Who Were The Old Ones?

by Daniel Harms

Beginning with Richard Tierney’s “The Derleth Mythos”, much has been written about how Derleth’s interpretations transformed the beings in Lovecraft’s stories. Most people can cite two fundamental changes Derleth made to Lovecraft’s creations - the good versus evil dichotomy of the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones, and the elemental attributions of the various beings of the Mythos. More recently, however, scholars have come to accept that Derleth’s most fundamental innovation was the assignment of these beings to a single mythological pantheon. One of the categories of this pantheon - the “Great Old Ones” or “Old Ones” - has become a standard in our thinking about Lovecraft’s fiction. Francis T. Laney’s “The Cthulhu Mythology: A Glossary”, perhaps the first attempt to describe the whole Mythos, states that

… then came the Great Old Ones, gods from outer space who for their evil practices were cast out by the Elder Gods, much as Lucifer was thrown from heaven in the christian mythos. Flying down from the stars, they took up their abode on earth, until they were again banished for their innate cosmic evil. They yet dwell beneath the seas, in caverns deep within the earth, and in the space between the stars, awaiting only to be aroused. [1]

For decades thereafter, subsequent treatments of Lovecraft’s pantheon have followed suit; even those that omitted the Elder Gods references maintained the reality of the Great Old Ones. [2] Yet Lovecraft’s use of this phrase was hardly consistent throughout his fiction. Rather, he used it and its variants - such as “Elder Ones” and “Ancient Ones” - to refer to various beings, who share in common only their pre-human nature. This essay is an exploration of the Old Ones throughout Lovecraft’s fiction.

The first mention of the Old Ones comes in his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926). Inspector John Legrasse of the New Orleans police department raids a cult meeting, capturing a number of the members. These cultists revered

the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. (DH 139)

Later, Legrasse receives more information from the aged Castro about these beings:

These Great Old Ones, Castro continued, were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape … but that shape was not made of matter. 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… (DH 140)

Encapsulated in these passages is the basic lore of the Great Old Ones accepted by most Cthulhu Mythos enthusiasts. It should be noted that Lovecraft does not use one particular term for these creatures in “Call”; he refers to them at different times as the “Great Old Ones”, “Old Ones”, and “Great Ones” (DH 148). Also, one inconsistency emerges between the two passages quoted above: The regular cultists believe that the Old Ones are “inside the earth and under the sea”, whereas Castro holds that “They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh”. Even though most readers would state that Castro is undoubtedly the better source, the cultists’ notion of the Old Ones outside R’lyeh has become the most prevalent within the Mythos.

The next story to use a variant on the “Old Ones” theme was “The Strange High House in the Mist” (1926). In this tale, we encounter the “Elder Ones” for the first time. We are told little of them at first, save that they taught undersea dwellers “wild tunes” to play (D 277). Later, the tale’s hero meets an old man in the house outside Kingsport who talks of “the dim first age of chaos before the gods or even the Elder Ones were born, and when only the other gods came to dance on the peak of Hatheg-Kla” (D 282). After being told this, he is visited by a series of mythological beings, the most notable of which is the British/Roman deity Nodens. It is uncertain whether these are the gods or the Elder Ones - and they are much too friendly to be the Other Gods, as portrayed in the story of the same name (1921).

The Elder Ones appear once again in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1927). Over the course of Randolph Carter’s journey, it becomes apparent that these beings, who are also called Great Ones or gods of earth, are the weak gods of the Dreamlands such as Nath-Horthath. They may have their temples in Ulthar (AMM 311) and Inganok (AMM 359) and protect the temples of Kled (AMM 351), but they are ultimately subservient to the Other Gods, a group composed of Nyarlathotep, possibly Azathoth, and a number of unnamed beings. Unlike the denizens of R’lyeh, these beings are awake and quite weak, and are protected and terrorized by Nyarlathotep.

The next piece to mention our Old Ones is “The Dunwich Horror”, which contains the infamous passage from the Necronomicon which deals with these mysterious beings. As most readers will already be familiar with it, I will only quote a few highlights:

“The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen … [Yog-Sothoth] knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread… The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness… (DH 170)”

Can these Old Ones be the ones discussed in “The Call of Cthulhu”? It seems unlikely. The beings in “The Call of Cthulhu”, according to the doctrines of their cult, are inactive at this time and held in R’lyeh or beneath the sea and earth. The Old Ones in “The Dunwich Horror” dwell in another dimension and possess considerable freedom of movement, though they are somewhat restricted to places where “the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons” (DH 170). Cthulhu is seen as the one whose magic preserves the Great Old Ones in the first story, but now he has been demoted to “Their cousin” and “can he spy Them only dimly” (DH 170).

In Lovecraft’s sonnet cycle “Fungi from Yuggoth” (1929*), the Elder Ones appear again in two different places. The sonnet “Antarktos” mentions a rock in the polar regions “…whose primal sources/Are guessed at dimly by the Elder Ones” (15:7-8). It might be possible to fit this into the original concept of the Elder Ones as the little gods of the Dreamlands. Yet a few sonnets later, in “The Elder Pharos”, we hear of “the last Elder One [who] lives on alone” (27:7) in a monastery on the Plateau of Leng. This being has previously been encountered in “Dream-Quest”, and is not one of the gods of earth, but a moonbeast or Nyarlathotep himself (if we accept Bob Price’s interpretation). Even within the cycle, the “Elder Ones” are not consistently portrayed, but take on whatever associations Lovecraft desires.

In Lovecraft’s revision of Zealia Bishop’s “The Mound” (1930), the Spanish explorer Zamacona, a companion of Coronado, is seeking the lost cities of gold in the New World. He speaks with Charging Buffalo, who tells him of the Old Ones who inhabit these cities. The wording at the beginning is similar to that in “The Call of Cthulhu”, but soon it becomes apparent that these are a different breed of Old Ones indeed:

The Old Ones themselves were half-ghost - indeed, it was said that they no longer grew old or reproduced their kind, but flickered eternally in a state between flesh and spirit… It was whispered that the Old Ones had come down from the stars to the world when it was very young, and had gone inside to build their cities of solid gold because the surface was not then fit to live on. They were the ancestors of all men, yet none could guess from what star - or what place beyond the stars - they came. (HM 118)

These Old Ones once lived on the surface and traded with humans until their native lands sunk beneath the ocean. After the catastrophe, “the Old Ones closed themselves up below and refused to deal with surface people” (HM 117-8). When these beings are encountered by Zamacona, they prove not to be hideous aliens, but instead are human, albeit ones with prodigious mental powers. These hardly fit our conceptions of the Old Ones as displayed in either “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Dunwich Horror”. [3]

In “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931), Miskatonic University mounts a geological expedition to Antarctica. There they find a number of specimens of a curious, part-plant, part-animal life form. The team members are enthralled as they notice the resemblance between these beings and the legendary “Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth-life as a joke or mistake” (AMM 25). When the time comes to assign a name to the beings they have discovered, they choose the title “’The Elder Ones’” (AMM 25), even though these can hardly be the “little gods of Earth” to which Lovecraft gave this title in his Dreamlands stories. When Dyer and Danforth finally top the nearby mountains, they find a titanic city whose frescoes confirm that these curious beings “were the Great Old Ones that had filtered down from the stars when earth was young” (AMM 59-60). As we recall, the “Great Old Ones” were originally the dwellers in R’lyeh preserved by Cthulhu, but here we learn that these crinoid beings warred with Cthulhu when he came to earth (AMM 66). Once again, the rules have changed in the interest of drama.

The Old Ones turn up again in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931), where a man on an antiquarian journey travels to the town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. There he speaks with the town drunk, Zadok Allen, who tells him about the Deep Ones, a species of fish-men who live off the coast and control the town. As he describes the town’s history, Allen mentions an opposed group of beings called the “Old Ones” who had “sarten signs” (DH 331) which could frighten away the Deep Ones (DH 331). Later, when the antiquarian finds that he has Deep One ancestry, he learns in his dream communications with the beings how the “palaeogean magic of the forgotten Old Ones” might halt their advances (DH 367). [4] But who are these Old Ones? As the Deep Ones serve Dagon and Cthulhu, this cannot be a reference to those from R’lyeh. Could it be the inter-dimensional beings from “Dunwich”, or the Antarctic crinoids? There is much too little information given in the story to pin any identity on them.

“Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1933) is perhaps the last of Lovecraft’s stories to expand on the idea of the Old Ones. The hero, Randolph Carter, has passed through the Gate of the Silver Key to find himself in an extra-dimensional temple in the presence of the mighty ‘Umr at-Tawil and the Ancient Ones, whose “outlines became more like those of men, though Carter knew that they could not be men. Upon their cloaked heads there now seemed to rest tall, uncertainly coloured miters” (AMM 433). As he gazes upon them, Carter suddenly has an insight into their fundamental nature:

He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their everlasting dreams to wreak a wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. (AMM 433-4)

These Ancient Ones do not seem to conform to any of the beings described above, even though it is implied that they exist elsewhere in myth. Then again, by this time we’ve come to expect this uncertainty.

There are a few other references to the Old Ones in different stories, but most of these are brief and uninformative. “The Shadow out of Time” (1935) refers to the “winged, star-headed Old Ones who centered on the antarctic” (DH 400), but these are undoubtedly the beings described in “At the Mountains of Madness”. Some references are more ambiguous, such as the “Old Ones” whom Rhan-Tegoth must bring back in “The Horror in the Museum” (1932), and the “Outer Powers” which are briefly mentioned in “The Man of Stone” (1932). The only one of these terms which seems to be used consistently at all between stories are the “Elder Ones”, the beings better known as the migo or fungi from Yuggoth, which appear in both “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930) and “Out of the Aeons” (1933). Other than this exception, the sheer diversity of these terms is staggering.

I hope the reader has noticed by this time, that in all this diversity, there is a striking omission. We have come to assign the name “Old Ones” or “Great Old Ones” to Cthulhu, Hastur (who is mentioned in only “The Whisperer in Darkness”), Tsathoggua (the creation of Clark Ashton Smith), and a number of other beings. Yet nowhere in Lovecraft’s works does he ever call any of these by that name. In fact, the only candidate for the title of “Old One” might be Yog-Sothoth, as his characteristics parallel those listed for the Old Ones in the Necronomicon quote in “The Dunwich Horror”. Perhaps our need to categorize Lovecraft’s fiction is driven by a need to drive away the horror. If this is true, and our creation of such categories as the Old Ones is a result of it, perhaps laying them open will bring back the power and wonder with which we first read these stories.

[1] In Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Arkham House, 1943. p. 416.

[2] Charting the course of this transformation into a set definition should be an interesting task. For example, August Derleth and Mark Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (published in the February 1932 issue of Weird Tales) mentions the “Great Old Ones” - but as the beings from Betelgeuse and Rigel who imprisoned Cthulhu and his kindred!

[3] It might be possible, since Cthulhu’s spawn are never described, that these could be the “Great Old Ones” from “The Call of Cthulhu” - after all, they do claim to have come to earth with the god of R’lyeh - but I doubt many would accept that possibility.

[4] I believe that Derleth took the latter passage as support for the existence of the Elder Gods, though it should be noted that the signs in this story look like swastikas (DH 333) rather than stars.

References: AMM = At the Mountains of Madness and Others, Arkham; D = Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, Arkham; DH = The Dunwich Horror and Others, Arkham; FY = Fungi from Yuggoth, Necronomicon. All references are to page number, save for Fungi, which is arranged by sonnet:line.

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