Friday, April 8, 2016

Cernunnos and Shub-Niggurath

Back in the early 1970s, screenwriters who adapted H.P. Lovecraft’s work to TV and film made his stories more compelling by adding in what the author had left out, namely women.  Examples include two excellent Night Gallery episodes that aired the second season (1971), “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air”, as well as the Roger Corman produced film The Dunwich Horror (1970).  In the first two examples, female characters fall helplessly in love with Mr. Pickman and Dr. Muñoz respectively. Their romantic interests led them inexorably to discover the horror each man concealed: vile genetic devolution in Pickman’s case, and an unusual need for constant refrigeration in Dr. Muñoz’s.  (See The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning). 

In The Dunwich Horror, Sandra Dee’s mostly passive and submissive character discovers that Wilbur Whateley’s anatomy is much less deranged than that of the original character in H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name.  At the end of the film, her impregnation by the half-breed son of Yog-Sothoth left open the possibility of a sequel, which mercifully never materialized.  This film is partly responsible for the ridiculous trope seen in horror entertainments involving conjuring or de-conjuring of some malevolent entity:  rival occultists screaming unintelligible chants at each other to disable what has been invoked.  In the film, the stormy verbal conflagration between Wilbur Whateley and his nemesis Dr. Henry Armitage is a hoot. (See also Psychedelic Dunwich).

Decades later, contemporary Lovecraft-inspired fiction and film with strong female protagonists is much more commonplace, and is being created by both female and male authors.  In the November 2015 issue of Rue Morgue, Dejan Ognjanović mentions two new anthologies of stories that showcase the perspective of female authors on Lovecraft’s contribution to the field: Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror, edited by Lynne Jamneck,  and She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles. 

Ognjanović suggests that female authors need not ascribe to Lovecraft’s “eugenic fear”, nor reiterate his issues with “monster mothers and monstrous births”.  Rather, his concept of cosmic horror, of an infinite, malevolent universe unconcerned with puny humanity, provides ample basis for all kinds of explorations of the terrifying unknown.  Furthermore, Ognjanović offers the pragmatic advice that female characters in Lovecraftian adventures need not be symbols of good or evil, or symbols at all—they can be ordinary people.  This is an interesting and beneficial development, as ideas developed by Lovecraft are adapted to modern situations and sensibilities.  In this context, recent work by Ross Smeltzer is worth a look.  

“Lord of All High and Hidden Places” is the second novella in Ross Smeltzer’s recently released collection, The Mark of the Shadow Grove (2016). It continues the author’s examination of power relationships between men and women, as well as youth and old age, which he began in the first installment, “The Witch of Kinderhook”.  (See also Lovecraft Meets Earth Mother.) A feminist and ecological sensibility definitely informs both stories, but Smeltzer never descends into mere ideology.  His concern is with the details and nuances of his characters:  the young are not entirely innocent or naïve, and the malevolent old men—especially the villain of the second novella—have experienced loss, frustration and sorrow.

Interestingly, the interactions between the principle male and female characters in both stories form a symmetry which may have been intentional. In the first story, the narrator is a young man apprenticed to an arrogant old necromancer; he eventually determines his own direction, which leads him to an encounter with a powerful and mysterious woman.  In the second story, a talented young woman seeks a father-figure and mentor, and finds one—temporarily—in an abusive but brilliant occultist, one who is also doomed by his arrogance and presumption.

But “Lord of All High and Hidden Places” is also a treatise and a speculation about Cernunnos, the pre-Christian Gaelic hunter god, often conflated with Pan and later on with the Biblical Satan.  Smeltzer depicts the “Horned God” initially as a negative male archetype.  Cernunnos symbolizes masculine violence and rapaciousness; he is the “Rutting God”.  Professor Hildersham, the villain of the story, already resembles Cernunnos in the way he behaves toward the narrator and toward his long-suffering wife.  For very personal reasons he decides to invoke the god, following the directions spelled out in the Alibek Codex, and applying the narrator’s translation skills to the more obscure passages.  (Like the Necronomicon, the Alibek Codex can sometimes be found in the more discriminating used book stores.)

Hildersham’s hazardous project allows Smeltzer to speculate about the nature of the Lovecraftian deity Shub-Niggurath, also known as “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young”.  As the moniker suggests, this entity is associated with fertility, as is Cernunnos.  While the latter is clearly masculine in nature, Shub-Niggurath has been depicted as both male and female, though not so much by its originator.  For example, in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), one of its descriptors is “Lord of the Wood”, suggesting a male fertility god. 

Given that virtually all the fiction Lovecraft wrote is devoid of women and femininity of any kind, it seems inconsistent that he would invest much of his text with goddess imagery.  Lovecraft did not provide much detail about Shub-Niggurath in his fiction, and left it to others to develop the lore around this particular member of the Mythos.  However, John Steadman, in his fascinating survey, H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition (2015) cites this passage from a letter Lovecraft wrote to Willis Conover in the mid 1930s:

Yog-Sothoth’s wife [who knew?—edit.] is the hellish cloud-like entity Shub-Niggurath, in whose honor nameless cults hold the rite of the Goat with a Thousand Young.  By her he has two monstrous offspring—the evil twins Nug and Yeb.  He has also begotten hellish hybrids upon the females of various organic species throughout the universes of space-time.

So the general consensus seems to be that Shub-Niggurath is female.  But Smeltzer goes a step further, implying that Professor Hildersham’s fateful conjuration of Cernunnos invokes his feminine equal as well, that is, an avatar of Lovecraft’s “hellish cloud-like entity”.  When these two ancient entities come together, readers can expect a grotesque and horrifying outcome.

“The Witch of Kinderhook” and “Lord of All High and Hidden Places” are thematically and historically related.  The second in the series provides interesting back story about the character of Alice Schermerhorn, her unusual family, and the possibilities of a nature-based, matrilineal culture.  Traditional conceptions of masculinity and Christianity receive subtle and legitimate criticism. 

As in the first novella, there are interesting allusions to Lovecraft and other authors, among them Poe and Dickens.  Smeltzer’s overarching project is an ambitious one: how to understand and resolve the problematic interactions between men and women, which are mirrored in humanity’s troublesome interaction with Nature.  It will be interesting to see how—or whether—Smeltzer resolves this age-old tension between masculine and feminine in the third novella in the series.


“Lord of All High and Hidden Places” appears in the collection The Mark of the Shadow Grove (2016) published by Fantasy Works Publishing, Fordsville, Kentucky USA. (

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.