A Beginner’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.
There are two types of people in this world – those who can pronounce Cthulhu and those who cannot pronounce Cthulhu. There are two types of gamer in this world – those who like Cthulhu and those who do not like Cthulhu.
No matter where you turn, Cthulhu is everywhere these days. Whether you know about the Elder god or not, the odds are you are at least aware of the legacy Cthulhu has had on the modern world. Everything from board games to literature has been polluted by the octopus faced deity, giving way to everything from allusions in TV shows (look at Nightmares and Dreamscapes for examples in that) to Cthulhu-themed crockery.
The question is though – what is Cthulhu? Who is Cthulhu? And why has it had such a profound impact on the popular culture of today?
Who Created Cthulhu?
Cthulhu, it probably comes as no surprise, is part of a much larger mythos. It was created by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, better known simply as HP Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937), in the late 1920s. The whole mythos is based within our world, set around the great times of adventure (the late 1910s to late 1930s), when the final frontier had not yet been even thought of. Sorry, Gene Roddenberry. No, Cthulhu heralds from an era when men were manly, women were femme fatales, and cultists lurked around every corner.
Only, to Lovecraft, men were not stereotypically manly and women were not femme fatales. In an era of Pulp Fiction (the medium of literature, not the Tarantino movie) and Penny Dreadfuls (the medium of literature again, not the Eva Green TV series), Lovecraft wanted to focus on the weird and the wonderful rather than the blood and the boobs of similar fictions like Conan the Barbarian.
HP Lovecraft was a fairly sickly man, dying at the young age of 46, and a social recluse for most of his life. The Cthulhu mythos was his genius gift to the world, setting a series of stories around New England. This was where he lived and grew up, so he mixed reality and fantasy to create something truly unique. In this world monsters were more than mere mortals could handle, and madness had a commonplace amongst the poor victims who fell prey to the demons of the deep.
HP Lovecraft went to write over fifty different pieces of work within the Cthulhu mythos, a name given to the foul creature which is actually barely mentioned in the text itself. Something about Cthulhu though managed to spark the imaginations of millions and now Cthulhu has entered popular culture as a figurehead for a whole universe – a universe based in New England.
The Cthulhu Mythos is almost unashamedly set in New England. Real place names are regularly mentioned throughout the Lovecraftian stories, including Ipswitch, Bolton, and Salem. These form the backbone for a realistic universe, while fictional locations spatter the landscape to add a sense of wonder to the writing. These include the, now famous, Miskatonic University set in the (now even more famous) Arkham. Yes, Lovecraft was the inspiration for the famous Batman madhouse – Arkham Asylum.
Aside from these, Lovecraft drew inspiration from the great adventure stories of the day. He sent his heroes into the Pyramids, to Antartica, and under the great oceans in submarines. These gave him the backdrop for some of his crazier stories, including The Call of Cthulhu, in which our tentacle-faced god was found for the first time by adventurers within great underground caverns.
What made Lovecraft amazing though was that he helped blend the surreal with the everyday world. Some of his best stories, like with Edgar Allan Poe (whose works are more iconic in literary circles, but who failed to gain the same cult status), happen within the confines of a small house or village. The Dunwich Horror is one such story which is, in my opinion, more impressive and fun than The Call of Cthulhu. It mainly takes place in three locations – a hill side, the Miskatonic University, and in a big house in Dunwich. A really, really big house. A house so big – it can hold a god.
Within the Miskatonic University is the book – The Necronomicon. It is the book which apparently holds the secrets to the universe, holding all the incantations and summoning spells for the gods. It is often the name given to collections of Lovecraft’s work in the real world.
But Who Are The Elder Gods?
I suppose “Who are the Elder Gods?” is a bit of a non-question. Realistically the question should be: “What are the Elder Gods?”
The Elder Gods are interdimensional beings who hold the secret to the complete destruction of the universe, existing beyond that which we know as existence and into a whole meta-universe of their own. None of them are traditionally “Good” or “Evil”, but instead they exist within their own moral code. This moral code can, by us, be deemed as pretty damn bad, however, to them it is the bread and butter of life. Cthulhu is the gate keeper, however, he is but one. There are over fifty different Elder Gods in the Cthulhu mythos, each with a weird name and each behaving in a different way. Most are just alluded to, but a few have a primary place within the mythos of the Lovecraftian world.
To begin with, though, you only need to know of three basic Elder Gods, of which Cthulhu is one. The others are Yog-Sothoth (who first appeared in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but is later a big part of The Dunwich Horror), and Azathoth (who appears in a few of Lovecraft’s works) who, by artists’ representations, are more or less the same visually speaking. These (in my opinion) are three big bad beasts of interdimensional doom, that help support the pinnacle of Lovecraft’s work. Cthulhu, as mentioned before, is the gate keeper. What people fear most is his waking, not because he is particularly terrifying in his own right (he is, but that is beyond the point) but because his waking means the other fifty odd gods have the potential to break through to this realm we call our home.
Physically speaking, it is fairly easy to see why Cthulhu, as opposed to others like Yog-Sothoth, has become the poster thing for the Lovecraftian universe. Not only is he (/she/it) the most physically unique, but Cthulhu has one of the easiest names to pronounce. I realise that is saying something since ‘cthu’ is not a natural sound in any western language, but it is still one of the easier ones to say and, in a related manner, remember.
The other two of these three primary gods, are less distinctive but still incredible in their own way. Yog-Sothoth is the primary villain in The Dunwich Horror, one of the quintessential Lovecraftian stories about transmutation and inner turmoil. His Terran appearance is actually invisible; however, in other dimensions, he looks a little bit like a bowl of spaghetti. He is the grandfather of Cthulhu and, coincidentally, the grandchild of Azathoth. He is an all seeing, all knowing, Outer god.
Azathoth, another bowl of spaghetti looking mass of tentacles, is one of the original gods, and considered the “Nuclear of Chaos”. He/she/it is one of the first few gods, and the father of darkness itself. That is why Azathoth is so important, and he is often referred to in stories as the center of what is outside of the universe.
So there you have a grandfather (Azathoth), parent (Yog-Sothoth) and child (Cthulhu) in a great lineage of doom, destruction, and the fate of the world. They are all knowing, all powerful, and hold the doors to the greatest evil ever thought up.
But Why is Cthulhu So Popular?
Let’s take a look at that question, however, in order to answer it we need to look at the mythos as a whole. Why is the Cthulhu Mythos so popular? Well, I think there are a few primary reasons.
Firstly, until fairly recently, the Cthulhu mythos was relatively untouched. Yes, there has been the occasional foray into Lovecraft’s realm of nightmare and doom (Call of Cthulhu the RPG for instance), but generally speaking, it hasn’t been used as much as other properties. This is partly because it is relatively obscure, and being a part of Pulp Fiction potentially meant it wasn’t held in as high regard as other works that made it in the traditional novel form. Recently, however, there has been a Lovecraftian renaissance, wherein the world has started being explored more for what it is.
Most importantly though, Lovecraft is weird. He is wonderful. His work is every kind of awful it could be – full of awe and terrifying. Lovecraftian horror, unlike a lot of old horrors (Poe for instance), can still make your stomach turn to this day. This is because it is not just macabre but weird. It sets the imagination loose.
So much of Lovecraft is just so bizarre that it really makes you ask questions about what we really know in the universe. It’s not every day you read a mainstream author who talks about a man’s head growing goatish features with tentacles growing out of it, with his stomach erupting into a hundred more tentacles, spewing a black festering substance. Yep. Weird.
This weirdness has spurred on the imagination of the gaming world (and this is ultimately why I wrote about it for this blog). In recent years we have seen iteration after iteration of Lovecraftian-themed games. These range across all forms of mechanics, from dice games to card games to board games to tabletop RPGs. You name a mechanic and there is a Lovecraft game to match. The Lovecraft theme has helped make the modern gaming world what it is today, with companies like Fantasy Flight (with games like Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror) leading the charge.
That is the journey we have seen. Lovecraft has gone from Pulp Fiction to obscurity, and then back to the mainstream. He is becoming more and more prominent in the gaming world. It is here he has had a rebirth of his own, coming back into the lime light after 50 years in relative shadow.
What this means I will save for another post, but for now, I for one am glad the Cthulhu renaissance happened.