I posted this first on Facebook today, sent it to a few family members, and now I’m putting it here.
So. Okay. Am I really going to do this on social media? Yeah, WTF. I am. Here’s my #nonbinary coming out story, as far as I can understand it to date.
My sense of being disconnected from “being a girl” dates all the way back to early childhood, but I never wanted to “be a boy” either. I just wanted to be me–whatever that was–but as I was assigned female at birth, I tried in many ways to do the best I could with what I was given. But in my imagination I was usually Captain Nemo, Sir Lancelot, or Doctor Doolittle. The most femme I got was “Pirate Queen.” And I did like to draw princesses with huge treasure chests of jewels. My Madame Alexander doll was a “mechanical genius” and inventor–so not your ordinary female doll persona.
Puberty was weird. For a couple of years I wore a woolen peacoat year round in Southern CA, to prevent being harrassed about my breasts. (That shit was non-stop.) I was sexually active in my early teens, thanks to an 18-year old boyfriend, but I do remember really kind of checking out most of the time during sex, even though I did like the attention and physical affection. It was kind of like floating above or outside my body. There were traumatic moments later on, not with him, but with others. I think being on the edge of some kind of neurodiversity also added to the dissociation. At least I grew up in the 60s so that my lack of understanding about how to do girl world was masked by being a freewheeling “hippie chick.” It was okay to break rules, rebel.
But I kept being drawn to the so-called “androgynous” fashions and rock stars of the time, and beings who showed up in science fiction stories, like the Spacers in Samuel Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah.” I remember a Richard Brautigan novel where a young girl is freaked out by her developing, voluptuous body but ends up dealing with it by becoming a stripper. And (during my teens) there was the relationship with a boy who was prettier than I was but in other ways I couldn’t tell us apart. He wore my clothes sometimes but I didn’t wear his… There were all kinds of little sign posts along the way that told me I was not completely comfortable in my gender assignment, but there was nothing I could do or change about these very deep feelings.
Fast forward through the relationships which positioned me as female in various ways, through the weird metallic feelings of pregnancy hormones, the challenges (and rewards) of childrearing, and the utter chaos of the menopause. I have a friend and colleague who coined the term “reluctantly gendered” a few years ago and that term struck home for me as a first dim “hey…what if I’m also…?” But I kept those thoughts secret and I kept them safe, kind of like the One Ring that Frodo has to schlep around until he throws it into the volcano. At the time I was in a relationship with someone who would often say, “I’m a boy and you’re a girl” and I’d always recoil inside, having a thought like “well, not actually” though I’d outwardly agree. Like what else was I gonna do? And, deeper still, “who am us anyway?” (A Firesign Theater quote).
It’s hard to move sometimes from the known to the unknown.
I credit a lot of things and people and influences for helping me along: my patron deity, genderqueer Norse Loki; trans, nonbinary, and questioning people I know; internet resources and books; and so on. And writing my Ornamental Hermits novels has allowed me to experience the genders of my characters, humans and Elves, in imaginary ways.
But perhaps the state of not being “partnered” for the last four years and the solitude of this pandemic time has been as important as anything else. Without the demands of gendered performances, I have come to know myself, though without an imagined shape or form to “transition” into. I only know that I’d cheerfully part with my secondary sex characteristics if I could, and perhaps even with some primary ones as well, and have no desire to acquire any others.
I like long hair, makeup, and cleanshaven faces on most people — including myself — so perhaps I’ll always appear “femme.” Or not. I have no idea. I don’t know where I’m going but now at last I know what I am not. There: consider that “assigned female” thing tossed into the nearest volcano. (There’s one across the lake from me!)
(Pronouns ze/zir but she/her can be tolerable, sometimes.)
Right hand path, left hand path…these are useful distinctions when applied to magic and mysticism but they somehow leave me unsatisfied. I have a yearning for the in-between, the liminal. Why not a “Möbius path” as a way to transform the dualities in a magical or mystic way? I am not sure what I’m getting at, exactly, but something speaks to me here and I intend to play around with it.
The Möbius strip is a mathematical discovery attributed to Listing & Möbius in 1858, however similar images are found in Roman mosaics (c. 200-250 CE). Its mystery is that the simple action of giving a strip of paper a half-twist, then attaching both ends, turns a double-sided object into a single-sided one. If you trace your finger around the strip, or imagine a small insect traveling along it, you notice the path is seemless along all of its surface.
The Möbius strip seems related to the symbols below (left to right): the Ouroboros eating its tail, the figure 8 eternity symbol, the Urnes Snake (often associated with Loki) and related rune stones like the Näsby, even the pattern of this kundalini yoga meditation! At bottom right is a Mobius strip in a Roman mosaic (circa 200-250 CE).
What the Möbius strip says to me is “why pick a side when everything changes with just a half-twist?” It’s a kind of shapeshifting, really. With a simple gesture (physical or mental) you’ve immediately altered reality and your perception of it. How can this be applied to magic and witchery? Or kundalini meditations, for that matter? Some ideas:
Use the Möbius strip as a talisman.
Meditate on the Möbius strip.
Write sigils or spells on thin strips of paper, then half-twist and tape the ends together to make a Möbius strip. Does this change anything?
Find ways to look at situations with a “half-twist.” Does this change anything?
Are there spirits or deities who seem interested in, who resonate with, or who can teach you anything about this symbol? I know I have been associating it (and the other symbols above) with Loki Laufeyjarson for at least a year or so.
Can the spirit of the symbol itself teach anything? What happens if you establish a relationship with it?
Are there types of rituals or practices where this concept is appropriate? Not appropriate?
This morning, in the wee hours after a good night’s post-impeachment rest, I watched a man turn a large rusty nail into a tiny, perfect sword (fit for a sturdy mouse warrior) and learned of the sea shanty craze on TikTok. I even sang along. However, a fellow Tweeter pondered the appeal? Why sea shanties? Why now?
I’d like to add “non-serious social incongruity” (aka “amusement”) to the list of reasons for this sudden popularity (see that link above): “easy to learn,” “easy to sing,” and “unifying, survivalist songs.” These songs are historical throwbacks and have little to do with most people’s modern lives, hence the social incongruity. The very oddness of this unlikely trend also adds to its appeal. Sea shanties are nerdy. They blend well with my already long list of special, consuming interests (many of which are represented in this blog). (Personally sea shanties also remind me of a happier time, the years when my young children and I would attend the annual performances of The California Revels in Oakland, CA.)
Amusement as a Positive Emotion
A couple of years ago I took Barbara Fredrickson’s positive psychology course on Coursera. My main take-away was her idea of creating “positivity portfolios” as a way to provide quick hits of positive emotions throughout the day. I realized that no matter how low I go, amusement and interest can always provide me with a way up and out. I began to assemble an online file of things that make me grin: memes, cat video links, websites, and so on. I have plenty of books but most are interesting not amusing (I need collections of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons). I don’t always remember to do it, but this practice of intentionally dosing myself with amusement and interest has served me well through most of this pandemic.
However this last week since the Jan. 6 white supremacist insurrection attempt, I should have tempered my hypervigilant doom-scrolling with dose of snarky commentary from the webpages of The Gallery of Regrettable Food. My attempt at similar humor: “Cooking with 7-Up?” –epic neo-nazi fails never tasted so good! Here boys, drown your post-sedition sorrows with a frosty glass of lemon-lime soda. It’s in your gelatin salad too! Just like mother used to make!”
Now I don’t mean to imply a link between 7Up (currently owned by Keurig Dr Pepper) and white supremacists and neo-nazis. I’m using the above recipe example purely for vintage cuisine humor. However it’s interesting to look at the company’s 2020 political donations to federal represenatives and senators. An examination of the 2020 Keurig Dr Pepper PAC donations reveals only one donation to a congressperson who ended up voting on Jan. 6th to contest the 2020 federal election results (Yourish, Buchanan & Lu, “The 147 Republicans Who Voted to Overturn Election Results,” N.Y. Times, Jan. 7, 2021). That was Represenatative Richard Hudson (R/NC) for $1,000. Five of the seventeen representatives who received 2020 donations from the Keurig Dr Pepper PAC voted against the 2021 impeachment: Van Taylor (R/TX) for $8,000; Vickey Hartzler (R/MO) for $5,000; Dan Krenshaw (R/TX) for $2,000; Ron Estes (R/TX) for $2,000; and again, Richard Hudson (R/NC) (mentioned above). (OpenSecrets.org is the source of the above campaign donation information.) So, could be worse…
And here I find I’ve spiraled over to “interest” as another positive emotion, which means I could easily do a prolonged dive into the weasel burrow of political campaign donations and the food corporations responsible for regrettable recipes. I suppose I’d better get into the main purpose of this blog: how to make skillful use of positive emotions.
Positivity Portfolio – A Way to Keep Sane in These Pandemic Times
I mentioned Fredrickson’s “positivity portfolios” earlier. The idea is simple. Collect things that trigger and nourish the following emotions. Put the collection(s) in a place where you can find them. Access them as often as you need to remember that something about this life is actually good. In fact, it’s a good practice to do this several times a day.
As I look back on life since mid-March, I’ve experienced positive emotions mostly through amusement, interest, and inspiration (the latter mostly through my novel-writing). Love hurts too much since I’m entirely alone except for my cats and haven’t seen my children or friends in all this time. I make an effort to cultivate serenity via meditation and devotional practices, but serenity is not as emotionally powerful as amusement, interest, and inspiration. I experience gratitude but often it feels intellectual–not quite enough to distract me emotionally from my plight (and the plight of everyone else in this world). We are, after all, living in the midst of multi-facted existential crises and I don’t know about you, but I need strong medicine for prolonged high threat situations.
One of Fredrickson’s articles was critiqued for the maths used by her co-author, M.F. Losada, in Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing (American Psychologist, 2005). Here is her response to that critique). I notice that pleasure/sexual desire/lust are positive emotions that are not included in the above table. As a sexologist, I say it’s important to not deny those sources of positive feeling, but for some of us shutting down might be easier than being in touch with our desires and physical needs. If that’s the case, opening back up again may take some work in a safer post-pandemic world. Fantasies, fandom, erotica (yes, that too!), music, performance, and dance might allow those who have shut down to open back up again.
Speaking of Gratitude
My experience of gratitude as an emotion is less intellectual when I think of what I’ve been lucky enough to access. Aside from long-distance connections with family and friends, here are my personal shout-outs to some of the things that have kept me emotionally nourished in these last several months (in no particular order):
The Untamed series on Netflix
Videos of Chinese street dancing performances & swordplay choreography
My own writing – novel & blog
Fantasy casting of my characters
Dragula (three seasons)
Daniel Foor’s courses thru ancestralmedicine.org
Also Daniel Foor’s courses
The work of Disasterina & Ave Rose
Study of magic, witchery & sorcery
Aidan Wachter’s books
My seven cats
Books on pandemics & history
Norse Loki Laufeyjarson
Reading Covid-19 research
Sea shanties on TikTok
Creating & teaching hypnosis courses
Movements for social justice & enviromental action
The Gallery of Regrettable Food
Genealogy & ancestor work
Dreaming, meditation & trancework
Succumbing to geeky fandom without shame
Co-hosting a podcast
The local turkey flock in my yard
Plotting escape from Lake County
How my kids are handling all this
Some ways I access positive emotions.
I hope this blog post helps other people understand how they can engage in conscious cultivation of positive emotions. Please let me know if anything is particularly helpful, using the comments features. Thanks!
Hey, wow! I’ve just spent 3/4 of 2020 in near total physical isolation and here it is, finally 2021. Is this the year I’ll finally be able to be in proximity to my children? I haven’t seen the eldest since November 2019 and the youngest since March 2020, right before lockdown. In this time, I’ve taken less than ten masked and socially-distanced walks with a neighbor, had three masked and socially-distanced outdoor visits (early on), and have exchanged brief pleasantries with grocery store clerks. I had to call a plumber once, but opened all the windows and made sure he was masked. I’ve also cancelled all in-person doctor appointments since my last dermatology, post-melanoma mole check.
If not for my seven cats, social media, and frequent phone calls and zooms with family and friends, I’d be a raving lunatic by now. Seriously. Though I’m an introvert and need plenty of alone time/down time after socializing, I am not made for this extreme deprivation, this near-total lack of actual human contact. How much longer will this last?
Answer: as long as it has to. I have no interest in catching (or transmitting) Covid-19.
The French novelist, Colette, once lived in a Paris apartment where someone had glued thousands of tiny diamond-shaped pieces of colored paper to all the walls. She wrote that she found it best to not think too much about the mental state of the person who had given way to such an obsession. Earlier this morning I found myself on the cold, vinyl-covered floor hand-tinting the recent concrete patch around the hearth, so that it would blend more with the creek stones and aged concrete. That’s not nearly on a par with tiny, diamond-shaped pieces of paper–but who knows what I’ll be painting, gluing, or cultivating as the long months of solitude roll by?
The fabulous Disasterina took herself out of a pandemic funk by creating small demon sculptures, telling stories about them, and planting them in her front yard to the consternation of the neighbors. She also launched a podcast, Tasty Ear Bits. (Go listen!) Meanwhile, her wife, Ave Rose, is launching a museum of mechanical marvels. A good friend of mine just confessed to cutting their own hair on New Year’s Eve while drunk. Another friend got a cat but he can’t think of a name yet. My publisher fled to Mexico. What’ll it be for me? Self-administered stick and poke tattoos? I’ve got some India ink around here somewhere. Images of Terminator II’s Sarah Conner, obsessively working out in captivity, flit through my mind. Nah… I’m too old and my range of motion is going downhill fast. Soft tissue injuries are not on my “2021 bingo card,” as people say.
I did do a thing or two last year. In the spring, I packed up almost all my books as I put my house up for sale. In August I had a buyer, packed some more, and almost moved to Eugene, Oregon–but the buyer pulled out at the last minute. (Argh!). Two days later, the California wildfires started in this and neighboring counties. In September I took the house off the market, anticipating a covid-ridden season, not wanting to endure strangers coughing on mother’s antique sofa. I continued to do long-distance counseling and hypnosis.
In October I finished my first three novels and sent them to the publisher. In November, NaNoWriMo was my favorite obsession for relieving my tension, both pre- and post-election. The first draft of book number four (The Perilous Past of the Guild of Ornamental Hermits) is now well underway.
In December I made a short, silly video about Santaphilia, which debuted on Disasterina and Ave Rose’s ‘Tis the Sleazon performance for TSTVHQ.com. Here’s a NSFW (not safe for work) video of the highlights of ‘Tis the Sleazon–and oh joy, they used my piece! I’m beyond honored!
And even though I became immersed in the incredible Chinese love story, The Untamed–watching all fifty episodes five times!–I also found time to make new friends and pester the old. (Or was it the other way around?) I reunited with a friend from sixth grade, became closer with the friend who also shares my love of Dragula and The Untamed, and cultivated a special long-distance relationship. I also reviewed a book for a colleague and taught two 15-week, online hypnosis classes to students.
But it was so hard to blog. This was partially due to working more on the novels, and collecting all the information I could about the pandemic, but also from being a member of that select group of people deemed disposable–seniors and disabled people who might as well die from Covid-19 according to the U.S. government (and let’s not forget the BIPOC who are also–always–treated the same way). It’s extremely demoralizing, not to mention dangerous, to live in such a nation. So in spite of the accomplishments I list above, there were many long hours and days when I could only curl up in sadness and worry (and binge watch The Untamed).
As the November elections neared, I couldn’t stop doomscrolling. In the county around me, anti-maskers and Covid deniers made loud, stupid noises–intimidating some members of the county board of supervisors and emboldening a sheriff who refuses to cite businesses who don’t comply with public health regulations. During a rare errand, I had a maskless woman walk into my personal space (less than six feet of social distance) and harangue me for worrying about catching Covid. I could not make her shut up or go away. The…ignorance…and entitlement…is literally breathtaking.
As this blog is mostly about esoteric and spiritual stuff, I guess I’ll mention that the torpor and isolation of pandemic life also took a toll on my daily practices. I often found it hard to muster the necessary focus and interest. Easier to just watch Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan battle zombie “puppets” and evil masterminds while barely admitting their forbidden love. Looking back, I regret letting my daily practices wither–just when I needed them most–and am now trying to get back in the groove. And surprisingly, a new deity has appeared as a possible ally among the folks I already work with and I’m considering reconnecting with another spirit. I’m setting up altars again (after packing things away in anticipation of moving) and I’m dancing more. I badly need to recapture the range of motion, flexibility, and stamina I’ve lost during this long confinement.
I also want to mention the immense comfort and intellectual/spiritual insights offered by Daniel Foor via AncestralMedicine.com. His pandemic series (Bring Out Your Dead and Kindling the Need Fire) as well as his course in Animist Psychology have given me exactly what I needed during this time.
There are so many others–friends and influences–who have been a treasured part of my life during this period. I can’t mention them all. But here’s to my cats–Popoki, Niblet, Freya, Varda, Kia’i, Keola, and Arya–who are the best companions I could have in times both good and bad. It’s so wonderful to be part of a feline “pod.”
Finally, I’ll name my “most truest one,” the deity to whom I am oathed: Loki Laufeyjarson. He has “held the bowl” for me during the worst moments of 2020, and provides much needed inspiration, instruction, and humor as well. Hail!
The children came first. It started with one child perched at the end of the flowered bedspread, holding the tall bedpost while jumping up and down, jiggling the mattress. Even the IV pole at the side of the bed wiggled a little.
The patient—obviously a man of importance, otherwise he wouldn’t be in this room—rubbed at his eyes and blinked. What’s this kid doing here? This kid! Tiny, large-eyed, brown, barefoot, a too-large t-shirt and a sagging disposable diaper half undone, skinny like he—or she—lived on scraps in an alley. And yet this kid still had enough energy to hop up and down on the bed, over and over again.
In spite of himself, the patient groaned. The bouncing bed made his chest hurt, made his arms and legs hurt. His head didn’t feel so great either. He fumbled for the call button. A red light blinked on.
The child continued to jump, now locking eyes with the man under the bedspread. The man shuddered, repelled. He’d spent his life avoiding children like this.
Where the hell is that nurse?
The kid continued to jump, up and down, staring with those big eyes.
Well finally! One of many nurses and one of many doctors entered the room. The child stopped jumping and disappeared. No, wait! Now the kid was hiding behind the big rose-colored armchair, watching him with those eyes.
“Get that kid outta here!” The patient could hardly say the words before a fit of coughing overtook him.
The nurse and doctor glanced at each other. The patient could almost read their minds. They think I’m hallucinating, he though indignantly. He tried to point at the chair, but his arm barely lifted from the mattress.
The nurse checked his vitals and tapped results into a bedside computer screen.
The doctor looked on. His cool glance was neutral. The man in the bed wasn’t used to anything but looks of fawning admiration, fear, or sometimes naked dislike—cool appraisal was something new. And didn’t his eyes look a bit like that kid over there? Brown. Brown eyes. Brown eyes with something unreadable in them.
The nurse whispered something to the doctor and left the room. The doctor adjusted the IV, checked the readouts on various machines, gave a small smile and left the room.
No one had done anything about that kid! And now he was back, jumping on the bed. This had to be some kind of plot. Yeah, his enemies had probably snuck the kid into his room. And the doctor and the nurse were behind it. Yeah.
The patient decided he’d no longer trust the doctor, or the nurse, and maybe not even the hospital. Could he get an airlift to one of his many properties? He’d get better there, he knew it. There were other doctors. Better doctors. Who could he call?
He tried to lift his legs to kick the kid. He shouted, “Damn you!” He shouted at least a hundred times. The kid kept jumping. His hands were dirty. He was smearing germs all over the bedpost, holding it like that.
The patient finally stopped shouting. Instead he was coughing, at least a hundred times, mouth open, gasping for air. Then a little girl crawled onto the bed. Where’d she come from?
Why did he have dirty children on his bed? Wasn’t this the best, the greatest, hospital in all the land? The best, the greatest, for him?
The little girl watched the patient coughing, then gravely put her small feather-light hand on his lips. Every time he coughed he felt that small hand cover his mouth and then rise again. She watched for his coughs and then covered his mouth like a little mother rebuking an unsanitary child. Was she making fun of him? Who was she to cover his mouth like that?
The other child pulled a third kid onto the bed, another dirty kid. They held hands and jumped. The mattress shuddered and the patient moaned. He tried to grab the call button but a fourth child held it out of reach, laughing.
An aide came into the room carrying a meal tray. The children stood still and watched as she rolled a bedside table over and set the tray in front of the patient, then pressed the button to raise the bed so the patient could come sitting. She almost patted the patient on the shoulder by way of reassurance but at the last minute withdrew her hand. There was a look in her eyes then, something like the look the children had. She left the room. She didn’t do a damn thing about those kids!
Before he could lift his fork, the kids were all over his lunch, smearing it into their mouths with grubby little hands. The patient wasn’t that hungry anyhow—he couldn’t smell and taste like he used to—and anger took what was left of his appetite.
“How dare you?” he shrieked. He flailed at the kids with arms and hands that used to be strong enough to take what he wanted, but instead the children merely pushed his hands away with their finger tips. Finally exhausted he fell asleep, half waking every time he coughed.
Sometimes people came into the room to draw the curtains or open the curtains or take his pulse or give him medicine or food or ice chips. He hardly cared. The children never left and no one did anything about them either. All he could do was cough except for that one time he was able to waddle to the toilet before collapsing back into bed. The next day (was it the next day?) people with video cameras came and a man carrying a freshly dry-cleaned suit, shirt and tie. The patient waved them away.
And now it was like every time he coughed, more people came into the room. They weren’t all children anymore, either. They sat in the chairs. They sat on the side of his bed. They opened his closets. They shredded blank sheets of paper and threw Sharpies out the window. They overturned his meal tray, scattering flecks of lime jello across the rug. They let the children play with the lights, on-off-on-off, until the patient thought he was going crazy. And kids kept jumping on the bed.
They stared at him during sponge baths and painful enounters with bedpans. They stared during catheters and tubes. The children threw toilet paper out of reach, so that he had to have his tush wiped like a baby by brown-eyed nurses who looked at him like the children did.
“I knew social distancing was a hoax,” he thought, during one lucid moment. Those hospitals all lied. They let all kinds of people into intensive care! People dying alone? It was all fake news, fabricated by reporters with nothing better to do. And the experts were no better. No, all these people in his room right now merely proved he’d been right to carry on as he had, ignoring the masks and recommendations of sissy scientists. He’d show them. As long as there was a breath of life in his body, he’d get even. He was still the most powerful man in the world, wasn’t he?
Children stared at him as if they could hear his thoughts. The adults just watched him. Were they supporters? Enemies? There wasn’t a red hat in the room, so no, probably not supporters. But if they were enemies what were they waiting for?
The patient grew exhausted waiting for them to make the first move. The little girl no longer covered his mouth every time he coughed. People played card games at his desk, children clung to parents and cuddled in the armchair, and there were people passing their fingers over his body, leaving their initials and names imprinted on his very own flesh. If he could manage to turn on his side and stare at his arm, he would see hundreds—no thousands!—of names written in the smallest of scripts, like tattoos left by microbes.
And then one day, when he noticed a nurse passing through the thick crowd of visitors, he saw that when she drew the curtains, she was the only one with a shadow. And then he knew. It was his next move they were waiting for.
Magic fantasies are popular entertainment. Aside from enjoying them, I like to figure out what magical techniques and systems writers have adapted or imagined in their works of fiction. There is such a variety of magic content in The Untamed (2019, currently on Netflix) that I’ve decided to catalog it. The Untamed is based on the novel Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation(Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. [English translation here. NSFW.]
This blog will be a work in progress over the next several days, since I will add to and refine this list through updated drafts. Please be patient if you notice I’ve missed something. Additions, comments and sources are welcome.
A WORD ABOUT ANIMISM
In addition to being influenced by Taoism (sometimes spelled Daoism), Buddhism, and other Chinese traditions, the xianxia and/or wuxia world of sword and sorcery cultivation, as depicted in The Untamed, has a foundation in animism. Swords, rocks, and other “inanimate” objects have the potential to be enlivened, animated, and engaged with as conscious through various practices. For example, in The Untamed, swords invested with spiritual power can “seal themselves” so that only their original owners can unsheathe them if they are recognized as such. (From an animist perspective, one could also acknowledge the cooperation of the sheathe, right?) This concept is not new to many ancient, indigenous, and some modern neo-pagan traditions.
Animism is at the heart of many kinds of magic traditions, practices, and rituals, including forms of spellwork.
From a superficial, Western perspective, we can view The Untamed as a conflict between a solitary practitioner of something resembling innovative chaos magic (with lots of sigil use) and the “cultivators” who belong to several different established mystery schools (aka sects and clans) who share a general set of precepts and traditions (such as “sword cultivation=good/demonic arts=bad”). When Wei WuXian says “I’ll be the precedent,” he’s reviled and marginalized yet years later some of his innovations (compasses that detect evil beings, Stygian lure flags, etc.) are mainstreamed and used by a new generation of cultivators.
Some of what is shown in The Untamed may also be references to or variations of Chinese folk magic. The scary drawings of the “Yiling Patriarch”–sold by a street vendor and having no actual resemblance to Wei WuXian (“famous for his looks”)–might fall under this category. Ditto for some of the other Yiling Patriarch product knock-offs, sold by vendors who falsely claim association.
This is one form of magic practice that is curiously missing from The Untamed, or maybe I just haven’t found and identified it yet. Wei WuXian’s compass for detecting monsters is the closest thing to it.
CATALOG OF UNTAMED MAGIC
Spirit beings or beings altered or created through magic
Demons. The live action series shows fewer of these than appear in the book, either in Wei WuXian’s company or doing his bidding. Early in the series, a demon appears at the Mo clan compound as a vicious, claw-like left hand that possesses several people. In episode four, Wei WuXian says demons are formed from living humans. Wei conjures up a red dressed demon woman to torment Wen Chao is episode 20 (in the book there is a hungry demon baby as well).
Devil Scatter Spell. Lan Zhan uses this to escape Wen Chao in episode eleven.
Dire Owl. A supernatural Wen clan bird, indicated by grey fuzz and a shrill cry. Used for spying and as a temporary vehicle of Yin Iron power. Wei WuXian battles with it.
Dogs. The giant dog owned by the Wen clan which lives in a dungeon and the intelligent “wonder dog” Fairy, owned by Jin Ling. (Wei WuXian is not fond of canines.)
Ghosts. In episode four, Wei WuXian says ghosts are “formed from dead humans.”
Ghost General. Wen Ning as a powerful, fearsome puppet created by Wei WuXian.
“Grey fuzz.” A visual used in The Untamed (along with scary sounds) to indicate resentful energies and ghosts, demons, and so on. This fuzz can be on the prowl or attached to objects. There are also screams associated with the on-screen appearance of grey fuzz.
Imps. In episode four, Wei WuXian defines imps as “formed from living, non-human beings.”
Monsters. In episode four, Wei WuXian says monsters are formed from “dead, non-human beings.”
Puppets. Zombie-like dead or nearly dead people with white eyes and networks of red/black markings on skin. Robbing living people of spiritual cognition is one way to make a puppet.
Stone Fairy. A walking spirit-snatching statue from a temple on Dafun Mountain.
Tortoise of Slaughter. A giant part snake/part tortoise. Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian battle it.
Water Ghosts. Spirits of water creatures that “usually just play tricks on people” but can conglomerate and turn into the Aqua Demon (episode five).
POWERS, SPELLS & TOOLS
Accupuncture. Medical techniques using needles on points and taking the pulse. Wen Ning uses three needles to pacify a giant dog. At different times and for different reasons, Wen Qing uses needles on both Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian to keep them immobilized. Taking the pulse is a frequent activity throughout The Untamed.
Accupuncture Needles. Wen Qing uses these to test the magic barriers in the back hills of Cloud Recesses.
“The array was scarlet in color and crooked in shape, appearing to be drawn by hand, using blood as the medium, still damp and emitting a strong scent. The array was filled with warped scribbles of incantations, which were somewhat smudged by his body, but came across as gruesome nonetheless.”
Beads. Wei WuXian makes a set of carved protective beads for his newborn nephew.
Blood. Blood is used for magical purposes throughout the book and the series.
Body Sacrifice. A forbidden technique. Performed by Mo Xuanyu in episode one, offering his own body as a curse to bring Wei WuXian back to life, in order to extract revenge on his tormentors.
Body Seizing. A forbidden technique.
Channeling Fire. A Wen clan specialty. Wen Chao uses this to set a Lan clan guard on fire.
Chord Assassination Technique. A specialty of the Lan Clan, used against the Tortoise of Slaughter. (Is it just me, or would “Chord Assassination” be a great name for a Death Metal band?)
Compasses. Designed to detect the presence of supernatural beings. Perhaps a form of divination?
Corpse Powder. Airborne poison.
Curses. Blackened, necrotic looking skin that spreads up towards the heart and scars that don’t heal can indicate a curse. There is also the “Hundred Holes” curse.
Demonic Cultivation aka “Wicked Sorcery.” Seems to include using resentful energy from ghosts.
Devil Scatter Spell. Lan Zhan uses this spell to escape from Wen Chao, possibly also combining it with teleportation.
Empathy. Wei WuXian uses this technique several times to experience slices of life through another person’s eyes and perceptions, kind of like a Vulcan mind meld. Requires touch. Can be done with ghosts and body parts. Considered to be a perilous technique. Lan Zhan had a spontaneous experience of empathy via the Yin Iron, related to the slaughter of another clan.
Energy. Often used as blasts during fights.
Exorcism. Used against ghosts, such as the Water Ghost in episode five.
First Class Spiritual Tool. A term not explained explicitly, but which probably refers to the primary magical tool of a cultivator. Usually will be given a name.
Flying. With or without swords used as vehicles.
Flying Chains. Used against Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian during their hunt for the Dire Owl.
Freezing in Place. Used on puppets and people alike.
Gestures. Examples include (1) directing energy or magic tools by pointing with the forefinger and middle finger close together with ring and little fingers held down by the thumb and (2) writing a sigil of light with upraised middle and little fingers, (3) snapping fingers to get someone to freeze.
Glitter Talisman. Used unsuccessfully by Wei WuXian against the hallucination mist created by the Dire Owl.
Golden Core. A spiritual power center that is deliberately cultivated and enhanced. In The Untamed, it can irreplacable. This is possibly a reference to the Tai Chi lower Dantian (sometimes called Dan Tian, Dantien, Dan Tien, or the Golden Stove.) Modern cultivation practices include Tai Chi and the Microcosmic Orbit as taught by Mantak Chia.
Golden Core Melting. One of the Wen clan’s followers is known as “Core-Melting Hand” for his ability to destroy people’s Golden Cores.
Golden CoreTransference. Performed by Wen Qing, transferring Wei WuXian’s core to Jiang Cheng.
Golden Silk Barrier. A large net for protection against the onslaught of puppets, particularly against those of Wen Qing’s village.
Graves. Known to generally attract ghosts.
Hallucination Mist. Used against Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian in the forest. It also disrupts concentration needed for spellwork.
Headband. Sacred Lan Clan accessory. Not to be touched by anyone except parents and significant others. Allows inner disciples to enter the warded areas of Cloud Recesses. Often used in The Untamed as a symbol to indicate growing intimacy between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan.
Levitation. Examples include (1) Wen Ruohan lifting Xue Yang into the air as a show of power and as a warning and (2) the cultivators hovering in mid air above the Aqua Demon’s whirlpool.
“Liberate, suppress, eliminate.” In episode four, Lan Zhan says this is the appropriate cultivator way to deal with troubles, such as a dead executioner who is haunting a village.
Musical Compositions. Played with spiritual power to calm or to promote agitation. Lan Zhan recognizes Wei WuXian in Mo’s body because he plays the song Lan Zhan has composed for the two of them.
Musical Instruments. Played with spiritual power (e.g. flutes and guiqins). Often used to calm situations or repel aggression. Wei WuXian plays his “Chenqing” flute. Lan Zhan plays his “Wangji” guiqin. Lan Xichen uses his “Liebing” flute in the exorcism of the Aqua Demon, among other instances. Wen Qing plays a tiny whistle or flute to subdue the villagers who have been turned into puppets.
Nails. Puppet control can be achieved by sticking two nails in the back of someone’s head, presumably at an accupuncture point. (Don’t try this at home.) Used on Wen Ning and Song Lan.
Night Hunts. The sport and pursuit of hunting down supernatural prey.
Paper Dolls. Used for exploring, physical control, and in the practice of empathy. Wei WuXian uses them twice to pester Lan Zhan.
Portraits of the Yiling Patriarch. Sold on the street as folk magic protection for homes.
Ropes and Cords. Conjured out of nowhere.
Sigils (see Talismans). May be written on paper or conjured as a pattern of light and propelled toward a target (person or object).
Silence Spell. A Lan Clan specialty, lasts as long as a stick of burning incense.
Soul Calming Ceremonies. A preventative ritual for children of cultivators, given to prevent them from ever turning into ferocious ghosts when they die. Wei WuXian threatens to turn into a ferocious ghost who will haunt Wen Chao and his mistress, should they torture and kill him. He says he was not given such ceremonies, as he was adopted into the Jiang clan.
Spiritual Cognition. [Description to come.]
Spirit Snatch. [Description to come.]
Stygian Lure Flags. Painted banners designed to draw ghosts or other evil beings. Ones developed by Wei WuXian are used by Lan clan cultivators. Called Phantom Attraction Flags in the book.
Stygian Tiger Amulet. Constructed by Wei WuXian in the Burial Mounds. It is the first magic we see in the series, as it flies around the feet of warriors during a battle. It contains Yin Iron.
Swords. Can be imbued with a spirit. Are often named. Can seal themselves. Can serve as vehicles for flying through the air. Can be used as projectiles.
Talismans(see Sigils). Can be paper, beads, or other objects. Wei WuXian offers a protective talisman in a bag to Wen Qing as a protection for her brother against ghosts. Wei WuXian changes protective talismans with “4 strokes” to reverse them as attractions for evil spirits (taking care of Wen Chao’s bodyguards and mistress).
Telepathy. Some “inner dialogue” between Lan Zhan and his brother, and Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian looks as if it is supposed to be telepathic.
TeleportationTalisman. Used by a masked swordsman.
Teleportation. Did Lan Zhan use this to escape Wen Chao in episode eleven?
Wards/Seals. Fields of energy used to block entrances or protect areas.
Yin Iron. A powerful cosmic object broken into five shards, hidden for many decades. Revealed as the missing part of the Dancing Fairy in episode nine. During part of the story Lan Zhan carries a shard that had been hidden by the Lan clan. Part of the Stygian Tiger Amulet.
Zidian. A magical tool looking like a ring (book) or bracelet (series), with a purple lightning force that is often used as a whip. Bequeathed to Jiang Cheng by his mother. Recognizes its owner or verified substitute user. Was unable to detect Wei WuXian’s soul as “foreign” to Mo Xuanyu’s body.
CONTEMPORARY AND HISTORICAL MAGIC?
Here in the United States we have “witch privilege” in that we are not usually actively persecuted for witchy and neo-pagan practices. Magic is big business here, and entertainment depicting magic and witchcraft is popular. (However, another round of “Satanic Panic” hysteria seems to be gathering steam in this country among trumpites and evangelicals and this is not good.) Some countries still persecute and kill witches. August 10th is “World Day Against Witch Hunts.”
I was curious about contemporary witchcraft laws in China–if any–and while I haven’t come up with any information yet, I did come across this account of Empress Chen Jiao of Wu, accused of black magic, who “is remembered as an ancient Chinese witch…She was the wife of Emperor Wu of Han, who ruled between 141 and 87 BC” [Western Han dynasty?]. I don’t know if this information is accurate, but I am still intrigued. Supposedly the Empress was drawn to witchcraft as a last hope for producing a child for the Emperor. I feel very curious about the development of magical arts and folk magic in ancient China, and though The Untamed is set in a historically inaccurate fantasy world, it should be fun to see what fictional magic elements are based in actual traditions. This is completely new terrain for me.
I just spent the last two and a half days devouring an online English translation of Mo Dao Zu Shi(Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. The translation, by “K”, can be found here at Exiled Rebels Scanlations. The book is the basis for the 2019 Chinese television series, The Untamed, currently on Netflix. I’ve now read all 113 chapters, but am saving the bonus chapters for “later.” I recently wrote a blog, Wild About The Untamed, after watching the series four times but prior to reading the book.
I have so much to say about this series–and now the book as well–that I plan on writing several blog posts about The Untamed, from a variety of different views (magical practice, sexology, as a fantasy writer myself, etc.). But first I’d like you to understand why I am blogging about something as seemingly trivial as a Netflix series while enduring the fear and smoke of California’s third largest wildfire ever (which is burning part of the county where I live) as well as dangers of Covid-19 and the incompetence of my federal government. I live alone. Earlier this week I packed my car in case of evacuation. Fleeing a fire in a small car, at my age and with seven cats, will not be easy. (So far I have not had to do this–though others have.) So yes, I have become completely absorbed in this particular xianxia fantasy in order to cope with several existential threats and to control my racing mind. But even if I weren’t menaced by all of the above (including my racing mind), I’d still be as fascinated and transfixed.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to convince any of my close friends to watch The Untamed, so I’ve no one with whom I can “geek out” about the series. For those who have not yet experienced this magic, I feel the same sense of pity that I feel for anyone who has not read Lord of the Rings or watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Is it any wonder then that I am writing a blog? This is what prolonged social isolation does to a person…
But let’s move on to some of the reasons I love The Untamed and the novel so very much.
The Trickster Archetype
I mentioned in my previous blog that the “trickster” character of Wei WuXian (aka Wei Ying and Yiling Patriarch) is what attracted me first. I am always captivated by trickster characters and spirits, including the consumate trickster, the Norse god Loki Laufeyjarson (and his Marvel counterpart). Tricksters are mischevious. They are typically outspoken and seldom mince words. They are more apt to slash with them if necessary. They get into precarious situations, often due to a finely tuned sense of their own honor or obligations. They solve problems using their wits but can fight if necessary. They see through hypocrisy and frequently challenge it. They are charismatic. They know their own value. They are seldom deferential enough to authority figures, even when not challenging them overtly. They seldom deign to explain themselves and their actions, so that even their closest companions misunderstand them. They can be fiercely loyal to just a few. They have power and they often wield magic that is considered dangerous, demonic, or somehow wrong or indecent. They attract harsh punishments and social criticism. Tricksters often drive the plot.
Wei WuXian, the “demonic cultivator” of the series, is a classic trickster. He is all of the above. In the book, this characteristic is even more pronounced. He is particularly compelled to prod and poke at Lan Zhan (aka Lan Wangji and Hanguang-Jun), his taciturn companion in swordplay and sorcery, but many of his tricks and jokes backfire. Try as he might, Wei WuXian cannot use obnoxious behavior and guile to undermine or escape his destiny. (I’m giving no spoilers. You can interpret “destiny” as you wish.)
Beauty, GHOSTS, DESPOTS, AND GHOULS
The xianxia world of The Untamed is beautiful. The buildings, costumes, ceremonies, and lotus-filled lakes calm my spirit and refresh my eyes. If I was a child watching this series, it would live in my imagination forever. As an adult, my imagination is also captivated (but “forever” is a shorter time).
But this world is not without its perils. Sociopathic despots rule it and the cultivator clans are governed by authoritarian prudes, wealthy libertines, and stern macho warriors. Resentful ghosts and lurching zombie-like “puppets” threaten armies and villages. Queer love can barely speak its name. And female characters spend a lot of time cooking and serving food, but not eating. (And why do I feel I’ve just described a Republican utopia?)
I also appreciate the beauty of the martial arts choreography. The actors who play Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan (and the others) make it all look effortless, which means of course that (1) they all spent untold hours perfecting their moves and (2) that the film editing is amazing. I particularly like how Lan Zhan’s words and face may often be closed, but his movements with sword and his magical instrument, the guqin, are eloquent and expressive. His actions taken to protect Wei WuXian are always prompt and decisive, though his words and face may rebuff Wei’s overtures. Wei WuXian also provides physical complexity in that he can switch from a lighthearted mood to a stern fighting mode at a moment’s notice. This is also reflected in the choreography.
As an American of European ancestry, I know I miss many markers of cultural significance. How could I not? The translator of Mo Dao Zu Shi does explain a few things, however, and I am grateful for anything that helps me understand more about what I’m watching and reading. However I do think I managed to understand some of the personal and emotional symbols, even during the first viewing. The producers and writers of The Untamed had to be careful how they portrayed the relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan, and so relied on elements with clear–but not explicit–meanings or they scripted ambiguous reactions to explicit meanings. This is a good article about some of the main symbols (Lan Zhan’s headband, rabbits, chickens, etc.) and how they are used.
The development of the complex relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan is of course the main attraction. Superficially it’s a classic “opposites attract” story, but the characters also share many similarities. Both are held in high regard for their abilities (though Wei is controversial first due to his cockiness and later for his demonic cultivation methods). Both are also generally regarded as beautiful men in a culture which obviously values looks. Both are “second” in rank in their cultivation clans/sects. Both are well educated. Both have lost parents at a young age and have been treated harshly, even abusively, by adopted or extended family members. Both are also emotionally and sexually inexperienced, though Wei WuXian likes to pretend he is not. So this is a story of first love as well as a love we imagine will last as long as the two cultivators seek immortality.
There are other types of relationships, love stories, and passionate (but presumably platonic) pairings depicted in The Untamed. There are two wandering cultivators who have a loyal friendship and a common mission to help those who need it–their way of life almost serves as a foreshadowing of the life waiting for Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian, should they commit to each other. Sibling relationships are important and complicated. Parents are either missing or inadequate. Lan Zhan’s brother becomes close to someone who rises in the world (who is therefore acceptable) while Lan Zhan’s partiality for Wei WuXian–even before his “fall”–is regarded as unfortunate and wrong.
Nothing could be more unlike The Untamed than the 1938 film of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. However those who know Pygmalion might understand me (maybe) if I say The Untamed has a transcendent moment equivalent to “fetch me my slippers, Eliza.” You have to see both to understand.
The book explained some scenes and elements in the television series that I could not understand. I am so glad that an English translation is available online and I feel a lot of gratitude towards K, the translator. This is in addition, of course, to what I feel for the author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and to all who brought these characters and their world to life in The Untamed.
I have always had special interests which keep me curious, happy, and occupied. The Untamed fits in with so many that I have already: magic and animism, all forms of human sexuality and gender identities, trickster tales, and epic fantasy. And I have such pleasure in the story itself and its characters. That pleasure alone–during these dreary days of pandemic isolation and smokey skies–is worth everything.
After a hard day of dodging unmasked humanoids and prepping for possible wildfire evacuation in 100+ degree weather, I like to put on a clean sarong and unwind with yet another binge watch of several episodes of The Untamed (2019).
Yes, this aging witchy wannabe, trapped in a world she’d like to desperately adjust, has been captivated by the fantasy world of Chinese “cultivator” sorcery and swordplay, and the adorable love story of soulmates Wei Wuxian (L) and Lan Zhan (R) (pictured above), played by actors/singers/dancers Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. I am not sure what prompted me to initially click on to the Netflix series but the trickster energy of the Wei Wuxian character seemed “Loki-like” and this drew me in. I was soon hooked (for many reasons) but also felt confused. While watching the first several episodes I had to search for articles that would help me understand the characters and context. (This Wikipedia entry helped.) And my response to the series was/is very similar to the one experienced by the writer of this review, “The Untamed, streaming on Netflix, ripped my heart out and fed it to me. I can’t get enough.” Yep. Me too.
Everything is admirable, except the soundtrack can sometimes seem a bit goofy in a mismatched mood way. But that’s okay, because the theme song, sung by Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, is on “my final playlist.” And if I have to kick the bucket before successfully clawing away the pastel printed vinyl wallcovering of whatever ICU gets my covid-racked carcass, I want THIS song and this song only to take me across the liminal divide between me here and me over there somewhere. (Loki, my darling psychopomp, please take note.) It’s not that I love the song that much over all others (though I kind of do at this point), it’s that in my life of deeply felt but ultimately doomed romances, I’m pleased to be immersed in observing the delicate trajectory of a “barely-got-past-the-censors” love story of two young men of magic and chivalry. (And the costumes? They are to die for!)
And as a sexologist, I have to say it’s really rather refreshing to watch nuanced courtship for a change, instead of people throwing each other up against a wall and having at it, sans foreplay, ending with a predictable simultaneous orgasm. (I’ve come to feel a bit of the prudery and boredom of the French writer, Colette, who once got snarky about people who had a regularly scheduled “abyss.” But I digress.)
In The Untamed there are plenty of actual abysses, all glowing with magma or containing Tortoises of Slaughter. There’s even the beyond-death abyss of the lost, wandering soul of Wei Wuxian after he tosses himself off a cliff (this is in the first episode so I’m not spoiling anything).
As for the actors–every single character in this very lavish, sprawling production is played to perfection. But the two main actors are extraordinary. Xiao Zhan has perhaps the easier job (as he has a lot more dialogue and opportunity to explicitly express a wide range of emotions) but the “strong, silent” Wang Yibo manages to convey many complexities with few words and a wide range of subtle facial expressions. Honestly, Wang Yibo has the mystique of Garbo, if it’s okay to compare a young Chinese actor/singer/dancer with the charisma of a bygone Western film star. I really would like to see both actors in other roles. As they outgrow their secondary personas/careers as singers in pop boy bands, I would hope they each get a chance to grow and develop their truly extraordinary acting talents for many years to come.
I’m watching all fifty episodes now for the fifth time. I keep finding more things to discover and enjoy–little details as well as previously unnoticed plot points.
And I live for the moment when Lan Zhan admits he likes rabbits.
Perhaps it is not surprising that The Untamed is starting to influence my daily life. A few days ago, in the course of renting a small storage unit for family photos and keepsakes (in case of fire evacuation), the elderly proprietor came within the six feet of social distance I’d been trying to maintain. Her mask exposed her nose. She touched me on the hand. I said “no touching” and then giggled to myself. It was Lan Zhan’s deadpan delivery. But exactly.
Outside, the world burns. The pandemic rages. My children are far away. But as long as I have electricity and the internet, I’ll be drinking in the world of The Untamed, now my drug of choice for the rest of my forseeable lifespan. Either the Yin Iron goes, or I do.