Magic as Spiritual Technology, Part One: The Making of a Grimoire

Even when I take a break from the History of Witchery, I seem to stumble across it by accident. A week or so ago, I found a magical text referenced by a theologian. More recently, I asked someone in the field of Forteana—the study of bigfoot, UFOs, and similarly weird topics—to recommend researchers worth following. Among his recommendations was purported author of the fabled Necronomicon.

The History of the Necronomicon

For those who are in the know, the preceding sentence should sound a bit like nonsense. For those who aren’t, the Necronomicon is supposed to be a fictional work, a grimoire invented by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in the early twenties for use in his stories. There should be no author of the Necronomicon because the book does not exist.

But the tale only begins with Lovecraft. In an effort to add realism to his work, he advised friends to incorporate references to the Necronomicon in their own work, and he in turn referenced their fictional grimoires in his stories. For the unwary reader, it might seem like all these seemingly unrelated authors were referring to a book that genuinely existed, like The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Corpus Hermeticum. By the sixties, college kids were in on the prank, sneaking forged cards into the catalogues of university libraries so that naïve parties might stumble across the reference and assume it was real.

These pranks were only the beginning. Although occult beliefs had never really died out in the West—they barely retreated—the late sixties saw a massive upsurge in the popularity, coinciding with a similar explosion of neopagan religions that had begun with Wicca in Britain in the fifties and had now crossed the channel. Grimoires were no longer the province of pulp horror fanatics, but prizes sought after by people who might actually put them to use. The time was ripe for hoaxes.

One particularly clever forgery was known as the Simon Necronomicon. Published in 1975, the book claims that it was stolen by unorthodox priest and smuggled into the hands of certain students of the occult in New York. There it was edited and published under the leadership of someone using the name “Simon,” who preferred to keep his real identity secret. But all this would have been just one more unbelievable story, if it were not for the fact that much of the contents of the Simon Necronomicon is actually authentic.

To understand what this means, you have to know what Simon was actually claiming. He did not say that everything Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon was true, and did not incorporate Lovecraft’s excerpts from the book into the work itself. Even Lovecraft’s infamous author, “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” is not part of Simon’s work. There are no bald invocations of Lovecraftian gods or demons. The only thing that clearly links it to Lovecraft’s work is the title of the supposed manuscript—the Necronomicon.

Simon’s Necronomicon is accompanied by a long editorial preface making it clear that he finds the link to Lovecraft as astounding and unlikely as anyone else—but it is there all the same. He then dives deep into history, proposing tentative links between entities mentioned by Lovecraft and Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Perhaps, he suggests, Lovecraft was a sort of sensitive, open to the influence of forces that actual exist, despite his lack of belief in them. Or perhaps he did indeed encounter rumors and scraps from this work and incorporated them into his fiction. Perhaps his stories were not as fictional as he thought.

The text of the Necronomicon itself is taken from a multitude of Sumerian and Babylonian sources, authentic lore merely rearranged and given a new context as a grimoire. Spells are taken from actual hymns and invocations of these ancient Mesopotamian gods, with very little material actually invented. Very little is unknown to scholars of that region and era, and even less is familiar to fans of Lovecraft’s fiction. Other than the name, it comes across as a quite plausibly historical work.

Whether the work is authentic or not—and I remain highly skeptical—it was certainly accepted as a usable grimoire. The published copies sold out, and it was copied illegally and began to spread underground. Practitioners of magic used the spells written therein, and some even came to believe the things suggested in the preface. The Necronomicon had gone from fictional tome to real-world sacred object. Simon had conjured it into existence.

Simon Says

Simon did not disappear after the success of his book. He published again, and, with the advent of the internet, began to lurk in occult forums online. Though there has been much speculation as to his identity—including the suggestion that he might be Sandy Pearlman, author of Don’t Fear the Reaper—no conclusive cases have been made, and Simon has yet to out himself.

It was in the accusations against one particular man, the Fortean researcher I referred to earlier, that I discovered the link to an old interview of Simon from 2002 that originally appeared in Behutet Magazine. While this was interesting enough on its own, something leapt out at me which was particularly relevant to a theme I have been exploring in my History of Witchery posts: Simon repeatedly uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to describe the contents of his Necronomicon.

I have written before about the links between science and magic, how there is a spirit at the heart of both that unites them. Throughout history, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have asked us to look at the world outside ourselves, to find external standards for human behavior. Our desires, our appetites, ought to conform to objective realities about what is good for man. It is the way of the sorcerer and of the mad scientist to instead demand that the external world be made to conform to our appetites. Rather than demanding virtue, we demand that vice be without consequences. Rather than accepting the limits and position God has imposed upon us, we seek to fashion ourselves and our world after our own image. We seek power.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his own critique of science and magic, there is such a thing as true or noble science. Seeking to better understand the world is near the very heart of wisdom, and science of that kind should not be condemned. The science he was far more skeptical of, the kind that seemed so much like sorcery, was applied science—technology. There we learn to impose our will on the world without always considering why the world is the way it is, and what the consequences might be for ignoring it.

I could go on a long tirade, citing fictional morality plays like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park. I could point to real-world examples, such as the social effects of the wide availability of birth control or the ecological impact of industrial civilization. This is not the place for that, as the issue of technology and how we use it is a complicated one calling for a lot of nuance, and this is a post about how a horror writer’s world-building got out of hand.

But the link here is real and interesting. Simon does not view his magic as venerable traditions handed down from his ancestors, or liturgy appropriate to the worship of gods he holds sacred. It is technology. It is a tool. If you follow the procedures, you will get a result. That is very scientific way of looking at things, even if the science in question deals with the spiritual plane.

In the near future I hope to go over this interview in more detail, drawing out at length what Simon believes magic is and how it is to be used. For now, though, I will leave you with the suggestion that just as fiction can find itself bleeding over into reality, so the things we have labeled rational and superstitious are not so far apart as they seem. Rather than a holdover from the Dark Ages, interest in magic may be very modern indeed.

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Science and Magic as Twins: Bacon, Bailey, Lewis, and Malcolm

The Centrality of the Occult

For some, the history of science begins with Sir Francis Bacon. Born in 1561, and dying in 1626, he lived at the height of the witch trials in Early Modern Europe. He was not a Neoplatonist, or a Kabbalist, or any other sort of Renaissance magician. He was more or less a skeptic, advocating that we learn from nature through rigorous experimentation and close observation and recording of details. While perhaps not the father of the scientific method, his beliefs, and his rejection of more mystical explanation for natural phenomena, certainly helped lay the groundwork for modern science.

But Michael Bailey suggests that even this confirmed empiricist was not entirely free of the influence of more occult disciplines, claiming that “such works as his famous Novum Organum (The New Instrument) in 1620 had certain roots in older occult forms.”[1]

“In the Middle Ages, “books of secrets” had professed to disclose the hidden properties of natural substances, as well as providing instructions on how to unlock and employ these powers. Far from being complex theoretical treatises, these were mostly practical handbooks aimed at offering basic medical treatments for illness and injury as well as other homey recipes for practical purposes. To justify their knowledge, the authors of these works claimed simple experience—they had observed that the various concoctions, potions, and mixtures they recommended were actually effective, or they had at least heard so from reliable witnesses or had knowledge based on long tradition. Already a fairly popular genre by medieval standards, after the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century books of secrets, or, as was often the case slimmer pamphlets of secrets, flourished. The most popular such book in the early modern period, Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti, was issued in over one hundred different editions from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.”[2]

 

Related to these books of secrets were “cabinets of wonders.” These collections of strange and mysterious objects did not claim to lay out some systematic explanation of the forces behind the universe, but merely to point towards certain odd things which did exist. “But for natural philosophers of the period they were important tools of observation and classification; modern natural history museums have their roots in such collections.”[3] During this time period, both the curiosities found in the cabinets of wonders and the strange effects of actions outlines in books of secrets ceased to be understood as supernatural signs, miracles, or freaks of nature, and instead as “unfamiliar but usefully illustrative examples of normal natural processes.”[4]

But Bacon’s tendency to reject Neoplatonic or Hermetic systems and instead rigorously examine nature, especially through experimentation, was not merely a by-product of pseudo-occult Renaissance literary trends, or curiously secular spins on the old practice of relic-keeping. Bailey suggests that, at its base, the entire empirical project was occult:

“Baconian-style empiricism in general can actually be seen not so much as rejecting occult aspects of nature as, in a way, making them central to its conception of the natural world. Aristotelian natural philosophy had also been based on the observation of the world, but it worked essentially by categorizing animals, materials, and natural effects according to their immediately observable properties. The new philosophy held that nature did not so easily reveal her true aspect, and therefore carefully crafted observations and deliberate experimentation were required to uncover her actual workings. Like changing understandings of “wonders,” this new method can also be seen as resting on an important shift away from the idea that occult properties in nature were essentially mysterious, differing from normal natural properties, to the notion that such secrets, properly uncovered would reveal understandable elements of the natural universe. Such shifts in mentality and purpose were important, to be sure, but they represent a progression, not an absolute rupture between older magical and newer scientific systems of thought.”[5] (emphasis added)

Thus the revelation of hidden, “occult” properties in the cosmos became the work, not of Hermetic or Kabbalistic mages, but of early scientists. No longer was “occult” action something that occurred only in miracles and freaks of nature, but instead the very fabric of the universe—as central as gravity.

The Magician’s Bargain

But the heart of the matter, the thing that links science and magic, is not simply a preoccupation with hidden properties. There is a deeper motive at work, one which shapes the kind of knowledge each is seeking, and the purpose for which they seek it. To find that, let us turn to one of the great Medievalist scholars of the past century, and popular Christian author, C. S. Lewis. After making accusations similar to my own for a significant portion of The Abolition of Man, and acknowledging that they could be misconstrued as a wholesale condemnation of science, he writes the following:

“I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientists has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.”[6]

A cursory study of the history of magic, and a reading of Bailey in particular, vindicate Lewis’s historical claim that the Early Modern period was the high noon of serious magical study in the West, as well as the birthplace of science. The deeper impulse that unites, that places them within the “temper of the age,” however, is not something a historian like Bailey is likely dwell on. Instead, it takes a moralist like Lewis, who also has deep scholarly knowledge of the period, to point it out.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise man of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”[7]

This is the essential question at the heart both of sorcery and of sorcerous magic: how can I make reality conform to my own wishes? How can I bend the natural order to serve my desires? Lewis is right to point out that this runs counter to quite a lot of ancient wisdom. Plato believed in a highly ordered universe spreading forth from a central reality, a One, and that the task of humanity was to grasp this higher reality, and to arrange his soul in such a way that it conformed with the order of the universe. The Stoics likewise believed in a fundamental order to the universe, and the importance of man recognizing that and conforming himself to it. The same can be said for eastern philosophies, like Taoism, whose uniting, ordering principle, the Tao, lends its name to Lewis’s work.

Taken this way, the tendency of ancient Greek or Mesopotamian city-states, or of the Roman empire, to designate private or alien religious practices “magic” is not mere chauvinism. At the heart of their religious systems is a believe that certain gods have the authority to arrange the universe in a certain way. Magical practice is the claim either that one can circumvent this order imposed by the gods, or that one is capable of coercing the gods themselves to reinvent it. This is far different in character than the sacrifices, rituals, and forms of divination which the gods themselves require, even if the external acts or the intended results may bear a passing resemblance.

But Lewis does not leave this connection floating in the ether. He takes one of the fathers of modern science for an illustration and drives the point home:

“If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) to Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth that he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”[8]

This is the rotting heart of sorcerous science: we reject wisdom and reject finding our place in the order of the cosmos, and instead choose to remake the cosmos in our image. What does it matter if we appeal to demons and false gods or to specialized technical knowledge divined by experimentation? If the result of either is the overthrow of the God-ordained order of the universe, then practically the actions are the same. Both are idolatry, both are blatant disregard for God’s authority and the appeal to some other force that promises us some power or some reward in exchange for yielding up our soul, or at least our temporary worship.

Modern Magery

It would, of course, be excessive to claim that any form of technology is idolatrous or sorcerous simply because it does something that formerly could not be done without it. As Thomas Brainerd pointed out to me, it’s hardly fair to say one is engaging in idolatry by trusting the controlled explosions in our engines to get us to work rather than ripping us apart. This is a cunning use of nature, not a contradiction of it. This is a point both I and Lewis concede:

“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements and not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.”[9]

As Lewis says, modern science certainly is driven by a certain degree of love of truth. Modern technology often unlocks the potential hidden in nature to help us do good and noble things—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, spreading and preserving wisdom. But it can and has been used for far wickeder things.

Lewis himself wrote an excellent novel called That Hideous Strength, wherein the fiercely modern antagonists use sociology and inhumane treatment to reeducate initiates, and plan to use the same supposedly scientific methods to “cure” criminals. They also engage in vivisection, the live dissection of animals for gaining scientific knowledge, a practice which Lewis himself vocally opposed.

Our own time is not lacking in examples of bad science. One of the most striking and disturbing are the experiments that involve creating human-animal hybrids.  Thusfar, such creatures are not allowed to develop and be carried to term, if such a thing were even possible, but the very existence of such a thing as mixture between animal and man overturns the natural order in a significant way. Not just Christianity, but virtually every human civilization is founded on a basic assumption that animals and humans, whatever they may have in common, are essentially different. To blend the two is a monstrosity.

Species is not the only boundary that is beginning to be crossed with regularity, however. Anyone without their head in the sand is quite aware that surgical procedures exist which are more or less capable of turning a formerly anatomically male person into a person who is anatomically female, and vice versa. Here is yet another distinction within the natural order, ratified for Christians by divine revelation, overturned by modern technical knowledge.

But both of these products of modern science are big and flashy. Other things we take for granted are also deviations from nature, whose consequences we may not fully appreciate. The existence of widespread, safe, and affordable birth control, for example, has divorced the sexual act from procreation. In the early days this was a more or less self-conscious move, an attempt to liberate women from biological constraints and place them on even footing with men in both the freedom with which they can engage in sexual activity, and in their ability to pursue a career unhindered by the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps this is something to be welcomed—perhaps—but it is certainly a momentous shift in the meaning of activities and processes central to our humanity. With the advent of functioning 3D-printed ovaries and artificial wombs, the very concepts of “mother” and “father” may, at some point, conceivably be a thing of the past. This is without even directly addressing the social effects of sexual liberation.

In the field of artificial intelligence, the question of what constitutes a “person” and what our moral duties towards such artificially created “people” might be is quite an old one. More interesting to today’s transhumanist technocrats is the question of how humans might become machines, and so gain transcendence that way.  Philosophers and theologians have long debated exactly what it means to be human, and this certainly pushes the boundaries.

Our hubris, however, is not exclusive the realm of the weird. We are the civilization that das rivers, that alters their course. We invented strip mining and vast, mechanized farms employing chemicals with not fully explored properties to kill pests and preserve crops. Through deliberate action, we have, either nearly or entirely, wiped out species once as numerous as the passenger pigeon, or the buffalo. We have deforested vast stretches of continents, introduced invasive species by the dozen, blasted through mountains and hills, and in general altered the ecology of most of our world beyond recognition.

The problem here is not agriculture, nor is the building of roads or cities, but the unconscious assumption that the world is here to be exploited. That is, we believe creation was meant for us, and can be changed to conform to our will with few or no consequences. There is no order we have to respect, no natural balance to be maintained, only a series of resources we can harvest and bend to our own ends.

This is not the picture the Bible paints. Man was placed in the garden “to tend it and keep it.” The world was not made to serve him, instead he was made to be God’s image and likeness in the world, its protector, its nurturer, its sustainer and healer.  Man was not placed on this earth to exploit and dispose of it, but to beautify it and cause it to flourish, to cause order and not desolation.

Nor is this an issue that concerns the natural world alone. The buffalo were massacred in the million by the same advances in weaponry that led to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War. World War I saw the advent of the machine guns that necessitated trench warfare, of the bombs and gas that could not distinguish civilian from soldier. World War II ended with the detonation of a single weapon capable of wiping out cities, whose radioactive traces rendered environments unlivable for generations. At least as frightening is the concept of biological warfare, of bacteria and viruses crafted to kill human beings, regardless of age or sex, regardless of guilt or innocence, in vast numbers. Science has taught us to seek power not only over our own bodies or the environment, but also over the lives of others.

Something Like Repentance

Not every piece of tech is a Faustian bargain, and the march of science is not necessarily the forward march of sorcerous inhumanity. This is not a blanket condemnation of seeking knowledge of the natural world, nor of every tool which can improve human life. But it is a suggestion that perhaps we no longer care for wisdom as an end in itself, that we no longer see ourselves as part of an order created by Someone Else’s authority. To one degree or another, we are drunk with the power offered us by scientific knowledge, and to some extend our consciences have been seared by long years of self-interested exploitation of these secrets. To quote the inimitable Dr. Ian Malcolm:

It is possible, and indeed good, to subject advances in technology or scientific practice to ethical questioning. We can ask whether or a new tool or a new method—or a new experiment—comes at too high a cost, or exhibits too great a hubris in our relationship to the natural world. The Amish, of course, are very conscious of this principle. While perhaps we should not imitate them in everything, it may be wise to pay some attention to their way of thinking, which is far more complex and open to innovation than they are often given credit for. This may not be our solution, but we should at least be thinking in this direction.

I do not know what the future will look like. I’m not ready to say we’re standing on the brink of some massive, man-made ecological disaster, or that we are on the threshold of the dystopian cyberpunk future Ridley Scott and the Wachowskis tried to warn us about. But I do believe that there is an element of arrogance and idolatry in the way we approach the world which the old sorcerers would recognize. And the old stories are all consistent about one thing: if make a bargain with the devil, you have to give the devil his due. It might be good to engage in self-examination before that due date comes.

[1] Bailey, 204

[2] Bailey, 204

[3] Bailey, 204-205

[4] Bailey, 205

[5] Bailey, 205.

[6] The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 489.

[7] Lewis, 489.

[8] Lewis, 489.

[9] Lewis, 489.

In Praise of the Weird

In my testimony, I made an offhand reference to my onetime belief in extraterrestrial life. In a previous version of that post, I was actually going to devote a sizable space to my interactions with UFO, Bigfoot, Nessie, and other paranormal studies over the course of my life. It plays a bigger part in the story than you might think. While ultimately I chose to sideline that theme, I do believe those issues are worthy of attention for thinking Christian in a secular culture. Here I want to present an explanation as to why I think this is the case.

          First Things First

Definitions. To someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land, these fields are filled with a bewildering array of terms that either entirely unknown, or used in a more specific way than people with less exotic interests are accustomed to. Here’s quick intro to those.

Forteana and Fortean. Charles Fort was a nineteenth century student of everything weird. Forteana is the discipline—or vague collection of pseudo-disciplines—named for him. It encompasses everything from aliens to lost civilizations to ghosts to psychic powers to conspiracy theories to alternate dimensions to cryptozoology. That would be the subject of this post. Fortean is just the adjective version of the word.

Cryptozoology is the study of animals not yet acknowledged to exist by mainstream science. This is actually the most legitimate of Fortean studies, as it frequently deals with animals that actually do exist, or did at one time. Before the great apes were discovered, they held a place similar to bigfoot in the popular imagination. The komodo dragon was thought to be a mythical creature, and the okapi was likewise thought to be an animal from folklore. All of these were discovered to exist. Other cryptids, or animals studied by cryptozoologists, include large black cats in East Texas, the Tasmanian Tiger (presumed extinct by mainstream science), and anacondas of unusual size. Bigfoot and his many relatives, as well as a plethora of lake monsters, are of course included.

A UFO is just an unidentified flying object. If you have seen something in the sky and didn’t know what it was—in other words, if you ever look up at the night sky—you have seen a UFO. That may sound simplistic, but the distinction between, “Was that a satellite or spacejunk?” and, “Little green men landed in my back yard!” is actually surprisingly murky. A large number of UFO sightings just involve unidentified lights that are too large or move too erratically to be ordinary planes. Some of these are explainable by ball lightning or other phenomena, others not so much.

Another common sighting is the black triangle. These have super common for a while, but are generally laughed off as just another case of crackpot UFO nuts hallucination. The government in particular denies all knowledge of such an aircraft, and they have totally never tested any kind aircraft that fit that description.

Huh.

Which serves to illustrate the difference between UFOs and aliens. The theory that UFOs are flown by creatures from another planet is referred to as the extraterrestrial hypothesis, and it’s not the only hypothesis in town. Many UFO cases can be easily explained by the government not telling us every time it tests a new spy plane, and many others can be explained by poorly understood atmospheric phenomena, like ball lightning. Others most assuredly are the product of drugs or fevered imaginations, but that doesn’t have to mean all of them are.

But even among those who believe there are genuine, non-government intelligences behind UFO sightings, there are plenty of other explanations. Abduction stories bear an uncanny resemblance to older stories of the fay folk, and some Christians have claimed that they are demons. It’s not unusual for UFO believers to claim the beings they contact are from another dimension instead of another planet. And, my favorite theory, Nazis. Seriously. They’re still out there, they have crazy technology, and they spend the weekends doing flyovers of Kansas farmhouses.

But I digress.

Paranormal is vague term, encompassing everything from extrasensory perception/ESP—which runs the gamut from reading minds to seeing the future—to ghosts of all kinds, to astral projection (sending your soul out on a journey), to strange powers, to some UFO sightings, and back around to cryptozoology. In some cases, paranormal is just a synonym for Forteana, but it usually has more of a spiritual or psychic bent. Literally, it just means “beside the normal.”

Speaking of the spiritual and the psychic, occult is an often abused term. Occult comes from a Latin word meaning “hidden,” and essentially consists of any brand of hidden knowledge about the cosmos, especially the kind of hidden knowledge that gives you power. Picture people pondering over the secret name of God, as in the Jewish Kabbala, or ascribing a deeper meaning to Masonic rituals. Alchemy was actually more of an occult, spiritual discipline designed to lead to enlightenment (sort of) than it was about turning lead into gold. This broad realm of activities does include ritual magic and the invocation of spiritual entities up to and including demons, but there are a lot of Christians that read deep and dubious meaning into supposedly important, yet forgotten, Biblical symbols who would also fit the bill.

There are more places we could go in the realm of Forteana, but this covers most of the major bases. I didn’t mention conspiracy theories, but that’s only because the term is pretty self-explanatory. It is just as important as the others. Having laid the groundwork, then let’s dive into just why these things are important.

Question Your Assumptions

Most of our knowledge about the world does not come from firsthand experience. Unless you are an astronaut, you have never seen the earth circling the sun. No one has seen an atom, however much evidence has been accumulated for their existence. (Hint: It’s a lot.) We trust that Antarctica and most other continents exist because everyone says they exist. We may even know people who claim to have been to these strange lands, but our belief in them is largely based in the trust we have in the people making the claims, not our own experience of them.

But the general consensus is not always right. Turns out Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the entire scientific, philosophical, and religious establishment was wrong about the whole sun-goes-around-the-earth thing. Also turns out that black triangle UFOs really do—or did—exist, and a lot of sightings of sea monsters are based on a real critter—the oarfish.

More critically, it’s not always scientific facts the majority is wrong about. As Christians in what appears to be an increasingly secularized country, we have to assume that we few are right where the majority are wrong. Atheists did the same thing several centuries ago. In any given setting, the possibility always exists that the cultural consensus is deeply wrong about the most important things in life. Sometimes this can have disastrous consequences, from Jonestown to the Third Reich.

Forteana makes us aware of this fact. It asks us to question how we know what we know. Who says this particular thing does not exist? Who says the world works this way? Are they actually trustworthy? Sometimes they are, and the conventional explanation is the best. But there are other times when the authorities or the general population deny, or affirm, the existence of a phenomenon not because they have gone through a process of rational though or sought out evidence and tested hypotheses, but because it is more convenient for them. As in the case of experimental stealth aircraft, we see that sometimes the government is not telling the truth. Is this necessarily a problem? Maybe not, but it is certainly worth noting.

More importantly to the Christian, when we question why hold the beliefs we do, we often uncover which of those beliefs are the true bedrock. Many Christians deny the existence of ghosts, spiritual phenomena, and monstrous beings out of hand, without stopping to think that the Bible often affirms the existence of such things. Why should we be surprised if people see them today? Why do accept the word of scientists who say such things shouldn’t exist over what are sometimes very convincing firsthand accounts? This reveals an underlying faith in modern skepticism and materialism that may not be consistent with Biblical faith. If that is the case, perhaps it is time to reevaluate our professed views.

Studying Fortean phenomena doesn’t only help us reevaluate the sources of our beliefs, it also helps us understand the complex nature of belief. Why do UFO cults form? What is attractive about that? The answers to such questions are deeply practical, because we too have certain spiritual desires that need to be met, certain questions that need to be answered, and those non-rational longings play into our beliefs. A Christian may sometimes find himself in doctrinal position or a community, not as a result of faithfulness to Christ or his word, but because other very human and very fallible motivations are at play. We need to be familiar with such things, and be able to draw such comparisons for our own good and the good of our communities.

One particular place I think this comes out rather strongly is by looking at the appeal of the occult. People go into the occult looking for a hidden order to the universe, something that gives them a sense that life is not beyond their control. They want to empower themselves with the sort of knowledge only a chosen few have, and by performing certain actions, they believe they can reach a kind of enlightenment or perhaps a power over what goes on in their lives.

Do these impulses ever crop up in Christianity? Have you ever been around a teacher or community that dealt in hidden knowledge, that promised power over your life through deep study of certain secret truths about God or the Scriptures? While by no means pervasive in American Christianity, I sometimes think such things are far more common than we realize.

And of course, Forteana helps us uncover human motivations in another very obvious way. What could bring a person to devote their entire life to the pursuit of something, like Bigfoot, for which they will be ostracized from respectable society? What makes them willing to endure the scorn of academia and the general population? Why do they make martyrs of themselves over something so manifestly insane? And, on a related note, is there something attractive about belonging to that fringe community? Is there something that makes people want to join the club of those “in the know,” or who believe that “The Truth is Out There?” This line of questioning is not exactly irrelevant to Bible believing Christians in an unbelieving world, one which often thinks our ideas are just as kooky. And, with the diversity of the American church, sometimes those beliefs are kooky.

The study of Forteana can, in a very practical way, serve as a sort of intellectual immune system, helping us question why we believe what we believe, and holding us up to higher standards in our reasoning. It’s a field that is based on questioning assumptions, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Without a certain amount of practice doing so, we may find ourselves prey to the hoaxers of the world—including our own deceptive hearts.

Moving Forward

Forteana serves another purpose, not just for Christians, but for society in general. Science is built on fresh thinking, on looking at old subjects in new lights. Discoveries are made because people study something no one has ever studied before, or studies an old subject from a new angle.

Cryptozoology in particular is a prime example of this. Cryptozoologists take rumors of creatures which others might dismiss out of hand, and refuse to do so. Many times their search proves fruitless, but as in the case of the okapi and komodo dragon, sometimes it pays off. Science needs people willing to chase down the rumors, to follow up on the forgotten cases, to take a chance on something that might seem hopeless. That’s what drives us forward. Take two examples in particular.

First, the deep seas. The oceans are the most unexplored part of this planet, and every time we dive deeper into those unknown regions, we come back astounded by new discoveries. Part of our interest, though, is driven by stories of giant sharks, and squids the size of islands, of aquatic sentient life, or sunken cities. Old rumors of sea monsters keep us going back, wondering what strange new thing could be down there. Those stories, and others like them, imbue that study with a sense of adventure, of wonder, drawing attention, drawing resources, and drawing bright-eyed young kids into the strange and fascinating world of marine biology. It is that openness to possibility that keeps us going.

Second, consider animals once thought extinct. Mainstream science has given up hope on the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger. This unique marsupial has been thought extinct for generations. But imagine if it wasn’t, if somewhere out there this creature still existed. Could we bring it back from the edge? Could we preserve this piece of God’s creation for future generations? Isn’t that worth trying? But currently, it’s only people on the fringes that are giving us that chance. And, oddly enough, though one has yet to be captured, there is more evidence out there for the thylacine’s continued existence than might once have been expected.

This same theme takes another form in East Texas. It is a known fact among people who live in the Piney Woods that there are large black cats, usually referred to as panthers, lurking in the forests. Mainstream science, however, denies that they exist. If they are assumed to be melanistic jaguars, this skepticism seems well-founded, as jaguars are not known to live anywhere near this far north. If, however, they are jaguarundis—a slightly smaller feline species with a more slender build—then the long history of sightings seems more reasonable. Jaguarundi territory does, in fact, reach into South Texas. If this is the case, then what does this tell us about the ability of large mammals to survive in semi-populated areas? How does this effect how we view human interaction with the environment? And what does this tell us about how thoroughly we really know our own backyards?

In the questioning of old assumptions and the openness to new possibilities, Fortean studies in general and cryptozoology in particular keep science on its toes. We need a source of fresh ideas just as much as we need someone to question unexamined orthodoxies. It keeps us moving forward, and prevents us from accepting misunderstandings as the truth, simply because they have been around a while, or we’re too lazy to take a look at them.

Conclusion

Forteana has served as an important part of my intellectual immune system for a lot of years, and has kept me looking forward to the future as a realm with exciting possibilities. But it has also done two more things for me that I think are deeply valuable.

As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, there was a time in my life when the community I was in felt tightly insulated from the rest of the world, isolated from any sort of dissent or simple conversation about any number of issues. That same community seemed to undermine my faith through some of its teachings and practices. But when you are deep in a cultural bubble, things often seem far more desperate than they really are. What can seem like an oppressive system with absolute power over your life is often not, if you can just take a single step outside.

Forteana did that for me. I had left behind such things for many years, for a variety of reasons. But at some point, when things were at their darkest, and I couldn’t really find a way forward, I stumbled across a podcast called Expanded Perspectives. In that very rough time, I dove into stories of yowies and the almasty, of Slenderman and Missing 411 cases. I reintroduced myself to old UFO cases, and new ones that had happened since I turned my mind to other things.

It was like a breath of fresh air to a suffocating man. I was surrounded by a thousand unquestioned assumptions and no one to talk to about them, and in one enormous flood, a whole world of outrageous ideas, of theories upending everything the world took for granted, came sweeping in and gave me a new lease on life. It was a window into an outside world—so refreshing, so new, and so inspiring.

And that was the second thing Forteana did for me, and has done for pop culture generally. These fringe topics are fodder for story ideas, whether you’re looking for a political thriller, a monster movie, a ghost story, a fantasy adventure, or just a solid mystery. All these beasts, beings, and phenomena set the imagination on fire and turn it loose. For someone who thrives on the new and the strange, that’s bread and butter. I began reading so much more after I got back into Forteana, and my habit of writing had a revival soon after. There are so many more interesting things than UFOs, crypto, and the paranormal, but that was the spark that brought me back.

Forteana not only helps us keep our worldview tidy, it serves as a release valve for the imagination. Human beings occasionally need that escape into the extraordinary, that vacation in the land of the weird so that they can come back into the real world and cope with day to day life. While hanging out with bigfoot and the greys didn’t bring me back around to spiritual health, it certainly helped put a stop to the downward spiral. When you have trouble finding the truth, sometimes it helps to just know the truth is out there.

Lovecraft’s Ancient Aliens

I

            Imagine a humanity alone in the universe. Imagine millions, even billions of years of evolution, struggling up from the slime that served as the cradle of some long-forgotten microbe, through countless eons of birth, reproduction, and death. Seas rise and fall. Continents shift. Meteors strike. Climate changes. Over the drifting generations we have ventured from sea to land, from land, perhaps, to the trees, and from the trees to the African savannah. We learned to hunt and gather. We learned to sow and reap. Cities were built, gods were worshipped, empires rose and fell. Through the long climb of progress, up through shifts in culture and technological innovations, we at last arrive at modern man. Our satellites sway in orbit, our telescopes look out at the stars. All our struggles, our pains and sorrows, the countless lost memories and forgotten lifetimes, and the end of every life, has all come to this.

And we are—utterly—alone.

All that we strove for, every empire and every nation, has ended in the dust. All of our great men have died, and though we know their works, they now know nothing. We have come as close to utopia as technology can take us, but still we fight, still we war, still we find reasons to suffer. All our gods, all the long history of great temples, enormous idols of stone, of gold, wreathed in diamonds and fine garments, of bloody sacrifice, all that has come to nothing. Even our gods were temporary, just another delusion on the road through history.

So stood the evolutionary naturalist in 1959. So stand many today. But in 1960, that all began to change. Before we go there, however, let us return for a moment to Lovecraft.

At the Mountains of Madness brought us a strange vision of the ages that lie behind us. Somewhere in the geologically distant past, a race of aliens came out of the stars. They landed here, and found this planet to their liking. So they began to seed it. They created every kind of life: animal, vegetable, and things in between. Among these countless experiments were our ape ancestors. It was their act of creation that brought us to life, their purposes that animated us. In a very real sense, they gave us meaning. And for Lovecraft, of course, that whole meaning was a cruel joke.

In another of Lovecraft’s stories, which will receive more attention later, he adds to this picture. The Call of Cthulhu tells of an alien being made of a material we are to primitive to understand. Its powers lie beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our abilities as the Elder Things were above our simian ancestors. This thing, by its power, by the long memories of our race, and by the traces of the civilization it once ruled, reaches out and leaves an indelible mark on our consciousness. Those who know him, worship him as a god. For, in comparison to us, what else could he be?

Lovecraft returns to this theme of gods and creators from beyond the stars time and again. His fiction constantly drives at the point that mankind is not at the center of universe, that far stranger things may be far greater than us. But when he wrote those stories, he could not have foreseen the effects his fiction would have. This idea, the idea of a race of godlike aliens that came to the Earth in ancient times and created either our species, or much of our culture, gripped the minds of generations.

II

            By 1959, Lovecraft’s writings, never mainstream, had fallen from what brief popularity they had enjoyed. Few had heard of that master of horror, and his stories held no great place in the public consciousness. There were two, however, who had heard of him.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier were two Frenchmen with a penchant for the occult. Both had lived through the Second World War. Bergier had actually participated in the French Resistance, and his work there may be an interesting tale in itself. They met in Paris, in 1954. In 1960, they published a collaboration that would change the world.

The Morning of the Magicians, as it is known in English, was a broad survey of a variety of conspiracy theories and occult topics. It was structured in an unconventional manner, and written in a personal tone. Louis and Jacques led their readers through a tour of issues as broad as ancient alchemists’ knowledge of the atom, the influence of German occultism on the Nazi party, and the Nazca lines. Most important of all, they made the suggestion that the Earth had hosted ancient civilizations founded by an alien race, and their influence had enormous effects on the development of humanity.

In the following year, they began to publish a magazine responsible for, among other things, bringing Lovecraft back into the cultural awareness of French audiences.

III

            The Morning of the Magicians cast forth a wide sphere of influence in the early sixties, reaching the UK in 1963, and the United States in 1964. The burgeoning counterculture took hold of many of the ideas it suggested, bringing an air of the esoteric into the movement. It was not the English translations which were most important, however, but the German edition of 1962. This found its way into the library of Swiss man by the name of Erich von Daniken.

In 1968, von Daniken published a book titled, “Chariots of the Gods?” His work drew heavily on that of Pauwels and Bergier, but had a tighter focus. It called the reader’s attention to artifacts throughout the world whose creation was far beyond the powers one might easily ascribe to primitive man. He pointed to the pyramids, to Stonehenge, to the Piri Reis map and the Nazca lines. He wrote of ancient myths, of legends handed down over centuries. He reminded his audience of the cargo cults of the South Pacific, how stone age tribes had mistaken modern sailors and airmen for gods. It all pointed towards one conclusion.

At some point in the past, beings from the stars had visited the Earth. They bestowed gifts on us: technology, information, and ideas that could have been gotten nowhere else. And we had remembered them as gods.

At first, the book had little impact outside of circles already interested in the paranormal. Even there it produced few notable shockwaves. But in 1973, von Daniken had a stroke of luck. His book was picked up by Alan Landsburg, who called on his friend, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, and got him to narrate a new documentary. In Search of Ancient Astronauts was broadcast to millions of American homes in 1973, introducing the ancient aliens hypothesis to mainstream pop culture. The documentary became a series, hosted Leonard Nimoy, which would help sustain a growing subculture of people interested in the paranormal.

IV

            This hypothesis, rooted, it would seem, in the fiction of Lovecraft, would go on to have a long life. The Stargate universe owes its existence to the idea, as do various Doctor Who plotlines, much of the X-Files mytharc, the attempted revival of Indiana Jones, Alien vs. Predator, and Prometheus. It also forms the plot of the often overlooked Hanger 18, a little gem my grandparents have in their movie library as a result of it being filmed in a town they spent a lot of years in. It’s worth watching, and rumor has it there’s a MST3K episode of it out there.

The idea not only impacted the world of fiction, but also found a home in many new religious movements. New Age beliefs have always looked to the stars, hoping for enlightenment, or interstellar saviors. While not every UFO religion can be credited to von Daniken’s influence, his work certainly helped create the culture in which such ideas were thinkable.

Return again to that lonely evolutionary naturalist. Now he looks out at the stars and can see more than empty space. He sees the houses of his neighbors, perhaps even the long-forgotten home of our race. Looking back at the gods of our past, he is no longer disillusioned. Instead, he is inspired, for in those gods he sees friendly visitors, or distant relations from a far nobler stock than the ape-men he once called his ancestors.

In a strange twist of fate, Lovecraft’s horror literature, meant to dethrone mankind from the center of the cosmos, has given them a new place in it. Instead of terror at the vastness of the black unknown, he has given them something new. He has given them new connections, transcending the short memory of our petty nations and the thin heavens of our fragile earth. He has given them a past. He has given them friends. He has given them hope.

It is strange what may grow from the well-placed seeds of a myth.

 

Jason Colavito first made the connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the ancient aliens hypothesis in popular culture. The majority of the preceding story can be found in his article here, originally published in Skeptic, or in far more detail in the book which he wrote afterwards.