When Ishtar Met the AEsir

The Robert E. Howard story “Marchers of Valhalla,” the first in his cycle of stories featuring the often-reincarnated James Allison, was recently published as a bonus for members of the Robert E. Howard Foundation, containing the existing typewritten manuscript drafts of the tale.

“Marchers” is of interest as an example of the way Howard’s pioneering blend of historical fact, real-world mythology, and wild imagination were found in his work outside of its use in the Conan stories. Those were explicitly set in a fictional time period full of these hybrid elements, but he also used a similar approach in tales more rooted in “real” history and mythology.

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In “Marchers,” the invalid Allison recalls a past life as Hialmar, a member of the AEsir, whose characteristic curse is “By Ymir” (Howard 77, for example).  Outside of Howard’s story, the AEsir weren’t a race or a tribe, but the pantheon of Norse gods that included Odin and Thor. During the adventure, Allison meets Ishtar, who, of course, was a Babylonian goddess of love and fertility, associated with the similar Mesopotamian Inanna.

Apart from its reincarnation theme, “Marchers” is framed as a historical tale, which supposedly really happened in a past life of the modern-day Allison, as differentiated from an overt “fantasy” story. Despite that, figures from world mythology appear in it, and they have the supernatural powers that go with their mythical status.

In this forgotten age “so long ago that the yellow-haired folk … were called not Aryans, but red-haired Vanir and golden-haired AEsir” (58), Allison remembers that his tribe, which came from a “northern homeland” appropriate to people named after a category of Norse gods, marched across the world. This is a purposeful “trek” motivated “only by our paranoidal drive to see beyond the horizon” (58, 59). Not only is that an apt description of human nature, but it introduces the idea that far-flung people on the planet encountered each other earlier than our historical records might suggest.
Although the flashback tale is set in “what is now the state of Texas” (Louinet), the exotic city encountered by the northern warriors is devoted to the worship of Ishtar. This reinforces the idea of commerce taking place throughout the vastly ancient world. In this case, she came from ancient Lemuria, and was captured far away and brought to the land that will end up flooded by “the Gulf” (clearly the Gulf of Mexico) (87). Characteristically, Howard’s vast prehistory has a prehistory – there’s no bottom to the forgotten depths of time (70).

This Ishtar is an ancient, godlike being, kept imprisoned by humans who claim to worship her, a theme similar to that of the Conan tale “The Tower of the Elephant.” It’s probably no coincidence that the Allison story “was apparently composed about April 1932,” at roughly the same time Howard was beginning to write the Conan stories (Burke xvii).

Originally from Lemuria, an Atlantis-like kingdom “which the sea drank so long ago” (82), Ishtar was married to “Poseidon, god of the sea,” who will play an important part in the story’s climax. Poseidon is, of course, familiar as a god in the Greek pantheon, who was known as Neptune to the Romans, adding another layer of world mythology to a scenario that already involves Norse and Babylonian deities.

After being freed by Allison/Hialmar, we learn that Ishtar “learned her lesson,” and became “Ishtar of the Assyrians, and Ashtoreth of the Phoenicians; she was Mylitta and Belit of the Babylonians, Derketo of the Philistines. Aye, and she was Isis of Egypt, and Astarte of Carthage; and she was Freya of the Saxons, and Aphrodite of the Grecians, and Venus of the Romans” (88). Allison recognizes her as “the Eternal Woman – the root and the bud of Creation – the symbol of life everlasting!” (ibid)

Derketo will turn up again in the Conan stories, and the name Belit will become familiar to all Howard fans as the name of Conan’s first love, the “Queen of the Black Coast” from the story of the same name. Her other personas are familiar from various world mythologies.

The Norse AEsir and Vanir have been refashioned as human tribes, in a way that could provide a “real-life” explanation for a belief in the gods: with the passing of time, and the development of oral lore, an impressive army could come to be seen as a group of gods. But Ishtar remains a figure with supernatural abilities, albeit ones based on her origin in an ancient civilization that had mastered arcane practices. It’s not because she’s a goddess, per se, in the way most of us would think of a deity.

Eventually, in this version, she becomes the original of various similar mythological characters — including Aphrodite and Venus, connecting her directly, but after the fact, to Poseidon/Neptune. And including Freya, who scholar John Lindow describes as an “important goddess” to the Norse, and the “only named female of the vanir” (126), something of a female counterpart to Odin (127). This writes Ishtar into the Norse mythology that Hialmar/Allison was already a part of.

Ymir, whose name is the AEsir’s curse of choice, was the first giant, whose body was supposedly the material out of which both heaven and earth were formed (Lindow 322 – 323, quoting different eddas). In Snorri Sturluson’s version, it is explicitly stated about Ymir that “in no way do we acknowledge him to be a god; he was evil and all his descendants. We call them frost giants …” (quoted by Lindow, 323). A Howard fan can’t help but connect this to the similar quasi-historical mash-up of “The Frost King’s Daughter,” an early Conan tale, which similarly includes both supernatural beings with real, godlike powers, and human tribes named the AEsir and the Vanir. The two stories, while having very different characters, plots, and tones, could easily be set in the same fictional universe, and the marchers from the Allison tribe, in fact, could be an offshoot of the group Conan is involved with back home in the North.

In the James Allison story “The Garden of Fear,” we learn of another previous life also among the AEsir, who in Howard’s interpretation, “knew no gods but Ymir of the frost-rimed beard” (38), in direct contrast to the historical depiction of Ymir as a malevolent entity set apart from the gods worshiped by the northern peoples. Since this story is set in a time period “indescribably, incomprehensibly distant” (ibid), Howard is able to imply changes in how these deities have been perceived through time. Ymir was a god, who becomes seen much as a devil; the AEsir and Vanir were human tribes, who came to be seen as gods; Ishtar, while remaining godlike, took on new identities in different historical places and times; and Howard was able to make use of interesting pieces of historical and religious lore, without being weighed down by it.


Sources Cited:

  • Burke, Rusty. “Night Falls on Asgard.” Pages vii – xviii. Swords of the North. Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2014.
  • Howard, Robert E. “The Garden of Fear.” Pages 37 – 52. Swords of the North. Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2014.
  • Howard, Robert E. “Marchers of Valhalla.” Pages 53 – 88. Swords of the North. Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2014.
  • Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2001.
  • Louinet, Patrice. “Introduction.” Page ii. The Complete Marchers of Valhalla Drafts: Special Edition. Robert E. Howard Foundation.
“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” illustration by Card Nord

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