Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poor Hanuman: Addendum

In a previous post lamenting the shabby treatment given to the Indian god Hanuman in OD&D (a deity with still millions of devotees), Limpey commented that he seemed to ‘remember “Hanuman” appearing in Conan (or other books) as a kind of evil monkey god…’ - Well, yesterday by chance I was reading a reprint of the July 1974 Marvel comic Savage Tales of Conan the Barbarian (#5), and sure enough, there was mention of a Hanuman.

This time he took the form of what appeared to be a hill giant, whom Conan readily dispatched. This does lend some evidence that it was Howard (or even Marvel Comics) that supplied an inspiration for the 1976 Supplement IV appearance of Hanuman as a giant evil monkey god.

The complete page is here, frame detail above.


Taranaich said...

I'm going to elaborate on Howard's treatment of Hanuman.

First of all, it should be noted that outside of Mitra, Asura (who might be one and the same) and Ishtar, there are no truly "good gods" in the Hyborian Age. They're usually eldritch abominations from the Outer Dark who've assumed an earthly form in order to exact worship from puny humans. Thus, Hanuman's in good company with gods who are given a dark origin. Howard even did this with "modern" deities: Odin is depicted as a Cthulhoid horror in "The Cairn on the Headland," and I suspect many such gods had a similar origin. Even Crom, Conan's patron deity, is a grim, loveless, horrifying god, who punishes those who dare pray to him and sends dooms forth from his mountain home. Hanuman is thus no worse than Crom, Ymir, Erlik, Pteor, Derketa, and others, though not as benevolent as Mitra, and likely nowhere near as malevolent as Set.

Secondly, Howard was fairly ambivalent about apes. While he used them as an antagonist in many stories, as well as describing many villains with apelike features, he also had a great appreciation for their closeness to nature, and their honest brutality compared to the civilized hypocrisies of man.

Here's a description of Hanuman:

[i]Bestial in the uncertain light Hanuman leered with his carven mask. He sat, not as an ape would crouch, but cross-legged as a man would sit, but his aspect was no less simian for that reason. He was carved from black marble, but his eyes were rubies, which glowed red and lustful as the coals of hell's deepest pits. His great hands lay upon his lap, palms upward, taloned fingers spread and grasping. In the gross emphasis of his attributes, in the leer of his satyr-countenance, was reflected the abominable cynicism of the degenerate cult which deified him.[/i]

One can thus see the primal bestiality and lust of the ape, though with its humanoid intelligence it is lended a more sinister aspect. Thus, Hanuman is not an isolated case, but just one of many gods given an altogether non-divine origin in the mists of the Hyborian Age.

Finally, I want to address Limpey's suggestion that Howard just "picked the name out of a book." I surely doubt that is the case. Howard had a great love of history and mythology, to the point where it became a distraction for him. He wrote in a letter that if he had the time and money, he would write nothing but historical fiction: unfortunately, his financial situation meant that he could not spend as much time researching for accuracy as he wanted, and most of the markets he had access to needed a "weird element." Hence he created Conan and the Hyborian Age, where he could write "historical stories" in many milieus with a series protagonist, and just add a supernatural element to satisfy Weird Tales.

Thus, I think Howard knew full well what he was doing in describing Hyborian Hanuman as a more primal, dangerous, bestial being than the modern Hindi version: it fits in perfectly with his general idea of reinterpreting myth and legend as real events distorted through oral tradition and history. Norse Mythology, for instance, is retold as being not the war of gods, but the half-remembered memories of the wars between pre-Nordic tribes in the Hyborian Age. Thus, just like Odin - who was depicted as a Cthuloid horror in "The Cairn on the Headland" - the modern Hanuman had a more primal, larger-than-life origin as a Hyborian Age deity.

Of course, there's no real guarantee that Hanuman truly exists in the Hyborian Age as Howard conceived it: however, I think if he did, it would be in the form of a tentacled terror like Khosatral Khel's true form, rather than some silly giant neanderthal talking in caveman speak, as Marvel had it.

ze bulette said...

To be clear, it was not my intention to suggest that Howard or Gygax purposefully maligned Hanuman, it was only an expression of curiosity of where the conception of him as evil came from. Your comment was very enlightening and appreciated!

There's little doubt it was Howard's conception of Hanuman that was Gygax's inspiration for the evil Hanuman in Supplement IV.

FWIW, the Marvel story in question only claimed to be "featuring the hero created by Robert E. Howard", although others in the series are "adapted from such and such story by Robert E. Howard." One of these days I'll get around to reading more Howard directly, but for now I'm enjoying the art and pulpiness in Starlin, Buscema, and Barry Windsor Smith's interpretations.

strayfarce said...

I totally didn't see this until today, AFTER I'd mentioned Hanuman to a friend. How random is THAT?!?!

Stefan Poag said...

With all due respect to Howard, I don't gain the sense from his writings that he was particularly worried about "what the Hindus might think" if he turned Hanuman into a monster. I doubt Howard knew any Hindus or thought that Hindus might ever possibly encounter his fiction. On the other hand, about one in eight people at the last company I worked for were first generation from India --- and most of them were (I believe) Hindus.
It's not intended as a criticism on my part, but Howard was a product of his time and writing for a particular audience. Modern multi-cultural sensibilities didn't enter into it at the time that his stories were written. At the same time, I don't think Howard fans should be surprised if devout Hindus find the use of the name of their deity to be somewhat controversial.
Word verification: "conin." What are the odds?

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