Death's Talking Head

[The following is the transcript for the talk I gave at The Hidden Valley, a 48-hour multimedia festival I participated in last year. It was designed for performance artists and performance art enthusiasts, meditating on art, creativity, and ritual through the lens of planetary magical approaches to necromancy.]

My objective tonight is not to “sell” necromancy to you, like some sort of travelling door-to-door grimoiric encyclopaedia salesman. (such a reference to an outdated economic model of labour might be thought of as archaic; I prefer to think of it as resurrected). So perhaps the first thing to say about this necromancy is that it is not a pyramid scheme. Despite the Egyptian precedents.

Rather, I hope to show you ways in which the processes and symbolic materia you engage with already hold an unliving weight: to shine a blacklight on one’s familiar tools and techniques for the invisible blood-splatter and seedy fingerprints to spell out their own necromantic significances.

Make no mistake. Performers and artists are ritualists of this epoch. Indeed, as dancers of the anthropocene, you are already soaking in the pre-tremouring deluges of the next extinction level event. As Peter Grey has often noted, our corpse meditation is now global in scope. Death is not an abstract, but we also do not have to take it lying down.

To open our way most easily, let us begin with the gentler (or more insidious) end of artistically-inclined imaginative play. Let us imagine the following operation – taken from a seventeenth-century manuscript of occult experiments – is simply a metaphor for the creative process:

To Make Oneself Invisible.

Collect seven black beans. Start the rite on the day of Mercury, before Sunrise. Then take the head of a dead man, and put one of the black beans in his mouth, two in his nostrils, two in his eyes and two in his ears. Then make upon his head the character of Morail. When you have done this, bury the head, with the face upwards, and for nine days, before sunrise, water it each morning with excellent brandy. On the eighth day you will find the spirit mentioned, who will say to you: What wilt thou? You will reply: I am watering my plant.
Then the Spirit will say: Give me the bottle, I desire to water it myself.
In answer, refuse him this, even though he will ask you again.
Then he will reach out with his hand and will display to you that same figure which you have drawn upon the head. Now you can be sure that it is the right spirit, the spirit of the head. There is a danger that another one might want to trick you which would have evil consequences and in that case your operation would not succeed.
Then you may give him the bottle, and he will water the head and leave. On the next day, which is the ninth, when you return you will find that the beans are germinating. Take them and put them in your mouth, and look at yourself in a mirror. If you can see nothing it is well. Test the others in the same way, either in your own mouth, or in that of a child. Those which do not confer invisibility are to be reburied with the head.

Completing a project can feel like trying to germinate beans from a dead man’s head, can it not? Or like having to make elaborate checks to ensure the spirit of the work is the one you intended to summon, right? The stages of this operation, its timing, its materials, its protocols, its objective; from each component, we may draw analogous actions, decisions, deployments and engagements for our own creative endeavours.

Yet I believe we can go deeper. And so I intend to take us through the planetary spheres for a sevenfold understanding of how necromancy can inform and empower our creations, our rituals, our great work and our great play. For this reason, I wish to light seven candles to illuminate our way and flicker out our shadows. Beginning at the furthest edge of heavy leaden Saturnine considerations, the gravity of the grave will accelerate our descent. Thus we crawl serpentine down the Tree back to Earth.

Saturn forces us immediately to face the sorrow and restriction of Death itself. Aeschylus reminds us that ‘Of all the gods only death does not desire gifts’. And thus we come forth empty-handed.

We deal here with the isolation of art, and the no-thing that precedes thing in the ocean of mind and forms. We mouth underwater through the dark sea of awareness, lapping at the weltamschmerz-bearing bodhi tree of samsara’s suffering. The Nigredo stage. The creative void of spontaneity, at once fecund and desolate: the bright and barren mother alike, Saturn’s sickle cuts offspring from both. To speak analytically: analysis meaning, of course, to take apart. We are undone, unformed. Returned to clay at the beds and banks of the river trade-routing all the cities of the dead.

Saturn demands private ritual in the desolate and lonely places. It speaks in dead languages of forgotten history. Saturn, in the classical world of the seven planets lurks at the furthest reaches of our old imagined orbits – this is conveyed in the words of Jean Cocteau: ‘since the day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.’ This is the cold stalk of our eventual final companion.

In this ice-aged push of manifestation, the birthpained passing from the dissolution of desolation into the four corners of the world, we must come in from the cold. For as Miguel de Unamuno distinguishes, we die ‘of cold, not of darkness.’

And in that Darkness, the Mysteries of melancholia, the black cloak of time that heals and steals, the thief that doctors. Nothing new under a black sun. Hail the larceny of all things.

In Saturn’s brackish phlegmatism, there is also a glimmering reflection of a fearful sky overhead. The Dark Arts surely are the work of the Devil, and what blacker art than nigromancia… While a wider discussion of the diabolic is perhaps too big a topic for this talk – too many planchetes to slide across the talking-board tonight – I do think this denigrating sense of the evil in the Devil is worth facing and asking a question. Which Devil? And to which divine order are they adversary? I would argue the Devil who laughs behind you at the crossroads of your poor decisions is at the core of the necromancy of resurrected choices. Equally, if we are called heretics for challenging the God who feeds the rich while poor folk starve, perhaps we might simply say so mote it be. And from dust, to dust.

For in Saturn we may know the silence of the dust on the tomb, settled on the memento mori, covering those lost texts still buried. Conversely, to shake the dust is to animate a cell of skin. To watch dust move, to see it swirl from the imbued motive of breath, is to choreograph dead skin dancing – a part of something human and no-longer-human, becoming something new. The dermis of the flesh – an impressively large organ – is both container and connector, even after we slough it off; serpentine, once more.

And so we cross an abyss, and come to the joys and the abundances of Jupiter. In the Jupiterian pomp and polity of the polis we have the establishmentarian use of History, as justifying tradition, hierarchy, and the naturalised order of things. Jupiterian necromancy looks in part like what is done at war memorials; it is public ceremony.

The dead of Jupiter are not simply a lonely end, a stalking promise. They are the wealth of the living, the past providers, the fore-mothers and fore-fathers. They are the bounty of the wealth of Pluto, and their cupped horns are cornicopious. This horniness is a sanguine secret of Jove, as perhaps most crudely depicted in the seedy adulteries of Zeus. Pearly lightning of paternity thrusting into future.

And to speak of fallacies and ardour, it is also the priestcraft of academia, the cast shadow of the ivory tower, issuing forth condensate from crushed bone. And regardless of its utility, books are the frozen words of the dead: to quote another dead author, ‘She was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.’ Do you mix your own ink?

Yet to afford our generous dead both public and private adoration, is to water our roots that nourish us with their fruits. Acknowledging the giants we build our perspectives upon is practice of a fundamental gratitude, whose overflowing compassion cannot be contained in the myopia of hereditary or patriotism. Jupiter’s overarching and benevolent sky challenges and elevates us to serve something larger than oneself. As Albert Pike declared, ‘what we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.’

‘Pale Death beats equally at the poor man's gate and at the palaces of kings.’ I can think of no better introduction to the necromancy of Mars – of Death as killer, as ultimate sovereign and war-chief, who takes no prisoners, and spares no soul.

More than war with others, Mars speaks in the hoarse commands of a deeper bloodlust: the hunger of the grave, the will to both self-annihilate and to fight against that eventuality in the battle of each and every breath.

But the wars of Martial necromancy are fought across the deserts of the real. Martial arts and crafts certainly bark of your actual death, your actual finitude, your actually really-real mortality. The actuality of one’s finitude can be realised in the use of corpse materia as components for our charm-bags and hands of glory: the actual mumia in the mummy brown pigment, the knife-pointed love-letter in the actual blood of doves, the accusatory finger borrowed from the catacomb actually broached. To be actor and activist.

As the planet of passion, there are pertinent Martial mysteries cut open in considering the two camps into which pre-modern emotions were barricaded. The twofold typology of early modern passion theory split emotions in twain. The concupiscible passions – such as love – were the desiring impulses, but the irascible passions – such as anger – were the destroying impulses clearing the way for the concupiscible. Eros and thanatos entwined as writhing snakes, dancing atop the grave.  

Mars also rules over the internal conflict between the experiences your praxis stirs and the encultured perspectives of materialism that deny those invisible underlying realities. It sharpens the blades of phenomenology – band-saw and scalpel alike –upon our bloodied knuckles. For it is a bloody and violent affair to reject a hollow shell of a disenchanted world, but this armament (which is the unshakeable conviction of one’s own life-beyond-physical death) becomes a weapon, an armour, and the war-drum beating forth a skeleton army in our mind war with capitalist over-culture. The bait-and-switch tactics of consumerism – the cycle of fearmongering and distraction – must be examined in the empty teleology of existential nihilism. Fear of death as the ultimate weakness rendering us exploitable to the up-sell.

This is an inoculation against the fear of death through the deathly medicine of peeking beyond the vale of tears to an afterlife beyond. Gordon White refers to this process of initiation as ‘becoming invincible’.

Equally, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross cautions: ‘It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we're alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.’ And, as Stephen Leacock quipped, ‘I detest life-insurance agents: they always argue that I shall some day die, which is not so.’ Mars burns false permanence with flames exactly the colour of a conflagration of currency.

And so we come to the death and rebirth Mysteries of the Sun, continually sinking into the west to burn beneath us before crowning from the east once again to take pride of place and renew the cycle. This descent into the underworld is a deep, deep wellspring from which to draw creative illumination. And does not the light blind as darkness entombs? Thus is it said, ‘Death most resembles a prophet who is without honor in his own land or a poet who is a stranger among his people.’

Beyond the manners by which various schools of mysticism regard the huge nuclear solar circle in the sky, the Sun’s miraculous gold – that incorruptible panacea – neatly paves the path to discuss the necromancy of alchemy. One particular alchemical operation lends itself remarkably well to a discussion of such themes: the production of spagyrics. Like all alchemical terminology, the exact process the term connotes is subject to some semantic variegation across differing theories and practices, but the core elements of the production of spagyric medicine are simple enough to relate. 

Creating a spagyric requires three stages: 1) the separation of a material’s Sulphur from its Salt into a Mercury; 2) the purification of the inert Salt, usually by calcination (which is the application of extreme heat); and 3) the cohobation or recombination of this now-purified Salt with its Sulphurous Mercury. This process is applied to various natural materia in order to render a reborn, purified and ennobled form of the materia. To pick an especially solar instance, consider a rosemary spagyric. First, the raw plant material – the Salt of its physical body and the Suphur of its essential oils and “life-force” is macerated in the Mercury of a pure spirit alcohol, which draws the Sulphur out of it. The rosemary is killed: forced to give up its ghost. Secondly, the remaining mulchy plant matter, the corpse of it, is calcined to ash, over and over again, until the final secret nutrients and virtues of the rosemary, held in the fundamental plant fibres, are finally stripped naked and made bio-available by the cleansing heat. These purified Salts, the plant’s perfected body, is recombined with its Spirit and Soul. The form is reunited with perfected matter. Nature is redeemed by a spiritual fire. Spagyrics render their medicine as a reborn saviour; crucified at the crux of transformation and risen to redeem us. The manners by which this process was applied by Christian alchemists to both practical medicaments and soteriological theology should be clear.

Beyond such Christological devotion however, this process – of breaking down, refining components, and recombining to produce something more than the sum of the parts – is of course the core practice in devising, designing, composing, editing, and re-editing. The spagyric process offers opportunities for experimentation, mutation and meta-modelling: for the process is meant, like all alchemy, to mirror internal processes occurring in the heart and soul of the alchemist. Ora et labora meet in a concrescent co-mingling of operator and operation, indeed, of product and process. Every alchemical operation should provide us with a blueprint of a meta-process that can be universally applied to any operation. The object is to refine our modelling as well as what is modelled. Nature is always revealing itself. The harlot. No nerve ending turns us down.

This revelation, the apocalypstick on the collar, is of course conveyed in the sentiments of B. R. Hayden: ‘Love and death are the two great hinges on which all human sympathies turn.’

Venusian necromancy moans, climaxes and shudders in an embodied knowledge of little deaths, oceanic feeling and polymorphous perversity. Moreunder, it is the blood pouring forth, the unghost of the neverborn: the fecundity of possibility. Anyone with even a passing understanding of agricultural folklore will note strong connections between fertility and the dead. Once more, the wellspring is Love. A necromancy of our ancestors is not simply Jupiterian pomp: this time it is indeed personal. To court the dead is to know the love that made us and carried us through hardship and across endings.

Venus graciously hosts the loss of isolated self provided by this central vision: this striptease in which progressive layers of separation and mediation are removed. What is left is a grand final reveal, the prestige of Nature as the Mother of All: which might be conceived of as a four-dimensional literal and loving four-dimensional family tree. Its roots are the earliest living forms upon the planet, its branches our families, and we the reaching buds and blossoms. Consider yourself from a vantage outside time: smeared like psychedelic trails or blurry sports photography on overexposed film. Your centipede self, snapshoted at each moment, connected, stretching back behind you in space and time, back out the door, back all to the way to your mother, and she back to hers, and so on and so forth. The Tree of Blood, cilia limbs wafting through a menstruum of tides across time.

To say more of Venus is arguably folly. Sometimes you have to shut up and let a Woman work wonders.

‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ P. J. O'Rourke.

Mercury counsels us of the importance of memory, of the value of structures, of the transformational crossroads of communication. Cicero reminds us ‘the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.’ Mercury is thus library and librarian, the books and the filing system. A Mercurial necromancy might well draw its instantiations of pedagogy from the sciences of putrefaction and decay. The teeming necrophagous organisms whose footprints in lividity are traced by body farms and under microscopes. The spectral cat of curiosity is an especially mercurial familiar. Both scholarship and death require rigour. Because, as David Gerrold said, ‘Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.’


To ‘Die, v.: To stop sinning suddenly.’ Elbert Hubbard

Philosophically, the Moon rules mood, dream, all tides, all passions, lends its very name to all lunacy. But if I have to tell you how the moonlight silvers I may have already lost you. In that wordless phenomenology however, we once again drown the Cartesian dualism that has convinced many intellectuals, some to this day, that we can think without our bodies. The Moon guides us through this tenebrous falsity to the other side of the mirror. We are not captive minds piloting meat-sacks: we are a coherence of the whirlpool of an integrated mind-body-soul, the flame dancing at the twisted wick of inertias and consciousness. We are the knife in the dark, the blood on the door, the bones bobbing upon the river, the chalk lines traced.

We are the witchcraft.

Katharine Hepburn said ‘Death will be a great relief. No more interviews.’ And so, coming to finality of memorable endings – another alchemical necromancy – of shortening authorial interjections and longer passages underground, as the words become less mine and more othered, I wish to leave you with two quotes – the latter familiar, the former probably stranger – on the art of necromancy and the necromancy of art.

In William Blout’s 1661 dictionary, he offered a definition of a necromancer that provides us with several rich veins of creative sorcerous manners and methodologies to explore:

“Necromancer (necromantes) he that practises that wicked Art, a Master of the Black Art, one that seeks to the dead; or consults with Satan in the shape of a dead man. The Hebrews describe him thus; he made himself hungry, and then lodged among the Graves, that the dead might come to him in a dream, and make known to him that which he asked, &c. Others there were that clad themselves with cloathes for that purpose, and spoke certain words, burned Incense, and slept by themselves, that such a dead person might come and talk with them in a dream.”

The other is from a modern children’s book, but I hope you will agree, no less pertinent.

‘Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends’