I noted in a post earlier this year that although I greatly enjoy the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, I don’t find it spooky at all. I find his tentacled Elder Gods endearing rather than terrifying, and the vision of reality central to his fiction—the philosophy that Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has helpfully labeled “cosmic indifferentism,” the recogition that the universe is under no obligation to pay the least attention to humanity’s embarrassingly overinflated sense of self-importance—strikes me as simple common sense, deserving a sigh of relief rather than a shudder of existential dread.
This somewhat idiosyncratic response to the Cthulhu mythos, the fictive pantheon of eldritch terrors concocted by Lovecraft and several of his friends and fellow Weird Tales authors, will be on display in an unexpected context next year. As noted over in the other blog, I’ve just finished a novel I didn’t plan to write, in rather less time than I’ve ever written anything of that size; the working title is Moon Path to Innsmouth; it’s almost certainly the first of a series, length as yet undetermined; and while I’ll refrain from spoilers, the basic concept is that the Elder Gods aren’t the villains they’ve been made out to be—quite the contrary. All those lurid claims of blood sacrifice, sexual depravities, conspiracies to destroy the world? Christians in the Middle Ages used to tell all those same stories about Jews and witches, you know, so the worshippers of Cthulhu are in good company.
I’ll want to devote a post one of these days to the reasons why people in the Western world fixate on those specific bits of hate speech whenever they want to denounce religious minorities they don’t like. Still, this month’s post is going to head down a different path. The process of writing Moon Path to Innsmouth sent me back to the stories of Lovecraft and his peers in search of local color, and one of the bypaths that I followed in that quest led me to “The White People,” one of the more renowned horror stories of Welsh fantasy author Arthur Machen, which originally appeared in 1899.
I’ve called “The White People” a horror story, and most people apparently read it that way. I suppose it will come as no surprise to my readers that I find it no more horrifying than, say, Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” though every bit as readable. “The White People,” rather, is a brilliantly written first-person account of an unnamed young woman’s spiritual and sexual awakening—the sexual aspect isn’t quite explicit, but there are enough reveries sitting atop standing stones, journeys through narrow passages, bubbling wells of sweet water, unnamed delights in isolated groves, and the like to make the general thrust, so to speak, impossible to miss. This is framed by a prologue and an epilogue in which a couple of old men discuss the diary in which the young woman recorded her experiences as an example of the most evilly evil sort of evil evilness they can possibly imagine.
Now it’s probably worth noting that the young woman’s spiritual awakening had nothing to do with the Christian religion; it had to do, rather, with Pagan worship and magic. That’s among the reasons I don’t find the story at all spooky. Everyone I know who took up any form of magical spirituality in their teen years, as I did, went through much the same things as the nameless author of the diary. The old lore studied in secret, the solitary ceremonies, the solemn or exhilarating or frightening experiences that can’t be shared with anyone else: if you took up occultism in your teens, you’ve been there. To me, at least, it’s interesting to reflect on why so many people apparently find such things so horrifying—is it just the frantic intolerance of dissenting ideas that pervades so many secular as well as religious subcultures in our society, or is there more to it than that?
Equally, though, there’s the sexual dimension to the tale, and a great deal of the horror of the tale seems to focus on that. The idea of a young woman awakening to her own sexual needs and desires, without reference to the brutally rigid expectations loaded on her by the social and religious ideologies of the time, seems to have been quite enough all by itself to make a conservative and devoutly Christian Welshman like Machen blanch in terror and dive under the nearest piece of furniture. It’s this latter point that I want to discuss in this month’s post, because the stark gibbering terror with which so many people regarded their own genitalia not so long ago has had a range of unhelpful consequences that still infest contemporary culture in various ways, and stray over into occultism here and there.
It’s almost impossible to overstate just how pervasive, and how bizarre, the horror of sexuality was in the Western societies of an earlier day. You can even find it in certain ends of occult literature, though admittedly it’s rarer there than it is in the mainstream. One of my favorite examples, though, comes from Mouni Sadhu aka Dymitr Sudowski, or more precisely from his book The Tarot, much of which is copied verbatim from an earlier book on the same subject by Russian occultist Grigorii Mebes. I haven’t read Mebes’ book, so don’t know whether this passage is from his pen or Sadhu’s, but either way it’s a fine piece of unintentional comedy.
The subject is that standard target for some of the most hysterical diatribes of that age, the nightmare consequences of—gasp!—masturbation. Apparently Sadhu (or Mebes) hadn’t encountered the claim that little boys who masturbate are doomed to go blind and have hair sprout on their palms, for the young man at the center of this little morality play becomes a dangerous raving maniac instead. He shows up at the author’s apartment, hallucinates on cue, and says: “Don’t you see them? Look how nice they are, these naked girls round us! Don’t you also want...?” Notes the author: “I cannot quote his next words because of their horrible depravity.”
I suspect most of my readers could quote those next words, out loud or in print, without any particular feeling of horrible depravity. Depending on the exact phrasing used, they might not even be noticeably crude. A healthy young man of heterosexual inclinations who happened to find himself in the presence, real or hallucinated, of a group of attractive women who weren’t wearing any clothes might reasonably be expected to have such thoughts, and even to mention the thoughts to a sympathetic friend, whether or not it was appropriate for him to do anything about them—but that’s today’s attitude. It was not the attitude in common circulation when Sadhu (or Mebes) wrote.
In the same way, in the Arthur Machen story mentioned earlier, one of the two men whose conversation frames the story notes with evident satisfaction that the young woman who wrote the diary poisoned herself “in time”—presumably before she did something far more ghastly, such as embarrassing her father or making the neighbors talk. Myself, if I ran across an account from 1899 of a young woman who committed suicide after the sort of awakening described in “The White People,” my first guess would be that she considered the normal and healthy sexual and spiritual needs she’d recognized in herself, assessed her chances of satisfying them given the asphyxiating narrowness of the life available to her as a middle-class Englishwoman of her time, and poisoned herself in sheer despair.
Fortunately, by the time Machen wrote “The White People,” middle-class Englishwomen with sexual and spiritual needs their society couldn’t handle had options that didn’t involve bottles of poison. One of the most interesting of them has had a remarkable if almost entirely unnoticed impact on occultism—not to mention on horror fiction of the sort Lovecraft wrote. I refer to one of the most innovative and misunderstood institutions of late 19th and early 20th century Anglo-American culture, the sex cult.
Middle-class English and American women of that age who wanted to have sex outside of marriage ran a serious risk that isn’t always remembered today. If their activities became public knowledge, they and their entire family faced drastic social consequences, and this made them easy targets for blackmail, with their erstwhile partners the most likely perpetrators of that crime. The sex cult was a brilliant response to that problem. A middle-class English or American man who had sex out of marriage faced no such social penalties, but being a known member of a deviant religious organization was quite another matter; the mere rumor of such a thing could put an end to a man’s chances for advancement in his career, and having documentary proof plopped on the desk of his employer would likely land him on the street with no chance of finding another job.
That’s what made sex cults so successful. If you joined a sex cult and broke its rules—and the rule never to divulge the identity of another member was always the most sacrosanct of all—you faced not merely social disaster but personal humiliation, no matter what your gender happened to be. That equalizing factor allowed men and women alike to enjoy themselves and one another in a state of perfect love and perfect trust, sheltered by the common threat of mutually assured social destruction.
None of this was particularly hard to discover. Back in the 1970s, when those of us who purchased occult books generally had to get them via mail order from companies with names like Ty-Rad and Mar-Lar, you could get any of several cheaply published books on starting your own occult circle, by which was meant your own magic-themed sex cult. I recall one by the transparently pseudonymous Yaj Nomolos (try reading each name backwards) that covered in detail how to set things up so that nobody could blackmail anyone else, by having each prospective member sign a paper acknowledging that he or she was joining a group that practiced occult rituals and black magic, or some similar verbiage. Dion Fortune, whom we’ll be discussing a bit later, also talks about sex cults at length in a number of her essays, and doesn’t treat them as anything out of the ordinary. Nor were they, in her time or later.
Until the aftermath of the 1960s rendered their business model obsolete, in fact, you could find sex cults in most British and American cities of any size. One of them still clung to existence in Seattle when I was first getting into the occult scene. It had a storefront temple in the city and a big and well-secluded property out in the rural fringes of town; it defined itself as a church, and that doesn’t seem to have been purely a matter of the tax advantages. At least some of the members believed devoutly in the organization’s teachings, which focused on the spiritual benefits of sexual freedom, and got something—well, other than the obvious—out of membership, participation in ceremonies, and so on.
That sort of blending seems to have been extremely common in the sex-cult scene, for a reason familiar to those who know their way around the history of rejected knowledge in the western world. Far more often than not, people who embrace one thing rejected by their society—such as sexual promiscuity—tend to embrace other things that have the same status—such as alternative spirituality. The same logic of the fusion of the excluded that led countless occultists in the early 20th century to insist that Atlantis had to be a real place and Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare encouraged even more people who liked casual sex to dabble in magic, Asian religions, and the like as well. This then helped guide the growth and development of the sex cult industry.
The Tantrik Society of America, founded in 1900 by Oom the Omnipotent aka Pierre Bernard, is a case in point. Bernard ran a chain of sex-cult franchises that at one point spanned the continent from San Francisco to New York City; he claimed to have learned Tantric mysteries from an adept named Sylvais Hamati, whom he supposedly met in Lincoln, Nebraska, and of whom (inevitably) no trace has ever surfaced. (He probably got his considerable knowledge of Hindu philosophy and yogic practice from the library of the Lincoln branch of the Theosophical Society, but claiming to have been initiated by a conveniently untraceable adept was pretty much de rigueur in the business in those days.) The Tantrik Society’s activities thus included classes in yoga and Eastern mysticism as well as the free love that was the order’s main selling point.
After the Second World War, in turn, the Tantrik Society faced the same problem that eventually did in the Seattle sex cult mentioned above: as most Americans got over their Puritan terror of sexuality, and women who had sex outside of marriage stopped being the focus of the frantic horror and loathing that generally arises out of unadmitted desire, people who wanted to have casual sex no longer needed a sex cult to protect them from social disaster. Bernard was a clever man, and retooled the organization, turning it into America’s first successful yoga school, and launching the careers of a good many of the first generation of American yoga teachers.
Other sex cults retooled themselves in different ways. The Ordo Templi Orientis is a good example. In its original European form it was a sex cult with unusually elaborate ceremonies, and more than the usual mix of occultism; in the English-speaking countries, where it was taken over by Aleister Crowley, it became yet another vehicle for the self-aggrandizing buffoonery of the Not-So-Great Beast, and so crashed and burned as inevitably as all his other projects did. In the 1960s, though, Grady McMurtry scooped up the wreckage, assembled it into a viable system of magical training and initiation, and found a market niche for it right at the beginning of the great occult boom of the late 20th century.
Then there’s the other sex cult I suspect most of my readers have been thinking about all along, the one that was started by a retired English businessman when he returned from the East Indies, and ended up going through a cascade of reinventions that turned it into the single most influential force in the occult boom just named. Yes, it’s time to talk about Wicca.
The thing that makes Wiccan history so fascinating is precisely the way that it’s refashioned itself so comprehensively over its lifespan. In its early years, when the word was still spelled Wica, it seems to have been a sex cult of the classic kind, with a little more occultism than usual, not to mention quite a bit of flogging. Gardner, like many Englishmen of his generation, liked to be flogged by unclothed women, and so a certain amount of genteel sadomasochism found its way into the ritual—I suspect that this played a very large role in giving BDSM its present popularity in America.
That was the form in which Wicca crossed the Atlantic. I’ve been told privately by people who were involved in early covens in the US that several of them advertised themselves in local swingers’-club newsletters, and I think it’s common knowledge these days that membership in an old-fashioned Wiccan coven includes, among other things, certain obligations to have sex with any of its members who request it, combined with the right to make the same request of any members you happen to fancy. (Some such rule was fairly common in sex cults, to keep interpersonal jealousies from becoming too much of an issue.) At the same time, there were always people whose interest in Wicca focused on the occult dimension rather than the sexual one, and that subset of the membership gradually became the majority as the late 20th century occult boom began to gather steam.
The 1970s saw the drawing together of a nexus of forces that would transform American Wicca from top to bottom. First and foremost was the ongoing implosion of Puritan sexual mores in most of America, which rendered the sexual aspect of Wicca far less of a draw than it had been in Gardner’s time. Then there was the rise and cultural impact of second wave feminism, with its radical redefinition of women’s roles and self-image, and the emergence of Goddess spirituality as a mythological and religious expression of the same broad shift. Finally there was the Pagan Way movement, which is almost forgotten these days, but played a major role in exploring the possibility of a Wicca-derived Pagan spirituality for the masses without reference to the sex-club aspect of the tradition.
Here in the US, those trends hit critical mass on a single day: October 31, 1979. That’s when Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon was published in Boston and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was published in San Francisco. Both books proclaimed a wholly reinvented Wicca, which they’d turned into a feminist, liberating, Goddess-centered mass movement—and that’s what Wicca, and the broadly Wiccacentric Neopagan movement, promptly became. It was an inspired reworking in some ways, and it certainly turned what had been a phenomenon way out on the fringes into the kind of significant cultural presence that can support publishing houses, magazines, full-time participants, and the like. On the other hand, the jarring transition from sex cult to self-empowerment circle left most of the Neopagan movement burdened with a jumble of notions about the relationship between sex and occultism that have been a source of confusion ever since.
On the one hand, a great deal of the older magical literature from which the Neopagan movement derived its newly minted ancient traditions included ideas about sex that were considerably more old-fashioned than the new movement found comfortable. Dion Fortune, whom we’ll be discussing in quite some detail in the second half of this post, is an example. She was considerably less straitlaced than Mouni Sadhu, to be sure, but her attitude toward sex was about what you’d expect from a middle-class, churchgoing Englishwoman of the 1920s who didn’t marry until middle age, all of which she was. (Mind you, she worshipped Isis and an assortment of other Pagan deities alongside Christ, but that can of worms will be opened in a different post.) On the other hand, another very large fraction of the older magical literature mined by the Neopagan movement came out of the sex cult industry in one way or another, and so did many of the basic ideas of the Wiccan traditions that formed the standard Neopagan template for a couple of decades after 1979.