XVII. Ghuls

Yes, I shall tell you the lore of the Ghuls. It is not what you expect.



In prehistoric times, “humanity” was a looser term than it is now. If you have read what human scientists have learned in recent decades, then you know that early humans came from various lines of descent and interbred until the modern kind of homo sapiens became dominant. All those old human and proto-human strains exist in the fossil record of mankind and in its DNA to this day.


Other life and Spirits coexisted with early humans. You may have heard of the Shapeshifters, who were and are protean, formidable titans—the earliest life ever to exist on the planet, so powerful of body and occult essence that they could take any form and interbreed with or devour any successor species. They were terrible, but easily influenced and limited in number, and their lack of ambition made the Shapeshifters a strange parallel evolution of terrestrial life that was so self-sufficient that it lacked purpose. They were never the dominant power in the world, but always existed alongside the primary creatures: Whether archaebacteria or dinosaurs or mastodons or humans, every large population that has swum in the oceans or moved upon land or in the air has had its quotient of Shapeshifters among them, liquid life floating on the tides of time.


We Ghuls do not dislike the Shapeshifters. We only have a healthy fear of them, as we would for anything we could not digest.


As humanity coalesced into something like its modern form, Spirits were drawn to the earthly vibrational plane and shaped it as they were shaped by it. The parallel to the formless Shapeshifters is not entirely inappropriate, but it would be a mistake to assume too greatly on that parallel. Spirits can be without strict pattern, but all Spirits have purpose.


Among the first to enter the world and interact with it were the things we now call the Djinni and the Asura, and even the dream-entities such as the Yokai or the allies of the Loa Masters. The reason is obvious, of course: Predators find prey. Humans tend to exalt predation and to admire carnivores that hunt; this is the result of fear, and we Ghuls do not put our bogeymen upon pedestals. To the human and human-like world, only monstrous Spirits from an alien reality, such as the Dream Masters, are unacceptable predators. We do not draw such a fine distinction.


But we Ghuls do not dislike the predator Spirits. We only have a healthy fear of them, as we would for anything that could digest us.


(And here is a reason we have no quarrel with the Unquiet Dead: Ghosts of the living have always existed, and crowd the spiritual fabric of reality all around us, swimming through the invisible knowledge of the Akashic Ocean that permeates everything that exists, might exist or should not exist. Ghosts don’t do any digesting of Ghuls. So they’re on a neutral footing with us, though the old ones remember us in other ways…)


The truly momentous point in the occult history of Earth was the arrival of the Old Gods in this plane. This is a tricky thing to pin down, of course. The Old Gods do not partake of time as material beings do. In one sense, if you could travel back in time (an unwise thing to do!), there is a specific time and place when the Old Gods first “made landfall” in an otherwise blind and chaotic world. In another, the Old Gods have always “been arriving” and “continue to arrive,” never ceasing in their advent, just as inspiration and epiphany never cease to occur.


The distinction between Old Gods and new is really a human thing. There are certainly multiple new gods, though most are considered omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. There are also new gods, mostly unnamed, whose purposes and meaning are predicated on emerging human ideas about justice and cruelty, greed and prosperity, knowledge and pride, creation and pollution. These latter new gods are real. The all-everything gods? Sadly… not. The Old Gods, whose existence is undeniable, have largely lost interest in material matters on this plane, but as they are always reborn in every moment, they have also… not.


As you may guess, we Ghuls do not dislike the Old Gods. We do have a healthy fear of them, of course, but it is only because they are truly the Old Gods and we are their descendants.


Ah, you seem surprised! I told you this would not be what you expect.


The Old Gods are quieter and subtler than they once were, but they are still with us. There are those who call upon them under other names, and there are those who invoke the powers of the unseen world with their aid. The strangest way in which the Old Gods continue their never-ending genesis of the human world, or worlds, is in a handful of bloodlines. For it seems that not every deity is immortal in the same way.


Ask the one-eyed god of the north who was sacrificed to himself and who will one day be killed anew in the final war, if war is what that event really is. He has a different definition of immortality than the courts of the gods who eat peaches and apples from trees of life, and they are different from those divinities that can simply never die at all because they have never been what mortals call “alive.”


And so it is that some would find it very odd to know that certain gods have always dwelt in a twilight place, neither alive nor dead, that others refer to as undeath. Like cold, dim stars formed in the dusty murk of silent space, undead gods are an inevitable consequence of an orderly reality. Inevitable, yes, but not well loved by most. Even the gods of death often look askance at these entities… as one might, if there were a creature made to be a vagabond and pass freely from this realm to that, neither one thing nor another yet part of the great pattern of everything.


Undead gods, yes, and some were predators. But while the Old Gods saw the power and majesty of destruction in the spheres of life and death, undead predation was unclean to them. There was one they cast out in that ancient age, a thing known now only as The Dark Goddess. She had become the enemy of all the rest, and the Old Gods drove Her into exile when they could not destroy Her. Her hatred and thirst for revenge on the Old Gods and the world they claimed as their domain is said to continue to this day, though the gods themselves would deny it. They may know of her creations, the Vampires, but they think those things are only another amusing pestilence. Ghuls remember the Dark Goddess and respect her, and we mind our step around her walking weapons and their Blood Doll sycophants.


But not all the undead gods were hunters and killers. Some had other ways of existing.


In prehistoric times, life became a struggle between living things that had developed agriculture and could feed themselves all year round, and other living things that stuck to hunter-gatherer behaviors and spent much of their time hungry. This was the basis of the conflict between good and evil: Creatures smart and hard-working enough to grow food became known as good, while other creatures too stupid and lazy to do more than grab whatever was lying around were known as evil.


Because the farmers still had no certainty of their crops and herds, and because they could not yet completely secure their lives from predators—and because some predators formed bandit gangs that “protected” the farmers from other predatory gangs—the farmers soon came to see stupid villainy as smart and admirable toughness. And for all the same reasons, the predators preened and congratulated themselves, and decided that the farmers were right and that good was stupid, while evil was smart. The hunting carnivore was placed on his throne and licked his paws.


It was into such a world that the scavenger deity was embodied. Existing in what appeared to be a completely other niche, simply eating the leavings of others, it was looked upon by good and evil and pronounced gutter scum by both. Little did either category of life grasp there are many ways to run a farm, and if viewed with a wide enough perspective and an adaptable enough stomach, an entire world could be your farm and everything in it your crops and cattle.


The scavenger deity was not unknown to man, though man could not tolerate calling such a “low thing” a god or goddess. One such being, or facet of a more complex being, was Ammut of the Egyptians. Called a demon when she was no such thing, hailed as a goddess by the few and the wise, she was the eater of the unworthy dead when they failed the test of ma’at. She was one of the few aspects of the scavenger deity to be given a name or a face by humanity, but all life on Earth knew and knows the power of the all-devouring scavenger. They have only to think on the way the world disappears after its death to remember this. Where are the bones of yesteryear? Where is the face of lost love, long buried in the grave? “The play is the tragedy, ‘Man,’ and its hero, the conqueror worm.”


Humanity is curious and imaginative. This is the beacon of the Spirit world and of magick. All life possesses these qualities, but most temper it to keep a balance. Humans are creatures of extremity. Look around you at the world and you will see the truth of this. It takes a great deal to cause animals and plants to utterly wreck their environment through overdoing and overuse, but some other species have managed it even better than homo sapiens. Humans, though, will accomplish everything their predecessors could in a shorter time, if they’re not much more careful.


And what of Ghuls? We are coming to it. In fact, we’ve been speaking of it.


Curiosity and imagination lead mankind to learn of the strange secrets of the universe and make themselves into wielders of weird power: Adepts, Necromancers, Loa Masters, Time Engineers, and more. Hidden potentials in humans make them into Haruspex, Slayers, Cultists and so on. All of these paths take human beings into contact with their strangest possibilities, but most people shun their most… questionable appetites. Most, but not all.


The other explorers of strangeness were impressive but showy and egotistical, as Ghuls consider them to this day. The same is true of the self-changers, the Slayers and Haruspex and the rest, who’ve moved the needle on their internal compass just a bit more to spirit than to material… flashy and simplistic.


The first of the Ghuls were humans who took a different route to exploration than those others. They were not content to learn hidden names and call up unknown powers, or to delve into their own spiritual depths, or any of those things. These prehistoric, barely tribal, “primitive” humans and proto-humans beheld the mystery of the worm-gnawed dead and the corpse that sat up in its burial pit. They felt the breath of the scavenger deity on their spine. And they ate of the flesh, and joined with it in ecstasy, to learn of dark truths no ordinary human could learn.


In doing this, the many-faced scavenger deity smiled upon them, and came into them, body and spirit. They experienced a sort of hieros gamos, a sacred wedding, between the world of life and death that brought them to the holy crossroads of undeath. Whether in a single night of genius or in a thousand nights of pilgrimage, these first bestial, filth-fingered, red-toothed humans became the mothers and fathers of the original Ghuls. Their ancestors’ Ghosts cursed them to undeath, in their shame, and the scavenger deity blessed them in undeath, out of love.


And what does that make us, the Ghuls? Demigods descended from demigods. And for all that poet says, “When the half-gods go, the gods arrive,” we are still here, and in the country of the mortals, the demigod is a god! But sadly… not with honors, temples, or power. Not any more.


I shall pass over the intervening centuries a little more quickly, and therefore with less detail. You must forgive this necessity. There is only so much time in a night, even if you do not age or sicken.


First, the essentials: We are the Eaters of the Dead, and yes, we are also the Choosers of the Slain. We have gone by many names in many cultures, and the word “valkyrie” is as accurate in our description as “ghul.” You expected pretty women on winged horses? Some of us take that form! We have many kinds of blessings in our godly nature.


We were disowned by the Unquiet Dead and by living mankind alike, but we are our own family. In our true form, we combine many beautiful qualities of life: The sleek rat, the pure maggot, the loving hyena, the gentle vulture, the philosophic catfish, and so many more. Humans find us terrifying, as do many supernatural creatures, but we are no less divine in our original shape than any other being that exists. Yet to live in a world dominated by humans, we hide among them just as the Shapeshifters and other supernatural factions do.


We take human form by the simplest route: Physical congress and birth. We spend years living as a human, but sickly and weak due to the lack of our real nourishment, and eventually we die and are reborn—just as Tammuz and Osiris and Mithras were!—into our real existence as Ghuls. The young Ghul must take their First Feast from the bodies of the human dead, and devour the head of the corpse they choose by divine instinct. When this happens, the Ghul is able to thereafter look and move and sound like the corpse did in life. Imagine a cemetery awash in moonlight… a grave torn open with muddy claws, a concrete outer casket pried open eagerly, a bronze-plated casket lid wrenched free… the sound of chewing, wet and delicious, the crunch of bone… and soon a new shape rises from the pit like a butterfly from its chrysalis. The young Ghul has chosen its new identity.


Thereafter, the Ghul may transform at will from the original true form into the new identity, or even eat another corpse’s head and change to a different new identity. And this undead Ghul grows in power, never growing sick or aging, but able to inflict disease on enemies at will like a true god visiting plagues upon the unrighteous. A Ghul’s heart beats a few times in a minute, and the blood is cool, and the lungs barely fill for any reason besides speech… undead, but so near to life in so many ways, that dull-witted life can rarely see the difference unless shown the truth.


As I have said, we Ghuls have other gifts, too, though they are rarer. Some can eat the eyes of the dead and know what they saw. Others can sing to the bacteria in the bodies of living creatures and convince them to do new things. Our great progenitor, the scavenger deity, has not left us unarmed as we labor in our vineyard!


And it has truly been our vineyard, our grove, our lovely farm, this world. We are said to lack ambition, but it’s really only that we have mellowed with millennia. We used to work so very hard to till the cosmic soil and to herd our food—which is everyone, by the way, except the Shapeshifters and the Dream Masters and the disembodied Spirits—we shook the pillars of heaven with our subtle and clever machinations, until the coming of the industrial age, and the arrival of our great Ghul motto.


That motto, adopted recently by humans, is: “Work smarter, not harder.”


Have you heard of the priesthoods of Ancient Egypt who steered that great nation’s course with whispered wisdom? Controlled by Ghuls.


The secret societies of feudal China? Controlled by Ghuls.


The Council of Ten, the Star Chamber, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Combine, the Insiders, the Mob, the Cabal, the Invisible College, the Conspiracy? Controlled by Ghuls, all of them and more! Dynasties around the world, great living religions, all manner of vast and powerful institutions… and all of them the servants of the scavengers.


Empires have risen and fallen, pestilence has felled millions, treasures have heaped high, and behind it all was the claw of the Ghul!


Human alliances and conspiracies shift and grow and change and die over thousands of years, none of them ruling everything and all of them loyal to nothing but esoterica and distrust and fetish and greed. None of them steered the world, then or now. We should know, since we Ghuls laid out the plans for them ourselves. They all have had a single purpose: To make life thrive and prosper in its season, and then to die in its season for our harvest.


We have been queens and kings of the world, ruling from the shadows. Every other supernatural faction has claimed this kind of power and had it claimed about them, but it is only true of Ghuls. The others have all been much too busy with other pursuits. Predators aren’t farmers, but scavengers often are. What’s better for a scavenger, to wait for a random meal or to make sure food is on the table? Oh, it isn’t as “honorable” and “impressive” as the great wolf and the mighty lion, but farmer maggot doesn’t have an empty belly to fill with nothing but pride, either.


As industry arose and the world became a place with too many identity papers and too many clever humans, we Ghuls more or less stepped back from cultivating the world-farm. We aren’t nearly as tough as the fearsome supernatural factions that sneer at us, nor as numerous. It would be easier to destroy us than any of them. But why bother? After all, we only eat the dead. And eating is good!


For there are more humans and livestock and crops than ever in history, and we’ve left the human livestock in charge of growing it all, like pigs raising other pigs for the farmer’s Sunday bacon. Why do the work, when all we have to do is go enjoy the rewards? Daylight cannot harm us, though it is wretched, and most of the allergies of the undead are not our problem, thanks to our own godlike essence. Most other creatures find us too foul to eat. Things are easy.


So we are now retired from great ambitions and humbly accept the disgust of the brave killers and righteous, warlike omnivores who respect them. We root in the grave mold and wonder at the side effects of our human farming, like the Caretakers, who seem to be cemetery-elementals and hurt virtually nobody. (Perhaps they are our destined friends, like faithful hounds? Friendly squirrels?)


We worry about things that seem to be going wrong, like the humans mismanaging the world. We worry about ominous new creatures, like the unholy Revenants, who are a new kind of undead that may truly upset the balance of the world. We even worry about the rumored Time Engineers, who are whispered to be refugees from a future apocalypse, or may even be the ones who bring it about.


But there are still many mysteries, even for the ancient and blessed family of Ghuls, and we delight in their exploration. We sometimes give a little inspiration to dear friends in the human world, like that lovely man from Rhode Island who wrote a story about one of us. (Modeling for a painter indeed!) We do our best to muddle through the occult underworld alongside the Vampires and the Zombies and the Ghosts and the Were-things.


Mostly, however, we eat. Speaking of which, you are only recently reborn into your demigodhood—you’re a growing Ghul! You need to go out and feast now.


And no, no, you needn’t wait for them to die! You can arrange that yourself, if you like. Think like a monitor lizard. There’s more than one way to be a scavenger, dear child.


Bon appetit!