Nyarlathotep: Lovecraft’s Wonder and Fear of Science


Shot from the film Nyarlathotep (Directed by Christian Matzke; 2001)

Nyarlathotep is one of Lovecraft’s most well known and more frequently cited entities (possibly second only to Cthulhu).  According to Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, 2014) Nyarlathotep appears as a character in six of HPL’s tales: “Nyarlathotep,” “The Rats in the Walls.” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” and one of the sonnets in “The Fungi From Yuggoth.”  However, HPL also mentions Nyarlathotep in “The Shadow Out of Time” and the revision tale “The Mound,” which was ghostwritten for Zealia Bishop.

In this article we will specifically focus on the tale of “Nyarlathotep.”  Of all of HPL’s Old Ones, Nyarlathotep is the most anthropomorphic (at least at times).  However, this entity can also be thought of as HPL’s manifested and opposing feelings of wonder and fear when it came to science.  In the tale Nyarlathotep a strange individual named Nyarlathotep comes out of Egypt during a global period of “political and social upheaval” to give exhibitions of electricity and psychology with the use of strange instruments of glass and metal.  During one of these exhibitions, where the narrator of the story is in attendance, a film is seen essentially showing the destruction of the world.  The narrator stumbles out of the show with others where the universe itself seems to falling apart (An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz; 2001).  As Kenneth Hite state’s, “It’s in “Nyarlathotep” that we get Lovecraft’s full-blown Apocalypse (Tour de Lovecraft:  The Tales, 2011).


Nyarlathotep…Pharaoh…Crawling Chaos by King Ovrats (www.deviantart.org)

The story came to HPL in a dream where a good friend of his, Samuel Loveman, said about Nyarlathotep,  “He is horrible – horrible beyond anything you can imagine – but wonderful.”  This idea of something holding both horror and wonder is cited a number of times in the actual tale where the narrator’s friend said, “…and of the impelling fascination and allurement of his revelations, and I burned with eagerness to explore his uttermost mysteries..”  Also, “My friend said they [Nyarlathotep’s shows] were horrible  and impressive beyond my most fevered imaginings…”

Reading HPL’s tales alone one may get the impression that he did not like nor trust science; the first paragraph in “The Call of Cthulhu” certainly gives this impression.  However, if you review his letters and essays, as well as examine the level of detail and effort he exerted in ensuring that the most scientifically accurate (for the time) data were included in his tales, a more complex view of HPL’s attitude toward science emerges.


Nyarlathotep (LMN El Faraon Negro; found on http://www.elhorrorcosmico.blogspot.com)

As I discussed in a previous article on HPL’s Materialism Philosophy,  one of the primary reasons he decided not to commit suicide after the death of his grandfather in 1904 was his scientific curiosity – to know about the world and universe he inhabits.  In addition, his love of chemistry early on in life, later followed with an obsession of astronomy also conveys HPL’s love for science.  However, this love was similar to that he had for writing.  HPL saw writing as something that one does to convey an artistic idea, mood or feeling and that writing for the sake of earning a living was beneath a “true artist.”  In a sense, he felt the same way about science.  HPL seemed to marvel at new discoveries, whether they were from interstellar space, investigations into the nature of the atom or from the Antarctic.  Thus, basic science – science for the sake of increasing our knowledge of our world and universe – seemed like a noble endeavor to HPL.  However, I believe HPL had many concerns about applied science – using science in some capacity, typically associated with technology.

While applied science certainly has its benefits associated with medicine, agriculture and transportation, HPL witnessed incidents in the early 1900’s that to him signaled the decline of western civilization, much of this associated with science.  Written in 1920, the apocalyptic nature of “Nyarlathotep” is certainly a product of it’s time.  From 1918 to 1919 anywhere between 21.5 and 40 million people died world-wide as a result of the influenza pandemic, with approximately 675,000 Americans included in this estimate of global mortality.  Additionally, the horrors and abuse of science was clearly manifested in Word War I, where for the first time in human history chemical warfare occurred on a massive scale.  In fact, World War I is known as the chemist’s war.  On top of that there was a post-War recession from 1918 to 1919.  These factors combined clearly contributed to HPL’s view of humanity and where it was going.


Nyarlathotep guiding humanity to “fin del mundo” (elhorrorcosmico.blogspot.com)

In a sense Nyarlathotep was not the cause of the apocalypse but the guide, showing humanity its future or path to its own destruction. This is one component of “Nyarlathotep” that makes it such a compelling story. There are no entities from other planets or dimensions coming to Earth. Instead, the primary threat is humanity itself using its knowledge. While Nyarlathotep may play a part in the future, humanity seems to chiefly responsible for its own extinction. Nyarlathotep may have provided knowledge to humans; the way the snake did in the Garden of Eden or the monoliths do in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the ultimate responsibility relative to the use and abuse of this knowledge goes to humanity. An interesting point to consider is how much of this is indeed free will and how much of it is the will of Nyarlathotep.


Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  While the appearance of the monoliths seemed to represent leaps or triggers in human evolution and intelligence, the appearance of Nyarlathotep seemed to represent the downfall of humanity.

Finally, a number of authors and scholars have cited the similarity between the electric shows put on by Nyarlathotep and those conducted by Nikola Tesla in the early 20th century. Nikola Tesla was an engineer, inventor and futurist, who worked on a variety of subjects (development of alternating current (AC) electricity, use of X-rays, radio, etc.) and is best known for his pioneering work on electromagnetism in the late 19th and early 20th century. While there is some similarity between the two, and indeed HPL may have read or heard about Tesla’s demonstrations where bolts of electricity would fly over the audience, there is no specific documentation of HPL drawing inspiration from Tesla’s work for “Nyarlathotep.”


Nikola Tesla cira 1890 (www.wikipedia.org)

While discussed in a previous article, next time we will discuss the role of Nyarlathotep in “Dreams in the Witch House” in greater detail. Thank you – Fred.







18 thoughts on “Nyarlathotep: Lovecraft’s Wonder and Fear of Science

  1. Fantastic as always!!!! Great ideas on this – Nyarlathotep handed knowledge to humanity, and said, “Alright, do whatever the heck you want with this.” After misusing the knowledge, “The idiot Chaos blew Earth’s dust away.”

    You know my love for “The Dreams in the Witch House” and I am in deep anticipation to see what you come up with.

  2. One point with which I never fail to bore people to whom I speak is, I think, particularly relevant to this disquisition. Namely, the word ‘apocalypse’ does not literally mean the end of the world. It’s certainly identified with the phenomenon, though, thanks to the Bible.

    The word ‘apocalypse’ comes to us, naturally, from Greek. The Greek word ‘apokálypsis’ means revelation — hence the Book of Revelation and so on. This naturally fits rather nicely with Nyarlathotep’s position in the prose poem as a revelatory figure. He plays a similar role in ‘The Haunter of the Dark’, of course: previous users of the Shining Trapezohedron received visions in return for sacrifices. Again this occurred in ‘The Dreams in the Witch-House’, only in his guise as the Black Man. Arguably his actions in ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ were, besides his attempt to trick Carter by sending him to the court of Azathoth, revelatory: he tells the man the true nature of Ilek-Vad.

    Of course, sending a man to Azathoth might also qualify as a revelation, albeit the sort against which Francis Wayland Thurston warns the reader in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, since few return from Azathoth’s court, and fewer still (just Kuranes, if I recall) return sane! ‘Go mad from the revelation’, indeed!

    It’s also worth noting that Nyarlathotep’s position as soul and messenger of the Other Gods / Azathoth is entirely commensurate with the role he plays in the above stories. Similar figures (Hermes, Thoth, Odin, etc) are often given dominion over writing, prophecy, magic and the like.

    1. Great points, though I don’t know if Kuranes went to the Court of Azathoth. He says he spoke to the “violet gas S’ngac [who] had told him terrible things of the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, and had warned him never to approach the central void where the daemon-sultan Azathoth gnaws hungrily in the dark.” So I doubt Kuranes actually WENT to the Court, but he certainly risked going there.

      That said, Nyarlathotep is indeed the embodiment of revelation.

      1. That sounds much more likely to me. S’ngac seems more likely to know (by reputation if nothing else) how dangerous the centre of all things can be.

        Since I’m one of those people who has to be right — or rather, I can never live it down if I’m wrong — I had to go back, re-read and get my facts straight, if only for my own benefit.

        Now, the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana / Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia describes Kuranes as one of three dreamers to undertake that journey (and the only one to remain sane). That’s what I thought too, so naturally your point gave me cause to doubt. Dan Harms is usually very good on things like this! Could he have been off the mark this time?

        So, naturally, back to the Dream-Quest. And the closest I could find to my earlier belief was “Kuranes, indeed, had been out beyond the stars in the ultimate void, and was said to be the only one who had ever returned sane from such a voyage.”

        Now, while an ‘ultimate’ void sounds just as significant as a ‘central’ void, so it could be that subsequent writers conflated the two. However, one doesn’t necessarily mean the other. Quite the opposite, really. An ultimate void sounds rather final — out on the edge somewhere!

        A quick look at ‘Celephaïs’ gives us this passage: “Hasheesh helped a great deal, and once sent him to a part of space where form does not exist, but where glowing gases study the secrets of existence. And a violet-coloured gas told him that this part of space was outside what he had called infinity.”

        No mention of Azathoth’s court there; although we encounter the being later identified as S’ngac. Presumably Kuranes has visited him in this “ultimate” void.

        So, when did this visit to Azathoth’s court come in? It seems like this is something from a post-Lovecraftian author (Brian Lumley, perhaps? Kuranes appears in a few of his Dreamlands books) and a misreading of ‘Dream-Quest’ just happened to catch on.

        I’m inclined to think now that while Kuranes obviously travelled far in his dreams, he was at least smart enough to stay well away from Azathoth’s court. His travels were, after all, in search of Celephaïs, and even at his most stoned the old fella never lost it that completely!

    2. Hey Phil – thank you for the great and detailed comments. Interesting origin of the word apocalypse and definitely appropriate for Nyarlathotep. That was the word Ken Hite used in his book “Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales” a book I highly recommend! Thanks again for the information! Fred

  3. Reblogged this on The Outsider and commented:
    You know how much Nyarlathotep is a part of this site, so enjoy a few articles from FRED LUBNOW on him. And stay tuned for posts!

  4. Again a great article Fred, I think it was particularly wise to separate this fragment from the subsequent use of the character.
    Honestly I never knew what to think about “Nyarlathotep”…
    It seems to start like the depiction of a great literary danger for the 20. th century, the “scientific antichrist” figure, then we realize, even without reading HPL’s letters, it’s in fact the plain and simple description of a dream (again I think this would have been a great case for S. Freud).
    If I remember well, it was only published on the “United amateur” (either HPL did not try to sell it to “Weird tales”, or Farnsworth Wright was not impressed by this “non story”), so I suspect it must be one of his most genuine and heartfelt literary works. Also, it is considered a “prose poem” rather than a short story,as if to underline a distance in style and substance from average narrative.
    Is Nyarlathotep the “link” between HPL’s conscious and unconscious self? Does he show a lie or an uncomfortable truth?
    Always had the feeling that from the beginning to the end “Nyarlathotep” is full of hints and symbols useful to understand Lovecraft’s uneasiness, wish I had the talent to dig it, but… I can only figure he wanted to express his fears, as he often does.
    One last remark: The line “There was a daemoniac alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown” gives me the creeps…

    1. Hey Roberto – thanks again. Yes, I see Nyarlathotep (at least in this tale) being a manifestation of HPL’s fear of technology and the decline of the west. Fred

  5. The HP Lovecraft literary podcast (hppodcraft.com) has a great segment on the story “Nyarlathotep” with Ken Hite doing guest commentary. One thing he points out is that early in the story it’s mentioned that the screams of people having nightmares have become a major public nuisance thanks to Nyarlathotep’s little lecture tour. Think about that.

    1. Thanks James. Yes, love the Literary Podcast and remember that episode well. Also, love Ken Hite’s comments, which is why I cited him in the article. The screams after the public lectures is unsettling to say the least! Thanks for the comments. Fred

  6. Nyarlathotep is also mentioned in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” where it appears as if he has a special significance or relationship to the Mi-Go. Indeed, this message hints at a more horrifying explanation for the climax: ” To Nyarlathotep, Mighty Messenger, must all things be told. And He shall put on the semblance of men, the waxen mask and the robe that hides, and come down from the world of Seven Suns to mock… ” In other words, the titular Whisperer might not have been a Mi-Go in disguise, but some…THING… much older and more terrible.

    1. Hey Scott – good point! I forgot about “The Whisperer in Darkness.” I have posted articles on the Mi-Go but not on the story itself. I will need to include this as part of the analysis of Nyarlathotep. Thank you for the comment. Fred

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