“My friends, are ye tired of earth ? Then let me lead you away among the dim shapes and silent mysteries of Wonder-Land.”
–from Meister Karl’s Sketch-Book, by Charles Godfrey Leland (1872)
The world of spirits, it seems, has ever been on the mind of man. Every age—from the time of the vatic poets who rhapsodised about the origins of the cosmos, to the days of the star-read hierophants who subtly shaped the wills of monarchs—has swarmed with phantoms.
These pantomorphic haunters, ubiquitous and yet so mysterious—like dreams—have cameoed and starred in many a traveller’s tale. There is no place they have not been; traces of their hoofprints and fairy-dust are visible on each and every moorland and wildwood of the human imagination.
Yet these invisible hosts who—the ancients would say—march to and from all four corners of the world, have rarely been seen in the mammonish stampedes of the working-day-world. Inevitably, and due in part to the pontifications of monkish dryasdusts and periwigged demonographers, they became the preternatural inhabitants of a dimension wholly unlike our own.
In his writings, the Victorian statesman-cum-psychical researcher Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton seems to come to another conclusion. To Bulwer-Lytton, whose literary distillations of esoteric theory inspired the great revivalists of occultism, such as Helena Blavatsky, Charles Godfrey Leland, and Aleister Crowley, the spirits are not superlunary powers. Rather, they are corporeal denizens of a rarefied plane of existence.
This plane, Bulwer-Lytton surmises, is coterminous with the Earth and its material laws but obscured from the ordinary perception of those who have not been sufficiently prepared. “There may be forms of matter as invisible and impalpable to us as the animalculae,” he writes in his metaphysical novel, Zanoni (1842). “Such beings,” he continues, “may have passions and powers like our own.”
As Bulwer-Lytton sees it, engaging with these apparitions is akin to communicating with unknown, potentially hostile tribes. “He who would establish intercourse with these varying beings,” he maintains, “resembles the traveller who would penetrate into unknown lands.”
To see this spectral country, seekers first had to awaken in themselves and fine-tune what Lytton calls the “spirit in the flesh”: the imagination.
From the above and other evidences gleaned from the baron’s epistolary materials, we can say that he, like countless others, believed in the existence of individuals of daring constitutions who could achieve a preconception-shattering state of reverie by ingesting various compounds and participating in dissociative rituals.
The gist of the idea is this: transgressive activities, when pursued in earnest, can relax one’s mental protocols and raise, as it were, the mind’s inborn portcullis gate.
To a certain extent, in the days of feudalism, one could bring unwanted persons into a citadel only by appeasing, overpowering, or outbrazening the liege lord. The same may go for the night-side world of occultism. Perhaps it is that the mind has a psychic governor, a risk-averse kinglet of base tastes and suppressive tendencies. Neutralising such a figure could result in the castle’s destruction, but it could also positively affect the destinies of those cloistered within the walls.
This Almanack examines that phantasmic ghost-land beyond the brain’s portcullis gate. It recounts the harrowing encounters of those who rebelled against their inner suzerains and received, as Bulwer-Lytton in his private correspondence writes, “fragmentary and dreamlike communications from agencies distinct from humanity.”
Recipes for Ghost-Seers
In Bulwer-Lytton’s Strange Story (1845), the sorcerer Sir Philip Derval conducts what he describes as an “experiment” in trance for an acquaintance of his, the disbelieving Dr Allen Fenwick. After he casts a white, diamond-like powder into a lamp, a pungent vapour with the appearance of a snow-cloud fills the room. This gaseous substance immediately puts Fenwick into what seems to be a psychedelic trance. The room swims before him, his nerves swell spasmodically, and his body wrenches in agony. This is quickly followed by a sudden bliss:
“I felt as if a something undefinable by any name had rushed from me, and in that rush that a struggle was over. I was sensible of the passive bliss which attends the release from torture, and then there grew on me a wonderful calm, and, in that calm, a consciousness of some lofty intelligence immeasurably beyond that which human memory gathers from earthly knowledge.”
Soon after this rending of the veil, Fenwick collapses “insensible”. On waking, he interrogates Derval about the contents of the mysterious powder but the wizard refuses to come clean, assuring the doctor that he will take the secrets with him to the grave. “They are,” he explains, enigmatically, “the keys to the masked doors in the ramparts of nature.”
A similar mind-altering mix also appears in Zanoni as an initiatory tool of the grave, apparently immortal, magician, Mejnour. Mejnour uses the substance to introduce his pupil, the ill-starred Englishman Clarence Glyndon to “trance”, which he calls “man’s first initiation”.
Like Derval’s mixture, Mejnour’s suffumigation initially puts Glyndon into a convulsive langour, after which something bursts “within his brain” and he experiences ecstatic euphoria:
“…at that moment a sense of heavenly liberty, of unutterable delight, of freedom from the body, of birdlike lightness seemed to float him into the space itself.”
Later in the tale, when Glyndon abuses the drug during Mejnour’s absence—Bulwer-Lytton’s allusion to Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s fable, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—Glyndon unleashes the Dweller on the Threshold, a tormenting spectre that proceeds to take his psyche hostage and linger in his inmost thoughts long after the botched evocation.
Both of these illustrations have a striking similarity to the real-life summoning reportedly conducted by the French occultist Eliphas Lévi in London on one, to use Bulwer-Lytton’s much-ridiculed phrase, “dark and stormy night.”
In his Transcendental Magic (1896), Lévi—who was, at the very least, acquainted with Bulwer-Lytton—tells us how he succeeded in conjuring up an apparition of the legendary wonderworker Apollonius of Tyana. To do so, he and his accomplice work themselves into a “drunkenness of the imagination” with a thoroughly hair-raising ritual.
After Lévi tosses various “prepared substances” of “twigs and perfume” onto a heated chafing dish, a ghostly figure emerges from the billowing smoke and spares a few telepathic words. Lévi handles the intercourse only for a few moments before falling into a swoon:
“I experienced such an intense weakness in all my limbs, and a swooning sensation came so quickly over me, that I made two steps to sit down, whereupon I fell into a profound lethargy, accompanied by dreams, of which I had only a confused recollection when I came again to myself.”
In his anecdote, Lévi, like the tight-lipped Derval, refrains from giving the exact ingredients for his ghoulish concoction. Elsewhere in the text, however, he does mention the exalting power of other intoxicants (“aconite, belladonna, and poisonous fungi”), substances which he dismisses as only being fit for the practice of necromancy.
From their writings, we can aver that Bulwer-Lytton and Lévi were clearly of the opinion that certain narcotics and psychotropics—if used carefully—could help one to at least see the spirit world. Both were more than acquainted with occult: the former was no stranger to opiates and participated in a number of seances, and the latter was well-steeped and trained in goetic literature.
Neither, however, was overkeen about elucidating the components of the mysterious seeing powder. Fortunately, there was one who did not keep the sacred formulae under lock and key: Karl von Eckartshausen.
Born in the German states half a century before Lévi and Bulwer-Lytton, Eckartshausen was a judicial functionary and court archivist who had a Paracelsian penchant for the weird and unseemly. For a time, he was also a frater in Adam Weishaupt’s short-lived Illuminati brotherhood.
In his now infamous multi-volume treatise Information on Magic (1791), Eckartshausen recounts how a Scottish magus with Eastern wisdom once instructed him in the art of conjuring. Like Bulwer-Lytton’s characters Mejnour and Derval, the Scotsman conducts an experiment by burning a mysterious white substance in Eckartshausen’s presence. Eckartshausen inhales the vapour, then watches in amazement as a gloomy spectre materialises before him.
Later, Eckartshausen performs a more bare-bones, straight-to-the-point evocation (i.e. skipping the fasting and meditation bits) for a friend and apparently overdoses on the fumes. Like Glyndon and Lévi, Eckartshausen sees a wispy, grim-faced humanoid and drops into a stupor. After he awakens, he comes to a frightening realisation: he is unable to erase the spuk from his memory. Like the terrifying Dweller on the Threshold, Eckartshausen’s evoked shade forever remains stamped onto his memory and appears to him whenever he stares into the dark.
What then, ultimately, was the secret of Eckartshausen’s trance state? A very potent, mix of “don’t try this at home”, including henbane, opium, belladonna, hemlock, and mandragora:
This recipe lends credence to the hypothesis that Eckartshausen’s Scottish friend—who affected the airs of a Kabbalist—had scooped up his ingredients from the infamous Renaissance occultist, Heinrich Agrippa. In Agrippa’s Three Books on Occult Philosophy (1651) he states:
“They say, that if coriander, smallage, henbane, and hemlock, be made a fume, that spirits will presently come together; hence they are called spirit’s herbs.”
This noxious cocktail, which is—more likely than not—a trade secret originating from a shamanic epoch far antecedent to Agrippa’s time, might be one of the oldest methods of inducing exactly the kind of elevated cerebration that could oust the lord of the castle.
Bulwer-Lytton, Lévi, and Eckharthausen, like many before them, clearly understood that strange phenomena could be witnessed while under the influence of certain stimulating and somniferous essences. Yet, to our knowledge, they had no experience with an alternate, more racy way of gaining spiritual insights. I speak of what the tonsured ones used to call congressus cum daemone.
Historically, such intercourse has been deemed both the most dangerous and the most direct way of striking through reality and gaining supranormal intelligence. The Tantric mages of India and Tibet, for example, garnered their larger-than-life reputations not just for exhibiting tricksy behaviour and freakish hardiness, but for their mind-exalting trysts with fairy-like entities.
For example, in Heavenly Bridegrooms (1918), early feminist, sex educator, and mystic Ida Craddock mentions how “formal rites are specified in the Hindu Tantra which enable a man to obtain a companion nymph by worshipping her and repeating her name by night in a cemetery”. Who are these “nymphs”?
More likely than not, Craddock here is referring to what some have called the “sky-traversing ones”: Dakinis.
According to explorer Alexandra David-Néel, who gained fame for her dauntless and record-breaking expeditions in the Himalayas, they are “kinds of fairies” and “teachers of secret doctrines”.
Generally, the tradition goes that an aspirant who desired siddhic knowledge and abilities would have to journey to charnel grounds, graveyards, and haunted forests. Here, while sitting on top of a fresh corpse and chugging a flask or two of alcohol, he would recite a number of mantras, hundreds, even thousands of times. His prayers, display of courage, and offering of gold coins would then attract the attention of a nearby Dakini who—as a devourer of human flesh—was often congregating with her fellow sorors in the air above cemeteries.
This sylph, seemingly witch, mystagogue, and goddess all wrapped into one, would then descend in her demonic splendour while threateningly baring her blood-stained fangs.
At this point, the Dakini would proceed to test the adept-hopeful with terrifying visions. If his soul withstood her soul-penetrating exam, the candidate was deemed worthy of initiation. This initiation sometimes involved extreme sexual acts that were meant to swiftly accelerate the participant’s detachment from material fixations, facilitating his rise to godhood.
Yet, according to legend, the Dakinis and similar beings could also be persuaded to help necromancers commit heinous acts, such as murder. For instance, the following excerpt, taken from the letters of colonial scholar and naturalist Sir Walter Elliot, is an illustration of how such things could be done. The grisly rite likely would have been well beyond the capability of our three lettered experimentalists, who—while given to eccentricity—were inescapably genteel:
“Now I will explain the Karnatáca spell invented by ’Adi-Nátha. This spell, O goddess, shall obtain all we desire if we recite it in a cemetery with the following words:
“‘Om ! hum! glaum! Dhakini! who delightest in human blood and flesh, who eatest the wine–cake; thou who destroyest men without number, who devourest living creatures, O devour him ! devour him ! Drink, drink [his] blood! eat, eat [his] flesh. He! he! He! Hum ! phat!’
“Let this spell be performed in a haunted grove. The magician is to stand naked, facing the south. Let him begin at the wane of the moon, and continue the rite through that fortnight. Recite the spell 10,000 times in the Kali-durga mode.
“This Dakini shall come to thee, attended by a host of sprites, and will say, What desirest thou ?’ Reply, ‘The death of a foe.’ She will answer, ‘I will willingly do it at once, with immediate destruction.’ Let the sorcerer then recite the syllables of his foe’s name, mingled with the spell…This process will, without a doubt, lead to his death.”
- LONDON, UK: Line of Beauty exhibition. Where: John Martin Gallery. When: 2-24 November. Who: Featuring Barry McGlashan.
- PESCARA, ITALY: Lecture entitled: “A Terrible Enchantment: The Macabre and the Wonderful between Art, Science and the Sacred.” Where: Bizarre Club. When: 11 November. Who: Lecture by Ivan Cenzi.
- LONDON, UK: Dark River Ghosts of the Thames storytelling aboard the Cutty Sark. Where: Meet at Cutty Sark King William Walk in Greenwich. When: 18 November. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- BUCHAREST, ROMANIA: Romania Architektour. Where: Seven-day trip starts at TBA location in Bucharest. When: 2-8 December. Who: Tour by Darmon Richter.
- WORLDWIDE: Book release of Black Gods’s Drums. Where: Amazon. When: NOW. Who: Featuring P. Djèlí Clark.
1. Agrippa, Heinrich. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Trans. James Freake. London: 1651.
2. Craddock, Ida. Heavenly Bridegrooms. New York: 1918.
3. Eckartshausen, Karl. Aufschlüsse zur Magie.
4. Flower, Michael. The Seer in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: 2008.
5. Leland, Charles Godfrey. Meister Karl’s Sketch-book. London: 1872.
6. Lévi, Eliphas. Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual. Trans. Arthur Edward Waite. London: 1896.
7. Lytton, Bulwer Edward. Godolphin, Or, the Oath. London: 1833.
—Zanoni. London: 1842.
—A Strange Story. London: 1862
8. Lytton, Bulwer Robert. The life of Edward Bulwer, first Lord Lytton. Vol. 2. London: 1913.
9. Néel, Alexandre-David. With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. London: 1936.
10. Sewell, Robert. Sir Walter Elliot of Wolfelee: A Sketch of His Life, and a Few Extracts from His Note Books. Edinburgh: 1896.
11. Tuttle, Gray, Schaeffer, Kurtis, and Kaptsein, Matthew. Sources of Tibetan Tradition. New York: 2013.
12. Ustinova, Yulia. Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece. Abingdon: 2018.