The @spacearchaeology Twitter feed brings to my attention a fascinating blog post by Anselmo Quemot on the Lovecraftian aspects of the upcoming alien movie Prometheus, xenoarchaeology, and the chaos monsters of prehistoric myth. While Quemot requests no “citation” of his material without permission, I think it’s fair to offer a few comments on his discussion. I strongly recommend reading Quemot’s post before reading my comments. Fair warning: It makes extensive use of complex academic language. Another warning: my comments are a bit long.
The Power of Anthropology
Quemot views anthropology and archaeology as handmaidens of imperialism, beholden to colonizing powers to render exotic locales safe for exploration. As adjuncts of the imperial project, these disciplines compartmentalized non-Western religious traditions as “primitive” and therefore inferior, counter-examples meant to reinforce the supremacy of Western civilization. H. P. Lovecraft, in reflecting the horror of the primitive and the exotic therefore reinforces the “other-ing” of non-Western peoples, later reflected in Alien and Prometheus.
Superficially, this argument would seem to make sense. However, while it is well-presented as far as it goes, it neglects some inconvenient facts. First, while anthropology was employed by the colonial powers in an attempt to understand and control the peoples they conquered, it was not completely tied to it and in many cases problematized the colonial project.
To take a few examples: Archaeologists recognized the indigenous construction of Great Zimbabwe long before the racist white minority government of Rhodesia allowed this inconvenient fact to be officially known. Anthropologists advocated in many instances for better treatment of native peoples. In the United States, Cyrus Thomas, of the Bureau of Ethnology, proved that the mounds of America were the work of Native Americans and not European peoples, problematic for government efforts to displace native peoples from traditional lands.
Needless to say, many anthropologists in the past and the present continue to work in areas that are not “conquered.” Even in the nineteenth century, a European power’s claims to territory in Africa or Asia did not translate into absolute or even nominal control over individuals within that territory. Stanley slogged through the Congo Free State, but few of the people he met outside the Belgian plantations would have recognized King Leopold as sovereign, and that was in Africa’s most repressive European regime. In more lightly controlled areas, like French West Africa, whole generations were born and died with nearly no knowledge of France at all. This is why when Marcel Griaule visited the Dogon in the 1930s he could profess amazement at their supposedly advanced astronomical knowledge, since he was well aware that such tribes were not fully integrated into the colonial power structure.
This is not to say that archaeology hasn’t been used for nefarious purposes. The Nazi efforts to prove Aryan supremacy through ethnology and archaeology are only the most obvious example. But even here, “primitivism” is not the overriding message; instead, even this fraudulent archaeology attempted to recover a “purer” and more perfect prehistoric culture—one the West should emulate, not denigrate. Traditionally, even mainstream anthropology had as a core value the idea that studying non-Western cultures could help foster positive change in Western society by examining alternative solutions to common problems.
Thus, on this point, “anthropology” as a discipline is less clearly a tool of Western hegemony than it is a tool used by actors who may or may not be following ethnocentric Western models.
Primitivism and Ancient Religion
Quemot further believes that “modern discourse” focuses on ancient religious traditions as “primitive” and therefore separate from the “modern.” For him, the power of Lovecraft’s fiction derives from its fusion of the discourse of primitivism with the sublime in the form of chaos monsters. We will unpack this idea step by step.
Here it might be worthwhile to note that Lovecraft’s primary influences were not the non-Western (i.e. “primitive”) religions of Frazer’s Golden Bough. Lovecraft’s most familiar reference points were the King James Bible, the pagan polytheism of Greece and Rome, and the folklore of Arabia, as preserved in the Arabian Nights. At the time he wrote, there were few who emphasized primitive aspects of these sophisticated faiths. (Jane Ellen Harrison was one exception.) In fact, the era had actually done much to divorce Greek mythology from the “primitive” aspects of Greek ritual practice (i.e. sacrifice), which complicates any understanding of how modern people relate to “primitive” religion—is it to their texts or their rituals, their myths or their actions?
Lovecraft, Primitivism, and Rationality
Primitivism, as an art movement, like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, drew on the wonders of non-Euclidean mathematics as well as the power inherent in the prehistoric. Though Lovecraft did (especially in “The Call of Cthulhu”) explicitly tie knowledge of the Cthulhu cult to non-Western, mentally inferior, racially suspect peoples (let’s just call it racism), the faith they professed was not “primitive”; the people were primitive. The Old Ones, they had super-advanced science and math. They could build cities in four dimensions and transcend the limits of Einstein's relativity.
Instead, Lovecraft’s conception of the Cthulhu Myth, as given in “Cthulhu” is intentionally rendered in near-Biblical prose, something made explicit in the fragment of the Necronomicon given in the “Dunwich Horror,” which is explicitly modeled on several Biblical passages. As a medieval Arab scholar, Necronomicon author Abdul Alhazred is conceived not as primitive but as heir to the Classical and Hebraic traditions—the very opposite of primitive. In At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Things tell their own story in highly sophisticated bas reliefs—it is only their successors, the shoggoths, who decline into the primitive.
Thus, when Lovecraft conceived the Cthulhu myth explicitly as the foundational faith that stood behind later pagan mythologies, he was not viewing the Cthulhu story itself as “primitive” but rather as external to primitive humans, who were unable to understand what they saw. The religion of the cultists in Lovecraft may be primitive, but it is only because ancient peoples—and for Lovecraft this was not always non-Western peoples—did not have the mental constructs to properly understand extraterrestrials and the multiverse. In the Mythos, those who are privy to the Mythos tradition include an Arab scholar (Alhazred), a colonial wizard (Joseph Curwen), a businessman (Obed Marsh, albeit via Polynesia), and sundry scholars. There is no clear correlation between cultists of the Old Ones and a racial, socioeconomic, or educational group.
This contrasts with Quemot’s claim that Lovecraft sought to use primitivism and the irrational as a counterpoint to Western rationality; while Lovecraft’s heroes’ rationality does fail them, it is not against the irrational as commonly understood but rather against a higher order of mathematics and science that renders modern Western humans the primitive and the irrational—the Other—precisely because we cannot understand the true nature of reality. This is perhaps exemplified in “The Outsider,” where the protagonist is unaware that his elite, Western self-image is in fact a false reality. Admittedly, this is only different from Quemot’s idea in degree, not necessarily in kind, but I think the difference in emphasis is important.
I completely agree about Lovecraft’s use of the sublime, something inherited—intentionally on Lovecraft’s part—from his Gothic predecessors. Especially in later works like At the Mountains of Madness or the collaborative "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," the terror leads to mind-blowing revelations of the sublime, where “time, space, and natural law” give way to awe and wonder, made possible only when the senses have been blasted apart with fear. There is no argument from me here.
Atheism and Chaos
Quemot concludes with a discussion of the relative merits of S. T. Joshi’s atheistic reading of Lovecraft versus Timothy Beal’s discussion of Lovecraft in terms of religious iconography and the monstrous in religion. Quemot agrees with Beal that Lovecraft’s Mythos represents a quasi-religious “chaogony,” with the monsters taking the form of the “chaos monsters” of religion, such as the Leviathan.
Beal, in his Religion and Its Monsters (2002) had argued that Lovecraft’s aliens were essentially biblical, that his work was “horror as religion,” and represent the truth that God manifests not only as order but also as chaos. However I think Beal, a biblical scholar, overestimates the biblical echoes in the Cthulhu Mythos at the expense of the pagan religions that were more explicitly the monsters’ model. (Not to mention that the Bible’s monsters were themselves reworking of earlier Mesopotamian and Levantine myths, perhaps including Tiamat.)
The Old Ones, contra Quemot and Beal, are not “reminiscent of the paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God” but intentionally mirroring it. “The Dunwich Horror” is quite clearly a parody of the life of Christ, and even Cthulhu promises an apocalypse of resurrection and terror like the Revelation of St. John. This is not because Lovecraft is unconsciously erupting with suppressed religious belief but because he intentionally used religious tropes to give greater weight to his fiction.
It’s important to remember that Lovecraft wasn’t writing in a vacuum. Cthulhu is not a creation ex nihilo. If he embodies religious iconography and myth, it is because Lovecraft put it there. Cthulhu is not a chaos monster by chance; he is one because Lovecraft modeled him on Leviathan (Job 41:1-34) and the Kraken. The Old Ones, Lovecraft emphasizes, are not representatives of “chaos” in an absolute sense like the Bible’s monsters, but instead represent a non-human order. Cthulhu’s R’lyeh looks chaotic to humankind, but it is based on a strict, though non-Euclidean order. It only looks like chaos relative to humans. The same applies throughout the Mythos. The chaotic rituals for calling forth Nyarlathotep in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” or “The Haunter of the Dark” are actually super-advanced mathematics (the very language of order); the chaotic, grotesque shoggoths are the product of advanced alien science. In Lovecraft, chaos and order are not absolute, or even opposite. They are relativistic, “beyond good and evil.”
Lovecraft’s whole point was to propose (fictionally, I'll stress again) an extraterrestrial source for the origin of religion, to relocate the transcendent not in the spirit realm but in the material cosmos. And to do that required conjuring the spirit of religion in order to exorcise it.
But the religion Lovecraft conjured wasn’t the primitive faith of non-Western tribes, but Biblical religion and the Classical traditions of Greece and Rome and Arabia.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.