A Choice of Worldings

I’ve mentioned multiple times in my posts here that the matter of undoing the disenchantment of the world comes down to a question of worlding.  That is, how we choose to world the earth and our experiences determines whether or not we world into disenchantment or we world with the gods and spirits.

This is a matter of choice.  Do we choose to believe that the gods and spirits act in the world, or do we choose to believe that we humans are the sole agents of experience?  I’ve two examples that may help make this more clear.

The Matter of the Neak Ta

Neak Ta shrine photo from: blog.andybrouwer.co.uk (an excellent resource on neak ta)

There’s this utterly fascinating article in the New York Times on the interactions of land spirits and Capitalists in Cambodia.  I strongly suggest you read the whole thing, as it’s one of those rare (but increasingly frequent) treatments of spiritual beings as actually-existent agents in human interactions.  Such matter-of-fact discussions are more common in non-Western media, because the project of disenchantment has not fully taken hold in such lands.

The article discusses the neak ta, local land spirits similar to most Pagan understandings of them:

Although Theravada Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia since the 13th century, it never supplanted the existing pantheon of ancestral spirits, local gods and Brahamanic deities. Perhaps the most important of these is the neak ta, a spirit strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.

And, excitingly, they’ve been intervening in the normal process of Capitalist exploitation of workers:

These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.

Capitalism is relatively new to Cambodia, as it is to much of Asia, or much, much newer than it is to Europe, where it was spawned in the 1700’s.  The article quotes a few other incidents elsewhere, including in Columbia and Japan, and makes reference to the same thing having happened in Europe.

If we’re going to world the earth out of disenchantment and into a right relationship with each other and with Nature and its forces (including land spirits), studying such interactions as they currently happen in places where disenchantment has not become the dominant worlding may be a very good step towards learning how to do this, particular since European history has, since the Enlightenment, been so insistent upon worlding human activity without the gods, spirits, and even Nature.

“His Omnipotent Arm”: The Matter of the Luddites

“King Ludd”

And when in the work of destruction employed

He himself to no method confines

By fire and by water he gets them destroyed

For the Elements aid his designs

(from the folk song, “General Ludd’s Triumph”)

One intriguing place for us to look, I think, is in the history of European peasant revolts against the coming of industrialization.  I’ve mentioned the Molly Macguires already, and gave a scant reference to the Luddites, but this second area is greatly worth revisiting.

A historian friend of mine, who has studied both European worker histories and also occult movements through a queer lens, drew my attention to the strange myth of King Ludd, the mystical leader of the Luddites in England.  Luddite now has come to mean someone who either hates technology, distrusts it, or is no good at it.  However, the original Luddites were not thus; rather, they would smash specific machines in factories during the middle of the night.  And they claimed to be led by a mysterious, powerful captain or King named Ludd:

Ned Ludd, also known as Captain, General or even King Ludd, first turned up as part of a Nottingham protest in November 1811, and was soon on the move from one industrial center to the next. This elusive leader clearly inspired the protesters. And his apparent command of unseen armies, drilling by night, also spooked the forces of law and order. Government agents made finding him a consuming goal. In one case, a militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with “a pike in his hand, like a serjeant’s halbert,” and a face that was a ghostly unnatural white. (1)

So.  Who was this “dreaded general?”  There are multiple cognates with gods (both Lugh and Lleu bore spears), and ancestral heroes named Lud or Ludd (including one of the mythical founders of London).  His origin in a forest (sometimes said to have been Sherwood) suggests a potential land spirit or forest god.  And there’s also the likelihood that the Luddites merely took their name from a boy who’d smashed his needles with a hammer when he was asked to square them.

How Shall We World?

Both stories I present here, along with many of the other stories referenced in the first article (and there are many more, waiting to be collected), present a sort of ambiguity for us in Western society.  As Max Weber stated, our dominant mode is one of “disenchantment,” but as Dipesh Chakrabarty stated, disenchantment is only one of the ways we world the earth.

In the case of the neak ta, one can come up with psychological explanations for the mass faintings and apparent possession of factory workers by spirits.  They’re tired, stressed, reacting according to cultural norms.  One can world the spirits out of that account entirely and still suggest that the workers should be treated more fairly.  But the question must be asked: Why? And why ignore so many accounts of the people involved?

And in the case of the Luddites, one can easily ignore the account of one militiaman stating that he saw a spectral general leading workers to smash factory looms, and ignore their claims that they were following a King who lived in a forest.  But again: why?

As I’ve repeatedly stated, disenchantment is not something that is just done to us, it’s also done by us.  And we have the choice to continue it, or to remember again what it is to recognize the powers of the land, the spirits and the gods and to world them into our stories, our actions, and our lives.

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About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. He also writes at paganarch.com.