Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pyrrhas and the Terrors of Polytheism

Lord Pyrrhas, “the Argive” is a creation of Robert E. Howard, a barbarian general who was active in the days of the Sumerian city-states of Ur, Nippur, and Erech.  This ancient civilization flourished in the Fertile Crescent between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, around 4000 B.C.   An early Bronze Age culture, the Sumerians developed arithmetic and geometry, cuneiform writing, a lunar calendar, elaborate irrigation systems, a variety of metal and leather goods, wheels, chariots, diverse weapons, and more importantly, beer.

The cities of Sumeria were eventually assimilated into larger empires, most notably the infamous Babylon.  They rose and fell in what is now the modern—if it can be called that—state of Iraq.

Pyrrhas will remind readers of other Howard characters such as Conan or Kull, famous for their brute strength and skill at fighting in close quarters with swords or their bare hands.  But Pyrrhas also exhibits the brooding fatalism of Solomon Kane.  Like Kane, “there had always been a restlessness in the soul of Pyrrhas the Argive, to haunt his dreams and drive him out on his long wanderings.”  He is a sort of pre-Christian warrior theologian, taking time to ponder the nature and fate of humankind both before and after skewering his numerous opponents.

In The House of Arabu, Howard richly imagines the ancient, decadent city of Nippur, populated by “a devil-ridden people crawling beneath the heels of priest and king…a city rotten with intrigue and obscene mysteries…”  Sensitive readers should take care: the setting of Howard’s story is millennia before the development of civil rights, feminism or diversity training.  (The story itself was written several decades before any of these developments.)

All of the women in The House of Arabu are untrustworthy harlots, (except for one, who is a vicious were-woman).  A wealthy and powerful homosexual lisps constantly and plots subversion.  There is also a treacherous Semite.  Yet despite these exaggerations, the historical details seem fairly convincing for fantasy fiction; Howard definitely did his homework.  As was his prerogative, the author took creative liberty with some place names and historical details. 

‘Arabu’, for example, is the ancient Akkadian term for ‘arab’.  Akkadian was the language of an empire of the same name that eventually unified the Sumerian city-states around 2300 BC.  In the story, the ‘house of Arabu’ is in the underworld of Shuala, the dark cavernous world of the dead.   Yet Arabu sounds like the ancient Greek name for the same place, Erebus.

The story begins with Pyrrhas attending a lavish feast and orgy put on by his friend Naram-ninub.  One of the harlots entertaining the guests suddenly becomes possessed by an evil spirit, grabs a dagger, and lunges at Pyrrhas.  He is subsequently troubled by the vision of a serpent and a visitation by Lilitu, an avenging “night spirit”.  Pyrrhas believes he has been cursed, most likely by someone in the ‘House of Arabu’, that is by someone who is dead—he is a victim of “justice from beyond the grave”.  It may have something to do with his recent killing of a priest of Anu in the rival city of Erech.

The rest of the story describes the barbarian’s adventures as he seeks the origin of the curse.  He tangles with a vampiric old wizard, a deceitful concubine, a treacherous associate, Lilitu and her mate, and a ferocious denizen of the underworld.   This being a Howard story, not many of the original characters are left standing by the end of it all.

Yet sprinkled here and there among the impalements and decapitations are interesting philosophical and sociological comments.  A foreigner in Nippur, Pyrrhas is offended by the excessive idolatry, oppression of the common man, (though not of the common woman), and extremes of wealth and poverty.  Passing by an enormous temple built to honor the god Enlil, Pyrrhas comments:

     “The towers stand against the sky like part of it…The sky is enameled, and this is a world made by man.”
     “Nay, friend,” demurred Naram-ninub.  “Ea built the world from the body of Tiamat.”
     “I say men built Shumir!” exclaimed Pyrrhas…”A flat land—a very banquet-board of a land—with rivers and cities painted upon it, and a sky of blue enamel over it.  By Ymir, I was born in a land the gods built!”

Passing a funeral procession, Pyrrhas asks his friend “How many gods are there, in the devil’s name?”  As his friend describes the architecture of a temple—how each feature represents one of seven different deities—the barbarian asks which one is the greatest.  His friend answers him with a question:  “Which is the greatest leg of a tripod?”  That is, all of them have equal power and stature.  Pyrrhas is dissatisfied with this answer.  Perhaps he is feeling the faint stirrings of an early monotheism.

The House of Arabu is an entertaining adventure story.  The preoccupation with decadence and rich, exotic visual detail suggests the influence of Clark Ashton Smith.  (Compare this story to Smith’s The Monster of the Prophecy, for example.) The House of Arabu was originally published posthumously in 1952; it appeared in Donald Wollheim’s wonderful anthology series, the Avon Fantasy Reader.

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