We Can Dance If We Want To

This Week’s Prompt: 77. Unspeakable dance of the gargoyles—in morning several gargoyles on old cathedral found transposed.

The Resulting Story: The Harvest Moon Shines Down

The power of dance is one of the most primal things in the history of the world. I don’t mean that in a dismissive sense—dance is sophisticated, and its uses in religion and folklore will be discussed down below in a moment. What I mean is that dance is probably, along with song, one of the forms of entertainment that can be found everywhere—it requires no instruments, only a body with which to express itself. The dance of the gargoyles will thus lead us into something of a deep dive into dance, from a number of places. I will note that for gargoyles in particular, such dances are probably meant as a part of the Witches Sabbath. But we’ve already discussed that.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Witch’s Sabbath, there is the whirling Dervish. A mystic Muslim tradition, Dervishes seek to approach God from experience and personal virtue—their dances are often long and strenuous, seeking to reach a state of religious ecstasy and connection in their straining. These dances bring the dervish into a trance, allowing for the experience of god directly. As with many mystic groups, dervishes also swear a vow of poverty and have a reputation in many parts of the world as miracle workers.

Following the dervishes east, we come to India. I feel obliged to note that with a week to do research, Hinduism’s many many practices and tales are not able to be entirely or thoroughly examined. This is at best a summary.

The largest, and most famous form of dance regarding miracles and statues here is the Tandava—the dance done by Lord Shiva on the dwarf demon of ignorance. Doing so maintains the balance of knowledge and ignorance, while at the same time symbolically re-enacting all the cosmos: creation and destruction in one hundred and eight fluid motions.

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This dance is not the only dance of course—there is the famed dance of Kali. While Kali has a poor reputation in the West from a certain movie, her role as defender of the world and destroyer of demons is more prevalent. However, in at least one tale, she grows too eager in her efforts. Dancing on the bodies of slain demons, and rampaging without fear, she begins to destroy the world until her husband—Shiva, Lord of the Dance—throws himself beneath her feet, calming her.

Kali and Shiva, along with other deities, are key to the practices commonly called Tantra—a collection of practices that sadly I do not have time to delve into beyond a mere note of its existence as a group of rituals in Hindu and Buddhist traditions that seems interesting.

Moving from India, we go north now to Tibet. Tibetan dances include the Cham Dance—a ritual that seeks to promote prosperity and destroy evil spirits. According to legend, the ritual was invented to allow the construction of a monastery in the 8th century, which was delayed do to the presence of wicked spirits. The dance can last as long as fifteen days, and is as much theater as visual performance. It culminates, ultimately, in the destruction of dough effigy—symbolically the three enemies of Buddhism: Ignorance, Jealousy, and Hatred.

Tibet also plays host to the Snow Lion Dance—a tradition that has spread over China, Japan, and Tibet. The Lion Dance in Tibet takes the form of two boys dressed as snow lion, accompained by musicians who play as they dance from house to house at New Years. The Snow lion is a symbol in Tibet of regional and divine power, snow lionesses raising some of the greatest folk heroes and snow lions serving as the mounts of mountain gods.

The Lion Dance in China has a different origin—according to legend, during the reign of the yellow emperor, a lion stopped a great monster from harassing a city. The monster was not slain, and promised to return the next year. With no lion to defend them, the people of the city made a false lion to trick the beast. And so the Lion Dance was born.

Moving south to Bali, we have another dancing creature that at a glance resembles a lion. The story here is more complex, however, as the dance recreates the battle between Baronga and Rangda. The story goes that Rangda, the mother of Erlangga, the King of Bali in the tenth century, was condemned by Erlangga’s father because she practiced black magic. After she became a widow, she summoned all the evil spirits in the jungle, the leaks and the demons, to come after Erlangga. A fight occurred, but she and her black magic troops were too strong that Erlangga had to ask for the help of Barong. Barong came with Erlangga’s soldiers, and fight ensued. Rangda casted a spell that made Erlangga soldiers all wanted to kill themselves, pointing their poisoned keris into their own stomachs and chests. Barong casted a spell that turned their body resistant to the sharp keris. At the end, Barong won, and Rangda ran away.

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Re-enactments of this dance, which can go on for sometime, are sometimes dangerous. Overly engaged dancers must be carefully restrained from harming themselves with their weapons, and the ceremonial masks are themselves sacred forces. An element of this story that is partially interesting to me is the fact that Rangda may in fact be a re-incarnation of an earlier sorcerer queen, Calon Arang, who destroyed settlements and released plagues on the world.

Moving further a sea, and north to Japan, we have their own lion dances, and sacred re-enactments. These recall the story of Amaterasu’s retreat from the world—a result of her brother’s lack of hospitality. Nothing could get her to return, and in her absence, the world began to fail. Not only from the natural consequences of her absence—such as the failure of crops—but also by the growing presence of demons and other creatures. One of the stories of how she was lured out of her cavern was by the Dawn goddess of dancers, Amenouzume. Her performance, dressed in moss and then in nothing at all, inspired cries and laughter among the gods until Amaterasu came out to investigate.

Kagura dances began in the imperial household, as sacred entertainment. Over time, however, the dances spread out to the general populace and gained a number of variations. All of them are presented are forms of worship, and are pleasing to the gods when preformed. The imperial versions have been preformed since the year 1000 A.D. and many of the folk variations include re-enactments of tales and ritual workings. Some resemble possession dances, others lion dances of China, and so forth.

Moving from the Phillipenes, across the Pacific, we reach Hawaii. Here stories of dance, particularly the hula, are tied to a handful of gods—the goddess Pele, the goddess Laka, and the goddesss Hi’iaka. In some variations, Laka was the inspiration for the dance, in the swaying of the leaves and trees. In other cases, Pele dances the first hula to signify her victory over the goddess of the oceans. And in the cases of Hi’iaka, the dance is done to appease an angry Pele.

Pele Home.png

Wahikpau o Pele

Coming back to the United States, the power of dance was recognized by First Nations for sometime. The one I remember best, however, was a relatively recent development—the Ghost Dance movement of 1889-1891. The Ghost Dance was a religious movement, beginning in Nevada, and spreading outward on two seperate occasions. According to it’s practitioners, the Ghost Dance would, when done properly, reunite the world of the living and the dead. The returning spirits would then help drive the colonists out of the Americas, and usher in an age of prosperity and peace. The movement had variations, notably among the Lakota, and other spiritual practices—such as ghost shirts, which would repel bullets. The Ghost Dance movement met its end in an unfortunately predictable way—while some practitioners remain, the US Military considered the movement ‘troublesome’, and at the Wounded Knee Massacre, effectively ended the movement by force.

GhostDance

An interesting aside—the Dene are the only tribe that refused to take part in the Ghost Dance when offered. Speculation varies as to why, but I had always heard it was because “the dead returning” came across significantly more sinister then elsewhere.

Crossing the United States and going north some, we come to Europe. Here there are two traditions to discuss—and then onto the horror story. The first is the Egg Dance. The dance is an old Easter Celebration, potentially pagan before that. There a few variations, but in general the dance involves dancing around or with eggs and attempting to break as few as possible while doing so. In some traditions, as is reported in 1498, if a couple danced among the eggs and no eggs were broken they were instantly betrothed—regardless of parental opinion.

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The other dance in Europe I would like to discuss is far more horrific. The Dancing Plague of 1518 is an incident of mass hysteria in the Holy Roman Empire that compelled four hundred individuals to begin dancing for days on end rest until they collapsed—resutling in deaths from exposure, heart attacks, or exhaustion. The plague lasted one month, and is not the only one of it’s kind. Dancing outbreaks in Europe are documented over a one thousand year period—from the seventh to the seventeenth century. Incidents range from around twenty dancers to the four hundred above. Most documents indicate women as the primary participants, although some dancing plagues were predominantly children or even a lone man. Explanations ranged from natural causes of excess hot blood, the curse of St. Vito, the curse of St. John, and demonic possession. Cures were thus various: hired musicians to play, prayers and pilgrimages, exorcisms, isolation and containment. Eventually the plagues simply ceased.

Which brings us to the horror aspect of our story. One part of dance that can be horrific is its compelling, instinctive in a compelling way—as silly as it sounds, dancing can invoke a loss of control, especially in a communal context. And losing control is a frightening experience at times. If the dance is the sole source of horror, this would be the place to start. But our prompt points away from this, at first at least. No, our prompt presumes we are witnessing the dance of another—Gargoyles, which here may as well stand in for strange, monstrous creatures. Perhaps Lovecraft meant to invoke the fear of a community of Gargoyles at all. The story The Festival seems the most likely to have come from this prompt—it is an archaic Yule-Tide celebration that involves strange winged creatures, crowds, and a procession. As we’ve seen, dances often recount communal history and celebration, and The Festival in a way centers around such notions.

To make a revelation horrific, it must reveal something horrifying. This is perhaps self-explanatory, but one of the faults of Lovecraft’s writing is the difficulty of such revelations. It can’t merely be “things man was never meant to know”—such secrets feel more of a cheat in these days then an actual horrific reveal. Digging into Lovecraftian and Gothic secrets, there are plenty to choose from. There are revelations about family, about self, about the real nature of the universe—although that one descends quickly into “it was so profoundly shocking I can’t describe it” which is cheating.

Another potential reference is a story from the Dreamlands—here a priest goes up a mountain, to where the gods dance. And there, he encounters more than he bargained for as the gods are joined by more terrifying and powerful gods, who do not take kindly to being watched. This I think—the discovery of the size and breadth of a community of monsters, or the violation of a secret pact and the consequences there of, are perhaps more interesting to examine then simple revelation.

Of course, this is already running longer than normal—and I’ve only barely touched on the nature of dance in folklore and traditions! What are some you know? What meaning or purpose do they have? How have they touched you?

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Networks of the Dead

This Weeks Prompt: 66. Catacombs discovered beneath a city (in America?).

The Resulting Story: The Death of Mr. Donovan

We delve deeper now, from the cemetery and undertaker to the ossuaries and catacombs of the dead. A catacomb is an underground tomb, constructed for resting the dead. Generally these forms in cities, often in cases where graveyards simply will not due anymore. The famous catacombs of Paris were made after the cities cemeteries were flooded by rain, pushing bodies and skeletons to the surface and onto city streets. The catacombs of Rome likewise began due to overcrowding and land shortage, the grim reality that there were to many dead and not enough tombs. And then there are American catacombs that imitate these sites, strange tourist attractions. But we will return to the strangeness of the subterranean landscape of America in a moment.

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For now, let us focus on the old world. Beginning in Rome, catacombs were constructed by members of the Jewish community as well early Christians, both who preferred burial to the more common method of cremation. The tombs thus give artistic insights into traditions of the era, and have an air of mystery about them. A number of saints are buried there—who are by definition holy individuals and beings—and at least one fringe archaeologist has suggested the grail might be buried there. As the catacombs are under Vatican control, the possibilities have not been fully explored.

The catacombs of Paris have a more infamous reputation. Built out of an old mine, the catacombs here are full of bones from the 1800s. Only partly open to the public, the catacombs have attracted rumor of conspiracy as long as they have been around. The mines they were built out of are rumored to have been the location of black masses in 1348. Bandits and revolutionaries hid in the sprawling labyrinth, as did in more recent years Nazi bunkers and French Resistance members. Even more recently, daredevils and thrill seekers have built an underground art society around the catacombs and mines. Secret pools, murals, and even a cinema have all been found by authorities beneath the city of lights.

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With walls lined with skulls and bones, the catacombs of Paris certainty have an atmosphere of horror and the macabre, yet somehow still alive and changing and reshaping. It is here that the Phantom of the Opera lived, that Jean Val Jean made his escape, where monarchists and fascists were killed, where black mass and plagues were born.

So, are there any such catacombs in the American cities, locales and lacuna of horror waiting beneath our feet?

The short answer is…not exactly, but something similar. There are catacombs in the United States(Which is likely what Lovecraft means by America, as opposed to Americas). One is a replica of the Roman catacombs in DC. Another is the catacombs near New York, in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and other churches. Another underground locale, that I have little knowledge of, is found in Waterbury, Connecticut documents the life of Jesus Christ. So there are some overt underground burials. But more interesting are those sorts of places that resemble the catacombs in life. Abandoned routes and work ways under a large living city, still mysterious and without exploration being complete.

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In New York City, there are large abandoned subways that are not immediately accessible. While trains sometimes run down here, and there are inhabitants, they resemble the catacombs in many ways, with continuous habitation and dangers around every corner, from trains to small spaces. The danger of police and others down in the depths are a continuous problem for those urban explorers who go down there. Images can be found here.

Another set of abandoned works exists in LA, the remains of the trolley system that was shut down in the 1950s, which later on was host to disaster shelters during the Cold War. Since then, development has divided up its remains.

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The biggest of these abandoned networks of tunnels is beneath Cincinnati. These tunnels run two miles in length and are mostly intact, if sealed. The construction began in 1920, abandoned in 1925, and at last closed in 1950s after being considered for a bomb shelter. The tunnels have some rumors around them still—hauntings, mainly. A connection to catacombs thats more direct than most, as the catacomb is often just that. A realm of the dead that exists in a material form. Its a small demesne of Hades.

A more mythic connection is the sorcererous lair of Afrasiab. While not obvious comparison, it is Afrasiab is a destructive force who holds an advanced and luxurious underground bunker with layers of steel several men thick. It is host to an artificial sky, and four rivers—one of wine, one of milk, one of sour milk, and one of water. Like many of the other catacombs, the abandoned remains of such ruins could be come

Lovecraft, for his part, presents something like those above. The Vaults of Zin—a connection between the Dreamlands and the waking world—are likewise underground remains of a great civilization that connects to the ultimate fate of the dead, and inhabited by the monstrous and cannibalistic ghasts. These tunnels, that make the world between the here and the bizarre less clear, are a place of possibility and disruption. They mark a boundary that we can traverse to a strange and secretive realm, where societies of the living transgress among the dead. More importantly, the catacombs are a from an earlier and abandoned age. Yes, at some point someone was digging the ones in Rome, those in Paris are the remains of old mines, those in the United States re abandoned subways, and even in Rome these catacombs are out of use by now. Catacombs are re-purposed remains of a long lost civilization or time.

I bring this up because, if I were to speculate on the catacombs here, the surprise of their discovery is important. The catacombs are discovered recently, and therefore are previously unknown. This means, unlike the ones we’ve discussed so far, the catacombs are not connected to the current inhabitants. This lays into the United States twice over: Not only is the United States a young country—relatively seeking, of course,–and thus any catacombs would be something of a surprise but it is…how was it once put….built entirely on an Indian burial ground. While catacombs may not be widespread, there are discoveries in the last few decades that indicate intense burial sites at the least.

Building on this, as some archaeologist discovering the remains of a long lost nation and catacomb is…well, a start. Where it goes I’m not sure. There are themes to explore but I’m not sure what to do with a meeting of a forgotten past and the modern present. A lost history might be found, in the images of the catacomb, that belies some history that the modern world denies. But …I must think on what sort of discovery that would be.

What about you? What horrors or wonder discoveries in an abandoned underworld might you find?

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A Blind Idiot of A God

This Week’s Prompt:49. AZATHOTH—hideous name.

The Story: Father And Son

Azathoth is a creature of some surprising clear description in the works of the Lovecraftian Mythos. Azathoth, epithets ranging from the Demon Sultan to the Nuclear Chaos to the Blind Idiot God, is the close thing the mythos has to a creator deity. From Azathoth spews forth all things madly and randomly, creation occurring out of his court on a whim. Azathoth is credited as having long gone mad, being now only entertained by his court of outer gods and their music and piping. Azathoth’s origins are perhaps as manifold.

The name holds many hints. One theory is that Azathoth derives his name from Azazel. Azazel is a desert demon or fallen angel who accepts the scapegoat for the sins of Israel, an angel thus involved to a degree in the purging of sin. Azazel is also credited, however, in Enochian texts as the creator of the weapons of humanity (in traditional mythic fashion, he gives men weapons and women make up). He was also there the father of some of the Nephilim, man-eating gigantic heroes that were destroyed in the flood.

Another theory suggests, particularly from the name Demon Sultan, that Azathoth derives from the story of Vathek. Vathek is an old Gothic story, that is distinguished in the setting and cosmology from other horror tales of the genre. Vathek is set in the court of a Caliph, and the predominant religion in imagery is Islam instead of Christianity. We named ‘Valley of Vathek” after the main character, and a full version of it can be found here. The connection between Vathek and Azathoth the Demon Sultan seems based primarily on it’s ending of profound suffering in the courts of hell rather than the expected elation. The punishment of the damned is a sort of blinding truth and madness.

Azazthoth, broadly speaking in the Mythos itself, is to a degree the supreme creator deity, credited with giving rise distantly through more famous children such as Yog Sothoth and Nyrlanhotep. More pressingly, his authority is somewhat supreme. His name alone cows multitudes of monstrous creatures

Demiurge

Demiurge

Azathoth bears a resemblance to the characterizations of a few more creators worth mentioning. Chaos/Kaos as creator of course resembles Azathoth, as an apparently unintelligent creator force. Hudun resembles him as well, with no perceivable senses. Instead Hudun simply exists, and is in fact slain by receiving senses in certain Taoist texts. The Gnostic Demiurge, a creator of reality who is blind to it’s true nature and has woven a nightmare realm from his own selfishness, has a passing resemblance as well, if only as a hostile creative power that seeks to trap mankind.

Azazthoth has one significantly literary reference that must be recalled however.

Azathoth’s name and title however, belie more horrifying insinuation. His name recalls an alchemcial term: Azoth, the primary substance of Creation in many branches of Western Occultism and alchemy. Described sometimes as the source of Solar fire and Lunar water. Azoth then is similar to primary material or chaos. But unlike those, Azoth persists at the core of everything. The thing that gives things their existence.

Azoth

A depiction of Azoth

This presence is echoed by the title Nuclear Chaos. Now, in the post Hiroshima world, Nuclear has a very clear meaning as associated with radiation. And certainly, as horror iconography goes, radiation and nuclear weapons might be reflective of the destruction and perverting influence of the gods of Lovecraftian lore. But the Nucleus here meant something entirely different. It meant the core of something, it’s center and by extension it’s very being. The nuclear chaos alludes to Azathoth’s all pervasive nature that makes him more than a distant disorder. The madness that is Azathoth, the thing that is at the bottom and center of everything, giving existence to all things, is insane. Utterly idiotic and insane.

AtomicBomb

This is almost a horrible punchline to a nihilist joke, isn’t? It reads almost like something from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Goats. It’s a silly supposition, comically from the right angle. But we must labor to make this farce something almost horrifying. Restore some majesty it has lost.

So how to make this horrifying? Well, we might first abandon the primacy of the creature. Being trapped or happened upon by an absolutely mad and all powerful entity is itself rather terrifying, if full of humorous potential. The strange and disturbing effects that something omnipotent and foolish could do are rife with potential.

Or we could focus on the change wrought on such a being. How did Azathoth come to be in this state? What was it like, when the essence of the cosmos changed from what it was before? That has potential, but might be too abstract, and frankly too small in effect.

We could return to the notion of Azathoth as an inspiring source. Something that hasn’t been touched on that Lovecraft was fond of was the creation of arts in the wake of terrible beings. We discussed this somewhat, back in our discussion of wicked muses. The Demon Sultan has played that role in the past, particularly regarding The Music of Erich Zann. This might put further emphasis on the name’s hideous in someway, regarding perhaps its latent power inscribed into a poem or even a play (something like the King in Yellow perhaps?).

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Azathoth as an infectious thing in reality, spreading and warping like a maddening rot, might be an approach to consider somewhat seriously. The story would need to begin with establishing the nature of reality as it is, and then gradually introduce the corrupting changes. Ideally, only our character notices these changes. Perhaps they are only changes in his perception, perhaps they are real. The changes will be such that whatever goals the lead was pursuing become increasingly impossible. Slowly, the world seems to drift away from his understandings and notions. Until, at last, he is isolated to a degree in an alien landscape.

Hegel

Hegel. Looks Kinda Like A Deep One

In this manner we might examine Azathoth as an anti-Hegelian conception of the universe. Hegel’s theory of history purports that the world spirit, the embodiment of …well, existence grows closer and closer to self knowledge through the synthesis of thesis and anti-thesis. Azathoth, who sits not only at the core of real space but at the center of the Dreamlands, and thus of both the waking and sleeping world, is the opposite. If anything, Azathoth is losing awareness, deluded by music and his own madness.

Of course, incorporating these ideas into a single story is hard. I suggest then a short vignette. A brief story of a decay to madness that has, at least on paper, another plot entirely. A story of a date, or of a confrontation with a father, or a bad day at work. A generally normal outline, that slowly decays both in the mind of the main character and in the outline overall. A place of insecurity can be magnified by the inclusion of a literally changing world. Albeit, at least physically, probably for the worst.

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Perchance to Dream:Dreams and Mr. Lovecraft

This Weeks Prompt is: 4. Horror Story. Man dreams of falling- found on floor mangled as tho’ from falling from a vast height.

The Stories:Down,The Worst Horror is the One You Have to Live With
We will actually be having a guest necromancer that week, who’s prior writing you can find here. I’ll be writing at her blog that week as well, detailing some of my…personal nightmares.
And that brings us to the main topic of the research: Dreams. Dreams come in a variety of forms, though as many a dream dictionary will tell you, some are shockingly common. This falling dream is in fact one of those dreams (or a variation on one, a dream of flying). Other common dreams include running for your life, finding yourself nude, not quite fitting into your car, or having a great deal of trouble using a phone.
But I don’t have enough space here to discuss the entire world of dreams and symbolism and usage, both ancient and modern. So, we are going to focus on Mr. Lovecraft’s interaction with dreams. Namely, as inspiration and as a sort of fantasy story among his horror tales.
Our prompt, indeed our list, spans 1919 to 1935, overlapping a great deal with Mr. Lovecraft’s Dreamland Cycle. The Dreamland is a realm of surreal imagery and magic, inhabited by gods that resemble those of ancient cultures and normal appearing people, as well as Gugs, ghouls, shantaks, and great spiders of Leng. Great human-like gods walk and priests preach, and great spells and tragedies are wrought. In the magnum opus of the Dream Cycle, Journey to Unknown Kadath, we accompany Randolph Carter as he spans the Dreamlands searching for the gods, learning a good deal about it. We learn that there is a Dreamlands for each world and each dreamer, that the Elder Gods of the Dreamlands dislike being seen by mortals and are quite, that the moon of the Dreamlands can be reached by simply sailing to the horizon, and the ultimate fate of one Mr. Pickman.

And we learn who reigns supreme in the Dreamlands: Nyarlathotep. Here the Dreamlands touch Lovecraft’s own inspiration. Mr. Lovecraft is well recorded to have been plagued by night terrors and nightmares, and from one of these did Nyarlathotep emerge. The dream itself is recorded in Nyarlathotep’s nominal story (apologies for the white on black text), and is a frightful case. The Crawling Chaos haunts the Mythos of Mr. Lovecraft, one of the few truly malignant forces to exist. He is supreme sovereign in the Dreamlands, a sort of Nightmare King who while cordial with Randolph Carter still bears ill will toward his subjects and his charges.
Yet, the Dreamlands have a strange curiosity. They are…happy, in a way. Mr. Lovecraft’s world is terrifying and grim, atheistic and full of horror. Except in the Dreamlands. Here, the truly potent dreamer (such as Mr. Carter) can live after death, building a great city for himself in the Dreamlands. There is an afterlife, almost a heaven, in these little isles. It is…exceptional.
And next week, our guest will fetch one unfortunate dreamer. I wonder what they will say.

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