” Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god. Crom, and he lives in the earth. Once giants lived in the earth, Conan, and in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the Enigma of Steel. Crom was angered, and the earth shook, and fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters. But in their rage, the gods forgot the Secret of Steel and left it on the battlefield. And we who found it, we are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. And the Secret of Steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan, you must learn its discipline. For no one, no one in this world can you trust, not men, not women, not beasts… This you can trust. [points to his sword]. ” Conans father, from Conan The Barbarian.
Crom is my god.
In my teens I abandoned all of the religious dogma that had been thrust upon me since my birth by well-meaning family-members, and allied myself with Nietzsches declaration that “God is dead”. I am godless, but if I was to choose a god that offers me what I desire, it would be Crom. Because Crom offers nothing.
” 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? “
Crom is the God of the Cimmerian Tribes in Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan The Barbarian, upon which the 1982 movie was based. But others have spoken with more eloquence than I can muster on why Crom is the god we need more than any other. You would do well to read the essay on Crom by American author Jack Donovan, in his book “A Sky Without Eagles“. You do not worship Crom, nor do you pray to him for favor. There is no point. The single gift that he bestows upon you, he bestows by accident. Crom forgot the Riddle of Steel in his rage and left it on the battlefield. It’s still there for us to find, though the ages have changed the face of the battlefield and the nature of Steel itself. But enough of that, this is not an essay about Crom himself. To hell with him. This is a discussion of the Riddle of Steel.
In a warrior society such as the Cimmerian Tribes, Steel was the meaning of a mans life. His Steel was his sword, or his axe, and his ability to wield his Steel in the defense of his Tribe was the measure of the man. It would take years, most of a mans life probably, to master the use of his weapon and sharpen his skills as a warrior, to unravel the Secret of Steel. We are not so very advanced from these warrior tribes as we might think. It is not so long ago that the world was a much smaller and more hostile place. In the days where your tribe was small, insular and vulnerable to the assaults of other tribes, learning the Secret of Steel was a requirement for survival. The Riddle may be a concept from a fictional universe, but I’d wager that our warlike ancestors would understand it instinctively if presented with it. It is what you might call a Universal Truth. We today are not a warrior culture, but we have our own Steel with which we measure our worth. It is not the steel of the sword, nor do the majority of us pursue the Enigma upon the battlefield, but the concept is the same. The glory of the age we live in, if there is any glory to be found, is that we have reinvented the Sword and the Steel. The shame is that we have lost our appreciation of the Riddle.
There are many ways in which we may unravel the Riddle of Steel. It need not be bold, warlike or glorious. There is wisdom and honor to be found in the way you approach even the most insignificant of tasks. Presence of mind and purpose of action are the keys to the Riddle. In the past few years, much has been written on the topic of Mindfulness. Type the word into any search engine and you will be buried in articles, seminars, courses, research papers and products for sale. Behind that single concept, Mindfulness, is a towering behemoth of a corporate campaign. People invest huge swathes of their resources into developing their ability to be mindful and aware of their surroundings and themselves. There’s big money to be made in selling people the idea that they might achieve this. People dedicate large portions of their precious time into Awareness exercises and Meditation sessions. But mindfulness is not a new concept. If anything, it is a lost art. The Samurai of Japan brought a purposeful awareness and sense of mindful presence to every action they undertook. The Zen monk takes this concept and applies it so that every small act of the daily routine becomes a form of moving meditation and the path to higher understanding. What connects the Zen Master and the consumer of so many “Mindfulness” products is this: they are all contemplating the Riddle of Steel, in their own unique manner.
I’ll present a simple and mundane example of how one might pursue the Riddle, using the most mundane task that a man might think of: Shaving. I have shaved every working day of my life since I joined the military at 18 years of age. It became monotonous, trivial and irritating a long time ago. Until I began to shave with a straight razor. It’s no great accomplishment. There’s no glory to be had in a shaving routine. But I guarantee you this, my brothers: drag some razor-sharp steel across your jugular first thing in the morning and you will be alert. With a finely honed straight razor, it is the easiest thing in the world to slice your cheek from off of your face as though you were carving a ham for Christmas dinner. From the moment that blade touches your face, Mindfulness is not something that you have to work for, it becomes a requirement for survival. As with all matters of habit, the effect wears off gradually. But never completely. Though you may become expert in the art of cut-throat shaving and the task may require decreasing levels of concentration over time, you never quite lose the edge, so to speak. The idea is always there, in the very front of your mind, that you’re only a slip away from potentially fatal blood loss. This is how one brings the Riddle of Steel from the metaphysical realm to the very physical realm. This example serves as one of the lowest forms of how one might contemplate the Secret of Steel, but it serves to illustrate that no task is too mundane or ignoble that it can not be turned into an opportunity for strength. If you lift weights, work with your hands, practice martial arts, write, paint, compose, sing, perform or fight, you will find an opportunity to unravel the Riddle if you only look.
These things are just some of the avenues through which you might pursue the Enigma. You may list different examples than I do, but the essence is the same.
You need not be manipulating a piece of metal in order to ponder the Enigma of Steel. The Steel aspect of the riddle is merely a means of applying it to contemporary and the practical. In our wild and stormy past, the term applied mainly to a weapon of Steel or some other metal. These days, the Riddle applies not only to the steel of a weapon, but to any tool or process that you use in order to pursue your goals. The Riddle could as well be applied to a book, a pen, a computer, a set of tools or even a golf-club as to a blade. The Riddle of Steel is the Riddle of Everything. When I undertake a task, no matter what the task may be, I approach it with the knowledge that the Riddle applies itself even here. Even where there is no steel present. This was the approach of the samurai. The zen monk continues this practice. The Spartan hoplite sought the riddle by becoming immersed in the unity of the phalanx. The Mongol warrior sought to unify himself with his bow and his horse. All pursued the Riddle, though they called it by different names.
The riddle of steel is not a piece of knowledge or a metaphorical enlightenment. The riddle of steel is a process. You might have spent your entire life in the pursuit of the Riddle and never have learned a damn thing, but it won’t matter. It won’t matter because ultimately, nothing you’ve done will matter. Not in the grand scheme of things. The world is cold and life is nihilistic. There is no greater meaning except the meaning that you yourself give it. What’s important is that you spent what time you were given in life pursuing something higher and more noble than the animal that you are. You will have spent time pursuing the Riddle, and that means you will have dedicated yourself to growth and strength and mastery of self. Time spent with the Steel is never wasted.
The Riddle is the dedicated pursuit of mastery. The Riddle is a mindset. It is the attitude with which you develop yourself into something worthy of Croms attention. Until you have pursued the riddle, Crom laughs at you. He cares nothing for your weakness. Only valor pleases him.
” He is strong. If I die I have to go before him, and he will ask me “What is the Riddle of Steel?” And if I don’t know it he will cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me! That’s Crom – strong in his mountain! ” -Conan.
But we do not contemplate the Enigma for the sake of winning Croms favor. What use to pray to him? It is for ourselves that we work at mastering our Steel. For ourselves and our family and our tribe and our ancestors and our unborn children. We are born with the will to strive and to undertake great labors, as did Conan and Hercules, in the pursuit of The Great Answer: the life well spent. What else shall men ask of the gods? What else does a man need?
March 2nd, 2015. Dublin.