In preparation for a new book on the Star of Bethlehem, I have been exploring popular culture and how it has been affected by astronomical theories of what the Star “really” was. In my studies, I have been down plenty of interesting rabbit holes, but I thought to share one I don’t think will make it into the book. That will be unfortunate, since it connects to the 20th century’s most influential horror author: H.P. Lovecraft.
There isn’t too much in the was for Christmas cheer in the Cthulhu Mythos, but one of Lovecraft’s early stories takes place (sort of) at Christmas. Published in 1925, The Festival has little in the way of traditional Yule-tide trappings, but it has plenty of Lovecratian adjectival utterances along with his creepy imagery. This was written and published before Lovecraft composed The Call of Cthulhu, so The Festival is very early in the history of him rendering his larger mythology. The themes of madness, a constant of his work, is the entire conceit of the story in which the entire tale is a fever dream based on a reading of the dreaded Necronomicon. However, there are a few interesting details from the story that are suggestive of the nature of Christmas.
First, the story begins by noting that what we call Christmas is “older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.” (He suggests much the same in his earlier poem, “Old Christmas.”) But what about it that we associate with Bethlehem goes back so far in time? A clue may be the earlier mention of the star Aldebaran, the eye of the constellation, Taurus the Bull. We are introduced to Aldebaran in the story with it shining at the end of a snowy road to the the town our protagonist was traveling to. After he arrives, he becomes a part of a dark ceremony, part of which is a procession to a church. When the procession reaches the house of worship, Aldebaran is seen above just on the spire of the church roof, a sight that made our first-person narrator shiver.
Consider now: Aldebaran was first seen ahead on the trail to a town, and then it is again seen just above the place he was going to in an unholy procession. Was Aldebaran leading the way as the Bethlehem Star led the Magi? It seems to be more than a coincidence given the Christmas season of the tale and the earlier reference to Bethlehem itself. But if so, why would Lovecraft choose Aldebaran of all stars?
As an avid reader of science, especially astronomy, Lovecraft almost certainly knew the Richard Allen’s Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning (1899), a book that is still referenced today because of its rich collection of myths and stories about the constellations. This source book has a good, long discussion about Taurus and Aldebaran. Of particular note, Allen says that the Babylonians called Aldebaran “the leading star of stars.” So here then we have a leading star known as such since Babylon and now apparently like the light of Bethlehem. That seems purposeful. Additionally, the Dog Star (Sirius) is mentioned as ‘leering’ at the procession on its way to the church; Allen’s book says that Sirius was also known as “the Leader”. So the two named stars in Lovecraft’s story were known as leader stars, and Aldebaran in particular appears to act in that fashion.
The play on this part of the Christmas story is subtle, and so far as I can find no one in Lovecraft studies has made this connection. But I admit I an not enough of a scholar to know all the places to look. Nonetheless, it seems that H.P. was looking to make the rite of this festival an imitation and terrifying mockery of Nativity celebrations.