Monday, April 18, 2011

5 real-world examples of H.P. Lovecraft's Cyclopean architecture

H.P. Lovecraft didn't invent Cyclopean architecture, but he sure did love it. The term comes up again and again in Lovecraft's stories, usually connected with various cosmic horrors that are beyond human comprehension, or the worshippers of said horrors. And usually involving water. Lots of water.

In "Dagon" he writes:
Across the chasm, the wavelets washed the base of the Cyclopean monolith; on whose surface I could now trace both inscriptions and crude sculptures.

In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" he says:
Great watery spaces opened out before me, and I seemed to wander through titanic sunken porticos and labyrinths of weedy Cyclopean walls with grotesque fishes as my companions.

And in "The Call of Cthulhu," after describing great Cthulhu himself, he notes:
Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.

In fact, if you did a word count of all of Lovecraft's work, you'd find that Cyclopean comes up 47 times. See what I'm saying? He really liked it.

So exactly what is Cyclopean architecture anyway?  Consulting wikipedia yields this handy explanation:
'Cyclopean', the term normally applied to the masonry style characteristic of Mycenaean fortification systems, describes walls built of huge, unworked limestone boulders which are roughly fitted together. Between these boulders, smaller hunks of limestone fill the interstices. The exterior faces of the large boulders may be roughly hammer-dressed, but the boulders themselves are never carefully cut blocks.
But words can only convey so much, so let's take a look at what Cyclopean architecture actually looks like. Below are 5 real-world examples:

1. Example from Wikipedia - a typical Cyclopean wall near Grave Circle A at Mycenaean:

2. West Mill Tor in the United Kingdom

3. Kaleo Kastro, Agios Adrianos

4. Corbel arch built from Cyclopean masonry, in the Greek Arkadiko bridge

5. Saxsayhuaman, the greatest monument of the Incas, above Cuzco in the Parque Arqueológico de Sacsayhuamán.


  1. Inka architecture isn't cyclopean, though. Those blocks are all fitted exactly to those around them. They are indeed worked, though they keep some aspects of the natural stone unlike say uniform stone blocks. They were not masonry in the sense that they were not mortared, those stones are fit directly together. I think that when HPL wrote about the cyclopean, he often envisioned something like Macchu Picchu, even though the term really did mean more "a bunch of piled boulders" like your Mycenaean examples above (though the #3 example is also pretty clearly worked, very reminiscent of Inka architecture).

    It should be noted that while Inka architecture is amazing, it had its limitations. The Inka didn't really do, for example, roofs or second stories, as the stone work was too heavy and they didn't have even corbel vaults IIRC. "Multi-Story" Inka buildings were instead stepped back taking advantage of modified natural slopes, with second or third floors still on ground, but behind and above previous floors.

  2. Surprising as it may seem, West Mill Tor isn't architecture at all, but a natural formation. There are a lot of strange-looking formations of piled rock in the South-west of England which it's hard to believe are natural - check out the Cheesewring.

  3. @ ahtzib: I disagree.

    I think that all of the ancient monolithic architecture is what Lovecraft was referring to.


    2. Very big; huge.
    3. Of or constituting a primitive style of masonry characterized by the use of massive stones of irregular shape and size.

    It's quite easy to call all of the ancient monolith-like architecture 'Cyclopean.' That is of huge dimension, out of human proportions, and generally composed of irregular blocks of varying shape and size.

    Though, just the scale of things like pyramids and monolithic ruins is enough to classify them as Cyclopean, in the sense of categorization by 'Cyclopean scale.' IE, 'huge,' 'monstrous,' etc.

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