Many years ago in my early teens, I was an avid reader of science fiction and devoured the epics of Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), E.E. “Doc” Smith (The Skylark and Lensman series), Frank Herbert (Dune), and many others. The book publishers, Panther (a then-division of Granada Publishing Ltd.) were partly to blame because of their choice of two particularly memorable cover artists; Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington. It’s fair to say that in those days, I did judge a book by its cover – or at least I was more likely to pick up one with an illustration by one of these two gentlemen. I still have a number of these books sitting on my bookshelf, although I try not to open them up too much for fear of them falling apart!
One of the books that Pennington illustrated was called Out of Space and Time: Vol 1 by the Californian-born writer, Clark Ashton Smith, and although the tales were more fantasy than sci-fi, I bought it. And Smith, in turn, lead me to H.P. Lovecraft.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20th August, 1890 and in his brief 46 years he produced an enormous amount of text. As well as a wealth of short stories and books, he wrote over 100,000 letters, some over 30 pages long, poems, travelogues, art critiques, journalistic pieces, and others. His primary genre is usually referred to as “weird fiction” although I prefer “gothic horror/fantasy.”
One of his most popular and enduring stories is called The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1926 and published in 1928 in the magazine, Weird Tales. Cthulhu is a creature from another world, which ends up trapped in a sunken tomb in the mythical city of R’lyeh. Apparently inspired by Tennyson’s poem, The Kraken, Cthlulhu is a large, subterranean beast described as 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.”
After reading the story in my early teens, Cthulhu remained submerged in my unconscious until I entered university in the late 70’s. One of the popular bands at the that time was Caravan, a particularly English band from Canterbury who were a blend of psychedelic and progressive rock. Although never a mainstream act, they were certainly a college favorite, and produced such wonderful album titles as Blind Dog at St. Dunstan’s, In the Land of Grey and Pink, Cunning Stunts (a nod to the Reverend Spooner), and Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night.
And it’s the latter album that resurrected Cthulhu in the song C’thlu Thlu, a six-minute piece that never actually uses the name Cthulhu but nevertheless tries to capture that element of the “weird” that runs through all of Lovecraft’s work. This was one of those songs we’d listen to late at night as we would down both the beer and the lights.
My interest in psychology meant reading Freud (extensively) and Jung (heretically), and in his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung uses the word chthonic to refer to both the mythical realm of the underworld and the gods and goddesses therein, and the psychological realm of the darker side of the Unconscious.
So where does chthonic originate? And more important, how do you pronounce it?
The Greek word kthos (χθών) or kthonos (χθονός) means “earth,” with kthonios (χθόνιος) meaning “of the earth” or “beneath the earth.” It first makes a written appearance in 1882 in a book by Charles Francis Keary called Outlines of Primitive Beliefs Among the Indo -European Races, where he says;
The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.
Joseph Shipley, in the classic The Origins of English Words, traces the word back to the the Indo-European*ghdhem meaning “of the earth, and a cognate of the Persian zamindar, which means “ground.” He also tells the tale of Erysichthon, a King of Thessaly who chopped down trees in a sacred forest dedicated to the goddess Demeter in order to build a huge feasting hall. As punishment for such impiety (chopping down sacred trees is always a no-no in mythology) Demeter inflicted him with an insatiable hunger that only ended when he ate himself! The name Erysichthon means “tearer-up of earth,” the “chthon” element being the “earth” reference.
So what about the pronunciation? Well, Greek, both ancient and modern, is one of those languages that allows a plosive and fricative sound to live together happily at the beginning of a word, whereas English doesn’t like this at all. Thus, Greek words starting with “ps” (psomi=bread or psari=fish), “ts” (tsai=tea) and “ks” (ksenos=foreigner) are all perfectly normal, but in English, such clusters can only appear in the middle of words or at the end. The tendency for English speakers is therefore to simplify such words by dropping one of the sounds. Hence the reason we pronounce the words psychology and mnemonic as /saɪ’kɒlədʒi/ and /nə’mɒnɪk/ with the initial “p” and “m” dropped.
But with the Brits being a scholarly bunch, steeped in the history of Empire and the university tradition of learning the Classics, chthonic kept its original form and the OED enshrines its pronunciation as /’kθɒnɪk/, with the tongue-twisting cluster up front. The more relaxed and much younger Americans opted for the dropping of the spurious /k/ sound and recommends the simpler /’θɒnɪk/.
Either way, it’s certainly one of those words that deserves an outing now and again, so try slipping it into your next email to the boss.