The ‘Official’ Cthulhu Mythos FAQ – Part 2 of 3

Part 2: Mythos Lore

2.1. What are the “Great Old Ones”, “Old Ones”, and so forth? How do you tell them apart?

To begin with, Lovecraft himself did not use the terminology outlined below. He referred to the “Old Ones” (or “Great Old Ones”, “Elder Ones”, “Ancient Ones”, and so forth) as applying to different beings in different stories. For example, Lovecraft used the term “Great Old Ones” in only two stories: in “The Call of Cthulhu” it referred to Cthulhu’s spawn, and in “At the Mountains of Madness” it was the title of the starfish-like beings who lived in Antarctica and warred with the Cthulhu-spawn! The list below covers the standardizations which have come into use after Lovecraft’s death:

  • Great Old Ones: Vastly powerful creatures which are the most famous creations of the Cthulhu Mythos. Although most of these beings differ widely in appearance from each other, some are actually ‘leaders’ or high priests of one species (i.e. Cthulhu is a “Great Old One” but he is of a race called, for lack of a better name, the “Spawn of Cthulhu”). The individual Great Old Ones, however, do not necessarily belong to the same species. Various authors have tried to come up with elaborate family trees of the Great Old Ones, but for the most part these are unconvincing and need not concern anyone but diehard Mythos fans.

    One trait of most Great Old Ones is a limitation on their influence. Cthulhu is imprisoned beneath the Pacific Ocean in the city of R’lyeh, Ithaqua the Wind-Walker is confined to the far north of our planet, and so forth. Even those Great Old Ones less able to act may reach out and talk in their dreams to humans, who learn to revere these beings. The Great Old Ones are often worshipped on Earth by insane human cultists and other species; Cthulhu himself is served by humans, the amphibious deep ones, and his own spawn.

  • Outer Gods: The distinction between Outer Gods and Great Old Ones is not recognized by all authors, but deserves attention nonetheless. Generally, the Outer Gods are thought to be unrestricted in their range and powers, and more likely to embody cosmic principles.

    (I should note that the term “Outer Gods” is almost exclusively used in the Call of Cthulhu game, even though many other Mythos writers note the difference between the two classifications.)

  • Elder Gods: A group of beings who oppose the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods. The most famous of these is Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss; there are others, such as Brian Lumley’s Kthanid and Call of Cthulhu‘s Bast (adopted from Egyptian mythology), but none of these have been used in many stories. The Elder Gods spring from Derleth’s interpretations of the Mythos, and many authors refuse to use them, complaining that they turn the cosmic indifference of Lovecraft’s fiction into a strict good-and-evil matchup. Others consider their inclusion proper and fitting within their own interpretation of Lovecraft.
  • Great Ones: Also called the “Gods of Earth”, these are small, weak beings who are worshiped in the Dreamlands. Mortals can trick them, but then must answer to the Other Gods which protect the Great Ones.
  • Other Gods: Beings served by Nyarlathotep who protect the Great Ones. They are usually thought to be the same as the Outer Gods.
  • Ancient Ones: Beings which have escaped their mortal forms and now dwell in splendor in their Hall beyond space and time, overseen by ‘Umr at-Tawil (in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”). The story implies that these might be the Old Ones or Great Old Ones, but it is difficult to be sure.
  • Old Ones: Either the “Great Old Ones” or the ancient crinoid race found in “At the Mountains of Madness” in Antarctica. For clarity, Call of Cthulhu refers to the crinoid race as the “Elder Things” (another name they are given in Lovecraft’s story.)

2.1.1. Who are the major Great Old Ones?

Aside from Cthulhu, these are some of the most popular Great Old Ones:

  • Cthugha (“The Dweller in Darkness”, Derleth): Derleth created Cthugha to provide the Mythos with a “fire elemental”, and never really fleshed it out. It appears as a large ball of fire, and is often accompanied by smaller beings called “fire vampires” or “flame creatures”. Cthugha may only be summoned when Fomalhaut is in the sky.
  • Dagon(“Dagon”, Lovecraft/mythology): Dagon was not one of Lovecraft’s inventions, but a Caananite god of agriculture worshiped by the Philistines and whose priests opposed those of Yahweh (see 1 Samuel 5:1-6). As a result of an error made by the fourth-century scholar St. Jerome and the find of a merman depiction near one of his temples, people thought that Dagon was a fish-god. Lovecraft himself was not aware of the error, and made Dagon the god of the deep ones.
  • Glaaki (“The Inhabitant of the Lake”, Campbell): A creature which dwells beneath a lake near the Severn River. It has a slug-like body with stalked eyes and spines, and commands a horde of undead servitors.
  • Hastur (“Haita the Shepherd”, Ambrose Bierce/”The Return of Hastur”, Derleth): The name “Hastur” first appears in Bierce as a friendly god of shepherds. Later, it was adopted by Robert W. Chambers as a place-name. When Derleth took it up, he changed it into an “air-elemental” who was Cthulhu’s “half-brother” (whatever that means). See below for more.
  • Ithaqua (Mythology/”The Thing that Walked on the Wind”, Derleth): Derleth needed another “air elemental” for his Mythos, so he took a creature from Cree and Ojibwa mythology. This creature was the “windigo”, a cannibalistic giant with a heart of ice. (This legend had previously been used in “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood.) Derleth gave this being the name “Ithaqua”, and included him among the Great Old Ones. Even though windigo myths are centered just north of the Great Lakes, most Cthulhu Mythos authors insist he is confined to the Far North.
  • Nyogtha (“The Salem Horror”, Henry Kuttner): Also known as the Thing that Should Not Be, Nyogtha is a black amorphous mass that dwells beneath the ground. He was worshiped by one of the witches at Salem.
  • Shudde M’ell (“Cement Surroundings”, Lumley): A slug-like being with tentacles where a face should be. Shudde M’ell spends much of its time in Africa, and is the leader of the underground species called the cthonians.
  • Tsathoggua (“The Seven Geases”, Smith): A god resembling a furry toad, Tsathoggua dwells in the cavern-world of N’kai. Tsathoggua occasionally eats visitors, but is more likely to be asleep when encountered.
  • Yig (“The Curse of Yig”, Lovecraft): This Great Old One appears as a huge snake-headed man. He cares little for humanity, but brings terrible vengeance on those who attack snakes. Is it okay to say “Hastur”?

Sure. Say it a few times right now. Feel better?

Actually, there is no risk to saying “Hastur”, unless you happen to be a character in a role-playing game, and sometimes not even then. The whole thing started when Lovecraft used the phrase “Him Who is not to be Named” in “The Whisperer in Darkness”. (This probably came from Lovecraft’s training in the classics. When the Greeks called a god or being “unnameable”, it meant that it should not be summoned magically as it was doing something important like guarding the underworld.) In the same story, Lovecraft mentioned Hastur, but there was no connection between the two phrases.

Later, Derleth brought together Hastur and “Him Who is not to be Named” as a single entity. I’m not sure whether Derleth was aware of the name’s classical connotations, but characters in his stories are constantly saying “Hastur” without anything bad happening to them (at least, not until much later — these are horror stories, after all). It wasn’t until the Dungeons and Dragons game put out its Gods, Demigods and Heroes book that the consequences of saying “Hastur” were spelled out — you might be eaten by a byakhee, or even attract the god’s notice. This has become role-playing lore in many different games. You can tell your gamemaster that I said it didn’t count, but don’t blame me if you character gets eaten.

2.1.2. Who are the major Other Gods?

The Other Gods include the following beings (all of which were Lovecraft’s creation):

  • Azathoth (“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”): The blind idiot chaos who bubbles and blasphemes at the center of chaos (or at the center of the universe, depending on who you ask) and is thought to be the creator of all things.
  • Nyarlathotep (“Nyarlathotep”): The soul and thousand-formed messenger of the Outer Gods. He was known to the witch-covens as the Black Man, or Satan. Most Mythos beings are indifferent to humanity, but Nyarlathotep is more of a trickster who enjoys giving humanity the key to its own destruction.
  • Shub-Niggurath(“The Last Test” (with Adolphe de Castro)): The principle of fertility who is often named in rituals but rarely encountered.
  • Yog-Sothoth (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”): A being who is one with all time and space and often appears as a cluster of floating, iridescent spheres.

2.1.3. What about “elementals”?

In the early days of Arkham House, Derleth saw a piece describing the Cthulhu Mythos from a young fan named Francis T. Laney (published in his fan magazine The Acolyte). He reprinted it with a few of his own changes. Derleth decided to group the Great Old Ones under the four traditional elements: fire, air, earth, and water. He assigned Cthulhu and Dagon with water and Tsathoggua and the “Other Gods” with earth, but he had trouble finding fire or air entities. Most people would say this was proof that the system didn’t work, but Derleth decided Hastur was an air-elemental, and brought in Ithaqua as an air-elemental and Cthugha as a fire-being.

Anyone who’s read Mythos fiction can see some of the holes in the system (How can a water-being like Cthulhu have his telepathy blocked by water? And why is Nyarlathotep an “earth-being”?), and his reasons for doing this are anyone’s guess. Most authors have chosen not to use this system. Derleth does use it a great deal in his stories, though, so it’s important to know.

2.2. What are some of the major books of the Mythos?

Lovecraft and his fellow authors filled their stories with a library of tomes of uncanny lore. Some of these were real, but most of them were not. Detailing all of their creations would be a monstrous task, but here are ten of the more popular ones:

  • Book of Eibon (“Ubbo-Sathla”, Clark Ashton Smith): Grimoire, or book of spells, by the wizard Eibon of Hyperborea, the land which became known as Greenland after the Ice Ages.
  • Cthaat Aquadingen, possibly Things of the Water? (“The Cyprus Shell”, Lumley): Book of spells by an unknown author, this tome deals with Cthulhu and other sea-horrors.
  • Cultes des Goules, or Cults of the Ghouls (uncertain, but probably “The Suicide in the Study”, Bloch): Book which supposedly relates the practices of French “ghoul-cults”; written by the Comte D’Erlette.
  • De Vermis Mysteriis, or Mysteries of the Worm (“The Shambler from the Stars”, Bloch): Grimoire by the wizard Ludwig Prinn, who was burnt at the stake around 1500.
  • The King in Yellow (“The Yellow Sign”, Chambers): A play which unaccountably drives all who read it mad. (This book’s placement here is debatable, since it appeared before Lovecraft’s circle began writing, but it turns up fairly often in Mythos stories.)
  • The Necronomicon (“The Hound”, Lovecraft) — Written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, this book is the most important in all the Cthulhu Mythos. It contains spells, curious facts, and the myths of the Great Old Ones. See below.
  • The Pnakotic Manuscripts or Pnakotic Fragments (“Polaris”, Lovecraft): A set of scrolls, some of which pre-date humanity. This particular book is usually found in the Dreamlands.
  • The Revelations of Glaaki (“The Inhabitant of the Lake”, Campbell): Multi-volume work written by members of the Great Old One Glaaki‘s cult. It was published in nine volumes, but it originally had eleven, and there may even be more of them as yet undiscovered.
  • R’lyeh Text (“The Return of Hastur”, Derleth): Probably written by minions of Cthulhu, this book details that being’s proper worship.
  • Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or (roughly) Nameless Cults (“The Black Stone”, Howard): Volume by the explorer Freidrich Wilheim von Junzt, detailing the cults he heard about and infiltrated. See below.

2.2.1. Where can I get a copy of the Necronomicon?

“The” Necronomicon, i.e. the book written about by Lovecraft, cannot be found anywhere because it was never written. Anyone who disagrees with this statement is invited to produce a copy — or even any mention whatsoever — that pre-dates 1922, the year in which Lovecraft first wrote of it in his story “The Hound”. Several commercial Necronomicons have been published.

  • The easiest Necronomicon to find is the Avon paperback by Simon, which is mainly a re-hash of Sumerian mythology with a few Mythos names dropped in. Some practitioners of magick consider it useful (and many more do not), but it has very little to do with Lovecraft’s creation and is almost certainly a modern hoax.
  • The 1973 Owlswick Press edition, prefaced by L. Sprague de Camp, is another hoax which contains only sixteen pages of pseudo-Arabic text repeated over and over again, with a few different pages at the beginning and the end. This one has been out-of-print for years, but some libraries hold it in their special collections.
  • H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon is a collection of the Swiss painter’s art. I have yet to hear of anyone thinking it is real.
  • The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names edited by George Hay, with an introduction by Colin Wilson, claims to be the rediscovered work, but is actually a hoax concocted by him and a few of his friends. This version started the rumor that Lovecraft’s father was a Freemason, even though no one has any evidence to suggest this. A sequel to the book, The R’lyeh Text (which see), has also appeared.
  • The Necronomicon, edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium, is an anthology including some stories about the infamous book. It also holds some Necronomicon fragments written by fans, including Fred Pelton’s Sussex Manuscript and Lin Carter‘s (unfinished) attempt to write the whole book.

If you want to find any of these, try my hints for finding books. There may be a few other Necronomicons which may be out there, but most of these are only fan efforts and can be easily dated after Lovecraft’s time.

There are many known library references to the Necronomicon by Abdul Alhazred, Michael Tice’s entry at UCLA being perhaps the most notorious; these are pranks engineered by students or librarians.

The newsgroup alt.necronomicon is suggested for those who wish to discuss the historical authenticity, translations and publications of this tome. The best source on the Web for Necronomicon info is Dan Clore’s Necronomicon Page. Two other documents on this subject (both archived at Dan Clore’s page) may also be encountered at various places on the Web. The Necronomicon FAQ (most recent version is 2.0) was assembled by Kevin Kendrick Chua; most of the information is good, if a trifle dated. The Necronomicon Anti-FAQ, assembled by Colin Low, claims that the Necronomicon was a real document that Lovecraft learned about from his wife, who had (supposedly) dated the occultist Aleister Crowley. Low’s document is an admitted hoax and should not be read for anything more than its entertainment value.

2.2.2. What is the etymology of the word “Necronomicon”?

Lovecraft himself provides us a translation in a letter to Harry O. Fischer dated late February, 1937: “The name Necronomicon (necros, corpse; nomos, law; eikon, image = An Image [or Picture] of the Law of the Dead) occurred to me in the course of a dream, although the etymology is perfectly sound.”

Some will argue that this etymology is not perfectly sound, but since Lovecraft invented the book, I feel his etymology is the correct one. People have debated the etymology of “Necronomicon” for years, coming up with all manner of bizarre interpretations. For those interested in what one informed alt.horror.cthulhu poster thinks, the following was provided by S.A.T. Haldane

Nekros/nekr-o- (noun) ‘dead (person)’
nomos/nom-o- (noun) ‘law’, ‘custom’
-ikos/-ike/-ikon (adjectival suffix) ‘to do with’, ‘concerning’,

hence nekr-o- + nom-o- + -ikos > nekronomikos (adjective) concerning the customs of the dead’. Functioning as a noun in the neutral gender, to Nekronomikon ‘(The Thing) Concerning the Customs of the Dead’.

2.2.3. What is the etymology and meaning of Unaussprechlichen Kulten?

Many people have said that the German title of this book is incorrect, while others have said it’s fine the way it is. For the answer to this, I turn to Steven Harris, former keeper of the now-defunct Unaussprechlichen Kulten Web Page:

    The reason why everyone says that it can’t be the title is because it is incorrect German. The adjective would end in -e for the indefinite plural not a -n, to wit: Unaussprechliche Kulte… if we wish to accept “Nameless Cults” as being the correct wording for an English translation, we have to accept “Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten” as being the real German title of the work. The addition of the (Von) [‘Concerning’] also allows us to keep Unaussprechlichen with the -n.

The old a.h.c. FAQ gave a long title of the book in English, and then argued that “Unaussprechlichen Kulten” was an abbreviation of this longer title. I have omitted it here because I’ve never seen the longer title anywhere other than that FAQ.

2.3. What are some of the major non-human species in the Mythos universe?

Mythos tales refer not only to the Old Ones and their ilk, but also to less powerful creatures which often have their own agendas. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Byakhee (“The Festival”, Lovecraft — description; “The House on Curwen Street”, Derleth, name): Winged creatures which dwell in the depths of space near Aldebaran. If a ritual involving a magic whistle and a fluid called “space-mead” is performed, a byakhee will appear and serve as a mount for the caster. Allied with Hastur.
  • Deep Ones (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”, Lovecraft): Undersea dwellers which look like a cross between humans and fish (or frogs). Deep ones sometimes breed with humans, creating offspring which are human at first but make a slow transformation into deep ones. The deep ones serve Dagon and Cthulhu.
  • Elder Things/Old Ones (“At the Mountains of Madness”, Lovecraft): Starfish-like entities which are part animal and part plant. They lived on our planet in ancient times, and warred with both the mi-go and the spawn of Cthulhu. The Elder Things were great scientists, and created humanity as food or a joke. They eventually abandoned their Antarctic city to live underwater, and it is unknown whether they have become extinct.
  • Great Race of Yith/Yithians (“The Shadow out of Time”, Lovecraft): Time-travelling beings with no true physical form, they occupied the bodies of immense iridescent cone-shaped creatures millions of years ago. The creatures had long arms with pincers, a trumpet-like mouth, and a small round head. Members of the Great Race can send their minds into the future and swap consciousnesses with dwellers there. They usually do so as a part of their research, but at times they travel en masse in conquest.
  • Hounds of Tindalos (“The Hounds of Tindalos”, Long): Creatures which dwell in the distant past. They are not a threat unless they sense a time-traveller, in which case they hunt the person down and kill them. They manifest themselves through angles, and cannot enter an area in which all surfaces are curved.
  • Mi-go/Fungi from Yuggoth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”, Lovecraft): Crustacean-like fungoid beings which have an outpost on Yuggoth, or Pluto. They come to our world to obtain precious minerals and for other dark purposes, though they try to remain hidden. They serve Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath at times, but often seem independent in their motivations.
  • Serpent People (“The Shadow Kingdom”, Howard): Millions of years ago, the serpent people were mighty sorcerers and scientists who ruled vast empires. Today, they hide from humans through magic and isolation. Their degenerate descendants were the inspiration for the myths of the faeries, or “Little People”. They do not serve any one god, but seem to favor Yig.
  • Shoggoths (“At the Mountains of Madness”, Lovecraft): Huge protoplasmic beings able to take on any form their masters desire. The shoggoths were created by the Elder Things, but rebelled against them, and most of them were destroyed. A few may be found in the Elder Things’ former cities, or working with the deep ones.
  • Star-spawn of Cthulhu/Cthulhi (“The Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft(?)): Beings which appear as smaller versions of Cthulhu. Most are imprisoned at R’lyeh, but some may still be free.

2.4. What are some of Lovecraft’s most famous locations?

Let’s break that question down:

2.4.1. What are some of Lovecraft’s most famous towns?

Lovecraft created quite a number of locations in Massachusetts as settings for his stories. Four major towns and suggested real-life equivalents are:

  • Arkham: A town on the banks of the Miskatonic River. Some important landmarks there include the Witch-House (now destroyed), the Nameless Island in the Miskatonic where witches once danced, and Miskatonic University, home of one of the world’s largest occult collections. Based on Salem (with a pinch of Providence, RI).
  • Dunwich: A town in the hills northwest of Arkham. The scenery in this area is beautiful, and the stone circles atop its hills have intrigued scholars for centuries. Very few people visit here, and all the signposts to it were taken down after the “Dunwich Horror” of 1928. Based on Wilbraham, Monson, and Hampden.
  • Innsmouth: A decayed sea-front town which was at one time a thriving port. Nowadays, what is left of it is controlled by the Marsh family and a religious sect called the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Based on Gloucester and Newburyport.
  • Kingsport: A quaint town by the ocean which has remained virtually untouched by time. Towering above the town is Kingsport Head, with the Strange High House in the Mist at its peak. Based on Marblehead.

It is probably wrong to take these equivalents too literally. Lovecraft scholars and fans have discovered that Lovecraft often blended different locations to create his fictional towns. Thus, some have suggested that Dunwich might have been inspired by Plasitow or Dunstable. As time passes and landmarks change, however, it becomes more difficult to determine which towns inspired Lovecraft’s creations.

2.4.2. Where is R’lyeh?

R’lyeh is the pre-human city (or the continent on which is was built) which sank beneath the Pacific millions of years ago. In his story “The Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft places R’lyeh at 47 degrees 9 minutes south, 126 degrees 43 minutes west. Other authors (such as Derleth) have placed it off the isle of Ponape, near the Massachusetts coast, or just about anywhere else they wanted to.

2.4.3. Where is the Plateau of Leng?

Lovecraft moved around the Plateau of Leng a great deal in his tales. In the earlier ones, he stated that Leng lay in Central Asia, but in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, he placed it in his Dreamlands. Even later, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, the Plateau was re-located in Antarctica. Later authors have suggested that the three locations could be related through some quirk of space-time.

Some people have come up with their own interpretations. According to Tierney’s “House of the Toad”, the Plateau may be found in China’s Xinjiang (perhaps Xizang) Province. (This is notable, because there was an article in Discovery magazine a while back about some Caucasian mummies bearing items like those found in the Ukraine found here.) According to Jack Chalker’s River of the Dancing Gods, the Plateau of Leng is in the upper Northwest of the world of the Dancing Gods.

2.4.4. Where is Irem?

Lovecraft mentions an “Irem, City of Pillars” in some of his stories, such as “The Nameless City” and “The Call of Cthulhu”. It originated in folklore, and may actually be a real place.

According to Islamic myth, there were once two brothers, Shaddid and Shaddad, who ruled a city somewhere in Arabia. Shaddid died, and Shaddad became arrogant and cruel. He decided that he would build a garden on Earth imitating the celestial paradise. When the garden was completed, Shaddad and all his retainers rode out in a procession to visit it. Before they could reach it, however, a great “noise from heaven” destroyed all of them, and the location of Iram has never been discovered. The same tale was told in the Arabian Nights.

“The Koran describes how the earth swallowed up a sumptuous but decadent `city of towers’ called Iram … diggers can already see that the city center collapsed — as told in the Koran — because it was built over a limestone cavern used to store water.” Identified with Ubar, frankincense-trading city in the Arabian Nights. (Jeanne Gordon & Fiona Gleizes, “The `Atlantis of the Sands’,” Newsweek, 119:7, Feb. 17, 1992, p. 38.) – Donald Davis

Also, an article in the October 1995 issue of Reader’s Digest (“Search for the Lost City”) describes how documentary film-maker Nick Clapp organized several expeditions to Oman to look for the lost city of Ubar. Ubar is believed by some to be “Irem, the many-towered city” mentioned in the Koran. Ubar, like the Biblical towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, was a town of great wickedness that Allah destroyed. Under the sands at the oasis of Shis’r, the researchers not only found pottery and glass artifacts, but the ruins of “eight towers, each perhaps 30 feet high … a lofty citadel … an octagonal fort..a wide court with a well in the center …”

2.4.5. What are the Dreamlands?

The Dreamlands is a place created by Lovecraft and based on the works of Lord Dunsany, who often set his tales in a “dream-world” at the edge of our own lands. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are filled with beautiful cities, kind people, grotesque monsters, and magic. Only dedicated dreamers can make their way to the Dreamlands, and many of them slip away as they grow older and more cynical. The Dreamlands does intersect with our world at certain places, but such journeys always involve danger. Lovecraft wrote a number of stories set in the Dreamlands, the longest (and last) of which is “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. Later authors, including Brian Lumley and Gary Myers, have written stories with their own slant on the Dreamlands.

2.4.6. Where is Yuggoth?

According to Lovecraft’s story “The Whisperer in Darkness”, Yuggoth was the name given in ancient texts to the planet Pluto. Other authors have said that it is actually Planet X or a different planet, but most accept Lovecraft’s designation.

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