Worship the Golden Calf

“ … the Druses who worship the Gold Calf … ”

Robert E. Howard, “Three-Bladed Doom”

It must have been nice, in some ways, to write for the pulps in the old days. You certainly didn’t have to worry about being tactful to minorities or foreigners. Or primitive people. If you wanted horrible villains with sinister, incomprehensible, fanatical motives, hey, you could start with Chinese, go on to voodoo cultists from Haiti or New Orleans, and then proceed to the Middle East for a revived Assassin sect … or Yezidee devil-worshippers (Islamic State these days fully agrees with that one) … or Ahriman cultists from Persia … or Druzes. That last wasn’t used as frequently, but it was used. Any religion that wasn’t western, Christian, and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant at that, could be presented as devil-worship. You could also give your imagination free rein in the happy confidence that your audience didn’t know beans about the tribes or cults concerned.

Or as Robert E. Howard said – to E. Hoffman Price, I think – about Baibars’ speech at the end of “Sowers of the Thunder,” with a grin, “Sure, it was crap. But sometimes you have to do it that way.”  To which Price responded, “Damned right you do!”

The earliest bit of gaudy fiction – that I know of – to depict Druzes as devil-worshippers is “The Fire-King” by old Sir Walter Scott. Yes, the author of Ivanhoe, The Talisman, and Quentin Durward, all of which I reckon excellent, if you can get past the rich, old-fashioned language and even more old-fashioned attitudes. “The Fire-King” is a ballad of the Crusades done in pseudo-medieval style, not a prose story. It doesn’t mention the Gold Calf; Scott credits his Druzes with a different sort of demonic idolatry, but demon-worship just the same. Their deity is a terrible djinn of flame, the titular Fire-King.

Briefly, Count Albert goes on crusade, and leaves his faithful “fair Rosalie” at home, waiting. A pilgrim from the Holy Land brings the news that the Christians are winning, but “Count Albert is prisoner on Mount Lebanon.”  Rosalie is aghast, but decisive. She takes a horse and a sword and sets out to find him.

That’s the first clue that the heroic count’s captors are Druzes. The Mount Lebanon Range was their original home. Rosalie arrives in Palestine disguised as a knight, like Eleanor de Courcey in REH’s “The Sowers of the Thunder.” But she’s too late. Count Albert has fallen for “the Soldan’s fair daughter,” changed sides and abandoned his faith. And Rosalie withal.

He has thrown by his helmet, and cross-handled sword,
Renouncing his knighthood, denying his Lord;
He has ta’en the green caftan, and turban put on,
For the love of the maiden of fair Lebanon.

The “heathenish damsel” asks him to keep a night-long vigil “ … in the cavern, where burns evermore/the mystical flame which the Curdmans adore.”  Second clue that these are Druzes. “Curdmans” is a nineteenth-century term for Kurds, and while Druzes don’t worship fire, the Persian Zoroastrians did. Druzes are clannish, secretive (especially about their religious beliefs) and don’t marry outside the group, but they descend from Kurds and/or Persians. At least, I can quote one famous, high-powered Oriental scholar to that effect.

The leading families among the Druzes have been throughout their history either of full Kurdish and Persian origin or of Persianized and ‘Iraqized Arab origin. That is, they have been either Kurdish and Persian families or tribes from the Arabian peninsula who, before their advent into the Lebanon, sojourned for many generations in Mesopotamia where they became fully indoctrinated with the ‘Alid ideas and subjected to Gnostic and Manichaean influences.

Origins of the Druze People and Religion, by Philip K. Hitti (1924)

Once Count Albert removes his rosary and cross, the evil djinn of flame appears to him and gives him a charmed sword with which he’ll conquer invincibly, until and unless he shall once again “ … bend to the Cross, and the Virgin adore.”  No problem, thinks Albert, now a renegade. I’ll never do that. I’m protected to the max.

As always, of course, there’s a loophole and a fatal catch he doesn’t foresee. He inadvertently breaks the Fire-King’s condition at the worst moment, right in the middle of a roaring melee against King Baldwin of Jerusalem and the Templars. Read the ballad for the details; it’s a good yarn and it’s online.

Harking forward to pulp of the early 20th century again, and Howard in particular, he listed the Druzes (in the shorter version of “Three-Bladed Doom” among the other cults that derived from his Zurim or Hidden Ones, “a pre-Canaanitish race who lived in Syria before the coming of the Semitic tribes.” Erlikites, Assassins and Yezidees all derived from the ancient Zurim. The Persian lord of Shalizahr, the Shaykh az Zurim, tells Howard’s hero El Borak that there were also splinters of the cult in Egypt, Persia and India. That sounds rather as though the Brothers of Ahriman (REH, “Black Wind Blowing”) and the Thugs were affiliated with the Zurim also.

Maybe coincidentally – although REH probably read “The Fire-King” – in the yarn “Black Wind Blowing,” Ahriman is described as the “Lord of Fire,” and his evil devotees want a western damsel for sacrifice. Actually Ahriman is the lord of darkness, lies, death and evil, while his opposite, Ormazd, represents sunlight, fire, goodness and life. But the Moslem Arabs who conquered Persia loathed the Zoroastrian fire-worship and represented it as devilish, which may be the source of the idea. (Whenever an evil wizard appears in the Arabian Nights, he’s usually a Persian or posing as one.)

In “Three-Bladed Doom,” REH specifically refers to the Druzes “who worship the Gold Calf.”  That wasn’t Howard’s invention. It was widely believed among folk who are not Druzes. It could even have been true so far as ordinary Druzes knew, since the rank and file of the faith aren’t privy to its inner secrets, only the initiates. A circumstance that always encourages everybody to believe the worst.

Hitti considers this aspect of Druze faith in the chapter of his book titled “The Cult of the Calf.”  He gives pro and con. The Golden Calf, of course, was the figure of a bull which the Children of Israel worshipped below Mount Sinai when they lapsed from belief in Jehovah. It is a perfect symbol of paganism, and the Druze faith is strictly monotheistic. Philip Hitti writes:

Persistent local rumor continues to associate ‘calf worship’ with the Druze religion, but the Druzes them-selves have with equal persistence and vehemence denied it. No worse curse could even today be levelled against a Druze in the Lebanon than to call him ‘calf worshiper.’ Certain travelers like Pococke gave credence to the report; others including Volney rejected it. That there is jealously guarded and hidden from the uninitiate eye, in one of their leading places of seclusion (khalwah), of which there are about forty in the Lebanon, some gold figure of a calf or bull inside of a silver box has been almost ascertained beyond doubt. A high Druze sheikh has practically admitted in a recent interview the existence of such a box.

 The purpose of such an image is a different matter. If it exists. Hitti again, on the question of how it may be interpreted, elucidates.

The question, in view of the secrecy that surrounds the cult and the ambiguity of some of the references, is one of interpretation. De Sacy explains the calf as the emblem of Iblis (devil), the enemy and rival of al-?akim. Colonel Churchill states that ?amzah, indignant at the treachery of his emissary, Darazi, denounced him as the ‘calf whom a deluded people had set up as their idol.’ [Lieutenant Colonel] Conder considers it ‘a relic of older paganism’ which they keep in their solitary meeting places ‘only to treat with insult and contempt.’

If and when the calf cult is proved in the case of the Druze religion, some connection will then be sought with earlier cognate Israelitish and Egyptian cults. Animal worship has greatly figured in Oriental religions, and Christianity bears traces of its survival.

Pulp writers, as I’ve observed, were not scholars. They didn’t have the same purposes as scholars, with one or two exceptions like Harold Lamb, who combined great action writing with a desire to inform as well as entertain. REH admired his work greatly. A desire to be authentic and a capacity for good research imbues a lot of Howard’s stories set in the Orient and the Middle Ages, but he was sometimes rushed and couldn’t take meticulous pains. He also knew perfectly well that a pulp writer could always get mileage out of fiendish Oriental cults with nasty practices.

In at least one of his stories, he represents Druzes as being almost inhuman. This is “Lord of the Dead,” one of his tales of hard-boiled gumshoe Steve Harrison, often confronted by cases in the Oriental district of the un-named town where he operates. It begins with Harrison attacked in an alley by “a snarling, mouthing fury that had fallen on him, talon and tooth. The thing was obviously a man, though in the first few dazed seconds Harrison doubted even this fact … This denizen of the dark not only was as strong as he, but was lither and quicker and tougher than a civilized man ought to be.”

His assailant follows Harrison, tells him, “You shall not escape again,” and swears “By the Golden Calf!”  In the subsequent fight the would-be killer loses his knife, gets gashed along the ribs and almost blasted with a shotgun before he decides to run for it and vanishes among the trees. An Oriental scholar named Brent, on the basis of the fanatic’s “hawk-like appearance” and “mention of the Golden Calf”, tells Harrison, “I am sure he is a Druse.”  Harrison, slashed, bashed, half-strangled and decidedly irked, roars, “What the hell is a Druse?”

“They live in a mountain district in Syria,” answers Brent. “A tribe of fierce fighters — ”

“I can tell that,” Harrison snarls. “I never ex-pected to meet anybody that could lick me in a stand-up fight, but this devil’s got me buffaloed. Anyway, it’s a relief to know he’s a living human being.”

Harrison goes to a Chinese named Woon Sun for fur-ther information. He asks if these “Druses” are “Moham-medans … Arabs?”  Woon Sun replies, “No, they are, as it were, a race apart. They worship a calf cast of gold, believe in reincarnation, and practice heathen rituals abhorred by the Moslems. First the Turks and now the French have tried to govern them, but they have never really been conquered.”

Harrison answers feelingly, “I can believe it, alright.”

Woon Sun is Chinese, and as much as Harrison and Brent, he is looking at the Druzes from the outside. He may not be wholly correct. The Druzes do appear to believe in reincarnation, but as Hitti points out, it can be doubted that they actually worship the Golden Calf. It’s even possible that they keep the image as a symbol of the ancient idolatries of Baal, which they despise, in order to revile it, as Lieutenant Colonel Conder thought.

The Online website, Brotherhoods and Secret Societies, in the section “Hermetecists and Druzes” has this to say about the Druzes:

They covet no proselytes, shun notoriety, keep friendly — as far as possible — with both Christians and Mahometans, respect the religion of every other sect or people, but will never disclose their own secrets.

Vainly do the missionaries stigmatize them as in-fidels, idolaters, brigands, and thieves. Neither threat, bribe, nor any other consideration will induce a Druze to become a convert to dogmatic Christianity. We have heard of two in fifty years, and both have finished their careers in prison, for drunkenness and theft …  There never was a case of an initiated Druze becoming a Christ-an. As to the uninitiated, they are never allowed to even see the sacred writings, and none of them have the remotest idea where these are kept.

That their religion exhibits traces of Magianism and Gnosticism is natural, as the whole of the Ophite esoteric philosophy is at the bottom of it. But the characteristic dogma of the Druzes is the absolute unity of God. He is the essence of life, and although incomprehensible and invisible, is to be known through occasional manifestations in human form. Like the Hindus they hold that he was incarnated more than once on earth.

Since the website also has sections on “Ancient Secret Societies, UFOs, and the New World Order” and “Occult Symbols Found on the Bank of America Murals”, I’m not absolutely convinced by the “Ophite Esoteric Philosophy” bit, although it’s a fact that the Druzes were, as Hitti says, “subjected to Gnostic and Manichaean influences”, and the claim about their intractable resistance to con-version is right on target.

REH wrote his Steve Harrison stories in the 1930s, which is to say, after the Druze Revolt of 1925-27. It wasn’t solely a Druze Revolt, and is more often and more accurately called the Great Syrian Revolt today, as it involved Sunni, Alawite, Christian and Shi’a rebels as well as Druzes, all of them eager to end French control of the region. But it certainly gave substance to Brent’s description of Druzes as “a tribe of fierce fighters.”  The rebels won early victories, but after that the French sent in thousands of troops, including the Foreign Legion, and shelled and bombed Damascus, destroying much of the city. The revolt was crushed by 1927, and the Druze leader, Sultan al-Atrash, sentenced to death by the French authorities. He fled into exile to avoid the sentence being carried out.

Neither then nor later was the Golden Calf of the Druzes found. Robert Benton Betts gives his views in his book, The Druze (Yale University press, 1990). Betts was a professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. He is now retired and living in South Carolina.

Only one person to my knowledge has claimed to have seen the legendary golden calf in this century and that was Francis A. Waterhouse, a former French Legionnaire who wrote about his experiences in Syria during the Druze Rebellion of 1925-27 in a highly sensational and suspect narrative entitled ‘Twixt Hell and Allah. According to Waterhouse, he and a comrade were led by an old Druze man and a naked lad through a hole in the ground (“near the humble Druse village of Tell —– ”) in the Jabal al-Druze to a subterranean cavern where they were allowed to view “the most monstrous effigy that ever beggared imagination.

A Foreign Legionnaire telling war stories wouldn’t necessarily be truthful. Betts calls his account “sen-sational and suspect”. The most suspect thing about it, to me, is the idea that a Druze ancient and a boy of the sect would lead an enemy soldier to the most secret shrine of a secretive religion in the middle of a vicious war. As Eliza Doolittle said, “Not bloody likely.”

Waterhouse served in the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment. Besides ‘Twixt Hell and Allah, he wrote another book about his experiences in the Legion, Five Sous a Day. He was wounded in the savage fighting of the Druse Revolt, and honorably released as unfit for com-bat. In 1926 he was hired to wear Legion uniform outside movie theaters to promote Beau Geste. In Five Sous a Day, he insists vehemently that all the incidents he describes in ‘Twixt Hell and Allah did really happen. Decide that for yourself, gentle reader, as you scan this description, in his own words, of the Golden Calf that Waterhouse says he saw “in the dread cavern, deep deep under ground” (Scott).

Towering above our heads on a rough stone dais stood this beast, two long forelegs supporting a grotesque body surmounted by a hideous head in which scintillated two large green stones for the eyes. The beast was graven in solid gold and we stood dumb in wonder, wet with the sweat of fright, gazing … gazing at the Golden Calf of Baal.

Francis A. Waterhouse, ’Twixt Hell and Allah

I’d have to say I prefer REH’s Steve Harrison stories. They’re just as entertaining and no more lurid. Besides, REH didn’t try to tell us they’re strictly true.