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Fictional Religions - Lovecraft and The Old Ones
Religion is a subject I talk about and debate about a lot here on the internet. Weird beliefs, superstitions and faith in the supernatural are all subjects I find utterly fascinating and eminently important to how we conduct our lives. But what about religions that no one actually practices? What can be said about the various religious beliefs that authors of fiction, satirists and supporters alike, have created on their own?
This will be the first part in what I hope will be a new series exploring religious options that most people don't know about, because they come not from holy books that are supposedly the inerrant work of supernatural forces but from the fictional worlds of human authors.
In this hub we will talk about the creations of author H.P. Lovecraft, a man who was instrumental in influencing modern horror and who, despite dying in 1937, is as popular as ever among lovers of the weird.
While most of Lovecraft's stories would not be seen as all that scary by readers today they were ahead of their time in many ways. Lovecraft was a pioneer of something he liked to call “Weird Fiction” at a time before the term science fiction was even coined. Lovecraft's work did show a wide breadth of scientific knowledge much of which stemmed from his childhood. Frequently ill and very maladjusted Lovecraft had plenty of time to explore the weird machinations in his own mind and create his own mythos of vast cosmic horror.
A big fan of the macabre and dark work of Edgar Allan Poe Lovecraft loved using atmosphere and language to weave a web of mysticism and horror. Most of his stories focused on what he considered mankind's greatest fear.
Many of Lovecraft's stories reveal that just on the edges of human knowledge there are truths that would horrify the mind and drive sane men mad. This is cosmic horror, the realization that our primitive lives are inconsequential and that the forces that shape and ultimately rule our world are a set of preternatural monsters. Gods that ancient man had only glimpses of.
Lovecraft's knowledge of science allowed him to keep the stories somewhat in accordance with the knowledge of his day and the fact that his stories are grounded in the real tangible world of ordinary human beings is what gives the horrors that lurk beyond our understanding such weight. For they are not like other things that we understand and quantify, they are a great and terrible power from beyond the stars.
The idea that there are forbidden truths just beyond our reach that would shatter the minds of the average man is a powerful one. It taps into our fear of the unknown and of learning the truth of our place in the Cosmos.
The Dark Religion
Lovecraft drew much inspiration from the beliefs of a today little known spiritualistic movement, the theosophists. They are the predecessors of our modern day New Age movement and included such people as Madame Blavatsky and the infamous Aleister Crowley. In particular the idea of forbidden knowledge, of lost civilizations hidden beneath the waves and beyond the reaches of our exploration and the idea that entities or beings from other worlds might visit us or might already have been here for eons.
Lovecraft speaks of folklore, of whispered half-remembered legends in the backwoods of the world.
All knowledge of the Old Ones is scattered and fragmentary offering only a small picture of the grand and unimaginable truth. This is a thing to be thankful for in Lovecraft's work as if any one man could piece together all the disparate fragments they would surely go mad!
There are, however, zealots all over the world who work in collusion with the Old Ones, who do their bidding and who seek to help them return and reclaim the Earth they so rightfully rule. Due to this Lovecraft often depicts the danger of these forbidden realities as unavoidable, it is not a matter of if the Old Ones will rise again but WHEN.
There are special rituals that the faithful must perform if they hope to summon the Old Ones into the world and bring about inconceivable chaos and evil.
The sacred tome of this dark religion is the Necronomicon, penned in blood by a man named Abdul Alhazred. The book, a creation of Lovecraft's has oft been speculated to be a real grimoire somewhere out there yet undiscovered. It has been featured in movies and many books under the title of Necronomicon have been published.
The book is said to contain incantations and the secret rituals that can summon the Old Ones, if the stars are right. Perhaps the most famous movie appearance of this book is in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, where the unimaginable Old Ones are replaced by more ubiquitous demonic entities but who nevertheless are released when a passage is read from the Book of the Dead - the Necronomicon.
Lovecraft used references to a mixture of real texts blended in with ones he and his fellow Weird Fiction authors made up to give an air of reality and further grounding to his mythos.
Who are the Old Ones?
Among the pantheon of dark deities Lovecraft creates the truly monstrous ones are not the minions, daemons or aliens from beyond the gulfs of space but are the gods, Old Ones of such terrifying magnitude and horror that they drive men absolutely mad. The most commonly recognizable of these is Cthulhu (pronounced Kit-oo-loo or Kith-hulu if you want). Described as equal parts man, octopus and dragon Cthulhu's domain is not beyond the stars but is right here on Earth. He slumbers in the sunken city of R'lyeh, a fortress of cylopean stone that oozes slime and which itself is built using an entirely different geometry to what we are familiar with here on Earth.
Of all of Lovecraft's creations Cthulhu is the one that has caught on more than any other and is now another part of pop-culture. Few people know, however, that there is an entire pantheon of these dark gods waiting to take over the world, waiting to rise again from the waves and wipe humanity from the Earth. The Old Ones are unspeakable, indescribable, primitive evil from a dark Universe countless eons before our own.
There is Azathoth, a great nebulous god of chaos who is continuously lulled to sleep by the playing of magical flutes. There is Shub-Niggurath, the goat of the woods with a thousand young, who is mentioned by name in two of Lovecraft's stories.
In this way the interconnected web that came to be known as the Cthulhu mythos developed, across multiple stories with references sprinkled in and interwoven. Lovecraft often corresponded with friends and contemporaries by writing letters and some of them went on to add to his mythos and create their own Old Ones. Many of his stories were published in old pulp magazines such as Strange Tales that collected tales of Gothic horror, the supernatural and the alien.
In a way Lovecraft's Old Ones play upon all three fears. They are an alien force from other worlds but through ritual and magic they seek to restore themselves. Lovecraft creates much of the tension and fear in his stories through verbose description and atmosphere, building an unease in the reader. In a sense this makes Lovecraft the originator of the Creepypasta, as rather than outright scare the reader his stories are intended to leave a sense of anxiety, they're more creepy than they are gory or shocking.
There are other Old Ones as well. Yog-Sothoth is another, associated with the dark planet Yoggoth that lies on the outer edges of our solar system and from whence horrifying creatures known as the Migo come and dance around stone circles and seek to undermine the rule of mankind over the Earth.
The Benefits of Worship
All religions must have some benefits for new converts right? Well the dark religion of the Old Ones is no different. Betraying the human race to these all powerful monsters and helping them usher in a new dark epoch may serve to shield you or at least prepare you for the chaos to come. Of course the ultimate goal and the one you must give your life for, is ensuring that Cthulhu, Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath and all the slumbering Old Ones rise again.
There are, however, some benefits in the intermediary stages. For one thing the rituals involved often include orgies or at the very least blood sacrifice. Also, because your mind is warped by the Old Ones the chances of you going mad by seeing them is reduced, of course the odds are you're already insane if you've joined their cult.
Ultimately the prize is in being able to revel and celebrate life without the restraint of the illusory morality humans are currently saddled with,
Similarities with Real Religions
Despite the obviously abhorrent nature of the Old Ones they bear some passing similarities to actual deities served by human beings. In particular Lovecraft drew upon the widely known, but misunderstood, rituals associated with European witchcraft and with tribal Voodoo. He references a book known as The Witch Cult in Western Europe, a scholarly attempt to lump together numerous pagan traditions that ultimately backfired but was wildly popular in Lovecraft's day.
The nature of the Old Ones themselves, as waiting to rise again and reclaim the Earth, is similar to many faiths. Christianity is an obvious parallel as the book of Revelation is filled with all manners of horror committed by the Biblical God at the end of the world. From torturing those who do not believe in a Lake of Fire to sending calamity after calamity upon the Earth until blood flows through the streets. The inevitability of unstoppable nature of these sorts of apocalyptic events features heavily in Lovecraft's work. There is no escape, every knee shall bow before the Old Ones.
Lovecraft himself was an atheist and his aversion to religion shines through in his work by creating a set of gods that are entirely alien to the actual gods we believe in but yet bear enough similarity to prey upon the superstitious fears that plague our species.
Thanks for reading!