Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Necronomicons Aplenty

A Review of the Donald Tyson Necronomicon Material
Thanks to the work of occultist Donald Tyson in recent years, there is a much longer list of items with ‘Necronomicon’ branded across them than previously. Unlike several of the previous efforts, Tyson’s items are not presented as hoaxes, or provided with spooky back-stories about vanished manuscripts or forgotten traditions. Instead Tyson plainly says that he has taken the forms and tropes of HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythos and used them both to write new occult fiction and in an effort to create usable occult methods. At least, that’s where he has ended up. The earlier efforts in the series are much more plainly horror tales, using real occult history and ideas to present images of the kind of ‘forbidden rites’ that HPL only hints at.

Donald Tyson is a thoughtful and experienced occultist. He is producing valuable scholastic work in his editions of Agrippa, and his pop magic titles are often unique and interesting, firmly founded on classic magical art. He has also shown a real streak of interest in the macabre, in his publication of the remarkable oddity ‘Liber Lilith’. One would hope to see some interesting and useful occult weirdness in Tyson’s take on Yog-Sothothery. Does he succeed? Sort of.
There are five items in Tyson’s Mythos material:
Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred
This was the first, and still my favorite, of the lot. The whole idea of ‘the Llewellyn Necronomicon’ was just too funny in the first place, but seeing Tyson’s name on it gave me some hope. In this case I wasn’t disappointed.

Lovecraft’s description of the Necronomicon changed over the course of his tales. His original imagining seems to have placed it as a kind of combination of a book of wonder-tales (if dark and evil wonder-tales) a la the Arabian Nights, and a travelogue and description account rather like Herodotus. In this case the difference between Alhazred (Lovecraft’s fictitious author) and Herodotus is that the Mad Arab finds the Hideous Reality behind the apparent myths and customs of mortals – the material that becomes the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. Later, as Lovecraft investigated a little actual occultism, the descriptions started to resemble the medieval grimoires. Most of the fakes and hoaxes called the Necronomicon have focused on the grimoire version, providing lists of gods and spirits, texts of rites and conjurings, etc.

Tyson’s Necronomicon harks back to the earlier version. He opens with a straight narrative, presented as Abdul Alhazred’s account of his youth, his fate and his subsequent wanderings across the early-medieval middle eastern world. He plainly and directly uses Mythos names and descriptions, referring directly to Leng, R’lyeh, Yuggoth, Cthulhu etc. He ases the Middle Eastern settings well, introducing the ‘ghuls’ as combined Arabic and Lovecraftian beings, and taking us beneath the pyramids for some tasty sorcery. Throughout the text are sprinkled bits of arcane lore and ritual, sigils, signs and incantations, including Tyson’s take on just what an Elder Sign might be.

Tyson also begins as he intends to continue, presenting the core of the cults of the Great Old Ones as a kind of anti-cosmic Gnosticism. In this interpretation, the GOO represent the return of the universe (or the ‘world’) to its pre-manifest state, an end to suffering and joy, to filth and pomp. This is scary (cosmic-aly horrific, in fact) to ‘normal’ awareness, which can only perceive the destruction of the body and the mind. The cosmic devourers come to return all to the stomach of eternity… spooky, kids…

This has been covered in a very sophisticated way by biblical scholar and leader of the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfasts Robert M. Price, and by author Richard L Tierny. (Do read Drums of Chaos, for the best depiction of Jesus as Wilbur Whateley ever…). In my opinion Tyson manages nothing so interesting. He will spend the next books developing this theme, to, I’m sorry to say, little effect.
However I did enjoy the atmosphere and imagination of this book. Tyson does have a feel for Lovecraft, and for the nasty end of sorcery. I found myself experiencing several real chills through his images and ideas. For this and for its clear difference from any other Necronomicon pastiche, I give this volume pretty high marks.
• Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon
This book is an expansion of elements of the narrative in the Necronomicon. Unlike that book, which pretends to be Lovecraft’s famous book, this is plainly a novel. As far as I can tell it is material that Tyson found himself inspired to write having completed his first book in the series. In general there’s simply too much of it, and not enough plot. There are various attempts at ‘wonder stories’ and horror vignettes, but it just doesn’t succeed half as well as the first book, which is half as long.
• The Necronomicon Tarot

Tyson is a learned occultist, and while he has never written extensively on the tarot, he certainly knows his way around. In this deck he applies recent tarot motifs to the Mythos, with mixed results.
The kit is pretty nice. Sturdy box that holds the items well, deck, book and weird-ish veil bag. As usual, Llewellyn’s art and production standards are high.
However I wasn’t satisfied by the art itself. It’s certainly well-executed, with full-color paintings for each card.
In general I think the art has a rushed feel to it, with less detail than one might hope for. The frames and backs of the cards have some nice, detailed work – too bad they didn’t give the artist time for the same in the images themselves. As it is, the art in general isn’t as good as a good Mythos card-game card. In fact I was most reminded of the illustrations in a role-playing manual, which disappointed me. A Mythos tarot is a chance to show the Lovecraftian figures in a hieratic, occulty mode, and that’s lost entirely here.
As you might expect, I agree with some of Tyson’s attributions of the mythos figures to the trumps, and disagree with others. In order to get 22 images, Tyson draws on the quasi-Egyptian-Babylonian setting of his Necronomicon, and specific new monsters/gods from those books. So we find Bast and Amun, and the Beast of Babylon. Some trumps become chances for some pretty cool Mythos illos – such as the Lovers as a marriage between a Deep One and his human bride, or Strength as a battle between a flying crinoid Elder Thing and a rebellious shoggoth. Others simply fail to achieve any hint of Lovecraftian cosmic scariness, like Azathoth as a fat lumpy flute-player for the Fool. Some images are incomprehensible without the context of the earlier book, such as the ‘Well of the Seraph’ for the Hanged Man. Of course some exposition is provided in the hefty book that comes in the set.

Allow me to just be annoyed at Cthulhu as ‘the Devil’, and that without even a nod to the form of the original card. The Dreaming One could have looked cool squatting like Baphomet, one arm up, one down, with a deep one and a human chained at his feet. But no…

The suit cards are arranged to tell a Mythos type tale as they proceed. Wands are a tale of ill-fated Atlantean commerce with the Deep Ones. Cups are an Egyptian tale of love and the gods. Swords tell a Middle-Eastern tale of violence and plotting, and Disks display sorcerers and magicians in a tale of necromancy (along with Tyson’s version of the Elder Sign). These are all moderately successful, and produce images that mostly support the traditional interpretations of the cards.

All in all this is a nice piece of occult Lovecraftiana. As a tarot deck, I think it’s too off-kilter to be of much use for divination, and just wouldn’t do meditations or other occult work with these symbols. Like the whole series apart from the first book, I think it fails to be either spooky or disturbing enough to capture Lovecraft’s essence, but Mythos fans will enjoy some of it.

• The Grimoire of the NecronomiconThe series began with two plainly fictional treatments. The tarot then crosses between fictional work and traditional occultism. Here Tyson undertakes a book of formal ritual based on Mythos tropes.

We talked about the Mythos as Gnosticism, and here we see it fully employed. The introduction proclaims, in the voice of Tyson’s Mythos cultist, “…the great work of the Old Ones (is) the cleansing of this world that will alone restore her purity, and allow her elevation back to her former high estate, from which she fell into this pit, where she is ceaselessly defiled by life.” This is, to me, just the sort of scary-weird idea that informs some kinds of world spirituality. In the hands of some systems, like the aghoris of India, it gets pretty spooky indeed. Unfortunately Tyson then runs, it seems, up against Llewellyn’s editorial policies. He simply can’t recommend the eating of hallucinogenic spiders or the use of corpses in worship and magic in a Llewellyn practical book, and is forced to fall back into much more prosaic symbols.

Like several occultists before him, Tyson attempts to fit the Great Old Ones (affectionately called the GOO) into the pattern of the seven classical planets. This is how he arranges it:
Azathoth: Sun
Nyarlathotep: Mercury
Yig: Saturn
Shub-Nigurath: Venus
Cthulhu: Mars
Dagon (and Hydra): Moon
Yog-Sothoth: This should leave Jupiter for ol’ Yog, but the text mentions Caput and Cauda Draconis, along with the sun, again. However in the later rites given for the days of the week Yog-Sothoth is worked on Thursday, so that’s clearly what the author meant.

One of Tyson’s nicer innovations is the notion of the Twelve Idiot Gods who dance around Azathoth who, in his madness, has become the demiurge. These he attributes to the zodiacal signs, providing names and sigils allowing them to be summoned for practical magical work.

In fact sigils and arcane glyphs are provided for all the GOO and other beings. For these Tyson uses the glyph system that he teaches in his book “Familiar Spirits”. Each English letter is represented by a simple geometric form, and the letters of the spirit’s name are then arranged to create glyphs and sigils. This all works pretty well, although the very straight-line art used in the text robs the glyphs of any sense of creepiness.

Tyson makes an effort to make the ritual system seem unique. The temple is a seven-station circle, with each planet and GOO arranges with a ‘standing stone’ and its ritual symbol. The oddest part are seven metal ‘keys’ – simple geometric shapes made of iron or brass that are struck on the stones to produce invocatory tones. The book goes so far as to propose the form and structure of a magical “Order of the Old Ones” no doubt in an attempt to capture some of the ‘strange cults’ element of the Mythos.

The actual ritual work, after plenty of build-up, is pretty slight. There is a seven-day round of rites to invoke and offer to the GOO. There is also rather an odd section giving advice for working with each of the Old Ones. Amusingly, Tyson claims to provide the Long Chant, the invocation to open the Gates of Yog-Sothoth which was sought by Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror”. He has constructed an Enochian incantation with content based on his Gnostic ideas that might be sufficiently spooky given a nicely established atmosphere.

The Grimoire of the Necronomicon just doesn’t have the requisite atmosphere to be very interesting in a Cthulhu Mythos context. I can only hope that the spiritual ideas in it don’t get traction among occultists, since I find the ‘darkly shining world’ to be much more holy and interesting than some imagined pleroma. If these books ever get a re-edit, it would be cool to see the first volume bound together with this one, creating a Necronomicon that covers all the Lovecraftian bases.

• The Gates of the Necronomicon: A Workbook of MagicIn the process of doing all this Lovecraftian writing, we must assume that Tyson read a lot of HPL, and a lot about HPL. In this volume he dumps his files, providing lists and descriptions of Mythos gods and monsters, human characters, earthly places and fictional/mythic locales. Each category gets a pretty detailed treatment, and Tyson has plainly both read extensively and thought geekishly deeply about each one. All of this is set into a vague ritual and symbolic format of thirteen gates into an unnamed and suggestive Arabian city. Each gate is provided with a stellar correspondence, sigils and key symbols, but they only seem to open up into this cyclopedia of Cthulhu Mythos lore.

In my opinion this book has zero value to those working on a Mythos occultism. Fans of the mythos may find Tyson’s insights and descriptions useful, but the job has been done better, in my opinion, by Dan Harms.

So that’s the list. Does any of this amount to a serious contribution to occultism or Mythos literature? Maybe. The first volume is really a nice attempt to capture a certain atmosphere, but later books have a knock-off feel to them. The good news is that Tyson hasn’t stopped writing good pop occultism as well as doing useful occult scholarship .
Personally, I hope he gets HPL out of his system, and produces more of the sort of evocative occult horror of his Liber Lilith.

As a final preachment, I’d encourage even the geekiest fanboy occultist (and it doesn’t get much geekier than me…) not to waste their time with Cthulhu occultism. First of all, Chaos Magic doctrines aside, fiction is simply not the same thing as myth, and the two cannot be effectively interchanged, except for the most short-term and shallow goals. Secondly, while occultists can try their best to make something mystical and Gnostic out of HPL’s ideas (and they are his ideas, fictions invented by one man’s (or at most a few people’s) imagination) the system was never made coherent by lovecraft or his imitators. In fact there was a general agreement that it shouldn't be made coherent, but rather left indeterminate and vague. Thus, efforts to make it clear enough to actually do magic with are generally doomed to fail at capturing the Lovecraftian atmosphere. I suggest finding a real Mythos, and leaving Cthulhu and his lot in the land of entertainment, along with Tolkein's elves.

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