Marble Heads and Marblehead

This Week’s Prompt: 81. Marblehead—dream—burying hill—evening—unreality.

The Resulting Story: What Mr. Diamond Met on the Shore

Here we begin another study of contrasts—the art of statuary, stable and enduring, mixed with the emergence of dreams, malleable and fleeting. The two have come together more than once—when we discuss the folklore of statues, and my own thoughts on their horror potential, we’ll find that the muse of mountains loves coming in dreams. Before delving too far into that, however, we should at least mention that there is a Lovecraft story dealing with similar notions: Polaris, Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, and Beyond the Wall of Sleep all deal with dreams, and didn’t quite work naturally into the rest of our discussion.

That said, the art of capturing human likeness in stone is as old as—well, as possible. The specification of marble for the statue does call to mind classical works. Ancient Greek and Roman statues which in Lovecraft’s day were believed to be pure and milky marble. We of course now know better—it is highly likely that the statues were painted, often in bright colors. But those ancient cultures do give us a few starting points before moving onward.

First is Galatea. Galatea was a statue carved by the sculptor king Pygmalion. Pygmalion had no interest with mortal women—and in fact thus opts to stay single and focus his talents on sculpture. However, his sculpted woman arouses in Pygmalion desire and adoration. Such is his lust that he embraces the inert statue, kissing and caressing it. He even dresses her, and lays her on a pillow to rest.

Galtea.png

When Aphrodite’s festival comes around, Pygmalion prays that the his wife be made flesh and blood—that she in her beauty can return his affections. Aphrodite grants the prayer, and that night their embrace results in the child Paphos—who in time founds a city that is named the same.

Then there are the Statues of Daedalus. Daedalus rendered some statutes capable of moving if not tied down. These statues are only obliquely referenced—Socrates’s discussion with Meno on knowledge introduces them.

And lastly a story calling upon Greek images, if not Greek itself: the Disinterment of Venus. This story tells of some hapless monks who unearth…a statue of Venus from nearby. The statue seems to move when not viewed and ‘magically’ fills the nearby monks with impure thoughts. The result of this story is rather grisly, and I’ll allow you to discover it on your own.

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Of course, the ancient Greeks are far from the only ones to suggest worked materials can channel higher powers. Moving a bit farther down the timeline of Europe, we find the Catholic and Orthodox icons. These images and icons often have fantastic properties—reports of the icon moving, bleeding, or giving breast milk are common. In at least one case, beholding the icon without permit resulted in a man’s death, and the mere presence of an icon could exorcise demons from those who came into the church.

Better still, these icons often were connected to dream messages and inspirations—sometimes in dreams the location of icons would be revealed, while in others instructions on their construction would be given. The icons dreams could also give visions and prompt, in many stories, conversions from these encounters.

Icons

On the left, Luke painting the image of the Theotokos. On the Right, the Theotokos of Vladimir.

An icon is in many ways the embodied form of the saint—it allows the saint’s grace to be refracted and reflected out onto the world. The creation of duplicates of a miraculous icon—either by print or photography—often carried with it the power of the icon as well. And these icons often played rather significant roles outside politics—reports suggest had that the Czar brought icons of known potency to the front in the first world war, it would have gone differently.

The icons were not without rivals, however—we can consider the work of theurgy, where in magicians claimed to bind demons and spirits into statues in order to compel them to move and speak. This practice sometimes included ghosts as well, who were thus imprisoned with iron chains and prevented from harassing the community. Both practices were, of course, condemned by the Church.

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We can also come back to Greece and even to

The idea of binding the supernatural with a statue may seem strange, but it’s practice is documented by the Maya in the Yucatan peninsula after the arrival of Catholicism. Here saints are, like in Europe, sometimes found in the wilderness. However, unlike in Spain where said icons are left alone, the statues in the Yucatan are forcefully returned and restrained to their new homes. For instance, there is a story of when the first Chimaltecos found Santiago in the mountains, in a place where even today no one lives because it has no water. After building the church that still stands at the center of town, these ancestral Chimaltecos fetched Santiago to his new home. The next morn- ing he was gone. Searchers eventually found him back where they had first encountered him and once more returned him to the church. Again he fled to his old place but this time, when they tried to carry him back to town, Santiago made himself so heavy that no one could lift him. Exasperated, the ancestors beat him with whips to get him into the church, leaving gouges on his back that can still be seen today. Beyond that accounts often end with villagers punishing the saint to make it “behave” properly. In Zinacantan, town elders pour hot water over San Lorenzo to silence him because they dislike “talking saints” in Amatenango, they throw their evil image of San Pedro out of the church and then behead him for his witchcraft.

Caanite Teraphim

These teraphim are Canaanite, not Jewish, but give a good impression.

Pre-Christian references to statues as divinities are not limited of course to Greece. We have the teraphim of the Old Testament. These statues are small, and often translated as household gods. They appear to contain some power and blessing. They might be comparable to the Lares of the Trojans in the Aenied or to the brazen head constructs of later occultists (which we discuss in our Patreon research here). These served as protectors of household power, and continuations of a house—for there to be a new Troy (as Aeneas founds), they must have the Trojan gods. They further speak in Aeneas’s dreams, in Book 3 of the Aenied, telling Aeneas to seek out the lands that have been prepared for him and not to dally in the Greek shores much longer.

All this talk of saints, and I nearly forgot to mention a peculiar story I found while doing research for this topic: the Porcelain god. The story resembles Galatea in some ways—it is about a superb artist striving to make a living thing out of inert material. However, unlike Galatea—who is granted life by the act of a goddess—the porcelain here is given life by mortal hands. Specifically, after years laboring away at making the life like porcelain, the poor man asks the god of the forge how he might succeed. The forge chastises him for thinking that with mere bellows he might make a soul, and the man realizes he can impart life to his creation—by sacrificing himself. Leaping into the fires, he infuses the porcelain with the potency of life, and is enshrined by the Emperor as a god of porcelain.

The danger of statues is also well recorded. The instance of the Disinterment of Venus is but one example. A tale from India tells us of a Brahmin and his elaborate collection of idols—and his disgruntlement with determining the best of the idols. He asks a local smith for advice, and the smith suggests seeing which idol with stands the blows of a club best. After testing the idols this way, the Brahmin finds only one idol able to stand the blow. He worships the idol faithful, doing nothing else but meditating on the idol, offering it food, and tending to it. That the idol appears to eat—the food left in front of it vanishes, after all—is seen by the Brahmin as proof of his divinity.

One day, the Brahmin opens his eyes however—and sees that in fact a rat had been stealing the food. This causes him to despair and perhaps go a bit mad, as he concludes that the rat is the true master of the universe for being able to trick him. His reverence for the Rat continues, until a cat eats the rat. He then reveres the cat, until his wife grows worried about their livelihood and—in spite of her fear of her husband—removes the cat. The Brahmin concludes from this his wife to be the most powerful force in the world, and seats her as his object of worship. Being an object of worship, however, is not compatible with being a living person. His wifes adjustments infuriate the focusing Brahmin, who strikes her and renders her unconscious. As before, he concludes him self to be the thing worth revering and achieves release.

I find that particular story…strange. But these dangers of images aren’t uncommon. Fear that images would achieve worship instead of true divinity is a regular fear in Europe, where iconclastic waves often destroy images and statuary in a fervor. We can consider a comparable story of Abraham, who as a youth in folklore lived with his father an idol maker. One day, Abraham smashed all the idols, and placed the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned home, he escaped blame by pointing to the largest statue.

To tie more directly to dreams, we can consider the writings of Pausanias who claims to have seen a pair of statues—one to Hypnos one to Oenieros—luring a lion to sleep:

From here is a way to a sanctuary of Asclepius. On passing into the enclosure you see on the left a building with two rooms. In the outer room lies a figure of Sleep, of which nothing remains now except the head. The inner room is given over to the Carnean Apollo; into it none may enter except the priests. In the portico lies a huge bone of a sea-monster, and after it an image of the Dream-god and Sleep, surnamed Epidotes Bountiful, lulling to sleep a lion. Within the sanctuary on either side of the entrance is an image, on the one hand Pan seated, on the other Artemis standing.”

Dream interpretation is a common trait among holy men as well. We can consider the obvious dream interpreter, Daniel of the Old Testament. His interpretations served as excellent prophecy for those who spoke with him. We can also remember Joseph, who understood dreams as holding the future and thus advised the Pharoah for a time. In Heferodshire, there is a story of St. Dubricius, who settled his monastery after an angel of the Lord instructed him to do so—with a herd of swine taken as well. The place was hence known as Hogplace or Mochros.

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These two are the old Greek gods of slumber, and in some cases survive later as saints. Hypnos further endures in Lovecrafts work—in particular, one of the stories I believe came from this prompt. The story bares Hypnos’s own name. The story also follows a marble sculptor, who with his lone friend, begin to explore places beyond human conception and experience. They go further and further, until the narrator reaches a barrier that he cannot cross. But his friend can and…well, what happens next is best read on your own.

Lovecraft’s notion of sculpture and dreams are of course common. We can consider also, in the vein of marble, the Tree. This story follows two sculptors making an image of fate in competition. The result of this competition for the prize of a Syracuse tyrant is eventually a marble crypt and great tree that is extremely human like in appearance. I’ll allow you to enjoy that particular tale. And we cannot forget that a statue and a dream are at the center of the Call of Cthulhu—the statue of Cthulhu being the center of his cult. The power of images is to in a way be life like, and inspiring. It gives a being prescence in the world, spatial reality that a mere painting might not.

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So the above article is still important for my writing—it is where I went with research and I stand by it. However, as I was editing, I learned that Marblehead is actually a town in Massachusetts—not as I thougt, a head of marble. The coastal town served, as many New England towns have over the years, as inspiration for Mr. Lovecrafts own writing. In particular, the town of Kingsport was retroactively based on Marblehead in years past. Kingsport is of course the site of many dream stories for Lovecraft. Randolph Carter has encounters there, as does the terrible old man, and in the Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, Nyrlanhotep himself expresses admiration for the town. So what tales from Marblehead?

Among the most famous you will find is that of the Screeching Woman. A heavy Spanish galleon was overtaken by pirates. Each member of the crew was butchered—except an English noblewoman, who was brutally murdered on the coast. The fishermen being away, and the women and children of the town being terrified, no one answered her screams for help. Her body was buried on the spot, and on the anniversary of her death, her screams still come out of the spot.

The prompt more directly seems to refer to a man named Old Dimond. Old Dimond was a man of prestigious power in the black arts. These included divination and power over fortune—he was known to go to the burying hill and beat about the graves, making demands for the fates of his own vessels. He was also known as a good friend to have—a widow asked for the location of a lost bit of wood, and he charmed the thief into returning it. In another instance, he was able to locate stolen treasure for an elderly couple. Old Dimond it seems was not only a wizard but a defender of the ill fated.

Old Dimond I think gives a direct line to the story. We are dealing with manipulations of dreams, and of fates there for. The reference to a burying hill point to that sort of necromancy connection. We then have the story of a wizard, of dreams, and of a certain unreality or magical uncertainty. From Old Dimond’s tales, it might be fitting to do a thief story—akin to the Terrible Old Man. Alternatively, we could present a somewhat more nefarious dream of a statue still—as I discuss in the patreon research, the ability to gain insight into the future and the cosmos is often connected with mystical statues and machines. Certainly, necromancers have had uses for strange and enchanting statues before. And I do confess, I would like to employ my earlier work into this even as they…misaligned with Lovecraft’s intent.

What stories will you weave about the coastal town of Marblehead? What statues inspire you in the real world? What strange dreams have you had?

Bibliography

Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Some Chinese Ghosts. Project Gutenberg, 2015.

Leather, Ella Mary, et al. The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire: Collected from Oral and Printed Sources. Logaston Press, 1912.

Mukharij, Ram Sayta. Indian Folklore. Sanyal and Company, 1904.

Roads, Samuel. History and Traditions of Marblehead. Osgood and Company, 1880.

Watanabe, John M. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist, vol. 17, no. 1, 1990, pp. 131–150. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/645256.

“JewishEncyclopedia.com.” JewishEncyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14331-teraphim.


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There Is Nought But Chaos

This Week’s Prompt: 80. Shapeless living thing forming nucleus of ancient building.

The Resulting Story: The Shifting Temple

This week we are given a topic that we have, in the past, covered with some detail. The notion of a living core of an ancient structure bares a resemblance to notions of shapeless forces we discussed regarding Azathoth—we will be re-discussing some of those here, with greater detail and focus, as well as some other forms of living structures.

There are two parts to this prompt, each worth review in equal part—the shapeless and the center. That is, there are creatures and stories of things who’s shape cannot be known, and of things that support buildings and worlds. Both will be discussed—particularly when they overlap at the end.

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First we will discuss the most fantastic—the shapes at sea that support entire camps, and resemble islands from afar. This is actually the origin of the Kraken, a creature recorded in biology texts from the eighteenth century. There is another such creature in Norse tales, the hafgufa. Recorded as a giant whale, the hafgufa resembles an island from afar—in some tales, its nose is so massive that it suffices for an island!–and it is noted both for its taste in ships and men, and its peculiar means of attracting prey. The hafgufa is a species of two in some texts—and both are infertile, otherwise the ocean would be over run by false islands. In some texts, the hafgufa is also called the Kraken—albeit a whale not a squid. You can find more of it here.

Medieval Bestiaries produce another whale like creature—or sometimes turtle—who is so big, it’s back ridge has trees growing on it and valleys form around it. The aspidochelone is sometimes more sinister however—its appearance of false life and safety are an allegory in one text for the Devil and demons, who seduce the desperate.

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In Ireland, the stories of Saint Brendan the Navigator tell of a strange beast that appeared as an island and breached his boat. The Saint here is safe—the whale sinks after a fire is lit on it’s skin, much to the shock of the crew but little harm.

In Chile, there are stories of a similar creature—although it is more commonly in lakes, the Cuero is a danger to sailors who draw near it’s lure. Sometimes the shape is like a cow hide, sometimes an octopus, sometimes a stingray. Here is a more in depth article on not only the legend, but histories of it’s recordings

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Then there are those supports that are much wider and vaster then a mere ship. The World Turtle, for instance, carries…well, the world on its back. Sometimes this is a literal and direct holding. Kurma, for instance, supports the world directly in Hindu stories. Other stories, such as when Nuwa repaired the sky, have the turtle shell as a form of architecture somewhat removed. Turtle Island refers to this imagery as well—the notion that the Americas are on the back of a great mythological turtle. Other stories—the most obvious being Discworld—suggest the world is on the back of four great elephants, and then on the back of a turtle.

Bahamut is another supporter of the world, albeit a fish with a great bull on its back. Found in Arabic sources, Bahamut is more terrifying then others. The bull on its back has a hundred legs and horns, and Bahamut itself is so vast all the worlds oceans would fit into its nostrils like a mustard seed. It is also the farthest removed of all the great beasts—on its back, the bull; on the bulls back, a ruby; on the rubys back, an angel; on the angel’s shoulder, the world.

arabic world map

The map of the world here is rotated on it’s side–Bahamut is the fish

Of course, there are also non-sentient living supports. The World Tree can be found in cultures around the world. The famous Norse Tree Yggdrasil holds the nine worlds in it’s branches—and is echoed in the Volsung saga, were the house of the Volsung’s has a great tree holding up its roof–the tree is called Barnstokkr. There Odin—well, a stranger who resembles him greatly—places a legendary sword, that begins their undoing. Further south, we can find the world tree in Zorastrian stories. The Gaokerna is one of many great trees—its fruit is immortality, and will be key to the recreation of the universe. Beside it grows the Tree of Many Seeds, where all plants have their origin.

Not far away from the Zorastrian myth, we have the world tree of Kabbalah—a tree that, I have heard at least, is often depicted upside down. The Tree of Life here holds many worlds, as the light of divinity is refined downward from the undivided Ein Soif into this world. Kabbalah as a tradition is rich in symbolism and complexity, and should have more of an article at some point. The interesting point to me, however, is the suggestion of a reverse tree–a Tree of Death, that runs counter to the virtues of the Tree of Life and is made of the shattered remains of an earlier world. 

pakal tomb

The top portion of the World Tree found on Pakal the Great’s tomb.

Maya world trees are commonly depicted in artwork—the tree runs from the underworld into the heavens. Like the tortoise shell of Nuwa, the tree was constructed after a flood—the destruction of Seven Macaw and the end of the wood people—and like stories of Ymir and others, it is fed by the blood of gods. Some link it’s form to the visible Milky Way in the sky

All of this brings us slowly round to the most literal form of the shapeless center—Chaos, Khaos. Beginning with the most literal, the Greek conception of Chaos is the source eventually of all things. The form or force that precedes all the rest of existence, Chaos is gloomy and far away—and not terribly relevant to most stories. Chaos is the origin directly of Night and Darkness, and sometimes the foundation of reality itself.

Chaos is not the only strange and shapeless originator in Greece are concerned. There was the strange shape in Demophon’s casket, which was the first topic we discussed discussed (and which was rewritten on our Patreon here). Chaos in other cases contains all elements. When Milton depicted King Chaos in Paradise Lost, he maintained this for the realm of Limbo, where elements fly about.

Biblical starts of Genesis refer to an abyss of water from which the world was made—using the terminology that neighbors used for Tiamat, a vast sea monster that was also eventually the root of all things and truly varied in shape. What this abyss was is a topic of much debate, especially in esoteric circles.

Chaos can be joined by Hundun. Hundun is a Chinese character, a faceless wanderer that is the originating chaos of the world. I recall best a story of Hundun from the Taoist, Chuang Tzu: The Emperor of the North Sea and the Emperor of the South Sea once met with Hundun. Grateful for his generosity as a host, they offered to repay him by giving him the seven holes all men have (eyes, nose, ears, mouth). Each day the bore another hole in Hundun’s face.

On the last day Hundun died.

Hundun has other comparable descriptions, often like a lump of clay and making a sound like thunder. It is malleable, sudden, and terrible perhaps. Or just hard to see, touch, or discern except by its overwhelming presence.

Taoist notions of a shapeless root of the world are common in Chuang Tzu’s writing. We can consider the story of the Shaman and Hu Tzu. Hu Tzu, a sage, changes his complexion and diagnosis at every meeting, culminating in this one:

The next day the two came to see Hu Tzu again, but before the shaman had even come to a halt before Hu Tzu, his wits left him and he fled.

“Run after him!” said Hu Tzu, but though Lieh Tzu ran after him, he could not catch up. Returning, he reported to Hu Tzu, “He’s vanished! He’s disappeared! I couldn’t catch up with him.”

Hu Tzu said, “Just now I appeared to him as Not Yet Emerged from My Source. I came at him empty, wriggling and turning, not knowing anything about `who’ or `what,’ now dipping and bending, now flowing in waves – that’s why he ran away.”

That the ultimate origin of reality is shapeless and indeed perhaps unable to be shaped is not unique to these presentations: Ein Sof, the infinite roots of the Tree of Life, is beyond definition as a being. The Prima Materia is less sentient, but the raw potential of creation that can—in theory—be shaped into just about anything that’s desired. These forces of chaos are also vitality—they are shapeless and thus support all shaped things. They are the raw stuff at the very core of life in the world.

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I couldn’t figure out how to cut this properly, so enjoy the image of the Prima Materia or alchemical mercury–the cubes are the mercury.

This I think could be the source of our horror story—instead of merely discovering a shapeless core at the center of the world, we could present a story where that shapelessness is vital to the world and its movements. And if that shapelessness collapses—if like Hundun, it dies on contact with the five senses—then there is a tragedy at play too. By discovering the truth of the world, something about the world’s vitality is lost. I could go on about how defining something restrains it, and so on and so on, but I’ll leave that for the musings of the story.

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Polished Silver Distorts The Eye

This Weeks Prompt: 72. Hallowe’en incident—mirror in cellar—face seen therein—death (claw-mark?).

The Resulting Story: All Hallows Night

This prompt brings a few easily linked pieces of lore and understanding—mirrors, faces, and Halloween. We’ve discussed some of these before, mirrors notably here, but there is more to discuss then one post could entirely cover.

The role of the mirror in folklore is often one of truth revealing or deception. A mirror provides a clear reflection, or the clearest we can have, of the world around it. In times of antiquity, these mirrors were rare as well—and often made of silver, making them signs of wealth and the supernatural. It isn’t surprising then that many mirrors were in fact used in scrying and other magic for knowledge.

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The Yata No Kagami

One of the most famous instances in particular of a mirror for truth is the Yata no Kagami, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The mirror, dating back to to before 690 A.D. was used to lure Amaterasu back from her retreat into a cave. Like the other elements of the Regalia, the mirror was gifted to Amaterasu’s grandson when he set about unifying Japan and becoming emperor.

Not far from Japan, the mirror has a special role in Buryat and Mongolian shamanism. The Toli is a specially prepared ritual mirror that is capable of interacting with the supernatural. The mirror is circular, and among the Daur people has notable qualities of purifying water, contacting spirits, and healing wounds. In some cases they even contained the horses of the shaman, and might be layered as symbols of power—the more mirrors accumulated, the stronger the shaman was.

In more mundane uses, mirrors have been used as ways of contacting the beyond. One mirror was carefully made for the purpose as a part of the spiritualist movement—a movement we’ve discussed a number of times—that involves allowing the mirror to face nothing but a black ceiling so the dead may enter. By holding a candle close, users may see their dead loved ones.

Another folklore blog has noted a New England tradition by which one would discover their true love by walking down the stairs and looking into a mirror. Reciting words over the mirror while doing so reveals in it the image of one’s true love—or a coffin, which means they will die soon and alone! Of course, given falling down the stares because your focused and chanting over a mirror…well,I imagine it’d be dangerous for spell casters. 

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An Aztec Illustration Of A Mirror

In more ornate cases of mirror divination, various Mesoamerican cultures made use of obsidian mirrors to contact the world of the dead. The Maya depict their mirrors as tools of kings, and often hand held (although some larger illustrations show mirrors held by dwarfs and servants). The Aztecs believed the god Smoking Mirror observed all the world through his mirror of gold (his idol was made of obsidian, implying perhaps that all mirrors were his eyes into the world—a horror concept if I have heard of one). Spanish forces and authors attributed more to the fear and superstition of mirrors. Bernardino de Sahagun described the following occurrence:

The seventh sign or omen is that waterbird hunters caught a brown bird the size of acrane, and they brought it to Moctezuma to show him, he was in the room they call Tlillancalmecac. It was after midday. This bird had on its forehead a round mirror in which could be seen the sky and stars, especially the Mastelejos near the Pleiades. Moctezuma was afraid when he saw this, and the second time he looked into the mirror that the bird had, there he saw nearby a crowd of people gathered who came mounted on horses. And Moctezuma than called his augurs and diviners and he asked them “Don’t you know what this means? That many people are coming.” And before the diviners could reply, the bird disappeared, and they said nothing.”

One of these obsidian mirrors made it into the possession of famed occultist and astrologer John Dee—and is still in the British Muesum to this day.

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John Dee’s Mirror

Another famed folklore mirror is in the one on the wall in Snow White. Here again the mirror serves as a vehicle of truth and vanity—it does not give the answer desired, but the honest one. The other major mirror I recall from folklore—and more accurately, from an original fairy tale—is the one crafted in the opening of the Snow Queen. This mirror is again related to sight, but this time is related to the distortion of sight. The mirror, upon shattering, splinters the Devil’s work across the world. The mirror causes cynicism and despair in those who’s souls it penetrates.

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Another story from Granada deals with revealing of the truth by a mirror—the mirror is held by the barber, to find a potential wife for the king. The mirror will reveal blemishes of the soul on the silver of the mirror, helping the barber find a proper wife no matter rank or birth. This of course has the intended effect, and a proper but lowly wife is found. You can find the story here.

Delving a bit backwards for a moment, and dealing with a mirror that effects apperances and horror, we can consider Perseus. Danae, Perseus’s mother, was cast to sea after giving birth to him—long story, involves Zeus and a prophecy about Perseus murdering his grandfather—and upon washing ashore in Serifos, they were taken in by a fishermen and brother of the King. The King of Serifos desired Danae, but Perseus was a danger to his advances. At a party, Perseus rashly promised the king anything he desired—and the King asked for the head of the Gorgon Medusa, who’s form was so frightening that she turned men to stone with fright. To abbreviate the story, Perseus slays the monster with a mirror shield, avoiding directly gazing on the gorgon. Placing her head in a satchel, and ignoring the two creatures that spring from her neck (Pegasus and Chyrsoar), Perseus heads home to complete his story—which bears little relevance to our prompt.

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The prompt does remind me of a particular Lovecraft story—The Outsider, a Gothic horror story of a man who has spent all his life in a castle. The story follows his escape from isolation and entrance into a world that was naught but stories to him. The story’s conclusion and final twist I’ll not spoil (you can find the story in full here). Other instruments of viewing—such as glass of Leng—stick to the theme of revelation and truth.

The story here more reminds me of the child hood activity of dares—daring someone into the cellar on Halloween night, to gaze upon a mirror in darkness. It’s comparable to the idea of Bloody Mary, who appears by gazing into a mirror in the dark by candle light. Or the Blue Baby story, which poses another legend of a haunted mirror. I think that some combination of the two–the revelation of identity in the mirror and the dare of children–could make for a compelling case.  

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Calling Up the Dead

This Week’s Prompt:52. Calling on the dead—voice or familiar sound in adjacent room.

The Resulting Story:A Dreadful Tapping

Necromancy is upon us, fellows! Dark sorcerer at last revels itself! But perhaps you are confused…this is about only sights and sounds. How does this relate to Necromancy, which much of popular culture conflates with zombies, skeletons, liches, and the summoning of undead war engines or hordes?
Necromancy, at it’s base, is much simpler then all these things. A necromancer attains knowledge by communicating or contact the dead. The modern word has it’s roots in just that meaning (Necro meaning dead, mantiea means divination). This has a number of cultural ties to be discussed at length here, as it might give insight into the unsettled spirits above. And of course, we are necromancers here aren’t we?

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The first place to start, although not the oldest, would be the Greek conception. Necromancy here is most apparent in the works of Homer, specifically Odysseus’s voyage to the Underworld, where by blood offering he acquires the aid of a long dead sage. These could be elaborate rituals in later times, and often relied on the conjuring of specific shades for their precise knowledge.
Related to the Greek school of thought is the Jewish and Old Testament relations of necromancy. Necromancy, for a variety of reasons, is forbidden under the Law. It was a Canaanite practice, and further, it disturbed those God had claimed. The existence of shades to conjure was also severely questioned by later Christian critics. However, there is a noteworthy account of necromancy here as well. The Witch of Endor.

Ewoks

Wrong Endor, ya dolts.

The Witch of Endor episode occurs during the book of Samuel, where a Canaanite woman is asked by King Saul to conjure up a dead prophet and judge in order to learn his fate. This resulted in the King being roundly condemned for daring to disturb the dead in his quest for certainty.
Moving farther abroad, the means of contacting the dead are known in China as well as the Mediterranean. More often, mediums are used there to contact the dead then conjuring as we know it. However, the Chinese authorities have perhaps a more elaborate arrangement of the dead, divided into forms based on death (In the way that other faiths might assign punishments). The hungry dead, those derived of ritual, are the primary ones to be kept at bay, while other deceased relatives might provide comfort or aid to their descendants.

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Note the bowl of scrolls, which would have been stained with her own blood.

The Maya priests also engaged in a sort of necromancy, consulting the spirits of Xibalba by shamanistic or hallucinogenic rituals and blood letting. They contacted otherworldly spirits this way, in a manner that might seem familiar. Ancestors again were a protective force at times, and knowledgeable about many things.
In the Northern European climes, there are records from a seventeenth century poem of a mother being called forth by her son after death, in order to defend him and free him from his stepmother. The mother adds her son by casting a series of spells to defend him.

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Among the Buryat people today, ancestors are the primary group to be consulted by shamans. After almost a century of Soviet oppression, however, many of the names of these ancestors have been lost. And worse still, several have found the places they inhabited to become nightmarish, with ancestors killed in Soviet prison camps manifesting as tortured and angry spirits barely intelligent to the mortal sense. These ghosts all need appeasements, as the various ills that befall a Buryat household are often ascribed to angered ghosts and displeased ancestors. These rites might involve sacrificial sheep or promises made with a shaman as an intermediary.

I could go on, my fellow society members, but the number of ghosts in the world is vast indeed. The dead are often restless, sometimes manifesting in human forms, sometimes in frightening ones. But to close this portion of research, I might bring attention to the phenomena that Mr. Lovecraft was particularly thinking of : Spirtualism.

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Spirtualism was a movement in the late 18th century, brought on by speculated causes, of conjurers and contractors of the dead. Mediums and seances spread through Europe, claiming to speak with the long dead through various devices they had. Now, whether the craze was built upon the notion of invisible forces as revealed recently by sciences, or the sudden access Europe had to Egyptian, Buddhists, and Hindu manuscripts through it’s vast colonial empire can’t be said. What can be said is that the séance was a common occurrence.
And the remains of these séances are wide spread. The Winchester house might be the most famous. Built by the wife of the inventor of the Winchester rifle, the house was always being built. Why? At a séance, the builder Sarah Winchester was told that she would be haunted by all those who were killed with the Winchester rifle. The house was thus a never ending labyrinth to confuse spirits that sought to harm Sarah, so elaborate that even within the last year new rooms were discovered.

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The Winchester House

Another séance inspired the religion of Spiritism in a young Frenchman, who believed he had come in contact with the souls of ancient druids. While Spiritism proper might balk at being termed necromancy, Allan Kardac’s discovery was of the secret knowledge held by spirits that had past on. The religion spread across the Atlantic and took roots in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, as well as to the French colony of Vietnam. Recently, I read an article detailing how the French movement influenced moral teachings in Iran as well. The faith maintains a following to this day, with thirty five countries on an international council.
This is all to bring context to the scene we have hear. A séance, a contacting of the dead is by it’s nature a strange and uncanny event. But here, we have a contact that was actually achieved. A voice is heard or a familiar sound (in proper tradition, probably some musical notes). So, what is the horror and dread here?
This won’t be a story, I feel, of a great overt horror. No one is going to be dismembered in gory ways. No one is going to go mad in the overt, grand, Gothic sense. A séance may be dripping with Gothic forms, a Victorian melodrama that disturbs the barrier between the living and the dead. But the horror is going to be…different.
Atmosphere seems key to all horror, but I think with something as small as a séance, where the shift is merely a sound, it will be primary. The horror here will rely on who is attending the séance, and who is conjured. And maybe what they say. After all, the voice of the dead might be one full of knowledge. But in a Lovecraftian world….well. Who’s says knowledge is a good thing? Ignorance is bliss.

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River of Fire

This Week’s Prompt:50. Phleg′-e-thon: a river of liquid fire in Hades.

The Resulting Story:Ill Fated Boat Ride
This week’s prompt appropriately enough brings us back to one of the richest goldmines that Mr. Lovecraft employs: Classical imagery and mythology. In this case, the Phlegethon, one of the rivers that runs along Hades, providing a boundary marker. The river itself is often described as alit with fire, flowing ( or “coiling”) into the depths of Tarturus, the closest thing to an infernal domain the Greeks had.

Phlegethon

Fittingly, then, Phlegethon has been maintained past the Classics into the imagery of Hell provided by Christian authors. Dante describes it as a river of blood and violence, boiling over as murderers and war criminals were forced to stay in it by patrolling centaurs. Milton places it and the other four rivers as parts of hell explored by the fallen angels, before the idea of tempting mortals is introduced. The Faeire Queene by Spencer has it scorch sinners, and even Mr. Lovecraft included it in the work “the Other Gods”.

However, as strange as a river of fire might sound, it is not alone in peculiar underworld rivers. Rivers, being natural dividers and boundary markers, often arise around the land of the dead, many with strange contents. Hubur, the Sumerian river of the dead, held dead souls in it’s depths against their will. Sillias, a river reported by a Greek traveler in India, allows nothing to float, but rather drags everything into it’s depths. The Vaitarna River is, to the sinless, a river of nectar. To the sinner, it appears filled with blood, bones, and pus. When the sinner approaches, flames appear everywhere. Those who try and cross, and are in fact sinners, will burn forever in the whirlpools in it’s depths.

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And of course there is Xibalba. Xibalba has a number of rivers. A river of blood, yes, but also a river of pus and a river of scorpions. These rivers mark the roads and borders of the Maya realm of the dead, to keep the living out and the dead within. The rivers must be crossed successfully,

These rivers often have fearsome guardians. Hubur has monsters with many arms demonic birds, the Phelegthon has it’s centaurs in Dante, and Vaitarna has hundreds of crocodiles and birds to devour the flesh of sinners before the cross.

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Of course, rivers of fire are not merely fantastical. There are multiple records of polluted rivers bursting into flames or exploding, sometimes for shockingly long periods at a time. The resonance of damned souls burning and industrial waste igniting is perhaps not an accident. It is a potent image, fire snaking it’s way down what ought to be it’s relief, a boiling mass of suffering from what is normally life giving.

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Rivers role with the dead we’ve discussed here, when talking of suicides at bridges, and here with Davey Jones. The river’s leading inexorably down to a place of punishment is not one we’ve directly addressed. However, as an image and mode for a story, flowing down a river unwittingly to doom seems as good a premise as any to describe the arc of a story. The realm of the dead is near the edge of the river, the damned are just below it’s surface struggling to be free.

I would focus on the rivers, then, and the journey down them rather than the dead itself. It can keep the story somewhat more grounded then we’ve been lately, more in the realm of the mortal than the completely supernatural. I’d suggest a borderline between the surreal but natural occurrence of flaming rivers and the wholly supernatural rivers of fire and hell would be a good place to work. A place of uncertainty, where the danger is real, but the extent is not completely clear. And the river is a good place to set such a story. Rivers are border places, where parties of either side might meet. It is a perpetual threshold between two places, endowed with motion onward.

The other recurring image is the attempt (and failure) to cross the river by sinful souls or inquisitive dead. Xibalba is the exception, of course, having been crossed and overthrown by the Maya Hero Twins, and even then it had more confounding traps past the river. Vaitarna allows people to cross with proper preparations, offerings, or after a lengthy time of suffering. Other rivers are generally safe to the sinless, a sort of natural filter.

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And of course, with many of these, the role of supernatural ferryman is a strong image. A ferryman who is more aware of the nature of the river and what’s around it. Charon serves this roll for the Styx, Guru’s for the Vaitarna, Virgil for Dante. These more than human guides might have a place in our story as well.

Come next week to see what corpse we pull from the boiling blood, and what it’s appearance resembles!

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Calamity And Woe

This Week’s Prompt: 48. Cities wiped out by supernatural wrath.

Resulting Story: The Fall of Anuel
This weeks topic is very similar to a number of earlier topics. We have of course, the tale of Irem from not that long ago. We have the hubris end-of-times discussion earlier. We have the stories of Atlantis. But lets see if there is more to discuss here, before going into what shape our plot might form.

We do have the lost cities of Lovecraft, including Ib and Sarnath. The people of Sarnath slaughtered the creatures of Ib, and the god of Ib in return destroyed Sarnath in it’s entirety. The Doom that Came To Sarnath records that after their victory over Ib, the people of Sarnath reigned for one thousand years. On the anniversary of the destruction of Ib, Bokurg, god of Ib, visits doom upon them.

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In Hindu myth, there are the Tripura, who were destroyed after their dominion over the world by Lord Shiva. The Asura who raise the city were once devout followers, and practiced many devotions to earn the blessing of Brahma and raise a great and impregnable fortress. The fortress could only be overcome if a single arrow overthrew it, a feat that only Lord Shiva could accomplish. Being devoted to him in their entirety, the Asura thought themselves safe. They went forth, and conquered the worlds. In time, however, they forgot their piety and were overturned.

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Atlantis’s allegorical myth bears repeating here as well. Founded by sons of Poseidon, the Atlanteans conquered the world. They were turned back by Athens. Unlike other, popular versions of the story, Atlantis’s original cause of destruction is not explicitly said, although they lost the favor of the gods certainly. Given our prior with Tripura, Sodom, and Babel, I would suggest they to grew proud.

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The hubris of man and his empires is certainly the running theme of divinely destroyed lands. This makes a degree of sense. Empires are mighty, all encompassing powers that often boast divine backing if not divine nature. Such boasts of power are almost asking to be undone and disproven by gods that do not endorse the nation in question. The arc of empire, often made analogous to the arc of comets, is one of tremendous rising force and stupendous, alarming collapse.

Which brings us to our plot to be examined: the fall of a city by the wrath of some supernatural force. The wrath of the gods is a varied lot. While there are traditional shows of force, such as shaking the earth or sending forth plagues, there are some that are more unique or disturbing. The flood caused by the gods of the Maya had the cooking implements of the people turn on them. A rain of frogs appears in the Old Testament assault on Egypt. The Curse of Cain is that of wandering with no hospitality. The gods of Olympus regularly transformed those who raised their ire, from Arachne to Niobe. There is , in general, a large degree of imagination in imagery when the gods deign to unleash their terror on the world.

or, Qualtiy over Quantity.

But what our plot might have that separates it from the other resurrected corpses is that our story of fallen hubris doesn’t take place in the narrative past but the narrative future. This would bring it in closer connection with the Prophecy of Tammuz. A story of an impending, doomed collapse. The final, waning days of an empire before the gods level their wrath upon it.

In fact, I suggest we split our story up into three temporal parts, five hundred or so words each. The decay will be apparent in the in-between times, as omens are made apparent and ignroed, as prophets call out warning but are ignored, as sins are damned and the victims cry out, apparently ignored. The wrath of the Gods is often kind enough to send some warning ahead of it. We will then have on display all the ugliness and vice of a city that will be destroyed.

Our first scene then, would establish the empire as it is. What is it’s glory? Grandeur? Not yet decadent, to the view of the audience, but rather a vast and glorious thing that only occasionally hints at the suffering cities of hubris are built on. The second scene would refocus on these, bringing the decadence to the for. We might here introduce more overt omens of doom, that the audience is aware of but the characters are dismissive of. Prophets, perhaps, or strange figures in the sky. Black stars or ghosts of lions. Omens are a fun bunch.

The third act would not be the doom itself. No, it would be when the characters themselves are aware of their doom. Whatever act caused their doom, whatever the hubris was, is now made apparent. The gods wrath has begun, if it is a plague or similar slow acting misery. But the finale, the final act of judgment has been proclaimed but not carried out. So we end our story, with our characters alone and frightened, acutely aware they are going to die soon, that they have no recourse to escape, and no one else to blame but their own deeds. The end of a tragedy.

I would focus our story on those most likely to be the most decadent members of society. A story of hubris loses some of it’s veneer if we view it from the downtrodden and suffering. And while such people have their own horror, that of an fate they did not ask for and do not deserve, such story seems more difficult to preform in a short span of fifteen hundred words. I might toy with the notion of contrasting characters, however. A prince and pauper perspective might add some depth and contrast to the apocalypse. And it might help add some shades to the typical moral against hubris.

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If we do get such a perspective on the city in question, the cause of wrath I feel should be more than just hubris. Building the Tower of Babel is fine for a work of myth, but we work in smaller symbolism. We will need butchers, slavers, exploiters of everything under the sun, monsters of men that are themselves proof against the city’s right to exist.

This will take some meditating. Such horrific crimes aren’t often revealed in myths of hubris and devastation. Just that they were there, and the group in question was deserving in it’s annulment. I will think on what sorts of crimes could warrant such devastation. One of my favorite sources is Chariot, a tabletop game I’ve never played but I commend for it’s writing and world building.

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