Assassins: The Order of the East (Part I)

14th-century painting of the successful assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuk Empire, by an Assassin.

In my mythic fantasy novel, The Fruit of Passion, the world I’ve woven draws heavily from the Welsh branch of Celtic mythology and tradition, namely from the works of the Mabinogion, The Spoils of Annwn and the Welsh Triads. The main cast of characters are Northeners whose kingdoms, customs and traditions have their base on the history of Yr Hen Ogledd: The kingdoms of the Old North and the various Celtic tribes of the isle of Britain from the Iron Age to the medieval period as well as their potent magico-religious beliefs regarding the Otherworld.

Continuing in the same historical vein, an important theme of my novel to which a large part of the plot is dedicated relates to the violent clash between the Celts and the Romans during the expansion of the later’s Empire in the South. Again, here I’ve based my fictional Empire on that of the ancient Romans, incorporating a slew of their Mediterranean customs and notions into the narrative as their counterparts, the Vitalians, conquer new territories and annex them to their ever-growing state.

The neighbouring countries of the South and the East have forfeited their freedom and have bowed down as the Vitalians have clasped the yoke of tyranny around their throats. Only the Northern isles have managed through blood and sacrifice to remain independent as they have waged for centuries an open rebellion at great cost to themselves.

However, amidst the subjugated Eastern provinces, a spark of resistance still flares: an elite society of warriors who take refuge in their mountainous strongolds and embark on raids against the conquerors to free their countrymen and restore their nation to its former glory. So, with the initiative of their leader, these fighters seek an alliance with the Northern kingdoms in order to crush the Vitalians and shake off the bitter bonds of slavery.

A major influence in the conception of these Esstern recusants stood the real-life order of the Assassins in Persia and Syria. So, let’s explore what this shadowy brotherhood was and what tenets its members adhered to, shall we?

The Order of Assassins: Identity

The Assassins were a Nizari Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam who lived in the mountainous regions of Persia and Syria between 1090 and 1275. The shocking means of attack they employed focused mainly on the murders of prominent political figures of the Middle East. Targeting first Muslim and then Christians, they always singled out those who undermined and assailed their state.

The present-day term assassination is based on the policy used by the Assassins. Their religious sect was born in the late 11th century after a succession crisis within the Fatimid Caliphate between Nizar ibn al-Mustansir and his half-brother, caliph al-Musta’li.Contemporaneous historians include the Arabs ibn al-Qalanisi and Ali ibn al-Athir and the Persian Ata-Malik Juvayni. The first two called the Assassins batiniyya, a name widely accepted by Isma’ilis themselves.

Brief History: Rise and Decline

The founder of the Nizari Isma’ili was the erudite Hassan-i Sabbah. Sabbah called his disciples Asāsiyyūn, “أساسِيّون”, an Arabic term which translates as ‘’those faithful to the foundation of the faith’’. The state rose into existence in 1090 after the storming and capture of Alamut Castle located in modern Iran, which the Assassins used as their inner sanctum and headquarters.

The Alamut and Lambsar castles became the pulsing hub of a nexus of Isma’ili fortresses scattered throughout Persia and Syria. Some of these included Syrian strongholds at Masyaf, Abu Qubays, al-Qadmus and al-Kahf. Sabbah held the reins of the Nizari Isma’ili state until his death in 1124. The Assassins and their terrorizing subterfuge became known to the Western part of the world through the written accounts of the explorer Marco Polo. The Europeans mistakenly believed their name to stem from the term hashish, and that the Assassins were hashish consumers, something which was only a colourful tale circulated amongst the West.

The head of the Nizari Isma’ili state was a religious leader, at first da’i and later Imam. Amongst the most prominent Assassin leaders of the sect operating in Syria were al-Hakim al-Munajjim, the physician-astrologer (d. 1103), Abu Tahir al-Sa’igh, the goldsmith (d. 1113), Bahram al-Da’i (d. 1127), and Rashid ad-Din Sinan, having enjoyed the fame of the greatest Assassin chief (d. 1193).

While Assassins is understood to encompass all the members of the sect, in actuality only a faction of disciples known as the fida’i engaged in armed conflict.Without their own troops to command to march into battle, the Nizari relied on these warriors to spy on and assassinate major political enemies. The weapons they wielded were the daggers, as they weren’t inclined towards arrows and poison. Their opponents involved authorities like the Fatimids, Abbasids and Seljuks.

In the course of three centuries, their victims amounted to hundreds, among them a Jerusalem ruler and multiple Muslim and Christian chiefs. Their first victory regarding the establishment of the Nizari Isma’ili state in Persia was the assassination of the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092.

Other targets of note included Janah ad-Dawla, emir of Homs, (1103), Mawdud ibn Altuntash, atabeg of Mosul (1113), Fatimid vizier Al-Afdal Shahanshah (1121), Seljuk atabeg Aqsunqur al-Bursuqi (1126), Fatimid caliph al-Amir bi-Ahkami’l-Lah (1130), Taj al-Mulk Buri, atabeg of Damascus (1132), and Abbasid caliphs al-Mustarshid (1135) and ar-Rashid (1138). 

The Kurdish founder of the Ayubbid dynasty, Saladin, a salient adversary of the Assassins, managed to escape their ire twice when attempts against his life were made (1175-1176). In 1152, the Count of Tripoli, Raymond II, fell dead by the daggers of the Assassins. The Assassins struck terror, too, at the hearts of the Crusaders, the latter losing the actual king of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, in 1192 and Philip of Montfort of Tyre in 1270.

The rule of the Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah marked the internal decline of the Nizari Isma’ili state, which was destroyed in the end as Khurshah surrendered the castles to the Mongols after the latter invaded Persia. Khurshah died in 1256, and the arrival of the Mongols sounded the death knell for the Assassins. By 1275, the order had received a blow from which it would never recover its former flourishing.

A host of Western, Arabic, Syrian and Persian accounts spoke of the order, depicting its ranks as highly trained killers, resistant to torture and interrogation who aimed at the annihilation of major political foes who opposed the order’s goals.

European orientalists of the 19th and 20th centuries also mentioned the Isma’ili Assassins in their works, basing their references on seminal works by medieval Sunni Arab and Persian authors, particularly ibn al-Qalanisi’s Mudhayyal Ta’rikh Dimashq (Continuation of the Chronicle of Damascus), ibn al-Athir’s al-Kāmil fit-Tārīkh (The Complete History), and Juvayni’s Tarīkh-i Jahān-gushā (History of the World Conqueror).

In the subsequent parts of my essay, I’ll focus on issues such as the etymology of the name given to the order, their origin, their military tactics, succession and the next generation as well as the legends and folkore that has surrounded them.

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Five Trees Featured in Celtic Lore

The ancient Celtic tribes were devout believers in the cosmic oneness of the universe, and held the belief that nature and even objects many times were ensouled. An example of such a notion can be found if one examines the trees the Celts considered sacred.

Featuring in their religious rites, everyday life and mythology, they were endowned with medicinal, magical, spiritual and otherwordly properties. This posts explores five such trees that played a significant role in the lives of the Celts.

Under the influence!

Image by mbll from Pixabay

This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.

Animists

It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.

Oak Trees

The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout…

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Hyperborea: Beyond the North Wind (Part III)

In the first and second part of my essay, Hyperborea: Beyond the North Wind Part I, II, I explored the myth of the titular fabled land, focusing on the ancient Roman, Greek and Celtic sources and discussing about the various legends associated with it like the figure of Abaris and the cult of Apollo. In the third and last part, I’ll conclude with some modern interpretations and hypotheses about the region of Hyperborea.

As I’ve already written, a slew of locations have been suggested as the true vicinity where Hyperborea lay. Of course, as it often is the case with mythology, only a certain number of details can have a basis on modern knowledge. Depending on latitude, above the Arctic Circle, for the duration of the spring to the autumnal equinox, sunshine can last up to 24 hous a day.

At the very confines of the Pole, sunset and sunrise take place only once a year. Such a phenomenon could induce one to the erroneous correspondence between day and year. Therefore a thousand days could possibly amount to a thousand years.

Perhaps another incident from ancient Greek mythology can reveal more glimpses of truth. According to Herodotus, the Hyperboreans lived beyond the tribes of Massagetae and Issedones, both in Central Asia. Probably then his Hyperboreans lived in Siberia.

One of the labours of the demigod Hercules was to hunt after the golden-antlered hind of Artemis in Hyperborea. The reindeer is the sole species where the female bears antlers, so this could refer to some arctic or subarctic location.

What’s more, the professor of classical studies Carl P. Ruck, influenced by J. D. P. Bolton’s placing of the Issedones tribe on the south-western slopes of the Altay mountains, has suggested the Hyperborean region lies beyond the Dzungarian Gate into northern Xinjiang, thus arguing for the Hyperboreans’ Chinese provenance.

The Greeks got their hands on amber when the fossilized resin travelled through a route beginning far in the north. The speculative fiction author Avram Davidson put forth the theory that Hyperborea was erroneously associated by the Greeks with the insects that originated in a warm climate and were spotted trapped inside the amber that came all the way from the northern countries.

Ignorant of modern scientific elaborations, (that said insects lived in an age where the temperature of northern Europe was far higher and their bodies were preserved intact in the amber) the Greeks believed the icy climate of northern countries was the result of the cold breath of Boreas, the North Wind.

Upon coming in contact with the classical Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean region, the Scandinavians regarded themselves as Hyperboreans. Such belief is congruent with the traditional aspect of a vicinity beyond the north where the sun always shines—a fact based on the long days during high summer with no hour of darkness the Northern half of Scandinavia enjoys, otherwise known as the mid-night sun.

This perception was held to be true especially during the 17th century in Sweden. There, the later supporters of Gothicism proposed the idea that the Scandinavian peninsula was at once the lost Atlantis and the Hyperborean land. On the other hand, European culture identified itself as Hyperborean. An example to this effect is given by Washington Irving. Upon elaborating on Astoria in the Pacific Northwest, he writes that,

”While the fiery and magnificent Spaniard, inflamed with the mania for gold, has extended his discoveries and conquests over those brilliant countries scorched by the ardent sun of the tropics, the adroit and buoyant Frenchman, and the cool and calculating Briton, have pursued the less splendid, but no less lucrative, traffic in furs amidst the hyperborean regions of the Canadas, until they have advanced even within the Arctic Circle.”

To the same effect, there existed a group of Northern European scholars who had dedicated themselves to the study of classial ruins in Rome, founded in 1824 by Thoedor Panofka, Otto Magnus von Stackberg, August Kestner and Eduard Gerhard, having named themselves the ‘’Hyperborean-Roman Company’’.

In the Antichrist, Nietzche referred to his sympathetic readers as Hyperboreans. “Let us look each other in the face. We are Hyperboreans–we know well enough how remote our place is.” He quoted Pindar and added, “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness.”

Even today, the term ‘’Hyperborean’’ is sometimes used in a joking manner to refer to groups of people living in a cold climate and, under the Library of Congress Classification System, the letter subclass PM includes “Hyperborean Languages”, a catch-all branch that encompasses all the linguistically unrelated languages of peoples living in Arctic regions such as the Inuit.

The author and scientist John G. Benett opined on the topic of Hyperborea in a research paper of his, ‘’The Hyperborean Origin of the Indo-European Culture’’, that the Indo-European homeland was situated in the far north and identified the region as the Hyperborea of classical antiquity. An idea propounded before by both Bal Gangadhar Tilak in The Arctic Home in the Vedas and by the Austro-Hungarian ethnologist Karl Penka in the Origins of the Aryans.

If the land of Hyperborea was a source of endless fascination for the ancient peoples, an equal source of fascination it remains in modern times as well, especially in the field of esoteric thinking. Philosophers like Blavatsky, Guéron and Evola believed in the Hyperborean, polar descent of Mankind and the solidification and devolution that followed afterwards.

If one considers their theory, Hyperborea was the Golden Age polar heart of civilization and spirituality. Man doesn’t owe his origins to the ape, but gradually regresses into an apelike state the more he drifts away, both physically and spiritually, from his arcane, otherworldly homeland in the Far North, falling prey to the dark powers of the South Pole, the very hotbed of materialization.

The French writer Robert Charroux often explored the theme of the ancient austronaut race in his works, attributing such origins to the Hyperboreans. “Reputedly very large, very white people” who had settled in “the least warm area on the earth because it corresponded more closely to their own climate on the planet from which they originated’’.

In the end, what are we to make of the Hyperboreans and their splendid, sunblessed homeland? What conclusions can we reach? Are we to regard them as a mythical race of veritable giants whose lives spanned to a millennia, residing in an unearthly paradise? Or are we to venerate them as our enlightened ancestors who gave birth to the rest of mankind and lament the fact we can never again reach the crest of their spiritual heights?

Did Hyperborea exist in some primordial age, so far removed in the past that nobody can hope to trace its actual historicity or does it merely reflect humanity’s deepest longins and aspirations? An ideal land full of light and health and abundance where age, sickness and war are perpetually exiled?

Whatever the truth, Hyperborea still retains its charm and rouses our imagination, proving its timelessness over and over again.

Welsh Celtic Lore: The Mabinogi of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr Retold

The Welsh, through the prose collection of the Mabinogion, have presented to the world a singular artistic creation that offers a charming panorama of fantasy, romance, adventure, tragedy, humour and satire wrapped up in a net full of otherwordly magic and allure.

This blog post explores one of the four branches of the Mabinogion, the story of the British princess, Branwen, and the war of her family against her Irish husband and his warriors. A tale of high-octane poignancy, it offers to the reader a wide cast of characters, each one larger than life and full of complexity.

Under the influence!

Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”).  The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.

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