Doing it wrong: cultural theft and Supernatural

Supernatural, Men of LettersThe 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. Unicursal hexigram

The symbol above 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.

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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.

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.

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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.
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