Not-so-kinky Fetishes

I can’t remember why we were discussing fetishes in the pub at Scottish Ruby Conference, but in an attempt to claim innocence (ha!) Ryan Stenhouse referred to the top hit on Google, which is Wikipedia’s definition:

Fetishism, the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects

That’s probably not the first definition that springs to mind when you hear this term, but that’s probably just because you’ve got a filthy mind. While I also have a filthy mind, the use of fetishes – or ‘lucky charms’ – can be a great example of pragmatic Paganism (which I first talked about while discussing passwords, nearly three years ago).

The core tenant of pragmatic Paganism is “if it’s useful, then it’s true”. If a certain belief or practice provides useful or beneficial results then regardless of any objective analysis it should be considering to be true and ‘real’, but only so long as it continues to be useful. If a particular belief is no longer useful, then it is also no longer true – unless objective methods confirm it’s existence. (Scotrail’s timetable is entirely useless, but unfortunately refusing to believe in it won’t make more trains run between Edinburgh and Fife.)

Here’s an example of a fetish that illustrates what I mean. Imagine that you’re back at school, college, or university and you’re facing exams. Even if you’ve done sufficient studying, these are stressful times and if you get too stressed you’re liable to lock up and forget things you need to know. You’ll be okay, though, since you brought your lucky pencil case with you. You know, the battered ugly thing you’ve used since you were ten. It’s reassuring presence provides a little additional confidence that allows you to focus and get through the exam. It is, essentially, an emotional crutch, something that provides a little support during a stressful time.

Obviously your lucky pencil case doesn’t actually influence the selection of questions on the exam paper, just as a quick prayer or a fetish with religious symbolism (such as a crucifix) doesn’t actually invoke the power of a deity to help you remember a year’s worth of lectures. But at the same time, if you don’t actually believe, at that moment, that the fetish has sufficient power to help you then it won’t work – it won’t provide reassurance or confidence and is just a waste of space.

So all is well, until you’re on a hot date and realise only too late that you forgot to put on your lucky boxer shorts. If they really were the only thing stopping you from being an incoherent moron, then this date would end very badly – except, as a pragmatic Pagan, you recognise that the belief in your lucky boxer shorts is no longer helpful and you put it to one side and continue as normal. The conscious rejection of the emotional crutch is itself a confidence-boosting act, and so you get the benefit either way.

Sometimes people ask why I wear a pentagram on a chain on my wrist or on my hat, and this is why: it’s a generic all-purpose fetish for me, which I can use when needed and at other times I simply like the geometric shape. (Five points, as a prime number, is pleasing, and don’t forget The Law Of Fives, although I do find seven-pointed stars (heptagrams, or ‘faery stars’) to be more aesthetically pleasing.) I once lost the pentagram I wore on my wrist, and I was really annoyed – not because it left me unable to communicate with Gaia (or whatever), but because it was a gift from a friend and had sentimental value. I took ages to get around to replacing it, because it wasn’t of importance in and of itself – it was just convenient to have around.

I suppose the biggest trick to pragmatic Paganism is maintaining the duality, of both getting entirely caught up in the idea of the belief, and at the same time being able to not get caught up in it when it’s no longer required – or worse, is actively harmful. I’ve not found maintaining two sets of mental state difficult. If astrology was ever useful in any way I might be tempted to say that’s because I’m a Gemini, but since it’s never useful or beneficial I don’t believe in it, so I won’t.