The ancient Middle Eastern fish-god Dagon is the focus one of Lovecraft’s shorter stories of the same name, and is an important element in The Shadow over Innsmouth, among other stories. Lovecraft’s Dagon is less well known of the two stories, even though a movie of the same name was made in 2001. (This movie more closely resembles Innsmouth, however.) Dagon is one of Lovecraft’s earlier stories, and appears to be a precursor to the much more famous, The Call of Cthulu. It was first published in 1919.
There are numerous references to Dagon in the Old Testament. It being the Hebrew Bible, he does not get much good press, as deities go. He was the god of the sea and of a sea going people, reportedly half man and half fish. But he was also connected with fertility, and grain, especially corn. He was the national god of the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coast of ancient Israel. Father of Baal, he was also a source of pernicious idolatry, which the Israelites were compelled by their prophets to extinguish in the Promised Land.
In the book of Judges, there is the story of the final moments of Samson’s life, when he destroys the temple of Dagon in Gaza.
Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.” When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying, “Our god has delivered our enemy into our hands, the one who laid waste our land and multiplied our slain.”While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. (Judges 16: 23-25)
Samson, a famous fighter and strongman, has been viciously blinded by his captors, and knows that his end is near. He asks a servant to place him where he can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that he can lean against them. The temple is crowded with worshippers, among them men, women and children. He prays to the Lord, pushes with all his might, and topples the building on top of everyone inside it, including himself.
“Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.”
A little later on, in the first book of Samuel, the Israelites lose a battle against the troublesome Philistines, and the precious Ark of the Covenant is captured by the enemy. The Philistines take their prize and put it in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod, right next to the image of their god.
When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold. (1 Samuel 5: 3-5)
You never know.
Though not absolutely certain, it is a good bet that Goliath, the Philistine giant whom David killed with only a slingshot, was a worshipper of Dagon.
Much of the Old Testament chronicles the early Israelites’ struggle against idolatry and other symptoms of assimilation by the native cultures of Canaan, the Promised Land. Their God commands them to put to the sword the native peoples, many of them followers of Dagon. The Israelites are to remain a people set apart, and are not to associate with or intermarry with the natives, much less to follow their religious practices.
This horror of miscegenation—interbreeding with other races and ethnicities, mixing in with other cultures—is an underlying theme in many of Lovecraft’s stories. Whatever its original roots in the author, his preoccupation with racial and class purity in his fiction seems to draw some support and inspiration from Biblical accounts.
The ancient fish-god does much better in early twentieth century New England than he does in Israel in 1100 BCE. In H.P. Lovecraft’s story Dagon, which takes place during the early years of World War I, the narrator’s ship is captured by a German man-of-war somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean. He escapes his captors in a lifeboat and drifts at sea for some time. He awakens at one point to find himself marooned on a vast expanse of mud and slime that has been heaved to the surface by volcanic activity.
This part of the story will remind Lovecraft readers of the third section of The Call of Cthulu, which describes the experience of Norwegian seaman Gustaf Johansen, (“The Madness From the Sea”). Cthulu was published about a decade after Dagon, and contains elements that were developed and elaborated from the earlier story.
After several days of slogging across this mysterious terrain, he finds an enormous canyon, and under the light of a waning moon, discovers an enormous monolith. It is carved with weird hieroglyphics and disturbing images of marine creatures and humanoid, fish like creatures. He is then horrified to see a gigantic living version of one of the carvings, emerging quickly from a large pool of water beneath the monument. He flees, barely retaining his sanity and consciousness. He is later retrieved from the ocean by an American ship, and recuperates in San Francisco.
He is safe only for a little while. Using morphine to deaden his fears and memories, he knows he is doomed. Almost as an afterthought, he implies that it was the ancient fish-god Dagon that he saw at the monolith. He knows too much now, and it is coming for him. (The same paranoid ideation is present throughout The Call of Cthulu.) Before it does, he anticipates a day “when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war exhausted mankind…”
Unlike many Lovecraft stories, this one is tied to contemporary events and concerns by the references to the Great War.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth is well known and does not summarizing here. However, the story contains a more explicit and interesting reference to Dagon. The narrator discovers early on in his visit that the Masonic Temple and local Christian churches of Innsmouth have been corrupted and replaced by the “Esoteric Order of Dagon”.
Innsmouth opens with federal raid on the town, involving wholesale arrests of the citizenry and the systematic destruction of their homes. Observers of the conflagration “wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners.” There are concentration camps, mass jailing, and terrible, disease ridden confinement of the prisoners. There is even mention of a deep-diving submarine that fires torpedoes into a marine abyss located just offshore from the town, (near “Devil’s Reef”).
As in the Old Testament, the sin of idolatry must be purged from the land.