Prometheus Chthonicus

Lovecraftian Magic is primarily a system designed to aid the magic-user in traveling through time.

Some might argue that the main goal of the wizards in Lovecract’s spellfiction are concerned with bringing down upon mankind the ‘Old Ones,’ or the ‘Elder Gods,’ or some other cosmic horror. This is only partially true, if we look at the ‘why’ for bringing these madness-inducing elephant-squids into the human realm we find that the wizard or witch perpetrating the invocation has an underlying goal of bringing humanity back to their most primal point in time.

Similarly, the monster in our tale for this week, ‘The Beast in the Cave,’ is a meditation, a warning, to humanity on what will become of us if we are to (as we do increasingly everyday) succumb to our appetites.

The tale, probably Lovecraft’s earliest published work, begins with our narrator realizing that a sojourn away from his tour group into the blackness of an unknown subterranean environment has landed him in a spot of trouble:

“The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty. I was lost, completely, hopelessly lost in the vast and labyrinthine recesses of the Mammoth Cave.”

We have a new place on our map of Lovecraftian Magic gateways, the Mammoth Cave National Park. This is one of Lovecraft’s first published works, written at the age of thirteen. The connections made in the previous weeks to one cave in particular, the Snake-Den, a gateway revealed at the end of his career, creates a type of cycle — the Grimoire Lovecraftia begins and ends its life in the imaginal shadowy landscape of the cave-as-archetype. The Mammoth Cave, it should be noted, was the site of pre-Columbian, Mississipian / Early Woodland funerary rites, or for our context, a place of magic and necromancy for the past 6000 years.

Our narrator recognizes the poignancy and relevance of the place to his current plight, as well:

“If I must die, I reflected, then was this terrible yet majestic cavern as welcome a sepulchre as that which any churchyard might afford…”

Lovecraft makes the connection between the cave and the graveyard, establishes them as similar in archetypal qualities for our magical aesthetic.

The Mammoth Cave is not only a place of ancient magic but it is a particularly good spot for the precursor to magical time travel (or quantum enchantment maybe?), hypernostalgia. In ‘The Beast in the Cave’ our narrator takes time (amidst his being hopelessly lost) to recall a memory not his own, but of the collective history of the cave:

“I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form. I had seen the sad remains of their ill made cottages as I passed them by with the party, and had wondered what unnatural influence a long sojourn in this immense and silent cavern would exert upon one as healthy and vigorous as I…”

What is being referenced here is the 1842 colonization of the cave by tuberculosis patients, which according to Atlas Obscura constructed ten cottages a mile and have from the cave’s entrance. All of the inhabitants of the cottage sanatorium either died in the cave or shortly after returning to the surface. A potent underworld filled with ghosts both ancient and modern. It is at this point, as if enabling the spirits of the place with his act of hypernostalgia, that our primary spirit-form makes its appearance:

“All at once… my attention was fixed with a start as I fancied that I heard the sound of soft approaching steps on the rocky floor of the cavern… my ever acute ear, now sharpened in even greater degree by the complete silence of the cave, bore to my benumbed understanding the unexpected and dreadful knowledge that these footfalls were not like those of any mortal man… These impacts were soft, and stealthy… I seemed to trace the falls of four instead of two feet.”

To which we are witness to an archetypal meeting of an unknown spirit-form during the narrator’s chthonic journey… Dante abandoned by Virgil in Hell, Jung in his desert cave… The cave is the perfect representation of the unconscious, it is unknowable, primordial, inky black yet teeming with life and energy and the forever promise of the unknown. The narrator continues, revealing that most human of reactions as the cave spirit approaches:

“my mind conceived of no intent on the part of the visitor save that of hostility…”

This is the normal reaction to active imagination exercises and, sadly, to most dreams, not literal violence but the seething violence of reason, no worse an infection has ever spread across the collective cultures of earth. As readers, we are trapped in the narrator’s mind (the ultimate power of spellfiction, the immersive detailed environment called on by Peter Carroll in his chaos magic theory as necessary for embedding oneself in the enchantment process, resulting in finding the right probability frequency on the 4th dimensional spectrum of the possible), much like how our storyteller rationalizes the approaching the spirit-form:

“I wondered what species of animal was to confront me; it must, I thought, be some unfortunate beast who had paid for its curiosity to investigate one of the entrances of the fearful grotto with a lifelong confinement in its interminable recesses. It doubtless obtained as food the eyeless fish, bats, and rats of the cave, as well as some of the ordinary fish that are wafted in at every freshet of Green River, which communicates in some occult manner with the waters of the cave.”

I really like the diorama put together with the above quote, the animal in the cave, becoming a part of the ecosystem by establishing its own niche. It is not a natural part of the cave like the eyeless fish and bats. This is what those entities that pop out of an active imagination exercise feel like, right? They appear to be part of the visualization but then a movement, a strange footfall maybe, an uneven lunge, marks them as apart from the endemic inhabitants. If the cave is our imagination, the spirit-forms that inhabit it are represented by the Beast of Mammoth Cave. Also of deep interest here is the metaphor of the river (the river as a unifying, life-giving, spiritual force) having occult communication with the cave. The mixing of the spirit and the unconscious going on in ways that humans will never be aware. The narrator of this tale, however, had no designs on communing with the spirit or understanding his chthonic journey, launching missile after missile in the direction our archetype, the Beast, approached. Two such missiles hit their mark and the narrator flees through the darkness, much like Poliphilo fleeing from the dragon in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. As Poliphilo found his way from his cave, so does our narrator:

“Suddenly I heard a sound, or rather, a regular succession of sounds. In another instant they had resolved themselves into a series of sharp, metallic clicks. This time there was no doubt, It was the guide…”

Another interesting sync here with our story from last week written at the end of Lovecraft’s career, ‘Through the Gate of the Silver Key.’ In that tale, Randolph Carter finds his way through the Snake-Den to a place where there is an entity called the Guide. I wrote last week that it was the first time I had read of a Guide, but here, in the very beginning, is one also. A Guide that delivers our protagonist from his murdered victim. Is Lovecraftian Magic, in a way, a manner of turning our back on the animal in the cave to embrace a new type of quantum light free from the constraints of time and matter? The Guide and our protagonist do turn back to examine the would-be assailant with their torches and other trappings of the material in tow:

“I retraced my steps… Soon we descried a white object upon the floor, an object whiter even than the gleaming limestone itself… of all the unnatural monsters either of us had in our lifetimes beheld, this was in surpassing the strangest… an anthropoid ape of large proportions… Its hair was snow-white… From the tips of the fingers or toes long nail-like claws extended… The respiration had now grown very feeble, and the guide had drawn his pistol with the evident intent of dispatching the creature, when a sudden sound emitted by the latter caused the weapon to fall… As we gazed upon the uncanny sight… several sounds issued… after which the thing relaxed in death… then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place… the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was… a man…”

Wonder, awe and compassion, here are the markings of recognizing a true meeting of a spirit-form in the imaginal. Further, the white ape, from this seed left to mummify in the Mammoth Cave, this proto-man, this archetype of what we once were and, if Lovecraft proves prophet, will be again, the white ape spreads from the cave into the jungles of Africa and into dark tunnels beneath the Catskills. In those future stories, it is harder to recognize the lesson that The Beast in the Cave teaches. This victim of materialism is none other than ourselves.

The tarot match for ‘The Beast in the Cave’ is the Nine of Cups.


Etteilla offers us two keywords to deepen the meaning of this card, Victory and Sincerity. Victory was first identified in the 13th century where it meant winning in battle or a physical contest, which is exactly the plot of our tale. It stems from the PIE root *weik-, meaning in this context ‘to fight,’ but also to ‘bend,’ suggesting pliability and softness, in this context it expands out to witch, wiccan, willow, and the German wechsel, meaning ‘change,’. A further instantiation of *weik- relates to the word ‘clan,’ as in a social unit above the household — in this instantiation *weik- expands out to diocese, ecumenical and parish. If we layer the meanings of all of this root’s instantiations together we come upon a definition of religion (both Pagan and Christian) as either a type of weapon or the state achieved following victory in battle, or the reason for the battle to begin with (being the change that religion brings about).

Sincerity is from the 15th c. and means purity or wholeness. It’s root, ‘sincere,’ means ‘pure’ or ‘unmixed,’ and ‘free from falsehood. It is broken down into the PIE roots *sem- and *ker-. *sem- meaning ‘together as one’ and expands out to the Greek ‘homos,’ which means ‘one and the same.’ *ker- means ‘to grow,’ and forms all or part of Ceres, Creole and create in this context. *ker- has two other instantions, one meaning ‘horn,’ specifically those on horned animals and another meaning ‘heat,’ or ‘fire.’ The term Creole is another match back to ‘Through the Gate of the Silver Key.’ The description of pure or unmixed is implied by the presences of the ‘white ape’ in the Mammoth Cave, as this degenerated form is pulled from Lovecraft directly from the annals of Theosophy, where the belief that humankind began on the continent of Hyperborea at the North Pole as a pure being of diving knowledge and perfect health as we have through timedepth and physical distance towards the Mountains of Madness on the South Pole, become more and more ‘degenerate’ to use his/their term into ape-like beings in a reverse Darwinism. The instantiation of *sem- meaning ‘together as one’ directly relates to the relationship of our narrator and the beast laying murdered in his subterranean churchyard.

The thickest piece of red yarn between our tarot card match and our tale, however, is the instantiation of *ker- that means fire. In the end, our narrator is delivered from facing the time traveling metaphor of mankind’s materialist future by the Guide. The guide is Prometheus with his torch, bringing us the light of technology. Technology is the promise of Prometheus, it is the false light at the end of the tunnel of materialism that glows brightly with OLED backlit pixellated pseudo-spirit. In ‘The Beast in the Cave,’ this technology is penetrating the very deepest parts of our subconscious, changing our dreams and thus, changing our future in a way that only benefits it.

The Guide and our narrator go back and, in true empirical fashion, inspect the spirit of the depths closely, without ever seeing what is in front of their eyes before it is too late and the metaphor is unable to deliver anymore forewarning, blinded as they are by all that the false Promethean light illuminates.