Living the Cimmerian: An Essay on Playing the Races of Hyboria

What is a Cimmerian? How would you roleplay one? Are they your typical dimwitted cookie cutter barbarian with a German accent? Or are they something deeper than that; something unlike any other race you have ever role-played in a game before? I argue that Robert Howard intended to create a living, breathing race with a history all their own; a race that cannot be summed up in a few short sentences, but one that even though it cannot be directly defined because of a lack of distinct description, can be imagined through Howard’s descriptive work. Throughout the essay I will give suggestions to help players unfamiliar, or moderately familiar with Howard’s works roleplay the Cimmerian in keeping with established Canon, and Howard’s distinct feel for the most popular race in Hyboria.
The biggest myth with Cimmerians comes from both Hyboria’s godsend to the masses and its biggest detriment in keeping with Howard’s work. In 1982 a movie was released that both brought international attention to Conan, and butchered Howard’s original stories. Conan the Barbarian depicted Conan as a slave boy from a weak tribe of blacksmiths and hunters who grows up to avenge the death of his parents. He prays to his god, he cries about the death of his family and above all he is shown as nothing more than a dumb brute almost incapable of independent thought. This has lead the masses of movie lovers to misunderstand the true pedigree of Cimmerians. In the works of Howard Cimmerians are blacksmiths and hunters, but they are also fierce warriors. They carry the intelligence of the human race but the ferocity and barbarism of the wild, making them some of the most feared warriors on the face of Hyboria. They do not pray to their gods, and they do not worship them. They fear their gods because the true Crom is merciless and spiteful. He does not love his followers as the other gods of Hyboria and is almost indifferent towards them other than to imbue their spirits with courage and lust for battle at birth.

“Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a 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?” -Conan to Belit Queen of the Black Coast

With such a god surely the Cimmerian people have little joy in their lives. They live, they fight, and they die. One even begins to wonder whether a Cimmerian would believe he has anything to live for. Death. Cimmerians live only to die and in that there is no joy. Cimmerians are not joyous, jolly or happy. They are dark, brooding, and spiteful. They do not sing, nor dance, nor drink and be merry.

“In this world [Cimmerians] 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.” -Conan to Belit Queen of the Black Coast

Much of what we learn about Cimmerians we can only surmise from Conan. Descriptions of Cimmerians are quite limited and usually given only in context to Conan. But we also know that Conan is not a typical Cimmerian as most of the descriptions of Cimmerians do not match Conan.

“You laugh greatly, drink deep and bellow good songs; though I never saw another Cimmerian who drank aught but water, or who ever laughed, or ever sang save to chant dismal dirges.”

“They have no hope here, or the hereafter,” answered Conan. “Their gods are Crom and his dark race, who rule over a sunless place of everlasting mist, which is the world of the dead. Mitra! The ways of the Aesir were more to my liking.” -Prospero and Conan Phoenix on the Sword

Cimmerian or lioncloth sissy?

Cimmerian or lioncloth sissy?

This begs the question, are most Cimmerians dumb brutes as seems to be indicated in Conan the Barbarian? I do not believe so. A dumb brute would not consider their dismal position in the world. They would likely be content to live their lives and not consider their positions in that life. The fact that Cimmerians are described as brooding and moody indicates that they are introspective and philosophize about their place in the world, and this self-contemplation breeds a joyless race of dwelling and moody barbarians who likely can hold a grudge for a very long time. Of course it is worth noting that most Cimmerians are probably not in touch with their feelings and to complain, whine, or communicate their depression would probably be beyond their grasp. They are silent in their torturous philosophy, and this makes them irritable, moody, and above all dangerous to cross. At the very least they would not lay prostrate, shackled arms reaching vainly at their captor bawling about how he killed their family. In this instance, if Conan can be used as a measure of their courage under duress, they would respond with something like,

“If my hands were free, I’d soon make a brainless corpse out of you.” -Conan to Xaltotun Hour of the Dragon

Does all of this mean that Cimmerians are moping, grumpy drones who keep to themselves thinking of how depressive their lives are? Hardly. Cimmerian’s do feel enjoyment when they sever a Vanir raider’s spine, they do feel accomplishment when they fell a Cimmerian Bull with their bare hands, and they even feel love towards their wives and possibly even their children. Because one is joyless overall does not make them incapable of feeling the emotion of joy. It is only a general description. It simply means that Cimmerians are not the one dimensional characters that some movie directors would lead us to believe. It is worth noting that another movie myth regarding the most famous Cimmerian is that he was a slave. He was not. He willingly left Cimmeria to seek adventure, and although he has been a captive many times for short periods in his life Robert Howard never describes him as a slave. Also, every time he has been a captive he holds his grudge long enough to see his captor’s life slip from between the open wounds created by Conan’s sword.

It is widely accepted, and true that Robert Howard intended his Cimmerians to be a reflection of the Gaels.

“The Gaels, ancestors of the Irish and Highland Scotch, descended from pure-blooded Cimmerian clans.” -Robert Howard The Hyborian Age

What this does not mean is that Cimmerians are everything Gaelic. It is important to remember that Howard created such a rich culture in his stories that Cimmerians exist as their own entity. Although Hyborian Cimmerians are fictional they have seeds in real history to make them more alive, not to give us creative license to adapt whichever traits we desire just because of the traits of their descendants. In my life my Germanic family lived in Russia and traveled with Catherine the Great before coming to New York in the late 1800’s and then Canada shortly after. I carry German ancestry, I have a German name and physically I still carry Germanic features. But I have nothing in common with modern Germans and I certainly am no Russian noble or royalty; I am Canadian in every sense of the word. If I were not around to tell you my characteristics it would be a great misrepresentation to look where my ancestors came from and paste those traits onto me. Likewise it would be erroneous to carry my traits back to my ancestors. The same can be said for the fictional Cimmerians to the actual Gaels. Cimmerians carry Gaelic names, and their gods carry the same names. They have even been described by some people as physically similar to the “Black Irish”, although that term in itself comes with questions of validation. It is easy to assume that Howard could have used the description of Black Irish for the physical characteristics of Cimmerians, as Howard apparently claimed to be of Black Irish descent himself. In any event, one roleplaying a Cimmerian would be most keeping with lore to name him in Gaelic tongue but cease the similarities soon after that. There should be enough as written by Robert Howard to properly roleplay a Cimmerian without borrowing much from actual historical races. As reference, these are some of the common names, as listed by Robert Howard, for Cimmerians:

“Eithriall, Eanbotha, Rotheachta, Giallchadh, Cruaidh, Eamhua, Criomnthan, Tuathal.” -Robert Howard Typescript entitled “Hyborian Names and Countries”

Note the propensity for Gaelic names, and the complete lack of Germanic ones? Let this be your guide when creating your Cimmerian.

Magic is a four letter word in Cimmeria. Cimmerians are distrustful of magic and it can be argued that they are even fearful of it. We know that Conan was both of these things:

“I would not tread on their shadow,” answered the barbarian conservatively.” -Conan in response to Belit’s question “Conan, do you fear the gods?” Queen of the Black Coast

Many times Conan’s hair stood on end, and on occasion he could even be described as frightened in the face of magical happenings, and mystical occurrences. Conan was even weary of mages who aided him:

“A murrain on these wizardly feuds! Pelias has dealt well with me, but I care not if I see him no more.” -Conan reflecting on Pelias the wizard who helped him regain his throne The Scarlet Citadel

Of course for gaming purposes FunCom has decided, so far, to allow Cimmerians a priest class and a druid class. Neither is in keeping with Howard’s established lore regarding Cimmerians but concessions seem to have been made for the enjoyment of the game. It may be best to attempt to create a back-story that differentiates a Cimmerian that chooses these classes from his brethren in order to attempt to keep a semblance of proper canon within the realm of the roleplaying setting. Most stories that would include a Cimmerian who is not only accepting of magic or priesthood, but is comfortable enough with it to practice it will be rather weak. This is a fact that may have to be looked past and considered within the realm of “suspension of disbelief” in order to make a functioning and balanced class system within the races of the game. In any event my recommendation is to be sure that you are intimately familiar with REHs proper lore before making a Cimmerian of these two classes. The roleplaying community may benefit greatly from expertly played “Cimmerians cut from a different cloth”, but a novice attempting the same feat may fall short of roleplaying benefits. Know your limits before you create your roleplaying character.

Although the Hyborian Cimmerian has been misunderstood by many people attempting to portray them, one can successfully roleplay a Cimmerian without compromising too much of the proper canon as created by Robert Howard. Cimmerians are not the one dimensional characters portrayed in the movies. They are instead a very complex, and interesting race that should be a tremendous joy to roleplay so long as one makes the effort to understand them. In all things be creative, but not careless. Happy roleplaying!


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