July 26, 2018

Review: Dungeon Solitaire - The Devil's Playground

card game rpg

Oh, sweet baby Satan, it's here and it's awesome: Dungeon Solitaire: the Devil's Playground. Nearly two years ago I had the good luck to hear about the game "Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls" from author Matthew Lowes and artist Josephe Vandel. If this is news to you, then I recommend you read the review I wrote, but if you want the TL/DR version, this is it: Matthew Lowes has managed to do with playing cards what Rogue Legacy did for video games. Before I continue this review, I feel it important to disclose that I received my copy of the Devil's Playground rule-book and deck as a gift from Matthew. I consider Matthew a friend, and I've also greatly enjoyed his and other authors' fiction published via Shadowspinners Press, but he didn't ask me to review Devil's Playground, nor am I receiving any compensation or enticement for this review.

occult magic cursed object

General Overview

So, let's do this: Solitaire. I suppose that in principle Matthew could be accused of not doing anything original -- I mean, single-player card games have been around for a very long time -- but his imagination uses a deck of cards to create a game that's engaging, challenging, and just plain fun. And did I mention difficult? Yes, Devil's Playground is very difficult. Oh, sure -- you might not lose a game, but since the objective is to play for a high score you might not win, either. And you know, that's not a bug -- it's a feature. People who make games -- whether card games, board games, or video games -- have over the past 20 years rediscovered the fact that adults love to play games, and -- unlike children and teenagers -- they not only enjoy the feeling of delicious frustration that comes with difficult challenges, but are motivated by defeat to keep trying for a better score.

If that sounds like something you'll enjoy, then enter the Devil's Playground because -- much like the Lament configuration -- good things come in small packages. The Devil's Playground is a deck composed of 52 cards, 9 of which are used as tokens to count off hit points, which leaves a bare 43 cards remaining. I can  hear your skepticism intensifying -- "43 cards isn't even a proper deck for Magic: the Gathering?" -- but limiting the Devil's Playground to a small set of cards works beautifully. By limiting the total number of playable cards to 43, Matthew has not only managed the probability of drawing certain cards in the correct sequence (which is necessary to achieve certain win conditions), but has also made it possible for the player to enjoy games from five to 10 minutes in duration that can be easily fit into the day. Speaking for myself, fun games that won't monopolize my time for more than an hour are pretty important considering that with two kids running around the house I don't typically get enough time or space to take over a table for that long.

deadly sins tarot

Game-play Specifics

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's rewind: What is the Devil's Playground? In short, you are an adventurer exploring a hellish labyrinth filled with devious traps, incredible treasure, and demented monsters. Your goal is to both find and capture three powerful demons while avoiding terrifying monsters, deadly traps, and the danger of losing yourself in the temptation of sins or succumbing to plagues and curses. Along the way you can gather magical artifacts of untold power, resupply at a goblin market, and you might even find a magic portal back in time. Each turn represents a step into the Devil's playground, and uses a satisfying system to resolve encounters (dangerous misfortunes, treacherous obstacles, and deadly sins).

Encounter resolution is mostly random and is performed by drawing a card off the top of the deck, but recovered treasure, discovered magical artifacts, and acquired divine blessings can be used to build a hand that you can use to influence encounters. You might find it difficult to believe that with only 43 cards there's sufficient opportunity to build a hand, but there is, and in this way Matthew has captured the feeling of a good survival-horror video game in which the player is never truly safe and must constantly weigh the value of how to spend very limited resources. That's a lot of game mechanics to fit into 43 cards.

Devil's Playground isn't a complicated game -- once you see how it goes together, the rules are actually pretty straight-forward -- but even having played Labyrinth of Souls (the predecessor to Devil's Playground), it took me a couple read-throughs to see how things went together. What I found helped the most was to lay the deck out on a table with the cards grouped together in their sets -- demons, graces, sins, misfortunes, obstacles, magic items, and so on -- so that I can look at the cards at the same time I read the rule-book.

It's worth mentioning that if you find yourself in possession of a rule-book but not a copy of the Devil's Playground deck, then in theory you can substitute a deck of regular playing cards -- this is a choice which Matthew mentions in his rule-book -- but because the cards aren't divided equally among four suits, in practice this isn't going to work unless you mark each card individually. For this reason, one without the other isn't much use, and the two should be considered a bundle. However, when you purchase the rule-book and the deck, you're not getting just a solitaire game...

abomination hell gate

Additional Modules

... what you're actually getting is multiple solitaire games, because the rule-book includes additional instructions for a two-player cooperative game (which does require two decks), seven different ways to combine the 52-card Devil's Playground deck with the 78-card Labyrinth of Souls deck, four different ways to use the Devil's Playground deck as part of an extended campaign mode complete with pen-and-paper notes for carrying information over from one game to the next, occult meanings for each card to be used in fortune-telling, an original way to arrange the cards in a spread like what's done by Tarot readers to tell a fortune, and at the very end there's even a diagram similar to a kabbalistic Tree of Life which indicates a progression through life, shows misfortune and obstacles branching away from demons, and suggests a progression through magic and sins on the path to grace.

In a word, overwhelming, but in a few more words, it's mostly the same experience I had with Labyrinth of Souls: additional solitaire variations, cooperative play, campaign modes, and even some occult-themed offerings for people who enjoy that sort of thing. The amount of time and effort Matthew has obviously invested into his work is astonishing, and shame on me for not eating fully of the banquet he's prepared, but I enjoyed the basic solitaire module for Labyrinth of Souls -- and the basic solitaire module for Devil's Playground -- that I still haven't played anything else. However, if there is one other game module I intend to play very soon, it's the combination of the Labyrinth of Souls and the Devil's Playground. Because the two games share common mechanics, they are by design intended to ultimately be combined into one deck of 130 cards used to play a much longer and more complex game.

The full depth and beauty of the Devil's Playground appears to only be revealed when combined with the Labyrinth of Souls, but having played Devil's Playground on its own for a week I can say confidently that it's not dependent on Labyrinth of Souls. Devil's Playground is a game which is hugely enjoyable all on its own, and unlike so much of what's available in the video gaming world (both on console as well as on mobile) this isn't merely an up-sell to a more expensive product. If you only buy the Devil's Playground, you'll only be buying a game that's infinitely replayable, and for as much fun as it offers I think that's a damned good deal.

tarot satanism

Other Things I Think

Beyond all my other remarks, there's a lot of great storytelling at play in Devil's Playground, but I think that's to be expected given that the creator Matthew appears to be equally passionate about both the games he plays and the stories he writes.

Among the things I enjoy the most is that -- unlike the three heavenly gems which must be found in Labyrinth of Souls for a full win and are recovered as treasure upon a successful turn conclusion -- the demons of the Devil's Playground aren't so easy. To capture one of the three greater demons in the Devil's Playground -- the Throne, the Dominion, and the Power -- you must first reveal them. Once you've revealed a demon by winning a round in which it appeared, the demon is set aside in the "doom track" where it gives bonuses to other lesser demons who turn up in following rounds. To capture the demon, you must then defeat one of these lesser demons while the greater demon is present in the doom track. This makes for deliciously frustrating win conditions in which it's possible to reveal a demon, but be unable to capture it because the necessary lesser demons couldn't be played in the correct order. Fortunately, there is a limited ability for the player to recover necessary cards from earlier rounds -- using a magic Portal, finding a Supply Cache, or visiting the Goblin Market -- but there's no guarantee any of the three will be available when needed. This mostly irrevocable scarcity is part of what helps to sustain the tension of the game-play.

Another thing I enjoyed about the two-step process necessary to capture one of the three greater demons is how this plays into the storytelling. For me, the dominant impression I took away from this process is that the greater demons are omnipresent and it is only through careful discernment that their true faces can be revealed. I also interpreted the second part of the two-part capture process as a really interesting statement that the greater evils of the world are fundamentally non-corporeal and beyond human comprehension. Their shape can be seen by the shadow they cast or through the consequences of their actions, but they can only be fought hand-to-hand when expressing themselves through the physical form of a lesser demon (called a "diabolism" in the game's parlance.)

Despite the power of the greater demons of the Devil's Playground, there are still three graces: Kindness, Compassion, and Equanimity. The graces are like guardian angels because they are collected in the hand and may be played at will to overcome a misfortune, obstacle, curse, or one of three legendary terrors (the Diabolical Machine, the Abomination, and the Hell Gate) in one shot. However, you can't use the power of grace to one-shot the monsters who are effectively the masks of the greater demons. In this way, it seemed to me like the graces are unwilling to intervene in the player's struggle against figurative sins. Either the player is strong enough to endure or defeat his or her sins, and is thus deserving of further grace, or he or she is one of the Devil's playthings and is unworthy of redemption.

Final Verdict

Devil's Playground is not a mere repackaging of house rules carried over from Labyrinth of Souls -- it is its own game, with its own flavor, and offering its own pleasures. At the time that I'm writing this review, the only people playing in the Devil's Playground are the people who were able to support the Kickstarter (or lucky enough to be gifted a copy of the book and deck), but the rule-book and deck should be available for purchase through Matthew's website any time now.

For all these reasons, Devil's Playground receives the same score that its sibling Labyrinth of Souls received two years ago:

To purchase Devil's Playground, 
visit the Kickstarter page for details 
or Matthew Lowes for other updates.

matthew lowes labyrinth of souls

Wait, there's more?

As rewards for stretch-goals during the Kickstarter, two additional cards were printed: The Watcher and the Wheel of Chaos. These cards are not included in the standard deck, and it's not clear that they'll ever be available for purchase separately, but they are included in the rule-book within a two-page chapter titled simply, "Unknown Arcana." Other than the name, nothing is said about the cards, and for this reason I consider them to be wild cards for which the player must invent his or her own house rules. If you happen to own this pair of cards (or are improvising your own?), then here are my own house rules for these two cards that I've been using for the last week.

The Watcher
  • If the Watcher is drawn, it remains in the turn and has no effect on other cards in play.
  • If the round is won, move the Watcher to the doom track alongside any other demons that have been exposed. The Watcher does nothing while in your doom track and has no impact on game-play.
  • If on a following turn you are victorious in an encounter against a diabolism, you may capture the Watcher the same as you would capture a demon. If you decide to capture the Watcher, collect it into your hand and then turn your deck upside-down. The top card in your deck has an exposed face.
    • Even though the deck has been turned upside-down, the bottom of the deck remains the same. Thus, the card which is face-up is still technically the bottom of the deck. Any cards which would send a card to the bottom of the deck are placed face-up on top-most card of the deck.
  • The Watcher is worth 20 points. If used as a treasure to appease the Abomination or the Dragon, distract a lesser demon or other monster, or barter at the Goblin Market, return your deck to its right-side up configuration in which only the card backs are visible and the faces are hidden.

The Wheel of Chaos
  • If the Wheel of Chaos is the first card played, then it is treated as a curse which is moved immediately into the doom track. Otherwise, it is an action card.
  • As soon as the Wheel of Chaos is placed into the doom track, count the number of cards in your discard pile. Then, shuffle your discard pile into the deck and replace the discard pile with an equal number of cards drawn from the top of the deck. You may look at the cards as you discard them.
    • If playing with Labyrinth of Souls: torches, rations, demonic possession, and death are not discarded. Instead, they are placed into the doom track.
  • Repeat this process at the start of every new hand.
  • The Wheel of Chaos may be purged into the discard pile through the Blessing of the High Goddess or the Murdered God, the power of the Three Graces, a Divine Blessing, drinking Holy Water, or the services of a wizard at the Goblin Market.

July 19, 2018

The Ship of Theseus

psychic occult satanic tarot

For people who like to try and answer these kinds of questions, there's a thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus. So the story goes, Theseus was a Greek hero who sailed a mighty, wooden ship. When his glory days were over, his ship was put to harbor as a museum piece. Unfortunately, the ship being made of wood, ever so slowly it began to rot... say, at the rate of one plank at a time. To preserve the ship, the rotten wood had to be replaced ever so slowly -- say, at the rate of one plank at a time. Eventually, every original piece of the ship of Theseus would no longer exist because it will have been replaced by a different piece of wood. So the question goes, "How many pieces of wood can be replaced before the ship is no longer of Theseus?

This is a question that's I've been asking myself lately, too, especially in regards to my efforts to reinterpret the meaning of Satanism and apply it to my own life. How many pieces of my original conception can I change before what I'm thinking can no longer be rightly called Satanism? I don't think I've replaced very many pieces in that particular ship, so I'm not worried that I've gone beyond the pale, but I think it's a question worth asking all the same. Me being who I am, one of the things I created to help me think through this process is a Tarot spread called by the same name of the Ship of Theseus. Here are the methods to my madness:
  1. Shuffle deck thoroughly and lay five cards into the positions of Needs, Habits, Desires, Past, and Point of Interest.
  2. The Needs, Habits, Desires, and Past are representative of the individual who reads the cards, or for whom the cards are read.
  3. The Point of Interest is something that plays an important role in the life of the individual who reads the cards, or for whom the cards are read.
  4. Read through the arrangement for the first time. If so desired, make note of the highlights.
  5. Choose any original card that hasn't already been replaced. Having chosen that card, draw one card off the top of the deck and lay it over the already chosen position.
  6. Read through the arrangement for the second time. What is the same? What has changed? If so desired, make note of the highlights.
  7. After each read of the arrangement, continue replacing one card at a time until all cards have been replaced.
  8. How is the fifth read different from the first read? What is revealed through the transition of the second, third, and fourth reads?
Let's take a look at the Ship of Theseus in action! Two examples will follow: the first will be the original five cards, and the second will replace one card. Watch and see what happens:

In this first arrangement, I've drawn the Queen of Hearts, Queen of Clubs, 5 of Diamonds, 4 of Diamonds, and the Moon as my Needs, Habits, Desires, Past, and Point of Interest, respectively. All positions in the arrangement are self-evident, except for the Point of Interest which you might have guessed to be the larger body of Satanism.

First, my Needs and my Habits (QH and QC) are very similar. Despite their cosmetic expression being of opposite suits (H/Water and C/Fire), their fundamental identity is the same (Q). This says that while I'm working to address my needs, the way in which I'm addressing them is off the mark. What needs to change? Going only by the elemental combination, I should permit watery Hearts to reign over fiery Clubs, or practically speaking, stop trying so hard. Well... hmm... I just don't know if I can do that. 

Second, my Past and my Desires are the 4 and 5 of Diamonds, respectively. Evaluated on their own, they create a short string that ties my understanding and perspective of what I value -- or what I want to value -- to evidence and lessons learned in the past. And because the number 3 is irrepressible in stories -- three acts to a story, three times the hero is tested, three times the magic words must be chanted, and so on -- where's the missing number in our incomplete string? I'm looking for a 3 or a 6 to complete the 4-and-5, but it's nowhere to be found. There's a missing piece to this puzzle, and neither the present nor the future are able to complete my past or complement my desires. Perhaps instead of focusing on how to satisfy my needs, I should instead work toward more relevant desires? Hmm... pairing this message with my Needs, there's a message here about not using my intellect to shape the world into what I'd like it to be, but instead of allowing the world to shape me into what I am. Well... hmm... I just don't know if I can do that, either.

As for Satanism itself, my Point of Interest is represented by the Moon. This says that owing to external influences over which I myself have little power (and to which I contribute very little), Satanism is on the wane. I'll be shocked if there's any truth to this because I'm rather biased in favor of Satanism and would be disappointed to see it fall from what appears to be a bit of a renaissance, but what do I know? At any rate, going by the cards my point of interest contributes in fact nothing to the rest of the cards on the table. Well, fuck me -- what am I supposed to do with this? Satanism is something that's become a real pillar of my life and if upon further evaluation it's not helping me as much as I think then I've got some serious discussions to have with myself.

That's the first read of the Ship of Theseus. 

Because I'm the sort of person who thinks that one's habits are fundamental to any situation, and because I'm not entirely happy with the message given to me in the first arrangement, I decided that my Habits position would be the first one to be replaced. Drawing one card off the top of the deck, I get the 5 of Clubs.

Now isn't that interesting? With one card, the link between my Needs and Habits (QH and QC) has been broken and replaced by a new link between my Habits and my Desires (5C and 5D). Or in other words, even after changing the central card, I'm still dealing with the same problems as before: I'm synchronized to the fundamental essence of my Desires, but I'm not synchronized to the cosmetic expression, or said differently, I can define the general shape of what I want but am unable to describe the specifics. It feels very relevant to me right now, and it's just as frustrating as you think. 

What else is frustrating is that the 5 of Clubs maintains the fiery attitude of the Queen of Clubs which it replaced, which means that the way my Habits relates to the rest of the cards on the table remains unchanged. What else remains unchanged is that incomplete string of 4-and-5 of Diamonds. A change of Habits still fails to complete the chain linking my Desires to the Past. Perhaps there's a larger discussion to be had about the ability of the Past to satisfy my Desires, and I should look either to the Present or the Future to find what I'm looking for? Hmm... hmm...

And you know what else hasn't change? The quality of my relationship to my Point of Interest. Satanism as a broader body of thought continues to wane under the dim light of the Moon, and while I couldn't say if this is only within the context of my life or in the broader cultural tapestry, either way Satanism diminishes in importance. If that's really so, then what a bummer -- I'm rather fond of Satanism -- but this is only the second read of the Ship of Theseus. Each consecutive read replaces additional planks and reveals different aspects of the self. Perhaps after I replace the entire ship of Theseus one piece at a time I'll discover what I'm most looking for?

July 12, 2018

Pop Culture Satanism I

pop culture illuminati conspiracy
Do you see what I see?
In the category of things that I almost can't believe I'm writing about, you can include this essay and all the others that I expect will follow from it: Satanism and the attendant myth of the Illuminati as portrayed in popular culture. There are a number of reasons that this has come to pass, but I think the chief among them is that after deciding to leave the exclusive and limited Satanic paradigm offered by the Church of Satan, I've had to redefine for myself and according to my own terms what I believe Satanism to be, and -- in the final calculation -- if that's a concept I still want to include in my life.

But in the final calculation, I favor the liberty of heterodoxy, value antagonism for its ability to stimulate progress, reject belief in things unseen, celebrate the pleasures of the flesh, seek worldly fulfillment, and shun neo-Platonism, so I think that whatever external configuration it takes, the internal essence of Satanism will be with me forever. And since the internal essence is what's most important to me, this leaves a lot of room to find the external configuration that's most satisfying for me personally.

Satanism being a religion of the individual, then, it follows that -- in line with what I believe to be the internal essence of Satanism (heterodoxy, antagonism, atheism, sex- and body-positivity, hedonism, and materialism) -- the external configuration of Satanism is dependent on the individual's chosen interests and preferred aesthetics. Because I am the sort of person who values an open world, easy access to information, a non-partisan society, and international cooperation, there are certain things which have appealed to me including the stimulating fantasies of Tarot and numerology, but also the pursuit of an international auxiliary language to enhance communication people without regard for national origin. Naturally, it also follows that some aesthetic choices have appealed to me more than others, namely the myth of the Tower of Babylon, the archetype of the all-seeing eye, and the modern conspiracy of the Illuminati.

Before I continue, I feel compelled to say that I do not believe in the literal existence of the Illuminati, but I do believe in the Illuminati in the same way that I believe in Satan as a productive and meaningful way to talk about how I understand myself, other people, the world, and how myself and other people exist in the world. The nonsense conspiracies about global pedophile cults, child sacrifice, lizard people, Nazis living on the dark side of the moon, and coded messages predicting 9/11 are the height of tin-foil hattery and not worth discussing in detail... I mean, it doesn't matter how deep you dig into a pile of shit, because at the bottom of the pile it's still just shit.

I'm also not drawing on the factual history of the Illuminati, which was originally styled as a fraternal organization and Masonic lodge for wealthy men. While the history of that organization has been stretched over the years to the point of lunacy, the fully known and well-documented history of that organization is much less interesting. You can consult Le Google if you really want to know, but short of it is that the organization collapsed as a result of arguments over authority, disappointments over the quantity and quality of content offered to members, political infighting with other Masonic lodges, and ultimately the cost to participate as well as lack of funds to perpetuate the order. For a group of people allegedly bent on world domination, you'd think that managing a Masonic lodge would be an easy task?

Where was I? ... So, having said that, I believe that popular culture has a way of synthesizing and recontextualizing past and present history with the dominant myths and stories which shape and influence cultural awareness, which at the very least in North America is the Bible and all the Christian trappings that go along with it. For these reasons, I sympathize with Michael Aquino who founded the Temple of Set and his decision to roll the clock back to an earlier myth which predated the Bible because in this way he was able to step outside the Christian frame in which Anton LaVey's Church of Satan was conceived. I understand why Aquino made that decision, but for me that ancient Egyptian frame of reference doesn't work because it's too foreign to my contemporary experience. So many Satanists say, "Satanism is a tool to be used by the individual," and so say I, the tool should be relevant to the circumstances. And while I completely understand how it is that many Satanists prefer to define themselves by what they are instead of by what they oppose, I think not only that context is important but also that this kind of thinking can contribute to the mistaken belief that it's possible for the individual to exist within the community yet not be a member of, or be influenced by, the community.

So for these reasons, I look close to home for the external configuration that satisfies my personal aesthetic. A paradox that's emerged within my personal aesthetic is that while I'm in favor of an open world without borders and hope to see the achievement of an internationally-recognized auxiliary language -- hence my affinity for the myth of the Tower of Babylon and its one-world language -- I dislike adopting or fetishizing other cultures. Not because I think it's necessarily wrong to do so, but because it feels foreign and inauthentic to me. A great example of this is LaVey's invocation of the crown princes of Hell: Lucifer, Satan, Leviathan, and Belial. I understand that he probably chose these names because they're straight out of The Book of Abramelin, but I've never had an interest in the historically accurate and culturally relevant mythology of demons. Lucifer, Leviathan, and Belial are all names which come with their own historical and cultural baggage which I just can't be bothered to care about, and since I'm not willing to put in the effort to claim these names as part of my religious practice, I'm not going to use them.

Likewise, though I've been exposed to all manner of occultism over the past 20 years, I just can't find within myself a spark of interest for some of them. For example, kabbalah. You'd think that me being a Tarot reader I'd be knee-deep into kabbalah, but you'd be wrong because no matter how much kabbalah has influenced modern Tarot (for sake of argument that being Tarot from the 1800's and on, versus other ancient Tarot systems dating to the 1500's) by way of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and others who have made use of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and weaving the 22 trumps into the kabbalistic tree of life, I just don't feel like I can relax into and fully integrate something that seems so foreign. Or, consider Norse runes: I've known more Tarot readers than I can remember who practiced both Tarot and runes, and while I can't think of any reason why the two systems can't work together, I've never been able to summon an affinity for casting runes because the divinatory meaning of the runes is tightly bundled into Norse mythology and folklore. I've got nothing against Norse mythology and folklore, but it just doesn't feel relevant to me because the meaning of the runes developed over a time and in a place that holds no personal or cultural meaning to me. Whether because I don't care to invest the necessary time and effort to learn their roots, or because they hold no personal or cultural relevance to me, there are some things I don't use because my use of them feels at best disingenuous and at worst meaningless. For these reasons, when considering what I bring into my religious practice, I've become accustomed to picking only things which I thoroughly understand and which are a part of my own, native cultural tableau...

.. and yes, that opens a whole 'nother door into a discussion about cultural appropriation, how ideas are transmitted between cultures, and what I mean when I say "native," but the core principle I try to observe is whether I'm reaching beyond my knowledge and, consequently, whether I'm trying to force a square peg into a round hole. This is why I've come to really appreciate the pop-culture conception and representations of Satanism especially through the contemporary myth of the Illuminati (which of course is obedient to Satan.) This appeals to me because the names of Leviathan and Belial are too foreign to me to hold resonance, and Lucifer is too closely associated with both the Biblical conception of Lucifer as well as the new religious movement of Luciferianism. Satan, meanwhile, has been so thoroughly digested by the culture in which I live, and is so closely associated with generic archetypes of the supreme Devil, that it feels like a native myth to me.

As for the contemporary myth of the Illuminati, I reject the insane conspiracy theories associated with its name as well as the scam artists who attempt to sell memberships to desperate people, but it has so thoroughly filtered into popular culture and especially popular music -- and is so closely associated with the heterodoxy, antagonism, blasphemy, atheism, sex and sexuality, money, and personal power of modern Satanism -- that it fits like a glove... you might even say, a crimson, velvet, left-handed glove?

The contemporary myth of the Illuminati is frequently invoked in the same breath as the myth of the Tower of Babylon, which is also used as a stand-in among conspiracy theorists as the alleged evil of human pride, material wealth, and the emergence of a "new world order." The so-called new, world order is also frequently referred to in popular culture as "Babylon," and is a catch-all for everything that isn't part of Christendom. See how the pieces are coming together? While all self-respecting Satanists seem to have prejudicially shunned the contemporary myths of the Illuminati and Babylon, what I've observed is that popular culture has almost without anybody's notice created a living Satanic canon ripe for exploitation by forward-thinking Satanists.
This is the first of a continuing series. For all entries, see Babylon Rising.

July 06, 2018

Reading for the Wrong Audience

Am I speaking to the right audience?
Of the courses I took in college, the ones I enjoyed the most were public speaking and persuasive writing, and among the most important lessons I took away from those courses is not only the importance of understanding to a select audience, but also of understanding when another presenter is speaking for a specific audience (and whether or not I'm a member of that audience.) My choice of vocabulary, the way that I frame an subject, and how I position myself will change radically depending on whether I'm speaking for a general or specific audience. If I'm speaking or writing for a general audience, then I'll use high-frequency words or concepts, assume the audience has little to no prior knowledge of the subject, and avoid niche terminology. Conversely, if I'm speaking to a select audience that's familiar with the subject, then I can move deeper into a niche, use terminology known to the audience to save time, and use particular concepts or phrases which hold special meaning.

A perfect example of this is a real gem of an essay written by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz in which he's speaking to a Jewish audience and warning them against practicing Tarot which has recently gained in popularity. Now, when I call this essay a "gem" it's not because it's simply marvelous, but because it's like the perfect storm of bad jokes: "Did you hear the one about a rabbi, conspiracy theorist, and idiot who walked into a bar? He hit his head." This essay is just delightful because Adam manages to not only demonstrate how to speak to a select audience, but while doing so he also manages to invoke I think every stereotype about Tarot and Tarot readers that I can name.

Adam's essay opens with an appeal to authority by citing Leviticus 19:26, and you might be uncertain whether he thinks that this prohibition against fortune-telling applies only to people who care about Hebraic law, but his opening paragraph makes it pretty clear that he thinks it's a universal law for all people everywhere because it's part of "setting the stage for the Messianic showdown [between] Good and Evil [which are] clearly defined." Right off the bat, Adam's drawing lines in the sand and wants you to know that he's only speaking to the better half... which of course is also his half.

Another way that Adam shows he's speaking to a select audience is in his explanation for why fortune-telling is evil: the Torah says so. Do you get the circular reasoning of his primary argument? Fortune-telling is evil because the Torah says that fortune-telling is evil because the Torah says that fortune-telling is evil. Boy, it's tiresome running around in circles like this, but it's an instructive exercise if only because it reveals that Adam is speaking to people who respond to appeals to authority -- an argumentative fallacy, but why let logic get in the way?

When Adam can bother to stretch for a better explanation about why fortune-telling is evil, he pulls out that old chestnut about how fortune-telling is "anti-divine" and is presumed to side-step the will of God. Now, let it be said that fortune-telling need not be "anti-divine" so long as the practitioner doesn't attempt to question or interrogate God (that privilege is given to another.) If the practitioner wants to ask about mundane stuff, go ahead!, but piercing the veil and trying to claim supreme knowledge? That's so Satanic, don'ch'know. But then, if Adam is that kind of Jew who believes that attempting to gain any knowledge before God sees damned well fit to reveal it to you -- or to do anything at all that side-steps the authority of the priesthood (or denies them their Godly subscription fees) -- well, I guess there's no getting around that now, is there? Apparently, fortune-telling's is perceived as a threat by entrenched priesthoods who fear that a deck of cards would supplant their divine authority, and is for this reason "considered one of the more egregious forms of evil," although I could think of one worse

This bit of hand-wringing leads into a whingey bit of pearl-clutching about how fortune-tellers -- who of course must also be witches, though I've met several witches who had no interest in fortune-telling -- are replacing God with "self" -- a sentiment with which I can agree, but which is not shared among all fortune-tellers (some of whom are devotional polytheists) -- and jumping from A to C without any mention of B this consequently equates to idolatry, because... of course it does?

See, this is something that just seems silly to anybody outside of Adam's intended audience, but to people inside his audience it's understood that anybody or anything which diminishes reverence for God (plus His priesthood, of course) is identical to idolatry because it lessens "value" given to God and increases "value" given to somebody or something else. Incidentally, this is the same line of reasoning when (usually) teenagers are accused of idolatry for plastering their bedroom walls with posters of Justin Bieber (peace be upon him, amirite?) The trouble with this line of reasoning, though, is that if taking pleasure from anything worldly equates idolatry, then absolutely anything "worldly" -- food, clothing, music, money, sexual desire, absolutely anything at all -- is a pathway to idolatry, godlessness, atheism, and Satanism...

... yes, Satanism. Of course Adam went there, because in his mind and apparently in the mind of his audience which he wants to agree with him, questioning God is a slippery slope that leads to atheism, and anything outside the God-box must by default by the Satan-box because as he stated at the opening of his essay, "Good and Evil" are "clearly defined." Adam might find this difficult to believe, but there are a lot of atheists who think that atheistic Satanism is dumber than a box of rocks, atheistic Satanists who think that humanistic atheism doesn't go far enough, and Satanists who do in fact believe in a literal Satan. But then, these are nuances which don't matter to Adam because he's not speaking to a general audience that has no vested interest in the authority of the Torah, but a select audience of Jews who evidently need to be told that they're still not allowed to play cards in their free time. 

Adam apparently isn't one to slide half-way down a slippery slope when he can dive straight to the bottom, so naturally he followed his downward trajectory into predictions of immanent anarchy, the plot of the "Avengers: Infinity War", the danger of women governing their own bodily functions, and the despair of "non-productive relationships," all of which sound like unfounded fears to me, but again, Adam isn't speaking to me: he's speaking to an audience of culturally and politically conservative Jews -- hence all the references to Donald Trump -- who care about the perpetuating authority, strictly enforcing civil law to keep nations in their place, strictly enforcing religious law to keep marriages in their place, and strictly enforcing cultural mores to ensure that fucking is only done by married people and only for the purpose of producing more children who will follow the rules... because, authority.

I'm going to gloss over his implied assertion that without strict laws people would just be wild, murderous, rapey assholes -- because as all good religionists know, it's impossible to be good without God! -- because one way or another, the primary argument to which Adam keeps returning is that individual people can't be trusted with the authority to manage their own lives. This argument is emphasized when Adam quotes a Rabbi who says that "Satanism --" remember, kids: for Adam's audience, anything outside the God-box must by default be inside the Satan-box -- "is explicitly a power struggle." So naturally, if Satan and all the people inside the Satan-box are pulling one side of the rope, then of course Adam and all the other true believers in the God-box are pulling the other side of the rope. See how that works? Adam's just a big flatterer who likes giving ego-strokes to his audience. I mean, he has to give them ego-strokes because by this point he's taken away everything else including their choice to enjoy worldly pleasures and even manage their own bodily functions.

You'd think that Adam's fantastical claims about the return of the messiah, the clear differences between Good and Evil, the dangers of idolatry, and the New World Order -- because of course he had to throw a bone to his conspiracy-minded readers -- would have evolved since the early 90's, but he seems to have maintained his own private supply of Satanic Panic-era Kool Aid. The final third of his essay predictably devolves into calling former US President Obama a tool of the Devil and current US President Donald Trump a messenger of God, because these days it's not enough for opposing politicians to be just be wrong -- instead, they've got to be an a fatal enemy deserving of death and eternal damnation.

And while I think that kind of Us-vs-Them, Good-vs-Evil, Life-or-Death struggles as hyperbole unfit for rational discussion, Adam's not talking to me. No, you see: Adam is speaking either to an audience that lives within his cultural or religious paradigm and whom he thinks need to be reminded about the way things really are, or an audience who believes as does Adam and wants to reminded not only that they're not alone but also that their contempt for people who feel differently is fully justified. 

But you know what else is justified? Sharing a message with my audience that you'll understand but he won't:

July 01, 2018

July 2018: Distrust & Disenchantment

This announcement has been a little while coming, but I wanted to be completely sure before I posted it: the spinal cord tumor I discussed earlier this year has to my great relief turned out to be nothing at all, and all the symptoms I was experiencing have mysteriously but thankfully vanished. According to my neurosurgeon, the mass inside my spinal cord remained unchanged during the six months between two MRI's, and he believes that it's probably only a build-up of spinal cord fluid that's doing absolutely nothing at all. The consensus right now is that the shooting pain down my arms, the numbness in my hands and fingers, and the weakness in my grip was a combination of generalized anxiety and psychosomatic suggestion. You don't even know how relieved I am that this whole ordeal turned out to be a cloud of smoke, but you what else you don't even know? How disappointed I am that this whole ordeal has shaken my trust in physicians generally.

You see, this whole story began over two years ago when shortly after I received a vasectomy I started experiencing post-vasectomy pain syndrome (TL/DR: chronic man-pain.) My wife is deeply skeptical of doctors and medicine generally, so if it were up to her I would have grilled my urologist like the TV stereotype of a cigarette-smoking police detective, but me being who I am I tend to trust doctors. My habit of trusting doctors is part of my habit generally of accepting the expertise of people more accomplished than I am and this is owing to the time I spent in the Marine Corps where I was taught the importance of compartmentalization. If this is your first time hearing that word, think about it like this: A team is composed of individuals, each of which exists in his or her own compartment. Each individual is responsible for managing his or her own compartment, and need not concern him or herself with what's happening in the other compartments. Instead, the individual must learn to trust that every other team member is doing what he or she must do to manage his or her own compartment, and together -- with the whole team working together in their individual compartments -- the whole team succeeds.

In a military sense, this is a matter of trusting in one's teammates and choosing to believe that the rest of the team is going to work toward the chosen objective, but in a general sense this means that, in the words of the paranoid conspiracy theorists, I don't have to "do your own research!" I can trust that if I did my own research, I would be drawing from the same body of knowledge that informed the knowledge of my physician. "Do your own research!," they say? Well, I could do a Google search... or maybe read some books... or maybe take some continuing education classes at the local college... or maybe go for a degree in chemistry or biology... or maybe go to university for pre-med... or maybe get licensed as a nurse practitioner... or maybe become a physician... or perhaps even eventually become an advanced medical specialist?

Or, maybe I could just trust in the knowledge and competence of my physician who already did all those things.

You know, whatever.

So the way I see it, when I'm already stressed out and either sick or injured, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to additionally exhaust and stress myself by poring over a potentially infinite number of Internet search results for days or weeks on end when I can let my physician do the job for which he or she has already been educated, trained, reviewed, and approved to do. It isn't that I don't want to be informed, or that I prefer to be ignorant of the possible risks and outcomes of a treatment, therapy, or surgery -- because I don't -- I just don't think it's productive for me to neglect the compartment of my own life including my marriage and my family just so I can take over the compartment already being handled by my physician.

This sort of compartmentalization works very well for me in many spheres of my life, but unfortunately it isn't a perfect life strategy because it only works when the other compartments on which I depend are occupied by people who give a shit. In this example, the urologist who was treating me spent a year and a half either prescribing the medical equivalent of M&M's to treat my post-vasectomy pain syndrome, or else referring me to other professionals who in turn couldn't help me and kept referring me back to him. It all came to a head when about 18 months after the vasectomy he sent me for an MRI. It was during this first MRI that the spinal cord tumor was found, and my urologist grabbed onto that like a grifter to an audience of Evangelical end-timers. 

In hindsight, I should have known that he was playing me because he's a urologist -- not a neurologist -- and he was weaving an elaborate story about the grave seriousness of this very rare and very dangerous tumor in my spinal cord that's pushing on my nerves and referring pain throughout my whole body. What responsible doctor speaks so authoritatively outside his or her field of expertise? Owing to my deference to experts and professionals, my urologist's insistence on a neurological cause for my symptoms, and the sum stress of the ordeal, my mind appears to have created and sustained a purely psychosomatic bogeyman to match my perceived reality.

This whole ordeal has on the one hand been a really fascinating, first-hand experience to the power of suggestion and the phenomenon of psychosomatic illness, but it's also been a disappointing and depressing experience because it's made it very difficult for me to maintain my strategy of compartmentalization. Living life through compartmentalization is like building a boat with bulkheads: even if one bulkhead fails, the others will remain airtight and keep the ship well above water. But having said that, being played by a doctor who in the final calculation was so obviously doing anything he could to keep me out of his office and refer me to any other professional whom he thought would take over my care is the kind of failure that breaches multiple compartments.

All of which is a really long way of saying that the past two years and change have been a personalized object lesson in the importance of limiting the degree to which I allow any authority to influence my judgement and perception. If you're a cynical sort, you might think that I'm whining that there's nobody to tell me what to think or do, but you'd be wrong. I mean, consider all the ways that you who read this have off-loaded numerous other decisions and jobs onto other people. You might think I'm silly for having trusted doctors the way that I have, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that you do the same in at least two other compartments of your own life. Whether it's your spouse, your employer, your elected representatives fact-checking services, or any of a number of other people or things I could name, I'm dead sure that there are times when you reject the exhaustion and delay of critical analysis in favor of the ease and speed of confident trust.

As a Satanist, I value doubt, skepticism, criticism, and analysis. As a Satanist, I think that nothing should be left unquestioned, and I agree with Socrates when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. To leave anything or anybody unquestioned and unexamined is to allow the least desirable aspects therein to at best perpetuate and at worst to proliferate. But then, as a Satanist, I also value pleasure, happiness, indulgence, and relaxation. I don't know about you, but for me I find these two poles difficult to balance if only because the left-ward pole tends to point out the fly in the ointment that is the right-ward pole and which, once seen, is impossible to ignore and thus becomes difficult to further enjoy.

In the same way that I've been robbed -- or robbed myself? -- of the ability to fully trust my physicians, I feel that I've also been robbed -- or robbed myself? -- of the ability to fully relax into Satanism. This kind of distrust in people and institutions that I previously believed was well-placed and well-chosen owing to the perceived accomplishments, authority, and other qualifying bona fides feels a lot like disenchantment. I can't call back to me the figurative magic that allowed me the luxury of having to not dissect and examine multiple compartments within the totality of my self -- or likewise, within the totality of my life.

In terms of Satanism, this phenomenon of breached compartments -- the causes for which I've already discussed at length (1, 2, 3, 4) -- is starting to feel a lot like the internal development of a post-Satanic personal paradigm in which I've internalized multiple elements of Satanism but no longer feel drawn to participate in Satanism itself or identify as a Satanist myself. Considering how heavily the Church of Satan seems to emphasize post-Satanism ("true" Satanists aren't easily identified; "de facto" Satanists; "true" Satanism is defined by worldly success; etc.), and given that I was initiated into Satanism through the canon literature of the Church of Satan, this trajectory isn't surprising to me, but to experience it myself does feel disappointing and disenchanting if only because the whole thing feels a lot like unnecessary trouble and wasted time. Well, maybe not wasted time: I like myself and who I am, and I possibly would not have reached this point if not for the influence of the Church of Satan -- being influenced by both its success and its failures.

All the same, I still feel the sharp temptation to discard the distrust and disenchantment I've accumulated if doing so would return to me the pleasure and satisfaction I enjoyed in my previously intact compartment, but such a temptation is one that I'm neither able nor willing to indulge. Even though my broken compartment often feels dull and empty, I'm not going to repair the breach with willful ignorance or fill my compartment with fool's gold. It's depressing to watch compartments collapse because the people or institutions whose word I trusted turned out to be a fantasy unequal to the reality which they claimed to represent.

It's my preference when I write to persuade my audience toward a particular opinion or outcome, or to conclude each essay with some kind of solution, but I don't honestly know what the most adequate conclusion to this essay really is. If you've got any ideas, then throw them into the comment section below.