Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

A preternatural Pied Piper turns people into creepy crawlies with his maleficent merchandise, his android assassins, and his Stonehenge supercomputers.

 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is my second-favorite movie of all time, right after the original Halloween from 1978. Though it is marketed as a “sequel” to the latter film, it is really something completely different. It has nothing to do with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis, or the town of Haddonfield, Illinois at all. By gods, it isn’t even a “slasher movie,” but something more like a British sci-fi/folk horror hybrid!

Season of the Witch is the story of Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), who decide to investigate a brutal murder their local police have chosen to ignore. In doing so, Dan and Ellie stumble upon a ghoulish plot masterminded by the one and only Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), founder and CEO of a major toy-manufacturing company called Silver Shamrock Novelties.

It turns out that Silver Shamrock, Inc. has stolen one of those monolithic rocks from Stonehenge and broken it down into countless microscopic pieces. They have inserted this debris into their world-famous Halloween masks, which children across the nation are buying in droves. They’ve also developed a TV commercial with a flashing “magic pumpkin” that activates the pieces of Stonehenge within the masks. This converts the masks into deadly cursed talismans, which transform their wearers into snakes and bugs (from the inside out!). Even crazier, most of Silver Shamrock’s employees appear to be killer androids with superhuman strength, and Cochran’s entire conspiracy is somehow tied to the fact that the planets of our solar system are currently in alignment.

You’re probably wondering why Halloween III has nothing to do with any of the other Halloween films. When John Carpenter and Debra Hill were approached for another sequel following the box office success of Halloween II (1981), they took the opportunity to conduct a most fascinating cinematic experiment. Starting with Halloween III, the series would now be an anthology like The Twilight Zone, featuring a different Samhain-themed story with each new installment. There are so many different things that we associate with October 31, including ghosts, witches, fairies, and druids; why then should a franchise called Halloween be limited to just an escaped mental patient?

Tom Atkins, who plays Dr. Challis, is what they call a “character actor.” This means he usually plays supportive roles and is more or less the exact same character in each one. To this day, Season of the Witch is still the only film in which he ever got to be the leading man.

We usually expect our male sci-fi/horror protagonists to be young, dashing, and athletic; but Dr. Challis is middle-aged, visibly tired, and very much out of shape. He apparently lives and sleeps at the hospital where he works, and he is a divorced alcoholic who can’t stand his ex-wife or his kids (and who seems to have a history of avoiding them whenever possible). Given a choice between (1) spending time with his estranged children or (2) investigating a murder mystery with some hot young lady he barely knows, he doesn’t even stop to think about it; he chooses the second option immediately. But despite all his faults, Challis is anything but reprehensible. Whatever else he might be, he is a doctor from first to last, and he takes this role very seriously. He is all about making people better, and when the chips are down, he does everything he can to save the world (including his family).

Tom Atkins might not be a Christopher Lee or a Peter Cushing, but he really shines in this role. If you enjoy his performance here as much as I do, check out Night of the Creeps (1986). He plays Detective Cameron, an alcoholic cop whose girlfriend was butchered by a serial killer back in the 1950s. When Creeps begins, Cameron is on the verge of killing himself; but when he learns his town is being invaded by brain-eating slugs from outer space, he grabs a shotgun and starts blowing holes in everybody else instead!

Tom Atkins as “Detective Cameron” in Night of the Creeps (1986).

Ellie Grimbridge, played by Stacey Nelkin, seems to prefer older men; she takes a liking to Dr. Challis almost immediately, and as soon as they reach that motel in the mysterious little town of Santa Mira (where Silver Shamrock’s headquarters is located), she is all over him. Later, Ellie is kidnapped by Conal Cochran’s robot goons, and she is imprisoned somewhere in the Silver Shamrock factory. Challis busts in to rescue her, getting himself captured in the process. Then he learns the truth about Cochran’s dastardly scheme, escapes and finds Ellie, and torches the factory. Challis and Ellie drive off into the night, trying to plan how they can stop that crazy Silver Shamrock commercial from playing on TV and causing the apocalypse—

—and that’s when Ellie suddenly tries to kill Challis, revealing herself to be a goddamn robot!

Fans are divided as to whether Ellie is (1) human for most of the film (and replaced with a robot duplicate by Cochran during the final act), or (2) a robot the entire time. It makes no sense to me why Cochran would send a robot to seduce Challis into investigating his own damn conspiracy; but the idea of not knowing you’re sleeping with a killer robot is pretty disturbing. All I know for sure is, this sequence scared me really badly when I first saw it as a kid. To think you’ve just rescued someone you love, only to learn they’ve been replaced with a soulless imitation that wants to destroy you? That’s Grade-A nightmare fuel for me, right there!

Stacey Nelkin as “Ellie Grimbridge.”

Stacey Nelkin was also cast to play the sixth Nexus-6 replicant in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was released the same year. Her part was cut from that film during principal photography due to budget cuts. (Blade Runner fans will recall that in at least one version of the film, Captain Bryant recruits Deckard to track down six fugitive replicants; yet there are only five that are accounted for in the entire film, and this is why.) It’s eerie to think that Nelkin was cast to play two murderous androids in two different films during the same year, huh?

Conal Cochran, Halloween III‘s antagonist, is played by Dan O’Herlihy, an Irish actor of such stature that one wonders just how the hell anyone convinced him to do this movie. Unlike Tom Atkins, O’Herlihy was used to acting in things like Orson Welles’ version of Macbeth (1948), Luis Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954), and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). He even went toe-to-toe against Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards once. (Brando won, but O’Herlihy gave him a run for his money!) Considering Halloween III’s budget, I highly doubt O’Herlihy was paid very much for his work. So what the hell was it about Season of the Witch that made this legendary thespian say, “All right, I’ll do it”?

Dan O’Herlihy as “Conal Cochran.”

Debra Hill once recounted that Dan O’Herlihy knew an awful lot about the true origins of Halloween . He told all kinds of folk stories about Samhain to the rest of the film’s cast and crew. These stories were apparently so enthralling that everyone took to calling O’Herlihy “Mister Halloween.” It’s unfortunate that Hill couldn’t recall any specifics from these conversations, but I can certainly imagine what they must have been like. After all, Halloween III is one of very few flicks ever made in which the word Samhain is pronounced correctly, and it is O’Herlihy himself who pronounces it in his native Gaelic tongue.

I have a hunch that Dan O’Herlihy was primarily interested in Halloween III for its references to Irish culture. Considering the long list of films in which he has appeared, it’s interesting to note that almost none of them have anything to do with Ireland (either culturally, historically, mythically, etc.). I sense this man was really proud of his heritage, and that when his agent handed him the script to Halloween III, he recognized the project as an opportunity to finally represent that heritage onscreen somehow.

The original screenplay for Halloween III was written by Nigel Kneale, creator of the British Quatermass films and TV serials. The first draft included a great deal more science fiction than the finished film does. Conal Cochran turns out to be some kind of daemon or alien; he simply impersonates a human being with his mask-manufacturing know-how. He also transports the monolith from Stonehenge to America by interdimensional means, and there is plenty more speculation as to what Stonehenge is actually made of (and why it becomes so volatile whenever the planets are aligned). More of Cochran’s genocidal plan is explained, as well. John Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace both felt that some of this material wouldn’t translate very well for American audiences, so they took turns re-writing the script to “Americanize” it a little. This led Nigel Kneale to demand that his name be removed from the credits; but it seems to me that his original ideas are still present (and mostly intact) in the film.

In 1979’s The Quatermass Conclusion, Stonehenge and other prehistoric places are revealed to be “landing sites” for a hostile alien force. It is difficult to be certain without reading Kneale’s original script, but it seems plausible to me that Season of the Witch and The Quatermass Conclusion were meant to be thematically linked in some way. The Quatermass serials also had a direct influence on Doctor Who, which explores many similar ideas and themes. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that Conal Cochran resembles a classic Doctor Who villain like Davros, the Master, or even the Black Guardian. I can totally see him as an evil renegade Time Lord, disguised as an Irishman.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the scene when Cochran explains his plot to Dr. Challis is a great example. “Advanced…” he says, pointing to a room full of computers, “…and ancient technology,” he finishes, pointing to the monolith he has stolen from Stonehenge. His machines are all arranged in a large circle formation that’s clearly modeled on Stonehenge; a visual hint that the original monument might be some kind of ancient “supercomputer” itself. The implications of this are staggering; who or what built this prehistoric machine, and for what purpose? Halloween III never answers these questions, but I suspect Cochran knows. And if just one piece of this “supercomputer” is sufficient to devastate the entire North American continent in one fell swoop, what the hell would happen if all of Stonehenge were suddenly “switched on?”

At the end of the film, Conal Cochran is zapped by a big blue laser that shoots out from the stolen (and newly re-activated) Stonehenge monolith. When this happens, Cochran’s features are momentarily distorted, as if his face were really just a mask. Then he vanishes into thin air, never to be seen again. Many viewers assume this to be Cochran’s “death scene,” but I beg to differ. The Halloween III novelization by Dennis Etchinson (writing as “Jack Martin”) makes it clear that this moment in the story is really just the beginning of Cochran’s evil. It also goes into detail on how Cochran isn’t just a crazy toymaker, but something that transcends time and space as we tend to understand such things.

Here’s a snippet from the novel, in which Dr. Challis considers Cochran’s true cosmic nature:

Cochran was nothing new, whatever his latest disguise. He and the dark forces he represented had been around in one form or another since the beginning of time; there was no good reason to believe something so ancient had really been destroyed in a blaze of fireworks in a small town on a cold autumn night. This year’s dark venture was like a rerun on the Late, Late, Very Late Show, an endless loop re-enacting the last reels of the same relentless stalking of the heart of the American dream. It had always been so…He would come to movie theaters and TV screens over and over in untiring replays for as long as people turned away and pretended he was not really there; for that very refusal gave him unopposed entrance to their innermost lives. Nothing ever stopped his coming and nothing ever would stop it, not for as long as people deferred the issue of his existence to the realm of fantasy fiction, that elaborate system of popular mythology which provided the essence of his access…For now, he was still advancing, merely shifting from one field of view to another, larger one, from a single television screen to the televised psyches of a nation. Challis shuddered.

Before he pulls his disappearing trick, Cochran says “we” a lot. This suggests that he actually has peers; yet no one who works for him at Silver Shamrock seems to really qualify as such (especially since most or all of his employees are robots, anyway). Cochran’s “we” must therefore be referring to some other group of peers whom we never get to see. He also mentions “those who came before” him, and he speaks of human beings as if he thinks we’re all insects. It seems clear to me, at any rate, that Conal Cochran is not a “human being” at all, but some preternatural creature that has been visiting our world since ancient times. This is sustained not only by the novelization, but by what is known about the Nigel Kneale script as well. In fact, I suspect Conal Cochran is actually what Celtic folklore calls a “Fae of the Unseelie Court.”

The popular image of fairies as “cute little Tinkerbells” is utter horseshit. The oldest stories depict these creatures as being much darker and more sinister than any Disney movie would have us believe. Celtic folklore is full of benign fae who are willing to live in balance with their human friends and neighbors; but it’s also full of malevolent fae (the “Unseelie Court”) who just want to commit horrific atrocities, like kidnapping babies or tricking people into cannibalizing each other. These entities can make themselves look like anything as well, including animals, trees, furniture…or even Dan O’Herlihy!

The Bunworth Banshee, from Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825).

Wearing masks for Halloween started as an apotropaic ritual for keeping the unseelie fae away. But as Cochran notes in Season of the Witch, people today think “no further than the strange custom of having [our] children wear masks and go begging for candy.” He says “the last great” Samhain was over 2,000 years ago, “when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” This is curious, given that Irish people have been observing Samhain each year right into modern times. There is also a historical discrepancy in Cochran’s claim, since the first recorded literary references to Samhain date back to the 10th century CE (which was only 1,000 years ago). We know the Celts did not sacrifice children or animals like that, either; so what is Cochran really talking about here?

If you ask me, Conal Cochran was actually there in Ireland 2,000 years ago; he and his fellow unseelies roamed the land, murdering children; and he was probably what motivated the druids to develop their Samhain traditions in the first place. This would explain why there hasn’t been an October 31 to Cochran’s liking for 2,000 years; all that quality Halloween magic was just too strong for evil creatures like him to stomach. But now that it’s 1982 and Halloween has been completely trivialized, the magic is no longer effective. Now unseelie fae like Cochran can intrude upon the mortal realm as much as they please, and they can even weaponize the things that once kept us safe, as Cochran does with his deadly Silver Shamrock masks.

While John Carpenter neither wrote nor directed Halloween III himself, he did score the music. His partner in crime on this task was Alan Howarth, a Hollywood sound designer who co-wrote most of Carpenter’s 1980s film scores, including: Escape From New York (1981), Halloween II (1981), Christine (1983), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1982), and the incidental music for The Thing (1982). Howarth also scored Halloween 4 (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), and Halloween 6 (1995) by himself, weaving Carpenter’s familiar 5/4-time piano melody into some truly impressive soundscapes of his own.

John Carpenter and Alan Howarth in 1982.

Carpenter and Howarth were an excellent team; I enjoy listening to their music by itself as much I enjoy watching the films for which it was all composed, and Season of the Witch boasts some of their very best work together. Since the entire point was to break away from the first two movies, the aforementioned 5/4 piano theme is nowhere to be heard (except whenever Halloween III’s characters happen to catch a glimpse of the first Halloween on TV!). We are instead given a host of new original tunes, all performed on classic Moog synthesizers and sequencers. “Chariots of Pumpkins” might well be considered the main Halloween III theme, and it is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written.

So given its fascinating plot, terrific performances, and outstanding musical score, why on earth did Halloween III: Season of the Witch tank in theaters?

Well, it’s all about marketing. Though John Carpenter and Debra Hill tried to make their creative intentions very clear, this information was only relayed to the general public by publications like Fangoria magazine. Considering that Fangoria didn’t have half the fanbase in 1982 that it has today, this meant that Carpenter and Hill’s plan went completely unnoticed by most audiences. At the same time, Universal Pictures found the notion of a “Shape-less” Halloween unsettling, and their advertising department actually tried to hide the fact that Halloween III would be different. Nothing about the new artistic direction was mentioned in any trailers or TV commercials for the film. As a result, most audiences in October 1982 were basically walking into the movie blind.

Note that Jamie Lee Curtis is incorrectly billed as the star in this newspaper ad for Halloween III.

In my experience at least, people who prefer slasher movies usually don’t “get” other kinds of horror, and viewers who prefer other subgenres tend to find slashers distasteful. So on the one hand, every slasher fan in the world went to see Halloween III and was greatly disappointed; on the other, fans of other subgenres avoided the film precisely because they thought it would be a slasher. An entire decade would pass before Season of the Witch finally started finding its audience on VHS and during late night monster movie marathons.

Halloween III makes a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984).

I first saw Season of the Witch in 1995. I understood it would not be a slasher film going in, but I think I was probably expecting something more like Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead (1988), with old crones conjuring medieval hellbeasts out in the woods. I sure as fuck wasn’t expecting to see some alien Pied Piper, turning children into creepy crawlies with his maleficent merchandise, his android assassins, and his Stonehenge supercomputers. This was all WAY too much for my 13-year-old brain to process in just one viewing. The whole thing was somehow ludicrous and terrifying at the same time, and it kept me awake at night for weeks.

The original VHS sleeve for Halloween III.

The scene where Conal Cochran mentions the Festival of Samhain was a complete mystery to me at first. It wasn’t until I re-watched the film with subtitles that I realized he is even talking about Samhain, because I didn’t yet know the correct pronunciation of this term. In reading up about Samhain in real life, I learned that people still celebrate it today, including many Pagans. It would be a couple more years before I learned about Setians, but Season of the Witch facilitated my awareness that there is even a Pagan community in general at all. And while I’ve never felt drawn to the Celtic pantheon in any religious capacity, Samhain or Hallowtide has always been a huge deal to me. So in a weird way, Halloween III didn’t just expand my mind on how people can tell stories; it expanded my mind on how people can believe and live their faith, as well.

I consider Halloween III: Season of the Witch to be the absolute best follow-up to the original Halloween (1978) that has ever been made, and it is unlikely to ever be superceded in this respect. None of the sequels or remakes with Michael Myers can hold a candle to it, because even the best of them are essentially just copies of the first movie, a story that was never meant to be continued in the first place. And while the Myers follow-ups have each been motivated primarily by box office avarice, Season of the Witch is a unique and original story that demanded to be told, much like its thematic predecessor from 1978. John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s pitch for an anthology is equally interesting, but I think it would have been neat to see Conal Cochran a few more times before Dan O’Herlihy passed away in 2005. One reason I love the Halloween movies as much as I do is because this series features not one, but two of the scariest horror movie supervillains I have ever seen. Only one of them visibly wears a mask and stalks people, stabbing them with kitchen utensils. The other one wears a much less obvious mask—a handsome human smile—and tricks people into purchasing their own deaths.

…THE END (OR IS IT?)

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Summer’s End

Shameless self-promotion for my new album, Summer’s End (2020), a musical anthology of Halloween happenings.

 

It’s October 1, 2020, and the Season of the Witch is nigh! The Festival of Samhain, otherwise known as the Feast of All Hallows, is my very favorite holiday. The following clip from Episode #32 of this series (Holy Days of the LV-426 Tradition) explains why:

Halloween isn’t “just for kids,” and it wasn’t invented by the candy companies either. It originates from a blend of Celtic folk religion and Roman Catholicism. It is just the first of three holy days—All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2)—which are collectively known as Hallowtide.

Even before the Catholic Church reached Great Britain and Ireland, these three dates were already an ancient festival called Samhain (“SOW-wynn”) in Gaelic and Nos Galan Gaeaf (“knows GAIL-uhn GUY-ov”) in Welsh. It marked the end of the harvest season and the start of winter, which was an extremely frightening time for the Celts. Many of them would die of starvation, disease, or freezing temperatures before the following summer. For this reason, the first night of winter weighed heavily upon their minds, and people thought the barriers between this world and the next were temporarily lifted, allowing the dead and other paranormal beings to roam free. This wasn’t so bad when it came to ghosts, who were viewed as beloved ancestors to be welcomed. Malevolent faeries and qliphothic entities were the real concern, and people dressed in frightening animal skins, carved protective charms from turnips, and left out offerings of food to keep such things away. It’s from these ancient traditions that wearing costumes, carving jack o’lanterns, and trick-or-treating are all descended.

Halloween was always my favorite holiday growing up, more important than the winter holidays, and it’s the first thing in which I ever took a religious interest, even before Set. I enjoy handing out candy to trick-or-treaters on October 31st; but once the boils and ghouls have all gone home, I begin my all-night vigil for the dead. I light some candles for our ancestor shrine in the kitchen, and I say some words to our dearly departed. I keep the candles burning all night long, not going to bed until 5:30 in the morning or so. Then I repeat this process the following two nights.

Spooky things do tend to happen during these vigils, like voices or footsteps that come from nowhere (especially around 3:00 am). But nothing scary or sinister ever happens, perhaps due to our ancestors’ protection. Call it “superstition” if you like, but we take this stuff pretty seriously. I think it’s important to keep the true spirit of Halloween alive as much as we can.

And to that end, I would like very much to present my new album, Summer’s End, in honor of this most sacred occasion. 2020 has been a terrible year for so many people, too many lives have been lost or ruined, and there probably won’t be a lot of trick-or-treating or bobbing for apples this year. Plus, many of us are afraid of what next month will bring, and I can offer little comfort when it comes to that. BUT, one thing I CAN do is give the world a special holiday present that will hopefully bring others some much-needed joy. If nothing else, play this music on Halloween night with no lights on apart from some jack-o’lanterns! Perhaps something magical might happen…

To stream or download this album entirely for free (just enter $0), visit gbmarian.bandcamp.com!

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Nephthys, the Dark Midwife

The sister and ex-wife of Set is a renowned healer of wounded hearts and minds.

 

Even more than Ishtar or Taweret, Nephthys is the goddess who is most often linked with Set. In fact, some people might be wondering why it’s taken me 40 whole episodes before I got around to discussing Her. Truth is, I wanted to highlight the aforementioned goddesses first because Their interactions with Set are far less known. I also think Set and Nephthys share a much more complex relationship than what is typically imagined about god and goddess couples, for reasons I shall explain.

The name of this goddess, which comes from the Egyptian Nebet-Het, means “Lady of the House.” It refers to a temple enclosure, rather than a domestic residence. In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Nephthys is one of the fourth generation of Netjeru (the others being Osiris, Isis, Set, and even Horus in some accounts). As such, She is one of the divinities who facilitate life here on earth, and who contributes to the arts of human civilization.

The fourth generation of gods was somewhat disruptive to the natural order of things at first. There is even a story about Ra, the first Netjer, prohibiting their granddaughter, the sky goddess Nut, from giving birth to these young’uns (despite already being pregnant). Thankfully, the wise god Thoth finds a technicality that allows Nut to have her children while still technically obeying Ra’s decree. So first it was just Ra, and all things were united in them. Then Ra begat Shu and Tefnut, the breath and the waters of life, who are the first male and female. After that, Shu and Tefnut begat another male and female, Nut and Geb, the deities of heaven and earth. While Ra themself is hermaphroditic, the second and third theological generations are dichotomous, falling into a strict gender binary that is strongly tied to the reproductive cycle.

Reproduction becomes a major theme for the fourth generation of Netjeru as well, but in a radically different way. For one thing, there are not just two deities in this generation, but at least four (if not five, depending on whether you choose to include Horus—but more on that in a moment). Only two of these figures—Isis and Osiris—are a fertile heteronormative couple, and they become the darlings of the pantheon for this reason. Set and Nephthys are sterile and barren, incapable of producing any offspring. Set is also attracted to gods of the same sex, and there is reason to think the same might be true of Nephthys. While Isis and Osiris are like celebrities, receiving all the glory and the privilege from their elders, everybody tries to forget about Set and Nephthys in the beginning, pairing Them together and leaving Them to fend for Themselves.

The way I see it, this is what sets the entire Osirian drama into motion. More than anything, Nephthys—sometimes described as “an imitation woman with no vagina”—wants to have a child; She wants to experience all the same parts of womanhood that Isis enjoys. So She disguises Herself as Isis and sleeps with Osiris, who is so miraculously fertile, he could even impregnate a corpse. Nephthys then gives birth to Anubis, the jackal god, and tries to hide Him so Set won’t find out what happened. But Set learns the truth and loses His temper big time. Instead of trying to harm Nephthys or Anubis, however, He squashes Osiris instead (twice, in fact). Then Isis goes on her journey to raise Osiris from the dead. She succeeds, sleeps with her brother-husband one last time before he goes to Duat, and becomes pregnant with Horus. (This is where the question of when Horus is born comes up again. I prefer to place it here at this point in the narrative, as it makes the most thematic sense to me personally; but there are other versions of the same narrative that cite Nut as the mother of Horus. Just one more example of how the ancient Egyptians were way ahead of quantum physicists or science fiction writers when it comes to the idea of alternate universes.) Nephthys dutifully accompanies Isis through all of this insanity, helping Her sister every step of the way.

Women from popular culture who have a “Nephthys vibe.” From left to right and up to down: Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) from Star Trek: The Next Generation; Death from DC/Vertigo’s The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman; Elise Rainier (Linda Shaye) from the Insidious horror film franchise; goth rock artist Siouxsie Sioux; Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones) from The Addams Family; and Lydia Deetz (Wynona Ryder) from Beetlejuice.

This is especially the case when it comes to the funeral of Osiris; and here is where Nephthys’ innermost drive becomes most evident. She and Her son Anubis help Isis reconstruct the body of Osiris and restore him to life. Through much of this process, Nephthys weeps and wails and whimpers with Isis, empathizing with the widowed goddess and sharing in her profound sorrow. The Egyptians prayed to Nephthys as a kind of “dark midwife” you might say, a divine grief counselor who assists those in terrible emotional anguish, helping them heal and feel better over time. This fits together with the role of Anubis, who invents the funerary arts and becomes the first mortician. Nobody enjoys experiencing death or loss, but they are facts of life, and those of us who survive must find a way to live again. To think that Nephthys and Anubis have always been there to nurture things that help us cope with such experiences (such as counseling or mortuary science) makes my heart glow like a jack-o’lantern.

Nephthys sides with the Osirian Trinity during the Contendings of Horus and Set, and She sticks with them for the most part after the Great Reconciliation. She continues associating with Big Red when it comes to fighting the Chaos Serpent, and She appears to have been revered as a powerful fire-breathing warrior in this regard. But the one member of the Divine Family Nephthys truly seems to have fallen in love with is Isis. To make things even more interesting, other cosmogonies have cited Set as being Anubis’ father; the two are often linked (or even outright confused with each other) even today.

None of what I say next should be treated as any kind of official religious dogma. This is just what I personally take from these wonderful stories, and you can either take it or leave it. But I think Nephthys is a lesbian goddess. I think She and Set still love each other; They have just always loved each other as brother and sister for the most part. They are divorced, but for good reason; They were never very attracted to each other in the first place. Isis and Osiris are married because they love each other; Set and Nephthys were paired together as an afterthought to make the rest of the pantheon happy. This refusal to properly integrate the forms of life and being that Set and Nephthys represent is what almost caused the downfall of Creation, and the apocalypse was only averted when the Netjeru got wise as a society and changed their ways. Now these two outcasts are truly accepted by Their family as equals, and Set has even grown to love Anubis and become His stepdad.

This trinity of Set, Nephthys, and Anubis is truly remarkable for many reasons. A divorced pansexual genderbending dad, a barren lesbian spinster mom, and a so-called “illegitimate” stepchild born of “adultery”? What isn’t there to love about this, or the fact that these figures were considered acceptable and divine in ancient Egyptian culture? The Western patriarchal concept of “the nuclear family”—which insists that all families must consist of two heteronormative cisgender adults with 2.3 biological offspring born in wedlock—is not only a more recent invention in the grand scheme of things, but a blatant work of isfet (poisonous falsehood and injustice) that contradicts Ma’at (everlasting goodness and truth). There is a place for EVERY sentient being in this world, AND for the sentient beings they love too. It simply DOES NOT MATTER whether we are male or female, gay or straight, trans or cisgender, married or unmarried, monogamous or non-monogamous, biologically related or adopted—and it NEVER has. Other religions need to hurry the fuck up and get wise to this, already. Set, Nephthys, and Anubis were already on top of this well ahead of Yahweh and Jesus, and things still don’t look so good for those two on this score today.

(Plus, Set, Nephthys, and Anubis are all goth as hell, like They’re the original Addams Family—and that is just cool.)

If there is any one divinity I associate with Hallowtide in particular (which is no easy task, given the sheer quantity of gods who align with the occasion perfectly), Nephthys is the one. My wife and I enjoy visiting cemeteries all around our state in October and November, and to me, this is a way of honoring Nephthys throughout the holiday season. Just to walk among the graves and admire the craftsmanship of the headstones and tombs; to see all the ancient iconography that still shows up, even among the newer statuary; to soak in the names of the ancestors who rest there, and the times in which they lived; to be alone in the eerie silence. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there is just something about visiting such places for a couple of hours that has an effect on you. Most people seem to find the idea spooky, but I find it very peaceful and meditative, helping me achieve a level of mindfulness I usually can’t reach otherwise. To me, this kind of mindfulnessness is a huge part of what Lady Nephthys is all about.

Lest She be accused of never being colorful, Nephthys is also the guardian of the Bennu. This avian divinity was associated with heron birds and the solar cycle in Heliopolis. The Greek writer Herodotus described it as the phoenix (a possible Greek derivative of Bennu), which later developed into the archetypal “bird of fire” that ritually burns and rises from its own ashes. These more modern associations are fascinating when put together with Nephthys’ reputation as a healer of wounded minds and hearts, as well as Her role as a fiery monster-slayer. Though it is really about Russian folklore, I enjoy listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird each year at Hallowtide because I find the titular creature analogous to that of the Bennu, and phoenix symbolism is very evocative of Nephthys to me personally.

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Ishtar, the Lady Morningstar

She rebelled to help humanity before Prometheus. She died and rose from the grave before Jesus. And She invented the “zombie apocalypse” before George Romero.

 

Almost every culture has viewed Venus—the “Lucifer” or Morningstar—as an aggressive, contrary force. This is because it is usually the first star seen at sunset, and the last star seen at dawn. Based on this phenomenon, people imagined that Venus is a “rebel” who defies the Sun, refusing to disappear as her superior rises, then rushing to ascend as the Sun sets. Even before medieval Christians incorporated Lucifer into their devil myth, most theological beings associated with Venus were perceived as unruly, cosmic shit-disturbers.

Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of Venus, is no exception. She stole the sacred mes, the powers of civilization, from Her uncle Ea and gave them to the people of Uruk. She insisted on visiting Her deadly sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and conquered death in the process (with some help from Ea). When She learned Her husband Tammuz had not grieved for Her at all while She was dead, She killed and kicked His ass straight down into hell. When the “hero” Gilgamesh refused to marry Her, She sent the apocalyptic Bull of Heaven after him. And when Her father Anu refused to give Her the Bull at first, She threatened to raise all the dead across the earth and send them to feast on the living. She is also said to have an insatiable sex drive, exhausting all of Her various lovers to death.

If you think that sounds bad, Gilgamesh was a king who tyrannized his people, breaking into their homes and raping all the women. He only stopped when the gods created Enkidu to challenge him, giving him something else to do with his time. Gilgamesh then became so obsessed with finding the secret to immortality that he abandoned his people and left them to fend for themselves. (What an asshole!) So it’s always seemed weird to me that he is portrayed as the “hero” in this story (despite being a tyrant and a rapist), while Ishtar is framed as the “villain” (even though She is divine and transcends all human understanding). The greatest threat Ishtar poses for this megalomaniac is not to his life, but to his ego.

(If Ishtar appeared and said She wanted to marry me, I’d say, “Okay.” Better to be mauled ecstatically by Ishtar’s lovely, blood-splattered mouth than to die by the hand of any mortal man!)

Ishtar appears in Babylonian art as a badass Amazon standing on a goddamn lion, getting ready to beat the shit out of some motherfuckers. Assyrian kings prayed for Her to join them on the battlefield like a Valkyrie and slaughter their foes like cattle. (And if their records are to be believed, She answered their prayers…brutally.) As a warrior goddess, Ishtar was very popular with the Hyksos, who called Her Astarte and paired Her with their chief deity, Ba’al Hadad. When the Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, they brought Ishtar’s worship into the Land of the Pharaohs. And since Ba’al Hadad was identified with Set by the Egyptians, they came to view Ishtar/Astarte as one of Set’s romantic interests as well.

There is a fragmentary Egyptian text from Edfu in which Yamm, a sea monster, demands the hand of Ishtar in marriage. For a moment, it seems the beast will claim its bride; but Set intercedes, and while the rest of the story is uncertain, there is a similar Ugaritic tale in which Ba’al Hadad rescues Astarte from Yamm. Since Hadad’s name is substituted for Set’s in the Edfu texts, the Egyptian version most likely ends with Set destroying Yamm and marrying Ishtar. Considering Their unruliness and Their shared frustrations with dying-and-rising fertility gods (like Osiris and Tammuz), don’t you think Set and Ishtar make a perfect couple?

Ishtar is often vilified for being so “promiscuous.” This is due to a complete misunderstanding of hierogamy or hieros gamos, the concept of “sacred marriage.” It is a religious rite in which people have sexual intercourse, with at least one of the participants being “possessed” by a deity. Such procedures served a twofold purpose in the ancient world. The practical purpose was to channel the fertility of a god and/or goddess into the crops, livestock, and people of a community. The spiritual purpose was to reach a higher level of consciousness. Under the right circumstances (all of which require CONSENT), a really good orgasm can totally “blow your mind” and make you feel like you’re in tune with the rest of the cosmos. It makes total sense why people would consider that ecstatic moment of self-surrender to be supremely magical. From this standpoint, sex can be much more than just some “dirty” animal act; it can be a divine religious experience that is both self-fulfilling and incredibly humbling.

The clergy in ancient religions that practiced hierogamy are often described as “cult prostitutes” by biblical scholars. This is especially true when it comes to the qadishtu or holy women of Ishtar. Sex did in fact play a part in the beliefs of the qadishtu, and they were ostensibly paid by the laity for their clerical services. But the way I see it, there probably wasn’t always a direct relation between these two things.

First of all, it is unclear whether Ishtar’s holy women actually engaged in hierogamy with everyone who entered their temples, or if just one priestess performed the rite with a king during the annual Akitu spring festival. To be honest, I have my doubts that even the latter case was always true. Many contemporary examples of hierogamy (such as the Great Rite in Wicca) are often performed symbolically (e.g., sticking an athame in a chalice, rather than actually copulating). It is entirely possible that hierogamy wasn’t always practiced quite so literally in pre-Christian times, either.

Secondly, it is wrong to assume that every service the qadishtu provided for their society was sexual in nature. In fact, it is very likely that most of what they did had nothing to do with sex at all. The available evidence would seem to suggest they were more like nuns than nymphs, caring for the sick and the orphaned, keeping chaste, and living their day-to-day lives in quiet, contemplative prayer. So the fact that Herodotus and the biblical patriarchs defined the qadishtu in terms of sex says infinitely more about them and their dirty little minds than it does about Ishtar’s holy women.

The Mušḫuššu dragon from the Ishtar Gate

Yet another attack on Ishtar is the false claim that She is the alleged “Pagan origin” of Easter. This story goes back to Alexander Hislop, who published a pamphlet called The Two Babylons in 1853. Hislop claimed that Ishtar was originally a mortal Babylonian queen named Semiramis, who single-handedly invented all of polytheism. She then became worshiped as Ishtar—which many Christians claim is pronounced “Easter” for some reason—and created the holiday we now know by that name for herself.

Hislop was partially correct; Easter does in fact have polytheist origins. But its name is actually derived from Eostre, a Teutonic fertility goddess who bears no historical relation to Ishtar whatsoever. The imagery of rabbits and eggs is taken from a myth in which Eostre transformed a bird into a rabbit that could lay eggs (the Easter Bunny). These symbols do not appear anywhere in Ishtar’s iconography, which has plenty more to do with bulls, dragons, lions, and owls. Nevertheless, evangelicals continue to repeat Hislop’s bullshit at every turn, criticizing Easter as a so-called “satanic” rite to Ishtar.

The Burney Relief, depicting an unknown female figure who could be Ishtar or Ereshkigal (but who likely isn’t Lilith)

One thing that really sticks in my craw is when people confuse Ishtar with the succubus, Lilith. In the 1970s, many Pagan writers circulated a claim that Lilith originated not as the “first wife of Adam,” but as a “handmaiden” of Ishtar who served the goddess by bringing men to Her temple for worship. Another claim states that Lilith is really a goddess in her own right; she was later demonized, or so the story goes, when biblical patriarchy replaced the goddess religions of old. And some people seem to think Ishtar and Lilith are really just the same person at the end of the day.

There is no evidence to support any of these theories. Even in pre-biblical polytheist cultures, Lilith was a qliphothic entity that ate newborn children and sapped men of their seed at night. She was never worshiped, but was only warded off with apotropaic spells. This was as true when the Epic of Gilgamesh was being written as it was when the Old Testament was being written. I can accept the idea of people believing Lilith is a goddess today, if that is truly how they feel; but they should admit this is a new belief in the grand scheme of things, and not an ancient one. They should also avoid conflating Ishtar with Lilith, because the two are very different figures indeed. At the very least, the former is my Spirit Mama, and the latter is not.

I first met Ishtar in McClennan County, Texas, during the autumn of 1999. I was about to turn 17, and I had been walking with Set for just over two years. I can’t really explain what drew me to Ishtar so suddenly that cloudy afternoon; the best I can say is that Set “traded” me with Her, and I walked with Her for the following year. They traded me back after that, and I’ve been with Set ever since. I never quite understood why this happened until about a decade later, when I met the woman who became my wife. We met in a Pagan discussion forum, and the only reason we did is because I wanted to meet other people who knew about Set, and she wanted to meet other people who knew about Ishtar. Considering this, we’ve always felt that Set and Ishtar are personally responsible for micromanaging things just so the two of us would meet. And that hiatus I had with Ishtar was the goddess sizing me up as a potential match for one of Her contemporary qadishtu. (I sure am glad I passed the test!)

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Holy Days of the LV-426 Tradition

The times we consider most sacred in our coven.

 

Today I figured I’d discuss the major holidays observed by Setians of the LV-426 Tradition. These aren’t necessarily the only holidays we celebrate; some of us also celebrate things like Christmas, Mabon, or even St. Patrick’s Day. But these particular times are the ones we all agree are most important to our shared religious calendar.

The LV-426 Sabbat

The word Sabbat is used differently in many faiths. In LV-426, we use this term in reference to a weekly night of worship that has most often been observed on Friday nights, but which can really be observed on any night of the week. The idea is to meet with Set for a Sabbat every seventh night, in any case, and whenever possible.

Our Sabbat procedure is simple. We use the basic rite that is offered in the very first episode of this series (Setianism: A Brief Introduction). When we get to the part when we speak our wills to Set, we discuss all the high and low points of our week with Him, speaking informally. If more than one person is present for worship, each attendee takes a turn at doing this.

Once everyone has had a chance to say what they wish to say, we throw on some heavy metal and break out the booze, chatting through the night until dawn. Set is asked to remain present if it pleases Him to do so, and He guides the conversations we have during these sessions. There is no other situation in which I am quite so comfortable, happy, or grateful as when I am meeting with Set and my brothers and sister in Him for our Sabbat.

It’s been several years now since our coven has been able to keep the Sabbat together as a group; but the procedure can be followed in a solitary context as well. You don’t even need the booze or the heavy metal; all you really need is to pick a night that works best for you, then try your best to spend some time with Set on that same night every week. How you choose to spend or structure that time with Him is entirely up to you. And if you are unable to follow the same procedure every week for any reason, do not hate on yourself. Set is always with His chosen ones, and He knows what we are all going through. Our Sabbat is not a commandment, but a gift. There is no expectation that we must observe it every week; but it is always there whenever we need it.

Egyptian New Year

The Egyptian New Year festival (or Wep Ronpet, which means “Opening of the Year”) coincides with the heliacal rise of Sirius, the annual flooding of the Nile, and the Dog Days of Summer. It technically falls on a different date each year, and the precise calculation of this date depends on your geographical location.

A heliacal rising occurs when a star that hasn’t been seen in the nighttime sky for a while becomes visible again in the east, just before dawn. Sirius disappears for about 70 days in May, and it reappears toward the end of July and the middle of August. (This is called the “Sothic Cycle.”) The Nile River always floods soon thereafter, just like clockwork. There isn’t much rainfall in Egypt at all, so this annual inundation provided the only means for irrigation in ancient times. And when the Egyptians saw Sirius rising in the east just before dawn in late July, they took it as a sign from the goddess Isis (the ruler of Sirius) that it was time to start planting all their crops for the year. To this very day, the Egyptian people still celebrate the annual flooding of the Nile as a two-week civil holiday called Wafaa El-Nil, which begins each year on August 15.

August 15 is also a significant date for me personally, as it marks the anniversary of when I first came to Set in 1997. So while everyone who observes this holiday will understandably observe it on different dates due to the Sothic Cycle, I just celebrate it on August 15 each year and call it a day. To be honest, the Dog Days of Summer (which take their name from Sirius, “the Dog Star” in Canis Major) just feel very sacred to me in general.

Wep Ronpet is not just the start of a new year; it is also an echo of the Zep Tepi or “First Time,” when the first god began to stir within the primordial ocean of chaos. One way to mark this occasion is to greet the sun as it rises (on whichever date you prefer to celebrate) beside a body of water (preferably a large one, if possible). As you watch the sunrise, know that you aren’t just watching the start of another day; you are witnessing a “re-run” of the Creation of the universe. Another worthwhile holiday activity would be execrating any negativity you might have collected in your life over the past year, which is something many people who walk with the Egyptian gods do. (For an example of an execration rite that we use in LV-426, check out Episode #31 of this series.)

Hallowtide

Halloween isn’t “just for kids,” and it wasn’t invented by the candy companies either. It originates from a blend of Celtic folk religion and Roman Catholicism. It is just the first of three holy days—All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2)—which are collectively known as Hallowtide.

Even before the Catholic Church reached Great Britain and Ireland, these three dates were already an ancient festival called Samhain (“SOW-wynn”) in Gaelic and Nos Galan Gaeaf (“knows GAIL-uhn GUY-ov”) in Welsh. It marked the end of the harvest season and the start of winter, which was an extremely frightening time for the Celts. Many of them would die of starvation, disease, or freezing temperatures before the following summer. For this reason, the first night of winter weighed heavily upon their minds, and people thought the barriers between this world and the next were temporarily lifted, allowing the dead and other paranormal beings to roam free. This wasn’t so bad when it came to ghosts, who were viewed as beloved ancestors to be welcomed. Malevolent faeries and qliphothic entities were the real concern, and people dressed in frightening animal skins, carved protective charms from turnips, and left out offerings of food to keep such things away. It’s from these ancient traditions that wearing costumes, carving jack o’lanterns, and trick-or-treating are all descended.

Halloween was always my favorite holiday growing up, more important than the winter holidays, and it’s the first thing in which I ever took a religious interest, even before Set. I enjoy handing out candy to trick-or-treaters on October 31st; but once the boils and ghouls have all gone home, I begin my all-night vigil for the dead. I light some candles for our ancestor shrine in the kitchen, and I say some words to our dearly departed. I keep the candles burning all night long, not going to bed until 5:30 in the morning or so. Then I repeat this process the following two nights.

Spooky things do tend to happen during these vigils, like voices or footsteps that come from nowhere (especially around 3:00 am). But nothing scary or sinister ever happens, perhaps due to our ancestors’ protection. Call it “superstition” if you like, but we take this stuff pretty seriously. I think it’s important to keep the true spirit of Halloween alive as much as we can.

Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night is a spring fertility festival that’s observed each year on April 30. It’s the Teutonic equivalent to May Day or the Celtic Beltaine, but was later renamed after the medieval Christian Saint Walpurga. It represents the cross-quarter point of our solar year between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and it’s a time for warding off the last vestiges of winter. It’s most often observed in continental Europe by wearing scary costumes, lighting huge bonfires, and making all kinds of godawful racket to scare away the evil spirits. In fact, you might say Walpurgisnacht is Germany’s version of Halloween; one might even call it “Samhain in the Spring.”

A Walpurgisnacht gathering at the Heidelberg Thingstätten in 2007 (from Wikimedia Commons)

For Setians in LV-426, the lore of witches roaming mountains on this night, throwing bacchanalian rites to a horned god mistaken for “Satan” is suggestive of our own experiences with Set. Since He is a nocturnal god of the wilderness, we’ve always preferred to recite our incantations to Him in lonely woodsy areas after dark (or immediately before dawn). And since the ears of Set’s most holy symbol, the Sha, resemble “horns” (not to mention that some of His other sacred animals include such horned and hoofed critters as antelope and oryx), it is easy enough to conceptualize ourselves as “witches” who invoke a horned god at night. So adopting Walpurgisnacht into our religious calendar has always made sense, at least to us.

With apologies to Francisco Goya…

Perhaps the greatest Walpurgisnacht in LV-426 history so far was in 2005. It was on a Saturday that year, and I was living in Houston. The Tonester drove down to visit me for the whole weekend, and we hit the city together like bricks fired from a machine gun. We roamed every strip club, antique book store, and vintage record shop we could afford at the time, growling the lyrics to all our favorite death metal songs and shouting a random “DUA SET!” at every turn. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I have ever felt completely comfortable wearing my spirituality on my sleeve in public. It was a weekend full of booze, lewd jokes, horror flicks, and about a ton and a half of heavy fuckin’ metal. We really shook the pillars of heaven, by gods, and when it was over, we both knew Big Red was mighty pleased.

“Turn it up to 11, Hoss!”

Saturday, April 30, 2005: The city of Houston fell under siege to a bizarre sect known only as LV-426. Heads were turned and jaws were dropped as two strapping young lads of Sutekh took to the streets. No slice of pepperoni pizza was safe. No vintage record shop could run. No 1970s folk horror movie could hide. But lo, musical instrument shops had it the worst by far; for Set’s crazed servants did ecstastically hammer on drums, strum on electric guitars, and scream psalms to His Majesty on microphones turned up to 11 in full public view. Never before had such madness been seen or endured by the community, and the dark wizards soon vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared, like a nightmare before the break of day. No evidence remains of the outlandish lunacies that were witnessed on that fateful Walpurgis Night—not even a photograph…

Friday the Thirteenth

When Set slays Osiris in Egyptian mythology, He chops him into 14 pieces, 13 of which are then buried throughout the world (before they are re-assembled and restored to life by Isis), while Set feeds the final piece—Osiris’ phallus—to an elephantfish. (Dennis Wheatley refers to this fish as “the Talisman of Set” in his 1934 novel, The Devil Rides Out.) There were also 13 people at the Last Supper of Christ, which was soon followed by his crucifixion (on a Friday, no less). In both tales, the dying-and-rising god can’t rise from the dead until he is killed first (with Judas Iscariot fulfilling the Setian role in the Christian narrative). The god must be sacrificed before he can rise again and offer new life to the world, and in this context, the number 13 represents initiation: the (often painful) ending of one phase of existence, followed by the glorious emergence of a new and better life.

In LV-426, we don’t view Set and Osiris as “enemies”; we think of the two as being like a gardener and a rosebush, respectively. It’s Set’s job to “prune” Osiris so the latter can produce fresh “blooms,” which keeps the universe alive and healthy. If Set were not there to keep Osiris regenerating himself, there would be no past and no future; there would only be a static present in which nothing new can thrive. So while the experience of being “pruned” by life’s hard knocks certainly isn’t pleasant for anyone, Setians in LV-426 believe it’s important to honor Set for His role in this process. We also think it’s important to take a moment and Hail Osiris as well, and Friday the Thirteenth is our preferred time for doing so.

Watermelon is reported to be one of Set’s favorite foods, and since it’s a plant, it is also sacred to Osiris. So one LV-426 custom for Friday the Thirteenth is to buy a watermelon, recite some prayers over it, chop it up, and share it with Set and Osiris as a sacred meal. As we each eat the watermelon, we also partake of Osiris’ regenerative powers so we can heal and grow back stronger from whatever trials we are currently facing in life. One year, we hosted this dinner at a derelict cemetery, and we respectfully shared our offerings of watermelon with the forgotten ancestors who were buried there.

 “Dinner with the Dead” we hosted in honor of Osiris for Friday the 13th, August 2010.

Aside from hockey masks (thanks to Jason Voorhees), black cats are one of the first things people associate with Friday the Thirteenth. Everyone knows the old superstition about how you’ll get “seven years’ bad luck” if a black cat crosses your path. But what most people don’t realize is that cats are actually very lucky creatures to have around, and that black cats are especially lucky. Remember, cats were worshiped in ancient Egypt; they were protected by law from injury and death, and families mourned, mummified, and buried their beloved felines as if they were human beings. Cats were thought to have a special connection to the spirit world, and were especially cherished for driving away evil spirits. The color black was also considered very lucky indeed, given its association with the fertile soil of the Nile Valley. From this perspective, a black cat is twice as lucky as usual, for it not only has all the standard demon-repelling bells and whistles; it also carries the promise of hope, fertility, and regeneration wherever it goes.

My youngest child, Bishop.

The number of days in February and March are such that if Friday the Thirteenth ever falls in the former, it will also fall in the latter (unless we’re in a leap year). Having two consecutive Friday the Thirteenths in the same month like this only happens 3 times every 28 years, and it never happens at any other time of year. For these and other reasons, this occasion is considered highly sacred in LV-426 and is observed as a month-long festival that we call Miew Khem or “the Month of the Black Cat.”

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On Rosemary’s Baby, the Satanic Panic, and Pagan Leadership

The 1980s Satanic Panic; the persecution of Pagans (in some cases BY Pagans) as “Satanists”; and Rosemary’s Baby as a statement against systemic misogyny. Listener discretion is strongly advised.

 

In 1973, a woman named Michelle Smith was treated by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder. Under hypnosis, Smith “remembered” being repeatedly abused by a “satanic cult” as a child. She was allegedly tortured, locked in a cage, and forced to mutilate several babies, all in the name of Satan. These stories were published in Pazder’s 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, which became an overnight sensation. Next thing anyone knew, other hypnotherapists started parading their patients around on TV, calling them “Satanic abuse survivors” and making a shit-ton of money off of them. Sensationalists like Geraldo Rivera popularized these stories, bullying their viewers into accepting these “survivors” and their stories at face value. People started believing there really was an international conspiracy of Satanists who were sexually abusing and cannibalizing little children. Even psychiatric and law enforcement professionals blindly accepted these stories as true. Just being a daycare worker and having someone accuse you of being a “Satanist” (perhaps because you enjoy heavy metal music, or because you play Dungeons & Dragons) was enough to get you prosecuted for alleged child abuse. As with any witch hunt in history, no evidence was required; countless people were thrown in prison and prohibited from seeing their children just on the basis of rumors and hearsay. This was the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.

Things didn’t improve until the FBI launched an official investigation of the matter in the early 1990s and said, “Woops! There’s zero hard evidence to support prosecuting any of the people who’ve been put away for this shit! Plus, it turns out that when people are under hypnosis, they’ll remember random shit they saw on TV and think it actually happened!” The adult “Satanic abuse survivors” were actually remembering things they had all seen in popular horror films. Many of them had suffered real abuse in their lives, but were not receiving the kind of care they actually needed. Their therapists were making far too much money being interviewed on daytime talk shows and playing off of people’s fears. Worse yet, this prevented children who really were being abused during the 1980s from getting help as well. The police were too busy hunting imaginary “witches” to do anything about the real pedophiles who were all around them the whole time, preying on children from within their police cars, their clinical offices, or even their church pews. These realizations helped to debunk the entire urban legend of organized “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA), which has not been taken seriously by anyone in psychiatry or law enforcement ever since.

(This isn’t to say that no one has ever been abused by an actual, real life Satanist; it does occasionally happen. It just isn’t as widespread a problem as people think. Such acts are typically committed by lone individuals, not by organized groups, and the victims are usually children in the abusers’ families, not other people’s children. Those who continue to peddle organized SRA stories today are right-wing conspiracy nuts who insist that all the “evidence” for SRA is being “covered up” by nonexistent cults like the Illuminati. (And newer conspiracies like “Pizzagate” are simply a variation of the same theme.) Strange that these people think themselves to be such paragons of moral virtue, given how disappointed they seem to be that there isn’t an international Satanist conspiracy to abuse and murder scores of children!)

As a result of the Panic, the 1980s were a dangerous time to be participating in any new religious movements (NRMs). This was definitely the case for Pagans, many of whom also identify as witches. The word witch is of uncertain origin, but it generally refers to any woman who is wise in the ways of the spirit world. Its use as a slur is rooted in systemic misogyny toward empowered women, and it was reclaimed by Pagans during the 20th century (especially by Wiccans). But the stigma against witchcraft continues to thrive outside of Pagan culture; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about someone calling Child Protective Services on a parent simply because that parent identifies as a witch.

And while it’s understandable that Pagans would want to distance themselves from violent criminals, this was being done in some extremely deplorable ways. Some high profile leaders wrote scathing tirades against Satanism that were every bit as paranoid, deluded, and misinformed as Michelle Remembers. Some even argued that Pagans who follow gods like Loki and Set should be completely “shunned” from the Pagan community, regardless of anything we might say to explain ourselves. So while Christians were accusing Wiccans and Druids of “worshiping the devil,” Wiccans and Druids were throwing the exact same accusation at Lokeans and Setians. This strategy of deflecting hatred by redirecting it toward other religious minorities is the most disgusting and contemptible act of hypocrisy I have ever personally witnessed, and it continues to color my perspective on many “white light” Pagans to this very day.

Contrary to what most people assume, Satanism never really existed prior to the 20th century. It began as a purely imaginary religion that Christians accused Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and even other Christians of practicing. Apart from the decadent “hellfire clubs” of the Enlightenment period, Satanism wouldn’t become an actual movement until the 1960s. That’s when Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan and published The Satanic Bible, in which he defined Satanism as a non-theistic spirituality that emphasizes self-deification. Lucifer is viewed not as a supernatural being, but as a symbol for the base animal urges in all people. Satanist rituals are about fulfilling these urges in ways that don’t actually harm anyone, like venting your hatred for someone by destroying something you’ve created to represent them. (Whether this “spell” of sympathetic magic actually works on your intended “victim” is incidental; its true purpose is to work on you.) Many of the people who follow LaVey’s teachings are narcissists, eccentrics, or even Social Darwinists; but surprisingly, most of them aren’t serial killers or child molesters.

The theme of witches harming children goes back thousands of years to the earliest known cases of blood libel in Alexandrian Egypt; but if there is any contemporary influence that gave shape to the Satanic Panic in particular, it is most certainly Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which set the standard for all “devil cult” movies to follow. (In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “survivors” were specifically remembering things from this film while they were under hypnosis.) And due to its depiction of witches and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby can be a very difficult film for many Pagans to watch or even discuss.

Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes) move into a new apartment in Manhattan. Guy is a struggling actor looking for work, and Rosemary dreams of having a baby to care for at home. She appears to have mixed feelings toward her Roman Catholic upbringing; she blushes when other characters voice criticisms against the Pope, but she dreams of domineering nuns and of parties that are for “Catholics Only” while she’s asleep. The Woodhouses also have some peculiar new neighbors named Minnie and Roman Castavet. They’re an elderly couple who have a young hippie woman living with them, and they make lots of strange noises in their apartment at night. Their young lady friend soon turns up dead (after jumping out a window near the top of the apartment building), and then the Castavets suddenly become very interested in the Woodhouses. Rosemary notices Roman talking conspiratorially with Guy, who seems to have formed a close friendship with the old man, and Minnie keeps invading Rosemary’s space, showing up at the front door all the time and just inviting herself in.

Eventually the Woodhouses decide to try and have a baby, so they schedule a romantic evening at home. But Rosemary falls sick after dinner and collapses in their bed. She has a dream in which she is surrounded by the Castavets and many other elderly people (all of whom are nude). Then she is raped in the dream by a big hairy creature with snake-like eyes. Upon waking, she notices all these bruises and claw marks on her body. This is when we get our first clue that something is seriously wrong with her marriage, because Guy tries to comfort Rosemary by claiming that he had sex with her after she passed out (ostensibly because he was worried about missing her fertile window). Rosemary clearly isn’t comforted by this admission of marital rape, but she suppresses her anger and submits to her husband’s will. And when she discovers soon thereafter that she is actually pregnant, she seems to forget the whole thing for a while.

Rosemary is overjoyed with the prospect of motherhood, but her happiness wanes as she starts to feel a terrible pain in her stomach. The Castavets recommend that she see a doctor named Sapirstein, who prescribes a special vitamin drink for her and tells her she’ll be fine. But the pain only gets worse after that, and whenever Rosemary tries to tell Guy about it, he just becomes angry and belligerent. She begins to lose more and more control over her own body (even receiving criticism for a haircut she gets halfway through the film), and she starts to imagine that the Castavets are child-murdering witches. She comes to suspect Guy of having made a pact with them, a pact that somehow involves her unborn child. This is sustained by the fact that Guy visibly hated the Castavets when he and Rosemary first met them, but now he adores them for no apparent reason, listening to everything they suggest about Rosemary’s pregnancy. But are the neighbors really witches? Do they really want to hurt Rosemary’s baby? And is Guy really in on the plot? Or could it be that poor Rosemary has just gone crackers?

(If you wish to avoid reading any spoilers, stop reading this and go watch Rosemary’s Baby right now. If you’ve seen the movie already, or if you don’t care about spoilers, please proceed.)

It turns out the Castavets are indeed leading a coven of Satanist witches, but they’re not interested in harming Rosemary’s baby; since the father is actually Lucifer himself, they’re working to protect the little monster instead. And Guy is definitely in cahoots with them, having prostituted his wife to the devil in exchange for a solid movie career. But the real horror in Rosemary’s Baby is neither witchery nor diabolism; it’s the experience of being physically violated, of not being able to trust your spouse, and of being caught between two clashing ideologies that both regard your body as someone else’s property. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Castavets and their followers; for them, Rosemary is simply a vehicle for the delivery of their dark messiah, and she has no choice but to obey them at the end of the film. But do you know what else is good for oppressing women and legislating their uteruses? Roman Catholicism, that’s what. Were Rosemary to approach the Catholic Church for help, her situation would not be any different; she would still be expected to carry her pregnancy to term, and she would still be told what to do with her body by men who know nothing of what it’s like to be pregnant. (If the church thinks it’s a woman’s “duty” to give birth even when she’s been impregnated by a rapist, why should we expect anything different when that rapist turns out to be the devil?) In fact, Rosemary’s Christian upbringing actually helps the Castavets control her, because it has already conditioned her to go along with whatever is expected of her.

But this subtext goes even deeper, for Rosemary is the mother of the Antichrist, who is naturally the opposite of Jesus Christ. And what happens in the story of Jesus? Well, he’s born of a young woman who’s made pregnant by a supernatural being without her prior knowledge or consent, and—

Woops.

The Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby are nothing like real life diabolists; they are instead a metaphor for the twisted chauvinist society in which we all live. Sure, they worship Lucifer instead of Yahweh, and they serve Antichrist rather than Jesus; but at the end of the day, they’re still an oppressive, abusive, and manipulative patriarchy. The men are in charge, the women are subservient, and one woman is raped so their male “savior” can walk the earth. How is the story of the Virgin Mary any different from that of Rosemary in principle? How is the Christian “pro-life” movement any better than what Guy and the Castavets do to keep Rosemary under their control? When I first saw this film, I couldn’t get past the fact that so many people think its depiction of witchcraft is 100% accurate. But as I re-watched it over the years, I began to understand its true purpose: to illustrate how horrible it is for women to be treated as “property” in the name of any male superbeing. Even Ira Levin, who wrote the novel on which Rosemary’s Baby is based, has expressed regret that it would later be used to reinforce the Satanic Panic so much. (Levin is Jewish, which means he doesn’t even believe in Satan and would have no reason to believe in organized SRA.)

Strangely, Anton LaVey was obsessed with this film, and it continues to enjoy a strong fan base among real life Satanists. The reasons for this are not immediately clear. LaVey appears to have thought the Satanist characters are revolutionary insofar as they resemble realistic, everyday people (as opposed to being a bunch of weirdos wearing black hooded robes). He also claimed to have served as an uncredited technical advisor for the film, providing some authenticity to the film’s ritual scenes. To the best of my knowledge, this claim has never been substantiated; LaVey simply spread the rumor around to cash in on the film and generate some free publicity for his church. Every now and then, I encounter a Satanist who thinks Rosemary’s Baby is “pro-Satan” somehow, and I can only shake my head at them. Considering how much fuel this movie gave to the Satanic Panic about 13 years after its original theatrical release, you’d think these people would find it just as troubling as most Wiccans or Druids do; but I digress.

Back in the 1990s, when I was still a young Setian novice, things were very different in the Pagan community than they are now. Nowadays, I can attend a Pagan meetup, mention I worship Set, and most people will probably be OK with having me around. But in the 1990s, it was a whole other deal. As soon as people saw my horned pentacle necklace or heard me praise the Son of Night, they would tell me I wasn’t welcome, that I was being a “disruptive influence,” and that I should just leave. They automatically assumed I was some demented freak who just wanted to cause trouble. I’m pretty sure most Wiccans and Druids have no idea what it feels like to be excluded and alienated by other Pagans in this way. The thing that has always infuriated me the most about this treatment is that it was trickling down from the top. Big name Pagan leaders like Isaac Bonewits were actively encouraging their followers to treat Setians, Lokeans, and other Pagans they didn’t approve of like we’re all a bunch of extremist psychopaths. These “leaders” seemed to think the most appropriate way to deal with the Satanic Panic was by diverting society’s attention from themselves to people in Paganism they wanted to exclude. In doing this, they helped to promote a “legitimized” stereotype about Paganism that is not representative of the entire Pagan population.

To make things even more interesting, the #MeToo Movement has helped to reveal that some of these Pagan “leaders” are or might have been child abusers themselves. This brings new light to every nasty thing these people have ever said about people like us when the Satanic Panic was still fresh. Trying to save their reputations by targeting an entire sector of the Pagan population for exclusion is one thing; but to think that even the late great Isaac Bonewits was one of the people the police should have been investigating the whole time? I hope you can understand why I would be enraged by this.

The lessons to be taken from all of this are as follows. No one should ever be deprived of their bodily autonomy like Rosemary Woodhouse is by her husband Guy and the Castavets. While the Castavets don’t reflect actual Satanist practices or values, they do reflect the very real issue of human trafficking, which was not an issue most people were aware of during the 1960s. But if Rosemary’s Baby was meant to galvanize society into addressing this particular concern, perhaps it succeeded a little too well. It blurred the line between “new religious movements” and “human trafficking rings,” leading people to assume that all religious minorities are extremely dangerous. This distracted law enforcement from sufficiently investigating and prosecuting some of the real trafficking rings that were actually in operation at the time. It also led to several Pagan “leaders” throwing Pagans they didn’t like under the bus, even while some of them were allegedly abusing children behind locked doors. And if that doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, you must have a much weaker gag reflex than I do.

Satan Sells

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What Are You Afraid Of? It’s Only Rock & Roll!

Discussing the theme of “backmasked” messages in heavy metal music during the Satanic Panic, as explored in the 1986 comedy horror film, Trick or Treat. 

 

One of my all-time favorite movies is a flick that hardly anyone seems to know about. You have to be a real 1980s horror nerd to have seen Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat (1986), and it probably helps if you’re a metalhead too. I’ve never once seen the flick listed on anyone’s “Top 10 Favorite Movies” list, but you will certainly find it on mine, and I’ll tell you why. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first film ever made that features a plot inspired entirely by heavy metal and the hatred it received from politicians, televangelists, and self-righteous soccer moms during the 1980’s Satanic Panic. It may not necessarily be the best film of its subgenre; undoubtedly, many people would probably vote for Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm (2015), which has a very similar plot. But despite Deathgasm’s superior production values, Trick or Treat did it first, and it made a huge impression on me while I was growing up.

Eddie Weinbauer (played by Marc Price, better known as “Skippy” from Family Ties) is a teenage metalhead who lives in the town of Lakeridge, North Carolina, and who goes by the nickname “Ragman.” Eddie is especially dedicated to the music of Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), a glam metal shock rocker who’s obviously inspired by Alice Cooper. Eddie absolutely worships Sammi, and he’s friends with a radio DJ named “Nuke” (Gene Simmons of KISS), a nerd named Roger (Glen Morgan, one of the lead writers for The X-Files and the Final Destination movies), and a pretty girl at his school named Leslie (Lisa Orgolini). Unfortunately, Ragman is also bullied at his school by a bunch of jocks (led by Doug Savant of Desperate Housewives fame), who all think he’s creepy and weird. These guys are pretty harsh, too, because they apparently see nothing wrong with trying to drown poor Eddie in a swimming pool.

Trick or Treat 1986 movie poster

Why does Ragman dig Sammi Curr so much? Because Curr’s music helps him cope with his feelings of subjugation. In a strange way, Curr is eerily prophetic of Marilyn Manson, who took shock rock to a whole new level in the 1990s. Not content with just scaring or pissing off parents, Manson made himself into a full-blown culture war iconoclast (the “Antichrist Superstar”) and deliberately terrorized the entire American Religious Right. In a similar way, Curr uses his music and his fanbase to declare war on society. He offers his fans a future in which “Rock’s Chosen Warriors will rule the Apocalypse,” and he promises all who try to ban his music that “We will bring you down.” For Eddie, Curr is more than just a rock icon or a hero; he’s a counter-cultural messiah who promises total emancipation from Christian society.

But all of this seems to vanish into thin air when Eddie turns on the TV one morning to learn that Sammi Curr has died in a hotel fire. The boy is instantly crushed and descends into despair, but when he visits his friend Nuke at the local WZLP radio station, Nuke gives him a special gift. You see, Sammi Curr actually grew up right here in Eddie’s hometown, and Nuke was friends with him when they were kids. As it turns out, Nuke just happens to have a demo recording of an album Curr was still recording when he died. (The album is named Songs in the Key of Death.) Nuke gives the record to Eddie, telling him Sammi would have wanted him to have it. And while listening to it later that night, Eddie discovers the album contains a bunch of backmasked messages. Then he plays the record in reverse to see what the messages are saying, and that’s when he receives the biggest shock of his life.

Ragman

Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer and his hero, Sammi Curr.

The voice of Sammi Curr speaks to Eddie through the backmasked messages, telling the boy to do certain things while he’s at school the next day. When Eddie follows the advice he is given, he outsmarts his foes and gets them in trouble (while getting away scotch free, himself). It then seems like the two conspirators will get to realize their shared vision of a world without bullies after all; but as Curr continues to help Ragman “nail” his tormenters, he also demands the boy’s help in “nailing” everyone who ever tried to ban his music. Their Halloween pranks soon turn deadly, and Ragman realizes his beloved demigod is actually a demon. By the end, Eddie must stop Sammi from killing everyone in Lakeridge when Nuke plays Songs in the Key of Death backwards on his radio show (on All Hallows’ Eve, no less).

Now I know good and well what some of you must be thinking. Trick or Treat sounds like something that was made by evangelical Christians, right? It sounds like the entire point of the film is to demonize heavy metal and anyone who listens to it. As a devoted metalhead myself, I probably shouldn’t enjoy this film at all, should I? But consider the fact that Ozzy Osbourne appears in a cameo as “the Reverend Aaron Gilstrom,” an anti-rock televangelist. Yes, you read that correctly: Ozzy fuckin’ Osbourne plays a Jimmy Swaggart clone who preaches that metal musicians are all Satanists brainwashing our kids. (Now that’s what I call irony!) I might also point out that Trick or Treat doesn’t quite end the way you’d expect. If this were an evangelical propaganda film like Rock: It’s Your Decision (1982), Eddie would swear off metal for good after defeating Sammi Curr and “give himself to Jesus” (as they say). But after he defeats the ghost of the man who used to be his hero, what do you suppose Ragman actually does?

By gods, he plays a goddamn Sammi Curr record!

Yes, that’s right—and I think this is where Trick or Treat really shines the most. While the film is inspired by urban American myths about “backmasking” in heavy metal music, it obviously does not agree with the people who take such fears literally. Instead, the film presents metal as something that’s legitimately fun but misunderstood—and not only by parents, preachers, or politicians. Eddie Weinbauer eventually sees that Sammi Curr is a much worse bully than any of the jocks who’ve been tormenting him at Lakeridge High. But when Eddie takes Sammi down, he isn’t turning his back on metal (or even on Curr’s music, necessarily). He’s just learning to separate the art he loves from the artist who created it. The artist might be a major asshole, but it’s OK to still enjoy and take inspiration from their art.

When I was in high school, I used to worship the ground Marilyn Manson walked on. But then I learned he really isn’t the all-powerful “Antichrist Superstar” he made himself out to be. At first, this made me feel like I could never listen to Manson’s music again; my sense of disappointment was just too much. But after a while, I learned that art can still be deeply meaningful and magical even if the person who created it is not who (or what) I want them to be. I went through this exact same process with Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne. In heavy metal especially, it’s easy to confuse the people creating the music with the characters they play on stage. Marilyn, Alice, and Ozzy aren’t real people; they’re bigger-than-life personas that were created by Brian Warner, Vincent Furnier, and John Osbourne, respectively. The funny thing is that once I finally began to understand this principle, I started to enjoy their music even more.

Heavy Metal

Some promotional photos for the film.

In Trick or Treat, the problem is not with heavy metal itself, but with the fact that Sammi Curr takes his hype and his stage persona way too seriously. When Eddie fights him, Sammi accuses him of being “false metal”—but in reality, Sammi is the one who is false. Part of the fun to heavy metal is that it’s basically a huge power fantasy that can be taken to some truly ridiculous extremes. What’s more, this is usually done while keeping one’s tongue planted firmly in-cheek. Sure, there are people like Sammi Curr who take themselves way too seriously; but this genre was built on the backs of guys like Coop and Ozzy, who sing about strangling people or having sex with the devil while winking at their audiences. It’s all make-believe, much like a Halloween party that never ends, and the people who take it too seriously—including both the Pat Robertsons and the Varg Vikerneses of this world—are completely missing the point.

Most people who’ve seen Trick or Treat will tell you it’s a total dud. To be fair, it is full of bloopers; you can even see the boom mike at the top of the screen at one point. (Keep your eyes peeled when Ragman answers the front door, only to find his mom’s boyfriend dressed up as Rambo on the other side. Pay close attention to the top right-hand corner of the screen!) The movie also can’t seem to settle on whether it wants to be a genuine horror film or a comedy with horrific overtones, which is something that normally tends to annoy me. But even with all that being said, Trick or Treat is very well-acted, the music is phenomenal (featuring songs by Fastway and a score by Christopher Young), and a great deal of creative effort was clearly put into it. They weren’t just trying to make a quick buck with this one; they were actually trying to make something witty and intelligent—and for my money, at least, they succeeded.

Trick or Treat is also a film that we hold sacred in the LV-426 Tradition (much like 1979’s Alien and 1982’s The Thing). It nicely reflects our own personal histories with Set. We were all like Eddie Weinbauer when we were kids; we were alienated youth, and we coped with our problems by listening to angry, aggressive-sounding music. That same music became one of our various “doorways” into Setianism, and for this reason, we treated our rock heroes like they were pillars of wisdom and virtue. Big Red had to disabuse us of this notion over time; like Ragman, we had to learn how to enjoy our favorite artists without believing in all their hype, and Trick or Treat reminds us of what it was like to go through all of that.

Alternate poster

Alternate poster art for the film.

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My Understanding of Magic

A brief explanation of my perspective on magic, what it is, how it works, and how it dovetails into my theological views.

 

My understanding of actual magic—not to be confused with mere illusionism or stage magic—hinges on the Egyptian concept of heka, which more accurately translates to mean “divine speech.” This refers not only to literal verbal communication, but also to the use of visual arts and ritualized performances to “activate the ka,” which might be compared to our Western construct of the “astral body.” Virtually any form of dramatic self-expression can be a work of magic within this context, provided that it arouses your spirit and directs it toward some kind of goal. This goal can be operative (to heal the sick, ward off negative energy, divine omens), initiatory (to reach a higher state of consciousness), or even devotional (to honor a deity or ancestor). For the ancient Egyptians, everything from casting love spells to invoking the Creator themself was a magical working that bridged the gap between this world and Duat, its spiritual counterpart. Indeed, magic is fundamental to all spirituality and religion, for even Christian worship services involve “activating the ka” (feeling “the Holy Spirit”), implementing “divine speech” (using key language from the Bible), and accomplishing some kind of goal (feeling close to Jesus).

Naturally, most people scoff at the idea of anyone believing in magic here in our contemporary times. But there is a difference between thinking magic is effective and thinking it is necessarily “supernatural.” I wholeheartedly believe in gods, ghosts, and other worlds, and many of the rites I’ve worked have wielded some truly eerie results. But I also accept that there are completely rational explanations for the things I’ve experienced, and I neither ask nor expect anyone else to forgo such conclusions. This is because I know magic can work regardless of whether the supernatural actually exists apart from the human imagination or not. If you invoke a blessing for someone, it might or might not have any effect on that person in the real world; but it will at least vent your desire for that person to be OK somehow, fulfilling a profound emotional need that all the logic in the world can never appease. So even if it’s all just a bunch of autohypnosis (which isn’t necessarily true, either), magic can still have efficacy and practical value today. Whether it works on objective reality or even on the subjective realities of others is completely secondary to whether it works on your own psyche and spirit. Its true purpose is to change and empower the user, not to directly affect literal changes on the physical world like in some epic fantasy movie.

These principles apply to my theology as well. I can’t claim to be absolutely 100% certain that Set (or any other deity) is really a sentient entity that actually hears my prayers, or that has ever directly intervened in my life to change it for the better. But apart from my personal belief that these things are true, I can at least be certain that if I had never uttered a single prayer to Set, I would never have met some of my closest loved ones; I would not have the family I now cherish; I would not have developed my current career; and I would never have hoisted myself from the cesspool of domestic abuse in which I was raised. None of this proves that Set is objectively real by any means, but it does prove that His influence in my life is strong enough for it not to matter whether He is or isn’t. And to this extent at least, He and the other divinities I’ve encountered are all quite real enough for my purposes. Whatever the gods actually are or however they are to be explained, they are certainly effective, just as magic can be effective whether it is truly “paranormal” or not. So I will just go right ahead and keep praising Big Red until the cows come home!

Inevitably, we must address the issue of magical ethics. The same principle behind the blessing spell I described above will also empower a hex or a death curse to work in much the same way (i.e., on the “sender,” not necessarily the “recipient”). Many Pagans warn that doing this is “unethical” and will unleash terrible consequences upon the user(s), no matter how much the intended victim(s) might deserve whatever is wished upon them. I have even heard someone tell rape survivors they have no business casting hexes on the men who assaulted them, for fear of violating some lofty cosmic law.

This is all bullshit.

Burning effigies and sticking pins into dolls are perfectly healthy ways of vindicating yourself emotionally without actually harming anyone—especially if we’re talking about an injustice as heinous as rape. If the helpless can’t use magic to win some kind of control back over their lives, then what fucking good is it? The true concern here is not whether hexing or cursing violates any external standard, but whether it violates your own conscience. Let’s say you do cast that death curse on your tormentor, and he actually dies that painful, humiliating death you wished upon him. Would this “coincidence” spook you and make you feel guilty? If so, that guilt might eat you up inside, causing your curse to backfire. But if you are certain your enemy’s synchronous destruction in reality would only enhance your well-being, I see no reason you should not enjoy yourself by destroying them symbolically and nonviolently in a spell. Doing so is always preferable to actually harming that person in real life, and you may even find that it alleviates your desire to harm them, helping you re-focus your energy on more productive goals.

Some people describe such procedures as “black,” “dark,” or “left-handed” magic, but this too is bullshit. You don’t have to devote yourself to a dark god to cast a hex whenever you might need to, and you also don’t have to curse people all the time to worship a dark god. Setians enjoy the additional benefit of execration rituals, which work in much the same way, but which target non-human advarsaries like the qliphoth or even the Chaos Serpent instead. Nine times out of ten, a good execration will help you cast out that negative energy better than any death curse would. Nevertheless, there are situations in which a curse might be exactly what you need; so while the option of magically destroying your enemies should never be taken lightly, there is no sense in completely ruling it out either. Furthermore, the term “black magic” is a colonial racist inference to African magical traditions, and “dark magic” lacks any room for nuance. (Is it “dark” to invoke Set the nocturnal storm god in a blessing, or to invoke Sekhmet the fiery solar goddess in a curse?) As for the “left-hand path,” this is a Tantric term for heterodox ritual practices, and it is rendered somewhat meaningless when removed from its original context. (Is it “left-handed” to praise Lucifer in a room full of Satanists?) I prefer to describe hexes, curses, and other such procedures as destructive magic and leave it at that, without assigning any color- or usability-coded value judgments to the matter.

Mind you, there are many “LHPers” (for lack of a better shorthand term) who enjoy my work, and I am very fond of those I know personally. I also have mad respect for writers like Kenneth GrantMichael Aquino, and Don Webb, each of whom has been a major inspiration to me personally. So it is not a matter of wanting to distance myself from LHP culture at all. It’s just that I deviate from most LHP ideologies I know about, which all seem to emphasize worshiping the self over any external deity. I believe everyone is really a living demigod, so the idea of worshiping yourself actually makes perfect sense to me; but there is no reason a polytheist can’t also revere other divinities in addition to their own. Yet I have found that speaking of devotionalism in LHP circles can stir up just as much controversy as discussing hexes can in Wiccan circles, and for reasons that are equally small-minded. I worship and pray to Set as if He were a real sentient being (again, regardless of whatever He might actually be in objective reality, which is irrelevant). If being a devotional polytheist is enough to disqualify me from fitting beneath the LHP umbrella, then so be it—but I’ll thank you not to insult me by labeling me as “right-hand path” (the Tantric term for “orthodox” practices), since I do not have a single “orthodox” bone in my entire body.

Some writers argue that “magic” should be limited to purely operative and/or initiatory spiritual practices, and that devotional rites are more properly consigned to the less interesting category of “religion.” But even stargazing, lifting weights, or walking a dog can be just as magical or “spirit-activating” as casting a spell to heal your friends, attract a mate, or call down your Holy Guardian Angel. So how can anyone truly legislate what is or isn’t “magical” for others? All spiritual practices are magic of one kind or another, from the obscure Rite of the Bornless One to the common Sunday Mass; so there is no need for anyone to poo-poo other people’s preferences here. Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about religion and who only cares about astrology or Tarot reading. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about fortune telling, and who just wants to pray to some ancient fertility goddess. Either way is enough to justify calling yourself a witch (or the cultural variant of your choice).

I’ve engaged in operative and initiatory projects over the years; I’ve worked spells, gone on vision quests, blessed people’s homes, execrated negative energy, etc. But the bulk of my craft has always been devotional in nature. There is nothing more magical to me than invoking Set at the shore of Lake Superior, out among the trees and the bears, with the Big Dipper twinkling in the sky above and the waters below, and for no other reason than just to enjoy Big Red’s company.

The Egyptian hieroglyphic for heka (“activating the ka”).

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