The Religion of Conan the Barbarian

He [Conan] had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples.  On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods.  He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals.  He had squatted for hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.

His [Conan’s] gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death.  It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings.  But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian’s mind, was all any god should be expected to do.

(The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, “The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard, pages 64-65).

I enjoy Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, and usually rue the fact that Howard committed suicide at age 30.  He lived from 1906 to 1936 A.D., and that’s a life too short.  I’ve never seen any evidence of Christianity in his writings, and all lives whether they be 30 years or 80 years are far too short compared to an eternity in Christ.

The reason I enjoy Howard’s Conan stories is because there is something elemental to human nature in them, or in Conan.  He believes in the gods, but is wise enough to reject the mysteries and secret powers of complex man-made religions and philosophies; instinctively knowing that the physically weak priests and philosophers use those “formulas and rituals” to attain power, just as he would use his sword to attain power.  A complex man-made religion is simply a tool of the hierocracy.  A simple religion is better for Conan, and yet, who can understand Crom?  Any god that could be fully understood by any man would be no god at all.  Truth and wonder cannot be separated.

In his fallen nature, which is barbarism, man can grope toward the real God of the Law: a God of “dooms and death” who hates sinners and weaklings.  That would all be true.  But thankfully someone came to add to the truth, to be truth himself: Jesus Christ.  Only through the revelation of Jesus Christ can we see the mercy of God.  He is the truth, both simple and complex, both fully man and fully God.  Only the Holy Spirit can give us the sight to see his cross as not just more “dooms and death,” but mercy and life.

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3 thoughts on “The Religion of Conan the Barbarian

  1. I think when you say that “there is something elemental to human nature in them, or in Conan” you are really pointing out that there is something pagan about them. Conan’s stories are gripping precisely because they depict the human condition unfettered by civilization and its religion.

    Because paganism is organic, arising from the shared spirit of a particular people, rather than syncretic, it speaks to the basic needs and dreams of its people. But those who live in modern Christian nations, bereft of the elemental religions which once provided an outlet for their barbaric origins, are left to wander the mazes of Biblical passages and surrender themselves to the banality of Sunday service or confession. It is not hard to see that they are all “touched in the head,” finding solace only in comic books, rock ‘n’ roll music, romances, and occasionally in imaginative fiction, where their primordial conceptions of justice, vengeance, heroism, romance, and honor are still reflected. Indeed, the entire message of Christianity is that these fleshly impulses must be transcended and abjured in order to attain ultimate union with Christ. But the spirit of man is also barbaric, and the heart of the barbarian can never be truly appeased by your Redeemer.

    I will not say that the world is worse for Christianity, which ended the petty feuds of Europe’s tribes, breaking the oppressive familial obligations and arrangements which previously prevailed to bring peace, literacy, individual freedom, and a common culture to the land. But the day is fast approaching when the complacency, individualism, and disregard for nature which Christianity teaches will doom your world to ruination – as populations explode, as oil reserves run dry, as the wise abandon themselves to wealth or transcendent religion and so fail to reproduce themselves, leaving fools and foreigners to inherit your world, scorning the science you unlocked and wandering the streets you built with their hands at one another’s throats.

    Robert E Howard foresaw this. His work is powerful precisely because it is unChristian.

  2. Do Howard’s words have real power? No. His escapist fantasies are enjoyable only when they are well written and Conan shows that he has the law (Romans 2:14-15). However, Howard’s words do not have the power to change lives. Howard died by his own hand at age 30.

    Christ also died in his thirties, but He was the word of life. His words have real power. He said He would rise on the third day, and He did. Christ’s words aren’t just declarations or fanciful stories, Christ’s words are powerful actions that cause what they say to be.

    Christianity isn’t about transcending our “fleshly impulses,” it is about being made a new creation by the Word of God. It is about being resurrected from spiritual death to life, not by our own power, but by the Word of God that not only speaks light into existence from nothing, but also creates eyes to see, and minds to understand, and hearts to believe.

    Christ didn’t arise from a spirit of a pagan people. Instead, Christ came from God to breath His Spirit of life into a dead people.

  3. Interesting points. I do see what Lykaios is getting at, in that big rules undermine authenticity. Now we see bureaucracy and corporate greed and rules that make no sense; Christian groups too easily swayed by slogans about gun control, say, to think through the repercussions of their blind support; and imho putting Christ aside to “fit in”, thus missing His message of love.

    I feel strongly, though, that Conan is all about authenticity, and Robert E. Howard struggled with that: nature being overcome by modernity, people losing their authenticy to materialism. Conan is bluntly honest, and that’s something that civilized people, especially those in power, corrupted by civilization, oftent he bad guys, take offence to. Christ, faced the same struggle: the Pharisees and lawyers who put their jobs and power ahead of the truth: their structure was supposed to be there to support God’s will, but they betray that for their own gain.

    Rober E. Howard argued against Lovecraft that man’s nature was the barbarian, authentic and true to himself, and that man rose to civilization, which then becomes corrupted and evil, decadent, and falls back to savagery.

    This isn’t an un-Christian concept, despite the unChristian trappings. My experience of Christianity has been that the essential me does get confused by selfish, materialistic things. I’m glad to live in the most technological time in history, but everything from cigarettes and alcohol to the sedentary lifestyle are bad for me.

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