Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cthulhu Yoga

There's been some talk lately around the blogosphere regarding the cultural appropriation of yoga by Western students. One of the issues involved is that what we think of today as "yoga" is not particularly ancient or Indian; rather, it is a combination of poses found in old Indian texts and European exercise techniques that first became popular about a hundred years ago.

The synthesis did happen largely because of the British occupation of India and so is related to the colonialism of the British Empire, but as it incorporates so many European elements it is not simply a case of Europeans hijacking an existing non-European tradition. Rather, it is a combination of European and Indian methods, and the current systems really only date back to about 1960.

A while back I wrote about schools teaching yoga classes as part of physical education, which prompted a lawsuit from Christian parents who were under the impression that the classes were teaching Hinduism or something. But the school had gone to great lengths to secularize their classes, going so far as to replace the official names of postures with nonsense like "crisscross applesauce."

Frankly, that's just dumb. If you want to teach yoga completely divorced from any possible religious context, why not combine it with a completely fictional mythology? Better still, why not a mythology in which every single entity in the pantheon wants to eat your sanity for breakfast? Now that's hardcore, and I didn't even have to make it up. Cthulhu Yoga is apparently a real thing!

Let’s say you want to combine fitness and darkness, but don’t have access to a gym with Bauhaus-blasting cycling classes. Never fear, online tutorials already exist! “Yoga Fhtagn” (from “Cthulhu fhtagn,” meaning “Cthulhu waits”), and combines a Lovecraftian horror (is Lovecraft goth?) with low-impact Sun Salutation—minus the sun. The class of the damned is actually led and narrated by no other than feminist writer/journalist and and Harvard Fellow, Laurie Penny—so you know the politics of Health Goth are soundly left (and also that quite a few of the people that admire the style have a sense of humor about how silly it is).

Billed as “the ultimate health goth workout,” Penny’s says her routine will help us “tone our bodies, while slowly losing our minds,” but the video cuts mysteriously short, most likely owing to cosmic monstrosities. Hey, no pain, no gain.

This is just plain hilarious, and it's the perfect remedy to the argument that modern yoga is somehow based on a religion practiced by real people, or that using poses that were never intended to be part of an exercise regimen in the context of Western fitness is somehow offensive. After all, if you're going to be criticized anyway, why not go all-out and align your teachings with the greatest of all possible evils?

I suppose if these first students start descending into madness or mutating into gibbering horrors or becoming obsessed with mysterious and entirely fictional grimoires held in the libraries of fictional universities the class may turn out to be a tragic failure. But for now, it strikes me as a fun way to keep Lovecraft fans engaged with fitness practices that help maintain their overall health.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Satanic School Bus?

Here's another story that stands as a testament to the power of human stupidity. A Christian mom in Tennessee is outraged after she spotted a brake light on a school bus that (sort of) looks (a little) like a pentagram. The offending light is shown above.

“Anyone who fears a God, if not God and Jesus Christ, should be outraged,” said the mother, who was not identified because she is reportedly receiving death threats after sharing the photo on social media.

The mother says it’s appalling the brake lights are shaped like a pentagram. “If you can’t put a cross on there, you can’t put a pentagram on it,” she said.

The woman pointed to Walgreen’s decision last year to remove wrapping paper from its shelves because images on the paper appeared to be those of swastikas.

“Would we allow a swastika, for instance, to be on the back of the bus?” said the mother.

Before I go any further, whoever is sending this woman death threats needs to cut it out, right now. I am so tired of that bullshit that a proper metaphor escapes me. On this blog I poke fun at a lot of people who post dumb stuff on the Internet, but anybody who thinks threatening a person's life over an online comment or photograph or whatever is an okay thing to do is a far worse human being than any of those folks. Any of them.

Now it is true that the stupid is pretty strong here. Look at the picture. The light is a circle filled with a small ring of five lights and a bigger ring of five around that. So you can trace lines between the lights on the outer ring and get a pentagram, but what else could you do? Using four as the base number for the lights wouldn't fill the circle as well, and anyway it would look kind of like a cross. Six would suggest a Star of David. Seven would suggest the Thelemic Star of Babalon. And so forth.

Just about every lineal figure can be construed to mean something. Safety features like lights go through rigorous testing, and my guess is that the base-five pattern was selected because it was most visible or worked the best in some fashion. I'm hoping that this woman is not trying to say that Satanists have infiltrated the bus company and are making pentagram-shaped brake lights to corrupt the youth of America, because that's total tinfoil hat nonsense. That's beyond dumb; it's straight-up delusional.

I also think that the comparison to the swastika is pretty ignorant. Satanists have never engaged in the systematic murder of millions of Christians. When they do, maybe she'll have a point - but I highly doubt such a day will ever come.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Own a Haunted Castle!

For those of you who may have dreamed of owning a haunted English castle, here's your chance. Blenkinsopp Castle in Northumbria is on the market for a mere £325,000. That's not necessarily cheap in the overall scheme of things, but relatively speaking real estate values in the UK are quite high. An average house in London goes for more than £500,000 - and that won't include ramparts, a tower, a bunch of fourteenth century ruins, or a resident ghost.

Built by the Blenkinsopp family in 1339, the castle has served as a family home and a hotel and was added to by William Lyle Blenkinsopp Coulson in the 1880s. It comes complete with a Pele tower - a type of fortified watch tower that was added in the 19th century - and is nestled in a hamlet of 70 homes.

Rumour has it that the castle is haunted by the widow of Bryan de Blenkinsopp because he left her when she refused to tell him where she had buried her treasure chest. The chest was never found and "The White Lady" is said to roam the corridors.

Despite being ravaged by a fire in 1954 when it was a guest house, the home has been lovingly restored and is now a Grade II listed imposing house fit for a lord or lady.

More photographs of the castle and its interior can be found here. While the renovated interior looks a lot more modern than you might expect, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The new fixtures and windows are going to work a lot better than the originals. Also, with some clever faux-painting it wouldn't be that hard to redo the interior to look more castle-like.

I can't say that I have much interest in relocating to England, even to live in a haunted castle. But for anyone who does or who already lives there, this is a great deal for the property.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Remembering the "Satanic Panic"

There's a good article up today on io9 recounting the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's and early 1990's, during which phony "recovered memories" were treated as evidence of widespread Satanic cult activity. I started practicing magick in high school and graduated in 1987, so my first forays into occultism happened during that whole media circus connecting day care centers, heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and pretty much anything else fundamentalist Christians found distasteful.

The article references a video entitled "The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults" that is now available on YouTube. The poster does not know whether it was ever used as a training video, but as it dates from 1994 I would guess not. The FBI report that debunked the Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomenon was published in 1992, and afterwards public opinion rapidly turned against the fundamentalist leaders who were pushing it as real. So the video was certainly made for police training, but 1994 was likely too late for it to be taken seriously by many police departments.

It's impossible to know if this 1994 oddity was ever used as an actual police training tool (hopefully not), but it's presented matter-of-factly. It features input from "experts" like blatantly homophobic "former Satanic priest turned Christian" Eric Pryor (a fascinating guy in his own right), who interprets graffiti and sets up altars, presumably for the benefit of the wide-eyed police officers who suspected their communities were being overrun by a Satanic menace.

The video offers a glimpse at the context that spawned not just the McMartin trial, which ran from 1987 to 1990, but also at the widespread fear that a battle of good versus evil was raging just below the surface of American culture. Heavy metal songs (and the subliminal and backwards messages supposedly contained therein) and album art, horror movies, and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons all offered easy, obvious targets. (As seen in the classic TV movie Mazes and Monsters.)

Talk shows, the era's number-one source for dubious investigations of hot-button topics, also helped fan Satanic Panic's flames. (Check out the Oprah clip below; the technical quality isn't good, but the content — in which a calm and clear-eyed representative of an alternative religion calls out an audience member who makes vague claims of having, uh, murdered a guy as part of a Satanic ritual — is very telling.)

"It was something we didn't realize at the time, but now, it looks like a low-scale version of the McCarthy-era paranoia around communism," Peter Bebergal, author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, tells io9."The devil worshippers could be anywhere. They could be your next-door neighbor. They could be your child's caregiver."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Jesus Sure Gets Around

It has been awhile since I covered allegedly miraculous Jesus sightings on pieces of toast, sides of skyscrapers, and just about anywhere else a semi-random pattern can emerge that looks a little like a human face. The latest of these, though, really takes the cake. A Welsh woman named Rachel Evans has apparently found the face of Jesus in a photograph of her wet dog's ear.

Evans had used ordinary, non-holy water for the bath – so was surprised when her partner pointed out the divine visage in Yorkshire terrier Dave’s ear. The DVLA worker from Swansea, south Wales, said: ‘I was a bit freaked out to be honest.

‘I am a bit superstitious and it’s quite spooky. At first I didn’t see anything at all. We were just giving them a bath in the sink and taking silly photos and selfies because they looked cute. About an hour later I showed my partner and he said “can you see that face?”

‘We looked a bit closer and realised it looked like Jesus. It’s a bit strange.’

I have two thoughts on this. First, this is a clear case of the mosaic effect. The image does look a little like part of a face, but that's just because the contours are close enough that our brains identify it as such. Second, it looks absolutely nothing like any traditional rendering of Jesus, just a generic partial face.

So I can't explain Evans' identification, unless it was just so that this ridiculous story would get some actual press coverage.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boy Admits He Made Up Heavenly Visit

Apparently books detailing near-death experiences are more popular than I previously thought, at least among Christians. That probably explains why Eben Alexander's book was titled Proof of Heaven and marketed accordingly, even though his story doesn't line up with anything explicitly Christian and has more in common with New Age accounts of the afterlife that were popular in the 1970's.

Now a boy who claimed to have "visited Heaven" while in a coma, much like what happened to Alexander, has come forward and admitted that he wanted attention and made the whole thing up. He was six years old at the time and is now a teenager. Oh, and his last name is Malarkey. You can't make this stuff up, folks!

Here are a few key background details of the story: Alex Malarkey was paralyzed at the age of 6 when he was in a car wreck. He then spent two months in a coma. He's now a teenager. The book lists him as a co-author along with his father, Kevin Malarkey.

Calling the book a "spiritual memoir," The Washington Post notes that it "became part of a popular genre of 'heavenly tourism,' which has been controversial among orthodox Christians."

Alex's parents are now divorced; he and his siblings live with his mother, Beth Malarkey, who has previously spoken out against the book (and last year, a movie) featuring her son. She has also said that profits from the book haven't been going to Alex.

Last spring, Beth Malarkey wrote a blog post stating, "Alex's name and identity are being used against his wishes (I have spoken before and posted about it that Alex has tried to publicly speak out against the book), on something that he is opposed to and knows to be in error according to the Bible."

The publisher has announced that it will be pulling the book in light of this new revelation. When I was younger I spent a lot of time studying near-death experiences, and one of the things I took away from it is that the closer the experience is to any one religion's dogma, the more likely it is that it's fabricated.

There are a lot of common features - moving down a tunnel towards some sort of light, the presence of deceased loved ones, and the sense of being in the presence of some sort of ultimate divine source. But there's a considerable debate going on between neuroscientists who think those features are caused by the brain being deprived of oxygen and and spiritual people who impart to them a greater significance.

Until we have a viable model of consciousness that debate is going to be hard to settle. It seems to me that both a physical and a spiritual process could be going on at the same time, as the body and mind influence each other to varying degrees, but without empirical data it's hard to be sure.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Satanic Temple Halts Bible Distribution

The Satanic Temple has done it again. Back in November, I covered the group's plans to distribute the “Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities” at a Florida school in response to a Christian group distributing bibles. Following the announcement from the temple, the school suspended the bible distribution program subject to review by the school board. That review is now complete, and the school has decided to end the distribution of all religious materials rather than include the activity book.

The Satanic Temple intended to distribute the “Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities” to students, while the FFRF planned to give them pamphlets describing the Bible as “An X-Rated Book.” The school board decided to review its policy about materials made available for students after the groups announced their plans. Atheist materials had previously been permitted, but the board changed its plans after the Satanic Temple asked to include its activity book.

An attorney for the Christian groups said he was disappointed by the change in plans. “It seems like the momentum right now is to a policy that would exclude all religious materials, which is unnecessary,” said attorney Roger Gannam. But a spokesman for the FFRF said the protest worked exactly as intended. “We don’t want our schools to become religious battlefields,” said David Williamson, of FFRF. “We’ve advocated all along to close the forum.”

Personally, I'm in the "religious battleground" camp myself. I've worked to expose my own kids to a variety of religious beliefs so they can make up their own minds about it, and I wish more parents would do the same. But the caveat there is that minority religions like my own rarely have the resources of large, established churches, and I will grant that there are some cases in which the only way to ensure equal representation is to exclude religious materials entirely.

The Satanic Temple continues to do a great job of exposing the hypocrisy of Christians pushing for "freedom of religion," which of course to them means freedom for their religion and exclusion of all others.