Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Mad Scholars

Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were frequent correspondents while both – along with Clark Ashton Smith – were steady writers for Weird Tales. Lovecraft, of course, created the Cthulhu Mythos with its grotesque alien super-beings from beyond, often worshipped as gods by misguided or degenerate humans. Howard and Smith, also of course, added references to the beings of the Mythos and the ghastly Necronomicon to their own stories, as well as inventing other bizarre books of occult, forbidden lore. (Like Smith’s Book of Eibon.)

REH, to judge by a letter he wrote to Tevis Clyde Smith around September 1930, for a little while thought there might actually be real cults of Cthulhu and the other entities Lovecraft created, worshipped in odd places in the real world. He had encountered references to them in the writings of a Dr. De Castro and thought they were independent allusions. Lovecraft set him straight instead of kidding him along. REH wrote ruefully, “I got a letter from Lovecraft wherein he tells me, much to my chagrin, that Cthulhu, R’lyeh, Yuggoth, Yog-Sothoth, and so on are figments of his own imagination.”

Lovecraft, as quoted by Howard, had written:

The reason for its echoes in Dr. De Castro’s work is that the latter gentleman is a revision-client of mine – into whose tales I have stuck these glancing references for sheer fun. If any other clients of mine get work placed in W.T., you will perhaps find a still wider spread of the cult of Azathoth, Cthulhu, and the Great Old Ones.

The Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is likewise something which must be yet written in order to possess objective reality. Abdul is a favorite dream-character of mine – indeed, that is what I used to call myself when I was five years old and a transported devotee of Andrew Lang’s version of the Arabian Nights. A few years ago I prepared a mock-erudite synopsis of Abdul’s life, and of the posthumous vicissitudes and translations of his hideous and unmentionable work Al Azif (called – some blighting Greek word – by the Byzantine (something) Theodoras Philetas, who translated it into late Greek in A.D. 900!) – a synopsis which I shall follow in future references to the dark and accursed thing. Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his – in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude (?) by aside citation.

Howard joined in the game with a will. He created Unaussprechlichen Kulten, also known as the “Black Book” or Nameless Cults, written by the German von Junzt, who was evidently a devotee of the Necronomicon before he ever produced his own damnable occult work. In REH’s story “The Children of the Night”, one of the characters remarks that von Junzt was among the few people “who could read the Necronomicon in the original Greek translation.” As for von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, it was “regarded as the ravings of a maniac.” Von Junzt had “spent the full forty-five years of his life prying into strange places and discovering secret and abysmal things.” (“The Thing on the Roof”)

Since he was found strangled in a barred and bolted room in the year 1840, he must have been born in 1795. (The dates REH gives for his life in “The Black Stone” confirm that.) The battle of Waterloo was fought when he was twenty, and the Napoleonic Wars had raged all over Europe during his boyhood. He perished so weirdly when, in England, Queen Victoria had sat on the throne for three years, and only just married her cousin, Prince Albert. In the U.S.A., Martin van Buren, former Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson, was the nation’s eighth president – during the worst financial depression it had seen until then. More relevantly, Edgar Allan Poe, then aged thirty-one, had just had his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque published. He would have appreciated von Junzt.

The German’s death occurred six months after he had returned from “mysterious” travels in Mongolia. Nameless Cults had been first printed in Dusseldorf in 1839. He’d probably been absent in Mongolia at the time, so whatever he discovered there – and which may have precipitated his death – it wouldn’t have been recorded in his magnum opus. We’re informed in “The Black Stone” that he worked unceasingly on a manuscript for months before his death. That probably did deal with the results of his last journey. When he was found strangled in that locked and bolted room, the papers had been shredded and scattered about, perhaps by the same “taloned fingers” that had throttled him. His closest friend, who was unwise enough to spend hours piecing the rags of torn paper together and reading what was written on them, promptly burned them and committed suicide with a razor.

The narrator of “The Thing on the Roof” says of a dubious scholar who has approached him for a favor, “He might almost as well have asked me for the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon, making it clear that this is so rare as to be unobtainable. Even von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, we’re told in “The Black Stone”, has only half-a-dozen copies of the original, unexpurgated German edition remaining in the world, and that was published in the age of print, in the nineteenth century. The Necronomicon, on the other hand, was translated into Greek and re-titled by a Byzantine scholar circa 950 CE. At least H.P. Lovecraft assured his readers of this in his “History of the Necronomicon, which he wrote in 1927. He should have known.

It was originally in Arabic, and known as “Al Azif.” According to Lovecraft’s (fictional) history of the book, its author was “a mad poet of Sanaa, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiad caliphs, circa 700 CE.” During his last years he lived in Damascus. It was there that he wrote “Al Azif.” He died or disappeared in 738. There are “terrible and conflicting” versions of his end. One 12th-century biographer of his wrote solemnly that he had been seized in daylight by an invisible monster and eaten alive before a crowd of witnesses.This ancient Yemenite author is known to the western world as Abdul Alhazred, and often referred to as “the mad Arab.” Abdul Alhazred must have been a distortion by western writers who had no acquaintance with the Arab culture or language. It’s impossible under the rules of Arab nomenclature. “Abdul” is the same as Abd-al-, meaning “slave of the –”, and usually it’s combined with one of the ninety-nine names of Allah, as in Abdul-Baqi (Slave of the Eternal). Abdul by itself isn’t a complete name, though often it’s used alone for the sake of brevity. “Abdul Alhazred” would be a redundancy, repeating “al” (the). His real, complete name may have gone along the lines of Abdul-something-or-other ibn something-or-other al-Hazrat. “Alhazred” is very likely a misspelling of al-Hazrat, “the Great Lord” – possibly an epithet of his father’s or grandfather’s.

Any number of evanescent tyrants could have called themselves “the Great Lord” in Yemen circa 700 CE. It was a turbulent place. I’ll digress here with a little of its history.

It was a rich and fertile kingdom at the time. The Romans had called it Arabia Felix – Fortunate Arabia. Being near the sea and receiving ample rain, and having a convenient location on the sea route to India, it deserved the name. Besides, it was an important source of incense, and that was greatly prized for court ceremonial in both Persia and Rome. Later, in Christian times, it reached even greater heights of demand for Church ritual.

The Sabaean kingdom was the first truly civilized realm to flourish in Arabia Felix, between about 300 and 115 BCE. They knew its coasts, reefs and harbors, mastered the treacherous monsoons of the region, and became masters of its sea-trade. The Romans and Greeks dreaded those waters, which to them lacked good harbors or anchorages (the Sabaeans weren’t inclined to tell them otherwise). They described them as “terrible in every way.”

From 115 BCE onwards, the Himyarite tribe from Arabia’s south-western mountains began to dominate the region. The First Himyarite Kingdom lasted until about CE 300. Arab colonists crossed the straits at the lower end of the Red Sea to the “Land of Cush” in this period, and settled there. They eventually founded the kingdom of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Far down the east African coast, there was influence by Arab seafarers long before the birth of Mohammed.

From the first century CE, though, Persian and Greek traders began giving serious competition. They were learning to navigate the southern seas. (The navigational guide known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was written late in the first century CE. It describes the ports of the lower Red Sea, including Adulis, the effects of the monsoons, and the times of year for sailing ships to use them heading to India and back.) Control slipped out of Yemenite hands, and the First Himyarite Kingdom declined.

The second rose to power after 300 CE. The title of its kings became “King of Saba, dhu-Raydan, Handramawt and Yamanat.” There was an Abyssinian conquest and short Abyssinian rule between 340 and 378. Then the native Himyarite kings regained power. They kept it down to about 525.

The Jewish religion became widespread in Yemen during the Second Himyarite Kingdom. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE, the Jews had dispersed widely; many fled to northern Arabia. Most Yemenite Jews would have been native Arabs converted from paganism due to this influence, not actual descendants of Abraham. By the early part of the 6th century CE, the last Himyarite king (Yusuf As’ar dhu-Nuwas) was Jewish.

Dhu-Nuwas detested Christians and persecuted them in his realm. This probably wasn’t on purely religious grounds, but because of the hated conquest and rule by the Christian Abyssinians just across the strait – still a menace, and about to demonstrate it. But that was no comfort to the Christians of Najran when du-Nuwas had them massacred late in 523.

The survivors called on the Byzantine Emperor, Justin I, for aid and retribution. Justin in turn wrote to the Negus (King) of Abyssinia, and called on him to champion the Christian cause. (He was the closest Christian monarch to Yemen.) The Negus, by name Ella Atsbeha, raised an army of 70,000 and sent them across the Red Sea in a huge fleet. He was, naturally, seeking to conquer Yemen again, and pleased to have an excuse, along with the backing of the East Roman Empire, the greatest Christian power of the day.

The Abyssinians trounced the Himyarites in 523 and again in 525. Dhu-Nuwas, defeated, is said in legend to have spurred his horse into the sea and drowned himself. A Christian Himyarite called Esimphaeus was installed by the Abyssinians as a puppet ruler, but before long he was overthrown by a rebel Abyssinian commander, Abraham. Not an unusual fate for puppet rulers.

The Negus of Abyssinia sent two military expeditions against the usurper. The first deserted to Abraham’s side, and the second one was beaten like a mediocre pug going into the ring with Jack Dempsey. The Negus decided to make the best of a bad situation. He recognized Abraham as ruler of Yemen, and for his part Abraham owned the Negus as his overlord and paid him tribute – little more than a token, probably. Later in the sixth century the Prophet, Mohammed, was born. By the end of the seventh, all Arabia had been converted (by conquest) to the new faith, Yemen included, and the land had no more Jewish or Christian rulers. All its tribes had accepted Islam – at least in name, and superficially. But full or genuine obedience to the distant caliphs was more a matter of wishing than fact. Yemen remained in the hands of local chieftains and bickering warlords.

That was the state of affairs when Abdul Alhazred (whatever his true name) was born. The year may have been 675 CE. If so, since Lovecraft wrote that he died in Damascus in 738, he would have been sixty-three. His homeland of Yemen was a chaotic and violent place, the local imams and lordlings in frequent conflict, one petty dynasty after another gaining, then losing, power in torrents of blood. A number could have styled themselves “al-Hazrat”, Abdul’s sire or grandsire among them. Since they’ve been forgotten by western history, we’ll never know.

If Abdul was of aristocratic family, and wealthy, he may have enjoyed a cosmopolitan education. The Himyarite Kingdom had been a crossroads of wealthy maritime traffic, and the incense caravans had travelled north from that area for centuries. They would have been in regular touch with Petra and Palmyra in the greatest days of both cities. Traders from India came and went through the narrows at the southern end of the Red Sea. “Ships departed from the port of Berenice on the Red Sea and sailed down to Ocelis near modern Aden. Before August it was possible for a merchant ship to use the south-west monsoon and cross to the coast of India in forty days. The return journey was easier, and the fortunes to be made in the Indian trade were immense. A single cargo could make the backers wealthy, the loss of a single ship bring ruin.” (This writer, in ‘REH’s Lost Kingdom of Nagdragore’, for The Cimmerian, April 10th, 2010.) Arab merchants also fared far down the east coast of Africa, to the port known as Rhapta, opposite Madagascar. Scholars from Constantinople and Alexandria had brought their learning to Yemen in the first centuries BCE, as had Jews exiled from their ancient homeland. Not all of it would have disappeared by the year 700. Abdul would have had access to a range of obscure and bizarre cults, both civilized and savage.

Abdul himself has been described as “the mad poet” and “the mad Arab” so often that it’s almost like a formal title. We can suppose he came of noble blood. He may even have been a descendant of King Yusuf As’ar dhu-Nuwas, who though Jewish by religion was a southern Arab by race. Going further back, he conceivably descended from King Lisharh ibn Yahsub of Yaqut. That monarch flourished in the first century CE, and is credited with building the castle of Ghumdan in Sa’na — which according to Lovecraft was Abdul’s home city.

Ghumdan was one of the many fortified palaces the urban Himyarites built as a defense against Bedouin raids, and by all accounts the most magnificent. Twenty stories high, it was built of granite, porphyry and marble. The uppermost storey contained the throne room and court apartments. Its ceiling was a single slab of fine stone so transparent that – it was said – one could look through it to the sky and tell whether a bird flying overhead was a crow or a kite. At the building’s base, before each corner-stone, stood an image of a great brazen lion. The lions were hollow. When the wind blew through the vents in their flanks and out through their open mouths, they were heard to roar. Today the palace is known only from legends and records. It was destroyed after the rise of Islam. But if it still stood when Abdul Alhazred was born, he may even have been raised in its precincts.

If he was the youngest of numerous sons, he wouldn’t have much chance of gaining a throne unless he murdered all his brothers – and one of them might have murdered him first. For someone with the talent, the poet’s profession offered better chances of a long, prosperous life. Poets were highly regarded in ancient Arabia.

Strangely enough, the Arabs of the time had a culture that paralleled that of Ireland in striking ways. Their society was divided into warring clans and tribes, with raid, ambush and feud an outstanding feature of daily life. Blood and kinship counted overwhelmingly – were in fact the main measure of survival. Livestock – in Arabia, camels and horses – were the currency in which wealth was reckoned. (In Ireland a basic measure of exchange was the “cumal”, the worth of four cows.). Hospitality was among the highest virtues.

Kings were expected to be munificent, and many of them patronized as many poets as they built castles and fortresses. The seven greatest poets of Arabia in the sixth century CE composed between them the famous “Mu’allaqat”, the Golden Odes. They travelled north to places like al-Hirah, capital of the Lakhmid kings who ruled on the southern borders of Persia, acting as a buffer state for the Persian monarchs. The Ghassanid rulers on the other side of the Syrian Desert performed the same function for the Byzantines. Poets were welcomed anywhere and it was considered disgraceful to kill them – again, as was the case in Ireland. Abdul Alhazred (we don’t know what his actual name was, so we may as well go on calling him that) travelled widely in his search for interdicted occult knowledge, and his poet’s immunity would have saved him (often) from having his throat opened.

Part of the poet’s profession was genealogy. It was considered a high craft if not an art. A man’s lineage was among his proudest possessions, and you didn’t question it unless you intended to fight him. Human nature being what it is, we can bet that poets were often hired by upstart kings who had climbed to their high position dagger-fisted – not just to recount their splendid pedigrees, but invent them as well. Again, that would have given Alhazred the means to travel and pursue his weird interests.

In Lovecraft’s “History of the “Necronomicon,” he says that the poet “visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secret of Memphis.” Both were very ancient even in his day. Babylon had fallen to Cyrus the Great’s generals twelve hundred years before Alhazred’s time; and Memphis had been the “City of White Walls”, a mighty metropolis of the ancient world, since the Old Kingdom. Its population in the time of Moses (if we take that as between 1300 and 1200 BCE) was about two hundred thousand. There were sinister occult secrets galore in both places, no doubt, for those who divined where to look and what powers to invoke.

Lovecraft also wrote of his mad poet, “He claimed to have seen the fabulous Irem, or City of Pillars, and to have found beneath the ruins of a certain nameless desert town the shocking annals and secrets of a race older than mankind.” REH may have been expanding on that in his story, “The Fire of Ashurbanipal,” in which two adventurers find a lost ancient city in the desert. “Sand choked the ancient streets and lent fantastic form to huge fallen and half-hidden columns.” The main avenue runs between a double row of “huge columns, not unusually tall, even allowing for the sand that hid their bases, but incredibly massive. On the top of each column stood a figure carved from solid stone–great, somber images, half human, half bestial, partaking of the brooding brutishness of the whole city.” The ruined metropolis is known as Kara-Shehr (the Black City) to Turks and as Beled-el-Djinn (City of Devils) to Arabs.

Perhaps it also had another name – Irem. Certainly “City of Pillars” would be appropriate, from REH’s description, and his story connects closely with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. He even specifically refers to the city as being the one “spoken of in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Alhazred – the city of the dead on which an ancient curse rested. Legends named it vaguely … ”

Irem certainly is named in legends, and more than just legends. The Koran refers to it, in Al-Fajr, with a slight difference in the spelling. Verses 6-13, in English, ask, “Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad? (With) Iram, who had lofty pillars, the likes of whom had never been created in the land? And Thamud, who carved out the rocks in the valley? And Pharaoh … ? (They) oppressed the lands, and increased therein the corruption. So your Lord poured upon them … punishment.”

It was supposedly an ancient lost city in the wastes of the Rub-al-Khali, once mighty and prosperous. The fifteenth-century version of the “Thousand and One Nights” mentions it. Even T.E. Lawrence, who besides being a legendary soldier, intelligence operative and guerilla fighter, was an archaeological and historical scholar, took some interest in the legend. He referred to Iram as “the Atlantis of the Sands.” That’s an interesting link, since REH’s character El Borak was an associate of Lawrence’s in the First World War, and his other, lesser characters who appear in “The Fire of Ashurbanipal”, Steve Clarney and Yar Ali, in all likelihood knew El Borak themselves.

Towards the end of that story, an old Bedouin bandit speaks with dread of “the forgotten gods, Cthulhu and Koth and Yog-Sothoth, and all the pre-Adamite Dwellers in the black cities under the sea and the caverns of the earth … ”

Yog-Sothoth is supposed to have been a special patron of Abdul Alhazred’s, or rather, a special subject of his interest and even worship. The Yemenite was probably a most imperfect Muslim from the beginning, obsessed with the relics and gods of the Days of Ignorance. And it’s fair to assume that he became more removed from the faith as he grew older and madder, until he was wholly apostate. If he entered the City of Pillars he was lucky to come out again, since it was haunted by a monster-demon spawned by those “forgotten gods.” Still, as a devotee of Yog-Sothoth, the mad poet may have avoided its hostile attentions and even been shown the records and secrets of the Black City by the entity. (As it’s described in “The Fire of Ashurbanipal”, if Alhazred hadn’t been mad before he met it, he certainly would have been crazed afterwards.)

Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon” states that after his investigations among “the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secret of Memphis,” Alhazred “spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia” – mostly the dreadful Rub-al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. Lovecraft wrote that it was “held to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death. Of this desert many strange and unbelievable marvels are told by those who pretend to have penetrated it.” Among the storied marvels are stones that fly through the air for short distances, then move across the sand leaving undulating spiral tracks before taking flight again. Rains of water may be rare to extremity in the Rub-al-Khali (or Dahna, Crimson Desert), but some who entered there have sworn to witnessing showers of blood.

My post “The Blood and the Fire” on this website deals with the REH story and its implications in more detail. I supposed, when I wrote it, that Howard had located Kara-Shehr in Turkestan in Central Asia, but that was a considerable mistake. As TGR blog fan “eleogs7” commented in response, it was actually in the interior of Arabia. More careful reading of REH’s story bore that out. Still – accepting the fiction that the city exists, and building on that – it “probably” was founded by cultists fleeing from Nineveh in the reign of King Ashurbanipal (who reigned from 668 to 626 BCE). It was erroneous to suppose that they travelled north into Central Asia, rather than south into Arabia, but aside from that, the hypothesis seems to hold together. They couldn’t have gone into, for example, Egypt, if they were fugitives from Assyria; Egypt was part of the Assyrian Empire in their day. That only leaves Arabia as a practical refuge for them. Their city’s site must have been a large, well-watered oasis region in the seventh century BCE, or it couldn’t have supported the population required to construct anything so impressive. It must have desiccated later, as one of REH’s adventurers, the American Steve Clarney, speculates.

If Howard’s Kara-Shehr was the same as Irem, “City of Pillars”, which Abdul Alhazred had seen (and more than just seen) then it would indeed be the “ancient City of Evil spoken of in the Necronomicon.” (“The Fire of Ashurbanipal.”) In his final years the poet and blasphemer lived in Damascus, where he wrote his hideous book, originally called “Al-Azif” and produced in Arabic. Being, whatever else he was, a literate man and a scholar, Alhazred may have made several copies and allowed his most trusted acolytes to reproduce it also. His original version may even have been bilingual if he was learned in Greek. The Byzantine Theodoras Philetas who made a translation circa 950 was probably not the first to do so – only the earliest whose Greek version of the Necronomicon survived. Lovecraft says a translation into Latin followed in 1228, after the Patriarch Michael of Constantinople had “suppressed and burnt” all copies of the Greek manuscript he could locate, in 1050.

Perhaps, in all that time, no-one had entered the lost city in the wastes of which Alhazred wrote. REH recounts in “The Fire of Ashurbanipal” that an American, Steve Clarney, and his Afridi partner, Yar Ali, found it while searching for a fabulous gem, in the early twentieth century, after the Great War. By the end of the story they are excessively glad to leave it again with their skins and their sanity. Their rival and enemy, Nureddin el Mekru, hasn’t been so lucky.

“The Assyrians did build this city!” Clarney exclaims on first seeing it. “The whole tale’s true! They must have come here when the Babylonians destroyed Assyria — why, this scene’s a dead ringer for pictures I’ve seen –reconstructed scenes of old Nineveh!”

Well, as this writer theorized in “The Blood and the Fire,” Clarney, no scholar, may not have been altogether right. I suspect that cult worshippers of Yog-Sothoth (as fictional as the Necronomicon itself, of course) were driven out of ancient Nineveh by King Ashurbanipal, some seventy years before the Babylonians destroyed Assyria. Fleeing his lethal anger, they made their way to inner Arabia in a dark exodus, where they constructed Irem (or Kara-Shehr).

This possibly identifies it with the accursed, ancient city in the wastes of Arabia which features in the H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Nameless City.” Of course the one I’ve been discussing here had at least three names – but it may be that Lovecraft’s protagonist didn’t know any of them. The “nameless city” didn’t feature any aspects of Assyrian, or for that matter human, architecture either. It was immeasurably older than Assyria. Lovecraft’s searcher discovered great numbers of mummies in a catacomb below the city – mummies of huge-browed, nose-less and semi-reptilian horrors. He also saw extensive frescoes depicting the same creatures, and in one, a scene depicting the nose-less beings tearing a human being to pieces. He speculates that this unlucky fellow may have been an ancient pioneer of “Irem, City of Pillars.”

There are discrepancies between the places described in “The Nameless City” and “The Fire of Ashurbanipal” – or apparent ones. Clarney and Yar Ali saw no signs of completely nonhuman architecture. They discovered no depictions of semi-reptilian aliens. Lovecraft’s narrator saw no images or buildings reminiscent of Assyria. For him, on the surface of the land at least, there was little but crumbling, almost erased structures of vast antiquity.

They may nevertheless have been the same.

If the cultists from Nineveh came to inner Arabia led by a major devotee of Yog-Sothoth, this diabolical Moses may have brought them to the site of the immemorial “nameless city” with intention, guided by his alien mentor. They either raised Kara-Shehr (Irem) above the pre-Adamite ruins Lovecraft’s character describes, or close nearby. REH’s characters, Clarney and Yar Ali, never ventured below ground into the catacomb. They never gained any inkling that it existed, nor did they stay long – and they were occupied with a jewel and their human enemies during their brief time in Kara-Shehr. Had they stayed, and explored beyond the human structures, or below the ground, they might have found what Lovecraft’s narrator did.

Lovecraft’s protagonist, on the other hand, apparently never saw the basically Assyrian architecture of Kara-Shehr, only the pre-human ruins and the caverns beneath. He may have approached the area from a different direction and missed the partly sanded-over buildings and walls of Kara-Shehr altogether. Like Clarney and Yar Ali, he left in terror, without methodical investigation. Like them, he never returned.

When Steve Clarney went looking for Kara-Shehr (or Irem), he knew he was likely to be following a legend. He discovered it was more. But Clarney and Yar Ali’s enemy Nureddin el Mekru was searching for Kara-Shehr too, and found it at almost the same time they did. Before getting his fatal comeuppance, Nureddin boasted, “I have traveled far and seen many lands and many races, and I have read many books. I know that fear is smoke, that the dead are dead, and that djinn and ghosts and curses are mists that the wind blows away.”

It’s possibly significant that REH made Nureddin a native of – Yemen.