The Deep Ones are creatures in the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. The beings first appeared in Lovecraft's novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931), but were already hinted at in the early short story "Dagon". The Deep Ones are a race of intelligent ocean-dwelling creatures, approximately human-shaped but with a fishy appearance. The females would regularly mate with voluntary human males along the coast, creating societies of hybrids.
Numerous Mythos elements are associated with the Deep Ones, including the legendary town of Innsmouth, the undersea city of Y'ha-nthlei, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, and the beings known as Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. After their debut in Lovecraft's tale, the sea-dwelling creatures resurfaced in the works of other authors, especially August Derleth.
Lovecraft provides a description of the Deep Ones in The Shadow Over Innsmouth:
I think their predominant color was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. I was somehow glad that they had no more than four limbs. Their croaking, baying voices, clearly used for articulate speech, held all the dark shades of expression which their staring faces lacked ... They were the blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design—living and horrible.
Lovecraft describes the Deep Ones as a race of undersea-dwelling humanoids whose preferred habitat is deep in the ocean (hence their name). However, despite being primarily marine creatures, they can come to the surface and can survive on land for extended periods of time. All Deep Ones are immortal; none die except by accident or violence, and they can grow to massive size. They are said to serve the beings known as Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, as well as Cthulhu. They are opposed by mysterious beings known as the Old Gods, whose powerful magic can keep them in check. This detail is one of the vestigial hints that August Derleth developed as the mostly unnamed Elder Gods.
The Esoteric Order of Dagon was the primary religion in Innsmouth after Marsh returned from the South Seas with the dark religion circa 1838. It quickly took root due to its promises of expensive gold artifacts and fish, which were desired by the primarily-fishing town.
The central beings worshipped by the Order were the Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, and, to a lesser extent, Cthulhu. Dagon and Hydra were seen largely as intermediaries between the various gods rather than as gods themselves. Even so, the cultists sacrificed various locals to the Deep Ones at specific times in exchange for a limitless supply of gold and fish. When they ran out of locals, they would go to other places to kidnap people to be sacrificed. Eventually, things became so bad that the US government sent the police force to apprehend Marsh and his cult.
The Esoteric Order of Dagon (which masqueraded as the local Masonic movement) had three oaths that members had to take. The first was an oath of secrecy, the second, an oath of loyalty, and the third, an oath to marry a Deep One and bear or sire its child. Due to the latter oath, interbreeding became the norm in Innsmouth, resulting in widespread deformities and many half-breeds.
The Esoteric Order of Dagon was seemingly destroyed when one of Obed Marsh's "lost descendants" sent the U.S. Treasury Department to seize the town. As a result, the town was more or less destroyed and the Order was thought disbanded.
The backstory of The Shadow over Innsmouth involves a bargain between Deep Ones and humans, in which the aquatic species provides plentiful fishing and gold in the form of strangely formed jewelry. In return, the land-dwellers give human sacrifices and a promise of "mixing"—the mating of humans with Deep Ones. Although the Deep One hybrid offspring are born with the appearance of a normal human being, the individual will eventually transform into a Deep One, gaining immortality—by default—only when the transformation is complete.
The transformation usually occurs when the individual reaches middle age. As the hybrid gets older, he or she begins to acquire the so-called "Innsmouth Look" as he or she takes on more and more attributes of the Deep One race: the ears shrink, the eyes bulge and become unblinking, the head narrows and gradually goes bald, the skin becomes scabrous as it changes into scales, and the neck develops folds which later become gills. When the hybrid becomes too obviously non-human, it is hidden away from outsiders. Eventually, however, the hybrid will be compelled to slip into the sea to live with the Deep Ones in one of their undersea cities.
Mother Hydra and her consort Father Dagon are both Deep Ones overgrown after millennia ruling over their lesser brethren. Together with Cthulhu, they form the triad of gods worshipped by the Deep Ones (their names are inspired by Dragon, or Dagon, the Semitic fertility deity, and the Hydra of Greek mythology).
Mother Hydra is not to be confused with the entity in Henry Kuttner's story "Hydra".
"Cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei" is the only Deep One city named by Lovecraft. It is described as a great undersea metropolis below Devil's Reef just off the coast of Massachusetts, near the town of Innsmouth. Its exact age is not known, but one resident is said to have lived there for 80,000 years. In Lovecraft's story, the U.S. government torpedoed Devil's Reef, and Y'ha-nthlei was presumed destroyed, although the ending of the story implies it survived.
The name Y'ha-nthlei may have been inspired by the Lord Dunsany character "Yoharneth-Lahai", "the god of little dreams and fancies" who "sendeth little dreams out of PEGANA to please the people of Earth."
Anders Fager has described the city of "Ya' Dich-Gho" as located in the Stockholm skerries. It is accidentally destroyed in 1982 during a Swedish submarine-hunt. At least two surviving Deep Ones live in Stockholm. One of them sells aquarist's supplies. The destruction of Ya' Dich-Gho is described in "When Death Came to Bod Reef"; the city's history in "Herr Goering's Artefact" and the life of the survivors in "Three Weeks of Bliss".
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The Shadow Over Innsmouth