Know Your Elder Gods by Darrell Schweitzer
“All my tales,” H.P. Lovecraft famously wrote to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright in 1927, “are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form – and local human passions and conditions and standards – are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the real essence of externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good or evil, love and hate, and all such attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. . . . If I were writing an ‘interplanetary’ tale it would deal with beings organized very differently from mundane mammalian, and obeying motives wholly alien to anything we know upon earth – the exact degree of alienage depending, of course, on the scene of the tale; whether laid in the solar system, or in the utterly unplumbed gulfs still further out – the nameless vortices of never-dreamed-of strangeness, where form and symmetry, light and heat, even matter and energy themselves may be unthinkably metamorphosized or totally wanting. I have merely got at the edge of this in ‘[The Call of] Cthulhu,’ where I have been careful to avoid terrestrialism in the few linguistic and nomenclatural specimens from Outside which I present.”
Here we have in a short space the core of Lovecraft’s philosophy of “cosmicism.” A keen astronomer in his youth, he must have given serious thought to the implications of the interstellar gulfs into which he peered, and he lived in a time when scientists were just discovering that those swirling spirals they thought to be gas clouds were actually star clouds – galaxies – which suddenly made the entire universe many orders of magnitude larger than it had previously seemed. How, in that vast infinity, could the human race, which has only inhabited one flyspeck of a world for a small fraction of its history, ever amount to anything? As for never-dreamed-of strangeness further out, Lovecraft would have been right at home with modern notions of string theory, anti-matter, dark matter, dark energy, and the like.
He did, in a sense, write many “interplanetary” tales, of which “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, February 1928) is one of the most important. Here we read of a representative of that utterly inhuman Outside, slumbering on a sunken island in the pacific for millions of years, suddenly awakening. In “The Colour Out of Space” (Amazing Stories, September 1927) he goes a step further, depicting the visit to our planet of a force of some sort, a gaseous “being” which fits into no known order of terrestrial life – if it is even, in our sense, “alive” at all – and proceeds to draw energy from (and destroy) human beings, animals, and plants with equal indifference. When it is done, it returns to the sky, perhaps leaving a trace of itself behind. Is this the reproductive cycle of some unimaginably alien creature? We can never know.
Needless to say, inasmuch as Lovecraft’s assorted “outside” entities could be comprehended by human beings at all down the ages, they would be regarded by most people and most cultures as dark and hideous “gods.” Yet unlike the anthropomorphic divinities of human mythologies, they have no moral qualities at all, being utterly beyond any conception of good and evil. For all that, in some stories, human beings (cultists) may worship these beings, and sometimes even attempt to assist their return to Earth, human beings may perhaps be viewed from the perspective of these “gods” the way humans themselves regard cockroaches or bacteria: sometimes a nuisance to be wiped away, very rarely useful, most of the time beneath notice. That such beings might be pleased, flattered, or manipulated by cultists sacrificing naked virgins on altars is mere delusion on the part of the cultists. Great Cthulhu may deign to have all of us for lunch, but he does not make finer distinctions than that.
Since they are very ancient, Lovecraft’s god-like cosmic creatures are Elder Gods. He tended to use terms like The Elder Gods, The Great Old Ones, The Old Ones, and the like rather interchangeably in what came to be known as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” and with no great consistency. This is intentional, since these enormities and horrors can only be hinted at in such dread compendia of lore as the Necronomicon of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, and Lovecraft wished to give the impression of something that no human can fully comprehend. For all he copied from Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana (1905) the idea of an artificial pantheon, he did not categorize or arrange his “gods” the way that, say, the Graeco-Roman gods are arranged, with Zeus being the chief god, Hera his wife, Ares the god of war, Aphrodite the goddess of love, and so on. When August Derleth and some of his followers tried to do this with Lovecraft’s creations, the results were disastrous, robbing the Mythos of much of its power and mystery. Fortunately this approach has been largely abandoned in recent years.
There was a playful element to the Mythos, too, which should not be overlooked. Lovecraft encouraged his colleagues to use his gods, forbidden books, and the like in their fiction, and he name-dropped theirs, not only in his own stories, but in those he ghost-wrote for his revision clients. The result was that the Elder Gods became, collectively, not only an effective symbol for the chaotic and incomprehensible cosmic Outside, but also a shared in-joke, first among the Weird Tales writers of the 1930s, and so up to the present day.
Despite our limited ability to comprehend them, we may dimly spy some of the major entities in the Mythos:
Cthulhu. The most famous of all, who made his debut in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Of enormous size, part humanoid, part dragon, winged, his face covered with tentacles, the Big C dwells, or lies imprisoned, in the sunken city of R’lyeh beneath the Pacific Ocean, whence he may rise one day to reclaim the Earth. He sends strange dreams to sensitive humans, and is worshipped by degenerate cultists everywhere.
Dagon. Unlike Cthulhu, Dagon actually enjoys being underwater and presumably roams about freely, served by his minions, the Deep Ones, vaguely frog-like creatures which can interbreed with humans, as they do notably in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936). The Innsmouth folk look human enough at first, though they have a fishy smell, but over time they develop “the Innsmouth look,” complete with bulging eyes, scales, and webbed fingers. In time they take to the sea entirely, and dwell, apparently immortal, in the sunken city of Y’ha-nthlei. We might note that Innsmouth’s Esoteric Order of Dagon is the only cult in the Mythos which actually has any appeal for its adherents, who are offered transcendence, immortality, and a place in the new order of things after the Old Ones return, wipe out the rest of mankind, and remake the world to their liking.
The god himself made his initial appearance in Lovecraft’s story “Dagon” (written 1917, published 1919), where he is a sea monster associated with a sunken city heaved up to the ocean’s surface in an underwater earthquake. Dagon is also the only Elder God mentioned in sources prior to Lovecraft. The fish-god of the Philistines in the Bible is named Dagon, presumably a distorted memory of the much more ancient, pre-human creature described by Lovecraft.
Yog-Sothoth. Of considerably greater strangeness than even Cthulhu, whom, we are told, can only spy him (or it) dimly, Yog-Sothoth is both the “gate” to other dimensions and a being of immense power, depicted as a massive series of not-quite conjoined spheres. He was first mentioned, vaguely, in sinister incantations in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (written early 1927) but comes to his own in “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales, April 1929) in which, by arcane rites, he is mated with a Massachusetts farm girl, who gives birth to two monstrous twins. The one which is the size of a barn, covered with ropy tentacles, and invisible until the end of the story far more resembles the father than his vaguely-humanoid brother.
Azathoth. Even more formless than Yog-Sothoth, a personification of nuclear chaos at the core of the universe, the “Demon Sultan” who lurks and “gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered Universe” according to “The Dream- Quest of Unknown Kadath” (written 1926-27, published 1941).
Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. The mighty messenger, a creature of many forms, who appears as an itinerant showman displaying mind-blowing wonders, as a sinister pharaoh in ancient Egypt, and (one of his avatars at least) as the winged creature of the three-lobed, burning eye which does in the unfortunate Robert Blake in “The Haunter of the Dark” (Weird Tales, December 1936). He also appears as a character, sinister, humanoid, in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In “The Rats in the Walls” (Weird Tales, March 1924) we read of “those grinning caverns of the earth’s center where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players,” which sounds a little bit like Azathoth. Either this is the most protean of all Lovecraft’s creations or, as the leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has suggested, Lovecraft simply couldn’t make up his mind and never produced a consistent characterization. The name is from the Egyptian, the suffix “hotep” meaning “is pleased.” Thus the pharaoh Amonhotep’s name means “Amon is pleased.” Who or what is “Nyarlat,” we may reasonably ask, and for what hideous reason is he/it pleased? Lovecraft does not say.
Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Forest with a Thousand Young. Mentioned a great deal in the cultists’ incantations in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales, August 1931), and so we must conclude that the Mi Go (winged, fungoid creatures from the planet Yuggoth, which haunt the Vermont hills) must have a special fondness for “her,” but the rest is left to the imagination. Presumably this entity’s reproductive habits are (from a human point of view) quite distressing.
‘Umr At-Tawil, the Prolonged of Life. A servant of Yog-Sothoth and guardian of inter-dimensional gateways, mentioned in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” by Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price (Weird Tales, July 1934). The name, which suggests a Middle Eastern origin (Price knew some Arabic, Lovecraft did not) occurs in the original draft, by Price, called “The Lord of Illusion,” in which the character is a mysterious, other-worldly guide who leads Randolph Carter on a fantastic journey. Very little of the Price text survives in the final story, but the character of ‘Umr At-Tawil must be regarded as a genuine co-creation of the two authors.
Yig, the Father of Serpents. A snake god, long worshipped by American natives before the white men arrived. He was known in prehistoric times, and in the underground world of K’n-yan, as described in “The Mound.” Invented by Lovecraft in the course of ghost writing “The Curse of Yig” (Weird Tales, November 1929) from a very sketchy synopsis for Zealia Bishop.
Yeb and Nug. You certainly wouldn’t want to meet them, but these two entities are little more than named. They were worshipped in the underworld of “The Mound.” (ghost-written for Zealia Bishop, 1929, not published until 1940).
Hastur the Unspeakable, a.k.a. He Who Is Not To Be Named, about whom, indeed, very little is said in Lovecraft. The name is dropped once, in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but from the context it is not clear if an entity or a place is meant. Lovecraft got it from Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow (in which it is clearly a place name), and Chambers got it from Ambrose Bierce (a god in a story called “Haita the Shepherd”), but the actual credit for the invention of Hastur as an interstellar spook must go to August Derleth, whose “The Return of Hastur” (Weird Tales, March 1939) had been favorably commented upon by Lovecraft some years before.
Tsathoggua. A dweller deep within the Earth, though, like most such Mythos creatures, of extraterrestrial original. Vaguely resembles a large, hairy toad with an enormous tongue, quite capable of devouring the protagonist in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (Weird Tales November 1931). Lovecraft read the Smith story in manuscript, and in accordance with the rules of the game, promptly inserted the god into “The Mound” and into “The Whisperer in Darkness.” This latter actually beat Smith into print by three months with his own creation, but the creation is, indeed, entirely Smith’s.
Ubbo-Sathla, The Unbegotten Source. Another Smith creation, first mentioned in his story “Ubbo-Sathla” (Weird Tales, July 1933). Another amorphous blob at the center of everything, an idiot malignancy which is the source of all terrestrial life, destined to be the first and last inhabitant of “our” planet.
Beyond these, there are more mentioned in passing by Lovecraft but not central to his Mythos, such as Hypnos, Hydra, Nodens the “Lord of the Great Abyss,” Rhan-Tegoth (invented for the ghost-written “The Horror in the Museum” published as by Hazel Heald, Weird Tales, July 1933), and several which appear only in his early stories written in the manner of Lord Dunsany (Bokrug, Lobon, and Yhoundeh the Elk Goddess) but not carried over into his later work; and there are many more created by other authors.
In fact there is no reason why these awful revelations may not continue and multiply in the present day … and in the pages of Weird Tales.