Cimmeria (Conan & the Classics)

Your typical Conan cover

As you know, I recently re-watched 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, and mused on some of its Classical connections on this blog. This inspired me to read a little Conan; thus far, I’ve read the poem ‘Cimmeria’, Howard’s pseudo-historical essay ‘The Hyborian Age’, and ‘Conan and the Frost Giant’s Daughter’. I’d like to share with you some thoughts on Conan’s homeland, Cimmeria. First, Howard’s poem (source, allpoetry.com):

I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista–hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts?  I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

This poem, like ‘Conan and the Frost Giant’s Daughter’ draws forward Howard’s ‘Northernism’ much more clearly than the 1982 film. Nonetheless, there is at least one Classical resonance here, in the final line of the final stanzas, ‘Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night’.

Having been introduced to Conan before Homer, let me tell you how excited I was as a 17-year-old to discover, in the inestimable Odyssey (on which I blogged here), this reference to Cimmeria:

She came to deep-flowing Oceanus, that bounds the earth, where is the land and city of the Cimmerians, wrapped in mist and cloud. Never does the bright sun look down on them with his rays either when he mounts the starry heaven or when he turns again to earth from heaven, but instead horrid night is spread over wretched mortals. There we came and beached our ship, and took out the sheep, and ourselves went along beside the stream of Oceanus until we came to the place of which Circe had told us. (Odyssey, Book 11, lines 13-22, trans. A. T. Murray, revised by George E. Dimock, Loeb Classical Library)

The context, for those who don’t think in terms of, ‘Oh, yes, Odyssey Book 11,’ is that of Odysseus and his comrades having departed Circe’s island (narrowly, of course), heading for the Underworld out across Ocean’s Stream, where Odysseus is to consult the blind seer Teiresias as to how to get home. Teiresias, FYI, is the guy who prophesied bad stuff to Oedipus over the whole murder-incest thing in Thebes (see Sophocles, Oedipus).

This is the first reference to Cimmeria in Greek literature. It is somewhere to the West of Italy (Circe’s isle is imagined by later geographers [and Vergil] as being in the Tyrrhenian Sea) very close to the Underworld. As characterised by Robert E Howard and Homer, it is a land of perpetual darkness.

I do not think it is in Italy near Lake Avernus, as asserted in the notes to Strabo’s Geography by H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer. Even if someone wishes to make Circe’s island into one of the isles of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is clear that Odysseus has left the realm of human geography when he has left Circe. He is in a new realm, a realm that does not correspond with historical Mediterranean geography; I imagine that Cimmeria and Campania are asserted to be the same place so that Odyssey Book 11 and Aeneid Book 6 (Aeneas descent into the Underworld) occur in the same place.

My searches in the Perseus Database find no other references to this legendary Cimmeria; and searching Oxford Reference Online got me only Conan and no Homer! The other references to Cimmeria associate it with Scythia, with the Crimea to be precise, much to the East of Homer’s Cimmerian land of darkness. As this map from Wikipedia demonstrates, Scythia is, like Conan’s Cimmeria, a northern land:

Scythians are archetypical barbarians, in case you were wondering. Herodotus is the most famous ethnographer of the Scythians, as you can read here. He links Scythians with Cimmerians thus:

Scythia still retains traces of the Cimmerians; there are Cimmerian castles, and a Cimmerian ferry, also a tract called Cimmeria, and a Cimmerian Bosphorus. It appears likewise that the Cimmerians, when they fled into Asia to escape the Scyths, made a settlement in the peninsula where the Greek city of Sinope was afterwards built. The Scyths, it is plain, pursued them, and missing their road, poured into Media. For the Cimmerians kept the line which led along the sea-shore, but the Scyths in their pursuit held the Caucasus upon their right, thus proceeding inland, and falling upon Media. This account is one which is common both to Greeks and barbarians. (The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 3, Book 4, Chapter 12)

Scythians do things like drink unwatered wine, perform human sacrifice, and drink from the gilt skulls of their enemies. North of them are another of Howard’s ancient peoples, the Hyperboreans.

I have no doubt further investigation could find more traces. Nonetheless, here we see a convergence of Howard’s ‘Northernism’ and the Classical tradition of Homer and Herodotus to produce a barbarian race who live in a land of darkness. What better race to produce the greatest barbarian of them all?

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