Polytheism and Retrofuturism

Retrofuturism is, in essence, a philosophy that has been highly influential in late 20th and early 21st Century art, music, design, and (typically underground) fashion. I’d says its beginnings can be traced to the 1960s, when the first conscious revival of a once-popular movement —Art Deco— took place, though the movement really started to take off in the 1970s. While Isadora Duncan was certainly a prototypical and extreme retrofuturist, her influence, during her time, was limited to dance, so clearly while she can be argued to have scattered some seeds for retrofuturism, the movement did not take root with her. Streamline Moderne design, popular in the 1940s, is sometimes erroneously described as an Art Deco revival, but it is, in actuality, merely a continuation of the movement; where Art Nouveau of the 1890s and 1900s can be described as “organic”, Art Deco can be described as “mineral” in its look and feel, especially its penchant for symmetric geometry — Streamline, on the other hand, is organic lines with an Art Deco sensibility, thus it is not a true revival. But I digress.

In simplest terms, Retrofuturism is taking the best of the past and the best of the present and moulding it with a progressive-mindedness that looks toward the future. Steampunk is retrofuturist. By extension, Diesel- and decopunk are retrofuturist, and Atompunk is retrofuturist. While the Mod subculture was initially a very modern-minded subculture, its deep connections to the Phil Spector/Tamla-Motown sound and a 1960s-influenced aesthetic have assured its evolution into a retrofuturist subculture, albeit not the most conscious retrofuturist subculture, when compared to most others. Roxy Music is a retrofuturist group. As is DEVO. As is Joe Jackson. Jim Henson’s life-long love of puppetry and apparent knowledge of its history, and not to mention showing off that knowledge in his abilities to create quality entertainment intended for an adult audience (yet silly enough that children didn’t need to understand The Muppet Show, for example, in order to enjoy it) is inherently retrofuturist. Guy Maddin is retrofuturist, though he prefers “ultra-conformist”, which, to be honest, is actually best at describing his techniques, which are seldom more evolved than the industry standard of 1933. The work of McDermott & McGough is absolutely retrofuturist with an emphasis on the retro. Electroswing is retrofuturist with an emphasis on the future. Neofolk is a genre that is, at its heart, retrofuturist but in practise, some bands identify more closely with certain flavours of Fascism, which is, at its heart, Traditionalist —but in all honesty (and more knowledge of music than most other people who can wear the “Goth DJ” hat), Leonard Cohen and Nico were among the first musicians to be described as “neofolk” or even “dark folk”, and Johnny Indovina of Human Drama considers much of his music to be some form of “neo-folk”, and it would be hard (at the absolute least) to consider any of those musos to be Fascists or Traditionalists.

The modern pagan and polytheist movements are, too, typically retrofuturist with a few exceptions. Chaos magic seems decidedly modernist with some hints of straight-up futurism. There is also a segment of reconstructionist polytheists that are more concerned with an anti-progressive notion of “the ancients” to the point that it’s easy to call them Traditionalist or even Anti-modernist; retrofuturists, by their nature, tend to avoid such types as we find their non-interest in a living society in favour of an arbitrary point in the ancient past (often long pre-dating even a century or two prior Christianity’s birth, much less its rise to prominence) to be rather silly.

If there’s anything that a vast majority of pagans and polytheists have in common, it’s an interest in re-shaping the present and future with knowledge about the past influencing this form. This is a variant on the two major themes of retrofuturist creativity: The first is the “retrofuture purist” form, which is celebrating the past’s idea of the future. The second is to re-imagine the past as seen with eyes of the present that are, at the very least, mindful of the future (though retrofuturist art tends to emphasise the future). The tendencies of pagans and polytheists to take what is known of the ancient past polytheistic religions and adapt them to not only modern life but a future-mindedness makes this the ultimate retrofuturist religious movement; Gnostics probably come in at a close second place.

While an degree of tradition is important in most pagan and polytheist religions, they are not typically defined by their traditions, but by the cultures they sprang from and the communities they are shared by, which essentially creates a vision of the future.


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