Ubbo-Sathla, Gray Goo, and The Devouring Mother

Earlier, I had mentioned the fictional Outer God Ubbo-Sathla, a creation of writer Clark Ashton Smith and set in the same Lovecraftian universe as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. I find Ubbo-Sathla interesting because of a creepy similarity to certain vegetative goddesses of ancient mythology.

Ubbo-Sathla has been described as a great pool of gray protoplasm, seething and bubbling in a subterranean cave. He has very low sentience, if any at all. To touch him is instant death. He continuously sloughs off a flood of amoeba-like “proto-life,” creatures that wriggle away and over millenia perhaps evolve into other creatures such as insects, cats, and humans.

The creepy thing is, Ubbo-Sathla also re-absorbs living creatures. Sometimes he re-absorbs the “proto-life” creatures immediately after they are generated. Sometimes he re-absorbs more highly evolved creatures, like humans, perhaps learning whatever information these creatures might have gained during their lifetime (perhaps this is how he will regain the sentience he once had?). It is said that someday Ubbo-Sathla will re-absorb all life on Earth. The surface of the planet will then be one vast ocean of gray protoplasm.

The idea of an ocean of gray protoplasm taking over the earth brings to mind the hypothetical danger of nanotechnology leading to a Gray Goo scenario.

Maybe Ubbo-Sathla is the result of out-of-control nanotechnology? Eons ago, an alien civilization sent out nanotech spores to seed the universe with life, and Ubbo-Sathla and all earthly life is the result?

Gray Ooze (classic Dungeons and Dragons)

The Gray Ooze That Ate the Indonesian Villages
— Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2006

Ubbo-Sathla already starting to re-absorb all earthly life!

For Ubbo-Sathla is the source and the end. Before the coming of Zhothaqquah or Yok-Zothoth or Kthulhut from the stars, Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the newmade Earth: a mass without head or members, spawning the grey, formless efts of the prime and the grisly prototypes of terrene life . . . And all earthly life, it is told, shall go back at last through the great circle of time to Ubbo-Sathla.

— The Book of Eibon (quoted from the beginning of Clark Ashton Smith’s original story)

Ubbo-Sathla reminds me of a 1958 movie called The Blob and its 1988 remake. (Looks like there’s another remake in the works — I must see it.)

But Ubbo-Sathla reminds me especially of a 1985 movie called The Stuff. In this movie, a sinister white goo is found in an underground chamber. It tastes amazingly good, and once you eat it you want to keep eating it — and then it takes over your mind. See the underground scene starting at 4:55 in this YouTube clip. This huge underground pool of white bubbling goo is the spitting image of Ubbo-Sathla!

For an interesting short story involving Ubbo-Sathla, see Omega, by Gary Myers, in his book Dark Wisdom. This book is a collection of Lovecraftian short stories. Other memorable short stories in this collection are What Rough Beast and From Inner Egypt.

I am a big fan of The Teaching Company, which produces college-level courses on CD-ROM and DVD. One of my most favorite Teaching Company courses is Myth in Human History, by Professor Grant L. Voth. The lectures discuss (among other topics) myths about vegetative goddesses who not only create but also consume life; in some of these myths, the goddess is said to actually eat her own children. One example Dr. Voth gives is an Irish goddess named Danu, from whom all life came, and to whom all life must return. Underground temples like the ancient complex Newgrange (which is possibly a temple to Danu, and which is even older than the Egyptian pyramids) are thought to simultaneously represent wombs and tombs (“cradle to grave”). For more on ancient Irish goddesses and Newgrange, see A Womb Not a Tomb, an article by Geraldine Moane.

In his Jung-infused book The Living Labyrinth, Jeremy Taylor mentions the archetype of a mother goddess who gives birth to all life, but in time devours all. As an example, he gives the example of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, who is described as having snapping mouths in all her joints. You can see a rather creepy drawing depicting Tonantzin, Mother and Devourer of All, the One to Whom All Paths Lead, here. Mr. Taylor references another book entitled The Hungry Woman, by John Bierhorst. (The Devouring Mother is a well-known Jungian archetype.)

Another Aztec goddess, similar to Tonantzin, is Coatlicue. Wikipedia says “She represents the devouring mother, in whom both the womb and the grave exist.” I am wondering whether Tonantzin and Coatlicue are two different names for the same goddess.

Online article exploring the origins of the womb-tomb/cradle-to-grave idea: Mother Earth-Mother Death: The Womb and the Tomb

The temples of vegetative Earth goddesses tend to be underground, like Newgrange. Descending into the underworld is simultaneously symbolic of a return to a womb, and of entering a tomb. The underground location is like Ubbo-Sathla’s subterranean location. Ubbo-Sathla thus has a lot more in common with the vegetative Earth goddesses and chthonic deities than, say, with sky gods like Zeus or Thor.

Here’s a broken link that went to a related story; maybe the website is only temporarily down? (I keep the link here in the hope that it might some day be working again.)

Papers on PubMed regarding filial cannabilism (eating one’s own young).

The idea of the cyclicity of life is reminiscent of the Ash Wednesday incantation: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return”, a quote from Genesis 3:19. Also of the idea of reincarnation.

Huge hidden biomass lives deep beneath the oceans — New Scientist, May 23, 2008.

Ubbo-Sathla lives!

The Tower Of The Mighty God Ubbo-Sathla
— photo on Flickr by Midnight-digital

Mother Nothingness (The Triumph Of Ubbo Sathla)
— heavy metal by The Vision Bleak (2010). Listen to the lyrics. It’s interesting that the non-parenthetical portion of the song’s title is “Mother Nothingness” rather than “Father Nothingness,” suggesting the vegetative goddesses and the devouring mother archetype.

— electronic music by Flint Glass (2007)

— spooky music by Endura (2008)

Review of Mr. Smith’s original tale, by Dr. Hermes:
Why is Ubbo-Sathla particularly heinous?

I think that Clark Ashton Smith knew about the goddesses who devour their own children, so the similarity between Ubbo-Sathla and these mythological figures may not be accidental. At the very beginning of the original story, the protagonist is browsing in a curio shop and finds a magic crystal that leads to his adventures. Right next to this crystal was a figurine of an Aztec god. Although the figurine doesn’t play any role in the story, maybe, just maybe, it is a very tangential reference to Tonantzin/Coatlicue? (OK, that’s a stretch. More likely, the null hypothesis is true, and it was just chance.)

I think it might have been cooler had Mr. Smith made Ubbo-Sathla female rather than male, to leave open the possibility of equation with the ancient goddesses.

For verisimilitude, it also might have been cooler had he given Ubbo-Sathla a name similar to one of these ancient goddesses, as if it were a corruption of the original name, in the same way that he corrupted the names of Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu in his quote from The Book of Eibon (see quoted text above). E.g., a name similar to Danu or Coatlicue, like Danugah or Kwat-Lagu. (Yes, the names Danu or Coatlicue may themselves be corruptions of original names.) Well, I’m sure Mr. Smith had a reason for settling on Ubbo-Sathla.

Addendum (11/27/11): Here are a pair of recent MetaFilter posts that seem relevant:
My name is LUCA, I live on the ocean floor
Did Life Begin As A Ocean-Sized Lifeform?

The latter post in particular has two comments that reference Ubbo-Sathla.


Colors of Magic, Especially Yellow Magic

For K.C.

According to Chinese medicine, when the five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, wind?) are out of balance, as manifested thru organ dysfunctions, disease results.

Hmm, I’ve heard of something called “five agents theory,” I believe with respect to ancient Chinese folklore. I wonder whether it’s related to the five elements. Maybe it’s the same thing.

In the card game Magic The Gathering (MTG), there are five colors. Maybe there’s a mapping between the five colors and the five elements: blue:water, green:wood, red:fire, black:metal, white:wind? (Speaking of which, if you see the movie Sorcerer’s Apprentice, watch the background for Drake Stone’s Magic The Gathering posters. Apparently, Mr. Stone has his own MTG cards. Also, drake = “dragon”.)

Here is a 1978 paper by H. Nickel (And Behold, A White Horse… Observations on the Colors of the Horses of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Metropolitan Museum Journal 12:179-183) which mentions the five-color system of ancient China. It would’ve been interesting if Magic The Gathering had used the same five colors as the ancient Chinese system, but alas no: instead of white, blue, black, red, and green, the Chinese had white, blue, black, red, and yellow. The following table shows the mapping from cardinal direction to color in the ancient Chinese color system.

Cardinal Direction Associated Color
South Red
North Black
East Blue
West White
Center Yellow

As you know, in MTG each color is associated with a general theme. White is associated with righteousness, law, and protection; blue with the mind (especially wisdom and intellect), time, and deception; black with death, decay, and greed; red with chaos, impulsivity, fire, and lightning; and green with nature and life. It’s fun to wonder what the theme of yellow magic would have been, if there had ever been such a thing in MTG! (Maybe yellow magic would map onto colorless mana, which is associated with artifacts in MTG?)

(As an aside, in the MTG color pentagram, each color is positioned opposite its two natural antagonistic colors. Thus, e.g., white’s natural antagonists are red and black.)

The ancient Chinese (at least, the emperor Wang Mang in the year 9 A.D.) favored certain colors. H. Nickel writes:

Thus, the emperor seated on his throne faced the south, where the sun was brightest and highest in the heaven. Consequently, the South was considered to be the foremost of the cardinal directions, and therefore the vanguard of the “Generals in Charge of the Enforcement of Imperial Power” was clad in the red of the South direction and mounted on red sorrels.

H. Nickel goes on to write:

In 201 B.C., the Han emperor, Kao, personally led a great campaign against the Hung-no… The finishing touch in this cosmological color scheme was that the center was occupied by the hapless Chinese army with their emperor, whose sacred color was yellow.

It’s fun to wonder what the theme of yellow magic would have been, if there had ever been such a thing in MTG!

Yellow Magic, Inc.

Yellow Magic Orchestra

Yellow Magic Cleaner

The King In Yellow (Victorian gothic horror by Robert W. Chambers, which influenced H.P. Lovecraft)

Yellow Lobster (yummy!)

Yellow Submarine

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Addendum (08-01-10): Native Americans also had mappings from the four cardinal directions to colors. I think that the Cherokee color system is particularly interesting (here’s another source):

Cardinal Direction Associated Color
South White
North Blue
East Red
West Black

The reason this is interesting is because it’s very similar to the Chinese color system — only, the colors have been rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise. I.e., the two systems are π/4 out of phase, like sine and cosine, and therefore their cross-correlation is zero. (Wow, that was geeky.)

Addendum (08/02/10):

It’s interesting to compare the MTG color pentagram with this color pentagram of the five elements. Here’s another diagram of the Chinese five-element system, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Five Element System

This time, there doesn’t seem to be a pure phase shift, like we saw when we compared the Cherokee vs. the Chinese color system.

Another interesting thing about the five-element pentagram above is the dual cyclicity: there’s a creative cycle as well as a destructive cycle. This dual cyclicity reminds me of the Outer God Ubbo-Sathla, a creation of Clark Ashton Smith. In his creative cycle, Ubbo-Sathla acts as the source of all life on Earth. And he is destined, in his destructive cycle, to someday resorb all life. (I will write more on this intriguing Outer God later.)

The destructive cycle is also reminiscent of a certain game.

Addendum (08/07/10):

The Five Elements… Which One Are You?
(Myself, I’m primarily Water, with Metal a strong second. Definitely NOT Wood.)

The Five Colors of Magic: Which One Are You?
(I’m most definitely blue.)

Addendum (08/08/10): How about… purple magic?!

Addendum (08/08/10):

Wikipedia’s article on the cardinal directions includes a table showing how various cultures mapped colors to the cardinal directions. Apparently, the Turkic system has the same five colors as in Magic The Gathering: black, blue, red, white, and green. (Note that the Wikipedia article’s reference for the Turkic system does not seem to confirm this!)

Hmm, according to this web page, the Cherokee system also included green for the center. So the Cherokee system also maps to the five colors in MTG.

Addendum (08/08/10): See also the “five-factor model” of personality, sometimes called “Big Five.” My understanding is that the “big five” were determined using a multivariate method called factor analysis (not principal components analysis, or independent components analysis?).

According to this, the Big Five have been labeled as: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. How would you map the five personality types to the five colors of MTG?

Take the Big Five test.

Addendum (08/08/10): Above, I had given a link to the old Rock-Paper-Scissors game. I just discovered that this game has been extended to include two new “weapons”: lizard and Spock. Now with five “weapons,” it forms a nice pentagram.

Here’s a diagram showing a 7-weapon version of RPS (although it’s captioned “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock”).

Here’s a 15-weapon version.

And a 101-weapon version!

Addendum (01-15-11): I saw this news story about the world’s foremost expert at vomiting. I wondered what his name would be if he were to be a super-hero. Then I remembered that black dragons in Dungeons and Dragons spit acid. So, his name could be Black Dragon, or perhaps Ancalagon.

Then I remembered that the evil “chromatic” dragons in Dungeons and Dragons came in the following five colors: black, white, red, green, and blue. Just like the colors of magic in Magic The Gathering. Here’s a list of the five chromatic dragons and their breath weapons, along with some other characteristics.

Color Breath Armor Class Hit Dice Damage / Attack Size Alignment
Black Acid 3 6-8 1-4 / 1-4 / 3-18 30′ Long Chaotic Evil
Blue Lightning 2 8-10 1-6 / 1-6 / 3-24 42′ Long Lawful Evil
Green Chlorine Gas 2 7-9 1-6 / 1-6 / 2-20 36′ Long Lawful Evil
Red Fire -1 9-11 1-8 / 1-8 / 3-30 48′ Long Chaotic Evil
White Cold / Frost 3 5-7 1-4 / 1-4 / 2-16 24′ Long Chaotic Evil