Friday, August 27, 2010

Political Geography of the Permian - A Culture History of the Cthulhu Mythos

Jordan179 has made a tentative reconstruction of Earth's past political geography, based on the Kadath murals, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, testimony of channeled time travelers, and other fragmentary evidence of the deep past surviving to the present. He has correlated geological evidence for the position of the continents (noting Lovecraft's use of continental drift, at the time a disputed and largely rejected fringe hypothesis that would become the dominant geological paradigm a generation later).

I find the positioning of R'lyeh somewhat odd, placing it what would become central and northeastern Asia, but the scope of the future continent is still unknown so any suggestion at this point is tentative. And it keeps in the commendable spirit of many chroniclers of Earth's hidden history, with two sources rarely agreeing. And then there is the issue of the Cthulhi/Xothians and water, which has been discussed extensively elsewhere. I think there is a methodological issue in presenting this as somewhat static, collapsing vast amounts of time (the map is labeled as varying through time, but considering the huge amounts of time involved ...). But then, the source material also stretches empires over tens of millions of years, or longer, so this isn't out of character with the evidence.

But overall, an interesting approach to a problem typically handled textually. It reminds me of the culture history maps from archaeology's early professional days, when large blobs and arrows would translate artifacts, postmolds, and art styles into nation-like units to build histories before history. V. Gordon Childe, one of the most influential of culture historians, was publishing his reconstructions of Eurasian prehistory precisely at the time Lovecraft was writing the stories that most directly under gird this map. I find it quite fitting.


  1. Yes, I get a bit vague about "Irem" (really the Arab name for the surviving city of that race and "R'lyeh" (probably the proper name of both city and realm), because these are places where Lovecraft's Wegnerian-based paleogeographical model doesn't map well with what we know today.

    The surviving city of Irem is in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, which in the Permian would be in East Africa (this is long before the appearance of the modern Rift Valley) and would be Elder Thing territory, southeast rather than east of Valusia (since the Permian, Africa has rotated counterclockwise). The most obvious natural boundary on the map is the Pangean Range, an artifact of the collision between Laurasia and Gondwana that created Pangea, and much of the territory that would be credited to the Iremites is north of that range.

    So I gave the Valusians North Africa and what would be Europe (and northern South America, because at this time there is no real division between North Africa and northern South America), sandwiched between the Pangean Mountains and the Great South American Desert, and assigned the Iremites the territory north of there. Over immense stretches of time, political boundaries would tend to conform to natural ones anyway.

    R'lyeh was a tougher call, because of the whole confusion about whether or not the Cthulhi aka Xothians aka Star-Spawn actually like being underwater. I decided that the Deep Ones already existed, because their bodies are obviously based on a primitive Devonian tetrapod model, and since the Deep Ones can take water and land just fine (provided that the land is reasonably humid), this meant that the realm of R'lyeh could include both the seas around the shelf of what had been the main body of Rodina (the real supercontinent which best corresponds to R'lyeh from the legends), and the continents which still remained above the water. This meant the northeastern arc of land bordering the Paleo-Tethys.

  2. I based spheres of influence on known biological and technological capabilities of the races in question. Sometimes this is based on direct textual evidence and sometimes on inferences from the stories (mostly Mountains of Madness, Shadow Out of Time, and the Kull and Conan stories about the Serpent Men).

    The Elder Things are famously triphibious, and are mentioned to have an advanced physical and biological technology including directed beam weapons and shoggoths, so they can control both land and sea well, and dominate anyone at sea other than their arch-enemies the Cthulhi. They probably prefer wetter climates, though, which is a problem for them in the arid lands of interior Pangea.

    The Cthulhi themselves are powerful at sea for the obvious reasons: Cthulhi, his Star-Spawn, and the Deep Ones are all notably adept swimmers. They also have an advanced technology, with a focus on what we would call psionics and psychotronics. Because of the (literal) fluidity of naval/amphibious warfare, borders with them tend to fluctuate a lot unless strongly held. Their great weakness is that they handle arid land conditions very poorly -- a desert is to them about as habitable as is central Antarctica to us, which means that they can't hold outposts there against any real opposition. Note that all the lands of R'lyeh are essentially humid ones: probably swamps and rain forests, as tend to be most of the areas bordering the Paleo-Tethys especially in the northeastern part where there are practically no rainshadows.

    I was surprised when I started mapping the Yithian domains just how little territory the "Great Race" actually controlled. They have an advanced technology, though, canonically including energy beam weapons and large atomic-powered vehicles, and can probably use their time-diving ability for a form of limited precognition, so they can hold what they have against the incursions of Elder Things and Cthulhi alike.

    The Serpent People and Iremites are more biologically similar to each other than are any two other Powers, which does not imply that they like each other at all -- sometimes cousins can be the worst of enemies. They are about as similar to each other as are, say, African great apes and neotropical monkeys. Both evolved in the early to mid Permian from basal diapsid reptilian stock, probably with some tinkering by the Elder Things. (Note that the "Serpent Men" aren't really serpents at all -- true snakes won't appear for another 100 millon or so years!)

    The Serpent Men are tailed, venomous (partially through deliberate eugenics and certain dietary habits) and have a culture largely based upon a tension between trust and treachery. The Iremites are tailless and non-venomous, and lack the Serpent Man obsession with intrigue. Both species do far better in arid conditions than any of the other three races, which gives them a strategic advantage in the vast inland deserts and surrounding savannahs).

    I am necessarily vague about details, since I'm covering a 40-million stretch of history. The displayed borders are mere suggestions and doubtless moved a thousand miles or more in each direction at various points. The fact that I describe five "Powers" does NOT mean that I believe that each race was completely unified during that whole vast time, and I presume that the Valusians and Iremites were particularly prone to regional factionalism, during many periods being broken up into quarrelling nations and even city-states.

    The truth is that to properly cover this much time, even given the extreme cultural inertia of most Mythos races, would take a very long book indeed!

  3. Excellent! Thank you very much for your explanations. I had a little chill of awesome at the thought of Yithian atomic airships, with lightning gunners along the portholes, when you mentioned their vehicles.

    One thing you might play around with if you were to expand this would be the hints of social structure you have for the different societies. Lovecraft went into great detail on the Yithians, turning them into a socialist state for a machine age of leisure, mirroring many of the economic and political ideals Lovecraft came to in the 1930s context of the Great Depression and his own decline into poverty. But there is the added wrinkle of the Yithians being the masters of time, knowing that their fate on the planet is finite and mapped out, and while they may be terrified of the flying polyps, they also know that they will escape them en masse. In some senses, this would be the decadent, been there and done everything post-machine society Lovecraft worried about, only keeping total decadence and boredom at bay through their art and their monumental cataloging of all history in this section of space. For a similar society that did not keep boredom at bay, see "The Mound." Such a society might not see much point in conquest, simply maintaining themselves until the inevitable mind jump away, and keeping themselves busy with their temporal xenocultural studies.

    By contrast, the Elder Things are somewhere between a slave and machine society. They bioengineered the shoggoths and at first (if Dyer's interpretations are correct), they were probably very similar to biological automatons. But with evolution, the society became something more like an apartheid state. It lacked the fears of miscegenation that Lovecraft held, but we see a cultural replication and blending with the inferior borrowed art style of the shoggoths in the lower levels near the abyss, and their cry of Tekelili taken from the fluting sounds of the Elder Thing vocal cords. Such a species might alternately mix value for high class-based aesthetics with militaristic brutality derived from constant fear of revolt. It would not be fascist in the industrial-era sense, but the mix of speciest ideology and militarism could make for a nasty brew.

    The Xothians are more of a cipher, except for intimations that Cthulhu is a high priest of some kind, and it is notable that Cthulhu's dreams produce religious adoration. Could it be some sort of hive mind theocracy, an apocalyptic one at that with prophecies of when the end (even if temporary) will come and the stars will go wrong resulting in civilization-wide non-death and destruction under the waves?

    It's a different tack than you normally see for Lovecraftian fiction/thought. And one more literalist than some might appreciate it. But I like it, and think there is more than room for it in the spectrum.