Friday, March 15, 2013

Cthulhu Mythos Occultism, 1

The Seal of R'lyeh, after me. This is available on
various gee-gaws in my Cafe Press store.
Cthulhu Mythos Occultism. That’s a phrase that I Google every once in a while, just to see whether there’s anything out there that I missed. Usually, the answer is no. However, occasionally some enterprising experimental occultist decides to try again to make some sense and system out of the literary scraps that comprise the quasi-mythic background of many of HPL’s tales. 

I’m going to take some time to write up my understanding of the mythos, and of its impact on modern occultism. Once begun, this has turned into rather a big job. Thus, I will present it as a series, probably the next couple of  Fridays. Other stuff is in the works as well, dear readers, but hold tight for some squiggly horror…

Today is the anniversary of the death of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Read here for a no BS edit of his biography. Do I need to explain the so-called Cthulhu Mythos first? “The Cthulhu Mythos is a shared fictional universe, based on the work of American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.”  Start here and follow some links for more. It is possibly the most widely-developed fictional horror setting ever. Being as cool as it is, it has also affected/infected occultism.

Part 1: Lovecraft the Man & the Writer
A pretty good pic of the Old Gentleman
of Providence, with tentacles.
Lovecraft began his writing, in the late teens of the 20th century, as supernatural fiction of the most gothic sort, in which decadent seekers of the exotic awoke strange demons by digging up the wrong wizard, etc. Eventually he actually read a little occultism, though he was personally a scientistic atheist throughout his life. He also drew inspiration from his own dreams, and it was the visionary and otherworldly quality of his work that sells it. A self-educated man, it is surely not literary style that does so, in his early work.

Later in his short life, HPL’s continuing interest in developments in science was reflected in his tales, as he employed the discovery of the new planet Pluto, the astounding findings of archeology in the 1920s and the strange ideas of quantum mechanics as horror gimmicks. Lovecraft’s unique notion (in his day) was to marry those themes with the forms of traditional horror and occultism. HPL was certainly the first to propose that the diagrams and angles of ‘magical’ figures reflect mathematical equations that allow travel between worlds.

There aren't many pics of HPL smiling.
One of the cool things about this setting is that, from the first, it was constructed by more than one mind. Lovecraft was an amazing letter-writer. If you imagine the kind of intellectual time-wasting a modern person might (ahem) do at the computer, HPL devoted all of that energy to correspondence, producing thousands of pages, now collected in several volumes. He counseled young writers such as Robert Bloch  (who wrote Psycho), and was the colleague of Robert E Howard (who created Conan) and of Clark AshtonSmith. Those writers used names and ideas from Lovecraft’s work in their own stories, and originated new names and ideas that Lovecraft used in turn. So, from the first, the names of the gods and demons of the Cthulhu Mythos appeared in sources by multiple authors, lending an air of truth to the clever fiction.

HPL found the usual monsters of horror – vampires, werewolves and ghosts – to be used-up and worthless. He attempted to find new symbols, and began inventing the names of a pantheon of demon-gods. In this he initially imitated writers before him, especially Lord Dunsany. From other influences he gathered the notion of lurking races of non-humans in and on the earth, and especially of horrific interbreeding between humans and those races. To this he and his co-conspirators (or co-jokesters, they would more likely have said) added a series of strange and forbidden books. A Lovecraftian story often contains a phase in which research and compilation of data leads to unsettling insights and revelations. Lovecraft and the lads would list their fictional titles alongside Murray, Wallis-Budge and Cotton Mather, again producing the illusion of multiple sources.

Lovecraft wrote about what frightened him, and his feelings were shaped by an upbringing among an impoverished household of former New England gentlefolk. He was raised with a horror of and disdain for immigrants and a concern for ‘breeding’. He developed a fear of the sea (and distaste for seafood) and spent his youth in fear of encroaching madness and disease. Thus the core Lovecraftian horror is the protagonist who finds himself slowly degenerating into madness and deformity as a result either of an unavoidable family lineage or of personal involvement in unwise experiments.

Through most of his writing career Lovecraft employed the devices of traditional witchcraft, alchemy and occultism, attempting to display what ‘really’ lurked beneath the silly masks of God and the devil – something much more strange and terrible. He included the old witchcraft-lore days of Roodmas, Walpurgisnacht etc., and after he learned a little by reading Waite’s ceremonial magic book and some Blavatsky we start to find reflections of B’s cosmic history and slightly better descriptions of occult rites and works.

Though, to be fair, much of HPL’s horror draws on classic Christian ideas. His Gods and demons (often called the Great Old Ones or, by fans, the GOO) often ‘tempt’humans through the sending of dreams and visions, and ‘forbidden knowledge’ was as central to HPL’s stuff as to the Catholic book-lists. Of course Lovecraft’s concepts of damnation wouldn’t be limited to roasting on an aeonic barbecue –no, he imagined immortal life as a hideous monster, or trapped as a disembodied brain.

It’s far from clear in the tales just what a sorcerer in HPL’s fantasy worlds might hope to achieve for themselves. Some of them were obviously just coerced, made to go through the motions of summoning some Outsider. Others were seduced, either by a lover or by some other temptation, including plain old gold. The existence of active cults that perpetuate the secret worship of the Great Old Ones is generally hinted at, though we see only glimpses of such things usually through a specific villain who lures a hapless protagonist to doom. There are almost no examples of a Lovecraftian magician successfully benefitting from working with the GOO, and those few (such as old Ephraim Waite, the unseen actor in The Thing On the Doorstep) do so by creating a trail of destruction and horror. Mostly, those who dabble in Cthulhu Mythos occultism, in HPL’s stories, end up messy-dead, raving in an asylum or carted away from human life and death into some condition that might have inspired the idea of Hell (or even Heaven, depending…) in the unimaginative.

To understand the basics of HPL’s influence on occultism one need read only a few of his tales, perhaps: The Call of Cthulhu (1926), The Dunwich Horror (1928), The Dreams in the Witch House (1932), and The Thing On the Doorstep (1933).
For a little more depth read Lovecraft’s novels: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) and At the Mountains of Madness.

Now as to timeline, HPL was publishing in the 1920s and 30s in the US, with reprints into the 1950s in the UK. The first hardback collection of his stories appeared in 1939 from the tiny specialty publisher Arkham House. It is clear that HPL’s work influenced mid-20th century British occultism, perhaps especially the developing mind of Kenneth Grant. Born at the beginning of HPL’s writing career, Grant was among the first modern occultists to explore a possible approach to real occultism through Lovecraft’s ideas. 

Part 2: Kenneth Grant and Those Outside
Kenneth Grant as drawn by
AO Spare
KennethGrant’s first book ‘The Magical Revival’ was published in 1972, the same year as the publication of LaVey’s ‘The Satanic Rituals’. The latter contains the first example I know of a full ritual script built around the Cthulhu Mythos. Of course that script is almost entirely in mock-R’lyehan, a garble of multiple consonants and glottal stops. Still it was published early, and has helped to cement a connection between Cthulhu and ‘Satanism’ that probably has HPL’s ghost all snitty.

Several things converged in the late 70s and early 80s to put some fire under the Cthulhu Mythos pot. First, Kenneth Grant made his case that HPL was a prophet unaware. Lovecraft was a life-long scientistic atheist, who consciously invented his gods, demons, books and other tropes with an eye to being as terrifying as he could devise. He readily involved his friends in the game, using their little additions and allowing them to expand on his own ideas. Lovecraft was not a neurotic dreamer, particularly. He traveled as much as his meager budget would allow, had friends all over the country and participated in life in an ordinary way. He was never lucky in love, but that doesn’t qualify one for eldritch prophethood. In order to cast HPL as the Voice of the Old Ones Grant argues that HPL must have been manifesting the contents of unadmitted dreams and visions, whispered to him by his hidden inspirations. Grant tries to show these as similar to Crowley’s new-aeon crew, and produced a fairly lame set of correspondences to try to demonstrate it. Even I, already a fanboy, already a junior occultist was unconvinced by Grant’s Cthulhu Cabala.

Since I’ll end this series with book reviews, I’ll digress for a quick discussion of Grant in general. I dug him, early on, having been pointed toward him by Robert Anton Wilson’s writing. It was timely as hell for me in 1978, and Grant’s wide-ranging sources helped to point the movement at everything from Voudou to Tantra to Lovecraft. (I’d already been reading the first and last – Grant pointed me at Tantra) The problem is that Grant was no better a scholar than most of the other occult innovators of his day, and perhaps more credulous than some.

Grant’s ‘Typhonian’ mythology is based on the work of Gerald Massey a nineteenth-century speculator about Egypt whose writings are now utterly discarded by scholarship. He does seem to be a source of the persistent, annoying attempts to parallel Jesus with the Egyptian god Horus, despite their lack of real correspondence. In any case the notion of a matrifocal Typhonian Egypt before the known pantheons is as ‘fluffy’ as the Triple Goddess. Grant was rather better informed on other topics, his tantric informant having panned out pretty well as the evidence has been parsed. He involved himself with Michael Bertiaux’s ultra-weirdo Voodoo take-off, but certainly helped to point many Thelemites and occultists toward real Voudou as well, helping to feed the current meeting of ATR with western traditions. Nevertheless his central notions of ‘Typhonian’ mythography and the ancient history of world Paganism are as thoroughly discredited as Margaret Murray.

Grant certainly understood Lovecraft’s aesthetic, in my opinion, and made growing efforts over his literary career to write like HPL. In his sixth book, ‘Hecate’s Fountain’ extravagant claims of materialized tentacular horror mix with the real characters of the British occult scene. That was the book that made me stop taking Grant’s occultism even a little seriously.  It remained entertaining.

One successful merging of Lovecraft’s images with those of historic occultism is in the notion of the Forbidden Book. Containing magic, and the strange and mighty beings that empower it, in a book has been an archetype of occultism since humankind learned to transmit data with marks. HPL was a bibliophile himself, and made the Strange Book in the Attic (or tomb) a constant lurking presence in his tales. Grant merges that idea not only with the western history of grimoires and other books proscribed by the church, but also with a Tibetan tradition. In Tibetan lore a ‘terma’ is a scripture that has been ‘hidden’ by its author, whether a mortal sage in ages past or a spirit being. The text is then ‘discovered’ in vision and meditation by a modern sage, and a new scripture appears, with some of the stamp of ancientry upon it.

Grant proposed viewing Lovecraft’s Necronomicon in just that way. He wrote of a dream grimoire that might contain every sort of magic, etc. My own opinion is that this is one of the few places where Lovecraftian ideas might mesh with occult ideas without doing too much damage to either. That’s not to say I care much for the results of various attempts. We’ll talk next about the Forbidden Books of Yog-Sothothery.


Justin Patrick Moore said...

You might be interested in this...

Peter Lavenda of the "Simon" necronomicon has a new book out:
The Dark Lord: H.P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Grant and the Typhonian Tradition in Magic
Link below:

IanC said...

Pre-ordered and waiting. I'm gonna go ahead and write my notions before I read it...

ian said...

I scored a full set of HPL paperbacks off a head stall at Phun City free concert at Worthing, in 1970 was it? Never heard of him before but fell instantly into the "angles" visions, and the old-time New England background. Of course, the R'lyeh universe with the pyramid-shaped denizens rang many bells too. Great blog, mate

signed, another IanC