Monday 11 July 2011

Cimmerian confusion

Remember a while back I was going to do a tongue-in-cheek historical analysis of the 1982 Conan the Barbarian where I erroneously put forward the idea that the film is set in historical times? Conan as a Sumerian, Subotai a Hyrcanian, Thulsa Doom a Nubian, and whatnot. However, I thought better of it, because I wouldn't want to contribute to the misinformation regarding Conan around the 'net, even in jest.

Well, a gentleman by the name of Pakistani has actually done this.

You see, this idea that Conan the Barbarian was set in antiquity is surprisingly prevalent.  And yet with all the amount of research someone does into the film, none of them take the extra step to check out the original stories, where they'd discover the somewhat important factoid that this was set in a fictional antediluvian age before the rise of modern humanity. Just reading "The Hyborian Age" alone should explain that. It baffles me how someone would go into such astounding detail in analysing a film, yet not bother with the source material upon which it is based.  Maybe they think there isn't much point - after all, if it's an adaptation, it can't be that different, right?

I mean, look at this:
A team of archaeologists conducting excavations in the ancient city of Antandros in Balıkesir is chasing the traces of the Cimmerians tribe -- the tribe of the fictional character Conan the Barbarian (also known as Conan the Cimmerian) -- who are thought to have lived in the ancient city for about 100 years.

The Cimmerians were a warring and nomadic tribe that inhabited the region north of the Caucasus and the Black Sea, in what is now Russia and Ukraine, in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. The Cimmerians were the tribe of famous fictional barbarian character Conan the Barbarian, played by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his films.
- Turkish Daily News
And this:
Conan is not Sumerian, he's Cimmerian, or Kimmerian.
Kimmerians were an ancient Iranian nomad people who lived in the pontic-caspian region and neighbouring areas. They were defeated and assimilated by Scythians, who were in turn assimilated by Sarmatians, who were finally assimilated by Slavs of modern Ukraine.

In the movie Conan, the band of raiders who attacks Conan's village were representing Scythians and their supreme new skill that enabled victory over Kimmerians, horsemanship.

The Tulsa-doom character ( the black one portrayed by James Earl Jones ) is supposed to be a Stygian, from a land that later came to be known as Egypt.

According to Howard's descriptions of Conan, the name of Conan's people, it's location and the given era of events, I'd say that Conan could have been a Cro-Magnid Irano-Nordoid.
- Skadi Forums
Or this:
Definition: The Cimmerian culture were nomadic horse-riding people of the Russian steppes beginning about 1200 BC. According to Herodotus, they invaded Anatolia during the 7th century BC and controlled the Black Sea area until about 600 BC, when they were in turn invaded by the Scythians. Archaeologically, they've been harder to pin down.

Some scholars believe that the Èernogorovka-Novoèerkassk culture north of the Caucusus and Black Sea matches Cimmerian; others are skeptical whether 'Cimmerian' was a separate definable ethnic group at all.

For those of a frivolous nature, Robert E. Howard chose the Cimmerian culture as the culture group to which his Conan the Barbarian belonged.
And this humourous piece:
"Jews had been settled in eastern Europe..., from a very early date. Archaeological evidence shows that they were to be found as early as the first century of the Christian era in the Cimmerian Bosporus.... [Conan was a Cimmerian.] As the years passed, the area of Jewish settlement began to extend,... By slow degrees, the influence of Judaism impressed itself onsome of the semi-barbaric tribes [Conan was a barbarian] and kingdoms of the region, The most important of these were the Khazars.... Early in the eight century, ... the ruling prince ... recognised the merits of Judaism and formally adopted it as his religion. His example was followed by many of the aristocracy.... The governing classes became thoroughly Judaised, their example being followed by many of the ordinary people." (Cecil Roth, Short History of the Jewish People, 3rd edition, 1948, page  287.)
The Black Sea region of the Cimmerians was earlier inhabited by the Scythians, the probable source of the name "Ashkenaz" -- more on Conan's history! 
John Hyrkanos, Hasmonean king of Judea, is best known for forcibly converting Judea's neighbors, the Idumeans, to Judaism. Hyrkania, the kingdom named after him near to the aforementioned Cimmeria, is likewise one of the lands of Conan's world
The name Conan is a good Hebrew name from the root כון,like יכוניהו and יהויכין. (The duplication of the נ is an ordinary Polal form for II-weak verbs, and the lack of the theophoric element is also common, as for example in the related name יכין.)
 - Everybody You Know Is Jewish

Onto Pakistani. This chap has actually looked at Conan the Barbarian as a historical film, with the fantasy embellishments being simply folkloric flourishes.  He comes up with such fascinating gems as Osric as an Indo-European king, Red Hair as a Pashtun, Valeria as a Sarmatian (which is actually rather brilliant, since Sarmatian women are well known as warriors), explaining the geography and the like, and of course referring to the historical Cimmerians. That's what gets me about this: it's all so very compelling, but it's built upon a foundation of playing cards:

I admit I've never properly fully read the books by Robert E.Howard. However seeing the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian and filming locations, I was able to analyze the themes of the films which were inspired by true events and places.
In the beginning we see Conan's village in a cold forested area where it is raided by the snake cult led by Thulsa Doom.
The scene of the raid and killing of the adults in Conan's village is made to depict the ancient attacks by the Scythians on the Cimmerians. The character's in the movie, including Conan himself, his friends and his enemies are entirely fictional. But the tribes and ethnic groups they belong to are entirely historical. Conan is clearly a Cimmerian according to the story and characters created by E.Howard. The filming location was somewhere in Germany to depict the Cimmerian homeland. The Cimmerians lived in the northern portions of the Caucasus mountain region which is heavily forested and has cold snowy winters as depicted in the movie.
For the size of an entire ethnic group, the population of the Cimmerians in the movie seemed relatively small. My guess is they were meant to depict just one tribe of Cimmerians and not the entire ethnic group. Just as the Scythian horsemen in Thulsa Doom's army is meant to one tribe of Scythians and not the entire race.
After the attacks the children, including Conan are taken as slaves. Conan's wizard friend and film narrator explains the children were taken north. It shows the children led for days in chains to a flat desert plain with rocks and grass. North of the Caucasus region where such a landscape can be seen are the northeastern coasts of the Caspian sea towards the borders of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation.
Also an interesting observation is the people in the movie are that most people have European features. The movie is set in a time period when Central Asia was still inhabited by Caucasian skulled Indo-Europeans prior to the Turko-Mongol migrations which occurred mainly in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
If you look carefully at the slave owner in the scene, he could easily be an ancestor of the bearded Pakhtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We see this slave owner selling Conan off to another slave owner with red hair and a beard. According to claims I've read by Turkic peoples, Kyrgyzstan was once filled with red haired people. This is possible since the Tocharians who lived in the Tarim desert east of Kyrgyzstan in China were said to have been Celtic related red haired people.
After Conan is sold to a new slave owner and becomes a successful gladiator, we hear the narrator saying he was taken to the far east.  
In the "far east" of the movie Conan is seen being trained by Han Chinese warriors. the far east in the movie is most likely northwest of China. A strong inaccuracy here was the way the Han Chinese warriors were dressed. I think there is little evidence to suggest the Han Chinese dressed in such fashion in ancient times. Their outfits look more like they were from the first millennium AD. 
The rest of the filming locations were taken in southern Italy and Spain. It shows mostly grassland and desert. It even shows scenes of snowfalls in the desert. This is Central Asia, a landmass which is nothing more than grassland and desert with dry, cold winters.
We also see Conan befriend Subutai, the unnamed Wizard and Valeria, who fits the description of a Sarmatian. 
The Sarmatians were often mistaken for the Scythians due to their nomadic lifestyle and common Iranic language. However the main difference between the two was that Sarmatian women were trained to fight unlike Scythian women.  
In fact according to historians, Sarmatian women were not accepted for marriage unless they killed a warrior of the enemy tribe. 
King Osric, another character from the story is shown. He is most likely another Indo-European tribal leader as his costume depicts:  
The rest of the movie shows Conan and his friends situated around a the sea in the middle of the desert. The actual filming location was on a coastal area of the USA but from what I can see in the story it is most likely the coast of the Aral Sea. 
A scene Conan also shows journeying for days in pursuit Thulsa Doom that takes him across to a mountainous area which appears to be a depiction the Altay mountain region. 
The only error I can see here is the Altay mountains have more grass and less sand/stones. It is less of a rocky landscape and more of a flat grassland region with rivers which the movie doesn't show. 
Amongst the more fictional elements of the movie was the snake worship in Thulsa Doom's cult. Though animal worship was a strong part of Indo-European spiritualities and cultures, it was not restricted to any single animal worship, but a wide range of animals which most likely included snakes. 
And as the creators of the movie commented, the snake cult is fictional even though I notice their symbols are derived from actual historic Indo-European cultures such as the sun and the moon. 
The other fantasy elements are of course the magical themes and folklore altered to reality within the movie's storyline. 
The second movie Conan the Destroyer is less relevant as it is further out of touch with reality and has more fantasy themes and plot-lines more so than the first film. 
The geographic settings in the second film are the only realistic elements which depict the semi-forests and grasslands. 
I usually don't discuss movies in my anthropology blog nor intend to in the future unless they're historical. But Conan the Barbarian is accurate for it's historical depictions of Central Asia and the Indo-European nomads who lived there prior to the Turko-Mongol migrations. 
I recommend this movie to anyone who seeks a physical depiction of ancient Indo-European peoples of Central Asia on video and what the region looked like demographically in ancient times.

I don't actually know how to respond to this.  Is it really worth bringing Robert E. Howard into it when the film is so massively divergent that someone could actually make this interpretation realistic and compelling?  Sure, you'd have to ignore the "between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas" and whatnot, but it's still fascinating how someone can have such a massively different interpretation of the adaptation.

It's just a shame it would all fall apart if they'd only read "The Hyborian Age," freely available at Project Gutenberg, Wikisource and no doubt elsewhere. But then, so would the 1982 film itself.


  1. Maybe you should send him a short note, and include the link for him to, hopefully, pursue?

    I'll do it if you don't want to.

    (he'll probably say Howard didn't know what he was talking about)

  2. well jeeze.. That seems like an awful lot of work put into something for it to be completely wrong.

  3. It's sort of the other way around, right? Aren't the real Cimmerians far-off descendants of Howard's Cimmerians (within his fiction anyway), though not "direct" like Cimmerians to the Irish/Scottish? It's in the last bit:

    "Other clans of the Cimmerians adventured east of the drying inland sea, and a few centuries later mixed with Hyrkanian blood, returned westward as Scythians. The original ancestors of the Gaels gave their name to modern Crimea."

  4. @ Lagomorph Rex --Too true. It's almost like when Watson uses his "deductive skills" on something (say, Dr. Mortimer's stick in The Hound of the Baskervilles,) and Holmes has to give him a reality check.

    "I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous."

    (the part of Sherlock Holmes tonight will be portrayed by Al Harron)

  5. Skadi Forums? That'd be a humour site too, if it wasn't so frightening that there are still so many racists around.

  6. Humbling, is about all I can say. A pre-literacy Imagi-nation project, perhaps?

  7. oh boy...where do you start on this one,lol?-Mario

  8. As someone who works in academia myself, I think you almost have to reply to him, Al. This reads like something that could, with a little work, be published in an academic publication. Since so few academics seem to bother to read Howard, this misinformation getting past peer review has to be considered as at least possible. From what you've shown, this isn't an isolated viewpoint. Then we would have to contend the "legitimacy" that an academic publication would give these ideas. While I don't think the odds of that happening are high, I don't know if they should be dismissed out of hand, either. If I put as much work into something as this guy seems to have done with his thesis, I'd try to get some type of publication out of it.

  9. DC here-

    I posted a kindly worded rebuttal in two parts, and he seems to be backtracking- he's now saying the movie is only using history as an inspiration. I just pointed out that if that's the case, he should have worded it more carefully- after all, he says that the snake cult of Set is the ONLY FICTIONAL THING IN THE MOVIE.

  10. I dont really see the problem. He say he didnt read the stories, and the point seams to be that the movie fit nicely in to his particular interests (and, we might presume, what he usually discuss on his blog). "anyone interested in this age, heres a movie that give us a fairly good image of what it was like" is really all he is saying. Its like seeing a movie and thinking "-hey, if they throw in a big blackhaired barbarian, this would be a great Conan movie"!

  11. The problem is, others might start to believe him as well.

    It's a very intriguing theory, could be a great basis for a series of Historical Fantasy or Historical Fiction novels. Sort of like what Guy Gaveril Kay does.. But being a Conan fan already comes with having to navigate a load of minefields.. and it's not helped by stuff like this.. no matter how creative.

  12. My name is xchenya i was born in lvov, ukraine. You americans have it confused. Cimmeria is modern day south ukraine. Let me help you with some factual history. The kurgans were descendents of cimmerian; sumeria, and the slavs. They were barbarians that evolved on the stepps of russia. Much like your fictional klingon culture. Simple people that knew horses and fighting. And later learned to harvest via gathering of agriculture. These tribes still exist to this day and live a bit more modern then their ansestor did now they are the nomadic tribes of siberia. And they dont fight each like they used to. They simply migrate to different areas for food. Please do the world a favor: before you start speaking about something that you do not know please first pull your head out of your ass.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, xchenya.

      First of all, I'm not American, I'm Scottish of several generations of Scots and Irish. Second, of course the Cimmerians and their factual history in the Ukraine is well attested in the historical record. No argument from me.

      However, there is a problem when you conflate the historical Cimmerians and the fictional Cimmerians created by Robert E. Howard as if they were one and the same. That would be like conflating the historical Illyrians and the alien Illyrians from Star Trek.

      Of course I'm not going to argue that the historical Cimmerians were anything other than an Indo-European nomadic tribe of antiquity which dwelled in what is now southern Ukraine. I'm just saying that the historical and fictional Cimmerians are different, and treating them as the same just leads to exactly this sort of confusion.

  13. Procopius of Caesarea / c. AD 500 – c. AD 565/ was one of the most prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History. He is commonly held to be the last major historian of the ancient world.


    "Beyond the Sagins lived many Hunnic tribes. Expanding from that point country is called Evlisia (Procopius evidently used information from "Anonymous Periple of Pontus Euxinus," where this country beginning form the Sagins dwelling places and up to Don and the Azov Sea is actually spelled "Evdousiya"), Its coastal area, aswell the interior is inhabited by barbarians up until the so-called "Meotian swamp " (Sea of Azov ) and the river Tanais (Don), which flows into that "swamp". In turn, the swamp overflows into Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea). The people who live there in ancient times were called Cimmerians, now they are called JUtigurs. (Book .ІV.4, The war with the Goths). "

    "A huge number of Huns in ancient times, who back then were called Cimmerians, lived in these areas, that we have mentioned, and one king ruled over them. Then ruled over them a king who had two sons, one of these was called Utigur and the other - Kutrigur. When their father died, they shared the rule and named their subjects in their own names. And by my time, part of them are still called Utigurs and the other part - Kutrigurs ... (Book .ІV.5, The war with the Goths). ”.

  14. Taranaich, something you will have to face here and probably elsewhere on the world wide web is the fact that even FICTIONAL cimmerians such as imagined by Howard will be used to nourish the rotten theories of PANTURKISM and PANSLAVISM , to cite only two. Look it up you'll be surprised by the amount of bullshit these retarded people profess. Referring to sword and sorcery fiction for the sole reason that its canonic form is set in a pseudohistorical context is only one of their known classic tricks. I'm certain you are already familiar with British Israelism for example, which isn't so far off in terms of misguided patriotic beliefs mixed with a good dose of sick bigotry.