7 'Ancient' Forms of Mysticism That Are Recent Inventions

So you want to add some meaning and depth to your life that just isn't provided by playing another round of Bananagrams. Why not adopt an ancient, mystical belief? After all, society offers us a wide choice of age-old practices and belief systems, the more obscure and foreign the better. After all, if something has been practiced for thousands of years, there must be something to it, right?

But take care when you're choosing, because some of these "ancient" practices are about as authentic as the ill-fated Chinese tattoo on your arm that the lady swore meant "pure warrior." For example ...

#7. Yoga

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Ask anyone wearing a leotard and staring off into the middle distance how long yoga has been practiced, and chances are they'll tell you that it's around five thousand years old. In other words, people were stretching and posing serenely several hundred years before aliens secretly built the Egyptian pyramids.

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"Shit, I've been on this thing all day. Time for some yoga."

The Reality:

Yoga as we know it today -- a set of postures (asanas) combined with breathing techniques -- dates back to around the grand old year of 1960.

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In other words, yoga is as old as Bono.

"But how can that be?" you scream, rending your organic exercise mat in two. Well, that "five thousand years old" claim rests entirely on some 5,000-year-old pictures found in the Indus Valley of a man sitting cross-legged. Though this is one of the main yoga positions, it so happens that it's also the position most people take when, you know, they sit on any flat surface.

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The ancient art of sitting on your ass and daydreaming.

Yoga is first mentioned by name in some 2,500-year-old Hindu religious texts called the Upanishads, but this is actually a term relating to a method of strapping horses together -- literally the origin for our word "yoke." The Upanishads use it as a metaphor for a mental prayer technique, but as far as all those weird stretches are concerned, the texts mention exactly one physical posture, and that posture is pretty much "sit in a way that makes meditation comfortable." So the word "yoga" might describe an old Hindu teaching, but then so does the word "avatar," and nobody's claiming that the James Cameron movie reflects an unbroken line of ancient sacred tradition.

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The ancients must have really enjoyed the smell of unwashed crotch.

It wasn't until the 19th century that an Indian prince named Krishnaraja Wodeyar III produced something resembling what we call yoga: a manual called the Sritattvanidhi, which listed 122 poses mostly taken from Indian gymnastics. What really kicked-started modern yoga, though, was the influence of the Imperial British, who introduced Indians to the new exercise craze that was sweeping Europe at the time.


"You really should try it, Sahib. It comes from the East."

Later a guy named B.K.S. Iyengar came up with the idea of combining these exercise techniques with some of the teachings described in old Hindu texts like the Yoga Sutras and let the result loose on America in the 1960s. Since then, yoga fans have grown by the millions, with few realizing that they are practicing a chanted-up version of early 20th-century gym class.

Mutt Lunker
Mr. Iyengar is still alive today, and his eyebrows look like wings.

#6. Tarot

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Anything related to tarot cards will probably be described as "ancient" and "mysterious," including the plastic they come wrapped inside. According to fans, the cards originated in Ancient Egypt, and through the ages somehow also became involved with the Kabbalah and a few Holy Grail myths. They're like the mystic town bicycle!

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Every single thing about this picture should make you feel dirty.

The Reality:

Tarot cards were originally designed not for being stared at by people while they listen to ethnic harp music, but for a card game similar to modern-day bridge. People only started using them for fortunetelling about 250 years ago, a good 400 years after the cards were imported from the Middle East. In fact, normal playing cards have a longer history in Europe than tarot cards, preceding them by about 50 years. So you're technically indulging in a more venerable ritual when you play "go fish." Those magical "wands" in the tarot's Minor Arcana were a holdover from their Middle Eastern origins, where they originally depicted freaking polo sticks.

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Above: Somewhat less than mystical.

Tarot's new fortunetelling function was quickly seized upon by 19th-century fans of occultism, which was what bored white people used to do in the 19th century before backpacking around India was invented. The occultists "discovered" tarot's long history and renamed the two parts of the deck "Arcana" to replace the slightly less spooky trumps and pits.


The Devil is apparently part Aquaman.

In 1909, two occultists published a new version of the cards, the Rider-Waite deck, which is what most Americans visualize today when they hear the word "tarot." The new deck switched out the traditional Christian imagery on the cards with pagan symbols to make it look like they predated the New Testament, replacing the Pope and Popess with a Hierophant and High Priestess, presumably so that fortunetellers could say more exotic things than "I see a Pope in your future."

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"He's leering in an unsettling manner and wearing a pimp hat."

#5. Satanism

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If popular culture is to be believed, Satanism has been around ever since our first ancestors crawled onto the primeval shore and used their rudimentary hands to throw up the "devil horns" gesture. Movies like The Ninth Gate and anything starring Christopher Lee depict Satanists practicing their craft way back in the Middle Ages and earlier.

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"My career is utterly inexplicable without Satan's influence."

The Reality:

The Satanism we know today, with its pentagrams, inverted crosses and odd devotion to faded black clothing, dates all the way back to the year 1966 when it was wholly invented by a musician from Chicago named Anton LaVey. This makes it younger than Wicca, the Cthulhu mythos, the Rolling Stones and Mr. Potato Head.

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And just old enough to be D&D's (1974) older brother.

Of course, you can find descriptions galore of Satanist activity for centuries before that. Look closer, though, and you see that this "Satanism" inevitably involved a misinterpretation of a nonmainstream religious practice or was a handy accusation to use against your neighbors when they stayed up all night ringing their cowbells or whatever bad neighbors did back then.

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"I told you: they're hippies or Satanists, and I want them off my lawn either way."

Cases where accused Satanists admitted to devil worship usually involved a good deal of horrible torture, under which most of us would probably confess to worshiping Vice President Joe Biden. Most probably innocent people confessed under torture to secretly worshiping the demon Baphomet, a name that is most likely a corruption of "Mohammed." In other words, what we now think of as accusations of Satanism were the old school equivalent of neocons accusing Obama of being a secret Muslim.


Above: Anton LeVey. He's the snake, not the bald dude.

Until LaVey, pentagrams were commonly used by Christians as a charm against witchcraft and demons. That's right, just in case the inverted crosses weren't enough, Satanists are also proudly displaying both a Christian symbol and a product of religiously motivated execution and torture.


In other words, maybe hold off on that back tattoo.

#4. Ouija Boards

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Whether you think it's a harmless pastime or a cardboard portal directly into hell, lovers and haters of Ouija agree on one thing: the boards have a long, mysterious history. Using yourself as a ghost-puppet to spell out words on an alphabet board supposedly goes back to ancient China, and even the Romans apparently also hopped on the historical Ouija party train.


Nothing goes with an orgy like Ouija!

The Reality:

Ouija boards are about as mystical as an Optimus Prime doll: in fact, they're owned by the same parent company. The boards were invented by several Baltimore businessmen in 1890, and today the word "Ouija" is still a registered trademark of Parker Brothers, the guys who gave us the Nerf ball.


"We need a gift for the parents who don't love their kids enough to buy a better toy."

As for the ancient versions of Ouija rites? "Fuji," the Chinese practice that's usually claimed as a predecessor, involved a completely different method of divination that used a stick to trace Chinese characters in sand. The Roman version wasn't much closer. Other, older cultures might have used vaguely similar methods to obtain hidden or future knowledge from "spirits," but saying these rites were ancient Ouija is like saying that Roman chariot races were an ancient form of NASCAR.


"This ... this is basically the WWE."

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