Classics and the counterculture
RICHARD GEORGE ponders a magic-fuelled classical revival that coloured both ufology and music in the 1960s
Crowley lurked on the cover of Sergeant Pepper and was the Laird of Led Zeppelin
Long before I studied Virgil at university I knew about the Trojan Horse – from John Keel’s classic 1970 book with its dedication to Laocoon. But Virgil doesn’t just do sea monsters...
Bird-bodied, girl-faced things they are; abominable
Their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger... 1
Mothman could just as well have been female, like these Harpies, or the buxom entity that buzzed Da Nang around the time of Woodstock. What’s going on here? One of the oddest aspects of Keel’s oeuvre is this recrudescence of the classical, albeit in greatly diminished, almost cartoon form. A number of his names derive from Greek: Kronin, Orthon, Aphloes, and, strangest of all, Mr Apol, an amputated stump of the deity Laocoon served as priest: Apollo. ‘Lucretius’ visits an eccentric old lady, and Brazilian contactee Aladino Felix adopts the nom
de plume Dino Kraspedon, the surname Greek for ‘fringe’ or ‘border’. How very liminal. He preaches in a pantoglot, a universal language combining Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Keel writes: “The gods of ancient Greece are among us again, in a new guise but still handing out the old line. Believe...” 2 So why were they back ? What the Sixties counterculture craved, ultimately, was a pre-Christian world, where sexuality and sensual excess were celebrated, not condemned. Jim Morrison, true to his own daimon or guiding spirit, declared himself as Bacchanalian: in The End his band, the Doors, rebooted Oedipus. Heavy metal pioneers Blue Cheer called their first LP Vincebus Eruptum, perhaps to echo the word ‘eruption’. Latin, even if garbled, had mystique: it was freaky, and paradoxically perplexing to the older generation.
Even more telling contributions came from a folkier dimension. The Incredible String Band wrote a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche called The Minotaur’s Song, and Tom Rapp referenced Herodotus in his sublime Translucent
Carriages. The father of history’s description of stoned Scythians howling with pleasure may also have impressed him. 3
But there was another factor in all this: the resurgence, in the 1960s, of the occult. Magic was integral to classical paganism, from Homer’s Circe down to the
Neoplatonists of late antiquity. Necromancy is mentioned in Homer and Herodotus, Cicero and Ovid, and, most notoriously, in the witch Erichtho’s abominable practices in Lucan’s Pharsalia. 4 There was even a divinatory practice involving Virgil himself, sortes Virgilianæ, where one picked a line of his at random. 5 The Grateful Dead (see pp40-47 and p67) arrived at their name via a similar process.
The crucial intermediary here is Aleister Crowley. Educated in the Classics, and delighting in ridiculous Latin handles like ‘Frater Perdurabo’ (a good album title for somebody!), he drew inspiration from Egyptian magical papyri as he raised Pan and set up the original commune at Cefalu (see FT231:76-78). 6 Pink Floyd referenced Pan in the title of their first LP; Crowley lurked on the cover of Sergeant
Pepper (above) and became the laird of Led Zeppelin (see also FT333:51, 343:56-57)
In spring 1963, Erichtho had made a sensational comeback at Clophill in Bedfordshire. There’s not much to do in these villages (I grew up in one). As old wives say, “The Devil makes work for idle hands” – in this case literally. Goat-headed Pan is now Satan, and still inspires eponymous terror: in 1979 the band UK Decay, on a photo-shoot at Clophill church, “became spooked” and “fled back to their car”. 7 According to Artemidorus, Pan inspired nightmares. 8 According to Toyne Newton, Hecate was reduced in the 1980s to chairing a Satanist cult in Sussex with a fetish for sacrificing dogs. 9 Here she is in her pomp, in Virgil: But listen! – at the very first crack of dawn, the ground
Underfoot began to mutter, the woody ridges to quake,
And a baying of hounds was heard through the half-light: the goddess was coming... 10
One day, in thousands of years, Jim Morrison will mingle with the Bacchantes, and the ghouls of Clophill merge with the celebrated necromancers of Etruria. All will be mythic.
And deep in the mix will be Virgil. “It’s getting dark, too dark to see,” sang Bob Dylan. Here is the dying warrior maiden, Camilla: Shadows are falling, it’s growing dark around me... 11
And where did Arthur Shuttlewood’s ultraterrestrial cold-callers hail from?
Aenstria. Planet Aeneid. 12