If Wishes were Horses — Part One

“Better a man’s steed, than a man’s slave, master,” said the girl.

“Aye,” he answered, “for there is nobility in a good horse.”

— Robert E. Howard, “The Slave-Princess”

The above must be the slightest, most tenuous REH quote I’ve ever used as a springboard for a post yet. I’ll be citing other references to horses from a good many of his stories and letters as I continue, but they will effectively all be just that – references. Just the same, they have their significance. As the hero (Conan, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, or Kosru Malik the Chagatai in “The Road of Azrael”) either dashes to the rescue or boldly escapes his enemies after just killing someone, he generally has a good horse between his thighs, without which his fate would be sudden, gory demise.

Even in a casual sentence, like the mention of Pyrrhas the Argive’s past career in “The House of Arabu” –- “ … the thundering pageantry that rioted through that saga: the feasts, revels, wars, the crash and splintering of ships and the onset of chariots,” the paramount role of the horse lies behind the broad bold colors of the images used. Without horses there would have been no onset of chariots. The invention of the war chariot changed history. The Indo-Europeans with their chariots spread their language and culture from northern India to Britain. In Egypt, the Asiatic Hyksos conquered the Delta with their chariots, and ruled it for two hundred years; when the princes of southern Egypt adopted the chariot themselves, and improved it, they threw the Hyksos lords back into the desert.

Much later, larger, stronger horses were bred that could carry men on their backs for long periods. Even men in armor, with heavy weapons, like the Persian and Byzantine cataphracts and the knights of the Middle Ages. That revolutionized war again. And not just war. The incredibly simple invention of the horse-collar enabled the weight of a towed load to be taken on the horse’s chest and shoulders instead of its neck. It could then pull a plow or a cart or a coach without being choked. Farming and transport received what was effectively an immense new power source. It seems astounding that the horse-collar (and the stirrup) took so long to invent.

In REH’s westerns the protagonist seldom appears in any way but riding a horse, or with one tethered nearby. In the old west, of course, if he lacked a horse a man was soon dead. Being “set a-foot” was a fate the most intrepid feared, and doing it to someone was reckoned among the unforgivable crimes. It called for savage retribution if the victim survived.

Before going further, it might pay us to hark back, a very long way back, for a capsule and necessarily inadequate rundown on the evolution of the horse. The ancestry and fossil record of equidae in itself is one of the strongest arguments for biological evolution, which is still being denied and argued against by many. For a detailed and better informed article than anything I could write, I recommend Horse Evolution by Kathleen Hunt, on the TalkOrigins Archive.

The horse’s earliest known ancestor was Eohippus (the dawn horse), or as it’s most often called by scientists these days, the hyracotherium. No bigger at best than a Labrador dog, it flourished between 55 and 45 million years ago. It front feet had four toes and the hind ones, three. The creature lived in damp hot boggy jungles and chomped on the low-growing foliage. There were no doubt various related species and a branching tree of their descendants, as always, some of which survived and some of which didn’t. By 37 million years ago, Mesohippus had come along, and that was the dominant living member of the horse family – or at least the best-known one of which we still have a fossil record. Mesohippus was bigger than his remote ancestors, and his feet had adapted from swampy ground to the soft earth that was more common by then. Mesohippus also crossed into the North American continent.

By the late Miocene, about 17 million years ago, there were extensive plains with hard grasses growing all over them in North America. Merychippus, a new kind of horse, appeared, well adapted to eating the plains grass and running to escape predators. This model evolved in North America. The central toe had adapted to a large single hoof, and the tough grazing teeth were a lot like those of modern horses. Merychippus roved in herds, too, once again like modern wild horses.

Then came Pliohippus, about 12 million years ago. This one’s fossils have been found from the U.S. Great Plains to Canada. It spread to every continent but Australia and Antarctica – down to South America, across to Asia and thence to Europe, even into Africa. The African equus type became, of course, quaggas and zebras, and there was also a type of zebra, now extinct, in India two million years ago. For that matter the equus sellardsi, now extinct too, of North America, seems to have looked like a zebra without stripes.

Great herds of horses roved the North American plains before human beings crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age. They shared the land with mammoths, mastodons, a type of giant buffalo, giant lions without manes, and the dire wolf – many of the spectacular huge mammals that flourished once. Then came human beings. As the glaciers retreated and the land dried out considerably, the big mammals declined in number. It’s very possible that the early human inhabitants of North America helped them die out by hunting them. They had to come to the shrinking water sources to drink, and their four-footed predators as well as human hunters would have found that a favorite place to ambush them. There would have been multiple, complex causes, not just one, but however it happened, by eight thousand years ago the native North American horse was extinct. Equines weren’t introduced again until the Spaniards brought them over in the fifteenth century. Escaped stallions and mares from early Spanish expeditions went wild and bred until there were large herds of them. Without them, the impressive and dramatic horse-warrior culture of the Plains Indians (a misnomer that arose from Columbus’s conviction, which he never abandoned, that what he’d found was a remote and unknown part of India) would never have existed.

Writing of times thousands of years in the past would naturally bring us – in a post geared to REH’s work – to the ages of King Kull and Conan. Kull’s reign in Valusia, based on Howard’s famous essay “The Hyborian Age”, was probably supposed to be around 22,000 years ago. At least one fan writer, name unknown, has calculated that Kull’s time was more like 35,000 years ago — in “The Hyborian Tome – From the First to the Hyborian Age: A Combined Tolkien/Robert E. Howard Timeline”. Anyhow, the modern horse species Equus certainly existed then, and REH did have horses as highly bred riding animals in Valusia and elsewhere. Their most notable appearance is in the Kull story “Riders Beyond the Sunrise”, which is mostly REH even though Lin Carter did complete it. Kull and his band ride across the known world, just about, to bring retribution to an adventurer who has insulted Kull. On the journey they encounter (in the comparatively crude land of Grondar, far to the east of Valusia) a group of a few hundred armed horsemen who let them pass in the belief that they won’t return from beyond the sunrise in any case. In their experience no-one ever has.

I’d suppose that, in the cataclysm which sank Atlantis and changed the face of the earth, these highly-bred animals died out and nothing but wild horses were left. Far fewer of them, too. Many species must have become extinct in a disaster like that, but eventually the horse increased its numbers again, and was domesticated anew. In the Hyborian Age, the Turanians had an effective cavalry of light horse archers, like the force that wiped out Conan’s kozaki under Shah Amurath in “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” The kozaki were great horsemen too. In Zingara, Aquilonia and Nemedia there were certainly large horses that could carry knights in armor similar to the medieval chivalry of our own history. Conan himself was generally well mounted in his days as a mercenary or bandit.

Cases in point … In “People of the Black Circle” he carried off the Princess Yasmina on “a fierce Bhalkhana stallion”. At the end of the same story, “three thousand mailed horsemen” – Turanians – from the stronghold of Secunderam, also seeking to capture Yasmina, invaded the mountains. Luckily “five thousand riders of Vendhya”, Yasmina’s kingdom, appeared to save the day. In the story “A Witch Shall Be Born”, Conan gave the forces of the evil Salome a trouncing with the help of “three thousand desperate Hyborian horsemen fighting in a solid wedge”. At the opening of “Red Nails” both Conan and Valeria had mounts until a dragon killed them for breakfast. When Tarascus of Nemedia moved against Aquilonia in “The Hour of the Dragon”, he came with an army of fifty thousand and was met by King Conan with forty-five thousand – eight to ten thousand heavily armored knights on each side, probably, plus mounted men-at-arms who weren’t noble. The civilized nations clearly had large strong horses in plenty.

The barbarians, the Cimmerians, Aesir, Vanir and Picts, don’t seem to have had them, or not noticeably. They may have hunted wild ponies for meat more often than they rode them or used them as pack animals. REH himself conscientiously pointed out that “The Hyborian Age” was just a background for fiction – magnificent blood-and-thunder fiction with a strongly individual slant, and I admire it too much to wish even to appear for a second as though I were patronizing it, but I wouldn’t want to seem as though I credited it as a genuine alternative to accepted archaeology. REH didn’t offer it as such either. Archaeologists have excavated the sites of ancient mammoth hunts and reconstructed the events pretty well. They surely wouldn’t have missed the remains of thousands of such distinctive horses from a mere ten or twelve thousand years ago – roughly the date of the second cataclysm that ended the Hyborian Age and heaved up vast areas of West Africa from beneath the waves.

Accepting that, though, we can assume that the domesticated horse – all its breeds — went the way of the mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger, and for that matter the native wild North American horse, after the second cataclysm. All traces of the former civilizations were utterly destroyed. There remained wild asses, onagers, the Eurasian tarpan (which survived into the nineteenth century) and the Central Asian Przewalski’s Horse, which is still with us, blessedly.

Moving into the history we know and generally accept, it seems that the horse was first domesticated quite a bit later than the dog, pig and other farm animals — roughly five thousand years ago. Human beings had plenty of experience herding cattle by then, and adapted it to herding horses. The latter were faster, more highly-strung and harder to control than cattle or sheep, so it isn’t surprising that taming them came later. Effective hobbles and corrals would have had to be invented before it was possible to herd them. Probably they were kept for their meat and milk at first.

There’s a general view that horses were hitched to carts, wagons and chariots before they were ridden. Even professionals in this area of prehistory think so, or many of them do. Maybe. I’m certainly no expert. But questions like this exist in a pretty grey area, with the answers less certain still.

There were no large breeds of horses at the time. More importantly, they do not seem to have had strong enough backs to carry heavy loads for long. However, people back then were small too – in the Middle East and the Russian steppes, anyway, where the horse was first tamed. (After the Hyborian Age ended). The “giant northern barbarians” were big, like many animals in the region, because when you were big you could retain your body heat in the cold more efficiently. Middle Eastern horses could be ridden, and probably were, at least bareback, with rope halters, for short distances.

The idea that they were first harnessed to carts or sledges and only ridden later seems to ignore the question of how. The horses hitched to early carts and chariots wore yokes across their shoulders, but for a horse that isn’t a really efficient way of harnessing it to draw a load. For a bullock, yes. For an equine the best answer is the horse-collar, which throws the weight on the beast’s shoulders instead of across its throat (which cuts of its wind and stops it in its tracks). To the best of our knowledge horse-collars weren’t invented until after the Roman Empire fell. Whether horses were ridden or used to draw carts first probably depends on how their owners lived, and how suitable the topography was for wheeled vehicles anyway. For primitive tribesmen in a mountain or prairie region, riding probably came first. For city people in flat country like Mesopotamia, it’s likely the horse-drawn cart preceded riding.

The fast, dramatic “onset of chariots” in war, as REH phrases it in “The House of Arabu”, depended on the invention of the spoked wheel. Vehicles with solid wheels were just too slow. In REH’s lifetime there was a popular and respected historical theory which identified the early Indo-Europeans with the basic “Aryan” race, the archetypal Nordic folk — as tall, blond and blue-eyed as Hitler wished he were. (“Aryan” is a language group, not a race, anyway.)

The first real chariots, with spoked wheels, seem to have been developed in Central Asia, north of the Aral Sea, by the Indo-Europeans, around 2000 BCE. Being a fast, light and open two-wheeled vehicle, essentially just a small floor with a curved shield in the front (originally leather-covered wicker), it could carry only two people, the driver and a warrior with a bow and a couple of spears. But it made a difference to warfare comparable with the appearance of the tank in the early 20th century. A chariot squadron could literally drive rings around fighters on foot, skewer them with arrows from a distance, or simply surge over them, trampling them under the horses’ hooves. Along with its practical effectiveness, the chariot was a terror weapon. Whoever had them, conquered. The chariot was also, from the first, used by wealthy noble warriors, especially kings, and by extension, naturally ascribed to gods. Indo-European gods were generally of the sky, the sun and thunder. The sun god was pictured as driving across the sky in a golden chariot. The thunder god, whether Thor or Donar in northern Europe, Perun in Slavic countries, Zeus of the lightning in Greece, or Indra in the Hindu pantheon, is always the same sort of fellow – powerful, amorous, arbitrary, impulsive, a great warrior, a great drinker, and an enemy to the forces of chaos whether they are demons, giants, monsters or titans. He characteristically subdues them. And he invariably rides in a chariot. Thor’s is drawn by two goats, but those of Helios, Perun and Indra by horses, the normal animal for the purpose.

In Mary Renault’s superb novel of Theseus, The King Must Die, when Theseus is a small boy his grandfather tells him the legends of his people and the origins of the custom of the royal sacrifice. He describes how, long before they came to Greece, their ancestors lived on an immense sea of grass and depended utterly on their horse herds. The Indo-Europeans (or Aryans, their own word for themselves) introduced their chariot fighting methods to the broad plains of Mesopotamia, where the country was just about perfect for the technique.

In “The House of Arabu”, Robert E. Howard describes the wanderings of Pyrrhas the Argive, like many of his heroes a barbarian from the west. An “Argive” is a native of the Argolid in Greece, perhaps the city of Argos itself, which was one of the oldest in the country, and an important subject or ally of Agamemnon at the time of the Trojan War. But Pyrrhas apparently lived long before that. In his day the Mycenaeans lived in “huts”, and in Egypt “men toiled beneath the lash to rear the first pyramids.” (Emphasis mine.) He visits Troy, too, but it was then just “a mud-walled trading village.” Finally he comes to the plains of Sumeria and rises high in the army of the city-state of Nippur. He fights for Nippur against Erech – which is Uruk, the city Gilgamesh ruled, but Gilgamesh is not mentioned by name, and it was perhaps after his time. If the clues in the story can be trusted it would have to be before 2000 BCE, anyway, and maybe before 2500. Chariot warfare is already practiced – which may not be strictly accurate, or chariot warfare may be older than we suppose. There are also large riding horses, but the writer is careful to make the point that there aren’t many, and they aren’t indigenous to the region. “There were perhaps a score in all Nippur, the property of the king and his wealthier nobles; they had been bought from the wild tribes far to the north, beyond the Caspian, whom in a later age men called Scythians.”

The story of war chariots in Egypt is dramatic and famous. The Egyptians at one time were the most complacent stay-at-homes of the ancient world. Their armed forces consisted of foot soldiers armed with shields and spears. Their archers seem to have been largely alien soldiers – subject Nubians. Nubia was called by Egyptians the “land of the bow.” The long fertile strip by the Nile was protected from invasion by deserts and the sea. But security never lasts. About 1720 or 1700 BCE, Asiatic chiefs who became known as the Hyksos (in Egyptian, hikau khausut, the “shepherd kings” or “foreign lords” began to invade the Delta with the new weapon of the war chariot. The Egyptians couldn’t stand before it and the Hyksos became the Delta’s rulers, with their capital at Avaris.

Far upstream at Thebes, the native Egyptian princes seethed, and vowed to restore the country’s unity. They adopted the enemy’s weapons, the chariot and composite bow. Eventually, under Theban leaders like Seqenenre Tao and Ahmose, they drove out the Hyksos rulers and subjugated the lower classes. Egypt remembered the foreign rulers with execration and loathing ever after. They never could have overthrown them without copying their weapons and methods of war, though, and changing their insular outlook. During the New Kingdom that followed, Egypt conquered an empire beyond its borders for the first time. The chariot corps was always a predominant and vital part of the army henceforward.

Warlike nobles in chariots moved into northern India from about 1500 BCE. One of their greatest gods, Indra (and one of the earliest Hindu gods) was a god of war who characteristically rode in a two-horse chariot. He was also the son of Dyaus, god of the sky. The name Dyaus pretty obviously comes from the same Indo-European root word as Zeus. Indra and REH’s Pyrrhas would have been quite a bit alike.

The chariot made the Indo-Europeans supreme wherever they went, and as conquerors they imposed their language on their subject peoples. By the time they had finished there were only pockets of non-Indo-European speakers left, from Norway to northern India. The Basques constituted one, the Etruscans another.

REH as always could give a vivid, violent picture of the way things were in far fewer words than I’ve used. In his poems particularly. “A Song Out of Midian” seems to catch the spirit of one of those ancient middle eastern warlords as surely as if Howard had known him. The warlord is trying to win over a saddened concubine who longs for home, and she seems to be an Israelite girl, since he asks her if amid the luxuries of his palace, she longs for “the desert tribesmen’s coarse hard fare/and the eagle’s rocks and the lion’s lair/and the tents of the Israelite?”

“I will break the thrones of the world, Astair, and fling them at your feet;
Flame and banners and doom shall fly, and my iron chariots rend the sky,
Whirlwind on whirlwind heaping high, death and a deadly sleet.”

Since he talks about his iron chariots, if that’s to be taken literally, he must be living later than the Bronze Age. Maybe he’s an Assyrian. The Assyrians came after the Babylonians, and the Babylonian kingdom was first formed by a Kassite elite, around 1300 BCE, when the Egyptians had thrown out the Hyksos and were being ruled by their Nineteenth Dynasty. Their arch-rivals, the Hittites, were now an empire too, in Asia Minor, and all of them used the chariot as their main terror weapon of war. North of them, the historical Cimmerians (not the people of Conan) dominated the plains from the Danube to the Caspian. Iron had become known, in the Hittite lands first, but it had forty times the value of silver by weight in those early days.

Well, the kingdom of Babylon rose and at last went down. REH describes its heyday and coming fall in “The Riders of Babylon”. That realm, like many others, depended for its conquests and communication on horse transport.

The riders of Babylon come and go
From Gaza’s halls to the shores of Tyre;
They shake the world from the lands of snow
To the deserts, red in the sunset’s fire;
Their horses swim in a sea of gore
And the tribes of the earth bow down before;
They have chained the seas where the Cretans sail.
But Babylon’s sun shall set in blood;
Her towers shall sink in a crimson flood;
And men shall say, “Here Babylon stood,”
Ere Time forgot the tale.

By 825 BCE, the Assyrian kingdom had expanded into an empire. Iron weapons, siegecraft, atrocity and terror were its methods of conquest. It’s true that other ancient kings used those techniques as well, but few of them boasted about it with the unabashed relish of the Assyrians. They preferred to declare on their monuments how just and generous they were, how brave in battle on their country’s behalf, what good rulers, and how devoted they had been to “the ashes of [their] fathers, and the temples of [their] gods.” Assyrian kings like Esarhaddon and his son Ashurbanipal, on the other hand, bragged of how they had skinned conquered captives and covered the ramparts of the captured town with their flayed hides.

It’s to Ashurbanipal that the title of REH’s story, “The Fire of Asshurbanipal (sic)” refers. The story features an ancient, accursed red jewel that once belonged to an evil magician at the court of the Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal reigned from 669 to 627 BCE. A relief from his throne room in ancient Nineveh depicts him in a royal chariot with eight-spoked wheels, guiding the horses and shaded by a parasol. He was returning from the conquest of Elam, after capturing and sacking Elam’s capital of Susa. The British Museum has another famous relief, showing Ashurbanipal and his queen reveling at a garden party, while the King of Elam’s severed head dangles from a nearby tree.

A poem of Howard’s, “The gates of Nineveh” refers to an earlier Assyrian king, Sargon II (722-705 BCE). Sargon, too, returns from a campaign of conquest to the great city of Nineveh, also in a chariot, but has a moment of melancholy foresight in his hour of triumph.

“Down from his chariot Sargon came,
Tossed his helmet upon the sand,
Dropped his sword with its blade like flame,
Stroked his beard with his empty hand.

“Cities crumble and chariots rust,
I see through a fog that is strange and grey,
All kingly things fade back to the dust,
Even the gates of Nineveh.”

He was right. Nineveh was eventually destroyed. By his time and Ashurbanipal’s, iron-working had spread from Assyria throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and as far as Italy and the Alps in the west, though not yet to Spain or the British Isles. The Hallstatt Celts of Central Europe had fully developed their culture by then, and were using iron swords. They operated extensive salt mines at Hallstatt, in Austria, near Salzburg – a source of considerable wealth to the local tribe. The barbaric Celts, of course, were REH’s favorite historical people, and they were famous as horsemen and charioteers. Lances, usually thought of as a medieval weapon, were invented and used by the Celts as early as the seventh century BCE.

As usual, the post has reached the end of its space without nearly exhausting the subject. There are the Celts to be covered (sketchily, of necessity) and medieval times, and of course the history of the horse in the U.S.A. – the south-west in particular. And nothing would be able to excuse neglecting the demon of a horse, Cap’n Kidd, ridden by REH’s roughneck giant Breckinridge Elkins. Next time …

Read Part Two, Part Three, Part 4a, Part 4b, Part 4c, Part 5a, Part 5b, Part 6