Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Magic Of Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Ritual Magic and The Storyteller

The Sirah and the Dal'Rok

Deep Space Nine's First season episode The Storyteller is an interesting one for several reasons. Characterwise, this is the first episode which sows the seeds for Bashir and O'Brien's future friendship. The main storyline happens on Bajor, but rather than showing us a Bajor under the guidance of the Prophets, it depicts a rural Bajoran village where perhaps older customs survive of what could be called a more Pagan past.

The storyline in brief: Bashir and O'Brien beam down to a village which is in trouble: it is under attack from a creature called a Dal'Rok and the only way to fight this entity is under the leadership of the Sirah, a Storyteller. Bashir and O'Brien witness an attack and the defense, upon which the Sirah collapses, but not after naming O'Brien as his successor. The next evening, the Dal'Rok returns and O'Brien sets out to fight it as he has seen the Sirah do it, but he fails in his attempt. Then Hovath, the young original apprentice Sirah takes over and succeeds in chasing off the entity and is thus appointed as the new Sirah, letting O'Brien off the hook.

The Sirah in action
This story has a number of interesting Ritual Magic concepts weaven into it. For example: why does O'Brien fail? There are several reasons for that. Yes, he does not know the entire story, although that seems hardly necessary: all we see the Sirah and Hovath do is tell the villagers that they can defeat the creature. But in their cases, they speak with conviction and in magic as well as anywhere else, Words have Power proportional to the conviction with which they are spoken. Magic is not about 'just speaking the right words and then something will happen, Harry Potter style', it is about giving words as much power as possible, and that power comes from the conviction of the speaker and from his or her energy. We see O'Brien struggling to speak out the words while he himself barely believes it is going to do any good (nicely played by actor Colm Meany as well!). And his words dissipate into thin air, nothing happens, the magic does not come about and the Dal'Rok keeps attacking.

Incidentally, what is this Dal'Rok? We are informed that the tricorders do not register anything, yet we see something happening,a nd what is more, we see some attacks that are convincingly real.
So what is going on here? My guess would be that we are dealing here with a thought form that has gained a more or less corporeal existence. Probably as a result of repeating this ritual over and over again for many years- a sure recipe to increase the power!- the image has gained so much energy that not only has it becomevisible to outsiders, it is also found to be interacting with the material environment. Our magical literature abounds with examples of the very same thing: elementals, golems, homunculi, etc. all “conjured” up by the imagination and subsequently energized to such an extent that it gets a “life of its own”.

Hovath (played by Lawrence Monoson)

The fight against the Dal'Rok indeed looks very much like a time-honored ritual, with certain fixed stagesin it, the use of certain words of power and with a more or less hierarchical structure: it is the Sirah and the Sirah only who leads this ritual and is able to direct the energy of the villagers into a concerted defense against the Dal'Rok. He is the High Priest in what looks suspiciously like a ritual to reinforce the village identity by defeating a common foe. In order to become Sirah, a candidate has to undergo a test: he (or she?) should be able to direct the ritual and direct the power single-handedly. Miles O'Brien clearly fails at this test: he does not have the necessary training, he does not have the faith and as an outsider he is also not connected to the village's group mind. Hovath is and has all those things, so at the end we see him take charge of the ritual and bringing it to a good end, thus finalizing his own initiation as a Sirah. Which brings a final question to mind: what if the old Sirah had staged all this as an initiation ritual for his successor, with O'Brien as the unknowing catalyst? We'll never know...

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