The wings of Melek Taus hover over the world, the winds whisper of revolt, anarchy, war and red ruin for all the sons of men. (CL2.116)
The Yazidis (also given as Yezidis, and Yezidees) are a largely Kurdish people in the Middle East, whose religion reveres Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel; similarities with Abrahamic tales of Lucifer or Shaitan saw the Yazidis labeled as devil-worshippers by their Muslim neighbors, and have been the subject of centuries of persecution. Interest in the Yazidis was spurred by the publication of works like Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls (1920) and William Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia (1926), which includes a visit among those people; many of the details of his visit were incorporated into stories by pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Seabury Quinn, G. G. Pendarves, and E. Hoffmann Price, which featured in the pages of Weird Tales.
The first mention of the Yazidis by Howard is a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, in December 1930:
No doubt you’ve heard of the Yezidis who live on Mount Lalesh in Syria and worship the devil in the form of a brazen peacock. They believe that Satan was the foremost of angels and that he rules on earth for ten thousand years. God, they say, is too far away, too gigantic, to be concerned with the affairs of the earth, and only by worshipping Melek Taus can anyone prosper, for only he has charge of men’s affairs. Certainly the Devil is loose on the world, and the evil are more likely to prosper than the honest and virtuous. Perhaps the Yezidis are right. Certainly their cult is as logical as religions which teach that this earthly hell of red chaos and black insanity is ruled by principles of good and light, that justice exists and reigns, and that men are compensated for good and evil — God, what a bone-clanking jest — like the cataclysmic laughter from the gaping and froth-dripping jaws of a bleached skull. (CL2.115)
A few things stick out in this passage: Howard uses the spellings “Yezidis” and “Melek Taus,” includes the image of the brazen peacock, and correctly identifies Mount Lalesh in Syria. This suggests that his source was neither Seabrook nor Chambers (who preferred the spellings “Yezidees” and “Melek Taos”), but more probably an encyclopedia article or the works in Weird Tales and Oriental Stories. H. P. Lovecraft, for example, used the term “Yezidis” in “The Horror at Red Hook” (WT Jan 1927), as did E. Hoffmann Price in “The Peacock’s Shadow” (WT Jul 1925).
Howard’s first writing inspired by the Yazidis would be “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” (Top Notch Dec 1934). In that story, El Borak ventures into a strange country, occupied by the Black Khirgiz, described as “devil worshippers” with a sacred city of Yolgan, who are antithetical to the local Muslims. (EB 30) This provided the basic format for the unsuccessful tale “Three-Bladed Doom,” which went through multiple versions without success, and finally first found publication in 1955, when L. Sprague de Camp re-wrote it as a Conan tale “The Flame Knife.” In “Three-Bladed Doom,” Howard follows much the same plot—El Borak penetrates a secret city of a group of devil-worshippers—but here he is more specific:
Devil worshippers, by the beard of Allah! Yezidees! Sons of Melek Taus! […] the people of that ancient and abominable cult which worships the Brazen Peacock on Mount Lalesh the Accursed. (EB 101)
The use of the term “Yezidees” suggests the influence of, if not Chambers and Seabrook, than perhaps Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin novel The Devil’s Bride, which was serialized in Weird Tales from February-June 1932. Quinn weaves together aspects of various Satanic myths in his story, from the accounts of the Black Mass to Seabrook (and perhaps also Chambers), postulating a worldwide connection between various cults, including “a revival of the cult of assassins” and attracting members “from as far as Mongolia”—both plot-elements of “Three-Bladed Doom.” (CAJG 2.678-679)
Howard was a fan of the Grandin stories, and in 1926 wrote to Weird Tales regarding them: “These are sheer masterpieces. The little Frenchman is one of those characters who live in fiction. I look forward with pleasurable anticipation to further meetings with him.” (CL1.75) So it appears very likely that he read this story. However, in one of those odd coincidences, shortly after Quinn’s story ran (August 1932), E. Hoffmann Price ran a shorter but thematically similar tale, “The Bride of the Peacock.” Quinn wrote on this:
Coincidences of this sort are not strange. Many readers have accused E. Hoffmann Price of plagiarising Quinn’s “Devil’s Bride” in his own story, “Bride of the Peacock.” The truth of the matter is that both stories were written at the same time, and Price’s story was in Farnsworth Wright’s office before Quinn’s was in print. (F&SF 7)
Also in “Three-Bladed Doom,” Howard identifies the Yazidis with the Kurds:
The man who killed the Sultan of Turkey was a Kurd […] Some of them worship Melek Taus, too, secretly. (EB 102)
There are too many sources where Howard could have picked up this detail to narrow it down much—E. Hoffmann Price mentioned it in “The Stranger from Kurdistan” (1925), Lovecraft in “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), Quinn in The Devil’s Bride, etc.
The most notorious story using the Yazidi was of course “The Brazen Peacock”—where an adventurer, Erich Girtmann, disguised himself as a Druse (Druze) and infiltrated their city, to make off with a brass idol of a peacock sacred to the cult. Many of the details are plainly drawn either directly from Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia or some source that ties closely to it, since they are absent from The Devil’s Bride and many of Howard’s other stories. Karen Joan Khoutek wrote an excellent article on Robert E. Howard and the Yazidis, “The Brazen Peacock,”so we need not go into detail of the comparisons here, save to add a few details. For example, where Howard writes:
A Yezidee may not speak the name of Shaitan—so it is commanded in the Black Book of their creed, the scroll dictated long ago by Satan to Sheikh-Adi, founder of the cult. (TWM 115)
The “Black Book” is the Khitab al Aswad mentioned by Seabrook (Khitab Asward in The Devil’s Bride), the “Black Book” or “Black Scripture” of the Yazidis; the similarity of the name with Howard’s own “Black Book”—Unaussprechlichen Kulten—which first appeared in “The Children of the Night” (1931) is probably coincidental.
It is interesting to compare the Yazidis as presented in “The Brazen Peacock” with how they are presented in “Dig Me No Grave,” where Howard writes:
“Malik Tous – good God! No mortal man was ever so named! That is the title of the foul god worshipped by the mysterious Yezidees – they of Mount Alamout the Accursed – whose Eight Brazen Towers rise in the mysterious wastes of deep Asia. His idolatrous symbol is the brazen peacock. And the Muhammadans, who hate his demon-worshipping devotees, say he is the essence of the evil of all the universes – the Prince of Darkness – Ahriman – the old Serpent – the veritable Satan!” (HSREH 136)
The Eight towers and Mount Alamout (Alamut) are details from Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls, while the Seven towers and Mount Lalesh are details from Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia; it is obvious that Howard relied on Chambers but not Seabrook when writing “Dig Me No Grave,” and Seabrook but not chambers when writing “The Brazen Peacock.” Very probably “Dig Me No Grave” dates to an earlier period in Howard’s writing. The use of Malik instead of Melek may owe itself to Howard’s letters with Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, for Lovecraft’s nickname for Price was “Sultan Malik” and similar variations. (AMtF 2.761)
The Druze present a more interesting difficulty; in “The Brazen Peacock” the Druze are explicitly not “devil-worshippers” like the Yazidi, yet in “Lord of the Dead” they are described as “a race apart. They worship a calf cast of gold, believe in reincarnation, and practice heathen rituals abhorred by the Moslems.” (CS 222) In this story, Howard revisits one of the concepts from “Three-Bladed Doom,” the idea of a cult that connects or underlies several different religions and ethnicities in Asia and the Middle East—a syncretism perhaps inspired in part by The Devil’s Bride, and echoing at least slightly the multiracial cult in Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.” Why Howard chose to use a Druze instead of a Yazidi probably lies in the Druze religious beliefs in reincarnation, which forms a major motivation for the Druze character.
In the context of his times, the “Satanic” output of Robert E. Howard is not particularly exceptional; Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith wrote less of it, E. Hoffmann Price and Seabury Quinn did more. Probably it was only that Howard was published by Arkham House that caught LaVey’s attention—and that scarce enough; “Dig Me No Grave” was published in The Dark Man and Others (1963), a handful of poems in Always Comes Evening (1957), most of the other tales were not published until long after The Satanic Bible came out.
Satanism as Howard, Lovecraft, and Quinn understood it was theistic Satanism; it was focused on worship of an entity, simply not the Christian God. Only Price, of all of them, in his story “The Stranger from Kurdistan” appeared to appreciate the irony of the Black Mass, acknowledging Christ while proclaiming their allegiance to Satan. Satanism as LaVey understood it, and as his latter-day followers like Michael Rose understand it, is atheistic Satanism; more of a philosophy than a religion, despite the trappings and the sorcery. And there is much in Robert E. Howard’s poems and stories which, even without explicit reference to the Devil, fits neatly into the beliefs of LaVeyan Satanism—a desire for freedom of thought and action. Howard expressed ideas that LaVey himself might have written, such as when wrote:
Yet worshipping Satan is too much like kowtowing to a conqueror. We may realize his power without doing obeisance to him. (CL2.115)
AMtF A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols, Hippocampus Press, 2009)
CAJG The Compleat Adventures of Jules de Grandin (3 vols., Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2001)
CL Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007-2015)
CS Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (Del Rey, 2007)
EB El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (Del Rey, 2010)
F&SF F & SF Self-Portraits 2: Seabury Quinn Creator of Jules de Grandin (Necronomicon Press, 1977)
HSREH The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey, 2008)
TWM Tales of Weird Menace (Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2010)
“The Daughter of Erlik Khan” illustration by Tim Bradstreet
“Three-Bladed Doom” illustration by Jim and Ruth Keegan
Read Part 1, Part 2