Two of Robert E. Howard’s tales, “Dig Me No Grave” and “The Brazen Peacock,” feature the worship of a devilish peacock deity, alternately called Malik Tous and Melek Taus.
As recently as 1996, T.K.F. Weisskopf could say in the introduction to a Howard collection that “the cult of Malik Tous, mentioned in several stories, is – so far as my research can tell me – one that only existed in the pages of Weird Tales.” (Beyond the Borders, p. viii) – which is fair, given the relative obscurity of the subject.
While Howard had an excellent imagination, Malik Tous, the Peacock Angel (whose name is variously transliterated as Melek Taos, Taw’us Melke, Malka Tausa, and Melek Taus), was not one of his creations. Reverence for this figure is a feature in the life of the real-life Yazidis, or Yezidis, a group of Kurdish-speaking peoples from what is now Northern Iraq. As in the fiction, Mailk Tous is often identified with Satan, and the devotees have often been depicted as devil-worshipers by outsiders. Today, a Yezidi Human Rights Organization is working to raise awareness and support for the contemporary people, who are still often thought of as Satan-worshipping cultists.
William B. Seabrook, the same author who brought attention to Haitian vodou with his book The Magic Island, discusses the Peacock Angel in his 1927 work Adventures in Arabia.
His informant, an old Yezidi priest, says that “Moslems and Christians are wrongly taught that he whom we call Melek Taos is the spirit of evil. We know that this is not true. He is the spirit of power and the ruler of this world.” (p. 326)
In her book Peacock Angel (1941), Lady E. S. Drower sums up the religion: “The Yazidis are spoken of as Devil-Worshippers … I cannot believe that they worship the Devil or even propitiate the Spirit of Evil. Although the chief of the Seven Angels, who according to their nebulous doctrines are charged with the rule of the universe, is one whom they name Taw’us Melke, the PEACOCK ANGEL, he is a Spirit of Light rather than a Spirit of Darkness.”
“‘They say of us wrongly,” said a qawwal to me one evening, “that we worship one who is evil.’
“Indeed, it is possibly the Yazidis themselves, by tabooing all mention of the name Shaitan, or Satan, as a libel upon this angel, who have fostered the idea that the Peacock Angel is identical with the dark fallen angel whom men call the Tempter. In one of the holy books of the Mandaeans the Peacock Angel, called by them Malka Tausa, is portrayed as a spirit concerned with the destinies of this world, a prince of the world of light who, because of a divinely appointed destiny, plunged into the darkness of matter … It seemed probable to me … that the Peacock Angel is, in a manner, a symbol of Man himself, a divine principle of light experiencing an avatar of darkness, which is matter and the material world. The evil comes from man himself, or rather from his errors, stumblings and obstinate turnings down blind alleys upon the steep path of being.”
In Howard’s story “Dig Me No Grave,” the peacock is known as “Malik Tous,” and is an embodied, gigantic, bat-like bird figure, apparently synonymous with all the devils in history: “There is but one Black Master though men calle hym Sathanas & Beelzebub & Apolleon & Ahriman & Malik Tous.” (p. 140) In “The Brazen Peacock,” the more localized version is called Melek Taus, and here the peacock is a carved bronze figure, like that described by Seabrook.
It is impossible to know at this point whether Seabrook was a direct source for Howard’s research on the Yezidi, but Howard’s descriptions in “The Brazen Peacock” do seem to have been informed by Seabrook’s first-person account of visiting “the temple of Satan and the sacred shrine at Sheik-Adi” (p. 314) Both of them refer to the same geography: Mount Lalesh, the Mosul region, and the town of Baadri, (Howard, p. 114) and include many common details.
Seabrook: “We had our first view of the castle of Said Beg, ruler and ‘Black Pope’ of the Yezidees … it stood isolated on a slope, and the little village of Baadri with clustering low stone houses lay several yards below it.” (p. 311)
Howard: “A few Americans, Englishmen and Frenchmen have been to Baadri and seen the castle of Mir Beg, the Black Pope of all the Yezidees, scowling down on the village a hundred yards below.” (p. 114)
Unlike Howard’s character, Seabrook met Mir Said Beg, and says “It was hard to convince myself that I was actually in the presence of the ruler of the Devil-Worshipers … for he seemed no different from any other grave and courteous Oriental host, and in the most matter-of-fact way set about making us feel at home and comfortable.” (p. 312) The American visitor is welcomed as if he’s an Englishman, whose “countrymen had stopped the murder and persecution of his people” at the hands of both Moslems and Christians.
Seabrook: “I … wondered as we rode how many of the other wild tales would turn out to be untrue … the temple hewn from solid rock, leading down to vast subterranean caverns stained with the blood of human sacrifice.” (p. 315)
Howard: “I have heard that their stronghold is in the hill-town of Sheikh-Adi, beyond Mosul, and that they worship this brazen image as the symbol of Shaitan, and to it they offer up human sacrifices in great caverns below the temple.” (p. 114)
Seabrook: “The entire hillside was dotted with hundreds of uninhabited stone huts – shelters, the Mir told us, for Yezidee pilgrims who visited the shrine.” (p. 316)
Howard: “In one of the hundreds of empty stone huts, erected for the shelter of pilgrims, I took up my abode.” (p. 114 – 115)
Seabrook: “I followed our new guide down a flight of stone steps, through a gateway … into a little rectangular walled yard whose northern wall was the face of the actual temple, built against and into the living rock of the mountainside. This was the ‘Courtyard of the Serpent.’ And the serpent’s actual dominating presence was there – though it was not alive. It was a stone serpent standing on its tail, carved in high relief, and glistening black in the sunlight on the gray wall, at the right of the temple door.” (p. 317)
Howard: “I fled screaming at the sight of the great black stone serpent which stands on its tail in the inner courtyard near the doorway.” (p. 115)
Seabrook: “The first thing I noticed was dozens of little flickering points of light at irregular spots in the wall. These came from small iron dishes, set in niches, in which lighted wicks floated in olive oil.”
Howard: “Lighted wicks, floating in oil, illuminated the place.” (p. 116)
Seabrook: “The arrangement of the temple was curious and difficult to describe. Down its middle, from end to end, ran a row of stone pillars …” (p. 318)
Howard: “A row of stone columns divided the great hall into two equal parts.” (p. 116)
Seabrook: “There was no altar of any sort …” (p. 318)
Howard: “There was no altar, no shrine. The room was bare.”
Seabrook: He is told about a ceremony “which … was repeated every spring.” In it, a white bull “was decorated with garlands of red flowers, a vein in its throat was opened, and it was led or dragged in procession round and round the tower … until the tower’s white base was bathed in the crimson circle of its spurting blood.” (p. 323 – 324)
Howard: In his story, the hoopla surrounding this festival allows his narrator entrance to the shrine. “A white bull, bedecked with flowers, is brought to the Tower of Evil and there a vein is opened in his throat and he is led around and around the Tower until he drops and dies from weakness, and the blood spurting from his throat has dyed the base of the Tower crimson all about.” (p. 116)
Seabrook: “One must neither wear nor exhibit any article of clothing that was blue … for blue is taboo and anathema among the Yezidees, because it is supposed to have magical properties inimical to Satan.” (p. 309)
Howard: “You must not wear a blue garment or ornament, since blue is a color inimical to Shaitan.” (p. 115)
Seabrook: “While it was forbidden, at least theoretically, on pain of death to pronounce the name of Shaitan, we might freely mention their Satanic god by his other name, Melek Taos (Angel Peacock).” (p. 325) “While the name of Shaitain was forbidden, he said – so much so that if a Yezidee hears it spoken, their law commands him either to kill the man who uttered it or kill himself – yet we could talk as freely with them about Melek Taos ‘as we could to a Christian about Jesus.’” (p. 310)
Howard: “If you speak the name of Shaitan before a Yezidee, he is bound to kill you, or failing that, to kill himself.” (p. 115) “You may speak freely of Melek Taus … since this is the name by which Shaitan permits himself to be discussed by his worshippers.” (p. 115)
Seabrook: “One must take care never to spit in a fire or to put out a dropped match by stepping on it with the foot, for to them all fire is sacred.” (p. 309)
Howard: “I lit a cigarette, then thoughtlessly cast down the burning match and trod on it to extinguish it … I cursed myself. Fire is sacred to Melek Taus and it is forbidden to spit in a flame or to tread on a flame. No Oriental would have made that mistake in Sheik-Adi …” (p. 118). Here, the sociological detail about Yezidi beliefs is used as a dramatic means to give away the disguise of the narrator.
At least one major difference between the weird tale and the nonfiction account has to do with the peacock itself. In Howard’s story, the carved peacock is “worked with exquisite skill.” (p. 113) In Seabrook, the bird, which “no man … had ever seen” is “supposed to be rudely carved, more like a rooster than a peacock.” (p. 310)
Also, in the thriller, the cavern under the chamber is kept guarded, and is an active site of weird rituals. Seabrook merely had to get permission from the Mir in order to be allowed entrance, although he was told “it was just a cave.” (p. 319)
Inside, Seabrook finds fascinating “subterranean caverns and streams and springs” (p. 320), but no sign of any rites or worship taking place there. His guide does eventually tell him that “kolchaks, who I learned later were the fakirs of miracle workers of the Yezidess,” still came there to perform magical workings (p. 322). He’d been disappointed to find so little evidence of the weird or mysterious, and at this information, he candidly admits “I was thrilled.” (ibid)
(Curiously, those of us of a certain age will recognize the word Kolchak as the name of “the Night Stalker,” the 1970’s TV character who investigated the strange and unusual).
Howard’s tale would have been anticlimactic if it took its cues from Seabrook at this point, so in his version, there is “a crimson and horrific altar … a grisly, horrible thing, of some sort of red stone, stained darkly and flanked with rows of grinning skulls laid out in curious designs.” (p. 117)
In the 1919 work Devil Worship, an early book about the Yezidis, Isya Joseph says, “It is interesting to note that, in the history of religion, the god of one people is the devil of another. In the Avesta, the evil spirits are called daeva (Persian Div); the Aryans of India, in common with the Romans, Celts, and Slavs gave the name of dev … to their good or god-like spirits. Asura is a deity in the Rig Veda, and an evil spirit only in later Brahman theology. Zoroaster thought that the beings whom his opponents worshipped as gods, under the name of daeva, were in reality powers by whom mankind are unwittingly led to their destruction.” (p. 155)
Melek Taus, whose identity as an evil being is a matter of perspective, is very much a god in the eye of the beholder. That’s a theme found in other of Howard’s works, especially in the approach to world religions in the Conan stories, where some of these ambiguous deities, like the historical Asura, appear by name.
Drower, E. S. (Ethel Stefana). Peacock Angel: Being Some Account of Votaries of a Secret Cult and Their Sanctuaries. London: J. Murray, 1941. Available online at www.avesta.org/yezidi/peacock.htm
Howard, Robert E. Beyond the Borders. New York: Baen, 1996. Introduction by T.K.F. Weisskopf.
Howard, Robert E. “The Brazen Peacock.” Tales of Weird Menace. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010. Pages 111 – 130.
Howard, Robert E. “Dig Me No Grave.” The Complete Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. New York: Ballantine, 2008. Pages 131 – 141.
Joseph, Isya. Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1919. Available online at www.sacred-texts.com.
Seabrook, William B. Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druse, Whirling Dervishes & Yezidee Devil Worshipers. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Originally published 1927.