No. 13 – The Number Thirteen, Black Magic, Mysticism, Swordplay and Sorcery

Number 13: a 13th Amazing Stories post. I interrupt my regularly scheduled posts, in my ongoing series of discussing writers of classic science fiction (and the inner meanings therein), to consider the number 13 (and its inner meanings therein). A full quarter of the year has passed and it seems some kind of celebratory diversion is in order.

Triskaidekaphobia, fear of 13, implicates deeper meaning to all numbers, and by inference, all symbols. Human history has infused 13 with special meaning, dark and portentous. It is infused with importance by the mystical, the magical, and the purveyors of the occult. 13, being a prime number, deserves a special place in the pantheon of numbers.

13th Tarot Card - Death

The 13th card in the tarot deck is Death, a mystical connection that insinuates into our fears. While my misspent youth was in full bloom, I indulged in reading tarot cards for clients. I stumbled into this avocation quite by accident, it being a bit of a fad during my early college days. To my utter surprise, my clients thought I was better at than I did.

Perhaps other practitioners were less jaded than I, but I didn’t believe there was anything inherently mystical about the cards. Not at first, I supposed. When I was just an observer, reading tarot was like other card trick … a form of entertainment.  Any random selection of tarot cards, I was certain, would work. The key, I believed, lay in the medium’s (my) skill in concocting a story that was especially crafted to the client. The cards merely provided a pathway into the client’s heart.

And the client always cooperated. Always! I merely let them guide me through the story the client had inside them. They always wanted a story: even the most ardent disbelievers. They would tell me, every time, what they wanted to hear in this story. I was merely a shepherd, guiding them through a daytime dream that the tarot cards opened up from within themselves. Their somnambulant psyches would spontaneously awaken, revealing their inner selves, if I just didn’t get in the way.

You can imagine the fear this caused me when I discovered how readily people would give me power over their imaginations. This often troubled me greatly. Especially when these people would return, sometimes after more than a week, occasionally in public settings, and loudly proclaim my mystical abilities to anyone who would listen.

For me, it was an exercise in poise, greatly suffused with anxiety. I was soon hiding from clients, fearful of the encounters that I could see would, in some emotionally charged catharsis, come to a sticky end.

Occult practitioners, I learned, unleash powers. They do not control them.

Now, being a book lover, I would often freely exchange one interesting book for another, … more fascinating book. Well, one day an exchange was made and there was no mistaking what this book was about. Its dark blue, hard cover binding, embossed with a silver pentagram surrounded with what could only be occult symbols, loudly proclaimed it to be special…unique…and possibly—terrifyingly—real. There was no text announcing the book’s title: just the disturbing symbols.

Pentagram - Eliphas Levi
Pentagram – Eliphas Levi

Inside, the title page, proclaimed the author was Eliphas Levi. He was a one-time Jesuit monk who left the order and subsequently married a French sculptress, Marie-Noémi Cadiot, (his second wife).

His early life included memories of being ordered into a solitary cell, restricted to a morsel of bread and water, and he remarked upon his subsequent visions. I remember discounting it on the first reading, thinking: “Of course, you idiot. Malnutrition is bound to bring on lightheadedness and visions.” Levi saw these visions as an integral part of his spiritual journey through life and is remembered as instigating the revival of magic in Western culture.

This volume begins with a background on the meaning of various symbols (both numbers and the Hebrew alphabet), reviews the Kabballah (tradition), and, through out the book, explores many familiar subjects like astral projection. It is also the only book I have ever read that possessed a chapter on the practical matters of Black Magic. It was written with serious intent for serious students of the occult. Within that chapter on Black Magic, is a ceremony for an invocation of the Devil.

In general, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Devil. While I try to be polite to everyone, I’m not going to go out of my way to encourage conversation with someone who is reputed to be so out of favor with God.

The Devil, apparently, requires drawing a large, encircled pentagram, using animal parts, extracting a victim’s beating heart, … How could I put the book down? I’m still wondering what the historical basis underlying this invocation is. This descent into darkness certainly invokes some kind of evil. The disturbed individuals involved in this ceremony no doubt walk down a dark path invoking the Devil.

Eliphas Levi’s work is both fiction (my opinion) and (consequent to its publication) history. It is a collective history of dark and primal fears. In fairness, Levi didn’t write as a fanatic, but maintains an academic posture throughout. The book explores good and bad, dark and light, with perfect equanimity. Indeed, it is the perfectibility of humans in its more positive spiritual aspects that make the book stand apart from other works.

Perhaps for these reasons, I sometimes look askance at the Sword & Sorcery tales in the Fantasy genre. There are, indeed, dark forces in the world. After reading Levi, I am now aware of how modern day covens of witches engage in their serious discussions, and their self education, about magic, mysticism, and the occult … and why the religious right sometimes encourages a book burning … (and maybe a witch or two).

I can also imagine the nature of the true and the untrue. Levi, in this work declares:

“…magic is the proportionate ratio … of what we know … to what we don’t know.”

At one time, purveyors of magic were pervasive and widely thought by many to be very real. People took magic very seriously. Our mystical tenets and superstitions have receded as the post-modern age advances.

While reading Fantasy is now intended as light reading, its wellspring is darker. Mysticism and Magic, I suspect, may be buried more deeply in our psyche than any fear of a science fiction monster or hostile alien. Perhaps not, but it’s difficult to deny its underlying passions. Those passions tap into more than just our latent fears. They cross over into spiritual beliefs.

Many spiritual beliefs aren’t really beliefs. They are primal feelings, not the cogent reasonings of sentient beings. They are suspicions that are separated from words or language. They are superstitions that only speak to us through the raised hairs sticking straight up on the back of our necks.

Fantasy writers draw much of their appeal from these deeply rooted fears and passions. I was an early fan of Andre Norton and Sword & Sorcery still appeals to me.

Two recent Fantasy writers have attracted my admiration and I’ll mention them here: Patrick Rothfuss and Elizabeth Moon.

Rothfuss has explored the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre of Fantasy with two fairly recent books: The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear. I consider both of them excellent. They both have some very original material within the book covers. His writing is engaging at almost any point in the storyline and his protagonist collects personal faults like pocket lint. You’ll like this fool (the character—not Rothfuss), despite his faults. You don’t care that sometimes the troubles he brings upon himself is deserved. That’s what makes him heroic and very human.

One plot device he uses to effect is the metaphor of a young man’s difficulties in attending University. This is not a Harry Potter school. This student is a more mature character for a more mature audience. The subject matters this protagonist studies ring true. One is Sygaldry: a method of inscribing runes upon objects that consequently embeds magical properties within them. Almost sounds like an ITEC course on Material Sciences in the Engineering and TechnologyCollege near you.

Elizabeth Moon’s character, Paksenarrion, begins with the sword, but transmogrifies into a superior being, a vessel of her chosen God’s will, because she is fully committed to justice and will pay any price her God demands of her.

One thing about this character comes from Moon’s own military background, which is used to good effect on Paksenarrion. The character is a foot soldier and you come to believe that this character has really been there in the trenches and on the battlefield. The superstitions of a soldier, surrounded by death, are a natural outgrowth of their profession.

Many readers of Sword & Sorcery may never have heard of Eliphas Levi, but you might want to research him. He had a big impact on Aleister Crowley, one of the modern progenitors of magic’s resurgence in Europe and the United States.

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