Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

What is the Elder Sign in the Cthulhu Mythos?

elder sign dearleth

In my cubical at work there is a white board. Hidden among the things I have written  to help me do my job better, is my pop art tribute to Uhler’s Paradox, the number 42, directions to Jessica Jones childhood house, and an elder sign I use it ward of bad calls from clients.

In reality I have no faith in the power of the elder sign. I have stated that I do not believe that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is real. He did however do a lot of research (by that I mean spending hours in the library reading anthropology and folklore books and writing letters to friends about what they felt on the subject) So I think he may have based it on a real icon, but more on that later.

So what does it do? It is a powerful symbol of an alien race (or maybe plural races) that is strong enough to bond the great and dreadful Cthulhu to the undersea city of R’lyeh., But what if rather than being  an artifact of power is it more like a modern hazmat sign, warning the Great Old ones of potential trouble? Some say it is proof that there are even bigger and worst things out there than the ones that Lovecraft concentrated on, fortunately we are insignificant enough to have not appeared on their radar.

But what does it look like. Lovecraft mentions it more than once, only one time did he describe the elder sign’s appearance.  In The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) when Zadock Allen describes as looking kind of like a swastika!?


So I guess I better talk about that. HPL has been falsely accused of saying his favorite book he had read was Mien Khampf. I doubt that is true because it wasn’t printed in English until 1939, and Lovecraft, who didn’t speak German, died in 1938. His only surviving letter about Hitler and Nazism, calls Hitler crude, but supports antisemitism in theory. HP Lovecraft was an anti-Semite, but he was also married to a Jewish woman.  I cannot and will not defend his disgusting racial beliefs.   If reading his works is repulsive to you, by all means then, don’t read it. I struggled with this for a long time until I settled on the belief I can respect and artists work but loath some of the artists personal opinions.

I don’t think that in any ways was he supporting Hitler or Nazism. Though originally a staunch conservative he was during this part of his life a firm backer of FDR and the New Deal.  We also have tore  member that the swastika was not invented by the Nazi’s. Many pre-bronzed age religions use it, Hindus. Buddhist, American Indians, Jainism, Chinese believe systems to name a few.  There is an interesting episode of the original Kolchak series where a Hindu holy man is trying to protect a Jewish community from a Rashaka by using the swastika.


When Cthulhu saw Miho coming at him with an elder sign he knew he’d met his match

Why is the swastika a universal symbol as oppose to just a Nazi Nazi symbol? Will to me it is obvious. The first things a primitive people are going to draw is a line, then another line making either a cross or an ‘X”. It’s not much more of a step, to add “feet” to it. That is why I think so many cultures had it. And it historical use by so many cultures, makes the symbol’s hijacking by the Nazis as a sign of their depravity even worse.

So why did HPL chose this if he wasn’t pro-Hitler? I think because in his study of anthropology, and folklore he knew how abundant the swastika was historically. I think he might have use it because it was all over the world. It would make sense that if a pre-human alien species left behind their sign of power, cultures all over the world would use it.

Later on his friends pestered him for what the elder sign looked like. So he drew the tree branch looking thing, in some of his letters. By this time he apparently didn’t want anything he did to be associated with Hitler and Nazis. But he really didn’t comment on it much during the period before he died.

Elder_sign 1

After HPL’s death, August Derleth pretty much took over what we now call the Cthulhu Mythos. He revamped the elder sign in to what most people think of when they think of the ES. The pentagram with the eye that has a flame as a pupil in it. And let’s face it is awesome looking. This is the one time were you can say, Derleth did something cooler than Lovecraft.

elder sign dearleth

Derleth however wanted to make the mythos a war between good and evil. This truly was his crucifix in the war between the great old ones and the elder gods. This is opposed to Lovecraft’s assertion that it is a cold and pitiless universe and I the war between the cosmic entities, man has no allies. Brian Lumbly would carry this even farther in his Titus Crow series, where he says that the elder gods, place a hypnotic command in Cthulhu and his ilk, allowing the EG’s to rebuke them they were Hammer Studio vampires. Hey he also made Kthanid Cuthlhu’s diamond coated good brother.


The face of Cuthlhu’s good brother Kthanid

The thing that allowed Lovecraft and his writing to really jump in to the semi-mainstream during the early eighties, was table top role playing games. When Dungeons and Dragons added a Lovecraft Mythos to their Deities and Demigods, the used Derelth’s sign as the generic holy symbol for the pantheon.  Chaosium chose the pentagram as their elder sign (though I have some of their books where the tree branch design is on the spine.) This was what many current artists and writers first physical representation of the ES. Though as the pendulum swings back against Derleth, more and more people consider the tree branch as the ‘true elder sign.”

When my daughter was ten, all the kids did chalk art on the cement in our apartment’s courtyard. And Emma drew a really accurate Pentagram elder sign that she had seen on daddy’s books. I got strange looks from the fundamentalist living down stairs for weeks.

In conclusion I think that one of the reasons that Lovecraft kept the elder sign so mysterious is that it a plus to the body of  hiswork to keep it vague. It really isn’t the elder god’s story. Why do we need to more about that relics that are left on the Earth, from some great war? The story is not the story of the weapons, but instead the tale of man’s ultimately futile war against powers much beyond him.

4 comments on “What is the Elder Sign in the Cthulhu Mythos?

  1. The Opening Sentence
    June 26, 2016

    My introduction to Lovecraft was through the art of HR Geiger. It might be worth looking again at the artwork to see if Geiger interpreted the symbol in some way.

    • davekheath
      June 27, 2016

      Ohh, I hadn’t even thought of that good call.

  2. Mike
    June 27, 2016

    I struggled with this for a long time until I settled on the belief I can respect and artists work but loath some of the artists personal opinions.

    I agree. What really matters is the quality of the work. I can enjoy watching Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey without endorsing her nutty beliefs.

    • davekheath
      June 28, 2016

      Yes, another good example is Kipling, he is a brilliant, but believed strongly in the white man’s burden.

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2016 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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