Assignment Six, Vacation Necronomicon School: “Under the Pyramids”.

“Under the Pyramids” was ghost-written by Lovecraft for Harry Houdini, the first of several small (but lucrative) jobs. […] Your assignment today is […] on any aspect of today’s reading

S.T. Joshi does not give an index entry to ‘Egypt’ or ‘Ancient Egypt’ in his monumental two-volume biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence. Possibly that particular passage into the great pyramid of Lovecraft’s mind is one that is best left sealed. Such an entrance, if opened, might at first look deceptively small — but one could surely be lost down there in the immense dark maze — wandering in the footsteps of the youthful Lovecraft amid the dusty chambers of cat mummies that smile so enigmatically, the spectral visage of the former explorer Theophile Gautier, the dead books of myth and lore, the little chamber of Abdul Alhazred where one must stoop as if a child, the great glitteringly stygian wells of ancient lore, the eerie bas-reliefs of Hotep (who might be Nyarlathotep), and the scarab beetles still inexplicably crawling in the shadowy corners.

Lovecraft’s interest in Ancient Egypt spanned the major period of digging and discovery in the early 20th century. What then are the key discoveries that might have excited Lovecraft’s imagination, in the twenty years from when Lovecraft reached the age of 14 (1904) until his writing of “Under The Pyramids” (Feb 1924)?

In 1904 the first authoritative book on the famous Rosetta Stone was published. The Stone was the key to deciphering the Ancient Egyptian language, unread since the fall of the Rome. It was because of this stone, worked on by scholars since 1822, that the young Lovecraft was able to read the myths and lore of the Ancient Egyptians — in a fine readable translation by Budge of the British Museum. The book placed the academic cap-stone on over 80 years of work, validating in the modern mind the various translations that had been published.

In 1905 the sand was completely cleared away from the Sphinx, and the great monument was seen its entirety for the first time since classical antiquity. Lovecraft refers to the Sphinx several times in his works other than “Under the Pyramids”. In “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) the Sphinx is referred to briefly, although only in passing. In his “The Cats of Ulthar” (June 1920), he has his narrator suggest a link with the cat-worship of the Ancient Egyptians…

The Sphinx is his cousin [i.e.: the cousin of the house cat], and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

This might appear to imply that Lovecraft thinks the Sphinx’s original face (the current one is a later and cruder addition) was perhaps more cat-like. I believe a lion-with-mane (thereby allowing the current head-dress to be cut in the later carving) has been suggested, and that may have been a current theory known to Lovecraft in the 1910s?

In his “Under The Pyramids” Lovecraft transfers Houdini’s choice of location to the Temple of the Sphinx (a real place, the gate-chapel leading to the Second Pyramid), leading him to speculate again on the nature of the original face of the Sphinx…

Near the edge of the plateau and due east of the Second Pyramid, with a face probably altered to form a colossal portrait of Khephren, its royal restorer, stands the monstrous Sphinx — mute, sardonic, and wise beyond mankind and memory. […] There are unpleasant tales of the Sphinx before Khephren — but whatever its elder features were, the monarch replaced them with his own that men might look at the colossus without fear.

Sphinx, partly excavated from the sands, circa 1904/1905.

Countless shrines and temples and tombs were discovered in Egypt in the 1900s and 1910s, some perfectly preserved. These built on a great train of previous discoveries in the nineteenth century, which had included the life-sized sculptures of Khephren which are among the finest we have from Ancient Egypt. The articles on the early 20th century finds come thick and fast in The Century, National Geographic, Scientific American, and elsewhere. The famous bust of Nefertiti was found in 1912. Various writers of fiction notably responded to the new discoveries and the public interest they aroused. Algernon Blackwood produced various notable Egypt stories such as “Descent in Egypt” (1914) and “The Wings of Horus” (1914). Sax Rohmer published the novel Brood of The Witch-Queen (1918). Both these writers had visited Egypt. Lovecraft himself refrained from using Egyptian settings, possibly because he could not afford to travel and because he felt he required sight and sound of a place in order to write about it. He only managed to write “Under the Pyramids”, to order, with aid of guide-books and travel accounts. Although in Nyarlathotep (1920) his dreams had certainly drawn near to the place, if only briefly…

“And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger.”

The early 1920s saw one of the greatest triumphs in Egyptology. Howard Carter was then one of the most famous excavators in Egypt, and he probably influenced the choice of Lovecraft’s name of Randolph Carter (who made his first appearance in print in 1919) in amalgam with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter hero (first appeared in print 1912). Three years after the formal end of the First World War, in 1922 Howard Carter excavated the steps leading to the untouched tomb of Tutankhamun. The final tomb (‘the mummy chamber’ or ‘Sepulcher’) was not opened until February 1923 and was reported in full in National Geographic magazine in May 1923. The marvels uncovered sparked a renewed Egyptomania that swept the western world and continued into the 1930s.

Lovecraft’s “Under The Pyramids”, written exactly a year after the opening of the Tutankhamun tomb, rode on the immediate coat-tails of Carter’s famous discovery. “Under The Pyramids” followed various non-fiction books issued in 1923, and also literary re-issues that cashed in on the public interest — such as the Sax Rohmer vampire thriller Brood of The Witch-Queen (1918) which was revised and reissued as It Came Out of Egypt (Munsey’s magazine, serialised Sep, Oct, Nov 1923).

Further reading:

Baikie, James (1924). A Century of Excavation in the Land of the Pharaohs. [Gives a useful overview of the excavations Lovecraft might have known of in 1924.]

Barrell, John (1991). “Death on the Nile: Fantasy and the Literature of Tourism 1840–1860”. Essays in Criticism (1991), XLI (2), pp. 97-127.

Barker, Phillip (1949). “Egyptian Mythology in Fantastic Literature”. Fanscient 3 (3), pp.41-44. Fall 1949. (No.9) [This appears to be the only substantial scholarly writing on the topic that strays beyond the 19th century]

Colby, Sasha (2006). “The Literary Archaeologies of Theophile Gautier”. CLCWeb, Vol. 8 Issue 2 (June 2006).

Dahab, F. Elizabeth (1999) “Theophile Gautier and the Orient” CLCWeb, Vol.1 Issue 4 (December 1999).

Day, Jasmine (2006). The Mummy’s Curse : Mummymania in the English-speaking world. Taylor & Francis.

Frost, Brian (2008). The Essential Guide to Mummy Literature. Scarecrow Press.

Lant, Antonia (1997). “The Curse of the Pharaoh : or How Cinema Contracted Egyptomania.” IN: Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. Rutgers University Press. [See also the Ancient Egypt Film Site for a complete list of films.]

MacDonald, Sally (Ed.)(2003). Consuming Ancient Egypt. UCL Press.

Parramore, Lynn (2008). Reading the Sphinx: ancient Egypt in nineteenth-century literary culture. Palgrave Macmillan.

With thanks for the Creative Commons photo-elements used, to Elizabeth Hollins (pyramid) and Zanthia (tentacle).