By “real” barbarians, I refer to the mostly Celtic and Germanic peoples who lived in Europe during the height of ancient Rome’s power. As ancient Rome waned, these barbarians became the dominant political and cultural force in Europe’s Dark Ages, or Migration Period.

In this case, we are going to look at the Germanic barbarians, since they left behind a handy set of poems which we collectively call the Eddas.

They consist of two volumes: the Younger or Prose Edda, and the Elder, or Poetic Edda.
The Prose Edda was written by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson around 1220. While interesting, it’s not as useful to us as is the Elder Edda.

The Elder Edda is a collection of old Norse poems, apparently transcribed around 1220 as well, possibly by Snorri Sturlason as well, although they came from an ancient oral tradition.

These mythical tales were repeated and learned and passed on from generation to generation, by mouth and ear. Some parts refer to Greenland, which wasn’t colonized until 985, and other parts refer to Atli, or Attila, famous barbarian, who perished in 453. Most of the truly mythical poems probably go back to the origins of the Germanic people. At any rate, the Elder Edda is as a good source as we have for beginning to understand the mentality of historical barbarians.


Growing up Cimmerian

Posted: August 13, 2012 in Barbarian Philosophy

It’s time to get back to basics. Here are some quotes describing Conan and the barbaric world from which he came.

Conan: “In my country no starving man is denied food…”
-The Slithering Shadow

– This is an example of what others have called his “rough chivalry”. In truth, the poorest of tribal people are typically the most hospitable.

Conan does not consider the bow a manly weapon; had to learn its use in Hyrkania.
-Queen of the Black Coast

Conan remembering his childhood: “I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts.”
-Hour of the Dragon

-Perhaps this is because Cimmerian barbarians consider it an unsportsmanlike way of gathering game. The spear would then be an honorable way of hunting, perhaps intending to honor the animal’s death in this way.

Conan of Cimmerian gods: “Their chief is Crom. He dwells on an great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?”
-Queen of the Black Coast

Conan on the afterlife: “There is no hope or hereafter in the cult of my people. In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls enter a gray, misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander cheerlessly throughout eternity.”
-Queen of the Black Coast

Conan on the gods: “He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply.”
-Queen of the Black Coast

“Wizards and sorcerers abounded in his barbaric mythology…”
-Hour of the Dragon

“It was his instinct, born of a thousand wilderness-bred ancestors, not to betray his position in his helplessness.”
-Hour of the Dragon

“In his youth he had felled hawks on the wing [by throwing stones].”
-Hour of the Dragon

“Steeps that balked these black people, horsemen and dwellers of plain and level forest, were not impossible for a man born in the rugged hills of Cimmeria.”
-Jewels of Gwahlur

Conan: “…some day a man will rise up and unite thirty or forty clans, just as was done among the Cimmerians, when the Gundermen tried to push northward, years ago. They tried to colonize the southern marches of Cimmeria: destroyed a few small clans, built a fort-town, Venarium..”
-Beyond the Black River

Balthus: “My uncle was at Venarium when the Cimmerians swarmed over the walls. He was one of the few who escaped the slaughter… The barbarians swept out of the hills in a ravening horde, without warning, and stormed Venarium with such fury none could stand before them. Men, women, and children were butchered…”
-Beyond the Black River

Conan: “I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls. I hadn’t yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires.”
-Beyond the Black River

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.”
-Beyond the Black River

“He was a man,” said Conan. “I drink to his shade, and to the shade of his dog, who knew no fear.” He quaffed part of the wine, then emptied the rest upon the floor, with a curious heathen gesture, and smashed the goblet. “The heads of ten Picts shall die for his, and seven heads for the dog, who was a better warrior than many a man.” And the forester…knew that the barbaric oath would be kept.
-Beyond the Black River

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the forester said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
-Beyond the Black River

Conan: “You had known otherwise, had you spent your youth on the northern frontiers of Cimmeria!” (ie, Is Conan from northern Cimmeria?)
-The Phoenix on the Sword

Conan: “By Badb, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain!”
– The Phoenix on the Sword

Turkeys in the mist.

I spent my Sunday morning hiking in the wilderness. As usual, when I’m not a Sherpa to other hikers, I went off-trail. This time, I deliberately followed a game trail up a narrow wash, mindful that I would have to thrash through dense underbrush.
As I went up, I remembered a recent MovNat class in a park, where we walked over even ground with mowed grass, and tried to pretend we were stepping over obstacles and under tree branches and the like.

And it hit me: that was an abstract and theoretical “exercise” – this wasn’t even exercise, I was moving up the slope, trying to get clear of the undergrowth. It wasn’t a game; I was contending with Nature as my wild barbarian forebears once did.

I also did pullups on a tree-branch, thick with moss, and I did clean and jerks with a boulder of unknown poundage.

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.

Move Natural

Posted: July 24, 2012 in Stone-Age Bodybuilding

The reason we “need” exercise is that we have been spending our time inventing labor-saving devices, and now sit at work, or if we don’t, we repeat the same motions all day long, then we sit in our cars, drive home, sit in our couches… get the picture?

MovNat, to my understanding, simply puts us back in the environment where we were before we had so many labor saving devices.

From the MovNat webpage: “Human beings possess locomotive skills such as walking, running, jumping, balancing, crawling, climbing, or swimming. In addition to locomotive skills, human beings also utilize manipulative skills such as lifting, carrying, throwing, and catching, and combative skills, such as striking or grappling.”

So in the class, we went through each one of these, and explored the variations in each one. For the walking portion (which served as a warmup), we walked across the park and Brian, the instructor, guided us on a fantasy (as children might) – this time we were in Jurassic Park. So we crouched as we walked, looked right and left for dinosaurs, walked backwards, over “boulders” and stooped as we entered a “cave”, then pretended to ford a river, leaping from rock to rock.

My favorite was the climbing portion, although my shoulders were giving me problems.

I think that is worthy of further investigation. This concept could be applied to a walk in a city park, especially if there is a parcourse installed, or in a nearby wilderness or semi-wilderness trail.

This certainly something that dovetails very well with the concept of the Paleo Diet, and the Paleo Lifestyle. Ogg would approve.

Dino makes fire

Last Saturday afternoon, I joined Dino Labiste for a workshop on firemaking with the bow drill.

Now, I had learned this technique last year from Tom Brown Jr., but my technique was rusty and I needed a tune-up.

Tule rush

Posted: July 17, 2012 in Bred to the Wilderness

Last Saturday, I went to a local regional park, Coyote Hills, where classes in primitive technology were being held.

Tule rush (Schoenoplectus acutus) was a vital plant to the local Ohlone Indians. It’s a swamp plant with a round upright stem about 3/8″ in diameter and as high as six feet.

We went to a swampy area a few acres in size and gathered as much as we could in a couple of hours. The stems will be dried in the sun, then soaked and split so we can make mats from it next weekend.