Crom Cruach: The Dark God of the Burial Mound.
A better writer than I 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 God of the Cimmerian tribes in Robert E.Howard’s fictional tales of Conan the Barbarian. We are told 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 that we men of the modern world are familiar with. Popularized by the stories of Robert Howard, the Conan The Barbarian movie, and the articles of Jack Donovan, Crom has become a symbol for men who strive to stand on their own legs and take what’s theirs by the right of conquest. Men who do not ask the gods for anything more than the strength to fight their own battles. 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 they are reduced to hashtags such as #cromlaughsatyourfourwinds. Typically we see the name of Crom being invoked on social media by men who are too busy about their business to pray to some made-up deity who pretends to give a shit about us. Rather than that, they invoke the name of a 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 keep living and striving and slaying your weakness in the pursuit of your higher self?
If not that, then what?
The character of Crom was 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 of bullshit to deal with to achieve my goals. So it’s time to get off my ass and work/fight/train/kill etc”. 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, 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.”
“Crom!” could very well be taken as an abbreviation of: “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself”.
But the inspiration for this god came not from the imagination of Robert E. Howard alone. My ancestors among the ancient pagan Irish once worshipped a sinister and mysterious deity, commonly known as Crom Cruach. However, we are told that he was saluted by other names too. Crom Dubh, Crom Croich, and Cenn Cruach. The meaning of the name of this enigmatic spirit is as mysterious as his history. Crom means “crooked”, Cenn means “head” or “chieftain”, Dubh means “dark” or “black”, Croich means “gallows”, and Cruach means either “bloody” or “mound”. I would not argue that etymology alone should be the means by which we build an understanding of our unknown history, but it is certainly a significant indicator of intent. Taking these things into account we could loosely translate the many titles of Crom as meaning:
“The Dark Crooked Lord of the Bloody Mound.”
Crom is death.
But he is also life. A fitting paradox for such an ancient and forgotten deity.
On the last Sunday of July, Domhnach Crom Dubh in Irish, he rises from deep out of the earth bearing Eithne upon his crooked back. He rises up from out of the black soil wherein he dwells in order to lay claim to his share of the harvest, before sinking down again for the winter. But we are told that in times of poor harvest, a firstborn child would be sacrificed before Crom's idol in the forested land of Magh Slecht (the Plain of Prostration) in order 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 the 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 favours. Considering this, it may be that offerings were made to Crom so that he would not look upon the tribes of the Gael. Perhaps all the people wanted from Crom was for him to stay away from mankind, down in the black earth. On occasion Crom has even slain his own worshippers whilst they were in the midst of honouring his idols. The Dinshenchas 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 many mists:
those that paid him tribute shall ne’er 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.
Thither 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.”
Obviously Crom is a strange and ambivalent spirit who should be approached with great caution, or not at all. But why is he associated with the fair maiden Eithne at the end of summer? Eithne was the mother of the Irish sun god Lugh, who was responsible for bountiful harvests. Eithne is sometimes equated 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, gave birth to the sun god, who bestows health upon crops. These are the manifested forces of natural fertility, to whom the ancient agricultural tribes of the Gael would depend on for their survival. Without the blessings of these gods, the people of ancient Ireland would starve.
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 then 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. For winter is a time of death and hunger. Eithne, mother of the sun, hides from the world in the realm of Dark Crom until she roams free to bless us with nature's bounty at spring. The bounty of the tribe's crop at the harvest would determine how hard the winter would be.
During 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 meagre resources by letting go of those who were unlikely to make it through the winter. 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 hard choices in times of starvation, even during events as recent as the Great Hunger in Ireland in 1845. I’d wager it happens even today in some parts of the world. Did the pagan Gaels 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? Does Crom desire our infant dead or is he merely 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 that the ancient Gael worshipped Crom and maintained his shrine at Magh Slecht. However we cannot be certain what the nature of that worship was. The truth of this god has been shrouded in the mists of the passing millennia, and misrepresented by the judgmental Christian scribes who vilified his name. We can only assume 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 manner that our pagan tribal ancestors once did in the dim forgotten recesses of history, and so we cannot expect to experience a connection with their gods in the same way that they did. We must reshape their gods and mould them to fit our lives and our purpose. We must create our gods in such a way that they are relevant to the lives we lead today, rather than simply re-enacting the rituals and beliefs of long dead generations. Soon or late, every man must decide whether he will be a creator or a preserver. An evolving chaotic flame or a stagnant redundant 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”
Thus it is that 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 and hardship and cruelty so that I can transcend these ideas and overcome my personal limitations.
To me, Crom is death, but like the earth upon which we stand we can be reborn from the black decaying soil of our weakness as a stronger and more productive being than we were before. If we wish to be strong, we must slay that which is weak in us. If we wish to be wise, we must lay waste to our foolishness and ignorance. Crom takes what is his due, so offer up that which you despise in yourself to the Lord of the Mound in sacrifice.
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 own future, then Crom is the god for you. If you care not whether the gods be real spiritual entities or symbolic expressions of the many facets of the human psyche, then Crom is the god for you. If you do not care whether you are being protected, favoured, 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 nor sing him no songs. Rather offer him your blood and the sweat of your labours, leave him to his mound, and seek out the path of strength in the face of hardship. What else shall the gods ask of men?
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
June 23rd, 2016. Dublin.