Eldritch Tarot (2021) by Sara Bardi

As for fortune-telling—I won’t try to argue the matter, but believe your continued studies in the various sciences will eventually cause you to abandon belief. Authentic psychology is one thing, but irresponsible prophecy is another.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Nils Frome, 19 December 1937, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 348

After a successful crowdfunding, Sara Bardi’s Eldritch Tarot has been unleashed upon the world—but this is not the first and will certainly not be the last tarot to take inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. To review this deck properly requires a certain understanding of what tarot is, where it comes from, how it has developed over the centuries—and how and why Lovecraftian tarots became a thing.

What has come to be the “standard” deck of playing cards in the English-speaking world are has ten pip cards (numbered Ace to 10) and three court cards (Jack, Queen, King) in four suits (typically diamonds ♦, spades ♠, hearts ♥, and clubs ♣). These 52 cards are often augmented by two “Jokers,” who have no suit and often are used as wild cards for some games. The exact number of cards, suits, etc. have varied over the centuries and in different countries, through a long and not always well-documented evolution.

Playing cards appear to have entered Italy from trade with the Mamlūk Empire in about the last quarter of the Fourteenth century (A Cultural History of the Tarot 8-9, 12-13). These early Mamlūk decks had four suits (Swords, Coins, Cups, and Polo Sticks); when translated into a European cultural milieu, where polo was less popular, the fourth suit became Batons—and over time, as the deck designs proliferated throughout Europe, different countries and places developed slightly different names and symbols. So the Italian suit of Coope (Cups) became Herzen (Hearts) in German, and Rosen (Roses) in Switzerland; Italian Denari (Coins) became Oros (Gold) in Spanish, Schellen (Bells) in German, Diamonds in English. Spade (Swords) became Spades in English, and so on forth.

Tarot cards are a branch of the evolution of the “standard” deck, and were intended to play games. A typical contemporary tarot deck has four suits (typically Cups, Coins, Swords, and Batons), each with pip cards (A to 10) and four court cards (Knave, Knight, Queen, King); twenty-one trumps, and a Fool card, which gives a total of 78. As with the “normal” playing deck, this was not set in stone, and there were many variations, especially considering the suits, the number and type of trumps, how they were ordered, etc. The trumps were incorporated for trick-taking games: whoever had the higher trump took the trick. Contemporary trick-taking games like Bourré played with normal playing carts designate one of the suits as trumps at the start of the game. In contemporary uses for divination & magic, the trumps (including the Fool) are typically called the Major Arcana, while the pip-cards and court-cards constitute the Minor Arcana.

Tarot decks begin to show up around Milan in the first half of the 15th century (A Cultural History of the Tarot 33-39), and spread and developed from there across Europe for several centuries. As might be expected, there were many local variations, some of which continued on and others which petered out. Eventually, certain consistent styles of decks became dominant: by the about the beginning of the 17th century, the most popular style of tarot deck in France was the Tarot de Marseille. Cartomancy, or divination by shuffling and revealing the cards, appears to have begun in the mid-to-late 18th century in France, and was popularized by the publication of Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes in 1770 (A Cultural History of the Tarot 93-95).

The system in Etteilla was not tarot-card reading as we know it today. The author Jean-Baptiste Alliette made a variation on the Tarot de Marseille (he used a piquet pack, which had the pip cards from 2 to 6 removed, plus the addition of an “Etteilla” card to represent the asker.) While Alliette was focusing on tarot for fortune-telling as a past-time, French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin  began to interpret the tarot trumps as occult symbols, and worked them into his system, claiming that they were a corrupted version of the Egyptian Book of Thoth (Egyptomania was prominent in France at the time, and would continue to be popular into the 19th century, which can be seen in developments such as Egyptian Freemasonry). De Gébelin surmised that tarot had been brought to Europe by the Romani (popularly, though sometimes pejoratively called “gypsies,” and who were believed by some to be displaced Egyptians), and the association of tarot and the Romani would continue in the popular consciousness for centuries (A Cultural History of the Tarot 102-109).

By the time Alliette began selling the Etteilla and tarot decks for fortune telling, tarot as a card game had been defunct in Paris, though still popular in other parts of Europe. Building off of the work of de Gébelin and Alliette, Éliphas Lévi Zahed revised and incorporated the symbolism of the tarot trumps into his systemic works of ceremonial magic, including Dogme et Rituel de la haute magie (1854-1856), La Clef des Grands Mystères (1861), and Histoire de la magie (1860)—the latter of which, in the English translation, would eventually be read by H. P. Lovecraft. Lévi’s system brought together medieval European systems of correspondences, the zodiac, kabbalah, and the tarot trumps (A Cultural History of the Tarot 111-117).

While Lévi allowed that tarot was useful for cartomancy, his incorporation of tarot into a system of magic opened up the tarot to be used in other magical operations—and the alterations made in the tarot decks of Lévi, Attelier, and other popularizers like Papus (Gérard Anaclet Vincent Encausse) in the correspondences, numbering, and iconography of the trump cards encouraged others to make further alterations. There were many different occultists throughout Europe who developed the tarot as a means of divination or incorporated it into their occult philosophy—including Helena Blavatasky—but to focus on the path that leads to Lovecraftian tarots, the work of Lévi & co. was particularly influential on a small a group of English ceremonial magicians known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (A Cultural History of the Tarot 126-136; A History of the Occult Tarot 76-90).

One of the founders of this society, Samuel Lidell Macgregor Mathers, published The Tarot: Its Occult Singification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play (1888) the same year that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came into existenc. The order was organized along the lines of a Freemason lodge (albeit accepting both men and women) with three degrees of initiation, and the system they used was based on a Cipher Manuscript, and included instruction on using the tarot for magical operations. While drawing heavily on Attellier, Lévi, & Papus and still recognizably based on the Tarot of Marseille, the Cipher Manuscript again made several changes in the associations & numbering of the trumps. Among the initiates of the order were Arthur Machen and his friend Arthur Edward Waite, Algernonon Blackwood, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, William Butler Yeats, and William Sharp; a good book on some of these is Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Years, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune by Susan Johnston Graf. Though the Order was relatively small, it had an outsized influence on contemporary occultism. The system of ceremonial magic that the Cipher Manuscript and related teachings described, and the tarot deck needed for it, would inform the decks and systems of its initiates (A History of the Occult Tarot 91-113).

In particular, in 1909 Arthur Edward Waite designed a deck, with art provided by Pamela Colman Smith (also known as “Pixie”). Waite based his iconography and numbering on the Order’s, with a few changes, but Smith apparently took inspiration from a 15th century tarot called the “Sola-Busca” deck. Unlike most tarot decks which left the pip cards relatively plain, this deck included full illustrations for all cards, which Pixie followed in her deck. The resulting deck, which was published by the Rider and is popularly (if inaccurately) known as the Rider-Waite tarot has become the most popular and influential tarot deck of the last century, with its suits (Wands, Pentacles, Cups, Swords), trump names and numbering, and iconography becoming iconic (A Cultural History of the Tarot 144-148, A History of the Occult Tarot 127-141).

The Waite-Smith tarot deck was widely published after World War II, and like ouija boards and other aspects of spiritualism and occultism found a new generation of adherents during the New Age movement in the 1970s. Yet before that happened, tarot was already a part of Lovecraftian occultism.

“Aleister Crowley is a now-elderly Englishman who has dabbled in this sort of thing since his Oxford days. He is, really, of course, a sort of maniac or degenerate despite his tremendous mystical scholarship. He has organised secret groups of repulsive Satanic & phallic worship in many places in Europe & Asia, & has been quietly kicked out of a dozen countries. Sooner or later the US. (he is now [in] N.Y.) will probably deport him—which will be bad luck for him, since England will probably put him in jail when he is sent home. T. Everett Harré—whom I have met & whom Long knows well—has seen quite a bit of Crolwey, & thinks he is about the most loathsome & sinister skunk at large. And when a Rabelaisian soul like Harré (who is never sober!) thinks that of anybody, the person must be a pretty bad egg indeed! Crowley is the compiler of the fairly well-known “Oxford Book of Mystical verse”, & a standard writer on occult subjects. the story of Wakefield’s which brings him in (under another name, of course) is in the collection “They Return at Evening,” which I’ll lend you if you like.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 5 April 1935,
Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 420-421

Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous former member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and expanded and changed its teachings in his subsequent magickal organizations the Argentum Astrum (A∴A∴) and the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.); as part of his occult publications he developed his own variant of the tarot deck, often called the Thoth deck (A Cultural History of the Tarot 137-142, A History of the Occult Tarot 142-156). Crowley’s final secretary and acolyte at the time of his death was a young man named Kenneth Grant, who went on to continute to develop and practice Crowley’s magickal system of Thelema, and to publish his own exegesis of the Golden Dawn-derived system. What sets Grant apart from from Crowley is that he directly incorporated fictional elements from the work of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft into his system in books like The Magical Revival (1972) and eventually inspired artist-occultist Linda Falorio to create the Shadow Tarot (A History of the Occult Tarot 310-311). Other occultist such as Nema Andahadna also used tarot in their Crowley-derived magickal systems. As an example of what this looks like:

One of Crowley’s methods of counter-checking a name or a number was by reducing it to a single number and adding together its component digits, referring the result to a Tarot Key. For example, if a spirit gave as its number 761, this owuld be checked thus: 7 + 6 + 1 = XIV, the Tarot Key entiled Art; and if the symbols and attributions of this Key were consant with the meaning of the number itself, it offered good ground for assuming that a bona fide spirt had responded to the invocation; but further tests would be necessary if doubt remained. Not only can the disembodied spirit of dead or sleeping people impersonate spirits and work evil by such means, but—which is infinitely more dangerous—extracosmic entities can masquerade as spirits and, if they are not banished before they can gain a foothold in the consciousness of he who inoked them, obsession follows. Austin Spare is the authority on their control; Lovecraft, on the devasation they leave in their wake when they are let loose upon the earth.
—Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival 110

Grant wasn’t the only magician playing with Lovecraftian occultism, but he was the most prominent working within a syncretic system that incorporated tarot as part of its magical workings, as opposed to works like the George Hay-edited The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978), which was styled on the medieval European grimoire tradition…which, of course, did not use the tarot in an occult context because playing cards and tarot cards weren’t introduced until the late medieval period, and then just for gaming. Those interested in a history of Lovecraftian occultism in general are encouraged to pick up The Necronomicon Files by Daniel Harms & John Wisdom Gonce III.

The H. P. Lovecraft Tarot

By the 1990s, would-be occultists could find mass-market paperback copies of the Simon Necronomicon and copies of the Waite-Smith deck in the New Ages shelves of their local bookstore, but there wasn’t really a Lovecraft-specific deck until David Wynn and Daryl Hutchinson came together to publish The H. P. Lovecraft Tarot (Mythos Books LLC, 1997/2002) in two limited editions, which now command high prices on the secondary market. This tarot largely follows the format of the Waite-Smith tarot in geneal form: there are 22 trumps, and the other cards are numbered in descending order and divided into four suits (Man, Artifacts, Tomes, and Sites), with each card depicting something from Lovecraft’s stories. The manual (by Eric C. Friedman) gives readings and a suggested spread, not disimilar from various Attellier-derived popular fortune-telling books. As a deck, it’s obviously intended as a bit of fun without any of the Waite-Smith style symbolism, opting instead for sepia-toned images, and is a product of New Age occultism married to popular culture—but still representing a lot of work!

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The H. R. Giger Tarot

Swiss artist H. R. Giger named two of his art collections Necronomicon, and although is particular subjects took little inspiration from Lovecraft, that connection between their work has continued (as discussed in “Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins). In 1992, the occultist Akron adapted 22 of Giger’s famous paintings into Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt, which was released as the H. R. Giger Tarot in English. These cards consist of only the trumps/Major Arcana, as well as a fold-out poster for the spread and a 224-page booklet (in the English edition, the German hardback is 408 pages) on potential spreads and interpretations of the cards. Akron had previously worked on The Crowley Tarot (1995), and shows the influence of Kenneth Grant in designating this a “shadow tarot,” but the purpose is more mystical than magical, less New Age in the sense of occult fun-and-games and more intended as a serious (and very cool-looking) tool for personal introspection and spiritual growth.

The Necronomicon Tarot

In the mid-2000s occult publisher Llewellyn published the “Necronomicon Series” by Donald Tyson, a series of pop-occult books with a Lovecraftian theme, including Tyson’s novel Alhazred: The Author of the Necronomicon (2006), a specious magical biography of Lovecraft, some ersatz grimoires, and in collaboration with artist Anne Stokes a tarot deck and manual: the Necronomicon Tarot (2007). This is a full tarot of 22 trumps and four suits (Discs, Cups, Wands, and Swords). While Stokes’ artwork stands out as effective and creative, this is really little more than a re-skin of the Waite-Smith tarot; so that even though the Minor Arcana all bear full illustrations, the system of planetary and elemental correspondences, the suggested readings, etc. are all basically a version of Arthur Edward Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911). Any tarot-reader already familiar with other systems can pretty much pick this deck up and use it. In this, Tyson’s tarot is totally in keeping with the rest of his work on the Necronomicon Series: pure pop-occultism.

The Dark Grimoire Tarot

By this point it was easier than ever before for basically anyone to print their own tarot, in a consistent size and relatively high quality. Which is why in 2008 the The Dark Grimoire Tarot by Michele Penko and Giovani Pelosini waspublished by Lo Scarabeo in Italy. Despite the unassuming English name, this is in fact a multi-lingual deck and three of the alternate titles are Tarocchi del Necronomicon, Tarot del Necronomicon, and Tarot du Necronomicon, just in case you had any doubts what they were about. This is quite literally just the Waite-Smith deck with different art; all the trumps and suits are the same. The book of instructions is split into six languages, and so only amounts to twelve pages for the English text, offering a very simple pentagram-inspired spread and some concise interpretations. If you don’t already know how to interpret tarot cards, this book won’t give you much to go on—but other than that, it isn’t really very different from the Necronomicon Tarot, and both are pretty much just tarot decks as product, rather than a showcase for art or a legitimate attempt at a useful occult tool.

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The Book of Azathoth Tarot

The 18th century French occultists declared the tarot deck the Book of Thoth, a legendary tome of magical lore which was encoded into the trumps of the deck; in this postmodern world, an occultist called Nemo has reworked this material into the Book of Azathoth Tarot. The first edition of these cards in 2012 had a really ugly back, but the subsequent edition has a much nicer design. Compared to the previous examples, this might be considered the most “serious” of the Lovecraftian tarots to date. It is a full tarot strongly inspired by the Waite-Smith tarot deck, right down to the same suits and trump names and numbers, and even moreso as it incorporates Hebrew letters, astrological symbols, and Zodiac signs into the iconography, and is obviously closely following some of Smith’s iconic designs, with a Mythos twist.

Which kind of works in its favor, oddly enough. The artwork has a design like medieval woodcuts, with a stark but unifrom yellow-and-black color scheme that gives a very clean appearance, and combined with the more classic design gives the deck a more traditional and authentic feel, even though the materials are all completely contemporary. The guidebook (2020) that goes with the deck is sold separately, hardbound and in full color. It is, again, very traditional. This is closer to what a Lovecraft tarot might have looked like if it was made during his own lifetime than anything else yet produced.

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Cthulhu’s Vault Tarot Card Set

Released in 2019 with art by Jacob Walker, the Cthulhu’s Vault Tarot Card Set is possibly the ipsissimus of cheap, lazy, and uninspired Lovecraftian reskins of the Waite-Smith tarot. While some of the art isn’t bad and this is a full 78-card deck, that’s damning with faint praise. In the era of cheap printing as sales move away from brick-and-mortar locations and to online marketplaces, this is also the future of Lovecraftian tarot. Anybody with enough raw art and a minimum of design skill can throw together a tarot deck…and have! You can buy the Cthulhu Dark Arts Tarot, Old Whispers Tarot, and the Forbidden Tarot, and no doubt more that I haven’t run across yet.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, we might expect that a lot of these tarots will fail commercially, and sink out of sight—maybe to reappear on auction websites at fabulous prices, maybe to be remaindered or gather dust at used bookstores and in basements and attics. But with the barrier for entry so low, we might also see a slew of these cheap decks published for the considerable future. While it is ridiculous to assume that any commercial tarot deck is made without an eye toward profit, the lack of care evident in some of today’s tarot decks illustrates how far we’ve come from the roots of the occult tarot, and how seriously folks like Gébelin, Alliette, Éliphas Lévi, Mathers, and Crowley took them. Tarot really has become just a toy for most people.

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The Eldritch Tarot

Which brings us to The Eldritch Tarot by Sara Bardi, successfully crowdfunded and published in 2021. Bardi is an Italian artist, perhaps best known for her webcomic Lovely Lovecraft. The Eldritch Tarot comes with no manual, no key to interpretation, but what it does come with is a lot of heart. The occult DNA of the Waite-Smith tarot deck is still there in the names and numbers of the Major Arcana, but that’s largely where it ends. The four suits are denoted by symbols for The Call of Cthulhu (tentacle), Under the Pyramids (broken chalice), The Dunwich Horror (wavy dagger), and At the Mountains of Madness (the pentagram version of the Elder Sign), and every one of the 78 cards features art in Bardi’s characteristic style.

This is closer to the H. P. Lovecraft Tarot than anything else, but there are no pretenses to occultism in Bardi’s tarot. This is the kind of deck where, if you want to dig out the rules for a tarot trick-taking game, you could sit down at a convention and play a couple hands with friends and have a good time. Or if you want to lay out a spread and tell some fortunes, look up the guidelines on the internet or pick up a cheap book from the library. This is a deck that is mostly shorn of tradition, but the art is clean, detailed, and maybe best of all relevant: this is a deck made by a Lovecraft fan, for Lovecraft fans.

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Lovecraft and Tarot

Meaningless spotted pasteboards […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 3 Feb 1932, Letters to James F. Morton 294

It’s not clear if H. P. Lovecraft ever saw a tarot deck; I’ve yet to find any direct mention of tarot or cartomancy in his published letters or essays. This isn’t vastly surprising: the global popularity in tarot didn’t start to rise until after World War II, long after he was dead; Lovecraft was not given to esoteric knowledge of card games; and his few occult-minded friends such as E. Hoffmann Price and William Lumley do not appear to have had any knowledge of tarot, or at least none is mentioned.

At the same time, we can be fairly certain that Lovecraft was aware that tarot existed, and that cartomancy was a form of divination. Lovecraft had read Lévi’s History of Magic (translated by A. E. Waite), with its references to the tarot; he had also read fictional works like The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (translated by Madge Pemberton), which includes its tarot scene. So it is reasonable to assume that Lovecraft was at least vaguely aware of tarot, its purported occult history, and their use in both games and divination. Certainly, Lovecraft may have been thinking of tarot when he wrote:

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”

Yet this could also have meant palm-reading, or some other form of divination. Lovecraft may have known little solid about tarot until fairly late in life: there is no direct reference to tarot in his early articles attacking astrology, or his outline for The Cancer of Superstition, a book he had planned to write for Harry Houdini, but which was scuttled by the magician’s death. Weird Tales did advertise books of cartomancy, but most of these would have used a standard playing card deck, not tarot.

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Weird Tales May 1935

It is doubtful that Lovecraft would have any strong belief in either the occult history of the tarot, and no belief at all in its value in divination. He was, as the he mentioned to fan Nils Frome in 1937, not a believer in fortune-telling; too much the mechanist materialist. Nor, for all that he read up somewhat on occultism, does Lovecraft appear to have been generally aware of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or Crowley’s system of Thelema—which is understandable; Lovecraft was no more an occultist than he was a card player.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee

As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, & supernatural themes—in all truth, they don’t amount to much. That is why it’s more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon & Book of Eibon. The magical lore which superstitious people really believed, & which trickled down to the Middle Ages from antiquity, was really nothing more than a lot of childish invocations & formulae for raising daemons &c., plus systems of speculation as dry as the orthodox philosophies.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 28 July 1926, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 378

People have always believed in magic, even if they haven’t always called it magic. This was rarely the kind of magic we might associate with fantasy fiction today; practitioners generally weren’t throwing fireballs. The form and goals of magic have always changed to match the syntax of the era. In ancient Rome, someone might scratch a curse on a tablet of lead, or have a diviner root around in entrails to answer a personal question, or wear an amulet to ensure an easy childbirth. In Lovecraft’s lifetime, they might check their horoscope in the newspaper, carry a rabbit’s foot on their keychain, or let someone hypnotize them.

When most people think of “real” magic, they think less of this kind of superstition and pseudoscience, as Lovecraft would put it, and more on specific tropes of grimoires, spellcasting, magic circles, maybe witchcraft and cults as described in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray. Ancient traditions passed down, either in oral traditions or crumbling books and manuscripts, or both. Lovecraft lived and wrote during the period called the Third Great Awakening which saw the rise of organized occultism (in the form of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and other groups), an increased focus on Spiritualism and other new religious movements, increased interest in ancient religions thanks to advances in archaeology, scientific interest in supernatural phenomena (as explored by the Society for Psychical Research and other groups), and wider publication of occult literature to an increasingly literate public. Owen Davies explores the magical world of Lovecraft’s era in his book A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War.

After World War II, magic continued to be popular. Aleister Crowley, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had developed its system of ceremonial magick into an influential system of belief called Thelema. Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, among others, formulated and organized contemporary witchcraft as Wicca. Interest in psychic phenomena, Eastern spirituality, and more new religious movements increased during the 1960s. Aleister Crowley’s secretary Kenneth Grant rose to prominence by expanding the system of ceremonial magic—and incorporating in elements of Lovecraft’s fictional Mythos. Anton LeVay, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966, also worked some Lovcraftian material in. In New York City in 1977, a Necronomicon appeared that purported to be a genuine grimoire. For more on such developments, check out The History of British Magick After Crowley and The Necronomicon Files.

While some might argue that all occult literature is in some sense fiction, the development of the Lovecraftian occult was different from claims to have found an ancient magical manuscript and translated it, or to have received a communication from some spirit from “outside.” While some of it (like the Simon Necronomicon) was deliberately fraudulent, the Lovecraftian occult proved to be no different, in the end, to any material derived from traditional sources. A little weird, maybe, and consciously derived from the works of a dead pulp writer rather than some medieval magician, but for people who found defined gods as ideas, concepts, and symbols—what was the difference between a traditional goddess such as Isis and a fictional one like Shub-Niggurath? If you believed enough, and if the rituals you worked around the idea worked well enough for you—why not be a Lovecraftian magician?

This postmodern approach to magick, where prospective magicians were not restricted to traditional systems but pursued a more individual, personal, even eclectic and experiential approach has sometimes been called Chaos magick. Lovecraftian occultism has incorporated by many chaos magicians (or chaotes) into their personal mythology, most notably by Phil Hine in The Pseudonomicon. This approach has in turn inspired takes on Lovecraftian spirituality, notably When the Stars Are Right: Toward an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality by Scott R. Jones, and Lovecraftian occultism has influenced Lovecraftian fiction.

Which is a very long prologue to begin talking about Trolling Lovecraft by V. McAfee.

I’m not really familiar with his history
enough to do that…
but I guess I could give it a shot. Like go
back to when he was a kid and haunt him
with weird bs?
—V. McAfee, Trolling Lovecraft 5

McAfee’s debut novel is told from the perspective of Dyl, a working chaos magician. It is occult fiction in the sense that it follows the precepts of chaos magic, without explaining the terminology or many of the concepts. Readers who aren’t familiar with sigil-making, or how you might charge an orgone accumulator, are going to miss a few things. While I wouldn’t be surprised if McAfee was very familiar with Hine and the Pseudonomicon, the focus of the novel is not some exegesis on Lovecraftian occultism…it’s the use of chaos magic for a very specific purpose: trolling Lovecraft.

There are a lot of ways for dealing with life, the things it throws at you, and historical figures like H. P. Lovecraft. Many writers have addressed Lovecraft and his work in many ways in fiction, from reverence to revulsion, ridicule to reimagining. None of these are wrong; a writer might express their appreciation for Lovecraft by creating a fictional version of them in their story, as Robert Silverberg did in “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, or work out frustration by calling out his racism as N. K. Jemisin did in The City We Became. Chaos magic is as valid an approach as any other—and maybe as valid a goal for chaos magic as any other operation.

He took his copy of a collection of Lovecraft’s prose off the shelf and found Beyond the Wall of Sleep, one of his favorites and one of the original pieces that he was going to mess with. He read through it quickly and found it unchanged, just as Her Greatness had said. Then, Dyl pulled up a transcription on the web and found that the phrase ’empire of Tsan-Chan’ had in fact been changed to ’empire of Fiat-Nox’.
—V. McAfee, Trolling Lovecraft 67

While trolling Lovecraft is the premise of the novel, the focus is on Dyl and the consequences of his actions. Like many magicians, he’s young, male, egotistical, often horny, and perpetually getting himself into deeper and deeper shit through poor life choices. This is not a magical adventure in the sense that Dyl has to find an ancient grimoire bound in human skin and has to defeat Cthulhu before the evil cult can summon him into the real world; this is an extraordinarily personal journey about someone who becomes unmoored from his personal reality because he decided to troll Lovecraft…and while many other people might not believe in it, it’s real for him.

Which is what chaos magic is all about.

Trolling Lovecraft was written by V. McAfee for NaNoWriMo 2020, and a print edition was successfully funded and delivered on Kickstarter in 2021. Digital copies can be purchased at the Gate Zero shop on Etsy and Gumroad.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Book of Dzyan (1888) by Helena Blavatsky

But there were others he had known merely by reputation or not at all—the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan, and a crumbling volume in wholly unidentifiable characters yet with certain symbols and diagrams shudderingly recognisable to the occult student.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark” (written 1935)

I learned of the city Shamballah, built by the Lemurians fifty million years ago, yet inviolate still behind its walls of psychic force in the eastern desert. I learned of the Book of Dzyan, whose first six chapters antedate the earth, and which was old when the lords of Venus came through space in their ships to civilise our planet.
—H. P. Lovecraft & William Lumley, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (written 1935)

As with The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray, the Book of Dzyan did not originate in the creative mind of H. P. Lovecraft. Its literary genesis began in the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky…and to understand the Book of Dzyan properly requires a knowledge of the founding and development of Theosophy, from the 1870s though its discovery by Lovecraft and his contemporaries at Weird Tales in the 1920s and 30s. Because of the sometimes deliberate myth-making and contradictory claims made by some of the personalities involved, sorting fact from fiction can be a little difficult, but sheds some valuable light on the influence of one of the great occult and spiritual developments of the late 19th and early 20th century on the Weird Tales circle.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky arrived in New York in 1873. At forty-two years old, she was already working as a medium and an occultist in Russia and Europe; now in America, she became involved in Spiritualism, wrote articles and established herself as a medium. In 1875 she claimed to have to have made contact with a group of Egypt-based mystic named the Brotherhood of Luxor, and convinced an associate Henry Steel Olcott to take out an advertisement in the Spiritual Scientist citing their names. Having done so, she convinced Olcott to create the “Miracle Club,” a short-lived organization devoted to psychical research. Olcott began to receive letters from the “Brotherhood of Luxor,” and William Quan Judge became attracted to the meetings being held in Blavatsky’s parlor, and the idea was started to create a society for occult research. Thus the Miracle Club transitioned into the Theosophical Society.

“And while there are those,” the mad Arab had written, “who have dared to seek glimpses beyond the Veil, and to accept HIM as a Guide, they would have been more prudent had they avoided commerce with HIM; for it is written in the Book of Thoth how terrific is the price of a single glimpse.[”]
—H. P. Lovecraft & E. Hoffmann Price, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (written 1932-33)

In 1875, Blavatsky began work on the book that would become Isis UnveiledThe title is an allusion to the Veil of Isis, promising the revelation of secrets. At this time, the Theosophical Society did not have a firm philosophical or magical framework, beyond Spiritualism that had begun to explore Western occultism. Blavatsky’s book would begin to rectify that situation; a mash-up of science, religion, mythology, and occultism which suggests two essential points: that neither contemporary science or religion know the truth of existence, and that there exists a unifying tradition of ancient wisdom represented by occultism. This was long years before Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bought: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890), and the mix of science, occult history, and comparative religion displays an outward modicum of erudition, learnedly quoting from diverse sources in different languages.

Erudition can be faked, however, and accounts of the book’s writing are muddled. Blavatsky was not a native English speaker, seems not to have had access to many of the worked cited; Alexander Wilder is credited with silently editing the book’s prose, and many of the primary sources were copied from secondary sources—a practice Lovecraft himself would follow in, for example, the invocation in “The Horror at Red Hook” copied from the Encyclopedia BritannicaIsis Unveiled also mentions the Brotherhood of Luxor (vol. 2, ch. 7), and gives them a Rosicrucian origin; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded 1887) would similarly draw on the idea of being descended from, or tied to, an existing occult group to establish its pedigree.

In later years, Blavatsky and her followers would claim Isis Unveiled or parts of it were dictated to her, making this a revealed work like “The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna, but in the text itself she begins:

There exists somewhere in this wide world an old Book — so very old that our modern antiquarians might ponder over its pages an indefinite time, and still not quite agree as to the nature of the fabric upon which it is written. It is the only original copy now in existence. The most ancient Hebrew document on occult learning — the Siphra Dzeniouta — was compiled from it, and that at a time when the former was already considered in the light of a literary relic.
—H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, vol. 1, ch. 1 

Not much else on this “old Book” is written, nor are such pseudobiblia limited to Lovecraftian fiction;  the Western esoteric tradition is replete with mythical or fictional volumes such as the Book of Thoth or spuriously attributed to legendary figures such as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. In Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism and Bön, there is also a tradition of terma, where esoteric teachings may be hidden or concealed in texts that are only discovered later in a system of continuous revelation. So Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, which focuses strongly on the errors of Judeo-Christian religion and the comparable merits of Buddhism, was drawing from very different traditions of occult and esoteric literature…and almost assuredly also from the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton such as Zanoni (1842) and Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871). Much as Lovecraft was to influence contemporary occultism in works like Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason, so did earlier forebears draw inspiration from fiction.

When Isis Unveiled was finally published in 1877, it was not the complete system of Theosophy; it was a precursor to ideas that would be more fully developed in her later books. Blavatsky’s habit of not citing the secondary sources she was quoting the primary sources from also eventually brought accusations of plagiarism, most notably from William Emmett Coleman, but it also provided the impetus for her relocation to India, where the Theosophical Society, which had almost sputtered out, could be reincarnated as a viable organization.

Blavatsky and Olcott moved to India in 1879. There she met Alfred Percy Sinnett, who would condense and popularize her ideas in a book titled Esoteric Buddhism (1883). During these years the Theosophical Society grew. Following the Masonic model, individual “lodges” had been formed in different localities by members. Once in London in 1885 she established her Blavatsky Lodge; and in 1888 she established the “Esoteric Section,” an inner circle within the society; and the Theosophical Publishing Company. It was this imprint which would publish her massive masterwork, The Secret Doctrine (1888/1889). This treatise purports to be “Stanzas Translated with Commentaries from the Secret Book of Dzyan.”

It is more than probable that the book will be regarded by a large section of the public as a romance of the wildest kind; for who has ever even heard of the book of Dzyan?
—H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 1, preface

Like Isis UnveiledThe Secret Doctrine was claimed to draw from an ancient, apocryphal text that Blavatsky had revealed to her by her supposed masters—now “The Great White Brotherhood” or mahatmas—in India and Tibet. Indeed, Blavatsky informs the readers that that book first mentioned in Isis Unveiled is the very same as the Book of Dzyan:

The “very old Book” is the original work from which the many volumes of Kiu-ti were compiled. Not only this latter and the Siphrah Dzeniouta but even the Sepher Jezirah,* the work attributed by the Hebrew Kabalists to their Patriarch Abraham (!), the book of Shu-king, China’s primitive Bible, the sacred volumes of the Egyptian Thoth-Hermes, the Puranas in India, and the Chaldean Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch itself, are all derived from that one small parent volume. Tradition says, that it was taken down in Senzar, the secret sacerdotal tongue, from the words of the Divine Beings, who dictated it to the sons of Light, in Central Asia, at the very beginning of the 5th (our) race; for there was a time when its language (the Sen-zar) was known to the Initiates of every nation, when the forefathers of the Toltec understood it as easily as the inhabitants of the lost Atlantis, who inherited it, in their turn, from the sages of the 3rd Race, the Manushis, who learnt it direct from the Devas of the 2nd and 1st Races. The “illustration” spoken of in “Isis” relates to the evolution of these Races and of our 4th and 5th Race Humanity in the Vaivasvata Manvantara or “Round”; each Round being composed of the Yugas of the seven periods of Humanity; four of which are now passed in our life cycle, the middle point of the 5th being nearly reached. The illustration is symbolical, as every one can well understand, and covers the ground from the beginning. The old book, having described Cosmic Evolution and explained the origin of everything on earth, including physical man, after giving the true history of the races from the First down to the Fifth (our) race, goes no further. It stops short at the beginning of the Kali Yuga just 4989 years ago at the death of Krishna, the bright “Sun-god,” the once living hero and reformer.
—H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 1, introduction

If Isis Unveiled is the start of Theosophy, The Secret Doctrine is the formal codification of it—a grand cosmogenic saga of revelations, the cycles of the ages, the incarnations of humanity and root races, all couched in a language which is half-derived from Buddhism and Hinduism, occult terminology, Spiritualism, and even a bit of contemporary science.

In 1889, Annie Besant would review The Secret Doctrine, conduct an interview with Blavatsky, and become a convert to Theosophy; Besant would swiftly rise through the ranks and became the President of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky would continue to write and publish, including The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of Silence in 1889. The Voice of Silence is:

The following pages are derived from “The Book of the Golden Precepts,” one of the works put into the hands of mystic students in the East. […] The work from which I here translate forms part of the same series as that from which the “Stanzas” of the Book of Dzyan were taken, on which the Secret Doctrine is based. 
—H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of Silence, preface

Helena Blavatsky would die of influenza in 1891. The Theosophical Society would continue to print and re-print her work—and many individual theosophists would expand upon or elaborate the mythology that Blavatsky created. Notable for our purposes is William Scott-Elliot, who in silent collaboration with Charles Webster Leadbeater produced two volumes expanding on Blavatsky’s occult history of the root-races: The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904); these would be reprinted in a combined edition The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria (1925). Scott-Elliot quotes from “The Book of Dzyan” a handful of times; these are taken from the “Stanzas of Dzyan” in The Secret Doctrine.

In the United States, Alice Bailey joined the Theosophical Society in 1917. Like Besant, she began to climb the ranks, and her initial theosophical writings were well-regarded; but in 1921/1922 a dispute with Besant led to Bailey’s expulsion from the Society. Undeterred, Bailey formed her own organization and continued writing. Her book A Treatise on Cosmic Fire (1925) contains 13 additional “Stanzas of Dzyan” with Bailey’s commentaries on the same. If readers need an analogy, Alice Bailey was to H. P. Blavatsky what August Derleth was to H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft had obviously heard of the The Book of Dzyan by at least 1935 when he wrote “The Haunter in the Dark” and co-wrote “The Diary of Alonzo Typer.” In other stories and writing he shows at least a basic awareness of the existence of Theosophy and some of its ideas:

At this time a wave of interest in spiritualistic charlatanry, mediumism, Hindoo theosophy, and such matters, much like that of the present day, was flourishing; so that the number of weird tales with a “psychic” or pseudo-scientific basis became very considerable.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (written 1925-1927)

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden aeons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu” (written 1926)

A smattering of theosophical lore, and a fondness for the speculations of such writers as Colonel Churchward and Lewis Spence concerning lost continents and primal forgotten civilisations, made Reynolds especially alert toward any aeonian relic like the unknown mummy.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Hazel Heald, “Out of the Aeons” (written 1933)

A few of the myths had significant connexions with other cloudy legends of the pre-human world, especially those Hindoo tales involving stupefying gulfs of time and forming part of the lore of modern theosophists.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time” (written 1935)

The questions start to multiply: Where did Lovecraft learn about the Book of Dzyan? How much did he know or read about Theosophy? How did Helena Blavatsky and her associates influence H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries? How did Theosophy influence the Cthulhu Mythos?

It should be stated at the outset that the Mythos as a whole was always more than just H. P. Lovecraft. In creating his artificial mythology, he borrowed elements from writers like Robert E. Howard (Nameless Cults, Bran Mak Morn, etc.), Clark Ashton Smith (The Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, etc.), and others, and they in turn borrowed from him. In the 1920s and 30s when Lovecraft & co. were in contact with one another, each of them had different opportunities to come into contact with Theosophy and its ideas, and each author used those ideas in their fiction in their own ways. Lemuria and Atlantis, for example, form common elements in the fiction of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith; but while these all draw some inspiration from the theosophical versions of these legendary lands, they aren’t necessarily deliberately working to make them match Theosophy. They were weird talers writing their own fiction with their own settings; informed by Theosophy, but not trying to write expansions of the Blavatsky mythos.

I’ve also been digesting something of vast interest as background or source material—which has belatedly introduced me to a cycle of myth with which I have reason to believe you are particularly familiar—i.e., the Atlantis-Lemuria tales, as developed by modern occultists & the sophical charlatans. Really, some of these hints about the lost “City of the of the Golden Gates” & the shapeless monsters of archaic Lemuria are ineffably pregnant with fantastic suggestion; & I only wish I could get hold of more of the stuff. What I have read is The Story of Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria, by W. Scott-Elliot.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jun 1926, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 106

From existing accounts, Lovecraft’s first brush with actual Theosophy was W. Scott-Elliot’s book, and in “The Call of Cthulhu” the only theosophical text cited is “W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria).” Robert E. Howard came across his first information from somewhere else, possibly the Oriental Library Clinic, a journal with some theosophical items:

About Atlantis — I believe something of the sort existed, though I do not especially hold any theory about a high type of civilization existing there — in fact, I doubt that. But some continent was submerged away back, or some large body of land, for practically all peoples have legends about a flood. And the Cro Magnons appeared suddenly in Europe, developed to a high stage of primitive culture; there is no trace to show that they came up the ladder of utter barbarism in Europe. Suddenly their remains are found supplanting the Neanderthal Men, to whom they have no ties of kinship whatever. Where did they originate? Nowhere in the known world, evidently. They must have originated and developed through the different basic stages of evolution in some land which is not now known to us. The occultists say that we are the fifth — I believe — great sub-race. Two unknown and unnamed races came, then the Lemurians, then the Atlanteans, then we. They say the Atlanteans were highly developed. I doubt it. I think they were simply the ancestors of the Cro Magnon men, who by some chance, escaped the fate which overtook the rest of the tribes. All my views on the matter I included in a long letter to the editor to whom I sold a tale entitled “The Shadow Kingdom,” which I expect will be published as a foreword to that story — if ever. This tale I wove about a mythical antediluvian empire, a contemporary of Atlantis.
— Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, 20 Oct 1928, Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 1.237

Clark Ashton Smith came at it from still a third way, possibly Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism:

It is good to know that you liked this last story. As to that problem of transmission—well, it seems to me that the author has to be omniscient or nothing: though one might get the story out of the “astral records” (preserved somewhere in the ether, and accessible to adepts) which are mentioned in the literature of esoteric Buddhism! The tradition of Hyperborea, Mu and Atlantis were supposedly preserved in these records! […] I have never seen The Riddle of the Pacific, nor the book by Scott-Elliot either, and must find out if they are locally procurable.
— Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 17 Nov 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 271-272

Lovecraft & co. do not seem to have deliberately sought out any additional theosophical lore for a while. However, in the intervening period they became friends and correspondents with another weird taler, E. Hoffmann Price—the only man to actually meet all three of them, an ex-army officer and astrologer with a taste for Persian carpets, wine, and occultism. In 1932, Lovecraft visited New Orleans; he was not then in contact with Price, but their mutual friend Robert E. Howard managed to get them in touch with one another. The two men became immediate friends, and even began a collaborative story, a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key.” Later on, Lovecraft would write:

By the way—Price has dug up another cycle of actual folklore involving an allegedly primordial thing called “The Book of Dyzan”, [sic] which is supposed to contain all sorts of secrets of the Elder World before the sinking of Kusha (Atlantis) and Shâlmali (Lemuria). It is kept at the Holy City of Shamballah, & is regarded as the oldest book in the world—its language being Senzar (ancestor of Sanscrit), which was brought to earth 18,000,000 years ago by the Lords of Venus. I don’t know where E. Hoffmann got hold of this stuff, but it sounds damn good. I shall ask him to spill particulars to you and me—though you may have met this cycle before. It reminds me of the Scott-Elliot stuff connected with theosophy.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, c.10 Feb 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 404

What you say of your new tale, and of the Pushkara-Plaksha-Kusha-Shâlmali-Mt. Wern-Senzar-Dzyan-Shamballah myth-cycle which you have dug up, interests me to fever heat; and I am tempted to overwhelm you with questions as to the source, provenance, general bearings, and bibliography of all this unknown legendry. Where did you find it? How can one get hold of it? What nation or region developed it? Why isn’t it mentioned in ordinary works on comparative folklore? What—if any—special cult (like the theosophist, who have concocted a picturesque tradition of Atlanteo-Lemurian elder world stuff, well summarised in a book by W. Scott-Elliott) cherishes it? For gawd’s sake, yes—send along those notes, and I’m sure that Klarkash-Ton, High-Priest of Tsathoggua, would (unless he knows about the cycle in question, appreciate them as keenly as I. […] Meanwhile, as I said before, I’m quite on edge about that Dzyan-Shamballah stuff. The cosmic scope of it—Lords of Venus, and all that—sounds so especially and emphatically in my line!
— HPL to E. Hoffmann Price, 15 Feb 1933, Selected Letters 4.153

Price duly copied out a load of quotes from several theosophical books, which he sent to Lovecraft. The notes themselves are not known to survive, but in a later letter, Price describes some of the materials her had transmitted to Lovecraft:

Get Annie Besant’s THE PEDIGREE OF MAN. The copy I studied is borrowed, else I would gladly lend it. It came from Theosophic Book Corporation, Fine Arts Bldg., Chicago, and is dated (with owner’s signature) Nov. 1910. Published by Theosophical Publishing Society, Theosophist Office, Adyar, Madras, s. 1908. Price, 1 rupee. 

Printed by Freeman & Co., Ltd., Tara Printing Works, Benares.

145 pages of text, charts, tables, diagrams: and a mine of occult lore in condensed, terrifically condensed form. Maybe THE OCCULT SOCIETY, 604 Locust St., Phila. Pa. might be able to get it, although their catalog does not list it.

The quotations I sent you are from Leadbeater’s INNER LIFE, page 105, under “symbology”. Each quotation is the germ of a novelette in my deft hands!

The job I finished last night is based on some of the note I sent you. Help yourself there’s enough for all.

W. Scott-Elliot’s book has not passed through my hands. I got mine from the sources: Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, 1st edition, with excerpts from the Book of Dzyan.

It is hard reading, some of it—but it’s right up your alley. It takes guts to wade through it, unless you have a taste for it; and you have. However, that remains to be seen. Try it and see.
[…]

Read, use, copy—and if you please, send on to Klark-Ashton, with request to use, then forward to Barlow. You see, I promised Barlow a piece de resistance: the whole works of a 1st draft, from plot germ–research–prelimary [sic] scribblings–all the dirt & crap of composition. I will do so, and therefore ask you to pass these 4 pages to Smith with this request, so that Barlow will get a real gem, even though not all handwritten.
— E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 18 Feb 1933, MSS. John Hay Library

Lovecraft appears to have duly copied the notes and sent them on to various correspondents.

As you have probably recognised, that mystic primal dope from Price (notes of which I’ll send you soon) was conventional theosophical stuff (Besant, Leadbeater, &c) after all. Do you know anything about the real source of this? Does it have any real Oriental source, or is it just a synthetic concoction of the theosophists? I’ve read almost nothing in that line. 
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 21 Feb 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 406

By the way—it turns out that Price’s mystical legendry was, after all, only the stuff promulgated by the theosophists—Besant, Leadbeater, &c. I thought it sounded like that. Do you know anything of the origin of that stuff? It pretends to be real folklore—at least in part (of India, I suppose)—but I have a certain sneaking suspicion that the theosophists themselves have interpolated a lot of dope. There are things which suggest a knowledge of certain 19th century conceptions.
— H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, c.27 Feb 1933, Essential Solitude 2.547-548

Lovecraft’s inquiries as to the source of all this material, which was ultimately the Book of Dzyan that Blavatsky had claimed as the ultimate source for so much of her work, would turn up empty:

The Book of Dyzan [sic] is new to me—I haven’t read any great amount of theosophical literature. I’d be vastly interested in any dope you or Price can pass on to me. Theosophy, as far as I can gather, is a version of esoteric Yoga prepared for western consumption, so I dare say its legendry must have some sort of basis in ancient Oriental records. One can disregard the theosophy, and make good use of the stuff about elder continents, etc. I got my own ideas about Hyperborea, Poseidonis, etc., from such sources, and then turned my imagination loose.
— Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 408

The same can no doubt be said of Robert E. Howard, whose versions of Atlantis and Lemuria are different from, but complementary, to Clark Ashton Smith’s. For his part, Lovecraft and Price continued to correspond on the subject.

By this time you’ll have received the forwarded matter from Price to be sent to Barlow. I am very curious about this holy city of Shamballah, said to exist unimpaired somewhere in the Gobi; though built by the Lemurians or 3d root race several million years ago. It is here that the Book of Dzyan— parts of which are older than the earth—is kept. Shamballah would make a splendid fictional theme. I wonder if any theosophists or Hindoos pretend to have visited it? As you say, the theosophic myth-cycle is probably based on ancient Indian lore with certain 19th century accessions. Price mentions A. P. Sinnett’s “Esoteric Buddhism”, Besant’s “Pedigree of Man”, Leadbeater’s “Inner Life”, & Blavatsky’s “Secret Doctrine” in his bibliography (I’ve read none of these)—to which might be added Scott-Elliot’s “Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria”, which I read some years ago. I think I must do some research along this line when I get the time. I found Scott-Elliot quite an imaginative stimulus. […]

P.S. Just heard from Price. He says that according to theosophists, Shamballah keeps itself from invasion through adverse thought-waves which deflect all attempts to reach it—producing bad weather, apparent accidents, &c. 
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 15 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 410, 411

This is what Lovecraft was referring to in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” when he wrote of “Shamballah, built by the Lemurians fifty million years ago, yet inviolate still behind its walls of psychic force in the eastern desert.” Nor does it appear that Lovecraft ever delved much deeper into the fine points of Theosophy, despite assurances in his letters to friends that he should do. From all that Lovecraft was getting second- and third-hand, he’d already decided that pretty much all of Theosophy had to be a 19th century hoax—albeit a fun one:

Thanks exceedingly for the sidelights on the theosophical cycle. Sinnett must surely be a standard authority, since both you & the Peacock Sultan recommend him. This stuff is certainly worth looking up—the matter of the invisible planets being especially promising. As you say, there is probably a good bit of genuine tradition in the lore of theosophy. One thing we can say for the Hindoos is that their mythology shews a better grasp of the earth’s transience & insignificance in time & space than any other known to history & anthropology. I wonder how these legends of early things compare with what Col. Churchward claims of the Himalayan priests & their records in the primal Naacal language which tell of sunken Mu?

Obviously, these traditions are very old among the Hindoos; & it would be interesting to discover how they arose. Originally the Aryan creators of Brahmanism had a mythology of personified natural forces homologous to those of the Greeks & Romans, & of our Northern ancestors. Could the theosophical cycle have arisen out of these, or were its germs derived from the non-Aryan subject races of India? Since the Brahmans arrived in India about 2000 B.C., there was plenty of time for the crystallisation of a definite new myth-cycle before the earliest contacts with the Western World. It is not likely that any “Atlantis” ever existed. The evidences of geology & natural history are that no connexion betwixt various Atlantic islands has existed since the appearance of man on the planet. But of course there may well have been important pre-Aryan civilisations & legends in India. Indeed, we know there were pre-Aryan cities on the Indus river. 

The notion of the “Akashic” records is indeed an unique one. But I don’t think there’s much ground for assuming any truth in these tales. To begin with, they assume an antiquity for mankind which is against all the indications of palaeontology & geology. As for the pineal gland—modern endocrinology has fairly well established its actual function in the human system . . . as a regulator of the chemical & biological changes attending adolescence & maturity. But surely the legends lose nothing in picturesqueness & imaginative value through being merely legends. […]

From something Price says, I take it that Blavatsky is the best “authority” anent the Book of Dzyan (not Dyzan, as I first carelessly transcribed it). Accounts of Holy Shamballah would seem to vary—but it’s great fictional stuff in any form!  
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 24 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 411

The interesting part of this exchange is that Lovecraft appeared quite ready to incorporate some of this theosophical material into the nascent Mythos:

What you say of the theosophy cycle & of the special fictionally developable features interests me tremendously. I simply must look up Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater, Sinnett, &c. One could, as you say, derive a whole canon of tales from it. It seems to make my Yog-Sothoth stuff pallid by comparison! These Akashic records tickle my imagination. It is from them, of course, that the Book of Eibon & the Pnakotic Manuscripts were first devised! 
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Apr 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 414

Glad you duly received the Price notes with data on the theosophical myth-cycle. I copied a good deal of this, & took the names of the books from which Price dug up this dope. Beside the body of tradition, my own Cthulhu-Yog-Sothoth stuff sounds quite pallid & unconvincing! Much of this stuff undoubtedly represents actual beliefs current among the HIndoos, although a great deal has undoubtedly been added by the theosophists of the 19th century. Smith is following this research still further, & has unearthed a great deal of interesting data which Price does not include. It surely does form an admirable background for fantastic fiction.
— H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 9 Apr 1933, O Fortunate Floridian 60

The Lovecraft-Price collaboration went through a couple of drafts. The initial draft was written by Price, and was later published separately as “The Lord of Illusions” (MSS. John Hay Library). As was his habit, Lovecraft completely re-wrote the story in a handwritten draft (MSS. John Hay Library). Another draft of the story, probably typed by Price, is much expanded and includes several theosophical references (MSS. John Hay Library); a letter from Price to Lovecraft contains several notes on this or a related draft (MSS. John Hay Library), including more theosophical lore and even a lengthy quote from Blavatsky’s The Voice of Silence. Ultimately, the theosophical references were dropped from the final version of the story which appeared in the July 1934 issue of Weird Taleswith the main surviving remnant being, perhaps, the “Swami Chandraputra.”

By the summer of 1933, Lovecraft has absorbed about as much theosophical knowledge that he can confidently rattle off a list of titles to a correspondent:

Another cycle of impressive-sounding folklore or pseudo-folklore is that sponsored by the modern theosophists. Some of this is undoubtedly genuine Hindoo myth, but I suspect that the cult of theosophists has mixed with it a great deal of synthetic fakery of 19th century origin. The best books of this sort of thing to read are the following:

Besant, Annie—The Pedigree of Man
Blavatsky, Helena—The Secret Doctrine
Leadbeater—The Inner Life
Scott-Elliot, W.—Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria
Sinnett, A. P.—Esoteric Buddhism

More of this stuff can be found in the catalogues of the Occult Society, 604 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. Those theosophical mystifications involved vast gulfs of time & cycles of change—pre-human aeons & life coming from other planets—not found in other folklore.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 18 Jul 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 190-191

There are a handful of other references to Theosophy and the Book of Dzyan in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, but they are few, far between, and show no greater knowledge of the theosophical texts than what Lovecraft already had in 1933. Near the end of his life, however, he finally managed to get access to one of the books he had heard about:

Thanks, by the way, for the loan of the Blavatsky opus—which I shall read with the most intense interest. I’ve never read any of the classics of theosophy, though I’ve always been meaning to. I wonder if anybody has ever tried to isolate the real Oriental folklore in them from the 19th century fakery & interpolations? I may have fumbled the allusion to the Book of Dzyan, since all I know about it is something in a letter of Price’s which spoke of the early parts as having been brought from an older solar system than ours. Of course the text ridiculed in the Necronomicon is the merest imitation!
— H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 30 Nov 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore & Others 257

This was probably The Secret Doctrine. However, at this point Lovecraft already dying, and it seems unlikely he managed to wade through its 1,500+ pages in the few months remaining to him. The last word on Price’s theosophical notes came over a decade after Lovecraft’s death:

I imagine that Lovecraft derived his information about Shamballah from E. Hoffmann Price, who in turn probably drew the data from Blavatsky or some other theosophical authority. I have some notes that Price gave me, in which Shamballah is mentioned:

“The word came from Shamballah, the Holy City, to destroy Atlantis 850,000 years ago, and overthrow the Lords of the Dark Face. The divine race of Aarab escaped the catastrophe, and in Al Yemen they reared the mighty Himyar palaces, with prodigious bulks, uncounted domes.”

S. is supposed to exist, invisible, somewhere in the Gobi desert. It was, I seem to remember, built by the lords of the Flame who came down from Venus. In it is kept the Book of Dzyan, older than the world.
— Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 27 Oct 1948, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 354-355

It plays like a telephone game. H. P. Blavatsky invents a fictional book for Isis Unveiled, fleshes it out in The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of Silence; other writers like W. Scott-Elliot and Alice Bailey write their own books expanding on it, and so the idea of the Book of Dzyan is carried to H. P. Lovecraft, who plops it into some of his final stories, and thus makes Theosophy and the Book of Dzyan an extension of the Cthulhu Mythos—which, to be fair, also already implicitly includes real-world works like the Christian Bible, Jewish Talmud, Islamic Koran, etc., but those books aren’t listed among the Mythos tomes in the library of the Church of the Starry Wisdom.

At least one friend tweaked his nose about how he presented the book in “The Haunter of the Dark”:

On that same page, I might suggest that while the Book of Dzyan could be used by a malignant cult, its connotation is quite the opposite. The original is supposed to be in Shamballah, where it was deposited by the children of the fire mist, when they came to earth 18 million years ago, from Venus.
— E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 3 Feb 1936, MSS. John Hay Library

Blavatsky always alleged that she was drawing from a real source; scholars have yet to identify any esoteric Buddhist work which matches the Stanzas of Dzyan, though not for lack of trying (see Blavatsky’s Secret Books). Looking at the history of her writing and development, the idea that the whole Book of Dzyan is essentially a fabrication, a close cousin of the Necronomicon, seems abundantly clear—but it becomes a matter of trust and faith. For those who believe in Theosophy, the Book of Dzyan may be as real and accurate as the Book of Mormon is to the Church of Latter Day Saints.

In the Mythos, however, it is mostly one tome among many. At least two dozen stories reference the Book of Dzyan, some only occupying space on a Mythos bookshelf (especially in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game), a few in greater detail. Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley and Dan Harms in The Starry Wisdom Library (2014) give Blavatsky’s book rather more attention and respect, attempting to parse the difference between Theosophy’s cosmic vision and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. Stanley makes no bones; she claims that this is completely separate from the Theosophical book of the same name. Harms’ version pays homage to Stanley’s, but hews closer to the source material, trying to thread the needle that would make the Book of Dzyan more realistic, and yet distinct from Blavatsky’s version.

The wider impact of Theosophy—and thus The Secret Doctrine‘s—influence on the Mythos and Lovecraftian literature is much wider but more nebulous. Lovecraft and his contemporaries didn’t replicate much of the inherent racism and antisemitism present in Blavatsky’s writing, but it’s difficult not to see the influence of those cycles of humanity in Robert E. Howard’s “Hyborian Age” essay, and by extension the tales of Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and Turlough Dubh O’Brien; in the Atlantis, Poseidonis, and Hyperborea cycles of Clark Ashton Smith; in “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow out of Time,” and however many stories that came after, drawing on or referencing those traditions…and other media besides. When the time comes to look up information on the Mythos in “The Collect Call of Cathulhu,” an episode of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, Egon tells Ray to check the Book of Dzyan. (The Necronomicon Files 287)

Beyond even that…the Lovecraftian occult has a habit of seizing on any occult reference in the Mythos and weaving that thread into their own tapestry. Kenneth Grant considered Blavatsky’s Book of Dzyan and Lovecraft’s Necronomicon “akashic grimoires” (The Necronomicon Files 110).

Readers that want a version of The Book of Dzyan on their shelves could do worse than The Book of Dzyan: The Known Text, The Secret Doctrine, Additional Sources, A Life of Mme. Blavatsky (2000, Chaosium), part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.

Acknowledgements

For the biographical details of Blavatsky’s life, this article largely relies on Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth (1980) by Marion Meade.

Thanks to Rick Lai for transcripts of E. Hoffmann Price’s letters.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna

There cometh the Book of the Forgotten Ones. This shall be for the priests of Maat.
In the name of creation and that which is before it, Aumgn!
—NAHADA 62, “The Forgotten Ones”
The Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick, Vol. I, No. II, 59

If a reader were to browse through the chapter on Lovecraftian magick in Robert North’s New Flesh Palladium (2006, 4th edition) or The Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult (2008), or peruse Kenneth Grant’s later Typhonian Trilogies, especially Outside the Circles of Time (1980), they would come across references to a supposed Lovecraftian occult text or work called The Book of the Forgotten Ones. One of the rituals is discussed briefly in The Necronomicon Files (2003). Yet unlike Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason, you cannot exactly go online and buy a nice hardcopy edition of this particular occult text.

Some years ago I received a communication from the Maatian gestalt via the mediumship of Soror Andahadna (Nema).
—Allan Holub, “The Second Book of the Forgotten Ones”
The Cincinnati Journal of Magick, Vol. II, No. VI, 33

The Book of the Forgotten Ones is a channeled text, received by the medium Soror Andahadna (Nema, Maggie Ingalls). The reception of texts from a divine or supernatural source is accepted by many religions and occult groups, examples include Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon or Kenneth Grant and the Book of the Spider. One can even draw a Lovecraftian parallel with the images of Cthulhu created by sensitive artists in “The Call of Cthulhu.”

Nema was a practitioner of Thelema, the system of ceremonial magick created by Aleister Crowley and extended by Kenneth Grant and others, and in 1974 had channeled the book Liber Pennae Praenumbra: The Book of the Foreshadowing of the Feather, which established her own “Maat” current, based on Thelemic principles. She joined the Bates Cabal in Ohio, helped write and publish The Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick in 1976, co-founded the Horus-Maat Lodge in 1979, and published a number of works on her Ma’atian magick. She was a member of Kenneth Grant’s Typhonian Order for several years, and alongside Michael Bertiaux became one of Grant’s favorite examples of Lovecraftian occults in his Typhonian trilogies.

Soror Andahadna, a contemporary priestess of Maat, has received snatches from beyond the Abyss, and they comprise The Book of the Forgotten Ones. It contains allusions to mysteries that first appeared in the writings of Frater Achad [Charles Stansfield Jones]. It would appear that there exists just without the circle of mundane awareness a complete grimoire of magical formulae. It is perhaps from this lost grimoire that artists and poets have been drawing with increasing frequency over the past century, or since the ‘first whirlings’ of the New Aeon were adumbrated more than four hundred years ago in the writings of Rabelais, and earlier initiates.
—Kenneth Grant, Outside the Circles of Time 46-47

“Snatches” is perhaps the best description of it, because if The Book of the Forgotten Ones has ever been a single complete text, I’ve found no record it. What we have are three separate chapters which were published over the space of a decade in the Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick, alongside much other Thelemic and Ma’atian material by Nema and the Bates Cabal.

The first chapter is “The Forgotten Ones,” published in Vol. 1, no. 2, pp.59-63 as by NAHADA 62. The text is dated 16 July 1971, which would make this earlier than the Liber Pennae Penumbra, and contains no overt references the Lovecraft Mythos, being for the most part a long series of short declarative sentences and instructions, for example:

Ye know Me, though my name be forgotten, in the dread of impending events. I am the motion of a leaf blown down an empty street. I am the sender of omens.

Chant the incantation of My Name.

It will destroy you. Pronounce My Name aloud, in repetition—it will banish all but pure Awareness.

Descend into My Temple, meet yourself. Bear thence the Wand of the Papyrus, and the sword, the shield of mine devise, and the eye Globe. Ye are twain therein, and learn the Alchemy and Mass of No*.
—NAHADA 62, “The Forgotten Ones”
The Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick, Vol. I, No. 2, 60

These could be taken as instructions for a ritual, couched in symbolic language for adepts. As to who the “Forgotten Ones” are, Nema would later expand on that slightly in her work Maat Magick: A Guide to Self-Initiation (1995), with a bit of a Jungian approach:

I call our survival urges the Forgotten Ones (FO) because our intellects tend to forget them or to trivialize them. Our individual and collective Egos are artifacts of intellect; it’s ego’s vanity that blinds intellect to the power of the FO. […] The Forgotten Ones include, but are not limited to, the instincts of hunger, sex, fight-or-flight, clanning, communication, curiosity, altruism and religion, all those imperatives or actions ensuring survival of self, offspring, and species. The gods our ancestors worshipped are rooted in the Forgotten Ones, given typical human personalities, then made larger and more powerful than humans. […] The gods and goddesses of the old pantheons gained independent life through centuries of worship and did play a directing role in the spiritual, moral and social lives of their devotees.

The second chapter is “Return of the Elder Gods: An Invocation of the Forgotten Ones” in The Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick vol. 1, no. 3, pp.17-26 (1978), as by “Nema and the Shadow.” Unlike the previous chapter, this is a completely different style, much more expositional and less ceremonial; it discusses the Elder Gods, their relation to the Forgotten Ones, and how (and why) to invoke the latter to aid against the invasion of the former. This is the ritual discussed in The Necronomicon Files (2003, 120-1); the paragraph in The Book of Lies 145 seems based directly on The Necronomicon Files. In one of those “as above, so below” turnabouts, it seems that:

In the Macrocosm, these forces are the Elder Gods; in the Microcosm, they are the Forgotten Ones. to  our present Consciousness, these gods are Qlipothic, constituting the Dark aspects of the anti-Universe and the human Unconscious respectively. Admittedly, there is a certain danger inherent in contact them; but there is sure disaster in neglecting to do so.
—Nema and the Shadow, “Return of the Elder Gods”
The Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick, Vol. I, No. 3, 17

While not explicitly Mythos-related (unless you count the term ‘Elder Gods’ in a sense Lovecraft never used), there are details of the work that suggest Nema was definitely being inspired by the work of Kenneth Grant, particularly Cults of the Shadow (1976) and Nightside of Eden (1977). It is notable that in Maat Magick, Nema writes:

Mr. Grant expresses a dangerous experience in Nightside, one that can be approached “in person” only from above the Abyss. […] He speaks more eloquently on the subject than anyone since H. P. Lovecraft. Unlike H.P. L., Mr. Grant is a conscious adept and priest of the eldrich [sic] dark; rather than speak of unspeakable horrors, he presents useful information about the denizens of the tunnels and the dangers of the Nightside. (209)

What really brought all this together was “The Second Book of the Forgotten Ones” in The Cincinnati Journal of Magick vol. II, no. 6, pp.33-53 (1988) by Allen Holub. This essay is an exegesis on Nema’s channeled text, along with a channeled text of his own received 7 January 1976, and directly connects these workings with the Lovecraft Mythos…sortof:

By way of introduction; this essay discusses a collection of forces deemed variously the Elder Gods, the Old Ones, and the Forgotten Ones. The two former names are unfortunate as they associate these forces with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Though Lovecraft may or may not have been in contact with these beings, his fearful ravings are of little use to the practicing magician. As far as I can determine, the forces discussed below have no relation whatever with the begins contacted by Lovecraft, even though some of them bear the same names. This similarity of nomenclature may be attributed to Lovecraft having indeed reached the Portal, that is, the verge of true communication with the Dark Forces. However, instead of communicating with them, he was eaten by them. The forces Lovecraft represents in his stories are not the true Elder Gods at all but are the shadows of the Elder Gods distorted to the point of unrecognizability by madness. For these reasons, the forces here will be called the Forgotten Ones, a name they choose for themselves. These are not the gods of the Lovecraft Mythos.
—Allen Holub, “The Second Book of the Forgotten Ones”
The Cincinnati Journal of Magick, Vol. II, No. VI, 33-34

Holub’s forceful assertion that the Forgotten Ones/Elder Gods are not the same as any entities in Lovecraft’s fiction appears to be a direct confirmation that some people did see the connections. Kenneth Grant appears to blithely ignore this entirely in his chapter on “The Forgotten Ones” in Outside the Circles of Time, and given the relative scarcity of the original journals, it’s possible few people were the wiser. Whether Holub was ever speaking for Nema on the matter is unknown.

In content, these snippets of The Book of the Forgotten Ones are both disappointing and interesting. The original channeled text and ritual by Nema appear to represent her genuine spiritual and occult leanings and practice, related as they are to the Ma’at current; Holub and Grant both seized on these as inspiration and raw material for their own expansion of the material. In the case of Kenneth Grant—who was apparently eager to seize on any magical practice vaguely related to his own Lovecraftian leanings—this resulted in the rather wider dissemination of The Book of the Forgotten Ones than it would otherwise have gotten.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason

“He is firmly convinced that all our gang—you, Two-Gun Bob, Sonny Belknap, Grandpa E’ch-Pi-El, and the rest—are genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension. We may think we’re writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving unwittingly as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Oct 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 449

During their lifetimes, H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries received inquiries into whether or not the grimoires and entities in their pulp fiction were real—Lovecraft, ever the materialist, always admitted they were fiction. Yet in time occultists did begin to appropriate elements of the Mythos, and notable early works include Kenneth Grant with his Typhonian Trilogies, beginning with The Magical Revival (1972); Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible (1976). These works and others like them have in turn inspired further occult material, either expanding on previous work or adapting Lovecraftian elements to other magical paradigms. Lovecraftian occult literature has grown up alongside and occasionally interacting with Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

Much of the early occult interest centered around the Necronomicon, the most evocative of Lovecraft’s fictional grimoires, and in the 1970s it inspired a few prominent hoaxes, including editor George Hay’s Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978) and “Simon” with the ersatz Necronomicon (1977), which for the last several decades has been in print in a cheap and eminently affordable paperback edition.  These last two books were presented in the format of genuine grimoires, complete with ritual texts, sigils, talismans, etc. These books have formed the basis for a “Necronomicon tradition” in contemporary occult literature, with writers and practitioners attempting to reconcile, reconstruct, expand upon, and incorporate material from the various sources of the Lovecraftian occult into a cohesive system—or at least their personal system. It is only appropriate that Asenath Mason begins her work addressing this reality:

“[This book] refers to chosen published versions of the Necronomicon (by ‘the Necronomicon’ I will refer in this book to the general idea of the book and the particular lore of entities, not to any specific published text) as well as on some Necronomicon-related texts and grimoires which have appeared in the internet over the last few years. All these texts are generally considered hoaxes and if you do any serious research, you will find out that none of them is the ‘genuine’ Necronomicon. […] This fact, however, should not discourage us from working with these texts. […] Magical power is not contained within any written book but within our minds, and a mind of a creative individual can transform fiction into a genuine experience. In this sense we can use the Lovecraftian lore as a tool in exploration of dark labyrinths of our mind.”
—Asenath Mason, Necronomicon Gnosis 9

Mason’s statement here is derived from chaos magicians like Phil Hine, author of Prime Chaos (1993) and Pseudonomicon (1994). While “Simon” presented their hoax Necronomicon with a false backstory as an actual text which inspired Lovecraft, and Kenneth Grant asserted Lovecraft had stumbled upon some occult truth which he expressed through his fiction, chaos magicians owned the fact that Lovecraft invented the Necronomicon, that it was a fictional text—but chose to work with it anyway. Fictional concepts and ideas in their tradition can be as valid for magickal operations as those taken from factual mythologies; to an inhabitant of the 20th or 21st century, Cthulhu and Osiris are both essentially dead names to conjure with.

Necronomicon Gnosis is essentially an exegesis of Lovecraftian occult materials: Mason’s interpretation of the body of magical ideas presented in the original stories (focusing primarily on H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft) and already-presented occult material (primarily the Simon and Hay Necronomicons, Kenneth Grant, Phil Hine, Peter J. Carroll, Stephen Sennitt, and Donald Tyson). The text is not exhaustive and aimed at beginners who have limited experience with the occult or Lovecraft; the result is a bit odd but workable, a combination of literary analysis followed by suggestions or instructions for occult rituals or exercises, with many references to occult works the readers aren’t likely to be familiar with (titles included in a handy bibliography in the back).

While Lovecraft or his contemporaries might include some impressive feats of magic in their fiction like raising the dead, Mason’s Necronomicon Gnosis rites are generally more modest in scope, and focus on the understanding and spiritual development of the practitioner—the gnosis aspect of the title. For example, part of the instructions for “The Black Communion” a rite to invoke Shub-Niggurath include:

While the priest recites the incantation, the priestess must concentrate on becoming possessed by the invoked force. She should envision the Goddess with all her attribute and fully identify with her, o that the consciousness of the entity and the priestess become one. She should also arouse her sexual energy of the Kundalini serpent and inflame herself until she feels the primal insatiable lust, embodied by Shub-Niggurath.
—Asenath Mason, Necronomicon Gnosis 134

The sexual aspect of this ritual is not unusual among Lovecraftian occult rites; Kenneth Grant was a disciple of Aleister Crowley, whose system incorporates ceremonial sex magick and the use of sexual fluids in rituals, for example. However, the vast majority of Lovecraftian occult materials are written by men, and there is a distinct androcentric and heteronormative approach to sex and sexual workings in the works of Grant, Simon, Tyson, etc., the material often focus either on lascivious depiction (like Grant’s infamous “Rite of Ku”) or on a male practitioner. In interpreting the material, Mason addresses some of the more obvious biases briefly:

[…] sex gives us power over ourselves because it is the ultimate expression of life. Thus, we have the conviction, characteristic of all monotheistic religions, telling us that sex is sin, as all mastery over life is reserved to God and man is not allowed to aspire to the divine power.
—Asenath Mason, Necronomicon Gnosis 127

Shub-Niggurath has been associated with any number of female mythological figures by various authors, and Mason spends quite a bit of time running through her accumulated symbolism. While Lovecraft described her as a “sophisticated Astarte”, occultists have associated her with Kali, Inanna, Ishtar, Lilith, Tiamat, Pan, and Bamphomet; with the moon, the planet Venus, and the elemental Earth…and so on and so forth. Mason makes a game effort to untangle the varied strands of symbolism and association with Shub-Niggurath, but as with efforts to “sort out” the Cthulhu Mythos itself, too many writers have contributed too many conflicting thoughts to produce a unified and consistent approach, except at a very high level: Shub-Niggurath is about sex, and exploration of your sexuality is a valid path to gnosis.

That is the point that Mason returns to, again and again, circling back to it through her readings of the Mythos and the Lovecraftian occult, the rituals and invocations. The desire for gnosis could be said to guide a number of Mythos readers who have no practical interest in the occult, and might well balk at the concept, but still thrill to the emotions evoked by a weird tale or look forward eagerly to a terminal revelation, or perhaps seek to broaden their horizons by reading Lovecraftian fiction that challenges the structure of the Mythos they are familiar with. It is a pursuit which, stripped of the occult trappings of spells and grimoires is explored in works like Scott Jones’ When The Stars Are Right: Toward An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality (2014).

Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction more or less fulfills its remit. While not as simple a magical system as presented in Donald Tyson’s Necronomicon series or as consistent a system as presented in the Necronomicon books by “Simon”, it is a solid effort at condensing the probably irreconcilable mystic mishmash of forty years of dedicated occult kitchensinking and presenting it while maintaining a consistent philosophy. For those who are interested in going deeper into the Lovecraftian occult, the Necronomicon Gnosis is a useful jumping-off point, naming key texts and authors to further their explorations.

The eternal temptation of such a combined approach is à la carte occultism—readers taking what they want or can use, and leaving the rest. This is effectively the same dilemma faced by readers and authors of the Cthulhu Mythos, and for many of the same reasons: with all these different stories, riffing off of the material created by Lovecraft and others, some of which is clearly incompatible with the rest—how do you decide what is true for you? What exactly are you as a reader or writer of Mythos fiction looking to accomplish? Perhaps we should all take a page from Mason’s book and consider not the trappings of the Mythos, but what we are trying to achieve through the use of the Mythos, what philosophy underlies it all. Do we seek escapism…or revelation and gnosis?

Asenath Mason is the founder of Lodge Magan, the Polish lodge of the Dragon Rouge magical order. Necronomicon Gnosis was published in both Polish and English editions by Edition Roter Drache in 2007. Those interested in a nonfiction history of the Lovecraftian occult and the Necronomicon tradition in particular should read The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend by Daniel Harms and John W. Gonce III.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)