“This book is dedicated to the Ancient Ones, to the Lord of Abominations…” – William S. Burroughs (Cities of the Red Night, 1981)
The fictional book Nameless Cults, by the German occultist Von Junzt, first appeared in Robert E. Howard’s tales “Children of the Night” (Weird Tales, April/May 1931) and “The Black Stone” (WT, November 1931). August Derleth later gave this book the creepy sounding German name Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and H.P. Lovecraft incorporated it into several stories as well. In addition to Nameless Cults, the authors of the Lovecraft Circle (which foremost included HPL, Howard and Clark Ashton Smith) wove several other grimoires or guides to magic into their stories. Although they don’t appear in all their tales, they still tend to be a defining feature. Others include Robert Bloch’s De Vermis Mysteriis, Clark Ashton Smith’s Book of Eibon or Liber Ivonis, and most famously, H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
If you’re familiar with Lovecraft but not Robert E. Howard, Howard is best known for his character Conan the Cimmerian. Some people turn their nose up at that, and don’t know he was among Lovecraft’s favorite living authors. If you only know Howard’s work from comics, film, etc., the original Conan tales are pretty damn weird. They’re in public domain and available free on Project Gutenberg. To start, I recommend The Queen of the Black Coast. I used to teach with these, Project Gutenberg is a great resource that allowed me to give them to students free.
The use of fictional grimoires like Nameless Cults in stories by multiple authors with references to real books, like Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe, has the odd effect of lending them a strange sense of realism, as though they really exist. The Necronomicon has become the classic example of a grimoire in weird pulp fiction, inspiring publications by Simon and others claiming to be the real Necronomicon, as well as the Evil Dead films starring Bruce Campbell and their spinoff, the Ash vs. Evil Dead TV series from Starz.
Howard was prolific and wrote in nearly every genre in his short career. As you’ll see, Nameless Cults was an interesting way of tying his sword & sorcery tales to his weird horror stories.
Like so many other things, Lovecraft said he first encountered the Necronomicon in a dream and translated the title as “the image of the law of the dead,” which is a good summation of a grimoire. Historical grimoires are replete with demonized versions of the gods of dead civilizations, with procedures for dealing effectively, if not always safely, with these spirits according to the rules or laws governing those interactions. One example is the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar who, by way of Ashtoreth and Astarte, has become Astaroth in the annals of black magic. If mine is a reasonable interpretation of Lovecraft’s translation of the title it probably applies to all grimoires. Real or fictional, all are, in a sense, images of the law of the dead like the Necronomicon. In addition to fictional grimoires, in Manly Wade Wellman’s stories of Silver John, John carries and reads from a real Pennsylvania Dutch book of magic, the Long Lost Friend, still used by Hoodoos and others today.
Nameless Cults Get Their Guide
Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults is first introduced in The Black Stone (Weird Tales, April/May 1931). Also known as the Black Book, Nameless Cults is said to have been published in 1839 just before the author died in “a grisly and mysterious fashion” from a “hounding doom.” Black book is not an unusual name for a historical grimoire. For instance, the Swedish term svartebok (black book) is an alternative term for grimoire, and the Danish equivalent is sortebog. A common term for these works is Cyprianus, “a book attributed to the patron saint of occultists and necromancers,” St. Cyprian (Gårdbäck 2015: 17). Nameless Cults is said to be a popular book with collectors, with only a few copies of the original heavy black-bound volume remaining throughout the world. Many owners are said to have destroyed their copies upon learning the fate of its author.
Howard provides an interesting but brief biographical passage on Von Junzt, who is said to have:
…spent his entire life (1795-1840) delving into forbidden subjects; he traveled in all parts of the world, gained entrance into innumerable secret societies, and read countless little-known and esoteric books and manuscripts in the original; and in the chapters of the Black Book, which range from startling clarity of exposition to murky ambiguity, there are statements and hints to freeze the blood of a thinking man. Reading what Von Junzt dared put in print arouses uneasy speculations as to what it was that he dared not tell.– Howard 1931a
This is remarkably close to what real occultists have frequently done. For reference, grimoire translator/commentator Joseph Peterson maintains an online trove of historic grimoires, The Esoteric Archives. Another is Stephen Skinner, whose 40+ published books include Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, the Archidoxes of Magic by Paracelsus, several books by famed occultists Austin Osman Spare and Aleister Crowley that have become collector’s items themselves, and a leather bound edition of True & Faithful Relation of what passed between Dr John Dee…and some Spirits about the Elizabethan mage John Dee (Skinner n.d.). Dee’s magical gear for conjuring angels like those in the book of Enoch is preserved in the British museum.
The Hermeneutic Circle
Like Von Junzt, historically authors of magic books have often been members of “secret” (now less secret or occulted) societies like the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis whose members practice ceremonial magic. It’s also common for grimoires to hide the nature and meaning of some of their contents with “blinds,” deliberate deceptions that may appear obvious to experienced practitioners who are in the know. Of course, sometimes the authors of grimoires were just sloppy and published books full of errors, but other times seeming mistakes are intentional.
Knowledge or instructions for spell work is often broken up throughout a volume and can only be recovered and used through careful study or (sometimes paid) instruction from the author. This among other things led the philosopher Paul Ricouer to advance the concept of the “hermeneutic circle,” or the manner in which certain books or forms of discourse, like oracles, can be understood only in reference to their parts, and the parts only by reference to the whole (Mantzavinos 2016). No individual piece of information is very useful until the full work is familiar to the user, and the information within grimoires is intentionally occulted by their authors. The hermeneutic circle has become a useful concept to anthropologists in studying foreign cultures whose concepts may not be readily translated into English, and make the best sense only after careful study of the native language and the experience of living and working in the culture. Remarkably, in this way books of magic have provided a way of understanding culture and even how humans understand one another.
Nevertheless, Von Junzt is said to have come to a bad end “with the marks of taloned fingers on his throat.” After this untimely finish, his colleague Alexis Ladeau died under similarly mysterious circumstances, burning the remaining fragments of Von Junzt’s writing to ashes and then slitting his own throat (Howard 1931a).
Later in the “The Black Stone,” the story’s narrator muses in shock over the “Keys to Outer Doors” that are hinted at in Nameless Cults, keys to a terrible past and perhaps equally frightening spheres of the present. It’s unclear where Howard drew inspiration for this but it’s likely to have been an available account of historical grimoires, possibly of the works of John Dee, who with his colleague Edward Kelly recorded the Keys to Aethyrs. Aethyrs are the domains of the angels Dee described, and while they are angels, they are not all sweetness and light.
The Dark Man’s Legacy
In the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales, Howard brought Nameless Cults into a second story. “Children of the Night,” which reveals that the Black Book is replete with lore concerning the cult of the Dark Man that survives from the days of one of Howard’s signature sword and sorcery characters, the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn. Early in the tale themes related to the hermeneutic circle surface in a conversation between two scholars about Von Junzt and his corpus:
“Not he alone used hidden meanings,” answered Conrad. “If you will scan various works of certain great poets you may find double meanings. Men have stumbled onto cosmic secrets in the past and given a hint of them to the world in cryptic words. Do you remember Von Junzt’s hints of ‘a city in the waste’? What do you think of Flecker’s line:
‘Pass not beneath! Men say there blows in stony deserts still a rose / But with no scarlet to her leaf—and from whose heart no perfume flows.’
“Men may stumble upon secret things, but Von Junzt dipped deep into forbidden mysteries. He was one of the few men, for instance, who could read the Necronomicon in the original Greek translation.”– Howard 1931b
The secret alluded to is the continued underground existence of the cult as well as its celebrants, the Picts, who are a trope for “the Other” in Howard’s tales, sometimes heroically in the stories of Bran Mak Morn and Kull, other times in a more diabolical light in the Conan stories and “Children of the Night,” which recounts:
…the ancient cult hinted at by Von Junzt; of the king who rules the Dark Empire, which was a revival of an older, darker empire dating back into the Stone Age; and of the great, nameless cavern where stands the Dark Man—the image of Bran Mak Morn, carved in his likeness by a master-hand while the great king yet lived, and to which each worshipper of Bran makes a pilgrimage once in his or her lifetime. Yes, that cult lives today in the descendants of Bran’s people—a silent, unknown current it flows on in the great ocean of life, waiting for the stone image of the great Bran to breathe and move with sudden life, and come from the great cavern to rebuild their lost empire.Howard 1931b
Also notable is Von Junzt’s ability to work with the Necronomicon, an example of how the Lovecraft Circle authors assembled what came to be known as “the Cthulhu Mythos” in a round robin fashion not unlike the “exquisite corpse” of surrealists such as Andre Breton and Marchel Duchamp (Breton 1948). By referring to elements of each others’ writing, Howard to Lovecraft, Lovecraft to Howard, etc., they built a fictional world that needed all of its parts to fully function. The stories of Howard, Lovecraft, et al. are entertaining in themselves, but more so when readers step into this hermeneutic circle and enjoy them together, and the authors’ written correspondence to one another shows how much they enjoyed doing it. Both Bran Mak Morn and Nameless Cults appeared before Howard’s best loved character, Conan the Cimmerian, first saw print in 1932. Could his fictional explorations of bringing back another barbarian character from the mists of prehistory through present day magicians have yielded such fruit? It’s fun to speculate but we’ll probably never know.
An earlier version appeared in REHupa (journal of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association), February 2019.
Breton, Andre (1948), Le Cadavre Exquis: Son Exaltation, exhibition catalogue, La Dragonne, Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris (October 7–30).
De Plancy, Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin (1818), Dictionnaire infernal, accessed 6 September 2019: https://books.google.com/books?id=RtM0AAAAMAAJ&dq=intitle%3ADictionnaire%20intitle%3Ainfernal&lr&num=100&as_brr=1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
Hohman, George (1820), Pow Wows; or, Long Lost Friend. Reading, PA.
Howard, Robert E. (1931a), “Children of the Night.” First published in Weird Tales, April/May 1931, accessed 6 September 2019: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0607961h.html
Howard, Robert E. (1931b), “The Black Stone.” First published in Weird Tales, November 1931, accessed 6 September 2019: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601711.txt
Simon (1978), Necronomicon. Avon Books.
Mantzavinos, C. (2016), Hermeneutics, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 6 September 2019: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hermeneutics/#HermCirc