Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE CHALDÆAN MYSTERIES: Arthur Machen and Sherlock Holmes

In Arthur Machen's story "The Inmost Light" (from The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light, 1894), his literary amateur and occult detective Mr Dyson insists to his friend Salisbury that the strange and wonderful are often to be found concealed beneath the dreary and everyday. He exemplifies this idea by commenting on how even in mean and laborious streets there may lurk those whose occupations belie their surroundings: "You may point out a street, correctly enough, as the abode of washerwomen; but, in that second floor, a man may be studying Chaldee roots, and in the garret over the way a forgotten artists is dying by inches."

That phrase "Chaldee roots" is well-chosen. It is impressively arcane and specialised. We receive an impression, a glimpse, of some matter deep and intricate, antiquarian and mysterious. And, tantalisingly, no more is said. Salisbury is sceptical, and suggests Dyson is “misled by a too fervid imagination”, but he does not confess doubt or perplexity about the Chaldee roots Dyson has invoked. Yet it so happens that in those two words Machen was evoking and implying a great deal.

“Chaldee” is an archaicism for “Chaldæan”. It refers to a people who lived in the estuary and marsh lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates but is a term also often used more widely for the whole region of Mesopotamia and the empire of Babylon. Chaldee was the original language of parts of some of the books of the Bible (eg Daniel and Ezra) and is regarded as one of the root languages of the Talmud.

Chaldæan beliefs are inferred from a set of cuneiform tablets dated c. 670 BC which reported astrological information in the court of King Ashurbanipal. The Chaldæan /Babylonian system recognizes seven moving lights or forces (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) set among twenty-eight asterisms or "mansions" (manázil, in the later Arabic), different to the constellations now commonly used. They regarded the world as eternal, with no beginning or end, and the Sun, Moon, and the five planets they knew were seen either as intelligent beings, or as forces guided by some divine intelligence.

The Chaldees exercised a considerable fascination over the Ancient Greek and Latin civilisations, and the term “Chaldæan” came to be synonymous with “astrologer”, “magician” or “seer”. Their ideas found their way into the Mystery religions of the ancient world, such as those that Machen evoked in his youthful poem Eleusinia. The Chaldæan Oracles played a role in Hellenistic mystery religions of the first centuries BC and AD.

We know that Machen himself had lived in humble quarters, surviving on only dry bread, green tea and dark tobacco, and his studies were frequently esoteric. If he was not quite a “forgotten artist, dying by inches”, he was not altogether distant from that fate, living on very little. He worked for the occult publisher and bookseller George Redway, and he was in effect an unacknowledged editor of Walford’s Antiquarian, a journal devoted to obscure notes and queries about the byways of history. Is this, then, a wry reference to himself ? Or did he know another obscure scholar who was studying Chaldee roots? Or was there no such specific counterpart, even though the point might be poetically true?

Well, Machen's Mr Dyson was not the only investigator to be interested in matters Chaldee. One of Machen’s fellow members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was Florence Farr, esotericist, actor, player upon the psaltery, and author of the Nineties novel The Dancing Faun. She also wrote a 16pp monograph, as by F. Farr Emery, entitled The Way of Wisdom. An Investigation of the Meanings of the Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, considered as a Remnant of Chaldæan Wisdom (J.M. Watkins., London, 1900). But, though she was at times no doubt as impecunious as any other artist or idealist, she was an habitué of Chelsea and does not seem to have lived in the obscurer quarters Machen pictured.

The aesthetical Irish poet Herbert Trench (1863-1923), a contemporary of Machen, in his ‘To A Dead Poet’ a paean to Edgar Allan Poe, evoked him as a “seer Chaldæan belated”, “Hymning Terror and Chaos”, but this may have been purely a literary flourish. He was a Fellow of All Souls’, Oxford, and later a public official, and, though his work was often ethereal, he does not fit Machen’s idea of the starving scholar.

However, some years after Machen’s story, Sherlock Holmes conceived the idea that the Cornish language is akin to the Chaldæan, and had been largely derived from Phoenician traders in tin visiting these shores in ancient times. His interest is noted in the story "The Devil's Foot" (Strand Magazine, December 1910):

"In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as it sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor. The ancient Cornish language had also arrested his attention, and he had, I remember, conceived the idea that it was akin to the Chaldæan, and had been largely derived from the Phoenician traders in tin. He had received a consignment of books upon philology and was settling down to develop this thesis when suddenly, to my sorrow and to his unfeigned delight, we found ourselves, even in that land of dreams, plunged into a problem at our very doors which was more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London."

At the conclusion of this case, Dr Watson is reassured to see Holmes resume his earlier interest. He notes: “we may. . .go back with a clear conscience to the study of those Chaldæan roots which are surely to be traced in the Cornish branch of the great Celtic speech”. Holmes’ interest in Cornish miracle plays, also evinced in the story, may also have been in quest of survivals of Chaldee lore. A (possibly apocryphal) monograph on Chaldæan Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language has since been attributed to Holmes.

There cannot have been many researchers into Chaldee roots in London in the early 1890s when Machen wrote his story, and Watson does not say that Holmes had newly discovered this interest, only (by implication) the Cornish connection. What is more likely then that Machen, an inveterate wanderer in the byways of London, and a connoisseur of eccentrics, had encountered Holmes and drawn him out on matters Chaldee? Perhaps in 1890 when Holmes had only a few cases at hand and may have taken himself off to pursue his studies incognito? Or just possibly, after the detective's Great Disappearance in 1891, some part of his time was spent not only in Tibet but also under another guise, as a poor scholar in washerwomen's rooms?


  1. "There cannot have been many researchers into Chaldee roots in London in the early 1890s when Machen wrote his story"
    Researchers, no, quoters, yes.
    The Chaldaean Oracles of Zoroaster by W. Wynn Westcott was a popular book among nineteenth century hermeticists and theosophists. Yeats used it in his poetry.

  2. GRS Mead researched it and published a book. That's another public domain goodie.

  3. ...and an unlikely user:
    Philip Larkin speaks of "Chaldaean constellations" in Livings III in High Windows. It's an small dramatic monologue by an eighteenth-century academic.

  4. This is a very lovely article, and that highly atmospheric Conan Doyle passage from THE DEVIL'S FOOT is among my favourite literary quotes of all time. This is also one of my favourite themes that occur in Machen's work -- that of the esoterically-inclined scholar or aesthete, who dwells in otherwise mundane or obscure locations.