The following is an article by Jason Colavito, the editor and founder of Lost Civilizations Uncovered (www.thelostcivilizations.com), a web-based magazine critically examining alternative archaeology. He is currently working on projects for the New York State Museum while writing his first book, a study of H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on alternative archaeology. —Michael Shermer.
Charioteer of the Gods:
H.P. Lovecraft and the Invention of
by Jason Colavito
The idea that extraterrestrials served as humanity’s earliest deities came to popular attention with Swiss author Erich von Daniken’s 1968 best-seller Chariots of the Gods and the influential 1973 NBC documentary based on the book, In Search of Ancient Astronauts. But for people familiar with the science fiction magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, von Daniken’s “revolutionary” assertion held more than a hint of other writings that previously claimed that the gods were of an extraterrestrial nature. In fact, much of von Daniken’s case perfectly parallels the work of a certain New England writer of horror stories, though the journey from horror story to nonfiction bestseller takes us from America to France to Switzerland.
The author in question is none other than H. P. Lovecraft, from Providence, Rhode Island, justly hailed as a master of the horror story. His work claims a place beside Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King in the pantheon of the genre. Born into a wealthy family in 1890, Lovecraft’s life was a series of reverses and declines as his family lost their fortune and his parents succumbed to madness. He was a precocious and self-taught scholar who read voraciously and devoured as much literature as he could read, including the novels of H.G. Wells, whose War of the Worlds told of the coming of alien creatures to earth. He also read the 18th-century Gothic masters of horror, above all Edgar Allan Poe.
When he set about writing his own works, Lovecraft began to blend the modern world of science fiction with his favorite tales of Gothic gloom. Lovecraft tried to bring the Gothic tale into the 20th century, modernizing the trappings of ancient horror for a new century of science. Lovecraft published his work in pulp fiction magazines, notably Weird Tales, though many of his works were not published until after his death in 1937. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction and horror magazines reprinted Lovecraft’s tales numerous times, and he became one of the most popular pulp authors.
Lovecraft’s works recast the supernatural into materialist terms. He took the idea of a pantheon of ancient gods and made them a group of aliens who descend ed to earth in the distant past. Lovecraft summed up this startlingly original idea in his 1926 short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” In the story, a young man puts together the pieces of an ancient puzzle and discovers the shocking truth about a monstrous race of alien creatures who served as gods to a strange cult:
There had been aeons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them—were still found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific. They all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought Their images with Them. 1
In just these few short sentences we see the root of the entire ancient astronaut hypothesis. The ancient gods or demons were aliens who descended to earth in primal times. They raised great stone cities whose remains are the ancient ruins of today. Lastly, the ancient sculptures depicted the aliens. All of these claims are to be found in von Daniken’s Chariots:
These first men had tremendous respect for the space travelers. Because they came from somewhere absolutely unknown and then returned there again, they were the “gods” to them.
In advanced cultures of the past we find buildings that we cannot copy today with the most modern technical means. These stone masses are there; they cannot be argued away.
Another quite fantastic discovery was the Great Idol [of Tiwanaku] … Again we have the contradiction between the superb quality and precision of the hundreds of symbols all over the idol and the primitive technique used for the building housing it. 2
In fact, only one of von Daniken’s major claims is missing from the Cthulhu story, that the ancient gods created mankind in their own image. Lovecraft has an answer for that, too. In his 1931 story “At the Mountains of Madness,” explorers find an incomparably old city in Antarctica, and the sculptures on the walls tell a horrifying story of how the Old Ones created Earth’s lifeforms: “It was under the sea, at first for food and later for other purposes, that they first created earth life—using available substances according to long-known methods. It interested us to see in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling, primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable.” 3
But how did Lovecraft’s ideas get into Chariots of the Gods? Von Daniken did not respond to requests for comment, and the lack of English language literature about European science fiction has kept the connection vague until now. However, this is the indisputable path from Rhode Island to Switzerland. The names of Lovecraft’s alien gods, like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath, began to crop up in other stories during Lovecraft’s lifetime.
Lovecraft himself started this practice by inserting these names, or variants on them, into stories he ghostwrote or revised for other authors. In his revision of Zelia Bishop’s “The Mound,” for example, Lovecraft slipped his alien god Cthulhu into the story under the variant name Tulu, giving magazine readers what they thought were independent stories featuring references to the same ancient gods. By the 1960s, several dozen authors were using elements of what came to be called “The Cthulhu Mythos” in stories they wrote for science fiction and horror magazines.
Lovecraftian fiction became increasingly popular in Europe, where the French embraced him as a bent genius, much as they embraced Edgar Allan Poe and would soon embrace Jerry Lewis. Lovecraft became especially popular with the French magazine Planete, which throughout the 1960s reprinted Lovecraft’s stories in French translation.
Planete served as an important part of the French second science fiction period, a time when American pulp fiction became extremely popular in France following World War II. 4 French magazines both imitated and reprinted in translation the classic pulp stories of the American 1930’s and 40’s pulp magazines.
Planete’s editors held Lovecraft as their prophet, and their reprints of his stories helped to popularize him and the Cthulhu Mythos in the French imagination. Lovecraft’s longer fiction was published in French in a series of books.
Lovecraft’s work had also inspired the editors of Planete to write a book, Le Matin des Magiciens (The Dawn of the Magicians) a few years earlier, in 1960. The book, by Louis Pawles and Jacques Bergier, first introduced Lovecraft’s concept of alien gods as a nonfiction hypothesis. The authors claimed that their study of religions around the world had led them to higher consciousnesses and to new revelations about the lost worlds of the past. Especially relevant to this is Part One: Vanished Civilizations, where they present evidence to support Lovecraft’s fictional claims about alien super-civilizations of the past.
Unfortunately now long out of print, the book The Dawn of the Magicians laid the foundation for all the lost civilizations books to follow, including Chariots of the Gods. As R.T. Gault comments, “It’s all here, from the Piri Reis map to pyramidology. The authors are frankly fascinated by the idea that ancient peoples may have been more advanced in some of their technologies than we generally believe.” 5
Von Daniken is known to have exploited this book as his major source. The bibliography of Chariots lists the book in its 1962 German translation: Aufbruch ins dritte Jahrtausend. 6
So that is the intellectual journey from Providence to Paris to the Swiss hotel where von Daniken wrote his book, and we can see how Lovecraft’s science fiction became Von Daniken’s pseudoscientific nonfiction.
Near the end of his life, Lovecraft looked back on the growing body of alien god fiction that he and his friends had created: “This pooling of resources tends to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendry, and bibiliography—though of course, none of us has the least wish to actually mislead readers.” 7 Sadly, he did his work too well, and generations have now been misled by such posers as von Daniken.
References & Notes
- Lovecraft, H.P. 1982. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Del Rey Books. New York, 88.
- Daniken, Erich von. 1973 (1968). Chariots of the Gods. New York: Bantam, 52, 73, 19.
- Lovecraft, H.P. 1996. The Transition of H.P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness. Del Rey/Ballantine Books. New York, 309, 312.
- Slusser, George. 1989. Science Fiction in France: An Introduction. Science Fiction Studies. No. 49 v. 16.
- Gault, R.T. 2000. The Quixotic Dialectical Metaphysical Manifesto: Morning of the Magicians. http://www.cafes.net/ditch/motm1.htm.
- Daniken, Erich von. 1973 (1968). Chariots of the Gods. New York: Bantam, 155.
- Lovecraft, H.P. 2001. Quotes Regarding the Necronomicon from Lovecraft’s Letters. www.hplovecraft.com. March 10, 2001.
A Lovercraft Primer
by Jason Colavito
Though he wrote no novels, H.P. Lovecraft composed over sixty stories of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. All are available in several recent paperback collections. His tales of aliens and ancient civilizations are loosely linked together in the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos,” a cycle of stories named for Lovecraft’s most famous alien god. Here’s what to read to get a handle on the legend of ancient astronauts:
- The Call of Cthulhu (1926):
- Lovecraft’s first story of an ancient astronaut tells of a cult trying to resurrect the alien god Cthulhu from his undersea grave. It contains the fullest description of the fictional back story of aliens coming to earth.
- The Dunwich Horror (1928):
- A scaled-down Stonehenge in Massachusetts provides a gateway for the ancient aliens to return if only the rituals in an ancient book are followed exactly.
- At the Mountains of Madness (1931):
- An expedition to Antarctica uncovers impossibly old ruins built by aliens who may have created all life on Earth. Worse, the aliens might not be dead.
- The Shadow Out of Time (1934):
- An archaeological team finds ancient ruins in Australia that provide shocking proof about the presence of ancient aliens on Earth.
Lovecraft had many friends and admirers who carried on the Cthulhu Mythos after his death. Among the best of those stories are Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone, Karl Edward Wagner’s Sticks, and T.E.D. Klein’s Black Man with a Horn.
You can also find Lovecraft’s aliens in the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game from Chaosium, and as a line of cuddly stuffed monsters from ToyVault.
An excellent resource for all things Lovecraft is www.hplovecraft.com.
Dawkins on Nobel Prizes
I wanted to share with you the latest posting from John Brockman’s “Third Culture” Edge group, one of the hottest internet sites on science. http://www.edge.org
This is Edge Number 137, from Richard Dawkins, on … “Next Step, a Nobel Prize for Literature?”
This edition – EDGE 137– is on the Web at:
The EDGE archive, an index of all editions (1997-present) is available at:
Intro from the Edge website article
Novelists may win the plaudits, but they don’t have all the good stories … Richard Dawkins gives advice to entrants to a competition for young science writers.
Richerd Dawkins FRS is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden (ScienceMasters Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and The Devil’s Chaplain.
Richard Dawkins’s Edge Bio Page
Next Step, a Nobel Prize for Literature?
by Richard Dawkins
In a 1968 book review of The Double Helix, anthologised in Pluto’s Republic, the distinguished biologist Sir Peter Medawar wrote that if a young man as talented as Jim Watson had been born British, especially in the Cambridge of his and Crick’s time, he would have been steered towards literary studies:
It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English Schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of quite outstanding ability much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about.
Scientism of this order provokes shrieks of outrage, and I would not recommend Medawar’s style of patrician insouciance—not till you reach the age of 60 and have a Nobel prize as well deserved as his. The suspicion that Medawar is righter than most of us publicly admit may be fleeting, and it may be secret, but it should at least embolden the young science writer. Choose science, and you have something important to write about.
Not just important but fascinating. Not just fascinating but open-ended: you’ll never run out of subjects, where the effort of simplification repays the writer as richly as the reader. Einstein said: “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Any fool can oversimplify. Far from talking down, flatter your reader. Don’t apologise for elitism, encourage your reader to join the elite. Don’t shrink from choosing the exact word that says it best, even if it drives your reader to the dictionary. A dictionary never harmed anyone, and a word can excite by its very unfamiliarity.
Seek to enlighten and inspire, not impress. Darwin may not have been the most graceful role model for a young writer, but he laboured mightily to be understood because he knew the importance of what he had to convey. He worked to anticipate every problem that might arise, even devoting an entire chapter to “Difficulties on Theory”.
Dawkins’s Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.
Theoretical physics is a genuinely difficult subject. Envious disciplines, which I shall not advertise, conceal their lack of content behind billowing clouds of deliberate obscurity, hilariously lampooned by Alan Sokal in his hoax article, “Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity”, published by Social Text to the subsequent embarrassment of that pretentious journal’s “Editorial Collective”. Wanton obscurantism subverts the very point of science. If science seems difficult, it should only be because the real world is difficult. Yet a sufficiently skilled writer can cut through the difficulty without losing content and without dumbing down.
Yeats proclaimed “The fascination of what’s difficult”, and at different times described poetry as a “craft”, or “trade” which had to be learned.
A line may take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Stitching and unstitching, yes, that hits home. Economy of line serves scientists no less than poets and novelists. Learn parsimony by reading Shakespeare—or Evelyn Waugh—as well as J B S Haldane or D’Arcy Thompson. Learn lyricism by reading Wordsworth, as well as Carl Sagan or Peter Atkins. Learn wit from P G Wodehouse, as well as Steve Jones or Matt Ridley. You cannot write unless you love reading.
Adjectives and adverbs are special treats. Ration them. The passive voice is not to be encouraged—see what I mean? Use short sentences, but vary their length or your prose will plod. Such advice is commonplace and I go along with it. But I’ve never written down a formula for writing, and I shrink from anything formulaic. If your tennis serve works for you, an insensitive coach who barges in and tells you to throw the ball higher may ruin everything. If you’re too aware of your own technique you may dissect it to destruction. I hate it when editors belabour me with their schoolmarm rules, so why would I impose rules on others?
Whatever I say, then, it is no more than what seems to work for me. Read your stuff aloud and tune your ear to its cadences. Read it to yourself, again and again, and each time trim more fat. Each time, apply the virtual red pencil of a different imaginary critic. If occasionally you venture into a purple passage, let it be nature’s truth that leads you there, not self-regard. Fall in love with your subject, not your prose.
I love amazing numbers, and I suspect that many readers do too. How many miles of neurons are in the human brain? Others have worked that out, so calculate an equally astounding number yourself. Remember the little boy who pleaded: “Please tell me one thing I could tell Daddy that he doesn’t know already.” Prick your reader’s imagination with a stunning fact, or a fresh metaphor, or by turning a familiar fact dizzyingly upside down, or by filtering it through the alien lens of a Martian eye. However useful science may be, and however relevant to everyday life, that is the least important thing about it. Science is, above all, wonderful. You may write to inform. You should write to inspire.
No scientist has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why not? I suspect that it simply hasn’t occurred to the judges. “Literature”automatically conjures “novelist”, or “poet”. Yet, could there be a better subject for great literature than the spacetime fabric of the universe? Or than the evolution of life? Or than Sherrington’s enchanted loom of the brain? At very least it is not obvious why fiction should make greater literature than reality. And science is the study of the real world. Nobel Prize for Literature? Now there’s a life’s challenge for the aspiring science writer.