May 31, 2013
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“Spiritual warfare” refers to the belief that (1) evil spirits can intervene in human affairs and (2) people can actually do something about it. This term is most commonly used by evangelical Christians (which is why it’s so often linked to people who play with poisonous snakes and flap their jaws in goofy made-up languages). But the truth is that all faiths have some concept of spiritual warfare, and different versions of the idea have existed ever since our primate ancestors first learned to wipe their butts after going numero two-o.
In anthropological terms, spiritual warfare is more formally known as apotropaism, which includes any religious or magical practice that’s used to counteract negative spiritual forces. Carving jack-o’lanterns, decorating cathedrals with gargoyles, saying the Lord’s Prayer before going to bed and using talismans to avert the Evil Eye are all apotropaic practices. Such procedures occur as naturally in polytheistic faiths as they do in Christianity. Egyptian priests used the Destruction of
Apophis ritual to fight off the powers of chaos every night, and the Italian Benandanti went on nightly vision quests to defend their crops and livestock from malefic witches.
As a worshiper of Seth-Typhon, I’m especially appreciative of spiritual warfare; I can’t think of a better God to invoke against evil than Big Red. In fact, I feel that apotropaism is historically the root of all religious experience. Worshiping and praying to Gods all started with cavemen who were frightened of invisible enemies and who sought aid from higher powers against those enemies in the dead of night. As time went on, many religions progressed to focus on altogether different concerns (e.g., liberation from the illusions of existence, absolution of one’s personal sins, etc.). But through it all, the basic apotropaic concern of resisting and banishing evil has always remained.
It’s common for modern Western polytheists to say they don’t believe in evil and that “good” and “evil” are entirely subjective value judgments. I agree with this notion in some cases; when Democrats and Republicans call each other “bad,” for instance, it’s easy to see how their mutual claims are equally subjective. But this doesn’t mean good and evil are always illusions that can be deconstructed with fancy post-modernist double talk. Even “pagan” mythology is full of spiritual beings that want only to harm the Gods or human beings. Show me one positive thing that guys like Ahriman, Kingu or the Jotunn frost giants ever did for us or the Gods. At least Seth-Typhon’s negative actions produce positive results, but what good ever came from
Apophis? And despite being whitewashed into a so-called “Goddess” in feminist spiritual circles, the original pre-Judaic Lilith is (and has always been) a child-murdering demon.
Now we can sit here and discuss how calling these entities “evil” is really just an anthropocentric way of looking at things, but it won’t change the fact that they’re entirely malevolent toward us. No matter what their reasons are and no matter how sympathetic they may seem, the only practical explanation for their behavior is to say they are evil. Most ancient polytheistic traditions agree that true evil can never be completely destroyed, but it can be fought. In doing so, we must respect evil – and we must make evil respect us.