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Alan Moore’s Promethea

by Thomas Lautwein

In February 2001, America’s Best Comics, a division of Batman- and Superman publisher „DC“, re-leased issue 12 of the super hero comic book „Promethea“. Promethea is demi-goddess armed with a caduceus, the snake wand of Hermes, clad in a greek-egyptian robe. In the course of time, she manifested herself again and again to bring mankind the fire of magic and to defend her from evil. Her history starts in the 5th century C.E. in Egypt, when her father, one of the last pagan priests, is assassi-nated by the Christian mob. Before his death, he sends his daughter to the desert, where she is saved by the gods Thoth and Hermes and taken to the Immateria, the realm of fantasy and ficitions. 1500 years later, young college student Sophie Bangs does research for a paper on the myth of Promethea and locates Barbara Shelley, the widow of a comic book writer. Shelley is the last incarnation of Pro-methea. When are attacked by a demon, Sophie takes over the role of Promethea. She mets her prede-cessors and is successively initiated into her new duty. Until issue 11, “Promethea” could be read as a normal super hero story with magical undertones, but in issue 12, the readers were confronted to an inhabitual reading experience.,

Author Alan Moore and penciller J.H. Williams III presented 24 pages, each split of into three levels which seemingly didn’t fit together and frustrated the demand for “action”. In the upper section, the 22 great Arcana of the tarot allegorically told the history of mankind – in verses spoken by Mike and Mack, the two snakes of Promethea’s caduceus. Simultaneously, the name “Promethea” was subjected to permutations, surrounded by all kind of symbols. The lower part of the pages shows Aleister Crowley telling the story of the imaginary mungo from “Magick without tears”, starting as a young boy and ending as an old man.

Beginning with issue 13, the heroine started a kabbalistic road trip through the „tree of life“, an ascent leading from Malkhut up to Kether. The readers were overwhelmed with a deluge of occult informa-tions, symbols and allusions. Promethea met John Dee, Jack Parsons, Austin Osman Spare and – again and again- Aleister Crowley, who played chess in Hod with Austin Osman Spare and John Dee, kindly asking „may I kiss your behind“. Highlights were the traverse of the Abyssus in issue 20 and the de-scription of Binah in issue 21, where Promethea was given a new scarlet costume by Babalon, the lady of the city of pyramids.

When the kabbalistic travel came to an end in October 2002, the circulation of the book had dropped from 22.000 to 17.000, but Alan Moore had realized his concept:

As far as I can remember, the original idea behind Promethea was to come up with something that worked as a mainstream superhero character, maybe looked a bit like Wonder Woman or Doctor Strange in a weak light, and which would enable me to explore the magical concepts that I was interested in before a main-stream comics audience that may never have encountered these ideas before (and may very possibly never have wanted to). It seemed to make sense that we should start at the shallow end, with inflatable arma-bands, so as not to alienate the readership from the very outset (the plan was to wait for about twelve issues and then alienate them). The first few issues are spent discussing broad concepts of magic and fairly simple but useful things like the four elements and the corresponding magical weapons and human faculties that they represent. They’re also spent developing a strong connection between ordinary fiction and fantasy art and imagination, and the realm of magic, which I think is an important point to establish up front: Magic isn’t some unfathom-able and archaic new territory so much as it’s something which you’ve been dealing with all your life in vari-ous forms, but have simply never seen in those terms. With the broad concepts established, we allowed our-selves forays into specific magical territories such as the outline of Tantric sex in issue ten, which we at-tempted to relate to our brief earlier outline of Kaballah in issue five… Specific items like issue twelve or the subsequent extended Kabbalistic road-movie were not planned specifically at the outset, or at least only con-ceived as a vague and wishful idea. Wile the idea of a kabbalistic odysee sounded very appealing to me from the start, I delayed taking action because I really didn’t think that any of the audience would stay seated for an eleven-issue, nearly-two-year story arc that didn’t build to a dramatic resolution but simply attempted to map a certain kind of territory for the reader. Eventually I decided that the only thing to do would be to at least attempt it and let the chips fall as they may: as it turns out we have lost several thousand readers over the course of this saga, not as many as I’d expected, and the ones that remain are either dedicated and firm in their resolve, or else have their cerebral cortex so badly damaged by the last four issues that they are no longer capable of formulating a complaint, or any other sort of sentence for that matter.

“Promethea” has also been rewarded with several Eisner awards and is already considered as a groundbreaking, innovative comic book. Since 2002, a homepage run by Eroom Nala tries to decode the many allusions hidden in the 25 issues published until april 2003.

"Going to wake the snake"
Alan Moore is a living legend. He is considered to be the best comic book author on earth, makes oc-casional appearences as performance artist and titles himself a magician venerating an obscure snake god of the late antiquity. Born in 1952 in Northampton, where he still lives today, he was expelled from school at the age of 17, and worked as clerk, grave digger before starting to write for British comic book magazines at the end of the 70s. Because his artistic talents proved to be limited, he con-centrated on writing comic book scenarios. During the 80s, he worked for American mainstream comic book companies Marvel and DC, creating revolutionary horror and super hero stories such as “Swamp Thing“, „Miracleman“ and „Watchmen“.

At the end of the 80s, Moore quit the mainstream and tried to publish ambitious graphic novels. But the “Big numbers” project, planned for 12 volumes with 500 pages, was canceled after two issues. The literary pornography “Lost girls” didn’t advance well, too. Only the Victorian, gothic Jack the Ripper novel “From Hell” was achieved in 1996 and came to the cinemas as a Hollywood film in 2002.

From Hell to Magic(k)
While working on „From Hell“, Moore felt he had come to a point where he couldn’t progress in his writing unless he opened up his conception of reality:

"I've realized that you have to be careful what you say and write, There is something spooky about writing. I read an interview with [cartoonist] Carol Lay recently where she mentioned that she had to take care not to draw anything too negative in her scripts because it would probably happen. Robert Crumb had agreed with her on this. He said that it's really a kind of mind over matter thing, you draw something and then it happens, which is why Crumb always draws his sex fantasies. You'll find yourself writing about events that haven't happened yet, and at the same time, you'll also find all kinds of eerie feedback between your text and life. When I started to notice that sort of stuff becoming predominant in my work, I realized I had a choice - I could either ignore it and assume that it is a product of my overtired perceptions, or I could explore it and see if there is anything interesting there."

"At the same time, I found that I couldn't progress any further with writing by strict rationality. If I wanted to go further with my writing, make it more intense, more powerful, make it say what I wanted it to say, I had to take a step beyond technique and rational ideas about writing, into something that was trans-rational if you will, this being magic." (Interview with Matt Brady/

In chapter 4 of „From Hell“, the Ripper (Dr. Gull) says to his assistant Netley: „Scorn not the gods: despite their non-existence in material terms, they’re no less potent no less terrible. The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute in all their grandeur and mon-strosity.“

Moore remembers: “Having written that and been unable to find an angle from which it wasn’t true, I was forced to either ignore ist implications or change most my thinking to fit around this new infor-mation. Choosing the latter, I decided on the occasion of my fortieth birthday which was approaching, to formally announce my entry into this new territory.“ In short, Moore decided to become a magician and to ignore the usual midlife crisis. He studied the system of the „Golden Dawn“, Crowley and Spare, but without becoming a “thelemite” or member of an occult order. Then, demons and gods in-troduced themselves:

Yes. On the day I was forty, I decided I was going to become a magician. That was on November 18th. On January 7th the following year, that was when all of a sudden the lightning bolt hit. It all got a bit strange. For a couple of months after that, I was - looking back - probably in some borderline schizophrenic state. I was very spaced out - godstruck, you babble for a while. It's a natural response. Babble like an idiot. I'm surprised that - when I look back at what I was saying - that so much of it at least makes a fragment of sense because I was in some divine haze. "I see it all now", you know, I must have been unbearable for two or three months. I've integrated that now into the rest of my life. Now I can deal with functionality on a practical level.

Among the first non-human beings Moore encountered was the demon Asmodeus (appearing also in Promethea # 18):

After my initial apparent experience with non-ordinary states in the early January of 1994, I went through a superficially similar but subjectively very different-seeming experience about a month later, in the February of that year. I'll leave out the details, but the upshot was that I found myself seemingly in conversation with an entity that at first identified itself as "One of the Nine Dukes," and then upon closer interrogation as "As-moday." Its "body," when I asked it to show me what it looked like, consisted of a shifting and shimmering latticework of repeated spider motifs, all identical but at different scales. These, while keeping their colouring consistent, appeared to be constantly turning themselves inside out through a spatial dimension that was for-eign to me, becoming on the reverse a similar shifting lattice, this time with a reiterated lizard motif This would turn itself inside out and become the mesh of spiders again, and so on. As a constant background to this effect, there was a beautiful pattern composed of peacock's-tail eyes. The entire thing was like a 360-degree sphere or field of presence that surrounded my head, moving and speaking lucidly to me (and with great politeness and charm, it must be said).

As with my first experience, other magicians were with me at the time (although not the same people). I re-marked to one of them at the time when I was apparently speaking to the supposed entity that it seemed to me that the creatures body was actually a sort of display, since a physical body would clearly have been com-pletely redundant. I wondered if the "bodies" of such creatures aren't more in the nature of the "icons" that people use to represent themselves when surfing the net? Perhaps the perceived forms were more like com-pound symbols, characters in an unknown language that were meant to impart a kind of non-verbal informa-tion to us. At that moment, it struck me that the. entity I appeared to be seeing was conveying to me several things by its apparent form: Firstly, it was highly skilled in mathematics and in the visual arts that pertained to mathematics. Secondly, it had at least one more spatial dimension to play with than I did, and it seemed to take an almost smug delight in pointing this fact out to me. There was a quality of likeable vanity that seemed to imply that the emotional range of the entity was not vastly different from that of a human being. (This has not been the case with some of the other "species" of imaginary creature that I like to imagine I've encoun-tered, and thus seemed worth noting.)

Days later, after the experience, I did some research to see what I could find relating to the demon Asmoday or Asmodeus as he is more often known. It seemed that Asmodeus is considered to be the patron demon of mathematics and handicraft, which fit in with my general perception of the creature but proved nothing one way or the other. There was also some fascinating material on this particular demon's ability to grant an "Asmodeus Fright," wherein the magician will be plucked up into the air by the demon and allowed to fly over his town. On looking down, the demon-borne conjuror would see all the houses below as if their roofs had been removed, so that the occupants inside could be seen going about their lives. This was a fascinating and compelling medieval image, but again didn't seem to signify for much. -

Later, he met a snake god with blond hairs and human face, who turned out to be the Greek god Glykon mentioned in Lucian’s satire on the “false prophet” Alexander of Abunoteichos. Glykon be-came Moore’s soul mate and spiritual guide:

And I still have this relationship with this imaginary snake. My imaginary pal. If I'm going to be dealing in totally imaginary territory, it struck me that it would be useful to have a native as a guide. So I can have my imaginary conversations with my imaginary snake, and maybe it gives me information I already knew in part of myself, and maybe I just needed to make up an imaginary snake to tell me it.

Today, Moore has created his own magical circle called „The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels“ (presented officially in issue 14 of Joel Birocco’s revue KAOS. Meanwhile, Moore claims to have reached the grade of a Magus.

Since 1995, Moore tries to transform his magical ideas and experiences into shamanist performances where he recites his texts like conjurations with his deep, sonorous voice, accompanied by panto-mimes and the psychedelic music of Tim Perkins. The performance „The Birth Caul“ (1995) is mainly autobiographical. The „Highbury Working: A Beat Seance“ (2000) traces the secret history of the London quarter. „Snakes and Ladders“ (1999) is an inquiry on the snake symbol, the origin of the „Golden Dawn“ and the work of Arthur Machens, whereas „Angel Passage“ (2001) pays tribute to the poet William Blake.

Idea space

As a reaction to his magical experiences, Moore developed the theory of the „Idea space”. Idea space is a metaphor for the medium we all live in with our thoughts, and that is inhabited by ideas, symbols and gods.

One thing that struck me is that such a space might conceivably be a mutual space, even though we each ap-parently possess our own discrete consiousness. Maybe our individual and private consciousness is, in Idea-space terms, the equivalent of owning an individual and private house, an address, in material space? The space inside our homes is entirely ours, and yet if we step out through the front door, we find ourselves a street, a world, that ismutually accessible and open to anyone. What if that was true of the mind, as well? What if it were possible to travel beyond the confines of one’s individual mind-space, into the communal outdoors, where one could meet with the minds of other people in a shared place? This would at a stroke ex-plain dubious phenomena such as reported telepathy or knowledge-at-a-distance.When James Watt discov-ered steam propulsion, for example, there were a number of other inventors who campe up with the idea in-dependently in that same year, yet were unable to beat Watt to the Patent Office… If Ideaspace doesn’t exist, then these numerous independent discoveries of steam power can only be an almost unbelievable coinci-dence.

Thoughts are the Ideaspace equivalent to material objects in ordinary space. Objects that are separated by spatial distance in material space, can be close together in Ideaspace and may be connected by as-sociations. The rules of navigation in Ideaspace work similar to the navigational rules in the Internet. Time doesn’t play the same role as in our four-dimensional reality, so that we can go back and forth in time, and might even remember past lifes or have premonitions of the future. Philosophies are land masses in the Ideaspace, and religions are whole countries. They „might contain ... creatures of this conceptual world that are made from ideas in the same way that we creatures of the material world are made from matter. This could conceivably explain phantoms, angels, demons, gods, djinns, grey ali-ens, elves, pixies, smurfs and any of the other evidently non-material entities that people claim to have encountered over the centuries.“ Each man interacts with the Ideaspace, even if he doesn’t know it. The creativity of artists can be judged upon how far they have travelled in pursuit of their ideas.

Magic is a vantage point outside ordinary consciousness from where one can overlook all kind of be-lief systems. „I see magic as a vantage point from which one can look down on the rest of conscious-ness. It's a point outside normal consciousness from which you can look at normal consciousness, it's a point outside beliefs from which you can look at beliefs. All beliefs are reality tunnels, to use Anton Wilson's phrase. There is the Communist reality tunnel, the Feminist reality tunnel, all of which seem to be the whole of reality when you are in the middle of them. The whole universe is based on Marxist theory if you're an intent Marxist. Magic is having a plan of all the tunnels, and seeing the overall con-dition in which they all work. Being aware of different possibilities.“

Therefore, the Magician has greater possibilities to influence on reality. That explains also the features traditionally ascribed to magic. Conjuring up a dead person means to activate the idea of a person in-asmuch a communication is established which gives usefull informations. The Gods are particulary broad, collective information channels:

If the universe is as a magician sees it, then there are wider possibilities. For example, do I believe I can raise the dead and talk to them? Yes, I do. Not in any physical sense because that would smell. I don't see any point in that. You don't want a maggot bag walking around your living room. But could I re-animate the idea of a person in the useful sense and be able to communicate with that person - or, at least, to believe that I was communicating with that person to such an extent that the information I received was as good as if that per-son was talking to me? Yes, I do. Most of the effects described in classical magical tradition I believe I can duplicate with art, possibly drugs - or some other means of integrating myself more deeply with that sort of reality, that sort of consciousness - I believe I could do most of the things that are described in traditional magic. This opens up wider possibilities. It also enables me to understand myself on a deeper level. By ac-cepting the idea of endless pantheons of gods, I somehow accept these creatures as being distinct and sepa-rate from me, and not as being, to some degree, higher functions of me. Iain Sinclair was asking me about this: he asked me 'do you think they are inside you, or outside you?' The only answer I could come up with was, the more I think about it the inside is the outside. That the objective world and the non-objective world are the same thing, to some degree. Ideaspace and this space are the same space. Just different ends of the scale. That's not a very good explanation, but the best I can come up with so far. All of these things are ex-ploratory, they are exploring me, exploring the world of ideas, attempting to contact what I believe may be potent forms of energy. Like for example, I might do a work to put me in contact with the god Mercury. If the information I get from that is valuable to me, and new enough, it doesn't really matter whether the god Mercury is there at all, does it? There is a channel that I have called the god Mercury, some sort of informa-tion source I have named.

The Gods seem to favour Alan Moore – in any case, his creativity did not decline after 1994, just the opposite. For the time after “Promethea” (probably ending with issue 32), Moore has already an-nounced a new project with the working title „Grimoire“ that will tell the story of Western magic.

Bibliography: Promethea. By Alan Moore, J.H. William III, Mick Gray, Jeromy Cox and Todd Klein. America’s Best Comics, La Jolla (USA) 1999-2003. Promethea Book One (1-6, 2000), Book Two (7-12, 2001), Book Three (13-18, 2002).


Annotations to Promethea

The Idler, Interview with Matthew de Abuaita, 1988

Alan Moore/Dave Sim: Correspondence In: Cerebus #218

Alan Moore: The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. In: Joel Biroco: Kaos 14. London 2002.

The original German language version of this article can be found in Der Golem #13