Sunday, April 2, 2017

Part One: Olathoë, Commoriom, and Tsathoggua

In H.P. Lovecraft’s horror-adventure tale, “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936), the narrator makes this comment upon the discovery of the vast cyclopean city in remote Antarctica:

Here sprawled a palaeogean megalopolis compared with which the fabled Atlantis and Lemuria, Commoriom and Uzuldaroum, and Olathoë in the land of Lomar are recent things of today—not even of yesterday…

“Olathoë in the land of Lomar” is a location featured in an early prose poem by Lovecraft called “Polaris” (1920).  It was referred to in a late career publication, “The Quest of Iranon” (1935), and mentioned in the posthumously published “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1943).  Here is how Lovecraft describes “Olathoë in “Polaris”:

Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow between strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men.     

Olathoë is also cited in “The Mound” (1940), one of Lovecraft’s most effective and haunting collaborations.  According to the K’n-yan, the decadent subterranean race that dwelled in a vast underground city beneath Oklahoma, Olathoë was the recipient of “the smallest of the images” of dreaded Tsathoggua, which allowed its cult to be established on the surface of the earth.  Which cult may have survived the great ice sheet and the barbarian Gnophkehs that later destroyed Hyperborean civilization. 

In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith in December of 1929, in which he praised Smith’s “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” Lovecraft exclaimed “I must not delay in expressing my well-nigh delirious delight…What an atmosphere!  I can see & feel & smell the jungle around immemorial Commoriom, which I am sure must lie buried today in glacial ice near Olathoë in the land of Lomar!” 

A couple years later, in correspondence with August Derleth, (May of 1931), Lovecraft writes: “I shall identify Smith’s Hyperborea with my Olathoë in the land of Lomar.”  As readers of Clark Ashton Smith know, Commoriom and Uzuldaroum were the principle cities of Smith’s fictional Hyperborea, a continent doomed to frozen obscurity because of an advancing ice age, metaphorically depicted in Smith’s chilling—pun intended—“The Coming of the White Worm” (1941).

The placement of Lovecraft’s Olathoë in close proximity to Clark Ashton Smith’s Commoriom shows the merging of these two psycho-geographies, creating an imaginary region that was fruitful in the development of the Cthulhu Mythos.  Readers familiar with both authors know that an important link between Olathoë and Commoriom is the mythos entity known as Tsathoggua, who first appears in Smith’s 1931 story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”.  (See also Tsathoggua And His Fans). 

Elsewhere in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, the traumatized narrator observes the “limitless, tempest-scarred plateau and grasped the almost endless labyrinth of colossal, regular, and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses…” and connects the dots:

I thought again of the eldritch primal myths that had so persistently haunted me since my first sight of this dead Antarctic world—of the daemoniac plateau of Leng, of the Mi-Go, or Abominable Snow-Men of the Himalyas, of the Pnakotic Manuscripts with their pre-human implications, of the Cthulhu cult, of the Necronomicon, and of the Hyperborean legends of formless Tsathoggua and the worse than formless star-spawn associated with that semi-entity.  

Lovecraft provides an interesting detail about Tsathoggua that seems to contradict how he—it?—is depicted in earlier stories:  that the “semi-entity” is formless.  This is not exactly how Smith first describes Tsathoggua in stories like “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931) or “The Seven Geases” (1934).  From the earlier of the two tales: 

He was very squat and pot-bellied, his head was more like that of a monstrous toad than a deity, and his whole body was covered with an imitation of short fur, giving somehow a vague suggestion of both the bat and the sloth.

However, the author is describing an idol, not the actual being in action.  In “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, it is striking how similar Tsathoggua behaves to the evil entities in “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931), “The Double Shadow” (1933) and “Ubbo-Sathla” (1933)—that is, as an amorphous, amoebic predator, slithering and stretching its substance outward in an “ophidian” manner.  (The entity’s physical appearance in the later story “The Seven Geases” does resemble the idol: “And the mass stirred a little at his approach, and put forth with infinite slothfulness a huge and toad-shaped head.”)  

What is interesting in “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, to me at least, is that aside from some superficial similarities—a mouth with sharp teeth that periodically takes shape from the protean mass—the monster is not at all like the idol of Tsathoggua that the two thieves find on the altar.  Why is this?  The dark, writhing, shape-shifting mass, able to elongate itself limitlessly and nightmarishly in pursuit of Satampra seems a more modern, sci-fi creation, despite the fable-like setting of Smith’s tale.  Because Smith seems to favor more concrete and demarcated beings in many of his stories, the protean aspect of Tsathoggua seems a Lovecraftian influence.  Or perhaps both authors were influenced by the popularity of amoebic horrors of the type depicted in Anthony N. Rud’s classic 1923 story “Ooze”. (See also Clues at the Scene of the Slime and The Amoeba in the Attic.)  

Satampra visits the legendary but now abandoned city of Commoriom—not far from Olathoë—relatively late in Smith’s Hyperborean cycle of stories.  At this point in Hyperborian history, the sepulchral granite town is reverting to primordial jungle and swamp, as if the city’s environment and desolation is evolving to accommodate the Toad God’s presence.  In Jungian dream psychology, this is typical of the first phase of cyclic dream imagery, the nigredo:  themes of deterioration, putrefaction, intense gloominess, and images of dismemberment predominate.  Sure enough, Satamparas loses his hand in his struggle to escape Tsathoggua, which is also the rough justice administered to thieves in some traditional societies.

“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” is one of a number of stories by Clark Ashton Smith that comprise his Hyperborean cycle, of which there are about eleven.  For future reference they are listed below, along with links to earlier posts about this interesting aspect of Smith’s work.  The next installment of The R’lyeh Tribune will delve more deeply into representative stories from the Hyperborean cycle.


The following are stories considered to belong to Smith’s Hyperborean Cycle:
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)
“The Testament of Athammaus” (1932)
“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan (1932)
“The Door to Saturn” (1932)
“The House of Haon-Dor” (1933)
“The Ice-Demon” (1933)
“Ubbo-Sathla” (1933)
“The Seven Geases” (1934)
“The White Sybil” (1935)
“The Coming of the White Worm” (1941)
“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles” (1958)

Here are some earlier posts about stories in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean cycle:

Geas Who Is Coming to Dinner (The Seven Geases)
Tsathoggua And His Fans (The Tale of Satampra Zeiros)
A Chapter from the Book of Eibon (The Coming of the White Worm)

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