Friday, March 22, 2013

Cthulhu Mythos Occultism 2 - The Old Man's Library

Part 3: The Old Man’s Library 
Chronologically the next big intrusion of HPL’s ideas into the real world was the publication of two books bearing the now-famous name of Necronomicon.

First let me mention a third book of that title, the collection of biomechanical horror art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Giger’s reverence for HPL shows through in his disturbing themes of vanishing humanity and repurposed flesh, but there is little real occult content in his powerful work. Nevertheless his work has been imitated by many would-be-scary occultists. We can also note in passing the science-fiction-fandom hoax perpetrated by L. Sprague DeCamp and others, in which twenty or so pages of phony mid-eastern script are repeated, a few dozen times, published as the ‘Duriac’ manuscript of Al Azif.

The Necronomicon was devised by HPL as a prop for his tales. Lovecraft would build realism in his tales by mixing details of real-world scholarship and events with descriptions of the fantastic elements of his fictional universe. So his protagonists might find a library that contains Cotton Mather, Eliphas Levi and Margaret Murray, but also fictional authors such as Von Junst and Prinn. Other writers of the Lovecraft literary circle played along, and they freely employed one another’s inventions, giving a cross-over that added to the illusion of reality. De Vermis Mysteriis, the Cultes Des Ghoules, the ungrammatical  Unaussprechlichen Culten were created by Robert Bloch (who later authored Psycho) and Robert Howard (Conan). The image of the ancient book of dangerous lore is central to the mythos stereotype.

None of these secondary mythos titles has ever had a serious treatment in occult writing. There are various internet files floating around, mere tens of pages long, that amount to nothing of value either to occultism or to the mythos. In truth none of the secondary works have much development in the stories, usually serving as mere props.

The Necronomicon was the centerpiece of this prop-set. Lovecraft had grown up a precocious reader, with the library of his prosperous grandfather. The Arabian Nights was his delight, and he describes himself at six, draped in a curtain-cape and towel-turban, sweeping through the house proclaiming himself ‘Abdul Al Hazred’, a name derived from one of his family names, ‘Hazard’.

He would later use that name for his fictional author, the mad Yemeni poet Abdul AlHazred, who wandered the remnant of the ancient world in the days of the rise of the Prophet. The collection of tales, secrets and lore alHazred composed was first called ‘Al Azif’, an Arabic term referring to the nocturnal noises of insects, or demons. Lovecraft composed a short history essay later, in an effort to collect his random mentions of the prop. He describes its translation into Greek, it’s banning by the Church, underground survival into Latin translation and finally into English by the famous (and very historical) wizard Dr. John Dee. HPL’s tying of his book to Dr Dee may have done more than anything else to keep the Necronomicon a buzzword in English-speaking occultism.

Lovecraft’s description of the nature and contents of the Necronomicon changed as his writing progressed. The origin of the name has been much discussed. It seems obvious to me that Lovecraft based it on the names of several ancient books, most notably the Astronomicon of Marcus Manilius. Lovecraft had been an avid amateur astronomer from his youth and was surely acquainted with the star-lore poem from ancient Rome. While the title would most plainly be translated as 'Book of the Dead' this fact should not lead the reader to assume that the Necronomicon is related in any way to the Egyptian or Tibetan texts intended to guide the souls of the newly dead through the afterlife. It was a cool word that HPL said may have come to him in a dream, grown from his reading in the lore of the classical world.

Excellent Hound artifact by
Jason McKittrick
Early descriptions of the Necronomicon make it a sort of gothic-horror Herodotus, a description of the thousand wonders of the world, with a special emphasis on the vilest cults, most ancient demons and most forgotten histories. The first appearance of the Necronomicon in print is in the short tale “The Hound”. In it, the two tomb robbers have just found the fateful item:
Alien it indeed was to all art and literature which sane and balanced readers know, but we recognized it as the thing hinted of in the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred; the ghastly soul-symbol of the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng, in Central Asia. All too well did we trace the sinister lineaments described by the old Arab daemonologist; lineaments, he wrote, drawn from some obscure supernatural manifestation of the souls of those who vexed and gnawed at the dead.

The story goes that when Lovecraft was writing his New York story “The Horror At Red Hook”, in 1925, he realized that he hadn’t the slightest idea what an occult incantation might sound like. He was forced to resort to the Encyclopedia Britannica and used a well-known invocation of Hecate. Noting his ignorance, he asked his friends for references, and they pointed him toward both Blavatsky and to Waite’s 1913 Book of Ceremonial Magic. Lovecraft’s discovery of the grimoires brought about an immediate change in his description of the Necronomicon. It now includes instruction in magic, geometrical figures, and powerful incantations. In 1928, in The Dunwich Horror, the family of cultists is seeking to find a better copy than their own tattered manuscript, so that they can learn the proper incantation to open the gates to their interdimensional god.

So how cool does that sound? If you’re a geek like me, as I know so many of you are, you just Want One Of Those!

Of course LaVey had already come close. The decision to produce the paperback of his Satanic Bible 1969 as a clean black book with a tasteful sigil of Baphomet on the cover gave it the feel of a cult book. That resonated immediately with Lovecraftian stuff, even before the second volume, The Satanic Rituals 1972, which contained an attempt at a Lovecraftian ritual drama. LaVey certainly appreciated the Mythos aesthetic. Even his decision to appropriate the Enochian Keys has always seemed to me an effort to import the sort of inhuman speech used in the stories by Mythos Cultists. Laey’s interest in the mythos led to later occult effort by the Temple of Set, to  which we’ll be getting  in time.

Two commercial publications called Necronomicon appeared in the late 1970s, within a year of one another. Though I had watched the overblown promotions for the  other version in contemporary occult prublications, the first to appear at my local bookstore was the so-called Hay Necronomicon, published in 1978. It is plainly a hoax and makes little effort to be anything else. It was an effort that included novelist and occult journalist Colin Wilson along with occultist Robert Turner. The publication includes a fun essay by a fictional professor, a bewildering ‘explanation’ of how the text was allegedly deciphered from one of Dr Dee’s coded manuscripts, and some tens of pages of Necronomicon text. The text does a reasonable job of generating some of the atmosphere of Lovecraft, but makes no real effort to provide a workable occult system.
• Simon’s Book
The most significant single publication in Cthulhu occultism is certainly the other Necronomicon to be published at that time. The Necronomicon published bySchlangekraft Publishing in 1977 was an effort by members of the New York magical scene, centered at Herman Slater’s witchcraft shop The Magical Child. The story has been told in some detail elsewhere, but the book was published with the editor’s name given as ‘Simon’, and the book is often called the ‘Simon Necronomicon’.

I think this is actually the second edition
cover. The first was more plain, like the
current big hardback.
A stranger book than the plain literary joke of the Hay effort, the Simon Necronomicon claims to be a translation of a manuscript stolen from eastern European libraries in the mid-seventies and transmitted to NYC by those who hoped to sell it. Not knowing what they had it wound up in the hands of occultists, and was translated, edited and published. No slight evidence for any of this has ever been produced, though the still-pseudonymous Simon has published a detailed apologia for it as the book “Dead Names”. It remains a typical Lovecraftian backstory attached to what is fairly plainly a piece of modern work.

The book purports to be a grimoire of a system of magic based on the gods and myths of ancient Babylon and Sumeria. No such survival occurs in historic magical literature, but setting the book’s system in the oldest literate records of magic is intended to give the feel of antiquity that Lovecraft sought. It also allows the authors to draw parallels between Lovecraft’s fictional mythos and a historical system that does have some similarity to HPL's ideas.

The core notions of the Cthulhu Mythos were initially based on Lovecraft’s early reading into ancient mythology and history. He combines a hint of fallen angel with a large scoop of forgotten and forbidden gods. He invents a prehistory for earth that involves various waves of invading super-beings, ruled by even-superer-beings who may or may not be material in any ordinary way. In the modern-day 1920s settings of his tales the Great Old Ones are sleeping, or locked away from the waking world to some degree. This is described as the result of changes in cosmic conditions- the “stars are not right” and so the Old Ones “cannot live”. Several tales include a theme of mortal mages picking the lock or jostling the sleeping elbow of these great powers, usually resulting in messy death for many. The sleep of the Old Ones doesn’t mean that their cults, agents and monstrous servitor races aren’t still lively, of course.

The basics of HPL’s tales were reinterpreted (many say misinterpreted) by his primary inheritor, August Derleth. Derleth both collected Lovecraft’s writings into the first hardback volumes and wrote a large body of pastiche fiction, extending the Mythos in his own direction. In Derleth’s hand the GOO became more plainly parties in a cosmic war. They are the ‘evil’ side, opposed by various forces of light and order. In Derleth’s Mythos the GOO have been imprisoned by the deliberate effort of their opponents, defeated in battle and cast down.It is that version of the Mythos that is imitated in the Simon Necronomicon.

Tiamat as depicted in later Babylon. She's a girl.
The Simon Nec ( as I must abbreviate…) is based on the core mythology of Babylon. Most notably the story called the Enuma Elish describes how the primal monsters of the universe desired to end the ceaseless noise and activity of life, and were defeated by the heroes of the young Gods, who established the order in which the world lives. Along the way humanity is invented as slaves for the Gods.

The Enuma Elish, and in fact the entire civilization of Sumer and its inheritors was new in HPL’s day. It was a part of the round of modern scientific discovery that always provided his themes. The world was being revealed to Europeans as far older than the Rome that had been understood as ‘ancient’, and a history of humanity stretching far enough back to topple facile biblical history was itself a major theme of HPL’s mythos.

Here is a point upon which I wish to be very clear. The Simon Nec's equation of the beings and ideas of the Cthulhu Mythos with the religion of ancient Sumer is just a modern pose. Lovecraft did not draw his gods and demons from any specific occult or mythic tradition, and was not attempting to display any specific cosmology. He wrote his stories using a loose notebook of themes and ideas, stealing from Egypt, Babylon, the Classical world and even from Native American lore when he could find something to latch onto. Once in a while he would make some effort to bind it all together, but none of that was ever done seriously or systematically.

The Simon Nec takes the Enuma Elish and other bits and pieces of Sumerian and Babylonian lore, edits them to have a vague resemblance to the Cthulhu Mythos, and uses them to pretend to be an 8th century AD grimoire retaining the half-remembered ancient lore of the lost cults. However the rites presented are mainly meant to be worked by a solitary magician, not a group.

The book begins with a sequence of planetary-magic rituals, centered on seven Gates which the magician must pass in order to gain the knowledge and alliances of that planetary sphere. Each of the classical planets are associated with Sumerian gods, and a sigil is provided for each. Each is then given a Gate sigil – a fairly complex depiction of a doorway which is to be drawn on the ground. The rites are worked and the magician expects to meet the spirit guardian of the gate and be given a personal Word to serve as the password of the Gate. These rites empower the magician for the rest of the system, and short support chapters give details of the rites of the Gates.

Real Sumerian divine fella, but you can see why fans
might get confused. Those are rays of fire, not tentacles...
In this we see a theme plainly present in Mythos stories – the opening of gates between the mortal world and the world of ancient powers. It is, however fair to say that the majority of the Simon book has no ‘Typhonian’ or ‘Satanic’ context. The flavor text hints at the existence of cults of Tiamat worshippers, but no instructions are such a thing are provided. Considerable space is given to spells and charms for the destruction of such cultists. (Those must never have been translated by Lovecraft’s protagonists, because very little efficacious magic against the GOO is usually available.) It is a plain work of invocation of cosmic divine powers, for the good of the magician and his folk. Certainly it would all have been demonic to and forbidden by either the Muslim or Byzantine authorities, and it is from such legalities that the idea of ‘forbidden books’arises. However in a modern context the central ritual magic system of the Simon Nec is far from transgressive or unorthodox.

It is typical of ancient magic that after the aid of divine powers has been acquired that aid is used to gain control of more dangerous spirits who actually do the work in the world. These latter are often called ‘demons’, but their moral qualities vary widely. In the Simon Nec the  grimoiric ‘phone-book’ of spirits is filled with the Fifty Names of Marduk. I’m uncertain of the scholastic provenance of those (Most of the book hits maybe 70% on scholastic resemblance to historical sources) but as a Pagan looking for quires of daemons to summon via Pagan gods, this is rather a good job. Once again, no effort is made to make these fifty spirits particularly fearsome, though there are plenty with powers of attack and destruction. They generally run the usual gamut of magical intentions, from wealth to love to attack and defense.

The Fifty Names of Marduk have been a successful contribution to modern occult practice. A separate publication, The Necronomicon Spellbook, offers a simple technique for using the seals and spirits without having accomplished the Gatewalking. While the original book doesn’t seem to permit this, the subsequent secondary grimoires was surely written by the same people, so we can consider it ‘orthodox’. In any case the Fifty Names have gotten legs among spellcasters and people working with ‘results magic’ as the fashion has it today.

The Gods defeat Tiamat
Following The Gates and the Fifty Names, the content of the last sections becomes darker. The author’s edit of the Babylonian mythic poem Enuma Elish is presented, telling the story of the casting down of the powers of Elder Chaos by the gods of human order. To the traditional material is added various Cthulhu Mythos prop language, none of it supportable by scholarship, as well as material from the much later Chaldean Oracles. Since the pretended history of the book makes it an eighth-century, half-remembered remnant of forgotten cults this is understandable, though it hasn’t really very much to do with Lovecraft’s ideas.

It is obvious to me that all this owes at least as much to Kenneth Grant as to HP Lovecraft. Grant became focused on the idea of an archaic cult of a Dragon-Mother, drawing on theories of ancient matriarchy as well as relatively recently translated Sumerian material. He drew the parallel between that material and Lovecraft’s notions of pre-human races and gods. The mythic pastiche in the Simon Nec is just the plain manifestation of the hints in Grant’s work. To be fair, the Sumerian material was very new in HPL’s times, and may well have attracted his attention, though I don’t think he mentions it specifically.

A final short chapter provides a skeletal body of lore about actual demons and monsters of the system. The Urilia Text (the meaningless name is an effort to evoke ‘The R’lyeh Text’ one of the mythos books) describes the rudiments of a ritual of summoning. I think that all the incantations and small rites called for in this outline are available in the book, but they are scattered. A short list of ancient plague demons and monsters is then given. Here the authors are free to let their Lovecraftian imaginations run a little more free. Nasty smelly demons mix with vague hints of even stranger things, and twisted reflections of the names of Lovecraftian spirits and beings are invented. In general the tone remains one of summoning for practical goals, and no ‘worship’ of these monsters is proposed.

Pazuzu, a plague demon
who turns up in
the Simon Necronomicon
The Simon Necronomicon is certainly the most successful document of Lovecraftian occultism. The Gate Walking techniques have garnered considerable attention, and the Fifty Names as re-worked in the Necronomicon Spellbook get wide distribution. Perhaps most importantly the book has set a number of earnestmodern occultists on the road to Babylon and Sumer. Much more attention is being paid to real scholastic sources, the leftover weirdness of the taint of Lovecraft still providing a cool frisson.

Personally, I have always said that if ‘Simon’ had chosen to call his book something else then it might have been taken even more seriously as the pastiche or reconstruction it attempts to be. The link with Lovecraft, however, has surely sold more books, including the hilarious drugstore paperback Necronomicon that should have heralded the end of our puny civilization…
Lovecraft certainly didn’t mean for the Mythos to be particularly about Babylon or Sumer, and the Simon Necronomicon is only barely about the Cthulhu Mythos. It will remain influential in popular occultism for the foreseeable future.

Next time back to Lovecraft himself, and a look at the Nameless Cults of the Mythos


faoladh said...

I'm a little disappointed that you didn't cover the more recent Tyson Necronomicon and related materials. Still, I am loving this series so far. Keep it up!

IanC said...

I'll mention Tyson chronologically, but I did a huge review of his work on the blog - article is "Necronomions Aplenty", I think.

Probably should put a link in the article...

faoladh said...

A link would be good, though a comparison with the two releases from the 1970s would have been welcome. Still, I don't want to harp on it, and I think that you're doing a fine job here.

Do you plan on covering the more obscure things, like the "Atlantean Necronomicon"? What about the less-obscure things like Hines's Pseudonomicon (and the "Liber Nasty" chapter/appendix of Prime Chaos)?