American author Jack Donovan has written elsewhere:
“Crom is my god…Crom is the god I need because he is the opposite of the interventionist gods who care about the petty details of men’s lives. You don’t pray to him, because he probably won’t listen, and if he hears you, he probably won’t even pretend to care.”
– Jack Donovan, A Sky Without Eagles.
The Crom in question is, of course, the fictional god of the Cimmerian tribes in Robert E.Howard’s popular tales of Conan the Barbarian. Conan says of Crom:
“He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?”
This is the Crom with whom we men of the modern world are familiar.
Popularized by the stories of Robert Howard, the Conan The Barbarian movie, and the works of writers like Jack Donovan, Crom has become a symbol for men who strive to stand on their own legs and earn what they desire. The kind of men drawn to stories of this indifferent and fictional god are the kind who don’t ask the gods for anything more than the strength to fight their own battles. This attitude of independence and assertiveness is perfectly embodied in the admirable Conan, who honors but does not worship Crom and lives a life of great adventure.
In an unusual turn, the made-up character of Crom has become a very real symbol for fans of Howard’s work. In times past, a significant symbolic representation of some metaphysical concept would have been passed on in the form of a story or myth, but today these symbols are reduced to hashtags such as #cromlaughsatyourfourwinds. I’ve seen the name of Crom being invoked on social media and in written articles by men who are busy with their business. Rather than stopping to pray to a god for a favor, they invoke the name of a completely made-up deity who very clearly doesn’t care about us. Then they get back to the work of pursuing their goals.
Isn’t that the whole point of a god? To give you some reason to live and strive and slay your weakness in the pursuit of your higher self? To guide you, but never to carry you? Male gods are typically represented as fathers, and as fathers should do, they encourage us to make our own mistakes. Similarly, Howard’s Crom only looks down on his subjects when they’re doing something impressive. Otherwise, he doesn’t give them the blessing of his attention. This is a hard god for men who would be hard themselves.
The character of Crom was most effectively popularized by the Conan movie and has since been taken on by many men as a symbol of their disregard for public affirmation. The invocation of his name can be taken not as a prayer for help, a supplication, but rather as an expression meaning:
“I’ve got a lot to do to achieve my goals. So it’s time to get off my ass and work/fight/train/kill.”
Moving from the act of praying to the act of cursing and carrying on is very succinctly portrayed in the movie “The Grey” when Liam Neeson’s character reaches rock bottom in his struggle for survival as he’s hunted by wolves. Lying in a stupor beside a freezing river as a pack of predators close in around him, he looks to the open sky and addresses a god that he may never have believed in:
“Do something. You faulty prick, fraudulent motherfucker. DO SOMETHING! FUCK FAITH! EARN IT! SHOW ME SOMETHING REAL! I NEED IT NOW, NOT LATER! Do something, and I’ll believe in you until the day I die, I swear. I’m calling on you. I’M CALLING ON YOU!
Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.”
Saying “Crom!”, like Conan often does, could very well be taken as an abbreviation of: “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
But the inspiration for this god didn’t come from the imagination of Robert E. Howard alone. Howard’s Crom is unique to the mythos of his novels’ manufactured world but is inspired by a historical, or rather a mythical, character.
My ancestors among the ancient pagan Irish once worshipped a sinister and mysterious deity known as Crom Cruach. However, we are told that he was called other names too. Crom Dubh, Crom Croich, and Cenn Cruach. The meaning of the name of this enigmatic spirit is as murky as his history. In Old Irish, Crom means “crooked,” Cenn means “head” or “chieftain,” Dubh means “dark” or “black,” Croich means “gallows,” and Cruach means either “bloody” or “mound.”
Now, etymology is a fascinating subject, and there’s something intriguing and enlightening about discovering what old words really mean. But etymology is limited in what it can reveal about the past, so we shouldn’t draw too many inferences from the meanings of words in relation to peoples long dead. Taking these things into account, we could cautiously translate the many titles of Crom as meaning something like:
“The Dark Crooked Lord of the Bloody Mound.”
Crom is a specter of death.
But in a fitting paradox for such an ancient and forgotten deity, he is also an agent of life.
Folklore tells us that on the last Sunday of July, Domhnach Crom Dubh in Irish, he rises from deep out of the earth bearing the goddess Eithne upon his crooked back. He rises from out of the black soil wherein he dwells to lay claim to his share of the harvest before sinking down again for the winter.
But in times of poor harvest, a firstborn child would allegedly be sacrificed before Crom’s idol in the forested land of Magh Slecht (the Plain of Prostration) to appease the Crooked Lord of the Bloody Mound. These child sacrifices may have been an invention of the later Christian monks who wrote down what little we know of the god, but he certainly seems to have been associated (as are all gods) with sacrificial offerings in some form or another.
The legacy of Crom and his worship is shrouded in mystery and skewed by early Irish Christian propaganda. But one thing that all accounts concerning this god seem to indicate is that he was dangerous. One did not carelessly pray to the Crooked One for trivial favors. It might have been better to avoid him altogether, except at dire need.
Considering this, it may be that offerings were made to Crom so that he would stay asleep in his mound. Perhaps all the people wanted was for him to stay away, down in the black earth. On occasion, Crom has even slain his worshippers while they were in the midst of honoring his idol. The Dindshenchas is a poem describing the mythological geography of Ireland. Abridged, it states:
“At Magh Slecht used to stand a lofty idol,
whose name was the Crom Cruach.
It caused every tribe to live without peace.
The valiant Gael used to worship it:
with tribute, they asked of it their share in hard times.
He was their god, the wizened Crom, hidden by mists.
Those that paid him tribute shall never see heaven.
For him ingloriously, they slew their firstborn
to pour the blood round Crom Cruach.
Milk and corn, they asked of him.
From his worship came many crimes to Magh Slecht.
There came Tigernmas, prince of distant Tara, one Samhain eve,
with all his host, to meet their sorrow.
They stirred his evil eye. They beat their fists,
they bruised their bodies, wailing to the demon who held them in thralls,
they wept storms of tears, weeping prostrate.
Dead the men, void of strength. Hard their fate.
One man in four there made his escape with death on his lips.
Round Crom Cruach there, the hosts did obeisance,
though it brought them under mortal shame.
The name cleaves to the mighty plain.”
–The Metrical Dindsenchas Volume 4
Crom was a strange and murky spirit to be approached with great caution, or not at all. But why was he associated with the fair maiden Eithne at the end of summer?
Eithne was the mother of the Irish god Lugh. Her name means grain, seed, or kernel, and she was potentially linked to bountiful harvests. Some sources equate Eithne with the goddess Boann (from “Bò Fionn,” meaning White Cow, a sacred animal), who is associated with the health and prosperity of cattle. It is very revealing then that Crom Cruach, who dwells in the soil for most of the year, is tied to Eithne in the way that he is. Think about it. Eithne, who bestows health upon cattle and crops, is carried from out of the earth at harvest time and then brought back down to rest for winter. These are anthropomorphized forces of natural fertility on whom the agricultural tribes of Ireland would depend for their survival. Without the blessings of these gods, the ancient Irish would have starved.
Fertility deities become most significant during spring when crops are sown and at the autumn harvest when crops are reaped and tallied. It is no coincidence that Crom of the Mound appears at the end of summer, during the harvest, to bear Eithne upon his back and carry her down into the black soil to wait out the barren winter. Winter is a time of death and hunger. Eithne, mother of the vibrant and bright god Lugh, hides from the world in the realm of Dark Crom until she roams free to bless us with nature’s bounty in spring. The yield of the tribe’s crop at the harvest would determine how hard the winter would be, so a bountiful season of growth would have seemed like a divine blessing during winter’s pangs of hunger.
In bad years with a poor harvest, the most vulnerable members of the tribes would have starved to death or taken ill. Difficult as it would have been for an already suffering people, it would have benefitted the community as a whole to preserve their meager resources by letting go of those who were unlikely to make it through the winter. In hard times, hard decisions must be made, and who were the most likely to die during these periods of starvation? The young children, of course. Babies have always been left to die by those who have had to make life or death decisions in times of famine, even during events as recent as the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s. I’d wager it happens even today in some parts of the world. Did the pagan Irish offer these starving babes up to Black Crom in the hopes that he would be merciful with the next harvest? Or was it merely a misunderstanding or an act of propaganda on the part of the early Christian clergy who wrote about these rituals? Does Crom desire our infant dead, or is he simply associated with them by proxy?
We can never know for sure, but we can assume that Crom is a symbolic representation of the natural death that the earth and its people experience during winter and times of scarcity. He is the one who takes away the life of the earth and hoards it underground for the dark half of the year. But without this death, there would be no life. Without Crom to take away the mother of plenty, there could be no natural resurrection at springtime. We may not like Crom, we may only wish for him to stay away and cast his cold eye elsewhere, but we are certainly in his debt.
And so we come to the problem of historical uncertainty. We know from medieval sources and folklore that the ancient Gael worshipped Crom and maintained his shrine at Magh Slecht. However, we cannot be sure what the nature of that worship was. The truth of this god has been shrouded in the mists of passing millennia and misrepresented by the Christian scribes who vilified his name and the Filid who memorized poems about him.
We can only speculate what this particular deity meant to our ancestors and why he was relevant, but in reality, we must concede that that’s true for any myth or belief, no matter how well preserved. We today do not live in the same way our pagan tribal ancestors once did in the dim forgotten recesses of history, and so we cannot expect to experience a connection to their gods in the same way they did. If we are to continue their tradition and understand them as best we can, we must first reshape their gods and mold them to fit our modern lives and purposes.
We must create our gods in such a way that they are relevant to the lives we lead today, rather than simply reenacting the rituals and beliefs of long-dead generations. Sooner or later, every man must decide whether he will be a creator or a preserver. An evolving flame or a stagnant stone. A visionary or a slave. As Jack Donovan has said:
“Men must find inspiration where they can. If the old gods have become mere stories, ideas, then men are free to choose whatever story inspires them to become what they believe they should become.” – Jack Donovan
Thus, I have taken what is ancient, coupled it with some modern literature, and created an archetype that I can channel to suit my purpose. Just like Conan before his battle upon the burial mound, I do not pray to Crom in the hopes of receiving his blessing. Like Conan, I use the idea of Crom Cruach of the Bloody Mound to inspire me to embrace death, hardship, and struggle so that I can create space in which to grow anew.
To me, Crom is a specter of death. But like the earth upon which we stand, we can be reborn from his black soil as a stronger and more productive creature than we were. If we wish to be strong and worthy, we must slay that which is weak in us. If we would be wise, we must lay waste to our foolishness and ignorance. Crom takes what he’s owed, so willingly offer up that which you despise in yourself to the Lord of the Mound. Identify what you want to become and what’s holding you back, then sacrifice whatever’s stopping you from realizing your true potential.
Crom is my god. I say that without the slightest trace of irony or embarrassment. I offer no explanation or excuse, and I do not proselytize or preach.
If you are the type of man who would ask nothing of the gods but the strength to walk your own path and forge your future, then Crom is the god for you. If you don’t care whether the gods are real spiritual entities or symbolic expressions of the many facets of the human psyche, then Crom is the god for you. If you don’t care whether you’re protected, favored, or destined for some spiritual fate, then Crom is the god for you. For those men who care nothing for the gods, Crom is the god for them because Crom cares nothing for mankind.
But do not bother with prayers or invocations. Ask him no questions. Sing him no songs. Instead, offer him your blood and the sweat of your labors, leave him to his mound, and seek out the path of strength in the face of hardship. In time, you might prove worthy of his attention.
Bring forth your sons to the burial ground.
Prostrate and bent, offer no sound.
Beseech not with words but with silence profound.
Offer your sons to the Lord of the Mound.
To the Dark Crooked Head of the Gallows
If you found this article interesting, consider checking out my book “Unchaining The Titan” for many more essays which also analyze old myths and make them relevant to modern life. Click this link to learn more about how the old tales can improve your life.