Sunday, January 20, 2008

Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu & Real Arctic Exploration

We start with this well known passage: This person was the late William Channing Webb, Professor of Anthropology in Princeton University, and an explorer of no slight note. Professor Webb had been engaged, forty-eight years before, in a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of some Runic inscriptions which he failed to unearth; and whilst high up on the West Greenland coast had encountered a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness. It was a faith of which other Esquimaux knew little, and which they mentioned only with shudders, saying that it had come down from horribly ancient aeons before ever the world was made. Besides nameless rites and human sacrifices there were certain queer hereditary rituals addressed to a supreme elder devil or tornasuk; and of this Professor Webb had taken a careful phonetic copy from an aged angekok or wizard-priest, expressing the sounds in Roman letters as best he knew how. But just now of prime significance was the fetish which this cult had cherished, and around which they danced when the aurora leaped high over the ice cliffs. It was, the professor stated, a very crude bas-relief of stone, comprising a hideous picture and some cryptic writing. And so far as he could tell, it was a rough parallel in all essential features of the bestial thing now lying before the meeting.

Lovecraft, without a doubt, was a fastidious reader of arctoc and antarctic exploration all his life, from a child up. He would clearly have known of Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen (1879-1933) the Danish arctic explorer and ethnologist. Born in Greenland of Eskimo ancestry on his mother's side, he began (1902) 30 years of exploration and of study of the Eskimo.

I came across a summary of sorts of Rasmussen's discoveries and reports in an Ivan Sanderson book I found at a used book store from circa 1967. [Things, Ivan T. Sanderson, Pyramid # T-1692 (75 cents), 3rd printing.

Until 1902 an extremely primitive tribe of Thule people lived on Southampton Island and some of their customs were those of the Tooniuk. [The Thule along with groups named the Dorset Islanders and the Sarquaq, constitute known previous inhabitants of the Canadian Islands and the far north.] (p.97) These Toojuk are said by the Esquimos to have been of giant size and to have had some ... disgusting habits ... they preferred rotten meat ... thier females tucked meat under their cloyhing to promote decomposition by their body warmth. their young men were sewn up in fresh seal skins containing worm/maggots which by sucking their blood, reduced their weight and so made them fleet, light weight hunters. These maggots are believed by the Eskimos to have been fostered in the rotting carcasses of birds and one such - an auk - was said by Rasmussen to have been discovered in Greenland in his time and to have been left there by a party of Toonijuk who. they said, had only just fled bck into inaccessible valleys of the interior. ... the Eskimos say that they wet naked but that their bodies were covered with feather-like fur. (pp.96-97). Sanderson quotes Knud V J Rasmussen, Reports of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-1925, the Danish Expedition to Arctic, North America, published in Copenhagen.

It seems that Lovecraft incorporated a portion of SOME arctic exploration elements into The Call of Cthulhu, and perhaps some of it may be attributed to Rasmussen.

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