Cthulhu Mythos

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.

The term was coined by H. P. Lovecraft's associate August Derleth, and named after Cthulhu, a powerful fictional entity in H. P. Lovecraft's stories. The conglomerate of several H. P. Lovecraft works describing Cthulhu form the mythos that authors writing in the H. P. Lovecraftian milieu have used – and continue to use – in their ongoing expansion of the fictional universe, sometimes in ways far removed from H. P. Lovecraft's original conception.

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 H. P. 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 H. P. Lovecraft's death.

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). 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.

Second stage (the "Derleth Mythos")

The second stage began with August Derleth, 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. 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.

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.

Themes and 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. 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.

Despite his notoriety, Cthulhu is not the most powerful of the deities, nor is he the theological center of the mythos. 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.

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.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License