Who is Cthulhu?
H. P. Lovecraft developed the fictitious cosmic creature Cthulhu. It was originally mentioned in his short tale “The Call of Cthulhu,” which was published in 1928 by the American pulp magazine Weird Tales. “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” according to the description of Cthulhu Mythos. It is supposed to be so terrifying to see that it wrecks the sanity of those who witness it.
The Great Dreamer. The Sleeper of R’lyeh. The Slumbering One. Great Cthulhu. Chances are very likely that at some point in your life you’ve seen a depiction of Cthulhu or heard a reference to him. The great green Ancient One is by far the most famous entity in the Cthulhu mythos and thus a fitting starting point for our series. We’re going to look at the literary history of Cthulhu as well as give a brief description of his mythological background within the mythos universe.
First, a note on pronunciation: Lovecraft himself gave several different pronunciations of the creature’s name throughout his life, including “Kllulluh”, with a heavy guttural first syllable, the most common pronunciation, however, is “Ka-thulu”, popular as much later after Lovecraft’s death.
The truth of the matter is, this is an alien name and to be spoken in an alien tongue, so no answer is truly right. Since “Ka-thulu” is the most common pronunciation, that is what I will continue to use.
The Call of Cthulhu
Contrary to popular belief, Cthulhu is only ever featured in a single story by Howard Philips Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in 1928. Lovecraft very rarely showcased any of the Ancient Beings, including Great Cthulhu, in his stories, so “The Call of Cthulhu” is a bit of a special case.
The story, in typical Lovecraftian fashion, is told through various letters, manuscripts, and conversations. The climax of the story is the terrifying account of a sailor directly encountering Cthulhu as the Great Old One emerges from his home in sunken R’lyeh.
Cthulhu’s name was mentioned in a few others of Lovecraft’s stories and letters, but it was other writers that ran with the concept of Cthulhu and R’lyeh. Writers such as August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Charles Stross, Neil Gaiman and many, many others have taken Lovecraft’s foundations and brought Cthulhu to many different locales and situations, from ancient past to the modern-day.
You can easily find collections of books with just stories featuring Cthulhu.
The History of Cthulhu in the Mythos
As for Cthulhu’s backstory within the mythos, let me make one thing clear: The concept of “canon” doesn’t carry much weight within the mythos. Many different writers have given wildly varying accounts of Cthulhu, his thoughts and intentions, or lack thereof, and his history.
What I am going to present to you for Cthulhu’s story is common info that I have available to me, but feel free to believe or make up whatever you want. After all, that’s what Lovecraft did, and he fully encouraged others to do the same.
Cthulhu was likely born on the planet Vhoorl, located in the “twenty-third nebula”. His father is Nug, his grandparents Yog-Sothoth and Shub-NIggurath, and his great-grandfather is Azathoth himself.
At some point, he travelled to the binary star of Xoth, where he mated and produced the Great Older Ones known as Ghatanothoa, Ythogtha, and Zoth-Ommog. Cthulhu and his children travelled then to Saturn, followed by Earth, along with a species known as the “Star Spawn of Cthulhu”.
It is unclear where the Star Spawn originated from, but it’s possible that the shape-shifting aliens worshipped Great Cthulhu and changed their form to resemble the deity. Regardless, the alien group landed on a continent in the Pacific Ocean, and they built the great stone city of R’lyeh, made from strange green stones and pieced together in ways that are foreign to any human design.
Upon their arrival, the aliens received immediate resistance from another species known as “The Elder Things”, who had lived on the planet for millennia. The Elder Things were no strangers to war—which we’ll cover in a different article—but eventually, the two groups came to an agreement and the planet was shared for the time being.
The Cult of Cthulhu
Cthulhu and his spawn enjoyed the freedom of the planet Earth, but at some point, Cthulhu went into a deep hibernation within R’lyeh. The reasons for this are unclear. During his hibernation, humanity evolved on Earth, and Cthulhu often communicated with individuals through dreams, slowly creating the Cult of Cthulhu.
Disaster eventually struck the corpse city of R’lyeh though, sinking the city, Cthulhu, and much of the continent into the ocean. Reasons for this disaster vary, from changes in the moon or stars to an attack by other ancient aliens, or even a secret weapon from The Elder Things.
Regardless though, Cthulhu and his spawn were trapped under the ocean and left with little to do other than wait. R’lyeh has risen out of the ocean at various times, but never for very long.
The Cult of Cthulhu has continued to grow throughout the ages, and as they meet in secrecy, they chant of the day when R’lyeh will rise permanently out of the ocean…and Dread Cthulhu will retake the world.
Why is Cthulhu so Popular?
As mentioned, Cthulhu is by far the most popular entity from the entire Cthulhu mythos to the point where the entire fictional universe is named after him. Lovecraft himself however favoured the term “Yog-Sothory” to refer to the collection of entities and artifacts.
I offer two main reasons why Cthulhu is so well-known in popular culture. First and foremost is Cthulhu’s image itself. Cthulhu is instantly recognizable in the grand majority of artistic depictions of him because it’s a very concrete form.
Depiction of Cthulhu
He’s almost always depicted as vaguely anthropoidal, with an octopus head, a mass of tentacles in his face claws, wings… and a lot of green. Other entities in the Cthulhu mythos tend to be a bit harder to describe and vary from writer to writer.
Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, and Azathoth are often described as just masses of bubbles, tentacles, flesh, mouth, teeth and other vague appendages. When you look at an image of Cthulhu, you generally know exactly what you’re looking at.
This has helped a lot with recognition, but it also helps that Cthulhu is often well-regarded for his image. Whether the depiction is meant to be cool or scary or adorable, Cthulhu can cover a lot of ground.
The Fear of Cthulhu
Secondly, Cthulhu represents a very real and tangible fear. Lovecraft was inspired by his fear of water and the ocean when he created Cthulhu, and it’s a common fear amongst people.
Sure, pondering on our existence and place within the grand scheme in the cosmos can certainly be scary, but the dark depths of water are something that for a lot of people is a much closer, more real fear. Combining the unknown aspect of the deep ocean with the monstrosity of a giant alien slumbering beneath us is a very effective way to get into peoples’ heads.
A smaller reason perhaps is a bit of a snowball effect, because of the other two reasons. Cthulhu has been featured in many, many different types of media, from books to films, to video games, to board games, and across the internet in many different forms.
Cthulhu has become a firm part of popular culture, and many peoples’ first interaction with the Cthulhu mythos involved The Slumbering One Himself. The “Call of Cthulhu” RPG has been a big part of spreading Cthulhu and the mythos across the world, and very often when people ask which story, they should read to be introduced to the Cthulhu mythos, the answer is “The Call of Cthulhu”.
Cthulhu is a very important part of the mythos, but he’s certainly not the most interesting part of it. We’ll be getting to more creatures and deities within the mythos in other articles.