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!

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