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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Updates

• Trancework Class at Aradia’s Garden:
This is a prototype of a new sort of public working which I’m working on. At.
Anyway, it should be juicy.

• The Great Book has now reached the half-way point. It will only be offered in this form (and for the foreseeable future) until Beltaine of this year. Keep an eye out for Lulu discounts and get your coffee-table tome of Druidic Magic soon!

 • Spring Me, Dammit! It’s still cold here, snow on the ground. I’ve got important gravel to shovel around the old patch here – I want at least a string of days above freezing soon. Just putting in my order… this year’s waitress seems surly…

Nevertheless it will soon be be spring, and I’ll be keeping the seasonal rites this weekend, actually in a Hellenic fashion, as an experiment by one of our Grove folks. There’s blessed little Gaelic spring-lore anyway.

There is rather more English lore, anglo-saxon in style, and a bit of modern Irish as well. I’ve collected some of it in a little playlist here:

This is nothing scholastic – I assembled it for my druid bro Mike from FB. There’s some countryside stuff and a Stan Rogers cut thrown in along with a Liam & Tommy item. On that first clip, that’s “The Copper Family” the Carters of British folk preservations. Note the multi-generational gang.

May your spring be sweet and lovely, and the blossoms promise fine fruit.

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.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Can Atheists Be Pagans? A Response

Someone posted a quote from this article on one of ADF’s discussion lists, specifically the section on the arrogance of sacrifice. This produced a lively discussion, to which I contributed some of the opinions below. Someone asked me further questions, and so I’ve tried to put all my stuff on the subject in one place. Not easy. To keep this from running to 5k words I have severely snipped the original text. By all means read Stifyn Emrys’ whole article.
People have a right to their opinions. Opinions about religion and politics often get elevated to the confused term “Beliefs”, and folks are extra-sensitive about their beliefs. Nevertheless I have this philosophy hobby, and philosophy is all about vivisecting beliefs and opinions to see how the connections work.
First let me propose my definition of religion. I’m quite aware of the various discussions about it in academe, but I have arrived at my answer and I present it:
A religion is a system intended to bring individuals into relationship with the transpersonal. As usual, there’s a difficult word in there. I used ‘transpersonal’ to be more inclusive than ‘spiritual’ or than ‘divine’. Either of those terms would serve equally well, until we approach atheism. To include atheism we must stretch to find a materialist model that describes the work of religion as it exists in the world. That isn't really the purpose of this article, however. Here I want to discuss the value and utility of atheism as a basis for spiritual practice or for religion.
To set out my basics early, I would hold that religion in the human species is in no way an error, and is a pro-survival trait of our species, re-appearing in every single iteration of human culture in every age. Discussions of what to do ‘instead of’ religion are off-target. Along with that I hold that most human religious behaviors – ritual worship, meditation, magic, divination – are reasonable and productive, and needn’t be discarded.
I understand, in principle, how a materialist might choose to involve themselves in religion. Social duty and pleasure, an enjoyment of the aesthetic of ritual and spiritual art, a concern for human well-being could lead to participation, even if doctrinal (another word for opinion) agreement wasn’t present.
The author in italic:
Certainly, not all Pagans are godless, just as not all Pagans are Wiccans. The majority are, in fact, theists – and the majority of those are polytheists, believers in many gods. But there are some Pagan pantheists out there, too, along with some monotheists, some agnostics and yes, even some atheists.
I appreciate that the author begins by attempting not to muddy the waters by a simple division into theist/atheist. I, for instance, do not think that there is any being or mind that created the cosmos and now rules and manages it. I don’t think that omnipotence or omniscience is possible for manifest beings, and so I don’t expect to find those qualities (in any absolute sense) in my gods and spirit allies. I don’t expect the divine to transcend the natural, but I do view the spiritual as distinct from the material. I do operate on the opinion that there is a distinct kind of reality that is called by tradition ‘spiritual’ in which independent intelligences dwell without fixed material form. I consider that portion of reality to be ‘natural’. I never use the term supernatural to refer to non-material reality. I hold a certain sort of hope that material science will someday locate this sort of reality, but it may remain a poetic reality forever. That’s ok with me. Poetry is as real as engineering, just of a different kind.
When I am in a skeptical mood, I am fine with approaching the gods and spirits as metaphors and symbols. Even in my most distracted and heart-blind moments I have the comfort of ritual and powerful images. My philosophical upbringing began with modern hermeticism and Neo-Platonism, and so I am fine with ‘archetypes’, etc. In practice I don’t find it to be a sufficient model for the phenomena that surround religion, and both scholarship and my own experience leads me to be willing to think that there are spirits as separate from me as I am from my chair, ‘out there’ in the natural world. That has been the general opinion of humankind for our history, based on repeated observation and interaction.
So that’s the kind of ‘theist’ I am. I’d guess that the ‘theism’ of many of those Pagans is as complicated as my own.
The author makes the point that ‘reverence for nature’ is the most broadly accepted descriptor of modern Paganism, and that a majority of Pagans did not see ‘worship of the gods’ as the defining characteristic. I would be interested in a number of how many of those Pagans were materialists, however. There are a lot of Pagans who interact with some sort of non-material or parascientific reality but pull back from ‘worshipping gods’, often because of some reaction to words like ‘worship’.
However I agree that nature is the primary revelation/presence of the divine to mortals. We can learn what the spiritual world is like by observing the material world – as below, so above.
Few people showed greater reverence for nature than the late Carl Sagan, an agnostic who made a career of exploring – and marveling at – the wonders of the universe. In fact, he was so astounded by the beauty and complexity of the universe itself, that he saw no need to go seeking gods or goddesses to explain it. His philosophy was that no concept of a creator or overseer could possibly match the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature itself.
Of course no concept of a creator or overseer is required for theism – certainly not for polytheism. The ancients had various tales of creation, which usually involved several actors in a multi-stage drama. Various gods create various things, and nobody is in omni-charge of the whole burrito.
Modern atheism inherits a great deal of bad mythography and misunderstanding from its nineteenth-century roots. Every year internet readers are subjected to the ridiculous claims of parallels between the Jesus story and those of Horus, Mithras, Krishna, etc. Not only do those tales have little to nothing in common with those of Jesus, they don’t resemble one another. One of those misunderstandings is that religion’s purpose is to explain the material world. This might have been true in the very earliest days, before humankind assembled a few hundred generations of observation of nature (that is, the early stone age or before). Of course until very recent days religion, magic and science were all the same thing – the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and ability.
In any case the gods worshipped by mortals have seldom had the explanation of natural things as their primary meaning. Thor isn’t primarily the presence of the thunderstorm; Thor is the farmer’s friend, the power that turns the storm aside, the power that protects the human settlement from the rage of untamed nature. Aphrodite is a certain sort of love, but Greek magicians called on much less pleasant spirits when they wanted to drive a lover to their beds. The gods could dwell in material things, of course. Some were embodied in specific trees or pools, etc. and they were conceived as dwelling in/as their idols. Still it is far too simplistic to assume that iron age Pagans were worshipping personified natural forces.
The personification of specific natural presences – the ones that bring that sense of awe and reverence – seems a hard-wired neurological thing. The perception of intelligences within the beauty and power of nature is not, in my opinion, one that should be explained away or dismissed as neurological error. Rather it should be the basis for further effort at clarifying perception, and for establishing relationship. That’s religion, in my opinion.
This is the way the Pagan atheist views the world, and the universe at large. It’s not some dry, clinical and bitter philosophy. It’s a vibrant, dynamic view of life and the environment that births and sustains it. In fact, many Pagans view the universe as a sort of living organism – either metaphorically or in actual terms.
Most Pagans, I suspect, would agree that living organisms have a spiritual component. The spiritual components of nature are the gods and spirits. Discussion about what the gods and spirits ‘really’ are is not directly relevant to their worship, imo. We are taught about them both by poetry and by experience, and we respond to both.
Doesn’t a materialist approach to religion guarantee that one is discarding half the business? If the goal is to honor/relate with nature, how can choosing to ignore the spiritual component aid the process? No specific opinion on the metaphysical/neurological basis of the phenomena is required in order to work with them. I generally advise atheists to take up the work of formal worship of the gods and/or spirits for a few years, and see how they feel.
The role of deities
All of which raises the question of gods and goddesses. What, exactly, are they?
Since I never consider the monotheist worldview in these matters I’ll answer directly. To do so I will first resort to describing my mythic understanding of the cosmos.
A god is a mighty spirit who answers worship with blessing. The world is full of spirits – intelligences of various kinds. Some of them have incarnated as humans sometimes, some as other material forms. Some of those spirits have formed relationships with mortals. The tales tell of a great first family of beings, who helped carve out a place of ordered life where humans could dwell and thrive. We remember those names and they are understood as the greatest of the spirits. Those are the beings that mythology places in the ‘gods’ category.
In religious practice ‘god’ is a category with permeable boundaries. Linguistically it is from Germanic roots meaning ‘that to which we sacrifice’. Any spirit that gains sufficient respect and honor, around which a cult of worship grows, is functionally a god whether or not they are accorded the status of that old first family.
Are they supernatural entities – beings outside or somehow above nature?
No, they are part and parcel of nature. My own inclination is to think that they arose out of natural processes just as we did. They exist in non-material ways, by our present ability to measure. For materialists one might think of gods and spirits as information bundles ; ).
The ancients didn’t fully comprehend how the forces of nature worked, so they viewed it in terms they did understand – anthropomorphic terms. They put a human face on nature, attributing violent storms to an angry god’s tantrum or fertile fields to the benevolence of a goddess.
I think the ancients knew that the goddesses’ blessing relied on their own skill and diligence at farming. The perception of blessing is a subtle thing, again quite possibly more poetic than  material.
My own opinion is that the intelligences put on a human face to speak with us because that is the most reasonable thing to do. It both conforms to our neurology and allows them to participate in our understandings. ‘As below, so above’ as they say – the spirits that respond to humans are the spirits that enjoy putting on our likeness.
As a side note, I suspect that we are at risk of lumping together divergent levels of cultural development, engagement with nature etc. The amazon tribesman’s understanding of the forest seems likely to be very different from that of the Gaulish farmer. Of course the land is very different, so you’d expect nature-based religion to vary.
Sacrificial offerings
One difficulty many atheists have with these conceptions is practical. If we believe that we are at the mercy of a deity’s emotions, it’s only human nature that we’re going to try like hell to influence those emotions. We’re going to try to put that deity in a good mood.
I find the emotional tone of this a little puzzling. I am not in a ‘subject’ relationship with any of my gods. This is North America – I don’t have a king or lord. The gods are mighty beings, they don’t need my subservience or obedience. If they want something done, that’s what happens. I don’t consider that there is a providential divine will that orders existence – rather we are all going about doing our own wills. The gods may occasionally want something specific to occur, but usually they are just going with the flow, resting in the woven hammock of fate, if you like.
Now, non-deity spirits are often more demanding in traditional religions. The Dead want our memory and our offerings in most every culture, and the land-spirits are more involved in whether any specific field will bear well than are the gods. A great deal of ancient cult was spent on these sub-deific beings (though, recall the operative meaning of ‘a god’).
So, yes, I’d say that some effort is put into keeping the spirits happy and participating well in our efforts. Isn’t that what one would do in any relationship? The Pagan relationship with nature is not one way – we give back in ways that matter. Again, back when proper plowing technique was part of the sacred lore preserved in rhyme, etc., material effort was joined with spiritual effort in prayer and ritual, producing anthropomorphized relationship. How can materialism be anything but a mere rejection of half the traditional work? How arrogant is that?
This is how the concept of sacrifice developed, as an attempt to placate (or bribe) a deity by offering him/her something we ourselves might enjoy – often in the form of food. There were a couple of problems with this assumption.
First off, it was arrogant to think the forces behind the elements needed anything from us, and it was presumptuous to assume that – if they did – they’d enjoy the same sorts of things we did.
We presume nothing. We learn from those who succeeded in the past. Religion is not reasoning from abstract principles, without experiment. It is not invention. It is not fiction. Religion is the relationship that we build with our personal experience of the divine, usually using some of the methods prescribed by whatever religious system we work in.
One of the most universal means of establishing relationship is through the mutual giving of gifts. This is the basis of sacrifice in the Indo-European world, at least (The emotional tone in the Middle East and S Asia might have been different). The gods and spirits are invited to a great feast shared with the folk, and enthroned and fed as noble guests. In turn they give noble gifts to the folk – the gifts the gods can give – improved luck, health, wealth and wisdom, as they say.
This formula – mutual giving -  occurs in nearly every polytheist religious system on the planet. It is as natural as air, and in my opinion my philosophy must accommodate it, rather than trying to bend the nature of religion to accommodate my philosophy. It would be arrogant to think that I know more about how to establish relationship with the divine in nature than the whole stream of human religious technique.
We’ve talked about why our gods like the things that we like – it’s because they like us. The gods aren’t some cosmic autocrators, concerned with the splash of the quantum sea and the fall of the sparrow. They are specific wise, mighty spirits who have made alliance with our folk, to our benefit and, by all accounts, to theirs. The Greek tales specifically say that when human offerings ceased the gods grew weak and sick. There’s no reason why mutual dependence should preclude worship. I don't expect my gods to transcend human need.
In polytheism, the divine is not limited to the highest or ultimate existence, to the most original or to the first cause. Usually the first cause has long disappeared into retirement or death. Our gods are this generation’s gods – the kind of spirits that answer the kind of people who call them. That is one reason for the persistence of tradition. We inherit  established relations with spirits who have consistently blessed us, rather than relate only with those that our own skill and virtue might allow. In polytheism it is the proximate divine that is the object of religion, not the ultimate divine. There’s no point in invoking spirits who don’t like the things that we can offer – the world is full of spirits who do.
Second, instead of placating the forces of nature, the assumption led us to actually destroy elements of nature itself. We sacrificed things that were never ours to sacrifice. We killed animals and burned them on altars. We even went so far as to kill humans. And if our sacrifices weren’t “accepted” (the rains didn’t come or the land remained barren), we blamed the priests who conducted the sacrifices and killed them, too.
Nature kills everything. Death is not the enemy of nature, or even of life. Death is a holy power, part of the Big Story, which is due a place in our work and worship. There is not the first principle, either spiritual or rational, by which a nature religion could exclude death from its work.
Nature(and/or the gods) gives humans the power to shape reality to a limited degree. It is that power on which we have based our species’ survival, that power that gives us gain and now, as our strength outgrows our wisdom for a moment, gives us peril. It is as good to employ that power for religious goals as it is for material ones. Thus we shape matter into temples, bring the gods into images and develop relationships with the spirits. We also have the power to make live things dead – a power which must be carefully managed.
Finally, it is not possible to live without killing and/or eating the bodies of the Dead. The order of the cosmos decrees that life depends on the death of others. This must be met with honor and wisdom if we are to understand the world in which we live. The business of sacralizing some forms of death seems entirely reasonable to me, and not in the least extreme or offensive.
The traditional animal sacrifice, at least in Europe, was a community barbecue in which a food animal was killed, butchered and cooked, with the gods getting the bones and skin and fat and the humans getting the parts *we* could use. To me that seems honest and honorable, as is the modern practice of offering food and drink to our noble guests at the rites.
Marvels and contradictions
These are the kinds of practices that the Pagan atheist finds saddening, because they do unnecessary damage to nature itself – something humanity has done far too often.
Killing an animal does no damage to nature. Nature will proceed as it will, and we’re all doomed to die. Killing a food animal in a ritual fashion in fact does poetic and psychological honor (at least) to nature – both to the beast, and to the object of the rite, and to the human power to shape through deeds. The management of the need and reason to kill is a huge discussion, but I’m entirely willing to grant animal sacrifice a thumbs-up.
We don’t need to be given the right to manipulate matter. We have the power to do it, and if we were ‘given’ it we were given it by nature. We were also given a variety of other skills, some of which we call wisdom. The strength-to-wisdom ratio *is* the concern of the social management function of religion, in my opinion, but it isn’t really what we’re talking about here. The question here isn’t ‘will we change nature’ it is ‘how will we change nature’.
It is precisely because of a love for nature that a person can identify as a Pagan and an atheist with absolutely no contradiction whatsoever.
How does one resolve the universal natural human relationship with gods and spirits? There certainly isn’t a sufficient materialist explanation at present. I find materialism to be an inadequate description of nature.
The Pagan atheist views nature itself as the magnificent framework of which we all are a part – and has no need to put a human face on it. To do so is to look at it through a clouded lens, rather than taking it at its own marvelous face value.
If science took nature at face value we wouldn’t know what an electron is. There are subtle realities behind face value, both material and, I think, spiritual.
I could see a sort of seer who prefers to not approach the gods in human form. There are/were whole traditions of polytheism that are ‘aniconic’ – that do not represent the gods. However most of those archaic systems eventually settled into anthropomorphized gods – I can’t see how that amounts to an error, as long as one likes the results.
Misconceptions and metaphors
My main problem with atheism as philosophy is that I find modern atheism to be mainly a creaking 19th century leftover, applying a steam-age understanding of religion to the modern world. As a modern Pagan one of my goals is help craft modern systems that can restore the conscious human relationships with the spirits that have been lost to the western world through the two waves of Protestantism and Scientism. I hope to loosen the grip of mechanistic rationalism on the west at the same time as I work to loosen the grip of fundamental monotheism. The rest of the world has continued along, adapting spirit-models of religion to modernization, even as atheist bully-gangs wreck temples in India right next to the Christians.
Philosophies that claim to teach one “How Things Really Are” are usually BS – that applies to one’s college physics prof as surely as to one’s preacher. But I’m a skeptic…
We don’t begrudge others the use of terms like “the goddess” or “the lord and the lady.”
Kind of ya.
I never make it my business to ask someone who comes to a rite what they really think about the nature of the gods, unless it involves more than one beer afterward. Hell, my own answer would vary depending on my mood. But I don’t think such things matter. We do the rite, some of us have a hot spiritual experience, some less so, we all get a good blessing and we eat. *That’s* the Paganism that matters to me, not issues of whether one thinks the gods are metaphors or daemons.
But I have to critique atheism/materialism as an inadequate explanation for the natural world of religion, and as at best the base of one foot on which to build a spiritual practice.

 P.S. Stifyn wrote a thoughtful response to my response here, and I left a short response. Dialogue is good : ).