(from Ghosts & Scholars 26)

(Notes, with relevant links, at bottom of article)

In M.R. James's story "Count Magnus", the unfortunate protagonist, Mr Wraxall, is travelling in Sweden, collecting information for a scholarly guidebook to Scandinavia. He visits the manor-house of Råbäck in Vestergothland, which had been built by one Count Magnus De la Gardie in the early seventeenth century. The local village innkeeper has tales to tell about Count Magnus, and Mr Wraxall's curiosity is piqued by his suggestion that, "the Count had been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him".

Later, while examining the Count's papers, Mr Wraxall finds a book of alchemical tracts, and is delighted to discover:

"...on a leaf originally left blank near the middle of the book, some writing of Count Magnus himself headed 'Liber nigrae peregrinationis'. It is true that only a few lines were written, but there was quite enough to show that the landlord had that morning been referring to a belief at least as old as the time of Count Magnus, and probably shared by him. This is the English of what was written: 'If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince...' Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr Wraxall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aëris ('of the air'). But there was no more of the text copied, only a line in Latin: 'Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora' (See the rest of this matter among the more private things)."

In the inn parlour that evening, Mr Wraxall pursues the subject with the deacon of the parish:

"'Can you tell me,' he said, 'anything about Chorazin?'
"The deacon seemed startled, but readily reminded him how that village had once been denounced.
"'To be sure,' said Mr Wraxall; 'it is, I suppose, quite a ruin now?'
"'So I expect,' replied the deacon. 'I have heard some of our old priests say that Antichrist is to be born there; and there are tales -'
"'Ah! what tales are those?' Mr Wraxall put in.
"'Tales, I was going to say, which I have forgotten,' said the deacon; and soon after that he said good night."

At one point in the story, MRJ, as the narrator, observes that, "You will naturally inquire, as Mr Wraxall did, what the Black Pilgrimage may have been. But your curiosity on the point must remain unsatisfied for the time being, just as his did." Mr Wraxall never does discover anything more than hints and clues, and readers of "Count Magnus" continue to share his fate, for no MRJ researchers to date have succeeded in providing any substantial information on the Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin, let alone answering the obvious question: did MRJ invent it, or was it an authentic tradition?

Michael Cox, in his annotations to "Count Magnus" in Casting the Runes (1987), offers only the possibility of a link with an item in an 1815 volume of the Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature:

"The late King of Sweden has published a very curious address. He says, he has received the Grand Seignior's permission to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land: in consequence, he invites ten persons to accompany him, one from each of the nations of Europe: they are to wear black robes, to let their beards grow, take the style and title of Black Brethren, and are each to be attended by a servant in black and grey livery...the Black Brethren are to assemble at Trieste, on the 24th of June."(1)

Aside from the Swedish connection, there seems to be no similarity between this innocuous pilgrimage and Count Magnus's. The King of Sweden's was 'black' only in the sense that the "Black Brethren" were to wear the colour as an act of contrition.

Slightly more to the point is a letter published in the Eton College Chronicle in 1937. The writer, Helen Simpson, was responding to a mock-serious series of 'exam' questions about MRJ's stories in a previous issue, one of which was: "Describe the experiences of Count Magnus on the Black Pilgrimage. What arrangement did he enter into with the Prince of the Power of the Air?"(2) Her lengthy reply offers a possible local destination for the Pilgrimage:

"...we need not suppose that the Black Pilgrimage took Count Magnus all the way to Palestine. The city of Chorazin may, I think, be identified with the town of Mohra in Sweden, which had a particularly evil reputation before and after the Count's time. (See Glanville, Collection of Reactions.) The following extract from A History of the Archdiocese of Upsala, compiled in 1627, by Zachary Schürer, gives the grounds on which I base this opinion. (I English it as I can.)
"'At the end of this year (1601) the Archbishop sent Canon Matthew Carelius, a man knowledgable in such matters, to investigate rumours of witchcraft and a prophecy in the town of Mohra in Elfdal. This prophecy concerned the end of the world, which was said to be close at hand, the day after Christmas being named. And it was alleged that on this account Satan was building a strong tower, in which his servants might take refuge from the Wrath. It was said that certain dead men left their sepulchres to labour on this tower by night, but there was no sign, only that some graves were found disturbed, which might well have been done by starving beasts, this being a hard winter.
"'The Canon was told also that the Enemy had established churches at other places in Elfdal, to which those who put their trust in him resorted, and that it was counted a great mark of devotion, and a man might be sure of entry to the tower, when he had faithfully accomplished this diabolical pilgrimage, offering sacrifice at each place. But nothing could be proved.
"'That day appointed by the false prophet for the Judgment passing without any event save a great and remarkable wind, the Canon preached to the people from Matthew xi, 21, and rebuked them, and told them they might expect the fate of the wicked cities if they would not amend. It was observed that the great wind dropped about this time, and the people made much of the omen. Oh, credulous generation, etc.'"(3)

As we shall see, the Canon was likening Mohra to Chorazin by quoting Matthew xi, 21, but although Simpson thereby manages to link the latter city with the idea of a pilgrimage, there are two major drawbacks to her theory. The first is that, whilst MRJ may have known in general of the evil reputation of Mohra from Joseph Glanville, there is absolutely no evidence that he was familiar with the specific details as presented in A History of the Archdiocese of Upsala, including the tenuous Mohra/Chorazin connection. Also, in "Count Magnus", it is clear that Mr Wraxall believes the destination of the Pilgrimage to be the real Chorazin in Palestine, and the reader is given no cause to disagree with him.

In Matthew xi, 21-24, (and also in Luke x, 13-15), Jesus condemns three cities whose residents had been given the chance to hear his teachings, but had failed to repent:

"Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgement, than for thee."

These 'woes' came to be perceived in later centuries as a curse on the cities, and the idea arose that they would be somehow linked with the birth of the Antichrist as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. The earliest version of this tradition is to be found in the so-called Revelations (or Letter) of the Pseudo-Methodius, which, although attributed to the fourth-century bishop Methodius, was probably written in Syria around 690. It has been described as "...arguably the most important Christian apocalyptic text after the Apocalypse of John in terms of its wide diffusion and subsequent influence."(4) Of the Antichrist's origins, the Pseudo-Methodius says:

"...the Son of Perdition will appear. He will be born in Chorazaim, nourished in Bethsaida, and reign in Capharnaum. Chorazaim will rejoice because he was born in her, and Capharnaum because he will have reigned in her. For this reason in the third Gospel the Lord gave the following statement: 'Woe to you Chorazaim, woe to you Bethsaida, and to you Capharnaum - if you have risen up to heaven, you will descend even to hell'."(5)

A certain amount of confusion arose from a parallel tradition maintaining that the Antichrist would be born in Babylon, so some medieval writers such as Adso, the tenth-century Abbot of Montier-en-Der in France, stated that he would be raised and educated in Chorazin and Bethsaida, after being taken there from Babylon. John de Mandeville, in his famous fourteenth-century Travels, also contented himself with this compromise.(6) Nevertheless, the "old priests" quoted by the deacon in "Count Magnus" had good authority for their statement. And although (presumably) the Antichrist has not yet been born, Chorazin would thus be a suitable place to find his father, the "prince of the powers of the (lower) air", a title which also appears in MRJ's favourite Sheridan Le Fanu story, "The Familiar", and which was originally given to Satan by St Paul in Ephesians ii,2: "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience...". In the Latin of the Vulgate Bible, the relevant phrase is "principem potestatis aeris".

"Count Magnus" was first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), but was probably written in the second half of 1901 or early 1902, while MRJ's holiday in Sweden during the summer of 1901 was still fresh in his mind.(7) Significantly, three or four years earlier, he compiled the lengthy entry on "Man of Sin and Antichrist" for the Dictionary of the Bible.(8) Here he makes no mention of Chorazin as such, but he does include the Pseudo-Methodius among his sources, and also draws "copiously" on W. Bousset's Der Antichrist (1895), a work which notes the Antichrist/Chorazin connection. MRJ further comments on the omission from Bousset of an Armenian document, a Life of St Nerses dating from the twelfth-thirteenth centuries. When Bousset's monograph was published in English in 1896, a new Appendix was added, giving a translation of this Armenian saga, including the following account of the Antichrist's origins:

"Think ye not however that he is Satan, or a devil from among his hosts. No, but a man lost in mind and soul of the tribe of Dan, and he is born in Chorazin, a village of the people of Israel; and his name is Hrômelay..."(9)

MRJ's then-recent research for his overview of the Antichrist legend probably meant that it was still quite fresh in his mind when he came to write "Count Magnus". For that reason, if he needed to invent a logical destination for the Count's Black Pilgrimage, Chorazin would have been the obvious choice. Although he did not actually write the entry for Chorazin itself in the Dictionary of the Bible, he would doubtless have read it at this time, and noted the description of the town, which is identified with Kerazeh, a couple of miles north of the northern end of the Sea of Galilee: "The ruins are of some importance, the entire stonework, columns and ornamentation being composed of black basalt rock".(10) Perhaps it is far-fetched to suggest that the Pilgrimage might have acquired its colourful adjective from this word-picture, but it may well have provoked Mr Wraxall's question to the deacon: "it is, I suppose, quite a ruin now?"

The remains at Chorazin/Kerazeh were visited and measured by Sir Charles William Wilson in the 1860s, when he noted a synagogue with "Corinthian capitals", various domestic buildings and one "with remnants of Ionic capitals", all in the black basalt which made them "barely to be distinguished at one hundred yards distance from the rocks which surround [the town]."(11) Sixty years later, Gustaf Dalman also recorded Chorazin's location in this "desolate basalt wilderness", and described the synagogue, with its decoration of sculptures of "animal motifs (among them a sucking ass, of apotropaic significance), representations especially of grape-gathering and grape-pressing, and of centaurs fighting with lions." The town was deserted as early as the fourth century when it was referred to by St Jerome, and later legend had it that the synagogue was never completed: "...pilgrims were told that the Jews could not finish building the synagogue, because the workers, when asked by Jesus what they were doing, replied: 'Nothing,' and our Lord then said: 'If what ye do is nothing, nothing will it remain for ever'."(12)

Leaving aside the distinctive hue of the basalt, and the obvious sinister implications of the colour, there would also seem to be a link between the use of the word 'black' and alchemy, especially in view of the fact that Count Magnus wrote his Liber nigrae peregrinationis in the pages of a book of (entirely authentic) alchemical tracts. During the "nigredo" or blackening stage of alchemy, the alchemist, who has just begun to gain power, has to descend into an abyss of putrefaction in order to ascend any further.

A related area of MRJ's researches must have provided the inspiration for the title of the Liber nigrae peregrinationis (Book of the Black Pilgrimage). Dr John Dee (1527-1608), magician and bibliophile, was a constant source of interest to MRJ, and in 1921 he edited the Lists of MSS Formerly Owned by Dr. John Dee. Here MRJ reprinted, annotated and expanded upon a 1583 autograph catalogue of Dee's library: a manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge, which he had previously described for his Western MSS at Trinity College (1900-1902). MRJ's introduction to the 1921 Lists of MSS makes frequent mention of James Orchard Halliwell's The Diary of Dr. John Dee (1842), where the Trinity holograph had earlier been printed in an appendix. To compile his own version, MRJ collated Halliwell's with the original, and also added material from other sources. He states that, "I have not attempted to collect here notices of MSS. of Dee's own writing", and concerning another section in Halliwell's appendix he writes, "There follows...Elias Ashmole's list...of such of Dee's MSS. as had come to his hands. They are all records of his intercourse with spirits, and have no bearing on our present subject".(13) Nevertheless, MRJ can hardly have avoided reading Ashmole's list. Possibly his first encounter with Halliwell was around 1900, when he may have read the book as background research for the Trinity catalogue. He will have noted Ashmole's entry number 8: Dee's Liber Peregrinationis Primae (Book of the First Pilgrimage).(14) The close similarity of the two titles cannot be coincidence, although Dee's work bears no other resemblance to Count Magnus's, and deals with magical conversations during a 1583 voyage to Krakow in Poland.

But whether or not MRJ needed to invent the Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin, it is intriguing to discover that, in the 1940s, a Californian named Jack Parsons actually went on just such a journey, and with disturbing consequences. Early in 1946, Parsons (1914-1952), scientist and sometime leading light of the Californian Lodge of Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis, invoked the Thelemic goddess Babalon in the Mojave Desert, utilising the "Enochian Tablet of Air". He had devised the magickal operation in order to "obtain the assistance of an elemental mate" (reminiscent of Count Magnus's "faithful messenger"), an object he claimed to have achieved by following Babalon's instructions, which he later wrote down as The Book of Babalon or the Liber 49. One of the goddess's demands was that: "Thou shalt make the Black Pilgrimage". Babalon did not specify in so many words where the Pilgrimage should be to, but Parsons' Foreword to the Book says:

"I have taken the Oath of the Abyss, and entered my rightful city of Chorazin, and seen therein the past lives whereby I came to this, the grossest of all my Workings. Now it would seem that the further matters of the prophecy are at work; events press on tumultuously, and 'Time is' is writ large across the sky."(15)

Any lingering doubts concerning the destination of Parsons' Pilgrimage are removed by his The Book of Antichrist (1949), where he explains how, during a later invocation in 1948-9:

"...I reconstructed the temple, and began the Black Pilgrimage, as She [Babalon] instructed.
"And I went into the sunset with Her sign, and into the night past accursed and desolate places and cyclopean ruins, and so came at last to the City of Chorazin. And there a great tower of Black Basalt was raised, that was part of a castle whose further battlements reeled over the gulf of stars. And upon the tower was this sign [an inverted triangle in a circle]."(16)

Just like Count Magnus, Parsons "was taken within and saluted the Prince of that place", after which:

"...things were done to me of which I may not write, and they told me, 'It is not certain that you will survive, but if you survive you will attain your true will, and manifest the Antichrist.'
"And thereafter I returned and swore the Oath of the Abyss, having only the choice between madness, suicide and that oath."(17)

Of course, Jack Parsons' pilgrimage was magico-spiritual rather than geographical, but so might Count Magnus's have been. At no point in the story does MRJ specify that his journey was a physical one. It would be interesting, too, to know how Count Magnus died. Parsons was killed when he accidentally dropped some unstable fulminate of mercury, thus fulfilling Babalon's prophecy that he would "become living flame".

The one obvious link between Parsons and MRJ is their mutual fascination with John Dee (for Enochian and bibliographical reasons, respectively). While researching for this article, we therefore had great hopes of discovering the Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin as an existing concept in Dee's works, but to date we have found only one reference to Chorazin (or Gorsim), listed as number seventy-six in the ninety-one parts of the earth named by man, in the Liber Scientiae Auxilii et Victoriae Terrestris. Our lack of success does not necessarily prove that it is not there, but unless and until we discover it, the most likely explanation for Parson's Black Pilgrimage has to be that he somehow got the idea via "Count Magnus". There is no actual evidence that he ever read the story, but perhaps it is significant that Aleister Crowley once criticised Parsons' tendency to get "a kick from some magazine trash, or an 'occult' novel...and [dash] off in wild pursuit".

Parsons sometimes attended the meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (LASFS): Jack Williamson, author of the supernatural novel Darker Than You Think, encountered him there in 1941, and found him quite well read in the genre.(18) Another active member of LASFS was Samuel D. Russell, whose major essay on "Irony and Horror: The Art of M.R. James" was published in the Fall 1945 issue of Francis Towner Laney's fanzine The Acolyte, just a few months before Parsons received his first instruction to go on the Black Pilgrimage.(19) Clearly MRJ was discussed at LASFS meetings and Parsons may have been introduced to his tales there. Possibly he was then encouraged to take the Black Pilgrimage seriously by his scryer or "magical partner", the notorious L. Ron Hubbard, who went on to found the Church of Scientology. Described by Aleister Crowley as a "confidence man", when Hubbard started working with Parsons his greatest claim to fame was as a pulp writer who had contributed several science fiction and supernatural fantasy stories to Unknown magazine. Crowley himself appears to have had his doubts about the authenticity of the conjurations undertaken by the two men. In April 1946, he wrote: "Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts."(20) It would certainly seem to be in character for Parsons to have adopted a fictional concept into his practice.

In this article we have suggested several sources of inspiration for the Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin, and one point has become very clear: in order to fully understand the background of antiquarian knowledge which lies behind each of M.R. James's ghost stories, the reader needs to know what else he was working on or preoccupied with at the time. The tales, of course, can be enjoyed fully without this knowledge, but it does add a further level to their entertainment value. Unfortunately, the last piece of the Black Pilgrimage jigsaw - the final proof that MRJ did or did not invent it - has eluded us. The hunt continues...

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1. Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature, Vol.X, No.CX (February 1815), 121; in Michael Cox (ed.), M.R. James: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford World's Classics, 1987), 310-311. As Cox also points out here, there was a historical Magnus De la Gardie, in the time of Queen Christina (i.e.1632-1654, a little later than the fictional one), but this "patron of the arts...had nothing in common with MRJ's creation".
2. Eton College Chronicle, November 12, 1936.
3. Eton College Chronicle, February 4, 1937.
4. Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (HarperCollins, 1996), 90.
5. Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (Columbia University Press, 1979), 76.
6. R.K. Emmerson, Antichrist in the Middle Ages: A Study of Medieval Apocalypticism, Art & Literature (Manchester University Press, 1981), 80-81.
7. Cox, Casting the Runes, 309, 310.
8. J. Hastings (ed.), Dictionary of the Bible, (1898-1902), Vol.III, 226-28.
9. W. Bousset, The Antichrist Legend: A Chapter in Christian & Jewish Folklore (trans. A.H. Keane, Hutchinson, 1896), 254-55.
10. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I, 384 (entry written by S. Merrill).
11. Charles William Wilson, The Recovery of Jerusalem: A Narrative of Exploration and Discovery in the City and the Holy Land (Richard Bentley, 1871), 347, 348.
12. Gustaf Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways: Studies in the topography of the Gospels (English translation, SPCK, 1935), 154, 153. The ruins still exist: for a photograph of the remains of Chorazin's synagogue, see John Rogerson, The New Atlas of the Bible (Equinox, 1985), 141. For more photographs see here.
13. M.R. James (ed.), Lists of MSS Formerly Owned by Dr. John Dee (Bibliographical Society Transactions, Supplement #1, 1921), 10, 35.
14. James Orchard Halliwell (ed.), The Diary of Dr. John Dee (Camden Society, 1842), 88. The Liber Peregrinationis Primae is in Meric Casaubon (ed.), True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits (1659), 33-72.
15. Jack Parsons, The Book of Babalon, published in Starfire (Vol.I, No.3, 1989), where the quotes are on pages 58 and 52. The background on Parsons and the other unattributed quotes by him and Crowley are from the excellent accompanying article by Michael Staley.
16. Jack Parsons, The Book of Antichrist, quoted in Kenneth Grant, Hecate's Fountain (Skoob Books, 1992), 27-28. The Book of Babalon and The Book of Antichrist, in their entirety, are on the Internet in at least three places (e.g. on the Sacred Texts site here). A triangle in a circle is a symbol of the Trinity, so presumably an inverted triangle in a circle symbolises the 'anti-Trinity'. An inverted triangle is also the hermetic symbol for water.
17. Ibid.
18. Russell Miller, Bare-Faced Messiah (Michael Joseph, 1987), 114-115.
19. Rosemary Pardoe, Introduction to the reprint of Samuel D. Russell's "Irony and Horror: The Art of M.R. James" (Ghost Story Society, 1993), 3.
20. Miller, Bare-Faced Messiah, 124.

Acknowledgements: This article is dedicated to Richard Ward, without whom it would certainly never have been written. He raised the initial question which set us on the hunt, and then assisted with the research throughout. Our thanks also to Betty and Colin Nicholls, and Darroll Pardoe.

Copyright © 1998 Rosemary Pardoe & Jane Nicholls
Last altered October 15, 2006.

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