A Note on "Good" Gods

Contributed by: Thulsa (), inspired by the essay, "Conan vs. Conantics", written by Don Herron, first published in 1976.

"'Conan, do you fear the gods?'
'I would not tread on their shadow', answered the barbarian conservatively. 'Some gods are strong to harm, others, to aid; at least, so say their priests. Mitra of the Hyborians must be a strong god, because his people have built their cities over the world. But even the Hyborians fear Set. And Bel, god of thieves, is a good god. When I was a thief in Zamora I learned of him.'"
-- Robert E. Howard: "The Queen of the Black Coast"

Looking at the list of Hyborian gods, one notices that there are very few deities that seem benevolent or "good" (in the traditional fantasy roleplaying sense of the word). Indeed, the list carries the title "Gods & demons of the Hyborian Age", and the majority of the listed beings are of the demonic, dark and sacrifice-craving kind. This article attempts to look into this aspect of Howard's writing, and its implications for fantasy roleplaying.

As I've explained in the article about alignment, I feel that Howard's stories contain little of that stereotypical good-versus-evil conflict, so common in high fantasy RPGs. While it's certainly true that Conan is a "hero" who battles and defeats "bad guys", one cannot easily label Howard's Conan a sterotypical "good guy". Conan generally keeps his word when he has sworn something, but one suspects that he usually rescues the fair maiden of the story because he desires her physically, and he kills warriors, sorcerers and monsters without remorse if and because they stand in the way of his personal goals (fame, wealth and power).

Now, what does this have to do with the gods? I've found much to support my view in an essay, "Conan vs. Conantics", written by Don Herron and published first in 1976. The term "Conantics" refers to the Conan of the so-called pastiches, the Conan stories written in imitation of Robert E. Howard, to fill in gaps in the Saga, and/or to make quick money from the Conan name.

I'll let the relevant part of the essay speak for itself:

Carter's use of religion in the imitations is one of the major differences between Conantics and Conan, and one of the major flaws in an imitation of Howard. In "The Hand of Nergal," Carter presents the most simple religious conflict possible - Good versus Evil. A gigantic golden god representing the Heart of Tammuz battles a gigantic tenebrous god representing the Hand of Nergal. I asked Glenn Lord if Howard, in his outline of "The Hand of Nergal", included the golden god-defender of the Heart of Tammuz. He answered "no" in a letter dated February 2, 1974. This fact means the injection of forces for Good in Conantics stories must be Carter's idea - an idea he repeats with de Camp in Conan of the Isles, featuring another Good vs. Evil confrontation and even a scene wherein the imitation Conan sacrifices a bullock to Crom (who hates weaklings)! Why, Crom even takes on tangible form in that Conantics novel!

A reading of the Howard Conan tales reveals that REH never had Crom appear as a tangible entity, only as a religious concept. REH never had any Good Gods as real beings in his series; his Evil Gods were ancient or alien entities whom man conceived as evil because the beings' purposes and actions usually brought destruction to men, as was the case in H. P. Lovecraft's Yog-Sothoth Myth-Cycle. In "Queen of the Black Coast," Conan is asked if he fears the gods and he answers, "'I would not tread on their shadow...'. Some gods are strong to harm, others, to aid; at least so say their priests (Conan of Cimmeria, p96, emphasis mine)."'

In "Black Colossus", Mitra, a kind god, orders the princess Yasmela who has come into his temple for help to "'Go forth into the streets alone, and place your kingdom in the hands of the first man you meet there (Conan the Freebooter, p66)."' Afterwards Yasmela says, "'It might have been the voice of the god, or a trick of a priest (p67, emphasis mine).'" These references to priests suggest the possibility that the priesthoods may not be serving actual gods, but are perhaps using religion as a front to provide themselves with an easy way of life.

If REH had intended for good gods to enter his fictional milieu he could have brought them in easily enough. He did not; the above reference to Mitra is the closest he ever came to admitting the actual existence of forces of Good, and he casts strong doubts on the idea immediately by having Yasmela herself doubt the certainty that she had conversed with a god. Conan the Conqueror, a novel by Howard, shows Conan aided by the cult of Asura in the one instance in which religion takes an active hand in his behalf. No god ever appears, however, and the cult of Asura can hardly be considered a force for Good, since "Conan had been told dark tales of hidden temples where intense [sic. incense?] smoke drifted up incessantly from black altars where kidnapped humans were sacrificed before a great coiled serpent... (p104)." Why, in his tales of Solomon Kane the Puritan adventurer, Howard never has God intervene on Kane's behalf. Kane overcomes by his own strength and skill with weapons; occasionally he is aided by a juju man and black magic!

I personally feel that REH's treatment of Hyborian Age religion on a conceptual basis, with alien beings or beings from earth's prime acting as evil gods, is much more realistic than the simplistic antics in some of the de Camp-Carter efforts. Once a writer admits the existence of Good Gods who are willing and ready to help out the hero, he blunts all suspense with the overwhelming presence of deus ex machina. Of course, authors like J. R. R. Tolkien are able to use a good vs. evil conflict - without the presence of supreme beings - on various story levels and in various degrees to great achievement. A comparison of Tolkien to Carter, though, could only be facetious. Likewise, there is little reason to compare Howard with Carter with any degree of seriousness.

The last paragraph sums up the relevance of all this to swords-and-sorcery roleplaying. When there are no (or very few) "good gods", the heroes (the player characters) cannot and should not depend on acts of divine intervention to save them when the world is threatened with chaos and destruction by powerful, alien beings (such as the "evil" gods). In other words, there is no concept of a delicate balance between good and evil, where player characters take the side of good, fighting against the evil deities, backed by some sort of cosmic justice. Contrast this with the pantheon of Greyhawk, for example, where there is a number of clearly defined good-, evil- and neutral-aligned gods, each inhabiting a plane of existence tied to their alignment.

On a lesser scale, the heroes should not expect powerful non-player characters (equivalent to Elminster and the Harpers from the Forgotten Realms) to walk in and assist when evil threatens. Take a look at the Hyborian map; how many "good" kingdoms are there really? The majority of nations are ruled by tyrants and/or evil sorcerers and priests, almost all countries engage in slave trade, and plot and/or wage war against their neighbours. How many organizations are working against evil? The Black Ring of Stygia, the Barachan pirates, the Sons of Yezm, and the Black Seeers of Yimsha are hardly people you'd call to rescue an abducted princess, or rid the world of a threatening evil.

The player characters have nothing else to depend upon than themselves and their own abilities -- and perhaps temporary alliances with the enemies of their enemy. This worldview should make Hyborian Age sword-and-sorcery adventures quite distinct and memorable (and, it is hoped, enjoyable) compared to the "save the golden-haired princess from the evil dragon" quests common in high fantasy.

Note that I don't have any particular beef with high fantasy, with its clearly defined line between good and evil (high fantasy can be, and often is, very fun). I'm trying to emphasize that, in a Hyborian Age campaign, the atmosphere and mood of the adventure or campaign will be different (and quite grim) when the "gods" consider humans insignificant specks fit only for servitude, when it's absurd to go around killing people who look different (Orcs are evil at birth? What about the Zamorans?) in the name of "good", and you realize that there is no way the good guys are somehow simply "supposed to win" (because when you don't use alignment rules, the concept of universal Good vs Evil falls apart).

Almost like a Ravenloft campaign, the best you can hope for is to delay the tide of evil and chaos (not to mention the cataclysm that finally destroys the Hyborian world...), and try to create a meaningful existence for yourself. Or, as Howard wrote to Lovecraft in 1930, "That life is chaotic, unjust and apparently blind and without reason or direction, anyone can see...".