Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction dispatch. At the summer and winter solstices, I mimic the sun and pause to reflect on my own creative work. In this edition, I'm discussing religious belief in my short story "He Who Steals the Sun Shall Bear its Gravity," published in the E Is for Evil anthology, edited by Rhonda Parrish.
An Excerpt from "He Who Steals the Sun Shall Bear its Gravity"
Katus could not bring himself to give a damn what this simulant tool of the enemy was thinking or feeling, and he was medicated to give a damn now. "I'm going to pray." He gestured at the altar and then at the picked-over food trays. "Are those real?"
"No," she replied in a too-bright tone, "but I can bring you something to eat. Any requests?"
Katus went to the altar and floated his fingers over the candle flame. It was hot, and the wax smelled of spice. "Whatever food you can find, black coffee, and a bedroll. Anku isn't out of options yet, and I want to be here if Nevenigt needs me."
His concern was clearly the opening Imion needed. "If he does, is…is there some way to disable the Sul Fleet altogether?" She was hesitant, not out of fear but in the way an effective manipulator spoke when something of note was at stake. Katus himself had employed the same technique so often that her efforts sounded hollow and clumsy to his ears. "I only ask because it would save so many lives."
"Of course." A sardonic grin slid across his face and disappeared. He leaned down and touched the holy objects in turn, a best-effort invocation from a man who had never prayed before. "So you are self-aware," Katus remarked in a mocking tone. "How do you feel about being sent here to die with me?"
"I didn't know you were a religious man." Imion evaded the question and came to stand beside him at the altar.
"I was alive when the Writ of the Elements was a collection of theological verse passed among a handful of heretics. So I'm not religious in the way you imagine. I just find myself in need of reliable symbols right now." Katus settled cross-legged onto the prayer cushion provided. "And you didn't answer my question."
Imion crossed her arms. "You didn't answer mine either."
"No, I didn't. Now go away and do as I asked." Katus bowed his head, closed his eyes, and listened while her footsteps receded. Behind him, the Capèmont general waited inside the ambitrans like a docked shuttle whose pilot had gone to bed.
The empathy drug coursed through his body again, and with it came another tsunami of guilt. He leaned forward to rest his forehead on the varnished edge of the altar and permitted the tide to carry him all the way back. He could almost smell the rain-drenched earth of his childhood home, feel the slippery organs of animals he had defiled as a boy, hear the grieving of his plain, kind brother for one missing pet after another. Tanko's almost-pretty wife had been so easily wooed, bedded, and abandoned to bear a son of uncertain paternity to a husband who knew and loved her even so, who had forgiven Katus just as Imion Sidet claimed to have done. Tanko knew what I was long before my parents did, spent his whole life begging me to accept a corrective implant, and his forgiveness meant nothing to me. Now it's too late to atone; to him, or Isaro, or even to Togi, who was certainly my nephew and might have been my son.
He sat this way a long time, tears streaming down his face onto the plain prayer cushion, mourning the dead whose names or faces came to mind along with the faceless multitude crushed beneath the tread of his ambition. When the inner tumult quieted of its own accord, he rose and massaged the table indentation in his forehead. Imion had come and left him a plate of baked polenta stuffed with tomatoes and cheese. A thermos pot of coffee and a mug waited beside it on the floor next to a military-issued cold weather bedroll. Katus ate mechanically but saved the coffee for later, shook out the bedroll, and fell into the sleep of a soldier who knows he will have to wake soon, forgetting for a while that soon he would sleep and never wake again.1
The Folklore Behind the Fiction
I'm going to beg your indulgence on two fronts this month. First, I'm sharing a chewy bit of folklore theory about the linguistic construction of modernity, but I plan to explain it, so fear not! Second, there are critiques of Christianity in this dispatch and podcast because they exist in the story at its heart, but they're not meant to convey or promote an anti-Christian sentiment, so please receive them in the spirit they're intended.
Let's start with that chewy bit of theory. Folklore scholars Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs write that:
“Western domination did not rely solely on military might and the imposition of particular forms of capitalism but on the promulgation of certain crucial epistemological and ideological orientations as well…As part of the process of constructing modernity, European elites produced ideologies and practices and then elevated them to the status of universals that could be used in comprehending and dominating the rest of the world…European elites thus provided both the model for assessments as to how a given individual or population measured up to these ideals and accorded themselves the right to occupy the role of assessors for the entire world.”2
In other words, European elites created knowledge and came up with ideas about the rest of the world, elevated them to the status of universal truths about the world, and then used them to dominate the world. They did this, in part, by constructing social inequalities with language; male is better than female, white is better than black, urban is better than rural, educated is better than uneducated, literate is better than oral, and so on.3 These inequalities are embedded in Western, European discourse so deeply that it's difficult to isolate and understand them as linguistic constructions of reality and not reality itself. They're still teaching us how to think about the world, and that's not always a good thing.
I would argue that Western Christianity has done similar work with religious belief. Christianity created and propagated theology about a father god and his son, original sin and redemption, the duality of good and evil, an immortal soul that faces judgement after death, and so on. This theology is written down in an official book of divine wisdom, and it has been widely taught for a thousand years. But like the European construction of social inequalities with language, Christianity has constructed religious inequalities with theology. A father god is better than a mother goddess, or many gods. Original sin is better than original blessing. Good versus evil is better than complex morality. An immortal soul facing God's judgement is better than a reincarnated soul or no soul at all. These spiritual constructs are so deeply ingrained in our understanding of what it means to be religious that they're often taken for granted as universal bedrocks of faith rather than a widespread set of beliefs imprinted on human consciousness over the course of centuries. They're still teaching us how to believe, and that's not always a good thing, either.
The Christian influence on religious thought is a popular topic among Pagans, who are working to reconstruct and reimagine pre-Christian spiritual beliefs. Often the first step in this reconstruction is a process of internal decolonization, in which we examine the religious constructs we've inherited from Christianity against the animism, pantheism, and polytheism we're discovering and developing. As both a writer of fiction and a Pagan, part of my decolonization involves imagining Pagan futures when the religious beliefs we're developing now have matured, for better or for worse. In the case of my story world, these beliefs are found in a book of divine wisdom called the Writ of the Elements, once a heretical set of writings but now an established sacred text:
"She forgives you, you know." The Imion simulant brushed a fall of indigo petals from her blouse with a flick of the wrist. 'Cleanse the way between you, that the water of humanity might remain unpolluted.' Writ of the Elements, Verse 17."
"That scripture is about atonement, not forgiveness." Now I'm arguing theology with a simulant. Nobody deserves that. Not even me.4
From my perspective as the writer, this passage is still quite Christian even though the book title itself is more closely aligned with a Pagan understanding of the elements air, fire, water, earth, and spirit. It's a blending of theological concepts about forgiveness and atonement with a non-theistic understanding of the sacred, and it's representative of the syncretism currently happening in Pagan theological discourse. But this is the sort of thing that happens when you build a new religion out of old, fragmented beliefs while you're already steeping in a powerful religious paradigm. Speaking as a folklorist, it's a common pattern of belief development. Speaking as a Pagan, I hope we decolonize enough to avoid too much sewing of Pagan labels onto Christian spiritual constructs.
This is why the religious beliefs in my stories are almost never Christian (with a few notable exceptions) and why I think Pagan futurism is important. We change culture by challenging the foundations of thinking and belief, by creating new knowledge and theology, and by spreading those ideas. Of course, we also have a duty not to use what we create in ways that define or dominate the rest of the world, but that's a philosophical tangle for another time.
The Writing Process
Katus Boudiko, whose name is a combination of the Proto-Celtic words "victorious" and "battle," is a far-future psychopath able to transfer his consciousness from clone to clone. As a result, he's lived many human lifetimes, which has afforded him the opportunity to build an army of mercenaries and become the most feared tyrant in history. Just before my story begins, he's caught, tried, and sentenced for his crimes to take a single dose of a common empathy drug and travel down into a black hole, where his consciousness cannot escape to a new clone host. But Katus becomes addicted to the drug and spends the journey to his death reflecting upon atonements he can never make to his victims. Meanwhile, his young lieutenant Anku threatens to destroy the sun of an inhabited solar system if her captain is not released, so Katus' captors exploit this newfound chemical empathy in the hope he will give them the means to destroy his own mercenary fleet.
Katus was a character long before he was part of a story. In 2015, I was invited to write a one-man, one-act play, so I spent some time developing an ancient, evil mercenary who comes to remorse so late in life that he cannot seek forgiveness or atone for the things he has done. The invitation to write that play never came to anything, but the character stayed with me as a meditation upon wrongdoing and right-making. There is a particular variety of forgiveness often demanded of victims, modelled after the Christian god's forgiveness of humankind and held up as a moral ideal. But this is the same model that motivates many to sin six days a week, ask that god for absolution on Sunday, and bypass the difficult work of atonement altogether. However, when forgiveness is a response to atonement, perpetrators are forced to mend what they have broken on their victims' terms or live with the unmitigated burden of their sins. This is where we find Katus in the story; going to his death in a moral universe where there is no all-forgiving god and where his victims are long past atonement and forgiveness. There is nothing left for him to do but contend with the crushing weight of his crimes. Meanwhile, Katus' captors are exploiting a vast emotional vulnerability they introduced, and whether or not their reasons are sound, they will not be able to seek forgiveness or atone for their actions later, because he will be dead.
It's a heavy theme, to be sure, and there are elements of it I plan to clarify when the story goes into my next collection. It's also a critique of Christian forgiveness, which so often soothes the conscience of a perpetrator at the expense of her victim. But heavy themes and uncomfortable critiques are a crucial part of the writer's landscape. It's never been easy to write something meaningful, especially when we ourselves are imperfect human beings often struggling with the very issues we're bringing to the page. Of late, it's been more difficult, when a perceived social misstep might result in the cancellation of our writing by vocal Progressives and support for social justice might result in the banning of our writing by vocal Conservatives. It's tempting to pull our punches, to write what is safe, to tell a pretty story that doesn't challenge anyone too much. Perhaps I'm fortunate to have so many examples of ethnographers who found a way to write about difficult things; Benjamin Teitelbaum, whose work in the white nationalist music scene is a stellar example of ethical scholarship, Elaine Lawless, who writes about domestic abuse as a survivor of domestic abuse, and Dwight Conquergood, who brings the weight of his intellect to bear on a critique of capital punishment in "Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty." And perhaps I remember being a young teen who had to keep my writing secret because my parents were Jehovah's Witnesses. My poetry was a transgressive vehicle that helped liberate me from an abusive home, but only after it won a high school poetry contest and was discovered by my mother, who threw it in the trash. In any case, I believe in my bones that it is right, good, and proper for us to disagree with one another about the written word, but I also believe just as strongly that we should not silence it, in others or in the germinative places where our own ideas become the words we give to the world.
This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for a look at "Usheen's Return to Ireland." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
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- 1. C.S. MacCath, “H Is for Hindsight/He Who Steals the Sun Shall Bear Its Gravity,” in E Is for Evil, ed. Rhonda Parrish (Edmonton: Poise and Pen, 2018), 117–118.
- 2. Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs, Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 3.
- 3. Bauman and Briggs, 11.
- 4. MacCath, 109.