Archive for January, 2015


“By Allah, they rode like men riding to a wedding, their great horses and long lances overthrowing all who opposed them, and their plate-armor turned the finest steel. Yet they fell as the firelocks spoke until only three were left in the saddle – the knight Marczali and two companions. These paladins cut down my Solaks like ripe grain, but Marczali and one of his companions fell – almost at my feet.

“Yet one knight remained …”

— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”

The politics of eastern Europe, in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, were complicated as always. As Gottfried von Kalmbach rode back from Russia, in the spring of 1526, he entered a mess of treachery, incompetence and cruel rivalries to equal anything he had seen before. And Gottfried had seen much for a man not yet thirty.

There had been no strong and intelligent king of Hungary since Matthias Corvinus died in 1490. Soldier, superb administrator, and patron of the arts, he had instituted a number of significant reforms and created a standing army. That had involved reducing the powers of his nobles and magnates, however, and they wanted that power back, even at the expense of the land’s safety.

They placed the notoriously weak King of Bohemia on Hungary’s throne, preferring him precisely because he was weak. They disbanded the standing army, and allowed the frontier fortresses to decay through lack of inclination to stand the cost. They were never enthusiastic for the nation’s defense, unless they could get their rivals to do the paying, so nothing was done. They cancelled Corvinus’s reforms and crushed the peasants back into the dirt.

Dózsa_György_megkoronázásaIn consequence, the peasants rose en masse in 1514, led by a soldier named György Dózsa. Their revolt was crushed without mercy. Villages were destroyed, infants killed, rebels by the thousand impaled, torn apart between horses, and burned alive. Dózsa died chained to a red-hot iron throne. The leading part in these atrocities was taken by John Zapolya, voivode of Transylvania. From what this blogger can discover, even as tyrants of that region went, he was a charmer – a worthy successor to Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, who had perished in 1476.

Zapolya’s treatment of the rebel peasants won him the nobles’ and gentry’s liking, however. He was appointed guardian of Hungary’s boy king, Louis II, who succeeded the weak Bohemian, but Zapolya’s rival, Stephen Báthory, was made the land’s Imperial Governor, or Palatine, a much bigger plum. (Báthory, by the way, belonged to the same family as Elizabeth, the notorious “Blood Countess”, although she lived and indulged her sadistic whims later.)

Zapolya and Báthory hated each other. Their inability to act together was a gift to the energetic young Turkish Sultan Suleiman, who had just ascended the throne of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman sent a demand for tribute to King Louis, which Louis rejected. Suleiman immediately marched on the crucial stronghold of Belgrade, and took it, a laughably easy project. Belgrade had a garrison of only 700 men, and received no reinforcements. Words fail.

Suleiman might have proceeded against Hungary at once. Instead, he chose to attack and reduce the great fortress of the Knights of St. John at Rhodes, in 1522. The Order had plundered the Turks for centuries, and Suleiman was determined to end its depredations. Gottfried von Kalmbach, one of the Knights, fought like a tiger through the siege, though he was expelled later for a drunken, undisciplined brawler and whoremonger. Suleiman succeeded in taking Rhodes and dispossessing the Knights, but it cost him 60,000 soldiers’ lives. He was unable to carry out his intentions towards Hungary for years.

suleiman_magnificent.jpgBy 1526 he was ready.

It was obvious that the Sultan was coming. Gottfried, no subtle politician, became aware of it while still in Russia. Zapolya, voivode of Transylvania, craved to be Hungary’s king, but there was another, stronger claimant in the person of Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria. His elder brother Charles was Holy Roman (in fact German) Emperor, and Ferdinand had married Anna Jagiellonica, the daughter of a former king of Bohemia and Hungary. Zapolya very possibly struck a treacherous bargain with Suleiman before the Turkish army set out, to counter Ferdinand.

Zapolya wasn’t the only double-dealer mouthing Christian piety while playing the Turkish game. There was also, conspicuously, the Valois King of France, Francis I. From 1520 he fought a series of wars with the German (miscalled Holy Roman) Empire, and courted Suleiman the Magnificent as an ally to get an advantage over his Christian rival. He continued kissing up to Turkey like a showgirl to a billionaire, even after Suleiman broke the defense of Rhodes and dispossessed the Order of St. John.

Gottfried considered that he had a score to settle with the Turks over that business. Besides, he was German. Beyond Hungary and Austria lay the German lands, among them his native Bavaria. If Suleiman took Hungary, he was unlikely to stop there. King Louis (who was only twenty) had numerous German mercenaries in his service. Gottfried swiftly joined them. To his utter disgust, when Louis called the country to arms, the nobles were slow to answer, even in that plain emergency. The southern border was undefended, except by Pál Tomori, Archbishop of Kalocsa, with a few thousand men.

Before going to meet the Turkish army, Gottfried made friends with some Magyar knights, particularly the valiant Albert Marczali, last of his family. The Marczalis had held the castle of Szentgyörgyvár in Zala county until the middle of the fifteenth century. Perhaps they had somehow displeased King Matthias, because he bestowed the castle, lands and villages on the Báthorys in 1479. Most sources I’ve seen aver that the Marczalis had died out by then, but to this blogger it looks as though they remained extant. Albert’s presence at Mohacz shows that.

He knew how desperate Hungary’s situation was, and that no help would come from other Christian states. Any Hungarian with his eyes open knew. Marczali began picking a group of knights to ride with him, if the chance came, in an all-or-nothing charge aimed at killing the Sultan himself on the field of battle. Suleiman had already proved his determination and energy; if he was slain, there was always the hope that his successor would be a weakling or voluptuary, more interested in opium and odalisques than war. But first he had to be slain.

Gottfried was among the knights who joined Marczali’s band and committed to his purpose. Altogether there were thirty-two. They knew the established Ottoman procedure; how the Sultan attended the fighting behind entrenchments and gun-wagons, protected by his personal guard of Solaks. Janissaries armed with long flintlocks flanked them. It would be a suicide charge, and they knew that too; they might succeed in their purpose, but it was foolish even to dream that any of the thirty-two would return.

Gottfried, rakehell that he was, had spent some of his initial time in Hungary with a girl on each arm, and then found a mistress in the spectacular person of a Magyar noble’s wife. Her name was Aranka, and conceivably she was an ancestor of the Gabor sisters. Currently wed to her third husband and still young, the first two having died in battle, she wasn’t averse to a lover on the side. Like Rhett Butler, she never held fidelity to be a virtue.

gottfried von kalmbach armsKnowing his death was near, Gottfried had an attack of Teutonic sentimentality. He thought of his ancient lineage and the proud von Kalmbach arms. As a Knight Hospitaller he had worn the Order’s mantle and eight-pointed cross. Since his dismissal, roaming as the whim took him, he had worn any armor that came to hand, with a plain garment. Now he resumed the blazon of his breed – per pale argent and purple, a chief and bear passant counterchanged. On his helmet he mounted the von Kalmbach crest, a gauntleted hand gripping a broken sword. If he perished, he meant to do so with shield, surcoat and horse-caparison flaunting the device of his ancient house.

King Louis had sent the war-summons to his magnates and nobles, to Croatia in the west and Transylvania on the south-east. They had answered with firm promises. The Croatian prince was to come to the battle, and the voivode Zapolya was to hold the Transylvanian passes unless it became clear that the Ottomans would not take that route. If that happened he was to come and support the main Hungarian army – with all possible speed.

The Turkish host, about 100,000 strong, made an arduous two-month march through the Balkans. The Hungarian host gathered slowly and piecemeal; the Croatian contingent, for instance, arrived slowly, though it did come, under its Count Christoph Frankopan, about five thousand strong. The main army under Louis did not wait for the Croatians, but picked the battlefield near Mohacs, in many ways a puzzling choice since while it lay on open plains, the ground was uneven and contained swampy areas, an impediment to the cavalry that was Hungary’s greatest strength in war.

The Transylvanians under Zapolya, 10 or 12 thousand of them, did not arrive at all.

King Louis’ army numbered about 28,000 in full; the Croatians and Arbishop Tomori on the right wing, and on the left wing, a smaller cavalry force under Peter Perenyi, Bailiff of Temes. Ten thousand infantry and the Hungarian cannon occupied the front lines of the center – and among the infantry were mercenary German landsknechte with harquebuses and long pikes, the toughest foot soldiers anywhere, the match even of janissaries and the Swiss. In fact, at Bicocca and Pavia, landsknechte had crushed the Swiss pikemen who opposed them.

Behind them, the Hungarian heavy cavalry and a few thousand Polish knights waited for the onset. Albert Marczali, with Gottfried and thirty others, looked calmly upon what he expected to be the field of his last battle. Barring a miracle, so it would be. All thirty-two had the same consuming thought, to await their chance, charge against all odds, and kill Sultan Suleiman.

OttomanraidThe Turkish host arrived in the early afternoon. 20,000 Rumelian cavalry formed the right wing, and the center consisted of the relentless janissaries, slave soldiers of the sultan taken as children from Christian lands, reared with no calling but war and no master but the Sultan, forbidden to marry, dedicated to battle, convinced that death in the Ottoman cause meant eternity in the Seventh Heaven of Light. In the forefront were three hundred of the superb cannon that were Suleiman’s pride. For Turkish artillery was unmatched. Gottfried remembered the Ottoman gunners’ skill from Rhodes.

The Rumelian cavalry charged, roaring, the hooves of their horses shaking the earth of Mohacs. Archbishop Tomori and Count Christoph led their own horsemen to meet them. Tomori and his riders particularly had gall in their hearts and grim scores to settle. They cut down the Rumelians, rode over them, routed them completely, and left the corpse-littered earth soaked in blood. The Ottoman command promptly deployed regular troops from the reserves, and they proved a different matter from the Rumelian irregulars, yet the Hungarian right still forced a way through them, coming so close to Suleiman that their arrows endangered him, one sticking in his breastplate.

“Now!” Marczali cried in exultation. “Now is our chance, brothers!  Ride!”

They rode, and how they rode. The words REH puts into Suleiman’s mouth in “Shadow of the Vulture” are probably not one whit more than the truth. Close together, on big powerful horses, in the finest plate suits the sixteenth century armorers could make, they galloped for Suleiman’s position, Magyars, Poles, Austrians, perhaps a few Transylvanian knights who could not stomach their voivode’s treachery, and at least one German.

SolaksIn front of them the cannon boomed and bellowed, leaping from the ground in their gun-limbers with each shot. Past the sharpened stakes set in the ground to protect the gun-crews the thirty-two raced, some of them going down, shot by Turkish musketeers, some hurled from their mounts as the stakes ripped out the war-horses’ bellies. Their long lances drove through gunners’ and janissaries’ bodies alike before they broke. Then they employed their huge swords and maces. Marczali and von Kalmbach remained in the lead, side by side, reaping Turkish soldiers like grain as they galloped past the cannon entrenchments. The firelocks of the Sultan’s personal guard continued to speak, and more knights fell in the suicide charge. Janissaries sprang behind the war-horses and hacked at their hind legs, crippling them, heedless of the hoofs that kicked out their brains or the swords that clove them to the breast-bone. Their scimitars and firearms killed the knights who found themselves afoot, plate suits or none. Now a dozen of Marczali’s picked band were left, in among the Sultan’s own Solaks, slaying them fiercely even as musket balls and arrows pierced them.

The survivors were close enough to see Suleiman himself, now, see his eyes and moustaches. Gottfried laughed hoarsely. A janissary’s dreadful scimitar-cut ripped the remnant of his helmet from his head. His sweat-drenched tawny hair exposed to the sun, his berserk blue eyes glaring, he spurred his horse onward beside Marczali and one other knight whose name has not survived. They died, almost close enough to Suleiman to touch him, so that only Gottfried was left, blood spilling through the joints of his armor. He swung his two-handed sword and brought Suleiman to the ground, the Sultan’s own blood pouring through a rent in his mail. Janissaries stood over him to protect him, while others crippled Gottfried’s horse and closed in to finish him. Gottfried went down, bleeding and trampled, sure that this was death, nor did he regain consciousness until the battle was over. He remembered nothing that had happened after he struck down the Sultan, but the horseman who bore him out of the tumult told him that he had struggled upright and was fighting like a titan, even though half conscious. If he had remained down all would have supposed him dead. As it was, his savior got him across his saddle somehow and got him back to the Hungarian lines.

Tomori_pálGottfried heard more, none of it comforting.  Out-flanked by the Turks, the Hungarians had failed to hold their positions, and those who did not run were killed or captured. Trying to rally and counter-attack, they walked into the deadly harquebus fire of the Turkish infantry, and those who survived that fell before scimitars and spears. The heroic Pál Tomori died on the field. King Louis, fleeing at twilight, fell and drowned in the Danube, dragged down by his armor. Report had it that Suleiman, pale with blood loss from the wound Gottfried had given him – the huge Bavarian cursed sulphurously to learn that Suleiman lived – had looked sadly on the youthful monarch’s body.  “May Allah be merciful to him, and punish those who misled his inexperience,” he reportedly said of Louis. “It was not my wish that he should thus be cut off, while he had scarcely tasted the sweets of life and royalty.”

That tender sentiment did not prevent a massacre of two thousand prisoners after the battle. The Sultan retreated from Buda for a time, because he could not believe that the little army he met at Mohacs was the entire Hungarian opposition. Once he realized that it was actually so – within a fortnight – he had Buda and Pesth sacked, while his dreaded Akinji ranged far and wide through Hungary under their merciless leader, Mikhal Oglu. When the Grand Turk returned to Istanbul he took some 100,000 captives with him into slavery.

Gottfried von Kalmbach survived, as he had survived Rhodes. He stayed drunk throughout his convalescence, which he asserted did him more good than the doctors. The husband of his mistress, Aranka, had died at Mohacs with many others, and she married for a fourth time in Vienna before the year 1526 ended. Gottfried cheerfully attended her wedding, tumbled a girl whose name he could not remember afterwards, while the church bells were pealing, and went his way.

Read Part One, Part TwoPart Three, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

REH & Patch

It was 109 years ago today that baby boy Robert Ervin Howard came kicking and screaming into the world. Since nearly all babies come into the world that I way, I would expecting nothing less from Two-Gun Bob, except that he screamed louder and kicked more than other babies. Little did Isaac and Hester Howard know what destiny had in store for their newborn son, but all of us are glad he was born – and even though he spent a scant thirty years on this Earth, he certainly made an impression through the decades on millions of fans worldwide.

There was a bit of a confusion surrounding actual Robert’s date of birth. He was born on January 22, 1906, but the doctor who delivered him must have been busy that week because when he sat down to record Robert’s birth, he wrote the date as January 24, 1906 and that’s how it is recorded in the Parker County birth records. You can read the whole story here. For Howard’s centennial in 2006, there was a birthday celebration held in Fort Worth in January. The tradition was carried on for a few more years in Cross Plains with the Project Pride folks pitching in to help the fans give Two-Gun a proper celebration.

Of course this year is the 125th anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft’s birth. For the Old Gent’s quasquicentennial, Howard Days 2015 will be marking it and Howard’s friendship with HPL with some panels and other activities. Howard still has a ways to go before he hits the 125 mark in 2031. I’ll be 75 for Howard Days in 2031 and hopefully spry enough to attend.

Happy Birthday, REH.


“They are here today,” the wild winds say,
“But who can trace the track of tomorrow?
“And who can shackle a roving heart
“That leans to the winds that waver and start,
“Or chain a soul like the ocean spray,
“Whiter than glory and brine as sorrow?”

— Robert E. Howard, “The Path of the Strange Wanderers”

After two hundred years as the masters of Rhodes and the scourge of Turkish shipping, the Knights of St. John had been dislodged from their stronghold. Sultan Suleiman, the young Ottoman ruler, had accomplished their defeat after a terrible siege lasting months and costing sixty thousand Turkish dead. Even then he had been forced, as the price of their surrender, to allow them to depart unmolested.

Sailing west in their famous galleys, they came to Sicily, then a Spanish possession, early in 1523. The island was already being ruled as badly by the Spanish Hapsburgs as it had been by the Aragonese. Corrupt nobles, the equally corrupt Spanish Inquisition (Sicily was then ruled from Spain), and lack of interest in Sicily except as a source of wheat, turned the peasants’ lives into an even closer approximation of hell than usual. Extortionate bailiffs drove them off the land. They turned to banditry to survive, and robbers were seen as heroes by folk who had no other champions, no other source of any kind of justice. Sicily, in short, like the kingdom of Khoraja in the Hyborian Age as described by Conan, was “in a devil of a mess.”

FightThe knights found a new base there for some years. The German Gottfried von Kalmbach, a younger son who had worn the mantle of the Order for a few years, was thrown out shortly after they arrived. Although a courageous fighter, whose sustained performance on the ramparts of Rhodes had been heroic in a disreputable fashion, he was nevertheless a drunkard, rakehell and brawler. His frequent breaches of the Order’s vows would have assured his dismissal sooner or later, and discipline was needed more than ever now. Gottfried chose the wrong time to get into a fight with two Portuguese knights, and kill one of them; he was lucky not to swing from a gallows. The Portuguese had accused the Grand Master, Philip de l’Isle Adam, of making one of their fellows a scapegoat for the loss of Rhodes by a trumped-up charge of treason, and Gottfried had called them liars. The result had been drawn swords and spilt blood. After a swift hearing, the Order decided it could do without the unruly German.

Gottfried shrugged his mighty shoulders and went his way, his only assets his sword, the broad knowledge of sea-fighting, siege-craft and gunnery he had acquired with the Order, proficiency in three languages, and an acquaintance with a number of others. He also possessed some experience and practice in medicine. This too was characteristic of men who had served in the langues of the Hospitallers.

Map of SicilyGottfried in short order became captain to a baron near Bronte, west of Mount Etna. His qualifications made him the best man a scheming minor noble, in a once glorious island now fallen upon sorry times, was ever likely to recruit to the post. Like many others in Sicily, Baron Orri made his chief occupation courting the Spanish viceroy’s favor and seeking a greater title, such as marquis or duke. Higher rank, even if essentially empty, meant a better chance of lucrative offices – which were awarded by appointment.

The former Hospitaller lost no time finding a pretty mistress among the villages of the baron’s estate. Even while a knight of the Order, he had broken his vows of chastity, wenching among the villages of Rhodes, but due to the Order’s discipline, less often than he would have preferred. Now a free agent, aged twenty-four, he felt he needed to catch up, and set about doing that. His steady mistress, Marcia, was not the only girl Gottfried bedded, and not being blind or witless, she found out, going into more than one shrieking rage in which she hit the huge German with anything handy. Their fights were as passionate as their reconciliations.

Baron Orri had rivals with the same ambitions as himself. One, a neighbor of his, sought to be rid of him by denouncing him as a heretic. The Inquisition’s soldiers came to Orri’s castle and arrested him. Gottfried, his captain, assured the arresting party that he was a devout son of the Church, and allowed them to take him without resistance. Directly they were out of sight, Gottfried disguised himself and his men as bandits, followed the party, and fell upon it in the night before it came close to Palermo and the dungeons of the Inquisition. Orri was freed and the arresting party, those that survived, sent on their way barefoot and naked.

After taking Baron Orri home, Gottfried’s wasted no time in attacking the castle of the neighbor who had accused him. The place was a poor bastion beside the sort of fortifications Gottfried was used to. He took it with ease. Then he had Baron Orri’s enemy hanged in his own courtyard. The problem with the Inquisition still existed, but as Gottfried pointed out, the baron only had to sit in his castle and ignore its summons until a new viceroy arrived. They were replaced frequently. A suitable bribe ought to gain the approval of the new man.

caravelGaining the money for a suitable bribe in impoverished and exploited Sicily presented a bit of difficulty. However, as a former Knight of St. John, von Kalmbach was a competent sea-fighter and pirate. He had plundered Turkish and Venetian shipping as one of the Order; now, backed by Baron Orri, he took a caravel out of Messina and waylaid a Genoese merchant ship. The cargo, fine Merino cloth from Spain and some silver from the new world, proved worth the effort. With that in his hands, and the master of two baronies now, not one, Orri felt himself in a firm position. He was well pleased with his new captain, and Gottfried felt pleased with himself.

Within limits he had achieved a triumph. But his rescue of the baron from the Inquisition party, disguised as a bandit chief, did not hold water long. Von Kalmbach’s huge size, tawny hair and drunken blue gaze made him hard to mistake. Suspicion soon attached to him, and mere suspicion on the part of the dreaded Inquisition could doom a man. Looting a Genoese ship, too, had its consequences, for the great Genoese sea-fighter Andrea Doria took exception to that. Then Admiral of the French Mediterranean fleet, in the service of Francis I, Doria was a busy man, but he made time to command his underlings to hang Gottfried von Kalmbach if they happened to lay hands on him. (The Italian liner which sank in 1956 with a loss of over 50 lives was named after Andrea Doria.)

The Dominicans at Palermo cherished similar intentions towards Gottfried. Also, the Knights of St. John, who had thrown him out and disowned him, now operated from Sicilian shores. (The Emperor Charles did not endow them with Malta until 1530.)  They remembered his heroism at Rhodes, but still considered him a disgrace, and were as displeased as the Inquisition by his recent antics. They began working with the latter to bring him to account. Gottfried decided it was time he departed. He had become a little weary of Sicily in any case, and there was much more of the world to see.

Baron Orri, whom he had served well if unlawfully, made a decision of his own – to sell out his turbulent captain and make peace with the Inquisitors at Palermo. Gottfried had to fight his way clear, ride hard for the coast, and escape to Naples in a fishing boat. The Order of St. John did not catch the fugitive. Perhaps some former comrades felt unwilling to pursue him.

From Naples, Gottfried reached Corsica. The island was a Genoese possession (Andrea Doria and his uncle had quelled a revolt there between 1503 and 1506), and the huge Bavarian was almost captured, but once again slipped through his enemies’ fingers. He entered Provence without a coin to his name.

nicolaus-knupfer-brothel-sceneDown on his luck, he worked as a bouncer in a brothel for a short time, in the ancient town of Arles. Although a big rough bear of a man, he protected the girls from sadists, and they appreciated it. Most were sorry to see him leave.

He returned to Bavaria and appealed to his family. The tales of his misdeeds had gone before him, though, and Gottfried’s father was a stern man. He had his scapegrace son driven from the estate by lackeys with whips, though a number of casualties ensued. That ended Gottfried’s attempts to mend fences with his kindred. He never again went near their lands or castle.

Thus, in 1524, he rode north-east into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its fortunes in its endless wars with Muscovy had turned sour, and two years before, under the peace treaty of 1522, Lithuania had been forced to cede immense lands to the Russians. Gottfried saw few opportunities there, and so he travelled further east, into Russian lands. He took service as a mercenary with the Grand Duke of Muscovy, Vasili III. Despite his successes against Lithuania, the Grand Duke was having difficulty with his own feudal lords, Gottfried’s old enemies the Ottoman Turks, and the Crimean Tatars. He welcomed the former Knight of St. John with open arms, while Gottfried for his part found it convenient to serve a ruler who had no need to truckle to the Inquisition or the Pope.

He led Russian warriors against the Tatars. His men boasted of his prowess, called him “bogatyr”, and admired his strength and daring. He thwarted many of the Tatars’ notorious slave raids into Russia, and twice led his men to the Crimea itself, sacking caravanserais, burning towns, even slaying a khan. The Tatars cursed his name, which they pronounced as “Gombuk” – an epithet used by two separate characters in “The Shadow of the Vulture”, the Crimean Tatar Yaruk Khan and the Vulture himself, Mikhal Oglu.

RoxelanaGottfried on occasion rode beside Zaporozhian Cossacks, though he never fully trusted them. They might fight against the Tatars when it suited them, but they allied themselves with Tatars too, again when it suited them. He might conceivably have met Red Sonya of Rogatino in those days, since she had become an adopted daughter of a Zaporozhian hetman after the raid that saw her sister Roxelana abducted by Tatars, except that Sonya had ridden west at approximately the same time Gottfried rode east. Another Cossack chieftain had tried to rape her, and Sonya had killed him, after which she had to leave the Zaporozhian sech. She and Gottfried were to meet, but not till later, on the walls of besieged Vienna.

As for Gottfried, despite his successes and growing repute, he too wrecked his chances in Russia by killing the wrong person – in his case a jealous noble. Once more he had to decamp hastily to save his life. He regretted it, a little, since in some ways he had found Russians congenial, at least for their courage, endurance and drinking habits, though their cruelty did not sit especially well with him. In any case he was not a man to indulge in futile moping. He turned his face to the west again.

He arrived in threatened, riven Hungary in precise time for the battle of Mohacz.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction, Howard's Poetry.


Reading what von Junzt dared put in print arouses uneasy speculations as to what it was he dared not tell … But the contents of the published matter are shuddersome enough, even if one accepts the general view that they but represent the ravings of a madman.

Robert E. Howard, “The Black Stone”

[Warning to the readers: what follows is speculation about a fictional, non-existent occult book written by a fictional person. Friedrich von Junzt and Alexis Ladeau did not exist in real life; the “Black Book” does not exist; nor does the frightful Necronomicon. Miskatonic University is also fictional. So – let us hope – are Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Cthulhu.]

VonJunzt1Robert E. Howard considered H.P. Lovecraft “the greatest living writer.” He corresponded with HPL in famous – sometimes heated – exchanges of letters. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith both contributed, very early on, to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and invented ghastly occult grimoires of their own as companions to HPL’s Necronomicon. Smith’s main hideous tome was The Book of Eibon, from primal Hyperborea, and Howard’s, the Nameless Cults of von Junzt, “the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion.”

Nameless Cults is mentioned (by Howard) in “The Children of the Night” (1931), “The Black Stone” (1931), “The Thing on the Roof” (1932) (all first published in Weird Tales), and “The Hoofed Thing,” unpublished in REH’s lifetime. According to REH, a faulty, slipshod and downright exploitative London translation of 1845 was responsible for the volume’s English title. Clark Ashton Smith always referred to the tome as “Nameless Cults.”

I’ve read that H.P. Lovecraft suggested a German title which did not catch on – Ungenennte Heidenthume  – and that Unausspreclichen Kulten was devised by August Derleth. The latter literally means “Unspeakable Cults.” As “Unausspreclichen Kulten,” von Junzt’s book has been referenced in countless Cthulhu Mythos stories starting with Lovecraft himself, who mentioned it in virtually every tale he wrote from 1931-on. A strong argument could be made that, after the Necronomicon, Howard’s invented book of occult lore is the most important tome in the entire Cthulhu Mythos.

REH does not tell his readers much about von Junzt, not even his Christian names. H.P. Lovecraft devised the “Friedrich Wilhelm” (which Howard was quite aware of). I’m assuming von Junzt’s family belonged to the Neiderer Adel or lower nobility, with the title of Baron (Freiherr) and that he was a second son.

He lived from 1795 until 1840, and spent his life “delving into forbidden subjects; he travelled in all parts of the world, gained entrance into innumerable secret societies, and read countless little-known and esoteric books and manuscripts in the original …” (“The Black Stone”)

DusseldorfFriedrich Wilhelm von Junzt, as best this blogger can ascertain, was born near Dusseldorf on the Lower Rhine, north of Cologne, on the 23rd of November 1795. His magnum opus, Von Unausspreclichen Kulten (Of Unspeakable Cults), was eventually printed in Dusseldorf. His father was the Freiherr Matthias von Junzt, his mother Sieglind a niece of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, Wilhelm IX. (Neither REH nor Lovecraft names von Junzt’s parents.)

The Napoleonic Wars occupied Friedrich’s entire boyhood. After winning at Austerlitz (1805), Bonaparte created the Grand Duchy of Berg, with Dusseldorf as its capital. Von Junzt’s father and elder brother fought with the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstadt. Both were killed in October 1806, when Friedrich was almost eleven. His mother had already died bearing Friedrich’s sister, Marta. They had become the last of their branch of the family.

(It was after Auerstadt that a later acquaintance of Von Junzt’s, the Prussian officer and sociopathic genius, Hermann Mülder, resigned his commission in disgust. Mulder then enrolled at Heidelberg and studied with distinction.)

Because of his kinsmen’s deaths, von Junzt hated Napoleon and fought against the Corsican when old enough, though no soldier by nature. Friedrich was wounded at Leipzig, in October 1813. That ended his military career, and in 1814 he enrolled at Heidelberg. He had intended, at first, to choose Konigsberg because of its associations with Immanuel Kant, whom he admired. To Junzt, the metaphysician and philosopher was a far more important personage than Bonaparte. Friedrich eventually decided on Heidelberg instead — then called Ruperto Carola – which was beginning its second “golden age.” He enrolled there after Hermann Mülder had left; they only met years afterwards.

Studious and idealistic, Friedrich loved his university years. The thinkers of Central Europe were more introspective and spiritual than politically active. It was an age of princely despots, especially in the German states; there was no practical way to reform the community, and trying meant an indefinite term in prison. Echoing Plato – and now Kant – they postulated a perfect, ideal realm beyond the reach of science or the senses.

VonJunzt2.jpgAt Heidelberg, von Junzt met his life-long friend, the French student Alexis Ladeau. Ladeau’s father had been an ardent, merciless revolutionary and member of the Committee of Public Safety. Alexis’ mother, Odette, was a sister of Christophe Morand, the young “law student of Tours” who mysteriously disappears in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The End of the Story.” Odette was intelligent, rebellious, and a friend of Madame de Stael before the latter’s exile to Switzerland. Alexis was born and grew up in the village of Drancy le Grand, a few kilometers from Paris, with a population of about three hundred.

Alexis believed in the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and was a convinced atheist, but despised the Reign of Terror and thought that Bonaparte had cynically betrayed the Revolution to make himself a more absolute ruler than the monarchy he had helped depose.

Von Junzt studied mathematics, astronomy and philology. It was Ladeau who drew his attention to Ludwig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis and the Comte d’Erlette’s Cultes des Goules. Ladeau was acquainted with the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon as well, but the single copy of the former known to exist in Europe at the time was located in Paris. Ladeau had a powerful interest in the occult and supernatural, though he claimed to be a sceptic. Ironically, it was Ladeau that introduced Friedrich to Rudolf Yergler’s Chronike von Nath. Von Junzt found much of interest in the seventeenth-century tome penned by the German madman. The book sparked Junzt’s life-long interest regarding “dream-travel” to other spheres and dimensions.

Von Junzt, fascinated by German folklore, and at that time believing witch cults to be nothing more, did some research into medieval covens. He learned that in the Middle Ages they had been almost as well-organized as the knightly orders, though more secret and grotesque.

Shortly afterwards, von Junzt learned that such cults still existed.

Von Junzt became acquainted with one such cult in his mother’s native Hesse-Kassel province. Pagan German tribes had set up pillars made from huge tree-trunks, representing the World Tree, on sacred hilltops. They had been called Irmensul, “giant columns.” Charlemagne, in his campaigns against the heathen Saxons, had destroyed such a column some leagues west of Sieglind’s ancestral home.

VonJunzt3.jpgLocal peasants dreaded the site, and followers of the Old Religion still gathered there. They reverenced the dark powers which attacked the World Tree, symbolized by a snake and four black stags. The cultists were said to perform obscene rites and sacrifice children. Von Junzt laughed the notion to scorn; after all, it was the nineteenth century now, and this was Westphalia, an enlightened, cultured land.

Friedrich was sufficiently interested to gain access to the cult, though, and attend initiation rites. These were held at the winter solstice. Von Junzt – and Ladeau, who was with him — found that the gossip was true, more than true, and the rites were ghastly. The snake and stags of legend proved to be symbols for beings so outre, so terrible, that accepting their reality might topple a man’s mind.

Von Junzt had discovered records of the cult in the library of his great-uncle, the Landgrave Wilhelm IX, now an Imperial Elector. Wilhelm had fled to Denmark with his family when the French conquered the region, but returned after the Battle of Liepzig. Another Wilhelm – Wilhelm Grimm, one of the brothers Grimm – had become secretary at the Elector’s library in that year of 1814. Von Junzt would find common ground with the brothers later.

At the beginning of 1815, though, von Junzt and Ladeau made their way to Wewelsburg in the Alme Valley of Westphalia. This was the central shrine of the cult von Junzt had discovered. Its headquarters lay in Schloss Wewelsburg, built in the early seventeenth century as a residence for the prince-bishops of Paderborn. Two witch trials had taken place there in 1631. It had decayed, all but abandoned, throughout the eighteenth century, and by 1815 had become the property of the Prussian state.

In January the two young men arrived at the castle for a cult gathering. Friedrich had reason to think the ceremony would be momentous. His training in astronomy led him to believe the cult leaders expected certain star configurations of January 1815 to have vast potency. Von Junzt suspected they meant to perform a loathsome sacrifice, worse than he had witnessed before. He felt obliged to prevent it, and also thought the cult leaders mistaken in their interpretation of stellar movements. Friedrich did not believe their rite would have the outcome they desired, and what happened at Wewelsberg proved him correct.

Von Junzt is often vague and evasive in his “Black Book.” He is particularly so concerning the events of 11th January 1815. He and Ladeau arrived at the odd triangular castle with its three domed towers on the 9th, and it is a matter of record that the north tower was gutted by fire on that date, after being struck by lightning. The two young men survived, but a number of others perished, and the cult declined afterwards.

VonJunzt5Before the lightning strike, von Junzt learned that the cult also considered the weird rock formations called the “Externsteine” to be a place of power. These are natural pillars over a hundred feet high, not far from Wewelsberg. The Externsteine were sacred to the early Teutonic peoples, and another Irminsul was evidently located there. Charlemagne defeated pagan Saxons in that region. A 12th century Christian carving at the Externsteine depicts the Descent from the Cross. Beneath the Cross is a bent tree which may represent the pagan World Tree subjugated by Christianity.

Von Junzt discovered ancient symbols, far older than any runic inscriptions, on some of those rock pillars. He considered them “primordial Turanian,” and confirmed that view a couple of decades later. When the Nazi movement triumphed in Germany, Heinrich Himmler and the SS took an interest in the Externsteine as a valuable monument of the German ancestral heritage. Perhaps they knew something of their occult meaning and power as well. Himmler had read the “Black Book” in the original Dusseldorf edition.  Himmler, strangely enough, established his SS citadel at the Wewelsburg.


Von Junzt’s experiences haunted him for months. He convinced himself he had hallucinated, and took refuge in exotic drugs, drink and debauchery, in the company of Ladeau, while he studied at Heidelberg. Neither was cut out to be a voluptuary, though. Their natures inclined them to intellectual idealism. Friedrich began to investigate other such cults as the one that had shocked him so. His motive at first was to prove to himself that these societies were the province of low, barely sane degenerates; that no awful realities lurked behind them after all. Von Junzt was forlornly seeking his innocence again.

He did not find it.

Ladeau and von Junzt rejoiced over Waterloo (fought in June of 1815). At the Congress of Vienna, which followed, the Grand Duchy of Berg ceased to exist. Dusseldorf was acquired by Prussia, which recognized the von Junzt family’s sacrifices. Now the heir, Friedrich remained in possession of the title and estates. That wealth made it possible for him to travel all he wished throughout his life. Still, Dusseldorf declined after the Napoleonic Wars. The results of the Congress of Vienna disappointed Friedrich; he ignored war and politics ever afterwards.

VonJunzt9aDuring the nine months that followed Waterloo, the young baron saw to the legal aspects of his inheritance and Prussian citizenship. Also, and more congenially to his temperament, he spent weeks at Cologne, where he toured a number of medieval monasteries, poring over obscure Latin and German manuscripts. In a certain foundation established by Irish monks in the tenth century, he made the most momentous literary discovery of his life – the “Nemedian Chronicles”. He was barely twenty. A complete post is needed to cover this adequately, and one will follow.

With Napoleon defeated for good and all, and a first rough rendition of the Chronicles into modern German finished, von Junzt travelled to Paris with Ladeau in May of 1816. In the French capital, Ladeau introduced von Junzt to the dread Necronomicon — the Latin translation of 1228.

Like any well-educated man of the day, Friedrich could read Latin – in his case, excellently. The Necronomicon, with its harrowing descriptions of Azathoth, the imbecilic demiurge which pulsates at the chaotic center of infinity, Yog-Sothoth, coeval with space-time yet exiled beyond it until “the stars are right,” and Cthulhu, dead but able to “eternal lie,” proved all too consistent with abominable truths von Junzt already knew. It described in detail the nature and activities of Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, soul and messenger of the Outer Gods. It also described  accursed lost cities in the Rub al Khali or “Empty Abodes” of Arabia, and the weird plateau of Leng in Central Asia. And the tome proved congruent with disturbing knowledge von Junzt had already gained – concerning the primordial Picts, for example, of whom much was written in the “Nemedian Chronicles.”

Von Junzt and Ladeau discovered the reality of a ghoul community in the catacombs and sewers of Paris. This was one of the assertions in d’Erlette’s Cultes des Goules, and it proved true. Certain phrases in the ghoulish language were also found genuine by the pair. Von Junzt later found other warrens of ghouls in Egypt and even Boston, their burrows extensive under Beacon Hill.

It was Ladeau who – also in Paris – showed von Junzt the Liber Ivonis. This medieval translation of The Book of Eibon had much of the original content missing. It had allegedly been created by a great wizard of the primal continent Hyperborea, destroyed since before Atlantis sank.

VonJunzt6Eibon was a devotee of the amorphous and abominable god Tsathoggua, from whom he received, according to Clark Ashton Smith, “a knowledge so awful that it could only have been brought from outlying planets coeval with night and chaos.” Howard might not have disagreed with that, since he wrote to Smith in a letter of March 1934, “Suppose that at some immeasurably distant time a real civilization existed, whose builders were possessed of infinitely greater knowledge than ourselves. If some cataclysm of nature were to destroy that civilization, remnants of knowledge and stories of its greatness might well evolve into the fantastic fables that have descended to us.”

In Paris, Junzt and Ladeau entered a number of occult societies. Unlike that of Wewelsberg, for the most part they had nothing to them. Ignorance and primitivism on the one hand or corrupt ennui on the other formed their breeding environments. Various occultists they met turned out to be fakers, such as one engaging fellow who claimed to be the immortal Count of St. Germain, to be many centuries old, to have known Richard the Lionheart and Madame du Pompadour, and to have faked his own death in 1784 to escape being harassed. Von Junzt and Ladeau exposed him, and a couple of other fakers, though it had never been their prime objective; not that it kept the dupes from believing.

Travelling in France, von Junzt read legends of the real cause of the massacre at Limoges in the fourteenth century, of the Sign of the Goat beneath the cathedral, and found that the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young was still worshipped in Haute-Vienne, in Bearn, and the Basque country. Here too von Junzt inveigled his way into the cults, and learned that their beliefs contained neither fraud nor delusion. In Bordeaux and elsewhere on the Biscay coasts, he discovered the hideous links of the Deep Ones with humanity, and read the legends of the nest of Deep Ones that existed off the shores of Galicia in north-western Spain.

VonJunzt8Von Junzt returned to Hesse-Kassel for a time in 1816. Wilhelm Grimm was still employed in the Elector’s library, and his brother Jacob had joined him there, shortly before von Junzt arrived to pursue research among his great-uncle’s wide range of books and records.

The brothers Grimm had been born in Hesse-Kassel. Now about thirty, they had abandoned their original plans for a career in law. The Grimms had settled on research of their own, into linguistics, folk songs and stories, but faced years of extremely frugal living; there was little money to be made from these subjects. As they assisted von Junzt with his own studies, the three found a good deal in common. They shared an intense interest in folklore and the history of the German language.

A wealthy baron, von Junzt helped the brothers with a regular stipend while they laid the foundations for their life’s work. He actually worked with them on their two-volume work Deutsche Sagan (German Legends), published between 1816 and 1818; he insisted his contribution was minor and refused any credit. Upon his death in 1840, the brothers Grimm were among the few to attend his funeral.


Images by Bryan “Zarono” Reagan and Others.

Read Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six

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From TGR guest blogger Jeff Shanks is the latest on the index to The Collected Letters, which will be available from Amazon in a day or two. Clocking in at 212 pages, the index contains more than dozen letters that weren’t published in the original three volume set. Here are the specs:

The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press is proud to present this long-awaited index to the three-volume TheCollected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Compiled by Bobby Derie, author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, with a foreword and annotations by Howard scholar Jeffrey Shanks, this important reference work provides a much-needed tool for researchers studing the correspondence of the father of sword and sorcery and the creator of Conan the Cimmerian. Also, included are seventeen letters by Howard newly discovered since the publication of TheCollected Letters, including several drafts of letters to H. P. Lovecraft. This index is a must-have for fans and scholars wishing to explore the fascinating epistolary corpus of one of the greatest fantasy adventure writers of the 20th century.

01/08/2015 Update: Now available from and the REH Foundation Press.