The word eldritch has fascinated me since my teen years, when I first encountered it in the writings of the 20th Century master of the Weird Tale, H.P. Lovecraft. From the first moment that I came across it, the word evoked a sense of disgust and dread, of ancient and unspeakable things.
Most current definitions of the word essentially amount to ‘otherworldly’, which is derived from an analysis of the Old English roots of the word: el means ‘foreign’ and rice means ‘kingdom’. From this angle, eldritch means something that is foreign and out of place, physically dislocated, though the clear connotation exists that this location is somehow abnormal. An object from Alabama, or even one from Timbuktu, is highly unlikely to be described as eldritch, though one from Mars might be.
This definition of eldritch seems to me to address only half the word’s potential and to leave unaddressed an element more interesting than location: time.
By breaking the word’s Old English roots into el and rice as conventional definitions do, one conveniently ignores the “d” that constitutes the hinge on which the word swings. By adding this back into the first part of the word, one ends up with eld, which connotes age (think of your elder brother, the town elders, etc.). When this concept of something aged is grafted onto rice, ‘kingdom’ we now have a word that describes something from an ‘old kingdom’.
What a world of possibilities this interpretation opens up. While a ‘foreign kingdom’ could be anywhere in the world or, to be fair, even on another world, an ‘old kingdom’ or, even better, an ‘old foreign kingdom’, can be anywhere in time or space. Eldritch things are horrifying to modern aesthetic sensibilities not simply because they are wrong for our time and place, but because we sense that they are connected to our own deep past.
What does it say about one’s philosophical orientation if one believes that there were things in existence in prehistoric times of which our science has retained no trace and for which theories such as evolution and progress can provide no answers?