Pagan themes have been a ready source of inspiration for popular culture for decades, providing mythic heroes, sinister occultists, and enduring symbols in every genre of entertainment. But rarely has any inspiration been so widely used and so widely misunderstood. Join us for thoughts, criticism, and commentary on the intersection of Paganism and popular culture.
Quick! Turn into a Bear!
I was born into Wicca, and for the most part, that's where I have stayed. I celebrate the sabbats and the esbats with my family coven, Pleiades, just as I have since I was a boy. But I have been curious about other religions, especially others that fall into the umbrella of “Pagan,” since I was eight or nine, and thanks to the magpie ethics of eclecticism, I've been quite happy to sample what those other paths had to offer. I studied Taoism in the 4th grade, had a Kemetic period in high school, and today study a little bit of Kaballah (Thelemic and otherwise.) But there's one brand of Paganism I don't think I could ever try, much less commit myself to, even though I have friends who follow it and recommend it to me.
I'm afraid I could never be a Druid.
This may seem unusual. If you're into the Pagan community at all, you've probably heard plenty of nice things about Druids. Alaric Albertsson, Llewellyn author, member of the prominent Druidic organization Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), and all-around swell guy, says he thinks Druidry is the future of Paganism. Well, I bloody hope not.
Why, you might ask.
Because after you master the first nine circles of Druidic practice, you have to start fighting people. People who can turn into bears and summon firestorms. I just don't think I'm cut out for that.
It's true! It's right there in the Handbook, page 21:
“At such time as a druid class player character attains experience points sufficient to advance him or her to Druid (12th level), the corresponding powers are gained only:
1. If there are currently fewer than nine other characters of Druid level, or
2. The player character bests one of the nine Druid level characters in spell or hand-to-hand combat. If the combat is not mortal, the losing combatant drops the exact number of experience points necessary to place him or her in the beginning of the next lower level.”
What, are you going to argue with Gary Gygax?
* * *
Obviously, I'm not really confused about the difference between what Pagans think of as Druids – either of the ancient Celtic school or the modern breed – and the fantasy depiction to be found in Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and many other properties. They're two very different things that happen to share the same name.
But they are, none the less, rooted in the same inspiration. It says so right there, in the aforementioned AD&D Players Handbook, page 21 again: “Druids can be visualized as medieval cousins of what ancient Celtic sect of Druids would have become if they survived the Roman conquest.” Particularly in this early incarnation, the fantasy druid draws quite a bit on things we would still associate with Druidry: they hold holly and mistletoe sacred, they revere the natural world, and they protect forests and wild places from the encroachment of civilization.
And they turn into bears and summon firestorms. That too.
The AD&D Players Handbook was published in 1978. In the decades since, the Druid has remained a staple of that game, which has had incredible influence on popular culture. As a result, many fantasy worlds include Druids, mostly shorn of Gygax's nods towards history and with greater emphasis placed on their fantastic powers, especially shape shifting, which has become the most famous trope associated with Druids.
Google the word “Druid” and the first page will be an even split between historical druids and advice on playing a Druid character in World of Warcraft. Given that game's monumental player base, most of the developed world probably thinks of a “Druid” as a Night Elf who specializes in heal-over-time spells. Perhaps the thought of an ancient Irish Pagan comes up too, somewhere, but it's certain to be hidden beneath popular culture's conception of a nature-empowered shape shifter.
* * *
This isn't a unique story. Pagan themes have inspired – or, more cynically, have been repeatedly looted in order to produce – an incredible amount of art, literature, games, and other pieces of culture. The process has gone on for centuries, and has exploded in the past few decades with the hyperspeed production of popular culture. The Avengers, this year's biggest blockbuster, revolved around the rivalry between the Norse gods Loki and Thor. In the revival of the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, the human characters call their deities by Greek names. Even Risk, the board game, has a variation, Godstorm, which recasts the struggle as being between ancient Pagan empires and their gods.
And the question, to me, is this: what does that mean to those who call themselves Pagans? Few religious groups see themselves so often in the wider culture, and few are more misrepresented.
That's what this blog is about. I'll be looking at movies, literature, games, and other aspects of the geek and popular cultures through a Pagan lens. There's plenty of ground to cover, and I'm looking forward to examining how some of the biggest names in pop culture relate to modern Paganism – and maybe introducing you to a few works you might not have seen before.
It should be an interesting ride. I hope you stick around for it!
(P.S. Hey, ADF? Let me know how that turning-into-a-bear thing is coming along. I feel like there's real growth potential there.)
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