The following was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.
Let’s set the scene. Archaeologists, stumbling through an unknown jungle, come upon a lost city of great antiquity. It’s complexity and size seems beyond the capability of the local peoples, and carved into its sides are ancient glyphs. Their meaning cannot be precisely discerned, but they seem to hint at gods who descended from the stars and built the city. Not only that, but they left a promise to return one day, when the time is right.
Now the question: H.P. Lovecraft story? Or an episode of the History Channel’s hit show, Ancient Aliens? Not an easy question, is it?
If you’re not sure of the answer, don’t feel too bad. The similarities between the Cthulhu mythos and the Ancient Astronaut Theory are so strong as to defy mere coincidence.
That’s the position taken at least by Jason Colavito in his scholarly work, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. Colavito offers an engrossing, if thoroughly skeptical, history of what has come to be known as the Ancient Alien or Ancient Astronaut Theory. For those unfamiliar with the cable program and the works of theorists like Erich Anton Paul von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin, the Ancient Alien Theory posits that deep in the shrouded mist of our planet’s distant past, Earth was visited by extraterrestrials. The details can vary depending on who’s telling the story, but these ETs played a significant role in mankind’s development. Some adherents claim that human beings are a creation of an advanced race whose mastery of genetic engineering allowed them to create homo sapiens out of some lower form of life. Essentially, it’s Intelligent Design with aliens instead of God, or the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That’s the most extreme view. The slightly less all-encompassing—but still pretty extreme in of itself—tack is that these creatures found primitive man at some very early stage of civilization. Following the maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic, these primitive peoples took alien visitors for gods, basing all of the world’s mythologies on their visitations. As a corollary, the aliens acted in the role of Prometheus, giving unto early man knowledge that should have taken centuries or even thousands of years to develop. In this way, aliens were directly responsible for the construction of many of the world’s wonders. And when they left, they promised that one day they would return.
That’s the Ancient Alien Theory in a nutshell, and Colavito’s recitation of it adds little to what we already know. But Colavito goes well beyond simply describing the views of others. Instead, he digs beneath those views to find their underpinnings, developing a fascinating theory of his own, particularly for any fan of weird fiction. The Ancient Alien Theory isn’t grounded in archaeological anomalies or seemingly impossible cities or monuments. For Colavito, the entire Ancient Alien craze has none other than H.P. Lovecraft to thank for its creation.
I’ll let you read Colavito’s book and examine the evidence, but I’ll tell you that it is quite convincing. Nevertheless, his is a bold claim, and an ironic one, too. Lovecraft was, if nothing else, a dedicated materialist and rationalist. The kind of pseudoscience that the Ancient Alien Theory relies on would have struck him as nothing less than silly. Mystical dream quests, ancient beings from the stars, and tomes of magical incantations were useful plot devices for fiction, but to believe they could be real? Not Lovecraft.
But while Lovecraft might have scoffed at the claims of Giorgio Tsoukalos, were he alive today, we can be sure that they would find their way into his fiction. Whatever the truth of Colavito’s thesis and whatever one believes about the truth or absurdity of the Ancient Alien Theory, there can be little doubt that Lovecraft and weird fiction in general have long capitalized on the notion that there is something beyond our world and that at some point we have been visited by creatures from beyond the stars. One of the most famous passages from Lovecraft’s seminal “The Call of Cthulhu” so perfectly encapsulates the Ancient Astronaut Theory that it is little wonder Colavito and others trace that theory back to Lovecraft.
Old Castro remembered bits of hideous legend that paled the speculations of theosophists and made man and the world seem recent and transient indeed. There had been aeons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them, he said the deathless Chinamen had told him, were still to be 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.
Lovecraft goes on to speak of great Cthulhu himself, explaining that he had also come from the stars, to rule the earth. But at some point in the distant past, things went wrong. Lovecraft never explains how or why the Great Old Ones lost dominion over the earth, but lose it they did. Locked in the dark places of this world, on the highest mountains and in the deepest canyons, or simply far beneath the waves, they await the moment of their return.
This is the central idea at the heart of all of Lovecraft’s best and most sophisticated stories. Not only ancient visits, but something left behind. Something that could invade the dreams of men, that defied the settled expectations of life, the truth of which would drive men mad were it known. He revisits this motif again and again, from “The Nameless City” to “The Shadow out of Time.” Something has been here before. And always the promise of return.
The casual observer might think that it is on this point of “return” where Lovecraft and the Ancient Alien Theorists would go their separate ways. After all, the former believe extraterrestrials to be benevolent beings, while the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft care nothing for mankind and will likely wipe us from the face of the earth as an afterthought. This view is widely accepted dogma by Lovecraft aficionados, but interestingly, that’s not exactly how Lovecraft paints it. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” he writes of the Great Old Ones return,
That cult 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. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.
That’s actually not all that different from what Ancient Alien Theorists claim will happen when the extraterrestrials return. It’s darker and more violent—Lovecraft was a horror writer after all—but let’s break down the basic components. The ETs won’t return until mankind becomes like them, perhaps achieving a technological level where they would be viewed as simply more advanced rather than gods. They will then teach mankind new things that heretofore could not have been imagined, ushering in a new age.
Call it fact or accept it as fiction, but it’s hard not to see the connections. And one wonders why mankind is so drawn to this notion of an outside power, meddling in our affairs, bringing us towards the light, or threatening our destruction.
Maybe Lovecraft was more right than he ever could have known.