Howard’s Hyborian Age

Robert E. Howard, as many an author fascinated with his world building is wont to do, wrote extensive notes on the years between when the oceans drank Atlantis and the coming of the Aryans.

This he dubbed the Hyborian Age, and it is the setting of his Conan tales. These notes he presented as an essay in The Phantagraph, February 1936, with a brief note affixed before it warning readers not to read to much into it: “Nothing in this article is to be considered as an attempt to advance any theory in opposition to accepted history. It is simply a fictional background for a series of fiction-stories.”

Basically the races and peoples of his Hyborian Age are the prehistoric ancestors of the races we know from the first chapters of our written history: The Stygians are the forefathers of the Egyptians, the Hyrkanians of the Sumerians, the Shemites of the Semites, and so on.

It is a clever conceit. It not only allows the writer the freedom to mix the flavor, look and feel of various historical periods, while slipping the chain of historical fact, the writer also is permitted to make wry comments on any historical event to which he invents a close parallel. He can, for better or worse, also have the event turn out as suits his disposition.

Somewhere in the middle of this history, there is an example of such an example of such a parallel event and its result. In this case, it is far more grim, even disproportionately so, than the real historical event from which the parallel is drawn. One is tempted, despite Howard’s warning words heading his essay, indeed to read too much into the reading.

Here Howard slow the pace of his centuries-per-paragraph history for a detailed anecdote of the singular meeting which produces one of the great wars of his age.

But the Picts were growing amazingly in population and power. By a strange twist of fate, it was largely due to the efforts of one man, and he an alien, that they set their feet upon the ways that led to eventual empire. This man was Arus, a Nemedian priest, a natural-born reformer. What turned his mind toward the Picts is not certain, but this much is history—he determined to go into the western wilderness and modify the rude ways of the heathen by the introduction of the gentle worship of Mitra. He was not daunted by the grisly tales of what had happened to traders and explorers before him, and by some whim of fate he came among the people he sought, alone and unarmed, and was not instantly speared.

The Picts had benefited by contact with Hyborian civilization, but they had always fiercely resisted that contact. That is to say, they had learned to work crudely in copper and tin, which were found scantily in their country, and for which latter metal they raided into the mountains of Zingara, or traded hides, whale’s teeth, walrus tusks and such few things as savages have to trade. They no longer lived in caves and tree-shelters, but built tents of hides, and crude huts, copied from those of the Bossonians. They still lived mainly by the chase, since their wilds swarmed with game of all sorts, and the rivers and sea with fish, but they had learned how to plant grain, which they did sketchily, preferring to steal it from their neighbors the Bossonians and Zingarans. They dwelt in clans which were generally at feud with each other, and their simple customs were blood-thirsty and utterly inexplicable to a civilized man, such as Arus of Nemedia. They had no direct contact with the Hyborians, since the Bossonians acted as a buffer between them. But Arus maintained that they were capable of progress, and events proved the truth of his assertion—though scarcely in the way he meant.

Arus was fortunate in being thrown in with a chief of more than usual intelligence—Gorm by name. Gorm cannot be explained, any more than Genghis Khan, Othman, Attila, or any of those individuals, who, born in naked lands among untutored barbarians, yet possess the instinct for conquest and empire-building. In a sort of bastard-Bossonian, the priest made the chief understand his purpose, and though extremely puzzled, Gorm gave him permission to remain among his tribe unbutchered—a case unique in the history of the race. Having learned the language, Arus set himself to work to eliminate the more unpleasant phases of Pictish life—such as human sacrifice, blood- feud, and the burning alive of captives. He harangued Gorm at length, whom he found to be an interested, if unresponsive, listener.

Imagination reconstructs the scene—the black-haired chief, in his tiger-skins and necklace of human teeth, squatting on the dirt floor of the wattle hut, listening intently to the eloquence of the priest, who probably sat on a carven, skin-covered block of mahogany provided in his honor—clad in the silken robes of a Nemedian priest, gesturing with his slender white hands as he expounded the eternal rights and justices which were the truths of Mitra. Doubtless he pointed with repugnance at the rows of skulls which adorned the walls of the hut and urged Gorm to forgive his enemies instead of putting their bleached remnants to such use. Arus was the highest product of an innately artistic race, refined by centuries of civilization; Gorm had behind him a heritage of a hundred thousand years of screaming savagery—the pad of the tiger was in his stealthy step, the grip of the gorilla in his black-nailed hands, the fire that burns in a leopard’s eyes burned in his.

Arus was a practical man. He appealed to the savage’s sense of material gain; he pointed out the power and splendor of the Hyborian kingdoms, as an example of the power of Mitra, whose teachings and works had lifted them up to their high places. And he spoke of cities, and fertile plains, marble walls and iron chariots, jeweled towers, and horsemen in their glittering armor riding to battle. And Gorm, with the unerring instinct of the barbarian, passed over his words regarding gods and their teachings, and fixed on the material powers thus vividly described. There in that mud-floored wattle hut, with the silk-robed priest on the mahogany block, and the dark-skinned chief crouching in his tiger- hides, was laid the foundations of empire.

As has been said, Arus was a practical man. He dwelt among the Picts and found much that an intelligent man could do to aid humanity, even when that humanity was cloaked in tiger-skins and wore necklaces of human teeth. Like all priests of Mitra, he was instructed in many things. He found that there were vast deposits of iron ore in the Pictish hills, and he taught the natives to mine, smelt and work it into implements—agricultural implements, as he fondly believed. He instituted other reforms, but these were the most important things he did: he instilled in Gorm a desire to see the civilized lands of the world; he taught the Picts how to work in iron; and he established contact between them and the civilized world. At the chief’s request, he conducted him and some of his warriors through the Bossonian marches, where the honest villagers stared in amazement, into the glittering outer world.

Arus no doubt thought that he was making converts right and left, because the Picts listened to him, and refrained from smiting him with their copper axes. But the Pict was little calculated to seriously regard teachings which bade him forgive his enemy and abandon the warpath for the ways of honest drudgery. It has been said that he lacked artistic sense; his whole nature led to war and slaughter. When the priest talked of the glories of the civilized nations, his dark-skinned listeners were intent, not on the ideals of his religion, but on the loot which he unconsciously described in the narration of rich cities and shining lands. When he told how Mitra aided certain kings to overcome their enemies, they paid scant heed to the miracles of Mitra, but they hung on the description of battle-lines, mounted knights, and maneuvers of archers and spearmen. They harkened with keen dark eyes and inscrutable countenances, and they went their ways without comment, and heeded with flattering intentness his instructions as to the working of iron, and kindred arts.

Before his coming they had filched steel weapons and armor from the Bossonians and Zingarans, or had hammered out their own crude arms from copper and bronze. Now a new world opened to them, and the clang of sledges re-echoed throughout the land. And Gorm, by virtue of this new craft, began to assert his dominance over other clans, partly by war, partly by craft and diplomacy, in which latter art he excelled all other barbarians.

Picts now came and went freely into Aquilonia, under safe-conduct, and they returned with more information as to armor-forging and sword-making. More, they entered Aquilonia’s mercenary armies, to the unspeakable disgust of the sturdy Bossonians. Aquilonia’s kings toyed with the idea of playing the Picts against the Cimmerians, and possibly thus destroying both menaces, but they were too busy with their policies of aggression in the south and east to pay much heed to the vaguely known lands of the west, from which more and more stocky warriors swarmed to take service among the mercenaries.

These warriors, their service completed, went back to their wilderness with good ideas of civilized warfare, and that contempt for civilization which arises from familiarity with it. Drums began to beat in the hills, gathering- fires smoked on the heights, and savage sword-makers hammered their steel on a thousand anvils. By intrigues and forays too numerous and devious to enumerate, Gorm became chief of chiefs, the nearest approach to a king the Picts had had in thousands of years. He had waited long; he was past middle age. But now he moved against the frontiers, not in trade, but in war.

Arus saw his mistake too late; he had not touched the soul of the pagan, in which lurked the hard fierceness of all the ages. His persuasive eloquence had not caused a ripple in the Pictish conscience. Gorm wore a corselet of silvered mail now, instead of the tiger-skin, but underneath he was unchanged – the everlasting barbarian, unmoved by theology or philosophy, his instincts fixed unerringly on rapine and plunder.

The Picts burst on the Bossonian frontiers with fire and sword, not clad in tiger-skins and brandishing copper axes as of yore, but in scale-mail, wielding weapons of keen steel. As for Arus, he was brained by a drunken Pict, while making a last effort to undo the work he had unwittingly done. Gorm was not without gratitude; he caused the skull of the slayer to be set on the top of the priest’s cairn. And it is one of the grim ironies of the universe that the stones which covered Arus’s body should have been adorned with that last touch of barbarity—above a man to whom violence and blood-vengeance were revolting.

My comment: I doubt I am reading too much into this when I point out the parallels. Mitra is a god utterly unlike every other god mentioned in any context any Conan story: he is benevolent, omnipotent, lawful, and blessed. He is what some call “Crystal Dragon Jesus” that is, Christ in all but name. Hence, Arus is Saint Patrick. the Picts are the Picts.


St Patrick arrived with his companions at a port in the district now called the harony of Lecale in the county of Down. Having landed, and gone a little way into the adjacent country to rest themselves and deposit their luggage, they were met by a herd in the service of the lord of the district whose name was Dichu or Dicho. Thinking they were robbers, he ran to give information to his master, who immediately came up with an armed force for the purpose of exterminating them Dicho, however, on seeing St Patrick was so struck with his appearance that, being also internally moved by the Almighty, he brought the whole party to his house which was at the place now called Saul. There the saint had an opportunity of announcing to him the Christian faith, and, through the mercy of God, Dicho became a believer and was baptized, being the first person converted by St Patrick in Ireland. All his family followed his example and likewise became Christians.

It is not as clear who Gorm is supposed to be, but I have my suspicions as to of whom Gorm is supposed to be the opposite. One possibility is Milcho, who is Patrick’s old master in the days when Patrick was a slave in Ireland.

St Patrick set out by the place where Milcho, his old master, lived. Our Apostle directed his course to a district occupied by the Crutheni or Irish Picts, and comprised within what we might call the province of Dal-aradia; in which district they seem to place Milcho’s habitation. He was an obstinate heathen, and, on hearing of St Patrick’s approach was determined not to receive or see him. But it will not be easily believed that, to guard against the saint’s visit, he set fire to his house, furniture, and property, and, to complete the climax of his folly, threw himself also into the flames and was burned to death. St Patrick finding his efforts for the conversion of Milcho unavailing, returned to the district in which Dicho resided.

The other is the Loegaire, king of all Ireland, son of Niall Naoigiallach, that is, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who abducted Patrick and his sisters in a raid in the saint’s youth. It was his custom to gather with his druids and dark magicians at the hill of Tara on the feast day of Beltane, and on the night before to light a sacred bonfire atop the hill to glorify the pagan gods of springtide. Now it was straight against the law that any man should light a fire before the king ignited his. Saint Patrick was in the plain below the hill, and, as the practice of the Church was, lit his pascal fire the night before Easter. Looking down, and seeing the distant fire, the king was enraged that any would defy his law: and his soothsayers prophesied that this flame must be quenched immediately, or otherwise it would grow until it outshone all their fires, and drove them out of Ireland.

The saint was summoned before the fierce king. Loegaire straightly charged his men and retainers that none should stand nor salute Patrick nor do him any sign of honor as he entered the hall. “But a certain man,” so reports P.W. Joyce in his WONDERS OF IRELAND, “named Erc, the son of Dego, who had heard many things of Saint Patrick, rose up in the sight of all, and did him honor. Therefore the prelate blessed him, and promised eternal life unto him; and he, believing in God, received the grace of baptism.”

Immediately the druids fell to mocking and blaspheming Christ, and proposed to prove the superiority of the devils they worshiped by a display of magic. Their leader, like Simon the Magician of old, knew the art of rising up into the air, which amazed the people. Saint Patrick prayed, and the devilish power failed, and the magician fell to the earth, struck his skull against a stone, and perished.

Wroth at the death of his magician, the king sent his warriors in chariots against the unarmed saint, but a great darkness fell on them, and fire from heaven, and an earthquake swallowed forty-nine.

It is said that Leoegaire daughters were baptised, and some say he himself, terrified by these miracles performed by St Patrick, became a convert.

It is not a very dangerous speculation to suppose that Robert E. Howard, hearing such stories from youth up, would find them the very antithesis of his attempt to glorify barbarism and romanticize the benighted virtues of savage lifes, and to denigrate civilization and enlightened religion which forms the backbone and theme of Conan stories.

Whatever his personal opinion might have been, I am too cautious to guess, but his muse is rather transparent in her motive in inspiring the anecdote of Arus and Gorm: No more cynical comment could be made to undermine even the idea of civilized men enlightening barbarians than to portray saints as utter fools, peaceful gods as weak and worthless.

Here the savage king, and all his men, are so crafty that they can spend a lifetime deceiving the silly, otherworldly missionary. The gallows’ humor here is to have the saintly missionary, instead of converting the nation and driving all the serpents into the sea, instead spend his life accomplishing nothing aside from teaching metallurgy and modern warfare tactics to the tribesmen, and to have he, himself, trigger the invasion and downfall of the civilized nation sending him.