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The science fiction and fantasy genres have been greatly inspired by American Mysticism and Spiritualism, beginning mostly with the new religious movements of Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. These genres present themselves in new religious movements through the mythemes of alienation, radiation, and mutation. These genres have also had a significant effect on new religious movements by instilling in people a belief in a greater universe of fantasy and magic from within a fiction text.
Theosophy and Rosicrucianism were two of the most significant religious movements in the historical development of fantasy literature and science fiction. Each of these movements bases their beliefs on a sense of conscious fictions that are meant to emphasize a “secret knowledge” or powers. Rosicrucianism, also known as the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross, was founded in 1614 with the publication of the Fama Fraternitatis, or the Legend of the Fraternity. This legend told of a man in the 14th and 15th centuries named Father Christian Rosenkreuz who had created a brotherhood of mystics in Germany that taught and practiced occult magics. After his death, Rosenkreuz was preserved in a magical vault for 120 years until his followers uncovered him in 1604 to usher a new age of spiritualism. The brotherhood was also said to seek out any person that shows interest in joining their practice.
When deep thinkers, philosophers and religious figures showed interest in the group with no such contact from the brotherhood, they became confused and disappointed. The simple answer was that there was never a Fraternity of the Rosy Cross. A man named Johann Valentin Andreae had written the Fama as a symbolic tool, not to be taken literally. In a later text, he even wrote: “listen ye mortals, in vain do you wait for the coming of the Brotherhood, the Comedy is at an end.” Authors of fiction, such as Andreae, seek to instill a certain symbolism of current societal issues, religion, or the grand questions of existence. Andreae had created a work of fantasy literature that seemed more exciting than our magic-less world, thereby creating a following of people that believed in that greater world and sought to be a part of it. Many works of modern literature has shown similar fantastical qualities that would seem enticing enough to follow blindly, even despite a seeming irrationality of believing in a world fiction.
Theosophy was founded in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and William Quan Judge. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine is a highly symbolic and abstract piece of literature, intended to teach about human inert magical abilities and the coming race of “spiritually evolved superhumans.” Theosophy teaches that the existence of the modern, magic-less man is the fifth “Root Race” to have existed on Earth. The first Root Race was a race of astral deities that created the Earth, the second was a race of monster-like creatures and the third was a mammal Lemurian species. The fourth race was a race of Atlanteans that had survived a great destruction of Lemurian society that fell into the sea. We are currently in the fifth Root Race until the sixth race of spiritually superior evolved humans take our place. Blavatsky also believed that with deep thought and spiritual devotion, one could project their astral body into different planes of existence or different planets, thereby taking on the role of the sixth Root Race. It is this idea of astral projection that would play a large role in the common science fiction themes of time travel and interdimensional beings. The Root Race concept of Theosophy also gave inspiration to a great number of science fiction and fantasy novels about Atlantis.
Both of these religious movements focus on the idea of superhuman abilities that lay dormant within each person, a thought that was also present in Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” philosophy. Nietzsche believed that modern man would be replaced by a race of spiritually fulfilled “ubermensch,” or super men. The comic book superhero, Superman, is directly based on this belief, though he is an alien as opposed to an evolved human. According to Jeffrey Kripal, author of Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, superhuman abilities in most comic book series and fantasy literature stem from one of three key mythemes: alienation, radiation, or mutation. Superman is a prime example of the mytheme of alienation.
While it is true that he is represented as an all-american hero with his red and blue suit, Superman is fully alien in his super-human abilities and weaknesses. The nature of Superman is very unlike what one would typically imagine as alien, however, as most ufologists would agree. The commonly imagined alien species is represented as some form of insect-like, scaly humanoid. Superman, represented as a large hunky caucasian man, is far from alien in appearance, as opposed to Marvel’s Spider Man, a human whose suit is represented as extremely alien in nature. Spiderman’s eyes are an iconic part of his suit due to their large and insect-like creepiness. This alien mytheme is extremely common in the science fiction and comic book genres. It poses an intriguing sense of foreign wonder in space that is far beyond our grasp as humans, a sense that is also one of the main components of most religious traditions and their search for a grand answer to existence.
Alien-based science fiction and religion have had a rather strong relationship in literary history. L. Ron Hubbard, well-known science fiction author, founded Scientology in 1953. This religious movement’s story of human existence is that aliens were dumped into the volcanoes of early Earth by an intergalactic overlord, and their spirit-forces lingered to find new host life on Earth. While I will not go into detail with this story, it is important to note the significance of alienation and spiritualism in this religious movement that were directly attributed to a science fiction author. H.P. Lovecraft, acclaimed horror writer of the twentieth century, also paved the way for a religious movement based on his world of fiction in The Call of Cthulhu, a horror story about cosmic (alien) gods of destruction, though he did not directly intend for this religious movement to stem. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos was deeply tied to western esotericism and witchcraft. He made several mentions of books that could be used to summon the “Great Old Ones” and demons that were real at the time or have been released since then by other authors, such as Joseph Glanvil’s Saduscismus Triumphatus and Nicholas Remy’s Daemonolatreia, as well as the most commonly known book in this extended mythos, the Necronomicon written by mad poet Abdul Alhazred. The current following of this branch of esotericism is not very well-documented and is therefore extremely difficult for me to comment on in this paper. One could argue that the new religious movement of the Cult of Cthulhu is not truly a religious movement, considering that it is not well documented and is entirely based on a work of fiction. Calling a piece of literature fiction, however, as I have discussed thus far in this paper, does not necessarily prevent it from inspiring religious beliefs and traditions.
The mytheme of radiation is largely a twentieth century concept. Fear of radiation poisoning or nuclear waste was a persisting issue in America after the development of the atom bomb in 1945, and even more so during the Cold War. Countless superheroes have origins of powers that came from some kind of freak radiation accident. Whether it was due to a radioactive spider bite in Spiderman, or excessive space radiation for the Fantastic Four, radiation has a way of producing strange results in comic book series. People in the real world aren’t exactly eager to be subject to radiation, despite fictional promises of superpowers, considering that radiation can lead to cancer and death. A certain kind of millennial religious fear came with the dawn of the Nuclear Age. People were more fearful of nuclear war and therefore found faith more appealing. A very interesting commentary was made about the relationship between religion and radiation in the 1970 film Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to the original movies. In this particular film, there is a race of surviving human telepaths that live in the underground subway system of old New York and worship an enormous atom bomb. As a work of science fiction, this film was representing human fascination with nuclear weapons of destruction as a form of religion; the destructive force of the Nuclear Age was a deity in itself that humanity had proven interest in.
The mytheme of mutation is slightly less common in comic books than radiation, but it is the most scientifically feasible potentiality of superhuman abilities. The X-Men comic book series and films are based on the Darwinian theory of Evolution. In the series, certain humans have superhuman abilities that often first become known at sexual maturity. The first X-Men that the series introduces are Professor X, who has the ability to project images of himself into the minds of others as well as telepathy, and Magneto, who has the ability to control and manipulate metal. These first superhuman abilities were references to religious mysticism in the early twentieth century. Professor X’s ability to project an image of himself could be seen as an allusion to Theosophical ideas of astral projection and Magneto’s abilities as a reference towards Franz Mesmer’s idea of “magnetism” among all things.
Religious traditions such as those of Theosophy and Rosicrucianism paved the way for modern science fiction, fantasy and comic books. Spiritualist and mystic religious movements such as these that inspired stories such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and countless others. It is quite common for certain stories, such as those listed, to accrue a large, cult-like gathering of superfans that devote themselves to cosplaying and writing fan-fiction based on their respective “fandom.” Fictional worlds of magic and wonder have instilled in the modern generation of literary fanatics a certain sense of hopefulness; a hope that these worlds and their magic may truly exist. Regardless of whether or not they are true, science fiction and fantasy narratives have proven to have had an effect on the lives of countless people in America and around the globe.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. "Fiction In The Desert Of The Real: Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos." Aries
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Kripal, Jeffrey J. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.
Chicago: U of Chicago, 2011. Print.