Time for another instalment in my occasional series about books on real-life subject matter which can be potentially handy for games set in the real world (whether in the modern day or in history). This time around, I’m going take a sort of thematic look at the world of heresies, secret societies, folklore and occultism. All of these are things which fantasy and horror fiction drawing on real-world history loves to play with – think Ars Magica, think Call of Cthulhu, think the entire World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness family – so real information on the subject matter is often useful.
One of these books offers a modern-ish treatment of a subject which has had an awful lot of rubbish talked about it, and is useful for getting an accessible pass at what our current understanding of the subject is. The rest are also somewhat more archaic, but precisely because they are a bit old are interesting for getting an insight into how people at the time the books in question were written viewed the subjects in question.
The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea
There is an amazing amount of nonsense written about the Cathars, largely thanks to the romanticisation their legend has undergone ever since the reassessment of their cause in the early 19th Century by French intellectuals of an anti-clerical bent. If you want to know the actual history of Catharism, the dualist heresy of the 12th to 14th Centuries which became so widespread in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France that it inspired a Crusade against fellow Christians, the foundation of the Inquisition (and its pioneering of modern police state tactics), and some of the greatest atrocities of medieval Europe, The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea is a great big-picture survey of the subject.
O’Shea does not go extremely deeply into Cathar theology – or Catholic theology, for that matter – but gives enough detail on Cathar beliefs and practices to give a broad idea of what they are like. Picking up the story around 1167, when a significant convention of heretical thinkers took place in the region, O’Shea then traces the story of the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Cathars – a conflict which soon became a land-grab, an excuse to disinherit the local nobility and to seize their lands and wealth for the French state.
Drawing largely on contemporary testimony – and pulling out some delightfully vivid quotes in the process – O’Shea unpacks incidents of treachery and viciousness on both sides, but it is hard not to see the Catholic Church and the Crusaders it backed as the aggressive party here, with the Cathars and their sympathisers and patrons resorting to desperate measures because they were in a flat-out struggle for survival, one which took in several all-out wars and decades of Inquisitorial oppression.
It certainly says something when even the chroniclers who are on your own side make you out to be genocide-happy maniacs, but that’s the thing about the Albigensian Crusade: those who undertook it were operating on a moral code sufficiently far from our own that they often saw absolutely nothing wrong with the brutal violence inflicted on the Cathars, and so made no effort to conceal atrocities such as the massacre at Béziers (the incident which coined the phrase “Kill them all and let God sort it out”).
Ultimately, O’Shea’s comparatively light look at the doctrinal eccentricities of the Cathars becomes justified when it becomes apparent just how much the religious differences that provided the justification for the Crusade became sidelined, a mere backdrop to a political and military game which saw successive Counts of Toulouse – Counts who were so far as can be told Catholics who were merely accused of failing to persecute heretics rather than being a heretic himself – systematically undermined, humiliated, and eventually utterly disinherited, their aristocratic line perishing so that their lands could ultimately be given to the Pope’s favourites. The epilogue also does an interesting job of tracing the Cathar comeback in pop culture through avenues like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.
This book is naturally great to have to hand if you are running a game set in this location and time period; in particular, anyone running an Ars Magica campaign set in the Provençal Tribunal as described in Faith & Flame will find it a very useful source for describing just what went down and when it happened. It is also an interesting look at how the intersection of warfare, politics, and religion played out during the period. Also, if you’re interested in running an adventure set in a more modern era inspired by all that Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Broken Sword, Da Vinci Code, Gabriel Knight sort of stuff which has riffed on the whole Cathar thing, you could do a lot worse than reading up on the actual history – which you certainly wouldn’t get a good idea of from any of those sources.
The Golden Bough by J.G. Frazer
This is old and is therefore widely available, and also quite out of date. It is, however, quite flavourful because it was quite controversial in its time due to Frazer’s attempt to craft a Grand Unified Theory of anthropology which argued that a vast array of mythological stories and cultural practices had a fairly limited set of specific inspirations, and the way he strayed into treating Christianity like it was just another mythological structure, which Just Wasn’t Done in its time. Lovecraft namedrops the book from time to time, and whilst it’s quite thick, it’s also fairly readable for its era, so if you want to get a handle on what a turn of the century folklorist might find exciting and don’t mind running into the the prejudices of Frazer’s time, it’s worth a skim.
A Ritual of Freemasonry by Avery Allyn
Secret societies of a Masonic or quasi-Masonic nature feature regularly in conspiracy theory (sometimes with tragic results, given the Nazi persecution of Freemasons on the basis of a “Judeo-Masonic conspiracy”), but don’t have to appear in such a slightly grim context. For a span of time, they were a major pastime until interest waned; Masonry itself is suffering something of a recruitment crisis as older Masons age out and younger people are increasingly disinterested in it, and many of the wider penumbra of fraternal societies which riffed on Masonry for their general format have gone extinct. (Adam Parfrey’s Ritual America offers a vivid look at just how widespread such groups were once upon a time.)
It makes sense, then, that from time to time a referee – especially one whose campaign is taking place at some point from the Enlightenment to the 20th Century, when such fraternal societies were at their peak – might want to seek inspiration from Masonic rituals. Whether you want to add a pinch of authenticity to the outer rituals of a Call of Cthulhu sect (before getting into the serious hardcore weirdness), or perhaps a more heroic organisation like the Clondis of Tales of Gargentihr, it can be handy to have an idea of what real-life fraternal organisations and secret(-ish) societies get up to in order to get ideas for your own.
These days there is nothing particularly secret about the rituals of even obscure Masonic off-shoots – plenty of people have put them online, and there’s been so many exposés over the years that a lot of books compiling Masonic rituals have entered the public domain. Avery Allyn’s A Ritual of Freemasonry is not the most up-to-date or complete such collections of Masonic rituals out there – originally published in 1831, it obviously can’t take into account any reforms or re-organisations which took place since then. It does, however, come from a particularly interesting point in history, and is interesting to look at on that level, and precisely because of its great age is readily available via PDF.
“Avery Allyn” was a pseudonym, but the author claimed to be a fairly advanced Freemason; regardless of whether he actually progressed to the point he claimed to have had, it’s evident that he had pretty good sources, because he provides a fairly detailed account of not only the three degree ceremonies of the so-called “blue lodges” – the sort of baseline, big tent version of Freemasonry that represents the first lodge work a new Mason does – but he also dips into a wide range of the sort of side degrees and associated bodies which recruit from the blue lodges.
You can even infer a thing or two about his sources from which degrees he is able to give more or less details on. He evidently had pretty good information on the rituals of the “York Rite” – one of the major associated bodies – but his information on the “Scottish Rite” (the other major appendant body) is rather terse, which suggests that he (or his informants) weren’t able to get much detail on it. At the same time, the book seems to be missing a lot of clarificatory information – like the relationship between the “blue lodge” degrees and the appendant bodies – which one would expect an actual Freemason to know. (In particular, the distinction between the York Rite and the Scottish Rite, and the fact that these are appendant bodies rather than continuations of the blue lodges, is not made clear at all.)
What makes the book interesting is that its emergence in 1831 came at the height of the anti-Masonry hysteria in the US, which saw an Anti-Masonic Party grow to the point where William Wirt, their candidate in the 1832 presidential elections, actually carried Vermont. The moral panic had broken out after the alleged murder of William Morgan, a snubbed Freemason who had threatened to publish a book exposing secret Masonic rituals to the world.
Though Morgan’s fate is deeply unclear, what is certain is that he was arrested on some rather spurious-seeming charges and then sent off into the night with a group of men who’d taken him out of the jail where he was kept, so whilst it’s possible he was encouraged to make himself scarce, the smart money is on him being murdered, with the most likely culprits being Masons who got overzealous about enforcing the admittedly grisly-sounding oaths of secrecy used in the lodge.
Passing references to William Morgan – and to the dastardly threat of the Illuminati – lightly pepper the book, which also takes a moment to denounce the supposedly un-Christian nature of groups like Phi Beta Kappa, one of the earliest college fraternities in the US. This, along with various references in the rituals themselves to the United States and famous American Masons, establishes the book as hailing from the US and largely addressing Masonry as it was practiced in America at the time, making it an interesting snapshot of the times.
The anti-Masonic groups of the era were so hell-bent on exposing the rituals to the world that they even went around doing public performances of them, so as to rob them of their mystique. However, their careful documenting of the rituals may have backfired. Some editions of A Ritual of Freemasonry in fact hail from Masonic publishing houses, intended for a Masonic audience – since such publishers would reprint anti-Masonic works precisely because of the extensive information they’d compiled.
Written in modern enough language that you can easily follow the structure of the ceremonies described therein, A Ritual of Freemasonry is pretty dry in the same way all accounts of Masonic ritual can be rather dry, but it will at least get a chuckle or two when Allyn goes off on one about how beastly this essentially Christian-ethosed play-acting is.
The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage by “Abraham of Worms”
Of the various medieval grimoires which Victorian occultists got overexcited about, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage might have the twistiest part in that history. The Golden Dawn gang put a great importance on it – founder and leader Macgregor Mathers did the English translation which is probably the easiest to find public domain versions of online, and Aleister Crowley latched onto the grimoire hard, taking a bunch of its central concepts and making them central to his personal religion/bespoke occult system of Thelema.
A.E. Waite would profile it somewhat in his Book of Ceremonial Magic and kind of roasts it, but given his feuds with Mathers and Crowley one might be tempted to discount that. However, in this case Waite is right on the money. Despite Macgregor, Crowley, Waite, and the whole Golden Dawn gang maintaining this idea that they were into the occult for spiritual advancement and performing magical rituals for personal enrichment or similar is at best demeaning a high art and at worst spiritually polluting, the whole point of the Sacred Magic is to achieve a state of regular communication with your guardian angel so they can help you summon a horde of hundreds of demons and bind them all to your will, so you can then use little word squares to achieve extremely material, self-interested goals like obtaining money, having a play put on for your entertainment (with a purported date of 1458 and the oldest known manuscripts coming from the early 17th Century, the text was written before television made this trivial), and summoning entire armies.
(To be fair to Crowley, in his system attaining contact with your Holy Guardian Angel is very much framed as your gateway to further occult attainment and further visitors from and trips to elevated spiritual realms. But he largely took the basic idea of the Holy Guardian Angel and junked more or less everything the grimoire says you’re meant to do once you get in touch with them. And to be fair to the Golden Dawn as a whole, the sort of doublethink they were doing here was nothing new. The Sacred Magic itself puts a lot of energy into slamming other magical systems despite basically offering the same sort of deal at the end of the day to most of them.)
Why would Mathers and Crowley hold this in such high regard? Perhaps part of it is because they, along with the rest of the Golden Dawn crowd, where massive Kabbalah enthusiasts, and the Sacred Magic presents itself as a sort of crappy consolation prize version of the Kabbalah. The purported author, one Abraham of Worms, is supposedly a Jewish magician who wrote the book to hand down to his younger son Lamech, because he was going to bestow the inner wisdom of the Kabbalah on his elder son and the magic system of the grimoire is meant to be a sort of second-best treat, a means of attaining magical results which is derivable from the Kabbalah but from which the Kabbalah’s sacred mysteries can’t be reverse engineered.
Whilst there’s some evidence that the actual author of the book did in fact have some knowledge of Jewish mysticism (and some aspects of practical Kabbalah are disclosed in a section of the book not found in the version Mathers used for his translation, but which is present in at least one other manuscript), there’s reasons to doubt his claims as to who he was, why he was writing the book, or how he came by this knowledge in the first place.
Supposedly, Abraham went on a bit of a tour of late medieval Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, eventually meeting the titular Abramelin and getting the real lowdown from him, but his travelogue is light on details of the world beyond Germany. Purporting to be Jewish, Abraham nonetheless makes passing reference to celebrating Easter; whilst an author writing for a majority Christian audience might conceivably refer to Easter instead of Passover (since elsewhere in the book Abraham recommends using one festival or the other to mark the beginning of your magical preparation, depending on the faith you were born into), why would a Jewish author writing a book intended for his son’s eyes only not refer to Passover as the festival celebrated? (The book also includes more or less nothing in terms of inside jokes, references to incidents well-remembered by father and son, or much of anything else which you would expect from a book with the origins it claims.)
The grift does not end there. The actual process of preparing yourself to talk to your angel, kicking off that conversation, and then subjugating the demons to your will and deploying the magic squares is time-consuming (it takes about six months) and, if you’re to do it as written, requires the sort of resources which very few readers would have, and anyone who did have access to all this stuff and who could blow half a year doing all this is more likely to accomplish goals by paying people to go do the job than they are to spend six months on the preparation then trying out some magic squares and hoping for the best.
Abraham claims that there’s ways and means you can adapt the ritual to your circumstances, but gives precious little on the way of pointers on how you can do that and what parts are changeable and what’s essential. This means he has the perfect “out” for when someone has spent six months doing all this stuff only to find their guardian angel doesn’t show; even if Abraham doesn’t use the six months to make a clean getaway, he can just blame the operator botching one part or another of the process. (In addition, if you are determined enough to spend six months on this, you are probably fully capable of persuading yourself you have met your Guardian Angel by the end of that.)
The whole thing comes across as a rather blatant grift which happens to insert a few Kabbalah references so it can be spun as presenting hidden secrets jealously guarded by mysticism-inclined rabbis. However, the sheer awkwardness of the preparatory process meant it was perfect for Crowley’s Golden Dawn pissing contests; his first attempt to do the operation was undertaken at Boleskine House, and whilst there is every chance that Crowley believed in its legitimacy, there’s also reason to think he was doing it in part because if he could accomplish it, then that’d be something he could boast about. Even in his translation, Mathers in his footnotes proposes ways you could simplify the ritual – leave out the 7 year old child who’s meant to act as your personal clairvoyant, for instance – which may well have prompted Crowley in his own more radical re-imagining of a) how you talk to your Holy Guardian Angel, and b) what that actually means.
The Mathers translation of the book may not use the best-organised and most complete source material, but the fact that includes ample interjections and comments from Mathers (as well as an extensive introduction) from him does mean that it’s an interesting chance to see both the ideas expressed by an Renaissance-era grimoire author and one of the Victorian occultists who tried to extensively reinterpret the work of those forebears. It’s also the version of the book that actual Golden Dawn types would have been using.
The odd sort of seclusion required of the magician, the vast powers they supposedly become capable of as a result of this, and the many, many warnings in the book of how things will go badly wrong if you don’t approach things just the right way (too prideful and God won’t help you out, too humble and the demons will treat you as a doormat), and the fact that you are calling up a horde of demons all combine to make the book a rich source of potential for gaming scenarios. (The magic does not even have to be real for htis to work. An NPC’s strange behaviour could be the result of them undertaking the Abramelin Operation, for instance, or a scenario might include a magician who boasts of having obtained these powers spuriously, perhaps for social clout among occultists or to bilk patrons out of money.)
Indeed, someone already used it for Call of Cthulhu, in which the book plays a significant role in one of the scenarios in Dead Light and Other Dark Turns; though there’s no need to have it to hand to run the scenario, it can certainly offer ideas for embellishing it, or for devising followups. It’d be even more appropriate for use in a Cthulhu By Gaslight game, especially one using Pagan Publishing’s Golden Dawn supplement.