How Cosmic Horror Made Paganism Great Again
Most readers and writers of cosmic horror show great interest in the ways in which human life can often seem futile and insignificant. Indeed, there is something fundamentally unsettling about the idea that the universe has no meaning and purpose, and that humans themselves are little more than cosmic playthings. However, while this idea may have gained new traction in the relatively nihilistic modern age, it is not itself new. In fact, the notion that humans are insignificant playthings of nature goes back thousands of years, and lies at the heart of nearly all ancient pagan religions.
What is Cosmic Horror?
Cosmic horror, broadly defined, is a type of science fiction in which the horror is derived from human insignificance in the face of an uncaring cosmos 1. This type of horror first achieved notoriety thanks to the efforts of H.P. Lovecraft, an early twentieth century author who remains the most famous writer of cosmic horror to this day. Since Lovecraft, many other writers, both in his native New England and around the world, have been expanding upon the genre. Nowadays, cosmic horror can be found in almost any medium, from books to anime and manga to music.
The Underlying Message of Old Pagan Religions
Although many people assume that all religions are functionally the same, there is in fact a clear divide between the pagan religions that used to be ubiquitous and the more rule- and text-based religions, like Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, that later replaced them in many parts of the world. The Orthodox Jewish writer Ben Shapiro describes the main message of paganism thusly:
Imagine a world in which you are a plaything of nature, or the gods. You have a fate, but you have no true agency over it. You may seek to appease the gods through sacrifices, but they’re as volatile and uncaring as other human beings. Those gods have invested kings and potentates with power; you are a commoner, trying to scratch your life from the dirt. You comfort yourself with the things around you, with simple pleasures; perhaps you even find communal meaning in service to the regime. But you are essentially a cork, bobbing on the eddies of an ocean you do not control–an ocean no one truly controls.2
Along similar lines, another Jewish writer named Liel Leibovitz describes paganism as claiming that “the world is not much more than the sum of its malevolent forces, and that the best we mortals can hope for is not to get caught in the crossfire of the war between the deities. 3” Although this is likely an oversimplification of pagan beliefs, what’s noteworthy about it is that it almost perfectly describes the worldview of cosmic horror. Indeed, many famous cosmic horror writers were interested in paganism, and the pagan worldview manifests in cosmic horror in a number of very interesting ways.
Cosmic Horror’s Pagan Influences
H.P. Lovecraft, the man who arguably did more than anyone else to define the cosmic horror genre, was both a staunch atheist and a dedicated pagan enthusiast 4. He often idolized pagan cultures, such as those of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, believing (likely erroneously) that he and others like him would be on top in such societies 5. Some of his stories even directly reference these cultures. For instance, the elder god Nyarlathotep is noted to occasionally take the form of a human pharaoh; The Rats in the Walls takes place on what was once a pagan ritual site; and the sea-god Dagon shares its name with a deity that was worshiped in ancient Mesopotamia 6.
The Role of Nature
Religions like Judaism and its offshoots claim that humans occupy a special place in nature, and that serving God will convince him to share nature’s abundance with them. Pagan religions, by contrast, have generally tended to view humans as being at the mercy of nature. Depending on the circumstances, nature could be benevolent or wicked, but either way it had to be appeased. The Aztecs, for instance, believed that the sun would only rise in response to blood sacrifices 7. On the flip side, the ancient Mesopotamians worshiped an evil god known as Pazuzu, who was believed to engender droughts, in hopes he would grant protection from other evil deities 8.
In Lovecraft’s stories, nature takes on a similarly forbidding bent. The best example of this can be seen in The Color Out of Space. In this story, an asteroid that lands on a farm property unleashes an evil force that starts sucking the life out of its surroundings–first the crops, and then the livestock, and eventually the people who live there. Thus, one way to interpret this story is as a modern manifestation of historic anxieties about having enough food to eat. A farmer in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, might starve to death if his barley fields flooded or dried up. Lovecraft’s more modern characters are not so dependent on the weather as such, but they come to appreciate their own helplessness in the face of an uncaring environment when faced with an alien color that both destroys their food source and prevents them from escaping.
More subtle versions exist as well, however. For instance, most of the action of The Whisperer in Darkness takes place in the isolated Vermont mountains. These mountains are in reality extremely beautiful, but in Lovecraft’s telling their isolation has made them the perfect base for a race of evil aliens called the Mi-Go.
Caitlin Kiernan is one modern author who often writes about nature’s harsh and unforgiving qualities. In her novel The Red Tree, for instance, a writer and a painter become convinced that an ancient oak tree on their property is an evil spirit that has haunted the land for centuries. More broadly, most monsters and beings in her stories are associated with features of the natural world, such as mushrooms and water.
Many pagan religions feature gods who are a part of physical nature in much the same way as people are. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, believed that their gods were people who lived in a place called Mount Olympus in northern Greece. They also believed that some of these gods and goddesses interbred with mortals 9.
Similarly, many of Lovecraft’s most famous monsters–including Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and Shub-Niggurath–are described as being gods. These gods freely visit Earth and sometimes show themselves to humans, either to intimidate or obtain something from them. They can also interbreed with humans, most notably in The Dunwich Horror, where the half-human hybrid Wilbur Whateley is revealed to be the son of Yog-Sothoth.
The anime Madoka Magica contains another take on this type of character in the form of Kyubey. Although Kyubey is never explicitly stated to be a god, his powers are certainly godlike. He offers to grant wishes to young women and, in return, transforms them into super-powered magical beings known as magical girls, who fight evil witches. Unfortunately these magical girls are fated to eventually become witches themselves, at which point Kyubey harvests their emotional energy. One of the more unsettling implications of the series is that all young women of any historically noteworthy accomplishment whatsoever were once magical girls. This notion may seem rather elitist, but it fits neatly in with the view, common in pagan religions, that to achieve fame, fortune, or meaning requires being anointed by a god.
Subjective, Situational Morality
In a religion like Judaism, God elucidates a particular moral code that all of humanity is bound by. Its offshoots, Christianity and Islam, sometimes take things even further and argue that the only good people in the world are their coreligionists. Followers of these religions may still do things that are morally reprehensible, but they justify it by claiming that they are so much more righteous than their enemies. Most pagan religions, by contrast, tend to have looser and more subjective definitions of what’s morally acceptable and what’s not. Cosmic horror, similarly, denies the existence of any objective morality and frequently features characters doing whatever they feel they can get away with.
The most blatant form this subjective morality can take is human sacrifice. Examples of human sacrifice in the pagan world are legion, with every continent seemingly seeing at least one example 10. Many of Lovecraft’s stories–including The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, and The Dreams in the Witch’s House–reference human sacrifice, as does The Red Tree.
More subtle versions of subjective morality occur in these legends and stories as well, most of which center around the idea that might makes right. For instance, in one version of the Ancient Greek story of Medusa, she was originally a victim of sexual assault, who was subsequently cursed with the ability to turn people into stone. Sometime later Perseus beheaded her 11. From a modern perspective this story may seem horribly unfair. However, the Ancient Greeks weren’t interested in objective notions of fairness, but only in power.
The novella The Ballad of Black Tom, which reimagines the events of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook from a Black person’s point of view, contains one of the more interesting examples of this sort of subjective morality in cosmic horror. The central character, a young Black musician named Charles Thomas “Black Tom” Tester, is by all appearances a selfish, amoral character who traffics in illicit occult merchandise, stores pages from a forbidden book inside his own father’s guitar, scarcely shows the slightest scrap of empathy for or indeed interest in anyone outside his own immediate family, and ultimately unleashes an elder god to destroy the world as vengeance for the racism he suffers. The White characters he interacts with are, if anything, worse. After all, they’re the ones who are oppressing him just because he’s Black. In other words, the world that Black Tom inhabits has no time for objective moral standards. Its only currency is power, and those who have power are free to do whatever they want with it.
Interestingly enough, many of the characters in Lovecraft’s own body of work show a similar disdain for objective notions of morality. The following passage in The Call of Cthulhu is illustrative:
[The cult of the Great Old Ones] would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.12
The Role of Salvation (Or Lack Thereof)
Many modern religions promise glorious salvation to anyone willing to work hard enough at following their precepts. Christianity and Islam teach that the faithful go to heaven after they die 13 14. Buddhism teaches that anyone who commits themselves to following the path of the Buddha can reach enlightenment and be delivered from suffering 15. Certain branches of Judaism teach that the whole world will achieve salvation someday 16.
In many pagan religions, by contrast, salvation was limited to a select few special people, if it existed at all. In the Aztec culture, the only people who could go to the highest heaven were warriors who died in battle, women who died in childbirth, and sacrifices 17. Ancient Greek myths, meanwhile, generally spoke of the afterlife as an unhappy place, where everyone was the same regardless of the life they had lived on earth 18. Some myths mention a paradise known as the Elysian Fields, but it was reserved for those related to or patronized by the gods 19.
Along similar lines, cosmic horror stories generally disavow salvation, either before or after death. Lovecraft’s stories never hold out hope of any sort of universal justice or afterlife, instead focusing on the attempt to conquer death through scientific means (as in Herbert West: Reanimator). Indeed, in his early story The Statement of Randolph Carter, the title character reflects on the death of his friend, Harvey Warren, by hoping that he is “in peaceful oblivion.”
A more modern take on salvation (or lack thereof) in cosmic horror is the story of Charlie the wanna-be ghost from the Night Vale novel It Devours! Charlie is willing to face Night Vale’s formidable bureaucracy in an attempt to secure a coveted haunting permit, which will allow him to come back as a ghost after death instead of ceasing to exist. When at last he receives one, he feels eternally grateful and superior to everyone else. His story is, in effect, a satirical take on the idea of salvation for the fortunate few.
In general, one of the easiest ways to identify cosmic horror entails observing how a narrative treats death and the afterlife. If a story states or implies that a large proportion of the cast will go to heaven, then that story cannot be true cosmic horror no matter how depressing it is or how many scary monsters it has. To be true cosmic horror a story must hold out no hope for salvation, or else treat salvation as something outside of one’s own control.
Lovecraftian Chick Tract Parodies
The Chick Tracts are an infamous set of comic strips expounding upon the author’s views of Christianity. Their notoriety has made them popular targets for parody, and in the 2000’s, two Lovecraftian parodies were produced. The earlier of the two, titled Why We’re Here, features a man who kills himself and his family after Wilbur Whateley reveals the true nature of the universe 20. The other and better known comic is called Who Will Be Eaten First? and features an older man warning his son that Cthulhu is about to rise and destroy humanity 21.
Many people who read these comics conclude that Jack Chick’s Christianity and Lovecraftian horror are fundamentally the same. However, this is a misreading. The key difference is that the Chick Tracts constantly dangle salvation in front of the readers. Their primary message is that, if only the readers will do what the tract says to do, then they will go to heaven. By contrast, both of the Lovecraftian parodies make it clear that there is no heaven or salvation of any sort, and that the best that humans can hope for when the Elder Gods return is to have a fast death.
From its earliest days, cosmic horror has been influenced by paganism, and particularly the pagan belief systems that existed long ago. Lovecraft himself adored paganism and rejected mainstream Christianity. The difference, of course, is that in his lifetime such a viewpoint was unusual. Nowadays, it’s become a lot more mainstream.
One of the notable differences between modern cosmic horror and older works such as those written by Lovecraft lies in the resignation of the characters and narrative to the meaninglessness of their lives. In Lovecraft’s own day, the idea that the universe was empty and meaningless seemed genuinely daring and, therefore, scary. However, more recent works like Welcome to Night Vale and The Ballad of Black Tom simply take it for granted. The reason for this is likely that religions like Christianity, which could once be counted on to provide life with meaning, no longer carry the influence they once did. It’s notable as well that Lovecraft’s works didn’t sell well in his own lifetime, and only received widespread popularity after his death. According to one source, attempts to find actual meaning in Lovecraft’s work took off in the 1970’s 22, which, coincidentally, was also just a couple of decades after religious observance had begun to decline 23.
The Jewish scholar Moishe Koppel writes:
[D]eveloped religions like Judaism serve to subdue the instinct for idolatry and primitive religion, the kind that encourages superstition, self-debasement, seclusion of untouchables, and human sacrifice.24
He further goes on to warn of “primitive religion reasserting itself in the absence of developed religion.” As society drifts further from conventional religions, people will naturally gravitate toward alternative ways of understanding the world, including cosmic horror with all its pagan undertones. In the end, humans as a species appear to be programmed to want to believe in something, and even the wicked Cthulhu is easier to believe in than nothing at all.
- “Cosmic Horror Story.” TVTropes. Retrieved from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CosmicHorrorStory ↩
- Shapiro, Ben. The Right Side of History. HarperCollins Publishers, 2019 ↩
- Leibovitz, Liel. “We’re All Pagans Now.” Tablet Magazine, 17 November, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/249477/we-are-all-pagans-now ↩
- Gray, John. “Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of HP Lovecraft.” New Statesman America, 24 October 2014. Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/10/weird-realism-john-gray-moral-universe-h-p-lovecraft ↩
- Lovecraft, Howard P. “Cats and Dogs.” Retrieved from http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/cd.aspx ↩
- Stone, Adam. “Dagan (god)”. Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2013. Retrieved from http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/dagan/index.html ↩
- “The Aztec Empire: Society, Politics, Religion, and Agriculture.” History on the Net, 2000-2019. Retrieved from https://www.historyonthenet.com/aztec-empire-society-politics-religion-agriculture ↩
- Graff, Sarah. “Pazuzu: Beyond Good and Evil.” The Met, 29 September 2014. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/assyria-to-iberia/blog/posts/pazuzu ↩
- “Gods and Goddesses.” The British Museum. Retrieved from http://www.ancientgreece.co.uk/gods/home_set.html ↩
- Parker Pearson, Mike. “The Practice of Human Sacrifice.” BBC – History. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/human_sacrifice_01.shtml ↩
- Freedman, Philip. Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths. Simon & Schuster, 2012 ↩
- Lovecraft, H.P. The Call of Cthulhu. Retrieved from http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx ↩
- Catholic News Service. “Pope Francis: Paradise is not a fairy tale or enchanted garden.” Catholic Herald, 25 October 2017. Retrieved from https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/10/25/pope-francis-paradise-is-not-a-fairy-tale-or-enchanted-garden/ ↩
- Huda. “Definition of Jannah in Islam.” Learn Religions, 8 April 2019. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/definition-of-jannah-2004340 ↩
- Landaw, Jonathan et al. Buddhism for Dummies. 2nd ed., Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2011 ↩
- “Moshiach: An Introduction.” Chabad.org. Retrieved from https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1157486/jewish/Moshiach-An-Introduction.htm ↩
- “Aztec Religion.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Retrieved from http://www.deathreference.com/A-Bi/Aztec-Religion.html ↩
- “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece.” The Met, October 2003. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dbag/hd_dbag.htm ↩
- “Elysium: Greek mythology.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Elysium-Greek-mythology ↩
- Van Lente, Fred & Steve Ellis. “Why We’re Here.” Retrieved from http://www.fredvanlente.com/cthulhutract/ ↩
- Cyriaque, Lamar. “Who Will Be Eaten First? — a Lovecraftian parody of Chick Tracts.” Gizmodo, 24 January 2011. Retrieved from https://io9.gizmodo.com/who-will-be-eaten-first-a-lovecraftian-parody-of-c-5742032 ↩
- Quinn, Dennis P. “Cults of an Unwitting Oracle: The (Unintended) Religious Legacy of HP Lovecraft.” Popmatters, 19 August 2010. Retrieved from https://www.popmatters.com/cults-of-an-unwitting-oracle-the-unintended-religious-legacy-of-h-p-lovecraft-2496158350.html ↩
- Eberstadt, Mary. How The West Really Lost God. Templeton Press, 2013 ↩
- Koppel, Moishe. “Saint Amber.” Judaism without Apologies, 17 August 2017. Retrieved from https://moshekoppel.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/saint-amber/ ↩
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