Wednesday 8 October 2008

Steve Ash on The Great Old Ones

Last week, Steve Ash, UK Magister for the Eldritch Esoteric Order of Dagon, gave a talk at pagan forum Secret Chiefs on working with The Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Being a fan of HP Lovecraft’s horror stories about these beings, but somewhat baffled as to how one might attempt real magical work with fictional entities, I went along to listen and hoped to write up a short summary on A Bad Witch’s Blog.

I soon realised that wasn’t going to be possible. A full account was necessary to cover Steve’s fascinating and philosophical talk. So here it is - slightly precised and shortened, but largely as it came from the Magister’s mouth, and starting with Steve's personal account of what happens when working with Lovecraftian magic:

“This is the scene: It is late at night. I am standing in a wooded cemetery in London’s East End with three others. We are invoking Shub-Niggurath. We have cast a circle around us and the Elder Sign - a branch, fortuitously found – has been placed at the gate. The incense, of burning feathers, is placed next to it. We begin to invoke The Great Old Ones with chants, drumming and wild spontaneous fluting.

“Immediately we become aware of shadows moving around us, figures in the bushes, but we are alone. We perform an improvised invocation to Shub-Niggurath and call upon the Great Goat to appear to us. Shortly after this we each had individual experiences. I become aware of a presence above us. It is slowly descending like a fog. It settles above us and I feel something watching us from behind. Eyes feel like they are burning into the back of my head. Suddenly, I feel a slight sensation around my waist at the level of the solar plexus. It feels like a tentacle wrapping around and around. It is an emotional, psychic impression that is hard to describe. It is a sort of sinister affection, like a cat playing with a mouse. I wonder if I am lunch.

“Then it begins to unravel and as it does I feel I am being spun around and am forced to turn to face the opposite direction. I see a shadow in the bushes, but the presence is still behind me. This repeats again and again, but the presence is always behind me. This passes after a while and I am aware of a presence to the west. I walk to the edge of the circle and dimly perceive a shadow in the branches of a distant tree. I defocused my eyes to perceive the gestalt form. It appears like a satyr in silhouette. I wonder if this is the Black Goat, but I am not sure. Perhaps it is Nodens, the enemy of the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s pantheon, associated with Pan. I feel drawn to it and a desire to leave the protective circle. I begin to step forward, but wisely change my mind.

“Everyone is having their own experiences, but we are all aware of the shadowy presences. Eventually a light rain starts to fall and awakens us from the light trances we have fallen into. As we wake, we become more aware of the eeriness. We decide to end the ritual and leave. But we don’t want to leave the protection of the circle, so we psychically visualise picking up the circle and taking it with us as we leave the cemetery.

“What is interesting about invoking what are essentially fictional beings, is the feeling you get from them – raw and immediate and more real than if you work with established mythical entities. But what were we doing and why?

“There were two motivations – a fascination for Lovecraft’s mythos and a desire to face the unknown. The contrast with most rituals, where you are facing known deities and their place in the mythic cosmos are established, the entities here are mysterious and uncertain. They have a strange and deep power, even though fictional.

“I would guess the reason they appear to be so present is their dominance in contemporary cultural consciousness – people read Lovecraft’s horror stories more than classical mythology. I had a similar experience with a group trying to contact aliens from UFOs. Again, this can be manifested because it is in popular consciousness. It doesn’t mean it is real; it means the forms are immediately available.

“I am certain these entities are not demonic in the popular sense of the term. They are not evil. I don’t believe in the dichotomy of good and evil. I believe all entities are complex natural forces and nature is neither good nor evil.

“It is also claimed by readers of Lovecraft that The Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos are monstrous and destructive creatures, whose actions are malicious or out to destroy mankind. They have no more regard for us than we have for ants, to be crushed if they are in our way. Cthulhu is the most famous of these and is seen as an apocalyptic figure sleeping in a tomb under the Atlantic ocean and who, when awakened, will destroy the world as we know it. From this perspective, it seems insane to invoke such entities.

“But things are not that simple. In Lovecraft’s original fiction, The Great Old Ones covered a wide range of beings. The common feature they share is the fear and terror they evoke in those who encounters them. But this varies depending on who is perceiving them and it is clear that this is not their objective nature but rather the different subjective responses of those who encounter them. They are monstrous because that is how they are perceived by those who are terrified of them. They are not malign. The only beings who are truly malign are some dysfunctional humans who have become alienated from nature, not the forces of nature themselves.

“Some occult theories describe demons, or Klippoth, as the deep psychic complexes of such humans in the collective unconscious. Some practitioners of Lovecraftian magic equate the Great Old Ones with these beings. I disagree. The Old Ones are different to work with in my experience – although possibly equally dangerous.

“Another influence was August Derleth, a writer who continued writing about Lovecraft’s mythos after his death and demonised The Great Old Ones. Evoking such beings would seem to be suicide, but if we concentrate on Lovecraft’s primary texts, things are different.

“So, what are they?

“In general, I would describe what we are dealing with as ‘The Other’ – alien forces from outside the human domain. They are so different and non human that they terrify those who encounter them – chiefly those who project idealised forms created by the human mind out into the universe as a stable comforting reality or need rational models of the universe for reality itself.

"According to Lovecraft, the universe is disorderly chaos. Order in this paradigm is a rare local phenomenon in a sea of irrationalism. The worlds of those who believe in order are shattered by an encounter with these Great Old Ones and the larger, more chaotic, aspects of reality. Such forces are arguably always waiting to intrude from beyond the boundary of everyday reason.

“That vision may say something about Lovecraft’s mental state. He had a pessimistic view of reality based on his reading of Nietschze and his reaction of horror at visions of chaos and indeterminism that he saw emerging in the science of quantum mechanics. This viewpoint differs from the mainstream view of traditional occultism, which is based on a Platonic view of the world in which the highest forms of reality are divine forms of order in the universe.

"In the Lovecraftian model, what underlies reality is not divine order by a seething chaos that we create order from ourselves. This fits in with the quantum mechanical view of the world. Lovecraft’s view is pessimistic, but I don’t think it needs to be interpreted in that way. Lovecraft was a materialist at heart and only used supernaturalism in his earlier works, to capture the horror and unnaturalness of his entities. In his later writing they had become physical aliens who had evolved differently from differently ordered parts of the universe, using a science that exploited the deep chaos of reality. This was a non-Euclidean science alien to the natural intuitions of the human mind and apt to send those who encounter it spiralling into madness.

“Even in Lovecraft’s pessimistic stories, people encounter it as a paradoxical mysticism, as in the story The Silver Key, which was influenced by occult ideas. Even where other literary sources have been adapted, they were influenced by Lovecraft’s dreams and nightmares. His stories show an artful portrayal of these aspects of reality uncontaminated by human ideals or wishful thinking.

“How does that relate to a more positive occult view of the world?

“The essence of Lovecraftian magic is mystery. Unlike other forms of working, where practitioners have a clear idea of what they are working with and a formal methodology, one of the appeals of Lovecraftian magic is working with the unknown and is experimental in its methodology. There are a variety of ways of working, from astral dream work to actual manifestations. And the manifestation range from a spiritual form of possession to a more physical evocation.

“That said, it helps to work with the accepted generalised concepts of practical magic. My current working visualises the cosmos as if it were filled with interactive forces both physical and non physical, arranged in a multi-dimensional framework. The everyday experience is a small sub frame of this. Beyond this there seems to be a multi dimensional continuum in which broader experiences are possible.

“This vast realm contains dimensions that cut across our domain and subtly order it, producing such conventional patterns as the laws of nature and structural matter and the various forms it takes. There are parallels here with Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance and modern occult concepts of etheric forms and ancient traditions such as the Egyptian idea of the ka and ba. It is also synonymous with contemporary ideas in mainstream physics and philosophy. I take this as a useful synthetic model capable of multiple interpretations.

“Some of these ordering dimensions are the ground from which consciousness emerges. Just as the physical forces which shape our world can been seen as distortions in the space-time continuum, consciousness can be seen as derived from distortions in this. Subtly ordering forces in our world can be seen in part as derived from these patterns in consciousness. In a scientific mindset they are seen as random events . In a magical mindset they are seen as synchronicity – the basic symbolic realm of these extra dimensional worlds.

“In this context, a being is a form of consciousness that has become encapsulated in an ordered form – a physical body or a subtle form, traditionally called a spirit. These bodied forms appear to be generated from thought forms, originating in consciousness. Without such forms, consciousness would appear to be a mysterious universal phenomena – a mind of the cosmos as a whole, albeit from a unique particular perspective.

“Mysticism aside, the forms that individual beings take while shaped from forms of thought also appear to require origination in organised matter. This is a complex philosophy but explains why the entities we manifest in magic appear to be shaped by human expectation and cultural archetypes. We create the forms of these intelligences from habit.

“That elaborate model is useful not only to give a visualisable account of classical magic from a more scientific perspective but also to explain traditional forms of entities. It can also explain what The Great Old Ones might be, or at least what the fictional forms of the Great Old Ones might be used as interactive masks for.

“I suggested that Lovecraft’s nightmares were partly triggered by his fear of the indeterminate world heralded by the new quantum physics. The aforementioned model is classical in this sense. If we add a quantum interpretation to this and today in physics, quantum mechanics is often seen as operating beyond the subatomic level, we can create a magical model replete with super positions and quantum indeterminism. I would argue this is a domain that equates with The Great Old Ones - a primal foundation of the cosmos that still subsists beneath the surface of consensual reality and can erupt into it.

“This equates with what Austin Osman Spare called ‘The In Between’ - the anomalous realm beyond all of reality, and what some other occultists call ‘The Abyss‘. This is supported by Spare’s alleged comment to Kenneth Grant, on reading Lovecraft, that he was ‘one of us‘.

“So what are the practical reason for contacting such things manifest with the masks of Lovecraft’s fiction?

“It is mainly to encounter the unknown, but it is also an encounter with the roots of being. Whatever form this encounter might take it is a powerfully transformative experience and from a practical perspective, a powerful ground from which to manipulate reality.”

Tomorrow in A Bad Witch's Blog I will be looking at a different view of working with The Great Old Ones, with Donald Tyson's Grimoire of the Necronomicon

Omnibus: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror No. 1 (H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus)
The Call of Cthulhu: And Other Weird Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)


Anonymous said...

under the Atlantic ocean

Ahem... presumably this was deliberate obfuscation, in case any reckless listeners decided to go and look!

Badwitch said...

I think he gets around :)

Anonymous said...

First, a disclaimer--I haven't read any of Lovecraft's books yet.

But I think I understand what Ash is getting at, although I may be coming from an entirely different direction.

Personally, I'm skeptical of all magick, gods and goddesses. And yet the mythology is inspiring, the rituals comforting. So for me, this is no distinction between a fictional spirit entity or a "real" one such as Cernunnos.

But I think Ash makes a good point about how some fictional characters are more readily available to our subconscious, and therein lies the appeal or why they work. However, I think this is no different from why Christianity, Hinduism or Islam works. Something within these religions connects with many people. Others get connected to pagan traditions.

I'm sure there are folks who would disagree, but I don't see any spirit beings as good or evil. I think it's our intentions that carry those values. And still further, good and evil can change depending on your culture.

Despite all my skepticism (informed as it is by my rejection of Christianity), I still have room for mystery. There is much we don't know about our existence, our reality (at least this one we're currently in!). There is much that science will reveal as time marches on, just as it has in the past. So I try to hold all this in balance and maintain a playful, open spirit to whatever gets revealed.

Badwitch said...

Those are extremely valid points.

Anonymous said...

In the original talk I mentioned that Cthulhu was in the Pacific, under a group of constellations called the Ocean, which contain all the Greek sea monsters, like Cetus.
Theres a page on that on my website.

Badwitch has done a great job at transcription, but it was a long, dense talk, a couple of minor errors are inevitable, will email corrections. :)

Steve Ash

Anonymous said...

I agree with riverwolf funnily enough, as I think scepticism is important. Personally I'm an agnostic on this, but you have to 'believe', or at least accept the possibility and suspend disbelief, while performing the rites or they don't work. For me a big part of the theoritisation is to facillitate that. There's also the 'diplomacy' of belief in working with aggressive entities who might exist :)

Given what we know about Quantum Physics, and the human conceptual mediation of experience, together with a scepticism on universal reason, I think the paradigm is highly plausible though.

Thanks for the comments.

Steve Ash.

Anonymous said...

To Steve's comment about believing in order to make rites work, I see his point. But it sounds much like my experience in church, where if you prayed for something and it didn't happen, you were told perhaps you didn't "believe" enough. Which is strange--so if Chrisitians believe enough, then God will do anything they ask? Sounds like we have more power than God.

They never consider it might simply be the power of positive (or negative) thinking--or maybe that prayer doesn't work at all.

So to come back around to Steve's comment--you do have to believe in order for things to work. But they only "work" because you expect them to, not necessarily because these forces exist and can be manipulated or act independently.

I don't know much about quantum physics or, in truth, even Wicca---just some honest thoughts here.