“The Temple” artwork by David Saavedra
Once the crew of Submarine U-29 are in possession of the piece of ivory carved into the image of a youth’s head with a laurel crown in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Temple,” strange things start to happen. These strange events include increased nervousness, weakness, forgetfulness and laziness among the crew.
The crew also experienced bad dreams and some appeared to become physically ill. Several of the crew started to have hallucinations, observing bloating bodies out of the undersea portholes. According to the affected crew, many of these bodies were victims who died in the ships that the German submarine sunk in past battles.
Days later, several of the crew who were ill became violently insane; others were not violent but were constantly raving about the young man who was watching them. Men started to disappear and it was thought they committed suicide. Since no bodies were found, it was assumed that they jumped “overboard” but no details regarding this are provided. After these suicides, many of the crew continued to be ill but there were no further disturbances. However, after the explosion of the engine room, the insanity and associated violence among the crew increased resulting in the Lieutenant-Commander killing some of them. Remaining crew members killed themselves, eventually leaving the Lieutenant-Commander by himself. So, what was the cause of the mass hysteria and illness that eventually led to the death of the crew of Submarine U-29?
Tight conditions in a submarine
A crew of men and women in a confined space such as a submarine would be very susceptible to communicable diseases, particularly those air borne in nature. Indeed, respiratory illnesses can be particularly problematic for submarine crews. It is interesting to note that based on data collected by the US Navy, in general overall incidences of medical problems / injuries tend to be higher on surface vessels than submarines (from a US Navy study from 1989; http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a211258.pdf). However, some of the more common afflictions associated with long submarine runs include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and during situations of war such disorders can develop into life-threatening or disturbing conditions (www.beinghealthy.tv).
In the situation of the Submarine U-29 several or many of the crew may have been on the verge of suffering from PTSD even before they found the idol. We do not know how long the crew was on the sea when they found the little ivory idol of the youth crowned with laurels. However, finding this strange idol coupled with the seemingly supernatural event of the body of the dead sailor swimming away, may have triggered PTSD, eroding the “iron will” of the crew in spite of what the Lieutenant-Commander stated. Thus, the idol itself may not to be blame for the situations on the submarine but may well have triggered them. With each murder or suicide, the symptoms of PTSD among the crew would have only increased and spread. Thus, the first hypothesis to explain the incidences on U-29 is PTSD, which was triggered by finding the strange little idol by a crew already exhausted from being on the ocean during war for an extended period of time. However, an alternative hypothesis is that the idol itself may have had a pathogenic organism on it that could infect humans.
The abundance and diversity of viruses in the ocean is incredibly high – each milliliter of ocean water contains several million virus particles. Many ocean viruses cause diseases in marine mammals. Phocid distemper virus is a morbillivirus of Arctic phocid seals that has killed thousands of harbor seals in Europe. Similar viruses kill dolphins and other cetaceans. Many other viruses infect marine mammals and even cause disease in humans, including adenoviruses, herpesviruses, parvoviruses, and caliciviruses (http://www.virology.ws/2009/03/20/the-abundant-and-diverse-viruses-of-the-seas/). For example, in 2013 over 1,000 migrating bottlenose dolphins died from a measles-like virus along the East Coast of the U.S. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/virus-kills-over-1000-bottlenose-dolphins/). Indeed, the strange behavior of the dolphins, following the submarine deep into the ocean through the course of the tale, may have been symptoms of the virus affecting the dolphins’ brain. Thus, it is possible that some type of unknown virus was brought on-board U-29 with the biological agent either being on the small ivory idol or on the dead sailor that was clinging to the submarine?
Dolphin deaths along the East Coast of the US due to a virus
The structure of the morbillivirus, a measles-like virus responsible for the death of dolphins
In conclusion, while finding the strange little idol seems to have produced supernatural occurrences in “The Temple,” it is absolutely possible that the situation was the result of PTSD and/or an unknown biological agent that could exist in the deep ocean. Also, I you want to get a feel for what it would be like on a submarine during war, I strongly suggest the excellent movie “Das Boot.” Next time we will conclude our discussion of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Temple” by reviewing what the Lieutenant-Commander encountered when he actually entered the Temple. Thank you – Fred.
Submarine crew from the film “Das Boot”