Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Three Kinds of Magician’s Books

 Here’s another example of me typing up a common discussion for the archives. Hope everyone is enjoying the turning of the secular year, and had a gladsome solstice season.

Readers here will know that I’m fetished for magical books. Stand back, oh ghosts of Caesar’s Druids, who turned nose-up at sacred writing. I’m using the tech I have to preserve the lore I need, and for me that has meant creating various handwritten books of my own collected and constructed magic. As I’ve said, that phase may be over now, as I font-whore my way through creating self-designed printed personal books with a keyboard.
A pile of typeset
personal spellbooks.
There is a trend in modern magic to discard those portions of the old methods that may seem outdated or unpleasant. I’m a moderate traditionalist in such matters, but one thing I recommend to any serious student of magic is the keeping of a personal, preferably handwritten, spellbook. The intimacy of the tool, the body-reality of the writing, and the undeniable symbolic link of pen and flat-stuff that leads back through ancient magic all recommend it. The introduction of literacy produced such amazing new powers in humans that letters and written or drawn symbols have remained central to the practice of magic ever since.

This tradition does actually seem to continue in modern popular occultism. The symbol of the Book of Magic is so powerful in our culture – as central as the broomstick witch or the thrown fireball – and is something that can be achieved by any diligent student. I encourage students to copy out any ritual they intend to work, painful as that may be when one has a well-contructed modern ritual book.

Just to say so, I do consider typing something in to be the rough equivalent, though typing will never have the neuro-somatic component of handwriting. The ability to doll-up a page with graphics using modern type methods is hard to argue with. Composing an evocative page of type seems a reasonable wizard’s skill in our day.

There are several terms floating around occult-land for this custom. Most commonly one hears of Books of Shadows, or grimoires. The terms are used loosely, and can cause confusion. As usual, I’ll try to parse some of these terms. First let me paraphrase a famous quote and say that there are books about magic, and books of magic. Books of magic are those which are the tools of magicians, rather than the tools of scholars. There is some crossover, but note that no custom of handwriting bits of Levi or even Crowley has really happened. Books of magic are tools of magical work. My basic analysis divides traditional books of magic into three types: The Book of Secrets, the Grimoire, and the Book of Shadows. All three of these are commonly kept and transmitted in handwritten form – certainly so until the modern wave of type.

• The Book of Secrets: This is the most common type of handwritten magician’s book. Once literacy reached most households it became common for the literate person (often the housewife) to keep personal books containing everything from kitchen, brewing and distilling ways to healing charms, charms for recovering lost objects, and occasionally more occult material. These were called Recipe Books (recipe is spelled ‘receipt’ until the 20thc. or so) and, more evocatively, Black Books, the latter especially in Scandinavia. 

To be a magician of any note almost certainly meant literacy. The magician’s Book of Secrets is a general
Pages from a Magician's
Book of Secrets
repository of collected occult lore. The examples we have are filing-cabinets without the organization – ‘experiments’ in magic designed and tried, occasional bits of theory or aphorisms copied out, and the copying out of whole ‘books’ of magic circulating at the time. (Think of those ‘books’ as the lengths of biblical ‘books’ – chapters.)

This is probably the most common kind of personal spellbook among solitary students today. I have two or three from my earlier days, filled with everything from veves to Taoist magical diagrams that I don’t understand to this day. Nevertheless I collected them, and have them. A handwritten book never becomes unsupported.

• The Grimoire:  ‘Grimoire’ is from the French for ‘grammar’. A grimoire is a grammar – a schoolboy text of magic, intended to allow a student to bypass years of personal collecting and go straight for magic that works. The tradition of magical books picks up steam in Europe as literacy begins to extend beyond the church, say in the 1400s and onward. While there are a very few organized instruction manuals from before
Grimoires were the first
popularly-published books of magic
that, almost all are later. A grimoire is walk-through training manual, from personal preparation through the construction of tools and temple, to the summoning of the key spirits of whatever system is presented. Many grimoires contained chapters of the ‘book of secrets’ sort, following the basic instruction. In the more integrated grimoires these spells and methods call on the spirits revealed in the instructions.

We are in a period of new grimoire construction. Those who have spent the last decades collecting and experimenting are putting out their synthesized instructions. That bodes well for the future of magic.

• The Book of Shadows: This term was created by Gerald Gardner to name the book of practices of his witch-cult. His original Book of Shadows – the first to be named as such – contained the laws and rules of his sect, methods for making and consecrating the tools of ritual, a group-meeting ritual that included both festive games and the chance for operative magic, and invocations and lore for the eight-fold annual round of witches’ Sabbaths. It also contained some organized instruction in various forms of practical magic. This
One of the more popular modern
compromises is the magical three-ring binder...
book was (and is, to my knowledge) required to be hand-copied by each student. As I understand the actual cult-book of the Gardnerian lineages has evolved over the years, but of that I know no details.

So a ‘Book of Shadows’ is the grimoire, if you will, of a specific cult of witchcraft or Pagan sorcery. Now, some students go right ahead and produce one for themselves – that’s a fine experiment, though it takes a year to work one’s way through the exercises. Often this lore is just part of a Book of Secrets – at least until someone goes to the trouble to reorganize and edit it into a more usable form.

As a couple of end notes let me begin with the notion of ‘talismanic books’. Traditionally, any of these books of collected or synthesized magic were themselves viewed as powerful objects, by virtue of the many words and symbols of power contained in them. At the most specific, we find the ‘Liber Spiritum’, which contains both the rites for summoning spirits, and the pages of their ‘signatures’ and the ‘pacts’ made by the mage. This is the full extension of the book as operative magical tool.  This notion was supported by the churches, which treated magical books as portals of demonic power, occasionally burning them with their owners. Later the Protestants applied the same superstition to Catholic prayer-books and other examples of ‘idolatry’.

However some grimoires recommend formally consecrating book, pen and ink for the personal copying of rituals and to house the signs and details of the magician’s ally spirits. The personal working book of a magician is a consecrated tool. That is rather different from the modern fashion for talismanic books. In that case the writer/publisher undertakes to formally consecrate each copy of a book to some spiritual power or purpose connected with the book’s subject. This is a new occult venture, and an interesting one. Let’s watch…

Finally let me mention a category of handwritten book that I exclude from any of the above – the personal journal. One cannot say that ‘journaling’ is simply not a part of the magical tradition; more specifically, the keeping of journals is quite separate from the preparation of a book as a tool of magical performance or teaching. I seem to recall that it was with Starhawk and the rise of therapeutic spirituality that journaling became part of what Neopagans now often call a Book of Shadows. Some degree of personal observation and record of events is common in household Books of Secrets, but traditional magicians commonly separated their personal journals, even their records of experiments, from their ritual and lore text collections. I recommend the same to modern students. Keep your personal processing separate from your collection of magic.

I hope these categories help make thinking about magical texts a little clearer. Again, I recommend the keeping of handwritten (or, sigh, handtyped) personal books as a valuable part of a magician’s training.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Please Don’t Read Aloud; Cthulhu Occultism Part 5: Ritual and Magic in Lovecraft

A missionary depiction of native peoples.
Much of the ‘horror’ in Lovecraft rather depends on being a prig, and on the prurience of prigs. Brought up in a household of late-nineteenth century ‘genteel’ women, along with his equally antique Grandfather, Lovecraft took up the language of anthropological popularization and Christian-missionary potboilers (get it?). When he wanted to frighten with a cult ritual he described it as ‘unspeakable’ or ‘abhorrent’. These were often literary code-words for sexually embarrassing details, or even simply for the terrible moral shock of realizing that other people worshipped gods that were not one’s own.

However, this has the happy effect of leading readers of Lovecraft to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations. In this the Victorian mind had no shortage of scandalous material. Modern writers, in attempting to capture HPL’s flavor, have occasionally resorted to graphic depiction. It is seldom as effective as Lovecraft’s indefinite adjectives. However the modern bar for ‘shocking’ is set so high in comparison to HPL’s day that his writing style describes weird events in a way that is, to moderns, more intriguing than repulsive. Those of us who have found what society forbids to often be where the good lies may be actively drawn to an effort to figure out just what the Yuggoth he was beating around the bush about.

Once again, I want to go back to Lovecrafts’ stories. While I will finally arrive at discussing modern attempts at real occultism in the Mythos mental setting I want to begin by detailing the original material. I’m afraid that’s how this giant series happened – I want to review modern HPL occultism, but need to get the context straight for the reader and, of course, for myself.

Lovecraft never ‘studied’ the occult, certainly never practiced, but it is plain that he read various popular books on the subject. The list seems to include The Witch-cult In Western Europe by Margaret Murray; The Book of Ceremonial Magic, By AE Waite (a surname Lovecraft included in his writing, good Anglo-American thing that it is); The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, by Scott Elliott, and various other Theosophical material. The Book of Dzyan, Madame Blavatsky’s own fake pre-human scripture, becomes one of the madness-inducing forbidden books of the Cthulhu Mythos – one of the few direct lifts from
A popular Solomonic talisman
real-world occultism. Interestingly Lovecraft never seems to have gotten the names of the classic European grimoires into his head. One never reads of the Clavicles of Solomon, or of dreaded Honorius’ forbidden book.

The details of ritual magic were not as easy to locate in HPL’s time as they are today and, unlike cult activity, they were not the regular topic of newspaper articles. Lovecraft had no interest in occultism as such, and never made the effort to locate the obscure materials. On the other hand he considered himself an ‘Antiquarian’, and anything in suggestive Latin caught his eye. He plainly did read the accounts of the witch trials and various witch-hunters’ manuals, such as Saducismus Triumphatus and Daemonolatreia, appear in his mixtures of real and fictional scholarship. From these he clearly gathered ideas such as intercourse with monstrous devils, pacts with demons, and the witch’s familiar. His personal image of magic was also shaped by the Arabian Nights and, of course, by his own reading in the previous generation of gothic writers, such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. If HPL has a source for western ceremonial magic I think it is mainly in his imitation of that generation, several of whom had personal contact with the Golden Dawn.

Lovecraft’s ritual depictions do owe more to sensational press and popular literature than to occult teachings. For instance we never see examples of the sort of basic spellcraft that is the majority of the working mage’s art. HPL was concerned with cosmic things. Opening gates between dimensions, ancient Pagan cults, commerce with monsters – these interested him; love-spells, not so much.
Books of sorcery confiscated in modern Iran
Let us look at some traditional occult intentions and methods in HPL’s stories.

• Summoning, and Illicit Worship
The central occult gimmick of Mythos stories is the congress between humans and various non-human species. This is certainly the idea that has most directly influenced modern occultism, but HPL’s direct depictions of it are sketchy at best.

In Lovecraft’s writing the beings summoned by sorcerers are not, for the most part, ‘spirits’. They are not (generally) immaterial beings forming vaguely-perceptible bodies out of smoke or wind or fire. Much more commonly they are material beings dwelling secretly on the Earth, while the Great Old Ones are transdimensional aliens whose forms are not determined by the laws of this cosmos.

One of the ways Lovecraftian sorcerers work is to make contact with the secret races of monsters that share the world with humankind. In Shadow Over Innsmouth we see Deep Ones summoned to the surface of the sea from their secret city beneath the Atlantic. This is one of the places where HPL mentions Walpurgisnacht and Hallowe’en. Old Captain Marsh rows out to Devil’s Reef, drops some cult objects from the ‘Indies’ into the water while ‘howling incantations’, and up come the fishmen.

The same tale tells of the establishment of regular worship of the Deep One’s undersea gods – probably ‘Father Dagon and Mother Hydra’ in the town of Innsmouth. The cult sets up house in a former masonic temple but we see no depiction of their rituals. Hints in the tale might lead us to imagine a new England meeting house, which can only lead to imagining what the sermons might have been like. Particularly horrifying if one finds that one of the best parts of cult life is the lack of homilies in ritual.

The Dunwich Horror provides what amounts to the iconic examples of Lovecraftian summoning rituals and cult activity. The tale describes the Whateley family of the Dunwich Mass district. We hear little of the ‘two centuries of Whateleys’ before him, but find the patriarch of the family – called ‘Wizard Whateley’ by the neighborhood - having inherited a collection of tattered occult tomes, and maintaining the cult of the Great Old Ones.

In this HPL lifts several images from his occult reading. Throughout the story events occur on the traditional dates of the ‘Witches sabbath’ – Halloween and Walpurgisnacht, of course, but in Dunwich also on Candlemas and Lamas. The cult meets on ‘sentinel hill’, a strange remnant of standing stones atop a round New England hilltop.

The passages from the diary of Wilbur Whateley (the youngster being raised inside the cult) give us the most complete look that we have into the mind of a worshipper of the Outer Gods.

“Today learned the Aklo for the Sabaoth (it ran), which did not like, it being answerable from the hill and not from the air.”

Here we see an example of HPL’s lack of occult understanding. “Sabaoth’ is a Hebrew divine name, frquestly used in medieval magic. Lovecraft mistakes it for an antique spelling of ‘sabbath’. That aside, the Whateleys are plainly trafficking with more than one kind of entity, those who answer both from ‘the hills’ and from ‘the air’.

“Grandfather kept me saying the Dho formula last night, and I think I saw the inner city at the 2 magnetic poles. I shall go to those poles when the earth is cleared off, if I can't break through with the Dho-Hna formula when I commit it.”

Here Lovecraft may be imitating eastern ritual styles. He implies a repetitious incantation like the mantras of Indic sorcery. The spell described produces visions of the secret lairs of the Old Ones, the placement at the poles again suggesting the HPL had been doing his occult reading.

• Temple and Shrine
Mythos magic takes the form of religion and ,later, of science. Depictions of ritual spaces are plainly religious – circles of stones, Groves built around monoliths and fire-pits, converted churches. When we see a solitary magician’s temple, in Charles Dexter Ward, it is a monumental construction of arches and pits, with “a circle of pillars grouped like the monoliths of Stonehenge, with a large carved altar on a base of three steps in the centre; …”
Old J Curwen and occult
items by J McKittrick

In “Dreams” we see hints of the rites of the witch Keziah Mason. She works in an outdoor temple on a river island, but keeps an attic workroom in the town. That room contains what turn out to be a small altar and kneeler. Once again HPL’s understanding of ritual is more New England than grimoire. We see a ‘magic circle’ in Charles Dexter Ward, but not in either Witch House or Dunwich. Lovecraft doesn’t seem to have integrated the idea, though he does suggest occult notae in the forms of Keziah Mason’s interdimensional gates.

The advice seems to be to go monumental – to find, especially, the ruins of a forgotten race or to raise a ritual space worthy of one. Keziah’s Outdoor temple was a ring of stones on an ‘ill-regarded island’ in the Miskatonic river. The Whateley cult worked ritual atop Sentinel Hill, in a ring of stones. Joseph Curwen’s temple was cathedral in scale.

Another example of this principle can be seen in The Haunter of the Dark. Here, once again, we see a common American church transformed into a cult temple. Set in the heart of Providence itself, the shunned building house the Starry Wisdom sect – a name that has echoed through modern occultism.

The church is decades abandoned when we see it, dusty, but left untouched by the fearfully superstitious neighbors. The investigator finds a library of Mythos books, a meeting room not much different from any New England church, and a more private ritual chamber on a floor above:
St. John's church, Providence,
model for the Starry Wisdom church.
In the centre of the dust-laden floor rose a curiously angled stone pillar some four feet in height and two in average diameter, covered on each side with bizarre, crudely incised, and wholly unrecognisable hieroglyphs. On this pillar rested a metal box of peculiarly asymmetrical form; its hinged lid thrown back, and its interior holding what looked beneath the decade-deep dust to be an egg-shaped or irregularly spherical object some four inches through. Around the pillar in a rough circle were seven high-backed Gothic chairs still largely intact, while behind them, ranging along the dark-panelled walls, were seven colossal images of crumbling, black-painted plaster, resembling more than anything else the cryptic carven megaliths of mysterious Easter Island.
Again even in an urban, indoor environment the sought-for atmosphere is of looming giants and monumental powers.

• The Sabbath
Lovecraft adopted the notion of the Witch’s Sabbat from medieval folklore. His cultists attend group rituals held on the famous Sabbat dates – especially Walpurgisnacht (the Night of April 30th).  These rites are characterized by wild behavior, violence, murder and the interaction of humans with non-human races. All of these motifs are plainly taken from the medieval fantasy of the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ 

“They from the air told me at Sabbat that it will be years before I can clear off the earth, and I guess grandfather will be dead then, so I shall have to learn all the angles of the planes and all the formulas between the Yr and the Nhhngr.”

Here we see that strange goal of the cult, to “clear off the Earth”.  Elsewhere in the same story we have the longest quote from the Necronomicon in all of HPL’s writing. It tells us that the earth once belonged to the GOO, and that they expect it to belong to them again. Young Wilbur muses:

“I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it. He that came with the Aklo Sabaoth said I may be transfigured there being much of outside to work on.”

In “The Thing On the Doorstep’ (which we’ll see again…) the Waite family attends secret festivals in the “wilds of Main”, which Lovecraft associates with the “Chesuncook witch-cult”. Unfortunately we never see this cult in any detail, but the gatherings involve mind-bending contacts with the old Ones and their spawn.

We are able to peer a little into the cultists’ world in the very early Mythos tale “The Festival’. A descendant of a cultist family returns to his crumbling new England seaport town of Kingsport to attend the traditional Yuletide gathering. He is led on what seems a series of hallucinatory journeys into alien sights and finally a strange underground ritual.

“…that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar. It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring's promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music. … adore the sick pillar of
The Sabbat is a busy place...
looks like the line gets long.
flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation … something amorphously squatted far away from the light, piping noisomely on a flute; ... But what frightened me most was that flaming column; … casting no shadows as healthy flame should,...”

The tale ends with one of the few long quotes Lovecraft writes for the Necronomicon:
"The nethermost caverns," wrote the mad Arab, "are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl."

There is one other direct depiction of Cthulhu-cult ritual, in “The Call of Cthulhu”. A Louisiana police inspector and his raiders approach a bayou ritual setting. This was a common enough chessy-horror trope in HPL’s day, but in his hands it goes in a strange direction.
“Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstacies... Now and then … would rise in sing-song chant that hideous phrase or ritual:
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."
“On this now leaped and twisted a horde of human abnormality ... Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous in its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, … between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.”
Unfortunately for those hoping to find workable occultism in HPL’s work this is as close as we come to depiction of cult ritual. There are no examples of individual rituals for summoning the Great Old Ones. However, that changes a little when we get to the business of summoning the Dead.

• Necromancy, and the prolongation of life
In “The Case of Charles Dexter Wardwe find bits of ritual magic mixed with alchemical tropes. We meet the colonial-era alchemist Joseph Curwen, newly arrived in Providence “from Salem”, and his descendant the eponymous Ward. Curwen was known as a seeker of the ‘philosopher’s stone’, but also feared for “certain sounds which they insisted came from the Curwen place in the night. There were cries, they said, and sustained howlings…”. Despite his unsavory reputation Curwen marries among the Providence gentry.

We see one of HPL’s classic book-lists in Curwen’s library: “Hermes Trismegistus in Mesnard's edition, the Turba Philosophorum, Geber's Liber Investigationis, and Artephius's Key of Wisdom all were there; with the cabbalistic Zohar, Peter Jammy's set of Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully's Ars Magna et Ultima in Zetsner's edition, Roger Bacon's Thesaurus Chemicus, Fludd's Clavis Alchimiae, and Trithemius's De Lapide Philosophico crowding them close. Mediaeval Jews and Arabs were represented in profusion, and Mr.
Merritt turned pale when, upon taking down a fine volume conspicuously labelled as the Qanoon-e-Islam, he found it was in truth the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” Of course every one of the books (or at least authors)  apart from the ol’ Nec is quite findable by the diligent bibliophile.

In time we discover that Curwen has been trying to perfect a means of raising the Dead by rendering their corpses into ‘essential saltes’. These physical essences can then produce restored bodies through the application of proper ritual. The sorcerer begins importing the stolen corpses of ancient magicians seeking to learn ever-greater secrets. His activities at last draw the ire of the town, and he is harried out of his house. His underground dens and laboratories are discovered but not destroyed, only to be rediscovered by Curwen’s descendant Ward.

We see that Curwen is part of a network of wizards, several of which are interested in his efforts. We see correspondence between them, one example of which includes what may be Lovecraft’s most influential quote in modern magic: “I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up Somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shal not wish to Answer, and shal commande more than you.”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen a variant of this quoted as if it came from an actual occult source, I’d have a pile of nickels.

Curwen and his associates are depicted as participating in the New England witch cult that we have seen before. They convoke and attend the sabbat and participate together in their alchemical experiments. Alongside chemistry they discuss their ritual work.
One of the few descriptions of a solitary Mythos ritual is worth quoting at length. It seems to be the closest we get to the rite by which the ‘saltes’ are made to rise into form. It mixes traditional occult language with Lovecraft’s invented barbarous words:
“…young Ward began repeating a certain formula in a singularly loud voice, at the same time burning some substance so pungent that its fumes escaped over the entire house … This had been going on for two hours … when over all the neighbourhood a pandaemoniac howling of dogs set in…. overshadowed by the odour which instantly followed it; … there came a very perceptible flash like that of lightning, … and then was heard the voice … an archaic and forgotten language: 'DIES MIES JESCHET BOENE DOESEF DOUVEMA ENITEMAUS.'
… Charles was chanting again now … syllables that sounded like 'Yi nash Yog Sothoth he lgeb throdag' - ending in a 'Yah!' whose maniacal force mounted in an ear-splitting crescendo.”

HPL seems to have enjoyed the notion of barbarous languages, and sounds barely reproducible by mortals. In this tale we find a two-fold incantation in what is often called R’lyehan. The first charm  is called ‘Dragon’s Head’ and the second ‘Dragon’s Tail’, after the two astrological symbols.

The first brings form out of the saltes, and the second destroys that form.  This entire section is certainly the most overt display of solitary Mythos ritual material in the entire canon.

This theme in CoCDW conceals what HPL clearly means to be the greater horror – the efforts by Mythos sorcerers to prolong their own life at the expense of that of another.

HPL’s fascination with the prolongation of life begins with his first published story, written as a teenager, The Alchemist. In that tale we see a noble family cursed by an ‘alchemist’. It ends with the revelation that the alchemist himself has haunted the family, living by his potion-granted immortality.
 “'Fool!' he shrieked, 'Can you not guess my secret? ... Have I not told you of the great elixir of eternal life? … I tell you, it is I! I! I! that have lived for six hundred years to maintain my revenge, for I am Charles Le Sorcier!'”

We have looked at The Thing On the Doorstep previously. In it the sorcerer Ephraim Waite prolongs his life by inhabiting the bodies of his descendants, and then of others as required. Unfortunately we see little of the specifics of that process. The young husband is taken into the Mythos witch-cult by Ephraim’s daughter. We hear that the ‘wizard’ (as HPL often says) “…found it in the Necronomicon - the formula. I don't dare tell you the page yet, but when I do you can read and understand. Then you will know what has engulfed me. On, on, on, on - body to body to body - he means never to die.”

We learn a little more of that formula in Charles Dexter Ward. There we see the sorcerer Curwen preparing for  “ye Way of get'g Backe after ye Laste. I laste Night strucke on ye Wordes that bringe up YOGGE-SOTHOTHE, and sawe for ye first Time that Face spoke of by Ibn Schacabao in ye ------. And IT said, that ye III Psalme in ye Liber-Damnatus holdes ye Clauicle. With Sunne in V House, Saturne in Trine, drawe ye Pentagram of Fire, and saye ye ninth Uerse thrice. This Uerse repeate eache Roodemas and Hallow's Eue; and ye Thing will breede in ye Outside Spheres.
And of ye Seede of Olde shal One be borne who shal looke Backe, tho' know'g not what he seekes.”

Curwen intends to send an enchantment into the future, to cause a descendant to restore him to life.

• Oneiromancy, and the Exploration of Other Worlds
One of the core goals of occult story and practice is the vision of other worlds, and even the ability to travel to them. Lovecraft mines this vein in some detail.
A really excellent Dreamlands map.
A series of Lovecraft’s early stories is set in the Dreamlands, a semi-real locale metaphysically adjacent to our world. Those with skill at dreaming may find the Gate of Deeper Slumber and enter into a realm very like the fantasy realms of the popular stories of Lovecraft’s day. Strange cities with names like Ulthar and Sarnoth teem with thieves, artisans and magicians. Human dreamers come and go, but some remain, even passing from life in our world to life in that other place. In this we see one of the few happy outcomes HPL imagined for his characters.

The Dreamlands also contain nightmares including various of the Great Old Ones, such as Nyarlathotep and Azathoth. The Night-Gaunts dwell there, and ghouls cross between the tunnels of the Dreamworld and those beneath our own graveyards and charnel houses.  

In “Dreams In The Witch House” we find a crossover between dream travel and material journeying. Young Walter Gilman rents the old witch’s room, and so comes to her attention. He discovers her papers and notes, and is astonished that the angles and calculations of her occult diagrams express certain ideas in non-Euclidian geometry. Soon his dreams begin to produce physical souveniers, and it becomes clear that the strange witch’s diagrams are in fact gates that allow material travel into other worlds. The line between interplanetary wonders, inter-dimensional danger and big Black Men of the Sabbat becomes quite indistinct, as befits a tale about dreams.

Finally, in Lovecraft’s last published tale, “The Whisperer In Darkness” we return to the notion of backwoods cultists preserving forgotten ways. However here Lovecraft is turning more and more toward a science fiction model, and the strange, unearthly beings with whom the human cultists make pact are in fact quite material aliens, using at least partially material science.
“Whisperer” is the most overt combination of science fiction and occult adventure tropes in Lovecraft’s writing. The rustics of Vermont are actually worshipping the material aliens called, confusingly, the Old Ones. In exchange the aliens give them stories and visions of the interstellar heavens, and occasionally provide real experiences of them. The method used to produce those experiences is more surgical than sorcerous.
“This material, moreover, closely coincided with tales which I had personally heard from elderly rustics in the mountains of New Hampshire. Briefly summarized, it hinted at a hidden race of monstrous beings which lurked somewhere among the remoter hills...”
 The glimpses of ritual depicted are merely snippets of liturgical repetition, chanted group-ritual phrases.

• Talismans and Eldritch Images.
Lovecraft grew up in the golden age of archeological discovery. Every month some strange new eidolon from the ancient world appeared, revealing a facet of cults previously unknown. Religions from the east had arrived in North America, bringing enlivened idols and talismans more exotic than the scapulars of the Roman Church.

Lovecraft begins using this trope immediately in his writing, in “The Hound”. The two grave-robbing adventurers discover a sorcerer’s talisman, and off we go. In “The Terrible Old Man” we are shown hints of a necromantic practice by which spirits are trapped in bottles, each containing a pendulum which the spirit can swing to tap the side of the bottle, allowing a degree of communication. This is one of HPL’s creepier occult gimmicks, one worthy of imitation, if not of actual performance.
More McKittrick
The Coffer of old Cap'n Marsh
In Call of Cthulhu, again, we find special talismans that are thrown into the sea to summon the Deep Ones to make deals. Even the presence of an inspired image of Cthulhu, unconsecrated by any ritual, participates in the scary power of the Old One. In general images of the Old Ones are perilously close to presences of the Old Ones, an attitude that Lovecraft could as easily have gotten from the anti-Catholic superstitions of Protestant Christianity as from any occult source.

The crowning example of a Mythos talisman might be the Shining Trapezohedron, from the ‘Haunter of the Dark’ series that HPL wrote along with the young Robert Bloch. In that tale the young writer “Robert Blake” returns to his providence home and sets up in a garret with a marvelous window-view of the city that HPL so loved. He becomes fascinated with a dark old church and, researching its history, discovers it to be the site of dark cult activity in recent times. Visiting the ruined church he discovers a typical trove of mythos books, and a stone talisman called the “Shining Trapezohedron”, which summons the central monster of the tale. The cult and talisman are connected the the GOO Nyarlathotep, though in one of his inhuman manifestations. This Mythos prop seems to have caught the imagination of Anton Lavey, who made his ‘Satanic’ altar a trapezoid. This in turn inspired various other neo-Satanist symbolism, and the ‘trapezoid’, which has no traditional occult connotation, is a common Satanic image. Undoubtedly it is too complex to build a trapezohedron out of plywood.

Lovecraft’s depiction of the business of occultism is based primarily on newspaper sensationalism and horror clichés, buttressed by readings in medieval superstition and a small amount of reading in real occult and magical material. Mythos magic is plainly religious in form, involving offerings to and praise of mighty entities, and the use of their powers and minions. Some of these religionists seem to be mere cultists, seduced by the wild orgies and intense experiences, others are in the mold of wizards, real seekers after the secrets of the world. The former tend to be mere food-stockpiles. The latter sometimes obtain power for a time, but usually end up in some state that Lovecraft’s materialist metaphysic intends to be a tortured Hell.

And blessings of the season!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pollution and Purification (Wisdom Way 2)

Life contains terrible things. Fate weaves as it weaves, and all beings make our way by our wit and strength
among the weavings. For some, life presents terrible moments. Fear, pain, disgust, horror are the unpleasant, mind-torturing results of the exposure of a common mortal to those moments.

For most people disease and violent crime are common causes of such reactions. Natural disasters and random destruction can happen anywhere. The mortal heart reels when the material things of a lifetime are washed or burned away in hours.

I am, on Wednesdays, an animist. My animism tells me that all these things must have or be spirits. The ancients understood this. Many of these terrible things were the province of the Shining Gods. Apollon ruled the plague, Poseidon the earthquake, Ares ruled war. Here is a mystery – all these terrible things are holy. Gaelic lore tells us that poets are often made great only when their hearts are turned by some terrible moment. However we also know that many are broken by those same events, and many struggle long and hard before the choice between broken and whole is clear.

The ancients held that exposure to such duress produced spiritual and social ill. They referred to this tendency as “impurity”, and worked rites and customs to purify those who had been exposed. It is safe to say that in ancient times these ideas were caught up in notions of morality. However in our time we may, if we like, take a more therapeutic approach without losing the flavor of the old customs.

I believe that in our time we suffer needlessly from a lack for formal method for relieving the stress and horror of life’s ill times. As we develop our Pagan ritual set, it seems to me that rites of purification, relief and heart-healing can be a valuable. Again, this need not imply that impurity equals moral wrong, any more than does material dirtiness. It merely acknowledges that some effects are unpleasant, and that we will be better off without them.

This isn’t a scholarly paper, and I don’t intend to review what we know about Hellenic or Roman or Vedic spiritual pollution and purification. Instead I’m going to do what I usually do, and try to summarize and synthesize some sense out of my fact-salad brain. I’d like to try to discern the core ideas behind the things that were considered to be polluting.

1: Death, Risk of Death, and Injury – In terms of producing fear and lasting trauma, nearness to death and the circumstances that might cause it must be top of the list. For the ancients this produced a taboo on handling corpses and on contact with blood.

In our time there is little that is more unsettling than contact with injury and death. From the passing of a
loved one, to a random encounter with death on the street to even an account of death in the media, closeness to this great and frightening thing produces shock and fear. Spilled blood remains such an intrinsically powerful moment that a few people will always have a palpably physical reaction of revulsion. I’ve seen folks fall right over at the sight of blood.

Disease falls into this category as well. Any disease of sufficient strength can remind us of death, in ourselves and others. The ancients sometimes attributed physical disease to spiritual causes, especially to pollution and contact with taboo circumstances. While we need not go so far, we can recall that a troubled mind does not best support the health of the body. From the animist perspective, again, we must assume that diseases can or do exist as spirits, or as the attacks of spirits that can be approached in a spiritual way.

What are we to make of this? I’m suggesting that if events disturb our hearts, if they gnaw at our calm or distract us from our interest then there may be an advantage in a meditative and ritual purification. It’s like having one’s hands dirty as one approaches the cooking – best to wash off.

2: Sex, and the Desire for Sex – Let’s take as a given the thick layers of patriarchal, theological and modernist moralizing about this subject. All of that aside, the urge to indulge in sexual pleasure is innate, and the new adult will develop what strategies they can. The balance between fleshly inclination and social permission produces levels of stress that can seem (especially to the young) equivalent to risk of death.

Ancient Greeks depicted sexual desire as daemons with whips, lashing poor mortals through the world in pursuit of their imagined ideals. Great tragedies hang on the foolish choices we make in pursuit of our ‘One True Love’ or ‘Perfect Lay’. This was entirely contrasted with what was understood as domestic love, and familial or friendly affection. While I think that modern cultural trends have somewhat relieved the burdens of medieval moral codes the driving goad of sexual desire can disturb our hearts as surely as can fear.

Among our Druids we have had occasional discussions about what ‘sexual impurity’ or ‘illicit sex’ might consist of in our context. The list was not long. I suppose my favorite answer is “sex you regret’.

3: Family, and Social Duty – I’m writing this in the “Holiday’ season in the US, a time that for many brings the stresses of family and social interaction to the fore. Ancient notions of the duty that children and parents owe to one another still cling in our psyches, and conflict with modern notions of individuality and liberty.

Even outside the family, social obligations bring us into contact with sometimes-irreconcilable conflicts of expectation. Then there are those moments when we screw up. Oathbreaking, lawbreaking and the various smaller betrayals of life can also disturb our peace.

How can I put it? If it makes you feel fucked-up, it’s pollution.
It is the psychic or spiritual or magical residue of those encounters, those feelings, those small, biting imps, which we mean to wash away with ritual purification.

There are some very specific instances in our culture when I think such rites of purification might be of special value.

It was the business of supporting returning war veterans that prompted this reflection. In many cultures those who are sent out to deal death in the name of the people are offered various kinds of spiritual comfort. Psychological damage from participation in war can be extreme, as shown by tales from ancient times and statistics from today.

Traditional Christianity offers relief from the burden of ‘sin’, but that leaves soldiers in a funny place. Have they sinned in doing their duty? Perhaps they have not, but that does not relieve them of the disruption that killing and contact with death must bring, no matter how well justified. In the context I propose that deeds do not have to be morally wrong to be disruptive and polluting – they simply have to bring us into contact with fear, dismay and confusion.

Safety professionals find themselves in similar circumstances, as must medical professionals. Clergy, counselors and many helping vocations may find themselves entangled. Anyone who seeks a lover, keeps a job or raises a family may find themselves in need of purification.

There’s no end to the number of screwed-up emotional responses I can see to this. Most important, I think, will be to remove guilt and shame from this sort of impurity. This has been an ongoing process in late-Christian and post-Christian culture. We have largely eliminated the social stigma from cancer, though we are still working at it in terms of mental illness, diabetes and other diseases. In the same way we can realize that we need not be ‘at fault’ to require purification and healing. It is not an admission of error, in itself, though it may involve that. It is not an admission of weakness, though it may be an effort to grow in strength.

Especially, we must note that it is possible to become screwed up by doing things that are right and good. Neither the cosmos nor our minds and bodies have any intrinsic moral value or agenda. They do not care whether you had Every Right or No Other Choice. The course of wisdom and justice occasionally calls for terrible deeds. They do not cease to be terrible by being morally correct. To execute a criminal, slaughter a hundred animals or kill the opponents of one’s people is intrinsically disruptive to the human spiritual condition, however firm the rationalization that supports it might be. Even a war hero comes home needing to be relieved of the burden of stress (leave aside imagined ‘guilt’) that hard service gives.

From my perspective as a Pagan ritual priest I am interested in developing methods and customs that will allow those who have been in contact with ill to receive relief from the feeling of dirtiness and the social unwelcome that accompanies it. I have seen myself how a sense of disconnection and emotional imbalance encourages people to neglect spiritual work. If we don’t feel worthy it becomes difficult to worship. If we’re dirty it feels rude to come to the gods’ table.

As a Pagan priest I think it is sensible for us to work toward developing ritual and meditative methods that allow people to calm their hearts and refocus their minds on their path. These rites need to combine social efforts with personal trance and self-awareness, along with the active involvement of the gods and spirits. Meditative work should be crafted for householders and the only-mildly-religious; modular trance ‘spells’ can be accompanied with ‘teachings’ about emotional management. This is the kind of work that begins to make Yr Hmble a little nervous. I will experiment on myself with magick arte as I please (and maybe on my wife ; ), but when we start designing works intending to fiddle with the emotional constitutions of others I become a little twitchy. Nevertheless I think our communities can benefit by the effort.

I’m unprepared, as yet, to make hard prescriptions on this matter. Some notes:
Trance and Reframing:
• Separate moral guilt or social shame from the fact of pollution.
• Calm the body through relaxation and basic meditation

• Perhaps use Two powers: Underworld to dissolve and wash away residue, Heavens to restore original patterns and energize
• Could connect directly with Augeidies work – trance presence of the Agathos Daimon or Da Fein.

Questions toward ritual practices:
•Confession – a Big Question. There are obvious merits to the practice, but some real theoretical concerns as well. If the pollution is the result of criminality, deceit of ill-deed, then I wouldn’t want to offer purification without social restitution. When the deed is inadvertent or sanctioned, as in war, then I’m far from sure I care to make the subject recite the items that trouble them.
• Restitution – My question is how to balance the personal and social values of this complex of customs. In typical modern Pagan fashion I’m inclined to have the business be about the individual, about their own peace and calm. Those who view social guilt and shame as an important goad to good behavior will be concerned about the idea of relieving ill-feelings without restitution for ill-deeds. On the other hand society is not well-served by cycles in which emotional confusion caused by a previous ill-deed becomes, itself, the goad to further criminality. Is it worthwhile to offer a service of grace, with confession and restitution a separate matter?
• Material symbols- this is the easy part. I would assemble as many members of the subject’s community as can/will come, and lay a sacrifice for the subjects’ preferred gods. There will need to be a hymn or litany written that has the right hooks. (A biggish challenge…) I would compose a set of water-and-fire customs to materially contain the purification power, and work the whole deal under the gods of the subject’s house.

Less serious pollutions can be dealt with much more simply, with water-and-fire blessings, ritual baths, etc. These should, in my opinion, become regular parts of Pagan spiritual practice, for the benefits of calm and freedom that they provide. Daily shrine practice for families and solitaries should, in my opinion, certainly contain simple versions of this sort of purification.

To lay the dog on the table, my goal is to aim for therapeutic goals while removing attention from the common self and focusing it on community, the gods and on the higher self. If we build a religious context in which people understand that the duress of life produces spiritual impurity that can be relieved by ritual action we will have a powerful set of instruments for helping non-specialists benefit from spiritual work.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Death Song Poster

I've posted this verse before, a repaganized charm from the Carmina Gadelica.
This past Saturday I helped manage a funeral rite for a friend and Coleague, Ron White.
A heathen, he was an Odinsman, a student of Runes and lore and an aspiring magician. He has gone too soon.
This verse was too Gaelic for the rite, but I think of Ron as I post this little art-setting of the poem.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Taxonomy of Occult Groups

Someone asked about “western occult groups”. The question got my attention, so I produced this quick summary. There are some categories about which I know nothing – Martinists come to mind, and I have not attempted to categorize or list so-called ‘left-hand-path’ groups. Most of those would come under the ‘Modern Sorcery’ category, I suppose. Otherwise I think this is a fairly complete set of big categories, and I've done a lot of your searching for you, in the links. No mention of eastern systems here – I’m not quite ready to list Vajrayana groups as ‘occult’ training centers. Also, this list is focused on systems in which a student can learn practical occult arts or specialist spiritual skills. If the work is focused on devotional religion or therapy, it isn't in this category. Forgive me if this is boring – sometimes I’m storing stuff so that I’ll never have to type it again : ).
1: Classics
a: The Masons - not much real occultism left, but a ritual style that defines a whole school
b: Theosophical Society -not much ritual but the very origin of much modern occult and New Age thinking
c: Rosicrucians - there aren't any real ones, but much of the stuff written as Rosicrucian is valuable. Related to the Masons.
d: Traditional Sorcery - the grimoires are a provable inheritance of magic, but not to everyone's taste.
An early-modern Rose Cross
'Conjure' and 'hoodoo' are in funny positions, as they make some effort to systematize traditional spellcraft into 'systems'. 'Witchcraft' is pretty much whatever anyone says it is, but it contains a great deal of of folk-magic inheritance.

2: Magical Orders - these mainly use a post-Masonic model - lessons, degrees, hierarchy, solemn, verbal ritual. Some are more occult than others.
a: Golden Dawn - all current-day orders are restarts, imo, though there are some slim lineages from the

The Rose Cross of the occultists of
the Order of the Golden Dawn.
original order. Lots of good stuff if you want a university-class magical education.
b: Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) - specifically post-masonic occult order from Germany, that 'converted’ to Aleister Crowley's Thelema system in the early 20th c. Thelema is a modern Gnosticism that seeks personal wisdom and power in harmony with all things.

There are uncountable splinter, inheritor and imitator groups of these two major systems. Notable ones include the Servants of Light, and the Builders of the Adytum.
c: The A:.A:. : Crowley’s effort to send a distilled initiatory training down the line of students. Personal training inside a fairly classical hermetic/Qabalistic outline.

3: Pagan Witchcraft - these systems arose in the firt half of the 20th c as part of the occult revival.
a: Traditional Initiatory Wicca or Witchcraft - systems based on initiation into 'covens' which are small working magical orders. Each one has its own flavor even within traditions. Major traditions of this style include Gardnerians, Alexandrians, some Feri and lots of imitators and splinters. The Correllian Nativist Tradition is creating an initiatory Wiccan tradition connected through the internet, and may be of interest to students.

A Wiccan altar
b: Eclectic Religious Wicca - invented as a reaction to the exclusivity of Traditional Wicca this is a loosely defined Neopagan category. Local circles may exist anywhere. Circle Sanctuary may be the largest body associated with this sort of thing. It also crosses over into "women's religion" and the goddess movement. Much of this category remains interested in magical arts, though it merges with devotional Paganism.

4: Modern Sorcery & Chaos Magic late 20th c systems that tried to set aside traditional mythic and religious trappings to focus on results-based magic. These systems are mainly transmitted in books and articles, and practiced privately, with few teaching or practice groups visible to the public.
a: The Illuminates of Thanateroswas perhaps the original Chaos Magic order. Chaos Magic began as an effort by British occultists to step away from the doctrines of the ‘classics’, above, and approach magic from first principles. One interesting side-effect of the Chaos movement has been to direct western magicians toward ATR, and practical sorcery.
A Traditional Witchcraft altar

b: Practical Spellcraft - often defined, itself, as 'sorcery'. As with Hoodoo and Conjure the mass of western tradition practical occultism is being re-systematized by modern occultists. Traditional modes of spellcraft from candle-magic to poppets are being syncretized with African and European ancestor and spirit-work, eastern forms and modern occultism. While no major 'schools' have arisen as yet, notable teachers include Jason Miller, Brother Moloch and, for a lighter touch, the Grey School of Wizardry, which teaches both adults and younger students.
c: ‘Traditional’ Witchcraft – groups and practitioners seeking to work magic as an early-modern ‘witch’ might have done. These are usually a combination of folkloric elements with occult innovations, informed by the same stories as Pagan Witchcraft, but with the religious elements downplayed in favor of a sorcerous aesthetic. This category can include varieties of Luciferianism, and the so-called Left Hand Path. Solitary practice is common, and organizations are local and usually private or secret. There are a few publishing initiatory traditions of this sort of Witchcraft such as the as the Tubal Cain lineages, and Sabbatic Witchcraft  .
A Santerian Altar

5: African Traditional Religion – not part of ‘western magic’ but increasingly influential. These are often systems with unbroken inheritances back to polytheist times. ATR is organized into local ‘houses’ and Voudou, Santeria, the Palo lineages, and various Brazilian spiritisms. Admission to active membership in most ATR is by initiation and training, though some branches offer public worship and access to occult services to non-initiates.

6: Ethnic or Traditional Paganism – systems that attempt to restore worship of known ancient Gods through known ancient forms. These vary in the amount of occultism that may be taught and used – some are strictly religion.

A Heathen altar
a: Heathens are those working with the gods and ways of the ancient North Germans, the Scandinavians (often thought of as “the Vikings”). This includes Germanic-language groups across Europe into Great Britain, the Troth, the Asatru Folk Assembly and many others. Many Heathens call themselves “Asatru” – meaning “true to the Gods”. Northern Tradition Paganism takes a less scholastic, more vision-driven path toward those same Gods and spirits.

A Druidic 'altar' for Yuletide.
b: ‘Druids’ and Celtic PolytheistsCeltic Reconstructionists work to understand and rebuild Celtic religious practice, disregarding the revival Druidic traditions. Like other ethnic restoration movements Celtic Reconstructionism often provides little occult instruction.

‘Druids’ are either British post-masonic inheritors or American Neopagans, for the most part. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids is the largest British order, while Ár nDraíochtFéin (ADF) is the largest US group. Both include active interest in traditional magical practices.
c: Ancient Egyptian (Khemetic), Hellenes, Slavs, and Baltic peoples are also in this game, though often with a minimum of 'occult' content.

If I have forgotten or misrepresented your tradition or system, please feel free to let me know in comments. I'll update this article if I find myself truly in error.