Origins of the Ghoul

The earliest documentation of the ghoul comes from the Mesopotamian civilization, where these creatures were originally called “Gallu” and described as some type of demon (The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture by Ahmed Al-Rawi; Cultural Analysis, Volume 8, 2009). One of the earliest, pre-Islamic origin stories of ghouls is that when devils tried to eavesdrop on Heaven, God threw meteors at them; the meteors that hit the ground changed into ghouls (Al-Rawi, 2009). This is one of many pre-Islamic stories of ghoul but frequently the Pre-Islamic ghoul is a female devil creature who is a shape changer and is intent on abusing or harming travelers. In most cases the only way of kill this type of ghoul was to strike it once with a sword.

After Islam spread through the Middle-East, Arabic scholars of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries compiled various Bedouin (descendants from nomadic Arabs who historically lived in the desert) folktales about the ghul (Arabic). Many of these talks found their way into “The Thousand and One Nights,” which was translated into various languages and eventually ended up in Europe by the 18th century (Ancient History of the Ghouls by Robert Lamb; http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/strange-creatures/ghoul.htm). Thus, the “ghoul” was born.

Amine_Discovered_with_the_Goule

“Amine Discovered with the Goule” from the story of Sidi Nouman, of the One Thousand and One Nights (www.wikipedia.com)

HPL was enamored by these Arabic tales. When he was five he received a copy of “The Arabian Nights Entertainments”, selected and edited by Andrew Lang from his mother for Christmas. Based on S.T. Joshi this was not the edition that HPL read. Instead it was one of three possible translations (I Am Providence, the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013). However, as Joshi notes the exact translation that HPL read is not as important as the impact these stories had on his young imagination.

In these tales of “Arabian Nights” ghouls were documented as being vile tricksters and ravenous flesh eaters. Sometimes they took on the form of a beautiful woman and lured lustful men to their doom. Originally, ghouls were sometimes associated with scavenging hyenas and cannibalism, but Arabic texts did not describe them as body snatchers or eaters of the dead. Those attributes appear to emerge with the translation of many of these tales into French by Antoine Galland in the early 18th century (Robert Lamb).

Ghoul_of_Lovecraft_by_verreaux

Ghoul of Lovecraft by Verreaux (www.deviantart.com)

Based on Thomas R. Campbell’s analysis in The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (1903), in the classification of various forms of malignant spirits, there is a demon that is described as a pariah dog that hides in dark caves, ruins and deserted buildings. It lies in wait for unwary victims, rushing out of its hiding place to attack. This half human, half devil may be one of the earliest descriptions of a “modern” ghoul (Campbell, 1903).

Later in his analysis Campbell explicitly describes this creature as a ghoul – a creature that dwells in the desert, appearing as a friendly person to travelers, only to pounce when their guard is down. Ghouls have also been called Hag-demons or robber-sprites whose body is covered with “sickness” (Campbell, 1903). Ghouls are frequently associated with plagues or sickness, possibly linking their feeding of the dead as being the ultimate goal of their desire to spread disease, particularly in cities where the population density is high. However, they have also been associated with aliments such as heart disease, headaches, tooth aches and “heartache” (Campbell, 1903).

ghoul_1000p_by_eclectixx-d7wp5bt

Ghoul by Eclectixx (www.deviantart.com)

It is interesting to note that supernatural encounters with strange entities are fairly rare in the tales of the Arabian Nights (Joshi, 2013) so the concept of the ghoul, originally described in Arabic culture and then later refined to incorporate many of the traits and behavior of European ghouls, was certainly something that stuck in HPL’s young mind when he read The Arabian Nights. Additionally, the dog-like facial features and the ghoul’s association with hyenas was something that was described prior to Lovecraft’s documentation of these creatures. In contrast, the ghoul’s detritivore-mode of feeding (feeding on the dead) appears to be a trait of ghoul biology more formally identified with European sources. Again, early historical accounts describe the ghouls has been more of a malignant spirit who attacks unwary travelers or spreads disease. A primarily detritivore-based diet does appear in these earlier accounts.

To wrap this discussion up, there are varying hypotheses on how ghouls are created. This subject is obviously open to further research; however, these secretive and elusive creatures would make such studies extremely difficult. The first and most obvious hypothesis it that they breed like most animal species; that is, the male and female reproductive sexually to create offspring. There is evidence to support this, largely as anecdotal information that ghouls would occasionally steal human babies and replace them with one of their own – a changeling. HPL describes this in “Pickman’s Model” where one of Pickman’s paintings, “The Lesson,” shows ghouls teaching a small human child how to feed on the dead. In addition, HPL also describes in “Pickman’s Model” an account where family portraits will sometimes show one family member who has the ghoul-like traits conveyed by Pickman’s art, while the rest of the family do not. The need to occasionally introduce fresh human genetic stock into a population of ghouls can easily give rise to another set of specific hypotheses; however, the basic idea is that the ghouls need to infuse their genetic stock with human genes for a specific evolutionary reason.

The_Lesson_Senecal_dev

An interpretation of Pickman’s “The Lesson” by Senecal (www.deviantart.com)

Another hypothesis on the creation of ghouls includes “ghoulism” being a disease (possibly a virus or prion), being transferred from one individual to another through biological fluids, with the most likely candidate being blood. A third hypothesis is that ghouls are another “offshoot” or part of the human genome. In this case the ghoul is essentially a complex set of polygenetic traits that are occasionally manifested an isolated population of detritivore-feeding individuals. Thus, a sub-set of humanity would arise when a very specific set of recessive genes are realized in a homozygous state. The unusually high frequency of recessive genes and their associated phenotypic traits is quite common in small, isolated communities, where genetic drift can be as important as natural selection.

To conclude, the creation of ghouls is more than likely a complex evolutionary state that may involve more than one of the hypotheses cited above. For example, while ghouls may be able to reproduce on their own, they may be genetically weak due to the dominance of the recessive genes. This may result in the need to occasionally infuse their genetic stock with more healthy human genes to increase genetic diversity and reduce the possible genetic diseases that are associated with being a ghoul.

Lovecraft_ghoul_by_Pickmans_Model_www.deivantart.com

Lovecraft Ghoul by Pickmans Model (www.deviantart.com)

Next time we will discuss the ecological role of the ghoul. Also, if you are interested there is less than a week to go on the Journal of Lovecraftian Science Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-1). Please check it out if you are interested. Thank you – Fred.

 

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14 thoughts on “Origins of the Ghoul

  1. Very excited about this one!!!!

    Oh, and I think you mean you want to wrap this discussion up, not “To warp this discussion up”. Sorry to be so rude!

      1. Also…

        Y’know the cannibalistic cult in “The Rats in the Walls”? Is it possible that the de la Poer family was descended from or related to ghouls? It isn’t that far fetched – they seemed to be under much greater influences (Azathoth and Nyarlathotep), so it’s possible. What do you think?

      2. Its possible but I will be covering this in more detail in the next article. Cannibalism is different than being a detritivore, which is a better categorization of ghouls. However, I will present that information in the next article. Thanks again! Fred

  2. One thing that interests me is the connection of ghouls to plague. There is a theory that Apollo (god of plagues and medicine, among other things) was an importation of an Anatolian god Aplu Enlil (“Son of Enlil”, a known epithet of Nergal, god of plagues). Particularly of interest is that Apollo is connected with wolves (see, e.g., Apollo the Wolf-god by Daniel Gershenson) and possibly werewolves in northern Europe (op. cit.). Surely Lovecraft did not know of that connection, as at the time the late-era solar attributes were the primary understanding of Apollo.

  3. Killer stuff. The ghouls are my favorite Lovecraftian creatures. My own interpretation has to do with activation of latent genetic markers via an artificial source, and I’ve chosen to punch up the hyaena trope. The ghouls in my Dreamlands work are more or less “camp followers” in the literal sense-they hang around battles, and clean up the mess.
    Definitely detritivores, though I have a troupe that has learned to cook their meat. Next week should be very interesting. I’m inclined to the Nivenesque view of ghoul utility and am looking forward to seeing your thoughts.
    Glad that you’re able to put the science in the Mythos. Parallels my own interests, as we’ve spoken about before.
    Warp or wrap, either is cool by me 🙂

    1. Thank you for the comments! I do like your idea of ghouls cleaning up battlefields! I have been going through some of my old graduate school ecological textbooks and papers I may have to better define the trohpic status of the ghoul – detritivore may not be the most effective description of their mode of feeding but will cover that in the next article. Thanks again! Fred.

  4. There’s another possibility you’re ignoring: there is no difference between humans and ghouls. A homo sapiens who lives aboveground during the day and eats fruit, meat, vegetables, etc., is a “human.” A homo sapiens who lives underground and only goes out at night, living on the flesh of the dead (and maybe sometimes the not-quite-dead) is a “ghoul.”

    The ghouls are simply a small, culturally distinct human subgroup whose habits activate the latent nocturnal carrion-eater genes all humans possess. (In a Lovecraftian universe this could also explain vampire legends.)

    1. Thank you for the comments! If humans and ghouls can freely reproduce then they would be essentially the same species or sub-species and the first hypothesis refers to this; that is, the ghouls occasionally breed with humans to prevent recessive genes and associated genetic disease to expand / dominant the ghoul genome. I think the key with the ghouls is its trophic role – it feeds on the dead. They are not predators they are scavengers that feed on the dead.

      With that said, I think your description of humans who live underground, living on the flesh of the dead and not quite so dead may better describe the cannibalistic cult of Nyarlathotep in “The Rats in the Walls.” Again, thank you for the comments! Fred

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