C: Cyberhenge: Real, Imagined and Virtual

This week’s blog post is on the letter ‘C’ and concerns itself with the online culture and in particular they cyberhenge. The reason for this post comes from a very interesting dialogue on Facebook following a recent post, titled; Techno-pagan: Social Media. The aforementioned post spurned much chagrin amongst commentators on my personal Facebook and personally I believe a lot of their comments had to do with some of the buzz words I used in the article, namely the idea of the “technopagan” and “cyberhenges”. For those not in the know; these were very popular ideas during the zenith of the internet in the mid-to-late 90s. There is, even now, a plethora of advice for neophyte witches and pagans wishing to incorporate their PCs and laptops as virtual temple spaces. If we were born in the 14th Century and asked to live in a monastery we might have the same ideas concerning language and writing as a sacred duty but our virtual spaces are just as secular as they are sanctified through enlightening conversations which bring about personal gnosis and understanding. If you read over my post I was using the terms technopagan and cyberhenge rather glibly as a means to illustrate how when the terms were first employed they were a niche for those disconnected from a community and peer support system but that more and more of us are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.

Cyberhenge, Douglas E. Cowan (2007)
Cyberhenge, Douglas E. Cowan (2007)

In his work, Cyberhenge (2007), Douglas E. Cowan offers an in-depth study of modern pagan paradigms as they are presented in online discourses. I won’t hold Cowan up as the luminary of modern pagan studies as there are some limitations in his work, such as; the author limiting to virtual experiences akin to Role-Playing Games (RPGs) when even LARPing has become a thing now. Furthermore, as I review some of his findings I realise that many of the groups he cited were self-described as being virtual covens or temples, there simply wasn’t a counter-balance to his hypothesis. Furthermore, it didn’t seem to fit with my own studies of the movement of new media technology and how individuals and groups are utilising them. Naturally in the run up to my Final Year Project this was very disheartening because new media had become such a pivotal point in my life – both as a pagan and a student.

In his article, Paganism: The Real, the Imagined and the Virtual (Issue 13: Imbolg 2013) for Brigid’s Fire Magazine, Dominic Hodson discusses his views on virtuality in modern paganism going into some deeper personal accounts for us. Hodson puts it to the reader that Second Life enables modern pagans to transverse social barriers as agoraphobia or even socio-phobia (18) and asks the question if those of us who have social media presences aren’t just living through those now? Second Life offers a virtual experience of life unlike any other but the guiding principles of connectivity at one’s fingertips and plugging into a hyper-reality is, indeed, ingrained in modern pagan thought. Okay, so there are some of the attractions, what are the drawbacks? Well as Hodson puts it modern paganism has meeting in person as a spiritual journey at the heart of it (18). Indeed as he puts it,

“And it is safer and less expensive to meet online than it is in the real world; travel costs are increasing all the time and especially in Ireland, …Or would it then not be the adventure of  a lifetime every time you wanted to visit a fellow pagan in the wilds of the countryside?” (18).

So now I’m wondering if the virtual world or the cyberhenge was initially all about making connections to people of “like mind” then perhaps the tool or mechanism for reaching out to others is being overused? I’ve heard it said from a few Witches and Magicians of my acquaintance that people just aren’t traveling for initiation anymore. That they feel as though the Work is accessible online and one simply can navigate through a labyrinth of successive “gurus” online with the handle, “PixieFlora-Meadowsweet”.

Personally, I’m partial to meeting in person. Not only am I a social creature but the face-to-face interaction enables me to consider questions I’d not otherwise be able to rehearse with a virtual avatar. I’ve used modern technology to connect with others and share ideas so I’m not adverse to Second Life or even using virtual spaces as a mode of connection but eventually there are issues such as tapping into the egregore of the Tradition as another mode to learn from. In my time online and interacting with others I’ve often strove to be coherent and make sense without being overpowering with people. The problem with online interactions is that you just don’t know a person’s writing strengths and often when you do its a matter of style that gets critiqued.

In the post Techno-pagan: Social Media, I commended Orfhlaith Robin from Musings of a Young Irish Witch for her engagement with social media and for some enjoyable interviews. The post received some harsh criticism from some other blogger friends of mine on Facebook – (oddly enough my post on here had inspired me to do a round-up and review of all my blogging friends and promote them, guess thats off the cards now!) – who felt that Orfhlaith’s posts should contain “more content”. This is of course a fair statement from people who are looking for something that relates to themselves for that personal gnosis I mentioned earlier. However, I’m a firm believer in constructive criticism – if one must give negative feedback make sure its constructive! For instance, one comment from Irish blogger Frater Docet Umbra stated that his tastes in content has evolved over time and the implication being that one’s tastes became more sophisticated. Naturally, I cannot concur with this idea since in my view the nature of the content one writes doesn’t evolve but the WAY one writes does. There is a distinction which few writers and bloggers make. I have the height of respect for Frater D∴U∴ and what he writes but from an Irish pagan perspective I do disagree with some of the modern, inspired stuff he writes on.

Orfhlaith is big enough and bauld enough to fighter her own corner, so its not my intention to do any such thing but to illustrate how social media and the writing process can work to develop a person’s ideas into a working thesis. We have a long held belief that writing and publishing is fixed in its point but such is not the way of writing. Its actually quite flexible and fluid. Indeed even as I type this now Nick Farrell if re-editing is seminal piece Making Talismans and aims to re-title it Magical Imagination: The Keys to Magic (Cynthia Caton, Brigid’s Fire: Imbolg 2013, 28).

My own blog is far from done being re-directed to new ideas and perspectives and as I begin to sign off for the evening I’m inclined to summarise my points. I titled this piece “Cyberhenge: Real, Imagined and Virtual” because defining the real from the imagined from the virtual is a challenging concept. It requires us to discern for ourselves truth from fiction and whether fiction holds even a grain of truth or whether truth holds enough fiction. Second Life uses its own series of symbolism and iconography which the user can fashion from programable material and so it is the case with other modes of expression while online. I may be writing in English but the computer will interpret it as code enabling people to read this in other languages through translation software available on most PCs and laptops now.

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6 Replies to “C: Cyberhenge: Real, Imagined and Virtual”

  1. I enjoyed this one Abhainn. It touches on one of my bugbears 😀 Ill try and restrain myself in the comment from going too mad.

    What I think is specifically relevant to this post is – While there were IMO a lot of negative things said about the current online culture. The stuff said about the Orflaith Robin blog was a negative at all. It means the blog is relevant enough to be a part of the general discourse between Irish neopagans and the wider world wide web. The criticisms were a part of a backlash from Irish neopagans against an observably common and unhealthy online culture among neopaganism. That Ós blog was a part of that at all is an endorsement.

    Despite online culture impacting on us theres comparatively low levels of engagement with the web among Irish pagans. Like yourself people prefer to meet in person. Maybe thats because the island is geographically smaller than other countries so its easier. Maybe its our cuairding culture. Whatever the reason Ive noticed the minimal online presence people have always maintained is becoming more of an interactive online community recently. The backlash is inevitable. We werent a part of shaping the online culture that exists so we’ve to grumpily (as out of character as that is :P) make a bit of elbow room. Its inevitable.

    Whats not inevitable is Ós role in that. I started my blog again because of Ós and here we are mentioning it. People who didnt have a blog until recently mentioned it. People who usually only engage with people from other countries mentioned it… Im fairly certain people who barely know how to use a keyboard mentioned it.

    Its worth a mention 😉 Gwan the Ó being all relevant!

    1. Hi Nuada,

      Thanks for the comment (and the restraint!;)).

      You made the comment that, “It means the blog is relevant enough to be a part of the general discourse between Irish neopagans and the wider world wide web”. This is the part of the discourse that happened on Facebook that simultaneously intrigued me and frustrated me (I never maintained I was unbiased did I?), as I felt that there was a certain implication that Orfhlaith’s blog ought to be weighted for it’s merits and all I had was the image that if found wanting the Wiccan Yakuza would be dropping by… Realistically I know everyone on that thread better than to assume this was their intent but it drove home the power of words and the ways in which we present ourselves in terms of new media discourse. From this perspective I felt I had the opportunity to further examine social interactions online from the modern pagan perspective.

      I had planned to go into much more of a theoretic perspective thus limiting how personal this post appears to be because in truth FAR more happened in that Facebook thread than everyone simply having a go at poor auld Orfhlaith (FYI she’s is not a hag despite all descriptions to the contrary), for instance Sibheal entered a dialogue about using social media outlets to facilitate training and teaching within a coven, Boann took a more liberal view having utilised some approaches. This was a stark reminder of another group on Facebook wherein I entered a discussion on suitable material for a particular Tradition and a member of the group openly scoffed at me and instructed me to not bring up that author again. When I queried if I’d been added to an “Initiated-only” group he scoffed again laughing that any Tradition or lineage would have a Facebook group for members only… he was completely incorrect since I know 4 different traditions with a Facebook presence for their lineages and ones for covens. Admittedly I SHOULD HAVE included all this last night when posting but I was unwell and needed to sleep, besides if I’m making the argument that we need to be more fluid in our attitudes to online discourses – since everything is by it’s nature published – then I could comment here or with a follow-up post. Viola! 😉

      Your comments on the cuarding culture is interesting because what we’ve been lacking in our own discourse on here is a grounding in a particular context. Facebook is geared towards networking between friends and colleagues. This is different from message boards or Yahoo! Groups, while friendships have emerged online from these boards and groups they aren’t implicit in joining such boards. Indeed the objective of such groups is information exchange primarily. I would tend to take a different perspective on the “shaping of online culture” in Ireland – I think that Ireland was very much a leading light in this regard. During the course of my FYP I interviewed a number of Irish neopagans or people who were around at the foundations of what would become the Irish Neopagan movement. They had a rather unexpected story to share with me and that was of so-called “internet hubs” wherein some people were inspired to get dial-up connection and provide a referral process for people. This was, of course, in the days when the internet itself was still new so before Yahoo! Groups happened and have since waned. You’re right we need to make a little more elbow room and get back into it because as social media takes the lead Pagan events need promotional work to sustain them, indeed Feile Draiochta is on Facebook, Twitter and has its own website.

      There is so much we as a collective of pagan communities in Ireland could be doing and enjoying if we took the lead on our own media presence. You know that I can’t recall the last update from Pagan Federation Ireland and Facebook is where I’d be looking! I have checked website but nothings been updated in oh so long. Druidschool Roscommon updates regularly. Irish Druid Network have – as I’ve learned recently added SO MUCH to their site.

  2. Many thanks for quoting me but I’m afriad you have completely misquoted me, thus arguing with a point I never made. What I actually said was ‘”as the amount of information online increases I look for position, opinion and content that comes from walking a path.”

    I felt I should give you an opportunity to reread the facebook post (I have) and to reply to what was actually said.

    I have replied more generally as follows

    http://fraterdocetumbra.blogspot.ie/2013/02/second-life.html

    1. I re-read when I was posting the blog entry and again when I was responding to Nuada. And all I can say is at no point did I quote you, I didn’t even cite you but merely paraphrased. I’m sorry if you thought otherwise but I thought I was quite transparent, oddly enough I seem to have been misjudged and misquoted quite a lot throughout the discourse on this topic from people based solely on two terms in one post.

      However, on the subject of misquoting people I never claimed that Orfhlaith was a technopagan in the general sense of the word, I merely used the term to compliment her savviness in modern media and networking. Whether one likes the origins of the words technopagan or cyberhenge there is a case for the argument that the cyberhenge is any space occupied virtually by a modern pagan regardless of external activities, and therefore alludes to the mapping of the space in a specified or codified lexicon unique to the sub-culture. By extension the same leyway may be granted to technopagan. The hallmarks of what defined these terms in the early-ninties has shifted and from my perspective as a social media observer this would suggest that those who self-identify as technopagan previously have also been affected by it. Perhaps they are just as annoyed that more Traditional Wiccans are as comfortable using social media as assistive technology to social interaction as Traditional Wiccans can be upset with non-initiated/lineaged Witches claiming the term Wiccan, one can only postulate.

      Otherwise, I enjoyed your blog post. I hope its but the beginning of illustrating that modern pagans, witches and magicians et al can and do consider the role of the medium in which they communicate with one another. There is an interesting core or essentialist argument that you denied me when I mentioned the nature of Facebook in my comment to Nuada above wherein you argue that the term “technopagan” has been mistaken for something else entirely. People’s understanding of terms mutates along with markers on how to identify them – this is all the more evident in social media which has completely changed the face of online interactions breaking down a lot of barriers.

  3. Whether a direct quotation or not, you misrepresented my position completely as what you ‘paraphrased’ is implied nowhere in what I wrote. And when you add a sentence including ‘frater docet umbra stated…’ it is a citation. If paraphrase (ie giving a general gist of a persons position) is not your strong point, then maybe you should quote.
    You seem to like using words out of their original context to conform to your new, and often unique understanding of the meaning of a word. Techno Pagan means something – and social media savviness and broad technological social conformity is contrary to what is to be understood by this term. Still, do what thou wilt, but forgive me if I fail to agree with continuing misappropriation of terms in the Pagan community. I respect your position, but do not agree with it. I do however agree that “social media…has…completely changed the face of online interactions”. I just am not at all convinced this complete change is a positive evolution or tool.

    I have enjoyed our exchanges of words, and as I said, I find blogging one of the last online mediums where position and content can still be found. Thank you for sharing yours.

    Frater Docet Umbra
    AKA That Brian Fella
    http://fraterdocetumbra.blogspot.com

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