Necronomicon Convention talk on the Biology of the Old Ones, Part 3 – Taxonomy of the Old Ones (August Derleth)

Before Robert M. Price worked on his taxonomic nomenclature of the Old Ones, August Derleth proposed a means of classifying these entitles.  In fact, according to Richard L. Tierney’s seminal paper, The Derleth Mythos (Discovering H.P. Lovecraft edited by Darrell Schweitzer – 1995) Derleth was the person who established the concept of the Mythos.

Tierney and others such as Joshi and Murray have clearly identified and separated Derleth’s ideas and concepts from those of Lovecraft, which has been associated with varying degrees of criticism.  I do not want to dwell on this criticism of Derleth, there are three points I want to make in this regard.  First, Derleth took Lovecraft’s idea of a materialistic, uncaring Universe where man is insignificant and modified (or distorted) it into one where good (Elder Gods) battles evil (Old Ones) similar to Christianity, where humanity is the focus or celestial “prize”.  Second, Derleth’s taxonomy of categorizing the Old Ones was based on the classical (Greek) concept of four elements.  Third, Derleth, along with others such as Lin Carter, were accused of explaining too much; the Mythos thrived on mystery and confusion and ironing out all of the details takes away from the Mythos itself.  For the sake of this brief article I will focus only on the second point – that Derleth’s taxonomy was based on the four elements.

Essentially, Derleth said that  Lovecraft’s enitites could be categorized through the “elemental forces”  of fire, water, earth and air.

Reading Tierney’s article you get the impression that the focus of this idea was primarily based on Cthulhu and his spawn being aquatic creatures and thus being water entities.   However, if Cthulhu is a water being, why is he imprisoned in water?  Wouldn’t it be better to hold Cthulhu in, say, the center of a star, fire thus defeating or containing water?  Another point Tierney makes is that Hastur is considered to be an air-based entity yet he is thought to reside in the bottom of the Lake of Hali; is Hastur imprisoned in the bottom of the lake similar to Cthulhu being imprisoned in the Pacific Ocean?  Wouldn’t it be better to hold Hastur in the earth or in a deep cave on some remote world?  Yog Sothoth, Nyarlathotep and Shub-Nigguarth are all squeezed into the earth category.  Finally, since there was no entities within the fire category, Derleth created Cthugha to fill that niche.

While some authors have used this system of taxonomy for the Old Ones, its generally not thought much of now a days.  This is primarily due to the fact that such a classification system tries too hard to explain away what these entities are (evil manifestations of these elemental forces hell-bent on the destruction and/or consumption of humanity).  In addition, if one is going to develop a classification system of the Old Ones, it should be based primarily and foremost on Lovecraft’s writings.  As I attempt to make the case in my presentation, a classification system should be based on what little we know about these entities’ biology and their relation to life on Earth .

In conclusion, while Derleth’s taxonomic system does not seem to be satisfactory, it must be said, which I’m sure everyone recognizes, that Derleth should receive some credit to keeping Lovecraft’s stories in the public eye and being one of the co-founders of Arkham House.  Thank you.

Fred Lubnow


15 thoughts on “Necronomicon Convention talk on the Biology of the Old Ones, Part 3 – Taxonomy of the Old Ones (August Derleth)

  1. So, maybe a better taxonomy would be one based upon antipathies. In that case the Elder Things that live on the land and under the sea would be ice creatures which isn’t on the list at all (water?)

    But, it must be said that Cthulhu isn’t imprisoned by the water–he set a lock on the door that protects him but also keeps him inert (dead & dreaming) and he can’t open it. It has to be opened from the outside. Rl’yeh sank and the water cut off his telepathic communication with humans. It’s going to rise, and the cultists (or really unlucky sailors) will open the door.

    1. Hey Lisa – a very interesting and intriguing idea on the Elder Things and you make a good point on Cthulhu; I always wondered about myself. The water wasn’t hold him back. That point was made by Tierney in his paper on the subject. However, I think Tierney’s main augment was that Derleth was trying to force the entities into this 4 element concept while, more importantly, making the Old Ones the evil forces opposite the Elder Gods (forces of good). This philosophy is really off the mark of what Lovecraft was trying to achieve, which was a feeling that the grand and alien forces of the Universe care nothing for humanity and that we are insignificant points of dust in reality. In any event, I will be presenting a more “biological point” of view of Lovecraftian enitities in upcoming articles (again based on the talk I gave at the Necronomicon last month).
      Thank you!

      1. I wish I’d seen your talk. This post has set me to thinking. I always ignored Derluth’s efforts because they are in the vein of a critique or derivation rather than a creation. He sought to remove them from HP’s world and place them in a wider cultural/mythological context. But since culture is human centric it’s a flawed effort.
        I’m just more interested in noticing how they function within his own world. For instance the Elder Things are the ultimate destructive parent.

        I feel that one thing that makes Lovecraft so potent is that it’s so rooted in the experience of the individual confronting their culture. objectively, our viewpoint of ourselves in the universe should have as much weight as Cthulhu’s view of us; but HP taps into that moment when viewpoint comes up against superior force.

      2. Very insightful, particularly in regard to HPL’s view of humanity against the Cosmos.

        I actually don’t mind reading Derleth – I like to use the Universal Monsters as a way to compare Lovecraft to Derleth. For me HPL’s material is like the original Monster movies such as Frankenstein, Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein. These movies were dark, gothic and were serious with a touch of humor. They were also very original and innovative for their time. In addition, they were extremely creepy. However, once you get to movies like “House of Dracula” and Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman” the ideas and concepts are watered down and they don’t have the creepy / cosmic punch of the originals. HPL is like the original movies while Derleth is like the endless sequels. While the sequels are not nearly as good as the originals they have their own charm and fun, like Derleth’s stories.


      3. Good comparison! Plus I do so love the old black and white horror. As you say, astonishing in the writing and visuals. Even the sequels occasionally surprise me–though you can tell they were made cheaper and cheaper over time.

        I’ve been on the hunt for some of the old horror I used to read that I remember loving so much. I wonder if I’ll find it more like Lovecraft or Durleth.

      4. I have been reading Lovecraft since I was in middle school and I’m 46 now; I never tire of him. I red a lot of Derleth and other stuff in the 1990’s. Some of it I would not re-read but much of it I do, particularly if they are in an anthology, like Price’s great collection of Chaosium books. Still I do re-read Derleth from time to time, particularly this time of year. Lately been reading people like Gary Myers, Laird Barron, Molly Tanzer and Willum Pugmire great current Lovecraftian (at least sharing similar themes) writers.

        Also, thanks to the Necronomicon convention been getting into weird poetry lately, particularly Clark Ashton Smith.

  2. Hm…

    While I do not agree with an elemental taxonomy, if it had to be so, it would be the following:



    Dagon (maybe not, but it is a water deity)



    1. Do not agree with the Derleth system myself which was a combination of elementals and good (Elder Gods) vs. evil (Old Ones).


  3. Maybe a more entertaining sort of discussion would be to place them within multi-dimensional taxonomies…


    1. That would be interesting and funny to see!

      I suppose that Yog-Sothoth wouldn’t be included, him being locked outside time and space. He might be in a time categorization. Nyarlathotep would be more difficult.

      1. It’s funny Lisa and you bring this up – Steve Maschuck and I are working on an article for Weird Tales on-line on an adaptive categorization system for Lovecraft’s creations that are based on a multi-dimensional format.


      2. Cool! I’ll be checking that site more often. A multi-dimensional categorization would be very interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s