“I think that storytelling and creation are very close to the center of what magic is about. I think not just for me, but for most of the cultures that have had a concept of magic, then the manipulation of language, and words, and thus of stories and fictions, has been very close to the center of it all. I mean in some senses, all of humanity’s gods, since Paleolithic times, are in some senses a fiction. That is not meant to disparage the entities in question, because I hold fiction in a very special regard. I think that some fictions almost have, well a life of their own in a very special sense. The actual word itself, language itself, to me seems to be the primal technology.” – Alan Moore
Whenever I find a blog that deals with spiritual issues in a profound way, it gets added to my blogroll. I noticed the other day that the blogroll is heavily weighted towards people who write deep, searching philosophical posts about the nature of God and the meaning of life. I also noticed that I generally don’t do that. I still probably won’t do that much, but it did get me thinking about why I don’t do something that I enjoy watching other people do.
I chose to answer the Difficult Question about how I see the gods in a literal way. I wrote about the ways the gods manifested themselves in my life and how they make themselves known. I know there is another way to read that question; “how I see the gods” can also be asking “what I believe to be the nature of the gods.” I chose not to answer that question because it’s even more difficult than answering the question literally. I’m a little bit afraid to answer that other question because the answer is deeply complicated and I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge. I don’t usually let that stop me in other things, so I‘m not going to let it stop me here. Onward I go.
The utilitarian aspect I mentioned, the idea of seeking validation through finding what works, is central to how I approach the gods. I don’t usually stop to question whether what I practice is “real.” Does magic work? Do the gods exist? These questions seem meaningless to me. Magic does pretty much what I need it to do. The gods are there when I reach out for them. Arguments based in logic and reason are fun exercises, but they don’t have much to do with what I actually experience, and so I don‘t engage in them very often. They seem to go nowhere and have no particular use in the task at hand, if the task at hand is to make a divine connection. You can’t reason God into existence, the way atheists will reason him out of existence. It’s the wrong tool for the job.
Humans think in stories. We can’t help it; whatever happens, we cast it in our heads as a story. The newspaper is full of “stories” and no journalist who expects to get paid will let the facts get in the way of writing a good story. Our lives are, essentially, stories we tell ourselves. I’m casting this here as a feature of humanity, but it also very well might be a feature of the Universe. Or a feature of the gods.
One of the biggest sources of amazement and wonder for me is what the philosophers call the “problem of other minds.” I know that I hold universes inside my head. A whole life of experiences and ideas, an enormous amount of knowledge, beliefs, and random facts, and that’s just a small part of it. There are other lives in there as well. I could tell you all about life in Midde Earth, or on Pern. I have relationships with people who never existed.
I have multiple images of myself, multiple ideas of self – me at work, me at home, my presence here on this blog, me with one set of friends, me with another set of friends, me absorbed in book, me in meditation, me dreaming – these are all myself and yet they all relate to the world in different ways. Then there are other selves – the ideal self I wish I could be, the dream self who goes off and rides dragons on the planet Pern, the future self that I hope someday to be – and then there are all the images of me that the people who come into contact with me have. I guarantee that the Me that my sister knows is not at all the same person as the Me my husband knows, yet both people know me very well.
So, there I am – unimaginably complex. And there are nine billion others in the world who are just as complex. Everyone has multiple selves, ideas, dreams, fantasies, and most of these are completely out of reach for me. I will only ever know the tiniest fraction of another person, just as other people can only ever know the tiniest fraction of me. The only way I can know that little fraction is through language, and the only way I can share internal space with someone is through stories. I only imagine riding a dragon, but there are thousands of other people who read those same books and came up with their own dragons to ride. Stories are miracles.
Stories can also change our lives in an instant. Am I a bored office worker who tries to enliven her essentially meaningless existence by pretending to be a druid? That’s one story someone could tell about me, if they wanted to be unpleasant. Am I an intelligent, capable woman with diverse interests, who expresses her deep connection to the natural world, spirituality, and ancient history through the practice of Druidry? That’s the story I tell myself, and it’s true for me. If I decided to believe that other story, the one about meaninglessness, my life would become dramatically worse. My life would be dramatically transformed if I chose to believe that other story. So, why would I believe it?
I wouldn’t, of course. When I meet other people, I want them to believe my story as well, because stories gain power when more people believe in them. If everyone in my life thinks that I am delusional, then my own sense of mental competence is diminished and I have to fight much harder to maintain it. It’s one of the reasons I just don’t discuss my spirituality with people who would be inclined to misunderstand it. If everyone around me sees me as a strong, capable and intelligent, then I become stronger, better and smarter. It’s magic.
I was sixteen when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman started coming out. I remember my first encounter with the Sandman vividly. I was being fitted for my first pair of contact lenses, at an optician’s in the mall. They had to give me those eye drops that dilate the pupils. When I have those I can’t read. I can see the letters on the page but they make no sense to me. I had to wait, for some reason, with my pupils still dilated, so I went over to the comic book shop next to the optician’s. I thought I could at least look at the pictures. The first thing I picked up was Sandman #1. I looked at all the pictures and wondered what could possibly be happening; it was amazing. I had never been interested in comic books before because I considered them juvenile, and of course being 16, I didn’t want to be mistaken for a juvenile. This, though, was obviously something quite different. I bought it, and every other issue after that every month for the entire run of the story. I read a Sandman a month through my entire adolescence and young adulthood.
The Sandman, for those who don’t keep up with comic books, is the King of Dreams. He lives in the realm of the Dreaming, the place of all dreams and fantasies and fictions and archetypes. He rules over that part of us that makes things up. He is one of seven Endless, a sort of pantheon, who rule over various aspects of the psyche and have interesting adventures. One of the things that got me about the Sandman was that he was a fictional character who was the god of fictional characters – I thought that sort of recursiveness was really neat, and it made me think about what it actually means to be fictional. If one of the defining characteristics of a fictional character is that he is fictional, does that give him a kind of reality?
Neil Gaiman was a protégé of Alan Moore. Where Gaiman banks on being the adorable, tousle-headed accessible genius (check out his blog), Moore is the scary hairy mad kind of genius. He looks like a wizard and writes comic books about magic. He takes this idea of the fictional god right to its logical conclusion. He is a devotee of the 1st century Asclepian snake god Glykon, a god that was almost certainly made up in the 1st century. Moore doesn’t worship Glykon in spite of his fictional nature, but because of it. He understands the magic of fiction, and he knows that “fiction” is not at all the same as “lie.”
The kinds of people who write magazine pieces about Moore seem to think this is a kind of put-on, a performance piece. I don’t, and I never did, and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear about Moore and Glykon. It makes complete sense to me. In a way, my gods are fictional as well. I read stories about them do practices designed to connect with them. If they show up when I do the practices, does that make them “real?” If I decide to add the Sandman to my pantheon, and he shows up when I call on him, what does that mean?
I tried, and I think failed, to say this in my other post – talking about reality and the gods at the same time is tricky. One story would be to say that they are not real and I am deluding myself. This story does me no good at all. Another story would be to say that the gods are real and powerful forces in my life. This story takes me all sorts of interesting places, and it works. Does the fact that I know it’s a story mean I don’t really believe in the gods? Well, no – it means that I believe in the story, and in the divine power of Story.