The eBook for Cthulhu in World Mythology is now live and for sale at Amazon.com, and it will be other outlets soon, with a print edition to follow later in the month. As you get ready to read it, I thought I’d direct your attention to an interesting blog post over at A Few Years in the Absolute Elsewhere. It’s an elegantly written and thought-provoking examination of the connection between H. P. Lovecraft and occultism that I think, ultimately, comes to some incorrect conclusions.
But first let’s talk about some of what is very interesting in this discussion by “Tristan Eldritch.” Eldritch discusses the Theosophical concept of the akashic record and Edgar Cayce’s Atlantean “Hall of Records” and relates both to themes and ideas found in the work of H. P. Lovecraft. The akashic record is the imaginary recording of all universal wisdom somewhere in another dimension. The Hall of Records supposedly was a library hidden beneath the Sphinx.
Eldritch compares these storehouses of ancient wisdom to the records of the lost civilizations of the Cthulhu Mythos—the lizard people of the “Nameless City,” the Great Race of Yith in “The Shadow Out of Time,” and, I would add, the Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madnesss, all of whom recorded their histories in great libraries of either books of wall carvings and murals. Superficially, the Shadow Out of Time seems to reflect Cayce in that the story concerns an underground chamber filled with prehistoric records, more or less exactly like the underground chamber Cayce thought had been made beneath the Sphinx in 10,600 BCE.
However, so far as I can tell, Cayce began speculating about the Hall of Records in the 1930s, while Lovecraft had developed his concept piecemeal over the preceding two decades. In “Dagon” (1917), Lovecraft first introduced the concept of ancient masonry bearing prehistoric records in an unknown script. It appears on a “Cyclopean monolith,” whose “writing was in a system of hieroglyphics unknown to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen in books; consisting for the most part of conventionalised aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, molluscs, whales, and the like.” In “The Nameless City” (1921), this had become the reptilian people’s long halls covered in hieroglyphs and pictographs, something repeated in At the Mountains of Madness (1931). By the time of The Shadow Out of Time (1935), there was now a physical library of books.
In the earliest form, though, Lovecraft was not riffing on Theosophy as much as he was creating an aquatic analogue to ancient but very real bas relief carvings and their fictional counterparts. He specifically relates the ancient text of “Dagon” to what he had read in “Poe or Bulwer,” referring to very specific material: In Poe’s A. Gordon Pym, the characters discover “singular-looking indentures in the surface of the marl” later determined to be ancient Ethiopian writing. The idea of Antarctic carvings reappears, along with Pym’s infamous “Tekeli-li,” in At the Mountains of Madness. Bulwer’s Coming Race similarly features the idea of a visitor to a lost underground civilization delving into questions of linguistics through which the true racial history of the strange civilization is revealed.
The idea of such ancient libraries of wisdom, however, predated these authors. Poe derived his, in part, from an earlier story Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery (1820) in which Capt. Adam Seaborn (probably a pseudonym for John Cleves Symmes) visits the hollow earth kingdom of Symzonia and, among other things, visits their great library containing all manner of histories. He has his own works translated and added to the library.
But these are mere late versions of a theme dating back to Antiquity. Euhemerus made use of the theme in his description of Panchaea, an imaginary paradise where he “learned” how the gods were really merely ancient human kings from a lost civilization: “In the middle of the bed, is placed a great golden pillar, whereon are letters inscribed, called by the Egyptians, sacred writing, expressing the famous actions of Uranus, Jupiter, Diana, and Apollo, written, they say, by Mercury himself. But this may suffice concerning the islands lying in the ocean over against Arabia” (Diodorus, Library 5.67). Herodotus similarly rhapsodized about the millennial records of the Egyptians, a theme reappearing in Plato’s Timaeus, in conjunction with Atlantis. Famously, Flavius Josephus described the pre-Flood pillars of stone and brick set up in Egypt to record all the wisdom of the earth. The Nephilim, the children of Seth, had “inscribed their discoveries on them both, that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind” (Antiquities 1.2.3). Lovecraft would have known all of these stories, in addition to some version of the common Arab legend that the last pre-Flood king of Egypt had his priests write “on every surface of the pyramids, the ceilings, foundations, and walls, all the sciences familiar to the Egyptians. They drew the figures of the stars; they wrote the names of the drugs and their useful and harmful properties, the science of talismans, mathematics, architecture—all the sciences of the world—and it was all laid out very clearly” (Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat, ch. 40). To this we can also add, though likely not known to Lovecraft, references to lost libraries of sacred wisdom in the books of Enoch and Jubilees—the “heavenly tablets” that recorded prophecies of the Flood (1 Enoch 106:19) and the secret knowledge of the “books of my forefathers” (Jubilees 21:10).
These are just some of the precedents for the Hall of Records, not counting the buried library of “wisdom” of the Lost Tribes Joseph Smith claimed to have unearthed from Hill Cumorah.
Therefore, Eldritch errs in seeing Lovecraft, in discussing his pre-human bas reliefs, as working in an occult tradition derived from a deep love of mysticism. Instead, Lovecraft had developed his ideas in stages, proceeding logically from one development to the next, drawing on literary models that stretch back to the very dawn of literature. If Lovecraft’s ancient wall murals are mystical, than so too must be Poe’s and Bulwer’s mysterious writing.
And here is where my biggest disagreement with Eldritch lies: He sees Lovecraft as a mystic, one whose rational mind was in conflict with a subconscious exploration of the supernatural. He even goes so far as to compare Lovecraft’s stories with drug trips and shamanism—noting but downplaying that the similarities relate to the common stock of imagery created by altered states of consciousness, accessible to Lovecraft through his intense dreams. Eldritch seems to want to see Lovecraft as an unintentional prophet, but there is no reason to impose an ideology of belief onto Lovecraft’s art. Paradoxically, he also wants to see Lovecraft as enacting a Freudian drama created by his parents’ sad ends, and that this led him to throw a blanket of cold materialism over his wild “mystical tendency.”
Instead, this is an imposition from an occult worldview, made famous by Kenneth Grant’s occult vision of Lovecraft, that takes the fact that later readers saw mystical truths in Lovecraft as evidence that such truths were either intentional or genuine. Instead, Lovecraft’s error was in creating his fictional world too well, drawing on ancient precedents in a way that married their power to modern science. Lovecraft was once termed “atheism’s mythographer,” and that is perhaps the best description I can offer—a storyteller who captured the tension between the ancient and the modern, the eternal and the changing, in a fictional form that reflected and refracted what Joseph Campbell would shortly thereafter call “the power of myth.” While just as potent, the difference is that unlike Carl Jung’s archetypes or Campbell’s monomyth, Lovecraft meant for his work to represent an intellectual attempt to play with the ideas of mythology and the occult, not to actually be a myth or an occult experience.
To read Lovecraft only in light of Theosophy and Edgar Cayce and mysticism is to misunderstand him, for his stories use those colorings on a spine derived from the Classics, who give the stories their form and substance. Lovecraft himself made this painfully obvious when he likened Cthulhu to Polyphemus, signaling that the section of “The Call of Cthulhu” in which the sailors visit the god’s tomb had its model in Odysseus’s adventure in the Cyclops’s cave, not in a shamanic journey to union with the divine.
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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