Cthulhu is a giant fictional creature, one of the Great Old Ones in H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. It is often cited for the extreme descriptions given of its appearance, size, and the abject terror that it invokes. Cthulhu is often referred to in science fiction and fantasy circles as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for extreme horror or evil.
Cthulhu has also been spelled as Tulu, Clulu, Clooloo, Cighulu, Cathulu, Kutulu, Q’thulu, Ktulu, Kthulhut, Kulhu, Thu Thu, and in many other ways. It is often preceded by the epithet Great, Dead, or Dread.
Lovecraft transcribed the pronunciation of Cthulhu as "Khlûl'hloo" (). S. T. Joshi points out, however, that Lovecraft gave several differing pronunciations on different occasions. According to Lovecraft, this is merely the closest that the human vocal apparatus can come to reproducing the syllables of an alien language. Long after Lovecraft's death, the pronunciation kə-THOO-loo became common, and the game Call of Cthulhu endorsed it.
Cthulhu first appeared in the short story "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928)—though it makes minor appearances in a few other Lovecraft works. August Derleth, a correspondent of Lovecraft's, used the creature's name to identify the system of lore employed by Lovecraft and his literary successors, the Cthulhu Mythos.
The most detailed descriptions of Cthulhu in "The Call of Cthulhu" are based on statues of the creature. One, constructed by an artist after a series of baleful dreams, is said to have "yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.... A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings. Another, recovered by police from a raid on a murderous cult, "represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.
When the creature finally appears, the story says that the "thing cannot be described," but it is called "the green, sticky spawn of the stars", with "flabby claws" and an "awful squid-head with writhing feelers." The phrase "a mountain walked or stumbled" gives a sense of the creature's scale.
Cthulhu is depicted as having a worldwide cult centered in Arabia, with followers in regions as far-flung as Greenland and Louisiana. There are leaders of the cult "in the mountains of China" who are said to be immortal. Cthulhu is described by some of these cultists as the "great priest" of "the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky.
The cult is noted for chanting its horrid phrase or ritual: "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn," which translates as "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. This is often shortened to "Cthulhu fhtagn," which might possibly mean "Cthulhu waits", "Cthulhu dreams, or "Cthulhu waits dreaming."
One cultist, known as Old Castro, provides the most elaborate information given in Lovecraft's fiction about Cthulhu. The Great Old Ones, according to Castro, had come from the stars to rule the world in ages past.
They were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape...but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R'lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them.
Castro explains the role of the Cthulhu Cult: When the stars have come right for the Great Old Ones, "some force from outside must serve to liberate their bodies. The spells that preserved Them intact likewise prevented them from making an initial move." At the proper time,
the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth....Then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
Castro reports that the Great Old Ones are telepathic and "knew all that was occurring in the universe." They were able to communicate with the first humans by "moulding their dreams," thus establishing the Cthulhu Cult, but after R'lyeh had sunk beneath the waves, "the deep waters, full of the one primal mystery through which not even thought can pass, had cut off the spectral intercourse.
In "At the Mountains of Madness" the "Spawn of Cthulhu" wage a great war against the Elder things after arriving on Earth. (See below).
In At the Mountains of Madness, for example, the Old Ones are a species of extraterrestrials, also known as Elder Things, who were at war with Cthulhu and his relatives or allies. Human explorers in Antarctica discover an ancient city of the Elder Things and puzzle out a history from sculptural records:
The narrator of At the Mountains of Madness also notes that "the Cthulhu spawn...seem to have been composed of matter more widely different from that which we know than was the substance of the Antarctic Old Ones. They were able to undergo transformations and reintegrations impossible for their adversaries, and seem therefore to have originally come from even remoter gulfs of cosmic space.... The first sources of the other beings can only be guessed at with bated breath." He notes, however, that "the Old Ones might have invented a cosmic framework to account for their occasional defeats. Other stories have the Elder Things' enemies repeat this cosmic framework.
In "The Whisperer in Darkness", for example, one character refers to "the fearful myths antedating the coming of man to the earth--the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles--which are hinted at in the Necronomicon." That story suggests that Cthulhu is one of the entities worshipped by the alien Mi-Go race, and repeats the Elder Things' claim that the Mi-Go share his unknown material compositions. Cthulhu's advent is also connected, in some unknown fashion, with supernovae: "I learned whence Cthulhu first came, and why half the great temporary stars of history had flared forth." The story mentions in passing that some humans call the Mi-Go "the old ones".
According to correspondence between Lovecraft and fellow author James F. Morton, Cthulhu's parent is the deity Nug, itself the offspring of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath. Lovecraft includes a fanciful family tree in which he himself descends from Cthulhu via Shaurash-ho, Yogash the Ghoul, K'baa the Serpent, and Ghoth the Burrower.
According to Derleth's scheme, "Great Cthulhu is one of the Water Beings". Derleth indicated that "the Water Beings oppose those of Air"--a departure from traditional elemental theory, in which water and fire were opposed--and depicted Cthulhu as engaged in an age-old arch-rivalry with a designated Air elemental, Hastur the Unspeakable, whom he describes as Cthulhu's "half-brother".
Based on this framework, Derleth wrote a series of stories, collected as The Trail of Cthulhu, about the struggle of Dr. Laban Shrewsbury and his associates against Cthulhu and his minions--culminating, in "The Black Island" (1952), with the atomic bombing of R'lyeh, which Derleth has moved to the vicinity of Ponape. Derleth describes Cthulhu in that story as
Derleth's interpretations are not universally accepted by enthusiasts of Lovecraft's work, and indeed are criticized by many for projecting a stereotypical conflict between equal forces of objective good and evil into Lovecraft's strictly amoral continuity.
Cthulhu has served as direct inspiration for many modern artists and sculptors.
Prominent artists that produced renderings of this creature include, but not limited to, Paul Carrick, Stephen Hickman, Kevin Evans, Dave Carson, Francois Launet and Ursula Vernon.
Multiple sculptural depictions of Cthulhu exist, one of the most noteworthy being Stephen Hickman's Cthulhu Statue which has been featured in the Spectrum annual and is exhibited in display cabinets in the John Hay Library of Brown University of Providence. This statue of Cthulhu often serves as a separate object of inspiration for many works, most recent of which are the Cthulhu Worshiper Amulets manufactured by a Russian jeweler. For some time, replicas of Hickman's Cthulhu Statuette were produced by Bowen Designs , but are currently not available for sale. Today Hickman's Cthulhu statue can only be obtained on eBay and other auctions.