The first, and by far most necessary, character of Lovecraft’s that I feel needs to be discussed is undoubtedly Cthulhu, the Great Old One, who has been by far the most misrepresented and maligned by popular culture.
Before I delve too deeply into this topic, I would like to clarify that my interpretation of Cthulhu, and indeed all of the beings and locales of Lovecraft’s writings, are based solely on what Lovecraft wrote of them, not the many years of Mythos fan-fiction which followed. There is a place for the extended Mythos, and it has literary value to be sure, but it is not material which I choose to draw from in either my scholarly endeavors or my game crafting. My games are designed to be a tribute to the genius of Lovecraft, not those who followed and tried to add their own “spin” on the Mythos and its inhabitants.
Cthulhu is god-like being, one of the Great Old Ones, who was sent to the Earth by the Other Gods from Outside (Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, and Nyarlathotep). In ancient times, the primordial visitors and inhabitants of this planet worshipped and revered the Other Gods, even though the Other Gods had little interaction in their daily lives. However, in time other god-like beings such as Ghatanothoa arose and sought to be worshipped instead of the Other Gods, converting or killing their followers through sometimes cataclysmic events. This caused the Other Gods to lose their foothold of fear and reverence from their followers, causing them to be forgotten or looked unfavorably on.
In time, the Other Gods seemed to combat this by sending harbingers of their own to bring new displays of vast and frightful power to the Earth’s inhabitants, to remind them of the Other Gods from Outside whom they had forgotten, and the vast, limitless power which they held. These were not gods whom one would pray to for favors, these are gods who would be served and sacrificed to for fear of displeasing them and bringing doom upon the masses. It seems that Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones such as Tsathoggua were able to return the people to the worship of the Other Gods for a time.
Eventually, the Other Gods grew tired of the Earth and its inhabitants, and left this dimension alone in favor of other realms, including the Dreamlands whose shores touch upon every plane of existence. Newer gods, the gods of the earth, arose and were worshipped by the creatures of Earth, granting favors and having more of a direct impact on the lives of their followers. The Other Gods seemed to allow this, so long as the earth’s gods remembered their place and showed the Other Gods from Outside their due reverence and worship. Eventually, even the gods of the earth grew tired of mortals, and retreated to the Dreamlands where they would frolick and cavort while avoiding the wrathful eyes of the Other Gods.
During this time, the Other Gods had no real interest in the Earth, and so Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones began to slumber, awaiting for a time when the Other Gods would return to Earth and claim the lives and souls of earth’s inhabitants for their own. Cthulhu, who was the High Priest of the Other Gods and and their primary enforcer on Earth, would awaken when the stars were right and would unlock gates to let the Other Gods in to this realm.
So, as you can see, Cthulhu is not the “chief god” of the Cthulhu Mythos, he is actually the High Priest of the Other Gods, who themselves are the chaotic representation of cosmic forces. Azathoth is chaotic interpretation of the idea that the macrocosm has a consciousness, Azathoth is that malign consciousness; uncaring, all-consuming, chaos. Yog-Sothoth is the chaotic aspect of the infinite, the vastness of eternity, while Shub-Niggurath is the chaotic representation of the finite, of the chaos that is the short blossoming of life, the chaos of creation and the chaos it brings until its eventual termination. Nyarlathotep is the chaotic version of the messenger, the one who carries messages back and forth, the chaos that is communication and the transmission of will. Cthulhu is merely a servant of these forces.
That is not to say Cthulhu does not wield intense, unearthly power; indeed much to the contrary. Cthulhu has the ability to pierce the minds of every inhabitant of earth with the seed of madness, allowing the concept and reality of the horrible truth of the Other Gods to seep into the minds of the mortal. This is the preparing of the way for the the return of the Other Gods to this realm.
Cthulhu is certainly the attentive servant, too! Even when preparing to slumber, he still put certain newer gods of earth in place who would not allow their followers to forget the aspects or the promise of return of the Other Gods. Dagon is an excellent example of a lesser god whom Cthulhu slowly shifted his followers to include in their worship, so that as Cthulhu slept Dagon would still keep followers on a path which would help to pave the way for the eventual return of the Other Gods.
Cthulhu is not some easily defeated boss monster, nor is he something to be faced by mortal man. Cthulhu is the one who waits to bring back the Other Gods from Outside, and until that day he lies dead but dreaming, for that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die. Until the stars are right…