Pop Cultus Heroes: Consumerism Posing As Religion

I’ve followed a lot of the discussion about pop culture heroes, particularly those entries by Sannion, Dver, Christine Kraemer at Patheos, Galina Krasskova,and P. S. V. Lupus. It’s kind of daunting to wade in as it is such a complicated subject, and so much has been said. And to be honest I just can’t wrap my head around someone offering hero devotion to say Tony Stark or Superman. While some superheroes may inspire and remind us of heroes from ancient or more recent times, nevertheless they never lived and pose a number of significant problems.

To start with, I think there’s a huge lack of discernment, something I see much more broadly at large in the polytheistic communities, like with all of the people who claim the gods chit-chat with them about the most trivial matters. Our minds are powerful and have many usually hidden or unacknowledged dimensions. To say something rises from our subconscious is not to be dismissive, not at all—but acknowledge that is its source. But back to action figures and characters from Hollywood franchises and Marvel Comics, do these fans really think these characters have agency? That they actually can respond to them? I find that dismaying.

Some bring up the blurry line between traditional myth and fiction, and I grant that it is blurry. Cuchullain? P.S.V. Lupus asserts that this to some extent comes down to aesthetics. I know I do like mine well aged like a very fine wine; Arthurian figures might have scraps or kernels of old deities within them, but they were characters crafted by skilled medieval storytellers. However, Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, or Marie de France weren’t pop culture writers (there were no pop culture writers in that era, the populace was illiterate). Arguably pop culture, which is not the same as popular culture didn’t even exist before the advent of industrialism and mass marketing. However elitist many in today’s consumer society may feel about this, until a generation or so ago people were clear about the distinction between high culture and pop culture. Creations of high culture were crafted to be elucidative, ethical, aesthetic, illuminating of patterns of truth, as well as to be entertaining. Many writers working today in many genres still work for that, but pop culture franchises are designed around one purpose: to be high money making instruments for the capitalist economy. I wouldn’t at all deny that some of these franchise creations may have echoes of valid archetypes, but usually they are not made by people who are magical or religious. Intention (with knowledge) of the creator does matter, something by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison will certainly have more validity than something by Stan Lee.

Great artists create new myths or rework old mythic patterns for new times: think Tolkien and Joyce, maybe Gaiman. And I suppose this is a point to look at what we mean by the mutable word myth. Myth has different meanings for different segments of the population, it largely means lie or false belief in popular and official culture in the West. For pagans/polytheists, Hindus and new agers often it means narratives that touch on sacred matters, that give spiritual meanings and spiritual truths. The word meant very different things in different periods in ancient Greece. In Hesiod, mythos and logos are contrasted, but perhaps surprisingly to modern ears, the latter is associated with dissimulation, the former with truth—the usage will vary a lot over the course of Greek history but Plato definitively gave it the meaning of falsehood (see Bruce Lincoln in Theorizing Myth for a full history of the meanings of these unstable terms).


Fiction is another trickster word, (English is so poor in vocabulary dealing with non-empirical things) and deals with truths if it is good (and fiction is one of the best vehicles for communicating emotional truths we have) and we can and should make modern myths, stories that can provide guides to understanding life, and hopefully understanding spiritual matters, but we should not  confuse levels of being. A good character may echo or enact an archetype like Gandalf or Gollum, but these are not ontological beings with agency outside their narratives, though readers can invest them with power (readers are co-creators).

But let’s take the case of Iron Man again, as an example. The narrative might seem relevant as it takes place in a world that purportedly reflects our current geopolitics. It may offer a sense of empowerment for viewers. This is limited though, by the over-simplified black and white moral universe of the superhero genre, to say nothing of hidden ideological assumptions many of us don’t want anything to do with. Perhaps, most importantly it is part of a huge franchise and no amount of purchasing of posters, action figures, tied-in games, and costumes will allow for Stark to take on the reality of someone who actually lived in our middle world. And on some level, instead of opening onto the Other, instead of that extraordinary task of getting outside of ourselves, the fan stays within their own mind and maintains consensus reality (and makes it more difficult as they are constructing even their spiritual identity by brand allegiance). Getting out seems to be more difficult than ever in human history, and so more needed than ever. Yet as Dver has lucidly written much about at Forest Door, many polytheists seem to only see what they can get out of it, and I would add on the most superficial egotistic level of self, and as we look around at the way modernity is causing such untold destruction, is so distracted in pop culture trivia, and mightily maintaining its deafness to misery in much of the world, the demise of countless fellow species, depleted oceans, and rapidly changing climate, I can’t help but see this pop culture worship as being part of this myopia. Paganism/polytheism used to have a critical edge; is that gone, except in a few corners?

One other thing that raises my ire about fandom being mistaken for a religion and claims for hero cultus being claimed valid for superheroes is the implication that somehow it is uncool to actually consider people who have done great things recently as heroes, whether we’re talking about people who have dedicated their lives to human rights, environmental justice, reviving our traditions, or furthering peace on this troubled planet. People like Dian Fossey, Chico Mendez, Judi Bari, Benigno Aquino, Mahatma Gandhi, Harvey Milk, Isaac Bonewits, Alexei Kondratiev, people who were heroic and in most of these cases sacrificed their lives for something larger than themselves, pop to mind. If we want modern heroes there are many to choose from. I think it is sad that people find it easier to relate to cartoons than to real life heroes.

Finally, heroes are the Mighty Dead. They lived. They died. They may live on in various ways, in various abodes and they may have narratives and prophecies that say they will reawaken some day like Arthur or Barbarossa, but they have died. Superheroes for the most part don’t even die in their stories. There are so many inspiring heroes in our traditional lore, (for a good list of both traditional heroes and ones from the pagan revival, see Galina Krasskova’s website http://krasskova.weebly.com/our-pagan-and-heathen-heroes-and-martyrs.html ), but some are so locked into the ideology of the new, of ‘progress’, that apparently they find them boring. I’ll choose Scatach, Achilles and Dian Fossey any day over any superhero or cartoon character, even ones I really like.


14 thoughts on “Pop Cultus Heroes: Consumerism Posing As Religion

  1. Really love the points you’re making here, especially this:

    “And on some level, instead of opening onto the Other, instead of that extraordinary task of getting outside of ourselves, the fan stays within their own mind and maintains consensus reality”

    That is something we should all really stop and think about. Not to mention the fact that these “pop culture gods” cannot be divorced from the consumerism that created and fosters them, which is a force actively *destroying* the living spirits of the land.

  2. And the fans are so immersed in their fandom and all the gadgets that give them their latest fix that they don’t even notice the destruction of the actual spirits around them.

    Another important aspect is the depletion of the Imagination, that incredible intermediary realm we have to connect with the gods and spirits but has become clogged with saccharine fancies that make big money for the entertainment conglomerates. So many kids grow up only knowing the Disney version of myths and fairy tales.I find that disturbing.

  3. After owning a comic book store for three years, and seeing the people who are probably closest to pop culture worshippers, I came to the conclusion that I need to write a book about it.

    I’ve studied myths. I’ve studied archetypes through Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, especially. I have arguments in my own head about how much of the gods are outside of my head and how much is INSIDE my archetypal reality…. and in fact, since I can only REALLY know my own perspective, I often wonder how much it matters.

    What I OBSERVED, however, is that some of these pop culture worshippers actually DO derive a full-blown sense of values based upon these characters, whether they ever lived or whether they are the invention of storytellers, er, comic book writers. Truth is, there IS value there.

    One of these days, I’ll get that book written…. a series of interviews of how 10 people have been affected by their following of comic books, and some of the archetypal energies we see at work.

    Although some of these characters started out as someone’s imagination, in a culture where they ARE so popular, they often take on mythic qualities – imbuing the characteristics put on them by many.

    Very interesting study – and one worth exploring from many points of view.

    1. “Truth is, there IS value there.”

      I don’t know that anyone has really challenged that the practice might have value for the people doing it. But religion isn’t only about the effects on the practitioner. It’s about a relationship between humans and the divine, one that should be mutually beneficial, not entirely focused on the psychological well-being of the human (as much as some modern pagans seem to think that’s the only important thing).

    2. I don’t deny they can provide their fans with meaning, understanding and mythic narrative. How could I as a fiction writer deny the power of contemporary narrative?I can distinguish between a character and a god or some other independent being, though, no matter how much inspiration I may feel. A lot of storytelling incorporates myth and I did say the practitioner open to sacred inspiration may well be receptive to spirits and what not and be able to capture some of that. Good art has always been inspired in the traditional sense of the word. But when someone is worshiping or offering hero cultus to Batman–and that is exactly what some of these practitioners say they are doing–we can say that is not devotional polytheism, that is not Celtic Reconstructionism, Asatru, Hellenismos, recon-influenced Druidism, Dionysianism and so on. It is not remotely traditional.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective as a comics store owner 🙂

  4. I only just got around to reading this…my apologies for the delay.

    Excellent analysis, though–and, particularly, you’ve gone into much further detail here than anywhere else that I’m currently aware of in this discussion on how pop culture cultus actually is a corporate money-making tool, and mass cultural artifacts have only really been possible since post-industrial capitalism has existed on the level it currently does…which is, really, only since the 1920s and 1930s, and especially heavily since the 1950s, when a whole group of middle class youth had some disposable income (from their parents’ disposable incomes, often) that corporations finally decided to start tapping as a potential market. That trend has only increased since then, and shows no signs of abating.

    In any case, thanks for writing this! Really excellent further points!

    1. Thanks!

      Unfortunately, it does show no signs of abating in the near future, what with the tween market beings the bigestt sector in some industries. Cultural studies theorists like to emphasize the role of the fans in constructing their icons, but still I think its pretty clear who has the upper hand. Fan, which word, I believe, was first used for early movie stars, of course, is a religion-derived word. We will probably see more of this religion-like activity becoming actual pop religions.

  5. Pingback: The Bearded Prophet of Northampton said it, so it must be true… | Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous

  6. finnchuillsmast:

    I really like what you wrote here: “Our minds are powerful and have many usually hidden or unacknowledged dimensions. To say something rises from our subconscious is not to be dismissive, not at all—but acknowledge that is its source.” I wish more polytheists felt this way.

    I think you really hit on the difference between worship and fandom here: “And on some level, instead of opening onto the Other, instead of that extraordinary task of getting outside of ourselves, the fan stays within their own mind and maintains consensus reality …”

    And thanks for the reference to Bruce Lincoln’s *Theorizing Myth*. I’m definitely going to have to check that one out.

  7. “I wish more polytheists felt this way.”
    Me too 😉

    Regarding “Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship”, the first couple chapters provide the best early history of the term I’ve seen. The rest of the book is focused on usage in the last few centuries, and I think Lincoln’s argument is overly cynical (and is to some extent a deconstruction of his field of Indo-European studies) and gives a distorted or simplistic perspective on figures like Nietzsche, Dumezil, and Eliade (yes, he was involved in bad things in his youth), but nevertheless a very informative and illuminating read.


  8. Pingback: When the Gods Become Real | The Lefthander's Path

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s