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.


Ubbo-Sathla
— electronic music by Flint Glass (2007)


Ubbo-Sathla
— 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.

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Baptism, Flood Myths, and the Symbolism of Water

For K.C.

There’s some interesting symbolism to the baptism ceremony. OK, for Catholics baptism is more than symbolic, since it removes Original Sin, but for some Protestant denominations it’s purely symbolic.

These days during my morning commute I’m listening to a Teaching Company audio CD-ROM course entitled Myth in Human History, taught by Grant L. Voth. I’ve learned that some creation myths start off with a large, dark, body of water, a “sea of chaos,” out of which a deity brings the universe. A big example is the Egyptian creation myth. So the water is a sort of primeval state of potentiality, out of which the universe is realized.

(Makes me think of quantum mechanics. My limited understanding is that the wave function is only a distribution of possible outcomes, a state of potentiality, a “sea of chaos”; but you need an Observer to “collapse the wave function”, and only then does a physical event actually happen. “Wave” in “wave function” reminds me of the waves in the “sea” of chaos.)

Here’s a quote from a book I’m reading entitled Parallel Myths, by J.F. Bierlein:

“In Jungian psychology, water is a dream symbol manifest in the myths and the unconscious mind and the wisdom contained therein. Thus, our dreams of bathing in or drinking water may be interpreted as symbolic of the quest for wisdom or for communication between the conscious and unconscious mind. Another possible Jungian approach to the water motif in the Creation myths is the dawn of human consciousness.”

Water can be destructive, too — lectures #9 and 10 in the Teaching Company course are about flood myths. (Of course you’ve heard of Noah’s Ark , but have you heard of Utnapishtim’s Ark?) Still, Dr. Voth points out that in these flood myths, the world is given a second beginning after the flood recedes, and that the Flood is therefore a sort of second creation. So, one symbolic component of the baptism ceremony is of a rebirth of the person getting baptized, a new beginning.

I read or heard somewhere — possibly in one of the Teaching Company audio CD-ROMs — that in the days of early Christianity, some people thought that you shouldn’t baptize babies or children, because they aren’t fully responsible for themselves yet. They felt that you should baptize only adults, who can make a conscious, informed decision to become a Christian. And some people thought that baptism cleanses all your sins, and that you could be baptized only once. So their strategy was to have a lecherous, gluttonous, sinful life, and get baptized only way at the end, on their deathbed; that way, when they die they have a clean soul and they go to Heaven. Somehow, I doubt that God would respect their bid for Heaven.


Addendum: (09/10/10):
Sea of Chaos at the time of Creation: Big Bang Was Followed by Chaos, Mathematical Analysis Shows