Doing it wrong: cultural theft and Supernatural

By Ian 'Cat' Vincent | July 30, 2014

Unicursal hexigramThe subject of cultural appropriation is — necessarily — an important part of the modern occult conversation. Issues around occultists and Pagans making use (or misuse) of the symbols and rites of indigenous and ancestor cultures have to be examined: though there is often a tendency for various sides of the debate to accuse the other of “doing it wrong.”

I think it might be interesting to look a sideways example of this — of the symbolism of the occult being appropriated by mainstream culture.

The symbol at the top of the page is probably familiar to most modern practitioners. It’s the unicursal hexagram, the symbol Aleister Crowley designed to represent the religion he founded, Thelema, and as a symbol of the cosmos.

Since last year, however, it has acquired another meaning: the symbol of the Men of Letters organisation of occult scholars in the TV show Supernatural, where it is called the Aquarian Star.

Supernatural, to put it mildly, is not a show with a good reputation in regards to its use of the symbols and mythology of the occult and minority religions. In its mythos, witches are invariably evil; Pagan gods are always lesser (and often mortal) beings beneath the Christian God; and the details of the beliefs and myths it borrows are rarely adhered to or respected. So, it wasn’t exactly a shock that when the unicursal hexagram first showed up (in the episode “As Time Goes By“), it was treated as just another occulty image to add to the collection. What did surprise me was that it appeared alongside another distinctly Thelemic image — that of the Scarlet Woman.

The Scarlet Woman in Thelema is the most earthy manifestation of the feminine Babalon energy: a fierce, sexually and magically powerful redhead, wicked and unashamed. And, as aptly portrayed by the actress Alaina Huffman, that’s precisely what we got in the character of the demon Abbadon inhabiting the body of Men of Letters member Josie Sands. That, coupled with the showrunners’ and episode writer Adam Glass’ appropriating the unicursal hexagram as a spooky weird symbol, is an odd coincidence — to put it mildly.

Between the Worlds Conference 2015

On one level, the show’s use of Thelemic imagery is unquestionably Doing It Wrong. But clearly, some elements of the symbolism managed to bypass that. The addition of the Men of Letters to the Supernatural mythology has actually been a boon to a show that was increasingly moribund as it approaches a 10 year run…and possibly, some viewers may have their curiosity sufficiently piqued to look further into just what that odd looking symbol means.

It reminds me of Grant Morrison’s attitude to the apparent appropriation of his occult comic series The Invisibles’ symbolism into The Matrix. Although understandably annoyed at this at first, he later noted, “a little bit after that, I thought, This is what you wanted. This is the whole idea of doing The Invisibles as a hypersigil, so this would catch on and kind of weird gnostic ideas would get out into the general population and make them think different.”

I suspect that dear old Uncle Aleister might not be displeased at Supernatural’s use of his symbolism. (I’m certain he would approve of Alaina Huffman’s Abbadon!) And, for all its flaws, the symbol is now part of a series with an enthusiastic and creative fandom, some of whom will take this new manifestation and run with it to…who knows where? Maybe, like many other fictional organisations, Supernatural‘s fictional Men of Letters will inspire devotees to aspire to occult scholarship in reality, and for them, the Aquarian Star will take on a new, deeper meaning.

Cultures evolve. They grow, shift, absorb aspects of other cultures and reform them to their own use. Though I feel respect should be shown to a culture and its fruits not be merely plundered, once a symbol or mythos has been taken out of its original context, it can’t be taken back again…and sometimes, what happens to it next can birth something valid, partaking of the old and the new, the authentic and the hyperreal.

Supernatural’s 10th season begins 21 October 2014 CE. I will be curious to see what the Men of Letters get up to…and if a little more of the 93 Current will slip into the show, in whatever form.

Further reading

There is ample reading to be found on the subject of cultural appropriation online: one interesting perspective on a less absolutist attitude towards it can be found in Nabeelah Jaffer’s essay, “Why all cultures steal for creativity,” published in Aeon.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

About Ian 'Cat' Vincent

Ian 'Cat' Vincent is a lifelong student of magic and the occult, and a former professional combat magician. His writing on Forteana and magic, especially the style he terms 'Guttershaman', can be found at catvincent.com, and he is a contributing editor at The Daily Grail. He lives in Yorkshire, England with his wife, the artist Kirsty Hall.


4 thoughts on “Doing it wrong: cultural theft and Supernatural

  1. I think that there are some very good pop culture items that can bring a person to their pagan walk, or find their walk in general. For me it was Dungeons and Dragons, I know we don’t do the same things but it opened a world where I wasn’t so able to see one from the other. I stopped discriminating on people and found common ground. When I started asking questions instead of answering them my own parents told me to just Read the Bible… That didn’t help any… I needed to know why I felt like this.
    My Higher Power started to come to me and was gentle to me, when I was at the to much point She eased up. And then let me come to her a bit.

    1. Oh, unquestionably! I’ve drawn a lot – some would say an excessive amount – of inspiration from fictional sources, playing RPGs etc. Anything that opens you up to new ideas cant help but be a benefit.

  2. Instead of getting panties twisted over the fact that a pop culture TV show has gained a massive “cult” following by using a mishmash of pagan/occult/etc. elements in a world where anything and everything “supernatural” is “evil”, I have found that it actually opens a number of doors.

    Just one example: The Legend of Sam Hain. The first time I watched the episode where this “legend” showed up, I rolled my eyes so hard they rattled. The second time I watched it, I was watching it with a co-worker. When Samhain was mentioned, I blurted, “Oh that’s bullshit.” and, well, the conversation went from there. I was able to use it as a chance to educate her not only on the truth of a lot of what Supernatural has twisted, but the truth of who I am as a Witch.

    I watch Supernatural with my husband and my daughter, and we all love it. Usually, my husband HATES me talking during a movie or a show or something like that, but during Supernatural he’s always interested to hear my quips and grumbles, and then afterwards we end up talking about where Supernatural got it wrong and how things really are.

    1. Well, I’m glad you find a benefit to the show in that way – like I said, I’m a fan myself.

      But the article wasn’t meant to be a bunched-panties whine about the show: I was hoping to use it as both an illustration of cultural appropriation (a huge topic in pagan and occult discussion for some time) and pointing out exactly what you said about how even an incorrect representation sometimes has beneficial effects.

      But… wouldn’t you be even happier with the show if it had at least some accuracy (and less misogyny, better field competence on the part of the team, a consistent attitude as to what demon possession actually entails etc etc)?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>