Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Gods of Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale constantly amazes me with how unique it is, especially when it comes to religion. It manages to take real religious ideas and weave something entirely new and different from the thing that originally inspired them. The Smiling God, the beagle puppy, and the angels are inspired by Abrahamic religions, but while it’s clear that Huntokar and the other gods are definitely at least inspired by real deities, the creators of Night Vale have managed to create their own unique pantheon.

Several episodes ago, we learned that the god Huntokar, who has been mentioned in passing throughout the show, is the god of Night Vale and has been protecting the people of Night Vale since the very beginning. However, we came to discover that her protection also nearly doomed Night Vale by causing the multiple versions of the town in different universes to collapse in on themselves. In this episode, Huntokar mentions that she is one of four old gods that include the Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL), the Woman from Italy, and the Distant Prince.

Writers tend to take two different routes when it comes to adding deities to their stories. They either use gods of real religions, or they invent their own. Creating your own deities has the major advantage that you aren’t taking the risk of portraying another religion’s deities in a potentially harmful way. However, we cannot escape the fact that we are affected by what we know about religions and their deities and inevitably the audience may realize that these “fake gods” are inspired by real ones. It’s fine to be inspired by real deities, but it’s important to still develop them in such a way as to make them their own unique god, otherwise the portrayal could still end up seeming problematic. And that is exactly what the creators of Welcome to Night Vale were able to do. Their deities are clearly inspired by different real gods, but are written in such a way that they become their own unique god and are not simply a copy of another deity.

Spoilers for Welcome to Night Vale for up to Episode 113.

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The Last Keepers and a Positive Portrayal of Paganism/Wicca

the-last-keepers

It’s almost Halloween! Every Halloween I look for witchy movies, but sadly, the vast majority of them portray witches as evil and very very few of them even attempt to portray Paganism, Wicca, or witchcraft correctly. So recently, I attempted to look up Pagan and Wiccan-friendly movies and one movie kept popping up everywhere: The Last Keepers. I was pleased to find that it was on Netflix and sat down to give it a watch. It didn’t have the strongest story, but I can certainly see why it is a well-reviewed movie within the Pagan, Wicca, and witchcraft communities—though it is still not without its issues.

Spoilers below.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Christianity and Wicca/Paganism in Pop Culture

Christian WiccanIt’s that time of year again when witches, witchcraft, magic, and old-school pagan gods take certain stage on our television screens. Problem is, they don’t exactly have great PR, and every Halloween—and any other time of the year, for that matter—Wiccan and Pagan beliefs are pretty much dragged through the mud and shown to be “evil”. I have written about this poor portrayal before, but today I want to address how Christianity approaches modern Wicca and Paganism, and how that is reflected in pop culture.

Christianity has never exactly had a great relationship with magic practitioners and pagans. For centuries those who were accused of practicing witchcraft were often killed for “devil worship”, and the same is true for Pagans. Though the church did not necessarily deny the existence of pagan gods, they did claim that these gods were really demons that deceived people into worshiping them; because of this, worship of these gods was also considered devil worship and punishable by death. But this is a really old view of witchcraft and paganism, right? There is no way this belief still holds sway in today’s modern context, right? Sadly, that’s not the case.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: A Deity Field Guide to The Wicked + The Divine Part 2

Hello again, believers and nonbelievers, and welcome to Part 2 of my The Wicked + The Divine Deity Field Guide. Like last time, we will be investigating the history and lore associated with some of the gods represented in the series. Because the series is ongoing and we learn more about each character with every issue, I’d like to make a few remarks and corrections about Part 1 of the guide before we delve into new territory. When I wrote Part 1 of the field guide, information about the god Baal was still being deliberately withheld by the writer. This was important to the narrative, as he was a suspect in a murder and tension was building, but it made my job much more difficult. I assumed, therefore, that “Baal” was Baal-hamon, a fire god whose followers reportedly burned their children alive. In The Wicked + The Divine #4, however, it is revealed that he is actually Baal Hadad (more commonly just called “Hadad”), a god of storms and lightning. Considering that the in-universe theologian drew the same initial conclusion that I did, however, I don’t feel too bad about my deductive powers.

The Morrigan, likewise, was a mysterious character, because the reader was initially led to believe that she was dead. This was actually a trick played by Baphomet, which is in keeping with my assumptions about him being a slightly ridiculous sort of “poser” god, without the same gravitas as most of his divine counterparts. The Morrigan is very much alive, and reflecting the triple nature I mentioned briefly, is actually three entirely separate people depending on her mood.

Now that some of last month’s baggage is picked up, I am pleased to present Part 2 of the deity field guide: arranged, researched and extensively guessworked by yours truly. Continue reading

Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Old Gods and the New

Historically speaking, humans have had a real knack for identifying superficial differences in people and separating them into categories based on those differences. This system is a very effective means of discrimination, because once it is clear that two groups are different, it becomes easier to make arguments (ridiculous though they may be) about which group is superior. Differences in religious belief have caused some of the more dramatic incidents of division and discrimination throughout the course of civilization—I’m looking at you, Crusades—but separating religions themselves into categories can have more subtle and long-term effects on culture.

Gettin' real homogenous up in here.

Gettin’ real homogenous up in here.

With each new generation of believers, there is a slow evolution of “old” and “new” beliefs. Once-thriving religions, especially Pagan religions, are now either shunned into the realm of mythology or considered to be hokey counter-culture territory. This is a distinction we see mimicked in fantasy worlds. Even in alternate universes or histories where magic is plainly observable and actual deities occasionally turn up in unquestionable physical form, there is often a distinction between the “old” and “new” religion, and with that distinction comes a division of people: those who follow the old gods, and those who follow the new. This distinction typically comes with some indication of which religion is supposedly superior: in some narratives the old gods are benevolent and powerful, and the new gods are forcing them out of their rightful dominion, and in others the old gods are wicked and archaic, and the new religion eclipsing them changes the world for the better. Continue reading

Oh, My Pop Culture Witchcraft: When is a Witch Not a Wiccan? (Quite Often, It Turns Out)

A few weeks ago, Lady Geek Girl wrote a nice article describing the precarious position of witches in current pop culture media. Witches only finally started to reach some level of acceptance (still a work in progress, that’s for sure) largely thanks to the enormous expansion of the religion of Wicca in the past fifty years or so. This led to a curious occurrence: witches weren’t just in fairytales and fantasy books anymore; they were bookstore clerks and nurses and teachers too. It opened the doors for the possibility for modern people to reclaim and identify with the word “witch”. We can see other seemingly outdated or maligned words being used by contemporary folk, from druid to heathen to shaman (though words like sorceress and wizard seem to be lagging in popularity), but I would argue none to quite the degree of “witch”. So while I believe that Wicca was a large—I would say the primary, in fact—reason for the modern reclaiming of this word, I think it is inappropriate to treat “Wiccan” as a monolithic synonym for “witch”. There are simply too many witches out there who are not Wiccan.
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Magical Mondays: Religion and World Building in Teen Wolf

Teen-Wolf-Nemeton-TreeWhen fantasy authors attempt to build the mythology of their world, they often rely on religion or religious belief, usually on pagan or Christian beliefs (but for this particular post we will be focusing on the pagan beliefs). Norse, Greek, and Roman mythologies are some of the other favorites used by authors. Using these beliefs is not a bad thing in fantasy writing. What is a problem is when these religious aspects are utterly forgotten or confused in the world building. As someone who both studies theology and is an avid fantasy fan, one of my biggest pet peeves is when religion is introduced into a show, but only as “magic” and never as actual religious beliefs.

One recent example of this is in Teen Wolf. In Seasons 1 and 2 there is no mention, hint, or indication of any type of religious belief in the show, but come Season 3 we are introduced to a whole host of mythologies. We learn that werewolves are descendants of Lycaon, who was cursed by Zeus after Lycaon attempted to feed him human flesh. Lycaon was trying to humiliate Zeus because he was actually a worshiper of the Titans, but Zeus turned Lycaon and his people into wolves as punishment. Later, according to Teen Wolf’s mythos, Lycaon’s people met the Druids who they begged to help turn them back to humans, but the Druids were only able to help them partially transform, thus creating the werewolves.

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