Nepenthe

FRONT MATTER

Spring is approaching, and when I say approaching, I mean it is sneaking up to the door of winter, peaking inside, finding a terrible abandoned cabin filled with corpses, and slamming the door shut again for another three weeks. I found myself checking out at the natural foods cooperative Friday afternoon, a cold and windy and hospital blanket grey sky kind of Friday afternoon, with two 8% beers, a tincture of St. John’s Wort, and a CBD chocolate bar being the only things in my basket. That’s what this long stretch of cold and dark weather has brought me to. Ingesting everything the government allows just to maintain a baseline.

Everyone in my house is on edge. I’ve gotten a higher amount of shitty emails from my coworkers. Mercury is in retrograde and he and Helios have gone on a bender and are sleeping off some bad acid and Jack Daniels in a waterfront warehouse somewhere.

My practice this week has hit a good rhythm. Magic, for me, seems to be very goal oriented. I’ve been trying to move the needle towards a different job for awhile now, and that is the motivating factor that gets me out of bed at the 22nd or 23rd hour, as Stephen Skinner reiterated recently on his Glitch Bottle appearance is one of the best times to establish communication with the spirit world, these goals are what get me out of bed and on my knees reading out incantations from over a thousand years ago.

I did a bit of armchairing too, cracking open my new Betz edition of the Greek Magical Papyri. I have to tell y’all, I’m really digging it. The spells really resonate with me and there is a greater percentage of, let’s call it vegan or vegetarian spellcraft than I’ve found in the classical grimoires. I love me a spell that doesn’t require too much materia. For instance, let’s take this fucking endless winter and the mood its put me in. Gods forbid someone hears how I talk in traffic nowadays. Its obscene. I found this one sentence, that’s right, a one sentence spell in the PGM that can be used to dispel anger. Here it is:

Charm to restrain anger:
“Will you dare to raise your mighty spear against Zeus?”

How elegant. I’ll be trying this one out next week and if it works I’ll have it tatoo’ed on the inside of my eyelids.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the PGM has plenty spells with exotic materia in it. I was reading through one about invoking the Great Bear. I have yet to see a more Lovecraftian spell, actually. That constellation features heavily in some of his work that centers around the ‘core’ [read: popular] mythos. Anyway, I’m reading through it like, oh yeah, this is great, and then I get to the materia, and there it is, one whole brain of a black ram. Dammit. One other thing I’ve read in the spells of the PGM, so far, is that there aren’t the strict requirements on the ‘how’ of acquiring the brain of a black ram, which makes it more do-able. I’m sure I could get a butcher somewhere to procure me an appropriate organ, but if you don’t mind, I’m going to continue to move towards that Vegan Goetic magic aesthetic when possible.

Another spell that I found (that I dearly hope I will be able to put to use this year) has to do with the proper way to harvest plants. I’ve owned my house and property for six years now and have not found the time to grow a single tomato. Its repulsive, the city, and the busyness, a busyness that goes nowhere and does nothing but drain resources. This year, this season, if it ever begins, I am going to grow. And with growing comes harvest and I want to do harvest right.

This spell requires no materia, which is right up my dark alley:

Spell for picking a plant: Use this spell before sunrise.
“I am picking you, [name of plant], with my five-fingered hand, I, [your name], and I am bringing you home so that you may work for me for [state your purpose]. I adjure you by the undefiled name of god: if you pay no heed to me, the earth which produced you will no longer be watered as far as you are concerned — ever in life again, if I fail in this operation, MOUTHABAR NACH BARNACHOCHA BRAEO MENDA LAUBRAASSE PHASPHA BENDEO; fulfill for me the perfect charm.

What I find particularly interesting about this spell is that the end of it contains a threat, like the classical grimoires and the series of elaborate threats that are laid down to deal with reticent spirits. Here we have that same shape, but we are communicating with the spirit of a plant; “if you pay no heed to me, the earth which produced you will no longer be watered… if I fail in this operation.” That’s a threat. I’m sorry, but it is a little mind-blowing to me, especially giving that up until now, the only plant magic I’ve been exposed to is the feel-good thank you Mother Nature for your gifts kind. This plant spell, ain’t that.

IMBRICATIONS

For this week’s imbrications we will start out with some light duty. I’ve lost count of how many Lovecraft tales include a tower, and this week is no exception. I’ve started to expand my definition of what constitutes a tower, looking for other connections. This week’s first imbrication is Bon Iver’s song, Towers. I’m not a die-hard Bon Iver fan, but I have a little insight on this song because it connected with some research I did for work. While the video reveals a definite grizzled New England-ish Lovecraftian rustic protagonist, the underlying song is about Bon Iver’s experience in college, the dorm he lived in was known as the Towers. Does a structure just have to the title of tower applied to it to work within our magical aesthetic? It is a question we can work with.

Moving into darker territory, I offer for your approval, this live rendition of Nepenthe by the group Opeth. This is a great metal group just because of their range and the diversity of genres they incorporate into their compositions. Check them out:

 

And then finally, ending on a high note, let’s go back a bit in time and visit the darkest vintner in metal, Maynard James Keenan, performing the song Outsider with his group A Perfect Circle on the set of the Tonight Show. Exquisite.

 

UNHAPPY IS HE

“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft.”

For this week’s Lovecraft tale, we will be examining The Outsider, from which the above quote is pulled.Lovecraft was clearly a devoted naturalist and nemophilist in his youth. Perhaps a disconnect from the natural world as he got older and was consumed by the city, namely the New York of Horror at Red Hook, contributed to his aesthetic. I think it is something many of us can relate to, as urbanization increases. On the other side of this thought, however, we have his treatment of ‘rustics’ and those that live their lives in the wild and in the country. His aesthetic is one of a gifted unobtainable primeval existence, living in the wild, but not off of it. We have a similar aesthetic now, in our modern world, which is largely classified as neopagan. The neopagan sphere is what has tainted plant spirit communication with the aforementioned feel-good the Lord-of-the-Timber-loves-his-human-neighbors dialog. Let’s dig a bit further into the Outsider, the prose-woods are thick here and it is slow going at the outset:

“Such a lot the gods gave to me — to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.”

These two sentences say so much about the Lovecraftian magical aesthetic that is relevant to modern magical practice. First, his call out to ‘the gods’ is important. This tale was written at the age of thirty-one and in these opening paragraphs is clearly a deeply personal story, laced with real emotion. There is little artifice here, which means that he is calling on the gods, likely of pagan origin as we have seen him do so in prior works. A roman paganism was clearly a deep and pervasive part of his world view, but as has been pointed out, perhaps it is Lovecraft’s longing for some lost soft moments of fancy in his childhood that has contributed to the beginnings of neopagan thought. He also defines for us here a term that is very familiar, that of ‘The Other’. Dazed, disappointed, barren, broken; how many of us, how many magical practitioners, do these words describe? Or at least, described a life prior to regular magical practice? And then, at the end of the second sentence, he encapsulates that fear that, if we are doing it right, we all feel to some degree. Magic, or to be more precise, magical ‘otherness’, is not comfortable or safe. If there isn’t some fear, some charge, so deep feeling in the pit of your stomach that you, as a human, are walking a path normally tread by the non-human, by entities that could wipe out your wealth, health, and sanity with a whim, well, if you haven’t had that feeling yet than, as the phrase goes, you’re doing it wrong. Moving deeper into the tale, we find our familiar liminal space:

“the castle [where I was born] was never light, so that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief; nor was there any sun outdoors, since the terrible trees grew high above the topmost accessible tower. There was one black tower which reached above the trees into the unknown outer sky, but that was partly ruined and could not be ascended save by the well-high impossible climb up the sheer wall, stone by stone.”

Here again we have Lovecraft’s favorite magical space, the tower, and we also have the high black tower, obscured by ruin. If I were the type of writer to start making connections between archetypes and disparate plot lines (and I clearly am) then The Outsider connects at this point to the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and the Tower of Nyarlathotep at the pinnacle of Randolph Carter’s journey, or that Tower that we find ourselves in The Haunter of the Dark, which I discuss here at length. As an aside, I have been thinking what other types of towers fit into this aesthetic? As mentioned in the Imbrications section, I’ve been working with expanding this magical model, what about The Eiffel Tower, Mobile Cell Towers, Lighthouses? These all seem like plausible window spaces for Lovecraftian Magic for me at this at this point. Lovecraft continues, moving deeper into his definition of the archetype:

“through endless twilights I dreamed and waited… Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown out sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower… since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day.”

What does the Tower mean to us now, after sitting with Lovecraft these many weeks. We have made connections to Cybele, to Saint Barbara, to the ancient city of Jericho. We have climbed towers with Lovecraft multiple times, always revealing something, always passing into a window space, a liminal interstitial dimension in the air where dream and chaos and monsters meet. Our nameless, faceless, and mysterious Other now does the same, climbing through midnight until…

“after an infinity of awesome, sightless crawling up that concave and desperate precipice, I felt my head touch a solid thing… some kind of floor… hen came a deadly circuit of the tower… till finally my testing hand found the barrier yielding… pushing the slab or door with my head as I used both hands in my fearful ascent… the slab was the trap-door of an aperture leading to a level stone surface of greater circumference than the lower tower… some lofty and capacious observation chamber…”

And more spaces are added to my expanding view of ‘tower-space,’ those observation decks that you find in parks with vistas, the lonely fire towers connected only by tenuous radio waves and the absence of the human. These are the same type of space and, as we have seen, all towers are somehow connected, projecting up into Lovecraft’s Dreamland and that realm is intimately connected with the graveyard, tower-space penetrating into the grave as orifice, the cemetery as a chthonic womb. The nameless protagonist of The Outsider finds himself now, in a realm utterly unfamiliar, a ritual birth:

“instead of a dizzying prospect of treetops… there stretched around me… the solid ground, decked and diversified by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed by an ancient stone church, whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in the moonlight…”

The church reflects the castle and we have been transported out of a retrograde state, beginning in a chthonic space and moving into the day. The editor’s notes in my collection state that this story if likely connected to the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and perhaps this cemetery is an echo of the one where she was buried, but the cemetery stretches much further back in Lovecraft’s imagination, before the Typhoid Plague, before his leaving school, before the real terror of his life, this was a place of comfort for him. Our faceless Other has moved from the womb of the afterlife through a portal into life. This isn’t a celebration of death, but more an embracing of waking world, a connecting of the two, the experience of an imbrication of two realities, an towards that experience, The Outsider states:

“I neither knew nor cared whether my experience was insanity, dreaming, or magic…”

What a brilliant line, and a very interesting taxonomy falling under the larger heading of what can only be Super Normal experience. Additionally, from our perspective, the narrator exists in the spirit world, and our in-the-real is viewed as a fantastic place crafted from delusion, nightmares, or enchantment. This goes very far in realizing how spirits view us and the waking world through a Lovecraftian lens, a place just as terrible as we would view a ruined castle in the underworld surrounded by endless thick primeval forest. Our spirit-form, The Outsider, just born unto the realm of men, continues to describe his journey:

“Over two hours must have passed before I reached what seemed to be my goal, a… castle in a thickly wooded park; maddeningly familiar… I observed with… delight… the open windows — gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of… revelry… I… stepped through the low window into the brilliantly lighted room… The nightmare was quick to come; far as I entered… there descended upon the whole company a sudden and unheralded fear of hideous intensity… horrible screams from nearly every throat. Flight was universal…”

The fleeing and revulsion of the waking world from that of the spirit…

This is a symbol of how the spirit world was largely viewed then in the West as it is now, with fear, as something to stay away from, to deny, and those that embrace it, are treated as if they are a part of it, touched by it, stained. The Outsider, Lovecraft embodying the spirit-form’s experience whence being summoned to stand before the human, humans that threaten and cajole and compel, lays before us this line:

“In the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe…”

Connecting to Homer’s Odyssey (as does the Greek Magical Papyri in its use of Homer as invocatory text), nepenthes  is a drug that banishes grief from the mind, bringing forgetfulness. An anti-depressant, a balm for the soul obsessed with sorrow. It is invoked in Poe’s the Raven, in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and in the Watchman, as Sally Jupiter’s final place of retirement. Our protagonist describes for us a type of purgatory, have dream, have reality, that nepenthe invokes:

“In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. When I returned to the churchyard place of marble and went down the steps I found the stone trap-door immovable; but was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind and play be day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown Valley of Hadoth by the Nile… For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century…”

The allegory for this tale, to me, connects to my cohort. That is you, dear reader, and all like you, like me. There are many among us that struggle with nepenthe, that is, the use of drugs, of food, of alcohol, of all types of obsessive behavior in an effort to forget some pain. For me, The Outsider means that there is another way, another balm other than Helena’s drugged wine, and that is magic.

Our tarot match for The Outsider is the Ten of Swords. Etteilla’s keywords are Pluers, or Tears for the upright lay and Avantage, or Advantage for the reverse.

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This is a curious juxtaposition that is an excellent match for our archetype. It has an alchemical feel, as the Old English definition maps to ‘what is distilled in drops.’ This isn’t as old as the Old Norse or Frisian ‘tar’, which is closer to the modern definition. Old Latin ‘dacrima’ or the Welsh ‘deigr’ are more active, meaning the act of weeping. Reversing our tears, the card maps to advantage, the root being ‘avant’ or ‘before’. Moving further back, we can break avant into the Latin ab- and -ante, ab- meaning ‘away,’ denoting a separation, and -ante meaning in front of, before, or against. Compounding both into the one archetype, The Outsider, the Ten of Swords through the Lovecraftian Magical Lens denotes an individual carrying a burden, much like the Sola-Busca rendition of the card indicates.

 

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What is that burden? It is pain and suffering, which is a universal condition for 99% of humans on the planet. What is different about The Outsider, however, is the turning back inward, to the Valley of Hadoth. The Outsider looked at himself in the golden portal of polished glass, saw what he was, recognized his difference, and moved inward, but not fully removed, not fully back into the chthonic womb of the cemetery, the tomb. The Outsider is an example of us, as The Others. We carry sharp bundle of swords but this experience puts us at an advantage. It has brought us to a path where we have embraced magic, either through last resort or through reason. Magic separates us from the rest of the world, is often a response and a defense against the world’s sufferings, placing us as a group ahead of the evolutionary curve.

As a bonus imbrication, my mind immediately went to the below song as soon as I interpreted this week’s tarot card. If the Ten of Swords and The Outsider have a theme song, this is it.