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Mutants and Mystics: A Book Excerpt
There is also the further complication that there is one more very solid historical precedent for the modern almond eyes of the alien and the blue and black Spider-Man, and it has nothing to do with bad B-movies. That precedent is South Asian Tantric art. We are back, already, to Orientation. The slanted "alien" eye, after all, has been a standard feature of sacred art in South Asia for centuries, where it can easily be traced in any number of goddesses, including the sexually aggressive Tantric goddess Kali, one of whose classic poses (standing on her prostrate husband, Shiva, who is variously portrayed as a corpse, in ecstasy, sexually aroused, or asleep, but always on his back) renders her a remarkably apt South Asian embodiment of Hufford's sleep paralysis traditions. The black almond-eyed Kali—known for her violent and redemptive ways, mounting a sleeping Shiva, and "bonding" with her devotees through mystical union—more than resembles the black alien suit taking on the physical form of a sleeping Peter Parker.
And it gets weirder still. That Kali is usually portrayed with six limbs makes her look more than a little like a spider (okay, which has eight). Moreover, in West Bengal, where the Kali traditions are especially active, there are actually two major forms of Kali: a blue, gentle, motherly form and a black, aggressive, "sinister" form. Sound familiar?
Certainly there are numerous historical reference points here that render my speculations—really, personal confusions—more than simply suggestive. Aliens, after all, have often been described as "Oriental." Flying discs have also been called "mandala machines," and at least one very famous Western intellectual, C. G. Jung, even speculated that the flying saucers are mandalas—that is, Tantric circular diagrams designed to aid meditation and engender psychical wholeness—in the sky.
It is probably also relevant here that the origins of the UFO contactee cults in the 1950s were clearly linked to Theosophy and its "ascended masters," indeed so much so that Christopher Partridge has suggested that in the UFO religions the "ascended masters" of Theosophy have been transformed into the "descended masters" of the UFO religions.[ix] Hence the first and most famous contactee, George Adamski, founded the Royal Order of Tibet in the Los Angeles of the 1930s before he claimed a sighting, on October 9, 1946, of an immense cigar-shaped UFO on Mount Palomar and became a spokesman for Orthon of Venus, appropriately (or inappropriately) just below one of America's most famous telescopes.[x] Which is all to say that Alienation easily slides back into Orientation, just as Orientation once easily slid into Alienation.
Superman and Spider-Man are by no means the only coded aliens among the superheroes. The simple truth is that, of all of my proposed mythemes, Alienation is probably the most central to both the science fiction and superhero genres. Even a series that seemingly has nothing to do with aliens, like Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith's Conan the Barbarian, set between the sinking of Atlantis and Lemuria and the dawn of human history, is filled with things like a magical star-stone (C 1.25), a Hindu-looking space-being mistakenly worshipped as a deity (C 1.93), a star-gate (C 2.64, 69), and a space-toad that manifests through a portal set up by two black monoliths (C 2.176). Indeed, I would go so far as to say that without the mytheme of Alienation, there could be no science fiction and no superhero comics. It is that foundational. This mytheme, however, is also extremely complex—historically, conceptually, and spiritually.
Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is the author of six books, including Esalen: America and The Religion of No Religion and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.