Deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, entombed within the strange stone city of R'lyeh, lies dormant a being of unimaginable power. To even look upon his form may cost you your sanity. He has lain beneath the waters for eons, and will continue to do so until the stars align, whereupon he will awaken and reclaim dominion over the Earth.
He's Cthulhu, and he's one nasty customer. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most celebrated authors in the genre known as weird fiction, created Cthulhu as part of a larger mythology involving extraterrestrial creatures whose very existence is outside the realm of human understanding. Although Cthulhu is just one of many creatures born from Lovecraft's pen, he has attained a level of notoriety and fame that eludes his horrendous cousins. In fact, some believed him to be the monster in the film "Cloverfield" in the months leading up to its release.
In this article, we'll learn who Cthulhu is, what his relationship is with the rest of Lovecraft's pantheon of monsters and mysticism, examine the Cult of Cthulhu and look at Cthulhu's place in pop culture.
Cthulhu made his first official appearance in the short story "The Call of Cthulhu," written by Lovecraft in 1926, although no living character in the story ever sets eyes on the actual creature. The characters we meet in the story see Cthulhu either in dreams or in artwork. The narrator of the story says that a statue of Cthulhu resembled, in part, an octopus, a dragon and a human-like or anthropomorphic creature. From this description, artists and sculptors have created artwork depicting the monster with a head that looks like an octopus (complete with tentacles) and a massive pair of wings attached to his back.
Lovecraft didn't reveal much about Cthulhu in that first story. He wrote that Cthulhu had once ruled the Earth, and that one day he would do so again. As the story unfolds, the narrator discovers that Cthulhu was trapped in a stone city beneath the ocean, but an earthquake pushed part of the city back above the surface. Although Cthulhu did not awaken, he was able to make contact with the minds of particularly creative or insane people (rational, mundane minds seem to be insulated from Cthulhu's influence). Near the end of the story, the narrator discovers that after a massive storm the city once again sank in the ocean, and Cthulhu apparently lies dreaming once more.
The story also introduces the Cult of Cthulhu, an organization of humans who are convinced that Cthulhu's return is inevitable and work to hasten it. They foresee a time when Cthulhu will rise up and rule over Earth, and mankind will cast aside concepts of civilization and inhibition. Chaos will ensue, and men will revel in their most base instincts.
In the next section, we'll find out why Cthulhu and the city of R'lyeh lie under the ocean -- and why Cthulhu communicates with humans.
Who is Cthulhu?
According to Lovecraft, humans can never fully understand Cthulhu because his very existence is beyond mortal comprehension. Lovecraft's universe contains many creatures that are equally incomprehensible. Some of these are known as the Great Old Ones, or the Old Ones, and are powerful, ageless beings from beyond the stars. Though Lovecraft used the phrase "the Great Old Ones" in contradictory ways, most of his fans accept that Cthulhu is one of these extraterrestrial beings that only partially exist in our dimension.
Some of the Old Ones have massive, cosmic physical forms that dwarf celestial bodies while others have little to no physical presence in our world at all. Lovecraft refers to Cthulhu as the Priest of the Old Ones, though whether he means that Cthulhu led others to worship the Old Ones or was the head of the religion for the Old Ones themselves is not clear.
Because Lovecraft's stories are almost always first-person accounts from a narrator with limited knowledge, we can only know as much as the storytellers tell us. Other authors have expanded Lovecraft's universe, and fans across the world engage in long debates over which works are canon in the mythology and which should be ignored. What we do know is that the Great Old Ones came from distant planets light years away from Earth, and that they may actually exist -- at least partially exist -- in dimensions unperceivable by human beings.
Several of the Great Old Ones came to Earth while the planet itself was still very young, though not uninhabited. At that time, a race of beings called the Elder Things -- which, confusingly, Lovecraft sometimes also called the Old Ones -- had colonized the planet, creating huge cities and possibly even creating the first life on Earth. The Great Old Ones waged war on the Elder Things, eventually leading to an uneasy truce. The Great Old Ones settled in the stone city of R'lyeh. They ruled the Earth for millions of years and were around when the first humans evolved.
In those prehistoric days, Cthulhu communicated with humans telepathically, and led them to ancient temples and sites where the humans found statues and artwork from other worlds. The Great Old Ones made the statues from materials that don't exist on our planet. Cults worshipping Cthulhu and the other ageless beings began to form.
Not long after the appearance of man, R'lyeh sank beneath the ocean, trapping the Old Ones inside. Small sections of mankind remembered the telepathic communications with Cthulhu and continued to worship him. Lovecraft writes of cults spread across the globe, from China to Greenland to the swamps of Louisiana. These cults repeat the alien chant, "ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!" Try saying that three times fast -- or at all, in fact.
Lovecraft explains that thought cannot penetrate the deep waters of the ocean, and so the Great Old Ones are left isolated from mankind, unable to influence them directly. They lay dormant in the city, awaiting the day when the stars will align and R'lyeh will break the ocean's surface once more. Lovecraft even gives the coordinates for R'lyeh in his story "The Call of Cthulhu." You would find the city at S 47° 9', W 126° 43' 47". Even the city's architecture is beyond the grasp of human understanding -- Lovecraft describes it as non-Euclidian, filled with strange angles and odd curved surfaces that seem concave one moment and convex the next.
In the next section, we'll look at some of Lovecraft's other creations in his mythology known as the Cthulhu mythos.
The Cthulhu Mythos
Fans of Lovecraft refer to his mythology as the Cthulhu mythos, despite the fact that Cthulhu himself isn't the most powerful creature within the pantheon of strange creatures Lovecraft imagined. We must point out, though, that Lovecraft wrote several stories and poems unconnected to the Cthulhu mythos. The really interesting thing about the mythos is that it hasn't just survived Lovecraft's own demise -- it has thrived.
Lovecraft created dozens of weird and malevolent creatures in his writings, and during his life he encouraged many of his writer friends to create their own stories within his fictional universe. Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer, and historians have preserved much of the correspondence he shared with other authors, including long discussions on the nature of his creations and how others could use them.Together with other authors, here are some of the creatures found within the strange world of the Cthulhu mythos:
- Azathoth - a being of boundless power and size who mindlessly reigns at the center of infinity
- Dagon - a god who fathered a race of creatures known as the Deep Ones, who appear to be part man, part fish. Dagon was not a Lovecraftian creation - he was the main deity of the Philistines
- Hastur - a malevolent deity, sometimes called "he who must not be named," because he was known to pop up whenever anyone said his name, usually in a really bad mood
- Nyarlathotep - aka the Crawling Chaos, the soul and messenger of the Other Gods (beings whose power dwarfs even that of the Great Old Ones), he has infinite shapes and forms and seems to have a malicious sense of humor
- Shoggoths - created by the Elder Things to act as slaves, these creatures could assume any shape with their gooey bodies
- Yog-Sothoth - the all-in-one god, who envelops all of existence and time, mentioned extensively in the mystical book the "Necronomicon"
There are dozens of other bizarre and terrible creations populating the Cthulhu mythos. Some creatures, like Yog-Sothoth, are so powerful and vast that they defy human comprehension. Others are less grand, but still are so antithetical to the human experience that to look upon one is to put your sanity in jeopardy. In other words, the Cthulhu mythos is pretty cool, but you wouldn't want to live there.
In the next section, we'll look at some of the real-life organizations formed to celebrate -- and in one case, worship -- the fictional Cthulhu mythos.
The Real Cult of Cthulhu
In Lovecraft's fiction, the various cults worshipping Cthulhu usually consist of primitive, or secluded groups of people who either believe that Cthulhu will usher in an era of chaos and uninhibited violence or that he will wipe out all humanity but will thoughtfully kill off the cult quickly and relatively painlessly. Either way, the return of Cthulhu for most people is thought of as a bad thing.
It sounds strange, but over the years there have been a few small "cults" that have actually formed around the Cthulhu mythos. Some of these cults combined Lovecraft's mythology with other beliefs, like Satanism, while others seem to accept that Cthulhu and his brethren are fictional, but subscribe to the philosophy that those fictional beings represent. There are also several Lovecraft fan organizations that use the term Cult of Cthulhu to describe their group, though they are more about celebrating works of fiction than promoting a particular world view.
As literary creations, Cthulhu and his ilk are less than a century old. It might seem odd that some people follow a religion based on a relatively young and reportedly fictional character. Some cult followers say their beliefs are supported by the "Necronomicon" and other books. Unfortunately for them, the "Necronomicon" is also one of Lovecraft's inventions. Several anonymous authors have written various hoax editions of the "Necronomicon."
One of these, often called the Simon edition for the pseudonym adopted by the author, says that Cthulhu comes from the Sumerian word Kutulu, seeming to give the cult of Cthulhu at least some historical legitimacy. Several researchers argue that Kutulu is not a proper Sumerian word at all and that "Simon" either created it or mistakenly used it to make Cthulhu seem like an ancient idea rather than the invention of a 20th century author.
Besides the multiple hoax "Necronomicon" editions, authors have created other books supporting the belief that the Cthulhu mythos isn't just a literary device. Darrick Dishaw, a personality in Lovecraft fandom, wrote his own Cult of Cthulhu Bible, mixing elements of the Mythos with Satanism and other philosophies. Critics allege that Dishaw at best wrote a disjointed book with conflicting ideas and at worst plagiarized material found elsewhere by other authors (mostly on Wikipedia). Dishaw responded to his critics with the claim that the material found elsewhere was, in fact, his own work.
Among those who acknowledge the fictitious nature of the Cthulhu mythos, there are those who follow the philosophy lying behind the fiction. Their view is that the extraterrestrial creatures in Lovecraft's stories are so cosmic in scope that humanity is beneath their notice. The creatures aren't so much malevolent as uncaring and uninterested. As humans, we are tiny in comparison -- these beings would view us as nothing more than a flea. To these people, the creatures represent cosmic and natural forces that have no minds of their own, yet can affect humanity even to the point of destruction. They hold the world view that mankind is an insignificant part of the universe, and that no matter what we might do, there are forces beyond our control or understanding that could wipe us out in an instant.
In the next section, we'll look at Cthulhu in geek culture.
Cthulhu Oughtta Be in Pictures
Cthulhu's popularity in film, television, comic books, games, musicals, songs and good old geek culture is astounding. Lovecraft managed to evoke an incredibly strong reaction in readers, particularly when you consider the fact that Cthulhu doesn't show up in very many Lovecraft stories. Maybe it's because Cthulhu is associated with the Earth, having been imprisoned here for thousands of years, or maybe his physical description taps into our primal senses of fear, disgust and fascination. Whatever the underlying reason, the result is that Cthulhu is a real Great Old One about town.
Cthulhu has clawed his way into an ever-growing subculture. When J.J. Abrams' sneak peek of his unnamed (as of press time) "1-18-08" film premiered in front of "The Transformers," Lovecraft fans immediately speculated that the destructive force was actually Cthulhu. As details slowly leak out, these fans have become ever hopeful that Cthulhu is, in fact, the monster in the film, despite statements from Abrams and others that the creature is an original concept created specifically for the film. Cthulhu fans point to the tiniest details as evidence supporting their theory, including the presence of an otherwise innocent-sounding "bloop" effect on one of the Web sites tied to the project.
That's how powerful Cthulhu really is -- he makes fans hope for a great translation to film even when the film's producer claims the movie isn't actually about Cthulhu. So far, the attempts to bring Cthulhu to the screen have met with mixed success. Actually, to be fair, they've mostly been met with ridicule and disgust by Lovecraft fans.
A few film festivals screened a movie simply titled "Cthulhu" in 2007, but reaction has been pretty negative across the board. A low-budget 2005 movie called "The Call of Cthulhu" attempts to bring the original Lovecraft story to life. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society produced the short film, which emulates the silent movies of the early days of cinema. Fan reaction has been mixed, and it seems that an appreciation of the silent film genre may be necessary to enjoy the movie.
The Cthulhu mythos also shows up in television shows. It seems that a lot of animators are big Lovecraft fans, as passing references to the Cthulhu mythos are in several cartoon series. You can catch characters talking about the "Necronomicon" in everything from "The Simpsons" to "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy."
There's even a musical set in Lovecraft's universe. Long said to be impossible to stage, the musical "A Shoggoth on the Roof" features a cast of doomed humans and horrifying creatures as they sing and dance their way to the show's conclusion. The original libretto and soundtrack parodied the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," which is part of the reason it's so hard to stage (it comes down to music rights). The other big reason it's hard to stage is because it's difficult to create a mountainous monster who destroys the entire set every night.
In the next section, we'll look at how Cthulhu has clawed his way into other realms of pop culture.
Call of Cthulhu
Cthulhu shows up in odd places, but one that isn't so bizarre is the role-playing game genre. In 1980, creators of the game Dungeons & Dragons included several creatures in the Cthulhu mythos in the resource guide called "Deities and Demigods." Unfortunately, they did so without knowing that Arkham Press, which owned the rights to Lovecraft's intellectual property, had already licensed the rights to Chaosium, Inc. Subsequent printings of the resource book excluded the Cthulhu mythos creatures.
Chaosium, however, went on to publish one of the most successful horror genre role-playing games ever. They called it "Call of Cthulhu," and designed a game rooted deeply in the Cthulhu mythos. Players assume the roles of normal people caught up in the nightmarish world of Lovecraft's imagination. Just like the characters in Lovecraft's stories, the best most characters can hope for is a quick death before they go completely insane. Characters must unravel mysteries knowing that just by gaining knowledge they put their own sanity at risk. A well-run game creates a sense of unease and paranoia among the players.
The "Call of Cthulhu" game is a pencil-and-paper role-playing game, meaning that each player has a character sheet that records what his character is capable of, what he's carrying and any other information necessary for the player to play. The arbiter of the game is called The Keeper, and he runs all the aspects of the game not directly controlled by the players. Together the Keeper and the players tell a story of terror and adventure.
There's also a video game called "Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth." In this game, you get a first-person perspective as you explore Lovecraft's universe, encountering otherworldly nightmares and fighting to survive. The Cthulhu mythos is a major influence in many other games as well, ranging from the serious ("The Lurking Horror") to the not-so-serious ("Discworld Noir").
If you go to any clothing store that caters to geeks, it's only a matter of time before you encounter a shirt that references Cthulhu. His ugly mug graces clothing, posters, comic books, bumper stickers and even toys. Something about this critter tickles the fancy.
Perhaps the fascination with Cthulhu is because part of us finds him to be a little silly, with his tentacle face and large wings, while another part of us feels that same cold, creeping dread Lovecraft seemed to communicate so well in his timeless stories. His appeal is both indefinable and undeniable. To that end: la, Ia, Cthulhu fhtagn. (Or, in human terms, "Cthulhu waits!")
For more information on Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Tuning in to a deep sea monster." CNN.com. June 13, 2002.
- Bloopwatch.org http://www.bloopwatch.org
- Cthulhu Files http://cthulhufiles.com
- Lovecraft, H.P. "The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories."Penguin Books. 1999.
- Papers from an Attic Window http://danharms.wordpress.com/
- Shoggoth.net http://www.shoggoth.net
- The H.P. Lovecraft Archive http://www.hplovecraft.com/