The Nightmare Inside the Age Undreamed Of
By Dale E. Rippke
Over the space of four years back in the early 1930’s, Texan author Robert E. Howard crafted one of the most indelible characters to ever capture the attention of the pulp magazine reading public. This character was at various times a warrior, a thief, a pirate, a frontier scout, treasure hunter and all around adventurer. His name was Conan and he hailed from a misty place called Cimmeria during a forgotten prehistoric era that Howard dubbed the Hyborian Age. During that fertile four years, Howard fashioned twenty one tales of the redoubtable Cimmerian, ranging from short stories to an episodic novel. He sold seventeen of theses stories to Weird Tales magazine and saw most of them published prior his untimely suicide in 1936.
Although Howard crafted The Hyborian Age, a historical essay of Conan’s imaginary world prior to starting his new series, you could not make the case where the whole thing sprang fully-formed in his mind. Instead the pseudo-history evolved in a rather piece-meal manner as Howard colorfully filled in the forgotten past of his stories with whatever his imagination required to make them shine.
In 1934 Howard tried his hand at writing a novel featuring his Conan character for a British publishing house. It was called The Hour of the Dragon and was in some ways a mash-up of several earlier Conan stories. This novel featured a three thousand year old resurrected sorcerer named Xaltotun as Conan’s supernatural antagonist. Xaltotun was the most powerful mage in his time and before his death he lived in an amazing, shadow-haunted land called Acheron.
Acheron as a named historical entity only appears in The Hour of the Dragon. But in his previously written stories and in the Hyborian Age essay Howard eludes to the existence of a long-lost civilization thousands of years prior to Conan’s life. If one takes the position that this forgotten civilization is actually the remnants of Acheron and that the timeline that Howard laid out in his Hyborian Age essay changed substantially as he wrote the stories (The Tower of the Elephant uses the original timeline, while the very next story written, The Scarlet Citadel uses the revised timeline), then it is fairly simple to map out the history of Acheron.
The history of Acheron is tied to the history of Archaic Stygia. Archaic Stygia was the remnants of a forgotten Elder Earth civilization whose foundation predated the appearance of human beings. This prehuman civilization worshipped a demon-lord called the Great Serpent. Millennia passed and mankind flourished as the Elder Earth races began to wither and vanish. Sometime during the Thurian Age (the time of King Kull of Valusia) this demon-lord (who was now called Set) saw the writing on the wall decided to take human form and mate with the daughters of mankind, creating a hybrid race called the Children of Set that ruled over Thurian-era Stygia in a city named Luxor. The Children of Set were essentially human but the demonic taint of Set made them appear as giant snakes with human faces. Some time after this, the Great Cataclysm put an end to the Thurian Age.
Archaic Stygia managed to survive the world-wide disaster. They found that the disaster had left their shattered capital of Luxor in the midst of a hostile desert so they packed up and moved to a large fertile river valley to their west. The northward flowing river was called the Nilus and it emptied into a small salty inland sea. Archaic Stygia expanded along the sea’s coast, building their cyclopean cites along fresh water rivers that emptied into this salty mere. The citadels of Kuthchemes and Pteion were built during this period.
Even before the cataclysm the rulers of the land had evolved into a much more human–looking appearance and Howard now calls them the Giant-Kings. They still contain demonic taint of Set, though and this taint allows them to manipulate the forces of magic much easier than a normal human can. An era of sorcery and necromancy takes hold of the race and Archaic Stygia becomes a nation of blood and magic. One of their most notable magical creations is a fantastic flaming jewel called the Heart of Ahriman. This artifact was also given the ability to kill at a word, bring the dead back to life, and most importantly, the ability to dispel ANY sorcerous spell cast. Magic ruled the lives of everyone in Archaic Stygia.
Five hundred years later, a lesser cataclysm rearranged the face of their world, up lifting the lands to the east of the salty sea and causing it to drain westward to the ocean through an old river valley that was originally formed back in the Thurian Age by a western section of the Stagus River. The channel cut by this drainage in turn became the western leg of the Nilus River, and during this period was it was referred to as either the Nilus or Stagus before the river became more commonly known as the River Styx.
Once more the Archaic Stygians picked up the pieces and rebuilt their civilization. They expanded westward along the new river channel, building a new capital city named Luxor after their old Thurian Age capital. The nation eventually stretched all the way to the Western Ocean. The city of Khemi was founded at the mouth of the Styx and another round of massive stonework and pyramids was completed by the magic of the giants.
Khemi became the mercantile center of the archaic civilization. It sent ships north and south along the coast, only to find that while there was commerce to be had with the black lands of the south there was no one living in the north. The sailors of Khemi proceeded to establish an outpost at the mouth of a large northern river that they most likely called the River Acheron, but would in later days be called the Khorotas River.
For the next several hundred years the tall, Set-worshipping humans of the northern outpost explored and exploited the lands along the great river and discovered the moldering ruins of ancient Valusian cities, plundering them for their magic relicts. Eventually they ventured into the great tributary river that in Hyborian times would come to be called the Tybor (It could be argued that the colony considered the Tybor branch to be the main part of the River Acheron). In short order they probably discovered gold in the streams leading out of the mountain range that extended along the southern side of the Tybor valley. An investigation soon uncovered a great deal of wealth from the gold and gemstones discovered within the mountains. A number of villages sprung up along this part of the river to take advantage of the mineral discoveries and attracting a great number of citizens seeking their fortune. Before long the rapidly growing towns were banding together, and formed the backbone of Archaic Stygia’s first real colony. This colony became known as Acheron.
A thousand years after the Lesser Cataclysm, the Giant-Kings back along the Styx were living a life of idle, decadent splendor built on the subjugation of the area's nomadic tribes and blacks from the lands to its south. A cloud of dust on the eastern horizon was the first indication that their world was about to be turned upside down by a nomadic eastern race that Howard never names.
The first city of any importance to face the invading nomads was the citadel of Kuthchemes. The walled city, which up until this time had to never contend with anything larger than infrequent nomadic raids found itself facing a large disciplined army of invaders intent on its capitulation. The vastly under-defended city fell in short order. I believe that during this battle the nomads managed to capture the Heart of Ahriman from the dying Giant-Kings in the city. The capture of Kuthchemes gave them a base to accomplish the subjugation of the rest of the Styx valley cities.
The armed forces of the Giant-kings were hampered by mutiny from within of the subject humans that comprised it. Deprived of the Heart, its sorcerers were forced for the first time in millennia to depend on their own little used magical abilities. Its sorcerers were hindered by unseen forces conjured by the nomad’s wizard-priests, who in turn were able to use the Heart to dispel the magic of the giants. Refugees fleeing from the cities of the east tied up the resources of the remaining cities in knots. Treachery unwove the fabric of society as various noble houses made secret deals with the nomads to betray the rest of their number for a place in the succeeding order.
The archaic empire of the Giant-Kings rapidly dissolved in blood and flames. Refugee groups taking as much as they could carry fled the nation by ship for the sanctuary of Acheron's cities. One of the Giant-Kings by the name of Asura escaped to reside in Vendhya. The rest of the prehuman giants were killed as the nomadic invaders consolidated their gains. Howard was correct; the second-oldest race in the world was now effectively extinct.
The conquerors co-opted the Giant-King's culture and ritual and they almost immediately began to refer to themselves as Stygians. As promised, the treacherous noble houses of the Giant/human hybrids that aided the newly-minted Stygians were incorporated as promised into the upper tier of Stygian society. In time the Stygians came to realized that by intermarrying with the demon-tainted nobles they could gain genetic access to the hybrids innate magical abilities.
The destruction of their homeland caused the Acheron colony to become isolated and fairly insular. This did not last long. Somewhere far to the north, a new race of tall tawny-haired barbarians called the Hyborians had burst upon the scene. While most of the Hyborians were content at that time to remain in their homelands, a fairly sizable group split off from the main body and migrated far to the south. Eventually this early barbarian drift came across the colony of Set worshippers. The Hyborians agreed to spare by the colony in exchange for their knowledge of agriculture, metallurgy, and magic. The demon-tainted descendants of the Giant-Kings were absorbed intact and disappeared into the genetic mix of the Hyborians and ceased to exist as a separate race.
In much the same way that the nomads far to the south appropriated the culture of Archaic Stygia, the Hyborians swiftly adopted the technology, religion and culture of the absorbed colony. The first Hyborian nation of Acheron had begun.
In a break with their past, the men of Acheron built incredible cities of tall purple towers, instead of the cyclopean architecture that defined the Giant-Kings. Their capital and greatest city was built on the plains to the north of the River Acheron (Tybor) in what would become south-central Nemedia. They called it Python, and it was the apex of sorcerous knowledge. Although there were other cities in the empire, Howard never named bothered to name them.
Acheron’s population began spreading out until it encompassed much of the lands that would later be called Aquilonia, Nemedia, and Argos. It subjugated every race it came across (with the exception of the proto-Cimmerians) as slaves or sacrifices for their blood-magic. This was the earliest phase of what came to be thought of as the Nightmare Empire.
Far to the south during this time, the wizards of Stygia had been busy learning all they could from the surviving hybrid nobles about the magical abilities of the Heart of Ahriman. The Stygians also began to have bi-lateral commercial dealings with the land of Acheron, probably due to its worshipping of Set.
Acheron's slow expansion continued southward and eastward into relatively unpopulated lands. The Stygians had also been expanding into the uplands north of Shem and came to share an uneasy border with Acheron. To the east, the nation of Zamora had arisen from the labors of the Zhemri. All of this was going to change dramatically in a few hundred years.
Two hundred years or so after the founding of its capital city of Python, the ever-expanding empire encountered the first of an increasing flood of tall, tawny-haired Hyborians from the northern lands. The barbarian flood split itself on the nation of Acheron like a rock in a stream; some diverting southwestward and others southeastward.
The Hyborians quickly filled the lands to the west of Acheron, travelling as far south as the Western Ocean. Trapped as they were between the Picts to the west and the Acheronians to the east, the Hyborians had no real choice but to settle in the western areas of Acheron, where they became the choice targets of slave-raiders from out of the east.
The slow Hyborian drift along the eastern borders of Acheron continued south until the Stygians stopped them along a line of forts in Corinthia. Eventually, the pressure from succeeding drifts pushed the Hyborians into the Stygian uplands
Howard’s writings seem to imply that the Stygians resisted the Hyborian invasion into the uplands and slaughtered them by the thousands. Eventually the Acheronians allowed refugees of the three large Hyborians tribes to settle in the little populated regions southern regions of their nation as a buffer with the Stygians. There are indications that the nascent nations of Koth, Ophir, and Corinthia were formed at this time, although Acheron probably considered them nothing more than subject provinces.
It is also of interest to note that it is around this time that the Heart of Ahriman disappeared from Stygia and made its way to Acheron. Whether this occurred through theft or by a war between Stygia and Acheron is unclear. We do know that an Acheronian mage named Xaltotun came into possession of the Heart and used it to become the premier sorcerer in that turbulent land of wizards.
Did the wizard-priests of Acheron ever consider the Hyborian drifts to be a particularly immediate threat? I don't believe so. I don't think they ever really saw the other Hyborians as anything other than raw material to fuel their magic rituals and grease the infrastructure of their society. Plus, for all intents and purposes, the people of Acheron were Hyborians and these people were their kinsmen. The Hyborian drifts were seen as nothing more than a nuisance. The Hyborian situation in the east seemed to be pretty stable with the establishment of Koth, Ophir, and Corinthia. The Hyborian situation in the thinly settled western areas of Acheron was kept in check by slave-raids and the destruction of entire villages.
But to the Hyborian tribes subjugated by the Acheronians this matter was seen in a completely different light. Set worship was demonic in practice and the average person quailed at the thought of ending up as grist in a blood-soaked ritual. And Acheron seemed to have a stranglehold on religion that didn’t tolerate the worship of the Hyborian gods Bori and Mitra.
Which leads me to the most contentious part of this article. The Hyborian Age essay tells of a fifteen hundred year period between the founding of the Hyborian kingdoms and Conan’s life. Phoenix on the Sword also speaks of an event fifteen hundred years previously, when the Hyborians were freed from their subjugation from the tyranny of Set. It seems obvious that the two events are linked. But from the fourth Conan tale onward to the end of the series, the date of the founding of the Hyborian nations is set at three thousand years prior to Conan’s life. And Hour of the Dragon tells us of Set-worshipping Acheron and its destruction at the hands of the Hyborians. Both dates can’t be true, so to my rationale, Howard must have changed his mind about the timeline, and the fifteen hundred year events and the three thousand year events are describing the same exact moments in history. And that moment is the end of Acheron.
Three thousand years before Conan was born, in the regions to the west of Acheron, a man was born named Epemitreus and when he grew to manhood he became a priest of the Hyborian god Mitra (Xaltotun derisively describes him as a feathered shaman). This priest of Mitra discovered the key to the salvation of his people lay in a magical bauble called The Heart of Ahriman. So he contrived to steal it from where Xaltotun kept it hidden. Epemitreus learned that he could negate the magic of Acheron’s wizards with the aid of the Heart. He persuaded the western Hyborian tribes to unite into two (possibly more) great armies under the command of war-chiefs from the Aquilon and Nemed clans. Shortly thereafter these armies began to attack selected targets along Acheron’s western frontier, with Epemitreus using the Heart to negate all magic used against them. The west quickly dissolved into blood and chaos.
The Aquilon army bored into Acheron from the west, while the army of the Nemed clan attacked from primarily the north. Powerful mages sent to destroy the Hyborian armies were rendered ineffectual and destroyed by the power of the Heart. Acheron’s over-reliance on magic was proving to be its undoing.
In an effort to stabilize the war in the west, Acheron demanded that the subject kingdoms of Koth, Ophir and Corinthia send troops to help repel the invasion. The three kingdoms acquiesced and sent armies into Acheron to aid in its defense. Once there, the army led by Khossus V of Koth treacherously rebelled and attacked the Acheronian units in the east. The armies of Ophir and Corinthia followed suit and the eastern regions of Acheron were decimated.
Its magic largely ineffective and its subject armies in revolt, the empire of Acheron fell in flaming ruin. The army of the Aquilon destroyed the Khorotas and western Tybor River cities, finally joining with the army of Koth to destroy the major Acheronian port city on the Khorotas River estuary (their original Stygian outpost). The army of the Nemed burned and pillaged across the areas of Acheron east of the central mountains, surrounding and utterly destroying the capital of Python. They then swept southward until they ran into the army of Ophir near the Tybor River Pass. The combined Hyborian armies obliterated all of Acheron’s beautiful purple-towered cities, razing them to the bedrock.
Hundreds of years of racial hatred exploded across the length and width of Acheron. Extreme hatred of Set worship caused the Hyborians to put to the sword every single serpent worshipper they encountered. With the aid of better weapons, armor, and tactics, the men of Koth, Ophir , and Corinthia pushed southward and swiftly drove the Stygians from the fertile uplands to enlarge their kingdoms. A Stygian army sent to take back the region was defeated and chased back to Kuthchemes, which the Hyborians promptly sacked. The few surviving Set worshipping Acheronians fled to the hills, to Zamora or back to their original homeland in Stygia.
After the civil war concluded the Heart of Ahriman was placed into a cave near the site of the bloodiest battle of the war, and protected by demonic means. The cave was hidden by a temple dedicated to the Hyborian god Mitra built over the site. In time, the victorious Hyborians built Aquilonia’s capital city of Tarantia around the temple.
The great wizard Xaltotun survived the civil war and fled to Stygia, living in Khemi until jealous Stygian wizard-priests poisoned him. With its last demon-tainted son dead, the direct lineage of the Giant-Kings concluded. The Age of Acheron was over.