Tuesday, April 23, 2013

D-v-L

Because I am a hobbyist as well as a magician and Pagan, I read widely in modern occultism. That has led me to plow through quite a bit of modern ‘Left Hand Path’ and ‘Dark’ occult material. Most of it I find unimpressive, but that’s true for all categories of occult literature. However I have for some while had a bug about the whole subject, and about whether ‘dark and light’ make any sense in a polytheistic paradigm. The other morning I read Morpheus Ravenna’s good piece on the Morrigan here and I thought I’d try to generate some ideas on the topic. Folks who haven’t read my own long essay on right-vs-left hand paths might enjoy that as well. 
 
I’ll start by summarizing. I don’t think that there is a spiritual or existential conflict between good and evil. Good and evil are social paradigms that vary according to time and culture. They do not exist in non-human nature, animate or inanimate. Sometimes the spirits seem to choose sides, for a while, but seldom reliably. Good and evil are not cosmic principles that appear as persons – they are human rules in a rule-book. Thus, I don’t think there is a conflict between dark and light. I don’t believe that light and darkness are acceptable metaphors for good and evil – in fact to refer to the night as a symbol of evil or moral impurity is a terrible devaluing of a holy thing, in my opinion. Holy means whole, and the world cannot be whole or holy without both darkness and light.
 
Now, modern LHP types tend to associate ‘good’ with personal liberty and empowerment, and ‘evil’ with imposed morality and oppression. They set goals for themselves such as ‘becoming a god’. That’s a nice goal, though one can tell from the stories that it doesn’t guarantee happiness. Now, I come from a lifetime of valuing personal freedom as one of the greatest goods. I’m a Thelema-sympathizer, though I’ve never worked a Thelemic system. I take my initiations as granting me the freedom and power to live as I will. To me this seems integrated, part and parcel of the spiritual path inherent in that of the Pagan magician.
 
The thing that confuses me is the effort to divide polytheism into light and dark. I’m just amazed when modern occultists want to talk in terms like ‘infernal’ or ‘diabolical’, or even refer to Hell and the Demons, seeming to want to set their mythos in a post-Zoroastrian God/Satan thing. To be fair, at least one modern writer goes all the way into the Zoroastrian thing, choosing the Bad Guy as his god. He seems to think it will make him extra-strong. Many are simply enchanted, it seems to me, with Hollywood notions of Big Red Devils with mighty powers. Now, I have no gripe with folks who want their magic to look like they imagine magic looking, but I’m uncertain of the benefit of dressing it in special-effects devil-suits. They might say the same for my preference for Iron-age characters...
 
Trying to simplify, Pagan pantheons just don’t have a strong element of conflict between either ‘good and evil’ or ‘freedom and conformity’. There is no ‘Prince of Darkness’, or “Rebel Hero” figure in most Pagan pantheons, despite various unconvincing efforts to locate him as Loki or Prometheus or Set. The powers of opposition to the gods are actually partners with the gods, all working together to create and maintain cosmos. There are no examples, in Pagan religions, of ‘anti-cosmic’ powers. 
 
I think that part of the problem is the notion that there would naturally be one true morality for all, whether villager or warrior, mage or carpenter. It doesn’t look as if that was the case, to me. The virtues and expectations of the warrior were vastly different than those for a farmer, or for a poet. So, while conformity might the good for the common villager, lore clearly shows that the poet and mage drift away from societal norms to go their own way on whatever strange roads they take. So in a polyvalent system, both conformity and individualism are equally good, just variously good for various people.  This pretty much disarms the notion that the Gods of Cosmos want slavish obedience, the sort that might spark some individualist rebellion and Quest for Freedom. 
 
One fairly sensible context in which ‘dark’ might mean something like modern darkists seem to want is to categorize it as a symbol for danger. If nature is to be our model for the divine, then we must acknowledge that some aspects of it will just kill yer ass. If there are spirits of the rays of sun and moon, there are also spirits of cholera, and knife-fights, and the sharp rocks that break bones. Darkness is a natural symbol for such things, because humans can’t see as well in the dark. That makes us more subject to both accident and attack. Darkness is also home to many predators, who must also have their spiritual equivalents.
 
This is exactly where the lightists fail, imo. Dangerous things often have great power, and the place we most fear is likely to be where a great treasure is hidden. If we fail to use the bulldozer because it scares us, we have merely failed in courage – the same is true for many powers that might get called ‘demons’ by the timid. For most mortals, death is the ultimate danger. Thus deities associated with death – whether the natural death, death by war, or plague, or even just having one’s abode among the Dead – are often depicted as dark.
 
However I despise the notion of equating the Underworld with Hell. Underworld Gods and beings are not opponents of the Gods of the Heavens. They may be mighty, and even dangerous, but powers of Hades are on the same team as the Olympians. So depictions of Underworld Gods and spirits done up like horror-novel monsters just seems disrespectful to me.
 
The other legitimate kind of danger in spiritual matters is the wrath of powerful beings. Many of the forms of Eastern deities that get called ‘dark’ are ‘wrathful’ forms of the gods. These are often pictured as demons in fact, horns, fangs, severed heads etc. Sometimes these are specific aspects of otherwise pleasant or beautiful gods, sometimes they are more independent. In any case, these wrathful gods are always part of Cosmos, always serving the general maintenance of the worlds. Personally, I’m interested in developing some work with wrathful Gaelic beings – it appeals to my romanticism…
 
Finally, a less complimentary meaning of darkness in traditional interpretation is as ignorance. This is the common metaphor of most Indian literature. Darkness is, well, hard to see in. The truth is less discernible, errors will be made and, again, harm can result. Is this a post-literate metaphor, in which sufficient light is needed to see the holy written spells? Does it tend to dualise well-lit interiors as good and forest night-shadows as ill? I’m afraid it still does. For moderns I’m inclined to see equal good in the knowledge one can get from night and dark as in that had from light and day. That very equanimity may be the result of my civilized life, in which light is easily obtained and darkness relatively free from hazards.
 
So, in an attempt to bring this ramble to the topic of Morpheus’ article, I must say that I’ve never actually divided the Gods of my pantheon into light and dark deities, and have never considered whether a god or spirit is ‘light or dark’ before undertaking to work with them. I work with Underworld Gods when that’s right, and deal with the Dead as part of holy order, not as any sort of outsider spirit. I deal with wild non-human spirits when I need to (not often). I’ve never had much use for martial gods, as my life hasn’t led me there, but I approach the Red Goddess as an initiator, and as a power in the stories of gods with whom I have a closer connection. Let’s assume you’ve asked, and I’ll advise folks against trying to find a darkside and lightside to traditional Northwestern Pagan lore. The ancients didn’t think that way, and imposing it over the lore can only produce distortions.
 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ways To Give Me Money

Here's the deal - expect to see rather more overt promotion from me over the next years. My circumstances are changing, and I'm more likely to make an effort to turn my vast store of extremely specialist skill into a few bucks. My goal will be to provide real products and real value, but of course that is judged by the customer. Of course there are always the links on the right, to me Lulu shop and to Sacred Fire, Holy Well at Amazon. Here's some additional stuff.
 
We'll start small:
The thing is, the rather unique magical system that I've built out of ADF's DNA isn't widely supported in the cheesy occult items market. We have no particular use for athames or altar pentagrams, and the symbolic languge is different from standard Western Trad stuff. Now, CP does let me make custom cauldrons, bless 'em, but they do have some items of use, especially for smaller shrines and travel kits.

A set of shot glasses is great for a small home shrine. The black sigils are the Gods, Dead and Sidhe, rendered simply. The color triskel is a Triple Blessing sign, made by rendering the sigil for 'blessing' three times. Together a fine set for offering to the spirits and drinking the blessing.
$8 each with oh-so-slim a mark-up, effendi...
 
The standard ritual array for a Druid Shrine of our sort are the Fire, the Well and the Tree or Stone. While a roaring blaze is best, a tea-candle must occasionally serve. Such small material bases can be strengthened by the use of a proper sigil or figure on which to place them. More intact systems provide such things by tradition; I've made some up.
 


There isn't any reliable correspondence of Celtic decorative motifs with Pagan spiritual ideas. Over the years I have come to associate spiral patterns, such as the Triskel, with the Underworld Waters and knotwork, key-patterns and more regular forms with the Fire of the Sky.
The second tile from left is the 'Nine Chambered Hall of Lugh', representing the quartering of the Realm of the Land. It also resembles, to me, the Vedic fire altar, and so I find it a proper symbol for the ritual fire, whether a candle or a censer.
These ceramic tiles are perfect for coaster-ing one's tools, and easy to carry.
The tile third from left is, again, the Triple Blessing, proper for holding whatever object is to receive the rite's flow of blessing. The tile at the right is the Triangle of Manifestation, the 'divine names' in this cse being the ogham fews for Oak, Rowan and Hazel.
Modestly priced at $6 each.
 
For those actually working rites in the ritual models of my books, this printed tray might be useful:
Pardon the lo-res image... Roughly 17.5"x11.5", this sturdy tray is actually useful for containing the ash, water and herbs that tend to get all over a blessing-circle. Other styles available at the store, too. $49.99 with just a little markup to keep the universe from making fun of me...
 
Buggy Whip Dept.
Do people still want cool blank books and journals? In my fantasy heart I certainly do, and so I have made a few in the Lulu.com hardback style. This isn't really my fave, visually - wish they had a matte finish - but I've been using their hardback bindng for my personal journals for the last couple of years and they've held up to fairly hard use without a fail.

Tabula Rasa 999 is a new shop at Lulu.com, where I will post original designs for occultische blank books and journals. I welcome suggestions and ideas - if you've imagined a perfect grimoire cover, I can probably make a version of it, though it will be what the tech allows.
Four initial designs. Classic pent, weirdo Necromancer's book, Druidic conjuring sign & another Druidic design

Leabhar Mor
We're counting down to the end of the offer. For the sake of this offer we're going to call Beltaine Sunday the 5th of May, when our local Grove lights its May Fire. The Great Book will be offered only until then.

 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Five Theology Questions

I’m privileged to get to hang around the computer in a discussion group that includes Michael York, well-known religious scholar and author of the groundbreaking “Pagan Theology”.  He recently posted:
In preparation for a paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s annual conference, I am seeking answers from pagan practitioners to the following questions. The title of my presentation is “Religion and Theology: A Contemporary Western Pagan Perspective on Identity Formation and Modern Policy.” The analytical framework I propose to use is one that differentiates paganism (broadly of course) from Abrahamic, dharmic and secular religions or perspectives, but for the questionnaire itself that differentiation need not be considered if it does not seem to be relevant for any respondent. There are five questions overall and concern theological and other distinctions of paganism from other religions. I welcome any and all answers that anyone wishes to supply.  
Here are Michael’s five questions, and my short answers, arranged in bullets so I don’t have to connect them too closely. These are not easy questions, and Michael leaves definition up to the answerer - as someone on the thread said, each question could produce a paper in itself…
1: How is Paganism different?
• Paganisms understand divinity to reside in a multitude of persons. ‘Divinity’ is in some ways identical with ‘spirits’, in that Paganism seldom makes an important distinction between ‘gods’ and various other kinds of spirit. The Ancestors, Land-wights etc may all be said to express ‘the divine’.
 
• Paganisms do not grow from the special revelation of a prophet or school of prophets. While schools of thought and practice do arise within Paganisms, the tradition itself is the origin of those schools, not vice-versa. In our Neopaganism this tradition is still tacit, and often reconstructed, yet we still resist the creation of codified opinions and methods.
 
• Paganism does not propose a moral separation between the natural world the spiritual world. The natural world, including human nature, is not ‘fallen’ nor are we subject to some original error that has deformed or poisoned the nature of life and the world.
 
• Paganism sees human nature as spiritually empowered. We are not the helpless pawns of the will of the divine, but rather we are individual actors, able to make our own way by our own wills.
 
2: What is the significance of its difference?
• Paganism emphasizes the delight and pleasure of material life. By finding blessing in wind and rain and sun and cool earth we also learn to find blessing in our own breath and sweat and heat and flesh. This can only create a greater sympathy for other living beings, since we know how sweet living can be when things work well.
 
• Paganism does not look to correct an intrinsic error in either the natural world or in human nature. The world is right and good as it is; all issues of whether human action is benefiting or harming us aside. Harm is normal when deeds are foolish, but what human effort has harmed, it can repair. There is nothing so broken in us or the world as to require a supernatural intervention.
 
• People do not owe fealty to a divine sovereign. The noble beings of the spiritual world are many. Some people enter fealty relationships with one or more divine persons, and wisdom suggests not insulting the powerful. However the worship of the divine is not mandatory. The core natural condition of the human spirit is freedom.
Pleasure, wisdom and liberty – there is the good.
 
3: What are the key issues in a modernity project?
• In making a modern religion out of Pagan roots, we face primarily the adaptation of ancient models to a modern liberal ethic. I entirely support a modernist stance on personal freedom, social mobility, ethnic and gender indifference, and sexual freedom. I think that modern ideas on these matters are more wise and true than the common opinions and customs of the ancient world. In the same way we modernize traditional practices such as sacrifice, pilgrimage, etc.  We hope to tease out the wisdom of why the ancients viewed war as a holy activity, while reducing the dependence of individuals and society on violence. We hope to free individuals from gender-role restrictions while preserving the strength of clan and re-making extended families. It is a complex goal…
 
• I have some trouble conceptualizing what a ‘modernity project’ might be. If it refers to helping some underserviced settlement develop water, power and access to medicine, then that seems the business of governments, generally. I suppose a Pagan outreach might choose to do a ‘mission’ of that sort – would it involve encouraging the locals to retain their tribal ways and reject the local Romans? Hard to imagine Pagans doing such a thing on theological grounds, since our religion does not suggest that it is better for some distant people to be traditional rather than Christian. I simply don’t admire the notion of ‘missions’ managed by religious agendas.
 
• Since Neopaganism, at least in N. America, is essentially a modern phenomenon composed largely of western, liberal-democratic values, we don’t have a lot of reforming to do in order to meet modern standards. If anything we are a retro influence, to the degree that we are engaged with mythic matters while living modern lives. Paganism is a gate for the non-rational to re-enter western reality contained within a freedom-centered, empowering ethic. Despite all of the above, we are to some extent involved in a contra-modernity project.
 
• Paganisms do risk creating a moral dualism between an imagined pristine nature and the perceived social conditions of modern humanity. There is still a tendency to assume that we have erred, and that life is not as it ‘should be’. There is an imagined Golden Age against which modern life is measured and found wanting. Perhaps this contributes to our elements of contra-modernity, in encouraging Pagan rejection of modern life. Some Pagans think that technology is itself the problem, and that we must discard many modern tools and advantages, in order to regain natural advantages that are of greater spiritual value.
 
The social or spiritual values of such positions are debatable, but they certainly are part of our discourse, and may become either obstacles or fuel for whatever a ‘modernity project’ might be. Some might argue that wise anticipation of modernity requires preparation for low-tech or decentralized living.
 
4: What can Paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions?
• I think Paganism can model pride and strength as spiritual virtues for those who are given little to feel proud and strong about by common culture. We can teach modern people to develop and manage their own relationships with the divine, without being micromanaged by the doctrines of religious superiors. Certainly a nature-centered mythology should encourage us to approach natural systems and living things as partners in the planet, not as mere resources. The same can be said of the ethic of reciprocity that lies behind a great deal of Pagan worship. If we must worship the forest we’re cutting in, it might make a difference in how we treat it.
 
(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?
• Again, not generally the business of religions. I suppose that Pagan values encourage individuals to hold political opinions about those topics, but there’s nothing in religion that ought to encourage individuals to either involve themselves actively in policy debate, or not.
 
As Pagan religious institutions grow we may get the chance to take a seat at the discussion between larger, more powerful religious bodies. While we will forever (in our time) be upstarts and new kids, we can stand as an example of a modern spiritual thought and practice that embraces material existence and honors human skill and will. We can model the turning of our will to the protection of natural systems, the provision of decent livelihood to the working masses and proper regulation of the profit-motive for the general good. Assuming, of course, that future Paganism shares my values : ).

Monday, April 8, 2013

Cthulhu Occultism Pt 3: What's A Nameless Cult When It's Home?

So, this 'essay' on HPL and the occult is taking a long time. I'm over ten thousand words with no signs of stopping. Rather than delay posts here, I"m going to post one installment under this topic monthly or so, and do other stuff as well. Other stuff in the pipe. This series *will* end up with a fairly comprehensive review of modern Cthulhu Occultism publications etc, but that's still a while off. Hope you enjoy this. I am certainly enjoying writing it, so if you don't enjoy it, you can feel good for me : ).
A central horror gimmick of the Cthulhu Mythos is often the survival of the worship of dangerous and eldritch beings as outlaw cults. These cults may be limited to human worshippers but often come to include members of the several non-human races which also serve the GOO. Some stories are mere bad luck in which a hapless protagonist meets an indescribable horror. The tales that influence the occult world are those about the conscious use of Mythos magic and/or science I want to spend some time in this article examining the places where Lovecraft’s stories actually meet traditional occult practices.

However it is perhaps equally important to examine a pop-cultural source of HPL’s ideas. One remarkable bit of history is what might be called America’s first ‘Satanic Panic’. Many readers will remember the Satanic Panic of the late 20th century. Beginning in the late 1980s, media and some law-enforcement groups became convinced by the propaganda of conservative Christians who claimed that underground cults of Satanists were regularly sacrificing babies, housepets and grown-ups in a regular cycle of ritual worship of their demon-gods. As clich├ęd and unlikely as this seems, the media was busy selling the notion, from occasional trumped-up news stories to a wave of horror entertainment. Simon’s book was an occasional player in all that, but not as common as old Anton’s.

The whole business was the usual sort of mob-fear, Fighting The Evil Enemy sort of nonsense, supported by occasional fake witnesses. The counseling community became complicit. Many progressive, feminist therapists bought into the now-discredited notion of ‘repressed memory’ and used half-baked hypnotic techniques to support their assumption that sexual abuse was as common as hugging in patriarchal homes. Many young people were led to generate ‘memories’ of abuse, which wounded families and produced occasional Police flurries.

Here in Ohio I recall, back in the late 1980s, the county sheriffs over in the North-west corner of the state digging up a couple of fields on a tip that they would be filled with the corpses of sacrifices. Toledo had a deserved reputation as a source of witchery in Ohio, but it was modern witchery – no baby sacrifices. The blustering sheriffs and their backhoes found not a dolly for their trouble. That was, in general, how the whole wave of panic ended. Serious police investigations produced no evidence of generational Satanist cults, no caches of bodies or bones were ever discovered, no kidnappings or disappearances were found relating to claims of Satanic cult activity. (We’ll leave aside Scientology and/or folks like the Krishnas – they aren’t part of ‘the occult’.) The FBI closed its investigation on ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’ in 1992, concluding that nothing had ever been going on

What surprised me in my reading is that this had happened beforebeginning back in the very decade central to HPL’s career. In the 1920s the new theories of Margaret Murray pointed at the idea that ancient religions had survived in secret into relativley modern times, preserving their atavistic rites and practices, including human sacrifice and ‘unspeakable’ sexual rites. (Lovecraft wrote in the vocabulary of missionary jungle adventures, in which the unclad dances and fertility symbols of traditional religions were ‘unspeakable’ or ‘abhorrent’.)

It is possible that the times actually saw a rise in criminal cult activity, (The KKK was rising, for instance) and real occultism, in the form of Thelema and possibly proto-neo-witchcraft was thriving, but one could say the same, and draw the same conclusions looking at selected newspapers from the 1980s. More likely the Satanic Panic of the 1920s and 30s was a literary and ideological spasm. If so it is fair to say that HPL played a role in it.

It must just be that cults are scary. Stories of dangerous conspiracies of magically-powered beings go back into the mists of history, long before Christianity reframed them into God and Satan. Criminal conspiracy is scary in itself, implying that paranoiac notion that nearly anyone could be an agent of evil. Ally human malefactors with non-material beings who can strike in secret, or with powerful material monsters with their own resources and abilities, and you begin to get a sense of what whole villages may have felt like under the spell of medieval anti-witch preaching. You also get a sense of what a Lovecraftian protagonist comes to feel as he realizes that he Knows Too Much, and has come to the attention of Certain Others.

So we can locate Lovecraft’s horror writing firmly in the headlines and cultural fears of his time. He needn’t have drawn on sources more arcane than New England newspapers to have a head filled with satanic cults and human sacrifices. Of course HPL was bored to waking death by Satan, Jesus, etc. To him the authors of the Bible, the grimoires, even AlHazred himself were primitive screw-heads unable to separate the realities of the multi-dimensional cosmos from their cultural tales and symbols. His characters might begin with such notions in their heads, or they might develop some mythic explanation for the strange phenomena they begin to experience. In the end it is always some manifest power capable of material destruction (at least) that they meet at in the deep places hidden behind myth.
We’ve covered the forbidden books with which the cultists transmit their ideas. Now let’s have a look at Lovecraft’s ideas of nameless and unwholesome cults. While the monsters of popular gothic fiction were discarded by Lovecraft (he never wrote a vampire, or werewolf) he was fascinated by the notion of human contact with non-human intelligence. He drew freely upon the European witch hunts, and the lore of medieval witch hysterics, mentioning various books of church demonology in his book-lists. In the same way he remained interested in the lore of Other races of beings, both material and dwelling on the edges of the real. We’ll deal with those below.

From the very first depictions of the Necronomicon HPL’s horror involved the unwilling or unprepared contact between the human mind and alien or daemonic intelligences. The temptation is to refer to these beings as ‘demonic’; they are seldom pretty, often hungry for human flesh or minds, and either relatively or vastly more powerful than the humans they deal with. However Lovecraft always depicted them as outside of any human notions of good and evil. The material races had material motives – sex, cheap labor and food. The Great Old Ones had no agenda that could be comprehended or co-opted by humans. They would answer human calls, made the right way, but could seldom be effectively compelled according to the magician’s will. Cultists who hoped to gain some personal good were almost always disappointed.
Often an initial contact with one of these alien minds was enough to short-circuit the free will of the protagonist. Lovecraftian horror often depicts the conscious mind of the victim, puzzled and frightened, as the mounting influence of some entity leads them into a creepy finish. It is actually less frequent for this to arise from willed occult or cult activity than from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even being from the wrong family.

Lovecraft begins depicting cults of the Great Old Ones as early as 1923, in “The Festival”, putting him quite in time with the sensational news stories of his day. In that surreal, dream-like narrative he depicts the worship of the Old Ones in a tiny New England seaport town. This was in keeping with the 1920s stereotype of degenerate backwoods Satanism. It is also the first time that HPL depicts the Necronomicon as a kind of scripture or holy book, rather than simply a scholastic oddity.

Then I saw the lurid shimmering of pale light, and … suddenly there spread out before me the boundless vista of an inner world- a vast fungous shore litten by a belching column of sick greenish flame and wasled by a wide oily river that flowed from abysses frightful and unsuspected to join the blackest gulfs of immemorial ocean… Fainting and gasping, I looked at 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; …

However the next cult tale, “The Horror at Red Hook”  moves the action to New York City, with the degeneracy moved from Lovecraft’s favorite anglo hillbillies to the teeming masses of Mediterranean immigrants that filled his New York living experience.  Lovecraft’s New York City year, and the year following his return to Providence, were the most creative and productive of his short career.  Many of the most influential uses of the construct mythos appeared in stories of that time. It also marks the most ‘occult’ period of his writing, before it began to turn toward a more science-fiction avenue.

The paradigmatic tale of the Cthulhu Mythos is “The Call of Cthulhu”. In this long and complex tale Lovecraft lays out several of the central mythos notions. The protagonist receives a bundle of scholastic materials from his uncle, who has recently been killed under obscure circumstances. The story then unfolds as the young man investigates each of his uncle’s files in turn.
In ‘Call’ we discover one of the primary ways in which the imprisoned or unloving deities of the mythos reach out to mortals. Great Cthulhu, the minor Old One who lies dead in his prison-tomb beneath the sea, still dreams, and his dreams send waves of images, ideas and impulses into the mortal world. These images inspire weird artists like Lovecraft and his circle to produce sculpture, poetry, painting and, undoubtedly, ritual. In less refined subjects the impulse-waves of the Dreaming God produce crime and violence, and encourage savagery in those already involved in the cult.
As is often discussed in Lovecraft studies, the Old Gent held traditional New England views about race, especially early in his career. While maturity moderated his views he still employed traditional stereotypes when describing a Louisiana cult that mingled ‘voodoo’ with the worship of Cthulhu.
“In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre's extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. 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, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.”
‘Call of Cthulhu’ depicts the tentacles of the cults of the Great Old Ones as penetrating every corner of the human world. What is not carried by secret inheritance or initiatory lineage is re-kindled by the direct psychic impulse of the Old Ones themselves. In this way the cult is never merely theological, not about ‘belief’. The cults of Cthulhu happen to their worshippers, not by them.
My personal favorite occult-Lovecraft tale is The Dunwich Horror. In this ripped-from-the-headlines thriller an isolated family of cultists is busy pursuing their goal of bringing the Great Old Ones back into the world. They have a little land in the hills of Massachusetts, and have maintained a fingerhold grip on literacy in English, Latin and Greek, that allow them to utilize the family collection of moldering books, including an incomplete and damaged copy of the Necronomicon. The family Magus succeeds in certain unwholesome works, to no particular benefit. ‘Dunwich’ is one of the few HPL tales in which occult power is successfully used against the GOO, though luck seems to have played a role in the outcome of the tale as well. We will return to Dunwich in other categories here, but in any case the Whateley cult makes a direct pact with one of the Old Ones, the enigmatic but apparently-horny Yog-Sothoth.


It is in ‘Dunwich’ that we get the clearest glimpse into the mind of an offspring of a mythos cultist. We are shown a page of Wilbur Whateley’s diary:

Today learned the Aklo for the Sabaoth (it ran), which did not like, it being answerable from the hill and not 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. 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. They from outside will help, but they cannot take body without human blood. That upstairs looks it will have the right cast. I can see it a little when I make the Voorish sign or blow the powder of Ibn Ghazi at it, and it is near like them at May Eve on the Hill. The other face may wear off some. 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.
The tale in which Lovecraft makes the most direct use of the ‘pact with the devil’ motif is “Dreams in the Witch House.”   In that tale our protagonist moves into a crumbling rooming house in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham, which was once the home of famous mythos witch Keziah Mason. Mason never appears as a speaking character in the tale, but becomes a psychopomp who leads the hero through the visions and dreams of the title. Along the way the hero is enticed, and eventually summoned, to come to an alien sort of witches’ Sabbath, and there to sign his name in the Black Book of Pacts. The story makes it clear that this is part of the witch-cult, a shadowy New England version of a mythos cult that participates in older European images of diabolism and Satanic worship. 

Nevertheless the witches conjure by the names of the GOO, with the central place of horror occupied by Lovecraft’s ‘demon sultan’ Azathoth. This figure is based on Lovecraft’s Lord Dunsany period, and is always left undefined and chaotic, surrounded by an eternal revel of toads and demons. In joining this revel, the human witches participate in the usual newspaper evils – child-sacrifice, sexual unconventionality and forbidden worship. The Black Man of the European witches’ Sabbath also appears, one of the masks of the Great Old One called Nyarlathotep. Finally we meet one of Lovecraft’s spookiest small inventions, the little demon that serves the witch as a familiar. ‘Brown Jenkin’ is a rat with the face and hands of a human, recalling one of the core ideas of the European witch-hunts.
We see Lovecraft’s witch-cult again in the story “The Thing On the Doorstep”. Here we find another family lineage of cultists, the Waites. Set once again in ‘witch-haunted Arkham’, the tale centers on a student at Lovecraft’s fictitious Miskatonic University. A young poet meets the daughter of this family, and becomes entangled in the cult, eventually calling upon the story’s protagonist for rescue.
“I had to save myself - I had to, Dan! She'd have got me for good at Hallowmass - they hold a Sabbat up there beyond Chesuncook, and the sacrifice would have clinched things. She'd have got me for good…  I'll tell you something of the forbidden horrors she led me into - something of the age-old horrors that even now are festering in out-of-the-way corners with a few monstrous priests to keep them alive. Some people know things about the universe that nobody ought to know, and can do things that nobody ought to be able to do. I've been in it up to my neck, but that's the end. Today I'd burn that damned Necronomicon and all the rest if I were librarian at Miskatonic... My brain! My brain! God, Dan - it's tugging - from beyond - knocking - clawing - that she-devil - even now - Ephraim - Kamog! Kamog! - The pit of the shoggoths - Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...  The flame - the flame - beyond body, beyond life - in the earth - oh, God!"

The New England cults of the Great Old Ones lead us to another Lovecraftian tale. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” concerns the importation of a Cult of ocean demons from the South Pacific to New England via a greedy whaling captain and his crew.

“Wal, Sir, Obed he 'larnt that they's things on this arth as most folks never heerd about - an' wouldn't believe ef they did hear. lt seems these Kanakys was sacrificin' heaps o' their young men an' maidens to some kind o' god-things that lived under the sea, an' gittin' all kinds o' favour in return… Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had 'em ages afore, but lost track o' the upper world after a time. What they done to the victims it ain't fer me to say, an' I guess Obed was'n't none too sharp abaout askin'. But it was all right with the heathens, because they'd ben havin' a hard time an' was desp'rate abaout everything. They give a sarten number o' young folks to the sea-things twice every year - May-Eve an' Hallawe'en - reg'lar as cud be… Cap'n Obed an' twenty odd other folks used to row aout to Devil Reef in the dead o' night an' chant things so laoud ye cud hear 'em all over taown when the wind was right? … Obed was allus droppin' heavy things daown into the deep water t'other side o' the reef whar the bottom shoots daown like a cliff lower'n ye kin saound? Tell me what he done with that funny-shaped lead thingumajig as Walakea give him? Hey, boy? An' what did they all haowl on May-Eve, an, agin the next Hallowe'en? An' why'd the new church parsons - fellers as used to he sailors - wear them queer robes an' cover their-selves with them gold-like things Obed brung? Hey?"
The cult that becomes the town religion of Innsmouth Mass is centered around the local fraternal order, The Esoteric Order of Dagon. This name continues to recur in modern occultism, as well as Lovecraft fandom used by various groups at various times. The several families of Innsmouth turn up in various Lovecraftian tales, usually still keeping their cult, or exploring even stranger and less wholesome avenues of secret knowledge. The Innsmouth tale is essentially more a biological horror than a spiritual one, yet it provides one of the few examples of public, organized worship of the GOO.
Another is found in “The Haunter of the Dark” This late tale (one of HPL’s last) tells of an occult writer and historian’s investigation of an obscure Providence sect in the 1870s. Lovecraft draws on his knowledge of Providence to recast an abandoned Catholic church on the side of the hill as the Starry Wisdom Church:
“There were very few people in the square, but Blake saw a policeman at the northerly end and approached him with questions about the church. He was a great wholesome Irishman, and it seemed odd that he would do little more than make the sign of the cross and mutter that people never spoke of that building. When Blake pressed him he said very hurriedly that the Italian priest warned everybody against it, vowing that a monstrous evil had once dwelt there and left its mark. He himself had heard dark whispers of it from his father, who recalled certain sounds and rumours from his boyhood…
There had been a bad sect there in the old days- an outlaw sect that called up awful things from some unknown gulf of night. It had taken a good priest to exorcise what had come, though there did be those who said that merely the light could do it.”
We never see any of the Starry Wisdom’s ritual, but we learn that they made pact with the Great old One called Nyarlathotep, and we watch the results of modern meddling with their remains. The tale suggests that mythos cults occasionally make it onto the street-corners.
While the wild revels of the witch-cult interested Lovecraft he was always fascinated with the figure of the self-driven investigator into the secrets of nature and of un-nature. The solitary magus in his secret laboratory gets the full treatment in the novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” We’ll return to this tale when we discuss necromancy in Lovecraft. For now let’s point out that the solitary wizard at the center of Lovecraft’s tale of colonial sorcery, Joseph Curwen, is part of a network of occult practitioners who serve the Old Ones even as they seek their personal goals. In Curwen’s correspondence with his co-conspirators we encounter a turn of phrase which has become something of a by-word in modern occult circles.
I have not ye Chymicall art to followe Borellus, and owne my Self confounded by ye VII. Booke of ye Necronomicon that you recommende. But I wou'd have you Observe what was told to us aboute tak'g Care whom to calle upp, for you are Sensible what Mr. Mather writ in ye Magnalia of ------, and can judge how truely that Horrendous thing is reported. 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.
In this tale we don’t see cult activity so much as a network of individual practitioners, however they salute one another in the names of the GOO and are clearly involved in some way in cult activity.
In Lovecraft’s horror cosmos, magic is accomplished almost entirely with the aid of various interdimensional beings, from cosmic impersonalities and ruling daemon-gods to more local spirits and monsters, to fully intelligent non-human races who share the earth with humans and who also worship the Old Ones. Cult activity is a process of contacting these unhuman beings, gaining their aid (or surrendering one’s will to theirs) and then either working one’s will in the world or slowly dissolving into the Other existence.
While Lovecraft made every effort to dress his cult activity in exotic clothes, creating totally unique deities, monsters and props, he drew on standard thriller tropes for his notions of ritual activity. Circles, chants, sigils, arcane languages and alphabets, and sexual deviance all are recast in mythos terms. In this way HPL achieves a verisimilitude for his hints at Cthulhu Mythos occultism that makes it ripe for imitation. However we are never shown any fully-depicted ritual or practice.

We can cobble together some sense of what the cultists of the Great Old Ones thought that they were doing. Contact with the hidden realities of existence – the true beings lurking behind the masks of common religion, mythology and even science – produces unique mental states. Human minds are turned away from common things, directed toward cosmic mysteries that render merely human society negligible, laughable and even contemptible. 
The unwilling recruit in Dreams In The Witch House feels his gaze magnetized to the heavens – his eyes following certain star-clusters across the sky even when they are invisible in daylight. This is surely a metaphor for the sense of cosmic wonder that lies within all of Lovecraft’s horror. To enter into the secret knowledge of the Old Ones is to learn the secrets of reality – which have the most likely effect, in Lovecraft’s equally pessimistic horror, of driving mortals mad.
Mythos cultists are invariably insane, to some degree or kind. Contact with alien minds leads to alienation, and retreats to lonely basements, woodland redoubts and slum-hidden studios is the norm. Sometimes an alpha type will rise to lead a public outreach, sometimes a family patriarch or matriarch will forge pacts that determine the fate of generations. The question of what they hope to gain remains.
The GOO seem to have one clear agenda – to return and rule where they have ruled in the past. The question for the human cultist is whether and how they will be allowed to exist in the New Order that the Return will bring. Walter Gilman is offered the kind of immortal, interdimensional existence that the witch Keziah seems to have, and his rejection of it leads to his common death instead. The sailors of old Ephraim Waite’s ship became rich for a while, and watched strange things happen to their children. Some of them will survive Dagon’s rise. 
As always we see most clearly into the mind of a cultist through the diaries of young Wilbur Whateley, last mortal scion of that line of hillbilly wizards:
“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.”
Wilbur hopes to shed, at last, his semblance of humanity and dwell among the horrific wonders of the rule of the Great Old Ones.
If I were to summarize the ‘hope’ that the cult of the GOO offers it would be that. The Return is inevitable – the stars will turn again, the bonds will be broken, the sleepers will wake. The only choices that humans have are to struggle to postpone that Return until after their deaths, to be cattle for the shepherds when the Return comes, or to join with the monsters, hoping to shed merely mortal form and law for a new form, and a new law, under the Court of Azathoth.
Fhtagn, dude… but not forever.
Next time we’ll approach from another angle and have a look at just what Cthulhu Mythos ritual and magic looks like.