SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - The Cult of You
Do you really want to believe?
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
The famous line on Mulder’s poster in the X-Files describes more than just his interest in the unexplained — it’s the human condition in 4 words:
I want to believe.
Throughout even the most primitive parts of human history, the desire to believe in something bigger than ourselves has followed us. Of all the things we should not believe, that humans no longer have use for the myths that set us apart from every other organism on earth is one of the most dangerous.
Deep down we all know Scully wanted to believe too.
When we pretend we no longer want to believe, we lose a crucial layer of sight for understanding our world. Discounting the power of belief is like painting a flowering garden in black and white; you see what’s there, but you can’t see what makes the garden beloved. When we look at the world blind to belief, the choices people make — to sacrifice themselves, to sacrifice others, to take risks — are interpreted as either individual aberrations or group possession. Those descriptions can be true, but they don’t answer the question that belief does: why?
Our desire for belief can be hijacked. 100 years ago you might’ve been a devout Catholic, today your faith is vague and set on a dusty shelf. You live for decades with nothing bigger than yourself to turn toward in times of confusion or pain. Some lay their faith in “the universe” to satiate that gnawing sense of smallness, but the universe is indifferent to your existence and as amoral as the soil you stand on.
In what does a mythless man place his belief?
The 1960s and 70s are an unforgettable period in the US and not just for the music or the embrace of semi-homelessness as an aesthetic. At its core, this was a time where the break of old beliefs and the search for new beliefs hit a peak. This time birthed the anti-cult movement, which is essentially just a lot of different people with different reasons coming together to hate cults. Like yin and yang, wherever you find an anti movement, you’ll find the source it needs to exist.
There was no shortage of sources for the anti-cult movement to stay relevant. The 70s onward was like a cult à la carte:
The People’s Temple is where we get “drinking the kool-aid” from, which is a horribly kitsch legacy to come out of your death. The leader, Jim Jones, did what all successful totalitarian-leaning personalities do — he used racial tensions and communism as a vehicle for cultivating the “us vs. them” climate so conducive to having people do what they’d normally condemn. This story did not end well.
Heaven’s Gate is the most famous of UFO religious cults (they don’t face a ton of competition). Started by two people who loved nicknames, referring to themselves as The Two, The UFO Two, Bo and Peep, Do and Ti, which is always a red flag, Marshall Applewhite (the Do of Do and Ti) and Betty Nettles believed they were further evolved than the average person. To really drive home how much more evolved they were, they eventually preached that Applewhite was the reincarnation of Jesus and Betty was, you know, literally God. Get yourself a man who thinks you’re the living embodiment of God the Father, ladies. (This story also did not end well).
If you prefer your cults with a hint of government conspiracy and a dash of celebrity, the Manson Family is a favorite. Manson was a pretty horrible person but was astoundingly charming and even wrote a song that the Beach Boys bought from him for some cash and a motorcycle (though they altered the lyrics, which was probably a good move). The US government was experimenting with LSD as a tool for creating sleeper cells who would commit vicious violence with no memory of it afterward — the perfect soldier. Manson should have been in prison, but instead, he was free to commit the crimes that officially dealt the fatal blow to all things hippie. This story hasn’t even ended (it just gets worse, though).
Cults aren’t easily defined today; sometimes they kill others, sometimes they kill themselves, sometimes they’re religious, other times they’re political, and sometimes they’re just new or modified religions and don’t bother anyone. The groups we imagine when using the word cult are designated “destructive cults” and follow a certain pattern:
Systematic methods for indoctrination
Hostility to questioning
Perpetuation in middle-class communities
Estrangement from non-members, including friends or family
Focus on an urgent threat only the cult is considered equipped to solve
Learning about the horrors cults can lead ordinary people to commit — like murdering an innocent 8.5 months pregnant woman to incite racial violence (Manson), or joining 600 adults and 300 children in drinking arsenic (Jones), always leaves us with that ancient question — “why?” While you could write cultists off as simply “crazy,” there are plenty more direct routes to enacting chaos than inventing an entire belief system.
In our increasingly secular society, the need to believe sets the stage for disturbingly dangerous DIY myths. The myths of the past were not authored by a single person alone, but filtered through various cultures and outlived entire societies across thousands of years. When it comes to substituting our guiding principles, store-bought is not fine.
Throughout history, mythology has imbued our small lives with grander meaning. Belief means we don’t have to bear the full weight of our individual lives in a chaotic world; instead, we outsource part of that weight to a myth that guides us through the chaos.
In a world devoid of myth, both Jung and Nietzsche believed man would place that burden of individual struggle onto the nearest thing larger than himself — collectivist ideology. Here we’re offered a chance to fulfill that human desire to become part of something larger than our short lives. Ideology sets forth its own lessons for how to live and elevates its own leaders to the level of diety (it’s no accident communist regimes suppress religion — consider it a non-compete clause).
Unlike myths of old, the collective’s goals are uninterested in the individual’s wellbeing. A cult and a collective are both built at the expense of the individual; the questioning and independence that comes with personal growth are a threat to both.
“The state is merely the modern pretence, a shield, a make-belief, a concept. In reality, the ancient war-god holds the sacrificial knife, for it is in war that the sheep are sacrificed…
Instead of human representatives or a personal divine being, we now have the dark gods of the state…
The old gods are coming to life again in a time when they should have been superseded long ago, and nobody can see it.”
J. F. C. Fuller
Today, we have no true myths. The myths of old bear the lessons learned by humans throughout time, but they don’t captivate us as they once did before science put distracting red lines under errors in their texts. We stand on the cliff of a past world, inching forward and expecting the ground we’ve always known to extend beyond us.
There is no old ground.
The mythology we will guide ourselves by in this new world is now completely in our hands yet most are still reaching for tools that broke down long ago.
The Choice of Hercules, 1596
A few newsletters back I wrote about the importance of consciously setting our values as a practice that keeps us grounded through uncertainty. Defining your values is the foundation for creating your personal mythology — it’s the skeleton you add flesh to through living those values.
We might not be able to put our belief in gods and goddesses, but we should still study ancient myths (values don’t expire, after all, just the vehicles we use to communicate them do). Here is a (once) popular Greek myth to help you consider what to include in the formation of your life’s mythology. (If you’d like my extra-condensed version, just skip down):
The Choice of Hercules
From Xenophon’s Memorabilia, quoting Socrates
When Hercules was in that part of his youth in which it was natural for him to consider what course of life he ought to pursue, he one day retired into a desert, where the silence and solitude of the place very much favored his meditations.
As he was musing on his present condition, and very much perplexed in himself, on the state of life he should choose, he saw two women of a larger stature than ordinary, approaching towards him. One of them had a very noble air, and graceful deportment; her beauty was natural and easy, her person clean and unspotted, her motions and behavior full of modesty, and her raiment was white as snow. The other wanted all the native beauty and proportion of the former; her person was swelled, by luxury and ease, to a size quite disproportioned and uncomely. She had painted her complexion, that it might seem fairer and more ruddy than it really was, and endeavored to appear more graceful than ordinary in her bearing, by a mixture of affectation in all her gestures. She cast her eyes frequently upon herself, then turned them on those that were present, to see whether any one regarded her, and now and then looked on the figure she made in her own shadow.
As they drew nearer, the former continued the same composed pace, while the latter, striving to get before her, ran up to Hercules, and addressed herself to him:
“My dear Hercules,” says she, “I find you are very much divided in your thoughts, upon the way of life that you ought to choose; be my friend, and follow me; I will lead you into the possession of pleasure, and out of the reach of pain, and remove you from all the noise and disquietude of business. The affairs of either peace or war, shall have no power to disturb you. Your whole employment shall be to make your life easy, and to entertain every sense with its proper gratifications. Sumptuous tables, beds of roses, clouds of perfumes, concerts of music, crowds of beauties, are all in readiness to receive you. Come along with me into this region of delights, this world of pleasure, and bid farewell forever, to care, to pain, to business.”
Hercules, hearing the lady talk after this manner, desired to know her name; to which she answered, “My friends, and those who are well acquainted with me, call me Happiness; but my enemies, and those who would injure my reputation, have given me the name of Pleasure.”
By this time the other lady came up, who addressed herself to the young hero in a very different manner.
“Hercules,” says she, “I offer myself to you, because I know you are descended from the gods, and give proofs of that descent by your love to virtue, and application to the studies proper for your age. This makes me hope you will gain, both for yourself and me, an immortal reputation. But, before I invite you into my society and friendship, I will be open and sincere with you, and must lay down this, as an established truth, that there is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labor. The gods have set a price upon every real and noble pleasure. If you would gain the favor of the Deity, you must be at the pains of worshiping him: if the friendship of good men, you must study to oblige them: if you would be honored by your country, you must take care to serve it. In short, if you would be eminent in war or peace, you must become master of all the qualifications that can make you so. These are the only terms and conditions upon which I can propose happiness.”
The goddess of Pleasure here broke in upon her discourse: “You see,” said she, “Hercules, by her own confession, the way to her pleasures is long and difficult; whereas, that which I propose is short and easy.”
“Alas!” said the other lady, whose visage glowed with passion, made up of scorn and pity, “what are the pleasures you propose? To eat before you are hungry, drink before you are athirst, sleep before you are tired; to gratify your appetites before they are raised. You never heard the most delicious music, which is the praise of one’s own self; nor saw the most beautiful object, which is the work of one’s own hands. Your votaries pass away their youth in a dream of mistaken pleasures, while they are hoarding up anguish, torment, and remorse, for old age.”
“As for me, I am the friend of gods and of good men, an agreeable companion to the artisan, a household guardian to the fathers of families, a patron and protector of servants, an associate in all true and generous friendships. The banquets of my votaries are never costly, but always delicious; for none eat and drink at them, who are not invited by hunger and thirst. Their slumbers are sound, and their wakings cheerful. My young men have the pleasure of hearing themselves praised by those who are in years; and those who are in years, of being honored by those who are young. In a word, my followers are favored by the gods, beloved by their acquaintance, esteemed by their country, and after the close of their labors, honored by posterity.”
Hercules at the Crossroads, 1748
The Choice of Hercules is literally that — a choice between two paths. He’s confronted by two beings, the goddess Arete (ἀρετή), who represents human potential and the virtue of becoming one’s highest self, and Kakia (Κακίαν) who’s the personification of immorality and giving in to vice. Each makes a case for why he should follow them; Kakia promises pleasure, happiness, and an easy life, while Arete makes a straightforward confession that to follow her is to endure difficulty, challenges, and even pain, but that these hardships yield true happiness and honor.
This parable is a metaphorical representation of the now cliched phrase “Nothing good comes easy.” The Greeks believed their gods were real; they didn’t brush off these stories as monotonous efforts to teach what we now scoff at as “obvious.” These myths weren’t just meant to teach people what our advanced societies presume to know — they were inspiration and meditations on the crucial work of living well.
The danger in a society without myth is the cynical sense that we’ve outgrown the need to labor at virtue itself.
Yet, how often do we fall prey to exactly the lesson in this parable? Perhaps there would be fewer pyramid schemes and Nigerian princes in need of immediate monetary assistance who swear they’ll repay you 10x if this parable was as popular today as it was even into the 18th century.
In a time when what is moral and what is right has never been more debated, the practice of consciously cultivating our own mythology is vital. I mean, can any of us really say we have nothing to learn from Hercules?
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.