In The Depths of the Earth

This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.

The Resulting Story:Out Through The Back

The underground and underworld are topics of human imagination for as long as humans have been around. It’s of little surprise, since the world below is an almost alien notion—neither plants nor sun seem to be there, but at the same time things spring from it. In this case, Mr. Lovecraft wants to point to prehumen or at least prehistoric. And for that, we have a startling amount to find in folklore. We discussed some of this before—but most of this is new.

We can start of course with the creations of the worlds before this one. One Othama story tells of worlds buried in layers beneath this one. The first one, inhabited by the first race of humans, never suffered age or sickness. However, without these, the immortals grew too numerous and devoured everything, before turning to cannibalism. They were wiped out, and the sky collapsed on them, forming the next world. Here age was introduced, but it grew quicker with each generation—and so they were wiped out. The next age smoking tobacco spread down the generations too fast—and so they too were buried. Before the forth and current world was made, the gods noticed that the world was slightly off balance—each collapsed sky had tilted farther and farther up in the east. After raising the west to balance it, they placed the current race of humans.

Pima1700

Akimel Oʼotham (sometimes called Pima) territory, circa 1700

The Dine have a slightly different story, presenting a layered world but not layered creations. Instead, humanity ascends through each world after being driven out of the one before it. Battles often follow, although one document suggests the third world was abandoned after Coyote kidnapped two of Water Buffalo’s children. The fourth world was found too barren for habitation, and the final ascent was into this world, the fifth world.

The Zuni have another tale of underground peoples in the same area. Here these people are not quiet dead, but not quiet alive. They live opposite lives of humans—food is toxic too them, but they can live on vapors and steam. They are ‘incomplete’, and able to shift their shape. One story tells how two heroic twins heard the wailing and war calls of these people, and went down to learn of their nature. The twins used magic to travel down into the underworld, entering a dark lake with their shields on backwards.

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They discovered what we have already revealed—but also that the unmade men cannot be hurt by strong blows and weapons, but only by soft and normally delicate things like grass. The wind of straw becomes a wind of arrows below, and the touch of a jay bird landing on them is like lightening. The twins try and teach their own ways to make them stronger, but are disdained as eaters of refuse and monsters by the people there.

Further south, we find the Maya. We have here a number of chthonic and underground realms. In the Popul Vuh, the world below is Xibalba, the land of the dead. Here we find the houses of bats and obsidian, rivers of pus and scorpions. We also find in more modern times the Earthlords. These spirits are rich but flighty, and live far away from any towns. They dress as colonial Spaniards and ride horses—and with their immense wealth comes the power to be both cruel and kind without worry.

Among the Ainu, there are conflicting descriptions of the underground. At least one version claims that the bottom of the underworld, seven layers down, is where great thunder gods battle. When one die, they are restored to the heavenly abodes and shoot back down to their place of war, forming lighting bolts. These battling gods fight over fields of paradise, far enough away that they will not destroy the world.

Other accounts suggest that the world is like a coin—on this side, we live. On the other side, the gods and others live in a paradisaical existence or demons live a hellish one. Both trample down the ground, keeping it even.

Among the Tonga, the underworld contains Maui Atalanga’s garden, where his mischievous son Maui Kijikiji discovered fire. Fire was held by Maui Kijikiji’s grandfather, who loaned his grandson some of it—only for him to repeatedly put it out. At last, he gave him the hole log in frustration, which Kijikiji tried to smuggle out. Atalanga caught him, and forced him to return it—but didn’t notice that some of Kijikiji’s loincloth had caught on fire. There also grows a nonu tree, who’s leaves restore the dead. In Maori stories, Maui (and my source indicates only one Maui) is a descendant of the inhabitants of the underworld, and steals fire from the below as well, and discover his heritage like Maui Kijikiji by following his father and finding a secret road to the below. He stole fire more properly, with no father trying to stop him as directly.

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There is a mountain in Basque country that has a darker below, it’s entire interior full of Satanic worshipers. Strange songs are sung and resound out, smoke rises from burnt offerings. I discussed the fullness of the origin of these omens on patreon, but at least in part the regular witches sabbath begins here, and it appears the mountain is named after these gatherings (Aqualarre–a mountain I can’t find on the world maps).

Welsh mountains and mines are said to be inhabited by coblynbeau. The cobyln is a knocker or thumper in the mine. They stand about a foot and a half tall in miners clothes, and attend to a variety of activities in a mine with no clear purpose. If irritated they will throw stones at miners.   At least one account reports that they are busy in their own, spectral coal mines and thus are only seen when they are on holiday.

Their German cousins, however, are less friendly. The German miner will hear three distinct knocks to mark his doom from the knockers, and smaller knocks for lesser evils. These are a tad taller as well, and will even go to unwork the miners efforts. Some even report that these kobolds will place wicked metal in the ores if insulted, seeking to poison miners who have displeased them. On other times, they will work to ensure a miner with their favor strikes a particularly rich vein of metal—more aid then the average cobyln.

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In Ulster, fairies can be found in clefts and caverns—and speaking with them can have dire consequences of deafness or loss of speech. Demolishing one fortress that the faeries dwelled in lead to the death of every laborer, and a number of caverns beneath the fortress had a tendency to swallow up cattle plowing nearby. These caverns could even be hidden from mortal eyes, and held prisoners within, and some were laid on their side so movement required going down a central hole. Some of these are built by a group known as the Danes—however, these appear distinct from the real Danes, as they were wiped out in a massacre by the current population of Ireland in most accounts. They had sandy hair, long limbs, and large feet. They are joined by the Pechts, who could slip through a keyhole. The pechts dress in grey cloths or skins, and will work the field—however, if they are paid in food they will grow offended and flee. The pechts are said to be particularly numerous, capable of standing in a single line and passing dirt from one end of Ireland to the other without moving a foot. These two are sometimes conflated with fairies, a group we could write on for ages.

The underground in Arabia has such strange wonders as well—massive caverns guarded by automatons and talisman gates. Buried in the earth in one story is a crown that made one the king of all of India, realms of riches. Maps to these places, and information on how to navigate their terrors, were the starts of many an expedition.

In the pulps and works around H.P. Lovecraft, of course, there are other underground and subterranean locales. There was the world of Vril, a land where men and women turned hidden and occult powers of life for their own uses. There was the Hollow Earth, where perhaps ancient species and people survived—a notion that perhaps owes some of its origins to the disgust at notions of extinction, and partly to the lack of exploration of the depths. The idea that dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Creator but persisted in some yet unseen place was strong for a long time. Mr. Lovecraft put a number of caverns beneath the world, from ones used for Satanic rites to ones in the distant Antarctic to systems beneath castles that hide ancestral fears.

These stories present us a swath of dangers in the underworld, even if uninhabited. And we have yet to the touch on the clearest meaning, that both terms of antiquity and prehistory suggest—that the depths of the world are old and historically heavy. They are places full of potential riches lost to time and things time has swallowed up. From lost creations of cannibals, to the origins of flame, to things made of smoke instead of flesh…I wonder what we will find, when we descend below?

 

Biblography

Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton 1919.

Batchelor, John.  The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901

O’Bryan,  Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Smithsonian Institute, 1955

Collcott,E. E.  “Legends from Tonga. The Maui.” Folklore Vol 32, No. 1, March 31 1921.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. “A Zuni Folk-Tale of the Underworld”.  The Journal of American Folklore Vol 5., No. 16, American Folklore Society Jan-March 1892.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropeshire Folklore: A Sheaf of Cleanings. 1883

Popul Vuh: Sacred Book of The Quiche Maya. Translated by: Allen J. Christenson. University of Oklahoma, 2007.

Watanabe, John. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist. Vol 17. No 1. Feb 1990.

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THE SUN

This Week’s Prompt: 94. Change comes over the sun—shews objects in strange form, perhaps restoring landscape of the past.

The Resulting Story:The Green Sun

Oh, this is a timely story. I’ve just returned from visiting family in the Valley of the Sun. Growing up in Arizona, I think, made the notion of the Sun as a deity rather easy to grasp—a vast, often hateful daystar that sapped life and will from everything it saw. If I wanted, I could ramble for hours on the unconscious cosmology I had from growing up in Mesa Arizona, but that is for another time. Today, I want to talk about the Sun. The strange stories of the Sun as well as the more familiar ones.

One of the more familiar stories of the sun is that it rests where it sets, and a hero sets out to find or visit it. A few Dine stories deal with the children of the Sun. The first is a son born of an unmarried woman, for the Sun had grown jealous of a chief he had never seen. This son was brought up among his own people, and at fifteen was told by a white fly that his father was the son. Shortly after he was taken to his father on a rainbow, and was taught every game that existed. The Sun conspired to win every turquoise from the chief and people that he could using his own child. And the son in turns becomes such an amazing gambler, he not only wins the turquoise but also wins the people themselves, the spirits of rain and corn, and the chief! The greatest prize he wins, however, is a turquoise the size of man with feathers sticking out of it. When the Sun descends to collect the turquoise, his son refuses—instead offers to gamble for it.

The Sun then went out and had another boy—this one grew to adult hood in fifteen years. He was then brought up and shaped by his sister to into a duplicate of the first child, the Great Gambler. He is sent out to offer gifts to various beings—the bat a buffalo hide, the snake a pair of red stones, a shell to the brown rat, some ground stones to a little breeze. These all help him, either by sabotaging the Gambler or confounding his spies, until at last the people are freed. The Sun claims the turquoise, and takes the Gambler skyward.

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Another Dine story tells of the Sun seeking a bride—particularly the daughter of First Man and First Woman, White Bead Girl. He arrives first while she is alone, on a white horse, as a man dressed all in white. He then visits her for four days at night, unseen, and she in turn gives birth to twins. These twins prove hard to keep at home, going out and finding spies of the monsters that roam the world. They also learn, by a strange fly, that their father is the Sun.

They then journey East—and come to a land of nothing but sand. There they are warned by an old man to use some of his vomit when the Sun offers tobacco—because the Sun is dangerous and kills with many weapons. They then reach the Sun’s turquoise, and meet his mother. She hides them when the Sun returns, with his jealous wife, on a turquoise horse. The sun tests them—first with a pipe, which they smoke four times. Then with a sweat lodge, again heated four times. He offers them gifts after accepting them as his sons, and they reject each in turn. At last he offers to give them anything, and they ask for his lighting bolt arrows. They then succeed in answering his questions of the mountains, and descend down to fight the monsters that plauge the world. They do their own work from there, not relevant to ours.

AZ Sunset.png

The Sun grants another child to a mother in Greece. She asks to have the child for twelve years, and after that the sun can have them back—so the Sun gives her a pretty girl named Maroula. When the Sun returns twelve years later, he tells the little girl when her mother will give what she promised. Her mother tells Maroula to claim she forgot—and after that fails, she doesn’t let Maroula out of her house. Eventually she grows bold, and sends Maroula out for water. The Sun finds her and takes her away to his palace,and the great garden outside it.

Maroula, however, misses her mother and cries. And her tears during the day cause the garden to wilt. The Sun asks every night why she cries, and she claims two animals were fighting and she was scratched while separating them. At last, when she reveals the source of her grief, the Sun promises to send her home. He first calls lions to attend her—but they will eat her flesh and drink her blood if they grow hungry. As do the foxes. But the deer will eat only grass.

And so they go to take her home adorned with gold coins—and when they grow hungry, they place her in a willow tree. A nearby witch, a drakena, has sent her own daughters nearby to draw water. One sees Maroula’s face and thinks it’s her own. This repeats with each daughter—until the drakena herself comes and tells Maroula to descend and let her eat the young girl. Maroula distracts her by telling her to bake bread—and then escapes on the back of dear, sending mice to distract the witch as she flees.

The Sun as a dangerous force to humanity can be seen further in a Cherokee story. Enraged that people can’t look at her, she sends waves of heat to kill humanity from her daughter’s house in the sky. Humanity consults the little people for advice on what to do—how to escape this misery, they concluded they must kill the sun. So two serpents were sent to wait at the daughter of the sun’s house, fangs ready to bite the Sun’s ankle. The snakes, however, are blinded by the sun and flee—and the deaths continue, with everyone knowing at least one person who perished to the threat. So the Little People changed one man into the great Uketna (who we discussed here) and another into the Rattlesnake. The rattle snake got a head of the great horned Uketna and bit the daughter of the sun in his eagerness. He then returned, as did the enraged Uketna who was convinced he had lost his glory.

When the Sun saw that her daughter was dead, she went into mourning. The heat death stopped, but the sun never rose again—and this eternal darkness was untenable. So the Little People sent men with special bread and a box to the land of ghosts in the west to find the lost daughter. In the land of ghosts, they would find her dancing in a circle. The men where to strike her with sticks, causing her to fall down. Then they were to put her in a box and bring her back—never opening the box even a little. The men did so, and when returning west the daughter returned to life. From her box, she called out first for food, then for water, then air. This third one worried the men, who thought she might be dying. She escapes as a redbird—and this failure means none can be brought back from the living. Her mother the Sun nearly flooded the world with tears of grief—but was stopped by the new song of the drummer.

Amaterasu From the Cave.png

The Sun’s retreat is similar in many ways to Amaterasu’s retreat. Long ago, Amaterasu’s father, Izangi, sent her brother the storm god Susanoo away for his arrogance. He returned, and offered his sister a game of god shaping—each took an item from the other and created deities from it. Amaterasu created five goddesses from Susanoo’s sword, while he made three gods from her necklace. A dispute arose over who had won, Amtaresu claiming the gods her creation as they came from her necklace. This escalated until Susanoo rampaged across the world in his rage, and hurled a flayed pony into the weaving room of Amaterasu, killing one of her handmaidens. Enraged and grieving, Amaterasu retreated into a cave.

The result was darkness and terror over the land—a situation that the gods sought to resolve. First they brought out roosters to signal the dawn and lure her out. Then they brought mirrors and jewels from a nearby tree, hoping to catch some of her light. At last, the goddess of dawn danced atop a great drum naked, to the laughter and delight of the gods. This noise brought Amaterasu’s attention, and lured her from the cave. The gods quickly sealed off the cave, and she has remained in the heavens ever since.

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Of course the Sun’s daily retreat through the sky is most famously remembered in the story of Ra’s voyage through the kingdom of night. This journey, which is in fact the funeral of Ra, crosses many regions, some strange, some dangerous, many serpentine–here for instance, Ra faces Apep. The sun is of course reborn at the end, rising in the dawn as the scarab headed god Khpera. Below is a video summary.

 

Only once was this voyage interrupted or changed—when the goddess Isis took some of Ra’s saliva and created a serpent from it. She placed it in the sun’s path, where it lept out and bit Ra’s ankle. As the poison bore some of Ra’s nature, it actually afflicted him. All the gods of medicine came to help Ra, but none could cure him—until Isis came, and asked for his hidden name to undo the power of the snake. Isis then puts this power to use to cure pain and potentially raise the dead!

On the other end of the Sun’s Daughter tale, the Sun as a dangerous and horrifying enemy is apparent in both Greece and Mesopatmaia. The god Apollo, while now associated with the sun and music, began his history in the Illiad as a god of plauge and healing. A comparable god was Nergal, who was the lord of the noontime sun and the summer, dry season sun. Nergal in time became a god of war and the dead, his role as a bringer of misery aiding his conquest of the underworld. The healing aspects of the Sun persisted in Shamash, who we briefly touched on in the discussion of exorcists.

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And while we’ve talked of the death or endangerment of the Sun, there is one instance to mention from China. Here, there were once ten suns who each took turns rising—until all ten decided to rise at the same time. The people asked for relief, and so the great archer Yi was sent down. He tried to shoot arrows near the suns, to scare them away. They defied him still, and he grew angry. Drawing back his great bow he fired at one of the great orbs of fire—and the spirit of the sun fell to earth as a three legged raven. He did so eight more times—and the fireballs they carried fell to earth to form a great island, where the endless sea and rivers evaporate upon contact.

Another instance of control of the Sun comes to us from the Maori. Maui, tired of rushing to finish his chores before the sunset, persuades his brothers that it must be taught a lesson. After much warning that it will burn him, blind him, or give him sunstroke, Maui moves ahead with the plan. The party goes and finds the hole from which the Sun rises. They lay a trap over the hole, a great noose of rope. When the sun rises through it, unawares, they pull the Sun down. When he struggled, Maui struck the sun with his magic jaw bone. Maui commanded the Sun, so captured, to move more slowly across the heavens.

Maui and the Sun.png

The light of the Sun is and always has been then a mixed blessing—it is sometimes flighty, always needed, but often jealous and painful. Here we have the use of sunlight as a sort of revelation—a connection that links all the way back to our first story of Demophon. Here we have the Sun restoring and rebuilding a landscape, perhaps revealing its hidden face. What if, and I consider this regarding our story of Amaterasu, the sun we know is the one still in the cave. Alternatively, what if the sun suffers the fate of the Aztec Suns, and is replaced by a new god on the throne? The light of the sun itself changes, and the world becomes in a way inhospitable or more hostile then it was before. Our story seems to move more cosmic by its nature, but grounding it in the experiences of one person might help with that—I’m reminded of the Twitter story/account “the Sun vanished”, which likewise has as a start a strange and horrific cosmic change. What stories about the Sun do you know?

Bibliography:

Megas, Geogrios O. Folktales of Greece.  University of Chicago Press, 1970.

O’Bryan Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Smithsonian Institution, 1955

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Dredged Up From The Depths

This Week’s Prompt: 60. Fisherman casts his net into the sea by moonlight—what he finds.
The Resulting Story: The Sacred Fish

We’ll need a bigger boat for what can be dragged up with this corpse. Ignoring the moonlight for a moment, fisherman have a habit of finding strange things, from the medeterrain to Japan, and everywhere in between. If we put on our symbolic lenses, the reason might be apparent. The sea is a chaos and potent place. It is where anything can happen. And so, sometimes, everything happens.

A common fisherman catch is, unsurprisingly, fish. However, strange and rare fish are easy to find. A tale from Albania tells of a golden fish, which when caught and prepared, made a woman and a horse pregnant. Both children had a star on their brow, and go on to be fantastic heroes, marrying a shape-shifting gender bending moor and a djinn woman, blinding armies with their star-marked brows, and eventually confronting the treacherous king. In Japan, a species of mermaid if caught and eaten provides immortality but misfortune. Probably because of it’s all too human looking face. In Ireland, the Salmon of Wisdom provides…well, wisdom if eaten properly.

JapaneseMermaid

A German tale, recorded by the Brother’s Grimm includes a fish that grants wishes for it’s freedom in much the same way a genie might. An older version has the Yugoslavia version, where the fish gets caught so many times it accepts its fate and instructs him to cut it into six pieces, giving two to his wife and two to his horse and burying two in the ground after granting him a castle and gold. The result is two golden boys, two golden foals, and two golden lilies. A Greek version changes it to trees. The one brother goes out to make his fortune, the other stays at home. The adventuring brother pretends to be a robber and woos a maiden, and gets married. Then, he goes to hunt a stag and asked a witch for direction. The witch claimed to know where the stag was, but turned the man to stone. The other golden child came to rescue him and had his dog eat the witch up.

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Fish also have a knack for swallowing important things. Solomon once lost his ring to a fish, and with it control over his kingdom, which was destroyed bit by bit as he was helpless to watch. Another fish swallowed a wish granting treasure(the nature of the item is not specified in my translation of the Tibtean tales). While not swallowing it, a fish does guard the sword of Wild Edric who we covered last week.

Ainu stories, recorded granted over a century ago, include the notion of fish that contain magical properties and must be proprieties after they are caught. They share this notion with the Netsilik of Northern America. Further, fish caught may belong to a creature recorded as Konoto-ran-guru, and must be returned. A creature lurking in the middle of the sea, given to him is power over all sea devils and ill currents. He prefers his subjects, the malformed fish of the sea, be returned to him.

More malicous creatures arise from the sea of course. In the Maori story of Tawaki, a race of amphibous creatures kidnap and enslave the heroes mother, spending most of their time in the sea, and sleeping on land. When dawn comes, they must return to the sea or they will die. Tawaki slays them by decieving them about the time, with help from his captive mother.

And then there are the objects that are dredged up from the sea! In another story relating to King Solomon, a bottle containing a djinn is tossed into the sea and fished up later. The poor fisherman who dragged that up died of fright when the djinn emerged. This occurred in the City of Brass story mentioned last week as well, where it was a rather regular occurrence (funnily enough, those djinn thought Solomon still lived).

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Maui, that great Polynesian super man, washed onto the shore after his mother tossed him out. He, a fisherman in his own time, brought forth the arch-typical island from the sea on a fishing trip after his wives bothered him about his lack of fishing. He warned his brothers not to eat anything on the island, and not to disturb the island. Had his brothers not disturbed it, all islands would be perfect. But they did, and the island shook irritably, generating mountain ridges. It was a titantic and terrifying effort, ruined by a bit of carelessness.

Comparable, at least in part, to the fishing trip of Thor, where the thunder god nearly lifted up his own doom, the Jomundur serpent. The fishing expedition was one of frightful experiences for the giant involved, to say the least, who then tried to kill Thor and of course failed.

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Then there are the things from the sea that come of their own accord. The sea has an odd tendency towards spirituality! First there are the sages of Mesoptamian myth, who rise from the fresh water of Abzu, bringing law and culture with them to human kind. These fish-like sages further saved humanity from the flood, before being banished back to Abzu by Marduk. Japan features the prophetic Amabie who can see when bloody war is coming.

Then there are those strange monks and bishops in Europe. The Sea Bishop was reported in Poland in the 16th century, and was held captive by it’s king for many days. After a time, however, a visiting Bishop came across the creature, and it managed to communicate it’s want for freedom. The bishops released it and, before going below, it made the sign of the cross. Another was captured in Germany, but died fasting for three days and three nights.

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The washing up of strange creatures, such as whales and giant squid, sometimes unearth terrible things in the real world. The sea, chaotic thing that it is, spits forth monstrous things every now and then onto the shore. And sometimes with horrific consequences (such as when a number of people learned not to dynamite a whale carcass, video here).

Of course, this mythology is reinforced by the reality that happens with shocking frequency. Fisherman pull up strange and bizarre catches, which make their way into museums or conspiracy theories. From ancient remains to modern technology, the sea holds many wonders strange and bizzare hostages. Again from Japan, there is a strange craft with a woman and a small box, which fishermen found in the early 19th century. They deduced that the woman was an exile from a foreign land, and as her health was failing, they returned her to her reconstructed craft and set her to sea again.

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A fascinating horror story, of things washing a shore from the depths of the seas, can be found in the story The Thing that Drifted Ashore, a short horror comic that I found here. It has some interesting notions that are often found with the sea: dreams, the dead, tragedy, and horror. I won’t spoil it here, but Junji Ito is an artist and writer that you should make a point to check out.

Our own story will no doubt begin with the discovery of the strange and sequestered item from the sea. The item or fish will have some mystifying effect, transforming the community that finds it in some subversive or disturbing way. And then it will be discovered, and perhaps suffer Innsmouth’s fate. Or alternatively, we will end with some ultimate horrific and tragic act.

Batchelor, John. Ainujin Oyobi Sono Setsuwa. KyōBunkan, 1901.
Chopel, Norbu. Folktales of Tibet. Ltwa, 2006.
Elsie, Robert William. A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture. New York University Press, 2001.

Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974.

Megas, Georgios A. Folktales of Greece. P, 1970.

Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.

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Bound Beneath The Earth

This Week’s Prompt:59. Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.
The Resulting Story: The Many Doors of the Dead

We find a man in a room, underground, with only one exit. He may stay in this room. Or he may try and force his way out. When he goes and tries to escape his isolation, the onrush of the outside world, a miasma of chaotic waters, kill him. We do not know if he was pulverized or drowned. But had he not forced open that door of antiquity, he would be alive.

I say antiquity, because that is what the metal bronze conjures. It is a metal deployed in phalanxes or on chariots, not in the knightly arms of medieval warlords or the rifling of a modern man. It is a material of a bygone age. And as such, we might discuss some of the metaphor that seems at play in this story. For, pushing the bounds of the world and meeting catastrophe is a common theme in Mr. Lovecraft’s work.

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We can consider the lightless room or cave to be a maker of the cosmos. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who put Socrates’s words to writing, used a similar metaphor. In the Americas, a number of South Western people’s describe the emergence of humanity into the world as coming from a series of caves. Both the Navajo and the Hopi include stories of humanity emerging into this world from one’s deep below. In the myths of Maya and Aztec people’s, cave play the special role as connections to the underworld and ancestors. In more modern times, there are of course notions that we are within a hollow shell,the inside of an egg waiting to be born.

So we are within the world. And there is a door, made in ages past of bronze. It is the only way out, it seems, from our comfortable room of known existence. This door of bronze perhaps could be taken as the understanding of the world our ancestors had. It is a limiter, beyond which we cannot see anything—the chamber is after all subeterranean, and who would force open a door that they knew had a vast expanse of water on the other side. By pushing past these ancient limits, we encounter something new, or at least vast. The waters, who’s symbology we have discussed before, are a vast life giving force that overcomes the fool that releases them, creating a minature deluge. The man dies for his curiosity.

The metaphor points generally to a sort of terrified conservatism that defines Lovecraft to a point. We can recall his famous opening of the Call of Cthulhu:


“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. “

That being the case, we must consider how to wring more out of this then mere dread. Watching a man slowly go insensate before making a fatal mistake, unknown and unmourned by the world at large in his tomb is…dull. I am sure there is some way to make such a story intreasting. But on it’s own, existential dread is an easily dismissed horror. No. A better trick, I think, is that of memory. To recollect, as one stumbles through the strange cave, life before this darkness. What it is that lures the fatal, doomed choice of opening that ancient door.

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Places literally underground are not uncommonly full of dangers. We have talked about the threats of some of these creatures before, such as kobolods and grootslangs and Typhon who was buried under a mountain in Sicily. Other stories that are more than relevant here include those things of the deep that hold ancient knowledge. The dead are the most common, but not only example. In Russian Folklore, we have a giant of a man named Svyatogor who is trapped beneath a mountain and yet lends advice where he can to the knights of the Rus. In Arthurian myth and Charlemagne romances, Merlin often ends up beneath a tree or within a tree despite all his wisdom. And of course, there is the King In The Mountain, Barbossa being the most famous literal version. Some of these imprisonments, however, are only that. While a traveler might find such strange nobillity here and there, they aren’t dwelling so much as sleeping.

We can also consider creatures that are more serpentine in nature, as was touched on here. The great naga princes of tibetan folklore often dwelled in dreamworlds of the deep, resembling the fae we’ve come to know in many ways, including their power of many forms and their multiplicity of gifts, and a bit of their penchant for trickery.

In Maori folklore, Maui’s blessings come from his mother and father who live in the depths of the earth. Maui further presents an intreasting example of the sort of hubris Lovecraft would give to the man of science. Maui heads out to earn man’s immortality, by defeating his ancestor. The result is rather predictable, if bizarre. He heads within his ancestress while she sleeps, warning the nearby birds not to laugh. One very young bird does, and his stirring ancestress kills Maui.

The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh likewise ventures underground, following the flames of the sun in order to reach the place where immortality might be found. He also fails, although he survives the encounter. His test is rather wakefulness, and in another time we will discuss the motif of death and slumber. 

To return to how this might shape our narrative, the cavern is as much a character as our prisoner. It is a character in shapes and form, eliciting memories and moods. I think a landscape like those the dragons once dwelt in will work well. An abandoned faerie castle, the ruins of a great dragon’s kingdom, a landscape that is more than darkness and shadows wandered through forever and ever. It also might give the bronze door some more menace, if it is the only worked metal in the cavern of wonders. The only plain, unadorned thing, in a forgotten land.

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A good reference for this material would be the story “City of Brass” from the 1001 Arabian Nights. The story follows travelers through a series of barren wastelands and tombs, full of strange sights, desiccated corpses, imprisoned demons, and odd devices. It has a rather clear moral to it about attachment to material goods, but at the same time there are undercurrents of cosmic horror as the will of God so portrayed is not always knowable. The story also features several instances of characters dooming themselves by ignoring clear warnings, which falls neatly into what might be waiting for our prisoner. The city itself is slightly off from the prompt, sadly, being of brass instead of bronze. But the visual cue is close enough I believe.

Bibliography:

Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974.

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