In the Days of the Seasteaders, part 5: Vril Mythos of the Detritivores

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But the things they valued more than anything was dirt, had to get really dirty, rub it all over you, swim in mud, spend some time in a greenhouse where the air is thick with yeasts and spores, let a good old hum build up on you, grow your toenails long and natural, rejection is the ultimate form of sophistication, showing you’re above the accumulation impulse. A lot of people had their stink genes crispr’d out in the ‘thirties and boy did they live to regret it.

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The 1815 volcanic eruption of mount Tambora on Sumbawa island, Indonesia was one of the largest in recorded history – the eruption plume sent some 10 billion tonnes of pumice ash into the stratosphere,[1] ultimately resulting in a period of temporary climate change and the second coldest year on record.[2] 1816 was known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’ and its effect can be seen in the cultural output of that time. JMW Turner’s pink and orange sunsets are said to have been influenced by those which were common in 1816 due to the high levels of Tephra in the atmosphere.[3] That year also saw the gathering of Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and Lord Byron at Lake Geneva, with the darkness inspiring the writing contest that resulted in Frankenstein, The Vampyre and Byron’s poem Darkness that records the pervading gloom of the time:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light…[4]

The episode of climate change also resulted in widespread crop failure and famine throughout Europe, causing an estimated 200,000 deaths and grain riots.[5] The crisis in European agriculture led to a widespread search for new effective fertilisers, with one popular source source being phosphate-rich bones scoured from the recent Napoleonic wars in central Europe, some estimates placing the number of human skeletons imported to England for use as fertiliser at over three million. [6] The German chemist Justus von Liebig, who was a child at the time of the famine and resulting turmoil, was outraged by this macabre trade in human remains:

‘England is robbing all other countries of their fertility. Already In her eagerness for bones, she has turned up the battlefields of Leipsic and Waterloo and of the Crimea… Annually she removes from the shores of other countries to her own the manurial equivalent of three million and a half men…Like a vampire she hangs from the neck of Europe, nay the whole world, and sucks the heart blood from nations.’[7]

The primary advantage of Phosphate-rich bones was in encouraging the growth of Turnips, a crop that helped to improve farming efficiency and speed the progress of surplus agricultural workers into the growing cities.[8] Industrial England was thus raised up on a diet of Turnips infused with the bones of the dead, a Detritivore tendency to feast upon and process the waste products of the deceased. Other sources of phosphate-grist to the industrial grindstone include a huge mass of fossilised saurian remains unearthed largely in East Anglia[9] and a consignment of 180,000 mummified cats imported from Egypt and sold at auction in Liverpool to a fertiliser merchant.[10]

This bone-crunching, detritivore tendency in European industrial history gets an occasional outing in trope form in popular culture, such as Richard Fleischer‘s 1973 film Soylent Green.[11] The film’s Malthusian vision of an overpopulated nihilistic America in 2022 positions lack of food as the primary social aggravator. The titular foodstuff is supposedly made of processed Plankton (pre-echoes of the Seasteaders algaculture projects) by the de-facto government of the Soylent Corporation. In reality Soylent provides a convenient outlet for disposal of excess human bodies, with those willing to submit to voluntary euthanasia receiving the only compassion and luxury available in an otherwise unrelentingly grim society. The bodies are dumped into a pool of black oil like liquid at the processing plant, re-emerging as a conveyer belt of green tiles of Soylent.

Soylent Green watched in 2018 [and 2019] bears a shifted Weird charge to Soylent Green of 1973, the Hyperstitial potency of date as a narrative device becoming all too apparent. In the terms of The Weird outlined by Mark Fisher these temporal hiccups are integral to generating this affect, where the Weird ‘implies twisted forms of time and causality that are alien to ordinary perception.’[12] The resonating coded marker of date allows the work to shift and live on in new and weirder forms. As these work of Science Fiction (so too with real world speculative projects such as that of Seasteading Institute) set in the near future find and pass their expected date of arrival they become a parallel present, or maybe a history we have chosen to forget through an act of mass traumatic repression.

Fig.6, Still from Soylent Green, Dir. Richard Fleischer, 1973

The European famine of the early 1800’s prompted Justus Von Liebig to effectively invent the modern science of chemistry, including the development of new non-skeletal fertilisers and the invention of a process for extracting proteins from meat remnants, in order to provide a cheap and nutritious protein source for Europe’s working poor. Liebig’s chemistry laid the foundations for contemporary food science, for other sources of industrialised Geophagy such as the soil-dwelling fungal biomass Fusarium venenatum better known in its commercial form as the Quorn meat substitute.[13] Liebig’s Extract of Meat was the progenitor of OXO, Marmite (itself an accretion of deceased Yeast microbes) and BOVRIL, the company set up by John Lawson Johnston, an early exponent of dietetic nutritional science. BOVRIL takes its name from ‘Vril’,[14] the esoteric life force devised by novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton for his 1871 novel ‘The Coming Race’.[15]

Originally published anonymously, The Coming Race was a sensation in its time with many readers believing its first-hand account to be a true story.[16] The novel is a mixture of classic romanticist mine-fantasy and Hollow Earth utopian tract, with the action taking place far below the surface of the earth, where the un-named narrator has become stranded after descending down a mineshaft. The novel draws heavily from the aesthetics of the Romantic novel, echoing texts such as E.T.A Hoffman’s The Mines of Falun in Bulwer-Lytton’s description of the bowels of the earth, an almost textbook piece of sublime hyperbole:

“Wild and solemn beauty impossible to describe:- the vast ranges of precipitous rock which formed the distant background, the intermediate valleys of mystic many-coloured herbiage, the flash of waters, many of them like streams of roseate flame, the serene lustre diffused over all by myriads of lamps, combined to form a whole of which no words of mine can convey adequate description; so splendid was it, yet so sombre; so lovely yet so awful”[17]

The saurian-like Vril-Ya people have a developed social structure and advanced technology – their domestic needs are attended by automata, Bulwer-Lytton’s description of their sophisticated visual art comes close to a prediction of Analytic Cubism: “the effect was vague, scattered, confused, bewildering…like heterogenous fragments of a dream of art.”[18] The Vril-Ya’s advancement is due to their discovery and harnessing of the unifying force ‘Vril’ – described as being similar to electricity, magnestism and galvanism, able both to heal and destroy. Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril follows in the Hegelian tradition of searching for a unifying vital force with echoes throughout the emerging sciences, including Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge’s 1821 work ‘The Genesis of Human Magnestism’ which posited a universal magnetic force present in all materials and beings.[19]r

Through their mastery of Vril, the Vril-Ya have attained ascendancy over more primitive subterranean races, who are “contented to grope their way in the dark.” The Vril-Ya’s ascendency has been won through a process of eugenic selection and inherited evolutionary advantage:

“…since in the competition a vast number must perish, nature selects for preservation only the strongest specimens. With our race, therefore, even before the discovery of vril, only the highest organisations were preserved … in order to perfect our condition and attain to the purest elimination of our species by the severity of the struggles our forefathers underwent; and that, when our education shall become finally completed, we are destined to return to the upper world, and supplant all the inferior races now existing Therein.”[20]

Through Bulwer-Lytton’s initially anonymous authorship, Vril took on the quality of a mythos, entering the wider culture of late 19th century Europe, including the canon of the Theosophy society, with William Scott-Elliot using the term in his The Story of Atlantis (1896)[21] with Vril both an electro-magnetic resource capable of powering airships and an inner potential energy to be harnessed by the cultivated subject. Where Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril is the engine for a utopian tract presented in conventional prose form, Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and Lemuria is a description of visions or more specifically, remembered images accessed from alternate inhuman durations. His descriptions hover disembodied in a state of pre-filmic omnipotence, offering memories of a pre-historic lost future.

From Scott-Elliott onwards, Vril descends into true Mythos-conspiracy territory, via the Theosophy-inspired Vril Society founded by the mystic Maria Orsic in Weimar Germany,[22] incorporated by Hitler into the canon of the Nazi occult. Scientific research is undertaken to locate Vril as a possible energy source for Nazi flying saucers, snippets arise in unlikely locations, former Nazi rocket scientist Willy Ley alludes to the Vril society in a 1947 issue of the Astounding Science Fiction[23]. Vril then appears to have become important to the Neo-Volkisch and occultist Neo-Nazi movements proper[24], the Vrillon hijack a transmitter and make a broadcast to viewers of English Southern television in 1977 calling for nuclear disarmamament.[25] Snippets spiral out towards the darker ends of the internet, lacking solid source material, rumours built upon rumours.

[Next Time: Conclusion – Para-Necro-Biotics]

[1] Richard B. Stothers, “The Great Tambora Eruption in 1815 and Its Aftermath,” Science no.224 (1984) pp.1191-1198

[2] Clive Oppenheimer, “Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815,” Progress in Physical Geography no.27 (2003) pp. 230–259.

[3] “Tephra,” Michigan Technological University, accessed 30 April, 2018,

[4] Lord Byron “Darkness”, 1816

[5] Linda Richter, “Could You Not Turn Your Back on This Hunger Country?: Food in the Migration Process of German Emigrants, 1816-1856” Aspeers no.5 (2012) p.19

[6] “The Origins of the Fertiliser Industry,” Bernard O Connor, accessed April 30, 2018

[7] George Scott Robertson, Basic Slags and Rock Phosphates, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 1

[8] Sir Edward John Russell, The Fertility of the Soil (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan University Press, 1913) 58/59

[9] “The Origins of the Fertiliser Industry,” Bernard O Connor, accessed April 30, 2018

[10] “Cat Mummy Head, Ancient Egypt collection,” Liverpool Museums, accessed April 30, 2018,

[11] Soylent Green. Directed by Richard Fleischer. New York: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1973

[12] Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie (London: Repeater, 2016) 12

[13] TJA Finnigan, “Mycoprotein: origins, production and properties.” In Handbook of Food Proteins (Sawston: Woodhead Publishing, 2012), pp 335–352

[14] “Bovril: a very beefy (and British) love affair,” University of Cambridge, accessed April 30, 2018

[15] Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race, (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1871)

[16] Julian Strube “Vril: Eine okkulte Urkraft in Theosophie und esoterischem Neonazismus,” Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism no.2 (2013) pp. 55–123.

[17] Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race, p.19

[18] Ibid. p.18

[19] Esther Leslie, Synthetic Worlds, Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry, p.18

[20] Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race, p.59

[21] William Scott-Elliott, The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria

[22] “Thule Gesseleschaft and the Vril Society,” Grey Falcon, accessed April 30, 2018

[23] Willy Ley “Pseudoscience in Naziland,” in Astounding Science Fiction no.39 (1947) pp.90-98

[24] Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2012)

[25] Burton Paulu, Television and Radio in the United Kingdom, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 179

Author: danielseankelly

I'm a practicing artist. This blog is for me to channel my ideas into writing, through short form essays.

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