There are two kinds of Hyrkanians. The first were residents of a region of the (arguably) real world near the Caspian Sea, in modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan. The second was a people, usually villainous, from Hyrkania, in the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan comics. A people of the steppes, they were matchless horsemen and predacious raiders, mostly – during the time of Conan – under the sway of the Turanian Empire.
It is the latter race we will be discussing here today; those “clattering horsemen, the tall supple warriors of Turan, with dark hawk-faces, clinking metal, and curved swords”, who war incessantly across the Limitrophe seeking at the behest of Carcosa to bring fire and blood to the Oecumene Reach.
Variously associated with such ethnicities as the Persians, Mongols, Turks, and/or Scythians, the Hyrkanians were a largely tribal, nomadic race, albeit one with a number of semi-autonomous city-states.
Hyrkania, whose riders wore steel and silk and gold.
The Nemedian Chronicles
One of the key figures in the original Conan saga was Yezdigerd, son of Yildiz and King of Turan. In that world, Turan was the mightiest known kingdom of man. It was ruled from the great port city of Aghrapur, where was heaped “…the plunder of empires.”
In this world (the one where our readers are probably from), Turan is a region in Central Asia. The term is of Iranian origin (ethnic, not national), which supports the contention that Hyrkanians were inspired by the Persians. It has also been argued that Turan is a Turkish term, as during the early Islamic era, the words Turanian and Turk were used interchangeably, a notion that would later gain strength during the Ottoman period. The terms Pan-Turanism and Pan-Turkism propagate this idea in their own way, which would support the idea that the people of Howard’s Hyrkania were based on the Turks.
Howard’s The Devil in Iron describes Yezdigerd and the Turanians thusly.
Excerpt from The Devil in Iron:
Yezdigerd, king of Turan, was the mightiest monarch in the world. In his palace in the great port city of Aghrapur was heaped the plunder of empires. His fleets of purple-sailed war galleys had made Vilayet an Hyrkanian lake. The dark-skinned people of Zamora paid him tribute, as did the eastern provinces of Koth. The Shemites bowed to his rule as far west as Shushan.
His armies ravaged the borders of Stygia in the south and the snowy lands of the Hyperboreans in the north. His riders bore torch and sword westward into Brythunia and Ophir and Corinthia, even to the borders of Nemedia. His gilt-helmeted swordsmen had trampled hosts under their horses’ hoofs, and walled cities went up in flames at his command.
In the glutted slave markets of Aghrapur, Sultanapur, Khawarizm, Shahpur, and Khorusun, women were sold for three small silver coins—blonde Brythunians, tawny Stygians, dark-haired Zamorians, ebon Kushites, olive-skinned Shemites…
One could easily see how such a kingdom could contain cities like Ecbatana, Sardis, Baghdad, Samarra, and Nineveh (if not Babylon).
Howard himself wrote that the Hyrkanians later evolved “…into the tribes…known as Tatars, Huns, Mongols, and Turks.” Later stories tell us some Hyrkanians mixed with Cimmerians that destroyed their kingdom and returned as Scythians; other tales that certain Hyrkanians mixed with Shemite tribes to become the ancient Sumerians.
Personally, I reckon the Hyrkanians (and, by default, the Turanians) are a pastiche of the stereotypical “steppe nomad” horse archer type, with some Persian exoticism mixed in and Scythian conquest predominating. The only ones who know for sure are REH (who is long dead) and the Hyrkanians themselves (who we cannot visit with, in person…yet).
Excerpt from The Devil in Iron continued:
This desert was the mysterious expanse lying southeast of the lands of Shem. A few days’ ride on camel-back to the southwest, as Shevatas knew, would bring the traveler within sight of the great river Styx at the point where it turned at right angles with its former course and flowed westward to empty at last into the distant sea. At the point of its bend began the land of Stygia, the dark-bosomed mistress of the south, whose domains, watered by the great river, rose sheer out of the surrounding desert.
Eastward, Shevatas knew, the desert shaded into steppes stretching to the Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan, rising in barbaric splendor on the shores of the great inland sea. A week’s ride northward the desert ran into a tangle of barren hills, beyond which lay the fertile uplands of Koth, the southernmost realm of the Hyborian races. Westward the desert merged into the meadowlands of Shem, which stretched away to the ocean.
Robert E Howard’s Hyrkania is best described in the historical treatise, The Hyborian Age.
Excerpt from The Hyborian Age:
“Then again the Hyrkanians rode from the blue east.
The withdrawal of the imperial legions from Zamora was their incitement. Zamora fell easy prey to their thrusts, and the Hyrkanian king established his capital in the largest city of the country. This invasion was from the ancient Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan, on the shores of the inland sea, but another, more savage Hyrkanian thrust came from the north.
Hosts of steel-clad riders galloped around the northern extremity of the inland sea, traversed the icy deserts, entered the steppes, driving the aborigines before them, and launched themselves against the western kingdoms. These newcomers were not at first allies with the Turanians, but skirmished with them as with the Hyborians; new drifts of eastern warriors bickered and fought until all were united under a great chief, who came riding from the very shores of the eastern ocean.
With no Aquilonian armies to oppose them, they were invincible. They swept over and subjugated Brythunia, and devastated southern Hyperborea, and Corinthia. They swept into the Cimmerian hills, driving the black-haired barbarians before them, but among the hills, where cavalry was less effectual, the Cimmerians turned on them, and only a disorderly retreat, at the end of a whole day of bloody fighting, saved the Hyrkanian hosts from complete annihilation.
While these events had been transpiring, the kingdoms of Shem had conquered their ancient master, Koth, and had been defeated in an attempted invasion of Stygia.”
Excerpt from The Hyborian Age continued:
But scarcely had they completed their degradation of Koth, when they were overrun by the Hyrkanians, and found themselves subjugated by sterner masters than the Hyborians had ever been.
Meanwhile the Picts had made themselves complete masters of Aquilonia, practically blotting out the inhabitants. They had broken over the borders of Zingara, and thousands of Zingarans, fleeing the slaughter into Argos, threw themselves on the mercy of the westward-sweeping Hyrkanians, who settled them in Zamora as subjects.
Behind them as they fled, Argos was enveloped in the flame and slaughter of Pictish conquest, and the slayers swept into Ophir and clashed with the westward-riding Hyrkanians. The latter, after their conquest of Shem, had overthrown a Stygian army at the Nilus and over-run the country as far south as the black kingdom of Amazon, of whose people they brought back thousands as captives, settling them among the Shemites.
Possibly they would have completed their conquests in Stygia, adding it to their widening empire, but for the fierce thrusts of the Picts against their western conquests.
The Hyrkanians, retreating to the eastern shores of the continent, evolved into the tribes later known as Tatars, Huns, Mongols and Turks…”
The soldiers, sailors, and raiders of Hyrkania controlled not only the greatest ports of the (then) known world, they were masters of the most important trade routes. This included the Turanian entrepôt Aghrapur and was, by virtue as much of commerce as it was conquest and slavery, the reason so many ethnicities could be found and languages heard in Hyrkanian cities.
Excerpt from “The Tower of the Elephant”:
“We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria, and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and the shining cities of civilization. We saw the survivors of Pictdom and Atlantis build their stone age empires, and go down to ruin, locked in bloody wars. We saw the Picts sink into abysmal savagery, the Atlanteans into apedom again. We saw new savages drift southward in conquering waves from the arctic circle to build a new civilization, with new kingdoms called Neme- dia, and Koth, and Aquilonia and their sisters. We saw your people rise under a new name from the jungles of the apes that had been Atlanteans. We saw the descendants of the Lemurians who had survived the cataclysm, rise again through savagery and ride westward, as Hyrkanians. And we saw this race of devils, survivors of the ancient civilization that was before Atlantis sank, come once more into culture and power—this accursed kingdom of Zamora.”
—Yag-kosha, “The Tower of the Elephant”
Check back soon for more about the Hyrkanians!
From Shadows in Zamboula
With a hillman’s stride, he moved through the ever-shifting colors of the streets, where the ragged tunics of whining beggars brushed against the ermine-trimmed khalats of lordly merchants and the pearl-sewn satin of rich courtesans. Giant black slaves slouched along, jostling blue-bearded wanders from the Shemitish cities, ragged nomads from the surrounding deserts, traders, and adventurers from all the lands of the East.
The native population was no less heterogeneous. Here, centuries ago, the armies of Stygia had come, carving an empire out of the eastern desert. Zamboula was but a small trading town then, lying amidst a ring of oases and inhabited by descendants of nomads. The Stygians built it into a city and settled it with their own people, and with Shemite and Kushite slaves. The ceaseless caravans, threading the desert from east to west and back again, brought riches and more mingling of races.
Then came the conquering
Turanians, riding out of the East to thrust back the boundaries of Stygia, and now for a generation, Zamboula had been Turan’s westernmost outpost, ruled by a Turanian satrap.
the restless pattern of the Zamboulan streets weaved about him — cleft now and then by a squad of clattering horsemen, the tall, supple warriors of Turan, with dark hawk-faces, clinking metal, and curved swords.
The throng scampered from under their horses’ hoofs, for they were the lords of Zamboula. But tall, somber Stygians, standing back in the shadows, glowered darkly, remembering their ancient glories. The hybrid population cared little whether the king who controlled their destinies dwelt in dark Khemi or gleaming Aghrapur. Jungir Khan ruled Zamboula, and men whispered that Nafertari, the satrap’s mistress, ruled Jungir Khan, but the people went their way, flaunting their myriad colors in the streets, bargaining, disputing, gambling, swilling, loving, as the people of Zamboula have done for all the centuries its towers and minarets have lifted over the sands of the Kharamun.
Shadows in Zamboula, Weird Tales, 1935