I’ve always been fascinated by early Christianity because it maps out the process of deification. Jesus was a real person who was eventually worshipped as a god and there’s a pretty decent paper trail showing how it happened. It fascinates me because we don’t have such things for figures like Orpheus and Heracles, gods who might have very well started out as people too. It’s easy to trace the worship of a specific deity and chart how it spreads, it’s even possible to pinpoint the location where a deity was first worshipped. It’s much harder to figure out why such and such figure emerged as a god. Answering that question with “well they needed a moon goddess” doesn’t offer much in the way of real explanation. What would be nice to have is stuff like “Xerxes had a dream where Astarte announced herself” but that doesn’t happen all that often.
Last week I was back in the Midwest visiting relatives and doing friend things so I missed out on most of the “Superheroes as gods” blog argument. I don’t care if you worship The Avengers as gods, and if that’s your bag it’s completely fine. All I ask is that you don’t lay it on me out of nowhere doing ritual. It’s not something I want to do, and it’s not something that makes any sense to me. I love Batman (and probably more than the next guy) but he’s a story telling vehicle, not a deity. Sure, I was near tears and speechless at the end of The Dark Knight movie, but it wasn’t a religious experience. That wasn’t “Batman” on screen, it was Christian Bale and when the house lights came up I was completely aware of that reality.
Jim Morrison on the other hand was not a character played by an actor, he was a very real person. The songs he sang came out of his life experience. To me, those songs are far more “real” than the Tumbler-Batmobile, and provide a glimpse into the soul and psyche of James Douglas Morrison. Perhaps that glimpse is rather small, but it’s there. Go listen to Nirvana’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night and then tell me it doesn’t give you chills. I liked the Iron Man movie, but a world without Nirvana’s Unplugged album is a world not worth living in. I don’t feel that way about Robert Downey’s Tony Stark.
It’s certainly possible that in two hundred years Spider-Man moves from the silver-screen and the printed page into the realm of religion. It’s not very likely, but it’s completely possible. I find Scientology far more baffling as a religion than Silver Surfer worship. Whatever floats your surfboard.
What I don’t understand in the context of Pop Culture Paganism is why more people aren’t talking about Rock Stars as future deities. Forget the long-underwear brigade my money is on Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, John Lennon (and he would hate it!), Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain* as the next wave of gods. They were all real people who were nearly legends and myths by the time they died (many of them died at age 27 too, a subset of the rockstar cult for sure). Many of them became immortal in death at the height of their stardom too. Cobain, Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix, and Johnson should have just been hitting their prime when they passed, in a sense their youth became something that was frozen in time and space. You can’t age Hendrix because he never did.
For those of you who don’t know I’m one of those guys who does rituals for dead rock stars. I’ve been doing rituals in honor of Jim Morrison for over fifteen years now. While I don’t think of the guy as a “god” in the way I think of Pan as a god, it’s certainly possible that his ghost shows up during ritual from time to time. If you can honor the ancestors you’ve never met, why can’t I honor the musicians and music that have shaped my (and possibly your) life?
Music has power. It can lead to altered states of consciousness and rile up all sorts of emotions. There’s a reason it’s been used in religious ceremonies since before we even learned how to farm, it changes us and has the power to take us to the realm of the gods. The last one hundred years has changed the way we experience music and has granted immortality to anyone who got the chance to lay down a track on vinyl, tape, or hard drive. It’s easier to listen to Robert Johnson in 2013 than it was in 1938, and knowing how he died makes songs like Dust My Broom even more chilling today.
Reading about the deaths of Morrison, Presley, and Johnson sometimes seems more like mythology than biography. Immediately after their deaths all three were reported alive, and even today there are conflicting stories about their final hours. “Elvis sightings” were common up until the 1990’s, and in the late 1990’s there was a video out there featuring an interview with the previously “in hiding” Morrison. In the months following his death there were rumors about Robert Johnson going electric and putting together a new band (which would have essentially created rock and roll) . Overcoming death is godhood 101 type of stuff, and all of those guys did it long before Superman.
Music also provides many of us with a sense of identity. I’ve got a Captain Marvel (Shazam!) shirt I wear with some pride, but it’s nothing compared to my jeans with Led Zeppelin glyphs sewn onto them or the framed Black Sabbath records around my house. My wife and I have nearly as many altars dedicated to rock and roll as we do to the gods. Both forces shaped us and both forces compliment each other. Doing ritual to ancient Greek music does little for me because it’s not something I’m familiar with. Doing ritual to the music of The Doors puts me in the right state of mind almost instantly.
People already leave prayer requests in the fence outside of Graceland, couple that with the millions of Velvet Elvis paintings already in existence and it’s possible that Presley might already be on the way to godhood. The guy still sells thousands of albums decades after his death (all without the radio support “classic rock” and more contemporary singers like Amy Winehouse and Cobain receive), and continues to strike an emotional chord with members of successive generations. All sorts of people love Captain America but I’m guessing a prayer to Elvis Presley is going to be a bit more affective.
*That’s just a few. The rest of the list includes Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Nick Drake, Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson, Nico, and I could go on and on with it.