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Interview Spirit

ANATHEMA PUBLISHING shines light into the uncoloured spaces

As admirers and readers of the work released by Montreal based Anathema Publishing, it was a long time coming to finally form a friendly relationship with the man behind the operation. What started as a social media video on the Covenant Instagram to show off the utter brilliance of one of the PILLARS journals, developed into a correspondence and ultimately into this interview you see before you.

Gabriel McCaughry is a man of many, potent words, who publishes the works of other men and women of many, potent words. His small, but fierce, publishing house works with esteemed authors of many paradigms. The talismanic, ornate nature of these books often are the first telling signs that you are indeed holding an Anathema release.

Through the course of questions between Gabriel and Covenant’s Thor Dehr, we received more insight than we could have imagined! There is a deep wisdom to his words that feel beyond his years. We are privileged to preserve most of the conversation below. Steady the senses and dig in …

INITIATION

Origin stories are as varied as the individuals behind them. Nothing could be more true in the context of a small-batch publishing house dedicated to obscure tomes. To dig into the grassroots of Anathema’s manifestation, we prod McCaughry to divulge the spark of his fire. Consistent with our metaphor, he explains, “I’ve always been one to fan the flames of my creative impulses, and I’ve always enjoyed following my passions wherever they lead me.” Unrestricted to just the medium of publishing, this level of abandon extended to all areas of his becoming; whether “starting a metal band, designing a product, planning events, or rallying people around a certain plan or idea,” he carries that same passion. In that same vein, Anathema Publishing also came to be.

The whole idea and impetus behind Anathema really felt like answering a certain ‘call’ as a ‘duty,’ less so than just another pastime, or artistic project.

After several years of playing in extreme metal bands, beginning with Unquintessence and Trails of Anguish in the late nineties and early 2000’s, and touring intensely with Ion Dissonance and Vatican, Gabriel soon realized that as fun as it was, there was a creative and spiritual void that needed to be addressed. “Since I’ve always been hugely fascinated by the mysteries, I decided to start investigating the occult in a more serious manner … Enough so that years afterward, I was able to share my findings, deductions, and to a certain extent personal practice via articles I wrote between 2008-2009.” 

This formative exploration culminated and exploded into a three-month trip throughout Asia Minor to discover first-hand the power behind the mysteries in their place of origin. “The circumambient spiritual quality of the place truly impacted me,” he reveals. “Then everything came together: the name, the intent behind it all, and the main seal/symbol I would end up using — everything.” Returning home, the work to bring it all to life began.

A sincere love of quality books has followed Gabriel throughout his life. However, the jump from book-lover to proprietor of fine pieces of literary art was another step entirely. Things had to start small out of necessity, “I had no clue how to start any business by myself, and knew relatively few people with relevant experience; I had no resources but my own to invest. However, what I did have was experience as a graduated and professional graphic designer by trade who’s worked in the pre-press field for over 20 years now,” he tells us. Not a bad start at all. Add in a fiery passion for collecting limited edition printed books, rarities, and beautifully bound books, and the path was cleared for his developing endeavour.

SEEDS

Before any beginning, there is a blank canvass of potential waiting to be painted by a wide range of influential colours. With any individual involved in matters of the spirit, the inevitable question arises: What brought your curiosity to the subject of the occult as a point of practice and study? 

“This may sound a bit dry, but often people are interested in knowing how it ‘starts’ rather than how things evolve, which I usually find more interesting; one retroactively embellishes and romanticizes how his relationship with the occult actually started to make it sound more epic than it truly was. This is something I’ve been guilty of doing more than once.”

It is true that most interviewers seem to want a list of arcane secrets and wild personalities to lump the practitioner into a neat compartmentalization. In fact, anyone can certainly name influences that made an early impact, although “for the most part, I probably have moved away from them as things unfolded and as my understanding of the material evolved”, he says. 

Unsurprisingly, we find that some of the texts and authors that first left their indelible impression were “Andrew D. Chumbley’s corpus of work, Crowley of course, various classical grimoires (such as the Grimorium Verum, of the Book of Abramelin, etc.), some theological work by Blavatski, mystical poetry à la Rumi or Omar Khayyam, Gibran, various classical Alchemy works (Flamel, Paracelsus, Agrippa, etc.), numerous Gnostic texts (which I study to this day), along with Robert Cochrane/Evan John Jones/Shani Oates and the Clan of Tubal Cain’s material (which lead to me publishing Shani, of course).” Not so secretly, we wanted to be indulged with such a list, and after this revelation we know we’re in very good company.

SONAR SECRETS

Of course we require Gabriel’s take on the role of music in occult study. There seems to be a growing schism with some specific currents intertwined with musicians trying to distance themselves from music as a tool in ritual praxis. Meanwhile, other prominent writers have literally written grimoires with companion albums or expand their messages into specific albums themselves.

His opinion is just about as expected: “Music is an integral part of life, and quite the primordial tool for opening minds — which ties in to the importance of experience in the world of phenomena. Certainly, music has been a great passion of mine for years”, he explains. As the frontman and lyricist for many musical projects over the years, McCaughry sees music as “a vehicle moving emotions back and forth, and intuiting (or pointing towards) certain doorways warranting further investigation.” The musician can channel this energy in a very primal, quasi-shamanistic way to great effect.

… as a ritual aid, certain types of music can help regulate breath, help to focus during contemplative work (so long as one is able to sweep aside the imagery that may unfold during the listening of music), and in certain specific — dare I say radically-challenging — ritual works, music can enhance the overall ambience to a point of saturation, thereby strengthening one’s resolve to a breaking point and then bringing forth a subsequent clarity.

It is a very primal tool that we can see from the ancients, to the so-called primitives, to modern practice of all sorts. This is most readily found, “with certain drone-like rhythms of handmade drums, bells, singing bowls, liturgical chants, and the repetitive uttering of mantras, or galdrs (throat vibrations in specific words, runes, or ‘keys’), performed around a fire during a ritual.” Gabriel seems to speak from experience.

And your listening habits as of late?

“Personally, I have my favorites which I will listen to during times like my morning meditation. But these are neither required per se, nor do I necessarily advocate such a practice as being mandatory by any means. If it works for you, fine; if it is in any way distracting, perhaps it’s best to avoid it altogether.

Ambient music and some instrumental folk seem to be particularly conducive to proper mind states. I very much appreciate the work of: Sounds of Isha, Arktau Eos, Alone In The Hollow Garden, Sacra Fern, O Saala Sakraal, CHVE, and Visions.

Now, when it comes to music which can take you to distant lands, engages the very root of imagination, and stimulates inspiration (music I will often listen to during writing process, for instance), I very much enjoy the work of: Ulver, Goran Bregovic, Hexvessel, Cities Last Broadcast, Levon Minassian, Atrium Carceri, Gurdjieff/De Hartmann, Érik Satie, Beyond Sensory Experience, Marconi Union, John Coltrane, Death & Vanilla, L’enfant De La Forêt, and Wardruna… but admittedly these days I do listen to quite a lot of podcasts as well.”

Let’s not dance around the elephant in the room here (after all this is primarily an extreme metal music zine), and Gabriel gets us back on course. “It would be somewhat disingenuous of me not to mention black metal, or metal in general, since I’ve been part of that scene and have been very fond of since I first heard Necrophobic’s Nocturnal Silence in 1994.” Now we know we’re in even better company.

“My view on it, however, has changed through the years. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been part of bands that have toured extensively, recording numerous records in the studio, travelled and ‘lived’ off music for a while, etc. A couple of years back, I would’ve probably gone on and on about the revelatory aspects of music and of performing live.

But as things progressed, and my occult, or contemplative, practice developed, deeper considerations altered how I viewed metal music in the regard. The raw immediacy and sharpness of it all is quite efficient as a wind blow/breath enlivening the flames of Nigredo. And so, with proper technique and dedication one can use this art as a catalyst for ‘surviving’ the Calcination process. Of course, a lot of people get wholly consume by the flame and are bound to remain at this Nigredo level, but that’s another story in and of itself.”

Anyone interested in this wider world of oddities, spiritual conduits, and dark delights, usually can trace a path back to a teenagehood of heavy metal, industrial, goth, or punk worship. We love what we love, and we always will. Though we need to be realistic here, and Gabriel again brings us down to Earth:

“[L]et’s face it: most ‘occult-looking’ bands out there are just plastering symbols they do not fully understand one on top of the other. They present a facade of esotericism which is quite superficial at best, and plain fallacious at worst. That does not mean their music is not masterfully executed – and the whole aesthetic is pleasing to the eye, in a very idiosyncratic way.”

“But nonetheless, for younger people this music can open their eyes to the possibility that there is something more out there in the wild that is worth investigating further. For this reason, it’ll take more than engaging with the music or the imagery, or even starting your own project; it’ll require you to completely rehaul your life, re-evaluate your values, and push against your limitations — even outside of your ‘comfort zone’ of Metal music (or any kind of music or art done for the sake of enjoying art).”

Well said.

At the moment Gabriel is the vocalist of BLIGHTa black metal band who has recently finished recording a new album entitled Temple of Wounds – a direct conceptual continuation of his first book h)AuroraeThe record will ultimately bridge to what will be a second book, currently in progress. Something to keep a keen eye on.

ERECTING THE PILLARS

Anathema Publishing perhaps is best known for the unparalleled journal series PILLARS. Currently, the first issue of the second volume has been released, with the first volume having three issues itself, and each issue thus far having many different contributors. Each issue selects a greater focus topic and prompts writers to deliver their submissions free of restraint, be it time, opinion, or paradigm. It is a swarm of ideas and opinions from many of the most prominent, challenging, and unique voices in the occult zeitgeist.

With so many different minds approaching similar subjects, the clash of ideas must be inevitable and cause conflict on some level. The widely different viewpoints next to each other for the reader’s context is curious.

“I’d say that precisely the whole pointy of this exercise is to have a meeting of minds, which can harmoniously tie to one another — or clash and create an interesting dichotomy when exploring a particular facet of the Arte Magickal or mystical inquiry.”

The freedom given to authors must be a refreshing blank-slate. Gabriel further elucidates that, “the idea is not to direct the minds, nor to have a single viewpoint,” in fact, because of the general nature of the theme, “it is explored via the different lenses of the individual authors and artists, who of course distill a theme through their perceptual and practical filter: i.e. tradition, lineage, system, and philosophy”. Even among perceived duality and ‘clashing’ viewpoints, often there is a singular thread running across the whole, and further points of connection are made or realized.

MATERIALISM

Even in a niche subculture that attempts to shatter the ego, the lure of materialism and stamp-collecting is all pervasive. The world of 2nd hand rarity books has only expanded more aggressively as time goes on. On one hand, it seems some people see higher prices on used books as a signal of that specific publication’s Gnostic value and usefulness, while others see it as a source of profiteering.

In Gabriel’s opinion, the idea that higher cost could be indicative of a ‘greater’ Gnostic value is a sad thing to even discuss and wholly ridiculous. He tries to help us understand the ‘collector’s impulse,’ and, in fact, he is even guilty of “paying extraordinary amounts of money to complete a collection, or acquire a specific, hard to find tome. But of course, the second-hand market is often out of control and makes no sense whatsoever.” It’s based upon a rabid, all-too-human impulse perhaps. 

Yes, beautifully bound books in small-run batches, with incredible materials and design, will fetch higher prices by default — these are harder and harder to make as time goes by and as printed and properly bound publications go out of style in the general populace. It is what it is, and should not otherwise impact primary or secondary markets, but in the Occult world it verily seems that presentation is often mistaken for quality of content as well.

To a publisher like Gabriel, both are equally important and should be complimentary. Prices often need to reflect production costs and support future projects. It’s as simple as that. The disrespect of reselling a piece of art for nothing more than profit affects the producers in the first place and the genuine seekers as well. Quite often this is case with books that are not even sold-out and still available from the publisher or first-hand distro. To him, this is a much worse practice.

What do we do about it? He tells us, “to eradicate this problem, buyers should go about truly researching more if ever they want to acquire a specific title and check with the publisher first if they know of a certain place where they can acquire it at a relatively fair price.”

INSPIRING IDEAS

Running a publishing house must be an incredible way to open the self to a stunning array of different esoteric influences, origins, goals, ritual settings, and so on. We are curious if this time and dedication to Anathema has altered Gabriel’s own path by showing him something he may not have otherwise seen.

“Absolutely, and irreversibly so, yes.” Having been in a sort of metaphysical isolation in Montreal, Gabriel as a self practitioner remained “singularly alone in having this deep interest and propensity for the mysteries and for esoteric studies.”

(h)Aurorae by Gabriel McCaughry

“Via Anathema, I was able to connect with much more knowledgeable characters as I ever was, and this ‘association’ (and given the fact that I often incorporate new material into my own), has propelled my writings and inquiries much further — deepening my devotion to a considerable degree as well.”

His pursuits were refined – sharpening the blade so to speak. “Being shown different methodologies, points of view, and philosophies, [revealed to] me that, in essence, specialization trumps generalization, but that at the most subtle levels, all such dichotomies and distinction vanishes — only language at the surface is different, and even then — but the ground of reality is verily all-encompassing and all-emptying.”

The opposite must be true as well. With such a flood of ideas and submissions of text, there must be a number of red flags that one knows to avoid.

In fact they are, “too numerous for me to list here. I get all sorts of manuscripts in the ol’ inbox, ranging from the purely fantastical, to the outright insane, but mostly, and sadly, they are just unprofessional and unfocused,” he reveals. “Which, at least, as a silver lining, makes it a bit easier to determine those that are genuine and interesting enough to warrant publication. Alas, these are very few and far between.” The cream always rises to the top.

To maintain a certain level of commitment to quality, whilst working on fresh material and finding new authors and illustrators to work with, is a struggle. It’s a challenge, but a welcome one, Gabriel insists. “As time flies by and the reputation of Anathema grows, then new exciting projects can emerge, and new relationships can develop.”

TALISMANS

One of the best advantages that the small, passion-driven occult publishing house has is often a higher quality: clothbound hard covers, beautiful and simplified artwork, hand numbering, and other traits to make long-lasting, personally valuable works, let alone the actual content included. This must be a thrilling and daunting process. How on Earth do you keep up this high standard of quality?

Time is of the essence, money is always a stress and a gamble, delays are enormous, and every step of the way, whether it be editing/correcting, layout and design, revisions, proofing, artworks, promotion, events, all of it needs to be meticulously addressed whilst maintaining due course ahead, and making everyone engaged in the process (readers/customers included) happy and calm.

With each release potentially being a make-or-break situation for the company, every product requires the extra mile, the sleepless nights, the needed moments of meditation to stay sane, and the utmost high standards – that goes without saying. The catch 22 is that this required attention to detail is what makes it all the most challenging.

It sounds like a dangerous dance of balance that Gabriel masters tome by tome.

TRADITION

All currents have quite clearly defined methodology: days of the year, ingredients, mantras, formulas of calling, and so on. With these workings becoming more widespread, a person in Canada for instance, may not be able to gather an ingredient only found in parts of Africa or small parts of Europe in the original intended tradition.

With the opportunity before us, we ask Gabriel if he believes that magical traditions should hold fast, or is there room for development beyond the constrains of strict boundaries.

My opinion on the matter is quite irrelevant as I do not hold the ‘truth’ in the palm of my hand when it comes to such specifics. I do have a practice which encompasses various elements some people would agree should probably not be mixed, and yet I prefer holding a viewpoint that is perennial rather than believe in the degradation of the source by the very act of it passing through different vessels. But that matter is entirely personal for now and what matters for me is how the results shape and manifest in my life.

When it comes down to it, Gabriel sees all of these as, “equally superfluous as they can be most important — context often determines the angle of observation.” Overall, he tells us that, “I am more interested in the roots of it all — or rather rootlessness of it all — rather than seeing the mysteries through a certain lens. That being said, I have chosen to express the mysteries in a language which resonates with me at a deeper level, that is: Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Luciferian Gnosticism.” He stresses that these are not closed circles, and in fact, they are transparent systems, which in themselves have the capacity to colour the world with light in a myriad of ways. Similar to a prism. Without making claims of support to a particular tradition over another, he prefers to bring the whole of the work down to the direct experience level, to observe the spontaneous unfolding and outpouring of reality.

“In the words of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, ‘to witness and accomplish the miracles of the One thing.'” Amen.


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Premiere Spirit

HERUKA unveil sacred, wrathful chants in ode to the realized tāntrik sages with “བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་ (Tulzhug Chöpa)”

On this particularly auspicious day, Covenant presents the yet unknown and shadowy entity known as Heruka. While grounded in Kathmandu, Nepal, the project reaches far beyond the limits of the material plane striving towards the greater work at hand. Taking inspiration from the ancient Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition, Heruka’s demo entitled, བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་ (Tulzhug Chöpa), is an ode to the realized tāntrik sages of this specific sacred landscape, whose wisdom minds dwell in the indivisibility of bliss and emptiness.

While seemingly brief, the demo itself contains a potency rarely experienced in wholly realized albums and musical projects all together. At only two tracks, the first “དུས་གསུམ་སངས་ (Dusum Sangye)”, is a ritual ambient hymn sung in the Tibetan language, paying homage to Guru Padmasambhava, an 8th century Indian Mahāsiddha (Great Adept), who is credited with establishing Vajrayāna in Tibet. The second, “བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་ (Tulzhug Chöpa)”, is a death/doom and ritual ambient track, which pays homage to the inner and secret aspects of the philosophy, path, unconventional behaviour, and appearance of a realized tāntrik yogin. The track is sung in a mix of Sanskrit, English and Tibetan languages, and it utilizes actual tāntrik ritual implements such as a damaru (hand-held drum), drilbu (ritual bell) and pre-recorded samples of rolmo (‘fierce’ cymbal) and (dung chen) trumpet, which are generally used by practitioners during tāntrik ceremonies in Vajrayāna monasteries or at hermitages. 

First initiated over two years ago, the project’s research work involved an in-depth study of the existing Vajrayāna tradition in the Tibetan lineages that currently thrive in India and Nepal along with a sincere inquiry in its Indic roots. The research work behind the lyrics and ideological concept behind Heruka included a thorough study of different complex aspects of the tradition’s philosophy and soteriology, which was further strengthened after receiving transmissions and teachings from various contemporary Vajrayāna masters hailing from India, Tibet and Bhutan who have meticulously preserved and mastered several outer, inner and secret aspects of the tāntrik path.


We spoke with the figure behind the voice, Padma Vajra. Previously known for his advisory role and vocal contribution to Cult of Fire‘s मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Ascetic Meditation of Death) album, the vocalist has since fully immersed himself in research and exploration of the enigmatic Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition and its Indian antecedents.

In the face of flippant misuse of these wisdom traditions in so much modern extreme metal, Padma decided action was needed. “During recent years, it has become somewhat of a trend in the underground metal scene, particularly black metal, to flirt with Eastern mysticism, but unfortunately most acts lack a proper exposure and understanding of the philosophy, soteriology, and symbolism of the myriad traditions, practices and deities that exist in our part of the world,” he states. Padma Vajra is no new comer to metal music nor the spiritual currents of which he delves, he clarifies that “as a student of the Vajrayāna tradition of Tibet, and as someone truly invested in the underground music scene, I felt an urge to create an honest and true-to-the-roots musical project to pay homage to the spirit of the Tantric Buddhist tradition for kindred spirits who are equally interested in the mystical and the obscure.”

Despite its brevity, བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་ (Tulzhug Chöpa) represents the culmination of years of research, dedication, and hard work. “A lot of work went behind the research and understanding required for a project dealing with the inner aspects of Vajrayāna,” he says. “It involved visiting Tantric temples, monasteries and power places, understanding Tibetan ritual, academic research, and most importantly meeting authentic Vajrayāna masters in India and Nepal and receiving their precious teachings and blessings.” Padma tells us that the influence of these teachings are leveraged in Heruka’s music to “pay homage to the ‘male’ aspect of Vajrayāna tradition and especially to Guru Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian Tantric master, who established Vajrayāna in Tibet.” In fact, even this exact unveiling is calculated to infuse even greater potency, as he explains, “the digital release of the demo also coincides with the 10th day of the current Tibetan month, as per its lunar calendar. This date is very special as its connected with Guru Padmasambhava, commonly known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibet and in the Himalayan tradition in general, and broadly the male aspect of Vajrayāna tantra.”


Soon to be released into physical format through SERPENTS HEAD REPRISAL on tape cassette.

The cover art was drawn by Visionis Phosphorescent, paying ode to the Indian style of Vajrayāna sculpture, which was prevalant in the epochal Pala Empire (8th-12th centuries). Vocals and ambient tracks/recording in conjunction with SISTER

Categories
Interview Spirit

VARTRA channels the world’s music into a pastiche shamanic current

In recent times, few places in the world have been as misunderstood as the Balkans. Centuries-old ethnic tensions, war, and general indifference from the West have all contributed to this. Historically, its mountainous geography has often meant that its cultures were fragmented, while simultaneously its physical position has meant that different influences were constantly coming through. The country of Serbia is indicative of this, having been inhabited since the paleolithic age, its history showing itself in the plurality of the cultures, religions and historical sites found within.

While the eyes of the West pointed mostly elsewhere, the music and old traditions of the region rooted and flourished. Traditional folk music is still very much a part of the culture in the Balkans as well as many practices that exist as relics of the pre-Christian era. Some of these have been twisted into regional Christian customs, as has happened with pagan cultures around the world, but they’re still very recognizable as indigenously Slavic. Magic and mysticism find prevalence in rural villages, faded but holding fast.

In 2017, a group of friends in Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade came together to create music for a conceptual performance and realized they had far more to create. Brought together by an interest in folk music from around the world, Slavic paganism and spirituality in general, main instrumentalist and drum crafter Siniša Gavrić and sisters Ivana and Aleksandra Stošić, both versed in traditional singing created core of the project that is now Vartra. The group has extended into more of a collective, with many contributors adding instrumentals, costumes, dance and visuals to every song and live show.

“When Siniša came back here from living in Canada, we had to come up with a concept for this audio/visual performance. Myself personally, I’ve always been interested in world music and world instruments, also having sung with my sister in the local cultural association growing up,” describes Aleksandra. “We all come from totally different places with the music, meeting in the middle with our common interest for a tribal, neo-Slavic folk sound. The dominant sound is definitely Balkan because of the vocals but if you listen to the music it’s all over the place. Especially the little doom flair that Siniša likes to add in there, that’s where I completely check out,” she laughs. “This whole project is really a result of us constantly clashing. The darker that Sinisa goes with this project the harder I try to make it more bright. Where we do come together is really in our pathos, and in those musical moments of catharsis.” Ivana adds, “It’s a bit of a musical battle honestly. Our writing process is literally just building something and destroying it and then building it back up and taking it apart, and so on until we finally have a song that we agree on.”

Vartra is heavily inspired by the indigenous cultures of the region, with a lean towards the hermetic Vlachs who are predominantly found in Eastern Serbia. Much of their lyrics stem from old Slavic mantras locally known as “bajalice”. These are used as incantations or spells for things like healing, love, good harvests, and luck as well as curses and getting rid of them. The inspiration for their first song came about when they found a video filmed by ethnomusicologist Paun Es Drlić. This video depicts a Vlach shaman – a woman, as are most shamans in the culture – in the Majdanpek region of eastern Serbia ahead of the springtime holiday of flowers (now Palm Sunday in Orthodox Christianity). In the video, she dances and sings a song in Vlach to invoke a trance in which she is said to be convening with the “demons of destiny” who give her access to premonitions about the future of the village and region. The song that she sings would eventually become “Flori”, their first piece and the first song on their debut album Rošu Čera.

“This first album is mostly sung in Vlach,” says Aleksandra. “Then we went for a wider scope, looking for other bajalice – and if you look around, some people have made collections of these on the internet and you notice that the same ones exist in different regions throughout the Balkans and other Slavic countries. They’re all variations on a theme, they may not be exactly the same but you see the same motifs throughout. So a lot of our lyrics aren’t completely of our own creation, rather motifs that we’ve taken from all over. “Luna Nuoa” is a Vlach incantation for good health: ‘my moon, we give you this bread, please give us good health instead’. “Vartra” is our made up incantation for love, one of the more commonly used kinds of bajalice. We twisted it a little because the motifs we use in the song don’t really have much in common with actual love spells.”

“All around the world in shamanism and spirituality you see the same motifs and rituals. While they do vary they’re all at their core very similar. So for us all of this fusion in our music really makes sense,”
– Ivana Stošić

While dwindling in the face of modernization and globalization, these incantations are still used to this day, and regional cultural norms and customs are still influenced by these spiritual beliefs in rural areas. Shamans act as healers for many and combine bajalice with traditional remedies for mild ailments as well as less tangible ills. “A really banal example is that of one of my friends in the south of Serbia, who had a doctor tell them to go to one of these women to get rid of a wart,” says Aleksandra. “The point is a lot of these things have stuck around for so long and haven’t gone away, maybe they’re dying off now that we’ve become more scientifically literate and rational. It seems more and more unlikely to people that these things will actually cure you,” she says. “Today in Serbia there are still women that continue to practice the oldest traditions we have here – ancient Slavic traditions and specifically Vlach ones,” says Ivana. “I mean really, they’re all over the country. In a lot of places you go to the doctor for some things and to these shamans for others. Now they’re not of the mind that you shouldn’t seek out medical professionals at all, obviously some things require a doctor. But for problems that have more to do with the spirit then only they can help you.”

“Since bajalice have been carried on through oral tradition, they’ve been scrutinized as something that’s perhaps evil or forbidden – witchcraft. When essentially they’re just pieces of knowledge and belief that have been carried on through time since before Christianity. From a cultural standpoint I find it really interesting and that’s part of why it’s a big element of our music,” says Aleksandra. “Because to be frank, the last generation that had comprehensive knowledge of these things was the generation of our grandparents, even our parents’ generation belongs to a more modern time. Not to mention the effect the communistic period had on these things. During that time even Christianity was looked down upon so you can imagine that any kind of magic or witchcraft went even further underground.”

In addition to the incorporation of these traditional aspects, Vartra’s musical vision is imbued with a primal, organic sound that people around the world might find something familiar in. Best described as doomy neo-Slavic folk, the sisters’ vocals float above the tribal beat of Siniša’s handmade drums and rattles as well as less traditional elements such as the saz, guitars and ambient synthesizers.

The animal-skin drums are a pulsing, hypnotic undercurrent throughout Rošu Čera and give the music a deeply resonant heartbeat. “When a shaman uses these, it’s supposed to be punch through and be heard on other planes of existence. We use them for musical purposes though, they have a soothing sound that at the same time awakens something in people,” says Ivana. “The tone they have, the frequencies are completely different from modern-style drums,” adds Aleksandra. Sinisa uses animal skins from all over the world, combining indigenous North American and Nordic drum making techniques as well as crafting the more regionally familiar tarabuka. “Animal skins obviously sound way different from plastic and metal,” says Siniša. “And every animal skin has its own unique sound and energy. When I play a bison drum it gives a totally different energy to a song than when I use a deer skin drum. Every drum I make is unique and has its own special quality.”

Aleksandra and Ivana’s vocals are the other half of Vartra’s distinct sound. Their strange harmonies add more magic to the music, bringing the incantations to life. “The way that we sing in our music is tempered, which is to say it’s sung using modern scales when before that, our folk music would have been sung a bit off of the keys we’re used to to day,” says Aleksandra. “So that would be the big difference between the modern folk vocals you hear now and the way these things were originally sung. And really because of the fact that we are going for that tribal ethno-sound we want it to be as simple as possible. We want to attain the simplicity of those ancient times – hopefully one day we fully succeed and write an untempered song. To try and sing in that old key and take apart the concept of the modern equally tempered scales. Which would be really ‘sexy’ but the reality is if you hear that in our current songs it’s probably because we were a bit off,” she laughs. “It all plays into the same idea – we’re not going for virtuosity. We’re playing on more basic, primal frequencies and sound. While a lot of our music isn’t exactly soothing and there’s a lot of intense moments, and however much of a dynamic thread exists in our music, we’re always floating somewhere in those middle frequencies. When we do use things like electric guitars and synths they’re more atmospheric than anything.

Their live shows are like a cleansing ritual, casting out whatever one might need to cast out. Dressed in costumes and augmented by entrancing visuals and dance, it’s an all-encompassing experience. “What we’re trying to do with our lives shows is to loosen those people that are used to going to a show and just watching a band – without having a real connection to what is happening,” says Ivana. “We want them to ease up and let it carry them, we want to draw them in a bit further. We want people to participate in the atmosphere that we create. Because spectators aren’t there to just listen to us produce that sound and atmosphere, we want them to be part of that bit of magic together with us. For everyone to enjoy it in their own way – sitting if they want to sit, standing if they want to stand, dancing if they want to dance without even thinking about whatever the person next to them might be thinking. Like a kind of group therapy for us and for them.”

Playing neo-folk or world music leaves a lot of room for experimentation, which also means more opportunities to blunder. The problem there being that unlike in a lot of other genres a common thread in the sound is harder to pin down. “I think the problem is we’re constantly trying to figure out some kind of core to our music. But I don’t think that exists,” says Aleksandra. “Just like over history, cultures have been created by all of this movement and mixing around, for better or for worse, it’s hard to pin down something that hasn’t been created like that. It’s really hard to define what’s ‘really’ Serbian or what’s ‘really’ from somewhere else, and that’s what you can hear in our music. You hear that ethnic sound that you can say is old Slavic, but different people hear different things because it’s really a mixed bag. Especially when we play around quite a bit with Eastern sounds as well. In some sense it’s a kind of pagan cosmopolitanism.”


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Interview Spirit

Without Blood There Is No Quimbanda: The Work Of NICHOLAJ DE MATTOS FRISVOLD

Between August and October 2018, we had the immense pleasure of having a back-and-forth correspondence with Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold. This was the final interview conducted before we took down the Covenant Magazine in order to revamp and relaunch. With the new site now up, and everything rolled out, the time has come to publish this conversation.

Originally Norwegian born, Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold has been a resident of Brazil for over 15 years. A traveler through various traditions and spiritual legacies, Frisvold focuses his energy upon the wisdom found in African and Afro-derived traditions along with what is generally defined as traditional witchcraft in Europe. Over the years he has deeply involved himself with several streams of this wisdom, such as traditional Ifá, Haitian Vodou, Palo Mayombe, Quimbanda and a rich knowledge of witchcraft from diligent commitment and involvement with various recensions of the ‘witches’ way.’ His experiential knowledge is what sets him apart from the mere ethnologist as a living, breathing practitioner. He allows the Westerner a glimpse into these seemingly alien belief systems and traces their origins to lineages that are all singularly extra-human.

Without further ado, we present to you a small insight in to the mind of one of the modern world’s most important occultists.

Greetings Nicholaj! Once again, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We are admirers of your writing, and we’re excited about the chance to ask a few questions.

At the start of most of your books (with extremely notable examples in Exu and Pomba Gira) you often give a detailed anthropological look at the geographical region and the cultural influences on the practice you are going to be speaking on. You often explore etymology, socioeconomic impact, even immigration in how it has come to a fertile ground for the birth of that spiritual tradition. I’d like to start by doing the same thing for yourself. What are the conditions – ancestrally, geographically, and finally spiritually – that gave way to your own being?

That was perceptive of you, and in truth, I do believe that in order to truly understand a phenomena we need to analyse it from any possible angel, whereas geography, language and history along with aesthetics and art are amongst those avenues that will lead to an understanding of the phenomena as more than just in reference to oneself and one’s own culture and believes. We are all a conglomerate of multiple influences and in terms of ancestry it is quite Nordic for the most part. I have been able to trace my ancestry back to around 800 to the dukes of Fyrisvellir at Uppsala  on one side; but on the other there is French, Italian and African ancestry to be found through migration and marriage. Geographically I was born in Norway, lived in Sweden for some time and from age of 15 travelled a lot around the world finding myself chronically restless in Scandinavia until I visited Brazil 16 years ago and finally found the place where it was surprisingly easy to allow myself to root.

Spiritually I will have to say that, looking back, I was somehow always on the search for the quintessence of magic, which led me to investigate and get involved in traditional forms of cult and faith and it was with African faiths, especially Ifá and vodou that I found the quintessence which is also reflected in true witchcraft of land, legacy and blood, a natural and pragmatic spiritual philosophy that don’t make a distinction between the sacred and profane but lifts everything into a field of understanding through the interaction of polarities and nuances. In short, I consider myself as a pragmatic traditionalist that accepts the post-modern reality which translates into always having a secure foundation and the axis in order, but the landscape of experience of observation will always be like my opinions, fluid, dynamic and mutable.

That juxtaposition you present above reminds me of an interesting point brought up by the American author Tamara Siuda in her simply titled, but utterly excellent work “Haitian Vodou”. She reminds the reader that in order to fully understand the diasporic faiths, the European and North American reader must be ready to fully abandon and restructure potentially subliminal influences, personal conjecture, and privilege. I want to ask you what tenets of your faith- your thought process- were most altered in your work with the African/Afro-Latino systems, and in those early, nascent days of work, was there any part of yourself that had to be “immolated”?

Such total abandon is impossible – and I am not sure if it is even desirable to do so – I would advocate a great self-awareness in this case, to realize where you are coming from, what culture you are a product of and from this gain clarity in the same/other dichotomy exercised in your culture. I think if we erase a thinking of hierarchy in terms of better/worse evolved/primitive we enter a field of realized difference where we can enter a culture on its own premises aware of all the bias we bring to this culture by personal history, geography and cultural difference. In this regard and given my personal involvement uncritical cultural appropriation and mindless eclecticism annoys me as much as any other person that committed themselves to truly know and understand these faiths alien to the culture of ones upbringing. In my own case I never felt the occidental culture were particularly evolved, and certainly studying philosophy and anthropology do help one to see that the western  world with its primitive ideas of issues like punishment, crime and illness do not reflect a very advanced culture.

For me it came natural from an early age to focus on how all things were connected and so any culture or faith that aims towards reductionisms and simplification tended to annoy me. Hence with African faiths I found a philosophy and a way of thinking that resonated with my rebellious attitude towards formalism and reductionism. I of course had periods were I tried to conform to ideologies but I always ended up an enfant terrible when I tried to seek conformism. It follows that for me it was largely a homecoming, the arrival to a world view that made sense.

That’s very interesting, and no doubt an answer that will be met with a variety of responses, as the societal climate these days is to be extremely critical of anything that at all attempts to “appropriate” or use a facet of culture not intrinsically one’s own. Let us pay this extremely limiting way of thought no heed and continue to move forward boldly. In your personal work, is there a particular psycopompos figure that has guided you as the paths twist? When it comes to such a prevelent and permeating archetype, do you find syncresis from past spiritual work/systems important or dangerous when approaching a new one?

Oh, I am not advocating uncritical appropriation, I am just stating that an absolute veil free condition is not really a possibility, hence building awareness, respect and purpose as parts of a greater critical thinking becomes more viable, important and interesting.  But sure, let’s move on.

As for the psychopomomp, the go between and mediator in the crossroad of change I must point the finger and say ‘the devil’, this challenging force connected to destiny that we are confronted with at every moment of choice. This guardian of the crossroad of possibility, the lord of the silver key that has taken on a myriad of names, but the mystery is more profound than this as I believe the guardian of the crossroad and your inner daimon must be in resonance and in rapport for true guidance of the spirit host attached to make themselves heard and felt. Even if I can see commonalities between a given force in its different cultural expressions, this must be taken seriously as culture, geography, the legacy of a people informs a cult, deities and ideas in unique and powerful ways that we should respect.

Personally I make a distinction between synthesis and syncretism. Synthesis is a fusion caused by the ethereal, by spirit, it is about matters of resonance and bond moving in proximity with one another moved by magical laws and not imposed upon by shallow, uncritical syncretism based on subjective perception of similitude and difference.

This suppleness that your mentioning- a suggestion that through reasoning and contemplation, a more holistic look at magic and philosophy is possible- reminds me of a passage from your book, Craft Of The Untamed, with which you permission I will quote here-

“The witch is bound to no dogma. This makes them a threat to a Christianity established on doctrine. The witch insists everything in creation has its place. The church insisted on two contrary substances in God and the Devil. The witch strives for synthesis.”

From this point, I want to know your thought on the opposite end of the spectrum- away from synthesis. Many occult teachings, particularly those of the left hand path, have in recent years preached very austere, singular doctrines, which seem to adhere to one fixed set of laws, with little room for the wider, more chaotic approach you advocate. Can you speak to me about this a little?

I am not sure I understand the question completely, but if you are questioning the binary relationship of good and evil in relation to ‘the left hand path’ and its focus on self-becoming I have to say that this is in truth at the heart of the ideal of a ‘person becoming magic’. As we start out understanding the world we see it as a binary, night is different from day and so forth, but at some point the shades of grey should appear and reveal that a simple binary of our experience of the world is too simplistic. Nothing is just good or just evil, it depends on perspective, personal history and placement.  I wouldn’t say I endorse chaos, but I think it is vital to understand that nature is not as kind and predictable as we would like her to be. Hence I am more occupied with the complexities involved in the journey towards self-affirmation. And I must say that the older I get, the more experienced I get the wider the landscape tend to grow, but at the same time in this widening of the landscape it also gets more easy to see and realize yourself.

Perhaps the idea of the world inherited in tantric teachings is clarifying. In tantric sects the world is seen as a web that is ruled by dharma, a great cosmic law, in this web we are all subject to a personal dharma, our personal law, which I believe is revealed through astrology for instance, pointing out our potential and basic essence at birth, our blue print, that is acting within a wider web of possibilities. And I don’t see this in a static way; I see potential acted upon entering into a rhythm of repetition and difference. This translated into teachings and lessons and if we take these lessons we can also be more agile in the world.

The world appears less chaotic and with the increased awareness of the rhythm of the world we can enter into understanding and manipulation of these ‘laws’ and at the same time increase our self-awareness. For me the goal is to be the master of one’s own life, to be vibrantly self-aware, but I don’t think we can achieve this truthfully if we are too immersed in defining the other from the same, rather we need to look for how the web is constructed and what makes part where and how.

You recently announced a 5-day intensive initiatic workshop in to Quimbanda teachings in Brazil, which to the outsider reads as a very fascinating and curious thing. Is this your first time opening your experience in these subjects to the outsider? When did you decide you wanted to pass on your knowledge on the subjects?

We decided that it is better to train well a select few that witnessing all the mess people do due to lack of access. We have of course initiated and trained people in the past, but this is first time gathering a group in this way. So let’s see what comes from this. When it comes to living traditions, like Quimbanda, I have found people to be quite dogmatic and opinionated in defining the right way of doing things. For me that is to do religion, and I am not doing that. When it comes to living traditions, it be Quimbanda, Orisa, Ifá, Palo and so forth there are of course pillars and elements that must be observed, but taking care of the necessary factors we are left with a host of options with the aim of making what we do effective.

It has been two years since the release of “Ifa: A Forest Of Mystery”, and thusly likely enough time for you to get a sense of how the book has been received, not just in writing, but also in its great systemic and linguistic complexity (from the likely viewpoint of the majority of its readership). What are your takeaways in the time since launch, and how has the book been digested compared to the perhaps more (for lack of a better word) accessible and fluid nature of “Pomba Gira” and “Exu”?

This book is the book I am most content with actually. It is a book tying together the philosophy and theology found at the foundation of what constitutes a tradition to be alive. The book has been received with gratitude amongst practitioners, which was truly great to see. I mean, a ‘foreigner’ setting out to present a tradition as rich as Ifá in 400 pages would easily gone to a bad place, but it didn’t, it was a work of love and patience and it is reflected in the reception. So, contrary to Exu and Pomba Gira no voices of dissent have crossed me as far as I have seen at least, not that I really keep much track on what people say and mean about what I am doing thou.

I think by this point I have a little bit of an idea what influences and interests you from the sphere of psychology, spirit, and mythology, but could you enlighten myself and our readers as to what stokes your fire from the world of art? What painters, bands, musicians, and poets do you find yourself drawn to in recent months?

As you are posing this question I have Daniel Melingo on in the background, but with music I am quite diverse. I was brought up on Birthday Party, Psychic TV, Fields of Nephilim, Marc Almond, David Bowie, David Sylvian, Tuxedomoon and all these new wave and dark wave movements in music, currently I do listen to a lot of dark country and cabaret, but I also liked the latest album of The Nationals as much as Rhiannas Anti…. so I am more of a mood listener I think. In general I think music is denigrating lately, it is getting harder and harder to discover good music, like Rykarda Parasol and Chelsea Wolff, so I try to support artists like this so they can keep on making good music…

As for poets, Baudelaire and the Romantic Movement will always stand out, but so does Chares Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Wanda Coleman and Rumi. Currently I am rereading Faulkner, and is simultaneously reading Livingstone’s book about Ingmar Bergman, Al-Alim’s Jinn Sorcery, Cotnoir’s Poetry of Matter and Leitão’s Biblioteca Valencia.

Why don’t we close with you telling us what is on the horizon for Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold?

We, me and my wife, have plans of arranging more workshops, events and such like in our grange. This might also involve me returning to more therapeutic work. I still have a few books up my sleeve, but will try my hand on prose and novels again – after all poetry and novels was what I started out writing, so that will be nice, a return to storytelling.  But there is also another book with Scarlet Imprint on the horizon, which will be announced on the upcoming solstice…


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ASCENSION crosses the line between life and death, dream and truth

The crux of the Covenant has always been the synthesis of artwork with a much higher significance beyond what we can readily perceive. The ineffable. The liminal. The numinous. Call it what you will. Since the inception of this fledgling movement we have always championed music that sincerely presents a powerful spiritual current. A defiant devotion to something beyond the bounds of the mundane.

First and foremost we are FANS and DEVOTEES ourselves

So when the opportunity to interview ASCENSION arose, it was the most logical decision we could have made. Germany’s black metal saviours hopefully need little introduction to our readers and followers, as their steady literal ascension has made them one of the genre’s most respected acts. The anonymous force has released some of the most potent black metal to date through several full length albums and a demo that receives consistent praise nearly 10 years later. They very well could be the last hope left in this wasteland of imitators and ego maniacal phonies. ALL HAIL!

Our discussion is with a nameless entity speaking on behalf of Ascension, and, true to form, we focus less on individuals and their merits and more upon the ART. Discover the motivations and forces that guide the hands behind the veil, and dive into the process of creation that vomited forth the most recent full length UNDER ETHER. Enlighten thyself!

Where do you see Ascension in the grand arch of black metal evolution? Obviously you are tied to the crux of black metal, but is your work more intent towards “keeping the flame” or forging a new path?

I think the meaning or position of Ascension in a grand scheme is not for any of the band members to tell. That´s for other people to judge if they wish to do so. The thing we as a band are concerned about is that our releases are an expression of our innermost feelings, as unfiltered as possible. Ascension is a vessel to manifest the powers we are dealing with. The picture we paint so to speak, is our vision of the things we see. It may not be appealing to others and it may not be true for others. But as long as we represent OUR truth, we have not failed.That has always been the only goal. We never wanted to be avant-garde or retro or any of these labelings or categorizations. We certainly changed over the years, that’s kind of unavoidable and quite a natural evolution within a band that has lasted for 11 years now, given age and experience.

Having said all of this, we of course always had and still have a strong respect towards the genre of Black Metal. When we founded Ascension, we wanted it to be a band that treats Black Metal and its history with dignity and kind of a humble approach. Not necessarily all manifestations, but the divine core that lies at the heart of the genre. I think that all experiments that tried to shy away from the Satanic foundation of Black Metal have been futile and worthless in the end. The devil can not be fooled. So, HIS flame will forever be the fire that sets our hearts ablaze.

As one of the few voices of authenticity left, what parts of the “scene” do you consider worth paying attention to? Long gone are the days of a “movement” so to speak, but sparks of magic still exist. Do you give any attention to what’s going on at the moment or do you prefer to stay focused on your own creative outputs?

To be honest, I quite lost track on a lot of bands and things happening in and around the scene.

First of all, no one can really keep up with bands and albums popping up all the time from everywhere. With the rare time I have listening to music, it’s more of the old gods that lay on the spinning table. There are exceptions of course. But, I have quite a few spies here and there that share my taste in music, so the REALLY good things (for me) of course come to my intention. And, for example, the billing of the Chaos Descends festival is a good indicator each year for good, new talented bands. To answer your question, over all, it has always been about our own creative process. We never cared too much about other things that are going on.

Since the anonymity of the band has wavered slightly over the years (with involvement in more public projects), what value does the band still find in this egoless experiment?

You say it wavered, but it is important to understand what the initial goal with being anonymous was. Our approach has never been about being anonymous at any cost. What we decided from the beginning was, that the band shall not have a visual focus on certain members with names/pseudonyms etc. We wanted to see Ascension as one whole body that is presented by music, lyrics and artwork. People should be forced to concentrate on what we want to express. And in doing this we, as band members, must become shadows. Faceless acolytes to a greater power.

But while touring or playing at festivals, outside of the live ritual, we never gave a damn about anonymity. If someone asked if we are from Ascension we would never deny because that’s not the point. The point is what the essence of our releases and live shows is. And as far as we are concerned, this way of working always brought us nothing but respect from others. And we are in a way proud that, also for example in reviews, people try to deal with our lyrics. Something that, in my eyes, has been absent from Black Metal for a long time. Although lyrics are at least equally important than the music.

When writing for Ascension, do you go to a special spiritual place separated from any other projects, or does music simply come to you – only to be differentiated later? Do members’ involvement in other bands influence your creative process?

There is only one in Ascension who is involved in other projects. Since writing for the band is a team effort, for the lack of a better phrase, that doesn’t play any major role.But I like the idea of this special spiritual place. I strongly believe, since starting to deal with music in an active, creative way in 1996, that making music is a divine alchemical process. I guess, in the end that is what made us choose an art form that is focused on spiritual rather than entertainment matters. Although I am not quite sure if we ever had a choice.

However, to come back to your question: there is a special place in all of our hearts that resonates with what we want to express with Ascension. And that is not a matter of conscious differentiation. You simply feel in the very moment when you have created something for Ascension. We have a special sound (I am not specifically talking about the record sound), a special vibe that correlates with powers beyond the stars. We always considered us to be vessels, through which those powers speak.

How does producing and recording the music which the band writes influence the creative process in the studio? Do you usually already have a certain sound in mind, or do you keep an open approach?

The sound of a band is, among other things, defined by equipment, playing style and the individual unique skills each band member has. So, even if we would not record any albums we would have a certain sound. Apart from that, we are open to anything that correlates with our hearts and mind in a certain point in time. The sound of Ascension is almost entirely defined by the whole band. We would never ever let anyone decide how we sound.

On Under Ether, the approach seems to have shifted. Compositions are shorter, more primitive, darker, yet with more refinement, sophistication, and attention to detail. And yet presented with a challenging and organic production. Is this merely a natural evolution from past efforts, or is there a deeper reason behind this present sound?

It’s hard to analyze the things we did in the aftermath of a record accurately. Ascension as a band and Under Ether in particular work on a very subconscious level. You can call it natural evolution, but it is something that is not always dictated by us. Under Ether is a record that deals in most parts with dream-states and transition. And because of that, we wanted to create an atmosphere that is equivalent to someone that actually dreams in the moment and not to someone who speaks about the dream he or she had a while ago.


We wanted it to sound like being in the middle of it all, floating, crossing the line between life and death, dream and truth. Therefore we had to sound like a band that actually plays, a kind of a live setting.This initial idea led to what Under Ether sounds like. I spare you the dissent and fights and struggles we had with all this. But, actually, as a Black Metal band, you know you are on the right track when you feel something is working against you. A band that does not get opposition from the world is doing something wrong, I dare say.

In the end we succeeded with a record that makes us immensely proud and that doesn’t sound like generic shit like a lot of bands today. It was also great to be forced to play the songs as perfectly as you can on really good equipment in order to achieve such a sound with an almost unedited live feeling.


While Consolamentum had a very definite concept – With Burning Tongues and The Dead of the World seemed more like a collection of songs with several underlying subjects. How do you view the thematic approach on Under Ether?

Consolamentum, as the debut album, was meant to lay out the concept that kind of underlies Ascension, you are right. Under Ether and its predecessor are, as you pointed out, more a collection of songs that are loosely connected to a theme. In the case of Under Ether this is, as I previously stated: Transition and Dreams. It would be counter-effective trying to explain what we wanted to express with the lyrical side of the record. Dreams are, after all, a subconscious expression of the soul. There is no general explanation to such things that fits for everyone, the interpretation should be the task of the dreamer him/herself. Guidance is taking away the grandiose feeling of having explored something on his/her own terms. A feeling of empowerment, of accomplishment that some people forget while clicking through terabytes of mp3 files on the computer.

The lyrics to Under Ether place the listener in a very present moment – Almost as if they were dropped into the specific scenario described in each song. So much visceral description and references to eyes, vision & visibility: sights, textures, colours. As they say: The eyes are the windows to the soul. What do you wish listeners to SEE with Under Ether?

Sorry for the upcoming short answer, but the best thing that we could hope for is, that they see at least parts of their true self and draw the right consequences.

You mention in your recent Bardo Methodology interview about some of the unique forces that also feature in Under Ether: the expected heavy spirituality that exists alongside not-so-subtle Lynchian and Lovecraftian references. To me, this suggests the notion of using a wide “eclectic pantheon” of archetypes to enforce one’s spiritual view, similar to what modern Chaos Magicians espouse. Does this have a place within your metaphysical activity?

Lynch and Lovecraft created works of such brilliance and power that they transcend cultural specifics or individual standpoints. They attack the very core of mankind: its fears, but also its potentials. They dig deep and lay bare so much of the truth that surrounds us. Something that we as a band have always been interested in of course – the darkness from which we emerge. Speaking from a philosophical/theoretical standpoint: There are of course archetypes and deities that, essentially, speak of/are equivalent to the same power. I think that it is good to widen the view in order to see the parallels or similarities. The more we learn the stronger our faith can become. However, I want to emphasize again that this is more of a theoretical approach and not something connected to practical magic.

This shall have no place in an interview.

Each release is scheduled for a very specific date on the (pagan and Christian) Western calendar. Consolamentum on Xmas Eve (Dec 24), Deathless Light on Samhain (Oct 31), The Dead of The World on Xmas Eve again, and now Under Ether on Easter (March 30) … One could pick up a pattern here: Births, Deaths, and Rebirth. How do you decide which release receives which special date?

Well, certainly the first 2 albums had a pattern, as “Fire and Faith” the EP before Consolamentum was released on Samhain 2010 as well. Under Ether is kind of a landmark record for us personally. We put so much effort, will, literal blood and sweat into it. It had to be blessed with a sign of rebirth, or, one could also say retaliation. At the same time the date should speak of the pain and sorrow we had to cope with over the last 2 years making the record. But there is no overall plan for each of the releases beforehand. But obviously, the simple fact that we release the albums on special religious dates of the year should remind people of the fact that there are more important things in life than your everyday mundane struggle with human waste. Life is preparation for death.

At this point in your (pardon this term) “career”, after 3 dense full length records and over a decade worth of making this music, can you explain how (or if) the spiritual goals of Ascension have evolved?

I think, the overall goals of the band have not changed. But it seems that more and more things get clearer and clearer each day. We have grown mature in a way without leaving the original campfire where we come from. I think we have gathered enough experience, skills and madness over the years to start working on something huge, very huge, at least for us. But it’s wise to not let your heart move too far away. We take step after step.

Hail Lucifer.


The literal next step for Ascension is a European tour with NECROS CHRISTOS and VENENUM in February 2019.

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In Search of the MAHASIDDHAS: A Journey Through the Sacred Himalayas

Traditional thanka of the great Indian Mahāsiddha Nāropa (11th century)

India is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. For over 5000 years, this ancient country has produced a rich and diverse stream of wisdom traditions, many of which continue to exist till this day. For decades, scholars, archaeologists, philosophers, artists and scientists have turned their attention towards India to study and examine the vast cultural heritage of the country. My own interest in the history and culture of India goes back to the days of my childhood when I voraciously read ancient Indian myths and occult stories through comic books, graphic novels and magazines. As I grew older, my childhood interests metamorphosed into a serious pursuit of the history, culture, and most importantly, the sacred knowledge imparted by the sages and seers of my country.

I studied the history of Indian and European art and culture at the age of 19 at a Delhi-based art institute. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the limited amount of information about subjects pertaining to metaphysics and philosophy at the institute. That prompted me to start my own research into the vast and complex world of Indian religious and philosophical thought. Initially, I was merely interested in a comparative study of the diverse schools (darshana) of Indian philosophy, namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedanta. Later, when I got acquainted with the philosophy of the Tāntric tradition I clearly understood that it resonated with my own sphere of thought and that I must dive deeper in its paradigm.

The Sanskrit word ‘Tantra’ is derived from the root “tan”, meaning “to spread”, “expand”. According to one common definition, in the religious sense, a Tantra is simply “a scripture by which knowledge is spread” (tanyate vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantram).  [1]  The world of the Tantras includes complex meditations, ritual techniques, mystic syllables (mantras) and other techniques with which an adept uses in order to attain spiritual realisation. It is also important to note that Tantra is not a singular tradition and the Saivas (followers of Shiva), Sākta (followers of the mother goddess tradition of India), Bauddha (followers of the Buddhist tradition), Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu) among others all developed their individual Tāntric streams based on the individual schools’ metaphysics and soteriology.

Although the last few decades have seen an incredible amount of quality scholarship on the Tantric traditions of India and the countries in which it subsequently spread, a lot of confusion still continues to exist on the internet and among lay people regarding the subject. The shameful exploits of the New Age movement, which left no stone unturned into making Tantra a sham by promoting erotic massages and ordinary orgasmic pleasure as a means to unlock “spiritual bliss”, can certainly be held responsible for a negative attitude towards this sacred tradition. Nevertheless, the limitless primordial power pervading through the sacred world of the Tantras has enabled the tradition to continue despite the negativity. Today the Tāntric traditions continue to exist almost unchanged and unbridled, especially in the sacred Himalayas.

18th century gilt bronze statue of Indian Mahāsiddha Virupa from Tibet.

As I noted above, the Tāntric traditions are many in number and the following sections of the article shall be concerned with the followers of the Buddhist Tantra, especially Tibetans and other Himalayan people. With a deep urge to explore and examine the practices of existing Tāntric lineages in the mountainous regions of India, my wife Viktoria (Visionis Phosphorescent) and I travelled extensively to many sacred and power spots of the region in search of the mystics and the wandering itinerant sadhus – the Mahāsiddhas. The word Mahāsiddha is Sanskrit (Tibetan: གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ཆེན་པོ, THL: druptop chenpo) for ‘Great Adept’. As the Buddhist writer and teacher Keith Dowman notes, the siddhas were:

“…mendicant yogins living with the people on a grass-roots level of society, teaching more by psychic vibration, posture and attitude – mantra, mudra and tantra – than by sermonizing. Some of these siddhas were iconoclasts, dissenters and anti-establishment rebels fulfilling the necessary function of destroying the rigidity of old and intractable customs and habits, so that spontaneity and new vitality could flourish. Obsessive caste rules and regulations in society, and religious ritual as an end in itself, were undermined by the siddhas’ exemplary free-living. The irrelevance of scholastic hairsplitting in an academic language, together with a host of social and religious evils, were exposed in the poets’ wonderful mystical songs written in the vernacular tongues, They taught existential involvement rather than metaphysical speculation, and they taught the ideal of living in the world but not of it rather than ascetic self mutilation or monastic renunciation, The siddhas are characterized by a lack of external uniformity and formal discipline.” (http://keithdowman.net/essays/introduction-mahasiddhas-and-tantra.html)

As evident from the aforementioned words, these great adepts lived at the fringes of society and held disdain for religious orthodoxy which created hindrance for actual spiritual growth of an individual. Many lineages that stem from these great adepts continue till this date in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The Dzogchen (Mahāsandhi) tradition which is preserved and practiced among Himalayan Buddhists till date harkens back to the time of yogin saints like Prahevajra, Shri Simha, Jnānasutra, Padmasambhava among many other powerful adepts who transmitted the non-dual gnosis of the Tantras to their fortunate disciples, who in turn preserved a long line of unbroken lineal transmissions which have now spread across the western world.

Traditional thanka of the first human Dzogchen master Prahevajra (Tibetan: Garab Dorje)

Our quest to understand the present state of the Mahāsiddha tradition in the Himalayas led us to the Ngakpa tradition, the origins of which are connected to the 8th century Indian Tantric Buddhist saint Padmasambhava. This great adept was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, the Land of Snows, in the 8th century – a tradition which was named the “Nyingma” (“ancient” in Tibetan) school of Buddhism. During that early period of transmission of the Buddhist Tantras in the Tibet, the community of practitioners (the “sangha”) was divided into two branches: the “red” sangha of monastics with shaven-heads and the saffron robes (Tibetan: rab byung ngur smig gi sde) and the “white sangha” of Ngakpas with white clothes and long, plaited hair (Tibetan: gos dkar lcang lo’I sde).  [2]

Guru Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Guru Rinpoche), the 8th century Indian Tantric saint who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet

 The Tibetan word Ngakpa means “Māntrin”, or a “Tāntrika” in Sanskrit, i.e. a Tāntric practitioner. They are called the ‘white sangha’ (“gendun karpo” in Tibetan) as their Tantric vows (“samaya” in Sanskrit) entitle them to wear white shamtags (skirts), white, red and blue shawls of the yogic lineage and conch-shell spiral ear-rings; have long hair, often kept in a spiral atop the head; all of which represent specific aspects of the teachings. [3]

Unlike the celibate order of monks and nuns, the Ngakpas rely on “internal renunciation rather than on external renunciation” and are allowed to marry and have families.  This Tantric order founded by Guru Padmasambhava, who was himself a non-celibate, long-haired yogin, has continued to exist since the first wave of Tantric teachings that were spread in Tibet till the modern times.

A Ngakpa from Central Tibet, 1926

Traditionally,  Ngakpas are both healers and practitioners of the highest levels of Tantric praxis. On the one hand, a realised Ngakpa guru can perform ceremonies to pacify illness, disease and help in other worldly activities and be a master of the inner levels of Tantra and Dzogchen practices dealing with liberation on the other. However,  many people confuse them as “shamans” or just “lay practitioners” and oftentimes they can be belittled by those who are unaware of their history and importance as the torchbearers of an ancient Indian tradition. As the great Ngakpa lama Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche said, “for the ngakpa the purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and self. Usually in the shamanic tradition no one talks of enlightenment.” [4]

Ngakpas of Rebkong, Tibet participate in a Tantric ceremony

In our search for the existing Ngakpa lineages in the Indian Himalayas, we travelled to the sacred town of Rewalsar (Tso Pema in Tibetan) in Himachal Pradesh. Rewalsar is a small yet highly important town for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs alike. For the Buddhists, this place is considered to be part of the ancient kingdom of Zahor where Guru Padmasambhava practiced Tantra in the caves with the princess Mandarava acting as his consort. According to ancient legends, the king of Zahor and his ministers arrested Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava and burned him alive, but he transformed the pyre into a lake, and was found sitting, cool and fresh, on a lotus blossom in its centre. This lake is considered to be the Rewalsar Lake, ‘Tso Pema’, around which the existing town of Rewalsar was built. [5]

Rewalsar (Tibetan: Tso Pema) in Himachal Pradesh, India

Rewalsar is not only a sacred pilgrimage spot for Himalayan Buddhists, but it is also home to a few important Buddhist monasteries along with a community of lay practitioners and cave-dwelling hermits who have dedicated their entire lives into solitary practice of Tantric meditation.

Sacred Guru Padmasambhava cave located on the hills above Rewalsar
Yogini Ani Bumchung (Centre), one of the seniormost hermit practitioners in her cave in Rewalsar with the author’s wife Viktoria Polikarpova (R) and their yogin friend Senge Drayang (L)

Our search for a genuine Ngakpa guru led us to meet Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche, a long-haired, white-clad married lama (Tāntric guru) who has made Rewalsar his home after living and practicing in Tibet and Bhutan for decades. Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche comes from the high grasslands of Kham in Eastern Tibet and belongs to the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. His spiritual consort, Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo, is a female Ngakpa, or a “Ngakmo” and they have a son named Tenzin Thinley. Both practitioners belong to unbroken lineages of Tāntric Buddhism coming from India into Tibet through Guru Padmasambhava and other great masters of that time.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche at his shrine room in Rewalsar, India

Together, they highlight the very ideals of the ancient Mahāsiddha tradition and live at the fringes of society instead of a monastery and teach ancient meditation practices to those who seek them without expectations of fame or material gain. They are both masters of Dzogchen meditation and maintain a loyal group of students whom they teach philosophy,  metaphysics, rituals and meditation praxis based on the needs and existing level of each individual. For beginners, basic mind training and preliminary practices called “Ngondro” in Tibetan are stressed before they can take the path of the higher Tantric and Dzogchen meditation. Lama Jigme readily teaches the Ngondro of his tradition with painstaking detail to students who are willing to step on the path of Tantric practice. In fact, the Ngondro enables students to get an entire gist of the Buddhist practice, ranging from its basics to the highest paths of non-dual meditation techniques that involve complex visualisations, mantra recitations and rituals.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo engaged in a Tantric ceremony

While most westerners and sometimes even lay Himalayan Buddhist practitioners think of lamas as shaven-headed and monastic, the reality is far from the truth. Lamas are not supposed to be just monks; married, householder Ngakpas are also equally eligible for that title. Ngakpa lamas like Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort embody the ideas of Buddhist Tantric practice that emerged in India and were later transmitted to Tibet.

Our search into the Ngakpa lineages was more than fruitful as we were able to encounter a living Tantric couple who hold within the deep expanse of their mind sacred wisdom which has been taught and preserved from the time of Sakyamuni Buddha to the later awareness holders of the Tantras. It is important to note that enough emphasis is laid upon maintaining secrecy over the inner symbolism of iconography and practice, not because Tantra is a ‘cult’ as many think, but to safeguard the meanings from beings who could potentially harm and misuse the teachings.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo with the author Ankit Sinha and his wife Viktoria Polikarpova after the conclusion of a Tantric ceremony at their shrine room in Rewalsar

Indeed, the Tāntric tradition has been able to survive and sustain despite all the foreign invasions in India and the political upheavals in Tibet mainly because of the same ideals. If the teacher-student tradition would have been forsaken and the secret teachings sold like confectionery, there is no doubt that a vast number of lineages would have died out long ago.  So, one must acknowledge the role many of these masters have played in preserving an authentic tradition and presenting it practitioners of the modern era.

May these teachings continue to benefit beings for countless aeons!

Sarva mangalam bhavatu!

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Bibilography:

[1] N.N. Bhattacharya, “History of the Tantric Religion” (1982), page 20

[2] Kyabje Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche, “An Historic Description of Awareness Holders of the Great Secret Mantra who are Resplendent in White Clothes and Long Hair” (2004). https://enricokosmus.com/2012/06/13/an-historic-description-of-awareness-holders-of-the-great-secret-mantra-who-are-resplendent-in-white-clothes-and-long-hair/

[3] Ngakpa Ga’wang, “An Introduction to the White Sangha of Ngakpas and Ngakmos” (1997) https://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=An_Introduction_to_the_White_Sangha_of_Ngakpas_and_Ngakmos

[4] Jeffe Cox, “The Ngakpa Tradition: An Interview with Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche” (2016) http://padmasambhavagururinpoche.com/the-ngakpa-tradition-an-interview-with-khetsun-sangpo-rinpoche/

[5] Rigpa Translations, “Great Treasure of Blessings – A Book of Prayers to Guru Rinpoche” (2004), page 28