforced as The Only Truth, changed their entire understanding of their place in the universe and in relation to their beliefs. Why stop there? Why not ask the next question – if the religion doesn’t fit in comparison to this part of my life… what else about it doesn’t?

And if it doesn’t fit, then how useful is it, really?

It often seems to me that one of the most powerful and useful ideas of the late Twentieth Century is what is usually (and often disparagingly) called ‘Post-Modernism’.
(And when I use the term, I am emphatically not saying that there’s ‘no such thing as reality’. No matter how much you believe otherwise, all cars and other hard objects continue to be real. But your Internal Story shapes how you experience that ‘hard reality’… like someone seeing what to me looks like a random pattern on a foodstuff or stain and declaring it’s a miraculously appeared image of Their Deity. And of course our Stories directly affect the shape of the solid objects we build or buy or use.)

The idea that Truth can be a relative thing is a thought many, perhaps most, people just can’t handle – especially as more and more stories are available for us to compare, stories from people all over the world becoming easily accessible, the sheer choice overwhelming.
But of course the people those stories come from, like all the others, are scared that their Story-As-The-Truth is going to be chewed up and swallowed (or at best recycled as mere fashion) by that other big scary concept – Globalisation. All those cultures want to survive, those Stories (in a sense) want to be told, those memes want to breed. But do they have to fight it out? Is it all about survival-of-the-fittest-story? Or is it possible for the stories to mix and meld, to share and change each other? To grow in the retelling, like all good tales should?

Admittedly I’ve had a lot of practice in rewriting my own internal Story – my whole life I’ve been nicking bits from other Stories (both allegedly true and avowedly fictional), mixing them with my experiences (which as soon as they move to memory become another, very malleable, Story) and comparing that Story to what happens next. And I’ve always loved stories that mix up and blend ideas and tropes from different cultures and genres. I guess this makes it much easier for me to see these things as stories, as metaphor, rather than declaring one story or set of stories as The Truth and stopping there.
(Of course this doesn’t stop me occasionally getting pissed off when someone or something contradicts My Story. Despite trying really hard, I’m still human and fall into those easy patterns of habit. The need we all have for some kind of solid basis for our perceived reality, for some Final Truth Out There, is strong indeed. But that doesn’t make it true.)

The optimist in me hopes, even prays sometimes (though I couldn’t tell you exactly to what…) that folk could just get over the idea of, “My Story is The Truth and your Story is Lies and if you disagree I’ll kill you.” But it takes an odd sort of mind to be able to question the Story one is raised with at all, it takes a lot of work – and often the sheer luck to be exposed to a Story or idea that moves one enough to actually bother. If you’re deep enough in a Story, even the idea that someone out there truly believes a totally different Story from yours is scary.
Humans do not as a rule deal well with scary.

But in this huge, complicated stew of different Stories our world is, we have to find a way for them to coexist – or we’ll all be crushed between them. Acknowledging the Stories for what they are, no more and no less, seems a good way to start. Then maybe we can make better ones, Stories that have room for the new, the strange, the scary, without having to kill or torture in the name of Truth.

So – that’s my Story.
But I’m not sticking to it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Truth! Truth! Truth! Crieth the Lord of the Abyss of Hallucination.
Aleister Crowley.

They’re just beliefs, they’re not real…
Bill Hicks

Here. Share with us. These are our stories and these are our customs. We think they are very beautiful and we hope you will like them too, but they are merely our stories and customs. We would be honoured if you would share yours with us, and then let us go, together, to see what is true, to do what we can, and to see what all our poets can make of us after we are gone.
From ‘Earth Made of Glass’ by John Barnes