There was a viral post on Facebook last week, which many of you may have seen, that most people just found funny; but if you’re a religious-studies/occultism wonk like me, it unleashed a chain of very weird very trippy thoughts. I figured why not share it with you, my loyal Break readers?
So this is the story: there’s a great-grandma in Brazil who prays every day to a little statuette of St. Anthony. This is not surprising; St. Anthony is one of the most popular saints in Brazil, which is a very Catholic country, and there’s probably a ton of great-grandmas in Brazil who pray to him regularly.
Only in this case, her great-granddaughter noticed there was something a little strange about the figurine great-grammy was praying to. She soon realized that somewhere along the line, a mistake was made, and gammy had spent who knows how many years praying every day to an action figure of Elrond.
Most normal people would just have a chuckle about how an old lady was spending her time and devotion praying in front of an image of the Elven Lord of Rivendell instead of the Patron Saint of Strengthening Marriages and Finding Lost Objects.
But getting real deep into weird religion and the occult makes you far from normal.
The old lady’s accidental idolatry got me to wondering about the consequences of this. Is there such a thing as belief-fail? What happens when you pray to the wrong thing? What about if you pray, invoke or venerate something that isn’t what you think it is?
Those of you who are atheists might just be chuckling and saying it’s all fake, and some of you who are very religious might think you already got the answer; OK, fine, but bear with me. Let’s consider it, at least as a thought experiment. Let’s consider the mechanics of spiritual devotion here. If we assume that something happens as a result of spiritual effort, what is it that happens, and where does it come from? Is what matters how you’re doing it? Who or what you’re doing it toward? Or something else? Just how is it supposed to work?
This stuff is important and interesting because it has to do with how human beings relate to the world.
And it turns out Brazilian Granny wasn’t the only one.
This Stuff Has Happened Before
Brazilian Grandma wasn’t even the only adorable old-lady mistaking a pop-culture icon for a religious figure of worship.
Over in China, last year, a similarly amusing picture was put on the Chinese social-networking site Weibo, featuring an old woman kneeling and offering incense in front of a statue. Only the statue was a statue of Garen, a character from League of Legends.
What most likely happened is that she mistook the image of Garen for a religious statue of Guan Yu. Guan Yu was a real-life historical figure from the Three Kingdoms era, who went down in history as one of China’s greatest warriors and generals. He was so renowned for his bravery, fidelity and righteousness that he was later deified as a Taoist/Confucian god. His cult is still incredibly popular throughout China. He’s so venerated that the city of Jingzhou recently constructed a 190ft tall statue of Guan Yu. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty if you don’t count the pedestal.
So would the “Holy Emperor Lord Guan”, the God of Loyalty and Righteousness, be miffed if this old woman mistakenly burnt incense meant for him in front of a statue of Garen The Might of Demacia instead? Or would he take it in stride?
What Happens When People Pray to Things not Intended to be Prayed to?
That’s a very complicated question, both religiously and in the larger sense of the human condition. From the point of view of mainstream (‘exoteric’, we call it in religious-studies) religion, the answer ends up varying according to the faith you belong to.
In the case of (Catholic) Brazilian-Grandma, the position of the Catholic church is pretty clear. You are not “praying to” the statue of a saint. You are praying to a saint, asking them to intercede on your behalf with God. The iconography, the picture or statue or relic of a saint, is only meant to help inspire your devotion. So if you accidentally pray in front of a statue of Elrond the Elf thinking it’s St. Anthony, you’re still praying to St. Anthony. So that’s good news at least, Brazilian Granny won’t be going to hell.
Unless you think the Protestants are right, of course. To them, it’s all idolatry. That’s why some particularly extreme Protestant churches even think stuff like Rock Music or Yoga or Harry Potter or D&D could make you go to hell, because if those things are ‘satanic’ then if you’re doing them, even if you don’t think of it as something spiritual at all, you might be unintentionally praising Satan. Mind you, most Protestants aren’t nearly that stupid.
In some other religious systems, it’s not as simple. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, statues and shrines are consecrated and empowered, so how effective veneration goes will depend on that. Chinese granny isn’t going to hell either, but her prayers to Garen might not get to Guan Yu. Of course, those are all big religions with a lot of variety. In some versions of Hinduism, for example, you could pray to any rock and reach Rama, while in other sects, praying to the right god but at the wrong temple could get you into trouble.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there has been a huge controversy within the Dalai Lama’s “gelug” sect these last few years over a “dharma-protector” spirit named Dorje Shugden. He was a popular figure in certain branches of that sect, who was venerated to because he was supposed to ‘defend’ the Gelug school against the “false teachings” of the other sects in Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhist sects actually have a lot of rivalries and resentments you never hear about in the warm cozy totally-bullshit image Tibetan Buddhism has in western media). But back in 1996 the Dalai Lama declared that Dorje Shugden wasn’t actually a protector spirit at all, but rather a demon, and that he was no longer to be venerated! He’s even forced Tibetan Buddhists of his school to sign declarations abandoning all practices related to Dorje Shugden.
But other Gelug Buddhists disagreed, and this has caused a shit-storm of accusations and conflicts, and probably even some murders!
So clearly, at least for some Buddhists, it’s not the thought that counts.
But all this stuff is the view of mainstream religion. When you get into mysticism and magick, on the other hand, that’s where things get really weird.
Fake Gurus, True Students
A guru once said “The reason there are so many fake teachers is because there are so many fake students”. It’s one thing to pray to the wrong statue, but what about when you’re talking about actual living beings who are said to be Masters, Awakened Beings, or incarnations of God?
In mysticism, the ‘guru’ is extremely important. But if a student is not really sincere, if the student is just looking for entertainment or power or an escape from problems or something other than spiritual truth, then there’s not much a guru can really do. There’s a lot of fake gurus out there too, who just promise easy answers instead of demanding effort, or tell you what you want to hear and confirm your fantasies instead of what you need to shake up your entire reality.
A few years ago, an Indian-American film-maker posed as a new-age guru, calling himself “Kumare”. He was the perfect fit to the fantasy image of how an “eastern spiritual teacher” should look and act. And combined with some of the typical simplistic pseudo-Hindu pablum that thousands of other fake teachers push, he got himself a whole bunch of followers.
Then he revealed the truth about himself to them all: that this was all just for a movie. Obviously some of his ‘followers’ were angry at the trick. Others felt like they’d learned an important lesson about skepticism. But some decided that it didn’t really matter. That what they learned and their experience with “Kumare”, even if he didn’t really exist, helped them.
There’s a much older story about this kind of thing, starring Milarepa, the wizard-hero of Tibetan Buddhism. When Milarepa was searching for a master, he found a guru that he thought had something real to teach him. And he started to follow this master with absolute devotion. Some local troublemakers challenged him when Milarepa claimed that by speaking his Guru’s name he could do anything, and they told him “if that’s true, walk across that raging river”.
Milarepa started to chant his guru’s name and walked on the water, right across the river. Eventually, word of this got to Milarepa’s guru, who was amazed by what had happened. He said to himself “If Milarepa who is just my disciple can do this, obviously I can as well!”
So he started to walk across the river chanting his own name, promptly fell in the water, was swept away and drowned. It turned out that the master was a fraud, but Milarepa was a true student.
Don’t Freak Out, Freak In
One of my favorite Greek goddesses is Apophenia. She’s the patron goddess of seeing the connections in things that have no obvious connection. Magically speaking, every thing in reality is connected in certain ways to everything else, and seeing those connections lets you understand the secret ways that existence works. It allows you to perform wonders.
There’s just one thing about Apophenia. Until very recently, she didn’t actually exist.
Apophenia was created a few years back, by the chaos magician Peter Carroll. She is presented in all seriousness, but also without any denial at all about the fact that Apophenia was not a ‘real’ ancient goddess. She works anyways. She works better in fact, because you can’t hide behind the play-pretend of some kind of reassuring authority. As Carroll said in an interview: “throughout history humans have made up religions and myths and mythologies and then pretended they didn’t; because they think they will get more mileage out of them that way. I disagree.”
To mystics and magicians, the spiritual work is not about what happens on the outside, but what happens on the inside. Spiritual power isn’t about “believing” in idols, so fake or real doesn’t enter into it. It’s about what you can do to your own consciousness. Everything on the outside: gods, saints, gurus, statues — they’re all symbols. Or as Jung would have said, they’re Archetypes. If you can connect strongly enough to an archetype to be able to get out of your own way, to experience a change where you transform inner reality, then that’s an archetype you can use. And if you manage to transform your inner reality, you can transform outer reality.
The magical way to do that is based on two steps: approach what you’re doing really seriously (with sincerity), and stop taking yourself so seriously. Usually, people are exactly the other way around: in spirituality like with everything else, they think of their selves as the most important thing, and treat their spirituality like it’s all about them. It’s something one great Buddhist teacher called “spiritual materialism”: treating spirituality like a commodity that if you ‘obtain’ enough of, it’ll serve you. If you pray hard enough you’ll get what you want.
But real spirituality is the exact opposite: if you get out of your own way, and stop making it all about you, then you can connect to the transcendent in everything.
So from a magical perspective, Elrond can become St.Anthony. Garen can become Guan Yu. A documentary film-maker could become a worthy guru. And a goddess invented in 2005 can become an ancient deity. Because what matters is if you can connect to symbols and the power of symbols from within your own sincere Will.
As its power was helpful to the writing of this article, I’ll leave you with the text of a magical spell, written by Aleister Crowley long ago, to invoke, enhance and unite with the Spirit of Coffee:
“O Coffee! By the mighty Name of Power do I invoke thee, consecrating thee to the service of the Magic of Light.
Let the pulsations of my heart be strong and regular and slow!
Let my brain be wakeful and active in its supreme task of self-control!
That my desired end may be effected through Thy strength, Adonai, unto Whom be the Glory for ever!
Amen without lie, and Amen, and Amen of Amen.“
I swear that and tobacco were the only drugs I was on when I wrote this article.