But. There is an uncomfortably large number of Pagans who appear to be cosplaying more than actually practicing magic, witchcraft, or any kind of authentic spirituality.
And by authentic, I mean “A practice that gets actual results.”
And by “actual results,” I mean anything from a shift in consciousness all the way to altered probability and manifestation.
But that doesn’t mean that cosplay isn’t creating a disruption in Pagan, Magical, and spiritual spaces.
If you’re not familiar, cosplay stands for “costume play.” It’s a hobby in which people dress up in costumes based on movie, comic, video game, and other characters.
Cosplay overlaps with role-playing. Again, if you’re not familiar, role-playing is a game in which a person pretends to be a character in a story. Role-playing can take the form of a table-top game that uses dice to determine the result of a person’s choices. Or it can be live-action, in which players physically act out a narrative.
Now. If you’ve ever been to a Pagan event, you’ve probably seen a lot of people there wearing outfits. This might be medieval or renaissance clothing, fairy wings, fancy ritual robes, or actual armor and weaponry.
Here’s the thing. In 2021, I’m not entirely certain how wearing fairy wings (or vampire teeth, or armor for that matter) reflects a person’s spiritual practice. I just … can’t make the connection.
When I was a kid, I did a shitload of theatre. Every summer, my family and I participated in a youth musical theatre group. And each summer, we put on a musical. And everyone on that stage wore a costume. The costume communicated that the actor should be seen as someone other than who they are – a character in the story being told by the play.
I have a lot to say about costumes. I’m saving that for another post because, like most things, it’s complex and nuanced. For now let’s just run with this idea that the costume is not the identity of the actor wearing it.
We don’t have any archaeological evidence of faeries. Or vampires. Which means they are almost certainly a literary fiction. Basing a spiritual path (or spiritual identity) on a piece of fiction seems tenuous – at best. At worst, it can create unhealthy behaviors and social strategies.
And as for wearing armor and wielding weapons… well, I’m not sure how to explain how unlikely you are to be attacked in 2021 with a sword. Or how being able to defend against (and attack with) a sword is in any way related to a spiritual practice. Like … most spirits I work with just don’t have enough juice to cause a physical attack. Even if they could, I’m not sure how weapons and armor (real or costume) would make a difference.
Not to mention, that in most historical and indigenous traditions the spiritual leaders were different people than the warriors.
So again – I just don’t get costumes based on combat or imaginary creatures.
That said –
There’s nothing wrong with play-pretend
I was a huge D&D player when I was younger. I played well into my thirties, and even a little longer (though I left my last group when they became socially toxic). I know a thing or two about fantasy.
I also know a thing or two about reality. I’ve been doing martial arts for almost 30 years. I have a solid understanding of when a technique works, and when a technique doesn’t. I have taught lots of different people – some who were willing to push past their idea of what martial arts is, and some who wanted to play at being a martial artist.
Here’s the thing. We all have a fantasy life. Our brains love a good novel, or movie, or D&D campaign, or video game. In some ways, our brains revolve around fantasy.
I don’t even really have a problem with people who take cosplay or play-pretend into a live-action setting. If you like dressing up like an Elvish warrior on the weekends, and tossing styrofoam balls that represent spells while swinging a foam replica of a sword, who the fuck am I to tell you you’re wrong?
No one. You do you.
Fantasy can get in the way when we bring it into reality.
If you go to work at McDonalds dressed as Kagnor the Orc Barbarian, your manager will probably send you home to change. McDonalds wants its employees to reflect a certain standard of appearance, and that’s part of the agreement you make in exchange for getting paid.
There is nothing wrong with an employer asking its employees to conform to a certain standard of appearance. (Within reason.) I worked in a casino when I was younger, and men could not have beards, nor could we wear a mustache that extended below the corner of our mouth.
(Yes, I am aware of double standards with regards to men’s and women’s appearance as defined by society and businesses. Yes, I agree it sucks.)
Back in the 1980’s, when I first started playing D&D, there was a huge scare about how it was “satanic” and led to kids murdering each other. There were rumors about a bunch of kids going into caves with actual weapons, and injuring or killing each other. (I can’t find any sources, so I’m writing it off as rumor/speculation.) Though false, we still need to account for the perception that too much fantasy can lead to violence. Which has been borne out by a different kind of cosplayer that stormed the Capitol on January 6.
There are psychiatric disorders in which people can’t tell the difference between fantasy (or illusion, or hallucination) and reality.
And just in general, acting as though our fantasies are real is not a recipe for a healthy life.
Here’s anexample. I wish I was thinner, and didn’t have a big belly. I like to pretend I’m skinnier than I really am. So when I’m ordering pants, I buy them in the same size I’ve always ordered. However, now my belly folds out over my belt. Also, I need a belt to keep my pants up. My fantasy, in which I pretend to be skinnier than I really am, is interfering with my actual reality, in which I just need to buy bigger jeans.
In a spiritual context, acting like fantasy is reality can create deeper problems. In our group, a member was in a relationship with a person who identified as a vampire. This man acted out his vampirism in socially unhealthy ways. These included “feeding” (psychically and literally), “dominating” people, and engaging in a struggle for status in a social hierarchy that “controlled” a designated area of land.
This is a problem on several levels. The people living in that area of land did not consent to being “controlled” by a “vampire council.” The “council” was not formed in accordance with the governing state and federal laws. Further, many of the literary examples of vampiric “feeding” would be in violation of these laws. Some vampires claim that they only “feed” on “willing subjects.” But then, they turn around and use domination and manipulation tactics on others – which violates most definitions of informed, enthusiastic consent.
Here’s another example that we see frequently. Someone approaches us, asking for help because they’re “possessed by a demon” or “under psychic attack.” In mild cases, these people suffer from paranoia and anxiety, believing that every little adversity in their day is due to a “curse” or “demon.” In more severe cases, people attribute actual mental health issues to “demons” or “curses,” and either don’t get the help they need or turn to religious ritual abuse to solve their problem.
There was a shop in our town, before the pandemic, where the owner would give free “cleansings” to people in the shop. Especially children. These “cleansings” were intended to get rid of “demons” that she perceived to be attached to the children. She claimed it was her “angelic gift,” and as such it was her duty to “help” as many people as possible. However, she didn’t stop to consider whether or not she was correct about demonic possession. Or how a child might be treated by an abusive religious parent who becomes convinced their child is possessed by evil spirits.
Like, children get beaten and murdered in cases like this.
So play-pretend is fine, as long as everyone understands it’s play-pretend. It’s when we start treating play-pretend like it’s real that we have a problem.
The Buddhists have something to say about delusion
Delusion – the belief in things that are not true – is one of the three Root Poisons in Buddhism. These poisons prevent us from achieving enlightenment, and keep us in a state of suffering.
What happens if a person is convinced their partner is cheating on them, even if it’s not true? What if a person’s partner is in fact cheating, but they are lying and gaslighting their partner about it?
What if a political figure claims that an election is stolen, and asks his followers to take physical action? What if those claims cannot be proven?
What if someone tells people that a vaccine implants a tracking chip into people?
These are all demonstrable fantasies – cases where something false or imaginary is being promoted as truth.
Now, I’m not an atheist, and I’m not a materialist. I’ve had experiences that convince me – in no uncertain terms – that magic and spirits are a real thing. I’ve also had experiences I thought were magic or spirits, but were simply old creaky buildings.
But I want them to be real. And in the wanting lies a key to understanding delusions.
Have you ever wanted something to be true so badly, that you made it true? Only, when you get it, there’s something wrong. Like the stories about dead being brought back to life, sometimes getting the thing we want twists it into some uncanny thing that frightens us.
Or, we want something to be true so badly that we just believe it to be, whether or not it’s Actually True. Psychologists have a term for this, called living a lie. There are reliable behaviors that indicate when a person is living a lie:
- Playing the victim
- Blaming emotions
- Keeping score
- Insisting on being right
- Distortion of values
We can convince ourselves that the thing is real. But when Truth – the actual, honest accounting of The Way Things Are comes knocking, we run. Or we hide. Or we stick our fingers in our ears saying “La-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”.
I think some people who get into Paganism want so badly for it to be real, that they treat fantasy and play-pretend as if they’re reality – all while ignoring the aspects of Paganism that are real.
It can be fucking hard to tell fantasy from reality
When we’re talking about magic and spirits, we’re talking about some pretty subtle effects. I have never actually seen a physical manifestation of a spirit (or a spell). Like, I really want to conjure fire in my hands, but the closest I’ve ever gotten was a zippo lighter and fire poi.
When we cast a spell, how do we know that it was our spell that caused (or influenced) a thing to happen, and not just chance or hard work?
When we’re making offerings to spirits or ancestors, and we sit and commune with them – how do we know what we perceive is actually them? How much of it is wishful thinking?
There is no easy answer here. Lots of the stuff that we can prove about spirituality, magic, and deities comes down to information, probability, and changes in consciousness. How do we know that, to paraphrase Jason Miller, choosing to drink tea instead of coffee didn’t influence our conscious perceptions as much as a ritual?
And yet. Weird stuff happens. Children occasionally talk about previous lives in specific and verifiable detail. Prayer for the sick improves the odds of healing. Meditation has measurable effects on the physical brain and on consciousness, and breathing techniques can create physical heat in the body.
I say this as a reminder that belief in magic is like walking a knife’s edge of discernment between fantasy and skepticism. It’s not easy, and we all occasionally slip to one side or the other.
But the alternative is …. well, let’s consider the alternative.
My experience with a play-pretend group
So, this dude joined our Pagan group and wrecked it. But before he did, I observed some things about him, and the kind of people that he gathered around him. (Full disclosure – he was part of my D&D gaming group for a short time.)
Briefly, everything about him was intended to draw attention, from the hat and longcoat he wore, to the beard and long hair, to behaviors like sitting at the head of a table or hijacking conversations.
Dude never wanted to talk about Pagan topics. Whenever we tried to start a conversation about magic, spirits, deities, history, or anything rooted in an authentic real-world practice, this guy sidelined the conversation.
Instead, he wanted to talk about Harry Potter. Or Pokemon. Or D&D. Or anime. Or how much he knows about Paganism, because he’s a coven leader.
But actually talking about magical things? It’s scary, in retrospect, how smoothly he could change the subject.
My wife and I had the opportunity to attend one of his coven gatherings. I was still pretty new to my relationship with Hekate, so I prepared a little thing to share. We arrived, and the circle was around a fire pit in his backyard. No big deal so far.
Each covener had a specific elemental role, and a script to read from. They all had their cutesy little Pagan names (my favorite was his second-in-command, SunRider). He called his daughter his “songbird,” because apparently she sang, but as a young teen was incredibly shy. My wife and I tried to let her off the hook when dude tried to get her to sing.
So we waved our hands around, and everyone said the things. There was a point where we were offered a chance to do something, so I read the Orphic Hymn to Hekate in Greek. (Disclosure: my Greek is not good, and it was a total flex, but when you’re visiting with another coven it seems normal to show off a little for one another.)
And… nothing happened. I got a little whisper of movement in the Unseen from my prayer, but I left the circle thinking, “What was the fucking point of that?“
It’s like they said the things, and had their fancy ritual toys out, and to them that was being Pagan. But the whole experience was either completely out of phase with my energy, or just … empty.
It gets better. We organized a few public circles, and specifically invited this guy and his people over. They always committed to attend, but gosh, something always came up that they couldn’t make it.
Which is weirdly reminiscent of the relationship of delusion to truth.
Which brings me to….
What even is the point of Paganism?
I’m not here to tell you what’s the point of Paganism. That’s a Big Question, one that each of us has to think about and decide for ourselves.
Is the point to get together and socialize? Is it to spend time in a fantasy world for a while, and hang our real-world cares and concerns at the door for a couple hours?
Or are we craving a connection to the Unseen World? Are we seeking more power and agency over our lives? Are we drawn to magic, in the same inexplicable way that a moth circles a candle flame? Are we drawn to explore mysteries and forgotten practices from ancient times?
I know a lot of people who go to church because it’s What We Do. Or because they like the other people at church. Or because they have social/family obligations. Or because they want to Do Good to atone for their guilt. I have no judgment for those folks. If you live in a family or society where there’s a cost to leaving your religion, I have compassion for whatever decision you make.
But considering the deep spiritual practices we see in other areas of the world – Tibet, Japan, India, Latin America, Australia, Nigeria – can we Americans really say that we’re experiencing the same depth of spirituality that other cultures are?
I don’t know about you, but spending a few hundred bucks on gifts at Christmas just doesn’t feel the same as a two-hour ritual to Hekate in red candlelight and the sharp-sweet perfume of incense.
So yeah, I may be a bit of a snob about my Pagan spiritual practices. But again, what’s the point? Are we just dressing up in costumes and playing pretend? Or are we trying to explore a deep spiritual experience from fragments of ancient cultures, and filling the gaps with our own inspiration?
I don’t think all Pagans are cosplayers. But I’m concerned that authentic Pagans, Witches, and other Magical Practitioners are getting lost among them.
Is it fun and popular, or is it hard and boring?
I’ve heard it said that the mother of invention is not necessity, but rather laziness.
In my experience, the percentage of martial arts practitioners that stick around long enough to earn a black belt is about the same percentage of Pagans who stick around long enough to have an authentic spiritual experience.
Because it takes going through a certain amount of hard work, discomfort, and adversity to get that
black belt authentic spiritual practice. Most people just aren’t willing to do that.
In fact, I’d guess that a fucking lot of Pagans get into magic because they think it’ll be easy – just wave your magic wand, and you can have whatever you want. No need to actually confront your roommate with a hard conversation about boundaries, when you can just hot-foot them out of your life.
(Truth be told, magic is easy. What’s hard, is figuring out what you actually want. Or building the foundational skills to perform a spell. Or troubleshooting why your spell didn’t work. Or shifting your perspective on what’s possible. Or any of a bajillion other things we discover in our spiritual path.)
Dressing up in a costume and reading a few words on a wrinkled sheet of computer paper is a lot fucking easier than sitting for 20 minutes keeping your attention on your breath. Buying crystals is a lot easier than rooting through piles of shitty Pagan books for a few real gems. Collecting pretty and fancy magical tools is a lot easier than using them in a ritual.
Did I tell you to get off my damn lawn yet?
I realize, while editing, that I’m becoming a cranky old GenX’er.
Honestly, I just don’t really have a lot of patience for bullshit anymore. Like, I know that maybe one person in 20 (maybe 50) will stick around long enough to learn a thing or two. The odds of a person we accept into our coven lasting long enough to forge a bond and do real magic is somewhere between slim and none.
And, like most shit that’s worth anything in this life, the good stuff takes work. And very, very few people get past the “I want it now” mentality to actually do the fucking work.
When we’re accustomed to having results right now, we might skip that medical degree in favor of a few YouTube videos. We might just wear the costume and say the words, because it’s just so much work to do it the real way.
As an Authentic Gen-X Slacker, I can tell you that I am 1000% in favor of the “less work is better” mentality.
But I can also tell you that everything I’ve ever achieved that has any real meaning, significance, or authenticity has taken work – and plenty of it. And I’ve never been able to pretend my way to authenticity.
And while I’m at it, every path is not fucking valid, and your half-hour YouTube education doesn’t make you equal to someone who’s practiced for a couple decades. The Frosts and their creepy sexual initiation of children is Not Fucking Valid. Someone’s belief that they are a vampire is also not valid (unless they present some pretty compelling evidence).
So. Your paganism or magic is yours, and you get to do with it what you want. But I invite you to consider – what is it you’re trying to accomplish? And are the actions you’re taking leading you to where you want to be?
If they’re not, try practicing with no tools or costumes. Take a minimalist approach, and see what happens.
Sure, it might create more work.
But work is how you find the good stuff.