What is a Barbarian?

Posted: July 31, 2012 in Barbarian Philosophy
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Let’s start with this question, shan’t we? Here is an essay that I posted elsewhere:

Few words have been assigned so many meanings and so many connotations, fair and foul, than the word barbarian.

It’s normally used in our common culture to mean rude, uncouth and cruel. One look at the news, sees such pejoratives as “barbaric torture” applied at will. This goes back all the way to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who considered all foreign cultures to be barbaric, implying that they were inferior. Since those civilizations were enslaving “barbarians” by the gross, it’s easy to see how they would have made that assumption, even though both cultures had cruelty to spare.

Meanwhile, another part of our pop culture assigns the name to some kind of magical superman. It is suggested that a man has to do nothing more than grow one’s hair long, strip to the waist, pick up a sword, and presto! Instant barbarian: guaranteed to be free, handsome and strong.

One must assume that the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.

What’s That Dictionary Say?

Generally, dictionaries give the word “barbarian” to these two separate denotations:

Belonging to a “primitive” culture.

A cruel person.

The implication being that all people from primitive cultures are the only people who are ever cruel. A simple study of history will reveal a more complex picture.

Etymologies generally agree that the word started as an imitation of the strange “bar-bar” speech of foreigners.

What did R.E.H. Know?

Conan, in the original stories, had more to say than simply “bar-bar”, and he was no more cruel than anyone else in the stories, sometimes less so, when you get down to it.

But Conan is still presented as somehow different, because he is a barbarian.

Robert E. Howard wrote his tales of the immortal Cimmerian in the 1920s, in the middle of rural Texas in the same era as the Scopes “Monkey Trial”. Howard didn’t have a degree in history and access to the books of his day was limited. Clearly Bob was limited by the science of his time, among other things. So what did he have to rely on at that time?

One book that might have been at his local library was Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, published in 1877. At the very least, historians and anthropologists borrowed from his work for decades.

Coincidentally, it classifies mankind into categories similar to the ones that Howard uses in his essay The Hyborian Age and his stories.

“…The remote ancestors of the Aryan nations presumptively passed through an experience similar to that of existing barbarous and savage tribes.”

I. Lower Status of Savagery. This period commenced with the infancy of the human race, and may be said to have ended with the acquisition and of a knowledge of the use of fire. Mankind were then living in their original restricted habitat, and subsisting on fruits and nuts. The commencement of articulate speech belongs in this period. No exemplification of tribes of mankind in this condition remained to the historical period.

II. Middle Status of Savagery. It commenced with the acquisition of a fish subsistence and a knowledge of the use of fire, and ended with the invention of the bow and arrow. Mankind, while in this condition, spread from their original habitat over the greater portion of the earth’s surface. Among tribes still existing it, live in the Middle Status of savagery, for example, the Australians and the greater part of the Polynesians when they were discovered. It will be sufficient to give one or more exemplifications of each status.

III. Upper Status of Savagery. It commenced with the invention of the bow and arrow, and ended with the invention of the use of pottery. It leaves in the Upper Status of Savagery the Athapascan tribes of the Hudson’s Bay Territory, the tribes of the valley of the Columbia, and certain east coast tribes of North and South America; but with relation to the time of their discovery. This closes the period of savagery.

IV. Lower Status of Barbarism. The invention or practice of the art of pottery, all things considered, is probably the most effective and conclusive test that can be selected to fix a boundary line, necessarily arbitrary, between savagery and barbarism. The distinctness of the two conditions has long been recognized, but criterion of progress out of the former into the latter has hitherto been brought forward. All such tribes, then, as never attained to the art of pottery will be classed as savages, and those possessing this art, but who never attained a phonetic alphabet and the use of writing will be classed as barbarians.

The first sub-period of barbarism commenced with the manufacture of pottery, whether by original invention or adoption. In finding its termination, and the commencement of the Middle States, a difficulty is encountered in the unequal endowments of the two hemispheres, which began to be influential upon human affairs after the period of savagery had passed. It may be met, however, by the development of equivalents. In the Eastern hemisphere, the domestication of animals, and in the Western, the cultivation of maize and plants by irrigation, together with the use of adobe-brick and stone in house building have been selected as sufficient evidence of progress to work a transition out of Lower and into the Middle Status of barbarism. It leave, for example, in the Lower Status, the Indian tribes of the United States east of the Missouri River, and such tribes of Europe and Asia as practices the art of pottery, but were without domestic animals.

V. Middle Status of Barbarism. It commenced with the manufacture of iron, and ended with the invention of a phonetic alphabet, and the use of writing in literary composition. Here civilization begins. This leaves in the Upper Status, for example, the Grecian tribes of the Homeric age, the Italian tribes shortly before the founding of Rome, and the Germanic tribes of the time of Caesar.

What About Conan the Barbarian?

The one Conan tale that arguably tells us the most about Conan as a barbarian, is Beyond the Black River. It’s interesting because it places our hero in a position between civilized Aquilonian settlers and Pictish savages. Howard makes it clear to us that, although Conan sides with the settlers, it’s not because he identifies with their lifestyle. Instead, he feels a racial kinship with them, plus an “ancient” hatred of the Picts, which may have resulted from centuries of border conflicts between the Cimmerians and the Picts, or it may be due to some genetic “racial memory”.

Truly, Conan feels closer to the Pictish savages he’s fighting than he does to the settlers:
Of Conan: “…he was no less a barbarian. He was concerned only with the naked fundamentals of life. The warm intimacies of small, kindly things, the sentiments and delicious trivialities that make up so much of civilized men’s lives were meaningless to him… Bloodshed and savagery were the natural elements of the life Conan knew; he could not, and would never, understand the little things that are so dear to civilized men and women.

In the light of Morgan’s learned texts, we can see that the words “savage” and “barbarian” were not words that Howard randomly chose. They were actually intended to portray a specific level of culture; Morgan derived most of his information from studying the native Americans of his time. From Howard’s The Hyborian Age, we learn that the Picts did know the basics of agriculture, but preferred to steal the fruits of civilization.

The feeling of independence derived from claiming your own meat from the forest, breeds a certain sense of independence. A savage cannot be swayed or influenced by civilized folk, until he sees something new that he thinks that he needs, as is evidenced by many tragic tales of the American west. But the barbarians and savages in the Conan stories weren’t fooled by trinkets. They desired them, yes, but left cut throats in trade.

There is, in the Conan stories, a bleed-over from material culture, to an attitude toward life itself. A savage was much more than someone who didn’t till the soil. A barbarian was more than someone who didn’t read or write. Something in their culture made them different in the way that they viewed life and death.

Howard assumed that those who live life a hand-to-mouth existence, as Morgan’s savages and barbarians would have done, have a different attitude toward life. And that attitude, apparently including a eagerness to kill or die, might have been a source of the barbarian’s fierce reputation.

Today none of us really have to hunt down and kill an animal in order to live. We can hunt and kill too, if we wish, but it isn’t a matter of life-and-death – it’s a hobby. In fact, there’s not much in our lives today that is a matter of life-and-death. Even when one of us dies in a traffic accident, or passes away due to old age, most of us rarely see a dead body, save perhaps briefly at a funeral.

The civilized pseudo-medieval Hyborians in Howard’s tales would have depended on a butcher to do their killing for them, as we do today. Being civilized involves living in a city, originally developed to protect the harvested crops. Everything in civilized society, to be sure, originated in the need to make sure that the crops were gathered and protected.

Conan, too, was an “urban barbarian”. Removed from his tribe, he was in civilization but not of civilization. He didn’t often hunt for food, as he might have in Cimmeria, but he could. He still managed to maintain his barbaric fierceness and defiance to authority. The wilderness was always available to him throughout the stories, as a place of refuge. His personal dignity didn’t allow him to give in to “soft” civilized comforts.

Who Were the Real Barbarians?

As far as the “real” barbarians, the ones that Rome and Greece reviled, they were a pretty diverse bunch, and included even the truly civilized empire of Persia . But generally we think of Germanic and Celtic people of Europe , pre-Christian and largely tribal, with some crops and herds, not very far removed from their hunter-gatherer past.

In other words, most of the people that Romans called “barbarians” were generally like this:

They lived in tribes, under chiefs.

Individuals owed loyalty first to those closest to them. First priority would be the family, next the clan, finally the tribe. Fighting for unseen governments and foreign ideals was against their nature, although they turned out to be willing mercenaries.

They believed in many gods (paganism), or at least believed that inanimate objects had spirits (animism, shamanism)

While a family of barbarians might have had some crops and herd animals, they relied heavily on hunting and gathering wild foods for much of their diet. A barbarian is often foremost a hunter.

When they went forward in battle, there was little discipline or organization. Barbarian warriors did not fight for a nation, or even their tribe. Mostly they were on the battlefield for glory, and wanted a chance to demonstrate their bravery and fierceness. Matched against the disciplined, organized Roman legions, they usually didn’t stand a chance. Man-to-man, however, usually the barbarian would win.

It’s no accident that the Magna Carta, one of the early signs of democracy in Europe, was devised by descendants of the barbaric, tribal and pagan Vikings. Their code of honor also may have formed the seed for the chivalric ideals of the Middle Ages.

For the most part, this seems to have been true of Howard’s Cimmerians as we know them. It also seems to be true – broadly speaking – of most native American cultures as well.

For an American such as Robert E. Howard, the closest thing to a barbarian or savage – as defined by Morgan – would have been the Indians. It’s hard to assign cultural details to the entire race of native Americans, but if you look at the list of barbaric “cultural markers” above, you will find many similarities. The following are gross generalizations, but are based on fact, and can actually be a useful code.

Among native Americans, most lived under a tribal form of government. Before colonization and conversion to Christianity, virtually all were shamanic. Many practiced some sort of agriculture, but rarely relied on it entirely. And in conflicts with white troops, native warriors would practice a different kind of warfare, without discipline or organization, mostly looking out for individual glory, and generally getting beaten by the white troops in set-piece battles.

An average Indian lived very close to nature. Typically, when an animal was taken for food, great thanks were given to the spirit of the downed animal for providing sustenance; often the animal was mourned as a brother.

Before Columbus , of course there was no Scripture in the Americas, no Ten Commandments among these people, yet they generally held to their own “rough chivalry”, as Howard called it. There were things that a Indian brave would never do, and things that he was compelled to do, through his own code of honor.

A tribe could never afford to support any member who was lazy, self-indulgent or cowardly; brutal methods removed these people quickly from society. However, anyone fallen on hard times was not refused the basics of life.

An attitude of proud defiance towards neighboring hostile tribes and white settlers, was generally the rule. But, friendly strangers were given benefit of the doubt, and regarded with respect and honor.

How is This Going to Help Me?

Obviously, we’ve demonstrated that any true “barbarian” is either: mythical, ancient or some Borneo tribesmen living a life alien to that of any readers of this book. If you truly want be a barbarian, go back and start your life over so that you are born and bred in the wilderness, constantly in danger of starving, being killed and eaten by wild animals, or being killed or enslaved by neighboring tribesmen. But such an enterprise would be neither useful, desirable, nor – thank the gods? – possible.

But we can “segment” what is possible and useful from what we know of the barbarian lifestyle to try and improve out lives today. We can become closer to nature than we are now; if we have spare time, we can visit the wilds and begin to see and understand the web of life that we spend most of our days ignoring.

Knowing that the family is the basis of the tribe, we never neglect our duties to our kin.

Knowing how tenuous our link to life is and how close to use death is, we live every day as if it is our last.

Knowing that our tribe depends on us, we are on our feet always, active and independent.

Knowing that anyone may unexpectedly kill and eat us, we keep our guard up and live fearlessly, defiantly.

Knowing that only our reputation lives on, we keep our word and live honorably.

Knowing that death is inevitable; to die honorably is our choice.

Knowing that all beings are our brothers, we give them all respect.

Knowing that we are active and fearless warriors, we can afford to grant respect to the weak.

These precepts seem like a foreign language when read from a glowing computer monitor, transmitted across a web over the globe. In the environment of a air-conditioned/heated office or home, driving on a freeway in a car, it’s easy to forget that we are connected to the ancient wilderness.

So take some time off, visit the wild places on a regular basis, and there consider what you have read here. Maybe it’ll make more sense then.


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