“Whoever touches the mountain must surely be put to death.” (Exodus 19: 12)
Once again, H.P. Lovecraft turns to the Bible for “inspiration”. His short prose poem, The Other Gods, (1933) is a close retelling of the story in Exodus, when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and receives the stone tablets on which are written the 10 Commandments, (Exodus 19: 16-19). After Moses receives instructions from God regarding laws and worship, he returns a second time to the mountain where he is allowed a glimpse of God’s glory, “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33: 19-23).
What is interesting is Lovecraft’s modern notion that mankind has driven the old gods from all but the very highest mountain peaks. They can only visit their old haunts on occasion in their “cloud ships”. In The Other Gods, the ironically named Barzai the Wise and his young assistant Atal scale the rocky summit of Hatheg-Kla. Barzai wants to actually see the gods, of whom he has read about and studied all his life in books like the Pnakotic Manuscripts and “the seven cryptical books of Hsan.” Like Moses, he has a hunger to see the face of god(s), but lacks the former’s caution and self-restraint. His hubris is his downfall, or upfall we should say.
There is an ominous lunar eclipse at the top of the mountain, and just as Barzai is able to see the relatively timid gods of earth, they are defended by the other gods, “of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth…” He warns Atal away, and is sucked up into the sky screaming his head off. Fans of the Old Testament will recall that the prophet Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, but under much better circumstances. Enoch, a descendent of Adam—that Adam—also disappears in a similar fashion in the book of Genesis.
Earth gods, outer gods—the theology gets a bit confused here, as is typical of pagan belief systems involving multiple gods. What is needed is a strong monotheism to put the house in order and get things done on time. This is one reason why the Cthulhu Mythos is not really so terrifying. It is essentially a loose organization of team members, without a clear purpose, and no set timeframe. (‘When the stars are aligned’ is a bit vague…) Have you ever worked on a committee?
A single malevolent entity is far more frightening—because unrestrained by any colleagues—than a mere collection of evil deities. The destruction of mankind if not the entire universe will likely bog down in endless discussion and lack of coordinated effort. You only have to look at the shenanigans of the ancient Greek pantheon for an example of this kind of chaos.
At the end of The Other Gods, investigators from nearby towns climb the mountain to look for Barzai, who we know has disappeared forever. Instead of stone tablets containing explicit moral guidance, all that investigators discover on Hatheg-Kla is an enormous but indecipherable symbol carved into the stone of the summit. It is similar to one found in untranslatable sections of the Pnakotic Manuscripts. What can this mean but that the ways of the gods are finally incomprehensible to humankind?
The epilogue of the story is interesting for what it may reveal of Lovecraft’s theological orientation. Atal the priest will not pray for Barzai’s soul, because the man had committed an unforgiveable sin—sacrilege. In the context of ancient Greek mythology, Barzai’s sin was hubris; he challenged the gods by trying to see them in one of their haunts. Lovecraft’s moral seems to be that humankind should avoid “the climbing of inaccessible places”, or as the Psalmist would put it “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139: 6)
But there is a happy ending to The Other Gods: following the intervention by ‘the gods of the outer hells’, Earth’s gods are now safe and can feel comfortable visiting their favorite mountain tops again. And this from the pen of an avowed atheist and realist?