The “cult” of Richard Armitage?

As an archaeologist, I have wondered more than once how I would assess the fandom of Richard Armitage if it were presented to me as an artifact, separated from its context.  What do I have?

  • People from all over the world who dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy to the appreciation, in some cases the adulation, of a remote source of inspiration.
  • The source of inspiration is a person who most never have nor ever will meet in person.
  • He speaks they (we) listen (or read).
  • Writings and images are dedicated to him.
  • Offerings are made in his name.

If I were looking at the sum of these activities without any other context, it has all the trappings of what scholars of the ancient world define as ritual or cult practice and you know who is playing the starring role.  I think that many people may well be troubled by any connection of cult with fandom – and I understand the sentiment. This is a concept that often causes new students of the ancient world confusion too, but it all boils down to word usage.

The word cult acquired a bad rap in the late 20th century.  Groups like the People’s Temple (Jim Jones), The Manson Family (Charles Manson), and the Branch Davidians (David Koresh), to name only a few, led many to utilize cult to describe the concept of charismatic leaders who inspire slavish devotion in their followers leading to bizarre behaviors up to and including mass murder and/or mass suicide.  This contemporary co-option of the word has very little to do with its actual meaning over centuries of usage.

In fact, the origin of the word lies in the Latin word cultus which is connected to the tending and care (by extension honor and cherishing) of the land…think culitvate.   There is nothing inherently sinister or negative about the word in its origin or usage over time.  It is only very recently that it has taken on meanings 6-8 below, which are largely antithetical to the basic meaning of the word.

dictionary.com etymology for "cult"

dictionary.com etymology for “cult”

dictionary.com definition of "cult"

dictionary.com definition of “cult”

Looking at the original meaning of the cult, it seems quite applicable to fan activity in a number of ways.  It is a really thought provoking concept.  I am definitely not arguing that most fans “worship” Richard Armitage as a god, although I suppose it is possible that some do.   An important point to make clear is that the references to “religion” in the definition of cult almost exclusively refer to pagan religion.  Even when Christian writers use cultus (writing in Latin) they are almost always talking about classical myths, NOT referring to Judaeo-Christian practice.  Since practitioners of classical paganism, with all of its “rites and ceremonies” are few and far between these days, I think we can look past notion of  “religion” and focus on the more general definitions.  In that sense, the most common (2.-4.) definitions of cult don’t seem particularly problematic to me in the context of Armitage World, or any other fandom.

Let’s see,  a body of admirers who venerate or hold a certain person in great respect?  Check.  A group bound together by admiration and veneration of said person?  Yep.  These are the definitions that have corresponded to the word cult for centuries.  I’m very happy to have found such a caring and nurturing cult of people who celebrate and appreciate this remarkable man, and also (maybe more importantly) do the same for each other.  I think it is a very good thing for all the best reasons.  Not the least of which is this awesome “cult statue“! (Thanks to JasRangoon for the artwork 🙂 ).

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25 comments on “The “cult” of Richard Armitage?

  1. Leigh says:

    Yes, in the classical sense, I am happy to be a member/participant in this cult. While I don’t attribute any more divinity to Richard than I do to any of us (yes, I believe in the divine within), I do admire him immensely, enjoy his artistry, venerate his gifts, agree with the philosophy of “nurturing and nourishing”, and (so far) find no ethical conflict with what he says or does. Then there’s the fact that he evokes profound desire in me, causes me to be terminally smitten, makes my tongue twitch, etc. And I know my fellow cult members feel much the same way. So, truly, if this is a cult, I’m fine with it.

    • obscura says:

      Here, here…I’m all for an international coalition to take back the word cult from the crime scene analysts and sociologists…we may have to add a sub-defintion to account for the profound desire component 🙂

  2. Servetus says:

    As an improbably religious person, this is something I’ve struggled with for a long time and have not come to any firm conclusions about.

    However, the question I’d ask now is, if we think about ourselves as part of a cult in the sense that you mean, what does that illuminate about the behavior of people in ancient cults? One of the things that has surprised me most about the effects of this fandom is the extent to which I’ve gotten enmeshed in the lives and investments of my fellow “initiates.” I tend to think of ancient cults as something like the two modern religions I’ve experienced, in which the primary point is the worship of the deity and the community life secondary to that. Devotees participate in whichever cult (I’m thinking of stuff I occasionally mention in lectures, like the cult of Mithras Sol Invictus) as a function of their relationship with the object. My experience of Armitagemania would suggest that that’s only a piece of the story. Is much known about the social / community experiences of participants in ancient cults?

    • obscura says:

      I think that Mithras and Sol Invictus are an-iconic in the classical sense – they are much closer to what I’d call mystery religions in the Hellenistic sense than they are like classical Greek cults – with the exception of the handful of PanHellenic cults, much of the cult activity in Greece was directly connected to the specific community – the Panathenaic Festival is a perfect example – while Athena was worshipped all over, this practice was specific to Athens. Ancient cult is a varied and sundry thing…it’s hard to generalize, but in Greece, cult practice was part and parcel of being part of the community. Does that shed light, or just run in a circle?

      • obscura says:

        to clarify – have to run to class shortly… the Hellenistic mystery religions have more in common with modern monotheistic traditions (in that they are first and foremost faith based, death/renewal, etc.) than they do with traditional pagan religions in places like Greece and Rome.

  3. kelbel75 says:

    hmm, probably should have read this before I made my blog post today…where I implied that Richard was my king, and I’d give up my life for Harry *laughs*

    • obscura says:

      No problem – I’ll just add you to the list I’m compiling of the “I suppose there might be some” 😉 In all seriousness, I think that most people among us (RA included) can tell the difference between tongue in cheek expressions of divinity and sovereignty from any the occasional “other” kind (cryptic enough?) Although, I will own that he has a divine behind!

      • kelbel75 says:

        I did really like this post though;) this seems to be a fear of so many within fandoms, that what they are doing is wrong, immature, etc. I’ve been around enough that I’m past all that, but I see so many others who seem to be struggling with it 😦 like you said, there is a difference between the “crazies” who have lost touch with reality, and those of us who just like to connect with like-minded people within a supportive community 🙂

        as long as we realize that the characters aren’t real, that RA isn’t the characters (the “character” of movie star included) but a real human being, that we don’t actually know him no matter how connected with him we may feel at times, and he is not a charm that we grow to depend on; as long as we stay grounded in reality, there is no reason we can’t have fun together 🙂

        • obscura says:

          Yep – (the “character of the movie star” is an important element to note..) It’s that grounded in reality bit that gets people into trouble sometimes I think…

  4. katie70 says:

    Why is it that words end up with meaning that are so different from the 1st meaning?

    Cult is one of those hard words for me, as a child I was told the more modern meaning. I do know that what ever you want to call it, I do like my time here. It is Richard who brought us here, but the people who make the fandom enjoyable. I seem to learn something knew everyday, that has to be a good thing.

    My youngest son has a girl in his class that don’t have a clue that what is on tv is not real. As we have gotten to know the mom she don’t correct the girl so she knows the difference between fantasy and reality, that is scary.

    • obscura says:

      I really don’t know why meanings can change, but it seems that all it really takes is a consensus – that enough people agree that “x” word has such and such a meaning. When I was writing this post, I thought of a quote from The Princess Bride

      Inigo Montoya says, “You keep saying that word….I do not think it means what you think it does!” So often true 🙂

      Being able to tell the difference is important – I think it’s perfectly fine to have an avid fantasy life as long as you can always see the difference between it and reality. (I don’t always want to, but I am able to…)

  5. guylty says:

    [Slowly catching up] Thank you very much for this great explanation, Obscura. I have been struggling myself with the latent worry that I have fallen prey to some particularly sinister cult of some personage. It’s good to know that this is not as bad as it may seem. I will refer any critics of my behaviour to the classic interpretation and practice of cult – and continue my slavish following of my pagan god *ahem* with an innocent conscience. Might have to change my name. What goes with pleasure?

  6. […] goes hand in hand with a blog post I read earlier this week, concerning the idea of fandoms as cults and the dangers of confusing our […]

  7. marieastra8 says:

    Thought provoking post, obscura. Thank you for the information about the word cult. I admit that sometimes the comments by fans revering RA for helping them through difficult times in RL have made me uncomfortable. But I have chosen to be part of this community. I could have admired/obsessed over RA on my own, but I chose to participate in the community by commenting and blogging and tweeting. That really had little to do with RA veneration, just my desire to connect with others and learn more about my obsession and share my feelings with others. “The kick is people” as Riff says to Tony in “West Side Story”.

    • kelbel75 says:

      you described my feelings perfectly! I want to connect with people, and so I don’t agree with everything that they say or do, but that’s what makes it interesting 🙂

      • obscura says:

        That’s really the key…it is unlikely to have full agreement in any diverse group, but as long as everyone is respectful of the each others differences, there is such a vast potential for amazing discourse! 🙂

    • obscura says:

      We may differ a bit in that I tend to think that if people find some relief from woe in RA, it is a compliment to his abilities as both a performer and a human being. But the beauty of this fandom is that everyone does not need to agree on everything for harmony to exist.

      I do think that the main reason that people are uncomfortable with words like “cult” and “veneration” is that these terms have become over-associated with religion, and that crossed with fandom sets off red flags and sirens for a whole lot of people both inside and outside of fandoms. If we use synonyms related to their original context, more like a “fellowship of appreciation,” we’re probably getting into less objectionable language for a lot of folks. Isn’t it funny how a few random combinations of abstract characters have the power to alter perception?

      In the end, the resulting fellowship becomes no less important, perhaps more so to many, than the original appreciation…

      • kelbel75 says:

        yes, often times the fellowship fans find with each other can end up over-riding the original appreciation; I’ve had that experience myself 😉 the actors themselves seem to like the idea of friendships being formed and the support the fans offer each other, all because of a certain character or film 🙂 if they can understand, why is it so hard for others? *shakes head in bafflement*

  8. Wolke says:

    At least I have indisputable proof that the object of my cult exists. Other than a couple of billion worshippers of the god of the bible whose cult nobody effectively questions. I feel that to be very curious.

    • obscura says:

      That is true. There does seem to be a decided suspicion in a lot of cultures both ancient and modern toward attaching any notion of “deity” to a living person, but no issue with doing the same with the unseen. It is a curious trait of humans to be sure.

      Welcome, and thanks for commenting!

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