In the myriad Pagan books that have been published over the years, there are ample descriptions of how to perform magick within various religious or non-religious systems, what tools to use, what precautions to take and what imagery to invoke. However, very few of these books offer any direction on using Pink Floyd in meditation or Howard Shore’s “Ride of the Rohirrim” in ritual. And, there might be even fewer practitioners who would suggest calling on Batman for spiritual protection or Princess Luna for inspiration. In fact, the very idea typically causes laughter and, in some cases, disdain.However, the reality is that there are many people who practice, or employ in some form, what is termed pop culture magick. In some situations, pop culture products provide a doorway into the occult world by giving a young seeker something familiar on which to launch a spiritual, religious or magical journey. In the 1996, for example, The Craft served that very function. In other cases, pop culture remains at the center of spiritual inspiration and magical workings for years beyond youthful introductions.
“I spotted my Master of Puppets CD sitting on my desk and immediately began to think of the four members of Metallica as each of the elements. I saw the bassist representing earth, the guitarist representing air, the singer fire and the drummer water. To me both their instruments and their personalities seemed to fit, so I decided to run with it and see how it went. I cast my circle and then called the elements, visualizing the band members as their respective elements. It worked flawlessly,” wrote blogger Emily Carlin.
Carlin is an vocal proponent of pop culture magick. Not only does she regularly blog on the subject, but she was recently interviewed by Vice Channel, Motherboard. In that article entitled “The Pop Culture Pagans Who Draw Power from Tumblr,” the writer explores varied uses and perspectives on pop culture magick, saying, “A common entry way for pop culture spirituality is feeling disconnected from nature and finding better connection in art and media.”
Before going any further, it is important to distinguish pop culture magick from other religious or spiritual practices based on pop culture fandom. This article will not explore, for example, Jediism or secular-based ethical systems that have developed wholly around entertainment franchises such as My Little Pony. In this discussion, I am interested in the use of pop culture within more traditional Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist systems of practice.
In looking at this practice, it is also important to note the difference between pop culture magick and pop culture Paganism. In a blog post, Carlin explained it this way:
Pop Culture Magick (PCM) is the use of pop culture stories, characters, images, music, toys, etc. as magickal mechanisms – the tools and techniques you use to bring your magick into being … Pop Culture Paganism (PCP) is the use of pop culture characters and stories as either an approachable face for traditional Pagan deities and powers, or as a substitute for more traditional powers and mythologies
In pop culture Paganism, deities, for example, might be represented by specific Marvel super heroes or movie characters. As noted above, Carlin visualizes the elements as Metallica’s band members. In pop culture magick, a musical score might be incorporated into a more traditional rite or magical working in order to enhance its effect. For example, writer Jason Mankey has used Doors music to empower rituals that explore personal excess.
In 2004, Taylor Ellwood, a vocal proponent of pop culture magick, published his first book on the subject. In it he answers the question “Why pop culture magick?” He writes:
It gives creative magicians a different approach to doing magick, without any prescribed approach or system governing how you do it. Not only that, but it’s also a vigorous, energizing current within our society. Pop culture is contemporary, occurring right now, and that kind of energy is vibrant for us because we live at the time it occurs and can understand the context of the pop culture icon or genre or whatever else.
In 2008, Ellwood published The Pop Culture Grimoire, an anthology of essays demonstrating various ways to work with pop culture in every day practice. And, he is currently finishing up a second book, Pop Culture Magick 2. He gave me a sneak preview. In that book, Ellwood notes that much has changed since his first book was published. One of those things is his own definition of pop culture.
In the first book, Ellwood wrote, “Pop culture is defined by what it does. Pop culture resists the mainstream culture. It possesses and represents different value systems, which clash with the values of mainstream culture.” (pg. 10) In his newest interpretation, Ellwood amends that analysis saying, “I no longer consider pop culture to be something which resists mainstream culture. Rather I see it as an extension and expression of mainstream culture, but also of subcultures that don’t overtly fit into mainstream culture.”The project of defining pop culture is important in understanding its role in our lives and its potential impact within religious or magical practices. That definition can be framed most simply through a socio-economic framework. Pop culture is, in short, “popular culture.” It is of the “populous,” the masses, the people. It is differentiated from high culture, which is traditionally considered the culture of the educated, the elite, the distinguished. Additionally, there can be smaller subcultures that produce products and influence society. But like high culture, their reach is often limited. Pop culture, on the other hand, lives in the most pervasive, mainstream current.
The comparison of high and pop culture comes with very specific, socially-ingrained valuations. High culture (e.g., Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Gounod, William Shakespeare, George Balachine) has historically been considered more valuable than pop culture (e.g., Jonathan Larson, Freddie Mercury, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Jackson.) This concept can be taken even further into an analysis along racial, ethnic and gender lines. Although the boundaries have certainly been cracked, American high culture has been typically white, male and of European origin.
While pop culture certainly dominates modern society, this antiquated valuation still permeates our collective thinking, which is one of the reasons that pop culture is often not taken seriously and why pop culture magick inspires ridicule. It might not be surprising to find a midsummer rite using the Shakespearean quote, “If we shadows have offended, Think but this and all is mended, That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear” from the play Midsummer’s Night Dream. However, one might be taken aback to hear a priest or priestess break out into “Summer Lovin’ Had a me a blast…” from Grease.
Interestingly, there was a time when Shakespeare’s work existed within a type of “pop” culture. Author Diane Purkiss, in her book A Witch in History, remarks on this very point when talking about the play Macbeth. She suggests that the weird sisters were simply “comic relief” based on the popular notion of witchcraft during the Jacobean era. Purkiss writes, “[the sisters] were a low-budget, frankly exploitative collage of randomly chosen bits of witch-lore, selected not for thematic significance but for … sensational value.” (pg. 207)
Over time culture certainly evolves and, to be fair, the lines between high and pop culture are not hard and fast. For example, artists, like Andy Warhol, challenged the very notion of high and low art. Similarly the Alvin Ailey Dance Company pushes well-beyond traditional dance techniques, while still remaining one of the elite. And, over the past few decades, film and animation studies have been increasingly accepted in the halls of academia.
Is pop culture magick taking a similar route and breaking through cultural or religious stigmas and boundaries? Judging by the recent surge in interest, that may be the case. Ellwood wrote, “What people are creating, beyond content, is an intersection of pop culture with their identities, and in the process they are changing their identities.”
In the 1990s, as noted earlier, many young people turned to movies, such as The Craft (1996), to birth a magical practice. While for many this was only a method of seizing one’s agency in defiance of authority, there were those who actually believed. And within that subset, there were those who, eventually, were reborn as real Witches or practitioners of magick. The use of The Craft and its fabricated system helped many young witches re-frame their world, change their identity and set them on a new spiritual path. It opened the doorway, where there wasn’t one before.
We see this happening especially with pop culture products that incorporate, are inspired by, or even fully appropriate for better or worse, mythological stories. Rick Riordan’s books are perfect examples. The novels are introducing children to mythology in ways that relate to their own lived experiences. While their religious value is still debated, the books can function in similar ways to The Craft. A child who enjoyed reading Riordan may one day pick up Homer’s The Illiad and beyond.
In an increasingly secular society, pop culture can offer ways to develop these ethical systems and connect with spiritual ideas; especially those within religious systems that are hidden or remain less accessible – like Paganism, Heathenry and Polytheism. Carlin wrote, “I was an atheist and had a really hard time with the idea of working with deities of any kind.” The use of pop culture imagery within her practice was the key she needed to reach her inner world, make magick work and have her religion mean something.
This accessibility rests on pop culture’s very nature; its existence as something of, for and about the masses. As Carlin wrote, “I don’t live in the world that Mannanan Mac Lir walked through, but I see Captain America t-shirts every day.” As noted by Ellwood, pop culture reflects the energy and spirit of today’s society, rather one of limited access, of yesteryear or of something disconnected from one’s own reality.”Pop culture is society’s virtual playground and also a community connection point, which Ellwood himself observes in both of his books. It is a medium that reflects current trends, tries on new ideas and pushes boundaries. It connects with our lived experience. Where our relationship with high culture is often limited by either language, exposure, cultural understanding or even educational level, our relationship with pop culture can be all encompassing.
Both Carlin and Ellwood have each independently observed a recent upswing in the practice of pop culture magick and pop culture Paganism, as mainstream fan-based subcultures continue to crop up around favorite televisions series, books and movies. Ellwood also believes that social media has contributed to the growth of the practice. Whether that is true is unknown. However, social media has certainly contributed to its visibility.
The specific ways that pop culture is used in magickal practice or how it fits into a religious system is very personal (e.g., as deity, thought form, inspiration), which appears to be just another part of the attraction. While there are those who still question the spiritual authenticity of this work and its true religious value, the magical workers who do employ pop culture simply respond with the question, “Why not?” It works for them. Carlin invites people to “Try it.”