The Cthulhu Mythos Analyzed as Religion - a Comparison

Guardians of Darkness
Tani Jantsang

There is no need to document the progression of standard religions in the world, as they've been profusely documented elsewhere. People do realize that religions change, adapt, and etc. As far as we know, no one has analysed the Cthulhu Mythos in this manner, but it fits the analysis of religious progression, and we'll show this. If anything, it definitely shows that with the written word widely available to readers, it changed very fast!

There is an identical religious-type progression in "The Mythos" as there is in regular religion. (I refer here to "The Cthulhu Mythos," as August Derleth, creator of Arkham House, called it or, "The Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth," as Professor Dirk Mosig, wanted to call it - it had no such name at first.) It's hard not to see it if you are viewing it from outside of the arguments, as a simple fan of the fiction itself, and saw it transpire and change in the order it actually happened, in the order in which the tales were written over the decades. The "purists" have been complaining about it since Richard L. Tierney wrote "The Derleth Mythos." (Richard L. Tierney's "The Derleth Mythos" published in Darrell Schweitzer, ed., Essays Lovecraftian T-K Graphics 1976).

The crucial difference is that this Mythos was not religion, it was not serious; it started out as mere pulp and it was definitely all done for purposes of entertainment! Nonetheless, we can see how religions evolve without having to excavate ancient ruins, decipher foreign languages and/or extinct languages, or try to fathom "shadow language" usually used in real religious texts. We can see how this transpires in a relatively short period starting around the 1920s.

Religious-type progression is to be seen in the Mythos, which totally fits every single religion with written word much more so than religions with only oral traditions. (Outside the culture, "abstractly explaining" a written down version of an oral doctrine is like hearsay 10 times over. A perfect example would be to ask, "WHAT did JESUS actually SAY and TO WHOM?" He apparently didn't write anything down! Forget about what people, his fans or enemies, said he said, then what others wrote down of what these others said he said, then translated it from language to language. What did HE say? We don't know and we'll never know. "What did he MEAN?" That's another question. Especially, "What did he DO?" That's another KIND of question.)

What's good about showing this in the Mythos is that it requires no translators because no versions other than those published exist, it's all easy to get and very easy to see - and you can see how fast these things progressed. It's an excellent tool to use to show what humans do with what they can't explain. (For another example, "The Darkness is One" can barely be explained now, except by using some known physics! But doing that is not going to enable anyone to Understand it. People either deeply feel what it means, as if they already knew it in their own inner beings and are now reading it put to words, or they don't feel anything at all. Such things do not have effects in the realm of abstract reasoning. Something else is affected. What does it DO to people? That's the KEY. It's interesting to see what others that heard the same thing went and did with it (Darkness is One), lenghthening it, distorting the very pure intent, which is amoral and definitely not anthropomorphic.)

Here are the religious-type progressions that are very easy to see with current, modern texts comprising what has come to be known by the majority of fans as, "The Cthulhu Mythos."

H. P. Lovecraft (HPL): most of his tales are not written in this (at the time) unnamed Mythos, but a few are and one can see in these a very pure Idea about That Which is UNKNOWN and CAN NOT BE known: The Old Ones! Remember, these tales were not called "Cthulhu Mythos" at this time, not yet! We can't emphasize how pure it was or how it had the power to literally grab people, like a "Call." Here are these pure Ideas in a nutshell: "The Old Ones are, the Old Ones were, the Old Ones will be - NOT in the SPACES WE KNOW - but BETWEEN them. They walk SERENE and PRIMAL. They are UNDIMENSIONED and UNSEEN. Their hands are at your throats, yet you see them not, for they are not in the spaces you know (are in). They smash the forests and bend the trees, yet NONE can SEE the hands that smite. When the Stars are 'right' - when the SPACES BETWEEN the stars grow wider - the Old Ones shall return. They are bound by the strictures of time and space (they can't come here right now because the spaces between the stars are not wide enough), though they are coterminous and coexistent with space and time" This is paraphrasing, but it's all there in HPL. Taken exactly as he wrote this, some of us can clearly see the Dark Doctrine material about "obic" or "defender" matters, he's speaking of things that are not here in our space/time, but somehow are here, everpresent, coterminous, coexistent with us, and they are potentially dangerous! He never said they were good or evil. He never said they were Gods or entities or monsters or forces. They were That Which Can NOT BE KNOWN.

Now, to parody a religious student, here comes the student who has just read this and he asks, "Sri Ech Pi El (HPL), tell me please, what are the Old Ones?" Answer, "NO ONE CAN KNOW what they are." We see that the student asking the question missed that point. Likewise, when HPL had a character say that he's going to write down a word he heard so that there can be NO mistakes about how to say it phonetically: Lovecraft wrote "Cthulhu." There are MANY possible ways to say that word, and beginning it with the letter "C" is hilarious. Then, to compound the Mystery, HPL actually told 2 or 3 people in person how to say it - but he told all of them something DIFFERENT. Unknown means Unknown. Can not be known, means CAN NOT BE known.

HPL had a few friends in an inner circle and they all participated in writing these strange Mythos tales, borrowing each other's ideas and characters, which would be plagiarism in any other genre. HPL left it open, open ended tales, a free for all to use and enjoy. Each writer alluded to events in the other's tales, as if they were real events and each used each other's entities and invented a few more. In turn, HPL would mention their entities. This type of thing is not done in standard publishing where copyrights are involved. But HPL and his friends did do this - and so did religious writers of Scripture! One might call HPL and his friends the Original Apostles of HPL, to get a very clear religious idea. (Compare to Jesus and his original Apostles, even those that lived after he was dead, all writing similar stories to form a Christ Mythos.)

Next in the religious-type progression is August Derleth, the man who created Arkham House (the Church) due to HPL's stories (Scripture). Derleth created this publishing house with his own money and called all the stories "The Cthulhu Mythos." Now this Mythos had a name, just as the teaching of Jesus (Yeshua bar David) became "Christ-ianity," based on the Greek word "Christos" and not the surname of the Aramaic-speaking Jesus, at all). Why didn't Derleth call it the Nyarlathotep Mythos, since HPL said, in the tale Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, that Nyarlathotep was the Soul and Messenger of all the Old Ones? Possibly because Cthulhu was the one Old One (or Priest of the Old ones) that Derleth could get a handle on; the others were far too outre and alien. Derleth also wrote Cthulhu Mythos stories. Creating an entire publishing house devoted to the Cthulhu Mythos and the publishing of HPL's stories and the stories of HPL's original Apostles is a very religious type of thing to do, like one might do for a Prophet! August Derleth was a Deciple.

Now, take notice of the shift in the entire perspective. August Derleth decided that the One Ones were elemental forces of evil that rebelled and ended up cast out and imprisoned. He also decided that there were forces of good, too: he called them the Elder Gods. People who despise Derleth say he was influenced by his Catholic background. He also gave them all, Old Ones and Elder Gods, a home star (not planet) within our own galaxy (definitely IN the space we know)! Did he do that because he was Catholic, too? I don't think so. He had a character, Professor Laban Shrewsbury, as an arch-magician battling the cults of the Old Ones using high magic (or alien technology?). The worst thing Derleth did, which today makes it hard for anyone that enjoyed his stories to even mention his name lest they be crucified by the "purists," is claim that HPL himself INTENDED the Old Ones to be "similar to Satan" - like angels that did black magic, Derleth had it that the Old Ones got cast out and locked up by the Elder Gods as a punishment. Derleth was accused, because he was a Catholic, of Christianizing the Mythos. Well, he definitely dualized the Mythos. HPL NEVER had any such intention! What HPL said about these mysterious Old Ones is paraphrased above. Go back and reread it.

Keep in mind, Derleth did this not long after Lovecraft was dead. Did Derleth READ the same stories we all read? Yes, he surely did. One might compare August Derleth to Saint Peter, using the Christ comparison. Derleth also used the esoteric Catholic angeology/demonology paradigm of "elemental spirits" and categoried certain Old Ones in terms of earth, air, fire and water elementals. His critics, including Reverend Professor Price, seemed to miss that, being unfamiliar themselves with angeology and demonology! That is also something HPL NEVER did.

Interestingly enough, as said above, Richard L. Tierney was one of the first people to severly criticize August Derleth, our Saint Peter of the Mythos, by exposing it as "The Derleth Mythos." Richard L. Tierney is also the writer that merged the Mythos with dualistic Gnosticism... while at the same time, oddly hinting that Derleth was "evil" and Lovecraft was "good." :) He wrote quite a few superb stories along those lines; great entertainment. Interesting also, when considering the religion paradigm, Tierney had the Old Ones and their cults portrayed as good guys and, in at least one tale, had the Elder Gods portrayed as the "Lords of Pain."

Next in the big line up comes Brian Lumley, very much a Lovecraftian-Derlethian comparable to Saint Paul who made some serious changes in the originally Jewish-based religion of Jesus. Lumley decided that some of the Old Ones were more like forces in physics and some were physical creatures, literally Big Monsters, incredibly evil, and/but that were very alien and miles tall (bigger than Godzilla). He also had humans having conversations with Elder Gods. He even gave two Old Ones daughters, one of whom was a beautiful half Old One half human red-haired woman that falls in love with a human (Spawn of the Winds), the other is Cthylla, the daughter of Cthulhu. He also invented the Wilmarth Foundatoin - a secret, high tech, scientific, elite group that battles the actual Old Ones that are physically here and also battles their cults. Real gung ho, go get 'em, dualism - good and evil. Lumley's stories tend to have the Absolutely Evil versus the Absolutely Good. There is barely an in-between.

Next comes Lin Carter: He is the man that Reverend Professor Robert Price, an HPL Scholar and Lin's friend in his later years, dubbed "the Madame Blavatsky of the Mythos." At least Lin Carter was that during the 1980s when he was a very sick man and in pain. He made of what Lovecraft-Derleth-Lumley and MANY others (by that time, LOTS of fiction like this was around), into a family of gods and their wives and children and even more, all of them had to have servitor races and usually had home stars or planets. He just took from all previous writers and mishmashed it together - as said, that was during the time he had cancer. He didn't do that before. Lin Carter can be dubbed the Saint Augustine of the Mythos because he even made up a Demon Trinity, the "three sons of Cthulhu and his wife!" He also took ideas that anyone mentioned to him, or creatures and places, and lumped them into or mentioned them in his stories (often WITHOUT PERMISSION).

The mythos got mixed in, blended in, merged in with tales that writers in really different genres wrote in, such as Robert E. Howard's "world." There is so much now on the Mythos that an entire Encyclopedia had to be written to try to sort it out. (Encyclopedia Cthulhuiana, by Daniel Harms.) That would be comparable to Christianity absorbing and adopting prior Pagan holidays, some of their philosophy, and so forth. Most of this blending in has these Old Ones, or their Children in a setting that fits in with the Derleth, Lumley and Carter tales.

What I've seen of the many Mythos stories I've read since the proliferation of tales is either more new entities with servitors in "bump into the strange" short stories, or more of the good guys versus bad guys go get 'em genre.

Now, compare all that to this very very pure and simple-yet-unfathomable idea: The Old Ones are, the Old Ones were, the Old Ones will be - NOT in the SPACES WE KNOW - but BETWEEN them. They walk serene and primal. UNDIMENSIONED and UNSEEN. Their hands are at your throats, yet you see them not, for they are not in the spaces you know (not in the space that you are literally in). They walk serene and PRIMAL, they smash the forests and bend the trees, yet NONE can SEE the hands that smite. When the Stars are 'right' - when the SPACES BETWEEN the stars grows wider, the Old Ones shall return. They are bound by the strictures of time and space, tho they are coterminous and coexistent with space and time"

Now - this is very PURE and thoroughly unadorned (like the original God of the Hebrews and current Moslems). This would be the equivalent of the Mythos Doctrine. PURE, unadorned. You feel it, or you don't feel it. You can't explain it; it's not possible! It CALLS to some people and hooks them solidly for life. Many of the people hooked have Ph.Ds. :) Some of them, like modern day analysts of the Bible, are purists! Some are so vitriolic about their purism and so filled with vitriol against Derleth and all who came after Derleth, that one might call them Monks of the New Order.

At the same time, in the early 1960s, possibly earlier, through the 1970s a few seriously esoteric "cults" sprang up taking names from HPL's Mythos cult names or other names based on ancient mythemes. These cults were seriously esoteric in that they knew real esoteric traditions and applied the Mythos to them. Some still exist. The Esoteric Order of Dagon still exists and the Starry Wisdom Sect, which splintered off into a group called Kishites, is now "Satanic Reds - Social Realists." (Dark Force in Nature = Nyarlathotep. Five defenders of five principles/Wisdoms on a pentacle [aka Dharmas] = Old Ones and actually were called Archons at one time.) That group, SWS and Kishites, seriously stuck to HPL and ignored Derleth/Lumley/Carter or any other changers of the Ideas. Some of that material is concisely explained here, but it's not mythos anymore - it's using legit words from legit religions (religions that have nothing to do with literal Satanism in any form, Christian or modern - despite the website title and the pun being utilized using two Vedantic words, Sat and Tan).

What is legit religion? Well, for one thing, it's something older than HPL's mythos :) Some of these religions formed, based on the Cthulhu Mythos, are rewrites of Crowley's material, which many people, including me, think doesn't really fit at all.

Again, in pure HPL, you get an alleged glimpse of Cthulhu who seems not so much like those more outer Old Ones Lovecraft wrote of, such as Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth and Nyarlathotep. But HPL says Cthulhu is their High Priest and Cthulhu can dimly see the Old Ones (Call of Cthulhu). Yet HPL also says that Nyarlathotep is the Soul and Messenger of the Old Ones (Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath).

Fritz Leiber, who stuck to the original, as I do if I use HPLian ideas in a story, understood from what HPL wrote that Cthulhu could even become like atomic gas. Cthulhu is NOT molecular life. HPL said "they are not matter as we understand matter." What kind of life can there be that is not even molecular? Unknown!

Please understand that there were and are many superb writers in the Mythos and all of it is great fun, but none of them had the impact of our original HPL Prophet. We have our St. Peter Derleth, our St. Paul Lumley, our St. Augustine Carter and the Gnostic Tierney. Now consider Derleth, Lumley and Carter - and what they did, their ideas. Well, aside from all else, they put smiles on millions of faces and entertained us. But all of that is not even considered by some people that would be termed Monks.

For the fans, it's all just fun, or creative writing. Well, wait! IS IT? What is written religion? Creative writing, say the skeptics; inspired, say the believers. Inspired by what or by whom? By what or whom was HPL inspired? Compare HPL's ideas with these other writers' ideas and you see a big difference. There is no comparison to be made. HPL remains outre, alien. There is a big and obvious comparison and similarity to be made and seen with Laban Shrewsbury et. al., Wilmarth Foundation and some aspects of Delta Green: these are all secret agencies employing technology and/or magic to combat the "evil cults." There is no question about who the good guys or bad guys are except in the new Delta Green stories where sometimes the good guys are really bad and the bad guys are not so bad at all. Delta Green is good, very good, and in my opinion it doesn't even need the mythos.

With HPL there are no good guys or bad guys. Despite what some critics might say to counter that last sentence, the protagonist in The Shadow Over Innsmouth chose to join the Deep Ones in the end, not humanity; he chose to live, not kill himself - and he does not get to live in darkness and horror forever. He gets to live in wonder and glory forever. HPL wrote that.

The opening passage of Call of Cthulhu is the CALL. Professor Burleson, a mathematician and literature professor (he got into literature later on) wrote that one thing I said to him made him dizzy. To paraphrase: "You wonder what the CALL of Cthulhu is? It's like Jack London's CALL of the wild. It is a CALL, it pulls you, grabs you, ultimately makes you ACT and really change. Consider this, you GOT a Ph.D. in literature BECAUSE of Lovecraft's stories and you've been "into" Lovecraft's tales for years. You were called."

This Mythos-Religious analysis would require reading quite a lot of stories (Scripture!) and reading them in the order that they appeared as each Scribe added to the Scripture and obviously changed it; but it doesn't require translators, excavations or any of that. And it's all availble in English, there are no "variant texts" worth arguing about, either (well, actually there are, but the discrepancies really did NOT warrant a whole new publication of them. Only True Believers spent a large sum to get them all again).

In fact, Reverend Professor Robert Price (he is a Professor of Theology...) even got down to writing a few theological exegeses on the Mythos and he kept it as serious as possible. It has gotten to the point where you CAN write an exegesis on it as if it's a real religion with sects in it. There are even the Purists that reject all Scripture other than Lovecraft's own words. And true to form, they visciously attack Derleth and Lumley with gallons of vitriol and all the proper venom common to zealots. It's gotten so bad that sometimes only the brave even dare to MENTION Derleth or Lumley. And all of this happened from 1920's to right now. FAST. In less than 100 years!

Of course, the Pure Thing that GRABBED HOLD of people in the first place is now GONE, for the most part. People, fans who have read thousands of stories, have said that Other Nations (a novel by T&P Marsh) sticks to the original Lovecraftian alien feel when it uses anything from that Mythos, yet it's not pastishe; it is notably different. It also uses elements very much outside that Mythos from standard mythology that HPL himself borrowed from. It is also a novel that is about Other Nations and their doings, not about humans and their terrors. It is to the Mythos what Anne Rice is to Bram Stoker and traditional vampire legends. Dracula is terrifying, as is Nosferatu. But everyone loves the apparently distinguished gentleman Lestat. But would you really want to run into Lestat if he was real? You'd be his food!

For more on analysis of HPL's mythos from a litarary perspective:

Also: Try a new and quite good Mythos novel not necessitating prior knowledge of anything in the Mythos: OTHER NATIONS