Growing up, my friends and I were pretty big into role playing games. As with most people who play these games, we mostly stuck to the fantasy and sword & sorcery genres. When we wanted to branch out, though, we mostly went to modern horror. Modern horror as a genre, whether of literature, film, or games, has a very different mood from fantasy, but the core conceits are pretty similar: what if the monsters and magic of folklore and myth were real? The difference is that in fantasy the main characters exist in a world in which these things are assumed to be real, so even while perhaps finding them frightening and daunting, they are not terrifying because they do not defy common expectations of how reality works; horror, on the other hand, has the protagonists and anti-heroes running into these same things, albeit in a context which cracks or even shatters their formal learning and ingrained beliefs about the world around them.
And among our favorite games that did this were Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. These games, though they take very different approaches to interacting with it, share a fictional setting: the modern world (as of their original writing, the mid- to late 1990s) in which the gothic horrors of vampires, werewolves, tortured ghosts, eldritch sorcerers, and fairy changelings existed as commonplaces yet just out of sight for the vast majority of humanity. It was a dark approach to wainscot fantasy which turned it into a neon-lit, rain-slick, smog-obscured deathrock scene. This setting was officially entitled the World of Darkness.
Back then, a lot of kids read those books and played those games and hoped or believed themselves to be among these creatures. Most weren’t really delusional, but they felt that these identities filled in some deep crevice or bridged a wide cavern in their inner lives. Arguably, the subculture which developed around these RPGs gave rise to modern “otherkin” identities as fans of World of Darkness games wove their way through tabletop and video gaming, fantasy, horror, science fiction, goth rock, extreme metal, occult, and Internet sub- and counterculture groups. These group identities were all quite small at the time, as the information and telecommunications technologies had not reached the accessibility, ubiquity, and socio-economic dominance which they now have, so people very often held strongly to them once found and would patch them together into semi-coherent manifestos of self-empowerment and self-expression. If you lived through it, you know exactly what I mean, and if you weren’t there it would take at least a book to get across anything of what that world was like.
One part of it which has always existed, however, and which persists in human nature to this day, is the singular experience of “otherness”. While certain social, sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities experience it more accutely than others because of the social, economic, and political currents against which they must swim, a feeling of alienation is such a common human experience that one can find fiction, poetry, and mythology centered on it in every canon of literature across the globe. Oral, performance, and written traditions alike not only carry its imprint but, more often than not, arise from it as their seed planted in the more or less fertile soil of whichever prevailing society.
This very feeling of otherness, whatever its material or efficient causes, is what drives us, throughout history, into mysticism, the occult, poetry, eremitical monasticism, depth psychology, philosophy.
Throughout history, too, many societies have attempted to explain this sense of alienation through some version of a Fall. Sometimes this descent comes from human disobedience (Adam and Eve) or the error of a celestial being (Sophia, Yaldabaoth). Sometimes it is just the natural course of the cosmos (Bhagavatam Mahapurana, various Buddhist texts, I Ching). The Hindu cosmological and astrological concept of the yugas is paradigmatic of this latter approach to understanding, and has become the template for much modern Western esoteric speculation as well. Occultists of today often draw from any and all of these previous sources and use the Hindu framework as a means of tying them together. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but when you start to syncretize observations from very different cultural contexts it can be easy to unselfconsciously allow assumptions from one culture to bleed into the ideas and practices of another. When carried out over generations, this process can give us cultural and spiritual treasures such as the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, the Corpus Hermeticum, the myriad Hindu Puranas, and hoodoo; when feverishly rushed through to fit a purely personal or timely ideology, however, we get the septic backwash of Julius Evola, eye-rolling machismo of occult fight clubs, “volkish” reconstructionism, Blavatsky’s unintentionally racist Theosophy, or overtly white nationalist neo-Vedanta and neo-Tantra.
The yugas, four in number, are similar to the three ages of classical Greek cosmology: they are a series of descending world-eras in which human civilization goes from relative perfection in its participation in the divine order to, frankly, what we’ve had for all of recorded history: dissipation, fragmentation, fear, anxiety, and conflict. This is one of those things which can’t be proven, even through the direct experience of Yoga or ritual magic; it is either taken on faith or it is not. Some astrologers have been able to point to evidence of it in the procession of equinoxes and the like, and there is a degree to which these are convincing given descriptions of the vault of the heavens found in Rg Veda and other very early oral and written spiritual traditions. Even so, the full implications of the doctrine of the yugas cannot at this time be substantiated; it will either prove true as we move undeniably into the next yuga, or, more likely, it will remain unfalsifiable — either because transitions between yugas are long and subtle, or else because there’s no such thing and you can’t prove a negative.
I have personally wrestled with the idea of yugas for just over a decade and feel no closer to a conclusion. I have therefore put the literal truth of the hypothesis to one side and focus instead on its value as an idea.
Vine Deloria Jr., famous for his role in the American Indian uprising of the 1960s and revitalization of public American Indian scholarship and intellectual life, spent a lot of his writing career exploring the so-called “progress” of civilization. He used his platform to conduct a sort of turning the gaze of Eurocentric anthropology, ethics, history, metaphysics, and theology back upon itself — making these disciplines study “white society” as if American Indians had found Europe before Europe had found the Americas. Not only does this hang a lampshade on the biases inherent to these fields of study, it also reveals valuable pieces of data hitherto ignored because of those biases. In his The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, for example, Deloria suggests that the disenchantment and alienation of modern life is nothing new, that it extends back to the very first time a sense of unity arose in human society:
The dehumanizing aspect of larger organization may be sufficient to stifle individual expression and may serve to create disruptive tendencies that prove more attractive to individuals. It would almost seem that achieving relative homogeneity is a signal for differentiation to start. The phenomenon is not restricted to primitive societies or to societies in the process of adopting new technologies. Whenever human societies discover away to create a unity, the elements creating that unity seem to emerge as centers for additional growth and unification under a new focus.Vine Deloria Jr., The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, Fulcrum Publishing, 2012, pg 153
Of course, Deloria goes on, the modern age is “a case in point”:
The electric media […] have accelerated time and imploded space to present us with a global village homogenized by communications and bound together by an increasingly more efficient transportation system. […] The integration of the whole, in our modern world, is the coming planetary transformation of which Revel speaks, and the search for a unified understanding of human social existence, unless it takes into account the process of differentiation, will be transitory at best. Revel’s initial fascination with American social change, in which he sees the creation of alternative lifestyles as indicative of potential for growth and leadership, indicates a recognition of these growth and differentiation factors.ibid
Referencing the the conservative Catholic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Deloria does agree with Traditionalists on one worthy point:
Not all social groups are participating in the present transformation in the same way that Western societies are. Marshall McLuhan comments that “backward countries that have experienced little permeation with our mechanical and specialist culture are much better able to confront and to understand electric technology. Not only have backward and nonindustrial cultures no specialist habits to overcome in their encounter with electromagnetism, but they have still much of their traditional oral culture that has the total, unified ‘field’ character of our new electromagnetism. Our old industrialized areas, having eroded their oral traditions automatically, are in the position of having to rediscover them in order to cope with the electric age.”ibid, pp 153 – 4, quoting Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw Hill, 1965
Deloria, McLuhan, and the Traditionalists all see eye to eye on this point (also echoed in the works of such diverse thinkers as Ernst Jünger, Herbert Marcuse, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, and Frithjof Schuon): that “primitive” cultures have certain advantages integrating changes in communication because they never suffered the breakage of industrialization. Technology is not itself the problem; mechanization is. Mechanization, per Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press, 1991), paradoxically specializes us but also flattens us out as we transform into mere interchangeable parts to be replaced when worn out.
This much is true enough. But alienation has been part of the human experience for as long as records can show. Vedic astrology records it in its interpretation of the last three signs of the Zodiac; the oldest stratum of Vedic astrological lore, the Nakshatras, discuss subjective alienation at length; mystical documents as diverse as Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, Corpus Hermeticum, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms of King David attest to it loudly. Where some Traditionalists look to the early modern period, others to the Renaissance or late medieval, still others to pre-Mughal India or pre-Christian Greece and Rome, and a few “primitivist” sorts pre-Roman northern and western Europe, there’s no evidence of the kind of integrated spiritual utopia they desire. It’s the same mistake as New Agers in the ’80s and ’90s looking to pre-Columbian American civilizations for examples of social perfection.
Where ideas like the Yugas and the Ages break down is just here: there’s no evidence whatsoever that human society has ever, anywhere, at any time, reached uniform levels of enlightenment. Chances are good that the smaller the society, the healthier it is, but that’s more a matter of homogeneity and the relative simplicity of interactions with fewer areas of potential conflict, and there’s no putting that particular genie back in the bottle. Such times and places still had many of the “signs of decadence” which modern Traditionalists see today — intermarrying with other ethnic and cultural groups, homosexuality, recognition of more than two genders which may or may not be tied to physical sex, young people pushing for innovations, resisting abusive leadership, etc.
But for as much as I criticize Traditionalism’s frankly silly idealization of a past which never existed, we also go astray in idolizing current notions of progress. Progress is neither inevitable nor universally desirable; progress is a morally neutral term. It refers to movement toward an objective; that objective isn’t guaranteed to be the right one, or even a clear one, and the movement isn’t necessarily the best way to go about the process.
Even if Kali Yuga, the Age of the Holy Spirit, and the Aeon of Horus were all literally true, we would have no way of clearly delineating where one ended and the other began; Treta and Kali yugas would blend together at their edges and we wouldn’t know when we were for sure anyway. But if none of these are historical facts, they provide us with metaphors to guide us. They give us a framework for questioning the past and the present and comparing their responses. They give us a shorthand for what what we find best in humanity, for the potential we see in ourselves and in our society as a whole. If we are as cautious about it as conservatives claim to be, as pure-minded as Traditionalists wish they were, and as idealistic as progressives try to be, we can navigate our present and see our way forward. Learning from the past is one thing; obsessing over it — especially over a fictitious version of it — simply retards growth. Learning demands not only knowledge of the past, it also requires awareness of the present, and facing the future with openness.
Kali Yuga is the World of Darkness. Apparently, we live in it. We can deal with our sense of alienation — however it may arise for each of us individually — either by deepening our delusions or by trying to dissolve them. A lot of us who get involved in the occult and esoteric spirituality do so, in part, because of what we feel sets us apart. Whether we’re really much different from those around us, whether anyone else ever sees it, the choice of how we handle it is a personal, spiritual one. It will have inevitable consequences on how we interact with the world, but it is still basically interior. The World of Darkness games were obsessed with an impending Apocalypse, much as our own world. We may not have a choice in what gets revealed, but we do get a say in what we do with that information.
Next time, we’ll look a little more at what that means.