Nor is it to be thought, that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They rule again.
(The Dunwich Horror, H.P. Lovecraft)
The above is the single longest and most coherent paragraph ever written by Lovecraft on the nature of his alien cosmic 'gods'. For the most part he was content to use their strange names in hints and veiled references, implying bodies of lore which he would never actually write.We can profitably digress here to briefly discuss the names and nature of these beings. Vast lists of names invented by dozens of horror writers over decades can be compiled. Since the focus of this paper is on Lovecraft’s own writing I’ll offer just a short summary of the beings that the Old Gent himself invented. For the sake of brevity I will focus on five primary beings that were invented by Lovecraft himself, from whole cloth, and which played a part in numerous tales. If I have left out your favorite Eldritch Horror, please forgive me.
Azathoth – Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes
Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath
In Dreams In the Witch-House we read of …the Throne of Azathoth at the center of Ultimate Chaos.
Azathoth was the first of the GOO (Great Old Ones) to be invented by Lovecraft. It seems to combine elements of his Arabian Nights fascination with his interest in quantum physics, a path traceable along the path of HPL’s interests as his life progressed. Azathoth first appears in the Dreamlands cycle tales; which largely preceded the mythos tales. They were influenced by the Irish fantasist, Lord Dunsany (Edward Plenkett). It was from Dunsany that Lovecraft learned the notion of an invented pantheon of deities and fantasy settings. Rather than set his glittering cities on another planet or in the hollow earth, Lovecraft created a landscape of dreams, somewhat objectively real, into which ‘skilled dreamers’ could find their way. We’ll look at that in more detail in a later chapter. In the Dreamlands Azathoth seems to be more of the Arabian nights sort of daemonic figure, who is promoted to the center of the Mythos pantheon as time goes by. By the time he appears in Dreams he is a strange thing sitting at the confluence of the quantum planes through which the mortal hero wanders. He is also presented as the chief god of the Witch-cult, though not the chief actor. That place belongs to another of the GOO.
Nyarlathotep - And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences - of electricity and psychology - and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of a nightmare.
There was the immemorial figure of the deputy or messenger of hidden and terrible powers - the "Black Man" of the witch cult, and the "Nyarlathotep" of the Necronomicon.
Dreams In The Witch House
Dreams in the Witch House.
Nyarlathotep begins in HPL’s stories as a traveling wonder-worker, a cross between NikolaTesla and one of the various popular cult gurus of his time. He crosses the country – the world – with his show of horrors and wonders and leaves behind him ordinary people filled with extraordinary images and ideas. In the Dreamlands he is plainly a god, inspiring terror and manipulating events in secret. Once again HPL claimed to have heard the name first in a dream but the Egyptian tone of the word is obvious, and the central imagery of the figure is ancient Egyptian.
As the figure evolves we learn the story of Nephren Ka, a Khemetic sorcerer who makes a pact with Nyarlathotep. He becomes a Pharaoh, only to eventually be ousted, his name and face erased from monuments, leaving a number of ‘faceless Pharaoh’ images for hapless modern protagonists to excavate. Lovecraft’s influences here are obvious. From our present time the mix of Egyptian antiquities seems a central part of ‘occult’ practice. In Lovecraft’s day it was all quite esoteric, not to mention often misunderstood. Lovecraft was drawing on the newspaper headlines of his day more than any esoteric doctrine.
Lovecraft returns to themes of Nyarlathotep as herald and voice of the Great Old Ones. Unlike the other entities he does not seem restrained or imprisoned, and appears in several forms to mortals. While Lovecraft returned occasionally to the idea of witchcraft, he did little with the tropes of practical magic or spellcasting. Rather he elevated the blasphemies of the medieval witches’ sabbath into a strange cosmic gnosis, in Dreams in the Witch House. Obviously this was inspirational to both Kenneth Grant, as we have mentioned, and to his later imitators.
Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.
The Dunwich Horror
It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self — not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence's whole unbounded sweep — the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike. It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of earth have whispered of as YOG-SOTHOTH, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable Sign...
Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The most directly magical of the GOO, Yog Sothoth is invoked by Lovecraftian sorcerers as both a source of magical power and as a means of bringing through things from ‘Outside’ into the mortal world. This concept of the Outside is central to Lovecraft’s cosmicism, and one that meshes well with world occult traditions. Likewise many cultures have liminal figures and gatekeeper gods that resonate with Yog Sothoth. However HPL’s description takes us beyond any human norms. Yog Sothoth never assumes a human form. It appears, when it must, as “a congeries of iridescent globes” - a phrase that puts me in mind of aerial wads of frog or fish eggs.
However inhuman, Yog Sothoth can be conjured, and conjured by. He fathers children in The Dunwich Horror, and aids the alchemical sorcerers to raise the dead in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. He – it – remains a lurking presence, seldom revealed.
I’ll venture outside the Lovecraft authorial canon a moment to mention the August Derleth Mythos story (often sold as a collaboration with HPL, but based purely on a few of his notes) “The Lurker on the Threshold”. Typically, Derleth attempted to reveal what HPL left implicit. His character describes Yog Sothoth as:
...great globes of light massing toward the opening, and not alone these, but the breaking apart of the nearest globes, and the protoplasmic flesh that flowed blackly outward to join together and form that eldritch, hideous horror from outer space, that spawn of the blankness of primal time, that tentacled amorphous monster which was the lurker at the threshold, whose mask was as a congeries of iridescent globes, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, who froths as primal slime in nuclear chaos beyond the nethermost outposts of space and time!
The title of this novella – “The Lurker on the Threshold”, recalls the Theosophical term “The Dweller on the Threshold”. This refers to an evil or dangerous entity that blocks the occult student from making proper progress toward spiritual goals. The Dweller must be overcome if the student is to progress. Considering the voracious and even seductive nature of the GOO this seems related to Yog Sothoth only by the idea of the Threshold itself, and the coolness of the name. The Lurker is waiting to get in, not to keep us out.
It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness. … The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.
The Call of Cthulhu
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"
"In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
In Cthulhu we find ourselves moving from the quantum realm to the realm of Newtonian matter, more or less. Unlike the first three entities, Cthulhu has a specific material form, and a specific existence in the history of earth.
Cthulhu is described as the ‘cousin’ of the GOO, and as their High Priest. He is specific enough in shape to have a world-wide tradition of idols depicting him, and is said to have ruled the Earth in the Old One’s names in the ancient prehistory of the world. He established his city of R’lyeh in the pacific ocean, and from there presided over a period in which the GOO were more readily present in the world, along with other interstellar or transdimensional races. One of the latter is said to have invented humanity, breeding earth-life in their vats of quasi-sorcerous science and creating us as a slave race.
Without attempting to fix a chronology (HPL never did), we read that at a certain point there was conflict between Cthulhu’s administration and other races. Perhaps it was this, or perhaps simply a change in cosmic alignment that caused R’lyeh to sink beneath the sea, imprisoning Cthulhu in a sleep of death. The GOO were also shut further away from material earth, and the race of humanity slowly became the masters of bits of the world.
In the present day of the Cthulhu Mythos, Great Cthulhu is dead beneath the Pacific ocean in his great throne tomb. Of him it was written in the Necronomicon “That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange eons, even death may die.”
And with strange eons, even death may die.”
Cthulhu is said to ‘wait dreaming’ for the stars to be right again, enabling him to rise and restore the gates to the Old Ones. His dreams reach out to sensitive minds among mortals, and he leads them to deeds of ritual worship and sorcery (and art and creativity…) that amount to madness in the eyes of society. It is most plainly Cthulhu who inspires human cult activity, along with Yog Sothoth and Nyarlathotep. Those three might be considered the great trinity of Lovecraftian cultism, but there is another being invented by HPL himself who deserves mention.
Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath!
Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
The Whisperer in Darkness
The least thoroughly-drawn of Lovecraft’s primary Great Old Ones, Shub-Niggurath nevertheless has resonances with occultism that make it interesting to this analysis. While there is some dispute about their identity, The title Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young is usually thought to describe Shub-Niggurath, and when HPL employed the figure in his revisions (stories he rewrote for others under their names, for a fee) he plainly associated it with the many-breasted goddesses of the Middle East. Shub-Niggurath is as close to a goddess as HPL wrote, and so has a certain durability among occultists.
Lovecraft may have been consciously imitating European witch-lore in his use of the goat. Certainly he associates this GOO with his ‘witch-cult’, perhaps again influenced by the popularity of Margaret Murray’s work. While the witch-cult in Dream in the Witch House centers around Nyarlathotep, in The Thing On the Doorstep we find Edward Derby, the hapless protagonist, saying:
"My brain! My brain! God, Dan - it's tugging - from beyond - knocking - clawing - that she-devil - even now - Ephraim - Kamog! Kamog! - The pit of the shoggoths - Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...
"The flame - the flame - beyond body, beyond life - in the earth - oh, God!"
As always, we can only ‘dimly espy’ what might be the point of involvement with these beings.. In the tales only a very few mortals ever seem to benefit from working with the mythos – and that benefit is usually depicted as a successful transformation into a monster. The Innsmouth worshippers of Father Dagon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_One gain gold and immortality, at the expense of their humanity. Ephraim Waite becomes a mad murderer in his pursuit of unending life. Joseph Curwen’s experiments lead only to sorrow for himself and his descendants.
The Great Old Ones are so alien to human life and thought that to us they are mainly simply hazards. If they have any discernible agenda it seems only to regain entry into the mortal world, to return and rule where they once ruled.
On to part 5
On to part 5
Dear Readers, it's off to Starwood at the end of this week, so I'll try to post something when I get home. Hope you're having a marvelous summer...