Do Landscapes Dream of Electric Sheep?
The term ‘animism,’ while billed as being fairly simple by anthropologists of past centuries, is in fact one of the most difficult barriers that a 21st c. Lovecraftian Mage has to overcome in order to fully understand how Lovecraft’s work can be used as a workable and potent system of magic.
Animism is not just ‘talking to your car,’ believe me, I spent twenty years of my life prior to earning my degrees as an industrial mechanic. I have talked too, cajoled, and screamed at more machines than one can count. I did not feel like at animist in any of those instances, nor was my life enriched by the practice. No, animism is more than that.
My primary background in cultivating an animist worldview are the years I spent being mentored by Ayabe, the Bad River Ojibwe Elder. The mentoring relationship was concentrated on learning the Ojibwe language and culture, but one cannot escape animist ideas in that process. In fact, as I point out in my primary essay on the subject, gender in Ojibwe is not masculine, feminine, or neutral. Gender in Ojibwe is dependent on an ever shifting sense of animate and inanimate objects. That is, things in the world that have a spirit and things in the world that do not.
I am seeking to expand my knowledge of this complex subject, however, and to that end I turned to Paul Weston’s tome ‘Mysterium Artorius’ as it was recommended to Rune Soup Premium Members to gain a deeper understanding of this subject. Mr. Weston begins by connecting us with his first experiences with the Mystery of Arthur:
“From the moment of my first hearing the opening words of… ‘The Enchanted Sword, There once lived a King called Uther Pendragon…’ I had already entered what Jung called ‘the primary myth in the collective unconscious of Western Civilization’ It would lead me to connect with the ideas of fascists and feminists, patriots and pacifists, occultists, mystics, painters, poets, musicians and historians… I developed methods to enhance my receptivity… an ongoing mood, an ambience, a constant background evocation.”
Before we conclude this week’s exploration, we will find ourselves connected with fascists, feminists, patriots, occultists, mystics, and historians, just as Weston did when he first plugged into the power spots that serve as gateways between Arthurian spirit-forms and the real.
Weston connects the longevity, no, the tenacity, no, what is it, the ‘is-ness’ of Arthur directly to the landscape that embodies the myth when he states:
“Regardless of the strong historical arguments against the validity of their Arthurian associations, something seems to connect the legendary locations that frame [King Arthur’s] life from conception to burial. The fundamental factors are landscape that profoundly impact on the human psyche, places that will inevitably attract a numinous mythology… the landscape, history, and mythology… [are a] character. The different elements cannot be separated. They constitute an elusive something that can interact with a person as strongly as a human character, stirring passion, idealism, madness, asceticism, horror, mysticism, and eroticism in all possible combinations.”
I think what’s important here is that landscape, history, and mythology are not framed as characters, plural, but a singular entity that embodies all these things. When we look at a mountain range, it is just a mountain range, something in our visual field. If we are standing in a place where we know the history, or some of the history, of the land around us, the mountains are inspirited a bit by that association. If we are standing in a place whose history we are familiar with and whose stories and myths we also know on an intimate level, having learned them from childhood, well then, the mountains are not just mountains, they are a sleeping giant, or the home to dark cryptids, or places of spiritual power that are always in our view, in our reality. Knowing this, Weston offers us some depth to the history of Albion:
“Golden Age beliefs about the underworld and a mother goddess were rejected by the solar warrior culture of the Bronze Age. West Kennet long barrow was sealed up with tons of debris. This was one form that the British version of the banishment of Cronus took… The Greek Cronus was banished to an island realm in the West. Later sources speak of a British Cronos imprisoned in a cave on some far western island, resting in eternal sleep from which he uttered strange prophecies. These details don’t fit the Greek myth and therefore may apply to an indigenous deity in some way analogous to Cronos… Blake has a passage where his Albion falls into a prolonged deathly sleep in a manner that seems a clear pointer to the British Cronos”
And with that history, connections are made in the human mind as pattern recognition is very likely the most human trait. In this human’s mind, the idea of a physical manifestation of the banishing of Kronos is really intriguing. The version of Kronos described in the quote above tracks very closely with HPL’s description of Cthulhu, and if we hold these descriptions in mind the argument that Cthulhu as the indigenous deity of England, somehow informing the Arthurian Mythos, isn’t too far fetched. Weston continues in this vein:
“Celtic culture was never totally suppressed by the Romans. Centuries later, as the empire declined, temple shrines began to appear on the old prominences again. There is evidence for such at Badbury, Maiden and Brean Down. The most notable was at Lydney in Gloucestershire, a dream incubation temple to Nodens whose son was Gwyn ap Nudd, famously linked to Glastonbury Tor.”
This dynamic, of the ancient remaining asleep while Rome stands over it’s living tomb, only to make itself known once the West has retreated is a plausible analogy for a lot of Lovecraft’s plot points, the ‘degenerate’ families of New England, once rich and fat on materialist exploits and now lean and living off of the woods have eschewed the Roman and Greek gods of the West (ever present in Lovecraft’s work) and are busying themselves with the rebuilding of shrines to the chaotic deities of deep space that existed before. There is an undercurrent here of the pagan gods supplanting or rather, migrating, into the landscapes populated by Lovecraft’s ‘Others,’ an act of which they are fully aware and cautious about. The trepidation that Ulysses in The High Strange House in the Mist has when the shadows start wrapping on the windows before he throws the door open for Poseidon illustrates this. Lovecraft also, very purposefully, brings in Nodens as an ancient deity with links to the Night Gaunts and the Dreamlands.
Weston then goes on to offer us some background on ‘The Wild Hunt,’ a phenomenon I have always associated in my mind with the ‘Unseelie Court’ as I found it in Alan Lee’s ‘Fairies’ whence I first picked that book off of my mother’s shelf.
For Weston, The Wild Hunt has a slightly different feel that I once again (and perhaps this is due to my saturation in Lovecraft’s mythos at the moment) find connections to the subject of our research:
“The Wild Hunt is said to ride out from Cadbury Castle in the direction of Glastonbury [following] a path that has come to be known as Arthur’s Hunting Causeway… Geoffrey Ashe [produces] a magnificent depiction in his… novel ‘The Finger and the Moon’… It… begins with a repeated ‘strident terrible horn blast… as the landscape… starts to strangely glow. ‘The Great Bear wavered in the sky and its shape altered. Polaris lurched sideways. New lights glared over the Mendips like supernovae’… a white shadow appears… ‘a medley of unhuman bayings… skulls with decaying flesh… sat on bodies upheld by stiff leather… They swept… on to the hill from vast perspectiveless spaces… generation upon generation of vanished sons and daughters of Albion…’”
The mention of The Great Bear and Polaris track with Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House, and the snippets of description here, the decaying flesh coming form perspectiveless space, tracks with the Lovecraftian Magical Aesthetic well. Pulling on the Arthur-as-Elder-God thread a bit more:
“Arthur as echo of some primal deity may not be as far-fetched an idea as it has occasionally seemed. To think of Arthur as Lord of the Dead can be a very potent idea. In this role he is ruler of the ancestors, all of them, from the Stone Age to the Somme and beyond.”
Our Lovecraft tale for this week, The Street, is one built on a foundation of similar animist thought-forms, with the author setting this scenery down in the first line:
“There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of The Street.”
While the narrator here is taking a neutral stance, he is, in fact, siding with ‘those who say that things and places have souls’ by choosing to tell the story of The Street. Lovecraft continues fleshing out the story, so that we have landscape, we have a place (and as we will see a continuity) in history, and the beginnings of a myth to surround it:
“At first it was but a path trodden by bearers of water from the woodland spring to the cluster of houses by the beach. Then… they built cabins along the North side; cabins of stout oaken logs with masonry on the side toward the forest, for many Indians lurked there with fire-arrows. And in a few years more, men built cabins on the South side of The Street.”
Some of the magical tech derived from The Street can be applied to any small town main street, expanding our aesthetic to this very familiar landscape in America, a place existent in all regions, not just his most familiar, New England. We continue to follow The Street-as-spirit through time, finding more patterns:
“Up and down The Street walked grave men in conical hats… and there were also their bonneted wives and sober children. In the evening these men with their wives and children would sit about gigantic hearths and read and speak… and the children would listen, and learn of the laws and deeds of old, and of that dear England which they had never seen, or could not remember… And the children’s children… grew up. The town was now a city, and one by one the cabins gave place to houses… of brick and wood, with stone steps and iron railings and fanlights over the doors… So The Street drank in the dreams of a young people, and rejoiced as its dwellers became more graceful and happy.”
Here, there is a thread connecting place to older places by way of the humans that inhabit it. There is something here about how spirits of place not only inhabit the landscape but infect and are carried with those that existed in that landscape, the genus loci then traveling through generations, via story, via the word virus. This is the way that our mountains in the introduction gained their power and ultimately, how we are able to recognize their sentience. This quote gets to something that I didn’t realize was missing in the discussions around animist landscapes. These discussions center on the animacy of the landscape and how it is older than us and alive, and if humans come into the conversation they are either a) passively living in the animate landscape or b) destroying said landscape and disrupting the ‘timeless’ genus loci. This is not an animist perspective. A true animist perspective recognizes that the wider world is animate but that also humans are animate and there is an interplay in the spiritual ecology of all types of spirits. And where there is an interplay of species in an ecology, there is ecological niche construction and those magical niches interact with and evolve along with each other, changes in one reverberating through all. This quote from The Street recognizes that the street-as-spirit-of-place is changed and influenced, but not necessarily disrupted, by the other spirits that inhabit its ecological niche. This idea of an animate spiritual ecology is continued:
“There were in that Street many trees; elms and oaks and maples of dignity; so that in the summer the scene was all soft verdure and twittering bird-song. And behind the houses were walled rose-gardens with hedges paths and sundials, where at evening the moon and stars would shin bewitchingly while fragrant blossoms glistened with dew. So The Street dreamed on…”
That one phrase at the end, where Lovecraft lends the street the ability to dream, triggered a cascade of questions for me. Is dreaming a condition of being a spirit? Is it the primary signifier? Does the landscape dream us as we dream it? This reverses or deepens the aboriginal concepts put forth in the very beginning pages of Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’ where the landscape did not exist until it was dreamed into being by the ancestors. Conversely, did the ancestors exist until the landscape dreamed them into being? I believe that dreams are no more exclusively a human phenomenon than language is. Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep, those individual AIs chatting each other up in a language we don’t understand, they are dreaming each other and speaking in the Babelian language of dreams. Now that Lovecraft has fully established the place, and the history, he continues to elaborate on the details of the mythology of the Street:
“In time… New sounds came from the distance — first strange puffings and shrieks from the river… and then… strange puffings and shrieks… from other directions. The air was not quite so pure as before, but the spirit of the place had not changed… Nor did the spirit change when they tore open the earth to lay down strange pipes, or when they set up tall posts bearing weird wires. There was so much ancient lore in that Street, that the past could not easily be forgotten.”
The difference between spirits of place and humans is our transitory, frankly, ephemeral nature as corporeal spirit-forms and the landscape’s steadfastness. Lovecraft writes that the ‘spirit of the place had not changed…’ in the face of our own progress, it does change, we do change it, but in the way that bacteria multiplying in our microbiome changes us. It is a deep fundamental change that is only reflected by the host after countless generations. That is why we view spirits of place as unmoving and unchanging, it is because we have the perspective of the figurative mayfly and our magical niche construction therefore, has very little immediate impact. Even in the face of global climate change, brought about by our niche construction activity, the spirit of the mountain looks forward, it’s snowy hair brushed back by only a passing breeze.
It is at this point that the tale of The Street takes a dark turn, and not dark in a cool Azathoth crawling chaos way but that sticky real human darkness, like the ooze covering Hunter S. Thompson’s drunken reptile zoo.
While I maintain that there are not a statistically significant amount of tales focused on xenophobia in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, when they are encountered they need to be dealt with. If we are layering Lovecraft’s tales onto the tarot, the thread of xenophobia is the reversed aspect of any card in our system. In The Street, we have a very eloquent argument for the animacy of the environment imbricated on top of this xenophobia. In the case of this particular tale, it was focused on Russians and communism and immigration from the Occidental East into the Boston area. It is a (if we are embedding the argument in place [which is not an approach I recommend but one worthy of mentioning in this case] the Red Scare brand of xenophobia was extremely common) reaction against unionization, exacerbated by the Boston Police Strike of 1919.
To me, this calls up the very relevant infiltration of nationalism and neo-nazism into contemporary pagan, heathen, and modern animist belief systems. Just as Lovecraft does in The Street (try to stay with me as I work with the tale as an animate being separate from the man [to link moral, ethical, and political beliefs of an author to all of their work is to destroy the life in the work] a text that is interacting with us and not a man that is speaking to us from some place in time), these modern infiltrations use the ‘idea’ of spirits of place and spirit-forms such as the Norse deities to reinforce and legitimize their own nationalist and xenophobic philosophical fallacies. The same (can we call it) appropriation is very likely being applied to the King Arthur mythos, as is pointed out by Elizabeth Archibald in this recent discussion on the recent Guy Ritchie silver screen version of the myth. From the article:
“King Arthur, according to legend, is not dead. He’s only sleeping. Depending on which version of Arthurian mythology you adhere to, the warrior king renowned for his round table, chivalrous knights and nobility is currently slumbering beneath Hadrian’s Wall, Arthur’s Seat, Mount Etna or Glastonbury Abbey. He will return to reclaim his title when the nation needs him most.
As if by magic, with the UK on the brink of leaving Europe and in the midst of an election campaign with grave implications for the very future of the kingdom, King Arthur comes back from the dead…
is this version, essentially, Brexit: The Movie? Are we watching Hunnam, as Arthur, representing an idealised modern-day England – perhaps even the wider UK – as isolationist, mighty, proud, morally upstanding, righteous, powerful and independent?”
The article asks very relevant questions and we can see this trope, this turning of the idea of an animate place, a deep embedding of myth-in-place, fueling the remainder of Lovecraft’s tale of The Street, where he calls upon the ‘demons’ of communism and immigration that put his animate street-as-person into a deep sleep with their ‘terrorist’ union-organizing activity.
The infiltration of nazism into pagan circles is well known, but what is the reaction from the magically adjacent community? This recent article from the New York Times quotes one pagan leader’s response:
“‘I am so sick of those questions,’ said Stenar Sonevang, the spokesman of the pagan group, the Nordic Asa Community… ‘ [it] has got nothing to do with the Nazis, I promise you.’”
The response is fatigue, quietness, and frankly supplication. It amounts to:
‘I just want to be left alone to worship Thor and not have to worry about the rest of society.’
I am paraphrasing, but I think my point is coming into focus. By the end of this exploration I hope that it will be clear that this type of passivity is the wrong response.
In Sarah Anne Lawless’ excellent article ‘Everything You Need to Know About Animism’ she points out that animism includes the belief that:
“Spirits of place (genus loci) are thought to be either the actual soul of the land or a soul who has come to reside in a hill, stream, or grove as its guardian and benefactor.”
This understanding has led to the Whanganui River being granted the same legal rights as humans but Animism is also the foundation of the Japanese national identity (in this case, Shintoism), and for all of their wonders and beauty, Japan is one of the most xenophobic countries on the planet, to the point where the preferred approach to health and elder caregivers for their equivalent Baby Boomer generation are robots when the natural alternative are caregivers from other (not-Japanese) nationalities immigrating to fill the gap in service. Xenophobia, I would argue, is one (stress on the singular among a plurality) of the reasons for the rise of Techno-animism and the centricity of this movement being in Japan, for if you are to replace humans that your culture does not approve of and replace them with robots, the next (ill)logical step in your rationale is to inspirit those robots with personhood.
It is through Techno-animism that we see that the landscape does indeed dream of electric sheep.
Returning to Lovecraft, if we are to jailbreak ‘The Street’ in its totality for a Lovecraftian Magical Aesthetic, the trick is to use the tale to remind us as magically-adjacent humans to openly recognize the good and the bad in thinking with an animist world view. Use The Street as a reminder that the most gentle and beautiful interactions between genus loci and humans is balanced with the very human tendency to co-opt and imbricate bad ideas on top of good, to lend the former more authority and credibility.
Our tarot card match for ‘The Street’ is the Two of Swords.
Our familiar friend, the Livre de Thoth of Etteilla offers two keywords for us to work with. Amitie, or friendship, and Faux, or false.
Friendship stems from the Old English freondscipe, which enjoyed the meaning of ‘mutual regard.’ Friend is traced back to the PIE *pri-, meaning ‘to love’ which moves forward into Germanic and Celtic with a sense of ‘not in bondage’ and is related also to afraid, free, Friday and Frigg the Germanic Queen of Heaven, the wife of Odin, whose day is Friday or more specifically, Frigeaefen, a time we would relate closer to Thursday evening. Bringing it back to Weston’s Mysterium Artorius, the Queen of Heaven makes another apparition:
“On of the fragments we have concerning Arthur’s battles mentions how he displayed an iconic image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and, thus protected, single handed massacred his opponents… Some have doubted this Marian devotion but her cult was powerful in the Byzantine Empire where both armies and navies went into battle displaying her image.”
Friday is the day of Venus, of Aphrodite. Odin’s day, or Wodenday, is our Wednesday, aligning him with Hermes. So the idea of friend congeals into one archetype, Hermaphroditus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes, who fell in love with and sought to never be apart from the nymph Salmacis. Salmacis, it is of interest to note, was an atypical nymph who instead of following a path of the virgin, instead empowered her own sexuality, even attempting to rape Hermaphroditus in one instance, fulfilling the typical role of male deities in that pantheon. The word friendship, therefore, in the sense of ‘mutual regard,’ is a trading of power, a giving up by both parties, a becoming one with each other.
In the context of The Street, it is the foundational animist relationship between humans and the environment, both natural and built, for we inspirit our own buildings and cities as we create them.
Our second keyword, False, is from late Old English and has a meaning of ‘intentionally untrue’ or in the context of religion, ‘not of the true faith’. English is the only language that applies a sense of deceit to the word and by extension, treachery, disingenuous, contrary to reason.
The duality of our jailbroken tale is at the front of this card, which offers us instructions of how to live an animist life by giving of our selves to all spirit-forms and the landscapes in which we live as they do us in some form or another and also warns us that to misuse or misrepresent this relationship is contrary to reason at the least and treacherous and world destroying at the worst.