Royal Roads

I remember watching a lot of Star Trek while I was growing up—both TOS in syndication and then TNG when it came out. And I remember all the random space opera sci-fi of the ‘80s and ‘90s. I eventually came around to disliking the core conceits of Star Trek, and it was DS9 that showed me that the Federation and Starfleet were problematic as hell. And for as much as I also remember Star Wars, I also remember preferring Star Trek for a long time.

(There’s a difference between Trekker and Trekkie, you know.)

Of course, I imagined myself in that universe, having my adventures, fighting Gorn with makeshift found-on-the-ground munitions, and so on. As a kid, I could lose myself in those worlds.

I’ve since reversed that preference for Star Trek, though I retain nostalgic fondness for many parts of it. I’m not saying that Star Wars doesn’t have tons of problems, but you’re at least talking a core conceit of rebelling against Empire, and there’s a mode of mysticism that argues for everything being connected and enchanted, even if that mysticism is run through a predictably Western dualistic filter. In comparison, Star Trek is always about military or paramilitary expansion of colonialism and technocratic empire while branding itself as progressive and enlightening and even liberating, and Star Trek has consistently sought to squash the mystical in favor of materialism—even as psi-phenomena have a place, but almost always from within a materialist framework.

It’s never the soul: it’s genetics. And energy. And subspace fields.

As I got older, I switched mostly to Tolkien-derived fantasy and similar kinds of things. And now as a practitioner, I immerse myself in all kinds of messy mythical landscapes and their dramatis personae. Hell, most of the lore one winds up going through that’s attached to practice and practical enchantment comes with a bevy of fairy tales, Märchen, Kunstmärchen, Anti-Märchen, legends, myths, fiction, fan fiction, folklore, fabulation, misremembrances, romance, and more. The whole Solomonic arc founds itself in different takes on non-official takes on myth. And as I was reading Robert Lebling’s Legends of the Fire Spirits, I realized something.

Skin of the World

Have you read something—stories or even history, especially something that has a wondrous component to it? And have you ever felt that sudden sense like the walls pull away, and you can feel that world expanding out around you—can imagine the reality of jinn, of ents, of angels and saints and devils, of faeries, of kobolds, of UFO aliens giving you pancakes—and you feel that realness expand out around you—

For most folks, the experience of realness comes through religion in some way. The western magical tradition is in many ways grounded in an Abrahamic mythical reality and the sign systems and images associated with that reality. Carl Jung chronicles in The Red Book his own exploration of his personal unconscious and its connection to the Collective Unconscious, and he finds himself as a nominal “Christian” encountering gnostic, early Christian, and otherwise heavily biblical expressions of the archetypal forces he plumbs—including haunting himself. Jung’s Seven Sermons for the Dead he wrote in response to a haunting at his home that “began with a restlessness” but grew to include apparitions and ghostly phenomena and a chorus of the dead crying that they had “come back from Jerusalem where [they] found not what [they] sought,” and the incident only resolved itself once Jung began writing the Seven Sermons, laden with (heretical) Christian thought.[1]

The Western European imagination has been dominated by Christianity, and most pertinently a folk and local Christianity drawing on the Bible, local traditions and legends, survivals of pre-Christian (and maybe para-Christian) mythologies, engagement with the landscape, the dead, and various stories. The Golden Legend. The Divine Comedy. The Canterbury Tales. Paradise Lost. Faustbuch. Romances. Ghost stories and folk tales and more.

Most of my ancestors walked through a World Haunted by These Stories and simultaneously through a World Haunted by Spiritual and Other Denizens of the World Haunted by These Stories and the World of My Ancestors and Those Denizens. I make this tortured sentence not to draw a border between these worlds, but to call attention to how those worlds overlap—but they’re also really all just one world.

Or, perhaps, we live our day-to-day lives on the skin of the world. A life of overpriced café coffee, gig economies, and debt doesn’t require much depth, imaginally, perceptually, experientially, or emotionally. Indeed, you can handle most of that skin of the world existence through some kind of materialism.

But most everyone reading this believes in magic and spirits. Westerners have liked to divide our Starbucks world from some “deeper” spiritual world—I’ve certainly done it—or we bemoan how that spirit world, that Otherworld, was severed from us and a barrier erected. Most folks believe in life after death. An old 2014 CBS News poll claimed 75% of Americans believe in heaven or hell, 66% believe in both, and only 17% believe neither exists. Meanwhile, at least in 2005, per CBS again, half of Americans believed in ghosts, though only about a fifth admitted to encountering one. For as much as materialism and Cartesian dualism divorce the mental or ideational from the physical, and thus the spiritual from the material, the inescapability of mortality means that we still imagine our deaths and afterlives and those of others, perhaps more easily than a belief in angels and demons, and certainly more so than other beings.

But if we live on the skin of the world, the spiritual dimension—which has to include our own spiritual, mental, imaginal lives—the spiritual dimension must be something deeper but adjacent to us. And that mess of myth and legend and fabulation hold operative utility. Magical images have their potency. I’ve pointed to saintly icons and statues seeming to erupt into life and miraculous action. I’ve pointed to my own statues and icons inspiriting and animating. And there’s something we accept there in the use of religious and “obviously” magical imagery. After all, Athena is Athena. Saint Brigid is Saint Brigid. We accept that there’s some kind of power in such signs and images.

Sliding into the Depths

But then there are incidents like this one. During her interrogation by the Inquisition, one Renaissance woman named Isabella Bellocchio admitted to lighting “a holy lamp before a picture of the Devil on a tarot card…So that Milano [her lover] would come to [her].”[2] Now while of course the Devil has his power, the image of the Devil is highly variable, and there’s something to be said for how a particular tarot image of the Devil works in this regard. After all, Gareth Knight offers a quick descriptive bibliography of early tarot Devils.

Knight Tarot Devil 1

Knight Tarot Devil 2

Gareth Knight, Tarot and Magic: Images for Rituals and Pathworking (Rochester, VT: Destiny, 1991), 60-1.

What this descriptive bibliography shows is that Isabella’s choice of image—including, I would argue, the inspiration for trying to convince the Devil to help her—emerges in part in how the tarot deck she had access to depicted the Devil. And while that depiction arises from a particular culture in place and time, it also arises from a particular artist’s work.

And I fear most folks are too quick to be restrictive in how they define “magical image.” Folks can look at a chaos magic sigil, at a spirit seal, at a saint’s icon, at a hieroglyph, at a pentagram, or at a tarot card, and they can easily acknowledge that, yep, that’s a “magical image” of some kind. Hopefully, it’ll do something.

But here’s where I want to bring Kohn and Willerslev to bear. In considering the idea of “forest language” or “sylvan language,” Kohn looks at how shapes, how actions, how processes (and what is a story or myth but a description of processes and actions) can all convey meaning, can all require attention and interpretation. He terms this semiosis—the creation of meaning—and points to the example of cutting down a tree in order to trick a monkey into exposing itself:

Lowland Quichua has hundreds of “words” like ta ta, pu oh, and tsupu [words that are similar to what we’d call onomatopoeia in English, like bang and purr] that mean by virtue of the ways in which they sonically convey an image of how an action unfolds in the world. They are ubiquitous in speech, especially in forest talk…

A “word” such as tsupu is like the entity it represents thanks to the ways in which the differences between the “sign vehicle” (i.e., the entity that is taken as a sign, in this case the sonic quality of tsupu) and the object (in this case the plunging-into-water that this “word” simulates) are ignored. Peirce called these kinds of signs of likeness “icons.” They conform to the first of his three broad classes of signs.

As Hilario had anticipated, the sound of the palm tree crashing frightened the monkey from her perch. This event itself, and not just its before-the-fact imitation, can also be taken as a kind of sign. It is a sign in the sense that it too came to be “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” In this case the “somebody” to whom this sign stands is not human. The palm crashing down stands for something to the monkey. Significance is not the exclusive province of humans because we are not the only ones who interpret signs. That other kinds of beings use signs is one example of the ways in which representation exists in the world beyond human minds and human systems of meaning. The palm crashing down becomes significant in a way that differs from its imitation pu oh. Pu oh is iconic in the sense that it, in itself, is in some respect like its object. That is, it functions as an image when we fail to notice the differences between it and the event that it represents. It means due to a certain kind of absence of attention to difference. By ignoring the myriad characteristics that make any entity unique, a very restricted set of characteristics is amplified, here by virtue of the fact that the sound that simulates the action also happens to share these characteristics.

The crashing palm itself comes to signify something for the monkey in another capacity. The crash, as sign, is not a likeness of the object it represents. Instead, it points to something else. Peirce calls this sort of sign an “index.” Indices constitute his second broad class of signs.[3]

For the monkey, the tree falling is a falling tree, but the event of the tree falling also serves as an image of other falling trees that had been causes of concern and danger to the monkey. The monkey interprets this event—the image of those earlier events—as a sign that she needs to move. Of course, the monkey was tricked by the hunters, who used the monkey’s familiarity with that image to spur the monkey to expose herself so she could be shot.

In a similar manner, I’ve noted how Willerslev has pointed to how the Yukaghir shaman-hunters would use what Willerslev dubbed “mimesis” in order to use the image of the elk in order to become human-elk hybrids who could better approach prey-elk to hunt them. As I wrote:

What Willerslev describes isn’t mere camouflage or roleplaying, though. For a time, the shaman becomes something other than only-human, and while in this state, the shaman perceives a female elk as a beautiful human woman. He must then kill her while avoiding going off with her, which would lead to his death when she killed him. In Willerslev’s account, the hunter even hears her speak his language. For the Yukaghir, “the capacity to take on the appearance and viewpoint of another being is one of the key aspects of being a person.” Mimesis-as-animism entails “the ability to see similarities and invent correspondences with the surrounding world” in order to “imitate significant and powerful others not simply to represent them, but also to exercise power over them.” The shaman’s power comes not from the similarity they cultivate during the hunt—the elk shaman is not a “perfect copy” of an elk, for the power he wields comes via his difference—otherwise, similarity collapses “into each other…[and they] become one.”

I want to put these uses of a tarot deck, of monkey shenanigans, and mimetic shamanism into context with what I said earlier as I read Lebling’s book. That sense of the walls of normal awareness pulling away, the awareness of quotidian 21st century reality pulling away and the world expanding out around me, and in that larger reality, the super natural exists. The Devil lurks just beyond a tarot card. Beautiful elk women can lure hunters to their doom. Jinn are led into Jerusalem in chains. Faeries dwell underhill. The Isles of the Blest are just to the West.

And I’m reminded of the point that Gordon White made via Jeffrey Kripal via William James: “…they’re not embedded in our world. We’re embedded in their world.”[4] That’s what I’m getting at from my skin of the world metaphor. Stories, folklore, myth—immersing ourselves into those stories, to the point that the stories themselves suddenly come alive, animate, become real—that’s how we start to slide under the surface and into that deeper world.

I’m reminded again of Jung and his active imagination practice and how one engages with the Unconscious—which was also the source of Jung’s practice (that included him having to play spirit-speaker for the dead he worked with in channeling the Seven Sermons). As Joan Chodorow describes in her introduction to Jung on Active Imagination:

Another way to begin is to choose an image from a dream, vision or fantasy and concentrate on it. It might be a visual image, an inner voice, even a psychosomatic symptom. You can also choose a photo, picture or other object and concentrate on it until it comes alive. In German there is a word betrachten that means making something pregnant by giving it your attention. This special way of looking is reminiscent of a child’s experience when absorbed in symbolic play:

“looking, psychologically, brings about the activation of the object; it is as if something were emanating from one’s spiritual eye that evokes or activates the object of one’s vision…”[5]

Active imagination is a way to engage with our own inner soulscapes, or at least our own internalized unconscious expressions of the Unconscious. I feel wary of merely saying “inner,” though, or “internalized.” But because you are not separate from the Unconscious, from the larger spiritual reality of the world, your unconscious participates within that Unconscious—your inner spiritual action can bridge to the larger spirit world and to material reality.

But this way of engaging with and attending upon the world can go beyond our “purely” psychological action. Many folks probably need to engage in some kind of soul work, and depth psychology is one way to get at that (or all soul work is depth psychology, after a point). How do we start to slide under the surface and into that deeper world, though, beyond this work?

Haunt the landscape.

Or, your landscape is already haunted. Go pay attention to it. Go find the places pregnant with meaning in your community and countryside, and concentrate on them until they come alive. And just like active imagination requires that childhood sense of play, you have to give that landscape and whoever you find there the freedom to respond to you, to interact with you. Otherwise, if you’re just having hunky-dory conversations with flower fairies and the helpful ogre down the lane, then you’re probably just LARPing by yourself.

You see, that’s the thing. When I had my realization—that sense of the walls pulling away and the world expanding around me—a pregnant world of possible beings and jinn and fae and more around me—I had a sudden sense of vertigo. I’m not used to it, like that, in this lifetime. I also had the sense that I was recognizing this sense from other, similar occasions. And I had the sense that I probably wanted to rein in what I was doing at that point to avoid getting caught up in something, getting someone’s attention, and so on.

One of my allies basically put a hand out and said, “Steady on, now.”

But there was a sense of danger and potential and adventure. But also of the presence of the world.

I used to lie in bed late a night as a kid, trying to go to sleep. And I’d be bored and not tired, and I’d have a pencil. You see, I’d use the pencil to help do lines and shapes against the background, something to help me visualize scenes—so much Star Trek and far more ephemeral stuff about toys, but I’d build empires and arcs and stories there. But none of that ever had a sense of something other.

But I can feel—have felt—have written “stories” that amounted to me stepping into that deeper world, and meeting beings and finding strange new places. And I brought that back into my waking life.

But those depths are right there. We’re embedded in that deeper, more real world. We’ve just convinced ourselves and have been convinced that it’s not there. It’s always there. They can come over and act if they want to—they probably do so often, but we carry on without seeing or noticing. Or they fill us with particular images—much as the Runa hunters fill a monkey with the image of danger through the fallen tree before filling the monkey with lead.

Stories and mythologies, folklore and fictions, we can fill ourselves with them, but they’re also the way in deeper—the royal road to Faerie.

Have you noticed how things suddenly feel different when you start talking about weird supernatural stuff you’ve seen or heard about with others? Or how suddenly the world feels far more ominous after a scary movie? Even better–how often does weird shit then start happening?

(For me, a sure way to do it: ghost photography. I will look at a supposed photo of a ghost on film, and it’s like I’m about to betrachten the Great Vigo.)

Magical practice tries to get at this sliding sideways into that deeper reality on a sort of ad hoc basis. Ritual and magical acts work to distinguish our—borrowing from Eliade—profane “normal” reality from sacred “magical” reality. We use certain protocols to try to briefly make our spaces “magical” and “conducive” for the neighbors and spirits and whoever to notice and come on by. If we’re diligent, we can make arrangements—or we can immerse ourselves into particular mythical forms of hierarchy and authority to even bind and command spirits. Indeed, the more you do so, the more your own story and myth and realness grows—and it’s unsurprising that saints and mystics, who spend their lives trying to immerse themselves through different means into those deeper realities, often wind up walking beside angels and devils.

We spend our days filling ourselves and being filled—but how much time do we also spend submerging and immersing ourselves? And what realities do we immerse ourselves into? That said, take your time acclimating, and have some protocols for surviving the pressure and the dangers.

Strange New Worlds

Star Trek has famously “anticipated” several future things that have come to pass. Communicators and flip-phones. PADDs and tablet computers. And more, I guess. You can come at this phenomena in a few ways. A couple that come to my mind:

  • Eventual Disclosure of More Advanced and Classified Military Technology: Business Insider pointed to the source of the core iPhone tech coming out of DoD research, eventually making its way to public consumption. So, yeah, communicators came into being, but the military had the research first.
  • Star Trek Inspired Development: This is what usually gets referenced, which is in itself a demonstration of imaginal power.
  • Star Trek as Magical Image: Borrowing from New Thought (which parallels hermetic image magic, really), Star Trek was a magical image that affected the world and has caused parts of that image to manifest in Official Reality.

Note that none of these ideas are exclusive of the others or of any others.

Anyway, sci-fi space operas that were predominantly militaristic and colonial and imaginings of the United States military in space informed much of my childhood. Everything from Star Trek, Babylon 5, BSG, Stargate SG-1, Buck Rogers, and more fell into this general image of the future. Some shows like Stargate SG-1 definitely had (and advertised) their USAF connections. Hell, the ability for Americans to imagine what space is like, what going to space would (or should) be like, and more—we’ve built that out of Star Trek. I remember when the Space Shuttle Enterprise was shown off and the TOS crew pulled out to do PR, and I was enthralled that Star Trek was going to be real.


I mean, I had both a model of the NCC-1701 (ST:TMP version) and an actual model of the OV-101. I was definitely a Star Trek fangirl at a young age. (Photo via NASA)

So, on the one hand, there’s Star Trek and its kin.

I also remember a bunch of 1980s dystopian films and TV shows—Robocop, Mad Max, and other works—and their vision of the year 2015 or so. And while Star Trek was there in our imaginations, it always remained…deferred. Unanchored from Official Reality. It was a teased reality.

Far more immediate, far more real, far more obsessing and worrying were those near future dystopian realities. As a Gen Xer, I will say that, yes, my friends and I have remarked darkly on just how much all those images of the future have become actual. And I cannot help but notice how much dystopian fic and media have continued to model 20 years down the line as shittier and even worse than Max Headroom, even as we now have shinier but even more deferred Star Treks.

I wonder how much one is someone’s enchantment they’re trying to use to model our reality, and how much the other is something to play with as we’re desperately trying to go to sleep at night (while maybe modeling some cool new consumer toys to sell in 30 years time).

But then I also look about at the mythologies and folklore magical folks about me are being drawn into: early radical Christianity; gnosticism; Tolkien, Faerie, and Middle Earth; jinn; Celtic and Germanic folklore; classical Alexandria; ancient Egypt; Al Andalus; and more.

Not all mythologies are equal. There’s power and presence in Superman. There’s power and presence in Captain James Tiberius Kirk. But there’s also probably more power in those images and myths and more that are reaching out and grabbing you and me. And what grabs you may not grab me.

But it sure is interesting how Jung and Tolkien both began drawing from the same wellsprings in the 1910s, isn’t it? Or how Tolkien inspired an ongoing inspiration for Western European fantasy, the New Age, and more.

And I wonder how we’re mythologizing ourselves as practitioners. How do we walk through this deeper reality with purpose, self-possession, and (appropriate) authority? How do we do so without trying to foolishly colonize that world?

And what does it mean that we live in a time when fabulation is so omnipresent, so pervasive? We make stories about things that have, in theory, “never happened,” could “never happen.” We are imagining alien worlds and times and dimensions and beings that we don’t feel the need to ground into our landscapes or histories or lived experiences—except through what they make us then imagine and make us feel. There’s something pregnant there. I don’t think it’s a new phenomena, per se, but it’s fulsome.

We are trying to imagine the world to come, but so are others, whether those interests that want the vast majority of us to imagine only working for pittances within gig economies while eating cheap, shitty food and without the time to think about anything else other than That Reality and Distraction—or those interests deeper down who are pursuing diverse agendas for how they want life here on the skin of the world to be.

Featured Image: kellepics | Pixabay

[1] Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, edited by Aniela Jaffé, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Vintage Books edition (New York: Random House, 1989), 190-1. Hat tip to Gordon White and Becca Tarnas.

[2] Guido Ruggiero, “That Old Black Magic Called Love,” in Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993). Hat tip to White again.

[3] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, Kindle edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 739-61. Emphases mine.

[4] Most immediately from White’s Rune Soup here, but also via this Aeon Byte podcast with Dr. Kripal, via also Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J Kripal, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, Kindle edition (New York: Penguin, 2016), 91-2, where Kripal quotes and cites William James’s A Pluralistic Universe.

[5] Joan Chodorow, introduction to Jung on Active Imagination, edited by Joan Chodorow (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997), 7. She then begins quoting Jung (Jung 1930-4a, Vol. 6, Lecture 1, May 4, 1932, p. 3).

TL;DR: Magic is art is reality is image is hyperthick. Gordon said it all first, too. Well, Gordon very patiently helped me see it, too.

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