Hiatus over! I may be sorta slow-blogging a bit until I get back on my feet (literally in some cases — I’m experiencing some pain in my legs, yay the processes of time). However, I’m back and I wanted to come out of the gate swinging. Like probably most of you, I saw Black Panther recently, and it was fantastic. I want to write about the Panther ritual itself as it is in the movie.
The first reason I want to do that is that I was excited and really happy to see the first ritual scene (not the ritual fighting, but the ritual journeying). Secondly, I really want to write about Black Panther, and this is the thing that’s most in my wheelhouse.
Anyway. What about that ritual scene? Note: beyond this point be spoilers for the film.
Seriously! It’s still in theaters! Treat yourself if you haven’t seen it.
OK, who’s still here? Great!
So after completing the trials of ritual combat, T’Challa is officially proclaimed king. The film cuts us to the ritual chamber, where T’Challa is given the potion made from the heart-shaped herb. Then he’s covered in fine red sand or dirt. Then he wakes up in a visionary landscape in which he sees his father, who is one of many black panthers snoozing in a tree. T’Challa talks to his father about feeling unready, then emerges from the ritual into the waking world confident and powerful, both because of the herb and the sense that he is truly king.
Aside: I’m not sure about the background here, but want to learn more soon. T’Challa already is the Black Panther when his father dies. I’m not sure if he had to undergo the ritual to become Black Panther, or only to become both BP and king. I would assume it was to become the Black Panther at all, but I don’t know that. However, the film associates the two roles, which becomes important when Killmonger undergoes the ritual as well.
Anyway! Here’s the first thing I thought of: how many characters in Marvel movies have undergone overt rituals of any kind? I can’t think of many. I haven’t seen every Marvel film, mind you, so obviously I may be missing some. But the other major example I can think of is Stephen Strange — and even then, most of the rituals are more off-the-cuff and casual. Thor clearly goes through some rituals, but most of them are a little unclear, and seem to be more about going out and proving himself.
What’s fascinating about the ritual in Black Panther is that it is a challenging, visionary dream-quest within a loving social framework. That is, T’Challa doesn’t do it to prove he’s worthy — everyone knows he is. He doesn’t do it alone — he’s surrounded by people, including his father’s friend and the leader of the spritual side of Wakanda. He does it not to prove his power, but to find it.
Here’s where I talk about something other than the film for a minute (see my triangulation post). Journeying is a classic task and rite in most forms of shamanism. I don’t presume to dictate specifics, but here are the general outlines: a person who has in some way been chosen or found worthy of shamanic study enters an otherworld. It can be the world of dreams, the world of spirits, or the Dreamtime (which is neither, and sort of both). The journeyer often meets a guide, either an ancestor or a spirit animal. This guide will show them how things work in the otherworld, and the journeyer will find allies, explore the psycho-geography, and generally learn about sources of power, social, psychological, or magical.
When the journeyer returns, they usually see the world differently, even if it’s just because they are aware there’s another world.
So T’Challa clearly does that. And here’s the thing — the thing closest to my thesis: T’Challa’s ordeal with the ritual fighting and his journeying after imbibing the heart-shaped herb is basically the entire first movie in a typical Marvel hero story. Captain America comes through the war and realizes what’s important and how to protect it; Spider-Man loses loved ones and understands what his power can do; Iron Man figures out how he’s been contributing to the horrors of war and tries to fix it.
That happens in Black Panther in less than half an hour. When T’Challa emerges from the journeying, he may not be the supreme leader or a super-genius or anything, but he is of one mind and body, ready to deal with situations as they arise. He learns later that everything isn’t what he thought it was, of course — but more on that later.
This is why we don’t see that many rites and rituals in Marvel films, even in Doctor Strange, where we might have expected to see some rituals: the first act of a hero’s life, in the classic Stan Lee formula, is the coming of age ritual. It is never enacted formally be society because society is incapable of doing so.
How many coming of age rituals are there in the USA that are common throughout the entire country? Getting a driver’s license is just about the only one, and many individuals don’t do that, either. Most of the others are inside schools, like graduations, proms, and so on. So when American heroes have to “come of age,” they have to undergo unmoderated trauma. They become heroes because they suffer the things that heroes prevent.
Here’s the second part of my thesis: Black Panther depicts a hero who is a hero because his society is good, not because it is dangerous.
T’Challa had a great family, an incredible education, and a strong social network.
OK, two strong social networks.
You’ve provably already seen someone (or everyone) say that Black Panther is an example of Afro-futurism. Hell, when I stuck the term into Google, it auto-completed it with “…Black Panther.” But here’s how the ritual ties into that idea:
Black Panther depicts a hero who undergoes carefully controlled rituals to become powerful because he comes from a centered, good society that understands power, growth, and how those two things intertwine with family, politics, history, and the future. Black Panther is Afrofuturism (in part) because it uses the social and political story of black people to imagine such a place, because white culture cannot moderate those intertwined complexities. White folk fucked it up, y’all.
No, put down the cross and the lighter fluid. I am not suggesting that there is something innate in “whiteness” that means it is without culture or unable to contextualize people culturally. However, in the western world, the cultural construct of “whiteness” (which has a real-world signifier of skin color, though please see the entire history of race discourse to see how complicated that is) has worked so hard to make itself “invisible” or “the norm” that it is like a ghost. And “whiteness” tied itself to productivity, capitalism, boundless economic and technological growth. Those things are most of the causes of the post-modern condition. You know, the thing in which most of us live? It’s the condition where there are no meta-narratives, no “absolute” narratives in a society.
So it is not just refreshing but required that Black Panther create Wakanda and demonstrate what black culture, unassaulted by imperialism, could do. It’s required because that imperialism has basically destroyed our culture’s ability to do what Wakanda does.
Now, maybe sometime I’ll write about neo-tribes, occultures, and the postmodern attempt to create these ritual supports outside of mainstream culture and the dominant hierarchy, but I just turned an essay in about that, so I think I may have to wait a while. But suffice it to say, for now, that people and groups are trying to create ritual structures to deal with this problem. It’s why occultism and witchcraft become so popular whenever culture destabilizes or spikes in violence. Which, you know… sounds familiar right about now.