Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to expand my horizons with many online and offline social groups. I've not only networked through pagan and traditional polytheist circles - making and maintaining friends and acquaintances through those avenues, but have also spent a lot of time forming connections through music, art, gaming, and geek culture communities.
Though many of the people I've interacted with through these contemporary cultures usually come from either a Christian or Secularist background (especially the latter), there is most certainly considerable overlap between ostensibly pagan groups and heavily nerdy pursuits. That being said, save for a few recent exceptions, I've seldomly seen the interaction examined in any sort of detail, which I find rather disappointing and ultimately limiting.
For those of us who ended up coming to a pagan, polytheist, occult, or otherwise alternative spiritual path or tradition, what I'm about to say is already pretty familiar....
Many of us, at least in the west, were raised in some sort of Christian tradition, and the reasons that we came to alternative spirituality, at least as I experienced it, were informed by animistic and/or polytheistic spiritual experiences which were not addressed or recognized, and often either ignored or forcefully discouraged. Though we would eventually find source materials and contemporary literature which examined these other spiritual ideas, there was not much in the way of material that would satisfy our pagan yearnings when were were all children.
But what we did find, presented our first taste of mythological and folkloric ideas, through media that was not only accessible to us, but created in a format that appealed to the creative, exuberant, and explorative qualities that children most often embody. What I'm speaking to of course, are the staples of fantasy and science fiction: art, literature, music, and gaming.
When I was growing up, some of my first experiences of mythology were from the ideas I found in fantasy books, fantasy movies, and video games. I still have fond memories of watching movies like The Labrynth, and later movies like Conan The Barbarian. I also remembering having a sense of wonder from being to explore a fantasy setting in a video game, and I would later explore this further in tabletop RPGs when I was older. But when I was in grade school and middle school, a lot of the material from games I would play found their way into games of pretend, in art and personal stories I created, or in adaptations of those ideas to my first attempt to form pagan philosophies about the world around me.
With all this in mind, I think that in a way, these sources of medium can sort of serve as approachable introduction to folklore, and can help to inspire future generations to examine ideas they would not otherwise find in Christian religions, at least in the west. It is worth noting that many of the video games we've played come out of Japan, where there is still a polytheistic culture through Shintoism - or at least a pluralistic approach to divinity through Japanese forms of Buddhism (though the two are often blended together). There is a certain sense of irony that their culture would help to inspire these ideas in western cultures, and though I don't think it is always intentional, I think it is ultimately a blessing.
Some of what I've said here has already been addressed... in a negative sense. Many Fundamentalist Christian groups have decried the "Satanic content" of video games, art, and literature, and that likely will always be there in some form or another. To me, that is something that we can't entirely avoid, but I think a little controversy is good, ultimately.
The ways in which these mythological ideas are often quite subtle, and usually presented in a neutral manner - through the creation of fantasy world that is more loosely associated with historical cultures or beliefs. I don't think that these media need to necessarily inspire pagan or occult conversion, and many if not most of the people that create them don't hold to views that resemble them, but at the very least I think they can help to instill a sense of wonder, and appreciation for the folkloric history of human cultures throughout history.
But for those future generations who find themselves gravitating towards alternatives, it can grant a sense of comfort and inclusion to otherwise isolated children and adolescents, and help form positive memories for more mature explorations in the future. That being said, I think it is important to make a clear distinction between these fantasy worlds and historically consistent cultural traditions, in the formation of intellectually honest beliefs. I'm a polytheistic reconstructionist, and though I have a clear bias against loosely defined and overly romanticized spirituality, I think that having solid foundational definitions are valuable to people practicing any kind of spiritual path. But to me, that is ultimately the strength of these sources of media, in that by presenting folklore in an entertaining manner, like the many plays and casual fairy tales of old, we can open the door to so much more.
I think that the popularity of these sources of media have been heralding the return of at least an appreciation of folklore by modern culture, and have the potential to include many more people in what we do through alternative spirituality. With that in mind, I think it is our responsibility to lead and assist future generations as they come to the fold.
I look forward to what the future brings...