Crowley’s Atlantis, and the first murderhobos in the Moon

So I just read Aleister Crowley’s long short story “Atlantis” [in the book I mentioned last week, but also available here].   Partly a satire, partly a utopian story (ok, a seriously messed up utopia), and partly an occult treatise, the story describes the lost continent of Atlantis, which according to Crowley did not so much sink beneath the waves as blast off into space! The rulers of Atlantis are described as being “as hairy as ourang-outans” and deformed in various ways (“this special feature might be a nose of prodigious size, hands and wrists of gigantic strength, a gorilla jaw, an elephant ear”).  They shaved themselves but prized their deformities so that anyone born without one was not allowed to live.  This master race ruled a more human-like ‘servile race’ that was kept in absolute ignorance and made to work 16 hour days.  At the first sign of illness the serviles were transferred to deadly phosphorus mines.

In the bizarre economy of Atlantis, the sweat of the serviles was transformed into a substance called “zro” which could in turn be transformed into almost anything — building material, metal, drugs, and fuel.  There is an entire chapter on the metamorphoses of zro and its mixture with an unknown isotope of phosphorus.  The waste and garbage of the masters, as well the corpses of those killed by magical misadventures, are thrown down to the serviles as a sort of ‘manna’ which is prized as their food.  I did mention that this is a seriously messed up utopia, yes?

The Atlantean masters have of course discovered the key to immortality through the use of zro, and developed psychic powers that eliminated the need to speak.  They devote all their energy to orgiastic rituals meant to hasten their ascent to Venus, for they believe that they came from more distant planets in the solar system and that their destiny is to eventually reach the sun.

The continent of Atlantis has, at its center, a pillar, which houses the “Atla,” a god-like entity that Atlanteans worship. To stand before it unveiled means annihilation for men (the Atlanteans consider this an honor), but women who see the unveiled Atla are unharmed and return with a smug, ineradicable smile that generally causes their peers to slay them.  The Atla is probably intelligent, and certainly alien; it is unclear if it really cares about the Atlanteans at all.

Reading “Atlantis,” I was struck by a lot of gaming potential.  There are echoes of McKinney’s Carcosa: the world is dark, dangerous, and callous; the masses of humanity are exploited by their technological or magical betters. The multi-hued inhabitants of Carcosa are suggested as well: “The colour of the Atlanteans was very various, though the hair was invariably of a fiery chestnut with bluish reflections. One might see women whiter than Aphrodite, others tawny as Cleopatra, others yellow as Tu-Chi, others of a strange, subtle blue like the tattooed faces of Chin women, others again red as copper. Green was however a prohibited hue for women, and red was not liked in men. Violet was rare, but highly prized, and children born of that colour were specially reared by the High Priestesses.”

I also see some interesting ways to link this vision of Atlantis with my idea of a dreamland campaign.  For one thing, the Atlanteans practice “dreaming true,” a method Crowley does not explain at all but which has a wonderfully suggestive name.  (Dreaming true: does this mean a sort of scrying by having dreams of true things, or does one dream something true — dream it and thus make it so?)  For another, the planet-hopping Atlantean civilization calls to mind Lovecraft’s dreamland cats, which literally hop to the Moon and back.  Could one also hop from the Moon to Atlantean Venus, or might the Atlanteans invade the Moon, or Dreamland, for slaves, black phosphorus, or zro?  Perhaps the Atla is a portal, or the Atlanteans are still on Mars, and setting their sights on Earth.

In my fevered imagination now, I can see a hollow moon, the interior of which is Dreamland.  Adventurers can enter Dreamland in any of a number of ways, possibly including hashish, Atla, magical ceremonies, or portals at the top of ziggurats or in the depths of dungeons. Much of the earthly, waking world is already explored and stripped of loot, but the Dreamland remains an uncharted (and unlooted!) cipher. Until the PCs step forward to become The first murderhobos in the Moon!

Published in: on December 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm  Comments (1)  
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Dreams of magic (Adventures in dreamland part III)

[FWIW WordPress is not good at inserting footnotes, so I’m putting some in brackets.  Apologies in advance for the interruptions they may make.  Like this one.]

So here’s three things that have been rattling around in the attic of my mind — I mean I have never found the time to think too seriously about it, nor to gather much evidence/research, apart from a few links interspersed in this post.  The three things are yoga, magic (should I spell it “magick”? ack!), and lucid dreaming.  Starting with lucid dreaming:

I became interested in lucid dreams about twenty years ago in college (and apparently there has been a resurgence of popular interest in this topic lately).  I’d been having a number of strange dreams, and began keeping a journal of them, and my casual interest in interpreting dreams led me to references to lucid dreaming and the idea that lucid dreaming could be a learned skill, rather than just a random event.  I’d had a lucid dream or two, and began looking into how others cultivate them.  It turns out it is a lot of work and at the time I had too many other interests to pursue it seriously, but I did take some notes that are probably lying around with my other college papers somewhere.  Two interesting things I learned about lucid dreaming were (1) an exercise that is supposed to help make them occur (there are others, but I found this one very simple), and (2) a reason some people seriously work on lucid dreaming.

One exercise used to cultivate lucid dreams is to continually interrupt your waking day, perhaps every fifteen minutes or half hour with an alarm on your digital watch [yes, that dates my source!], and ask yourself: Am I dreaming or awake?  The idea is to make a habit of questioning your state, so that your mind will continue to do so at night in your dreams.

But what would be the purpose of lucid dreaming anyway? If you believe dreams have hidden meanings that your brain (or some higher power like God), is trying to communicate to you, it doesn’t make much sense to interfere with the dream; you should probably just try to be receptive to the message, right? Maybe you could ask follow-up questions of the things or people in your dreams, or intentionally recreate partly-forgotten but significant details, and so on.  So in that case lucid dreaming might be helpful, but it’s not something you’d want or need to do very often.

Another reason to try lucid dreaming would be entertainment — using your dreams to realize fantasies, or just try flying, walking through walls, and other things that might happen in dreams.  I’m not sure if it is true, but I read that your dream experiences could only recreate actual sensations you’ve had in real life, so for example if you try to dream about flying, your sensations in the dream will have to be based on similar feelings you’ve actually had (amusement park rides perhaps or jumping on a trampoline?).  So in principle you couldn’t really use lucid dreaming to have completely new experiences, but perhaps you could recombine past experiences into chimerical new experiences.  It’s pretty hard to imagine that anyone would put in the effort required to learn to dream lucidly when they could use that time to actually have new experiences instead though.

So what else do you have to gain from having a lucid dream?  Some sources mentioned using lucidity to interrupt nightmares or other unpleasant dreams, and that might be important to someone plagued with bad dreams.

But the most interesting take on lucid dreaming was attributed to Tibetan Buddhism.  I’m not sure if this is an unusual esoteric teaching or mainstream to Tibetan Buddhism, but the thinking is: there is a parallel between the phenomenology of recognizing wakefulness vs. dreaming and the phenomenology of recognizing the illusion of individuality vs. the reality of oneness.  In a lucid dream, one might have an experience of  “Aha! This is just a dream!”; in meditation, one might have an experience of “Aha! This is just a life!”  So, becoming aware that one is dreaming (and perhaps seizing control of the dream) would be an experience analogous to enlightenment. The idea is that both Buddhism and dream work place importance on recognizing different states of consciousness; perhaps lucid dreaming would be useful as a sort of spiritual exercise.  In fact there is a tradition called Mi-lam (or Milam yoga, or simply dream yoga) in Tibetan Buddhism that utilizes lucid dreaming as step toward enlightenment.

If we stretch this analogy (perhaps to the breaking point), it gives an interesting take on the ‘siddhis‘ of Tantric Yoga (the alleged supernatural powers attained by enlightened yogis). A lucid dreamer gains control over dream reality; if Tantrism is correct, an enlightened mind gains some control over waking reality.

So this is where the magic comes in.  In the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a great deal of interest in ‘rehabilitating’ occultism as a legitimate pursuit in the age of reason. Indeed one of Aleister Crowley’s magazines, The equinox, used the motto “The method of science, the aim of religion.”  Crowley is fairly infamous as magician/scam artist/seducer (and supposedly much worse), but he retains a certain amount of respectability among occultists as a pioneer in occult scholarship.  I found some of his writing interesting enough to read a fair amount of his stuff in graduate school; it’s fascinating and crazy stuff.  I’m neither spiritual nor gullible enough to take his writings at face value.  But some of his readers see his writings on magic as metaphoric explanations of his mysticism rather than literal claims about supernatural powers. The lines are pretty blurry really even if you take him literally.  I think that he was mostly pulling his readers’ legs, but may have been legitimately interested in mystical experience and enlightenment.

Going back to that little exercise for noticing dreams: there is an oddly parallel exercise recommended in the writings of Crowley.  It is not a perfect parallel, except that it involves interrupting one’s day periodically.  Crowley recommends that occult students use a sort of aversion therapy to overcome bad habits — by cutting your forearm every time you catch yourself doing it.  (I think the bad habit he was trying to break the student of was using personal pronouns like “I”, in an attempt to help annihilate personal identity… a very Buddhist goal!)  Anyway it was interesting to me that both exercises, while wildly different in degree (annoyance vs. self-harm) and different in immediate goal (recognizing the dream state, not thinking about oneself as a separate thing), were similar in that both might be aimed at attaining a sort of enlightenment, and both involve periodic rather than really focused attention.

But the most common prescriptions for attaining enlightenment involve deeply focused attention — meditation, yoga, and so on.  Could the ceremonial magic of the Western tradition, as described in various grimoires and masonic rituals, likewise be forms of focusing attention?

In an article in The equinox (v.1, no. 2)  titled “Postcards to probationers,” Aleister Crowley suggests that Western ceremonial magic, and Eastern yoga, are practices which correspond to one another.  He actually uses simple tables to suggest the identity of various elements of each system (listing first the four most widely-recognized methods for each and adding two more esoteric methods for each). I’ve combined the two tables here to focus on the fact that he’s correlating Eastern & Western methods.  I’m not sure to what extent yoga had been ‘seriously’ studied by scientists at the time The equinox was published (I think v.1, no. 2 would be the winter of 1909/1910), but there is certainly a long tradition of casting meditation and yoga as sciences rather than purely spiritual, religious, or occult practices.  I suspect Crowley hoped that some of the legitimacy of Eastern practices could rub off on Western occultism.

(Eastern practice)

(Western practice)



The Holy Qabalah.

Union by Knowledge.


The Sacred Magic.

Union by Will.


The Acts of Worship.

Union by Love.


The Ordeals.

Union by Courage.

add Mantra-Yoga.

add The Invocations.

Union through Speech.


The Acts of Service.

Union through Work.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to add a seventh line for dream work — assuming we take the leap that identifies the ‘goetia’ (the black magic described in Western grimoires) with lucid dreaming.

add Mi-lam yoga

add Goetia (Lucid Dreams)

Union through Dreamwork.

Many goetic texts are cataloged by A.E. Waite in his famous Book of Ceremonial Magic (originally published as The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, and later republished as The Book of Spells, in many editions). These grimoires often give detailed instructions regarding the proper scents, illumination, and other sensations that will help increase the effectiveness of the rituals, according to occult correspondences; in addition to preparing the mind with specific incantations and visualizations, instructions are provided to pinpoint the best times of day for specific invocations. These are almost always ‘dark hours’ of early morning or late at night, and this has led some (I no longer recall where I first saw this proposed) to speculate that the grimoires are actually providing instructions on lucid dreaming.

Some of the ceremonies even instruct the user to retire to bed before beginning the incantations, but this is unusual.  In any event, it is at least somewhat plausible to interpret the practice of magic as a form of dreamwork.  The fantastic appearances of demons and spirits, the preoccupation with asking where treasures are hidden and when it would be felicitous to remove them, and the preoccupation with having specific (or in some cases generic) people appear to the magician for “venereal experiments”  all make a sort of sense if we understand the ceremonies as preparations conducive to the sort of dream one desires rather than as effective methods of altering reality.  Granted this is a rather impoverished sort of rehabilitation of ‘magic,’ but at least it does not rely on supernatural explanations.

Tibetan Buddhism describes a number of “intermediate worlds” or “bardos”; the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan book of the dead can be read as sort of grimoire that prepares the dying for the dream-like intermediate world experienced during transmigration from one life to the next.  If you read some of the goetic texts, and then the Bardo Thodol, there are certainly some parallels in terms of each providing a sort of field guide for the fantastic — the grimoires describing fantastic demons and angels; the book of the dead describing Buddhist deities.  The imagery of each, though alien to modern sensibilities, would probably be quite meaningful to their audiences, who would understand the language of colors, animals, and other symbolism in them.

A couple of possibly supporting pieces of information I stumbled upon in Rickert’s book At day’s close rekindled this whole line of thought.

Item: witches in the early modern era often confessed to attending Sabbats and working their spells late at night, arising from their beds after their husbands were asleep.  On the one hand this is actually kind of disconfirming my theory about magic being dreamwork, since Rickert considered this an example of the sorts of nocturnal activities people got up to between the two “sleeps” each night. [Typically, people slept from about 9 PM to just after midnight, woke for an hour, and slept again until sunrise or just before it; this wakeful hour might be a time for prayer, sex, reading by candlelight, talking, smoking, or just laying awake.]  Even so, I can easily imagine the whole Sabbat being a realistic dream that begins with a dream that one awakens, especially since pre-industrial people were so afraid to go abroad at night.

The other bit is his mention of the Benandanti — a fertility cult that existed in Friuli, Italy, whose members claimed to battle witches in their dreams.  The battles were apparently to save their crops, and the witches fought armed with bundles of fennel as a weapon; the cultists used bundles of sorghum.  Wikipedia expands on this cult, which I’d never heard of before, and mentions similar traditions of demon-battling werewolves, vampire-hunters, and such; I should mention that I have completely neglected to consider shamanism, which of course is another very occult and very dream-interested tradition; even if you want keep things Euro-centric there are plenty of Western shamans, like Hungarian taltos and the Alpine shamans who can join the nocturnal feasts of the Nachtschar (phantoms of the dead who appear in dreams). [“Nachtschar” appears to be translatable as ‘night phantoms,’ however at least one source identifies the Nachtschar as the shamans Rickert mentions; others identify the Nachtschar as a sort of early modern survival of the legend of the Wild Hunt.  One relatively famous case was of a herdsman who testified against witches at their trial, saying he’d been shown their Sabbat by a guide-angel on a nocturnal ride; of course he found himself tortured and forced to confess that the angel, originally described as wearing white with a red cross, was really a cloven-hoofed devil.]

So my point, insofar as I have one, is just to suggest the possibility that grimoires and scriptures were intended to populate the dream world, rather than the actual world, with demons, deities, and — magicians!  And there is plenty of tradition populating the dream world with adversaries such as werewolves, demons, witches, and the undead.

So, dragging this back to D&D and such, suppose your game world worked this way: wizards have to first become powerful in the dream world, and then can begin to have these powers leak over into the real world.   Perhaps an apprenticeship is spent in drug- or magic- induced coma, dreaming away for months or years, and this accounts for the typically weak and frail bodies of wizards.  And of course the master occasionally shows up in the former apprentice’s dreams, for good or ill.  The time required to re-memorize spells needs to be spent in solid REM sleep (which helps explain the daily allowances of spells in the otherwise Vancian system).

Dare you sleep in a dungeon, perchance to dream … when who knows who or what else is dreaming, or haunting dreams, in that underworld?

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dreamland II: adventures in dreamland

Google’s Little Nemo doodle yesterday reminded me of this post I’ve been sitting on (for a month or so since I mentioned the book Dreamland),  about an adventure in dreamland I ran years ago.

The inspiration was:

All of these combined once led to an adventure in my short-lived GURPS Conan campaign in college.  The set-up was a town or small city where the inhabitants are unhappy, drowsy, and fearful.  In fact everyone within the walls is troubled by nightmares, all night every night.

A great tower overlooks the city — in the original adventure the tower was outside the city but it could just as well be inside.  It is of course the tower of an evil sorcerer who is stealing the dreams of the townsfolk.

In my GURPS Conan campaign, to be honest I don’t recall how things played out, although I remember a final duel with Gaznak where the players had to figure out his weakness just as it happened in the story (if you haven’t read the story yet I won’t spoil it now, go read it…or if you are lazy, just listen to it, there is an audiorecording at the link!)

The adventure could involve besieging the actual tower … but the sorcerer escapes to dreamland.  The party may not even realize this until they find their own dreams assailed.  They will be plagued by nightmares, or robbed of their dreams entirely, and never know a good night’s sleep.  The only way to stop the madness once and for all, of course, is to pursue the sorcerer into the dream realm.  Certain drugs or potions will do the trick.

Adventures in dreamland pretty much open up any possibility.  The characters’ attributes, age, even race, class or levels could be different. You could have characters leave all their possessions behind, or learn to dream them into the dreamland too.  What about hirelings, and companion animals?  Can they be induced to take the drug, or simply dreamed up like your sword or spellbook?  (will the dream version of any of these act the way the real one does? will magic items retain their properties or take on others? will the spells be the same in the dream book? will spells have different effects in dreamland? will the dreamed-up creatures try to escape to the real world, and what will they do to their ‘real’ versions?)

Naturally, everything might be different in dreamland — the culture, landscape, the laws of physics and magic, the gods themselves.  Maybe this is an opportunity to change systems or settings in your campaign.  Maybe it’s an occasional interlude for when the DM is out of ideas, or you have unexpected absences and ‘guest’ players.

Lovecraft’s dreamland stories could obviously provide additional ideas, and so do several of Borge’s fictions and essays.

A GIS for maps of dreamland has some neat results too.

Movies like The Science of Sleep,  the Nightmare on Elm Street series (especially the third film), The Imgainarium of Dr. Parassus, Brazil (OK, maybe every film by Terry Gilliam!), and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
might be helpful too.

If you have any suggestions for books or RPG supplements I should add to the bibliography, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments.

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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This week I read the fascinating book Dreamland : adventures in the strange science of sleep by David K. Randall.  It’s a journalistic book on the current state of ‘sleep science,’ focusing on interesting anecdotes about the history of the study of sleep and dreams.  It’s all very interesting, since we all sleep, and there is quite a bit of useful and surprising information about sleep and our circadian rhythm.  I found three things that might be useful for RPGs:

1) Randall mentioned the work of A. Roger Ekirich, who has written a social history of the night (yeah, I’ll read that soon).  His description of how people in the medieval period feared the night is pretty important if you do any campaigning in civilized areas.  Everything shuts down after dark, and apparently the night-time streets of any large town or city would be very dangerous, as frightened people stabbed first and asked questions later (is that a robber? or worse? en garde!). City or town gates locked at nightfall and if you hadn’t gotten inside, you’ll be spending the night with robbers, animals, werewolves, witches, etc.  Not really a big surprise but a good reminder to make your medieval peasants/townsfolk/etc. terrified of being caught outside at night, hirelings included.

2) Ekirich and a scientist whose name I forget just now independently discovered another fascinating thing: before the industrial age and widespread artificial light, humans normally had two ‘sleeps’ each night.  The first sleep ran from dark to midnight or so, and and the second began sometime an hour or so later.  In between, people pretty much universally woke up and spent an hour or more praying, reading by candlelight, or having sex.    Waking up in the middle of the night is seen as a sleep disorder nowadays… Anyway that probably makes things a little easier when the party is camping out and changing ‘watches,’ and adds a short ‘intermission’ for those indoors when adventure hooks might happen (“you hear footsteps/yelling/etc. in the middle of the night”).

3) Lastly, scientists have been measuring how lack of sleep impairs cognitive ability, and as a rule of thumb we lose 1/4 of our cognitive ability (reasoning, memory, etc.) for each 24 hours gone without sleep.  So there’s a benchmark for penalizing the PC that stays up all night keeping watch, traveling, memorizing spells, or whatever — multiply mental stats by .75 for one night’s sleep lost, .5 for two, etc.  Physical abilities are impaired as well, but I didn’t find a quantitative measure of that, so you’re on your own there.

Anyway I would recommend Dreamland as a very interesting book on its own merits and as a useful bit of information for DMing.

Published in: on September 6, 2012 at 10:34 am  Comments (5)  
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