The Lovecraftian mythology paved the way for a new fiction genre, with modern culture often borrowing themes and narratives from the eccentric writer. In this blog post, we’re going to explore the mythology and legends behind the literary work of H.P Lovecraft and analyze the massive mythopoeic Universe he created.
Here’s an exciting story. I had to argue with my parents before they’d let me read one of Lovecraft’s novels.
See, I was 9 or 10 at that time, only an amateur in sci-fi fiction and modern mythopoeic sagas. Still, I was eager to jump into new worlds and explore their map from start to finish. So when I went looking for a book that wasn’t Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, my eyes caught an intriguing title: The Shadow over Innsmouth.
The cover was blue and had three weird creatures looking menacing under a full moon. I immediately grabbed it and went to the counter to place my order! Well, things didn’t go as planned…
One of the bookshop owners, with whom I’d become good friends, looked at me with concern and told me, “this book isn’t for you.” Why? I asked.
He struggled to articulate his reasons. He said something about the subject being too complicated for a kid like me. I was offended. Why are they refusing to sell me the book?!
When I got home, I complained to my father. He was more curious than angry when the next morning he went to get it for me.
I was excited when I saw the yellow bag with the shape of a book popping out!
“This isn’t for you,” my father said. “I’ll read it first.”
At that point, my imagination was running wild, and I was convinced that this H.P Lovecraft guy was hiding secrets within his pages.
Indeed, after finishing the novella, my father placed it in the library and told me to forget all about it. This made me even more persistent. Eventually, I managed to grab it one night, and I experienced what we now call cosmic horror…
Creating Cosmic Horror and The Lovecraftian Mythology
The foundation of Lovecraft’s mythology was established in his childhood dreams. In his numerous letters (over 100.000), he details how traumatic events shaped the first nightmares that informed his short stories.
It is true that only through a child’s lens can one comprehend how small we truly are in the grand cosmos. And this is the first principle that describes cosmicism as “a literary philosophy that argues that humanity is an insignificant force in the universe.”
Stacking on top of this narrative of his mythos and legends, the author managed to outline a gut-wrenching, terrifying world that might very well be reality.
This combination induces what modern interpreters call cosmic horror. It’s not only that humanity is small and insignificant, but it can be easily wiped out any moment now!
Where Greco-Roman Gods would inflict punishment to those who disobeyed them, Lovecraft’s pantheon was made of cosmic entities that roamed space, ruling over Earth with menace or indifference. Yet, they remain in a death-like sleep.
You might notice that compared to other mythologies, this isn’t merely a story of good vs evil. It’s humanity’s struggle against the ever-declining civilization, with an apocalyptic fear looming in the background.
The Call of Cthulhu
“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”
The work that jump-started the Lovecraftian mythos (or the Cthulhu Mythos alternatively) is this seminal short story, published in the pulp fiction magazine ‘Weird Tales.’
Similar to Tolkien’s legendarium, the eccentric New England author weaves new worlds into his stories. But the main difference is that he was exceptionally capable of making you believe that what you’re reading might have happened in real life.
A lot of references and footnotes in the Call of Cthulhu becomes fodder for the Lovecraftian mythology. Without spoiling it too much, the story reveals the existence of a Cult that serves a malevolent God. An aquatic creature, a corpulent abomination that sleeps in an underwater city, is best left alone.
Yet, through newspapers, letters, and journals, we learn that someone accidentally opened a portal and unleashed Cthulhu; those who survived went mad!
We’re introduced to one of the Great Old Ones – ancient deities the human mind cannot even begin to comprehend.
Outlining Lovecraft’s Pantheon
There have been many attempts to organize and categorize Lovecraftian mythology. Some argue that the imaginary cosmogony wasn’t supposed to be detailed or organized but rather serve as the background for the writer’s stories.
For instance, August Derleth, the first publisher of Lovecraft’s work, expanded the Cthulhu Mythos and wrote in-detail descriptions of the pantheon. Although his work isn’t considered canon, he simply connected the pieces to create a complete puzzle in many cases.
While still a vast and chaotic universe, we can now infer a loose structure and hierarchical order. There are many alien races, lost civilizations, and forgotten deities, but we’ll focus on the two powerful forces; the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods.
What are the Great Old Ones?
Central figures to the Lovecraftian mythos, the Great Old Ones, are extraterrestrial entities that existed long before humanity came to Earth and will exist long after we’re all dust in the Universe.
According to the author, they’re supposed to be amoral beings that don’t care whether civilizations thrive or disappear. They can end all life on a whim, but they don’t actively seek to cause death!
That doesn’t lessen their danger, though. Their existence is so weird, alien that everyone who happens to gaze upon a Great Old One goes mad. Even their presence is causing unconscious, collective anxiety.
In the “Shadow over Innsmouth” novella, the protagonist encounters the Deep Ones, entities that worship Cthulhu. Yet, even though infinitely less powerful than the Great Old Ones, they still caused nightmares to the protagonist, slowly possessing him.
From the perspective of comparative mythology, we see a lot of similarities with the Christian perception of demons. Shapeless creatures or frightening mash-ups of human-like figures and animals; incomprehensible to us.
A few examples (collected from Wikipedia):
- Ayi’ig – Daughter of Yig and the Outer Goddess Yidhra, appearing as a gigantic octopus-like horror with serpentine eyes and detachable tentacles which may move independently. She dwells in the cavern of a deep canyon somewhere in Texas.
- Cthulhu – Appears as a huge winged octopus-like creature with gigantic claws.
- Dzéwà – A ravenous plant-god arrived from Xiclotl to Earth, awed by the Insects from Shanghai. He appears as a white orb hiding an enormous magenta excrescence, like an orchid or a lamprey mouth with emerald tentacles tipped with hands emerging from the mass.
- Hastur – Its true form is unknown but usually manifests either as a polypous, ravenous floating mass endowed with tentacles, drills, and suckers or, more frequently, as the King in Yellow, a humanoid wearing tattered, yellow clothes and a mask hiding the face. It is said to be Cthulhu’s (half-)brother.
- Zathog – A festering, bubbling mass that constantly churns and whirls, putting forth vestigial appendages and reabsorbing them. Bubbles burst on the surface to reveal hate-filled eyes, and drooling mouths form or close randomly about his horrible body. He dwells in the Xentilx galaxy, served by the Zarrian aliens.
These are only a handful of Gods out of 100+. Some of them play a protagonistic role, while others are mentioned in passing.
Are the Outer Gods more powerful than the Great Old Ones?
At this point, you might be confused. Yes, there’s another set of deities that is infinitely more powerful than the Great Old Ones.
The Outer Gods reside outside the solar system, affecting reality from deep space. Somewhere between dream and chaos, they dwell in the void.
Some people argue that they resemble the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge, a malevolent deity that is creating an illusion, a parody of Creation.
(There’s speculation that the Hebrew name Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge, inspired the name Yog-Sothoth, which is one of the Outer Gods)
A few examples (collected from Wikipedia):
- C’thalpa – C’thalpa (The Internal One) is a huge mass of living sentient magma located in the Earth’s mantle. She is the mother of the Great Old One Shterot and five other unnamed hideous children. She is also served by a race of mole-like humanoid burrowers known as the Talpeurs.
- Nyctelios – Once an Elder God, Nyctelios has been punished by his peers – especially Nodens – for having created a race of foul servitors. He has been permanently banished from the Elder Gods’ Olympus and imprisoned beneath the eastern Mediterranean Sea, near Greece, in a dark, basalt-built citadel named Atheron. However, the exiled deity is not dead, but just sleeping, and one day he will rise again from his abyss, manifesting himself as a blue, 6-meter tall, cyclops-like monstrosity, with the bulk of his body covered entirely in crawling worms.(Nyctelios is intimately connected with Greek Gods of Sleep and Dreams. The name specifically is an adjective ancient Greeks gave to other Gods related to the Nyx, the Goddess of Night)
- Tru’nembra – Tru’nembra (The Angel of Music) is Malleus Monstrorum Call of Cthulhu roleplay game guide to the entity described in H. P. Lovecraft’s novel “The Music of Eric Zahn.” It has no shape but manifests as haunting music.
- Ycnàgnnisssz – Ycnàgnnisssz is a black, festering, amorphous mass that constantly blasts and erupts violently, spewing out bits of churning lava-like material. She spawned the Great Old One Zstylzhemgni.
Who’s the most powerful Outer God?
The most powerful being in Lovecraftian mythology is Azathoth. The author calls him the Blind Idiot God, the Daemon Sultan.
Deep in eternal sleep, he dreams of reality, accidentally spawning life all over the Universe. When he shifts or tumbles, reality changes. Everyone fears that when he awakes, everything will end.
(A God dreaming of reality isn’t an uncommon trope. We can observe this in many different mythologies!)
Even though he’s the ultimate “evil,” the antagonist in Lovecraft’s cosmogony – similar to Morgoth in Tolkien’s lore, Lucifer in Christianity, Kali Yuga in Hinduism – it doesn’t seem that he possesses a distinctive personality. At least, not in the human sense.
Through the collective avatar of the Outer Gods, Nyarlathotep, he’s able to communicate with the lesser deities and their respective cults.
Nyarlathotep is the spawn of Azathoth, his son. Compared to the Outer Gods and the Great Old Ones, he isn’t amoral; he has agency, a desire to cause madness and suffering to our world.
He’s the incarnation of evil but in human form, a form we can interact with.
How the Themes and Archetypes in Lovecraftian Mythology inspired pop culture?
The writing of H.P Lovecraft doesn’t compare to Hemingway or Bradbury. These giants were masters of prose and developed a unique style that we study to this day.
Lovecraft is a mythologist. Plain and simple. A 20th century Homer that happened to live in Rhode Island. He’s so influential because he hit a deep, primal chord within his readers. Every sentence reveals another layer to his mythopoeic saga.
The classical horror story, as we know it today, wouldn’t be possible without him. From Stephen King’s It to Bloch’s Psycho, we can see elements and themes embedded in these stories.
But even today, shows as Stranger Things or movies like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus draw heavily from Lovecraftian mythology.
We always concerned ourselves with our place in the Universe.
When you gaze upon the dark sky, with the infinite numbers of stars flickering, you can’t help but think about how small, insignificant you truly are.
Existential philosophers argue that this might be a good thing. After all, the human ego doesn’t need more inflation!
What Lovecraft did is drop optimism on its head and interject his own twisted – yet perfectly plausible – mythology.
Where you and I see the wondrous space and get excited by the possibilities of alien life, the dystopian futurist sees danger looming in the shadows.
You might think it’s all too grim and mysterious. But it’s exactly this unapologetically dark fantasy humanity had buried deep in its psyche; the fear, the cosmic horror, of the unknown.
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.