Notes on Cthulhu by Thomas V. Powers

It has been two years since my young friend Vincent Delapoer disappeared in a remote region of New England under circumstances that can only be termed as suspicious. Missing and presumed dead by the authorities, he left little behind except his books and these notes; mere fragments of what was intended to become his master thesis in anthropology. Being the executor of his estate, it has become my melancholy duty to attempt to publish what is left of those tattered pages, for it was his stated wish. Lost are his revisions, footnotes and many extensive quotations from rare books and reports, which I am completely unqualified to reconstruct.

I know now I was his only close friend, and, as it was, we met by chance in a used bookstore. We were both looking for books on outré subjects; my interest was in fiction and his in fact. This, and the common origin of our family names (both from De la Poer, the noble family of Norman origin -- although my forebears were of the more well-known branch domiciled in Ireland) led to a warm fellowship in which I often served as an avuncular advisor for my idealistic and often naïve friend. I think it was his unworldly nature that led to his mysterious fate. I believe he was killed for the few hundred dollars in cash he carried with him on that final trip, his attempt to make contact with modern practitioners of what he believed to be a misunderstood and persecuted religion. Whether he ever actually reached the individual or group whose identity he was so secretive about I can only guess, but I hate to think that he met foul play from that source, for he was such a kindhearted and trusting person that the cruel irony of such an end would have been far too much for him to ever understand.

Cthulhu (most commonly pronounced Thool-hoo) has been either worshipped as a god or feared as a devil by cultures as varied as arctic circle Eskimos and south sea islanders. He is part of a pantheon of beings referred to as the "Great Old Ones" or the "Elder Gods." There is mounting evidence that the legends of these entities may have formed the basis of a primal religion that may be as old as mankind. There are some indications that this proto-religion may even predate the arrival of Homo Sapiens.

The extreme age of articles relating to Cthulhu and the Old Ones is a point of great contention among scholars. The Great Old Ones are mentioned in the early Sumerian Tablets of Pnakos (Circa 4000 BC), but they are referred to in such veiled terms as to provide little useful information. Other than a few fragments concerning the pre-dynastic god Nyarlathotep (also Nyarloth-Hotep), whose worship was revived by Queen Nitocris and her followers, we have few hints of the importance of the Elder mythology to Egyptian culture. The Egyptians were so thorough in destroying records pertaining to the Old Ones that one can prove only that they once had records of them to destroy. There are few direct references to them in any standard versions of the Bible, with the notable exception of Dagon, the god of the Canaanites and the Philistines. In some areas Dagon was a god of agriculture, in others a fisherman's god. In either case, he was regarded as a relatively benevolent deity who insured bountiful food to his followers. Dagon has been clearly identified as part of the Cthulhu Myth cycle. In island cultures Dagon is often described as being closely related to Cthulhu, sometimes as his high priest or living avatar. This is an important point, for in almost every case the legends of Cthulhu refer to him as a long dead sea god.

In the astonishingly consistent and widespread lore associated with this now obscure deity, Cthulhu is an object of fear and/or devotion even though he is dead. He is said to lie entombed on an island named R'lyeh (Ruh-lay ) that sank beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean millennia ago. This is an interesting tie to the fates of the fabled Lemuria and Atlantis. There are tales contained within the Myth cycle which claim the legendary lost continent itself sank due to its worship and use of the black arts learned from the evil old Ones. (It is significant to note that the farther one gets from the sea, the more likely Cthulhu is to be regarded as a devil, rather than a god.)

If Cthulhu is dead, why does his legend live? When investigating Cthulhu one phrase comes up with stunning regularity: "In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu lies dreaming." Now, after decades of academic neglect, we are getting closer to the reasons why so many peoples in so many different parts of the world found his mythos so compelling. Known to the early Mayans as Kutulut and to the American Indians of the Southwest as Tulu, Cthulhu is pictured as a titanic entity with the body of a man, the legs and wings of a dragon, and with a head which resembles a squid or octopus. It might be more accurate to say that the head is more often depicted as distortedly human, with tentacles sprouting from the lower face and jaw. This explains why Cthulhu is occasionally called "serpent-bearded" (cf. Byatis). He is remembered as the high priest of the old Ones -- and the ancient nemesis of the more benevolent gods that are better known to us today. For the Old Ones, as their name implies, were considered to be very ancient indeed.

The legends state that Cthulhu and the Elder Gods were old when they came down from the stars when the Earth was new, long before the coming of man. After many eons of rule some cataclysm, possibly astronomical in nature, caused them to lose their dominance of Earth. (Legends vary as to whether this was before or after the arrival of mankind.) Some fled back to the worlds of their origins, some into other planes of existence, and some -- such as Cthulhu -- 'died,' and were entombed by their servants, who were not necessarily human. These 'dead' gods were still somehow able to influence living beings. The legends go on to say that early men were often compelled to offer sacrifices and otherwise tend to the gods' desires while they "slept," planning on their return when "the stars were right." Then unexpectedly the places where the gods were entombed either sank beneath the waves, or were dragged underground by earthquakes. These incidents ended the reign of the Old Ones, for their supernatural influence was lost, or at least greatly reduced. But Cthulhu was not wholly forgotten, for as he waits dreaming, so he lived on in the dreams of mankind.

The tale of Cthulhu and the Old Ones related above was culled largely from the oral traditions of Mesoamerican and Pacific Rim peoples, stories which were not part of the general lore, but reserved for chiefs and shamans. It also corresponds almost exactly with details of primitive peoples in Europe, and those which can be found in the once largely discredited Necronomicon, a tome supposedly by the 7th century poet and philosopher Abd Alhazred (or Abdullah Hazred), which contains the often quoted couplet: "That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons even death may die." The book was thought to have been exposed in 1947 as a 17th century hoax, based on a mixture of ancient Phoenician and Arabic superstitions, alchemical lore, and early explorers' accounts of the odd beliefs of 'savages.' Recent discoveries have proved that the Necronomicon had a bona fide existence prior to the publication of the error-ridden and expurgated 17th century edition of Dr. John Dee, which was judged to be fraudulent.

Researchers have found numerous references in documents dating back to the 11th century that an Alhazred of Yemen did in fact write a document called the Al Azif (or Kitab al-Azif) circa AD 730, which concerned both myth and science. (The title refers to the "cries of demons;" or more precisely to the noises made by insects that people likened to the cries of demons.) This book was translated into Greek as the Necronomicon. The term Necronomicon is generally translated as The Book of the Dead, although some sources refer to it as the Images of the Dead, or the Laws of the Dead. But no matter what the book was called, it was always a cause of controversy and secrecy. The Al Azif was thought to be a work of evil from its very inception. During the time that Alhazred was purported to have been writing it, his reputation changed from one of reverence to repugnance. Possibly apocryphal accounts say he began to act like a madman, and at the time of his death claims were made that he was torn apart in the market place by some invisible demon. Certainly efforts were made to erase his existence, as all of his other works were destroyed and only the Al Azif escaped.

Theodorus Philetas, who is said to have been the Greek translator of Alhazred's tome in AD 950, insisted that only scholars known for their ethics should be allowed to consult the Necronomicon. The Roman Catholic Church considered the book to be so dangerous that it was forbidden to translate the book into Latin. Of course it was eventually, by Wormius the Elder in 1228 -- and was quickly suppressed. Already the book was incomplete, as it was based on various surviving Greek fragments. No authenticated copy of the original Arabic version is known to exist.

The Latin version touched off a furor which lasted for centuries; some scholars believe that it may have contributed greatly to the witchcraft frenzy that gripped Europe in the middle ages, and may even have helped bring about the Inquisition. This is a difficult position to justify, as the content has relatively little to do with the witchcraft tradition or Satanism as it is commonly thought of today. An argument can be made that certain aspects or occult practice were taken from the Elder religion, such as the ritual calendar specified in the Necronomicon. It has been speculated that the book was so secretly and surreptitiously circulated that even high church officials were forbidden to read it, if indeed they ever saw a copy, and were content to base their persecutions on local folklore and prejudices of the time.

Ironically, the church seemed to have missed most of the few actual reoccurrences of this pantheistic religion (such as in Averoigne, France; where devotees of the Old One Yog-Sothoth are said to have made over one hundred human sacrifices during the 16th and 17th centuries), and instead concentrated on relatively harmless herbal healers, dimwitted practitioners of barely remembered fertility rites, and religious dissenters.

In any case, it can be shown now that the worship of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods did exist, and it was extremely ancient and widespread. It is thought from study of anthropological evidence and from what few written records are preserved that widespread belief in the Elder pantheon died out over four thousand years ago in the old world, with the exception of a few shunned and isolated cults. The Romans reported instances of the old religion as recently as the 3rd century in remote areas of England and Ireland. According to letters from officers, the practitioners were looked on with such revulsion by their neighbors that the locals were eager to help the hated Roman occupation forces in wiping them out. The very complete eradication of such enclaves makes serious study of them difficult, especially since the accounts left by the Roman military commanders generally refused to describe the rites of the cultists. What was written about the encounters is so salted with supernatural encounters as to make them useless as anything but folklore. Some have speculated that the Roman cult of the Magna Mater is connected with that of the Elder fertility goddess Shub-Niggurath, but the historical record does not seem to support that notion. It is, however, possible that the Magna Mater cults which sprang up in the British Isles were strongly influenced by the Elder religion.

If the religion had disappeared in any significant way before the rise of Christianity in the Old World, this was not the case in other areas of the world. In the Americas there is evidence that there were pockets of Cthulhu worshipers among the Mayans, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs -- and were just as hated and warred upon as their European brethren.

In North America a number of Native American tribes have stories of strange peoples whom worshipped fearful gods. Their histories claim that these people were generally avoided rather than made targets of aggression and that they died out largely due to their own evil (and purportedly cannibalistic) practices. This is supposed to have occurred, in the main part, long before the first white men came. However, many stories maintain that the "Weird Ones" survived in underground dwellings and demon-haunted forests, and that those who came upon them would disappear forever -- or worse, come back filled with their evil. In the northern United States and Canada there are tales that a few still existed as recently as early Colonial times, and there is some archeological evidence to support this notion. Native American tradition insists that these so-called "Weird Ones" were not the same race as what we call American Indians, that in fact they were not considered to be human. This is a natural tendency among tribal peoples; a number of Native American tribal names mean "the human beings." But there is a possibility that the Cthulhu worshipers were in fact not indigenous to North America. The Misqat Indians of New England called these people the Cho-tow, which brings to mind the now believed extinct Tcho-Tcho people (who once ranged from Tibet to Burma) which the Comté d'Erlette identified as the hidden masters of the cult of the old Ones in his Cultes de Goules (1703). (It should be noted that the Tcho-Tcho did not venerate Cthulhu, and instead called upon Nyarlathotep and Hastur (a relatively minor god) instead.)

In the south pacific the belief in Cthulhu persisted in some remote island dwellers into the late 19th century. They would tell fascinated traders and horrified missionaries of Great Cthulhu and Father Dagon, who would provide a plenitude of fish and gold in exchange for eternal worship and servitude. It was considered best to have as little as possible to do with the followers of the Sea God, for they were as unpredictable as they were strange in appearance. (Sketches show islanders with odd, protuberant eyes, possibly due to pituitary disease, and abnormally wide mouths, giving them an almost batrachian appearance.) Religious authorities were both alarmed and mystified that the Philistine god was known of and an object of worship by remote islanders on the other side of the world, and it is a wonder that the matter did not become widely known. One must suppose that the missionaries at the time were satisfied that the Polynesian followers of Dagon were quite small in number, and relieved when their few enclaves were wiped out through tribal warfare in the 1840's to early 1850's. A dubious gain for western values of the time, but what a loss to anthropology!

From all of the preceding one might assume that the ancient religion is now defunct, but this may well be a premature notion. It is known that the Cthulhu cult survived into the 20th century in the United States. A large group was arrested in a police raid in the Louisiana Bayous south of New Orleans on November 1, 1907. Nearly fifty individuals confessed involvement in multiple murders, kidnapping, and human sacrifice. There was ample physical evidence to support the charges, along with eyewitness accounts. Due to mental incompetence, most were committed to psychiatric institutions, and never formally brought to trial. Little information reached the public concerning these events.

The post World War I period saw a great resurgence in the worship of the old Ones. There were cases of odd cult activity all around the world, many of which can be connected to the Cthulhu cult in particular. In late 1927 through l928 the United States government put the town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts under martial law. The town was said to have been a plague site, but rumors persisted that the entire town had fallen into the control of a fanatical cult. Both stories contain an element of truth. According to files released through the Freedom of Information Act, the town of Innsmouth had become a totalitarian theocracy under the control of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, and many of its inhabitants carried an infectious disease which was provisionally identified as some form of Acromegalic Leprosy. Testimony from a number of residents established that the religion had been brought to the seaside village in the 1840's by south sea traders, who also brought with them wives from Ponape and nearby islands. It would seem that some followers of Dagon escaped the internecine warfare, which decimated their tribes, and thus came to America. Unfortunately their mixed race descendants fared little better then their brethren.

In one of the most shameful and hidden acts of United States history the members of the Esoteric Order were essentially placed in internment camps, supposedly for their health. There they did receive treatment, but many were also forced to undergo bizarre physical and psychiatric testing and involuntary sterilization -- undoubtedly to prevent further miscegenation. Unusually high numbers of patients were given lobotomies, and there are no real records to indicate where these individuals were eventually placed. Many of those who were released were not permitted to go back to the town, which was left under the control of a small naval garrison. Many records pertaining to Innsmouth are still unobtainable today as they are, for some reason, still considered to be matters of National Security. Some will point to a cover-up of unsavory official actions, but it is true that the area did become a military test area. For that reason, one can't go to Innsmouth today, as constant arms testing on and off shore undermined the limestone foundations of the town, causing it to slowly fall into the sea in the years between 1943- 46. The town of Innsmouth no longer exists.

Information concerning the Cthulhu Myth cycle and rare books such as the Necronomicon has been very hard to gain access to for many years. There are a number of reasons for this. Beginning in the late 1920's and with increasing regularity in the 1930's, copies of the books were stolen or mutilated, and they were placed under severe restrictions. The startling resurgences of the cult religion made libraries very apprehensive.

There was also a proliferation of pulp magazine horror stories based on distortions and exaggerations of cult-related incidents and excerpts from the Necronomicon, Cultes des Goules, Von Unausprechlichen Kulten, and other similar works. These stories blended fact and fiction in a skillful and sensationalistic way, and pretended that the Old Ones actually existed, and were soon to take over the world. (Interestingly enough, the initiator of these tales stated that the gods were not supernatural entities, but ancient extraterrestrials -- somewhat like a malevolent version of Von Daniken's theories. Suddenly it seemed that no one wanted to discuss or even admit the existence of the books or the cults -- partly from fear of seeming to credit the validity of the material, and also to discourage a large variety of sometimes violent cranks who had read and believed the pulp stories, or fancied themselves prospective cult members. The suspicions of fraud concerning the Necronomicon in particular helped create a kind of academic taboo concerning the entire subject matter, which became firmly entrenched by the time the book was 'debunked' in 1947.

To this day most authorities seem either unaware of the Myth Cycle, or to believe it to be nothing more than a hoax played upon the credulous, comparable to the Theosophical and New Age movements. The fact that much of the material was confiscated and/or destroyed during World War II, consigned to forgotten restricted stacks, is a great shame and every effort should be made to make it available to researchers. The time is right for serious study of what may well be the prototype of all of mankind's religions.

This is my own little version of the Lovecraft Mythos. Please forgive (or ignore) any errors or discrepancies from previously established or generally agreed upon Mythos conventions. For example, I am aware that a number of writers have set tales in a contemporary Innsmouth -- it is my fictional conceit that those stories actually take place in a new town a bit further inland from the original Innsmouth.

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© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"Notes on Cthulhu": © 1998 Thomas V. Powers. All rights reserved.
Title Graphic © 1998 Thomas V. Powers. All rights reserved.
Nightscapes Graphic © 1998 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004