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Religious Necrophagy in Lovecraft’s “Corpse-Eating Cult”?

Religious Necrophagy in Lovecraft’s “Corpse-Eating Cult”?
© Illustration by Cyanide

In a story already brimming with gruesome details, one particularly nauseating note stands out in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s ‘The Hound’. Grave robbers break open a coffin and discover a remarkable amulet Inside.

“It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade […]. [W]e recognised it as the thing hinted of in the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred; the ghastly soul-symbol of the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng, in Central Asia. All too well did we trace the sinister lineaments described by the old Arab demonologist; lineaments, he wrote, drawn from the souls of those who vexed and gnawed at the dead.” (p. 155)

The goal of the present article is to determine, as far as possible, the nature and motives of this necrophagous cult. In doing so, our method will be to correlate hints from elsewhere in Lovecraft’s fiction with actual cultural/religious parallels which may have influenced him.

The mention of “corpse-eating” in ‘The Hound’ is not unique in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work. In fact, three different kinds of necrophagy appear scattered here and there throughout the Lovecraft canon.

First, there is primitive cannibalism, like that still practised today. In ‘Polaris’, he mentions the “hairy, long-armed, cannibal Gnophkehs”, who occur again in ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’. They are merely a tribe of savage caveman.

Second, Lovecraft uses the theme of humanoid but dog-faced ghouls. These demonic carrion-feeders figure prominently in ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Dream Quest’. Both tales were written the same year.

Third, we find the notion of a depraved religious cult practising necrophagy in ‘The Rats in the Walls’. Into which category does “the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng” fall?

It is fairly evident that the Leng necrophagites are not primitive cannibals. Such cannibalism is an accepted part of the tribal societies in which it occurs. However, the term “cult” as used by Lovecraft in our text is intended to evoke the image of a secretive and elitist group, withdrawn from any larger society.

Neither are the Leng cultists, literal ghouls. One might conceivably take the “semi-canine” aspect of the amulet to denote this, seeing as how ghouls are described by HPL in similar terms. But the amulet figure is not humanoid at all, and has wings besides. Wings are absent from the descriptions of ghouls in ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Dream Quest’.

Besides, these two stories were written in 1926, three years after ‘The Hound’. Thus there is no reason to think that Lovecraft had literal ghouls in mind when he wrote ‘The Hound’. What similarity there is between the amulet and the later ghouls evidently stems from the general imagery of a jackal as a carrion beast. In ‘The Hound’ it is explicit that the amulet-image represents the souls of “those who vexed and gnawed at the dead”, i.e., the souls of the “corpse-eating cult[ists]” themselves.

This brings us to the third possible category — a decadent religious sect. We are fortunate to have a reasonably detailed model for comparison. The hereditary cultus of the de la Poer family in ‘The Rats in the Walls’ was necrophagous. ‘Beneath Exham Priory’ lay a huge cavern wherein the detestable rites had been performed for ages receding past human memory. In Roman times, this nameless cult had assumed the cloak of Cybele-worship. The religion of Cybele (the “Magna Mater”) and her dying-and-rising consort Attis was the first of the Oriental “Mystery Religions” to be imported into Rome. Historically, the evidence for its penetration as far as Britain is slender, though as Jessie Weston points out, the presence of Mithraism there makes the idea of British Cybele-worship at least plausible. So it is possible that the cult of the de la Poer family could have come in contact with it.

If they had, they must have recognised kindred spirits. Cybele-enthusiasts did not practice necrophagy, but their frenzied worship did include voluntary self-mutilation, including castration. Henceforth, human flesh formed “the diet of the antediluvian cult which the priests of Cybele found and mingled with their own.” (p. 50) The story provides a single hint that the true object of the cult’s veneration was not Cybele, however, but rather “Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god [who] howls blindly in darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players.” (p. 51)

It seems most likely that Leng’s cult was mainly of the same type as that of the de la Poers. After all, ‘The Hound’ was written only a year before ‘The Rats in the Walls’, and apparently furnished the prototype for the grisly sect in the latter. Such conventicles, though literally quite human, could certainly be described as “ghoulish”, and it is probably this kind of sect that HPL envisioned in his invented tome Cultes de Goules.

One key question remains unanswered. What was the motive for Leng’s necrophagy? Our answer may lie in an investigation of the implied cultural background of “in-accessible Leng”.

At one time or another, Leng occupied three different sites in the imaginary geography of Lovecraft. Like the proverbial housewife experimenting with new furniture, he could never quite decide if he wanted it here, or, no, over there. His first mention of Leng is in ‘The Hound’ (1922), in the very passage we are considering. There it is placed unambiguously in Central Asia, a vaguely defined area including parts of Kazakhstan, Turkestan, Mongolia, and Tibet. It is characterised as “inaccessible”, presumably because of forbidding mountain ranges.

Four years later, in ‘Dream Quest’, Leng is uprooted and catapulted into the parallel universe of “Dreamland”. There it is described in more detail as “a wind-swept table-land which seemed the very roof of a blasted and tenantless world.” (p. 351) So Leng turns out to be a plateau. It is beyond “high and impassable peaks.” (p. 339) Even without the location in Central Asia (understandable given the supra-mundane setting of ‘Dream Quest’), it is hard not to recognise Leng as a fictional counterpart of legend-haunted Tibet.

This impression is confirmed when we read on a bit further: “There, all alone in the hush and the dusk and the cold, rose the uncouth atones of a squat windowless building, around which a circle of crude monoliths stood. [This was] the remote and prehistoric monastery wherein dwells unaccompanied the High-Priest not to be described, which wears a yellow silken mask over its face and prays to the […] crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.” (Dream Quest, p. 351)

Also, note the parallel passage in ‘Fungi from Yuggoth’ (Stanza XXVII, ‘The Elder Pharaohs’) where the same silken-veiled figure communes with Nyarlathotep (“talking to Chaos”). There, he dwells In a stone tower or lighthouse, not a low structure as described in ‘Dream Quest’, but the image is the same. This extraordinary hermit corresponds, of course, to the High Lama of Lhasa in Tibet. Leng is transported once more in At the Mountains of Madness (1931). This time “the fabled nightmare plateau of Leng” (p. 66) comes to rest in Antarctica.

Lovecraft tips his hat to his earlier references to Leng; “Mythologists have placed Leng in Central Asia; but the racial memory of man — or of his predecessors — is long, and it may be that certain tales have come down from lands and mountains and temples of horror earlier than Asia and earlier than any human world we know […]” (p. 27) The important thing to note here is that the Tibetan association [missing text] reinforced. The point is that mysteries, originating elsewhere, have come to be associated with the Central Asian plateau. Among them are the “whispered hill legends” of creatures “remembered in the Himalayas as the […] abominable Snow Men.” (p. 63)

No veiled ‘High Priest’ appears in the Antarctican Leng, but it is fascinating to note that in ‘The Elder Pharaohs’ sonnet, the figure is called “the last Elder One”, a term reminiscent of the interstellar “Old Ones” who inhabited Leng in ‘At the Mountains of Madness’. Moreover, like them, the “yellow-robed blasphemy” is depicted in ‘Dream Quest’ as an extraterrestrial, kin to the greyish-white “moon-beasts” (p. 353). Finally, Leng in both Dreamland and the South Pole preserves corridor murals portraying epochs of prehuman history.

In both cases, these artefacts were preserved by “the cold and dryness of hideous Leng”. (‘Dream Quest’, p, 351) As for the robed mystagogue him- or itself, the final piece of evidence is supplied by Lovecraft in a letter to Robert Bloch in 1935. There the character is referred to as the “Lama of Leng”. Not only is the actual Tibetan title used, but the Lama is said to represent the “Tcho-Tcho”, an Asian tribe invented by August Derleth and Mark Schorer and located on the “Plateau of Sung”, apparently the same as Leng.

As for the name itself, “Leng” could be derived from the city of Lenger, located in a mountainous region of present-day Soviet Central Asia. A better guess might be the Lingku district of Lhasa, or similar Tibetan place names. At any rate, we may take it as established that Leng was a fictionalisation of Tibet, a plateau shrouded in legends scarce- [missing text] by Lovecraft himself. Do any of those legends provide a clue as to why Leng’s cultists would practice the bizarre perversion of necrophagy?

Four rather remarkable stories must claim our attention, since they involve, in one way or another, the eating of human flesh in a religious context. The first two are apocryphal tales concerning the life of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. Nanak lived in the Punjab region of India, which would qualify for inclusion under the rather vague rubric “Central Asia”. In the first story, Nanak is visiting Sivanabh, the king of Ceylon. When asked what he would like for dinner, the Guru requests human flesh, particularly that of any twelve-year old prince. The king’s own son “happens” to be twelve years old. The boy’s throat is cut, and the body is stewed and set on the table. Nanak tells the parents to close their eyes, speak the name of God, and then dig in. They do. When they finally open their eyes, Nanak has vanished. Not surprisingly, the king goes insane. A year later, he meets the Guru again and is converted. (McLeod, p. 48)

This disgusting story is undoubtedly an unusual material to find in a hagiography! We may suspect that it has been corrupted in oral transmission and that it has initially been similar in intent to our second tale of Guru Nanak. In it, he devises a test of his disciples’ loyalty. As they walk along, Nanak makes coins appear in the road, first copper, then silver, finally gold. At each stage, more and more disciples gather the coins and depart. When only two Sikhs are left, they and the Guru come upon a funeral pyre: “Over the corpse there was a sheet and from it issued a foul smell. The Guru asked if there was anyone prepared to eat the corpse and at this one of the remaining Sikhs fled, leaving only Lahina to obey the command. Lahina asked which end he should begin to eat and was instructed to start at the feet. Raising the sheet he found Guru Nanak lying there.”

Lahina’s faith had been proved genuine. He would do anything his master commanded. The story is parallel to that of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command (Genesis, chapter 22). In both cases (as perhaps also in the original form of the first Nanak story above), neither knight of faith had to go through with the blood-chilling duty. However, it is interesting to note how the second Nanak tale ends. A friend of Nanak, who has observed Lahina’s trial, exclaims “He who is born from a part (ang) of you will be your Guru,” and Lahina was henceforth known as “Angad”. (p. 50) In light of our fourth story below, this conclusion may take on new significance.

Our third episode concerns the Venerable Pindola, a Buddhist monk. Buddhist mendicants are, as Jesus commanded his wandering disciples, “to eat whatever is set before you” (Luke 10:8). It is related of Pindola that in complete obedience to this rule, he did not flinch at eating a leper’s thumb which fell into the monk’s begging bowl as the leper placed food in it (Conze, p. 62). We may wonder if this story was originally understood as a mere object-lesson for mendicants. The story would seem to illustrate in striking fashion the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of unified vision, whereby one penetrates the apparent diversity of things, seeing their true unity in Nirvana instead. In such an enlightened state, one would no longer pay heed to illusory distinctions such as “pleasant vs. unpleasant”, ‘attractive vs. repulsive”, etc. Even so here; a piece of fruit, a leprous thumb — it is all the same.

The final story also stems from a Buddhist matrix, this time that of Tibetan Buddhism. The doctrine of Gotama has taken its most eccentric forms in Tibet. By the time the Buddhist gospel penetrated the Himalayan peaks, it had already become mixed with Tantric mysticism, which involved drugs and sex. Once it reached Tibet, this already volatile formula absorbed elements of the shamanistic Bern religion native to the region. Out of this strange syncretism arose a surprisingly cogent rationale for occult magic: if, as Buddhism teaches, all visible reality is Maya (= a stage illusion or “magic trick”), why should not someone sufficiently skilled be able consciously to manipulate those illusions? As Alexandra David-Neel recounts in Magic and Mystery in Tibet, this belief led to the famous stories of the Tibetan adepts’ ability to materialise gods and demons, and to project phantom duplicates of themselves.

It was in this charged atmosphere of marvels real or imagined that Madame David-Neel encountered the thaumaturge Chogs Tsang. She relates a story of this abbot in order to illustrate the “dark side of Tibetan occultism” (p. 131).

One evening Chogs Tsang summons one of the monks, ordering him to prepare two horses. At length, they arrive at a river bank, where they dismount. “Though the sky is completely dark, a spot on the water is ‘lighted by sun rays’ and in that illuminated place a corpse is floating up-stream, moving against the current.” When it reaches the two men, Chogs Tsang commands his assistant, “Take your knife, cut a piece of the flesh and eat it. I have a friend in India who sends me a meal every year on this date.” He himself begins to dine, but the horrified monk merely pretends to do so, hiding a slice of flesh in his robe. Back at the monastery, the lama rebukes the young monk. “I wished you to share the favour and the most excellent fruits of this mystic meal, but you are not worthy of it.” The monk duly repents and reaches for the concealed chunk of flesh, only to find it has disappeared. This macabre tale reflects the beliefs of the monks of the Dzogschen sect, according to which: “There exist […] certain human beings who have attained such a high degree of spiritual perfection, that the original material substance of their bodies has become transmuted into a more subtle one which possesses special qualities […]. A morsel of their transformed flesh, when eaten, will produce a special kind of ecstasy and bestow knowledge and supernormal powers upon the person partaking of it. (pp. 132-134)”

It is entirely possible that this belief is associated with the so-called “left-handed” Tantra, which professes to provide a “short path” to enlightenment through indulgence in various traditionally taboo activities, both sexual and dietary. The ideals that these practices, like the Zen Koan, enable the monk to breach the conventional dualistic structures of perception, and so come to see all as One.

And here is the key to the practice of Leng’s cult. Like the Tibetan Dzogschen sect, they ritually consumed the corpses of deceased adepts, perhaps of their own Lamas, in order to gain occult powers, and to realise the undivided Unity of all things. If so, then we know what their name for that primal Oneness was — the undifferentiated “Chaos” worshipped by the Lama of Leng (and by the cult of Exham Priory) as “Nyarlathotep”.

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