This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
The immediate ancestor of modern paganism – Druidry – was pretty much invented wholesale by Romantic poets and historians in the 17th to 19th centuries. Paganism as we know it today is partly a derivation of inaccurate Victorian and early 20th century historical and anthropological theories, mixed with a sizeable amount of plagiarism of the work of Aleister Crowley and then filled out with a variety of secondary sources.
In recent years, this point has been addressed by many, especially Professor Ronald Hutton. Hutton is a historian with great sympathy for the spirituality of pagan belief systems, but no truck with the often speculative, and occasionally downright shoddy, history taken as read by most of its adherents.
Hutton has said…
The real danger is …the idea that all customs, indeed all superstitions, nursery rhymes, and anything that smacks of ‘folkiness’, are direct survivals of ancient pagan fertility rites, and are concerned with the appeasement of gods and spirits. Although the suggestion of an ancient origin for our folklore was the central tenet of the Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of folklore collection, this notion has only become generally known in the last forty years or so, and has taken hold with astonishing rapidity; the majority of the population now carry the virus in one form or another, while some are very badly infected. The problem here is not simply that these theories are unsupported by any evidence, but that their blanket similarity destroys any individuality. All customs will soon end up with the same story.
Fortunately for neo-paganism, it had a wider range of stories to draw upon in its recently evolved origins. Specifically, it drew greatly on the fictional genres of science fiction and fantasy.
This is a personal overview of their intertwining.
Worlds of Gods and Monsters
A book which is often taken as the starting point for science fiction (SF) is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818). Most people know the origin story of the book: Mary Shelley, her Romantic poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori gathered at the Villa Diodante in 1816, trying to out-do each other in creating horror stories on a dark and stormy night. As veteran British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss was first to note, this is a tale where the protagonist “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve his aims…certainly within what we would now consider as SF. Nonetheless, Frankenstein’s origins occupy the interface between nascent speculative fiction and Romanticism.
Other early SF works (then called Scientific Romances), such as those by Jules Verne, often involved that basic scheme of a creator going beyond the realms of then-known science, but only slightly…such as the ballistic spaceship launch system of From The Earth To The Moon (1865) or the weaponised submarine of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1870). Verne was far less concerned with the effects his creators had on their world, however, than he was with writing popular adventure stories – a trait that never really left the genre as a whole.
The same could not be said for H.G. Wells. All of Wells’s science fiction works tend towards the didactic. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897) are stern warnings about both hubris and the consequences of meddling with Nature, while The Time Machine (1895) and The Shape Of Things To Come (1933) are explicit warnings as to the possible future consequences of his society, expressed in fiction. It is interesting to note that, of his work, the two which take on SF’s most-often-assumed base story of space travel – The War of the Worlds (1898) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), are his least didactic. Sometimes, less is more…and, always, science fiction is never as much about the worlds of Tomorrow as it is a method of using the fantastic as a tool to examine the world of Today.
Mention here should be also made of Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man who coined terms like “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “dweller on the threshold” and “It was a dark and stormy night”. His 1871 novel The Coming Race was of enormous yet rarely-spoken influence on the occult and spiritual currents that followed. In this book, he wrote of an anonymous explorer who discovers the Earth is hollow, its interior home to a race of superhumans who were adept in the manipulation of the life-force – which he called ‘Vril’. This book was a huge influence on the thought of Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner and the proto-Nazi volkish occultists of the Thule-Gesellschaft. Variations on the concept of Vril appear in science fiction in many later forms…and it also gave its name to that ultimate expression of duality – the beef drink Bovril (advertised with the slogan “You either love it or you hate it”).
Even this early on, the ideas of what would become SF were moving to other media: George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip To The Moon was, for its time in the very birth throes of cinema, a state-of-the-art special effects extravaganza. Thomas Edison himself would film the first of many movie versions of Frankenstein in 1910, and 1916 saw the first adaptation of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Audiences have certainly not lost their taste for such extravagant and flashy tales.
Print, however, is science fiction’s real home – and, especially, cheap print. One of the reasons, I think, that many literary critics scorn SF is its origin as a populist medium. Nothing exemplifies this so much as the pulp magazines, especially Amazing Stories.
Founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1926, Amazing Stories was the first publication to focus on science fiction, and it was Gernsback who gave the genre its name…although he first called it ‘Scientifiction’. The magazine, and competitors such as Astounding Stories and Weird Tales (the home of H.P. Lovecraft and the stories which would be later termed the Cthulhu Mythos) brought imaginative tales to anyone with a couple of nickels to buy them.
The year after Amazing Stories launched saw the premiere of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a savage social satire using what would later become common tropes of SF – a totalitarian dystopia, robots posing as humans – to comment on the political dangers of its time. And, though the trappings were technological, many scenes – such as the birth of the Maria-Robot – carried more than a hint of occult ritual.
‘To a world of gods and monsters!’
The pulps and film – especially now that the talkies had arrived – continued to capture the popular imagination: by the 1930s, science fiction had acquired many avid fans – some of whom started to organise meetings. Britain’s first science fiction convention took place in Leeds in 1938, and included such luminaries of future British SF as Arthur C. Clarke.
Another enthusiastic British fan was Olaf Stapledon, who wrote a series of highly influential works in the 1930s which had more than their share of the mystical – the likes of Last And First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) influenced many of his contemporaries including C.S. Lewis, who was inspired to explore the combination of SF tropes and his own Christian apologia in Out Of The Silent Planet (1938) and its sequels. (This ‘Space Trilogy’ was inspired by conversations with his fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, of whom more later.)
The crossover between an interest in fantastic fiction and the Weird has dovetailed for a long time. Many attendees of that first SF convention were also connected to early Fortean groups – even H.G. Wells had read Charles Fort, though he hated his work. The rise in interest in spirituality after the Great War had also influenced the fans – as did the arrival in that same year of 1938 of a new phenomenon: the superhero comic book. (The first of which, let us not forget, portrayed a working class immigrant who used his powers to aid the common folk – an idea that the vigorously socialist Wells and Stapledon would perhaps have admired.)
Needless to say, the Second World War changed everything. The multiple shocks to society worldwide of course had their echoes in pop culture – from the naked propaganda of Captain America punching out Hitler on the cover of his first ever comic (March 1941, before the U.S. entered the war), through newspaper and newsreel footage visions of a Total War startlingly similar to those shown in the 1936 movie version of Wells’s Shape Of Things To Come, to legends of Hitler’s interest in both the occult and ‘high weird’ technology – all of which was punctuated brutally by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in turn would influence the next era of science fiction in both literature and cinema.
Despite rationing and the war, or perhaps because of them, the pulps were still going strong, and had been joined by the new publishing form of paperback books. Another important stage in the democratisation of the form, novels and anthologies – especially, later on, science fiction and fantasy books – became available to nearly everyone: the aim was, according to their inventor, an early SF fan named Ian Ballantine, to make novels available “for the price of a pack of cigarettes”.
Amazing Stories, meanwhile, had acquired a level of High Weirdness under the editorship of Raymond Palmer, who in early 1945 began publishing a series of tales by a fan named Richard Shaver, purporting to be true stories of an evil race of ‘Lemurians’ who lived inside a Lyttonesque hollow Earth, who influenced human affairs via ‘mind-rays’ and communicated with equally evil aliens. Fans were bitterly divided about the so-called Shaver Mystery stories: fandom had already developed something of a split between the skeptical-engineer ‘hard SF’ fans and those who were more open to the spiritually and socially inquisitive stories. (This tale is covered extensively in Blair MacKenzie Blake’s article in Darklore Volume 8.)
It must be said, however, that even the more skeptical and atheist fans and writers had their skirmishes with the Weird. Of these, few were as influential as Robert A. Heinlein.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Robert Heinlein got his start in Astounding Science Fiction, one of Amazing Stories’ pulp rivals, in the 1930s along with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, who comprised the ‘Big Three’ of what became known as the Golden Age of SF.
A former U.S. Navy officer and naval engineer who had been discharged for health reasons before World War II, Heinlein’s early works were exemplars of the hard SF form, in many cases helping define science fiction concepts such as time travel and the militarisation of space. As a result of his interests in both fandom and fringe politics, he did mix with some interesting people in the 1940s…including Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard.
Parsons – a literal rocket scientist and convert to Aleister Crowley’s Thelema in 1939 – knew Heinlein from the Mañana Literary Society. The group met in Laurel Canyon, California during the war and was primarily composed of science fiction fans and writers, including Leigh Brackett – who would later co-write The Empire Strikes Back. Through the Mañana Society, Parsons struck up a friendship with Hubbard, a prolific pulp writer at the time.
That was not a meeting that ended well for those concerned…except Hubbard. The roots of both Dianetics and Scientology in his pulp fiction – and his dalliance with Crowleyan occultism alongside Parsons – are a clear example that the interplay between fiction and religion is not necessarily a beneficial one.
Heinlein, meanwhile, was considered one of the leading lights of the genre though the Fifties in both the pulps and Ballantine’s paperbacks, which supplied another vital ingredient to the mix with the paperback publication of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings in 1960.
Between this and popular editions of the works of Lovecraft, the Robert E. Howard Conan The Barbarian books, and the influential Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series from Fritz Leiber, fantasy realms with strange gods and magicks were also becoming part of pop culture. Paperbacks also allowed for more poetical works which transcended the boundary of SF and fantasy to gain a readership, especially books from Ray Bradbury like The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).
There was also the rising media force of television: shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were bringing innovative SF ideas to an increasingly wide audience, with episodes often written by leading pulp authors such as Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, SF and fantasy fandom – most especially Robert Heinlein’s work – would influence a group whose beliefs and actions would make an indelible mark on paganism and other modern occult practices.
It began as a group of young high school and college students in Fulton, Missouri, including Lance Christie and Tim Zell, who later changed his name to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. They and their friends shared an interest in SF, the self-actualisation philosophy of Abraham Maslow and the writings of right-wing firebrand Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged.
(I’m going to take a moment here and quote a popular comment from the modern TV and comics writer John Rogers: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”)
Christie and Zell and their friends were galvanised in 1961 by the publication of Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land. Christie described the experience as being “seized with an ecstatic sense of recognition. It was as if I had found in completed form the ideas which I was trying to gel into my own.”
Stranger tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith: a human child abandoned on Mars and raised by the native Martians in their culture and beliefs. Key among these beliefs is a bonding ritual involving the sharing of water and the concept of ‘grokking’ – “to understand something so completely that you become part of it”. On his rescue and return to Earth, Smith is first bewildered by human society, and then tries to integrate his Martian perspective with human beliefs and mores in a religion he called The Church of All Worlds, with far-reaching and, for Smith, tragic consequences.
The combination of this outsider perspective on human belief systems and Heinlein’s espousal of many libertarian points-of-view, caught the group’s imagination. They in turn took the fictitious religion Heinlein had created and combined it with their own political and psychological interests, and the burgeoning interest in pre-Christian beliefs…and formed their own version of The Church of All Worlds.
From Eris to Spock
When I first started doing the research for this piece, I was delighted to find a familiar name among those influential on the early development of the Church of All Worlds: Kerry Wendell Thornley.
Thornley – another member of the loose affiliation of rebellious libertarians in the late 1950s – was a former U.S. Marine and enthusiastic participant in the Californian drug and outsider cultures of the time. In 1958, in a bowling alley in Yorba Linda, California, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, he and a fellow contributor to the libertarian/atheist magazine The Realist, Greg Hill, had a shared vision (or, at least they say they had a shared vision) of the true nature of theological reality: in a world as beset with madness and chaos as ours, it made no sense to worship a male deity of rules and order…that the more useful deity would be Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and discord. And so, the Discordian Society was born.
As part of the Discordian mind-altering pranks-as-propaganda project known as Operation Mindfuck, Thornley was a prolific writer under many pseudonyms. Writing as one of his Discordian personas, ‘Young Omar’, he contributed work to a newsletter of one of the Kerista communes of the time, in which he made the second of his notable contributions to modern mysticism: he popularised the use of the term ‘paganism’ in reference to modern nature religions.
In his piece, quoted in the pagan history Drawing Down The Moon (1979) by Margot Adler, he wrote…
…let us look at the jobs of the far less intellectual, but far more constructively functional religions of old. These were the ‘pagan’ religions – the religions which survive to this day in England and the United States as ‘witchcraft’…groups which both stabilised and overthrew the social structure.
Thornley also described paganism as “an institutionalised cultural countertrend” – concepts he cribbed from Margaret Murray, Robert Graves and others. Although some British witchcraft groups of the time were referring to pre-Christian worship in Europe as ‘pagan’, the modern usage of ‘paganism’ seems to have arisen solely from Thornley, and was popularised by the Church of All Worlds and associated groups.
After 1963, Thornley’s life got even odder. The assassination of John F. Kennedy hit him particularly hard, as he had served in the Marines with Lee Harvey Oswald, and had been privy to discussions among right-wing extremists in New Orleans some years before regarding the feasibility of a presidential assassination. Further still, his girlfriend at the time was working as a secretary for New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison – and it was on Garrison’s copying machine that the first ever edition of the key Discordian text Principia Discordia was made in that same year. Garrison later went on to accuse Thornley of being the so-called ‘Second Oswald’ in his investigation into the JFK hit.
Meanwhile, the Church of All Worlds was evolving. Absorbing many influences, including some from the Discordian side of things, the Church was defining a set of beliefs which required no dogma – accepting various mythologies as having spiritual worth, including fictional ones – the Church once described science fiction as “the new mythology of our age”. The Church itself had grown from its initial group or ‘nest’ of 100 members to a dozen or so other nests across America, all with deep connections to the SF fan world and its parallel Renaissance Fair gatherings, which strove to create an authentic-seeming simulation of an idealised historical life. These nests were also connected by the official Church magazine, Green Egg, whose influence on neo-paganism was considerable.
Another influence that was rapidly absorbed into the Church’s combination of myths was a new TV show called Star Trek.
It’s hard to appreciate nowadays just how unusual Star Trek was at the time. It not only showed a relatively mature human society with non-white and non-male figures of authority, but also used the format which creator Gene Roddenberry had originally pitched as ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ to tell a series of socially relevant metaphorical tales. It also introduced a philosophical concept that influenced both the Church and my young self strongly: IDIC.
The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.
And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.
This idea – that there was everything to gain in the consideration and embrace of alternate meanings and perspectives, that difference is a treasure not a threat, became integral to the Church of All Worlds, who had been formally chartered as a religion in the United States – the first earth-based faith so recognised – on 4 March 1968, a few months before the episode aired.
There’s a certain combination of both irony and aptness in this, as IDIC was created by Roddenberry and inserted into that episode for one reason: not to stimulate non-dualistic philosophies or to symbolically question the unstable status quo of the 1960s – but to try and sell a range of licensed IDIC merchandise.
Holy Books of Hyper-real Religions
The Church of All Worlds, the IDIC philosophy and Discordianism are all good examples of a concept which, though not defined until the early 21st century, is worth noting here as it begins to become manifest: that of ‘hyper-real religion’.
As I noted in my Darklore Volume 8 article “Believing In Fiction”, the term hyper-real religion draws on the work of the sociologist Adam Possamai. Possamai considers that, in a postmodern, late-capitalist world, religious inspiration and even belief systems drawn from pop fiction can be as valid to its adherents as any orthodox faith.
As Possamai puts it…
…in this consuming world, the individual becomes his or her own authority; the postmodern person in the West no longer tolerates being told what to believe and what to do…he or she is faced with a proliferation of ‘spiritual/religious/philosophical knowledges’, which he or she researches and experiences.
This personal seeking for truth has manifested in a variety of ways. For some, it allows them to find new and vivid metaphors for their existing beliefs. A fine example can be seen in the murals of the Buddhist White Temple of Chiang Rai in Thailand: they combine renditions of traditional Buddhist and folk deities with many pop culture images, including the starship Enterprise, Spider-Man and Neo from The Matrix.
For others, it can give them the chance to move beyond the beliefs of their kin and tribe to find other beliefs (or, of course, to reject belief as a concept entirely). It can also bring some people to find or even create a whole new range of faiths, based on the stories they find within pop culture.
From the 1960s, with its rise in paperback books of both fiction and non-Western belief systems, a resurgence of the comic book industry and the rise of popular cinema and television, there were so very many stories to choose from.
Science fiction at the end of the Sixties and start of the Seventies was in a very different place than at the start of the Fifties. Key works exploring beliefs and social structures had risen to popularity: a major example being the celebrated Frank Herbert novel Dune (1964) and its sequels. This vast tale of a religious power struggle between a galactic empire and the decidedly Islamic-influenced desert dwellers of the eponymous planet Dune, which was the sole source of the mind-altering ‘Spice’ which allowed both interstellar travel and precognition, found a home on the shelves of many of those who were also reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the mystical non-fiction books of the time.
It also, quite by accident, gave modern occultism one of its most powerful spell-mantras: ‘The Litany Against Fear’ (I’ve lost count of how many times I have used this mantra, and it works every damn time):
I must not fear.
Fear is the Mind-Killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
The Sixties had also seen a rise of newer voices in SF, talking about aspects the heavily hard science and engineering-oriented fans and writers had often neglected. Authors such as Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delaney were producing works that critically examined their culture, as well as exploring gender, sexual and racial identities, in a science fiction context. Le Guin also wrote the Earthsea fantasy series, which won the hearts of many people who would later find a connection to paganism. Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs were exploring SF themes in combination with harsh perspectives informed both by the counterculture drug scene and mysticism, and the New Wave in SF, led by the prolific author Michael Moorcock in his British magazine New Worlds, was bringing in both new perspectives and new fans – many of them with roots deep in the counterculture.
Comic books in the Sixties – especially at Marvel Comics under the watch of creators such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – were pushing the boundaries of what the four-colour funnybooks could do. They introduced characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, using them to tell metaphorical stories about the boundaries of science and the struggles of being considered different in a society which mostly treasures conformity. And, with books like Doctor Strange and The Mighty Thor, magic and pagan gods also found their place on the newsstands.
Science fiction cinema was also changing: inventive SF films such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and the French New Wave entries Alphaville (1965) by Jean-Luc Goddard and the Francois Truffaut-helmed adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1966 were far from the B-movies of the previous decade. 1968 saw the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Stanley Kubrick took Arthur C. Clarke’s original tale of a humanity manipulated since prehistoric times by advanced aliens and produced a solemn and beautiful masterpiece of the imagination – one which the counterculture took to its heart after it was cleverly marketed under the slogan ‘The Ultimate Trip’.
It also produced one of the oddest film-to-comic-book adaptations of all time, when Jack Kirby took the story and ran with it to the psychedelic realms familiar to readers of Doctor Strange and other Marvel books. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Kirby, a gruff ex-marine and hard drinker, was known to never use either cannabis or entheogens, but could still create comic pages such as those shown below.
The Next Generation
Science fiction fandom was also developing by leaps and bounds. In both the U.S. and the U.K., fan conventions and small-circulation amateur magazines known as Fanzines were drawing in people from all walks of life – and the mix of counterculture interests which marked groups such as the Church of All Worlds made for a place where different types of people could mix freely.
Star Trek fandom, for example, was strongly inclusive; embracing the IDIC philosophy, it was often a place where people with many different outsider spiritual, sexual and other interests could meet and share perspectives. It was Trek fandom which first produced the heavily sexualised romantic fan stories which became known as Slash Fiction – where fans would set their imaginations to consider romantic encounters between the characters they enjoyed. The first of these were a series of vigorously described sexual scenes between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, which became known as K/S. As other pairings were explored, the slash between the initials became the term for the subgenre.
The early Seventies, in many ways a retreat from the giddy optimism and cultural meshing of the 60s, continued a lot of the themes of the SF and fantasy outpourings of the time, though often with a bitter, cynical twist. British TV writers who had cut their teeth on Doctor Who produced shows such as Doomwatch, an explicitly ecologically-minded show which tackled themes of pollution and uncontrolled scientific experimentation, and the vicious post-plague-apocalyptic dystopia, Survivors.
Seventies British TV, especially children’s programming, had some remarkable SF and fantasy ideas, ranging from the teenage wish-fulfilment of The Tomorrow People and Sky, to pagan and occult-tinged works such as Ace of Wands, The Changes and Children of the Stones, all of which drew many viewers into their first encounters with pagan ideas.
In 1975, the SF book world received the latest and most explicit manifestation of Kerry Thornley’s association with the Heinlein-influenced American libertarian and pagan movements. Back in ’68, Thornley had met a young Playboy letters page editor who was becoming increasingly involved with the counterculture scene and, especially, conspiracy theory. He was such an enormous Heinlein fan that he had changed his middle name from George to one which was a single letter away from Heinlein’s middle name of Anson – becoming known as Robert Anton Wilson.
With fellow Playboy editor Robert Shea, Wilson set out to produce a massive satirical SF novel of both modern America and, especially, its post-Kennedy obsession with conspiracies. Thornley’s friendship brought Discordianism into the mix – the dogma-rejecting influence of the Church of All Worlds (of which he was a member) fascinated Wilson especially, and he set about not only co-writing the novel, but deliberately changing his own consciousness in regards to both belief and consensus reality, using a combination of techniques derived from his friendship with counterculture figures such as Bill Burroughs, Alan Watts and Timothy Leary. All of this became part of the story.
That novel, delayed for some years in publication, was called Illuminatus! and its impact was strongly felt in the counterculture. Wilson’s autobiographical follow-up to Illuminatus! three years later, Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati – telling of his personal experiments in multi-model perspectives on belief and occultism – appeared, in a striking example of Charles Fort’s ‘Steam Engine Time’, at the same historical moment as a group of experimental occultists working in London and Leeds were developing a multi-model approach to magic which would come to be known as ‘chaos magic’.
1975 also saw the publication of a collection of short stories by Harlan Ellison, called Deathbird Stories. Subtitled A Pantheon of Modern Gods, this collection was grouped around the idea that the old gods were being replaced by newer gods: deities born from electricity and city, the machinery of slot machines and the horrors of drug abuse and social isolation. Although Ellison is a staunch atheist, his poetic visions planted the seed in many readers of the possibility that the modern age was evolving modern gods to fit it.
The science fiction cinema of the Seventies produced a lot of strong works, often with paranoid or dystopian themes, such as 1973’s Westworld and Soylent Green and the ecologically-minded Silent Running (1972), directed by 2001’s special effects designer Douglas Trumbull – but these were only modest box office successes. It wasn’t until 1977 that SF and fantasy combined in a truly game-changing cinematic form, and one which lead to a vast shift in the hyper-real belief stakes.
The runaway success of Star Wars, with its stunning special effects and revival of the spirit of the 1930s serials – an ironic side-effect of George Lucas being unable to secure the rights to a Flash Gordon reboot – not only gave viewers a hell of a good time at the pictures, it also provided a new spiritual metaphor: a Joseph Campbell-influenced syncretic mix of the 1960s’ Westernised versions of Eastern beliefs and a revival of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril – ‘The Force’.
Star Wars led to many imitators, most of which were not as successful – although one of these, the TV show Battlestar Galactica, would later be rebooted into a show which would examine the nature of the soul in artificial intelligences in a striking manner. Star Wars’ success did, however, open the doors for other SF films to be made which went beyond its space-opera form. The early Eighties brought two superb examples: the Philip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner (1982), and Altered States (1980) – a science fiction exploration of the burgeoning interest in psychedelic mysticism. Both these films explored complex questions of the soul in a visually striking and serious manner.
Paganism was developing greatly, also. 1979 saw the publication of two massively influential books: The Spiral Path by Starhawk and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down The Moon – the latter including a detailed history of the Church of All Worlds, which was continuing to thrive. Both of these emphasised the importance of feminist influences on paganism, and were in turn influential on a book which was the introduction to pagan concepts for a whole generation – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 novel, The Mists Of Avalon.
Bradley, a practicing Wiccan, brought her beliefs – especially their feminist aspects – to this retelling of the Arthurian mythos, and it also led to a resurgence of interest in fantasy fiction.
Parallel with this rise in paganism was the appearance of chaos magic, which drew partly on the Discordian influences in Robert Anton Wilson’s work and elements of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy fiction. This decidedly post-modern approach to magic, with its rejection of dogma and even the very idea of belief itself as being anything more than a tool in the sorcerer’s hands, would in turn find an enthusiastic audience and go on to influence later fantasy fiction, especially in the subgenre of ‘Urban Fantasy’.
Rise of the Neuromancers
Although well accounted-for in popular visual media, SF literature by the eighties was starting to feel a little stale, possibly as a result of TV and film plundering the genre’s back catalogue for ideas. Partly following on from the punk rock rebellion against the old guard of rock music, but mostly inspired by the rise of the pervasive new communications technology called the Internet, a group of young writers broke the mould with a movement called Cyberpunk.
The breakthrough works of cyberpunk – William Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash – were both concerned, as SF always is, with reflecting the concerns of their time. The rise of corporate power, ecological damage and the role of the individual in an increasingly connected world were examined through a glass very darkly. Both took on elements of pagan and other non-Christian belief: Gibson’s trilogy involved the rise of artificial intelligences which took on the persona of the Voodoo Loa, and Snow Crash is, among other things, a retelling of the Babylonian Inanna myth beloved of many feminist pagans. In turn, these books were to directly influence the people who built the World Wide Web as we know it.
Science fiction fans have always had a tendency towards neophilia – Robert Anton Wilson’s term for those who enjoy and pursue novelty – and as a result, tend to be early adopters of new technology. A majority of the communications engineers who built the internet were avid fans – and, because of the overlapping interests we’ve seen earlier, they had a tendency to be interested in alternative political and religious systems. Subsequently, the early bulletin boards skewed heavily towards the interests of fans and pagans alike.
Cyberpunk and the rise of the internet was also a major influence on a new movement known as technopaganism. Taking elements from both neo-pagan and modern occult beliefs and combining them with the network-oriented models that are the basis of the internet – as well as a healthy dollop of Wilson’s multi-model approach – technopaganism was a modern, hyper-real angle on belief, magical praxis and how those can integrate with technology as readily as with the biological world.
Although fantastic fiction has always had its fans, most people don’t pursue that interest deeply and it’s previously been a minority interest, even in times where the genre has done well financially. This is partly because of their outsider status – the perennial war between ‘jocks’ and ‘nerds’ – but another factor was the difficulty of participation. Hand-made fanzines and traveling to rare conventions required connections, time and money. With the rise of the internet and personal computing, entry costs plummeted. As a result, fans began to more easily find their tribes: these became less geographically located and more international in scope, allowing the West to discover the delights of Japanese anime and manga. Major works such as Akira (1988) and Ghost In The Shell (1995) found enthusiastic audiences, and in turn came to influence cyberpunk and other SF.
Falling for Fantasy
Another fiction which inspired many people into their first discovery of the possibilities of paganism was the 1984 arrival of the British show Robin of Sherwood, created by Richard Carpenter, who had previously explored the crossover of SF and fantasy with the children’s series Catweazle, the tale of an 11th century hedge-witch transported to the 1970s. Carpenter’s retelling of the Robin Hood myth was unafraid to embrace a darker version of the tale – for example its Will Scarlet, played by a young Ray Winstone, was a traumatised sociopath – but it was especially innovative in its consideration of Robin Hood as a pagan figure. Key to this was Herne the Hunter: a combination of the Cernunnos myth with the legend of its namesake, Herne was shown to be an English version of a shaman, possessed by the Horned God and sent to guide Robin to serve the common folk of Albion. Despite vicious retaliation by the likes of Mary Whitehouse and other Christian fuddy-duddies who were aghast at this heathen display on children’s programming, the show ran for three seasons.
Other popular British fantasy works which were especially inspiring to many young proto-pagans and magicians were the novels of two sadly now-deceased British writers: Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.
Although Jones’s work is less well-known, she is a beloved influence among many fantasy writers – including Pratchett, whose popular Discworld books were once the most shop-lifted books in Britain, and Neil Gaiman, with whom Pratchett would collaborate on the apocalyptic comedy novel Good Omens (1990). Their works led to many readers feeling their first stirrings of an interest in paganism, and even hyper-real religious manifestations. (Gaiman once told me of an attempt by an American pagan group to replicate the spell to capture the incarnation of Death shown in Sandman’s first issue.) While Jones, Pratchett and Gaiman were not necessarily pagans or occultists themselves, they certainly had many friends and acquaintances in British fandom who were. The deep mythology of Pratchett’s Discworld, with its Eight Colours of Magic and no-nonsense approach to both magic and the gods, was also readily absorbed into chaos magic’s toolbox.
Gaiman was heavily involved in a decidedly more adult shift in comic books, coming to fame as part of the DC Comics British Wave of the late 80s and early 90s, which brought writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison to a huge readership. Works such as Sandman, Hellblazer, Doom Patrol and From Hell did not shy away from pagan and magical concepts, expressed in far more explicit terms than the medium had previously seen. These books were reaching a wider audience thanks to the publishing phenomenon of repackaging monthly issues of comics into omnibus editions called ‘graphic novels’, which were more easily sold in regular bookshops.
The 1990s provided strong showings for SF and fantasy television, which would be influential not only within the genre but in television production generally. The rise of internet fandom and the availability of first VHS, and then DVD versions of shows, gave fans a chance not only to discuss their favourite series but watch them again at any time, and thus examine them in more detail, allowing fandoms to explore shows in a new, deeper way. Many significant series were aired: ranging from the occult surrealism of Twin Peaks, the Star Trek revivals of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, The X Files – with its innovative serialisation, deep internal mythology and drawing on the UFO and Fortean fringes which have always interested fandom – and a heavily serialised space series with a complex spiritual perspective, one of the first true Novels For Television, whose creator was an early internet adopter: Babylon 5.
All these series explored familiar SF themes of societal change due to technological and extra-terrestrial influence, and the possibility of human transcendence to higher states of being – these in turn influenced the rising technological secular belief in Transhumanism and the Singularity – the so-called ‘Rapture of the Nerds’. Although a majority of transhumanists tend to be atheists, there are also the Grinders – DIY transhumanism enthusiasts and theorists who not only often borrow freely from technopagan concepts, but took their name from a comic book: Warren Ellis and Ivan Rodriguez’s Doktor Sleepless.
Another show of the time which gained a great deal of love from the pagan and magical subcultures was Buffy The Vampire Slayer, whose lesbian witch Willow Rosenberg became an inspiration to many viewers who were questioning both their parents’ belief systems and their own sexuality.
A new and influential literary subgenre arising at the time was that of Urban Fantasy: stories which take magical elements and place them in recognisable modern environments, often with elements of romance. Ranging from one end with the monster-hunting post-Buffy warrior women typified in Laurel K. Hamilton’s ‘Anita Blake’ series, to noirish, less sexy works such as former Hellblazer scribe Mike Carey’s ‘Felix Castor’ books, magic and its application in the modern world gained a whole new range of metaphors to inspire mystically-minded fans. Many of their authors are openly pagans or magicians.
As the end of the twentieth century loomed, many works were caught up in its implications: Grant Morrison, already a practicing magician, deliberately set in motion an act of post-modern magic by encoding both chaos techniques and autobiographical elements in his apocalyptic comic series The Invisibles, which in turn (alongside anime such as Akira) would strongly influence a film which was the most successful and influential of 1999’s many Gnostically-tinged movies: The Matrix.
Indeed, 1998 and 1999 saw several films with an almost Phil-Dickian theme of Your Reality Isn’t Real. Although The Matrix was the most popular, there were many others such as Pleasantville, Being John Malkovich, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor and my own favourite, Dark City (which includes one of the best magical combat scenes in cinema). These films offered receptive viewers a strong hint that their consensus reality was not that much of a consensus and not necessarily all that real either.
And, of course, there was Harry Potter.
J.K. Rowling’s runaway success set publishing and the associated media ablaze: like Star Wars before it, it inspired a lot of imitators and also opened the way for movies to invest more heavily in fantasy works. Between the rise of what’s become known as Young Adult fiction and expensive adaptations such as The Lord of the Rings and its like, we’re still feeling the effects of that.
The awaited apocalypse at the end of 1999 didn’t come, of course – and 2001 was hardly a space odyssey. Instead, we got 9/11, and a resurgence in the Clash of Civilisations us-or-them narratives between monotheist extremists. But 2001 also saw a decidedly hyper-real religious development.
In that year, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada undertook a national census, the first in which those surveyed were asked to state their religion. In the U.K. and Australia in particular, there was an enthusiastic internet-based campaign to encourage people to claim Jedi Knight as their religion of choice.
This was a remarkable success: 390,000 U.K. citizens and over 70,000 Australians were now, officially, members of the Jedi faith. These figures made Jedi Knight the fourth largest religion in the United Kingdom – far ahead of Judaism and all of the non-Mosaic Eastern faiths and considerably higher than the number of either Pagan or Scientology adherents. Of course, many of those claiming Jedi as their faith probably did so ironically, but many meant it – as many have since they first learned of The Force. And, after receiving a substantial amount of publicity as a result, the wider public awareness of what was now becoming known as Jediism grew. It wasn’t alone.
Online fandom’s crossover with pagan beliefs exploded with the rise of social media, especially on Tumblr. Pop culture magic was starting to be discussed openly, and many young fans not only found apt metaphors in their favourite shows, stories and comics, but developed belief systems directly based on them. Hyper-real paganism was growing in the realisation that for a great many people, to use the title of Christopher Knowles’ 2007 consideration of comic books as modern mythology, ‘our gods wear spandex’.
The immense popularity of superhero-based films, especially the Marvel Comics movie series, has only expanded this tendency. We can now see Lee and Kirby’s half-century-old inspirational characters on the big screen, with state-of-the-art special effects and leading actors in the roles. The new pagan fans of these incarnations of the gods (especially, for some reason, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki) are enthusiastic and innovative. Others take inspiration from TV shows such as the long-running series Supernatural, with its drastically reimagined mythological deities.
Further still, some fans take their fictional or personal mythos so deeply to heart that they believe their souls are not human, but creatures of myth. These ‘Otherkin’, as they are known, have developed a robust hyper-real belief set of their own – ironically, one divided bitterly between those who hold that their soul is a generic entity (elf, wolf etc.), and those who believe they are a direct reincarnation of a fictional character, such as Neo from The Matrix or a wide variety of anime characters.
Among the highly profitable blockbusters, there has also been room for smaller movies which used modern effects combined with deeply mythic storytelling to give us profoundly moving spiritual works. Of those in recent years, ones I found especially affecting were the 2006 Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain, and the ultra-low-budget tale of clashing afterlife spirits influencing the mortal world, Ink (2009).
Magic and Myth in the Modern World
It’s an odd time for science fiction/fantasy literature in the midst of all these successful movies, however. SF/F is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with fandom as much a part of the media’s business plan as any other branch of advertising: remember that 50 Shades of Grey started life as a Twilight slash fiction. But, science fiction literature outside of young adult dystopian tales is struggling.
One reason for this is how very fast technological change is these days. We are living in what Warren Ellis has called ‘The Science Fiction Condition’: our world is now one where the technologies which would have been dreams of the future a mere decade or two ago are the actual concerns of our modern society. This makes writing SF, especially near-future stories, increasingly difficult, as a writer’s inventions can often be overtaken by reality between the writing and publishing of their book.
But the metaphors remain. Some are being revised and rebooted, such as the spandex gods of the comics. Others find new forms of expression which still say something about our times. Post 9/11 surveillance society, and strides in artificial intelligence research, for example, have led to the brilliant U.S. television series Person Of Interest, which combines those themes with an exciting action format to consider the role of humans in a world of warring A.I. gods – not bad for prime time American TV.
Science fiction and fantasy’s influence upon paganism and magic have always been a matter of symbiosis. Paganism as we know it sprang from a combination of influences, both historical and fictional – and has, in return, influenced those fictions. Much of modern paganism has a tendency to look to the past – the trend towards reconstruction of older belief systems has grown over the years; its adherents have a somewhat hardline attitude to systems that partake of popular culture. There are many pagan writers who passionately espouse the idea that the modern technological world is somehow not part of nature and must be rejected or ‘rewilded’ in part or whole – a romanticised bucolic perspective which, frankly, seems to me more like a Renaissance Fair than a true picture of our rural past.
This is more than ironic – it’s a rejection of the very origin of neo-paganism, born as it was from fans recontextualising the concepts portrayed in Heinlein’s books, Star Trek and other SF works. It also defies much of that which makes us human…always the perennial subject of science fiction. Although one can’t deny that many aspects of our late-capitalist world are perilous and harmful, to retreat from it completely denies us our most powerful tools – and our species’ use of tools, especially language, symbols and stories, are the core aspect of our development.
And, if anyone doubts that hyper-real religion is becoming increasingly accepted, I would note this 2014 news item. A Cardiff man died of cancer, and his funeral involved a rather special honour guard… of Imperial Stormtroopers.
Fan-based weddings are also increasingly common. If a fiction can play a role in our most important rituals of life and death, can it be truly said to be less than any other belief?
I feel the new, pop-culture-informed hyper-real beliefs have an important role to play in not only approaching the powers and gods of this world, but in demonstrating that human imagination itself is the most basic, powerful form of magic there is. We have a whole generation of smart, passionate and engaged young people who grew up with the internet and mass media, and have found myths that closely matched their truths, that – like for Lance Christie and Stranger in a Strange Land – bring that ‘ecstatic sense of recognition’. The old gods simply do not speak to them as clearly as Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, Sam and Dean Winchester and Tiffany Aching.
As one anonymous pop culture pagan put it, speaking to those old gods and their worshippers:
You say they’re only characters.
You say they’re not real.
But where were you when I needed to grow?
Where were you when I needed to believe?
Where were you when I was dying?
Who saved my life?
Because it wasn’t you.
They’re more than fiction.
They were there for me even if they weren’t real.
They were there when you weren’t.
They’re more than you think they are.
I can only hope that all believers – in gods old, new and both – can find a way in these turbulent and uncertain times to learn from each other, to treasure each other’s differences, to find Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination…and that we may all Live Long and Prosper.