Cthulhu Mythos

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Cthulhu in the lost city of R'lyeh

The Cthulhu Mythos is a shared universe created in the 1920s by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The term Lovecraft Mythos is preferred by some — most notably the Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi.[1]

The term was coined by Lovecraft's associate August Derleth, and named after Cthulhu, a powerful fictional entity in Lovecraft's stories. Not a series per se, stories, novels and other works in the Cthulhu Mythos feature elements, characters, settings, and themes found in works by Lovecraft writers. Together, these works form the mythos that authors writing in the Lovecraftian milieu have used – and continue to use – in their ongoing expansion of the fictional universe, sometimes in ways far removed from Lovecraft's original conception.[2]


[edit] Development

Robert M. Price, in his essay "H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos", sees two stages in the development of the Cthulhu Mythos. The first stage, or "Cthulhu Mythos proper" as Price calls it, took shape during Lovecraft's lifetime and was subject to his guidance. The second stage occurred under August Derleth who attempted to categorize and expand the Mythos after Lovecraft's death.[3]

[edit] First stage (the Mythos proper)

Lovecraft borrowed terms and ideas from earlier writers he admired: Hastur, for example, was originally a benevolent deity mentioned in an Ambrose Bierce story, but took on more sinister traits when appropriated a few years later by Robert W. Chambers. Lovecraft's only references to Hastur are in "The Whisperer in Darkness". The Great Old One Hastur the Unspeakable was created by August Derleth in "The Return of Hastur" (1937).

During the latter part of Lovecraft's life, there was much borrowing of story elements among the authors of the "Lovecraft Circle", and many many others, a clique of writers with whom Lovecraft corresponded. This group included Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, and others.

Lovecraft recognized that each writer had his own story-cycle, and that an element from one cycle would not necessarily become part of another simply because a writer used it in one of his stories. For example, although Smith might mention "Kthulhut" (referring to Lovecraft's Cthulhu) or Iog-Sotôt (Yog-Sothoth) in one of his Hyperborean tales, this does not mean that Cthulhu is part of the Hyperborean cycle. A notable exception, however, is Smith's Tsathoggua, which Lovecraft appropriated for his revision of Zelia Bishop's "The Mound" (1940). Lovecraft effectively connected Smith's creation to his story-cycle by placing Tsathoggua alongside such entities as Cthulhu, Yig, Shub-Niggurath, and Nug and Yeb in subterranean K'n-yan.

Most of the elements of Lovecraft's Mythos were not a cross-pollination of the various story-cycles of the Lovecraft Circle, but were instead deliberately created by each writer to become part of the Mythos, the most notable example being the various arcane grimoires of forbidden lore. So, for example, Robert E. Howard has his character Friedrich Von Junzt reading Lovecraft's Necronomicon in "The Children of the Night" (1931), and Lovecraft in turn mentions Howard's Unaussprechlichen Kulten in both "Out of the Aeons" (1935) and "The Shadow Out of Time (1936).[4] Howard frequently corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft, and the two would sometimes insert references or elements of each others' settings in their works. Later editors reworked many of the original Conan stories by Howard; thus, diluting this connection. Nevertheless, many of Howard's unedited Conan stories are arguably part of the Cthulhu Mythos.[5]

[edit] The Mythos as a background element

According to David E. Schultz, Lovecraft never meant to create a canonical Mythos but rather intended his imaginary pantheon to serve merely as a background element. Thus, Lovecraft's "pseudomythology"—a term used by Lovecraft himself and others to describe the beings appearing in his stories—is the backdrop for his tales but is not the primary focus. Indeed, the cornerstone of his stories seems to be the town of Arkham and not beings like Cthulhu.[6] Lovecraft himself sometimes referred to his mythos humorously as "Yog-Sothothery". [7]

That Lovecraft gave more weight to his "Arkham cycle" locations than to his pseudomythology is perhaps demonstrated by his so-called revision stories. Will Murray points out that while Lovecraft often employed his fictional pantheon in the stories he ghostwrote for other authors, he reserved Arkham and its environs exclusively for those tales he wrote under his own name. [8]

Furthermore, Lovecraft may not have been serious when he spoke of developing a "myth-cycle" and probably would have had no need to give it a name anyway. Since he used his Mythos simply as background material, he probably had this in mind when he allowed other writers to use it in their own stories. It could be said that Lovecraft's Mythos was a kind of elaborate inside joke propagating among the writers of his circle. However, August Derleth's understanding of the Mythos appears to have been that Lovecraft wanted other authors to actively write about the myth-cycle rather than to simply allude to it in their stories.[9]

[edit] Second stage (the "Derleth Mythos")

The second stage began with August Derleth,[10] who added to the mythos and developed the elemental system, associating the pantheon with the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water. To understand Derleth's changes to the Mythos, it is important to distinguish among Lovecraft's story cycles. Price says that Lovecraft's writings can be divided into three separate groups: the Dunsanian, Arkham, and Cthulhu cycles.[11] The Dunsanian stories are those that are written in the vein of Lord Dunsany (and may include Lovecraft's so-called Dream Cycle tales), the Arkham stories include those that take place in Lovecraft's fictionalized New England setting, and the Cthulhu cycle stories are those that use Lovecraft's cosmic story-cycle (the Lovecraft Mythos).

Derleth combined Lovecraft's various cycles to create a large, singular story-cycle[citation needed]. For example, he appropriated Nodens from the Dunsanian cycle and leagued him with the Elder Gods against the Old Ones. He also introduced a good versus evil dichotomy into the Mythos contrary to the dark, nihilistic vision of Lovecraft and his immediate circle.[citation needed]

Derleth apparently treated any story mentioning a mythos element as part of the Mythos, and in consequence all other elements in the story also became part of the mythos. Hence, as Lovecraft made passing reference to Clark Ashton Smith's Book of Eibon, Derleth added Smith's Ubbo-Sathla to the mythos. Because of Derleth's broad canon the Mythos grew enormously.[12]

Further removing the Cthulhu Mythos from its source were stories written by such authors as Lin Carter, Colin Wilson, and Brian Lumley. Carter was especially influential in setting out detailed lists of gods, their ancestry, and their servitors through his Mythos tales, attempting to codify the elements of the Mythos as much as possible. Through this process, more gods, books, and places were created and interlinked with each other.

Another influence has been the Call of Cthulhu RPG published by Chaosium in 1981. Largely developed by Sandy Petersen, this version of the Mythos broke Lovecraft's entities down into further sub-groupings: Outer Gods, Great Old Ones, servitor races and the nebulously-termed Other Gods. Material from these sources has slowly crept back into mainstream Mythos fiction, as Chaosium published fiction related to, or written by players of, the game.

Many of the newer generation of Mythos authors (especially those published in Chaosium compendiums) take their cue from this more clinical, continuity-focused brand of the Mythos instead of Lovecraft's more mysterious version. Some new stories (such as those found in The Spiraling Worm: Man Versus the Cthulhu Mythos) have included protagonists who are members of government agencies actively opposed to the entities that dominate the Cthulhu Mythos. This is a significant divergence, as the protagonist changes from being an unprepared victim to a warrior prepared both physically and mentally to fight the horrors of the world. Though this is not an entirely new concept, as H.P. Lovecraft did have Innsmouth destroyed by an attack from the Federal government.

[edit] Structure

The Mythos usually takes place in fictional New England towns and is centered on the Great Old Ones, a fearsome assortment of ancient, powerful deities who came from outer space and once ruled the Earth. They are presently quiescent, having fallen into a death-like sleep at some time in the distant past.[13] The best-known of these beings is Cthulhu, who currently lies "dead [but] dreaming" in the submerged city of R'lyeh somewhere in the Southeast Pacific Ocean. One day, "when the stars are right", R'lyeh will rise from beneath the sea, and Cthulhu will awaken and wreak havoc on the earth.[14]

Despite his notoriety, Cthulhu is not the most powerful of the deities, nor is he the theological center of the mythos.[15] Instead, this position is held by the demon-god Azathoth, an Outer God, ruling from his cosmically centered court. Nonetheless, Nyarlathotep, who fulfills Azathoth's random urges, has intervened more frequently and more directly in human affairs than any other Outer god. He has also displayed more blatant contempt for humanity, especially his own worshippers, than almost any other Lovecraftian deity.

[edit] Theme

The essence in the Mythos is that the human world and our role in it is an illusion. Humanity is simply living in a fragile bubble, unaware of what lies behind the curtains or even of the curtains themselves, and our seeming dominance over the world is illusory and ephemeral. We are blessed in that we do not realize what lies dormant in the unknown lurking places on Earth and beyond. As Lovecraft famously begins his short story, The Call of Cthulhu, "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

Now and then, individuals can, by accident or carelessness, catch a glimpse of, or even confront the ancient extraterrestrial entities that the mythology centers around, usually with fatal consequences. Other times, they are represented by their non-human worshipers, whose existence shatters the worldview of those who stumble across them. Human followers exist as well. Because of the limitations of the human mind, these deities appear as so overwhelming that they can often drive a person insane. They are portrayed as neither good nor evil. Within the Mythos these are concepts invented by our species as a way to explain intentions and actions which may otherwise seem inexplicable.

The Call of Cthulhu was the premiere story in which Lovecraft realized and made full use of these themes, which is why his mythology would later be named after the creature in this story, as it defined a new direction in both his authorship and in the horror fiction genre. This is also the only story by Lovecraft where humans and one of the cosmic entities called the Great Old Ones come face to face.

In his final years, Lovecraft used fewer supernatural elements to represent the dangers which threaten humanity. Instead, he gradually replaced them with non-supernatural cosmic beings and phenomena, based on principles outside the laws of nature in our own space-time continuum. This sci-fi trend particularly becomes clear in works such as At the Mountains of Madness. Many of these later tales also humanize these aliens to some extent, and the degree to which they still retain the theme of nihilistic horror varies.

[edit] Derleth's involvement

Derleth's take on the mythos was to conform it to his own Roman Catholic cosmology and moral principles. Instead of a universe of meaninglessness and chaos, Derleth's mythos is a struggle of good versus evil.[16] Derleth once wrote:

As Lovecraft conceived the deities or forces of his mythos, there were, initially, the Elder Gods... [T]hese Elder Gods were benign deities, representing the forces of good, and existed peacefully at or near Betelgeuze in the constellation Orion, very rarely stirring forth to intervene in the unceasing struggle between the powers of evil and the races of Earth. These powers of evil were variously known as the Great Old Ones or the Ancient Ones...
—August Derleth, "The Cthulhu Mythos"[17]

Lovecraft was an atheist,[18] and claimed that Kant's ethical system "is a joke."[citation needed] Derleth's theories about the Cthulhu Mythos thus differ from Lovecraft's concept, which was not really a cohesive, singular entity, but rather a collection of ideas that could be used in separate works to provoke the same emotions.[19]

The Elder Gods of Derleth's mythos never appear in Lovecraft's writings, except for one or two termed "Other Gods" such as Nodens in Lovecraft's "The Strange High House in the Mist" (though perhaps this is an example of how "very rarely [they stir] forth"; i.e., usually never). Furthermore, in Lovecraft the Great Old Ones, or Ancient Ones, have no unified pantheon. Indeed, the term "Ancient Ones" appears in only one Lovecraft story, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," actually a collaboration between Lovecraft and his friend and correspondent E. Hoffmann Price.

[edit] Elemental theory

Derleth connected the deities of the Mythos to the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water, filling in gaps in the system by creating the beings Ithaqua, representing air, and Cthugha, representing fire.[20] As realized, the system has a few problems. For example, Derleth classified Cthulhu as a water elemental, which makes it odd that he could be trapped beneath the ocean and his psychic emanations blocked by water. Another problem arises in applying the elemental theory to beings that function on a cosmic scale, such as Yog-Sothoth—some authors have attempted to get around this by creating a separate category of aethyr elementals for Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth. Finally, Derleth matched the earth beings against the fire beings and the air beings against the water beings, which is inconsistent with the classical elements dichotomy in which air opposes earth and fire opposes water.[21]

Elemental classifications
Air Earth Fire Water
Zhar and Lloigor*
Mother Hydra

*Deity created by Derleth.
**Deity incorporated by Derleth.

[edit] Conclusion

Derleth became a publisher of Lovecraft's stories after his death.[22] Lovecraft himself was very critical of his own writings and was often easily discouraged, especially when faced with any rejection of his work.[23] Were it not for Derleth, Lovecraft's writings and the Cthulhu Mythos might have remained largely unknown.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Joshi, "The Lovecraft Mythos", H. P. Lovecraft, p. 31ff.
  2. ^ Harms, "A Brief History of the Cthulhu Mythos", The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana, pp. viii–ix.
  3. ^ Price, "H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos", Crypt of Cthulhu #35, p. 5.
  4. ^ Ibid, pp. 6–7.
  5. ^ Patrice Louinet. Hyborian Genesis: Part 1, page 436, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian; 2003, Del Rey.
  6. ^ Schultz, "Who Needs the Cthulhu Mythos?", A Century Less A Dream, pp. 46, 54.
  7. ^ http://www.timpratt.org/611.html
  8. ^ (Murray, "In Search of Arkham Country I", pp. 105, 107.)
  9. ^ Schultz, "Who Needs the Cthulhu Mythos?", pp. 46–7.
  10. ^ The writer Richard L. Tierney coined the term "Derleth Mythos" to distinguish between August Derleth's version and Lovecraft's (Cf. Richard L. Tierney, "The Derleth Mythos", Discovering H. P. Lovecraft, p. 52). Dirk Mosig, goes further and recommends that the term Cthulhu Mythos be dropped altogether in favor of the Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth (Mosig, "H. P. Lovecraft: Myth-Maker", Mosig at Last, p. 28).
  11. ^ Price, "H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos", Crypt of Cthulhu #35, p. 9.
  12. ^ Ibid, pp. 6–10.
  13. ^ Harms, "A Brief History of the Cthulhu Mythos", p. viii.
  14. ^ Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928).
  15. ^ Mosig says that Cthulhu "is perhaps one of the weakest and least important of the main entities [in the mythos]—save for his immediacy". He also notes that in the Necronomicon passage in Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" (1929), Cthulhu is demoted to "their cousin". (Mosig, "H. P. Lovecraft: Myth-Maker", Mosig at Last, p. 25.)
  16. ^ Bloch, "Heritage of Horror", p. 9.
  17. ^ Derleth, "The Cthulhu Mythos", Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, p. vii.
  18. ^ Joshi, The Scriptorium, "H. P. Lovecraft", section II.
  19. ^ Turner, "Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn!", Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, p. viii. Turner writes: "Lovecraft's imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator's developing personality and altering interests... [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated by the pasticheur... [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude."
  20. ^ Derleth created Cthugha when a fan, Francis T. Laney, pointed out that he had neglected to include a fire elemental in his schema. Laney, the editor of The Acolyte, had categorized the Mythos in an essay that first appeared in the Winter 1942 issue of the magazine. Impressed by the glossary, Derleth asked Laney to rewrite it for publication in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943). (Robert M. Price, "Editorial Shards", Crypt of Cthulhu #32, p. 2.) Laney's essay ("The Cthulhu Mythos") was later republished in Crypt of Cthulhu #32 (1985).
  21. ^ Harms, "Elemental Theory", p. 101.
  22. ^ Bloch, "Heritage of Horror", p. 8.
  23. ^ Joshi, The Scriptorium, "H. P. Lovecraft", section I.

[edit] References

[edit] Books

  • Bloch, Robert (1982). "Heritage of Horror". The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (1st ed. ed.). Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-35080-4. 
  • Derleth, August (1969). "The Cthulhu Mythos". Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House. 
  • Harms, Daniel (1998). The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (2nd ed. ed.). Chaosium, Inc.. ISBN 1-56882-119-0. 
  • Joshi, S. T. (1982). H. P. Lovecraft (1st ed. ed.). Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House. ISBN 0-916732-36-3; ISBN 0-916732-35-5 (paper). 
  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1999) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". in S. T. Joshi (ed.). The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. London, UK; New York, NY: Penguin Books. ISBN. 
  • Mosig, Yozan Dirk W. (1997). Mosig at Last: A Psychologist Looks at H. P. Lovecraft (1st printing ed.). West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press. ISBN 0-940884-90-9. 
  • Murray, Will (January 1999). "In Search of Arkham Country I". in James Van Hise (ed.). The Fantastic Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft. Yucca Valley, CA: James Van Hise.  No ISBN.
  • Schultz, David E. (2002) [1987]. "Who Needs the Cthulhu Mythos?". in Scott Conners (ed.). A Century Less a Dream: Selected Criticism on H. P. Lovecraft (1st ed. ed.). Holikong, PA: Wildside Press. ISBN 1-58715-215-0. 
  • Schweitzer, Darrell (ed.) (2001). Discovering H. P. Lovecraft. Helicong, PA: Wildside Press. ISBN 1-58715-470-6 (trade paper); ISBN 1-58715-471-4 (hardcover). 
  • Turner, James (1998). "Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn!". Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1st ed. ed.). Random House. ISBN 0-345-42204-X. 
  • Jens, editor, Tina (1999). Cthulhu and the Coeds: Kids and Squids. Chicago, IL: Twilight Tales. 
  • Thomas, Frank Walter (2005). Watchers of the Light, (1st printing ed.). Lake Forest Park, WA: Lake Forest Park Books. ISBN 0-9774464-0-9 (paperback). 

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