A new generation is taking on Doctor Who, Buffy, Steven Universe, and other pop culture figures to create a contemporary brand of spirituality.
When people bring up pagans and magick, they're usually either talking about Harry Potter or a group of hippies prancing outside under the moonlight. And nary the two shall meet.
But what if you did perform a ritual to ask Hermione Granger to help you with your homework? What if you had a shrine to Maleficient, or Cinderella's fairy godmother? What if you considered the Winchester brothers your spirit guides?
You may just be a pop culture pagan or magickian.
Magick, according to author Scott Cunningham, the go-to guy for Paganism 101, is "the movement of natural (but little understood) energies from the human body and from natural objects to manifest change," through spell-casting, rituals, divination, and many other means. Sometimes this is referred to as witchcraft, or spelt "magic" without the k, but the "k" is often used to differentiate it from stage magic, à la Copperfield, or fictional magic, à la Dumbledore.
Paganism is a set of belief systems and traditions that are often nature-centric and based on the worship of indigenous beliefs or historical gods and goddesses as diverse as Athena, Ishtar, and Osiris. These gods and goddesses are often referred to as deities.
"I had trouble feeling a personal connection with the idea of the traditional four elements, so I visualized them as the four members of Metallica and that solved my problem."
Though magick and paganism often overlap, they are subtly different: magick does not require subscribing to any particular religion, and some pagans do not actively practice magick as part of their spirituality.
While traditional magick and paganism tend to be rooted in the natural world—honouring the Sky, Sand, and Sea, having seasonal equinoxes as holy days, checking moon phases for the optimal spell-casting time—for a growing number of people, it's contemporary culture that speaks to their soul. This has led to the growth of pop culture magick and pop culture paganism.
Pop culture magick and paganism uses characters, setting, and imagery from books, movies, television, cartoons, comics, and other creative media as a basis for worship or witchcraft. For example, practitioners may build tarot decks based on the fictional surrealist newscast Welcome to Night Vale, explore the healing and magickal properties of the gems that make up the characters of the Cartoon Network hit Steven Universe, build shrines in honour of the trolls from the sprawling cult webcomic favourite Homestuck (whose video-game-as-creation-myth base seems tailor-made for pop culture magick), build resources for a faith based on the Elder Scrolls universe of Skyrim, commemorate holy days in Harry Potter's history, or connect with other practitioners in other fandoms.
A common entry way for pop culture spirituality is feeling disconnected from nature and finding better connection in art and media. "When I was first starting out, I had trouble feeling a personal connection with the idea of the traditional four elements, so I visualized them as the four members of Metallica and that solved my problem," pop culture magick practitioner and writer Emily Carlin told Motherboard.
"When I first decided I was gonna be a witch, I thought about deities and what place they would have in my practice. I researched different pantheons and none of them really clicked with me," said Jude Reich, whose Tumblr blog shares various magickal tidbits from beginner's guides to witchcraft to a sigil (magical symbol) to ensure your USB plug will fit on the first try. "Then, through Tumblr somehow, I saw that there was a branch of paganism based off of my favorite podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. And from that, I feel like my evolution as a pop culture pagan really started."
The term may seem new, but pop culture paganism can be traced at least as far back as Bollywood in the 60s and 70s. The (possibly pseudo) Hindu goddess Santoshi Maa mysteriously emerged as the "Goddess of Satisfaction" in India in the 60s as the subject of a handful of posts likely intended for marketing. When the Bollywood film Jai Santoshi Maa was released in 1975, she quickly gained an ardent following of millions of Hindus despite having no scriptural basis. Instead, they used the film as the basis for their rituals and lore.
Taylor Ellwood, writer and editor of 15 books and anthologies, including the two key texts about pop culture magick—Pop Culture Magick in 2008 and the Pop Culture Grimoire anthology, featuring writing from other prominent magickians such as Lupa and Patrick Dunn—had been inspired to explore paganism in the early 90s via the fantasy novel series Dragonlance. They didn't start experimenting with pop culture as a specific path till 1996, however, after exploring Chaos magick—a branch of magick that encourages experimentation and unorthodoxy.
"I spent the first three or so years of my practice just learning fundamental skills of magick from various occult books," Ellwood said. "What prompted me to start experimenting was reading some of Phil Hine's books on Chaos magick and also my own interest in pop culture. I got lots of ideas from my various pop culture interests and began to think about how I could turn those ideas into magical practices."
It took him over five years to start writing about his ideas and findings for pop culture magick. "I figured by writing about it, I could discover who else was interested in the topic," he said.
Interestingly, despite Chaos magick being a spark of inspiration for Ellwood's foray into pop culture magick, Ellwood notes that he's gotten some of the strongest resistance from Chaos magickians. "I remember sharing my ideas about pop culture magic with several chaos magicians I knew and being told it wasn't real magic, or that I was reinventing the wheel," he said.
"For those of us who grew up stewing in pop culture, using those ideas in magick seems only natural."
Ellwood, active on Tumblr himself, has noticed how that social network has beat out others in being a major vector of community and connection for pop culture magick.
"I honestly was surprised to find so many people on there who were actively doing pop culture magic, but also quite gratified," he says. "What it demonstrated to me is that pop culture magic is becoming more relevant, especially as younger people are getting into magic and looking for some systems that make sense and are relevant to them."
Tumblr's status as a major fandom hub lends itself to the fandom-esque energy that powers pop culture magick—a connection Carlin often speaks about in her work. "In both fandom and spirituality, people feel a deep personal connection between themselves and the object of their attention that makes their lives better," she told Motherboard. "It's that sense of connection and personal understanding that really makes both worthwhile—to me at least."
She also notes that young people's interests in technology make the draw to pop culture magick somewhat of a given. "For those of us who grew up stewing in pop culture, using those ideas in magick seems only natural," she said. "With the proliferation of smartphones and other internet connected devices, many people spend all day connected to the stream of pop culture—why wouldn't we want to harness that and use it to our advantage? Working with pop culture today is no different to us than connecting to the stories and legends of the past was to people in their day; what we now identify as myth was their pop culture at the time."
There has been some long-running controversy within the Pagan and magick community against pop culture magick and pop culture paganism, with many traditional practitioners arguing that fictional characters can never be as "real" as the conventional deities or nature, given that they are overtly man-made.
Even Carlin is hesitant to regard pop culture figures such as the Tenth Doctor of Doctor Who (who she considers her spirit guide) as gods in the same sense as Zeus, Kali, or Lilith.
"The way I see it, pop culture figures are essentially thoughtforms on the astral plane. The more energy we in the mundane world pour into them, the bigger and stronger they get in the astral," she says. "The entities that I call deities are generally very, very old and very, very strong—to the point that they can function entirely independently of the energies fed to them from people. I see pop culture figures as being lesser than deity in that they are still almost entirely dependent on the incoming energies from people for their existence. As such, while I might respect and even venerate a pop culture figure, I wouldn't worship it. To me worship requires a sense of subordination to the thing being worshiped that I just don't feel for pop culture figures."
There is a camp of practitioners exploring various theories around the creation of gods to explore the notion of pop cultural characters as full-on deities. Tumblr user travelingwitch elucidates the two main schools of thought around this—that we either "make our own gods," whether through necessity or through the notion that "everything exists" in multiple planes, or that we "perceive our own gods"—whether by traditional deities using pop culture figures as "masks" for their identities, or through divinely inspiring art and media that portrays their story and philosophy.
Christine Kraemer, in a piece for Pantheos in 2013, addresses the notion of thoughtforms and deities as she grapples with the tension between nature and pop culture-based spirituality. She notes that while some Pagans claim historicity as a marker for legitimacy, particularly with histories and lore that are very specifically tied to place, sometimes these historical ties can be just as questionable as that of fictional characters.
"Although I find myself sympathetic with Krasskova's argument, it hinges on the idea that there is a kernel of historicity at the heart of tales of Cu Chulain, Heracles, and Achilles," she writes. "Krasskova suggests that these heroes' historical existence gives them a tie to real-life communities that purely fictional characters cannot have. But I am skeptical, because as we know well, the relationship between the tales told of historical people and the historical reality often diverge wildly within even a few generations... Even in a post-Enlightenment era where we observe a line between fiction and fact that many ancient peoples did not, our 'history' is far more literary in content than we like to acknowledge."
For Liz H., another self-described pop culture pagan whose Tumblr is a mix of the spiritual, social justice, and silly, the question of whether the entities she worships are "real" or not may not necessarily matter.
"I haven't worked out yet whether or not the spirits I interact with are actually movie characters or are based on them taking their forms and identities for some unknown reason," she told Motherboard. "If the latter, then these are very good impersonator spirits; if the former, then, well, I'm not fully sure what I'll do. It's not a question I've actually addressed, really, because at the end of the day the result and our relationships with each other remain the same regardless of which stance is true."
A clear distinction between pop culture magick or paganism and "conventional" magick or paganism is that in most cases, the creator of the original story is still alive and traceable—which means that they may also have strong opinions about their work being used for spiritual means. The question of what an author would do if they found out their characters were being worshipped or used in magick rituals is one that comes up a lot in the community, although few authors have expressed an opinion.
Ellwood said that he hasn't noticed a lot of responses from authors, citing British sci-fi author Storm Constantine as an exception, since he had worked with Ellwood on developing a system of magic around his Wraeththu series.
While authorial intent still matters with pop culture magick,with certain authors warning against pop culture magickians claiming that their interpretation of a character for spiritual practices is more real than the author's own concept of their characters, that does not necessarily pose a barrier for anyone's spirituality. Liz states that she tends to be private about her spiritual life, and thinks "there's something to be said for 'keep religion and politics out of polite conversation.'"
The question of whether the entities she worships are "real" or not may not necessarily matter
Ellwood contends that the fan response to characters is what keeps them viable for pop culture magick. Carlin draws a comparison to "shipping wars,"the intra-fandom arguments about relationships between their favourite characters, and points to majority rule. "Whatever it is that the most people agree upon and embrace is what becomes pop culture," he said. "For that reason, authorial intent isn't as important as it would be for something like literary interpretation. The meaning of art is in the eye of the beholder, and the creation of pop culture is in the hands of the masses. It's the ultimate in egalitarianism."
Whether or not pop culture magick and pop culture paganism are viable independent spiritual paths, a reworking of hero worship, or offshoots of other magickal traditions, there are myriad methods and reasons that people may draw power and strength from pop culture characters as spiritual mediums—and clearly, those paths are working well for them. "I see other pagans as doing the same things I do, just in a different way," Reich said. "We're accessing the same things, just taking different routes to get there."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Taylor Ellwood has written 11 books; he has written 15.