“Deep in the earth dwelt the Gnome and Kobold; far, far from the light of day they built themselves gold and silver halls, lit up with ever-gleaming carbuncles.”
–from Meister Karl’s Sketch-Book by Charles Godfrey Leland (1855)
“Visit the interior of the Earth,” says the pseudonymous magus Basil Valentine, “and by rectifying you shall find the secret stone.” In the main this occult saying, which was later taken up by reputed adepts of the Rosicrucian brotherhood, refers to the inward marvels that could only be obtained by tunnelling through the dark penetralia of one’s psyche. To these Hermeticists, each individual human was a kind of cosmos, and enlightenment was another word for perfect self-knowledge. By contemplating the “inner world” of his own soul, the sage availed himself of a key to the legendary philosopher’s stone.
For the most part, the Rosicrucians employed parables and allegories to describe the Earth and its relationship with man. Earth, like man, was a great enigma, a miracle of miracles divided by light and shadow. Of course, in this dualistic schema the seat of darkness rested in Earth’s bowels, the subterranean realm that sustained the treasuries of nations.
Here in the Tartarus of yore, spectres of myriad forms worked in solemnity, hoarding the glittering fruits of their labour in enchanted antechambers and crevices. Perilously, miners and vulcanists carried out their hidden workings in the shallows of the deep, away from its preternatural denizens. Nevertheless, at times some chanced upon their terra incognita and crossed, as poet Madison Cawein wrote, into “the leagues no man explores”.
These wayward explorers usually had to traipse around pitch-black lakes, gaping caverns, and dripping stalactites before meeting the “terrine spirits”. When the time was right, all goblindom would appear in a flash, striking terror into the anxious adventurer. These impish multitudes took their cue from a phantom emperor named Pluto, a deity who—in Elizabethan times—was occasionally described as the king of Faerie. His abyssal kingdom became the new home of the human stranger, who was doomed to follow its distorted customs or risk annihilation.
Thus, to a great degree, magic and wonder were the lingua franca of the underworld. In its vast chasms, treasures were found and lost, cloven-footed beings were encountered and offended, and mortal trespassers were beguiled and hunted. The overarching element of the underground however, was transformation. Folk wisdom held that it was a living laboratory of terrestrial forces which not only shaped crystals and precious metals but also human souls.
This issue is an exercise in earth-working and unpacking, a delving into the arcana buried in the chthonic halls of myth and reality.
In his book Underground Life: Or, Mines and Miners (1869), mining engineer Louis Simonin describes miners as “combatants of the abyss” and “pioneers of the subterranean world”. Soldier-like and fully of energy, they regularly strive against the “fatality of the elements”. Similarly, in his novel Heinrich von Osterdingen (1802), German poet Novalis depicts miners as “noble”, diligent, and “godlike”. These are obviously romanticised depictions; nonetheless, it’s true that miners of the past worked in extreme conditions and laboured with a near superhuman level of stamina.
One element of their fortitude can probably be attributed to eating habits. For example, in the 1800s, Belgian miners were said to follow a simple regimen of vegetables, bread, and coffee. At the time, a French agriculturist named Adrien de Gasparin chalked up their endurance to chicory-infused coffee:
“…the miners of Charleroi, on the Belgian frontier, have discovered the secret of supporting themselves in full health and robust strength, upon a far less proportion of azotised material than is deemed requisite in the rest of Europe—the addition of a considerable quantity of coffee to each meal being the means by which this is effected. It seems the diet is as follows :— Infusion of coffee and chicory (30 grammes of each), 2 litres; milk, 2-10ths of a litre; bread, a kilogramme; butter in variable quantity; green vegetables, 750 grammes; meat, 73 grammes; and beer, 286 grammes; all these united furnish a little less than 15 grammes of nitrogen…Belgian miners are men of robust power; and when the French miners, whose diet is so much superior, come to Charleroi, they are unable to compete with them.”
Lienimannus of Basel and the Serpent Queen
- This curious tale from the seventeenth century relates the story of a bumbling Swiss tailor who stumbles into the underground vault of an otherworldly queen. The tailor Lienimannus takes a “consecrated candle” (cereo consecrato) and descends into a cave near Augusta Raurica (the site of a former Roman colony) where he encounters a “virgin” crowned with a golden diadem. Like the legendary Athenian king Cecrops, the maiden has reptilian, or serpentine features. Despite this shock, and the fact that she is flanked by two threatening black mastiffs, the woman is exceptionally beautiful and charming. She offers Lienimannus a hoard of treasure if he can kiss her three times, but the poor man barely makes it past the second kiss before fleeing the enchantress’s sanctum.
- Later on, future explorers fail to find the serpent-queen’s secret passage and only discover bones. Given the provenance of the story and its similarity to early modern tales about treasure-hunting escapades, it would be fair to consider the Lienimannus narrative as a variant of the Venusberg myth.
The Cave of Hercules
- Arguably the earliest international magical school of note was said to be located in a palatial cavern near Toledo or Salamanca. Its wondrous headmaster was none other than Hercules, the semi-divine scion of Jupiter. This euhemeristic Hercules (first elaborated by medieval and Renaissance scholars) was, more or less, the ideal natural magician, a hero who dominated the elements with his supreme knowledge of the occult sciences. His academy—the alumni of which supposedly included Michael Scot, Virgil, and Pope Sylvester II— appeared in European literature for centuries, and forged Spain’s reputation as a land of sorcery.
The Fire-Wizard of Liege
- Superstitious mining rituals are generally a thing of the past. In previous years, when sooty kobolds still appeared in open view, and monsters like the Annaberg fire-daemon of Saxony were massacring humans, miners had to be prepared to defend themselves. Some took preemptive measures and recited prayers to Saint Barbara, but others—according to Louis Simonin—actually aimed to “propitiate” the spirits themselves. In Underground Life, Simonin records the following orison:
“Saints Nickel and Kobold, preserve us from explosions, falls, inundations, and from falling away in the shaft. Be propitious to us. Enable us to recover the vein when we have lost it, and above all lead us towards the rich parts of the lode. Finally, intercede with God or Beelzebub for us: Sancti Nickel et Kobolt, orate pro nobis!”
- In the coal-mining town of Liege in Belgium these rituals took a more elaborate turn. One sixteenth-century eyewitness, a Greek explorer named Andronikos Noukios (also known as Nicander Nucius) described a ceremony in which a designated miner donned a linen cloak and exorcised fire with a staff.
- The rite was apparently supposed to keep dangerous fumes at bay so that the miners could safely extract coal. “No one”, writes Noukios, “would venture to enter without the above-mentioned garment and staff, for he would inevitably be consumed.” Since Georgius Agricola (referencing the philosopher Pliny the Elder) speaks of the ventilating powers of linen cloth in his sixteenth-century work on mining, De Re Metallica, it’s possible that the Belgian ritual represented a dramatised “health and safety” procedure.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing this summer!
- UK: Call for photograph submissions of magical altars. Where: darraghmasonfield.com When: Ongoing. Who: Darragh Mason Field.
- LONDON, UK: Discussion on the life of collector Edward Lovett. Where: The Clink Museum. When: 19 May. Who: George Hoyle.
- ETON, UK: Lecture on Queen Victoria and the Last Maharajah of Lahore. Where: Hop House, The George Inn When: 22 May. Who: Talk by Essie Fox.
- LONDON, UK: Haunted Deptford Walk. Where: Secret Location in Old Deptford. When: 28 May. Who: London Dreamtime.
- LEOMINSTER, UK: Lecture on the inspiration of Herefordshire. Where: Leominster Library When: 1 June. Who: Talk by Essie Fox.
- LONDON, UK: Lecture on Charles Godfrey Leland. Where: Treadwell’s Bookshop. When: 1 June. Who: Talk by Jonah Locksley.
- LONDON, UK: The Secret Journey of John Dee Performance. Where: TBA. When: 25 June. Who: London Dreamtime.
- WINCHESTER, UK: Lecture on the dissection and seduction of the female body. Where: West Downs Campus, University of Winchester. When: Late July, TBA. Who: Talk by Ivan Cenzi.
1. Agricola, Georgius. De Re Metallica. Ed. and trans. Herbert Clark Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover. London: 1912.
2. Cawein, Madison. Kentucky Poems. New York: 1903.
3. Eliade, Mircea. The Forge and Crucible. Chicago: 1978.
4. Grasser, Jacob. Itinerarium historico-politicum, quod ex inclyta ad Moen. Francofordia per celebriores Helvetiae et regni Arelatensis urbes in uniuersam extenditur Italiam. Basel: 1624.
5. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. Vol. 3. London: 1883.
6. Hartwig, George. The Subterranean World. New York: 1871.
7. Jones, William. The Treasures of the Earth; or, Mines, minerals, and metals. London: 1868.
8. Knox, Thomas. Underground, or Life Below the Surface. Hartford: 1874.
9. Leland, Charles Godfrey. Meister Karl’s Sketch-book. Philadelphia: 1855.
10. Novalis. ‘Heinrich von Osterdingen’, in Novalis: His life, thoughts, and work. Ed. and trans. M.J. Hope. Chicago: 1891.
11. Nucius, Nicander. The Second Book of Travels. Ed. and trans. by J. A. Cramer. London: 1841.
12. ‘On the Coffee Diet of the Belgian Miners’, in British and Foreign Medico-chirurgical Review. Vol. 6. London: 1850.
13. Pepper, John Henry. The playbook of metals; including personal narratives of visits to coal, lead, copper, and tin mines. London: 1861.
14. Simonin, Louis. Underground Life: Or, Mines and Miners. Trans. H.W. Bristow. London: 1869.