Medusa’s legacy

Medusa and the gorgon have left an indelible mark on Western mythology; commonly seen today as either a cool monster for creature feature films or as an icon of the power of feminist anger.
In their early depictions, archaic gorgoneions (the head of the gorgon) had locks of curly hair, beards, fang-tusks, bulging eyes, fat protruding tongues and flat noses. They were usually shown to be disembodied, sometimes featuring a halo of snakes. Descriptions of gorgons recount them as being fearsomely ugly, monstrous women with scaly skin; able to petrify their victims with horror.

As history progressed, so did the manner in which gorgons were portrayed. Modern era gorgons became beautified women with snakes for hair, faces contorted with rage. Their depictions often show them looking away from the viewer, unlike the always full-frontal mask of the gorgoneion. Both species of gorgon have adapted to continue life today.

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The Predator’s shoulder-mounted weapon system enables it to kill with a glance and its countenance is petrifyingly ugly, resembling an archaic gorgon. Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa of the 1981 Clash of the Titans, with her bow and serpent coils in lieu of legs, was the next evolutionary step for the modern, beatified gorgon.

I imagine a gorgon for the digital age would be a powerfully built, muscular woman with a head replaced by a fearsome mask; a cloud of spasming glitches with an angry rictus snarl facing the viewer no matter which direction she stomps purposefully toward, paralyzing them in fear, causing computer systems to revert back into unthinking rocks.

reference: Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Stephen R Wilk.

I’m scared of zombies because I’m queer

Living as ‘other’ and striving towards authenticity, no matter how transgressive is an intrinsic part of my pagan path.

At least that’s how I’m shoe-horning in this week’s theme. I defy easy classification; or, It’s my blog and I’ll go off-topic if I want to. I’m going to be very blunt about queerphobia. Beware.

I’ve always been terrified of zombies; I can’t sit through Romero movies. I have bad anxiety and need to read plot spoilers. Jump scares cause me physical pain.
This is a bit of a paradox. I love horror movies. I’ve been elbow deep in gore. I’m a necromancer. I make distasteful jokes about cannibalism.
I’m terrified of zombies…because I’m queer.

Zombies can be read as various kinds of zeitgeistic metaphors. Debt, unchecked consumerism, unemployment, the failure of the social order.
So why do zombies scare me so much? In their natural environment they are ubiquitous and beyond reason.

Small bands of survivors huddle together in a hostile, resource scarce world against an unending hoard wishing them death. Am I describing my friends on a Saturday night, or The Walking Dead?

I strive to be understanding, logical and compassionate. All the people slinging death threats at me aren’t. They can’t be reasoned with. There is an unending parade of them. They howl and beat on my metaphorical door through the internet. I don’t have enough ammo (resources, time, energy) keep them all at bay. They get through and they wound me. They claim I owe it to them to change their minds.
You can’t cure zombies. Meaningful change must come from within.

Just like a survivor in the zombie apocalypse I cannot ever feel safe. I was born into a social order that was built from the ground up to exclude people like myself. This world was never meant for me. The zombies have inherited the earth.

Like the characters in The Walking Dead, I can try disguises, slathering myself in zombie guts to walk among them. Not living my authentic self is just as unpleasant.

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Gross. Image credit: AMC, The Walking Dead.

However I can only hide so much of myself, no matter how hard I try. Violent straight people can smell your fear. The disguise inevitably slips. Is this it? I ask myself during every confrontation, and there are many. Is this the day I die?
Which is going to kill me first, a mishap of fate or illness, or an attacker? Or alternatively, myself, after the vigilance and battle has ground away my resolve until I can no longer fight? Death isn’t a question; it’s a promise.

I catch a snippet of television. A politician is claiming Australia doesn’t have a homophobia problem. My friends can’t get legally married and word is passed around about someone local being near-fatally bashed for being gender nonconforming.

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What being ‘straight passing’ feels like. Image credit: AMC, The Walking Dead.

I like to fantasize that humans are rational. I’m often proven wrong. Zombies cannot be reasoned with. If a zombie has broken into my compound and displayed bigotry I try to educate them, but they are too many and too stubborn. It’s often fruitless because zombies don’t want to listen, they want to argue, to gorge themselves on my vulnerability. To feel victimized by my defenses.
I am strong but scarred. My strength costs me dearly. They are relentless. Their self-sanctified opinions do me active harm. For every one I block ten more shuffle forward chanting ‘you don’t exist’. Zombies lack the higher brain function to appreciate the irony. I exist, but if I cease to do so it’s because they have killed me.

Friends and allies mute the groaning from just beyond the wall. But I can still hear it. Queer spaces aren’t perfect safe havens either due to lateral violence; just like in the zombie apocalypse, survivors turn on each other due to the scarcity of resources. Gatekeeping and respectability politics abound. Nonetheless my social justice is intersectional because those survivors in the boarded up building next door? I feel for them, too. I’m not going to use them as bait just so I can temporarily get ahead. Because it’s not a real victory until the war is over.

Zombie media isn’t prone to happy endings. Nor is media in general kind to queers, when we can get them, which is rare. Gays get buried. Women are refrigerated.
I enjoy apocalyptic fiction because it represents a game board hurriedly and messily wiped clear. A chance to start over, and for some lawless, anarchic fun.
The best apocalyptic fiction is queer. Why reinforce heteronormativity when you can have the Gayboy Berserkers and the Vulvalini?

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This is not the visage of a straight man. Image credit: Warner Bros, Mad Max 2.

Mainstream zombie media on the other hand is an endless grind with no hope of closure. Awash with an ambient anxiety that is already the background radiation of my life, it’s littered with the same regurgitated heterosexual romances reinforcing current social mores with the flavor, colour and excitement of mashed potato. It’s not meant for me, and never was.

The zombie contagion has spread too far. There is no hope but for homogeneity. In the real world, people say ‘gay gene’ and my friends and I hear ‘eugenics’. We fight to survive and live but sometimes it feels Sisyphean and pointless.

But to conform and join the hoard is to die, so fight we must.

The Animist Apocalypse-Mad Max and the importance of environmentalism

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”

-The First History of Man,  Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015

In post-apocalyptic fiction, signs of an animistic culture are often plentiful in the set dressing; from skull motifs to more subtle expressions of sympathetic magic, to taboos which define when it is safe to travel through an area due to unseen natural forces that demand respect-lest one perish. In these worlds people live in a reality strangled of meaning; stripped of all but the most basic diversions and amusements, choice, and even hope.

Isaac Marion’s post-zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies illustrates an America in which people survive by sheltering in huge sports stadiums. Supplementing their diets with vitamin pills and barricaded against outside forces; scouting parties must invade dangerous territory-the former cradle of suburbia, in order to extract supplies.

A sharp cultural contrast to this is the nuclear wasteland of Dimitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series, in which the last vestiges of humanity eke out an existence in Moscow’s vast and sprawling underground rail network. The people of the tunnels farm pigs and mushrooms and must forever remain vigilant against the mutant creatures that constantly test their defenses; an outwards force pushing inwards. Meanwhile political conflicts tear apart the communities within.

Apocalyptic fiction presents fears for the future unique to the inhabitants of the culture it was born from, but it also has a unifying philosophical theme; what does it mean to be human, and what is the point of being alive? People do not simply fight to live another day; they struggle to nourish their souls with scraps of beauty, love and meaning.

In these inhospitable worlds, the rules for survival have changed; nature is no longer abstracted and the ability for people to adapt the environment has become limited-a dire predicament for anyone from a wealthy post-industrialized culture.

One of the things that makes this genre so appealing to me is that this lifestyle shift usually brings with it a return to an animistic worldview of unity with the natural world.

The recent Mad Max: Fury Road has some beautiful examples of a fictional post-apocalyptic animist culture.
It’s a film in which a band of eco-feminists fight the forces of war, patriarchy and greed  against a post nuclear-exchange desert landscape. Also car chases. And explosions.

Between explosions, we get a glimpse of the social order of the War Boys. They ritually scar their bodies with engine schematics, and their medical professionals are referred to as ‘organic mechanics’, displaying an inextricable unity with their vehicles. They have an oral tradition of storytelling in which dying a good death is of utmost importance, combined with a belief in reincarnation and the need to be deemed worthy-a worth  which is determined by their usefulness to their master. A film lush with symbolism, this blending of human and machine is of vital importance-the tyranny of Immortan Joe positions this as a method of control and objectification-as a means to strip away autonomy. People are things, and things are disposable.

The skull motif is ever-present; the skeletal form of Furiosa’s missing arm is painted on the side of the war rig, the sickly war boys are hairless and white, and the very symbol of Immortan Joe’s rule is a blending of the steering wheel and the skull. Skeletons are things, and things do not deserve respect.

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When Furiosa learns of the destruction of her childhood haven, she rips off her prosthetic arm and howls in despair. This completes her symbolic rejection of her service to Immortan Joe, which had stripped her of agency and personhood. But just as we are now unable to colonize other planets, there is nowhere left to go; the salt flats extend eternally like the inhospitable emptiness of space.

So our heroes turn back to the Citadel to take back the world. The symbolic relationship between Furiosa and her arm has changed; when she straps it back on, she is reclaiming a right to live in the world cooperatively, interfacing with it with respect, and as a part of her. She is no longer a resource to be exploited.
As Nux’s war paint wears off, we see him as an enslaved child, made terminally ill by the folly of dictators. Finally, he is able to find his better self in service of a great and sincere sacrifice.
It’s no coincidence the Keeper of the Seeds, member of the resilient and free Vulvalini, tried to save as many plant species as she could-not just crop varieties directly useful to humans.
‘Who killed the world?’ asks Angharad, and the answer is damning.

In these fictional scenarios animism flourishes because there can be no disconnection from the land; it is an actor itself and not merely acted upon. The stakes are always high; the natural world must be respected. So fraught with danger, the apocalyptic landscape represents a world that humans have made almost uninhabitable for themselves as they stare down extinction. Be it over wealth inequality, war, climate change or resource scarcity, fictional apocalypses are almost singularly the result of human hubris.

For me, a core part of my modern pagan animist beliefs is respect, cooperation and balance. The importance of respecting the natural world, as a part of us and not an outside resource should be self evident-if we muddy up our biosphere, everyone suffers. My animism is inherently environmentalistic, but everyone should be concerned with the plight of the natural world, regardless of their spiritual alignment. 

Mass-scale, global environmental exploitation needs to be curbed. Let’s hope we can make it happen before the advent of a nuclear wasteland.

 

Altered states, and defenestrating Cartesian dualism

I had a pretty unhappy youth.
Was this really all there was to reality? When it wasn’t busy being traumatizing, it was agonizingly dull.
For more insight into what this was like, I recommend giving a listen to this recording of Peggy Lee’s ‘is that all there is?’.
As a cynical young teen I began to feel the white, suburban world I lived in was culturally and spiritually bankrupt, with most people around me only paying half-hearted lipservice to Christianity. I was deeply unhappy, culturally disconnected and spiritually unfulfilled. I was also a bit of a teen-goth cliche.
This disenchantment was likely one of the things that pushed me towards a pagan path-particularly one that heavily uses shamanic techniques.

Being able to escape into stories, games, meditation, dancing or anything else resembling altered states wasn’t just a tool for survival, but something that has made my world much richer. I’ve never been a fan of recreational drug use as my perception of reality is weird enough already and I don’t want to endanger my tenuous mental stability.

As I matured I began to notice and appreciate parallels in the culture I was immersed in to those supposedly more magically inclined ones from the distant and romanticized past I’d only read about in books. AFL football could be conceptualized as ritualized battle between clans; contemporary dance a form of shapeshifter magic; BDSM play spaces a way of inducing altered states of consciousness. People I’ve encountered participating in the rave scene would often talk about transcendent experiences beyond what could be explained by recreational drug use. Many of us know a born storyteller, someone able to spin engrossing tales whenever they feel the inclination. Art of all forms often utilizes the power of bringing about altered states. Much of the art and media I have consumed, created or participated in has been powerfully transformative. I’ve read many books that have changed me forever.

A few years ago I attended an avant-garde theater performance with a group of friends. The audience awaited direction outside in the cool night air, at the corner of an inner city alley. At the appointed time, a Charon-like figure appeared to usher us to the nearby ‘secret’ location of the performance; a dimly lit and intimate bar.
The outcome of the story depended on the reaction and participation of the audience. The performers wandered about and mingled with the people in attendance. The lighting, mystery and anticipation quickly created a liminal space. There was magic afoot.
One of the performers, who had taken on the role of Lilith was particularly compelling; but there was something deeper at play here than dedicated and immersive acting. It was her. We all felt it.
Myself and my friends were all deeply emotionally/spiritually impacted by what transpired. It was on my mind for several weeks afterwards.

More recently, Friday night was a particularly special night for the LARP group I semi-regularly attend. The warband the Briarwolf Pact was disbanding, and this was honored with some role-play and ceremony.
Within the fantasy universe Swordcraft takes place in, the Briarwolves are ancestor revering, wild warriors whose tenets include the importance of balance, and of family. During the battle, we were lead by the ancestors themselves-members of the warband dressed with garlands of blue glowing lights as a representation of their otherworldly nature.
Somebody on the field on the opposing side was playing the bagpipes and people were beating their shields to the rhythm of war. I have just enough Scottish ancestry in my blood to love the sound of bagpipes. It was a thrilling experience and emotions ran high. I dare say, it was magical.

As an animist, my view of the world is one that makes no material distinction between the ‘mundane’ and the ‘spiritual’; it rejects Cartesian dualism. Daily life however, is a grind. Ennui and suffering make losing the childlike wonder at the beauty of the universe all too easy. Making time for structured magical ritual isn’t always possible.

But sometimes magic seeps through into any spaces which invoke liminality and cannot be ignored, no matter how secular; those of artistic or emotional expression especially.

If you look for it, you might find it in some unexpected places too.