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Cthulhu Mythos

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A sketch of Cthulhu drawn by Lovecraft, May 11, 1934

The Cthulhu Mythos is a mythopoeia and a shared fictional universe, originating in the works of American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The term was coined by August Derleth, a contemporary correspondent and protégé of Lovecraft, to identify the settings, tropes, and lore that were employed by Lovecraft and his literary successors. The name "Cthulhu" derives from the central creature in Lovecraft's seminal short story "The Call of Cthulhu", first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928.[1]

Richard L. Tierney, a writer who also wrote Mythos tales, later applied the term "Derleth Mythos" to distinguish Lovecraft's works from Derleth's later stories, which modify key tenets of the Mythos.[2][3] Authors of Lovecraftian horror in particular frequently use elements of the Cthulhu Mythos.[4]: viii–ix 


A June 1934 photograph of H. P. Lovecraft, facing left
H. P. Lovecraft, the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos

In his essay "H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos", Robert M. Price described two stages in the development of the Cthulhu Mythos. Price called the first stage the "Cthulhu Mythos proper". This stage was formulated during Lovecraft's lifetime and was subject to his guidance. The second stage was guided by August Derleth who, in addition to publishing Lovecraft's stories after his death, attempted to categorize and expand the Mythos.[5]: 8 [6]: 5 

First stage[edit]

An ongoing theme in Lovecraft's work is the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe. Lovecraft made frequent references to the "Great Old Ones", a loose pantheon of ancient, powerful deities from space who once ruled the Earth and have since fallen into a deathlike sleep.[4]: viii  While these monstrous deities were present in almost all of Lovecraft's published work (his second short story "Dagon", published in 1919, is considered the start of the Mythos), the first story to really expand the pantheon of Great Old Ones and its themes is "The Call of Cthulhu", which was published in 1928.

Lovecraft broke with other pulp writers of the time by having his main characters' minds deteriorate when afforded a glimpse of what exists outside their perceived reality. He emphasized the point by stating in the opening sentence of the story that "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."[7]

Writer Dirk W. Mosig noted that Lovecraft was a "mechanistic materialist" who embraced the philosophy of cosmic indifferentism and believed in a purposeless, mechanical, and uncaring universe. Human beings, with their limited faculties, can never fully understand this universe, and the cognitive dissonance caused by this revelation leads to insanity, in his view.[8][9]

There have been attempts at categorizing this fictional group of beings. Phillip A. Schreffler argues that by carefully scrutinizing Lovecraft's writings, a workable framework emerges that outlines the entire "pantheon"—from the unreachable "Outer Ones" (e.g., Azathoth, who occupies the centre of the universe) and "Great Old Ones" (e.g., Cthulhu, imprisoned on Earth in the sunken city of R'lyeh) to the lesser castes (the lowly slave shoggoths and the Mi-Go).[10]

David E. Schultz said Lovecraft never meant to create a canonical Mythos but rather intended his imaginary pantheon to serve merely as a background element.[11]: 46, 54  Lovecraft himself humorously referred to his Mythos as "Yog Sothothery" (Dirk W. Mosig coincidentally suggested the term Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth be substituted for Cthulhu Mythos).[12][13] At times, Lovecraft even had to remind his readers that his Mythos creations were entirely fictional.[9]: 33–34 

The view that there was no rigid structure is expounded upon by S. T. Joshi, who said

Lovecraft's imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator's developing personality and altering interests…. There was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated.…. The essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.[14]

Price said Lovecraft's writings could at least be divided into categories and identified three distinct themes: the "Dunsanian" (written in a similar style as Lord Dunsany), "Arkham" (occurring in Lovecraft's fictionalized New England setting), and "Cthulhu" (the cosmic tales) cycles.[6]: 9  Writer Will Murray noted that while Lovecraft often used his fictional pantheon in the stories he ghostwrote for other authors, he reserved Arkham and its environs exclusively for those tales he wrote under his own name.[15]

Although the Mythos was not formalized or acknowledged between them, Lovecraft did correspond, meet in person, and share story elements with other contemporary writers including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, Henry S. Whitehead, and Fritz Leiber—a group referred to as the "Lovecraft Circle".[16][17][18]

For example, Robert E. Howard's character Friedrich Von Junzt reads Lovecraft's Necronomicon in the short story "The Children of the Night" (1931), and in turn Lovecraft mentions Howard's Unaussprechlichen Kulten in the stories "Out of the Aeons" (1935) and "The Shadow Out of Time" (1936).[6]: 6–7  Many of Howard's original unedited Conan stories also involve parts of the Cthulhu Mythos.[19]

Second stage[edit]

Price denotes the second stage's commencement with August Derleth, with the principal difference between Lovecraft and Derleth being Derleth's use of hope and development of the idea that the Cthulhu Mythos essentially represented a struggle between good and evil.[5]: 9  Derleth is credited with creating the "Elder Gods". He stated:

As Lovecraft conceived the deities or forces of his mythos, there were, initially, the Elder Gods…. These Elder Gods were benign deities, representing the forces of good, and existed peacefully…very rarely stirring forth to intervene in the unceasing struggle between the powers of evil and the races of Earth. These powers of evil were variously known as the Great Old Ones or the Ancient Ones....[20]

Price said the basis for Derleth's system is found in Lovecraft: "Was Derleth's use of the rubric 'Elder Gods' so alien to Lovecraft's in At the Mountains of Madness? Perhaps not. In fact, this very story, along with some hints from "The Shadow over Innsmouth", provides the key to the origin of the 'Derleth Mythos'. For in At the Mountains of Madness is shown the history of a conflict between interstellar races, first among them the Elder Ones and the Cthulhu-spawn.[21]

Derleth said Lovecraft wished for other authors to actively write about the Mythos as opposed to it being a discrete plot device within Lovecraft's own stories.[11]: 46–47  Derleth expanded the boundaries of the Mythos by including any passing reference to another author's story elements by Lovecraft as part of the genre. Just as Lovecraft made passing reference to Clark Ashton Smith's Book of Eibon, Derleth in turn added Smith's Ubbo-Sathla to the Mythos.[6]: 9–10 

Derleth also attempted to connect the deities of the Mythos to the four elements (air, earth, fire, and water), creating new beings representative of certain elements in order to legitimize his system of classification. He created "Cthugha" as a sort of fire elemental when a fan, Francis Towner Laney, complained that he had neglected to include the element in his schema. Laney, the editor of The Acolyte, had categorized the Mythos in an essay that first appeared in the Winter 1942 issue of the magazine.

Impressed by the glossary, Derleth asked Laney to rewrite it for publication in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943).[22] Laney's essay ("The Cthulhu Mythos") was later republished in Crypt of Cthulhu #32 (1985). In applying the elemental theory to beings that function on a cosmic scale (e.g., Yog-Sothoth) some authors created a fifth element that they termed aethyr.[citation needed]

Derleth's elemental classifications
Air Earth Fire Water
Zhar and Lloigor*
Mother Hydra
* Deity created by Derleth

Fictional cults[edit]

A number of fictional cults dedicated to "malevolent supernatural entities" appear in the Cthulhu Mythos, the loosely connected series of horror stories written by Lovecraft and other writers inspired by his creations.[23] These fictional cults have in some ways taken on a life of their own beyond the pages of Lovecraft's works. According to author John Engle, "The very real world of esoteric magical and occult practices has adopted Lovecraft and his works into its canon, which have informed the ritual practices, or even formed the bedrock, of certain cabals and magical circles".[24]


The Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft is considered to have been highly influential for the speculative fiction genre. It has been called "the official fictional religion of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, a grab bag for writers in need of unthinkably vast, and unthinkably indifferent, eldritch entities".[25]


Sollasina cthulhu, an extinct ophiocistioid echinoderm, is named after the Cthulhu Mythos.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lovecraft, H.P. (2005). Tales (2nd ed.). New York: Library of America. ISBN 1931082723. OCLC 56068806.
  2. ^ Price, Robert M. (November 1, 1982). "Cthulhu Elsewhere in Lovecraft". Crypt of Cthulhu. No. 9. pp. 13–15. ISSN 1077-8179.
  3. ^ Schweitzer, Darrell (2001). Discovering H. P. Lovecraft (revised ed.). Holicong, PA: Wildside Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-1587154713.
  4. ^ a b Harms, Daniel (1998). The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (2nd ed.). Oakland, CA: Chaosium, Inc. ISBN 978-1568821191.
  5. ^ a b Lovecraft, H.P.; Bloch, Robert (1987). The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Publishing Group. ISBN 0345350804.
  6. ^ a b c d Price, Robert M. (1990). H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House. ISBN 1557421528.
  7. ^ Lovecraft, H.P. (2014). The Call of Cuthulhu. Lanham, MD: Start Publishing LLC. ISBN 978-1609772697.
  8. ^ Mosig, Yozan Dirk W. (1979). Gary William Crawford (ed.). Lovecraft: The Dissonance Factor in Imaginative Literature. Gothic Press.
  9. ^ a b Mariconda, Steven J. (1995). On the Emergence of "Cthulhu" & Other Observations. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press. ISBN 978-0940884816.
  10. ^ Shreffler, Philip A. (1977). The H. P. Lovecraft Companion. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press. pp. 156–157. ISBN 978-0837194820.
  11. ^ a b Connors, Scott (2002). A Century Less a Dream: Selected Criticism on H. P. Lovecraft (1st ed.). Holikong, PA: Wildside Press. ISBN 978-1587152153.
  12. ^ Mosig, Yōzan Dirk W. (1997). Mosig at Last: A Psychologist looks at H. P. Lovecraft (1st ed.). West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-0940884908.
  13. ^ "Yog-Sothothery". Timpratt.org. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
  14. ^ Joshi, S. T. (1995). Miscellaneous Writings (1st ed.). Sauk City, WI: Arkham House. pp. 165–166. ISBN 978-0870541681.
  15. ^ Van Hise, James (1999). The Fantastic Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft (1st ed.). Yucca Valley, CA: James Van Hise. pp. 105–107. ASIN B000E9KQXS. OCLC 60496802.
  16. ^ Joshi, S.T. (1980). "Lovecraft Criticism: A Study". H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0821405772.
  17. ^ Herron, Don (1996). "Of the Master, Merlin, and H. Warner Munn". In Schweitzer, Darrell (ed.). Discovering Classic Fantasy Fiction: Essays on the Antecedents of Fantastic Literature. Gillette, NJ: Wildside Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-1587150043.
  18. ^ Long, Frank Belknap (1977). "Recollections of Weird Tales". In Weinberg, Robert E. (ed.). The Weird Tales Story. FAX Collector's Editions. p. 49. ISBN 0-913960-16-0.
  19. ^ Howard, Robert E.; Schultz, Mark (2003). The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (1st ed.). New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. p. 436. ISBN 0345461517.
  20. ^ Derleth, August (1997). The Cthulhu Mythos. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. p. vii. ISBN 0760702535.
  21. ^ Price, Robert M. (June 23, 1982). "The Lovecraft-Derleth Connection". Crypt of Cthulhu. No. 6. pp. 3–8. ISSN 1077-8179. Archived from the original on February 17, 2013.
  22. ^ Price, Robert M. (June 23, 1985). "Editorial Shards". Crypt of Cthulhu. No. 32. p. 2. ISSN 1077-8179.
  23. ^ Zeller, Benjamin E. (2019-12-30). "Altar Call of Cthulhu: Religion and Millennialism in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos". Religions. 11 (1) 18: 18. doi:10.3390/rel11010018.
  24. ^ Engle, John (October 15, 2014). "Cults of Lovecraft: The Impact of H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction on Contemporary Occult Practices". Mythlore. 33 (125): 85–98. JSTOR 26815942 – via JSTOR.
  25. ^ Bialecki, Jon (2019-01-01). "America's Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King". Religion and Society. 10: 176–179.
  26. ^ Rahman, Imran A.; Thompson, Jeffrey R.; Briggs, Derek E. G.; Siveter, David J.; Siveter, Derek J.; Sutton, Mark D. (2019). "A new ophiocistioid with soft-tissue preservation from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte, and the evolution of the holothurian body plan". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 286 (1900): 20182792. doi:10.1098/rspb.2018.2792. PMC 6501687. PMID 30966985.

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