Halloween and the Monstrous

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Irenaeus Tweed

Lovecraft knew that, in mythology, the distinction between what we term a “god” and what we term a “monster” is largely a matter of perspective, that is, where we are standing and in relation to whom.

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“Of such great powers or beings, there may be conceivably a survival...a survival of a hugely remote period when...consciousness was manifested, perhaps, in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity...forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds.”

-Algernon Blackwood

So H.P. Lovecraft began “The Call of Cthulhu,” easily the most famous of his voluminous works, in which he lays out many of the essential elements of his mythos. Here we learn of the...  

Great Old Ones [who] were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape—for did not this star-fashioned image prove it?--but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them. But at that time some force from outside must serve to liberate Their bodies. The spells that preserved Them intact likewise prevented Them from making an initial move, and They could only lie awake in the dark and think whilst uncounted millions of years rolled by. They knew all that was occurring in the universe, but Their mode of speech was transmitted thought. Even now They talked in Their tombs. When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshly minds of mammals.

Lovecraft knew that, in mythology, the distinction between what we term a “god” and what we term a “monster” is largely a matter of perspective, that is, where we are standing and in relation to whom. Cthulhu is easily recognized as a monster by generations of Lovecraft’s readers and receptionists, in large part because he is a primal threat to what we consider normative human existence: the Great Old Ones, and Cthulhu among them, are forces prior and posterior to the human, who exceed the competence of human intelligence and morality to describe or control. Human misbehavior is an afterthought of their malice, grave human vices an amusement. But for this reason Cthulhu is also, in the various fictitious worlds in which he appears from the Necronomicon to South Park, the object of worship for those who find the human social order unjust, repressive, or idolatrous in its own fashion. Cthulhu and his chaotic evil are worthy objects of worship for those plagued by morality that has no end in view transcendent of the mercantile: where one is good to avoid hell and gain heaven, but not because Goodness is the fundamental rhythm of reality. Likewise many of the gods that humans worship belong, ontically speaking, to the monstrous order, as superbeings beyond human ken: the Aesir, the Olympians, the devas. Humans worship these beings because they provide a safe cosmic fabric within which the commerce of human life can take place: humans, in essence, pay these superiors off to protect the human world from devouring chaos. But as mythology reminds us, these gods are themselves beyond human moral concerns: they make sport of humans, both literally and sexually; they take inconsistent interest in human moral behavior and political fortune; they rejoice in grotesque human sufferings just as much as they revel in animalistic human pleasure. The main distinction between Zeus and Typhon is that the former desires the world as a kingdom he can rule, while the latter desires only consumption; in every other respect they are, or at least should be from the human perspective, alien, with all the threatening, ominous, eerie aura that the alien induces in us.

I suppose there are some distinctions between gods and monsters. Mythologies usually construe divinities as rational in an order analogous to that of humans; monsters usually represent the irrational, submental forces of the universe. So in the Enuma Elish, for example, the mother goddess Tiamat is the watery ocean and the dragon in the sea, while it is the youngest of the gods, Marduk, who has the wisdom and courage to defeat her; Zeus is also the youngest of the gods, and overthrows the older, increasingly more cosmic Titans in Hesiod’s Theogony in order to establish the rule of the youngest generation of the pantheon, after which he has to carefully police the children of that generation in the form of the demigods (hence the “will of Zeus” to bring an end to the age of heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey). This pattern is the reason why in so many philosophical allegorizations of myth from antiquity the monstrous is so often conflated with the material and (unfortunately, reflecting the prejudices of ancient people) the female, while the divine corresponds to the noetic (and archetypically male, though there are of course feminine divinities). So in Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride, for example, Osiris is the Divine Logos emerging from the Monad, while Isis is the rational element of the cosmic soul, capable of receiving and reconstituting the Logos’ pure intellectual ideations after their dismemberment by the lower soul and the material world (signified by what is in the Egyptian myth the god Set and in the Greek rendition the monster-god Typhon). But both gods and monsters belong, in a way, to the prehuman and transhuman cosmos, to orders of being beyond our own, and perhaps so myriad in number and complex beyond our conceptual prowess that we can hardly conceive their exact relationship.  

Thus the complexities, overlaps, and conflations evident not just in Greco-Roman mythography, but also in the technical taxonomies of Greco-Roman religion. On one reading, humans stand at the bottom of a cosmic scale that includes divinized humans or demigods, daimons, monsters and gods proper, and then, at the far end, the One God who transcends the cosmic chain of being as the source of Being itself; but then, of course, Zeus can be seen as a symbol or a representative or an avatar or indeed simply a symbolic name for the One, daimon and theos can be collapsed in either direction to refer to either kind of being, and so forth. The category of the monstrous introduces a further kind of complication to the neatness of the picture that a cosmic hierarchy implies: the relational quality of all judgments of being. Finite being, by its very nature, stands in a relationship to other finite beings, of quality, of quantity, of measure, of intensity, but also of sympathy. The gods, as especially excellent instances of finite being, are only knowable as “gods” by virtue of their relation to all other beings; and they are only knowable as “gods” rather than as “monsters” by their exercise of agency on behalf of the interests of those other beings. What meaningfully separates Thor from Galactus (who stand in an uneasy alliance just now in Marvel Comics’ current run of Thor against a monstrous threat of multiversal scale that dwarfs the worst excesses of Galactus) and Godzilla from the Mind Flayer (both of Stranger Things and of its Dungeons & Dragons source material) is that in both cases the former make use of power to protect and serve the lesser, while the latter seek to exercise power to consume, destroy, and assimilate. (A great primer on this dynamic would be the early chapters of M. David Litwa’s We Are Being Transformed.)  

If the monstrous only came to us from the cosmic peripheries—from what Lovecraft called in his 1920 poem “October” the “wells of space,” the vast reaches of the ancient heavens, the deep, dark, and countless eras from the beginning of time, or the endless subterranean hells of the earth and the abyssal encircling sea—then we would perhaps be able to ignore them. Here on the land we have slain the monsters; here in the world of humans we live protected from monstrous backlash, if only we will stop pushing the boundaries of our toleration (cue here every story of titanic retribution for ecological sins). But human legend and folklore is as full of the monstrous as is myth. The draconic, the chimaeric, the ghoulish, the sorcerous, the chthonic, the bewitched, the ghostly, the vampiric, the demonic—humans have historically believed in such things, and many indigenous and traditional cultures still keep their memory very much alive elsewhere in the world, while fantasists, folklorists, and magicians tend to be their main advocates in the modern West. To their number we today might add also encounters with unidentified aerial phenomena and extraterrestrials, which encounters seem to gain more potential credence (especially with each passing year of governmental slow fade into blunt honesty with the public regarding these matters). Modernity, like the Lady of the Green Kirtle, strumming her harp in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, will go on insisting that all such beings are merely the projections of human psychosis onto the unexplained, despite the fact that people continue to experience and report encounters with them, using the traditional categories as their interpretive symbols, including intelligent, honest, and scientifically-oriented people. There may well have been some modernists who are like the Green Lady herself, or like Francois Alcasan or John Wither from That Hideous Strength, who know and collude with the “macrobes” in the slumbering enchantment of contemporary humans, gaslighting them concerning their perception of the preternatural so as to cut off any possible route to the supernatural; but in most cases I think that polite modern chuckling at the monstrous is a coping mechanism for the discomfort which the category presents to a technocratic, dystopian world order addicted to control. The monstrous is by definition that which exceeds human awareness and control, and opposes it, not with the hatred of misunderstanding but with the carelessness of ignorance. Suppose a poltergeist haunted Jeff Bezos, or Donald Trump: would it know whom it tormented? Would it care?

Christians are not immune to the dilemma created by the universal human experience and fear of the monstrous, on the one hand, and the gently mocking laughter of the modern world on the other, though in like manner to the majority of people with respect to their vulnerabilities, they are not usually conscious of the problem. Historically most Christians—and most Jews, for that matter—have believed in the grimoire that emerges both from a close reading of scriptural text and from the inherited wisdom of their particular cultural lineages. Indeed, much of contemporary monster culture as it exists in popular fantasy and science fiction and even in practiced magic is borrowed, consciously or unconsciously, from Christian sources of transmission, just as is much contemporary paganism (again, fictitious and real). And in the case of Western Christians, there is a regularly scheduled liturgical confrontation with the monstrous: All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, the first vigil for the triduum of Allhallowtide.

The contemporary fad of publishing on the “pagan” origins of Christian holidays is worn out: it is now part of the popular consciousness that Halloween has a source or at least a strong parallel in the Celtic Samhain, or that Saturnalia and Yule both have a hand in the thematic aesthetics of Christmastide, or that the English name for Pascha, “Easter,” has an etymological root in the Old English name for April, Eastermonath, so-named for the Germanic goddess Eostre. We rightly tire of such ritual remembrances in tabloid print and internet clickbait, for two reasons. First, the sensationalist intentions of the authors always overwhelm the evidence at hand. That late antique Greeks and Romans and medieval Celts and Anglo-Saxons Christianized their traditional calendars by the association of the major Christian feasts—drawn doubly from the liturgical calendar of Israel and the lives of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints—simply showcases their good tactics as evangelists. And second, building on this, it is therefore worth pointing out that these associations, when and where they appear, are the boast of the Church, not her shame. They testify to the success of the gentile mission: the nations, and indeed their gods, have submitted to the conquering Christ. This apostolic logic, by which the first generation of the Jesus movement understood the influx of gentiles into what was in nature and purpose a sect of first-century Judaism, applies just as readily to the “baptism” of pagan culture in Christian history.  

So I will waste no more breath on it: Halloween is indeed a Christianized celebration of the old Celtic festivals celebrating the thinning of the walls between the worlds, the chance to commune with the faerie, and to visit with the dead. So it is that, probably in response to the practice of Celtic and Germanic Christians, Pope Gregory IV elected, in AD 835, the liturgical day that begins on the evening of the 31st of October and ends on the evening of November 1st as the memorial for all the saints, and the subsequent day as a day of prayerful intercession on behalf of those souls having departed in God’s friendship in need of further purification before ascending to the divine throne. If the turn of the fall season headlong toward winter (the Old English name for the Roman October was Winterfylleð), harvest season (around or shortly after the biblical festival of Sukkot) was the time when the spiritual and material worlds were the most directly aligned, then this was the opportune time for the Church Militant to turn its mind to its communion with the Churches Suffering and Triumphant in a bond that transcends time, space, and matter, reveling in the victory of Christ over death.

And not only over death, but hell, too: the popularization of this feast involved not the abolition but the integration of many of those practices that have come to define our contemporary Halloween. Soul cakes, danses macabres, costumed aping of goblins and ghosts: all of these are, however distant, receptions of the pagan meaning of the festival in the Latin Christian oikoumene (since the Eastern feast of All Saints remains just after Pentecost). And in its later European and distinctively North American form, Halloween’s chance to reflect on mortality and the macabre includes also the monstrous, in many ways the dark side of faerie as it was known to the ancients. Hence the increasingly popular Catholic apology for the celebration of Halloween: contemporary guising and indulgence in horror is a celebration of the triumph of Christ over the powers of darkness in the cosmos by the cross and the harrowing of hell, that same triumph in which all of the saints in heaven, and especially the Blessed Mother of God, share raucously. This is indeed true: Allhallowtide turns Western Christians mentally toward the eschaton, and especially toward the Feast of Christ the King. In Allhallowtide, Western Christians begin to contemplate their immediate end in view of the ultimate end which they and the cosmos share in common.

But to liturgically celebrate the triumph of Christ requires a confrontation with the monstrous. It means an intellectual and imaginative encounter with the inhuman which Christ, the Son of Man, has subdued (Daniel 7). Liturgically, Western and Eastern Christians alike are prepared for this by the fairly close falling feasts of Michaelmas and Holy Guardian Angels on the Roman calendar and Synaxis of the Archangels on the Byzantine: the angels are those inhuman creatures whom we best like to fantasize and depict, because they are benevolent to us. But we must also consider the cosmic and the demonic, the faerie and the devilish, without collapsing their integrity. The conflation of these categories is a constant temptation for the Christian: it is a way of avoiding the implications of the monstrous, that is, of creatures who are not merely antipathetic to the human but indeed successfully apathetic. The faerie is wild and diverse: its members are potentially good or evil or ambivalent, its moniker a catch-all for the elemental and primordial forces of the universe which stand ensconced in varying degrees of spiritual and material reality and whose cosmography likely dissents from ours in many ways. Faerie encompasses the monstrous and the titanic on the way downward to the demonic just as it encompasses the elvish and the spritely on the way up to the angelic: the versatility of faerie reminds us that the Origenian principle of the interchangeable metamorphic capacities of all rational beings is horrifically right, that “god” and “monster” both are analogical terms. We certainly find them predicable of ourselves in different instances: the former of the saints, the latter of the demoniac.

It is only by knowing and distinguishing the panoply of rational beings in the cosmos—not unlike Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2—that the triumph of Christ over the universe can have any meaning for us. Like YHWH overpowering Leviathan—indeed, as YHWH overpowering Leviathan—Christ comes into the world to do battle with the chaos monsters as much as with the demons. His atonement for sin, conquest of the underworld, resurrection and ascension over all the celestial powers signifies that the final victory over the monstrous has been handed to the victorious Son of Man (Daniel 7), and indeed, which continues to be handed over to the Son of Man in the person of the saints (since, after all, his victory represents that of the “saints of the Most High”; Dan 7:18). The memory of the monstrous on Halloween makes the tropaia on All Saints and Christ the King the more romping: for Christ is to us the Mighty God, and to the monsters the very monstrum of God.

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