Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Starry Wisdom: A perichoresical perambulation through the works of Kenneth Grant

This article first appeared in issue 7 of The Daily Grail's Journal Darklore.  There are plenty of other articles by other authors on the Darklore site and please do consider buying a copy of the periodical to support such a great site.

Kenneth Grant (1924 to 2011) was one of the most noted magicians of the 20th century. Well known as Aleister Crowley’s final student in the mid 1940s, he went on to develop his own interpretation of Thelema and take the Great Work through Yuggothian gateways and out towards wholly new starry dimensions. However despite his massive opus, he frequently received criticism and has (I feel unfairly) gained a reputation for being incomprehensible or worse. This misunderstanding has blighted perception of his writings and perhaps contributed to it having a slower uptake than it deserves, as a highly insightful body of work which forms a complex and interwoven commentary upon so many esoteric subjects.

By the end of his long writing career, Kenneth Grant had written an entire shelf of books, most notably the Typhonian Trilogies, which built upon the occult background radiation left behind by orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and luminaries such as Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons and Dion Fortune. Extending his Typhonian Gnosis, he allowed concepts such as trafficking with entities, sexual gnosis and an entire night-side1 tradition to seep into his novels which were often shorter works featuring a sidereal2 connection to his own person, thus creating a strange symmetry where Kenneth Grant himself walked within his own fiction, and the beings and energies and indeed the sense of other which he evoked bleed back from his prose into our reality. As many of his readers will note, there is a dreamlike, unnerving quality to Grantian fiction where the borderland of fact and fantasy dissolve into a compelling narrative where one is caught within the bindings and the firmament of the story.

This is all a part of his magic, and one of the reasons why his books are often described not so much as being about magic, but as being magical objects in their own right. This is their real value, as Grant enfolded magic into the very linguistic structure of his text, making it a jumping off point to other realities. I have certainly found this for myself, and reading his work late at night I am often lead into to a sense of reverie which mutates very easily into deeper states of meditative consciousness. Indeed, often the Typhonian Trilogies seem to transmute and reflect to the reader exactly what they need to read at that particular time to further their magical development.

Kenneth Grant did not write for beginners, and one will not find set rituals such as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram or the Middle Pillar within his books; rather one is expected to ponder over the information and accounts given and design one’s own path through the mysteries which he so tantalizingly unveils. His writing style is unique, and very different from the formulaic precision we find with Aleister Crowley. Grant polarised Thelemites in that many people feel that has detracted from the spirit of what Crowley was trying to achieve. However in contrast to this, many people feel that Kenneth Grant, in following his own stars (not those of Aleister Crowley) opened new doors to insight, exploration and mystery. Furthermore, some of Grant’s work is remarkably prescient regarding the effects on human consciousness from the universe at large. For example his commentary on UFOs in Outer Gateways3 references and builds upon ideas suggested by Arthur Machen in The Great God Pan4 and John Keel in books such as The Mothman Prophecies5, and describes a non-nuts-and-bolts model of UFOs from the esoteric perspective, a view which is really only recently becoming more prominent.

Telepathic Transmissions from Yuggoth

One of the more problematic areas within Grant’s corpus of writing is that which connects to HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. We know as a fact that HP Lovecraft made up this mythos, seeding it both with entities found in mythology (such as Dagon) and those that he invented (such as Yog-Sothoth or Hastur the Unspeakable). Furthermore Lovecraft was an ardent materialist, who in his letters frequently commented that it was all invented, using names such as the Necronomicon or Abdul Alhazred simply because he just liked the sound to that word. Finally, a scan of the literature shows that there are no reliable references to the Necronomicon or the made up entities prior to Lovecraft’s stories being published.

In order to add authenticity to his stories Lovecraft created a fictional history of the Necronomicon which referenced real historical persons such as John Dee and Olaus Wormius, a scheme that ‘went viral’ as other authors continued adding to the mythos in subsequent years. It is remarkable that even recently, after the subject has been debunked to death and excellent books upon the subject such as The Necronomicon Files6 have appeared – which clearly present in a well referenced manner the facts of the case – there are still people accepting the literal truth of HP Lovecraft’s blasphemous confection.

How then are we to unify these facts with the knowledge that Kenneth Grant referenced the Necronomicon throughout his work from the beginning? Grant was a true scholar and very well read, as the list of references in the back of his books testify, so we can be certain that he was aware of the mundane non-history of the Necronomicon and that  – on our level at least – it is all fiction. In fact he acknowledges that Lovecraft invented the Necronomicon in the beginning chapter of Outer Gateways. In Grant’s words:

“A number of arcane texts claiming non-terrestrial provenance are of supreme significance in the sphere of creative occultism. Perhaps the most mysterious and certainly the most sinister is the Necronomicon, the first mention of which appears in the fiction of the New England writer H. P. Lovecraft. Said to have been written by a mad Arab named Al Hazred, the Necronomicon actually exists on a plane accessible to those who, either consciously like Crowley, or unconsciously like Lovecraft, have succeeded in penetrating it.”7

This paragraph succinctly sums up everything that Kenneth Grant has to say on the Necronomicon. He is clear that HP Lovecraft made it up, and equally clear that he believes that Lovecraft’s work was being enthused from a deeper level of reality. Indeed, the Necronomicon; as a primal grimoire; is a source of inspiration throughout all of Grant’s primary work, beginning with The Magical Revival8 where Grant lists a number of correspondences between Lovecraftian Mythos Lore and Thelema.

Since then Grant has added to the number of connections using gematria9 with names and words found in other traditions, not least Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law. This has included connecting words which have a linguistic or gematrical similarity to terminology found in the Mythos, such as “Set-Hulu” or “Tutulu” - a word heard by Crowley whilst scrying the Enochian Aethyrs in the Sahara desert in 1909 with the poet Victor Neuberg10 – which Grant relates to Cthulhu. Throughout the later volumes, Grant references the Necronomicon in the same manner that he references other traditional sources such as Gnostic, Hebrew and Sanskrit. This theme continues throughout the Trilogies, however I feel that it reaches its climax in the erudite “Hecate’s Fountain” where Grant speaks of rituals to summon Cthulhu and it is here that we find the mentioned comparison between the Book of the Law and the Necronomicon.

But returning to the question as to whether the mythos is literally real, we might best answer it by comparing it to humanities other ‘accepted’ ancient traditions.  All myths, religions and spiritual practices start with a mystic contacting the ineffable and building a link. So maybe we need to look at HP Lovecraft himself. Although a materialist and sceptic on the outside, Grant suggests that Lovecraft may have been an unconscious seer who could perceive deeper patterns of reality, although being uninitiated to their true nature, he would then shy away with fear. Certainly a lot of Lovecraft’s tales originated in dreaming, and some tales were almost exact recounts of his dreams, illustrating that their origin was not from his regular dayside consciousness, but at the very least an unconscious source separate from his wakeful materialism. However, even if Lovecraft consciously made up the mythos, this does not break the validity of Kenneth Grant’s connection to it. Grant would recognise the familiar mystical patterns that Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones fall into and weave his practice around this. All myths and religions started in a similar way, and in this sense the mythos is as real and valid as any other mythology and religion, albeit one from our repressed collective unconsciousness.

Perhaps we could understand this idea more if we consider a fictional storyteller who is creating a new serial killer character for a novel. They would use certain patterns and archetypes in their creation of the character with their origin in the behaviour of real serial killers. As such our virtual serial killer is a symbol for the spirit of serial killings which underlies the madness in all the ones we encounter (or hopefully not) in our world. So in a sense a fictional Hannibal Lector, properly realised, is as real as Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy.

Taking a Walk on the Night Side

From here perhaps we could ask why one would want to encounter night-side entities such as Cthulhu. I believe that Grant‘s work has an unfairly gained reputation for being overly dark, and that perhaps this reputation is due to ‘fluffy-bunny’ occultists not really understanding that the Universe (and by extension ourselves) is composed of both light and darkness. It is vital to carefully (and safely) explore these energies, since on one level they are out there and nasty, but they are also within us and potential. Remember Freud’s ideas of the need to express, then assimilate repressions; in a magical sense this is why one faces the darkness, to bring it into the light rebirthed as a wholesome energy rather than left as a repressed dark time bomb ready to explode. A lot of Grant’s work here is really an insightful glimpse into the Theosophic concept of the Dweller on the Threshold – and serious occultists do not work with the dark-side to harm, but rather to regenerate their own darker repressions into the light of a loving self.

The highest grade of occultism according to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is “Ipsissimis” which means “one’s self complete”: one has healed and assimilated all one’s fractures, all one’s broken parts, all one’s personal demons into a perfect being in knowledge of their true (unified) will. This is more potent and far more healing than meditating upon dolphins and unicorns, and I feel that to misunderstand “dark” as being creepy and scary is to totally miss the ideas in Kenneth Grant’s writing, which in actuality shows him to be one of the sanest occultists out there. In that respect, the mythos serves perfectly as a vehicle for these ideas.

Aleister Crowley meets Dracula and the Mummy

Strange, eldritch fiction was very important to Kenneth Grant, and his use of the Lovecraftian mythos clearly shows that he saw it as a vessel capable of transmitting deep esoteric ideas.  Many occultists testify that the occult novel often serves as a better conveyer of ideas than the occult textbook, and Grant himself embraced this concept. For example, Grants own novella Gamalial11 shows how clearly he understood the occult concept of vampirism, as opposed to the somewhat stereotypical Eastern European in a dinner jacket and Bela Lugosi smile. Grant (in The Magical Revival) traces vampirism back to ancient Egypt, referencing black magic practices designed to maintain the earth-bound part of the soul (the ka) to the service of a necromancer (utilising this bound ka as a familiar), although the original practice was to protect the tombs of the dead. This is a theme also explored by Dion Fortune in The Demon Lover12, however Fortune approaches it slightly differently given that her fictional “vampire” was not properly dead in the first place!
In the Typhonian Trilogies we see vampirism expounded as a transaction of energy with a deeper level which can lead to a depletion of vitality, of life and of being, with the host and the vampire both exchanging something – usually resulting in the persistence of the vampire and the diminution of the host.

Both Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare dipped their toes into the subject of Vampirism in their writing; Grant however jumped right into the pool, clothes and all.  Indeed, the subject is central to a theme found throughout Grant’s work, the idea of ‘stellar gnosis’. One of the historical threads which Grant explores is that of Queen SobekNoferu, who historically ruled Egypt for four years at the end of the 12th Dynasty, leading Egypt out of the Middle Kingdom period. We know very little about the historical SobekNoferu, however her name (which means “Beloved of Sobek”) suggests a connection with the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek.

This connection forms part of the origin myth of the Typhonian tradition, which looks back into antiquity and early religious practices connecting humanity with our Goddesses. Dion Fortune in Moon Magic13 alluded to a similar tradition, and the idea of civilisations predating Egypt in the Nile region is still something considered today via the controversial research by the likes of John Anthony West and Robert Schoch and their revised dating of the Great Sphinx. Grant saw SobekNoferu as a revivalist who brought through this tradition from deep antiquity into closer antiquity:

 “The oracle is ThERA14, Queen of the Seven Stars who reigned in the Thirteenth Dynasty as Queen Sebek-nefer-Ra. She was it who brought over from an indefinitely ancient past, prior even to Egypt, the original Typhonian Gnosis.”15

The Hammer House of Horror interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven stars in Blood from the Mummy’s tomb oozes pure 1950s elegance with the half-naked Valerie Leon as the (un)mummified and still vital and highly sexy corpse of Tera16 surviving through the centuries to revive in modern times; a more modern and occult take on Bram Stokers tale, and one more true to the sidereal legacy of Grant and Austin Osman Spare and perhaps capturing some of the Nu-Isis ambience which Kenneth Grant was steeped in during the 1960s. In my view this is the most Typhonian film ever made; albeit slightly less accurate (on an archaeological level) than other films of the story17, but one can easily slip into a state watching the film where the learned Kenneth Grant steps out of the shadows to explain the narrative (in fact he practically does in the early volumes of his Trilogies).

I think that part of the importance to Kenneth Grant regarding Queen Sobek-Nefer-Ra is that she is female. Aleister Crowley whilst brilliant in his way; was an iconoclast who moved occultism forward in the difficult formative years of the twentieth century.  However he was basically a Victorian gentleman with I feel some misogynistic tendencies which persisted into his teaching. It is clear from his writings that he saw his scarlet women as subservient to his work and that they all had roles within his path. In fact one of the reasons why I do not think that Aleister Crowley had much influence on Gerald Gardner during the formation of the Wicca movement is that Crowley certainly was not the sort to submit to a Priestess; all that is from Gardener.
Kenneth Grant however is much more balanced in his writings, and avoiding the pitfalls of both Crowley and Gardner and gives equal merit to both male and female mysteries in his work, recognising that both sexes add in their own way to initiation and the moving forward of the magical current. In Kenneth Grant’s work we read about esotericism from both a male and a female perspective and important themes such as Kalas are introduced and developed.

The Twilight between Fiction and Fact

Strange experiences move throughout Kenneth Grants work as part of a deeper weave with provides connections to these occurrences.  These often begin as weird events which are described and then later developed in subsequent books often growing in a tangential fashion as  Grant attaches these manifestations to different concepts.

Once such thread concerns the statue of Mephistopheles (affectionately nicknamed “Mephi” by Grant) which we first find mentioned in Hecate’s Fountain as a statue which Kenneth bought from Busche’s emporium on Chancery Lane, a premise which seems to have flourished before the Second World War. This statue seemed to have had a life of its own, apparently following Grant home rather than being purchased in the more traditional manner, with Grant finding a short while later, upon attempting to return the statue discovers that the emporium had closed18. A little later in Hecates Fountain19 we find that Mephi finds his way into a Nu-Isis rite of Oolak (one of the Great Old Ones of Grant’s system) and serves to ground the powers raised in the rite. Mephi then pops up mysteriously in the Novella Against the Light as an illustration on the cover, as well as being referenced in the book where Grant gives us a account of the purchase of the statue. All this may sounds rather strange and unlikely, however odd things do happen like this to occultists, and some objects enthused with presence do seem to often have a purpose of their own. I feel that the accounts of Mephi, in all Kenneth Grant’s books, represent strange happenings which really occurred whilst he owned the statue.
My favourite novel by Kenneth Grant is Against the Light, which I feel is an absolute gem (it is worth noting that the ‘Against’ of the title means next to, as if with a lover, and certainly not opposed to or suggesting diabolical black magic). Against the Light is woven through with threads from Grant’s own past; as noted he mentions the dealer in Charing Cross Road in London from where he obtained his statue of Mephistopheles; there are references to the (maybe fictional) Grimoire Grantino, fictional personages from various strange tales such as Helen Vaughan and a constant blurring of fiction and reality. This is all to the good since it leaves us all wondering what reality actually is. Perhaps the truth is that it is all fiction; all true. Perhaps our own lives are all fiction, all truth. The borderline haziness is where the magician, the artist and the poet all stand within their own cadences – and it is clear that Grant was all these, and perfectly comfortable in this twilight zone.

The noted writer and magician Alan Moore wrote a playfully written and erudite review20 of this book which I understand Kenneth Grant liked very much. In his review Moore describes the value and power of Grant’s novels as emerging from their unique place between fact and fiction.  Here, framed in fiction, we see magic pour into our dimension infusing all it touches.

Grant is simultaneously extremely playful yet deadly serious. Oolak (mentioned above) is a form of Count Orlok from Nosferatu21. Again, like the Lovecraftian connection through which Grant explored vampirism in ritual these fictional nodes can serve as entrances for the energies which underlie their existence.  Grant gives few hints in his work regarding exactly how he worked, and to understand more of this we need to read between the lines and engage in some speculation. We read some fantastic accounts in the books, such as the following from Hecate’s Fountain, which gives the greatest number of accounts of the practices which the Nu-Isis lodge carried out. Most wonderfully we read on page 53 of the Skoob edition:

“The lodgeroom was prepared to exhibit the snowy vastness of that abominable plateau, situation in astral regions which coincide terrestrially with certain regions of Central Asia not precisely specified by Al Hazred. The walls and floor were white, and white were the seven coffins ranged upon trestles before a dazzlingly white altar where snowdrifts sparkled and traced upon the ice-smooth slopes of three pyramids…”22

Clearly we need to read descriptions such as this with a careful eye and realise that Grant is not talking about some decoration in an upstairs spare bedroom! Whilst there may have been some physical decoration in their place of working (given the artistic talents of both Kenneth and Steffi Grant), it is doubtful that a room for magical working would be so big. A further clue however is suggested from the following account:

“The lodgeroom was prepared for the performance of a type of lycanthropic and necromantic sorcery associated with two specific tunnels of Set. Imagine therefore, a miniature through more complex version of the Dashwood caves with – in lieu of the various grottoes provided for sensual dalliance – a serious of shell-shaped cells, like petrified vortices, designed with the sole purpose of attracting into their convolutions the occult energies of Yuggoth, and focusing them through the kalas of Nu Isis, represented by a gigantic vesica-shaped prism. The décor was weird in the extreme, the illuminations cunningly arranged to impart a sinister and shifting play of light and shade combined with audible images suggestive of rushing waters and whistling astral winds; an altogether eerie atmosphere created by a few deft touches of supreme artistry”23

Notice the use of words and phases such as imagine and astral winds. Such terminology is suggestive that these settings were imagined in the minds of the participants of the work. This is not as strange as one would expect since skills in visualisation are crucial to occult work, and it is within the minds-eye that phenomena is seen. We are all familiar with the idea of a memory palace, where a building is visually committed to memory as a collection of anchor points holding specific objects in their locus. Exactly the same thing is happening here and Grant, whilst writing in an evocative way, is I believe describing how the participants of Nu-Isis lodge would begin their work by creating an internal “vision space” as a mental location, ready to contact the entities which were the subject of the ritual in progress.

On Stranger Tides

One of the most notable themes within Kenneth Grant’s body of work is his recognition of the work of other occultists as they tap into the current of magical work which he describes. Most notable of these superstars was of course the occult artist Austin Osman Spare, who was a close friend of both Kenneth and Steffi Grant right up until his death in 1956. It is well worth obtaining a copy of Zos Speaks24 by Grant, which details the communication between himself and Spare ,as well as publishing Spare’s grimoire The Book of Zos vel Thanatos. It has often been noted that without Kenneth Grant continually championing his work, there is a danger that Spare would have been forgotten by now. Certainly Spare, in being somewhat reclusive, had faded from the public limelight by the time he had met Kenneth Grant and his return to prominence only really began in 1975 when Grant’s Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare25 was published. We have come a long way from the monochromatic images found in this almost-40-year-old book, to the beautifully talismanic books that modern publishers such as Starfire and Fulgur produce today, in which we can see Austin Spare’s glorious artwork lavishly reproduced in full high definition colour.
Another notable occultist brought to prominence by the work of Grant is Michael Bertiaux, whose work is recently undergoing a renaissance thanks to the reprint of his famously obscure and previously unobtainable Voudon Gnostic Workbook26. We also have Nema (mentioned in the Trilogies as Soror Andahadna), whose channelled piece Liber Pennae Praenumbra beautifully evokes the best of Thelema, speaking of a magical universe so much greater than us, full of mystery and wonder.

In Grant’s later books we even see reference to the late Andrew D. Chumbley, whose reboot of traditional witchcraft in his Azoëtia27  harks back to some of the themes developed by Austin Spare in “The Witches Sabbath”. There are many other references to emerging occultists in Grant’s work, and there can be little doubt his endorsement helped bring these writers to the attention of both occultists, and in some cases, the wider public.

Kenneth Grant’s writings have been published since the 1960s, and until his recent passing, there has always been a new book to eagerly await. Alan Moore notes in his review of Against the Light28 “why do most occultists that I know, myself included, have more or less everything that Grant has ever published resting on our shelves?” Despite his passing, his influence continues to grow and we are already seeing work by writers enriched by the Typhonian Trilogies move into the day-side – for example, the English experimental group EnglishHeretic produced an album called Tales of Nu-Isis Lodge29 which playfully choreographs the accounts in Hecate’s Fountain to music and the weird fiction found in literature and cinema such as the original The Mummy30, Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth31 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers31 which inspired Grant.

Sadly the last title published was the recent Grist to Whose Mill33, which ironically was Kenneth Grant’s first novel, written in the early 1950s, which has only just now emerged from the publishing darkness into the light. It is sad that we shall see no more wonderful, magical books by Kenneth Grant although his work shall live on and grow in our hearts, minds and souls.

© Paolo Sammut 2012

References and notes

1) Pertaining of information, contacts and concepts which originate from “elsewhere” and enter sphere of human consciousness via the unconsciousness.
2) The word sidereal is here used to describe how a particular perspective is needed when looking at some of the characterise and concepts which Grant describes.
3) Kenneth Grant, Outer Gateways, Skoob books, 1994
4) Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan, John Lane, 1984
5) John Keel, The Mothman Prophecies, Panther Books, 1975
6) Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce, The Necronomicon Files, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2003
7) Kenneth Grant, Outer Gateways, Skoob Publishing, 1994, pp5
8) Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival, Muller, 1971
9) Technically speaking gematria is the process of assigning numbers to meaningful words and then looking at words with the same number to find meaningful connections. Kenneth Grant expands upon this with creative gematria which takes things further as we shall see later.
10) Interestingly this suggests that the word may be Enochian in nature.
11) Kenneth Grant, Gamaliel: The diary of a Vampire & Dance, Doll Dance, Starfire, 2003.
12) Although the idea of a vampire as a life-force hungry ghost is very important and crops up frequently in folklore and the occult.
13) Dion Fortune, Moon Magic, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2003.
14) Tera. See Bram Stokers Jewel of the Seven Stars.
15) Kenneth Grant, The Ninth Arch, Starfire Publishing, 2002, pp386
16) In Stoker, she is called Tera as a pun on Margaret, the female protagonist in the tale. Tera is of course the last four letters of Margaret.
17) Such as Awakening (1980) and Legend of the Mummy (1997)
18) We find with this tale echoes of Aleister Crowley’s tale The Dream Circean which is itself a retelling of an older tale about a person visiting and being entertained within a house, only to find a short while later that it has been boarded up for years.
19) Kenneth Grant, Hecate’s Fountain, Skoob, 1992
20) Alan Moore, Beyond Our Ken,
21) Dieckmann and starring Max Schreck, Nosferatu, 1922
22) Kenneth Grant, Hecate’s Fountain, Skoob Publishing, 1992, pp53
23) Kenneth Grant, Hecate’s Fountain, Skoob Publishing, 1992, pp10
24) Kenneth Grant, Zos Speaks, Fulgur Publishing, 1999.
25) Kenneth Grant, Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare, Muller, 1975.
26) Michael Bertiaux, The Voudon Gnostic Workbook, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2007
27) Andrew D. Chumbley, Azoëtia, Xoanon, 1992, 2002
28) Alan Moore, Beyond Our Ken,
29) English Heretic, Tales of the New Isis Lodge, 2009.,
30) Universal Studios, The Mummy, 1932
31) HP Lovecraft, Fungi From Yuggoth, Various, 1929 to 1930
32) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956
33) Kenneth Grant, Grist to Whose Mill, Starfire Publishing, 2012