A Cosmic Catechism

You might, from the title, think Gregory Reece’s 2007 book UFO Religion is a study specifically of UFO cults, and whilst it does visit them by the end, it’s a broader look at the field than that. Reece is instead giving a general overview of the major beliefs propagated within the UFO field and exploring their origins – treating the UFO scene as a sociological phenomenon, whilst not endorsing its claims himself.

Reece structures the book in a logical fashion, beginning with the parts of UFO culture which seem on the surface to have the least parallels with religious or spiritual beliefs and progressing through to end with an examination of organised religious movements with a significant UFOlogical component.

Thus, in the first section, he covers the assertions of the “nuts and bolts” side of the movement – those who maintain that it is an essentially scientific phenomenon that can be investigated in a scientific manner – progressing from this section from the least contentious and most easily-substantiated claims (“People report seeing things in the sky they could not identify”) to progressively more tenuous positions (“UFOs have crashed”, followed up with “there is a government conspiracy covering up the truth about UFOs”, followed up with “aliens are abducting people and doing experiments on them”). From abductees it’s only a little jump into the world of the contactees, and then from there to the mythologists who promote the idea of ancient aliens on the one hand and those who establish organised religions around their contactee experiences on the other.

By and large, Reece is on the money when he is discussing the various topics he hits on, and is particularly good at teasing out their origins. Some of the points he raises are extremely useful ones which are often overlooked in discussions of the subject. For instance, when it comes to the 19th Century wave of mystery airship sightings, he notes that whilst the newspaper reports of these might be taken at face value by UFOlogists, it was actually commonplace in the era for newspapers to throw in joke stories, particularly with local in-jokes that would be picked up by their contemporary readership.

Reece cites a particularly good example where an 1897 report purported to be a witness statement about a mysterious airship flown by strange beings abducting cattle – but both the author of the affidavit and those who put down their counter-signature as an endorsement of his reliability were all known to be members of a local “Liars’ Club”, a group who’d get together and tell each other tall tales for shits and giggles.

Similarly, Reece points out that the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” – the idea that UFOs are alien spacecraft – didn’t snap into place instantaneously. These days, most people on the UFO scene tend to either assume that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is correct, or espouse even stranger notions, but according to Reece this was not the case back in 1947; whilst the hypothesis did gain steam reasonably quickly, various more plausible theories (like secret aircraft testing or atmospheric phenomena) were in wide currency at the time, and the term “flying saucer” was used in a generic fashion in the media to imply something unidentified in the sky but not necessarily to imply an extraterrestrial origin. In this context, the announcement from Roswell that the Army had recovered material from a “flying saucer” means less than later researchers have tried to make of it.

As Reece unpacks the origins of the Roswell controversy and how it was largely patched together decades after the event by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, he also notes how details from Frank Scully’s claims of a UFO crash at Aztec, New Mexico were grafted on – further undermining the credibility of Roswell for (as Reece documents) Frank Scully had been taken in by con artists. Other legends like the Men In Black are put under the microscope, and by and large Reece is wise to the esoteric agendas pursued by some contactees, making sure to note how George Adamski’s alien contacts had this remarkable tendency to divulge cosmic teachings which aligned closely with the Theosophical ideas Adamski had been promoting previously. He also notes how the “ancient alien” narratives often entail a derisive attitude towards ancient cultures – especially indigenous cultures in places colonised by Europeans.

Reece doesn’t spot some angles – for instance, he glosses over Whitley Strieber‘s boosting of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s teachings, he gives David Icke an easy ride because he assumes Icke’s targeting of political elites with his reptoid claims doesn’t overlap with more generalised bigotry, and he outright fails to comment on Bill Cooper and his overlap with UFOlogy, the far-right militia movement, and Christian apocalypticism, despite going into conspiracy theories in general.

He can also tend to have a rather superficial, surface level reading of some of his subjects, and tends to regard contactees as mostly harmless and Heaven’s Gate an aberration without considering the connections between some contactees and darker political and occult outlooks. He doesn’t seem to have included Jacques Vallée’s Messengers of Deception on his reading list at all, which I feel is quite the omission, since Vallée’s book is one of the few I’m aware of to attempt a look at the social and political implications of the contactee movement other than this one.

Despite these few shortcomings, UFO Religion is a very good introduction to the field and worth a read if you want to get an immediate grasp on it. What is perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that the book was published in 2007, and now fourteen years later the field really hasn’t moved forward that much at all. Sure, there’s been new sightings, but little in the way of exciting new outlooks or movements which aren’t just rehashing the concepts in here.

Folk Horror Harvest: Hellebore On Malefice and Scarfolk’s Map

The nights are drawing in, and whilst Halloween is over it still feels a bit like folk horror season. A good time, then, to take a look at the third issue of Hellebore, the rather good folk horror magazine which I’ve previously reviewed the first and second issues of.

The issue leads off with Lucifer Over Lancashire, a consideration by Catherine Spooner of the Pendle Witches case and its cultural impact. This is a terse introduction to the subject matter which is bigger on the cultural impact aspects than the facts of the case, and plays into the editorial by editor Maria J. Pérez Cuervo about how witches and witchcraft can be icons of resistance – the idea of women with spiritual powers that can have effective, status quo-upsetting powers in everyday life, rather than their spirituality being essentially focused around deferred postmortem rewards, being subversive to the status quo even if those accused in the past were wholly innocent of the accusations against them. (Notably, the issue is dedicated to “the thousands who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed during witch-hunts”, rather than making the less supportable claim that any proportion of those people were actually witches in the sense that the authorities were accusing them of being.)

Continue reading “Folk Horror Harvest: Hellebore On Malefice and Scarfolk’s Map”

Mini-Kickstopper: Mills Takes Us On An Adventure

Shawn Mills’ The Sierra Adventure, funded through Kickstarter through a campaign too straightforward and orderly to merit a full-fat Kickstopper article, offers up a history of Sierra’s time as a game development studio, focused mostly but not exclusively on their adventure game output. I picked it up because it seemed like worthwhile fodder for my ongoing review series of Sierra’s adventure games.

In his introduction to the book, Josh Mandel talks about how just about anyone of note at Sierra has occasionally been told by fans that they should write a book about their experiences, but nobody has yet managed to. It could be that an outsider like Mills was precisely the person needed to undertake this project – with all the strong feelings, both positive and negative, that former Sierra employees have about their times there, the friendships they made, and the feuds they fought, any personal account by a Sierra person could only ever provide their own, highly subjective opinion.

In giving his own thumbs-up to the book, Ken Williams said that he wasn’t even aware of half the stuff that Mills recounts, and in one of the backer updates Mills mentioned to backers his interactions with Ken and noted that whilst Williams is planning a book on the company, it was very much intended as a memoir of his and Roberta’s personal journey rather than a history of the company as a whole. In contrast, Mills is someone who was a fan, but never an employee; the fan side of him allows him to offer a sympathetic ear to the people he interviews, whilst his distance from the company allows him a bit more neutrality than someone who was in the thick of it could ever muster.

Continue reading “Mini-Kickstopper: Mills Takes Us On An Adventure”

Erudition That’s Not Just Skin Deep

“Egypt is magic” is a cultural assumption that dates back millennia. In part, it was a narrative which the ancient Egyptians promoted about themselves; magicians were a part of their culture, and their civilisation was ancient enough that over time understanding of its earlier phases passed into legend and myth as much as official history. (More time passed between the Great Pyramid’s construction and the dawning of Christianity than have passed between now and the Crucifixion, after all.)

It was also a bit of PR which numerous other Mediterranean cultures bought into, and became a recurring assumption in European culture as a whole. The Greeks bought into it, the Romans bought into it, Jewish sources like Exodus and the Talmud bought into it, and so it’s no surprise that much of Christendom bought into it, Enlightenment-era Freemasons and other such esoteric societies bought into it – particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt rekinded a general interest in Egyptology, the Golden Dawn bought into it to the extent that most of their rituals involved extensive riffs on Egyptian myth, and Crowley bought into it so hard that his Book of the Law was steeped in Egyptian imagery and received during a honeymoon in Cairo.

Many occult practitioners like to hype up the extent to which they are participating in a tradition which winds its way back through the ages to ancient Egypt. The extent to which is the case has always been doubtful. The myth that the tarot dates back to Egyptian times seems to have little to no basis in fact, and the Golden Dawn’s rituals reflect tentative Victorian reconstructions of Egyptian religion more than they do actual practices handed down through the years by a centuries-old tradition.

However, whilst there is little evidence for a tradition passed down on an institutional or personal level – no secret society or Sith-style chain of master and apprentice winding its way back through the years to connect modern occult groups to the practitioners of ancient Egypt, there is evidence for a literary or textual tradition being passed down – concepts in Egyptian writing on the subject of magic which ended up in some fashion influencing the medieval grimoires which Renaissance and Enlightenment-era magicians would then develop in their own directions and make their own additions to.

Perhaps the most extensive collection of material we have on Egyptian magical practices are what’s known as the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of magical texts – including what seem to be the handbooks used by actual practicing magicians – that had been accumulated in private collections in the post-Napoleon burst of Egyptological research.

Continue reading “Erudition That’s Not Just Skin Deep”

Spring’s Crop of Folk Horror Thrills

I’d previously been quite impressed with issue 1 of Hellebore, an attempt to do a graphically appealing folk horror periodical in print, and I’m glad to see that it’s survived to produce a second issue, even in the midst of this strange springtime. Issue 2 is the Wild Gods issue, and as the title implies it concerns itself in various ways with the concept of deities living in or presiding over untamed nature.

Katy Soar offers an overview of the latter-day British fascination with Pan, from 18th Century libertines of the Hellfire Club ilk adopting him as a patron of hedonism to Crowley and Victor Neuburg’s occult experiments to the Findhorn collective and all sorts of other revivals besides. She seems to miss Pan’s strange, incongruous appearance in The Wind In the Willows in the chapter The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd would later take as the title of their debut album (which, due to Syd Barrett being the band’s leader at the time, is arguably the most Dionysian and Pan-aligned of their releases).

I’d also be interested in Soar’s thoughts on Pan’s emergence in Hellier as a major figure, though this goes beyond the British shores she’d initially restricted her survey to; the way the team there end up resorting to Pan worship puts me in mind of how Soar argues that, precisely because Pan was a loose, easy-going mythological figure who tended not to have much of an intricate dogma associated with him, he’s more available for revivalists to try and experiment with than deities associated with more involved and difficult forms of worship to replicate.

Similarly informative articles come from Melissa Edmundson and Anna Milon. Edmundson gives an overview of womens’ writing about Pan and Pan-like figures from the late 19th and early 20th Century, identifying as she does so a small-scale movement to recontextualise Pan away from being just some rude dude who terrorises and rapes women and into a figure who represents a more nuanced engagement with the world, nature, and sexuality. Milon provides a fascinating anecdote about how a prehistoric cave painting which may or may not have antlers – depends on the photo you’re looking at – might have influenced Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theories.

John Reppion makes two contributions. His first is an interview with Alan Moore in which Moore seems to buck against the very notion of folk horror – opining that the Wild Gods might instead walk in urban areas, because only urbanised people regard the rustic and rural as being frightening or special. It’s a fun read, but mostly for how Moore steers the conversation towards his particular areas of interest and refuses to engage with Reppion’s thoughts. Reppion has a bit more success with an article about the Wild Hunt and the history of that particular folkloric idea. Reppion’s other article is a piece on the Wild Hunt, a decent overview of the different forms this legend has taken that takes an unfortunate turn into overt neopagan proselytising which is about as gratingly unwelcome as any other form of proselytising.

Other less successful articles include Kate Laity’s musings on the fairy folk which doesn’t seem to construct much of an argument or have much of a point to it, and Ruth Heholt’s examination of Hammer’s Cornish duology, which is hamstrung by arguing that it’s one of the few zombie movies which follow the Haitian folkloric concept of the zombie being raised and directed at the will of a sorcerer rather than just getting up and chowing down on people in an uncontrolled manner.

This is either a clumsy misrepresentation of the history of the genre or exposes a gap in Heholt’s knowledge: before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the pop culture concept of the zombie was “mind-controlled undead slave directed by wizard”, and zombie movies tended to depict them as such going back at least as far as White Zombie from 1932. It might just be a misstatement on Heholt’s part, but if so it’s a pretty serious one since it puts no caveats suggesting she really means “zombie movies from 1966 onwards” or whatever. As it stands, the text of the article reads like Heholt doesn’t understand the history of the subgenre she’s talking about, which is a problem when she is making sweeping statements about where Plague of the Zombies stands in the world of zombie movies as a whole.

On the whole, this issue was thicker than issue one by about 20 pages or so, tended towards more substantive articles, and generally improved on the weak points of the previous issue and maintained its strengths. Hopefully we’ll see an issue 3 this coming autumn…

A 900 Year Old Backlash

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was the 12th Century’s big bestselling British fantasy novel, a precursor to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the 20th Century or Harry Potter for the 21st. This is evidenced not least from the sheer number of contemporary manuscripts of the book that survive to this day, which must after all be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of manuscripts actually produced. Monks and nuns laboured away in scriptoria to churn out these copies of the history, and the King Arthur legend as popularised in it immediately became one of the central subjects of the up and coming troubadour art form.

Almost as soon as it came into existence, other historians adapted its material, inserting their own opinions and spin on the subject matter – and for that matter, Geoffrey hardly seems to have had a neutral agenda itself. A particularly interesting study of this phenomenon from a feminist perspective is Fiona Tolhurst’s Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Transmission of Female Kingship.

Over the course of an exhaustive analysis of Monmouth’s magnum opus (concentrating on the non-Arthurian portions, which have been rather neglected over the years), Tolhurst produces a credible argument that Geoffrey’s history was a feminist work – not, perhaps, by the the standards of what we recognise as feminism today, but certainly by the standards of the period in which he was writing.

Continue reading “A 900 Year Old Backlash”

Occult Orders, Fraternal Fun, and Masonic Malarkey

Ritual America – or, to give the book its full title, Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence On American Society – A Visual Guide – is a big, chunky, coffee table affair. Compiled by Adam Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner, it offers exactly what the title implies: an extensive visual treasurehouse showcasing the influence of Freemasonry and various other fraternal orders (the vast majority of which are rip-offs of Freemasonry) in American society and culture.

Though the book hails from Feral House, which has published its fair share of conspiracy theory on the subject of Masonry and similar secret societies (they’re the big bads in James Shelby Downard’s Carnivals of Life and Death, for instance, and regular features of Secret and Suppressed), it isn’t the wall-to-wall orgy of conspiracy theory it might be – it discusses the occasional outbreaks of anti-Masonic sentiment and some of the major scandals like the death of William Morgan and the Leo Taxil affair, but it doesn’t wallow in conspiratorialism. Nor does it obsess on the esoteric aspects of Masonry and its more occult-themed offshoots like the OTO or the various Rosicrucian-themed spinoffs from it.

Instead, the book takes a refreshingly broad approach to the subject, appropriate to the fact that Freemasonry is an awkward broad church of an institution and always has been – ever since a bunch of esotericists, toffs, and middle class intellectuals gatecrashed and hijacked some old, near-moribund stonemason’s guilds, appropriated and/or radically reworked some of their ceremonies and procedures, and made it into this weird mashup of eating-and-feasting-club, charitable association, mutual aid society, and occult talking shop.

Continue reading “Occult Orders, Fraternal Fun, and Masonic Malarkey”

The Hotel Hoax and the Wholly Fooled

Infamously ripped off wholesale by Dan Brown for The Da Vinci CodeThe Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is a comfortingly silly work of conspiracy theory. The book has its roots in the work of actor and Doctor Who screenwriter Henry Lincoln, who on holiday in France in 1969 came across Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, a book by Gérard de Sède discussing an enigma surrounding a small town in the Languedoc region of southern France.

Fascinated, Lincoln would go on to produce three documentary films for the BBC’s Chronicle strand discussing the mystery – The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? in 1972, The Painter, the Priest and the Devil in 1974, and The Shadow of the Templars in 1979 – with these films being the first time the English-speaking world was exposed to the mystery. Each time, Lincoln would revise and deepen his proposed answer to the enigma, as he perceived yet further hidden depths to the story. Joined by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, his investigations would eventually see the release of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982.

Continue reading “The Hotel Hoax and the Wholly Fooled”

Same Title, Different Spirit

What’s in a name? Sure, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but if you called roses “roses” and called turds “roses” you’d have an enormous amount of confusion on your hands. A little while back on a folk-horror themed Facebook discussion I was in, there was a bit of confusion about the existence of two books bearing the utterly badass title of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology – one a credible academic text, one a silly coffee table book from the 1970s which I and others had fond memories of seeing in our local libraries as late as the early 1990s. As it turns out, both books have merits – one is good, one is so bad it’s good – so I thought as a public service I’d offer a bit of disambiguation here as well as reviewing them.

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (Robbins Version)

Originally published in 1959, Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology is a rigorously researched and sourced text, offering a massive resource for anyone researching the specific flavour of witchcraft under the microscope here.

See, when Robbins refers to “witchcraft” here, he’s really talking to a very specific cultural phenomenon. He doesn’t mean the practice of magic or occult arts, or the concepts in cultures beyond Europe and the European colonies in North America which could be translated as “witchcraft” if you wanted to. He refers, instead, to the very specific belief, prevalent in Europe and North America from the late 1400s to the 1700s, that there was a type of person out there called a “witch” who would make a pact with the Devil to deliberate cause hardship and misery within the community, and who, precisely because they derived their powers from a pact with the Devil, should be treated as a heretic rather than their crimes being handled by the secular courts.

Continue reading “Same Title, Different Spirit”

Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

Continue reading “Digging Up Spooky Roots”