Assignment Three, Vacation Necronomicon School: “The Elder Sign”.
“Today’s assignment […] The Elder Sign is one of the only things known to man that can provide any measure of protection against the Deep Ones. I felt it would be prudent to make one …”
On The Elder Sign:
The Elder Sign is mentioned five times in Lovecraft’s work.
1). In “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (written 1926) it is a genuflection, presumably made with the hands, of simple folk in the Dreamlands when these people are asked by Randolph Carter about the Earth’s gods and the rememberance of their dancing on Lerion (the mountain source of the River Skai)…
“Once he stopped at a farmhouse well for a cup of water, and all the dogs barked affrightedly at the inconspicuous Zoogs that crept through the grass behind. At another house, where people were stirring, he asked questions about the gods, and whether they danced often upon Lerion; but the farmer and his wife would only make the Elder Sign and tell him the way to Nir and Ulthar.”
The earlier story “The Other Gods”(1921) implies that the Other Gods have long since displaced or captured Earth’s gods to unknown Kadath (“The other gods! The gods of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth!”), so that the simple folk in “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” are indeed making a warding sign against the Other Gods, rather than against Earth’s gods. The Other Gods are identified with the monsters of the Cthulhu mythos, since Lovecraft refers in his fiction to “Nyarlathotep, horror of infinite shapes and dread soul and messenger of the Other Gods”.
2). In the Lovecraft story fragment “The Descendant” (1927) the elder sign is also a genuflection made with the hands, seen used by Atlanteans living near the sea in the British Isles during the Roman occupation…
“Gabinius had, the rumour ran, come upon a cliffside cavern where strange folk met together and made the Elder Sign in the dark; strange folk whom the Britons knew not save in fear, and who were the last to survive from a great land in the West that had sunk…”
The story refers to Stonehenge and other circles being built by these people. Here again the sign seems to be a ‘warding’ against evil. It also associates the sign with stones. There have been various cranky ideas that the actually-existing stones at Stonehenge contain “hidden” symbols revealed only in certain angles and types of lights, but these theories are only now being seriously tested by archeologists in summer 2011…
“Despite the vast amount of archaeological activity and academic study into Stonehenge and its landscape over the centuries, relatively little is known about the lichen-covered surfaces of the sarsens and bluestones that make up the stone circle. The availability of high resolution laser scanners that can produce highly accurate surface models means that it is now possible to record details and irregularities on the stone surfaces down to a resolution of 0.5mm. It is also hoped that secrets hidden underneath the thick cover of lichens may be revealed in the analysis using sophisticated software.” (English Heritage)
3). The elder sign is also depicted as a ‘warding’ genuflection in Lovecraft’s ghost-written work “The Last Test” (1927)…
“with face convulsed, he called down imprecations from the stars and the gulfs beyond the stars; so that even Surama shuddered, made an elder sign that no book of history records, and forgot to chuckle.”
4). August Derleth, in The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), suddenly leaps in with the notion that R’lyeh is sealed with an Elder Sign. But S.T. Joshi has shown that very little of Derleth’s novel is sourced from Lovecraft. Presumably Derleth knew the short Lovecraft poem “The Messenger“, in which the Elder Sign is linked to the opening of a sealed boundary containing evil…
“The thing, he said, would come that night at three
The Elder Sign, bequeathed from long ago,
That sets the fumbling forms of darkness free.”
But this small poem is dedicated to “Bertrand K. Hart, Esq.”. The biographical details involved, as excavated by S.T. Joshi, clearly point to this being a humourous poetic squit against Hart, written with much skill but little thought, and meant to be read with a knowing smile by Lovecraft’s circle. It implies that the Elder Sign is a key rather than a ‘warding’ or a ‘seal’ for evil things, and as such it goes against all Lovecraft’s other uses of the term.
5) As for the modern inclination to make runic-style stones for the ‘sign’ — which ridiculously draws the Mythos into the territory of flaming pentangles and similar pseudo-occult nonsense — this arises via the later story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931). The actual term “elder sign” is not used in this story, but the sign-stones in the story are obviously meant to have ‘warding’ powers. They are learned of thus: the veteran sea captain “Cap’n Obed”, the one who first summoned the Deep Ones to Innsmouth, encounters a small volcanic island in the South Sea Islands in the early 1800s. The story of this was later spun to the drunk Zadok, seemingly by Obed’s First Mate — and Zadok then ramblingly relates it to the protagonist many decades later…
“old magic signs as the sea-things says was the only things they was afeard of.”
“In some places they was little stones strewed abaout—like charms—with somethin’ on ’em like what ye call a swastika naowadays. Prob’ly them was the Old Ones’ signs.”
“We didn’t hev them old charms to cut ’em off [i.e.: stop them from coming ashore] like folks in the Saouth Sea did”
These are then clearly sign-charms on small stones, or things that are so old as to appear to be stones. These sign-objects were made by the “Old Ones” [the Elder Things in At The Mountains of Madness] and they have the power to keep the “Deep Ones” away from land.
There are some similarities here with the marked green soapstones that feature prominently in At The Mountains of Madness…
“groups of dots in patterns […] on the queer greenish soapstones dug up from Mesozoic or Tertiary times”
Animals are shown in Mountains to be instinctively fearful of the stones, and similar stones may have had a similar effect on the animalistic amphibian Deep Ones.
So, what would be a scientifically valid ‘warding’ instrument, one that could be held in the hand? What about a cup of coffee – the coffee mug being of stoneware (often patterned), being held up before oneself in the hand (rather like a genuflection), and of course the coffee having a genuine ‘warding off’ effect against sleep and thus nightmares. This latter point would thus link it back to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.
The symbol is from the alphabet-style Vinca sign system, found in Southern Europe and as old as the pyramids. It has never been translated.