What is The Elder Sign?
The Elder Sign is a fictional occult device used by H.P. Lovecraft as well as authors influenced by Lovecraft. The Elder sign is usually thought of as a graphical symbol or glyph which has occult properties. The Sign offers a type of protection from the Deep Ones. Some sources say it is some type of pentagram figure, but as you will soon see, that idea is not to be found in Lovecraft's writings. Nor is there to be found the idea of one distinct sign.
In this blog post I will look at what H.P. Lovecraft wrote about the Elder Sign. I also give a history of a type of cipher tracked from the Elder times to the present day.
Where Does Lovecraft Mention the Elder Sign?Lovecraft mentioned the Elder Sign in his short stories and also in private correspondence. I have collected here the few references I could find.
The Descendant (1926? or 1927?)"The Descendant" is an odd story fragment set in England. Here is the passage that refers to the Elder Sign:
"There must, Lord Northam whispered, have been something wrong at the start; but it would never have come to a head if he had not explored too far. He was the nineteenth Baron of a line whose beginnings went uncomfortably far back into the past - unbelievably far, if vague tradition could be heeded, for there were family tales of a descent from pre-Saxon times, when a certain Lunaeus Gabinius Capito, military tribune in the Third Augustan Legion then stationed at Lindum in Roman Britain, had been summarily expelled from his command for participation in certain rites unconnected with any known religion. Gabinius had, the rumour ran, come upon a cliffside cavern where strange folk met together and made the Elder Sign in the dark; strange folk whom the Britons knew not save in fear, and who were the last to survive from a great land in the west that had sunk, leaving only the islands with the roths and circles and shrines of which Stonehenge was the greatest. There was no certainty, of course, in the legend that Gabinius had built an impregnable fortress over the forbidden cave and founded a line which Pict and Saxon, Dane and Norman were powerless to obliterate; or in the tacit assumption that from this line sprang the bold companion and lieutenant of the Black Prince whom Edward Third created Baron of Northam. These things were not certain, yet they were often told; and in truth the stonework of Northam Keep did look alarmingly like the masonry of Hadrian's Wall. As a child Lord Northam had had peculiar dreams when sleeping in the older parts of the castle, and had acquired a constant habit of looking back through his memory for half-amorphous scenes and patterns and impressions which formed no part of his waking experience. He became a dreamer who found life tame and unsatisfying; a searcher for strange realms and relationships once familiar, yet lying nowhere in the visible regions of earth."
As a side note: Lovecraft writes of "strange folk whom the Britons knew not save in fear, and who were the last to survive from a great land in the west that had sunk, leaving only the islands with the roths and circles and shrines of which Stonehenge was the greatest". What do you think of that? Nonsense, right? But entertain a simple man... Have the sea levels always been the same as they are now? Is it possible that there are underwater cities? Is it possible that small islands off the coast of a larger island were once part of the larger land? I pose these questions because I will seem more rational if you answer them yourself. At one time England and France were connected by what is now called "Doggerland". You could, indeed walk from Germany or the Netherlands straight to England. You could even walk that route without going through France. And on the West side of the big island? How old are those circles? Have the coasts and numbers of islands shifted many times since man came to those parts? Could it be that the further you go back in time around that island, the more underwater cities you will find? No, this is all fiction and fairy tails. What if I told you one of the more recent sunken cities to be explored was called Dunwich? Do you hear the bells?
The three main characters in "The Descendant" are Williams, Lord Northam, and Lunaeus Gabinius Capito.
Williams is a 23 year old man who moves into an old house with an old man (Lord Northam) and the old man's cat. Williams tries to get his prematurely aged roommate to talk about anything "profound and strange" (read "occult"). Williams eventually buys a copy of the Necronomicon from a "gnarled old Levite", brings it home and pushes Lord Northam's mind into the abyss.
Lord Northam is a mentally unstable, prematurely aged man living with his cat in an old house. Lord Northam takes in a young man as a roommate. As the wikipedia entry for "The Descendant" points out, Lord Northam shares characteristics of a couple of Lovecraft's favorite authors, Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany. The wikipedia entry for the story states, "Northam's sampling of various worldviews is similar to Randolph Carter's quest for meaning in Lovecraft's "The Silver Key". Northam's description as "a dreamer who found life tame and unsatisfying" also links him to Carter." Although that might be true, I believe Lovecraft was thinking of Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany when he wrote about Lord Northam.
(Okay, I think this part of the Wikipedia entry is bullshit. Lord Northam is a mixture of Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. It is not Lovecraft himself. Carry on...)
Arthur Machen was an occultist and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Like Lovecraft, the influential occultist Aleister Crowley enjoyed the works of Arthur Machen and made them required reading for his magical students. According to Kenneth Grant, Crowley also saw occult truths in the works of Lovecraft.
The Necronomicon of "The Descendant" is a debased medieval black letter edition. By the description I assume it is the work of Olaus Wormius (see "The History of the Necronomicon"). Wormius was an exceptionally learned and intelligent man who wrote about, among other things, runes. Computus Runicus is an example of Wormius' runic writing. Wormius' biographer, Jón Ólafsson of Grunnavík wrote down some of what Wormius learned of cipher runes in "Runologia". That information made it into "Run-Lara" of Johan Gustaf Liljegren. Run-Lara is not the Necronomicon, but it is an example of a black letter book containing the words of Wormius (and also a great explanation on how the Elder Signs were formed).
The Elder Sign of "The Descendant" is something people can make in the dark. It is probably some type of gesture.
And now, let's look at the last paragraph of the story:
" Filled with a feeling that our tangible world is only an atom in a fabric vast and ominous, and that unknown demesnes press on and permeate the sphere of the known at every point, Northam in youth and young manhood drained in turn the founts of formal religion and occult mystery. Nowhere, however, could he find ease and content; and as he grew older the staleness and limitations of life became more and more maddening to him. During the ’nineties he dabbled in Satanism, and at all times he devoured avidly any doctrine or theory which seemed to promise escape from the close vistas of science and the dully unvarying laws of Nature. Books like Ignatius Donnelly’s chimerical account of Atlantis he absorbed with zest, and a dozen obscure precursors of Charles Fort enthralled him with their vagaries. He would travel leagues to follow up a furtive village tale of abnormal wonder, and once went into the desert of Araby to seek a Nameless City of faint report, which no man has ever beheld. There rose within him the tantalising faith that somewhere an easy gate existed, which if one found would admit him freely to those outer deeps whose echoes rattled so dimly at the back of his memory. It might be in the visible world, yet it might be only in his mind and soul. Perhaps he held within his own half-explored brain that cryptic link which would awaken him to elder and future lives in forgotten dimensions; which would bind him to the stars, and to the infinities and eternities beyond them."
Like the Randolph Carter of Lovecraft's other stories, Williams is a type of Lovecraft. A darker, more Satanic Lovecraft. The language is similar to the Randolph Carter stories and the "easy Gate" hints at a key. But that's an entirely different blog post.
The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926, Autumn? to 1927, January 22)
"At another house, where people were stirring, he asked questions about the gods, and whether they danced often upon Lerion; but the farmer and his wife would only make the Elder Sign and tell him the way to Nir and Ulthar."The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is much too big to summarize in this post. It is a Randolph Carter (R+C) story.
Here again, THE Elder Sign seems to be a gesture.
The Last Test (1927 with Adolphe de Castro)"Then, with face convulsed, he called down imprecations from the stars and the gulfs beyond the stars; so that even Surama shuddered, made an elder sign that no book of history records, and forgot to chuckle. "
The Elder Sign made by Surama is also a gesture. This Elder Sign is not THE Elder Sign, it is AN Elder Sign. There are probably many, many signs from Elder times that are not recorded in history books.
A Letter to Clark Ashton Smith (November 7, 1930)In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith (A.K.A. the Sorcerer Klarkash-Ton), Lovecraft writes:
"Again thanking you in Tsathoggua’s name for the recent shipment, & hoping to see more items from your pen ere long, I append the Elder Sign & the Seal of N’gah, given in the Dark Cycle of Y’hu"The Elder Sign Lovecraft mentions, as it appears written in Lovecraft's own hand looks like this:
For those not following my logic, think on the Seal of N'gah. If N'gah was given a seal in the Dark Cycle of Y'hu, does that mean he was not given a different sign in a different cycle? Is N'gah the only being given a seal in that specific age? Or other ages? If we assume there are multiple beings given individual seals in different times, why would we think there is just one Elder sign?
Can this sign be seen in Arab magic, the Black Letter edition of the Necronomicon, and on Elder stones?
The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931, November? to December 3)
"In some places they was little stones strewed abaout—like charms—with somethin’ on ’em like what ye call a swastika naowadays. Prob’ly them was the Old Ones’ signs."
This is an interesting description of little stones with Old Ones' signs. Lovecraft seemed to use the term "Old Ones" to refer to Elder Gods as well as the Elder Things (At the Mountains of Madness). Here we have a sign compared to a swastika. If you look closely at the last word of the quote, though, you will see it is plural. The stones that were strewn about were marked with Elder SIGNS. This implies more than one Elder Sign and that the signs are graphical in nature and carved on the stones. Are these Elder Signs like the one Lovecraft scribbled in his letter to the Sorcerer Klarkash-Ton? If there were more than one Elder Sign like the one Lovecraft appended to his letter, what would they look like? How could they be made to look like swastikas?
Through The Gates of The Silver Key (October to 1933, April with E. Hoffmann Price)
""And while there are those," the mad Arab had written, "who have dared to seek glimpses beyond the Veil, and to accept HIM as guide, they would have been more prudent had they avoided commerce with HIM; for it is written in the Book of Thoth how terrific is the price of a single glimpse. Nor may those who pass ever return, for in the vastnesses transcending our world are shapes of darkness that seize and bind. The Affair that shambleth about in the night, the evil that defieth the Elder Sign, the Herd that stand watch at the secret portal each tomb is known to have and that thrive on that which groweth out of the tenants thereof: - all these Blacknesses are lesser than HE WHO guardeth the Gateway: HE WHO will guide the rash one beyond all the worlds into the Abyss of unnamable devourers. For He is 'UMR AT-TAWIL, the Most Ancient One, which the scribe rendereth as THE PROLONGED OF LIFE." "
This is a Randolph Carter story, again involving keys (and gates), Irem, and the Necronomicon. Here we have what may be THE Elder Sign. But what is the Elder Sign of "Through The Gates of The Silver Key"? Is it a gesture? A little stone? A marking?
Reading on, we find the passage where Randolph Carter accepts 'Umr At-Tawil as his Guide:
" “I am indeed that Most Ancient One,” said the Guide, “of whom you know. We have awaited you—the Ancient Ones and I. You are welcome, even though long delayed. You have the Key, and have unlocked the First Gate. Now the Ultimate Gate is ready for your trial. If you fear, you need not advance. You may still go back unharmed the way you came. But if you choose to advance . . .”
The pause was ominous, but the radiations continued to be friendly. Carter hesitated not a moment, for a burning curiosity drove him on.
“I will advance,” he radiated back, “and I accept you as my Guide.”
At this reply the Guide seemed to make a sign by certain motions of his robe which may or may not have involved the lifting of an arm or some homologous member. A second sign followed, and from his well-learnt lore Carter knew that he was at last very close to the Ultimate Gate. The light now changed to another inexplicable colour, and the Shapes on the quasi-hexagonal pedestals became more clearly defined. As they sat more erect, their outlines became more like those of men, though Carter knew that they could not be men. Upon their cloaked heads there now seemed to rest tall, uncertainly coloured mitres, strangely suggestive of those on certain nameless figures chiselled by a forgotten sculptor along the living cliffs of a high, forbidden mountain in Tartary; while grasped in certain folds of their swathings were long sceptres whose carven heads bodied forth a grotesque and archaic mystery."
Maybe one of the gestures made by The Most Ancient One is the Elder Sign. Maybe both gestures are Elder Signs and one of these Elder Signs closes the First Gate while the second Elder Sign opens the Ultimate Gate? I do not know. That conclusion would be consistent with the other "Signs" which are also gestures. It would also fit nicely into the gestures of Lovecraft's previous story "The Silver Key." Does Randolf Carter have the key and pass the "Easy Gate" looked for by Williams in "The Descendant"?
The Messenger (Weird Tales, 32, No. 1 (July 1938), 52)
To Bertrand K. Hart, Esq.
The thing, he said, would come that night at three
From the old churchyard on the hill below;
But crouching by an oak fire’s wholesome glow,
I tried to tell myself it could not be.
Surely, I mused, it was a pleasantry
Devised by one who did not truly know
The Elder Sign, bequeathed from long ago,
That sets the fumbling forms of darkness free.
He had not meant it—no—but still I lit
Another lamp as starry Leo climbed
Out of the Seekonk, and a steeple chimed
Three—and the firelight faded, bit by bit.
Then at the door that cautious rattling came—
And the mad truth devoured me like a flame!
In this short poem, Lovecraft again makes mention of The Elder Sing. Once again, we have a sign that may be one of many signs passed down from Elder Times. Maybe "The Elder Sign, bequeathed from long ago, That sets the fumbling forms of darkness free." has a complimentary "Elder Sign, bequeathed from long ago, That seals away the fumbling forms of darkness." Who knows?
There is no hint to identify this Elder Sign as a gesture, a graphical design or sigil, or some other device.
Elder Signs, Magick and Alchemy
Having exhausted everything I could find that Lovecraft wrote about the Elder Sign or Elder Signs (and Old Ones' signs), I have come to the conclusion that Lovecraft wrote of three different types of "Elder Signs". The first is a type of gesture of the hand or of the entire body with magical potency from Elder Times. The second is a set of symbols similar to what Lovecraft gave in his letter to Clark Ashton Smith. The third is "like what ye call a swastika naowadays" and related to the second type of sign.
Examples of the first type of sign can be found in many books of occult magic and even popular rock album art.
|The are the signs Aleister Crowley gave for the grades of the occult order A.'.A.'.|
Read more HERE:
|Here are the Beatles making Elder Signs.|
No, the Beatles did not make an error on their semaphore.
You can find Crowley on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The second and third type of Elder Sign are related and are of a magical and graphical nature from Elder Times, carved in stone and compared to a swastika, and passed down into medieval Arabic magic and alchemy. Such signs could only exist in fiction, right?
I now place a germ of thought in the mind of the average reader.
In Norse-Heim (Northam/North-Heim or North Home) in Elder days there was a wizard. The wizard sacrificed himself to himself; he hanged himself from a tree for nine days. And there he died. Dead but dreaming, the wizard awoke wailing. With him the wizard brought back the knowledge of the mysteries. Runes we call them. Elder FUThARK to be precise.
The Elder Signs of the NorseIn Elder days great stones were carved with runes, swastikas, dragons, and sea monsters. Carved in stone along with these runes are curious tree-like markings. They are called Tree Runes.
The Elder Signs of the VikingsThe basic cipher was adapted to the Younger Futhark in the Viking Age. I guess we could call the Younger Signs.
|This image was scanned from my personal notes.|
With Somethin’ on ’em Like What Ye Call a Swastika NaowadaysAs soon as I get around to it, I will show how this cipher was used in more creative ways including "flag runes" on runestones which developed into sigils and swastika-like symbols in Icelandic magic.
The Elder Signs of the ArabsIn medieval Baghdad there was a magical place called the House of Wisdom. Many books were written, translated and housed at the House of Wisdom. Books on agriculture, Greek philosophy, medicine, astrology, mathematics, geography, alchemy and other subjects were commissioned and stored there.
A member of the House of Wisdom, Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizm, wrote a popular book on algebra. He also helped introduce the concept of zero and positional numbering systems to the Arab world. Al-Khwarizm's mathematical work would later be translated into Latin and help increase mathematical knowledge in Europe.
In a brief exchange online, an Arab man informed me that it was also Al-Khwarizm who first adapted the tree runes for use in Arabic. This correspondent did not give me a source for this information, but I would love to see it. For reasons that I make clear in a bit, I believe the cipher was already popular among Arabs before Al-Khwarizm's time. Whether Al-Khwarizm ever saw tree runes or not, he is still important in the evolution of the cipher. You will see why in just a little bit.
The works of the Greek philosopher Dioscorides were translated into Arabic and held at the House of Wisdom. Some of the earlier translations might have actually been written in an Arabic version of the Tree Rune cipher.
You might think that's impossible, but before you start composing a scathing e-mail, please have a good look at the work of the 9th century alchemist and member of the House of Wisdom, Ibn Wahshiyya. In his book Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained, Wahshiyya shows that knowledge of languages in Baghdad at the time even extended to dead languages. If you understand the sheer scope of the translations deposited in the House of Wisdom, it becomes easy to see how Arab mystics and alchemists were using ciphers based on rune ciphers and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
If you follow the link to Ibn Wahshiyya's work that I just gave, you should look over some of the ciphers given. Note that the Arabic alphabet is sometimes given in the old abjad order, and sometimes has hijā’ī letter order (read more on Arabic letter order HERE). That is because Al-Khwārizm helped in the introduction of zero and positional numbering systems to the Arab world. It should be noted that he did not originate the system (he got the idea from Indian works). He was not even the first Arab to use zero and a positional numbering system. He DID write the first popular Arab text book on the subject.
Prior to these mathematical revelations, Arabic letters were used as numbers in a unique numbering system. After the concepts of zero and number positions caught on, Arabic letters were grouped by shape and put into a different alphabetical order; forgotten were the old abjad words and their numerical significance. By the time Ibn Wahshiyya recorded the "Alphabet of Dioscorides", the origin of the cipher had already been thoroughly forgotten.
The Arabic description of the cipher reads:
"The alphabet of Dioscorides the philosopher, commonly called the Tree alphabet. He wrote on trees, shrubs, and herbs, and of their secret, useful, and noxious qualities in this alphabet, used since in their books by different philosophers."This cipher was commonly known as El-Mushajjar (the Tree alphabet). To make the cipher, you first divide your alphabet into smaller logical groups and place them one on top of the other. Then you make a vertical line. To one side of the line you mark the row and to the other side of the vertical you mark the letter position in the row. The Elder and Younger Futhark versions both divided their alphabet into three groups. The Arabic version divided the alphabet into the ancient abjad "words". In the Viking version of the cipher the first marks were made to the left of the vertical and the second markings were made to the right of the vertical. This is reversed in El-Mushajjar and reflects the direction of reading (right to left). Here is a handy little table showing how the "Alphabet of Dioscorides" or "El-Mushajjar" is based on the Abjad "words" of the old Arabic alphabet.
Looking at the early Arabic version of this cipher it is easy to conclude that it was created BEFORE Arabs used the number zero (I will discuss this more in a bit). This and the fact that it was a common cipher with many books written in it (I have no reason to doubt Ibn Wahshiyya about those points) leads me to believe it was already in use before the translation of the works of Dioscorides.
The Elder Signs of the PersiansThe Arabic cipher El-Mushajjar was adapted further by the Persians and became known as Khatt-i-Shajari (Tree Writing). If you erase one branch to the right of each El-Mushajjar character, you have the most common form of Khatt-i-Shajari (the form of the cipher given above for Arabic was also used but was not as common). This means the Persians began counting their divisions with the number zero. And yet the cipher retained the abjad letter order. This places the creation of Khatt-i-Shajari to a time in which the concept of zero and positional numbering were used by Persians.
Khatt-i-Shajari does not accommodate distinctly Persian letters. Not only that, but as Sir Richard Burton points out, "it contains only the ancient and universal Semitic letters, lacking the last six of Arabic".
There is a later Ottoman version of the cipher that includes more modern letters. Ottomans also made a purely numerical cipher based on the system.
If you would like to read what other people have written about El-Mushajjar and Khatt-i-Shajari, I first recommend reading this short section in A Year Amongst the Persians (Edward Granville Browne, published 1893). It shows the cipher was still in use in Persia during the 19th century. You also might want to read what Sir Richard Burton has to say in an article for Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom. The article is titled "The Ogham-Runes and El-Mushajjar". Burton also wrote on the topic in Ultima Thule. Although I am grateful for Burton's printing of 1001 Arabian Nights, his theories surrounding this cipher and its transmission seem more than a little eccentric.
The Elder Signs and Qanoon-e-Islam
You can read about the meaning and magical properties of Arabic letters in Qanoon-e-Islam, which was used by Lovecraft to cover the Necronomicon in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The book also describes in detail the construction of magical squares. The magic circles and cryptic diagrams appearing in Qanoon-e-Islam also contain numbers. These numbers are not random. They are derived from specific formulas similar to those used in the construction of magic squares.
As I already mentioned, Arabic letters were at one time also used as numbers. The numbers appearing in the illustrations of Qanoon-e-Islam are more properly written as letters with the El-Abjad values.
|Magic Circle from Qanoon-e-Islam|
This circle contains the numbers 5, 7, 8, and 9. If we replace the standard numerals with the abjad equivalents, the circle looks like this:
The letters are written from the center of the circle just as one would write them while making the circle on the ground as described.
If we use the El-Mushajjar cipher, the circle looks like this:
What do you see in the upper right portion of this magic circle? Does that look similar to the Elder Sign given in Lovecraft's own hand?
A NOTE FROM BROTHER ENOCH:This post has been sitting in this form for more than a year. It is perhaps 50% finished. No one has shown the slightest bit of interest in the topic, but I am publishing it now because Halloween is coming up and I have nothing else written. As usual, I reserve the right to edit, correct, and rewrite any or all of this post whenever I feel like it. If you have questions or comments, please let me know.
Happy October! Happy Halloween!