Monday, June 29, 2015

Jōmon Cthulhu and the Chariots of the Elder Things

I have found a few apparently dissimilar points of interests to readers of classic Weird Fiction, but I suggest that they converge with H. P. Lovecraft’s writings.  If nothing else, enjoy the pretty pictures, consider them Props of the Gods.

The Jōmon were a very early human culture, in fact we are only now in the past few decades realizing how early and how advanced they were.  One of the most durable items a culture can leave behind are their ceramics and the Jōmon made some spectacular items that are perplexing to our Eurocentric eyes and conservative expectations.  To say they are alien to our expectations of Asian art probably isn’t too extreme a statement for the average reader.  I suggest there is an interesting link between Jōmon artifacts, H. P. Lovecraft and Erich von Däniken, which I want to explore in this post.  I’ll have more on that later.  Keep in mind that I am not an archeologist, nor a Lovecraft scholar, just an interested fan, so bear with me if I am both too obscure for some and yet too obvious to others in the wide range of readers out there.  First a little background.

The Jōmon are one of the oldest (and obscure until recent times) cultures known to us, starting about 11,000 BCE and lasting for some ten thousand years or more producing some enticing artifacts, most of which were seldom seen out of academic circles until the past few of decades.  These artifacts were known as far back as the mid 1870s when American zoologist and naturalist Edward Morse, found some amazing items from an unknown and early culture in Meiji Era Japan.  He christened them “corded-marked” from the way some of them been decorated prior to firing.  This title translated into Jōmon in Japanese and this became the name of the previously nameless, unknown culture.  Eventually his collection of Japanese artifacts went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA, where he was director of Archeology and Ethnology from 1880 to 1914 after which in 1915 he became Chairman.   It wasn’t just the anthropomorphic figures that were startling, but their abstract, stylized ritual containers that really draws my attention.  A timeline of the Jōmon can be found here and some more information here.
I wonder if Lovecraft ever saw some of Morse’s Jōmon artifacts at the Peabody Museum on one of his visits to Salem.   Lovecraft did name one the of the explorers, Frank H. Pabodie in his Cthulhu Mythos story, At the Mountains of Madness (originally written in 1931), in which a fabulous and very ancient unknown city is found in Antarctica.  Could this been a tip of the hat to the Peabody and to Morse? [2]    

So today I am showcasing some Jōmon Culture artifacts, which are the product of a vibrant, very ancient and very real culture, which have been neglected until the past few decades.  Personally, my first exposure to Jomon Culture artifacts was through a book popular in the late 1960s, Erich von Däniken’s book Chariot of the Gods?, published in 1969 in an American translation and release.  The fact that most of the American public’s first glimpse into creations of the Jomon Culture comes from this book, so to an extent von Däniken has some association with the common perceptions around the Jomon Culture and this leads me into my usual cant about Weird Fiction.  Look the photos and see what great props they would make.

This isn’t a new idea really, a number of authors have suggested a single very ancient world culture.  For example the Platonic literary reference to Atlantians [1] and their diaspora (taking their technology with them) were considered the seeds of civilizations with a number of writers of esoterica over the years.  I’ll leave it to the reader to Google this stuff out if it is of interest as I only mention it in passing.  The point is that it really isn’t a new idea in Lovecraft’s time nor in von Däniken’s time either. 

While not the first to suggest a single causal influence to all of human civilization(s), Erich von Däniken was a popular modern author from the late 60s through the 70s and beyond, whose speculative books on alternate views of human progress are deeply rooted pseudoarcheology and pseudohistory.  But he did shake up a number of laymen with his misattributions of artifacts and fanciful imaginings.  Also on the positive side it did get people to think out of the box.  His first book, Chariot of the Gods? was a runaway best seller and subsequent books and films found fertile ground with the public for years.  I’d like to think that initially it was all a good-nature prank that got out of hand.

A film documentary based on the book was made in Germany, Erinnerungen an die Zukunft in 1970, but was later dubbed into English with a voiceover by Rod Serling, being released in the US as In Search of Ancient  Astronauts in 1973. Most Americans were introduced to the ancient astronaut idea at this time, making it pop culture craze.  Yes, we had those before internet memes, even 40 something years ago.

To get back on to the props, von Däniken’s technique for rendering alien inspired artifacts was to reduce a number of highly diverse, original cultural items to the level of props for what was in essence a Weird Fiction/Lost Worlds trope, which is why he is mentioned in this blog entry today.   In some cases there was complete fabrication of new purpose made props, when existing artifacts simply wouldn’t fit the bill.  It’s rather clever really and was quite effective in the pre-personal computer era.  Now it's possible to do a quick search to verify "facts", even obscure ones.  On the downside there's a lot of information to wade through and there's a lot of opinions and "static" to sift.  Still a good traditional and private is a good resource.

To get to the nub of the question, there are suggestions that von Daniken’s influence came from multiple sources, one of which was Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, possibly borrowing from The Call of Cthulhu and The Mountains of Madness, at least according to an article in Skeptic Magazine[3] as well as other sources.  No doubt Lovecraft was an influence on him, but then the long literary influence of Lost Worlds as well as the Atlantean followings of such groups as Theosophers showing he was just one of a long line of writers to follow this trail.

Consider now that in story telling, the best prop is a real item.  A real artifact becomes a prop when it is yanked from context and its time stream and rechristened with a new, fictional history and context.  That saves time in making a new prop or using Photoshop to make a picture.  Now this technique can be misused and abused when it stops being shown as a prop for a fictional story and is used to lie to the viewer about the reality of the context.  Writing fun fictional stories for the amusement of readers are one thing and knowing falsehood is another.  I’ll leave it to the reader worry about connotations and ethics as I’m ready to press on.

The main problem with von Däniken ’s theory was that he fell into the same trap as contemporary and earlier academics, whose presumption was that the ancients were rather dense and could not have pull off impressive feats of engineering.  More importantly, they had a limited capacity to create complex abstract thoughts and dreams simply because they fell farther back on the time line.  He and others sold humans short.  Von Däniken suggests space aliens as a primary default and driver of human progress, rather than native intelligence, misrepresenting the often obscure artifacts he showcased.   He also suggests that later ruins and artifacts might be the result of a kind of cargo cult created by humans longing for recontact.  This old view of linear progression is now challenged by new generations of archeologists and many believe that ancient man had the same cognitive capacity for understanding that we have today. You can see how the Victorian lost worlds was useful influence in such writings. 

Now I didn’t post this article to throw rocks at von Däniken, but to show the impact of earlier writings about lost worlds from other authors and from specifically H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and the importance of the ideas in his essay Notes on Writing Weird Fiction (written 1933), which explains,  “… present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional 'build-up' —else it will seem flat and unconvincing.”   

The "realism" here are from the artifacts presented.  There is no emotional build up, just an initial bombshell at the beginning and a roller coaster ride, while being bombarded with questions and supposed facts.  It's a powerful tour de force in storytelling really, especially the documentary film.   Throwing props at the reader/viewer at a machine gun pace keeps the suspension of disbelief at bay, because it's impossible to process all the items and information.  In this case the props which include photos of locations and buildings, are the key for ensuring "realism". 

Back to our props presented here in this blog, when seen out of context, the Jomon culture items do seem to be alien.  But not alien as in space alien, but in the sense of unknown.  I’ve got to say that the Jōmon are pretty amazing and there are new discoveries about mankind’s past that are very exciting.  

Archeology is rolling back some of our old misconceptions about early people.  For example new information from southern Turkey, with the discovery of a fabulous late Paleolithic temple complex at Göbekli Tepe, is challenging what be believe about very early cultures.  Traditional teaching tells us that there were no structure building cultures prior to the Neolithic and people were very primitive and incapable of thinking abstractly.  That view may prove to be completely wrong.  Lovecraft died long before the discovery of the temple complex in Turkey, which was found only a couple of decades ago in 1994, but it places some of his and other author’s stories about very ancient cities in a new light.

Also in 1987, some enigmatic underwater structures off the coast of Japan, the Yonaguni Monument in the Ryukyu Islands, which may be Jomon or another culture if they indeed prove to be man-made.  Neither von Däniken, Lovecraft or Morse knew of their existence.  I wonder if more intriguing cultures and structures will be found. 

The Lost World trope is an old literary genre and many writers have drawn from earlier authors for inspiration.  This doesn’t mean they stole the idea, just that they made the genre their own by putting their own spin on the idea.  The only difference between some of them is that one group presented it as fiction and others as fact.  Hopefully this short and somewhat chaotic romp in the genre of Lost Worlds, nameless cities, ancient astronauts/Chthonian aliens, and interesting authors has left you with some interest in following the links and doing a little sleuthing on your own.  If nothing else, you have an interesting list of books for you to read.  See you next post.
[1] Atlantis: TheAntediluvian World (1882) by  Ignatius Donnely, and its sequel Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883)  Links to download are below.

[2] Lovecraft had a few ancient nameless cities in his stories, some of which were … The Nameless City and the city on the Plateau of Leng, which may be the same one as in The Mountains of Madness, and a city from Dreamlands Cycle.  H. Rider Haggard’s input was the creation of the Lost Worlds Genre starting in the late 1880s.  See also footnote 1, above for more lost civilization literature.  Lovecraft was familiar with Mystery Hill near Salem, NH which is also known as America’s Stonhenge, but it’s difficult to fit the timeline of his 1929 visit to any of his earlier stories such as The Dunwich Horror (1928).  Not every buys into the scenario though:   Also see links below for Haggard’s contributions, which can be downloaded.

[3] Jason Colavito’s article, Charioteer of the Gods -- An investigation into H.P. Lovecraft and the invention of ancient astronauts” from Skeptic, Issue 10.4 from 2004

Links and Downloads
For those interesting reading more about Jōmon ceramics, download Origins of the Jomon Technical Tradition , a nine page PDF

Download the Catalogue of the Morse Collection of Japanese Pottery (1901) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Morse Collection, PDF 680 pgs    and

Bad Archeology’s article, Erich von Däniken’s Space-Gods

See the book Crash Go the Chariots (1976) by Clifford Wilson, an interesting person in his own rights, being a Young-Earth proponent himself, but that is another story.

Lovecraft’s essay, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

Download Atlantis, The Antediluvian World (1882) by Donnelly   and the sequel Ragnarok, The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883)

A biography of Ingnatius L. Donnelly

Text © William Murphy aka CoastConFan 2015; you may link if you wish, quote if you like, but give me a little credit, it took time to research and write this article.  Photos and art are property of their respective owners.