Necronomicon Convention talk on the Biology of the Old Ones, Part 5 – Shoggoths

In my presentation on the biology and evolution of Lovecraftian entities , I will being with a discussion of those organisms of Terran origin and then move to those of extra-terrestrial and then extra-dimensional origin.  Thus, the first entity I covered in my presentation at the Necronomicon were the ever popular Shoggoths.

Using At the Mountains of Madness as the primary source of information, it is obvious that the Shoggoths were created by the Elder Ones (to use Price’s nomenclature as discussed in Part 2).  Initially, they were used as a source of food and later as slave labor.  The Shoggoths were “viscous masses” that were “capable of molding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs” and while most people think of them as essentially large amoebas, I will provide evidence that they are a far more complex form of life compared to amoebas or even humans for that matter.

It appears that the Elder Ones not only created Shoggoths but all multi-cellular life on Earth (including us).  Essentially, the Shoggoths were a successful result or product of the Elder Ones experimenting in the creation of complex multicellular life.  In turn, Lovecraft says that, “…Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake.”  Based on this sentence, most Earth life in general were failed experiments or attempts to perfect a desirable stock of life that could serve as both food and slave labor.  Any of these biological “by-products” that were not a nuisance to the Elder Ones were ignored and not destroyed.

If you go back to the”shrub” of life ( Part 1) you will see that based on rRNA analyses (as well as other evidence not discussed here) more complex cells, called eukaryotic cells (animals, plants, fungi and protists – such as amoeba) are essentially a symbiotic relationship among various bacteria.  This means that all life on Earth – worms, sunfish, pine trees, mushrooms and humans – are all composed of ancient lineages of bacteria.  Thus, the ancient ancestors of the organelles in the eukaryotic cell (mitochondria, chloroplasts, complex flagella) were prokaryotic forms of life.  Essentially, a merging of these simple bacteria-like cells gave rise to more complex microbial life (the eukaryotic cell).

It is interesting to note that prokaryotic cells were the only form of life on Earth for over a billion years; they first appears about 3.6 billion years ago.  Eukaryotic cells first appeared in the fossil record approximately 2.6 billion years ago.  It is thought the Elder Ones arrived on Earth approximately 1   billion years ago, after eukaryotic cells were already well established.  Thus, my original hypothesis in the presentation that the Elder Ones created eukaryotic cells is more than likely incorrect.  However, what did appear in the fossil record around the same time the Elder Ones arrived on Earth was multicellular life.  That is, from 3.6 to 1.0 billion years ago, life on Earth was microbial; it was not until the Elder Ones arrived on Earth that multicellular life appears.  The paraphrase Carl Sagan, microbial life may be fairly common throughout the Universe but large beasts and flowers may be rare.  Do the Elder Ones tinker with the microbial life of the Universe, creating organisms that have the ability to mold their tissues into temporary organs to serve their will?  The use of cellular tissue to create organs requires multicellular forms of life.

To conclude this article, I want to note that endosymbiosis is not just a biological union between various bacterial cells.  Endosymbiotic unions can occur between eukaryotic cells or even multicellular forms of life (different species).  As an example, I will briefly talk about lichens.

Lichens are the low lying, green / brown paper-like crust you see on trees or rocks.

Lichens on trees
Lichens on trees

Lichens were originally thought to be a low form of plant life.   However, a closer, microscopic examination of lichens reveals that they are a symbiotic relationship between green or blue-green algae and fungi.  The fungi get a source of food from the algae that photosynthesize and produce carbohydrates, while the algae get a source of nutrients from the fungi as they break down organic matter.  As a lichen, both the algae and fungi get to take advantage of a habitat neither would not be able to tolerate separately.  Algae are generally aquatic or semi-aquatic, while many fungi need to live in moist, organic soils.  However, combined as a lichen, they can live in the dry, sunny, aerial habitat of tree bark.

Green algae
Green algae
fungal hyphae
Fungal hyphae

I see the Shoggoth as a endosymbiotic organism as well, being far more complex than the lichen (or human for that matter).  Given their extreme plasticity and adaptability, the Shoggoth is probably a conglomeration of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.   This would explain how they can feed like animals, photosynthesize like plants and subsist on decaying organic matter like fungi.  This also explains how the Shoggoth can easily adapt to life on the land or in the deep sea.  Thus, if the Elder Ones made a tree or “shrub” of life on Earth, they would probably put the Shoggoth on the top as the pinnacle of Terran evolution and man would be a twig coming off of a minor branch representing apes and monkeys.

Next time I will be talking about Shoggoth reproduction.  Thank you  – Fred Lubnow

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7 thoughts on “Necronomicon Convention talk on the Biology of the Old Ones, Part 5 – Shoggoths

  1. _”The paraphrase Carl Sagan, microbial life may be fairly common throughout the Universe but large beasts and flowers may be rare.”_

    I think you didn’t mean “the” 🙂

    Shoggoths are thus living tools and food that combine the abilities of other life via shape shifting.

    Why would the Elder Ones not simply give themselves this ability to shape shift? To me it seems like the Elder Ones would end up as the tools the moment a single Shoggoth decided to turn it’s left flank into brain tissue.

    A Shoggoth would seem to be capable of touching off a self contained organic/biohacker equivalent of a singularity.

    I could picture a situation where the Elder Ones are a specialized tool of the Shoggoths, rather than the Shoggoths being a generalized tool of the Elder Ones.

    Are the abilities of the Elder Ones the result of self modification and then stagnation? Space flight, toughness, extra senses, partial immortality… What’s left but hyper intelligence? Why do they not have it? Maybe because they are toasters and toasters aren’t supposed to be bright 🙂

    1. Hey Brandon – I think you are right on many counts. The Shoggoths were designed to be tough and resilient but with limited intelligence. While I think they may have been designed with a “stagnant” strategy from an evolution perspective (remember they can’t breed on their own, they need the Shoggoth pits and their master’s aid to do so; also sex is really want allow the transfer and shuffling of genes which leads to evolution – beyond simple mutations that might be passed to clonal offspring). The Shoggoths can shape shift but I don’t think they can make exact copies like the species Odo belonged to on Deep Space Nine or in “The Thing.” They can imitate but not make exact copies.

      With that said, the ironic downfall of the Elder Ones may have been they other Terran experiments they causally “threw away.” The failed Earth experiment grew on their own accord, and it may be possible that horizontal gene transfer from prokaryotic life to the Shoggoths may have provided them with the additional raw gene material to evolve without the aid of the Shoggoth Breeding pits. In turn, this may have resulted in the eventual increased intelligence of the Shoggoth and the downfall of Elder One civilization. Thanks for the comments! Fred

  2. An idle thought on the subject of shoggoths; not quite sure where I’m going with this yet.

    Lately I’ve come to think of them as colonial organisms, mainly because I wasn’t sure how else they could form and unform temporary organs. Then I got to thinking about the Portugese Man-o’-War and other such siphonophores, with their highly specialised zooids. If an organism can create sub-organisms specialised entirely towards digestion, reproduction, etc; then why not sight, or even thought? (the ‘stable brains’ HPL mentioned in At the Mountains of Madness) A fast reproductive cycle for zooids, coupled with a short lifespan for the same would allow the shoggoth to spawn as many eyes as it needed, as specialised as they needed to be, and dispose of them without undue discomfort to the whole. Their mimicry might imply a kind of fast mutation, a sort of rapid prototyping to develop new organs, whether they’re penguin flippers, the piping voices of Old Ones, or even human faces if they had sufficient exposure.

    In the case of the latter, I’m thinking of Kevin O’Neill’s rendering of a shoggoth from Nemo: Heart of Ice, which was trying a few human faces on for size, in addition to a load of eyes, mouths and star-shaped protuberances. Since you said earlier that you haven’t checked that out, it’s part of Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work. The usual conceit from that series: “what if all fiction were true?”. ‘Heart of Ice’ takes the ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’, the sequel Jules Verne wrote, and of course, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, adds the series’s previous allusion to Captain Nemo’s Antarctic expedition and has his daughter trying to outdo him, while being pursued by various heroes from the Edisonades. Great stuff.

    1. Hey Phil – some great comments! I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I do see the shoggoths as some type of complex colonial organisms but a distinct alternative to eukaryotic cells. Instead, I the Elder Things creating the eukaryotic cells (plants, animals, etc.) and not being happy with how they can control them – the development of sex gave rise to a means of increasing genetic variation, which is the driver of natural selection. Instead the shoggoths (IMO) are the pinnicle of prokaryotic evolution, which would explain their powers of mimicry. In addition, the Elder Things wanted a means to control their reproduction, which I think they were successful at with the Shoggoth pits. I believe the shoggoths can not reproduce unless they are provided with assistance with the Elder Things, in the pits. However, I think the Elder Things did not expect the power of horizontal gene transfer amount prokaryotic life (bacteria), which I think eventually gave rise to increased intelligence. I do need to check out O’Neil’s work. Thanks for your comments! Fred

  3. As far as the shoggoth pits are concerned, while I think you’ve got a pretty plausible idea of what happens there, it could perhaps stand to be taken a step or two further.

    I refer mainly to your point about “additional raw gene material”. Now, let’s break this down to its most fundamental terms, and I think you’ll see where I’m going with this. The shoggoths receive DNA from the Old Ones. So far, so good. That allows them to be adapted for various tasks, seeing as how they’re utility organisms, but the purpose of DNA needn’t stop there. It could represent, for example, a ‘reset to factory settings’: knocking out any mutations which, though making the shoggoths more capable, would in fact make them more troublesome. Moreover, since DNA is a way of transferring data: that could also contain instructions for behaviour.

    HPL had Dyer refer to the Old Ones using ‘hypnosis’ to instruct their shoggoths at first, but I suspect in this case Dyer is trying to grasp a system of instruction for which he doesn’t have the language, or rather the concepts lie outside his field. Namely, programming! It seems obvious to me that the shoggoths are robots (albeit organic ones), and without a brain, or if you prefer, processor, memory, media storage etc, how else does one instruct such a device? Hypnosis would imply a kind of consciousness, for which a brain (a semi-stable one, to use HPL’s words) is necessary.

    The way I see it at present, the shoggoth pits don’t just represent a place where controlled reproduction of shoggoths can take place. They’re also a place for them to be reprogrammed, assigned tasks, and so on.

    Now, Dyer links their uncontrolled reproduction with their development of a brain: “the Shoggoths of the sea, reproducing by fission and acquiring a dangerous degree of accidental intelligence”. That reproduction could also be related to the different zooids I proposed. Designed as they were to serve as (sorry to keep using the term but I think it works) utility organisms, the capacity for self-improvement may have been hardwired into them. Something the Old Ones of Earth would see as a kind of design flaw. If unchecked, they tended towards spawning a load of unwanted ‘encephalozooids’: whether through horizontal gene transfer, or else… well, I know evolution doesn’t say ‘attribute x, y or z is destined’, but for a manufactured organism whose DNA is programmed it may be the case that such and such a mutation is more likely to occur than not, providing lots of chances for it to spring up in isolation before said transfer happens.

    Of course, by now I’m hypothesising largely from the seat of my pants. Reinterpret *that* caveat however you like!

  4. As I mentioned briefly on your recent post to the HPL Podcast group, I’ve had another nasty thought concerning everyone’s favourite seething protoplasmic horrors. I’m moving outside my woefully limited scientific knowledge this time, and into somewhat darker waters — positively Yuggothian, in fact.

    I use the adjective deliberately. The first mention of the shoggoths, in HPL’s Fungi From Yuggoth sonnets seems to imply their presence in the Dreamlands, but could also suggest a link to the dark planet itself. That seems to be the line Richard Lupoff took in his ‘Discovery of the Ghooric Zone’, and that’s part of what got me thinking.

    Even though no mention of shoggoths on Yuggoth is made in any of Lovecraft’s stories, we do know from ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ that the star-headed Old Ones did make planetfall there, and bore away a certain treasure with them.

    “Of the Shining Trapezohedron he speaks often, calling it a window on all time and space, and tracing its history from the days it was fashioned on dark Yuggoth, before ever the Old Ones brought it to earth. It was treasured and placed in its curious box by the crinoid things of Antarctica.”

    We know that this branch of the Old Ones differed from others of their kind insofar as they rejected mechanisation, colonising Earth while in search of something more satisfying. We know they had the Trapezohedron, and it is more than likely that they became aware of its properties. Nyarlathotep is always keen to involve himself in the doings of intelligent life-forms, after all!

    Now, consider the Old Ones’ needs once they’d established their colony. The shoggoths were ideally suited to all the heavy jobs, and were so useful that they became indispensable. The Old Ones’ culture became dependant on shoggoth labour, to such an extent that their mastery of science suffered. As we saw in ‘At the Mountains of Madness’:

    “Another cause of the landward movement was the new difficulty in breeding and managing the shoggoths upon which successful sea-life depended. With the march of time, as the sculptures sadly confessed, the art of creating new life from inorganic matter had been lost; so that the Old Ones had to depend on the moulding of forms already in existence.”

    They grew rebellious, and even though they were resubjugated, they eventually rose up a second time and wiped out their former masters. The instrument of the Old Ones’ salvation became their destruction. If there’s one entity in all the Lovecraftian universe whose calling card could easily be described as the cruelest irony, it’s the Crawling Chaos. As the Haunter of the Dark, he made the Old Ones an offer that was too good to refuse, but was also too good to be true.

    The Old Ones’ appropriation of the Shining Trapezohedron could also have been one of the many bones of contention that lay between them and the Outer Ones, of course, but that’s another story…

    1. Hey Phil – thanks for that great analysis. I do need to re-read “The Haunter of the Dark” to integrate that aspect of the Old Ones into a more well rounded analysis of them – similar to what was done with “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” How the Crawling Chaos is associated with these relationships is very interesting indeed! Fred

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