Grant, however, took a more organized approach to the subject and began collecting previously-unknown or untranslated esoteric texts from these cultures as well as building relationships with those who had already been initiated into those traditions. This included Michael Bertiaux and David Curwen, as we shall see. But Grant did not stop there.
Other forms of creative spirituality were not immune to Grant’s all- inclusive approach. Art and literature represented, for Grant, additional avenues to explore for greater understanding of the Thelemic project as well as a source of other technologies that could become part of the magician’s arsenal.
Thus, the art of Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) was given as much regard in Grant’s cult as the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. While Lovecraft described the “hideous” practices of Asian and African cults in words, Spare canonized them in his art and his magical system. Grotesque human forms engaged in obscure ritual are powerful images in Spare’s magical worldview, just as grotesque alien beings hold blind, omnipotent sway over humans in Lovecraft’s world. Even more to the point, Spare understood that words—Lovecraft’s metier—have intrinsic magical power as well, and could be manipulated in such a way that the physical representation of a word or phrase could acquire occult potency. It was an attempt to use words as art forms, to reduce words to the ideas they represent: to bring them back to their original status as symbols, as hieroglyphics. Spare’s system was atavistic: a going-back in time to the period when writing was first being invented, a time when the written
word held tremendous magical power and could be interpreted only by the initiates, the priests.
In this, Spare’s system was as much a reference to ancient cults as it was an idiosyncratic occult method of his own devising. This was probably what attracted Grant in the first place, for Spare was a unique individual with a non-denominational approach to occultism. There was no formal Kabbalah in Spare’s system, no nod to Jewish or Christian contexts. Instead, it was a kind of orientalist fantasy of occultism and acted as a reach beyond texts as such to the deeper layers of consciousness where our fears and our anxieties (and our sexuality) are located … somewhere in the limbic brain, perhaps, curled around itself at the top of the spinal cord.
One of the iconic forms of this type of “orientalist fantasy” is the emphasis given to the Kurdish cult of the Yezidi. Since Grant devotes an entire chapter to the Yezidi in his Outer Gateways, it behooves us to investigate this religion further and to try to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion. It was my fortune to have access to his Nameless Cults in the original edition, the so-called Black Book, published in Dusseldorf in 1839, shortly before a hounding doom overtook the author.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Black Stone”
… he thought the ritual was some remnant of Nestorian Christianity tinctured with the Shamanism of Thibet. Most of the people, he conjectured, were of Mongoloid stock, originating somewhere in or near Kurdistan—and Malone could not help recalling that Kurdistan is the land of the Yezidis, last survivors of the Persian devil- worshippers.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”
The Yezidis and the Tibetans. This same comparison would be made by Kenneth Grant decades later, and not in a fictional sense but entirely seriously. While rumors of the Yezidi made their way into European travelogues and archaeological literature in the nineteenth century,90 it wasn’t until the early days of the twentieth century that they became better known and the subject of one book that set the tone for so many future “revelations”: Isya Joseph’s Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz. Published in 1919, Joseph’s book contained the first English versions of the Black Book and the Revelation: two previously secret and unpublished texts said to be the core scriptures of the Yezidi faith and which, according to Joseph, were translated from the Arabic. These texts are referenced in Grant’s books and in other occult and esoteric works that touch on the Yezidi cultus.
Recent scholarship, however, has shown that these two texts are most likely the result of a hoax perpetrated by a well-known antiquities dealer and forger of documents and are not actual Yezidi texts.91 The Yezidi are said to possess what is largely an oral tradition, composed of many disparate elements including—but not limited to—those of Christian,
Islamic, Jewish and possibly Gnostic and Zoroastrian beliefs and practices. While they do speak of a “Black Book” that was written in heaven, their religion is based less on doctrine and more on the correct observance of ritual. That said, it is also generally agreed that the texts of the published “Black Book” and “Book of Revelation” do accurately reflect the basic beliefs of the main Yezidi clans even though they are not genuine Yezidi scriptures.
Grant first mentions the Yezidi at the very outset of his nine-volume series on Thelemic magic, in The Magical Revival first published in 1972. It is clear from this book and virtually all his subsequent works that he considered the Yezidi a core influence and an important spiritual tradition with links to Thelema and specifically to Crowley and Aiwaz. However— except for a single chapter in Outer Gateways—he repeats himself on the subject without adding any new material or justifying his concentration on the Yezidi. Much of his information is taken either from Joseph’s work or from stray remarks by Massey, etc.
The basic ideas are these:
First, the whole attraction of the Yezidi for both Crowley and Grant is the idea that they are devil worshippers. If not for this, they most probably would have been ignored—not only by Crowley and Grant but by a number of nineteenth-century explorers who mention them in travelogues on the Kurdish tribal areas. If there was an ancient sect in the Middle East that had been worshipping the devil since time immemorial, it would be an important element of fin-de-siecle orientalist fantasies about the Black Mass, satanism, and witchcraft.
Second, Grant has the idea—an echo of references found in Massey— that the Yezidi are descendants of the ancient Akkadian and Sumerian cultures that represent some of the oldest (if not the oldest) civilizations in the world of which we have any written record, predating even the Egyptians. This fascination with “origins” is one of the hallmarks of the universalist approach to the study of religion and culture, and is also a component of ideas concerning spiritual succession and lineage (i.e., spiritual authority).
The first of these ideas—that the Yezidi are “devil worshippers”—is connected to the fact that Shaitan is an important element of the Yezidi belief-system. Shaitan—or “Satan”—is the Fallen Angel who rebelled against God when humans were elevated in importance above the angels.
To the Yezidi, Satan will be the first of God’s creatures to enter heaven as he will be the first to be forgiven. This reverence for Shaitan is reflected in the tabu associated with the sound “sh” with which the word Shaitan begins. Yezidi avoid using that sound as much as possible because of its connection. This has led to the misunderstanding that the Yezidi actually worship Shaitan, or Satan. Yet, another point of view on the subject is that the name Shaitan is so sacred—and therefore unpronounceable by the pious—that another form of address and identification had to be created to take its place in normal conversation. While it seems likely that the Yezidi do worship (or at least reverence) Shaitan, and are aware of his demonic associations, they do not associate Shaitan with evil. Shaitan’s “sin” was in refusing to bow down before Man, claiming that he would bend the knee to no other but God as that is what God had commanded from the beginning. So God punished Shaitan for disobeying his second command while honoring him for his commitment to obeying the first command, thus ensuring that Shaitan would be the first creature to be redeemed.
The chief (pronounceable) object of worship among the Yezidi is known as Melek Ta’us,92 the so-called “Peacock Angel,” and has become another focus of Grant’s work—as he associates the peacock with a host of entities and ideas that reinforce his overall concept of a Dark Lord. This is a subject we will examine shortly, but some observers have claimed that Melek Ta’us and Shaitan are one and the same. Indeed, the cosmologies and creation stories of the Yezidi tend to support this idea at times, and to contradict it at others. In the absence of a written text, this confusion (at least to outsiders) is inevitable.
The second issue of importance to Grant is the idea that the Yezidi are somehow descendants or survivors of the Sumerians. Grant’s equation can be summarized as: Sumer = Yezidi = Satan = Aiwass. In order to address this idea we have to ask: who are the Yezidi, and where did they come from?
This is a controversial area for ethnologists, politicians, anthropologists and historians of religion alike. The Yezidi themselves claim an origin variously in India or in Sumer; to split the difference, there is a claim that they came from India to Sumer, and are descendants of the Sumerians themselves.93 That they are presently considered a Kurdish clan is based mostly on their language—most Yezidi speak a form of Kurdish known as Kurmanji—and upon the fact that their tribal lands are within Kurdish
territory in northern Iraq and are often counterminous with Kurdish lands in other areas in Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc. This connection may also be due to the fact that the Kurds in general are subject to varying degrees of discrimination and outright genocide (such as under the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and the Yezidis are easily one of the most discriminated-against clans in the world.
The problem of the origins of the Yezidis as well as the nature of their religious philosophy is compounded by the fact that their leaders seem to say different things to different people, as is evidenced by the wide variety of academic and journalistic sources that all seem to contradict each other on essential points. The lack of a definitive written scripture only adds to the confusion among outside observers. Combine this with the violent upheavals to which the Yezidis have been subjected over hundreds of years and which entailed the loss of land, documents, and the near genocide of their people on religious and political grounds, and it is a wonder that they have survived as long as they have and that their sacred shrine of Lalish— believed by them to be the center of the universe—still stands in northern Iraq, near the Turkish border.
For our purposes, however, there are actually several pieces of circumstantial evidence that indicate the Yezidis are closer to Grant’s concept of them than first appear. In the first place, we remember from the previous chapter that the Egyptian god Set was fond of lettuce and that is how he was tricked into consuming the semen of Horus. Oddly, the consumption of lettuce is tabu among the Yezidis. The “exoteric” explanation for this is that the word for lettuce sounds too similar to the name of one of their prophets. But if the name Shaitan is indeed a version of the Egyptian name Set, then the lettuce tabu makes perfect sense.
Another strange coincidence lies in the fact that the Kurdish word for “God” is Khudâ or “Lord.”94 We cannot help but recognize the similarity between Khudâ and Kutu, the Sumerian word for the Biblical city of Gudua or Cutha, which—according to the Schlangekraft recension of the Necronomicon—is the basis for the name of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or “Man of Cutha” or “Man of Kutu”: Kutulu. Cutha was ruled by the Sumerian god Nergal and was believed to be the gate to the Underworld, which once again supports a Sumerian or Babylonian connection to the Yezidis who do, after all, live in a region that was once part of the Babylonian empire.
Indeed, the ancient site of Nineveh95 is not far from Lalish and the modern Iraqi city of Mosul.
All that said, while there is no proof that the Yezidis are descendants of the Sumerians or even from another migrating tribe from northern India or Persia, their religion and culture is distinct from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish practices and theologies. One of their most revered leaders— Sheikh Adi—was by most accounts a Sufi mystic. While many observers agree that the Yezidi religion is syncretistic—a combination of various elements from other religious practices including most probably Persian Zoroastrianism, in some ways like Santeria and other Afro-Caribbean religions that mixed Roman Catholic iconography and ritual with indigenous African belief systems—the Sufi element is one that probably encouraged the incorporation of antinomian and even transgressive beliefs, such as the idea that the Fallen Angel will be the first to be redeemed along with the Yezidis. It was after all Sufism that was the first Islamic presence in the islands of Java and Sumatra in the fifteenth century (and earlier) and its influence can be seen there today in such practices as visiting graves, reverencing saints, etc. which are also hallmarks of Yezidism but which are not accepted Islamic practice. In fact, Grant himself seems to make the connection between syncretistic forms of religion, expanded consciousness, and contact with supramundane entities when he writes:
The Amenta of the Egyptians is identical to the Agharta of the Mongols. The latter with their pre-Buddhistic Bön complex, and shamanistic rites with Tantric implicits, produced a weird combination of savage grotesquery and the profound metaphysical adumbrations of the SÛnyâtavâda. … It is therefore in the Eskimo- shamanistic and the Bön impregnated Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Java and Sumatra, that the fundamental tenets of the Madhyamaka—as permeating the Nyingmapa and Drukpa Cults— are relevant to the Necronomicon Gnosis.96
Without going into detail on the definitions of the Buddhist terms, the first impression one gets from that passage is that Grant is playing fast and loose with his attributions by linking Amenta (the Egyptian land of the Dead) to Agharta, the fabled underground city believed hidden somewhere in the Himalayas.97 That there may be a close connection between the indigenous Bön religion of Tibet and Tantric practices is being debated by
scholars of the literature; as is the idea that Bön is a survival of an older, shamanistic cult which certainly seems to be the case. Grant’s boldness, however, lies more in making the case that Tibetan Buddhism (which is primarily Tantric) is somehow cognate with Egyptian mysteries and the Necronomicon; and that “savage grotesquery” and “profound metaphysical adumbrations” can combine to form a new kind of spiritual methodology. But this is Grant’s forte.