As we count down to the release of Cthulhu in World Mythology, which should be available in the Kindle and Nook stores in the next day or so at the latest, I thought it might be an interesting time to take a look at how the pseudoscience and fringe history of the 1920s influenced H. P. Lovecraft in his creation of the Cthulhu Mythos.
The most obvious source for Lovecraft’s fictional universe is Theosophy, which Lovecraft specifically name-checks at the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), where he writes that “Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle…” Although Lovecraft knew Theosophy primarily secondhand, he was able to distill the post-Blavatsky developments in Theosophy, particularly those of Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, down to their essence. In “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (1935), written with (read: for) William Lumley, Lovecraft summarized Theosophy in terms that were, in short, the germ of the modern ancient astronaut theory:
The genesis of the world, and of previous worlds, unfolded itself before my eyes. I learned of the city Shamballah, built by the Lemurians fifty million years ago, yet inviolate still behind its walls of psychic force in the eastern desert. I learned of the Book of Dzyan, whose first six chapters antedate the earth, and which was old when the lords of Venus came through space in their ships to civilise our planet.
(Copies of all the Lovecraft stories referenced in this article can be found here.)
The Book of Dzyan was a hoax created by Helena Blavatsky, supposedly translated from ancient texts in an Indian monastery recording pre-human events. Attentive readers will remember it from Erich von Däniken’s Gods from Outer Space (1970), where he takes it for a genuine pre-human text. Lemuria, too, was a Theosophy favorite, an imaginary lost continent they placed in dim prehistory—here married to the Tibetan myth known best in English as Shangri-La. But the Lords of Venus flying in space ships? That was a post-Blavatsky development, one tied to her followers, particularly Annie Besant.
Besant, a women’s rights activist, and her partner C. W. Leadbeater added a great deal of literalizing to Blavatsky’s more ethereal claims, particularly in transforming the vaguely-defined Ascended Masters into more specifically physical extraterrestrials. In 1909, Besant and Leadbeater, who had been recently restored to his post after pedophilia accusations, had identified a 14-year-old boy (but of course) as Theosophy’s next World Teacher, the very incarnation of the alien beings. They also identified ancient heroes and gods, including Heracles and the Buddha, as extraterrestrials from the moon, from Mars, and other heavenly bodies in their 1913 book Man: Whence, How and Whither. I’d quote from it, but their writing is so confusing that it would take the whole blog post just to explain what they were talking about.
The long and short of it is that they envisioned beings from the Moon, Mars, and Venus sending “ship-loads” of souls, “basket-works,” and supplies to the earth, something on the order of Scientology’s thetans traveling to earth in a giant airplane. The key event was the coming of the “Lords of the Flame from Venus” to the earth in chariots “shooting tongues of flame” (i.e., yes, the “chariots of the gods”!). They landed on the White Island in the sea that became the Gobi desert (probably paraphrased from reference to the same in the Vishnu Purana [2.4], or the Mahabharata [12.337]), and their leader—who, of course, was a “youth of sixteen summers”—founded a secret “occult hierarchy” and civilized the earth. This, they said, was recorded in secret in the Sanskrit texts, for those with eyes to read them correctly.
The aliens then genetically engineered whole races of beings and sent “shiploads” of souls from their home world to take mental possession of these vessels on Lemuria.
In 1930, A. E. Powell, writing in a Theosophical tract on The Solar System, repeated the claim in a more accessible form, slightly misquoting Besant and Leadbetter on the White Island. This is only interesting because Powell’s version appears verbatim in George Adamski’s and Desmond Leslie’s classic UFO book Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953). I discussed this several years ago.
Attentive readers will of course recognize the concept of alien races seizing control of human minds from the Great Race of Yith featured in Lovecraft’s Shadow Out of Time (1931), which also offers a similar depth of time for the deep prehistory of the earth.
Similarly, Besant’s and Leadbeater’s cosmic view of various races of aliens descending to earth and inspiring successive waves of earth life, from plants to dinosaurs, to humans, is near-exactly paralleled in Lovecraft’s description of prehistory in At the Mountains of Madness (1935), where the Old Ones (Elder Things) and later the Cthulhu Spawn descend on the earth, create various earthly life forms, and finally create humans.
Lovecraft, of course, did not think there was any reality to Theosophy, just a bunch of hot air. In a letter to William Conover he said as much: “The crap of the theosophists, which falls into the class of conscious fakery, is interesting in spots. It combines some genuine Hindoo and other Oriental myths with a subtle charlatanism obviously drawn from nineteenth century scientific concepts.” Lovecraft would know; he, too, used Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis and other source texts beloved of Theosophists in creating his own fiction. His conclusion about conscious fakery applies equally as well to the ancient astronaut theories derived from Theosophy and, via Morning of the Magicians, Lovecraft’s own adaptation of the same.
One of the major problems Lovecraft faced was that Theosophy fetishized the East and all the Eastern faiths. For someone as virulently racist as Lovecraft, that made it an uncomfortable source for fiction, and this is something that bleeds over into his work. The believers in the Cthulhu cult are primarily non-white, and even those who are white are in thrall to Eastern faiths, whether they be Mesopotamian devil worship (“The Horror at Red Hook”), Egyptian mysteries (“The Haunter if the Dark”), or Polynesian polytheism (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). It’s a leitmotif throughout Lovecraft—white Anglo-Saxon culture is fragile and can maintain its civilization and hegemony only by actively suppressing the truth and downplaying the accomplishments of non-white peoples, who are, symbolically, also the aliens or allied to them. Thus, the Necronomicon—pointedly written by a “mad” Arab—must be kept under lock and key. Thus, too, the U.S. government destroys Innsmouth, and scholars suppress the accounts of the Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica and willfully destroy or hide archaeological evidence of the Old Ones. This is not an organized conspiracy, however, for a university sponsored the Antarctic expedition, and a meeting of archaeologists tried to analyze the star-forged idol of Cthulhu; instead, it is the individual’s dawning realization of the peril faced by Anglo-Saxon high culture that leads to suppression and destruction. This is the very opposite of modern fringe theories, which imagine a conspiracy working to impose non-white views and destroy Anglo-Saxon culture, but the same cultural panic remains.
Nowhere is this clearer than in examining the theme of the tainted lineage in Lovecraft—and here the taint isn’t just race per se but the entire history of the primitive and the wild associated with pre-modern culture, the nemesis of Anglo-Saxon civilization as Lovecraft knew it. In the 1920 short story “Arthur Jermyn,” the titular WASP literally burns himself alive after learning that his ancestor was a white gorilla from Africa, a none-too-subtle symbol of miscegenation, made worse by the fact that the black Africans worship the mummy of this white ape as a goddess. (It was probably inspired by Edgar Rice Burrows’s human-ape hybrid African race from the Tarzan novels.) The Royal Anthropological Institute destroys the mummy to protect all of white civilization from the taint. In “The Quest of Iranon,” the title blond Aryan youth shrivels up and dies when he learns he is not in fact nobility but a mere commoner. In “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), the narrator goes mad after discovering that the veneer of his WASP civilization hides primitive, pre-Roman ancestral cannibalism. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) a young man is possessed by an evil ancestor who consorted with Yog-Sothoth. In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931), another WASP finds himself driven to madness upon discovering that he is not a pure Caucasian but instead bears some Polynesian ancestry, which in this story takes the form of an evil colonial-era mermaid. And on it goes for many more stories, not counting his revisions, but you get the idea. In every case the theme is the same: WASP civilization, and even WASP blood (what we would call genes today), is so fragile that a single tainted ancestor could bring down the entire house of cards from the micro-level (the individual’s pristine Aryan body) to the macro-level (WASP high culture). The only way out is madness or repression: “we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
But Lovecraft didn’t limit himself to just theosophical and racial claims, as widespread as they were. He also had a detailed knowledge of innumerable fringe history claims from his own time and earlier eras. As a Rhode Islander, he was thoroughly familiar with the fringe claims made for Gov. Benedict Arnold’s old stone windmill, better known as the Newport Tower. In an unused fragment in his commonplace book, later incorporated by August Derleth into The Lurker at the Threshold, Lovecraft created an exaggerated version of the Tower, expanding its legend from Viking to pre-human: “S. of Arkham is cylindrical tower of stone with conical roof — perhaps 12 feet across & 20 ft. high. There has been a great arched opening ( up?), but it is sealed with masonry. […] Indian legends speak of it as existing as long as they could remember — supposed to be older than mankind.”
But here we see something else: Lovecraft took over from the Mound Builder myth the idea that Native Americans—indeed all peoples who are not upper-class WASPs—are benighted recipients of the boons delivered from Outside. We can perhaps see a clear example of this in “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) where the strange stone circles found crowning the hillsides are officially the work of Native people, but only to hide the Caucasian truth: “Deposits of skulls and bones, found within these circles and around the sizeable table-like rock on Sentinel Hill, sustain the popular belief that such spots were once the burial-places of the Pocumtucks; even though many ethnologists, disregarding the absurd improbability of such a theory, persist in believing the remains Caucasian.” Here Lovecraft was probably drawing on popular ideas that rock formations found in New England were Viking tumuli or the work of Bronze Age Europeans. He took this claim to its obvious extreme in “The Mound” (1930), written for Zealia Bishop, in which Lovecraft makes Native people deny any connection to the great mounds and instead assigns them to an alien race living below ground. The germ of the idea, from Bishop, involved very real colonial era folklore that the mounds were haunted by Native American ghosts, but Lovecraft, even in employing Native Americans in his story, removed them from history by making them witnesses and adjuncts to the alien race in their midst—the very essence of the Mound Builder myth that was still popular among racists in the 1920s, despite having been conclusively proved wrong in 1894.
Of all of this, though, there was one thing Lovecraft found too ridiculous even to apply to his fictional world: The Tucson Lead Artifacts. These hoax crosses and other artifacts, written in a crude pastiche of Latin and Hebrew, were found in 1924 and supposedly detailed the flight of Jews from Rome to Arizona in the eighth century CE. Lovecraft, writing six years later, misremembered where the lead crosses had been found, but he knew they were unbelievable, even in a world of alien gods, calling them “the leaden crosses in New Mexico, which a jester once planted and pretended to discover as a relique of some forgotten Dark Age colony from Europe.”
Lovecraft almost certainly read about them in the local New York papers in 1925. On December 13, the New York Times, for example, had a front-page story about the lead crosses, and the headline stated bluntly that “Serious Doubt Expressed” and that the Metropolitan Museum’s “Mr. Bashford Dean Calls Them Forgeries.” Although the article was balanced between skeptics and believers, to Lovecraft’s skeptical eye, Dean’s statement must have impressed itself upon him: “The crowns shown on these figures are not accurate representations of an early period. The shapes of the swords are childish, crudely designed, evidently after some imperfectly pictured Roman swords.” The Times further noted a rash of other forgeries plaguing Arizona at the time. The story was covered for nearly a week, and within three days when Frank Fowler, the great Classicist, reported that all of the Latin on the crosses came from quotations from Classical authors as routinely given in “Latin grammars.” Indeed, later research would confirm that fact. He also noted that the references to “Gaul” instead of “Gallia” could not have occurred before 1600 CE. In short, by December 16, it was impossible for a well-educated man to believe the story of the lead crosses at face value. The only doubt was whether the hoax had occurred in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, or 1900s.
Lovecraft wasn’t going to puncture the tentative verisimilitude of his stories with a hoax this crude and silly—which is going some since Atlantis, Lemuria, and Venusian spaceships were all acceptably silly!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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