Spirit Traps

I suppose it is fitting just how chaotic this week has been, in retrospect. The week previous I picked up Peter Carroll’s Liber Kaos and began going through some of the deeper machinations behind chaos magic, looking for matches to the Lovecraftian Magical Aesthetic. I had gotten myself into a spot of trouble at work and hadn’t done magic of really any kind, save a few audio experiments and this weekly arm chairing, so I thought a shoal was in order.

I chose what is magically Monday night and what is materially Tuesday morning to launch this shoal, dedicating it to Selene and launching it in the hour of Mars, somewhere near dawn. The shoal revolved around work and success but in a different way than normal. Typically I focus on myself and my immediate needs, but as I am learning (and as it is also pointed out in Liber Kaos) that is the wrong way to go about sigilmancy. I cast them out into deep water, one and two years from now, attempting to manipulate the near future of the firm I work for and who is in charge at that time. The implication being that those with their eyes on me would find the floor shifting beneath them.

The immediate result? Total and utter chaos with me at the epicenter, a very visible epicenter. As Carrol states:

“Any act of magic, if not totally hopeless, will tend to improve any non-zero probability of the desired result occurring by chance alone…”

If I am to look through the world through wizard eyes, the floor shifting beneath me could only be a result of the shoal I launched and probability rearranging itself to nudge closer to the goals I cast. Lovecraftian Magic is also concerned with probability, but instead of casting forward into the future, the aesthetic demands that we cast back into the past. Again from Carroll’s Liber Kaos:

“[Chaos Magic Theory] asserts that… many of the bizarre and anomalous results recorded in the annals of magic can only have been due to retroactive enchantment.”

We have discussed before Phil Hine’s thoughts on Lovecraft and hypernostalgia. Carroll’s retroactive enchantment is the magical realization of this aesthetic. Again from Carroll:

“The ancients often executed prophets of avoidable doom, and with good reason, for prescience can act as enchantment. It should… be noted that this effect can work retroactively as well; the future can also be modified by selecting a perception of the past, and vice versa.”

Let’s explore this further within the the frame of Lovecraft’s tale, ‘The Terrible Old Man.’ We begin in the hamlet of Kingsport:

“It was the design of Angelo… Joe… and Manuel… to call on the Terrible Old Man. This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be… exceedingly rich… a situation very attractive to men of the [their] profession… robbery.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man which generally keep him safe from the attention of gentlemen [like these]…”

We have visited Kingsport in our explorations of ‘The Festival’ and ‘The Strange High House in the Mist,' and it has been deduced by this researcher to be the town of Marblehead, MA. Water Street sits just south of the Boston Yacht Club and there are no end to ancient houses in that immediate area, but the Ambrose Gale House, while not on Water, might be the best guess for a Gate through which Lovecraftian Magic can be conducted in this area, mostly because of its age. Of our archetype, the Terrible Old Man himself, the narrator has this to say:

“He is, in truth, a very strange person, believed to have been a captain of East India clipper ships in his day; so old that no on can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name.”

According to the previously referenced site, Historic Ipswich, a ship named Belisarius was launched in 1794 and traded with India for eight years before being wrecked in the Bay of Tunis in 1810. Further information about the ship can be found at the site, Seven Oceans. This, I feel, would be an excellent journeying point in timedepth to connect to a rich vein of Lovecraftian Hypernostaligia.


Another, perhaps tangential connection, is the ship Margaret. While it is not recorded as being in the employ of the East India Company, she was built for one John Derby Benjamin Pickman and one Samuel Derby, surnames we should readily recognize by now in the course of our research. The Margaret and its crew were involved in a wreck and many of the crew were left on the boat prior to its wreck to await rescue, which came after a considerable amount of time, suffering, and the death of twenty-eight of the thirty-one left aboard. It is also not difficult to imagine a Ghost Ship Margaret off the shores of Salem, seeking a port that will never come. Either of these vessels are easy journeying targets and our Terrible Old Man could have learned the secrets to his longevity on either.


The Terrible Old Man’s home on Water is not just old, it is by no mean indiscrete when it comes to advertising the witchy nature of its owner:

“Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stone, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple. This collection frightens away most of the small boys who love to taunt the Terrible Old Man about his long white hair and beard…”

Here in Milwaukee, we have, or had (how long does an enchantment truly live on past its creator), a similar art environment, namely the Witch House of the artist Mary Nohl. Her front yard was an art environment filled with concrete structures and her reputation as a witch was one that she did not work overly hard to dispel. 

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Rumor takes us by the hand and leads us up to the dirty windows of the home, through which we see that:

“on a table in a bare room on the ground floor are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string… they say that the Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, addressing them by such names as Jack, Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Peters, and Mate Ellis, and that whenever he speaks to a bottle the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer.”

This, in particular, is likely the most important piece of tech in the story. In the Hygromanteia there is a particular spell designed to pull a spirit out of a possessed person and trap it in the bottle.

From the Hygromanteia:

“Take a bottle and put it on a table. Then, place underneath a new piece of cloth, clove, musk and galbanum. Light four candles and have [an assistant with a facility with spirit contact with you]. Let the possessed person be nearby and the bottle in a convenient distance. The [assistant] must stare into the bottle. Then recite this conjuration at the left and at the right ear of the possessed person:

I conjure you, evil and impure spirit, by the great name of God Sabaoth, by the revelation of God which He revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, by the Holy of Holies, by the names of the holy angels Mikhael, Gabriel, Ourouel and Rhaphael, and by the names of the seven angels who are stirring the winds. Let them stir you and draw you out of the three hundred and sixty five joints and marrows of this person, so that you will be removed from him. I will send you to another place. I conjure you, evil demon, by the dreadful God, by the grace and presence of the Holy Ghost, and by the lamentations under the cross of my Christ, go out of this person and enter this bottle, and I will send you to a such and such place. Again I conjure you by the miracles of the angels and the saints, by their prayers and by the grace they gained. I conjure you by God, whom the whole creation, visible and invisible, fears, go out of this person and enter this bottle, so that I will send you to a such and such place.

Then ask the [assistant] if s/he sees a man in flesh within the bottle. The [the answer is] ‘Yes, he is inside,’ take wax and seal the mouth of the bottle, and tell the [assistant] to order him not to move from there. The [assistant] must wear this phylactery. As regards the bottle, take some parchment, draw a pentagram and place it on its mouth.”

With this traditional employment of a bottle as a spirit trap in mind, let’s continue with our story, to see how these bottle are employed by our Lovecraftian Magician. The tale is short, so the action begins quickly, shifting to the perspective of the criminals seeking to victimize the old man and their motivations:

“to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble old man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.”

This is a potential clue to the Terrible Old Man’s age and a way in to the aesthetic that this fiction-as-spell paints. At least in the US, gold and silver dollars are available. Most other countries also have gold and silver coins that can be used as legal tender. In our modern age, even the use of paper money is seen as antiquated, yet coins remain and are given value and can be traded for goods. If we are to attempt the Lovecraftian Magic version of the spirit bottle, an excellent lead up would be to obtain some of these coins and go about the day prior to the ritual purchasing our necessities with them. In this way, we can deepen our own performance as the Terrible Old Man archetype. The plot progresses:

“the three adventurers started out separately in order to prevent… suspicions… although they did not like the way the moon shone down upon the painted stone through the budding branches of the gnarled trees, they had more important things to think about than mere idle superstition…”


Offering us more clues for our spell-as-fiction. A clear night where the moon is visible is likely advantageous for this operation and while the operation will likely be conducted inside, a circle of painted stones within sight (from a window, perhaps) bathed in moonlight would help complete the picture and deepen the ritual aspect. Our thugs swallow their lizard-brain fear, however, and move forward:

“So they moved up to the lighted window and heard the Terrible Old Man talking childishly to his bottles with pendulums. Then they donned masks and knocked politely at the weather-stained oaken door… [The get-away driver] Mr. Czanek… fidgeted restlessly… he did not like the hideous screams he… heard in the ancient house just after the hour appointed for the deed… [He] did not like to wait so long in the dark in such a place. Then he sensed a soft tread or tapping on the walk inside the [gated yard], heard a gentle fumbling at the rusty latch, and saw the narrow, heavy door swing inward… he did not see what he had expected, for his colleagues were not there at all… only the Terrible Old Man leaning quietly on his knotted cane… smiling hideously…”

The short tale ends with allusions that the bodies of the robbers were found slashed and torn in ways that only antique cutlasses could achieve. This implies that the Terrible Old Man, in his version of the spirit bottle spell, has held on to the spirits instead of banishing them to a far off place, and employed them to his protection when needed. This also implies that the spirits aided him in divining the future, that he was prepared for the assailants before their arrival.

Every house has spirits, whether through the accretion of habitation or the displacement of the landscapes spirit ecology as humans fill their alien domestic niches. The traditional spell, I think, would only take a few modifications to work within our Lovecraftian aesthetic. It is likely that our Terrible Old Man did not require an assistant to trap Long Tom or Spanish Joe. Perhaps he had obtained his wisdom while aboard the Margaret and was one of the three survivors? Perhaps he brought with him the spirits of his fellow seamen, trapping them in his bottles as they died from starvation and thirst aboard the lifeless ghost ship? 

Spirit Ships.jpg

In our version of the spell, our bottle should be fitted with fishing sinkers and, to get the aesthetic right, probably horsehair fishing line, as braided horsehair was used by fishermen beginning in the 15th century, or if you want to take your aesthetic back to ancient Egypt, perhaps silk fly line is more attractive to you. 

For our Lovecraftian Spirit Trap, there is no need for a possessed person to be nearby, although some argue that many more people are possessed by demons than we realize. The Lovecraftian Spirit Bottle can be employed to trap, speak to, and employ any type of spirit-of-the-human-dead that may be around. So if you are troubled in your home by mischievous or malevolent spirits, perhaps this is the spell for you. 

The incantation and the offerings of incense should remain the same but the references to ‘evil’ spirits can be dropped:

I conjure you, [spirit of this place], by the great name of God Sabaoth, by the revelation of God which He revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, by the Holy of Holies, by the names of the holy angels Mikhael, Gabriel, Ourouel and Rhaphael, and by the names of the seven angels who are stirring the winds. Let them stir you and draw you out [of your hiding place]. I will send you [into this bottle]. I conjure you… by the dreadful God, by the grace and presence of the Holy Ghost, and by the lamentations under the cross of my Christ… enter this bottle… I conjure you by the miracles of the angels and the saints, by their prayers and by the grace they gained. I conjure you by God, whom the whole creation, visible and invisible, fears… enter this bottle, so that I [can employ you to do my will.]

The line and sinker is actually a fairly brilliant innovation, as it essentially eliminates the need for the assistant with the greater ability to see a spirit, the pendulum being a sensitive enough barometer for the Lovecraftian Mage to gauge wether or not her operation was successful on her own. Now, once you successfully trap a spirit, how you encourage them to cut home invaders to ribbons with ghost cutlasses will be a matter of personal experimentation.


Our tarot card match for The Terrible Old Man archetype is what Etteilla calls Les Plantes, but what most know as the major arcana card, the Moon.

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It is one of the more mystical alterations that Etteilla created for his deck. The two keywords that are offered are ‘propos,’ which in this context means a conversation, purpose, or planning. We see this on two fronts in our tale, the Terrible Old Man conversing with his host of trapped spirits and the planning of the criminals who seek to victimize him. The Moon, in the classical grimoires, is one of the primary moving parts in planning any type of enchantment, much more so than modern Pop Magic gives it credit. The modern view is that the moon in any phase and lunar eclipses are all filled with potent good energy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are several days in every lunar cycle where it is not only not good to conduct certain enchantments or even take certain non-magical actions but often these action can be downright disastrous. Clearly, the moon that shone on our criminals and the Terrible Old Man’s circle of Kodama was not favorable for acts of violence against centuries old sea-mages. The other keyword here hits our archetype squarely in the target, ‘eau,’ or ‘water. Water, stemming from the PIE root *akwa-, meaning a conduit. Etteilla is not always easy to suss out, but if I had to take a stab at what the name of this card, ‘Les Plantes,’ in our context, I would look to the Old English ‘plante,’ which means a young tree, shrub, or herb newly planted. In other words, the beginnings of the hedge or the wide datura flower seeking the moon’s light. Moving back further, and deeper, to the PIE root *plat-, we find the meaning shifts to ‘spreading’ as in a root, roots having clear connections to magic and hedge witchcraft in particular.

Our Terrible Old Man, with his spirit traps, sits at the foundation of witchcraft along with Selene, Poseidon, and Gaia. As a sea-mage now living a near eternal life on land, he is connected to them all, as are all that follow in this archetype’s footsteps. The trapping of the spirits of the dead to do our will also tracks very well with our hypernostalgic vein. It is said that the spirits of the dead don’t know any more of the future than we do on this side of the veil. What they do know, however, is the past, in much greater detail and from different perspectives than we will ever be able to comprehend. Shifting back to Carroll’s Liber Kaos, he states that:

“It is in meeting the conditions of gnosis that will is employed. Desire is scale independent, and as long as a suitable magical link exists subconscious resistance is low, and an appropriate spell mechanism is used to remove conscious awareness…”

With the definition of a magical link being:

“an elaborate image in the memory of the target phenomenon undergoing the required change.”

When conducting retroactive enchantment, when flooding our magical aesthetic with Lovecraftian Hypernostalgia, who better to aid us in establishing this elaborate image of a past we have never experienced than the dead that did indeed live through it? 

Like so many of Lovecraft’s tales, however, I will have to leave you to question how these theories look in practice.