Nyarlathotep: The Black Man of the Witch House

Nyarlathotep – the Black Man (by Jens Heimdahl)

In HPL’s short story “Nyarlathotep, ” Nyarlathotep is seen as a harbinger of doom presenting scientific knowledge to humanity, which will result in their extinction and the end of the world.  However, Nyarlathotep’s role in “The Dreams in the Witch House” was substantially different.  In contrast to the charismatic showman in “Nyarlathotep” in “Dreams in the Witch House” Nyarlathotep is presented as the “Black Man.”

From the Middle Ages all the way up to the Salem Witch Trails (late 17th-century) Satan was said to appear to people in a variety of appearances with one of his most frequently forms being that of a tall black man, often handsome and dressed in black (The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca by Rosemary Guiley; 2008).  Thus, any reference to Nyarlathotep as the “Black Man” in “The Dreams in the Witch House” is making this connection, which in turn links 17th-century witchcraft with early 20th-century dealings with quantum mechanics.


Nyarlathotep by Agent Jericho (www.deviantart.org)

The first time the name Nyarlathotep is mentioned in “The Dreams in the Witch House” was Brown Jenkin whispering it and Azathoth into Gilman’s ear at night.  The only other time Nyarlathotep is mentioned is in reference to being a “deputy or messenger of hidden and terrible powers – the “Black Man” of the witch-cult, and the “Nyarlathotep” of the Necronomicon.”  Any other reference of this entity in the tale was as the black man.  However, the connection is certainly made – Nyarlathotep is the black man and thus has been  associated with idea or concept of Satan.

Similar to Satan, Nyarlathotep is known to take on a variety of forms or disguises.  In the case of Satan, he is known to take the form of the Virgin Mary, a young woman, a preacher, a variety of animals (e.g. dog, snake, goat) or even appear as a satyr.  Indeed, a number times HPL specifically mentions that the Black Man’s feet could not be seen or were indistinguishable; is it possible that the Black Man has cloven hooves like a satyr?


The Black Man or Satan appearing as a satyr to a traveler.  Is it possible that all of these manifestations are really Nyarlathotep?  (from http://www.gutenberg.org)

From the middle ages to the early 18th-century Nyarlathotep frequently took the form of a black man and thus was frequently associated with Satan.  In the early 20th-century Nyarlathotep took the form a showman or scientist, giving wondrous yet terrifying exhibits of  electromagnetism.  If Nyarlathotep appeared now or sometime in the future what would he appear as?  A politician?  A rock star?  A scientist heralding a new paradigm shift in thought and philosophy?  Or would he appear as an actual visitor from another planet.  Maybe as God.  There are other forms that Nyarlathotep is known to take but these will be discussed in future articles.

What is interesting about Nyarlathotep is that unlike other entities from beyond our planet or outside of our universe, he adapts to and directly interacts with humanity in varying capacities.  So why does Nyarlathotep appear periodically on Earth and seem to be interested in some of the affairs of humans?  We know from “The Dreams in the Witch House” that Nyarlathotep, recognized as the “Black Man” of ancient witch-cults represents “the immemorial figure of the deputy or messenger of hidden and terrible powers.”  Again, the role of messenger can be thought of as a providing forbidden knowledge to humanity, as cited in the previous article on the short story “Nyarlathotep.”  However, in “The Dreams in the Witch House” as well as other tales this role of messenger also includes serving as an avatar to many of the other inter-dimensional beings.


The Black Man (www.balo42.com)

Throughout “The Dreams in the Witch House” individuals in Arkham spot the tall Dark Man, the small old hag and the tittering rat thing sometimes in their dreams, sometimes when they are drunk but always at night.  It is apparent from the story that these beings do not merely populate our dreams.  They can manifest in our reality.  However, when interacting with Gilman they exclusively enter his dreams, whether it is to be inter-dimensional guides or to take some of Gilman’s blood in the “writing in the book” episode.  I hypothesize that the blood, perhaps the DNA in the blood, is needed for some reason by Nyarlathotep and/or the other inter-dimensional beings he represents.  This theme of needing some biological connection with humans or other residents in our universe, such as the Elder Things, seems to be an important component in many of HPL’s tales.  Other examples of similar sitautions arise in “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth.”  So why the ritual of writing the name in the book?  It may be Nyarlathotep’s way or making this more understandable to the residents of this universe – in this case a woman who thinks herself a witch and that she is dealing with the devil.

As has been described in pervious articles voyages to other worlds / universes may be possible through inter-dimensional travel via hyperspace.  However, two main issues impede such travel.  First, can we survive the trip and if we do is the other place habitable?  Second, it would take an incredible amount of energy to conduct such travels.  Maybe Nyarlathotep offers Gilman, just as he offered to Keziah Mason, these traveling abilities in exchange for some DNA.  The DNA may be used by the Old Ones to establish stable and more permanent forms in our universe.  Obviously, such dealings are not limited to humans as the appearance of the Elder Things in the tale indicates.  In fact, the Elder Thing’s ability to reach Earth in the first place millions of years ago may have been thanks to a mutual agreement or understanding between them and Nyarlathotep.

Elder City_Peter_von_Sholly_keziahmason.blogspot.com

Elder City by Peter von Sholly (www.keziahmason.blogspot.com)

Finally, a word of warning.  Please note that Gilman is recognized early on in the story as being an extremely sensitive individual, particularly in regard to his hearing.  However, after one of his inter-dimensional journeys both of his ear-drums were ruptured, “as if by the impact of some stupendous sound intense beyond all human conception or endurance.”  It also sounds like he had a moderate to severe case of sunburn as well.  Just because a world, universe or dimension is habitable doesn’t mean it won’t negatively impact your physical or mental health.

Next time I will begin a discussion of “The Rats in the Walls,” another HPL story that features Nyarlathotep.  Thank you – Fred.


29 thoughts on “Nyarlathotep: The Black Man of the Witch House

  1. Again a very effective look at the many faces of Nyarlathotep.
    “Indeed, a number times HPL specifically mentions that the Black Man’s feet could not be seen or were indistinguishable; is it possible that the Black Man has cloven hooves like a satyr?” This I didn’t remember.
    The interesting thing is that Nyarlatorhep is indeed a multiformed character, developing in different directions. Had HPL lived, maybe N. would have evolved following the writer’s growing interest in science fiction, thus your reference to him collecting human DNA is very clever.

    1. Actually, Nyarlathotep clearly does have cloven hooves in this shape. Not only does Gilman hear them clicking (“His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position”), but when he stares at the flour sprinkled on his floor he sees their outlines.

    2. Thanks Roberto – yes it would have been interesting to see where HPL would have taken Nyarlathotep in future stories. Also, there are at least 2 times that HPL mentions Gilman could not see the Black Man’s feet. In one case his feet are concealed in mud and in another passage (during the writing your name in blood scene) it states that “His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shoed since there was a clicking whenever he changed position.” Also, when anyone else saw him it was noted he had a robe down to his feet.

      Thanks again for the comments and input.


  2. My favorite article on the site yet for three simple things: 1) “Witch House” 2) Nyarlathotep 3) Medieval folklore.

    And THANK YOU SO MUCH for featuring Pete von Sholly’s artwork. While I would love for you to keep up the link to our site, I only think it would be fair for you to link instead to his own website, which would be here: http://vonshollywood.com/

    The idea of Nyarlathotep needing the DNA to give the Old Ones more tangibility is intriguing. Personally, to connect it to the former story with Nyarlathotep as the harbinger of the apocalypse, I would think it would be to attract Azathoth’s attention to Earth, thus speeding the end of humanity quicker. That may be total crap, but still…

    Wonderful work!


    1. Hey Brian – thank you for the comments and thank you for von Sholly’s website. I will check it out. The idea of getting the “attention” of Azathoth is a very intriguing idea, particularly from a global perspective. Thanks again for the comments! Fred

      1. Attracting the attention of Azathoth to bring about the end of the world REALLY appeals to me, and I personally believe that that is the reason Nyarlathotep was collecting DNA in the Book of Azathoth. But it isn’t my idea entirely…

  3. Riffing off your human DNA idea here – what if Nal’s popular guise as the cloven-hoofed “Black Man” is an imperfect biological avatar; that is, when creating his avatar, he had human DNA at his disposal (hence his humanoid torso), but he either lacked a sufficient amount of it or didn’t have the skill to craft a complete human body. Perhaps he created for himself a “hybrid” body, complementing it with whatever other DNA was on hand – which (for whatever reason) was apparently that from a goat.

    If he had enough DNA but lacked the expertise to form a wholly human body, it would almost seem that Nal didn’t entirely know what he was doing. On its face, the human torso complemented with goat-like legs is almost laughable. Perhaps in whatever kind of reality he originates from, life does not involve DNA whatsoever, so creating a body based on genetic information would be a confusing process. However, knowing how nigh omniscient the Old Ones are, it stands to reason that Nal, in the early stages of his learning genetics, would “rig up” a viable goat-human hybrid – something that would elude even the most masterful genetic scientists of today.

    This article makes me think back to your recent one on the “weaknesses” of the Old Ones. Perhaps Nal needs to have a material and organic form to enact whatever plans he might have, and the bizarre (and vulnerable) Satyr form of the “Black Man” represents Nal’s early and uncertain steps into this reality and the field of genetic engineering.

      1. He probably was. I think we all agree that within the context of the HPL Universe, all traditions concerning the Satyr derive from experiences with Nal in his “Black Man” form. However, that doesn’t account for why Nal chose that appearance.

        It just seems odd to me that, if Nal had perfect control over how he would appear to human beings, he would choose a half-man half-goat body. If the Satyr myths already existed, then he might have been conforming to those myths, to instil in his followers a sense of reverence for himself. However, if he was the basis for all those stories, then that begs the question; why go half-goat?

        I posit that it was the best he could do, for whatever reason. While HPL might have had other thoughts on the matter, I subscribe to Fred’s theory – that Nal needs DNA to create bodies/avatars (for himself and other Old Gods) that can exist in our kind of universe/reality.

      2. That’s true, very true, but another way of looking at it – that has been mentioned numerously on this site – is that Nyarlathotep, being an Outer God that is a higher-dimensional entity, can only be interpreted as a three-dimensional cross-section of his true form as the Black Man. This would be as a goatish-man.

      3. I agree with the idea that Nyarlathotep was taking advantage of humanity’s fear and ideas of Satan. With that said there may be something in regard so some difficulty a multi-dimensional being manifesting in a three-space / one-time dimensional reality! Fred

    1. I wonder why he needs people to sign pacts in blood to harvest DNA, then. With all His power, he could simply have taken blood from humans, forcibly.
      So why does he need the pacts?
      Maybe something related to “free will”? Maybe the same reason that makes him want to “guide” but not directly force Humanity to do his will?
      If so, why does he act like that? Why such a powerful alien entity would care for human free will?
      We can recall Nyarlathotep is one of the few lovecraftian gods who’s not really indifferent to the human species. Maybe his interest in human free will, corruption, trickery, etc. comes from some dimensional limitation, similar to those hypothetised for other Old Ones in a previous article.
      Maybe, in Nyarlathotep’s case, he doesn’t need just DNA but a specific mental alignment. A “conjuction”. “The stars” that would need to be “right” here would be human thoughts. Then all of his multiple forms would be just a product of The Messenger as an “mental interface” with humans.
      And in the same way things can be misunderstood in translation, the “errors” in this communication would appear as anomalies such as the goat feet, the unnatural black skin (I remember the Black Man doesn’t have African features and his skin is darker than ebony)…

      1. Great comments…I think its just easier (and maybe a little amusing) to convince someone to provide their DNA? Again, the hypothesis of the weakness of the Old Ones is based on the idea that if they are so powerful why don’t they just take over our Space-Time? For some reason they need us to open the door on this side. Thanks for the comments! Fred

  4. Wait…what if the Black Man used some DNA from the blood to give Brown Jenkin a face? Keziah signed the book, and Brown Jenkin looks like Keziah…

    1. very interesting idea and It think it was touched upon in one of the earlier comments under the discussions during “The Dreams in the Witch-House” articles. In fact, you may have been the one to bring this up! Fred

  5. One more thing: “If Nyarlathotep appeared now or sometime in the future what would he appear as? A politician? A rock star? A scientist heralding a new paradigm shift in thought and philosophy? Or would he appear as an actual visitor from another planet. Maybe as God.”

    In Robert Bloch’s sequel to “The Haunter of the Dark”, called “The Shadow in the Steeple”, Nyarlathotep possessed “superstitious Doctor [Ambrose] Dexter”, and used his shape to create nuclear weapons. That doesn’t sound good…

  6. I am one of those who are a stickler for detail, and the detail Lovecraft uses for the barrel shaped tentacled entities of that trianary star planet are not Q’n’cunx or Star-headed Old Ones. (They needed an actual name. Based upon a real word that means “five.”) The description just doesn’t fit. Like comparing a chimpanzee to an amphibian and calling them the same by the vague description of one over the detailed description of the other. They have heads, four limbs and two eyes. One is heavily detailed, the other isn’t. Confusing their similarities without acknowledging their differences.

    From “Dreams of the Witch House” of Gilman’s visit to another world;

    The pavement from which he easily raised himself was of a veined, polished stone beyond his power to identify, and the tiles were cut in bizarre-angled shapes which struck him as less asymmetrical than based on some unearthly symmetry whose laws he could not comprehend. The balustrade was chest-high, delicate, and fantastically wrought, while along the rail were ranged at short intervals little figures of grotesque design and exquisite workmanship. They, like the whole balustrade, seemed to be made of some sort of shining metal whose colour could not be guessed in this chaos of mixed effulgences; and their nature utterly defied conjecture. They represented some ridged, barrel-shaped object with thin horizontal arms radiating spoke-like from a central ring, and with vertical knobs or bulbs projecting from the head and base of the barrel. Each of these knobs was the hub of a system of five long, flat, triangularly tapering arms arranged around it like the arms of a starfish—nearly horizontal, but curving slightly away from the central barrel. The base of the bottom knob was fused to the long railing with so delicate a point of contact that several figures had been broken off and were missing. The figures were about four and a half inches in height, while the spiky arms gave them a maximum diameter of about two and a half inches.
    When Gilman stood up the tiles felt hot to his bare feet. He was wholly alone, and his first act was to walk to the balustrade and look dizzily down at the endless, Cyclopean city almost two thousand feet below. As he listened he thought a rhythmic confusion of faint musical pipings covering a wide tonal range welled up from the narrow streets beneath, and he wished he might discern the denizens of the place. The sight turned him giddy after a while, so that he would have fallen to the pavement had he not clutched instinctively at the lustrous balustrade. His right hand fell on one of the projecting figures, the touch seeming to steady him slightly. It was too much, however, for the exotic delicacy of the metal-work, and the spiky figure snapped off under his grasp. Still half-dazed, he continued to clutch it as his other hand seized a vacant space on the smooth railing.
    But now his oversensitive ears caught something behind him, and he looked back across the level terrace. Approaching him softly though without apparent furtiveness were five figures, two of which were the sinister old woman and the fanged, furry little animal. The other three were what sent him unconscious—for they were living entities about eight feet high, shaped precisely like the spiky images on the balustrade, and propelling themselves by a spider-like wriggling of their lower set of starfish-arms.

    These entities do not have necks, that have five flat triangular tentacles and a knob on top.

    Now the description from “At The Mountains of Madness”:

    “Fowler makes discovery of highest importance in sandstone and limestone fragments from blasts. Several distinct triangular striated prints like those in Archaean slate, proving that source survived from over 600 million years ago to Comanchian times without more than moderate morphological changes and decrease in average size. Comanchian prints apparently more primitive or decadent, if anything, than older ones. Emphasise importance of discovery in press. Will mean to biology what Einstein has meant to mathematics and physics. Joins up with my previous work and amplifies conclusions. Appears to indicate, as I suspected, that earth has seen whole cycle or cycles of organic life before known one that begins with Archaeozoic cells. Was evolved and specialised not later than thousand million years ago, when planet was young and recently uninhabitable for any life-forms or normal protoplasmic structure. Question arises when, where, and how development took place.”
    “Later. Examining certain skeletal fragments of large land and marine saurians and primitive mammals, find singular local wounds or injuries to bony structure not attributable to any known predatory or carnivorous animal of any period. Of two sorts—straight, penetrant bores, and apparently hacking incisions. One or two cases of cleanly severed bone. Not many specimens affected. Am sending to camp for electric torches. Will extend search area underground by hacking away stalactites.”
    “Still later. Have found peculiar soapstone fragment about six inches across and an inch and a half thick, wholly unlike any visible local formation. Greenish, but no evidences to place its period. Has curious smoothness and regularity. Shaped like five-pointed star with tips broken off, and signs of other cleavage at inward angles and in centre of surface. Small, smooth depression in centre of unbroken surface. Arouses much curiosity as to source and weathering. Probably some freak of water action. Carroll, with magnifier, thinks he can make out additional markings of geologic significance. Groups of tiny dots in regular patterns. Dogs growing uneasy as we work, and seem to hate this soapstone. Must see if it has any peculiar odour. Will report again when Mills gets back with light and we start on underground area.”
    “10:15 P.M. Important discovery. Orrendorf and Watkins, working underground at 9:45 with light, found monstrous barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature; probably vegetable unless overgrown specimen of unknown marine radiata. Tissue evidently preserved by mineral salts. Tough as leather, but astonishing flexibility retained in places. Marks of broken-off parts at ends and around sides. Six feet end to end, 3.5 feet central diameter, tapering to 1 foot at each end. Like a barrel with five bulging ridges in place of staves. Lateral breakages, as of thinnish stalks, are at equator in middle of these ridges. In furrows between ridges are curious growths. Combs or wings that fold up and spread out like fans. All greatly damaged but one, which gives almost seven-foot wing spread. Arrangement reminds one of certain monsters of primal myth, especially fabled Elder Things in Necronomicon. These wings seem to be membraneous, stretched on framework of glandular tubing. Apparent minute orifices in frame tubing at wing tips. Ends of body shrivelled, giving no clue to interior or to what has been broken off there. Must dissect when we get back to camp. Can’t decide whether vegetable or animal. Many features obviously of almost incredible primitiveness. Have set all hands cutting stalactites and looking for further specimens. Additional scarred bones found, but these must wait. Having trouble with dogs. They can’t endure the new specimen, and would probably tear it to pieces if we didn’t keep it at a distance from them.”
    “11:30 P.M. Attention, Dyer, Pabodie, Douglas. Matter of highest—I might say transcendent—importance. Arkham must relay to Kingsport Head Station at once. Strange barrel growth is the Archaean thing that left prints in rocks. Mills, Boudreau, and Fowler discover cluster of thirteen more at underground point forty feet from aperture. Mixed with curiously rounded and configured soapstone fragments smaller than one previously found—star-shaped but no marks of breakage except at some of the points. Of organic specimens, eight apparently perfect, with all appendages. Have brought all to surface, leading off dogs to distance. They cannot stand the things. Give close attention to description and repeat back for accuracy. Papers must get this right.
    “Objects are eight feet long all over. Six-foot five-ridged barrel torso 3.5 feet central diameter, 1 foot end diameters. Dark grey, flexible, and infinitely tough. Seven-foot membraneous wings of same colour, found folded, spread out of furrows between ridges. Wing framework tubular or glandular, of lighter grey, with orifices at wing tips. Spread wings have serrated edge. Around equator, one at central apex of each of the five vertical, stave-like ridges, are five systems of light grey flexible arms or tentacles found tightly folded to torso but expansible to maximum length of over 3 feet. Like arms of primitive crinoid. Single stalks 3 inches diameter branch after 6 inches into five sub-stalks, each of which branches after 8 inches into five small, tapering tentacles or tendrils, giving each stalk a total of 25 tentacles.
    “At top of torso blunt bulbous neck of lighter grey with gill-like suggestions holds yellowish five-pointed starfish-shaped apparent head covered with three-inch wiry cilia of various prismatic colours. Head thick and puffy, about 2 feet point to point, with three-inch flexible yellowish tubes projecting from each point. Slit in exact centre of top probably breathing aperture. At end of each tube is spherical expansion where yellowish membrane rolls back on handling to reveal glassy, red-irised globe, evidently an eye. Five slightly longer reddish tubes start from inner angles of starfish-shaped head and end in sac-like swellings of same colour which upon pressure open to bell-shaped orifices 2 inches maximum diameter and lined with sharp white tooth-like projections. Probable mouths. All these tubes, cilia, and points of starfish-head found folded tightly down; tubes and points clinging to bulbous neck and torso. Flexibility surprising despite vast toughness.
    “At bottom of torso rough but dissimilarly functioning counterparts of head arrangements exist. Bulbous light-grey pseudo-neck, without gill suggestions, holds greenish five-pointed starfish-arrangement. Tough, muscular arms 4 feet long and tapering from 7 inches diameter at base to about 2.5 at point. To each point is attached small end of a greenish five-veined membraneous triangle 8 inches long and 6 wide at farther end. This is the paddle, fin, or pseudo-foot which has made prints in rocks from a thousand million to fifty or sixty million years old. From inner angles of starfish-arrangement project two-foot reddish tubes tapering from 3 inches diameter at base to 1 at tip. Orifices at tips. All these parts infinitely tough and leathery, but extremely flexible. Four-foot arms with paddles undoubtedly used for locomotion of some sort, marine or otherwise. When moved, display suggestions of exaggerated muscularity. As found, all these projections tightly folded over pseudo-neck and end of torso, corresponding to projections at other end.
    “Cannot yet assign positively to animal or vegetable kingdom, but odds now favour animal. Probably represents incredibly advanced evolution of radiata without loss of certain primitive features. Echinoderm resemblances unmistakable despite local contradictory evidences. Wing structure puzzles in view of probable marine habitat, but may have use in water navigation. Symmetry is curiously vegetable-like, suggesting vegetable’s essentially up-and-down structure rather than animal’s fore-and-aft structure. Fabulously early date of evolution, preceding even simplest Archaean protozoa hitherto known, baffles all conjecture as to origin.
    “Complete specimens have such uncanny resemblance to certain creatures of primal myth that suggestion of ancient existence outside antarctic becomes inevitable. Dyer and Pabodie have read Necronomicon and seen Clark Ashton Smith’s nightmare paintings based on text, and will understand when I speak of Elder Things supposed to have created all earth-life as jest or mistake. Students have always thought conception formed from morbid imaginative treatment of very ancient tropical radiata. Also like prehistoric folklore things Wilmarth has spoken of—Cthulhu cult appendages, etc.

    However even with the vast dissimilarities and vague similarities one can easily say these are Lovecraft prototypes for the Q’n’cunx. I admit I would rather add a new species of alien out there that humans can become friends with than to retcon them in as Q’n’cunx.

    1. Some interesting points and a valid argument and they may in fact be separate species, however, it is known from At the Mountains of Madness that the Elder Things are found on other planets, in other galaxies and in other universes – thus they may be separate species that share a common ancestor – maybe some primordial echinoderm that originally populated the tidal pools of some alien ocean. Thus, it may be more appropriate not to say they as different as a chimp to an amphibian but more like a chimp to a lemur. If we could take a sample of their genetic material and conduct a hybridization of that material (similar to what we can do with DNA hybridization in cladistics), it would help to assess their relationship with one another and maybe aid in determining how long ago they separated. Also, there is the possibility that the appearance of the ones in The Dreams in the Witch-House was somewhat distorted due to the hyperspace travels of Gilman. Great insight! Thank you for the observations.

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