As an atheist I find a simply astounding amount of bullshit in every single religion or spiritualist philosophy. There are times when it is impossible not to collapse into convulsive, flatulent laughter when reading the Bible or the Koran or anything Dinesh D’Souza writes or says at any given moment. On top of that many religious texts, stories, and images are stultifying and unbelievably uninspired. Just try to read this without lapsing into a coma:
Of Juda, Nahasson the son of Aminadab.
Of Issachar, Nathanael the son of Suar.
Of Zabulon, Eliab the son of Helon.
And of the sons of Joseph: of Ephraim, Elisama the son of Ammiud: of Manasses, Gamaliel the son of Phadassur.
And the son of Phadassur, Kevin Bacon, and the son of Kevin Bacon, Poppah and the son of Poppah, Yipchek and the son of Yipcheck, Curly Joe…
That bit of literary propathol is from the Old Testament book Numbers, as in it literally numbers everything like an autistic kid shut up in a room with pile of shiny rocks. I am sure after reading that you are amped to read the other 96 pages of this book. I have. It is not fun. I would suggest it’s use as an “enhanced interrogation technique” in CIA black sites in such lovely locals as Belarus. But I digress.
There are exceptions to this normally boring area of study and interest. This area is what I like to call the “dark impulse”: Paganism, witchcraft, Greek mythology and Satanism, the rejected manifestation of a more chaotic and naturalistic human striving for control over the world and and embrace of the things that we fear. Now don’t get me wrong, none of these philosophies are any less full of unmitigated horseshit then Christianity or Islam (and don’t get me started on the Mormonism…I would rather listen to the Insane Clown Posse on full blast for three days then read the book of Mormon) but there is at least a real area of fascination within these topic for me. The “dark” area of our human sectarian experience is only “dark” because of the blinding and monopolizing light of revealed monotheistic religion. Out with the old and in with the New Testament so to speak. What is being replaced by the “revealed word of the one real God” must be proclaimed to be intrinsically evil and dark. But that is no reason why we should ignore the fascinating aspects of these occult-ish whimsies.
For one paganism and witchcraft tropes are much more interestingly connected to nature and to animal and plant life. Potions, secret herbs, intoxicating odors. It is all fascinating and quite sexy. There is of course the intrinsic connection to the female that these philosophies have been associated with, rightfully or wrongfully, and this has a real pull for artist like myself who admire female sexuality and power. Jules Michelet, the Victorian era French Medievalist and iconoclast said that “woman contrives and dreams […] and has wings to soar into the infinitude of longing and imagination.” This of course is a stereotypical view of women, but I do believe it is a fair sight less destructive a notion then the idea that women brought about the downfall of all humanity by eating a piece of fruit. Besides, there is an allure and a charm to the idea of the mystic woman with her natural unbounded sensuality and connection with the material essence of magic and wonder. The cauldron, the colorful smoke and flame, the passionate and animalistic congress of man and women born from the ecstasy of basic desire. It is all quite thrilling.
From Christianity we also get veiled and shameful allusions to the power of female sexuality, and these allusions are never positive nor are they in any way titillating or really interesting. Would you rather read about an octogenarian Sarah and her marital sex life with Abraham or would you be more interested in a spirited and unbounded orgy of men and women and goats prancing about stoned on cannabis and wormwood oil in a Basque field on the eve of Samhain? Yeah. Thought so.
While less related to magic and mysticism the Danse Macabre movement in art and letters is a good example of how human beings appealed to the dark and taboo aspects of reality to cope with the everyday horrors of life. The unparalleled death and destruction wrought by the Black Death in Europe led to a quite understandable fascination, even obsession with, death and fiendish imagery. King Death ruled over a realm of decay and rot while dancing corpses joined the living in a utopian landscape of ubiquitous suffering and universal acceptance of mortality. Boccacio exploited this theme in his Decameron and countless other poets and painters and illustrators were and still are inspired by death and the rictus grin. This goes to show that even a universally Christian society like that in the 1350’s Europe can and will appeal to the occult and to basic naturalistic tropes and ideas when confronted with a true carnival of existential horror like the bubonic plague.
In the auspices of Satanism we find another treasure trove of fascinating visual tropes and a youthful and contrarian spirit that appeals to many who are tired of being told how, where, when, why and what to believe. Now the actual theology is just trumped up anarchism and hedonism, and there is nothing wrong with that at all, but it is just a bit unoriginal. But the imagery…in that realm Satanism truly has everyone else beat.
And there is a particular wit to the idea that the “dark mass” is merely the Latin Mass performed backwards…it’s like the medieval version of Monty Python! The wonderful silent Swedish film Häxan is filled with wonderful images of fiendishly enthusiastic peasants and paupers cavorting with Satan, his imps and the witches who create magic in his name. If you ever want to get a truly authentic idea of how people in the middle ages understood, feared, and obsessed over darkness and the occult this film is essential viewing. It is also quite hilarious at moments. I particularly like the dowdy old matrons dancing in the dark kissing Satan’s naked ass. Nothing like dark ages Swedish occult erotica to get you going on a Friday night.
My personal favorite aspect of the dark impulse is ancient Greek Mythology. I have been fascinated by the Greek heroes and pantheon since I was a young child reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the stories. Herakles and his labors was always a personal favorite of mine, but above all else was Hades and his dark abode. Tartarus the prison of the eternal titans, the torments of the Greek heroes such as Tantalus and his forever thirst and Sisyphus and his unending struggle with the rock. I agree with Camus that there is much inspiration to find in this and many other Greek stories, an essential humanism and pragmatism that is lacking in almost all other theologies. In particular I find in Dionysus the antithesis of modern religion and its emphasis on the spiritual and moral concerns. Dionysus’s followers were known for their euphoric, wine fueled, dance filled carousals meant to bring the limited human mind closer to a transcendent understanding of our connection to the eternal in nature. Yeah it is totally an excuse to get wasted and fuck in public places but hey as bullshit excuses go this one is rather creative.
The dark impulse will always be with us as long as there are established moralizing theologies and institutions that have a stake in controlling the emotions, bodies and minds of human beings. We would all be better served if we allowed ourselves to delve deeper into these ancient modes of thought and their relevance to our own time and modes of thought. In a more aesthetic sense there is no greater muse than what is supposed to be beyond the pale and wrong. We will always be drawn to what we are told is no good and morally suspect. I am as much an atheist as any other but I have to admit that the heritage left to us by the occult and paganism is worth the wishy-washy foolishness of its pretensions. So I implore you to search for something within your own dark impulses to explore and exploit. You will never know what is out there until you look.