You’re Probably Not Chosen, and That’s Okay

Last night on Twitter, I found a tweet thread that I thoroughly agreed with pertaining to the notion of spirit animals and how it’s culturally appropriative to use the term, and outright disrespectful when people say “unicorns are my spirit animal” or “whiskey is my spirit animal”:

I’ll let you read the whole thread, written by an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) person with actual claim and propriety to speak on the matter, because the thread is a little long and it deserves reading.

It’s a sensitive topic for many people, but she makes fine points all around, and I can’t really disagree with them in any reasonable sense.  There are good comparisons between how people in popular occulture and New Age scenes use the word “spirit animal” with the word “shaman”, which originally applied only to Central Asian steppe-based Mongolian or Turkic tribal religions; unless you’re practicing a form of Tengrism, technically speaking, you’re not a shaman or working a shamanic path.  However, the term was adopted and adapted by anthropologists (who, I might add, typically are from Western Europe and take on a subtly colonialist-universalist view of every culture that isn’t theirs) to be applied across the board to countless religions, traditions, and cultures far removed in time, space, and language from those Central Asian priests based on perceived or superficial similarities.  In general, the word “shaman” is used wherever “priest” would normally be used, except for cultures that were deemed more “primitive” or “undeveloped” as, say, something more established, formalized, structured, or civilized as in the West.  As Kalagni shared in a related discussion on my Facebook page,

When (white) people go on about how there are analogs in other cultures, and that “spirit animal” is generic, they really mess up their history. Yes, “spirit animal” is generic and in English, but the term was coined in English to refer to Native beliefs as part of their persecution and eradication. Also, as part of another side rant, if wypipo also want to harp on about how “we have culture”, then use the goddamn names from your our culture then and prove it.  Then again, white (North American) culture did steal a lot from Native folks…so it’s part of their culture in that way.

I’d say shaman is a better case, because it’s not an English word, so despite being applied to “shamanic” traditions everywhere now, you can point and say “This is the language and culture it came from.” People have trouble grokking that with spirit animal because it’s in English, so obviously it’s a white people thing.

And, of course, as is commonly joked-not-joked?

There’s so much that can be said about this topic, and how the line is hazy or non-existent between cultural appropriation and syncretism, what the best term to describe something is depending on circumstance and originating context, whether fylgjas or totems or tutelars or paredoi or other concepts are similar enough to be clustered together (typically they aren’t except by people who don’t understand them), and so on.  Honestly, while I thought about writing about this discussion, I really don’t have much to add at the present time besides “don’t do it, and understand what you’re actually describing before you open your mouth and why you should or shouldn’t say it a certain way”; that wouldn’t make for a very exciting blog post, though, would it?  Besides, I’ll let people from the actual originating cultures speak for themselves, and keep my own mouth shut.

But there is a related topic that I can speak about, and don’t think is spoken about enough in Western occulture, New Age, and pagan thought.  People (think they) have spirit animals because they feel that the animal has chosen them; some people have patrons or matrons/patronesses (I’m not sure why “matron” isn’t the default term here, but okay, whatever) in this pantheon or that system, and all around people claim that they are “chosen” by some big-name entity or to do some monumental task.

People go on about how they’ve been chosen by some thing for some thing to do some thing, and…in general?  I don’t buy it as much as others do, or as much as I did.

I suspend my disbelief out of politeness, and see how far it goes for the person in our conversations, but for the vast majority of people and the vast majority of cases, they’re not chosen. And that’s okay!  Not only is it the norm to not be chosen, but in many of these traditions, there’s no notion of “choosing” that the gods or spirits do for us.  Moreover, any such notion is generally a recent Western overlay, much how “shaman” is used for African, Native American, and Central Asian religions despite their differences in context and origin.

I would think that the notion of having a patron in general comes from Catholic influences, where people can have a patron saint, or where a certain profession, area, or trade is associated with a saint who’s related to the thing in some way.  By being involved in that profession or trade, you can petition that saint for special help above and beyond a general-purpose spirit, sure, but you can also do the same by having your own patron saint.  Sometimes this is found based on the day of the year of the calendar of saints you’re born on, sometimes this is based on where you’re born, and sometimes it’s simply something you choose (note that it’s you doing the choosing of the saint, not necessarily the other way around) at baptism or confirmation.  This saint helps intercede for you through their unceasing prayer, not as a mediator of prayer to God but to pray alongside you to better live a better life here and in the hereafter.  This is a pretty common practice in Catholic and close-to-Catholic traditions, and seeing how that undergirds much of the past thousand-ish years of Western European philosophy and religion…well, it’s a common notion, to say the least.

So now we have all these new or newly-reborn traditions and religions, some invented out of whole (old) cloth, some reconstructed from historical and religious research: Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Religio Romana, Rodnovery, and so on.  There are also living traditions, such as Vajrayana Buddhism or Shinto, that never died out and are extant, vibrant, and practiced to this day in their own ways.  In each, there are often an abundance of deities, demigods, heroes, saints, spirits, and whatnot.  Okay, good, cool, excellent!  The more, the merrier.  Each has its own cultural background, historical context, linguistic reliances, and so on; sometimes those who are in the know of more than one tradition can syncretize parts of them, sometimes parts of different religions ought to stay separate and far from each other.  Something I can say, however, regarding many of these traditions?  The notion of a spirit “picking” or “choosing” you is…uncommon, if not absent entirely, without having been previously syncretized with Western Christian or modern neopagan (which has some Western Christian elements) ideas.

Let me offer my own experience with something personal to me.  In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (or Santería, as is commonly known, the Yoruba diasporic religion as it developed in Cuba with Catholic influences), there is a notion that everyone has a patron saint of sorts, an orisha that claims the head of everyone.  You don’t really get a say in who owns your head; that comes out in a special divination reading where humans don’t get to choose, but the orisha themselves choose.  In my case, it came out (surprisingly to me, at the time) that Ogun owns my head; that is a case where I was, in fact, chosen to have that connection with him in a way that other people don’t necessarily have, even if they work with Ogun or have other connections or relationships with him.  However, unlike the orisha who owns my head, it was not chosen for me to be initiated.  Some people are told that, yes, they are meant to initiate as a priest in Santería, that it is indeed an already done deal where they don’t really have much of a say in the matter if they want to continue living their destiny as it was written for them.  That wasn’t the case for me; regardless of what orisha owns my head, it was not chosen for me to initiate, and I was not told that it was necessarily part of my destiny nor that I must initiate.  Instead, I made the choice to initiate; I chose to have that relationship with Ogun, and I chose to have Ogun put on my head.  The fact that I have Ogun on my head doesn’t preclude me from working with other orisha; I still have vows and pacts made with my courts of orisha, and I can and do work with them in ways that others can’t or don’t.  Even then, however, Ogun may have been my patron saint all along in that system, but it was I who made that relationship real and tangible by my own volition and sacrifice.

Now, let me compare the similarities of that to my work with Hermes.  There are lots of things in my life that I do or that I have going on that do, in fact, relate well to Hermes’ domain: linguistics, languages, mathematics, programming, astrology, divination, conjuration, magic, trickery, trade, and on and on.  I work in a building that used to be one of the grandest post offices in the United States, and is designed with caducei and paeans to Hermes-Mercury on the pediments.  For all this, it makes sense for me to work with Hermes, because the things of his influence are already around me.  However, that does not mean I’m chosen by him to work with him, any more than a person who grew up in a family of chefs and bakers is chosen to be a culinarian themselves.  Rather, I chose to establish a shrine to him and offer sacrifices and honor in his name; I chose to have his emblem tattooed on my mortal flesh; I chose to work with him.  He did not chose me, not only because the notion of having a patron deity is unfamiliar and foreign to Hellenism, but because he…well, didn’t.  All these things in my life that are under his influence are things I chose to have in my life; he didn’t send them in my way to lure me to him, but I chose them.  Just so did I choose him, and I continue to choose him.

Another example I can offer is my own connection to what I may have called my “spirit animal” in an earlier time.  (Forgive me for declining to say what it is, but those who know me will already know what it is.)  This is an animal that I indeed feel a connection to, and which seems right and proper for me to work with.  But, that said, I’ll be honest with you: I went out of my way to find this animal, and I formed a connection with it of my own volition.  I can’t say that it’s my totem (because that’s more of a clan/lineage/family thing) or my spirit animal, because I don’t belong to the tradition that came up with the idea or that uses those terms; I rather say that it’s my tutelary animal or that I simply work with that animal spirit, because that’s more accurate and descriptive of what I do.  Moreover, this is a connection that allows for other connections to be formed with other animals as the case may be, sometimes as strongly as my primary tutelar, sometimes not so much, sometimes stronger as the case may be; I work with the spirit on my own connection, and listen to it if it needs something, but this is a spirit that ultimately I chose.  I may have encountered it in a strong way, but it was I who chose to stay with it and not pass over it.

I see that distinction a lot like how an astrological magician might view their own horoscope.  For instance, it was not a matter of my choosing when I was born; I am a Libra by virtue of my birth, and so could be said to have been “chosen” to be born under that sign.  It does not necessarily mean that Venus is my ruling planet, nor does it mean that I have to work with Venus or any of the deities associated with that planetary sphere except by my own volition.  Nor, for that matter, does it mean that I can’t work with other planets, or that I have some past-life connection with Venus, or that I am specifically chosen to do Venerial things in the world above and beyond other people, especially other Venus-ruled people (whether or not they’re Libras, Tauruses, Pisces, or another sign entirely).  I know of some people who live lives that would seem to run directly counter to their zodiac sign or almuten, often to great effect and purpose, but that’s because they often chose that path in life and worked for it.

Some people have certain entities that they work with closely and intimately, sometimes to enhance their own works; a photographer, for instance, could petition Saint Veronica because she holds special significance for photography and photographers generally.  Other times, they work with a certain entity because it enhances their own personal development, like a mask they can adopt to adapt themselves to the traits and characteristics of that entity that, over time, they can better facilitate and embody, like someone working with the spirit of the Wolf to be stronger, more cunning, braver, or more ruthless.  We can easily and properly say that we work with these spirits or entities because we’re already involved in their sphere, but that’s not because they came to us and made us work in their sphere.  Consider: at a banquet where you’re presented with multiple dishes, you don’t say that the first dish that was presented with you is what “chose” you, or that whatever dish you most like “chose” you.  You choose what you want to eat or pass over, and you choose what you want to take home and try to recreate in your own kitchen to make your life tastier.

In some cases, yes, someone is, in fact, chosen by some entity to do some sort of work.  The more I see, however, someone being chosen like this is actually kinda uncommon; more people who claim that they’re chosen aren’t, and are rather describing something they chose of their own volition as being out of their hands.  I consider this a kind of false modesty, ascribing one’s own choices in something to the work of the gods, and I…it twangs my sensibilities.  Some people might ascribe such choices to fate or predestination, which is not only a kind of false modesty but also handwaving away their own choices to something that can’t be proved.  Rather, people may feel a draw to some practice or divinity, but be honest: is that because they’re actually being lured to it by the divinity, or are they acting on an impulse and drive that they themselves have and want to explore because it’s actually something that clicks with them?  Are they told that they need to work with some deity or entity, or are they doing so because the person has their own needs given the themes and motifs in their lives that that particular entity can help with more than others?  Are they chosen to work with that deity, or do they chose to work with that deity?

There is no harm in saying that you chose a connection, relationship, or patronage with some spiritual entity.  While it may be an honor to have been chosen, it is also exceedingly honorable to willingly make that choice yourself, if not even more honorable, because it’s you who’s forming the connection, doing the work, making the sacrifices, and going above and beyond the normal level of devotion one might have into something truly special, rare, and powerful.  To do something of one’s own free will and unbidden by the gods that pleases them is almost always a sweeter sacrifice than any fumigation or libation or festival than they demand.  There’s no shame in saying that you chose this animal, this saint, this deity as your patron; if you’re earnest about it, and actually dedicate (literally giving over) yourself, I would say that you’re doing both you, the spirit themselves, and the world an honor by it.

So be honest with yourself.  Did the spirit you claim chose you actually choose you, or did you choose the spirit and choose to form that relationship with them?

I know this can press some people’s buttons, and this can easily lead to a topic of debate that borders on insult and aggravation.  Plus, there are definitely problems of destiny, fate, free will, and the subtle machinations of spirits that can influence what we “choose”, but in our limited human consciousness, we have to take responsibility as much as we can for our actions.  By all means, dear reader, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, but please be respectful towards others if you do so.

Hail, Alan Turing, Hero!

As part of my new grammatomantic lunar calendar rituals, I’m setting aside three days each lunar month for the veneration of the dead in my life.  The first day is given to my Ancestors of Kin, those to whom I am descended from by blood.  The final day is given to the Ancestors of the Great, culture heroes and other Mighty Dead who shaped the world we all live in.  The second day, however (associated with the letter Qoppa, and held this lunar month on June 16), I give to my Ancestors of Work, famous people to whom I look up to for the things I do in my life.  They’re like my family ancestors, but with ties of labor and field rather than blood and kin, a family linked together by the things we do rather than who we are.  As a magician, I put people like Pythagoras, Orpheus, Cornelius Agrippa, Crowley, and the like in there, but magic isn’t the only thing I do.  My day-job professional and academic career is based in computer science, and today, on the 60th anniversary of his death, I’d like to recognize Alan Turing, one of the greatest computer scientists the world has ever had.

Alan Turing

Born on June 23, 1912, Alan Turing came from Irish, English, and Scottish family, and had a natural inclination towards mathematics from a young age.  This didn’t serve him too well in public schools at the time, when education focused more on classics than what we’d consider hard sciences today; still, even at 16 and not only reading but expanding on the work of none other than Albert Einstein, the dude was pretty cool at the things he was good at.  His work really shone through in the early development of computer science, working on one of the most famous problems of mathematics, the Entscheidungsproblem, or “Decision Problem”, the solution to which was that there was no solution at all.  Not only would this have surprised some of the most famous mathematicians of the time, but it’s become a central topic in computer science taught from the beginning ever since.

Not only was he a brilliant computer scientist and mathematician, but Turing also served the British Army, especially helping during World War II.  With his extensive knowledge of mathematics and science, Turing became one of the foremost codebreakers and leaders in deciphering enemy ciphers.  Not only did he produce general means to break German codes, while other methods used at the time were fragile and relied on too many assumptions, he also provided efficient means of breaking various types of code, helping to critically fight the German war machine (in several senses).  After WWII, he furthered the field of computer science as well as that of artificial intelligence, and pursued several advances in chemistry.

Despite having chatted with the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, occasionally ran the 40 miles from his office to London, and inducted into the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by King George VI, and basically invented modern computer science in an accessible manner, the world at that time effectively condemned him: he was gay.  After having his house robbed by an acquaintance of a lover of his, and noted that fact to the police, he was charged with indecency, since homosexuality was still illegal at that time in Britain.  Charged with this non-crime, he pleaded guilty (despite having no guilt nor shame for being gay, as he damn well shouldn’t’ve), he was given the choice of imprisonment or probation with chemical castration; he chose the latter, which would allow him to continue working, but it rendered him impotent and caused gynaecomastia.  This, combined with reparative treatment to “cure” his homosexuality (which we know nowadays from the “ex-gay” movement never works and only causes further harm), did nothing good.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, June 10 2010

Adding insult to injury, he lost his security clearance and was barred from continuing with cryptographic research with the government (even though he pretty much won WWII for them), and was even barred from entering into the United States.  He died on June 7, 1954, only at 41 years old.  Two years after his conviction and beginning of hormone treatment, with an investigation reporting that he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple near his body, which is thought to be (but never confirmed) to be how he killed himself.  Rumor has it that this is where the original rainbow-colored partially-bitten apple logo came from for the Apple computer company, but that’s not the official story.

Today, I honor Alan Turing especially as a hero in my life.  An incredible amount of the technology I use and work I produce is indebted to him, not only because he helped develop the computer, but also because he helped turn the tides of war that could’ve endlessly shaped the world some 70 years ago.  His brilliance shines as a light for me, as a computer scientist but also as a human being.  Being a gay man myself, my heart breaks every time I recall how the world back then treated him for being the same way, and I pray that neither I nor anyone else has to undergo that sort of blatant bigotry and persecution.  Like Turing himself, though, I bear no guilt nor shame for who I am, and I take only joy in the work I do.  I’ll likely never run 40 miles nor ever care to, but hey, more power to Turing for doing that, too.

Ave, Alan Turing.  May your memory never be forgotten, and may your name and spirit always live on.  Guide our minds to know what can be known, and guide our hearts to love whom we will love, both without fear and without scorn.  Help us and be with us in our work, and may we thank you every time information flows through the fruits of your labors to us.

Hail, Benjamin Franklin, Hero!

Today marks the birthday of Benjamin Franklin.  Why is this important?  Because I’m taking a page out of Sannion’s blog and starting to think about who my heroes (in the classical sense) might be.  Of course, dear reader, you probably remember something about him being important in the Revolutionary War and development of the United States; Ben Franklin isn’t considered a Founding Father for nothing or called “The First American” for the hell of it, nor is his face on the US$100 bill for style alone.

Benjamin Franklin

Besides the whole American Revolution thing, Ben Franklin was known for many achievements throughout his life:

  • Began several studies on population growth, influencing Thomas Malthus with his theory of Malthusian catastrophe
  • Philosopher on economics, trade, mercantilism, Enlightenment ideals, and freedom
  • Founded the first public library in America
  • Created a phonetic alphabet for a spelling reform of English, which although unsuccessful influenced and was used in part by the International Phonetic Alphabet
  • One of the first charters of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean
  • Investigated and discovered the properties of electricity, and discoverer of the conservation of charge, as well as being a polymath influencing and deriving tools for optics, light, heating, and other physics
  • Laid out the first description of the pros-and-cons list method of making decisions
  • Writer of music, and player of stringed instruments as well as a glass harmonica
  • First named chess player in America, and a writer on the game whose works are read to this day on etiquette and style
  • Spy-master, public relations manager, and social engineer
  • First Postmaster General of the United States Post Office, chosen based on his already notable experience as postmaster
  • Ambassador, politician, polyglot, and advocate for religious tolerance and abolition of slavery
  • Grand Master of several Freemason lodges
  • Writer of Poor Richard’s Almanack
  • Printer of currency and advocate for paper money, as well as inventing several anti-counterfeiting techniques
  • Fugitive after fleeing from his apprenticeship without permission
  • Beloved of whores and many illegitimate children

Hark, A Vagrant #268 (first comic)

See why I think the dude deserves especial honor as a hero under the guidance of Hermes?

Where I work is amazingly close to the National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.  I like taking trips there, not least because it’s basically a temple to Hermes Diaktoros kai Angelos, the Guide and Messenger, complete with hymns to Hermes and caduci lining the architecture, but because it’s small and well-contained as far as Smithsonian museums go.  Add to it, there’s a large statue of Ben Franklin in the museum near the exit (where a post office is also located), to whom I always nod in honor as I walk past him.  While taking a trip there recently, I decided to look on the base of the statue to actually read it, and behold!, there was a list of his achievements (which exceeded more than I had thought initially) as well as his birthday and deathday.  Since his birthday was right around the corner, and being the quasi-Hellenistic Hermetic magician I am, why not do something to mark the day he was brought into the world?

While Ben Franklin was nominally Christian and raised by his Puritan parents Josiah Franklin and Abiah Franklin née Folger, he claimed Deism for much of his life, though changed directions several times that wouldn’t be unwelcome among Hermeticists.  He had a strong emphasis on inculcating virtue and strong character with an emphasis on doing good, as well as living a good life; these were critical in his views on founding a new nation based on the ideal of the republic.  While many religions claimed him (including the Quakers, Church of England, and Presbyterians), Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of religion for the sake of good in general, regardless of theology or dogma.  Among his other virtues, he held 13 to be highly important both to the development of his own character and that of others, listing them in his autobiography and focusing on one each week of the year:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

He was even a proponent of preserving the dead for later revival, first suggesting that he and his friends be “immersed…in a cask of Madeira”.  Dude’s baller, yo.

So, with all this in mind, I’ll be paying my deepest respects to Ben Franklin tonight and every year on this day.  According to the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary website, some of his favorite foods were, besides anything natively found and made by the Native Americans, apples, cranberries, pickles, bread and honey, potatoes, Parmesan cheese, and turkey (though Ben Franklin was an advocate for vegetarianism, and introduced tofu to the Americas).  While Madeira would be an obvious choice for a liquid offering, I might try a bit of fruit rum punch instead (since Franklin is associated with a rhyming recipe for the same); his recipe for milk punch might also be good.

Come on and join me tonight in celebrating this awesome man, whose work not only benefitted the United States, but even the whole world, especially for modern conveniences like Amazon and e-mail and mixology.  Even if you’re not an American, I’m sure there’s something you can thank or admire the dude for.  I mean, come on; half his life sounds like a plotline from Game of Thrones.  What’s not to drink to?