Introduction – The Importance of Visibility in Media
What they (media) exercise is the power to represent the world in certain definite ways. And because there are many different and conflicting ways in which the meaning about the world can be constructed, it matters profoundly what and who gets represented, who and what regularly and routinely gets left out; and how things, people, events, relationships are represented. What we know of society depends on how things are represented to us and that knowledge in turn informs what we do and what policies we are prepared to accept.Miller, David 2002. ‘Promotion and Power.’ Pp. 41–52 in Introduction to Media (2nd edn), edited by Adam Briggs and Paul Cobley. London: Longman.
Paganism has recently started to escape the shadows and become far more visible to the general public as pagans have become more open in their beliefs and practices. This seems to be a newer trend as many old-school pagan branches used to adopt a silent, secretive nature in regards to their beliefs as a direct result of hundreds of generations of persecution from Abrahamic religions.
Last summer, I attended an event somewhat near my house called Kansas City Pagan Pride Day, to which I assumed would be met with Christian protesters and be disrupted in some way. I’ve seen protectors at Planet Comicon, of all places, so I figured a religious celebration for something seen as “evil” to the less intelligent folks out there would be expected. Thankfully, this was not the case, and the event had a fun, family-friendly vibe that I was not expecting, I am a relative newbie of being “out of the pagan closet” as it were and honestly I figured everyone would be in defensive mode. These public events are popping up all over the country, and are an attempt to show a more visible presence of a wide swath of religions that are usually taught in history classes as dead mythology or spoken about as evil in some way in the church pulpit.
One thing we, however, need more of is a positive media presence – something that usually does not happen. I spoke a bit about this in my review of the popular film, Midsommar, where pagans are the convenient whipping boy for film and TV – need a villain? – here’s an ignorant take on a Witch Coven that eats babies! Need a way to look down on a politician? – talk about their past dabbling in Witchcraft! Now you can see my apprehension on how the public would treat such beliefs. But, you know what? There has been one TV medium in which this has not been the case, and its surprising – World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the largest professional wrestling company in the United States.
WWE? What are you smoking?!
It honestly wasn’t that long ago that professional wrestling was full of heel (bad guy) gimmicks designed to anger southern protestant sensibilities. Every promotion had a scary Satanic guy, an effeminate homosexual man, and an overdressed wealthy northerner that thought everyone in the crowd were stupid rednecks. This works great for smaller events and it especially worked in the past – but a lot of these tropes did not move the the medium of nation-wide Television very well. There have been decades of questionable wrestling gimmicks that, if portrayed in just about any other media, would cause boycotts and protests. An example that immediately comes to mind is a match between WWE legends Virgil and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart in which the latter came to the ring dressed as a Klansman, and hung the former (a black man) by the neck with a rope – good quality family entertainment folks!
To relate this to the spirit of this blog, I’m not touching on racism in wrestling, I just wanted to point out how bad wrestling can be when its at its worst; I wanted to touch on their takes on paganism in the past and present. Take John Nord a.k.a. The Viking, The Berserker, or Nord the barbarian up there. In a time for little nuance, his character lumbered out to the ring yelling “Huss! Huss! Huss!” donning a horned helmet and shield. This was basically a take on the overwhelmingly racist trope of “look at this man we found in deepest (Borneo/Uganda/Fiji! etc)” gimmick, made nonsensical by using a Viking Template.
Something like this may have worked in the 1970’s with Superfly Jimmy Snuka simply because of the inherent ignorance of Fiji and how people live there, but nobody has thee same reservations for Northern Michigan last time I checked. Sure, there might be some Norse Pagans up there, perhaps some living off the grid – but a lost clan of historical Vikings? Ones that Mr. Fuji just happened to come across and convince one to wrestle under his tutelage? Riiiiiight.
At the risk of angering Christian right-wingers, this was also the time where the generic “Satanic evil guy” gimmick took off – toss somebody all in black, make them wear a robe to the ring and play scary music – BOOM – super heel. Guys like Kevin Sullivan and the Undertaker became household names scaring people from coast to coast.
Then slowly, but surely something changed – Perhaps WWE was starting to acknowledge that using storytelling techniques more suited for a younger or (cough*or less educated*cough) audience just wasn’t cutting it anymore, or a genuine fear of running afoul of any number of protected groups that could possibly sue them or result in bad media attention. Accusations of using detrimental portrayals of homosexual characters in the past have led to massive condemnation and protests from rights groups such as GLAAD, so this would not be out of the ordinary. Or, honestly, this was seen as a marketing scheme – “let’s get these Goths, Wiccans, Pagans etc all on board!”
Rather than presenting someone of any background, other than Christian, as a binary “Satanic” villain, a wrestler named Aleister Black made his debut to NXT (WWE’s developmental show, think minor leagues) with slightly more depth. Aleister Black, Formerly known as Tommy End, is a Dutch martial artist and professional wrestler formerly of a group called “The Sumerian Death Squad”, one of the most successful tag teams in the European circuit during the early 2010s. After competing in a WWE sanctioned UK tournament in 2015, word got out that Black had indeed signed with WWE full-time. Vignettes began to air in March of 2016 showing Black sitting in a room full of candles meditating. Black spoke of how there is not any real good or evil in the world, and that we all carry sides of both in our hearts.
During his TV debut in May of the same year against Andrade “Cien” Almas, commentary did a fine job talking about his personal beliefs, stressing what it meant to be of the Left-Hand Path and talking about Thelema as a distinct philosophy that he practiced. The best part of this – If anything, Black was debuted as a “babyface” or good guy character – usually attacking others that did less than righteous things in the ring.
This was incredible to me, not even a full decade prior, a popular character named The Undertaker was the defacto villain of a lot of the major storylines. While he was a fan favorite, the things he did were not family friendly and included things such as attempted murder, ritual sacrifice, brainwashing, and cartoonish magical powers, taking on cult members, crucifying a man in the ring, and even channeling Satan himself (who confusingly turned out to be the owner of WWE, Vince McMahon). But here we had a guy, a man who the fans jokingly called him a “Satanic Ninja Wizard” due to his martial arts prowess and philosophical leanings, openly talking about real religious beliefs, and not being used to scare small children. Granted, things never got “preachy”, it’s not like Mr. Black sat down and gave a TED talk about the history of Aleister Crowley or anything, but progress is progress.
Black does dabble in the darker side of his persona, In an interview with Colt Cabana, he revealed that his father grew up in a religious cult. In the same conversation, he credited this as the inspiration for a lot of his dark and occult-driven personas in professional wrestling.
Another example of the tides changing is the tag team The Viking Raiders (FKA The War Raiders, War Machine etc.) When they first appeared in NXT, they had a vague “guys that like the renaissance festival” aesthetic, but didn’t really have a clear cut gimmick to really show any personality. They were big dudes built like Mack Trucks, wearing shoulder pauldrons and headbanging. As they days and weeks went by it was revealed though promos that Raymond Rowe was likely some sort of Norse Pagan as they showed them doing rituals to psych out their opponents before a big PPV match. Later, the duo, would be flanked by a legion of fully-garbed viking re-enactors to the ring.
It was at this time that videos started to be posted to the WWE performance Center Youtube Channel showing that Rowe and his, at the time, fiance Sarah Logan (also a wrestler) were members of an organization that taught the ways of the ancient past through combat and lifestyle, and both were avid members. Those aforementioned vikings were their friends form that group. In all fairness, this was not on a national TV broadcast, this was obscure additional content that one had to look around to find, but it was there.
This all culminated about a year ago, when they actually showed the wedding of Rowe and Logan, showing that they had opted to have a traditional viking wedding of sorts, complete with pagan rites, vows, and rituals clearly shown in the video. To me, this was incredible. Horns on helmets had been replaced with some semblance of actual respect to someone’s culture and beliefs.
Yeah, WWE is still very problematic at times. Vince McMahon (The owner) is very tight with President Donald Trump and likely shares many of his views. I doubt Mr. McMahon knows about these videos too much, much less cares about the positive portrayal of paganism in many forms, but its a start. In 2020 its a good feeling to see yourself represented on TV and not in a way where you are “the bad guy”, “evil”, or being ridiculed. Even if by accident, hats of to WWE for actually helping get a positive image of modern paganism out there.