Today is the dies mortis or anniversary of David Bowie’s death, so I figured I’d share this piece I wrote shortly after his passing. While due divination was performed to confirm that he was okay accepting hero cultus within the Starry Bull tradition and he’s shown up for a number of folks subsequently, a lot of the issues raised are still pertinent and worth considering.
It’s been an interesting couple of days, watching the world mourn the incomparable David Bowie. People die all the time – it’s what we do – but rarely are so many affected so deeply by the passing. Bowie was different though. “He was one of us.” Over and over again this sentiment has been expressed, by people from vastly different backgrounds and ideologies – and in every instance it’s true. His work, spanning decades and exploring every facet of what it is to be human and more, transcended boundaries and was infinitely relatable. Constantly reinventing himself and not just keeping up with the changing times and tastes but often anticipating and even shaping them, he influenced countless fellow artists who in turn influenced countless others. For many, his music was the soundtrack of our lives. Having been with us for so long and in so many ways, it’s hard to imagine the world without him.
And yet here we are.
To many Pagans and Polytheists this isn’t the end but rather the beginning. The man David Bowie may be no more, but the memory, the image, and something else endures beyond the grave and our traditions have ways of honoring that, of making space for him to continue to touch our lives, and more. He is now a spirit, one of the mighty dead and may, in time, become something even greater. There is talk of making him a saint, an hero, even a demigod.
I understand and deeply appreciate this sentiment. To me Bowie was so much more than just an immensely talented artist (though that would be reason enough to pay him cultus within my tradition.) There were times I could see my God and members of my God’s retinue reflected through him, and I know others have had similar experiences with their own divinities. And that’s why we need to proceed carefully.
These titles mean something, and carry with them certain obligations. Obligations on our end, and on the recipient’s. These forms of cultus are not something to rush into. Death is a process which both the deceased and those left behind must go through. Our rites exist to help us navigate that alien terrain.
Now, I’m not here to tell you how to conduct your worship. If you’re not a member of the Starry Bull tradition I could honestly care less what you believe or do in front of your shrine. But as part of the process I encourage everyone to think deeply and carefully about these matters. After all, this is a pretty unique situation we find ourselves in since, appearances aside, Bowie was not actually one of us.
If you know anything about him, you know that he was a deeply private man who worked hard to keep his family and personal affairs out of the limelight despite being an immensely popular performer from the 1960s on. Many of his close friends and professional colleagues, in fact, had no idea that he had been battling cancer for 18 months until they, along with the rest of us, learned that he had finally succumbed to his illness. That is an astounding feat in this age of the panopticon! What he shared with us was immense – but it was an artificial construction, and we should not presume a greater degree of intimacy than actually existed. You didn’t know David Bowie, however close you may have felt to him. You knew Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Jareth the Goblin King, the Grand Old Man of Rock ‘n’ Roll, etc. etc.
David Bowie, the man, had religious beliefs and along with the boundaries he drew around his personal life these should be respected. More to the point, those beliefs could have a profound effect on his posthumous fate and status. As with the multitude of stage personae he crafted, Bowie’s religious and philosophical beliefs went through numerous metamorphoses over the decades. He explored Catholicism, Neopaganism, Occultism (of the Nazi variety and otherwise), Agnosticism, and other faiths but often came back to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism which he studied under Lama Chime Rinpoche and the crazy-wisdom master Chögyam Trungpa.
If you are at all conversant with these traditions you understand why I bring this up, and it’s not just to recommend that we show deference toward his beliefs, laudable as that may be. Simply put, Bowie the man may no longer exist, here or in other realms, in a way that isn’t necessarily true of most dead people. The goal of Tibetan Buddhism, even more pronouncedly than in other forms of Buddhism, is complete liberation by the radical annihilation of ego-consciousness, a process hastened through elaborate ceremonies performed at the time of death. Now, it’s possible that Bowie will become a bodhisattva and choose to forgo nirvana so he can hang around and help other sentient beings attain bodhicitta-enlightenment; it’s equally possible that those ceremonies were not performed, either because as reports claim he was only surrounded by immediate family at the time of his passage or Bowie may no longer have been a practicing Buddhist, in which case he’s got the long road to walk ahead of him that we all do.
And this is not just so much theoretical speculation; if we are going to worship him we need to know, as much as we can, that there’s something there to be worshiped, what the nature of that something is, and what the appropriate form of worship is for that type of being. Which will take some time.
Whatever Bowie is becoming, it’s a process. You don’t just close your eyes and then open them on the other side a fully transfigured and elevated spirit. In ancient Greek religion, and Bacchic Orphism in particular, death was seen as a journey through another land with numerous obstacles and trials to overcome – paralleling in many respects what we find within Tibetan Buddhism. As the soul undertook this quest, the family it had left behind went through their own transitional phase, mirroring the process through the funerary and later mortuary rites they performed. These rites not only helped the family work out their grief, but assisted the soul in their underworld journey – indeed, without these rites there was a chance the soul could get trapped between the worlds and become a restless, vengeful spirit. These rites began with the washing and preparation of the body, either for burial or cremation. Offerings and libations were made, the family accompanied the body in procession to its tomb, more offerings were made – including the cutting of hair and shedding of blood – and then a period of seclusion and mourning began. During this time the family, especially those who had tended the body, were in a state of miasma or ritual impurity, which precluded them from conducting any public business or visiting shrines and temples. The loss of their loved one had created a gap through which the underworld powers could reach and claim more members of the family, by madness, disease and other calamities. It also forced them to focus on their loss and dredge up all of the pain and grief it caused. When this liminal period – ranging anywhere from days to weeks – was complete the family would perform purificatory rites and make more offerings to the deceased. For the next year or so, members of the family would be in a state of mourning, often wearing special clothing or amulets to reflect this, and performing a series of periodic rites, including feasting at the graveside and monthly libations.
Hero cultus followed a similar model – and may in fact have grown out of these domestic rites, except that the dead belonged not just to a particular family but the entire community. There was also a difference in status and power. While the dead could, in special circumstances – especially if proper rites had not been carried out – make their continued presence known through dreams, healing or sending illness, an increase or decrease of luck, fertility, wealth, etc. as well as violent physical manifestations this was a prerequisite for heroes, and very often what caused cultus to be established for them. Heroes were not, as we often think of them today, paragons of virtue to be emulated but powerful forces requiring placation and appeasement through offerings, rites, dances, athletic and artistic competitions, etc. Once they had been recognized and fully integrated into the community through these activities they would act on behalf of the populace, bringing protection and numerous other blessings to those who honored them. Often the hero’s sphere of influence extended only to the area surrounding the shrine where their mortal remains were kept and a number of ancient Greek poleis or city-states fought wars over possession of these relics. Some heroes, however, most notably Herakles, the Dioskouroi and Achilles transcended this limitation and worked wonders on behalf of numerous farflung Greek communities. Indeed these figures often straddled the blurry but resolute boundary between the Gods and the dead. Some attained full apotheosis or divinization while others received dual honors, as both a God and a hero. Later, during the Hellenistic and Roman period, many rulers received divine honors and cultus, sometimes while alive but most often posthumously. Additionally there were people who acted as mortal incarnations of the Gods. They were either born half-man and half-God, often claiming descent from a divine progenitor or else they became possessed by a deity who simply never left until their demise, at which point the person was either completely absorbed by the God, became the recipient of hero-cultus or underwent apotheosis and was regarded as a divinity in their own right. Dionysos and Aphrodite are the ones we find most often involved in this, though there were also New Hermeses, Herakleses and Zeuses.
Another option was for the individual to become a daimon, a type of spirit that inhabited the space between mortals and the Gods and included everything from ghosts to nymphs to abstract and often undifferentiated powers to foreign and unknown divinities. These beings were often more powerful than humans but less powerful than the major Greek gods themselves, and though long-lived lacked their distinguishing characteristic of immortality. Daimones could either be beneficent or malevolent, but there was always something uncanny and dangerous about them. Their shrines, when they had them, were places of oracular consultation, dream incubation and healing and they were particularly drawn to ecstatic, orgiastic rites and bloody sacrifices in which they received the entire victim as opposed to the Olympians who got the smoke of burnt bones and entrails while their worshipers consumed the meat in a communal feast.
While it’s possible that, from the Hellenic perspective, David Bowie could become any of these types of being – or even a combination of them – there is also another way this could play out. Rather than paying cultus to the man himself one could venerate one or even a variety of the personae he created and embodied over the course of his lengthy career, along the lines of a tulpa or egregore. As Harlequin and Pierrot – figures that fascinated Bowie and which he often portrayed on film and stage – show, the line between fiction and reality is not always an ironclad one, especially when empowered by belief and magic. If the last couple days have shown us anything, it is that millions of people over decades have been feeding these creations a tremendous amount of attention and emotion, which I suspect will enable them to make that perilous existential leap. This, I also suspect, will occur – if it has not already – independent of whatever fate awaits the man who came into this world as David Robert Jones in 1947.
Other religions have both similar and very different methods of engaging with their respected dead, which I won’t go into here as I have no interest in speaking on behalf of any tradition but my own. However I would encourage folks to, again, seriously consider the options available to them, what the implications of those options are, and the appropriate methods of worship that follow from that. Don’t rush into anything – not only is Bowie in the midst of his journey West and thus may not be in any condition to receive or respond to cultus, but if you’re serious about this you need to develop the proper structures and rituals, which are not only consistent with your own tradition but are pleasing and appropriate to him. Do not claim a status or title for him until you have determined that this reflects what he has become and that he is willing to receive and fulfill. After all, what good is it to claim him as a saint or an hero if he is indifferent to your prayers and offerings? Now, if he shows up in a dream or sends healing, inspiration, mantic revelations or other material blessings your way, or you get confirmation through divination or a trusted religious specialist, magician, shaman, spirit-worker or the equivalent in your tradition then by all means move forward in establishing cultus for him!
Does that mean that you should do nothing until then? Absolutely not! Make offerings, say prayers on his behalf to ease and assist him in his journey, reflect on how he has touched your life, enjoy his music and movies, share your thoughts and experiences with others who are currently grieving and do what you can to help them through it, make fearless and fabulous art and live your life in such a way that he would have been proud to call you friend had he known you. All of this is fine regardless of what comes later, and should be appropriate within any religious paradigm.
“Ich bin dann König.” – Bowie