“And I the Fire”: The Fluid Spirits of Babalon
by Sandra Huber
Abstract: Three spirit tales: 1. the love, sex, and death rites of artist Marjorie Cameron and rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons; 2. the ectoplasmic manifestations of medium and housewife Mary M.; 3. the spirit writing of poet Lucille Clifton, who realized herself as a “two-headed woman,” between the dead and the living. Tying their stories together, I will invoke the goddess Babalon, the Holy Whore, the queer Mother of Abominations, who Marjorie and Jack invoked together in the 1940s. In their collaborative book, Songs for the Witch Woman, Jack Parsons writes, “I was the wind of summer, the scent / of roses, / I was the star, the night, the Garden, / and I the fire.” Who dares to enter the underground, to speak with spirits? What wild fluids, flows, and erotics does this transgression produce?
Three stories. First story. It is 1952 and artist Marjorie Cameron is driving across the Mojave Desert with the ashes of her dead husband, Jack Parsons. She arrives in the unremarkable desert town of Beaumont, California. Devastated, she scatters his ashes. Unable to leave, she sets up house in a nearby area. She has no electricity, no water, but she has her art and she has her magic. In 1953, Marjorie pens a letter to Jane Wolfe, a former silent film star and disciple of notorious ceremonial magician, Aleister Crowley, and says that, out here, in all this solitude, she has birthed a child with her dead husband in a magical rite, an alchemy between death and life. She calls the child the Wormwood Star.
Story two. It is 1920 and Mary M. is sitting in a chair and her mouth is opening. She is in a room in the house of Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton in Winnipeg, Canada. It is dimly lit and smells singed, sweaty. I see the scene like looking through a keyhole: Thomas and his wife Lillian watch as Mary’s hands perch out like birds, as if she is trying to catch something, or someone. She is there to contact the dead beyond the veil. By day, she works as a housewife and mother and by night she inhabits for the living the dead. White swathes like linen soaked in milk, or like gauze poked through by clouds, starts frothing, looming, out of her open mouth: ectoplasm, the fluid secretions of ghosts.
Story three is not a road or a closed room, but rather a noise, the scratching of a pencil moving against a single piece of paper, or like a planchette moving across a board: “i was born with twelve fingers / like my mother and daughter … somebody was afraid we would learn to cast spells / and our wonders were cut off / but they didn’t understand / the powerful memory of ghosts. now / we take what we want.” It is 1976 and poet Lucille Clifton, together with her daughters, is sitting in front of a Ouija board, calling up her deceased mother, Thelma. This episode, here at the Ouija board, will awaken in Lucille the ability to connect to spirits by writing out the words they bring her. In her book, two-headed woman, published in 1980, Lucille writes homages to parts of her body — to her hips, her hair, the mirror in which they are all reflected — like textures, like weights, like scents, for she knows this secret: that spirit words come to this world on the cusp not just of her writing wrist, but her whole body, like an antenna poised out to meet them. Lucille realizes herself as a “two-headed woman,” a traditional African designation for one who exists both here and there. She begins researching the histories of Atlantis, of Egypt, of astrology. She goes deeper into her roots to find her ghosts.
Where do I fit in to these stories, this entanglement? What gives me license to move between these scenes, these griefs, these spaces between death and life? In the mornings, I’ve been running. Marjorie’s trip across the Mojave Desert runs with me. I listen to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that he released in 1969. I think of how Bowie, too, was linked to the occult scene of the 60s and 70s. He even had his swimming pool exorcised by a witch — Wiccan, Walli Elmlark. The glamorous occult counterculture he found himself a part of is owing to the work, and tragic love story, of Marjorie and Jack, brought to a peak after Jack’s death in Kenneth Anger’s film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), in which Marjorie plays the Whore of Babylon, Anaïs Nin plays the Moon, and Paul Mathison plays Apollo. But equally, it is owing to the work of mediums like Mary M., a housewife in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Lucille Clifton, a Black woman poet in Baltimore, Maryland, and all the self-declared two-headed women in history behind and before her. Feeding the worlds where the occult is lauded and accepted are the spaces of the systemically marginalized, feared, oppressed.
A lot people know that Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was the first music video shot in space — as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield belted it out in 2013 on the International Space Station, one step closer to the gods and their alien kin — but a lot people don’t know that at the time of having his swimming pool exorcised, Bowie was purportedly having delusions about two Black girls trying to birth the devil using his sperm. It is no coincidence Bowie markedly called Walli Elmlark, who exorcised his pool, a “white witch.” The point is not about Bowie being racist — all white people are racist under a society built and running off white supremacy — but the lack of vision that Bowie showed in this case, connected to systemic racism, connected to the life of the imagination. It was his coke-addled, delusional dreamscape that needed to be exorcised, not his swimming pool. It’s what activist and writer adrienne maree brown means when she says that part of the predicament of existing in an era riddled with environmental catastrophe, racism, ableism, sexism, classism, and transphobia stems from bad storytelling. People are dead, brown points out, because of bad (white) cultural imagination.
There is a direct line I am drawing between those who communicate with spirits, such as mediums, and those who try to block spirits out (of their swimming pools, for example) and their boring ideologies. It is time that we do the opposite of an exorcism: we invite the dead in.
Both Mary and Lucille were mediums, channels, middle points between the living and the dead. And Marjorie, she was not quite contacting the dead as she was birthing life from death, a queer alchemical child, which was her Holy Guardian Angel, a creative rather than procreative offspring. I do not know exactly what the Wormwood Star looked like, though I have seen the film, but I do know that in 1951, Marjorie collects Jack’s poems and her illustrations to birth another alchemical child, Songs for the Witch Woman. In it, Jack writes: “I was the wind of summer, the scent / of roses, / I was the star, the night, the Garden, / and I the fire.” What does it mean to say, “And I the fire”? Not I, the person, certainly not I, the man, but I, the fire. This is what it is to communicate with sprits, those either undead or not yet born. The “I” drops out.
There is a corridor I want to unzip now and walk down through all these lines of text, and it moves from grief to healing to love. In 1978, Lucille looks up from her spirit writing and realizes that she has met they who call themselves the Ones, and they bring a dire warning: “If the world continues on its way without the possibility of God,” they write, “which is the same as saying without Light Love Truth then what does this mean? It means that perhaps a thousand years of mans life on this planet will be without Light Love Truth It is what we were saying indeed that there will be on Earth that place which human beings describe to the world of the spirits Hell …” It begins this way or it ends this way: either in resurrecting or burying the dead.
It is June, 17, 1952 at 5:08 p.m. and Jack Parsons drops a vial of mercury fulminate while working in his garage in Pasadena. Behind him, a massive unfinished painting by Marjorie depicts an angel carrying a sword. The image of this painting haunts me, looming, unfinished; I see it as red, or maybe just swathes of black outlines, Marjorie’s wild, jagged strokes that look more like gestures than lines. There is one split second, maybe less. Jack Parsons, the angel, the sword, all go up in flames. I see Marjorie’s face as she hears the news, I see her face as she gets into her car and starts to drive, and I see her face as she scatters the ashes that will create her alchemical child.
Shortly after they met, she and Jack were a party at “the Parsonage,” home to the Agape Lodge in L.A., home to wild salons on the occult and wilder parties, and Marjorie, with her red hair, her intense gaze, looked just like the goddess Babalon. Jack would know. Together with L. Ron Hubbard, who would incorporate the first Church of Scientology seven years later, Jack performed what he referred to as “The Babalon Working” in 1946 to call in an “elemental mate.” Later, Marjorie began to create blood rites, drawing her own red fluid out of her living body, still a part of her and at once not, now a part of the world of things that themselves are part of the world of the body, of life, manifestation, possibility. It is significant that Marjorie’s alchemical child, the Wormwood Star, was created and conceived, after Jack had died, in the name of the Goddess Babalon, for it was not a child in the traditional sense at all, but magic itself, artwork, communication. In the King James version of Revelations, the prophet John comes upon a vision of a woman in a cave: “And upon her forehead,” he declares, “was written MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT. THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw a woman drunken with the blood of saints…” From her inception, Babalon is the holy whore, the Mother of Abominations, of hybrids, of monsters, villains and chimeras, both goddexx and cyborg.
There is a connection that is coming together through these three disparate stories about the way we conjure ghosts and the way we find our paths to healing, to retrieving the stories that began us, our grandmothers, their ghosts, unburying our dead and watching them live. But I am too inside these stories to untangle them or make sense of them. Rather, I ask, what are the values of borders, names, maps, containers? The words that mediums pick up from spirits are sometimes called scripts. Playwrights compose scripts, algorithms compose scripts. The words of the dead that mediums bring to the living are not always upright or linear, and they do not always make sense. They are more spatial than readable. The words that spirits bring to embodied beings are borderless, wayward. Poet Harryette Mullen writes that while 19th-century Spiritualists were acting as vessels for the words of the dead, other anti-literate art forms were arising: the blues wail, or the narrative quilts stitched together by Harriet Powers.
What kind of language does not pretend it is not inhabited? Hauntings are unsettling. There is Mary M. in the house of Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and the silence and buzz of the prairies spreads out around her, her is posture erect, the language in her throat is ready to flow over in ectoplasmic phonemes, radiant as tentacles, as tongues. Mary M., working double shift as housewife and medium, was producing ectoplasm, an anti-literate type of spirit communication, a creative rather than procreative fluid, her own Wormwood Star, her own desired and desirous invocation.
I follow Marjorie, Lucille, and Mary into their respective worlds and underworlds, and what I find is a journey not only of death, not only of love, but of deep erotism, something we rarely talk about in connection to spirits. Marjorie’s paintings and drawings are overtly sexual; and when you look at photographs of ectoplasm emerging from the orifices of mediums, you cannot help but think of the queer production of other viscid fluids. Lucille writes, “her hands are bright / as they witch for water / and even her tears cry / fire fire / but she opens herself / to the risk of flame.” And I, the fire. In his book The Red Goddess, Peter Grey traces the modern goddess Babalon back in history, and connects her to the Mesopotamian goddess, Innana, who descends into hell to rescue her consort, Dumuzi. Once there, Innana must lift from her body seven veils or gates: first her sandals, then her ankle bells, next her robe, her breastcups, and finally her necklace, her earrings, her crown, she sheds them all, for one can only enter the underworld naked, without device, raw and present.
Bowie starts his countdown in “Space Oddity” — “seven, six, five, four.” Jack Parsons drops the vial of mercury fulminate and the air fills with fire. Somewhere, Marjorie’s mouth opens, she doesn’t know yet, maybe she is laughing, speaking with a friend, maybe there’s a glimmer in her eye like the needle point of a rising flame, a trip they have planned to Mexico that will start tomorrow, she has to get home and pack, the sun is hot, the sun hangs in the sky on its ecliptic in the sign of Gemini, with Scorpio on the ascendent (I drew up the chart of Jack’s death) and Mars in the first house forming an opposition to the moon in Taurus. Venus, the planet of love and beauty, presses herself tight against the sun, conjunct, conjugal, like she is loath to lose it, and they both, Venus and the Sun, form a harmonic sextile with Pluto, the god of the underworld rising up from Leo to take them down to his velvety, swanky lair. In the Messina, where my forebears hang out clothes to dry on taut lines, Strega means witch.
Lucille, Mary, Marjorie, I turn to you directly. You are all connected to one another and to the unseen that you have all witnessed, participated in, created, conjured, a healing red thread that I pull taut between you. I think of my own ancestors, precarious immigrants on stolen land. My grandfather, a Sicilian, worked as a custodian for Pepsi Cola in Montreal and was fired for stealing a pen right before he was eligible to receive his pension. For me, as a researcher, as a witch, and maybe especially as a writer, as a wielder of pens, this means something. It is a responsibility I carry, of healing, of damning the systems that closed against my ancestors, and many of yours. I close my eyes and flutter them open. Dr. Hamilton has set up technological devices whose posture is alert and porous, ready to record. I meet Mary’s eyes. From the future I have come to see you, I say to her, clear and steady and invisible as electricity. She opens her mouth and I open my mouth. This is not a death song.
Inanna opens her great eyes, she lifts her seven veils, and shimmying down past all the demons into the depths of this the hell of the gods, she breathes, she cries, she swoons. She says: “Bridegroom, dear to my heart, / Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet, / Lion, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty honeysweet.” In his 1963 essay called “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” William James wrote, “[t]he actual universe is a thing wide open, but rationalism makes systems and systems must be closed.” I have come here today to lay three stories out to you, like open roads, like open mouths, not to close them up tidily, because I have no tidy closing, but to present them to you like pearls, like porous things, to exist for a moment in the rich tangles of the wilderness, the janitorial closet, the roots, the haunted swimming pool, the haunted desert, the viscid fluids and flames of ghostly alchemical secretions. In the name of Babalon, Holy Whore, Mother of Abominations, goddexx of life and spirit and love and passion, I invite all our ancestors here too, our beloved and mighty dead, and I say, lion, dear to my heart, goodly is your beauty honeysweet.
 Yael Liptschutz, “Beacon in the Darkness: The Transcendental Art of Cameron,” in ibid. ed., Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Santa Monica, CA: Cameron Parsons Foundation, 2015), 12.  Lucille Clifton, “lucy and her girls,” in two-headed woman (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 4.  Marina Magloire, “The Spirit Writing of Lucille Clifton,” The Paris Review, October 19, 2020, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/10/19/the-spirit-writing-of-lucille-clifton.  See Martin Schneider, “Meet the Mysterious ‘White Witch’ Who Exorcised David Bowie’s Cocaine Palace,” Dangerous Minds, February 3, 2015, https://dangerousminds.net/comments/mysterious_white_witch_who_exorcised_david_bowie (accessed June 30, 2021).  See Rare Earth, “Space Oddity,” YouTube video, 5:30 minutes, May 12, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo, accessed June 30, 2021. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was released as a 7-inch on July 11, 1969 and recorded at Trident Studios, London (Chicago: Mercury Records, 1969).  adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press), 18.  Curtis Harrington, The Wormwood Star, short film (1956); To view, see James J. Conway, “The Wormwood Star,” Strange Flowers, blog, August 12, 2013, https://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/the-wormwood-star (accessed June 30, 2021).  Marjorie Cameron and Jack Parson, Songs for the Witch Woman (1951), in Yael Lipschutz, ed., Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Santa Monica, CA: Cameron Parsons Foundation, 2015), 20.  Lucille Clifton, qtd. in Marina Magloire, “The Spirit Writing of Lucille Clifton,” The Paris Review, October 19, 2020, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/10/19/the-spirit-writing-of-lucille-clifton.  Rev. 17:3–6 (KJV), quoted in Manon Hedenborg White, The Eloquent Blood: The Goddess Babalon and the Construction of Femininities in Werstern Esotericism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 1.  Harryette Mullen, “African Signs and Spirit Writing,” in The Black Studies Reader, ed. Jacqueline Bobo et al. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 284.  Lucille Clifton, “new year,” in two-headed woman (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 25.  Peter Grey, The Red Goddess (2007), 2nd edition (London: Scarlet Imprint, 2021), 44.  William James, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” in Pragmatism and Other Essays (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), 16.
Image Information and Source:
Untitled (Portrait of Crystal), ca. 1961, Marjorie Cameron. Ink and gouache on wood panel. 43 1/2 x 11 3/4 in. Collection of Scott Hobbs. [Permission courtesy of Cameron Parons Foundation.] Getty.edu. https://blogs.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime/explore-the-era/people/marjorie-cameron/