The Litany of Earth is a powerfully written short story by Ruthanna Emrys, set in the world of the Cthulhu mythos but told from the other side—not the humans confronting the horrors unleashed by the cultists, but from the side of a believer. It is deeply empathetic (in a visceral way), and at the same time ponders some deep philosophical questions.
(Go read it first. Spoiler warning.)
Some thoughts after reading:
(1) On understanding religion
In the story we find that the Cthulhu mythos is a misunderstood religion. The horrors that people have experienced were brought about by those who had misinterpreted the mythos and had been led astray into ritualized torture and sacrifice:
“every religion has its fanatics, who are willing to do terrible things in the name of their god. No one is immune… It’s a failing of humanity, not of any particular sect.”
The government retaliated against by sending the believers to “camps”:
“In ’26, the whole religion were declared enemies of the state, and we started looking out for anyone who said the wrong names on Sunday night, or had the wrong statues in their churches. You know where it goes from there.”
Aphra has had her entire family taken away, and when Spector asks her for help in rooting out the “extremists,” she adamantly refuses; we feel her angst and the irreconcilable gulf between victim and oppressor that has come of many years of misunderstanding.
(Can we help but draw a parallel to how the West has incorrectly judged Islam from the actions of extremist groups who have strayed from the path of their religion?)
(2) On the meaning of belief, and uncomfortable truths
Religious belief (or magic, or mythos, or wisdom, whatever you prefer) is not at all easy, as it deals with such uncomfortable truths as the impermanence of our existence. This is where Emrys’s adherence to the Cthulhu mythos really shines through, as she makes visceral this truth in a way that we can’t ignore: through the ritual of blood, and through Aphra’s recital of the mythos in her strong, unbending words (how humanity will one day be extinct, and a whole line of other species will take our place). In her words,
“What magic is for is understanding. Knowledge. And it won’t work until you know how little that gets you.
“Sharhlyda—Aeonism—is a bit like a religion. But this isn’t the Bible—most of the things I’m going to tell you are things we have records of: histories older than man, and sometimes the testimony of those who lived them. The gods you can take or leave, but the history is real.
“All of man’s other religions place him at the center of creation. But man is nothing—a fraction of the life that will walk the Earth. Earth is nothing—a tiny world that will die with its sun. The sun is one of trillions where life flowers, and wants to live, and dies. And between the suns is an endless vast darkness that dwarfs them, through which life can travel only by giving up that wanting, by losing itself. Even that darkness will eventually die. In such a universe, knowledge is the stub of a candle at dusk.”
Aphra herself is of the Deep Ones’ blood: she is not a mortal human being. What is the relationship between the other characters and the religion? We see two characters who want to believe but differ in how. The first, Charlie:
“Why do you want to learn this?” Though I doubt Charlie knows, it’s a ritual question. There is no ritual answer.
“I don’t . . .” He glares, a habit my father would have demanded he break before pursuing the ancient scholarship. “Some things don’t go into words easily, all right? It’s . . . it feels like what should be in books, I suppose. They should all be able to change the world. At least a little.”
Charlie progresses slowly but steadily, he listens, and he learns to heal. Woven in Charlie’s story is the in the present-day thread of the story where Aphra discovers a community of people who are practicing the religion, led by Wilder and Bergman. Aphra is in tears to find this community who has kept the faith alive, but then finds that it is not quite so real:
…there was no magic here, only its trappings… They were awkward, and ignorant, yearning and desperate. Wilder sought power, and Bergman feared to lose it.
Bergman disbelieved at first that Aphra was of the Deep Ones’ blood, and when she finally saw, she denied that there was anything that Aphra could do that she could not. She believed that her faith would allow her to become immortal if she dove into the ocean (see the Deep Ones’ mythos). But faith is no silver bullet:
“He says Wilder really does belong there. He believed what he was telling the others. What he was telling Bergman.”
And she [Bergman] believed what he told her—but that faith would not have been enough to save her.
No one’s faith ever was.
At the end Mama Rei is mending as Aphra ponders her decision to tell Spector, and we are left pondering the gulf between our want to believe and the reality that exists.