Understanding the Theology of Cosmic Horror in H.P. Lovecraft’s Works

How are we to understand the monsters in the cosmic horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft? Demons, aliens…or gods, but not as we know them?

Jun 20, 2024By Allen Baird, PhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and Philosophy

theology cosmic horror hp lovecraft

 

Theology is the study of God. But the gods that comprise the main antagonists in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft have little to do with God as traditional theology understands the concept. More often, they seem more like monsters or devils than divine beings. A theology of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror needs to stretch itself beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy into the forbidden realms of pagan pantheons and fringe science. From these places, we can start to appreciate Lovecraft’s terrible vision.

 

Cosmic Horror and the Divine

H.P. Lovecraft in Brooklyn, 11 July 1931, source: earsplitcompound.com

 

The stories of H.P. Lovecraft not only created a new subgenre of horror fiction called cosmic or Lovecraftian horror, they combined to form a single, shared fictional universe, often called “the Cthulhu Mythos.” They formed the basis of a philosophy called cosmicism, an atheistic worldview of human insignificance in an indifferent universe, in which gods and monsters abound.

 

Lovecraft’s gods present us with a series of paradoxes that are hard to comprehend using the categories of traditional theology. His gods are both dead and yet undying. They have bodies but these are “not composed altogether of flesh and blood.” They have shape but their contours are non-Euclidean. They travel through space but exist in between the spaces we know. They walk unseen but a vision of them brings insanity.

 

To comprehend Lovecraft’s gods—as far as we are able and as far as we dare—we need to start from the beginning and borrow concepts from a variety of religious sources. Some of these sources are old and pagan. Others are contemporary and philosophical. A few are even unorthodox and pseudoscientific. This collection best suits the mosaic and monstrous nature of Lovecraft’s fictional universe.

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Finite Gods and Evil

Assembly of the Gods, by Simon Vouet, 17th century, Source: Sotheby’s

 

It is important, when considering the gods of Lovecraft, to rid your mind of all prior conceptions of God as held in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even the dualistic theology of Zoroastrianism—a god of light versus a divinity of darkness—fails to provide a sufficient framework for Lovecraft’s mythos. The best backdrop is that of the religions of the pagan world, with their many gods of many different types and levels.

 

Modern theologians and philosophers call this theistic finitism or finite godism—a philosophy that affirms the belief in a deity that does not possess the absolute attributes traditionally ascribed to a monotheistic deity. For example, such a god would not be omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), or omnipresent (everywhere present). The reason for this theory is to provide a theodicy—a solution to the problem of evil. How could a benevolent and all-powerful God permit suffering? Given their morally ambiguous nature, this is not a dilemma for Lovecraftian gods.

 

Group Gods and Pantheons

The Pantheon and the Fontana del Pantheon in Rome, Italy, photo by Rabax63, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The finite gods of Lovecraft exist in different groups or sets. The name for a set of gods in a polytheistic scheme of theology is a pantheon. Usually, each religion—such as the ancient African, Greek or Norse religions—have one pantheon or collection of gods, reflecting one mythic worldview. A pantheon also refers to a temple or sacred building in which all of these gods could be brought together and worshipped at once, such as the famous Pantheon in Rome.

 

Lovecraft’s universe is more complex than this because the different god groups represent different types of deity who are often at odds with each other. The most famous group is the Great Old Ones, to which Cthulhu belongs, acting in some way as their High Priest. Lovecraft also mentions groups called the Elder Gods and the Outer Gods but is ambiguous about their exact nature and the relationships between them. There are also species like the Great Race of the Yith who are not strictly classified as divinities but who have the power and technology to oppose those that are.

 

Sci-fi Gods and Aliens

Petroglyphs (rock drawings) from Val Camonica, Italy, sometimes called “the astronauts” as ancient astronaut proponents believe the pictures resemble modern astronauts, photo by Luca Giarelli, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

When thinking about gods and pantheons, it is difficult for us not to assume a spiritual conception of them derived from monotheism. However, it is important to appreciate that Lovecraft was writing cosmic horror, which is essentially a genre of science fiction, rather than mythic, fantasy, or even gothic tales. To put it bluntly, Lovecraft’s gods are extraterrestrials and aliens. Although ancient, powerful, and fear-inducing to us, they are not outside the universe, nor did they create it. Although capable of incredible feats that appear to us like magic, they are technology users.

 

In understanding Lovecraft’s theology, it is useful to compare it with modern ancient astronaut theories. This is the belief—mostly considered unorthodox, pseudoscientific, or fringe—that alien beings visited ancient human civilizations and influenced the development of these cultures in all sorts of ways. Humans at the time interpreted them as gods, since they lacked the scientific framework to properly understand what was occurring. But today, we know better. In the same way, Lovecraft’s gods are, in fact, advanced aliens who contacted humans in ancient times.

 

Bad Gods and Tricksters

Figure of Eshu, photo by Rept0n1x, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Lovecraft wrote horror stories. Their purpose was to produce fear in his readers. For this reason, the gods and alien beings that constitute the cause of this fear in us are evoked as malevolent, even though Lovecraft insisted that they are ultimately beyond such human categories as good and evil. They are indifferent to our welfare one way or the other, as we are insects to them. But from our perspective, these gods are bad—a belief system called dystheism.

 

Critics have often pointed to dystheistic elements in traditional monotheism, from the vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament, to Luther’s Deus absconditus (Hidden God), and from Descartes’ Deus deceptor (Deceiving God) to the Puritan preaching of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Another helpful analogy is that of the trickster gods of the pagan religions, such as Loki from Norse mythology, or Eshu, a god of the Yoruba religion from present-day southwestern Nigeria, who delights in causing strife between humans.

 

Chaos Gods and Monsters

Manuscript page of H.P. Lovecraft’s uncompleted novel Azathoth, written 1922; first published 1938, Source: Brown University Library

 

Rather than good or evil, it would be sounder to classify Lovecraft’s deities as chaos gods. Chaos is a metaphysical rather than a moral quality. Examples of chaos gods from other mythologies include the Egyptian god Seth, the Greek giant Typhon, and the Hebrew serpent Leviathan. Chaos gods may have an evil reputation and produce effects that are harmful to humans and even to other gods. But their fundamental nature is more one of destruction, disorder, and conflict than outright evil. Interestingly, they are often associated with the ocean, as is Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.

 

There are at least two of Lovecraft’s gods that are directly linked to the concept of chaos. Nyarlathotep, one of the Outer Gods, is titled “the Crawling Chaos.” Azathoth, ruler of the Outer gods, is described as “the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space.” Nuclear here means center, “for the throne of Azathoth [is] at the centre of ultimate Chaos.” In another story, Lovecraft writes of:

 

“…the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paws.”

 

Imprisoned Gods and Resurrections

Fallen Angels in Hell, by John Martin, 1841, Source: The Tate Gallery, London

 

So, what are Lovecraft’s gods doing now? Why, with all their power and knowledge, are they not currently ruling over the Earth? This is a quote from perhaps Lovecraft’s best known and central story about his gods, The Call of Cthulhu:

 

“When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them.”

 

Now, Lovecraft’s gods wait for millions of years until an external force will free them. Their exact state is best described by the most famous line in Lovecraft: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” The dreams of Cthulhu are telepathic thoughts that sensitive humans—poets, artists, storytellers—receive in their own dreams, moulding their thoughts into living nightmares that usually end in insanity.

 

A pencil sketch of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft, 11 May 1934, Source: Brown University Library

 

Lovecraft was an atheist who had little time for the Christian faith. However, it is noteworthy here that he employs the language of resurrection—a distinctly Christian doctrine of the end of times—to describe the release of these alien gods before their rule of the Earth. An apocalyptic utopia will ensue, when they will teach humanity “new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” It is also interesting to compare and contrast this idea with the New Testament’s description of similar demonic beings or evil gods and their eschatological fate.

 

“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.”

Jude 1:6

 

That is not dead which can eternal lie.

Author Image

By Allen BairdPhD Theology, BA Biblical Studies and PhilosophyAllen earned his degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, along with a teaching qualification in adult education. His interests lie in short story writing and relating the biblical material to modern literary genres such as horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.