LARPing Up the Wrong Tree

Before Christianity came and swept the lands around the Mediterranean and further north in Europe, there were a myriad local religions which today we refer to as “paganism.” The best-known pagan religions are those of the great civilizations: Egypt, Greece, Rome. Though the memory of their gods has endured, the likes of Isis, Zeus, or Mars have become little more than interesting characters, fit for tales and artistic depictions, but not much else. No one has believed in them for centuries.

No one, that is, until the rise of neopaganism and reconstructionist polytheism. In the past few decades, neopagan movements have been founded in many countries, spanning a spectrum from New Age eclecticism to strict and well-researched revival attempts. Modern Hellenism is the main incarnation of reconstructionist polytheism in Greece. Since 2017, it is officially recognized as a religion by the Greek government, spearheaded by an organization called the Supreme Council of Ethnic Hellenes (the cover image depicts one of their ceremonies). Ancient Roman religion revivals have been promoted by a number of organizations, including Nova Roma, the Roman Traditional Movement, and the recent Imperivm Romanvm. Germanic and Druidic forms of neopaganism have been even more popular in northern Europe and the English-speaking world. There are many other versions elsewhere, like Egyptian Kemetism, Baltic Dievturība and Romuva, Slavic Naive Faith, Mexicayotl, and so on. 

Modern Hellenic temple in Thessaloniki

I think all of this is really cool, for reasons that range from aesthetics to the promotion of cultural diversity. I also can’t help but wonder: surely the people who take part in these rituals don’t actually believe in the ancient gods? It’s hard to see these revivals of ancient religion as anything but live action role-play, or LARP. 

I have never partaken in formal LARPing, but it has always seemed like a fun hobby. Pretending to be a character from a work of fiction, or an idealized time period, must create a feeling of immersion that goes far beyond what television, video games, or tabletop role-play can provide. I can see the appeal of a place like Bicolline, a village built solely to enact fantasy stories dreamt up by role-play enthusiasts. 

But LARP also carries a connotation of fakeness. To be described as LARPing when you are serious can be disparaging. Thus the Imperivm Romanvm movement opens its FAQ with what must indeed be a frequently asked question: “Is this some kind of role-play? You guys don’t actually think you’re Romans, do you?” To which they reply: “We assert we are legitimately Romans through our emulations of and adherence to ritual and tradition. This is not some kind of game to us.”

Convictions are great, and I don’t mean to criticize what they do, but it totally is role-play. (In fact, playing a role well usually involves saying that you’re not playing a role.) I insist: there’s nothing wrong with that. Ancient civilizations are fun! That’s part of why we write The Classical Futurist in the first place. Yet it remains difficult to take seriously anyone who claims sincere belief in the gods of old. They are far too foreign, too culturally distant.

But then a question arises. Did the actual ancient Greeks and Romans believe in those gods, or were they LARPing? The answer is not obvious. Surely there were many who enacted the rituals without deeply believing that Athena and Poseidon were controlling the destinies of men. 

For that matter, do modern religious people really believe in whatever deities they say they do? To an atheist, it’s easy to see all religions as, essentially, elaborate forms of LARP. They provide a bunch of useful features, sure — community, art, existential answers, and the psychological anchoring of ritual and mediation — but none of that requires genuine belief in the literal God(s) described in the sacred texts. You might as well get those things from reconstructionist polytheism, if it’s more fun to you than mainstream religion.

If we accept the view that religion is LARP, however, then this implies that LARP is not “just a game.” I think it was the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens who suggested it’s implausible that the elites of the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican truly believe what they profess. Maybe, but the Roman Catholic Church is still hugely influential! If they’ve been LARPing for the past two thousand years, then that seems like a very valid strategy to build magnificent cathedrals and accumulate wealth and power.

There’s this idea that you can “meme things into existence.” If a vision of something that does not exist becomes popular enough — if it becomes a meme — then it’s not at all surprising that some people will try to make the thing a reality. And they may succeed. A silly but illustrative example is that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a joke that became a movement and then, according to some, a real religion. 

Even more so than neopaganism, I doubt that anyone sincerely believes in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But who am I to say.

Outside religion, many countries can be said to have been memed into existence. A national idea, or a new political philosophy, can become popular and then cause people to declare independence (e.g. the United States, modern Greece) or unify (e.g. Italy, Germany). We are influenced by the ideas around us to a greater extent than we like to imagine. 

So there’s a contradiction in the concept of LARP. On the one hand, it seems fake, unimportant. Some people use the word explicitly to emphasize that what they do is harmless fun. I’ve witnessed this in a crypto organization that pretends to be a city-state, for instance. It’s important to signal that real governments need not intervene; you don’t want to suffer the fate of the Republic or Rose Island, a micronation on a platform off the coast of Italy that attracted the attention of the Italian government, who ultimately demolished it.

On the other hand, something like LARPing is at the root of many important parts of our lives, so it can’t be entirely fake. We can sometimes be surprised that what initially felt like a light game has suddenly become unbearably real. So it’s worth being careful about what we choose to LARP. You don’t want to bring something into existence that is memetically potent but not morally good. For instance, some worry that neopaganism may lead to far-right nationalism. That doesn’t make polytheistic revivals inherently problematic, but the concern is valid. In politics, there have been cases of popular media personalities (Trump, Zelenskyy) who joked about becoming president of their country, and then became president of their country. Whether that’s good or bad is left as an exercise for the reader.

In other words, LARPing has two opposite failure modes. It can prevent people from taking seriously enough what could be good. Or it can make them take too seriously what would be bad. 

I worry somewhat about this in the context of antiquity. A movement like Praxis Society, which seeks to create a futuristic city inspired by the poleis of the Mediterranean space, seems like it could end up in either of the twin pitfalls of LARPing. If it’s a genuinely good idea, then a misplaced focus on aesthetics and fun could prevent it from achieving anything of importance, and do little more than waste its supporters’ attention and resources. If instead it’s a problematic set of “vaguely reactionary-trad-bronze-age larp tropes,” as Venkatesh Rao put it, and yet it succeeds at memeing something into existence, then it might not be a positive outcome for the world. Let’s hope, of course, that they avoid both traps. 

Closer to us, a similar thing plays out with The Classical Futurist. My colleagues and I are not LARPing per se, but we write about antiquity primarily because it’s fun. However, antiquity isn’t necessarily the best frame to apply to all questions about the future. There’s a risk of missing an important insight because of trying to shoehorn a topic into the theme, or conversely of coming up with an insight from antiquity that has memetic potential but isn’t actually true or good. If our goal is to pursue truth, then we must be careful about any bias coming from our aesthetics. 

For what it’s worth, I think we’re doing fine so far. Besides, aesthetics and fun are important; otherwise we’d have given up on The Classical Futurist long ago. But we must keep the risks in mind, as must anyone doing serious work under a theme that makes role-play attractive. We can LARP, but we must do it well. We don’t want to be LARPing up the wrong tree.

By Étienne Fortier-Dubois

Writer and programmer who is interested in the evolutionary forces underlying most things. He writes about science, history, and aesthetics, among other things.

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