The Occult Reading List Vol. 2: Quantum Computing, Alchemy, and Cicada 3301

This is Vol. 2 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.

Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

elements of murder occult triangle lab chris mahonThe Elements of Murder by John EmsLEY

If you look carefully at the entrances to university chemistry buildings, you’ll sometimes see strange symbols above the doors. These are alchemical symbols, and they come from the mystical pursuit of gold, enlightenment, and the secrets of existence. Despite being primarily historical true crime, The Elements of Murder delves into the connection between alchemy and science, showing how mercury, sulfur, and salt became the basis for a tradition of mysticism that transformed into what we call chemistry.

Each chapter is devoted to a different deadly element or poison and collects the most famous cases involving each. My favorite is the story of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who died from ingesting copious amounts of mercury, thinking that he had found the elixir of life (Huang’s city-sized mausoleum is the famous one filled with the life-size terra cotta soliders). According to legend, a miniature model of China’s river systems was constructed in the tomb, using mercury instead of water.

funerary violin occult triangle lab chris mahonAn Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin By Rohan Kriawaczek

This books is an account of the lost Romantic musical genre called “funerary violin,” practiced in early modern England after the Protestant Reformation. The art was almost wholly improvisational and unwritten, and performed solely at funerals for the family of the deceased. According to the author, funerary violin was almost totally wiped out by the Church, which wanted sole influence over matters of life and death. Banned as heretics and struck from the records, their names, compositions, and guild fell from public eye, though famous composers of the day liberally borrowed (or even plagiarized) their sorrowful melodies. The author tries to reconstruct the lives and music of these violinists in order to keep the tradition alive. Only one problem:

The whole thing is a hoax.

There was never a musical tradition called funerary violin, and the Guild and names the author lists are all fictional. The New York Times ran a great piece on how the whole thing turned out to be a fraud, despite being “a sprawling 208-page volume complete with detailed biographies, black-and-white photographs and elaborate musical scores.”

The Revolutionary Computer That Might Not Be Quantum At All, Wired Magazineoccult triangle lab quantum computing chris mahon

I read this article in Wired Magazine back in 2014, but now that China has launched a satellite into orbit with the goal of uncrackable quantum communication, I went back and re-read it. It’s still a fascinating piece, partly because it explains (at least superficially) how quantum physics is meant to work. But most fascinating of all were the two central problems of the quantum computer featured in the article (called D-Wave).

First, the insane physical conditions that must be met to enable quantum computing: temperatures “1500 times colder than the depths of space,” insulation from all interference, including light and air molecules, and a chip made from tiny niobium loops. I’ve spoken in the past about how the tiny chaotic elements can result in imperfections in origami, and that no matter how good you get, there’s always a margin of error. In the case of the D-Wave, conditions must be perfect in order for quantum computing to work. This is where the practical, physical world meets the absolute, ideal world of physics and mathematics, and the boundary is fascinating to me.

Second is the whole idea of the qubit, the basic unit of quantum computing. Instead of a regular bit, which is either 0 or 1, a qubit can attain a state called “superposition,” something that is both a 0 and a 1. This goes back to my piece on using binary as magic and Leibniz’s fascination with the I-Ching: if the world is just a series of 1’s and 0’s, a whole system could be construed to express the world using just logic. And we did: computers. But now that superposition has been shown to be real, all of that is obsolete. In fact, the world starts to look more like the philosophy described by Zen, which attempts to transcend dualism by finding “the higher third,” which transcends dualism.

The Beatles Acid Test: How LSD Opened the Door to Revolver, Rolling Stone Magazine

This was a great article in Rolling Stone about how LSD led directly to the Beatles’ creation of Revolver, one of their most experimental albums. It describes how the drugs got George Harrison and John Lennon interested in Hinduism, which led them to read The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. The ideas from that book were expressed in Tomorrow Never Knows, which was meant to be a sonic representation of an acid trip.

The Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead) has been a long-time fascination of mine, so it was cool to see how it tied in with drugs, the counterculture, and this unique music that ended up breaking a lot of barriers.

Cicada 3301

cicada 3301 occult triangle lab chris mahonCicada 3301 is my new obsession. Combining cryptography, anonymity, and strange ARG puzzles with mysticism and occult trappings, these bastards are probably the real-life Knights of the Eastern Calculus. I haven’t read too deeply yet, but once I do I’ll write a post just about them. If you’re not familiar with the work I did on The Rats in the Walls ARG, you should check that out here.

Here are the Cicada’s webpages:

Wikipedia Page

Homepage

Liber Primus

By this River by Yoshida Brothers

There are a couple guys in the New York Subway system that play shamisen on the platforms, especially Union Square and Canal Street. They’re all very old Asian guys, and they sing very sorrowfully. This song has a different kind of melancholy to it, one that’s soaked in nostalgia. It’s a beautiful piece, and the vocalizations are so haunting.

Eclipse by Perturbator

Besides being one of my favorite musical artists, Perturbator has an aesthetic that hits all my favorite shit: cyberpunk, horror, the occult, and sweet, sweet retro 80’s visuals . One of my favorite songs of his is Eclipse, partly for this monologue at the end:

“We live in a era where our cities are armed with steel and concrete. Computers and electronics barricade our minds. It doesn’t change the fact that there exists a lot of strange phenomena, bizarre beyond reason or logic. Most folks just don’t see them. That’s because we cling to order, to any tiny happiness that comes our way, and we bust our humps to blind ourselves with our desires and our pleasures. There’s a world of darkness out there. Beyond time or space. A world filled with evil that is undeniably real, and in that world there are things that run wild.”

This is essentially H.P. Lovecraft’s thesis in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” updated for the modern era and delivered in a voice like Rod Serling’s. Tenouttaten.

The Occult Reading List Vol. 2: Quantum Computing, Alchemy, and Cicada 3301

The Occult Reading List: Zen, Martial Arts, Annie Lennox, and Tickets to the Moon

I have a bad habit of reading, listening, and watching too many things at once, and at the end of every week I end up with a new list of fascinating things to check out. I thought it would be fun to share some of the stuff I’ve read and listened to in the past week, including some of the books and articles I’ve come across. I’ve also included the songs that have been on repeat in my head.

Reading this list is guaranteed to make you fun at parties.

Books

zen buddhism d.t. suzuki occult triangle labNON-FICTION: Zen Buddhism, Selected Writing of D.T. Suzuki, Edited by William Barrett

An interesting look at Zen Buddhism by one of the foremost writers and translators on the topic. So far, the introduction has drawn connections between Zen and Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Resignation, which is really interesting. It’s also got some fun stories about Bodidharma, the founder of Chinese Buddhism, and his shenanigans. I spoke a bit about Bodidharma before, in my post about Terry Pratchett’s Rule One.

burglars guide to the city occult triangle labNON-FICTION: A Burglar’s Guide to The City, by Geoff Manaugh

This book started out with an interesting premise: burglars, by their nature, have an arcane knowledge and a unique mastery of their surroundings. With this knowledge, they can pull off seemingly impossible, or even supernatural, feats. Liminality is a key idea in this book, which mirrors a lot of studies in magic and the occult. However, like a lot of non-fiction topics written by academics, it ends up losing track of its thesis and instead indulges in whatever the author finds kind of neat. DNF

clarkesworld occult triangle labFICTION: Clarkesworld Year Six Anthology, Clarkesworld Magazine

Clarkesworld Magazine, one of my top three favorite short fiction markets. These are the same folks that published both my essays on fantasy (you can read them here and here). I just started reading their Year Six anthology, and I’m excited to see what kind of insane stuff they’ve got in store. I also sponsor these guys on Patreon, along with Menton3. JOIN THE CULT.

 

opus satoshi kon occult triangle labMANGA: Opus, Satoshi Kon

Despite the most disappointing ending of all timeI highly recommend OPUS by Satoshi Kon. It’s the INCEPTION of manga, with a manga artist, Chikara, getting pulled into his own manga, called Resonance. He meets his own main character, Satoko, and ends up breaking the news that her whole life is a manga, and he’s essentially God. At the heart of the meta-story is the quest to resolve the ending of the manga, which is yet unwritten. It’s a great piece of metafiction, and it pulled at my goddamn heartstrings more than I expected.

Articles and webpages:

bagua occult triangle labWikipedia: Bagua
The heart of the I-Ching, the same book of Chinese divination that fascinated Phillip K. Dick, is the bagua, or trigram. There are eight trigrams: earth, water, fire, water, thunder, mountain, lake, sky. Combined into 64 pairs, the I-Ching uses them to supposedly provide a map to all creation. In fact, Leibniz, the famous mathematician, thought the I-Ching’s use of binaries in the trigrams (each bagua is made of three broken or unbroken lines) could provide a way to express everything. And he was right: binary became the basis of all computing, with 1’s and 0’s expressing things as insanely complicated as weather patterns or the show Neon Genesis Evangelion. You can read my article about using binary in magic systems here.

five animals occult triangle labThe Five Animals in Martial Arts

I’m trying to figure out the basis of a system of magic that would use movement, rather than written symbols or spoken words, as its main component. Sort of like interpretive dance, or the bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Five Animals is what I’m turning to for inspiration, as well as the Shaolin Luohan martial arts.

 

luohan shaolin fist occult triangle labLuohan (Martial Arts)

This is just really fucking cool: a martial arts discipline given by the aforementioned Zen founder, Bodidharma, to the legendary Shaolin monks. The Luohan forms would become the basis for all Shaolin martial arts, and have strong connections to Buddhism and enlightenment–the 18 skills are called the “arhat skills,” with “arhat” being the name for an enlightened person.

Songs:

Every Time We Say Goodbye by Annie Lennox

This is a beautiful, melancholy song. I came across it when I was reading V FOR VENDETTA: during one of the last chapters, when V is giving Evey a final tour of the Shadow Gallery just before his death, Evey plays a couple notes on the piano in the piano room, saying”‘How strange the change…from ma-jor to mi-nor’….no, I still can’t get that part right.” I finally googled those lyrics and found that they came from this song, which is fitting since the whole sequence in the book is essentially an extended goodbye from V.

Ticket to the Moon by ELO

This is another melancholy song. I came across it after listening for “Yours Truly, 2097”, also by ELO. I had an especially weird moment of synchronicity while walking to work one day–I was listening to this song when I came across a piece of graffiti on the sidewalk, saying “TO THE MOON.” This guy is a graffiti artist who tags in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I’d see the tag before, but it was surreal to hear the song and see the marker pointing down the sidewalk. Even more surreal is that the phrase may be a reference to a famous Zen teaching, expressed below pretty succinctly in the picture below (right).

graffiti moon occult triangle lab
graffiti occult triangle lab moon

 

What is Real by Trevor Something

I love Trevor Something. I have two of his albums, including TREVOR SOMETHING DOES NOT EXIST, which has this song as its last track. The song opens with a piece of dialogue from the 1974 comic sci-fi film, DARK STAR: a scientist is speaking to a sentient bomb about the question of “what is real,” which culminates in the problem of  the intellect and Cartesian doubt. Sprinkled in are quotes from The Matrix (“What is real? How do you define real?” etc.), which is actually just a verbatim quote of Alan Watts, the lecturer on Zen Buddhism, and haunting last piece of dialogue from the bomb in which it quotes Genesis. All of this is sandwiched in some really amazing 80’s synths.

 

Link

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

Despite this being the Occult Triangle Lab, I haven’t spoken much about occult trigonometry. I’ve talked about using binary code as the basis for magic systems, as well as magic as poetry, but not much to do with triangles. Except for that origami pyramid wrapped up with Zen.

The origami pyramid Nirodha.

Magic in fantasy, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t be a science. It shouldn’t be a palette-swapped form of electricity or physics, where mages carry out “experiments” like Isaac Newton (though he himself was apparently a big fan of alchemy). The reason is that magic, when approached like a science, brings up same reductionism that haunts modern people: if we’re all just chemical reactions in our brains, is there space for truth, or meaning, or wonder? Because those are the very things fantasy can explore like no other genre.

I think magic in fantasy should have rules. The way I conceive it, it should undergird the workings of nature and the world, similar to how Ursula LeGuin’s used taxonomy as magic. But when I imagine magic, there’s something transcendental about it that goes beyond science and materialism. How do you begin designing a system like that? It’s like making up a fictional branch of aeronautics. But that’s what’s so amazing about worldbuilding: you get to make the rules.

What follows is the basic building blocks for a magic system that I conceived back in 2014, combining the art of Buddhist mandalas, computer coding, and musical theory with metaphysics, astronomy, and trigonometry. This is, in the realest sense, a product of an occult triangle lab. One note, however: this is all hypothetical. I don’t have a degree in linguistics like Tolkien, or in graphology. To actually create the symbolic language I describe and to embed these kinds of patterns in it would be something akin to making a crossword puzzle out of an entire language. It would take years of careful construction. So maybe a long-term project for me.

But in the meantime…

Spell Maps, COMPUTER CODE and GEOMETRY

A couple years ago, I started to sketch out the beginnings of a written magic system for my fantasy world. I imagined putting together a bunch of symbols in a sequence that expresses what you want to happen, like you’d do with a line of computer code. But there is something inherently beautiful about how these symbols would fit together: if you deconstruct the interactions between the symbols, you would find that all the symbols could be grouped into discrete units, with the groups’ unity based around shared markings in their graphic composition (similar strokes and dots in the symbols) or the part of the spell they affect (such as binding or flight). These rows of symbols would form rectangular paragraphs, and these rectangles could be oriented to one another like building blocks to form geometric shapes, with each paragraph forming a side of the shape.

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

These shapes would be arranged into a “spell map,” a geometric representation of how the different parts of the spell work together. It would form a radial or symmetrical design based around a central polygonal figure, such as a square or hexagon. Arms extending from the central polygonal shape would represent the different aspects of the spell, and the smaller components of the arms would be based around their own geometric patterns, making a chain of hexagons, squares, triangles, and so on. So the patterns contained within the individual lines of magical code would eventually form spirals of meta-patterns.

A functioning, well-written spell would have perfect symmetry when all the symbols are arranged in this manner, so a mage writing a new spell could actually lay out their writing in a half-made spell map and figure out what to write next based on their knowledge of geometry and angles. They can also figure out where their spell is going wrong based on the symmetry of the design.

Spell Maps, Triangles, and Designa

The thing is, every polygon is made up of triangles. When you have a regular polygon, like a pentagon, you can subtract 2 from its number of sides and multiply that by 180 to get the sum of its internal angles. Why 180? Because that’s the sum of the angles in a triangle! If you’re trying to create huge, perfectly geometrical spiral designs, the key lies in the shapes that will work well with the central polygonal shape; linking together a hexagon and a pentagon will make for some crowded, chaotic spiral arms. Shapes made from the same sort of triangles that make up the central polygonal figure, on the other hand, might work to create perfect mandala-like designs.

Working with triangles as the basic building block of all shapes, you can figure out the angle measures of the “ideal” triangle for your central polygon (say, a hexagon, which is made up of equilateral triangles with angle measures of 60 degrees) and create a grid made entirely of those triangles. Using this grid, you can be assured that all shapes made from those triangles will have angles measures and lengths that will synch well together. If you’re a mage, it also means that you have all routes for the development of a new spell map.

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells
But in practice, single-triangle grids may not contain all the triangles necessary to create perfect designs, especially if you want a mix of different shapes. You’ll need permutations of the right triangle, the equilateral triangle, and 30-60-90 triangle, with angles and lengths adjusted to fit the angle measures of your central polygonal figure to have all possible options. This means, to see all possible shapes, you should be working with three triangles grids superimposed on top of one another, calibrated to the right angle measures.

So that’s where things get complicated.

A book I picked up from The Strand is a great guide to this kind of geometrical drafting–it’s called Designa by Wooden Books, and it walks you through the history, drafting techniques, and mathematics behind different designs from all over the world, including Muslim religious patterns and Celtic knots. Woven into these patterns are symbolic meanings and symmetries, reflecting beliefs about the universe, nature, and God.

So there you have the first stage: the idea of a spell map, a meta-pattern that gives a geometric structure to a normally linear, code-like spell made of symbols. Like a computer system, it can be revised and troubleshot based on the patterns embedded in its operations. When it’s evoked, it casts the spell coded into it.

SPELL MAPS, MAGIC, and MUSIC

After looking at the triangular grids I’d made, I used the horizontal lines made naturally when you mirror two rows of triangles vertically to measure the size of a map, which would express its “magnitude”: the larger and more complex the spell, the more space on the grid it will require, and the greater its “magnitude,” since larger spells means using more lines of symbols. And that led to a new idea.

As I looked at the designs I’d made, I wondered what it would look like if I tried to reduce all of the symbols and patterns to binary, so that a spell could be fed through a punch card-computer, like UNIVAC. I also realized that the “magnitude lines” I’d drawn also imposed something like a musical staff on the whole design. It reminded me of Deadmau5 playing the Castlevania theme on a bunch of modular synthesizers, and the Black Midi series, especially this one, where the designs made by the notes end up looking like large spell map. I imagined playing cross-sections of a spell map like Black Midi, with every symbol being a note.occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

Music is made of patterns and mathematics, and the same kinds of waves that describe sound can apply to light, energy, and matter (I dove into sound waves and quantum mechanics in this post). In my sketches, I started to see how a given spell could be expressed as a song as well as a mandala-like graphical representation. And if you look back to wizards like Vainamoinen, spell-songs are exactly what mages used to change the world around them. It’s a really cool piece of synchronicity, and it’s one of the fascinating coincidences that pops up when you delve into this kind of worldbuilding.

Metaphysics, Spell Maps, and the Universe

But when I looked closer at my sketches, another pattern started to appear. I started to see how a spell map could also be a reflection of the symmetry of the universe, in the same way that Buddhist and Hindu mandalas supposedly reflect the order of all creation. In fact, the structure of a spell map looks like a universe of sorts: it’s a miniature galaxy, with spiral arms containing dozens of individual ‘solar systems’ (symbol-rows grouped around the center of a shape) containing sometimes hundreds of individual ‘worlds’ (symbols) and comprising thousands of ‘people’ (individual strokes that make up the symbols).

In my conception of this magic system, this is where magic crosses over from being a computer program and reveals its ties directly to metaphysics. Like a fractal, the pattern of the whole universe is expressed in miniature in the spell map, because magic is essentially a way to change the universe. And in this system, the way to change reality is to build a microcosm of the universe and rewrite it by hand. In this way, a spell map could also act as a kind of divination or scrying tool, like the I-Ching (a book that fascinated Phillip K. Dick to no end), reflecting the conditions of the world rather than changing it.

mandala occult triangle lab spell maps

Conclusion

Great worldbuilding should work like an iceberg: 10% on the surface, 90% below the waterline. I think this is one of the reasons the worldbuilding in Dark Souls rakes in such unreal praise. There’s a sense that beneath the immediate information you’re given, there’s whole volumes of knowledge and secrets to learn and immerse yourself in. It’s the opposite reason people can’t get through Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. But whether you’re revealing all of it or letting the reader unravel how everything fits together, I think the best way to accomplish that feeling of a vast, immersive world is to actually build it behind the scenes. I spoke about this before, but the small details are crucial to making fantasy work, and this is especially true when it comes to magic.

So if you’re a fantasy writer building a world from the ground up, explore everything. Everything feeds into everything else, the world is a frightening and wonderful place, and when you dig deep enough, triangles lie at the heart of everything.

occult triangle lab mandala

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems