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.