The Loney is a rural folk horror novel set in the north of England, dealing with a folk Christianity which blends seamlessly into the pagan ways of yore. It is also a study in the social aspects of religiosity, family and the idealization of the past; characters and setting will reverberate with people who have been raised in a Christian environment. Most of all, it is as British as books go.
Pros: -Excellent prose, flowing, and eloquent without falling into pitfalls of pretense and archaic language. -The rural environment is evoked extremely vividly; it seems that the author has deep first-hand experience. -Moorings
(the house where the families stay in their annual pilgrimage), the
surrounding countryside, Coldbarrow, the Loney, they are all places that
feel intimate with all who have lived in the countryside (not
necessarily the English one). You can easily get lost in the interior of
Moorings, in the nooks and items and stone walls, wallowing in
half-remembered half-imaginary nostalgia. -Most of the characters are
very well written and developed. Normally I do not care about character
development, but here the writer does a splendid job. -The setting
comes alive organically through bits and pieces and fragments of
description: folklore, décor, discarded items, they all fit in the
world, not feeling forced (something that could have easily be with such
a cliché setting). -Bits of philosophical and religious wisdom hidden within the flow of the narrative, like reverie musings.
plot is quite vague, leaving many branches to fade away in hazy mist.
What is more, some of the main plot points are underwhelmingly resolved,
leaving an unfulfilled sensation. -It could definitely benefit from more lore, especially area-specific. Too much is left in the readers’ imagination.
Be forewarned: the pacing is slow, the action minimal, the focus on characters and environment absolute.
All in all, it as a surprising specimen of subtle horror, religious/magical realism and symbolic thought. It could be improved, especially plot-wise, but as a debut it is impressive.
Trekking through the entirety of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose writings has been a long and rewarding experience. The fifth and final part of the journey, The Last Hieroglyph, is mainly characterised by a good level of quality and a (not unrelated to the previous point) shortage of heavy sci-fi material. It also includes a number of stories written after CAS’s main period of activity (namely after the ’30s). These do stand out, in terms not of quality but of writing style: they are more modern (though still quite eloquent, especially vocabulary-wise) and taboo subjects as sex are not being self-censored as much as in his golden pulp era.
Bad: -The Dart of Rasasfa: A couple from Earth is stranded in a hostile planet and captured by serpent people who want to sacrifice them. CAS’s last story is arguably a mess, almost a parody of his writing. Pulpy sci-fi in genre, the plot is weak, and the pacing pretty tiring. To his defense, this was written while weakened and ill.
Mediocre: -The Witchcraft of Ulua: A wizard apprentice visits the king’s court, where he is under constant siege by the princess (also a witch) who tries to seduce him. Due to an amulet given to him by the wizard, as well as his own merit, he is proven immune to the seduction. When he returns to the wizard, the old man performs a ritual that brings doom upon the palace. Part of the Zothique cycle. Highly puritan in spirit and character, this is a classic example of how embedded the Christian/Neoplatonic fear and hatred of the flesh is, even in writers who would definitely not be characterized as religious. Other than that, the writing is a typical example of CAS’s mastery.
-The Chain of Aforgomon: A man is found dead. His journal reveals how he tapped memories of a vastly ancient previous incarnation of his, discovering a terrible hubris this incarnation had performed against the god of time. This is a mediocre foray into the reincarnation theme, where previous life deeds haunt the «descendants.» Nice idea but not terribly great executed, just leaves a blunt aftertaste.
-Xeethra: A shepherd boy enters a cave, only to be possessed by the spirit of a long dead prince, whose consciousness quickly overwhelms that of his host. The deceased starts looking for his city of old. Part of the Zothique cycle. This slides into the reincarnation-themed stories of CAS. Something of a fairy-tale, with the echo of ominous fae elves in the distance, a hue of melancholy and nostalgia, as well as the ever-present demonic pact. Solid, though not spectacular.
-The Death of Ilalotha: One of the queen’s consorts, enchanted in life and in death by the lady-in-waiting Ilalotha, visits her tomb in the deep of the night, and the jealous queen follows suit. Part of the Zothique cycle. Many a time had the stories of CAS been rejected by magazines with the excuse that they are prose poems rather than proper stories, something almost never justified. In this particular case the story does resemble non-prose art transmuted into prose, though I would say it is sculpture, not poetry that provides the raw material. A sword & sorcery foray into Poe.
-The Great God Awto: A lecture from the far future of Earth, concerning the ancient Hamurriquanes people and their sacrificial religious frenzy. This was unexpected. Akin to the Nacirema case of Horace Mitchell Miner, it is permeated with CAS’s mistrust of technology and modernity. A curio.
-Strange Shadows: A man starts seeing people casting strange shadows in lieu of their normal ones. Set in the contemporary era. Another atypical specimen of a story, this one is quite sexually suggestive, and exudes a Twilight Zone vibe.
-The Enchantress of Sylaire: Having become a recluse due to unrequited love, the protagonist encounters an enchantress and follows her to her world. There he meets with her previous lover and is forced to choose between his former and new love. Part of the Averoigne cycle. A play on the seduced-by-the-otherworldly theme, with a bit of lycanthropy thrown in. Reminiscent of Circe and fae abductions. The rather unexpected ending fails to elevate it beyond mediocrity.
-Double Cosmos: A disappeared chemist has left behind a manuscript in which he describes the perception-expanding experiments that revealed to him the existence of a parallel world, in which exist doubles of everything in our world, including him. Interesting musings concerning cause and effect, as well as the interaction of instances of the same being. Solid.
–Nemesis of the Unfinished:A semi-autobiographical story in which the protagonist finds certain unfinished tales of his being completed while asleep, and watches as the piles of incomplete material keep expanding. A rather predictable story of no large shock value or atmosphere, not very memorable.
-Morthylla:A brooding melancholic poet seeks out a lamia in the wilderness. He finds a woman that seems to fit his criteria. Part of the Zothique cycle. Tragic poet and undead with a twist. The story simply doesn’t stand out, as its plot seems banal.
-Monsters in the Night:A werewolf lies in waiting for his next victim which turns out to be a bit more than he can stomach. Very small story with a twist in the end, nothing spectacular or even memorable.
-Phoenix:In the far future humanity has sought refuge underground, after the sun has dimmed. Now, the protagonist embarks on a desperate space mission to re-ignite the sun via a number of atomic bombs. An okay dramatic sci-fi story that seems to bit the (uncredited) inspiration for 2007 Sunshine film.
-Symposium of the Gorgon:A man finds himself in a feast hosted by the mythological Gorgon; her myth is swiftly reenacted and then the protagonist, after a brush with petrification, finds himself in a tropical island, where he is a novelty for the cannibal indigenous people. A pocket of mythology in the contemporary world, sadly with almost no integration. The story feels like a dreamy Dunsanian excerpt, with a strong undercurrent of hatred of the modern world, but also many stereotypes. Could have been better.
Good: -The Dark Age:After the collapse of contemporary civilisation, the vast majority of humanity has returned to an uncivilized life, with only a handful remaining as secretive keepers of now-lost knowledge. One of them abandons the citadel and joins the «wild» people, has a son and is lost. His son grows up and tries to avert an attack upon the citadel. Though they idealized the noble savant, CAS, Howard and the others of the pulp age had an almost obsessive adherence to civilization, considering it as the last threshold against Chaos. Here, in the story’s last paragraph, is one of the rare moments that CAS stands back and wanders – totally worth it. Other than that the story is pretty well-executed in plot and pacing, though not stepping over the greatness threshold.
-The Tomb Spawn:A pair of jewelers stumble upon the desert ruins of a forgotten city and discover the grotesque tomb of a magician-king and his extraterrestrial servant. Part of the of the Zothique circle. Of oriental hue, sort of dungeon crawl. Highly memorable grotesquery and tight-packed action. A solid piece of delving adventure writing.
-The Seven Geases:An arrogant military general is lost in the mountains, interrupting a wizard’s ritual. The sorcerer curses him with a geas that takes him in a tour of seven underground realms, each with a ruler more alien than the previous. Part of the Hyperborean Cycle. This is an excellent basis for an underground RPG campaign setting, describing what could be a megadungeon with seven large sections. Tsathoggua, serpent people, and other beings pass from our sight as the detestable protagonist is forced to descend into the bowels of the earth. Richly decorated with a very sudden ending.
-The Primal City:The protagonists climb unexplored mountains in search for an ancient city. They discover the existence of tremendous nebulous guardians the hard way. The idea of this short story is amazing, as is its execution. Giants guard an ancient city – menacing clouds that hunt all trespassers. It has something of the cosmic natural majesty of Algernon Blackwood, a truly breathtaking spectacle.
-Necromancy in Naat:A nomad prince goes half across the world searching for his abducted fiancé. He ends up in the island of Naat where necromancers rule. There he falls under their thrall and is intertwined in their byzantine schemes. Part of the Zothique cycle. Pulp/folk-tale adventure with a strong emphasis on the wonders of necromancy. Reminiscent of the Isle of the Torturers from the previous volume. This is a good story with wonderful imagery. It falls short of Greatness due to its never going beyond the mundane – even with a host of magic, it all seems to human.
-The Treader of the Dust:A contemporary occultist returns home to find it unnaturally full of dust. His servant is missing and his latest grimoire has been disturbed. Short horror piece with a brooding archaic atmosphere. Nothing spectacular but nice to roll upon. The ending with the star is a nice touch. Extra solid.
-Mother of Toads:An apothecary’s apprentice visits a witch to get some ingredients. This crone, the Mother of Toads, seduces him with an aphrodisiac potion. When he tries to escape, he finds that a legion of toads hamper his flight from the swamp. Part of the Averoigne cycle. This unusually somatic and erotic tale (written initially for a different type of magazine than the pulp usual suspects) has a strong fairy-tale vibe with a carnal hue. Thus it resembles more than anything one of the imaginal forms of the pre-modern fairy-tale. Very vivid description of both swamp and amphibian element, a quick foray into mythic mires of witchcraft.
-The Garden of Adompha:A bored king and his wizard have a garden wherein they graft human body parts on plants. The king decides to use the wizard’s body so as to pump up the garden’s magic. Part of the Zothique cycle. A very vivid foray into the blending of forms and beings, quite extreme for CAS yet utterly enjoyable.
-The Master of the Crabs:Following a treasure map wielded by an enemy, a wizard and his apprentice end up in an uninhabited island, amidst some very single-minded crabs. Part of the Zothique cycle. This is also highly grotesque, painted with colorful, adventurous strokes, and expands the Zothique universe. Not stellar but formidable.
-The Theft of the 39 Girdles:Satampra Zeiros and Vixeela, his one true love, plan and execute a temple heist involving 39 holy girdles made of precious metals and gems. In order to succeed they enlist the help of an alchemist acquaintance. Part of the Hyperborean cycle. This would be up there at the Great list, if not for the very anti-climatic and sudden ending which left me thinking that this was an unfinished work. The re-introduction of the legendary Satampra Zeiros, the planning and execution of the temple raid, the description of the alchemies the rogues use to obtain the treasure, all of that is sword & sorcery at its best, akin to Conan and Lankhmar. But the end feels like a letdown, a true shame.
Great: -The Death of Malygris:A royal magician discovers that his arch-nemesis, the tyrant of the land, Malygris, may well be truly dead. Magicians start visiting Malygris’ abode in order to ascertain the truth of the claim. Part of the Poseidonis cycle. Oh blessed serpents of the deep, slithering through veils of narcotic haze, among chryselephantine artifacts. This story is a painting come to life. Imagine the halls of Thulsa Doom from Conan, but sombre and with the occult element tuned up to eleven. Amazing imagery, amazing language, CAS at his best.
-The Last Hieroglyph:An astrologer discovers a hieroglyph in a zodiac map, which seems to approach him, night by night. When the hieroglyph appears before him, he embarks along with his two companions on a journey through mythic regions. Part of the Zothique cycle. The core idea (a sign that is both signifier and signified, carrying in either of its aspects the full weight of the other) is weird enough to stand out on its own. The way CAS materializes it is beautiful.
-The Coming of the White Worm:Unnatural snow creeps in a village, leaving only a wizard alive; he finds himself upon the iceberg that was heralded by the frost. There he is forced, along with other magicians, to worship a Worm-like thing with tremendous power, watching helplessly the world falling under the banner of eternal cold. Part of the Hyperborean cycle. The beginning of this story shines like a frozen star, as an enchanting sense of winterness is evoked. Literary cold-white descriptions. The quality remains excellent throughout and the description of the worm itself is brilliant.
-The Black Abbot of Puthuum:A couple of mercenaries, along with a eunuch and a girl end up in a strange monastery in the wilderness, whose 12 monks and abbot exude malice. Part of the Zothique cycle. This is very good. A time-forgotten monastery full of unnatural monks and dark corridors is a great setting, and the sword-sorcery pulpness is tangible. What hits the nail of greatness, however, is the final scene, where the protagonists use the abbot’s black fingernails to draw lots.
-Schizoid Creator:A psychiatrist believes that God and Satan are the two faces of a schizophrenic being. Thus, he sets out to cure God’s schizophrenia, by electrocution. Very nice idea, excellent execution, and an underlying sarcasm atypical of CAS.
How it sounds: atmospheric in a Nordic way, sylvan, heroic, adventurous, marching, autumnal, deep clean sonorous vocals at the forefront, raging Enslaved moments, lots of folkish acoustic moments, hints of post-punk rhythms (listen to track 3, Avond)
How it feels: nostalgic, wandering, past glories, impressionistic, naturalistic, hiraeth
Sounds like: first-era Enslaved (especially the blasting moments), first-era Ulver, Borknagar, Empyrium, slight traces of epic Bathory,
Shortcomings: songwriting could be more robust, some rasping vocals would fit nicely with the faster parts
Verdict: Graced with an good baritone frontman who raises the majestic and emotional bar, the album captures in a skilled way the spirit of forest wandering (which apparently was the conceptional seed of the record). Solid pagan naturalistic black metal.
1. A cart wheel made of marble, with a very tall candle at its center. While the candle is unlit it serves as a solar and lunar clock. If the candle is lit, the clock acts as a compass: its shadow points to a specific place (as suiting the DM’s needs). For as long as the candle is lit, and 24 hours after it is snuffed, the person that lit it is unable to rest and sleep.
2. A black flower that always moves away from the hand that tries to pick it. If somehow picked, a portal to the Underworld opens.
3. Three unbreakable, untearable yet quite flexible giant leaves (1 metre wide each). There appears to be no matching tree around. If taken out of the forest they try to constrict and suffocate whoever carries them.
4. A boar tusk, roughly the size of an open hand, with a serpent-like symbol engraved on it. If shaken, something can be heard inside it. It is resistant to any normal damage. Can be broken only by a charging boar, at which point the spine of a small snake is revealed.
5. The journal of a ranger’s shadow. It is made of the shadows of big leaves, bound with silver hair. The book can be grasped normally (it feels like touching cold dandelions). It is full of bitter entries: the shadow is bound to follow its owner around, never able to do what it wants.
6. Three little holes recently dug, as if someone wanted to plant something but then left in a hurry. The holes only accept teeth – anything other put in is ejected. If teeth are planted the next night a full-grown double of the tooth’s owner sprouts. Tusks also work.
7. A saw made entirely out of wood. Useless against wood, cuts stone easily. Will not let its owner rest in any settlement larger than a small village.
8. A rope ladder tied on a large tree branch. Cannot be separated from it. However, each person can cut and take one and only one step out of it. The step can be used to reach a safe place once – then it disappears forever.
9. A full helm (its closed visor is sculpted in the realistic likeness of a human face) half buried in the vegetation. If opened there emerges a small plant head on a very long, branch-like neck, waiting to be fed.
10. Α dead baby hanging from a tree branch. Stillborn, it was left in the air so as the soul would be reclaimed by birds (it has already been taken).
8 weird beings found in a forest clearing
1. (Only at night) An old man who despises the sun. He will pay handsomely for a piece of the sun or anything that is related to the star of day; he will then proceed to ritually destroy the object. If somehow tricked into staying with the characters until morning, he is bound to the nearest tree for a year.
2. The ghost of a long-dry stream. Appears as a pond of silvery water and will communicate with anyone that drinks from it (its water tastes like gaseous honey, its voice is like water dripping from a corpse’s lips). Will reveal the location of a magical dowsing rod (that leads to lost memories) to anyone carrying some of its water to a large city well. Only a special container will do the trick, which can be crafted from the hoof of a legendary forest boar.
3. A single cow moving backwards, part of a god’s stolen herd. If slain its meat will restore any wounds and heal all fatigue, but if its bones are not buried afterwards, the god-owner of the herd will know of the deed.
4. Three acorn spirits in the guise of children. They will ask to be guided out of the forest, and will try to climb on the three stronger characters, mentioning that they are very tired. If they are allowed to, they slowly and almost imperceptibly immerse themselves in their carriers’ bodies (8 hours). If completely immersed, they turn the carriers’ bodies to earth within 3 days, and a little tree sprouts from each.
5. A heavy-backed mother of three, her head always covered with a thick woolen kerchief. She will lead the characters to a destination within the forest, if they help her with a mundane chore. However, if the PCs refuse to help her with the chore, she removes the kerchief. If the acorn spirits are on the characters she will immediately chase them away, saving the characters.
6. Large crows dining on a long table, upon golden goblets and silver plates. They are ancients of their species, and can cover huge distances very quickly; they can even fly up to the sun and bring a piece of it back. If they are disturbed while eating, or they are not addressed in a polite way, they trap half of the PCs in the other half’s shadows.
7. A peddler of hair, fur and wigs has spread his merchandise all around the clearing. Is currently looking for customers, as well as providers of exotic hair. For a sample of his merchandise roll on attached table.
8. A noble old man trying to make a compact with a spirit of darkness. He needs the blood of a special animal to craft the ink for the contract. If the PCs aid him he will reward them handsomely with his new powers. If they refuse and try to stop him, nightmares will haunt them, while in the forest, making rest impossible.
Table – Hair-peddler’s merchandise
A wig made of scarecrows’ straw hair. Any kind of bird is unable to harm, or even approach the wearer, who however becomes slow in his movements and reactions.
Hair of a corpse, still growing (one centimeter per night). They are unbreakable, but will try to subtly arrange for the hanging of anyone who uses them.
Patches of boar fur boiled in liquid shadow. They can be used to walk on quicksand and pit traps without danger.
A whip made from the gold-coloured ponytail of a long dead acrobat, renowned for her skill, notorious for her cruelty. It can be used to make a horse jump impossible distances, even walk on walls; however, as soon as the horse stops it falls dead. Horses will not willingly go near anyone carrying the whip.
The complete (280cm long) fur of a winter snake, a species long thought to be extinct. A scabbard covered with this will break any faulty weapon inserted in it, no matter how tiny its flaw. Thus it is prized by weaponsmiths.
A shoulder-length wig made of silver hair; the whole thing is extremely polished, so as to act as a flowing mirror when under moonlight. Any animal reflected in the wig can verbally communicate with the wearer.
The second tome of Clark Ashton Smith’s collected works gathers a number of stories, ranging from choked-in-action sci-fi (A Captivity in Serpens) to oriental weird (The Willow Landscape, The Ghoul) and good old grotesque horror (Return of the Sorcerer). Obviously, the reader’s disposition towards a particular genre will be of the uttermost importance concerning the pleasure derived from each story, structural issues notwithstanding. Thus, not being a huge fun of pulpy science fiction I was exhausted by the sheer length of «The Red World of Polaris,» «A Captivity in Serpens,» and «The Letter from Mohaun Los.» The sheer weight of the never-ending descriptions in these three stories required a Herculean effort to navigate which proved too much for me. Thus I consider them the weakest of the bunch.
These three aside, the others can be put in the following three qualitative categories:
Mediocre: –The Door to Saturn: The collection’s namesake kicks off in a promising way, with a sorcerer hunting another through a portal that leads from Earth to Saturn, and their consequent travels in the alien planet. Alas, the Saturnian landscape, fauna and flora, edges on the gonzo side of the aesthetic spectrum. The descriptions are not as lengthy and numerous as in the aforementioned trio of sci-fi stories, there is bizarreness aplenty, but still, the story is rather distanced from my personal taste. Of course, for those whose mind exalts in such settings, this is a very well-written specimen.
-An Offering to the Moon: The Pacific Ocean, two explorers, and a jungle temple of a long-lost tribe. Rather standard «exotic» material without much of an edge. Nothing spectacular.
–The Kiss of Zoraida: The fate of two illicit lovers is sealed in a brutally ironic way. Descriptive grotesquerie galore, but other than that this snapshot-like, fatalistic and very short story doesn’t boast a supernatural element or something spectacular.
-The Face by the River: A killer haunted by his victim’s visage. This is more of a study in the emotional deterioration of a ghost-tormented individual, rather than a ghost-story in itself. Well-written nevertheless, it will definitely appeal to some.
-An Adventure in Futurity: A lengthy time-travel story that begins with slight hues of the weird mystery before taking us to a rather distasteful far future of humanity, where human superiority is characterised by emotional detachment and cold intellectualism, as well as the enslavement of beings from Venus. Apart from the excellent beginning there was little to personally enjoy in this story.
-The Justice of the Elephant: A short story of justicial revenge (somewhat fairytale-esque) set in the East. Very short and rather satisfying, it nevertheless doesn’t manage to set itself apart.
-The City of the Singing Flame: A man discovers a portal to a strange gigantic city, in whose center is a Flame that sings, luring everything in it. A fantasy thematic with sci-fi-like descriptions (as far as their overwhelming abundance is concerned). This borders on the Lovecraftian oneiric/fantastic of Kadath and Randolph Carter. The central idea of the Singing Flame is extraordinary, but the realisation seems somewhat faulty.
Good: –Told in the Desert: A story of the Arabian Tales sort with a mythological core (the extraordinary bride setting a rule that must not be broken). Beautiful, evoking description of the desert, of the campfire, of the oasis, of the tormented protagonist himself.
-The Willow Landscape: An oriental-themed short story about a magical painting, this is a good-hearted, touching and satisfactory story. Not much else to say without spoiling the plot.
-The Gorgon: A man is led to the depths of London, where he faces (sort of) the head of the Medusa. Bordering on greatness, yet just missing the final step, this is a masterful blending of the contemporary urban with the mythological. Ominous escalation of the macabre, amazing hinting at heroic artifacts, and greatness in the description of the Medusa lair. Still, it stumbles just before the end.
-The Ghoul: A man is forced into a horrendous pact with a ghoul, in order to save the corpse of his deceased loved one. Arabian Nights on grotesque steroids, this delivers all that the title implies: ghoulish delights steeped in gothic drama.
-A Good Embalmer: An embalmer makes sure that his body will, after death, stay clear of his business partner’s less-than-perfect funereal art. Due to the setting it reminded me somewhat of the funeral house in Neil Gaiman’s «American Gods.» This is a light-hearted narrative that could be part of a Hammer horror-anthology extravaganza. Beautiful and pleasantly shocking.
-The Testament of Athammaus: Set in an unspecified ancient era, this is an executioner’s narrative of how his city was deserted, after a convicted outlaw (and possible distant relative of Tsathoggua) refuses to stay dead. I had difficulty deciding if this is good or great – it certainly borders on the latter. I finally settled on very good. A fairy-tale-esque recurring motif, heaps of graphic description, and the helplessness in front of the abhorrent – the consumption of passers-by is of monumental conception and execution (sic).
-The Hunters from Beyond: An artist taps into the occult to enhance his work and (obviously something goes wrong). Not the most original of stories, somewhat related to Lovecraft’s «Pickman’s Model,» yet it comes out solid due to the sheer weight of Clark Ashton’s language and atmosphere evoked.
Great/Amazing: –A Rendezvous in Averoigne: A man, his lover and two servants are lost in an ancient, labyrinthine forest, ending up in the castle of an ancient aristocrat. One of the best vampire stories of all time, this is graced with an incredibly evoking gothic atmosphere. The rich language flows like blood falling on velvet curtains, it smells of ancient mysteries and crypts just opened.
-The Kingdom of the Worm: Sir John Maundeville (a knight that features in a 14th century book) travels through the cursed land of Antchar, beholding unnerving visions before coming to the court of the Worm in all its terrible majesty. Written in the style of the original «Travels of Sir John Mandeville» the story is steeped in medieval, religious horror. Antchar is revealed as a land out of Poe’s more terrible fantasies. A piece of art to be visited again and again, bound to reveal new unholy treasures each time.
-The Return of the Sorcerer: The protagonist is employed by an old man as a secretary. The employer requires both the man’s linguistic skills in Arabic as well as the presence of another living being in the huge empty house. A claustrophobic, dark and brutally suggestive story, that ends in a crescendo of implied grotesqueness. (There is an alternative ending that is of less quality) A classic in the spirit of Lovecraft’s Charles Dexter Ward.
The life of the Nacirema people of North America, a tribe with a surprisingly developed market economy, is characterized by rituals and practices that we would consider alien, barbarous, and even going contrary to the self-preservation instincts. The late anthropologist Horace Miner’s extensive studies of the tribe culminated in the “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” paper*, originally published in 1958. Let’s take a look at a few selected parts, the first of them concerned with the ritual visits of the tribesmen to a member of a sacerdotal order:
“In addition to the private mouth–rite, the people [of the Nacirema tribe] seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy–mouth–man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy–mouth–men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
[…]One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy–mouth–man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.”
Upon reading this excerpt for the first time, an image that came into my mind was that of a sacred mountainous retreat (namely the seat of power of the holy men) and a winding, narrow path, upon which the tribesmen traveled each year on their pilgrimage to the holy-mouth-men. Though never mentioned inside the text, a mountain (or at least a hilltop) is a somewhat obvious locale for the temple: in the text it is strongly implied that the people of the tribe consider the holy men keepers of power and somewhat apart and above them; it is also implied that the Nacirema travel to visit the holy-mouth-men in a sort of yearly pilgrimage; “the people seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year” – “seek out” has a tone of the adventurous, of a quest for something that is not readily available, something or someone outside the daily-life plateau. Even the “naturally occurring holes in the teeth” evoke images of caves and rock formations. As for the sadism and masochistic aspects of Nacimera, they are already established via the horrendous practices mentioned above.
The following excerpt concerns ceremonies taking place in specialized temples named latipso:
“The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained admission and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.
The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body–rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso . A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness.[…] From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.”
A place closer to the underworld (“that is where you go to die”), an occult temple of a rich religious elite which must be gorged in gifts. Even the removal of the clothes is reminiscent of cthonic mythology (for instance Ishtar’s descent to the Underworld involves the gradual discarding of her clothes and ornaments).
The fact that the Nacirema in everyday life avoid exposure of their bodies and their natural functions (i.e. excretory acts), if taken into account along with their earlier mentioned obsession with the extraction of teeth and the scraping of the face, leads to the image of a tribe that has demonized the body. It considers it shameful and glorifies pain inflicted upon it as purificatory. Note also the largely patriarchal nature of the latipso temple clergy: the vestal maidens assist, while the medicine men are those having a substantial, energetic, leading role in the healing rituals.
The final excerpt refers to the tribe’s reproductive taboos:
“Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinised, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.”
As with the other bodily functions, intercourse is taboo among the Nacirema – it is obvious that these people have a deeply instilled fear and abhorrence of their bodies. All things coming out of the body are shameful, even infants, which are born in secrecy and are not even nursed by their mothers in most cases. See also how intercourse is limited by the lunar phases, a clear indication of its ritualized nature.
Let’s change the subject: Palindromes are (among other things) words that read the same backwards as forward. Two of the most famous palindromes are the Byzantine “ΝΙΨΟΝ ΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑ ΜΗ ΜΟΝΑΝ ΟΨΙΝ” and the Roman “SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS.” They usually offer a pleasant sense of fulfillment if someone discovers their palindrome nature on his own. (This paragraph contains a hint towards another layer of the Nacirema peoples)