An Algebra of Archons—Series Conspectus
On Mysticism and the Human Experience
Join philosophy student and avid gamer Ben Steiz in his examination of the various ethics, world views and metaphysics encoded across much of pop culture. This will include both a broad survey and robust analysis of the numerous speculative fiction works and franchises.
Mysticism and mystical experiences are considered universal to humanity; they can be found in disparate cultures developed entirely in isolation. The rational relates the human world of the empirical—the senses—and the mystical to the unseen and non-empirical. What is important to understand from this is that unlike other fields of human experience, the mystical cannot be understood in the terms of binary “true” and “false” values. While describing a specific relation between the universal human experience and the mystical, one can use the terms “true” or “false” based on statistical data, but it is impossible to relate the subjective mystical world of the individual to values such as “true” or “false.” This is because of two functions of the mystical:
- An individual’s encounters with the mystical world are heavily rooted in the subjective; mystical experiences can transcend contemporary Boolean logic. Just as we can feel both good and bad about something at the same time, so too can the mystical be paradoxically both true and false.
- The mystical can form a connection between two seemingly unconnected areas; it can be neither true nor false by virtue by describing different conditions, often through analogy.
The concept of analogy brings us to the core expression of mysticism: narrative. The intensely subjective nature of the mystical, being the personal relation of the individual to the unseen world, it is often best, or only possible, related to others via analogy.
Mystical analysis of narrative and text, while derided by some as mere speculation, can be a form of analysis and consideration that reveals deeper working axioms and mechanics in the world of a narrative. It focuses on the relation of the reader and the author directly, connecting the reader to the experience of the author who produced the story.
However, the potential of such analysis goes beyond merely relating the experiences of the reader to those of the author. If understood in context in a Jungian sense, and relating to the idea of collective unconsciousness, one’s viewing of the inhuman can shed light on the human condition itself [ 1 ][ 2 ]. Much in the same way we view light on a mirror reflected to view ourselves even though we are logically not there, so too can objects be used as representation of the self. Just like a funhouse of distorting mirror angles, it is not just one that reflects us the “true” us, but rather a great myriad showing us in all our distorted reality.
Mysticism and Religion
Religion and mysticism are, obviously, highly connected activities. Religion, defined by Oxford as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods,” generally entails a certain form of mysticism, specifically a dominant—also known as controlling mysticism—and an emotional focus also known as non-physical mysticism [ 3 ]. It is this combination that gives religion its unique traits from a mystical sense.
Dominant-focused mysticism shapes the emotions that are perceived through religion, commonly fear, hope, wonder and so forth; emotions that are formed from experiencing a power far larger than the self.
Emotional-focused mysticism gives shapes to the dominance function by focusing on anthropomorphic traits of religion, deities instead of the mystical life energy of spiritualism. Deities become human-like beings with hatreds that become taboos as well as loves and desires that become the sacred. At its core, religion in the context of writing can be described as being as automatic as a car transmission:
“Don’t overanalyze or over-explain faith and beliefs. As you don’t explain how a car runs when a character jumps into it to make a fast getaway, don’t explain how religion makes a character behave. Just make use of faith the same way you make use of a car” [ 4 ].
Because of this fact, religion is often seen as a form of humanizing the inhuman in order to allow the motives of the unknown to be understandable and therefore manipulate-able, causing religion to border on magic. Conversely, religion may also be considered more and more secular as one removes faith-based claims about the supernatural and instead relies specifically on human experience with the impersonal realm of morals and principles, making it, at times, closer to the purview of philosophy.
Polytheism and World Building
In the context of world building, the creation of a religion, specifically in the context of the world, is meant as a reflection of what the individuals find as both a spiritual, emotive experience that drives them to a greater level of subjective understanding, as well as a dominant force meant to show what forces the society finds as powerful over their lives. It is in the assignment of domains to deities that we can understand associations and values of a fictional culture.
It is a common myth that “the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow due to how common it is to them.” While various Inuit tribes with different languages possess generally between three and six words we would render as snow, in gods we see the division of concept as needed [ 5 ].
If a culture has seven different gods of the sea, they can be seen as a far more of a maritime culture then a culture with only one; likewise, a culture where most gods double as gods of war naturally reflects a more militaristic culture. If many of these gods have an aspect of some domain but do not possess it naturally, then we can see that certain regions hold these aspect values higher. How these domains separate can also tell you a lot about their culture, representing what psychologists call “disassociation,” the unlinking of usually linked concepts [ 6 ]. The Babylonians, for instance, had two separate primordial water deities; Apsu, who was the god of fresh water, and Tiamat, the goddess of salt water. The division between these two shows that the concepts of fresh water and salt water were different enough that the Babylonians considered them separate domains entirely. In fiction, the domains of various deities, how the domains are divided, and what domains are given to whom should be viewed with especially high interest as it shows where the values of that culture lie.
Association, to associate two concepts together, under a specific deity, also tell of the associations made by that culture. The Greek god Poseidon was the god of both the oceans and of horses because of a myth where he created horses out of the crest of the waves [ 7 ]. Likewise, the Egyptian god Thoth was the god of both writing and magic, because to the Egyptians, writing itself was a form of magic, and the titles of scholar, priest, and mage were essentially indistinguishable [ 7 ]. If you look at Aztec culture, the god Tezcatlipoca was the god of night, jaguars, storms, all manner of dangerous things, yet also of slaves, suggesting a subtle fear of slaves turning and revolting [ 8 ]. In Japan, the goddess Inari was the goddess of fertility and the harvest as well as the goddess of foxes, because of the belief that the foxes that stole fertility, which were perceived as her messengers were also the same who stole from the harvest [ 9 ]. The association between seemingly disparate things can show a level of cultural linking which, when discussing fictional cultures, can show their mindset and ways of being.
Monotheism and Religion in Fiction
However, this is only the case if the culture is polytheistic. Discussing the differences between monotheistic cultures and polytheistic cultures in real life can be tricky enough, especially since many monotheistic cultures either covertly or overtly also practiced polytheism at one point or another, sometimes reconciling them as aspects or via other explanations.
In fiction, most depictions of a single deity tend to be mirroring the Abrahamic God, although generally without distinction between the Abrahamic faiths. When a monotheistic deity is used and is not merely a stand-in for the Abrahamic God, it is generally meant to philosophically guide the piece, to showcase what the highest powers think of events. Often this is a stand-in for the author, in whole or in part, if you prefer. Symbolically, a monotheistic culture represents the ultimate in domain linking, making literally everything the domain of one god, and thus making that god the supreme authority.
If the theory is believed that even absence informs existence by explaining what it is not, then even a fictional culture being atheistic has symbolic meaning. Just as monotheism is the ultimate domain linking, atheism can also be seen as the ultimate domain linking. Nothing at all, no two points in space-time, even if identical, have the same ruler because there isn’t one. The atheist denies that any two possess a spiritual connection, because even spiritualism is a form of religion. As such, an atheistic society in fiction can be seen as representative of a society that does not make non-empirical or irrational connections. Whether this is good or bad depends on the work, but it is important universally to note that even lack of religion has meaning symbolically.
This is without factoring all the forms of religious structure that can be utilized to show symbolism. Institutions of worship, priesthood, and religious isolation in monasteries, the paradoxical uniting of cultural and division of culture based on sharing or differing religious practices and beliefs, etc. To define religion’s impact in fictional worlds and their meaning on even the deity level is complex. To try and describe all would reach past the scope of this introduction, but will be touched on more within specific examples. However, religion is not the only type of mysticism; others must be considered as well, though they often possess less significance.
Mysticism and Magic
“Magic” is a term that relates to a long list of ideas, from magic-users in fiction who have essentially meta-human abilities to esoteric or occult mystical traditions in real life meant to influence the world around, or impressive tricks performed on stage that the audience knows are false.
Magic differs from religion; while both are emotive mystical events and both deal with subjective events that are seemingly beyond human control, magic is submissive (controlled mysticism) where the experience involves the subject having power over the world, rather than being at its mercy. Because of this tendency, magic is most often more personal than religion.
At its strictest level, magic may be viewed as an attempt to externalize internal subjective experiences, to make a thought, feeling, or desire reality or to internalize external subjective experiences, to see and know more then what is empirically or rationally derived. Magic may border on religion, most often when magic is made more spiritual and when greater risks are associated with it. When magic is chaotic, unstable, or otherwise unpredictable, it is viewed as bordering closer to religion, and can often come with bartering with powerful entities like spirits or demons. This is very like the prayer of religion, except instead of offering good behavior or thankfulness, what is offered instead are other things of value to the spirit. On the other hand, when magic is predictable and follows strict rules it is viewed as bordering closer to science, and in such a setting, mages are treated very much like academic scientists, deducing the logical rules of magic and following a formula.
The notion that magic might be similar to science is perhaps a strange one to ponder, but they blur at the borders of early proto-scientific systems emerging from the magical traditions such as alchemy. Those who purport magic usage in modern times describe their magic as like science:
“Magic, at its most basic, is the science of Earth’s hidden powers. Its practice is also an art. Magic is a science in that performing a spell requires research and awareness of the methods of magic. It is an art in the sense that you must follow your intuition and be creative. In the practice of magic, you will blend art and science to bend the natural forces to your will and bring about your desired outcomes” [ 10 ].
Magic in fiction can be seen as how the people of the world relate to their natural or unseen forces when they are given control of them. What magic is possible, and what magic is used, are parallels to the concepts of what actually is and what people perceive. Likewise, those who have the capacity to perform magic, whether it be born, learned through study, or possessed via artifacts, can say a lot about the world, the author, and their relation to power.
Mysticism and Philosophy
Philosophy may seem an entirely unrelated concept to the notion of mysticism, however it’s heavily intertwined, especially in the world of fiction. Philosophy is, at its root, an ability to correlate subjective experience with external world. Indeed, the earliest philosophers were essentially metaphysicists whose thoughts can be described thusly:
“Thales and most of the other pre-Socratic philosophers (i.e. those who lived before Socrates) limited themselves in the main to Metaphysics (enquiry into the nature of existence, being and the world)…
“Although these ideas might seem rather simplistic and unconvincing today, we should bear in mind that at this time there was really no scientific knowledge, and even the commonest of phenomena (e.g. lightning, water freezing to ice, etc.) would have appeared miraculous. Their attempts were important first steps in the development of philosophical thought. They also set the stage for two other important pre-Socratic philosophers: Empedocles, who combined their ideas into the theory of the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water), which became the standard dogma for much of the next two thousand years; and Democritus, who developed the extremely influential idea of Atomism, that all of reality is actually composed of tiny, indivisible and indestructible building blocks, known as atoms, which form different combinations and shapes within the surrounding void.
“Another early and very influential Greek philosopher was Pythagoras, who led a rather bizarre religious sect that essentially believed that all of reality was governed by numbers, and that its essence could be encountered through the study of mathematics” [ 11 ].
Philosophy can be seen as quite the mystical realm of thought, governed by the desire to connect everyday “mundane” actions with the governing principles of the universe. However, philosophy as a field holds distinct properties from religion and magic. It is as domination based (controlling mystical) as religion because it involves the same level of human inescapability and uncontrollability, but is analytical rather than emotive. This connection manifests in two ways: the philosophy of mysticism and the mysticism of philosophy.
The former is limited initially by the scope of the world building. If the gods’ presence is common and magic is ever-present as a clear repeatable force, there is not much in the way of philosophical argument about the nature of the unseen forces and the supernatural as they are self-evident in the world. The more like our world the fictional world is, the less you see the mystical and supernatural, the more relevance the philosophy of mysticism becomes. If magic and religion are concepts that are not confirmed as having physical effects, the philosophical tendencies of people can themselves be made into a symbolic story element.
Conversely, the mysticism of philosophy is a rarely explored field that centers on notions of ontology and metaphysics. For example, if one looks at the philosophical, particularly ethical, understandings of Kant, it is easy to see that they are derived instead from a particular ontological viewpoint of the world [ 12 ]. If one looks at the theology of Dante, one can easily see the metaphysical viewpoint of the world as concentric rings emanating from God, and the philosophy and beliefs as derived from that.
As philosophy becomes less based on rational thought and instead becomes more reliant on faith, claims and personal experience as opposed to logical statements, it tends closer to religion. Conversely as it becomes more dominant, more descriptive of the nature of the world instead of prescriptive about what should be done in the world, it seems to drift closer to science.
Mysticism and Science
If mysticism and philosophy sound unrelated, mysticism and science probably sound like a paradoxical combination. However, in the 2×2 matrix that forms the mystical understanding, the ways humans react to the universe and the unseen forces beyond human understanding and control, science acts as the final way of relating. Science represents the process of understanding data from the natural world via observation, and oftentimes the manipulation of such. In fiction, science can be seen as a form of mysticism, especially in “soft” science-fiction in which the manner of scientific mechanics is left to the viewer’s determination and not explained within the text. Of course, if the science grows too “soft,” it will begin to feel to some as if it is no longer “science” fiction but instead a reskin of magic, or religion, or philosophy. This as is a complaint often used against Star Wars as science-fiction, which some argue is a pattern that has begun to corrupt the genre of science-fiction as a whole!
In soft science-fiction, concepts are applied as wanted to create an effect, so long as it does not break the reader’s suspension of disbelief and as long as it does not break its own rules. The author must try hard to maintain the world lest the audience lose all potential to enjoy the science-fiction parts at all. However, science, if seen as a branch of mysticism, must be distinguished from the others by its unique traits.
Science is an analytical branch of mysticism, meaning that it is rationally derived from starting principles. Generally, these principles are the scientific principles of our universe as established. As science becomes less analytic, relying more heavily on axioms, it veers closer to magic. The more analytical, the more it becomes a repeatable process that follows a quantifiable set of data, and ranges to the subjective experience, where the less logical it becomes, the more its starting principles seem like mystical requirements [ 13 ].
Science is also submission-based (Controlling Mystical) because it involves gaining control over one’s natural world and optimizing it for one’s benefit. Even passive observation and information gathering involves a level of control merely from deriving a set of rules that the natural world must follow and is repeatable.
The science of a fictional world can tell us what the natural world of this universe is shaped by and more directly what the universe’s inhabitants have to work with in terms of their level of control over their environment. This is similar to magic; however, unlike magic, science represents derived principles rather than axioms, and thus shows a representation of the principles that govern the world instead of points of interest.
Mysticism forms the basis of understanding and relation between the seen human realm and the unseen realm of natural forces. Mysticism includes the vast variety of ways we answer, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It is useful to be grouped into the 2×2 matrix I have described here:
|Submissive-Mystical (Controlled Mysticism)||Dominant-Mystical (Controlling Mysticism)|
|Analytical (Derived rationally from principles)||Science||Philosophy|
|Emotive (Derived from Experience or Revelation)||Magic||Religion|
At the center of all these is the Shaman archetype. The Shaman archetype is one that represents the boundary between the mystical experience and the human realm, the person who is also that which is inhuman and unknowable. This archetype is more common than it would seem. In fact, it would seem to me that the standard Hero’s journey is in fact in actually the journal of the Shaman—that the Hero’s journey is the external counterpart of the internal journey of the Shaman, who seeks to reconcile their inner world and the outer world, via these mystical processes and that mysticism is nigh-omnipresent in fiction. Given their usage in pop culture, I will seek to explore mysticism and related concepts within this series, as represented or retranslated through that lens.
- “Ibis-headed Thoth, Egyptian god of knowledge and mathematics, patron of scribes, represents the nascent fields of academic inquiry before science was decoupled from mysticism.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/egyptian-god-thoth-birds-head-on-1013934523
- “Given the resurgence of anti-intellectual bad faith actors, metaphysics in our world are under scrutiny along with conspiracists and atavists. However, in realms of speculative fiction, it serves a critical role as a benign exploration of philosophical and cognitive thought experiments, through which we can reexamine what’s taken for granted in ours.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/memory-me-series-backdrop-female-portrait-460940179
A writer and philosopher, Ben Steiz strives to create realistic and engaging cultures and beliefs for fictional settings. A scholar of narrative and metaphysics, and having graduated from Bard College with a double major in creative writing and philosophy, Ben specializes in symbolism. As one of The Unconventional’s contributors, he unpacks layers of metaphor in world design and storytelling as a research assistant. He’s also penned his own series, “An Algebra of Archons”, examining mysticism.
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