Von Junzt and the Black Book — Part Three

Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold.  But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.  Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under his sandaled feet.

— Robert E. Howard, “The Nemedian Chronicles”

All Robert E. Howard fans recognize that paragraph. It first appeared at the beginning of “The Phoenix on the Sword” and has been reprinted countless times since. Before going further it’s probably a sound idea to caution all readers – as Howard did himself — that his “Nemedian Chronicles,” like his prehistoric “Age undreamed of” were plot devices for fiction, and he was not advancing any theories in contradiction of accepted history. It’s easy to make that error. Even Howard, knowing the tricks of the trade, briefly entertained the notion that Lovecraft’s Necronomicon existed, and was mildly surprised to learn otherwise from the horse’s mouth.

Since REH invented both the “Nemedian Chronicles” and Friedrich von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, aka Von Unausspreclichen Kulten or “The Black Book,” it seemed possible there was a link. (A fragment of REH’s will be cited later to show this is more than a possibility.) It’s often supposed, on insufficient grounds, that the “Nemedian Chronicles” were written in Conan’s time, or during the centuries that followed his reign, before a cataclysm destroyed the Hyborian Age world. The author is assumed to have been a scholar or sage in the kingdom of Nemedia during the Hyborian Age.

Deuce Richardson questions this on the grounds that the famous passage from the “Chronicles” clearly harks back to a vanished prehistoric age from its writer’s own point of view. “ … between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas … an Age undreamed of …”

Who, as Deuce cogently asks, refers to his own time as one that remotely was – as “an Age undreamed of?” Why would a native of the kingdom of Nemedia write in fulsome terms of Aquilonia, Nemedia’s traditional rival, and the barbarian king who trounced Nemedia? Further, the “Sons of Aryas,” that is, the “Aryans”/proto-Indo-Europeans, arose in the history we know, not before the cataclysm which cast down the Hyborian Age kingdoms. (The notion that “Aryan” was a racial type instead of a language group was popular in Howard’s day.)

For these reasons it seems that the “Nemedian Chronicles” would have been penned after the cataclysm; in all likelihood, long after, when new civilizations, now known to history, had risen and the Hyborian Age had been forgotten except in rags and scraps of legend.

I recommend Deuce’s posts, “Know, oh prince… ”: The “Nemedian” Chronicles?” (25th February 2009) and “Of Celts and Nameless Cults: The (Irish) Nemedian Chronicles” (11th March 2009) on that noble weblog The Cimmerian, to anybody who wants the full and closely-reasoned lowdown.

If that argument holds water – and I think it does – who were those “Nemedians” who gave their name to the Chronicles?

Robert E. Howard makes this pretty clear in the latter part of his essay, “The Hyborian Age.” He says that centuries after Conan’s time, the Picts, having wrecked a corrupt, arrogant, imperial (but still mighty) Aquilonia, founded a barbaric empire of their own. Other barbarians also took their share. Two different tribes of Aesir (primordial, golden-haired Nordics) conquered Brythunia and Nemedia. Each adopted the name of the Hyborian kingdom they had overrun. Then, after the cataclysm, these “Brythons” and “Nemedians” fell back into Neolithic savagery and survived under their borrowed names in the general area of Scythia – the modern Ukraine.

They drifted and wandered across the world until some of them came to the British Isles. The Brythunians or Brythons, became the ancestors of the Brythonic Celts. A tribe of Nemedians reached Ireland, and like their successors in a series of invasions, fought against the grotesque Fomors. They were subjugated, and later rebelled with partial success against their harsh bondage, which included demands for two-thirds of their children as tribute. The majority fled from Ireland. Later they returned, and their fortunes are recorded in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, or the Book of Invasions of Ireland. Howard writes of them in his pseudo-historical essay.

They came into these countries as Aryans. But there were variations among these primitive Aryans, some of which are still recognized today, others which have long been forgotten. The blond Achaians [sic], Gauls and Britons, for instance, were descendants of pure-blooded Aesir. The Nemedians of Irish legendry were the Nemedian Aesir. The Danes were descendants of pure-blooded Vanir; the Goths – ancestors of the other Scandinavian and Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxons—were descendants of a mixed race whose elements contained Vanir, Aesir and Cimmerian strains. The Gaels, ancestors of the Irish and Highland Scotch, descended from pure-blooded Cimmerian clans. The Cymric tribes of Britain were a mixed Nordic-Cimmerian race which preceded the purely Nordic Britons into the isles, and thus gave rise to a legend of Gaelic priority.

— “The Hyborian Age”

In the history we know, when were the “Nemedian Chronicles” written, by whom, where, and how did the “chronicler” know so much about a vanished, forgotten time?

It’s fair to assume the chronicler was Irish, probably of Nemedian descent himself. Other ancestors of his would have included Cimmerians, described by REH as direct forebears of the Gaels, and of the historical Cimmerians who also inhabited the Ukraine, between 1500 and 800 BC. (Those dates are approximate and sweeping, of course.) He, the chronicles’ author, must have been literate, which suggests he was a monk.

Scholarly Irish missionaries founded monasteries across Europe in the Dark Ages. They did an immense amount, not only to keep learning alive in a bloody, ignorant time, but to spread it. Some of their greatest foundations graced the German lands – at Cologne, Mainz, Strasbourg, Reichenau, Regensburg and Salzburg.

In Cologne, for example, a group of Irish monks led by Minnborinus arrived in the late 10th century. Warin, the Archbishop of Cologne, made Minnborinus Abbot of St. Martin’s in the city, a position he held until he died. He was succeeded as abbot by one of his companions, Kilian. Besides the Irish abbey of St. Martin’s, there were many shrines dedicated to Irish saints around Cologne; a dozen bearing St. Brigid’s name, for example. There was even a German term for the Gaelic monasteries, so significant was their presence — Schottenkloster.

Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt’s birthplace and home was Dusseldorf on the Lower Rhine, not far north of Cologne.

Okay. The author of Howard’s “Nemedian Chronicles” may well have been an Irish monk somewhere in Germany, a man whose remote ancestors had prehistoric Cimmerians and Nemedian Aesir among them. Being Irish, he likely knew the legends of his homeland.

We know from Howard’s own Underwood that the gist of such legends could be passed down for over a thousand centuries. In “Men of the Shadows,” Gonar retold the (garbled, but recognizable) history of the Picts. That history began long before the fall of Atlantis (in fact, back to the origins of Homo Sapiens itself) and extended right up to the defiant Pictish struggle against the imperialism of Septimius Severus.

The saga of the Nemedians and their forebears spanned far less than half such a chasm of history. That said, we are still looking at millennia, not centuries. How were the very specific data provided by the Chronicles passed down?

As noted above, the Nemedians were early settlers of Erin, apparently returning later as Firbolgs (according to Gaelic legend). Those same Gaelic legends all point to a period sometime before 1000 BC (some accounts place it specifically at 1145 BC). The Firbolgs returned after a sojourn in “Greece”. If that is in any way accurate in regard to Robert E. Howard’s own pseudo-history (and why not?), then we are looking at the end of the Homeric/Mycenaean Age.

The Mycenaeans were literate.  Guess what? So were the druids of Ireland. The Yellow Book of Lecan records that one hundred and eighty druidical books were burned during the time of Patrick. Perhaps just one unburnt tome  was preserved by a Firbolg clan, recounting tales chanted down the centuries by Nemedian bards from Hyborian Age times.

Of course, there is possibly a more esoteric source (or supplement) for the Chronicles. The son of Senchan Torpeist, Murgen, is said to have received the whole of the Tain Bo Cuailnge from a ghost. Why not something similar for the Chronicles? For that matter, there are the tarb feis and taghairm rituals known from Gaelic Erin and Alba, respectively. Rites of divination, but also it seems, of communication with the dead. Robert E. Howard certainly didn’t see native Gaelic beliefs being extirpated by 500 AD. Turlogh Dubh‘s ship (circa 1015) was named “Crom’s Hate.”

The “Nemedian Chronicles” could have been the result of such rites and ancient accounts, written down at any time between the eighth and thirteenth centuries CE. The “prince” to whom they were addressed would then have been a prince of the medieval German Empire, miscalled the “Holy Roman Empire,” when, as the cliched crack goes, it was neither holy, Roman, nor imperial. He might even have been Otto I, who was crowned and anointed Emperor by Pope John XII in 962 AD. Whomever he was, it is almost a surety that the nameless Irish monk instructed said “prince” that Nemedians once held sway (ages before) over the very land now ruled by their present (somewhat lateral) descendants. In addition, the monk could point out that all Germanic peoples had a bit of ancient Cimmerian blood in their veins, and thus a visceral link with Conan himself. 

Returning to Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt — he was German. He lived between 1795 and 1840. He was, this blogger believes, a baron of Dusseldorf (part of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1816 on) with the rank and prestige to investigate secret archives in monasteries dating to the Middle Ages. Howard writes in “The Thing on the Roof” that “he spent the full forty-five years of his life prying into strange places and discovering secret and abysmal things.” In “The Black Stone” we are informed that von Junzt read “countless little-known and esoteric books and manuscripts in the original.”

There could hardly be a more likely candidate for the discoverer of the “Nemedian Chronicles” in a centuries-old German monastery founded by Irish monks. The chronicles were written in Latin, and von Junzt certainly found them of interest. He discovered them, in fact, late in 1815, when he had just turned twenty. Their extraordinary content, and the vistas of a previously unknown age of history they opened to him, impelled Friedrich to continue his world-wide travels and studies from then onward. Von Junzt struggled for years against the academic world’s dismissal of them as the wild fancies of a medieval Irish monk, or even the hoax of an imaginative student.

Von Junzt gave over an entire chapter of his infamous “Black Book” to the Chronicles and their implications. Von Unausspreclichen Kulten is almost wholly devoted to obscure, sinister cults of the German’s own day, but he discovered that many dark beliefs and practices of the Hyborian Age had survived into the post-cataclysmic world, even down to the nineteenth century – especially those described in the Necronomicon. For this reason, and also because of his constant efforts to have the legitimacy of the Chronicles recognized, Friedrich allowed them conspicuous space in the pages of his magnum opus.

All this is speculative so far, with respect to Robert E. Howard’s views of any link between von Junzt and the “Nemedian Chronicles.” Possible, maybe plausible, but nowhere definite. However, there is a passage in REH’s own written words that clinches it. Untitled, but known as the “Unaussprechlichen Kulten Fragment,” it has two typical Howard adventurers, Brill and Allison, talking about a tomb they are about to plunder. The relevant bit follows:

“And before them, who was in Egypt?”
“I reckon we’ll know after we’ve looted this tomb,” answered Allison, with a certain grimness in his manner.
Brill laughed.

“You mean to tell me you think there was a race here before the Egyptians, civilized enough to build a tomb such as this? I suppose you think they built the pyramids!”

“They did,” was the imperturbable reply.

Brill laughed. “Now you’re trying to pull my leg.”

Allison looked at him curiously. “Did you ever read the ‘Unaussprechlichen Kulten’?”
“What’s that?”
“A book called ‘Nameless Cults’ by a crazy German named von Junzt – at least they said he was crazy. Among other things he wrote of an age he swore he had discovered – a sort of historical blind spot. He called it the Hyborian Age. We have guessed what came before, and we know what came after, but that age itself has been a blank space – – no legends, no chronicles, just a few scattered names that came to be applied in other senses.

“It’s our lack of knowledge about this age that upsets our calculations and makes us put down Atlantis as myth. This is what von Junzt says: That when Atlantis, Lemuria and other nations of that age … “

After that, Allison essentially tells his companion what we’ve all read in REH’s essay, “The Hyborian Age.” The man who created the Hyborian Age directly connects it with Nameless Cults, and writes that Friedrich von Junzt had knowledge of that lost time. It’s difficult to see how the German baron could have known about such “an Age undreamed of” unless he had made some such discovery as the one postulated here.

Images by Frank Frazetta, Michael Kaluta, Jim Fitzpatrick, Michael L. Peters, Bryan “Zarono” Reagan and Others.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six

Tags: achaeans, brythons, brythunia, brythunians, conan the cimmerian, firbolg, fomors, friedrich wilhelm von junzt, gaels, gonar, hyborian age, lebor gabala erenn, mycenaean, Nemedian Chronicles, nemedians, schottenkloster, senchan torpeist, sons of aryas, taghairm, tarb feis, unaussprechlichen kulten