Under the Sycamore Trees

Maybe it is fitting that I am writing this post in October. October, this cursed month. Surely not cursed for everyone and admittedly much better for me since my own re-enchantment but, still, Octobers for me really hit hard. I don’t know what it is… that’s a lie. I do know what it was, what happened. That botched spell so many many years ago, before I met my wife, before kids, before the good job… That treasure spell on that Halloween night that I pulled basically at random from Wedeck’s ‘Treasury of Witchcraft,’ my brother and I said the words, it was storming, I think (memory… a funny lying spirit), and we held onto that insufferable black cat, that rotten thing that made the house smell and wouldn’t hesitate to attack the hand that fed it, we held onto that cat to give the spell ‘more potency.’ That treasure spell that I can no longer find in the damn book. The spell worked, I found treasure after treasure, all ultimately worthless or squandered, throughout the month… and ever since, the spirit world has exacted payment after payment after payment.

Now, I am not one of those that thinks there is some ‘balance’ to the chi flowing in the universe and that every action has an equal and opposite magical reaction… no… I am confident that the energy in this world is infinite, it is the height of ego to think that a single human can even put a dent in the ebb and flow of whatever magical ‘stuff’ pulls things together for the magic-user. Nonetheless, the fact remains that something is and has been out-of-whack. My dear friend Ghostly Harmless made the excellent point that Hallows Eve is for feeding the dead, not asking for treasure and I’ve been working to appease the ‘dead’ in a general sense and trying to put right some restlessness in my own line… and still Octobers roll over me like a psychic and financial steamroller…

So it is fitting (and possibly a clue) that this week, as we approach Hallows Eve again, that I find myself reading and responding to ‘The Cats of Ulthar’ by HP Lovecraft. Cats are one of the primary foci of this tale (but not the only one), and are called out right away in the beginning:

“It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the River Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir…. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient that the Sphinx, and remembers that which she has forgotten.”

Lovecraft did adore cats, and I can’t say I haven’t been partial to them through my life. I quite like the idea that cats carry knowledge with them through successive generations and that, if we could speak to them, they would tell us tales of cities lost to us such as Meroë and rich port of Ophir through which none other than King Solomon received his wares. Well, they might tell us those tales. More likely they can speak to us and just don’t, because they are cats and we are clearly the lesser species, unable to feed ourselves in the wild or find shelter or survive the cold. In the world of Lovecraftian Magic, the cat is also a direct conduit between the knowledge of our world and that of the Dreamlands, existing in both simultaneously. Lovecraft continues his tale, introducing in a clear and unambiguous way, the evil in the story:

“In Ulthar… there dwelt an old cotter and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors… But the villagers did not discuss such things with the old man and his wife… because their cottage was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard. In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them… merely took care that no cherished… mouser should stray toward the remote hovel…”

Cats are so widely adored and indeed useful in the world today, that those individuals that go out of their way to kill them only boast among others of their kind. What is the metaphor here? If, in the first passage, we are to take away the sentiment that cats are bearers of hidden knowledge, embodying the occult, in fact, then what of this couple that kills them? Are they the enemy of knowledge? Are they the adversary of meaning? Another view might come from the grimoires, in which many a cat has been ordered to death for its blood and bones in magical ritual. Are the old couple in the cottage dark beneath the oaks a wizard and witch using materia felinus to malefic ends? This isn’t revealed, but magic is clearly a part of this world (half-Dreamlands, half-ancient Europe possibly? Layered on one another like some kind of augmented reality) , as is revealed by the vehicle that brings us our archetype:

“One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk… In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought… beads from the merchants… What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams, and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a head-dress with two horns and a curious disc betwixt the horns”

We would recognize this today as the Wiccan symbol of the horned god, which by extension connect it with Cernunnos or Herne of Celtic and English myth. Given the paintings described on their wagons, however, one would lead to something closer to Ancient Egypt, such as Banebdjedet or Khnumn in the context of the story. Given Lovecraft’s proclivities toward Ancient Rome, then the symbol could well be a representation of Pan/Faunus, which I have argued is the primary deity in Cthulhu mythos.

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It is at this point that we are introduced to the archetype for the story, a member of the Dark Wanderers, a small gypsy boy:

“There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish… the boy, whom [was] called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sat playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.”

Menes was the name of an Egyptian pharaoh and folk hero. He was the uniter of Egypt in the first dynasty and was said to inherit the throne directly from Horus. He was spoken of in stories all the way through to the Hellenic period — so just as the Greek Magical Papyri, Menes the boy in Ulthar is lost, fragmented by the loss of his parents, but containing wisdom that spans two vastly magical cultures. The Menes in our tale is also a hero and we know that because, in his hero’s journey, he encounters the invisible anti-heroes of the town:

“On the third morning of the wanderers stay in Ulthar, Menes could not find his kitten; and as he sobbed aloud in the market-place certain villagers told him of the old man and his wife… and when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer… as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked discs…”

Ahh, now there is the clarification we needed, they aren’t horned discs like the Wiccan symbol of the Horned God, they are horn-flanked. This clearly indicates that the Dark Wanderers are devotees of Hathor, the vengeful sky goddess and psychopomp and Queen of the Cemetery who aided the dead in transitioning to the afterlife and was often represented as a sycamore tree, giving that old chestnut from Jimmy Scott a great deal more clarity.

Hathor had many altars in the Memphite Necropolis, connecting her to Menes, whom Herodotus claims as the founder of the city of Memphis. It is also of note that the Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus positions Menes as the ruler that introduced the worship of and sacrifice to the gods — layering our story back on itself if we are taking the position that the old man and woman in the cottage are grimoirists using the neighborhood cats in their magica materia. As the tale begins, so it ends, with the focus on Lovecraft’s favorite familiar:

“That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again. And the householders were troubled when they noticed that in all the village there was not a cat to be found… little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, vowed that he had at twilight seen all the cats in Ulthar in that accursed yard under the trees, pacing very slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage, two abreast, as if in performance of some unheard-of rite of beasts… So Ulthar went to sleep… and when the people awaked at dawn... every cat was back at his accustomed hearth… It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees…”

So, our small gypsy boy in his dark caravan, this namesake of the progenitor of magic with his innovative approach to worship, what is his equivalent in the tarot? The secret is in this phrase:

‘as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked discs…’

This image is on the face of the Judgement card, for all to see. Our Etteilla deck offers us only the cards title for a keyword, both upright and reversed, Le Jugement.

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The term ‘jugement’ is from the mid thirteenth century and refers to one’s capacity for making decisions, it is curious that its divine definition, as is revealed in the card, was first recorded in the late year of 1610. The root of the word, ‘judge,’ is of course older, hailing from the PIE root *deik-, meaning to ‘pronounce solemnly,’ as did our archetype Menes when it was revealed that his kitten had fallen to the hands of the old couple in the house in the shadow of the trees. *deik- expands out to such words as addict, avenge, benediction (and malediction [word magic, in essence]), index, theodicy (the vindication of divine justice — a feeling the young wanderer no doubt felt following his own malediction of the cat-killers) and vendetta.

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In her role of psychopomp, Hathor, the original Horned Goddess, is the Queen of Judgement. Menes, the founder of Memphis, planted the seed that grew into a giant necropolis, filled with crossroads and altars to her. Cats were also held in as high a regard in Egypt, to the extent that the invading Persian king Cambyses II conquered Egypt in 522 BCE by holding cats hostage. According to this article on ancient.eu:

“The Persian king, knowing the veneration the Egyptians held for cats, had the image of Bastet painted on his soldiers' shields and, further, "ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold dear" (Polyaenus VII.9). The Egyptians under Psametik III, seeing their own beloved goddess on the shields of enemies, and fearing to fight lest they injure the animals being driven before the enemy, surrendered their position and took flight in a rout.

Many were massacred on the field, and Herodotus reports seeing their bones still in the sand many years later; he even commented on the difference between the Persian and the Egyptian skulls. Those Egyptians not killed at Pelusium fled to the safety of Memphis with the Persian army in pursuit. Memphis was besieged and fell after a relatively short interval.”

So it was the love of cats that brought low the Egyptian civilization in the end, creating a necropolis of their entire culture, planting their bones beneath Hathor as the sycamore tree.

Perhaps, in using the cat in the treasure spell, the dead did indeed hear me, as far back in timedepth as those laying at Hathor’s crossroads. I can see how my tiny naive, human plea for ‘more’ would have offended them and brought about my current state of cursedness as they whisper maledictions in the ears of fate. The dark trees that blow in the breeze, trees that shadow the house of those grimoirists that used Menes kitten for their spell, they are a deep and resonant symbol and warning of the importance of magical timing. There are moons that spells should not be cast under and judgement will find the magic-user, if they are.