Robert E. Howard: The Poet and the Girl with the Golden Hair and Eyes like the Deep Grey Sea

Robert E. Howard: The Poet and the Girl with the Golden Hair and Eyes like the Deep Grey Sea

andtheirmemoryHistory, reincarnation, bloody battles, a fierce and barbaric people, and great acts of courage! Robert E. Howard’s poem “An Echo From the Iron Harp” has all that and more.

It is a tale that echoes across centuries as the ghosts of the Cimbri and their battles with the Roman legions haunt a poet who dreams of a love from ages lost in time:

Shadows and echoes haunt my dreams
with dim and subtle pain,
With the faded fire of a lost desire,
like a ghost on a moonlit plain.
In the pallid mist of death-like sleep
she comes again to me:
I see the gleam of her golden hair
and her eyes like the deep grey sea.

But she’s more than this description. Howard has created many strong female characters, among them: Dark Agnes in Sword Woman; the “Queen of the Black Coast,” Bêlit; Valeria in “Red Nails”; and Red Sonya, the heroine of “Shadow of the Vulture.”

All are familiar to readers of Howard’s stories. However, fewer fans are acquainted with the formidable girl with the “unruly golden hair”:

And I saw as I crawled like a crippled snake
to slay before I died,
Unruly golden hair that tossed
in wild and untamed pride.
Her slim foot pressed a dead man’s breast,
her proud head back was thrown,
Matching the steel she held on high,
her eyes in glory shone.

I saw the gleam of her golden hair
and her eyes like the deep grey sea—
And the love in the gaze that sought me out,
barbaric, fierce and free—

sword-womanWho is this “barbaric, fierce and free” Cimbri woman and who were the people that dared to challenge the Roman Legions?

Historically, there is very little agreement on whether the Cimbri origins were Celtic or Germanic. Howard had his own ideas which he stated in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft dated March 2, 1932:

At any rate, I’m enclosing a rhyme [“An Echo From the Iron Harp”] which I wrote when younger than I am now. It’s crude, no doubt, but I rather like it. There’s no hurry about returning it, though I’d like to see it eventually. That’s one of a number of rhymes I hope some day to bring out under the title of Echoes from an Iron Harp. But the devil knows when I’ll get to do it. Most authorities consider the Cimbri were Germans, of course, and they probably were, but there’s a possibility that they were Celtic, or of mixed Celtic and German blood, and it gratifies my fancy to portray them as Celts, anyway.

In spite of Howard’s quote, there are strong arguments for both sides. Their ethnic origins are further complicated because, according to Plutarch, “… the Germans call plunderers Cimbri” and according to many Classical writers, Europe consisted of the Gauls, the Celts and the Germans with no true definition of any of them.

And for Howard’s Conan fans there’s an added interest. The following excerpt from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Life of Marius notes there was a relationship between the Cimbri and the Cimmerians:

Their great height, their black eyes and their name, Cimbri, which the Germans use for brigands, led us merely to suppose that they were one of those races of Germania who lived on the shores of the Western Ocean. Others say that the huge expanse of Celtica stretches from the outer sea and the western regions to the Palus Maeotis and borders on Asian Scythia; that these two neighbouring nations joined forces and left their land… And although each people had a different name, their army was collectively called Celto-Scythian. According to others, some of the Cimmerians, who were the first-to be known to the ancient Greeks… took flight and were driven from their land by the Scythians.

parallel-livesThe Heritage History website gives a physical description: “most of the Cimbri and Teutones men were over six feet tall and the women nearly as large.” Plutarch confirms this and gives a further description that is different from that quoted above: “The most prevalent conjecture was that they were some of the German peoples which extended as far as the northern ocean, a conjecture based on their great stature, their light-blue eyes…” In an age when men and women were generally much shorter, they were blonde, blue or grey-eyed giants. In a letter to Harold Preece, dated January 4, 1930, Howard says:

At any rate, old historians such as Plutarch and the like, tell us plainly that the Gauls were grey or blue eyed and yellow haired.

According to most historians, the Cimbri came from the Himmerland area in Northern Denmark. They migrated south about 112 BCE possibly as the result of floods that killed their crops and animals.

The migration of the combined Cimbri and the Teutones tribes of warriors, their women and children consisted of about 300,000 people. But this number may only be the fighting men. In his Parallel Lives: The Life of Marius, Plutarch writes:

The accounts at first exceeded all credit, as to the number and strength of the approaching army, but in the end report proved much inferior to truth, as they were three hundred thousand effective fighting men, besides a far greater number of women and children.

Plutarch’s description of the number of people in the migration is confirmed by the Heritage History website:

The movement was on a scale and of a kind new to Roman experience. It was no expedition of warriors. The whole nation had come. The Cimbri had a vast array of waggons [sic] with them, containing their wives, their children, and all that belonged to them. There was a curious resemblance between them—something of the same kind may be seen to-day in a shipload of Scandinavian emigrants—for all were huge of stature, the women falling little short of the men, and all fair-haired.

history-of-romeAnd, they were well armed according to Plutarch who writes: “They had a javelin and a long sword; every man carried a long narrow shield, and the chiefs among them were also protected by coats of mail.”

Theodor Mommsen in his History of Rome: The Revolution, describes the Cimbri people and their system of warfare as:

…substantially that of the Celts of this period, who no longer fought, as the Italian Celts had formerly done, bareheaded and with merely sword and dagger, but with copper helmets often richly adorned and with a peculiar missile weapon, the – materis; the large sword was retained and the long narrow shield, along with which they probably wore also a coat of mail. They were not destitute of cavalry; but the Romans were superior to them in that arm. Their order of battle was as formerly a rude phalanx professedly drawn up with just as many ranks in depth as in breadth, the first rank of which in dangerous combats not unfrequently tied together their metallic girdles with cords. Their manners were rude. Flesh was frequently devoured raw. The bravest and, if possible, the tallest man was king of the host. Not unfrequently, after the manner of the Celts and of barbarians generally, the time and place of the combat were previously arranged with the enemy, and sometimes also, before the battle began, an individual opponent was challenged to single combat. The conflict was ushered in by their insulting the enemy with unseemly gestures, and by a horrible noise–the men raising their battle-shout, and the women and children increasing the din by drumming on the leathern covers of the waggons. The Cimbrian fought bravely — death on the bed of honour was deemed by him the only death worthy of a free man — but after the victory he indemnified himself by the most savage brutality, and sometimes promised beforehand to present to the gods of battle whatever victory should place in the power of the victor. The effects of the enemy were broken in pieces, the horses were killed, the prisoners were hanged or preserved only to be sacrificed to the gods.

While the Cimbri men were ferocious warriors, their women were no slouches.

Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.

plutarch-vol-2Their battles with Rome began when a Roman ally requested help as the Cimbri approached their borders. According to Mommsen, Carbo was leading the Romans who came to fulfill a treaty obligation.

The Cimbri did not attack; indeed, when Carbo ordered them to evacuate the territory of the Taurisci who were in relations of hospitality with Rome — an order which the treaty with the latter by no means bound him to make — they complied and followed the guides whom Carbo had assigned to them to escort them over the frontier. But these guides were in fact instructed to lure the Cimbri into an ambush, where the consul awaited them. Accordingly an engagement took place not far from Noreia in the modern Carinthia, in which the betrayed gained the victory over the betrayer and inflicted on him considerable loss; a storm, which separated the combatants, alone prevented the complete annihilation of the Roman army.

This was the first battle between the Cimbrians and Teutones tribes and Rome. According to the website Roman Empire, the barbarians marched into Switzerland and were joined by the Tigurini and Ambrones tribes. Together, they plundered and ravaged Gaul in every direction. The Romans sent army after army to defend the southwestern part of the country, which was now a Roman province but all in vain:

In B.C. 109 the Consul M. Junius Silanus was defeated by the Cimbri; in B.C. 107 the Tigurini cut in pieces, near the Lake of Geneva, the army of the Consul L. Cassius Longinus, the colleague of Marias, who lost his life in the battle; and shortly afterward M. Aurelius Scaurus was also defeated and taken prisoner. But the most dreadful loss was still to come. In B.C. 105 two consular armies, commanded by the Consul Cn. Mallius Maximus and the Proconsul Cn. Servilius Cæpio, consisting of 80,000 men, were completely annihilated by the barbarians: only two men are said to have escaped the slaughter. Seven years later the Romans clashed with them again. In fact, the two armies met five times and the Romans were overwhelmingly defeated in each battle. At one battle alone, over 80,000 Romans and 40,000 of their camp followers were killed with very few losses by the Cimbri and Teutones.

Cimbrian warriors
Cimbrian warriors

In their southern migration, there is some reason to believe that the Cimbri were merely looking for land because after these overwhelming defeats the two tribes did not follow up and advance on a quaking-with-fear Rome. This viewpoint is confirmed on the website UNRV (United Nations of Roma Victrix):

There is some evidence that the Germanics wanted little to do with the Romans, and that they simply sought safe passage to better lands. Others argue that they were an aggressive army looking for plunder. The Roman generals of the time, ambitious and politically motivated in a time of great change and opportunity for personal glory, may very well have provoked the Cimbri at every step. Regardless, the Cimbri did wander the Danube region for several years, involved in a number of engagements with local Celts. At some point a Roman army was sent to meet them in Noricum, modern Carinthia. Under Gnaeus Paprius Carbo, the Romans were routed and sent scrambling home (112 BC), while the Cimbri continued to move west towards Gaul. After the defeat of Carbo, the Cimbri crossed the Rhine and threatened territory belonging to the Roman allied Allobroges. Tribal leaders attempted to negotiate land rights for their people, but all such requests were denied. By 109 BC, the Romans sent another force under the Consul Marcus Junius Silanus but again were soundly defeated, losing as many as 30,000 men. The Cimbri, however, not showing any desire to invade or cause trouble, went about their own business, looking for land in Gaul.


In fact, as they migrated, about five thousand, along with their livestock and families stayed in Belgium. The rest of the two tribes turned away from Rome and traveled towards Spain, giving Rome and its Consul, Marius, years to prepare their armies.

The Spaniards fought effectively against Cimbri and Teutones and when the two tribes were turned back, Marius was ready for them. Fortunately for Rome, the Teutones and Cimbri tribes split up and each crossed the Alps in a different direction to attack Marius who was able to meet them separately.

The Teutones and Ambrones encountered Marius first:

Their numbers were limitless, they were hideous in their aspect, and their speech and cries were unlike those of other peoples. They covered a large part of the plain, and after pitching their camp challenged Marius to battle.

However, Marius, who wanted to familiarize his soldiers with the savage and strange appearance of the barbarians, ignored their challenge. The two tribes then packed their baggage and, expecting to cross the Alps without molestation, began to march past the Roman camp. Plutarch describes the march:

Then, indeed, the immensity of their numbers was made specially evident by the length of their line and the time required for their passage; for it is said they were six days in passing the fortifications of Marius, although they moved continuously. And they marched close to the camp, inquiring whether the Romans had any messages for their wives; “for,” said they, “we shall soon be with them.”

bran-mak-mornMarius and his legions took a short cut and caught the barbarians at the foot of the Alps in Aquae Sextiae where the tribes were holding the valley and the river running through it. When his Roman warriors complained of thirst, according to The Epitome of Roman History by Lucius Annaeus Florus, Marius told them: “If you are men, there it is yonder for you.”

In his Parallel Lives: The Life of Marius, Plutarch describes what followed:

His soldiers, accordingly, though reluctant, obeyed; but the throng of camp-servants, who had no water either for themselves or their beasts, went down in a body to the river, some taking hatchets, some axes, and some also swords and lances along with their water-jars, determined to get water even if they had to fight for it. With these only a few of the enemy at first engaged, since the main body were taking their meal after bathing, and some were still bathing. For streams of warm water burst from the ground in this place, and at these the Romans surprised a number of the Barbarians, who were enjoying themselves and making merry in this wonderfully pleasant place. Their cries brought more of the Barbarians to the spot, and Marius had difficulty in longer restraining his soldiers, since they had fears now for their servants. Besides, the most warlike division of the enemy, by whom at an earlier time the Romans under Manlius and Caepio had been defeated…called Ambrones and of themselves numbered more than thirty thousand…had sprung up from their meal and were running to get their arms. However, though their bodies were surfeited and weighed down with food and their spirits excited and disordered with strong wine, they did not rush on in a disorderly or frantic course, nor raise an inarticulate battle-cry, but rhythmically clashing their arms and leaping to the sound they would frequently shout out all together their tribal name Ambrones, either to encourage one another, or to terrify their enemies in advance by the declaration…then, the Ambrones became separated by the stream…Most of the Ambrones were cut down there in the stream where they were all crowded together, and the river was filled with their blood and their dead bodies; the rest, after the Romans had crossed, did not dare to face about, and the Romans kept slaying them until they came in their flight to their camp and waggons. Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations, their fierce spirits unvanquished to the end. So, then, as we are told, the battle at the river was brought on by accident rather than by the intention of the commander.

After the defeat of the Teutones and Ambrones, Marius learned he was elected Consul for the fifth time. He was called back to Rome, leaving his colleague, Catulus in charge of the Roman Legions. According to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Catulus was guarding the passes in the Alps but in concern that he would need to divide his troops into too many parts, he descended into the valley and built strong fortifications. However, the Cimbri came through the passes and attacked the forts:

But these Barbarians were so contemptuous and bold in following their enemies that, more by way of displaying their strength and daring than because it was necessary at all, they endured the snow-storms without any clothing, made their way through ice and deep snow to the summits, and from there, putting their broad shields under them and then letting themselves go, slid down the smooth and deeply fissured cliffs. After they had encamped near the stream and examined the passage, they began to dam it up, tearing away the neighbouring hills, like the giants of old, carrying into the river whole trees with their roots, fragments of cliffs, and mounds of earth, and crowding the current out of its course; they also sent whirling down the stream against the piles of the bridge heavy masses which made the bridge quiver with their blows, until at last the greater part of the Roman soldiers played the coward, abandoned their main camp, and began to retreat.

best-of-howardThe countryside now had no defenders while the Cimbri ravaged it.

But, Marius returned from Rome. At first the Cimbri refused to fight him saying they were awaiting their brethren the Teutones. Marius and his men mocked them and stated the Teutones and Ambrones had been defeated. The Roman History website describes the reaction of the Cimbri:

These had been joined by all the Ambrones who survived the battle, and there was lamentation among them all night long, not like the wailings and groanings of men, but howlings and bellowings with a strain of the wild beast in them, mingled with threats and cries of grief, went up from this vast multitude and echoed among the surrounding hills and over the river valley. The whole plain was filled with an awful din, the Romans with fear, and even Marius himself with consternation as he awaited some disorderly and confused night-battle. However, the Barbarians made no attack either during that night or the following day, but spent the time in marshalling their forces and making preparations.

From Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, there is the following pre-battle information:

Boeorix the king of the Cimbri, with a small retinue, rode up towards the camp and challenged Marius to set a day and a place and come out and fight for the ownership of the country. Marius replied that the Romans never allowed their enemies to give them advice about fighting, but that he would nevertheless gratify the Cimbri in this matter. Accordingly, they decided that the day should be the third following, and the place the plain of Vercellae, which was suitable for the operations of the Roman cavalry, and would give the Cimbri room to deploy their numbers.

Again, according to Plutarch, when the appointed time for the battle came, Catulus had twenty thousand three hundred soldiers, while those of Marius amounted to thirty-two thousand:

As for the Cimbri, their foot-soldiers advanced slowly from their defences, with a depth equal to their front, for each side of their formation had an extent of thirty furlongs; and their horsemen, fifteen thousand strong, rode out in splendid style, with helmets made to resemble the maws of frightful wild beasts or the heads of strange animals, which, with their towering crests of feathers, made their wearers appear taller than they really were; they were also equipped with breastplates of iron, and carried gleaming white shields. For hurling, each man had two lances; and at close quarters they used large, heavy swords.

But this time the weather was against the Cimbri. They had been able to endure the cold but sweated profusely and breathed with difficulty in what would now be, August heat. In addition, the dust hid the enemy’s numbers so that the Roman soldiers were fighting man to man without being terrified by the vast number of the barbarians. Plutarch also notes that “not a Roman was observed to sweat or pant, in spite of the great heat and the run with which they came to the encounter.” His description of the battle and its aftermath is harrowing:

The greatest number and the best fighters of the enemy were cut to pieces on the spot; for to prevent their ranks from being broken, those who fought in front were bound fast to one another with long chains which were passed through their belts. The fugitives, however, were driven back to their entrenchments, where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the waggons [sic] and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the waggons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a waggon-pole, with her children tied to either ankle; while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. Nevertheless, in spite of such self-destruction, more than sixty thousand were taken prisoners; and those who fell were said to have been twice that number.

Cimbrian defeat
Cimbrian defeat

Although Plutarch states more than 60,000 Cimbri became Roman slaves, he does not specify whether these were men or women. And, not all historians agree with Plutarch’s accuracy. According to the Heritage website:

We have no trustworthy account of the battle which followed, Plutarch’s narrative being borrowed, it would seem, from writers not favourable to Marius, from Catulus himself, who left a history of his campaign, and from the notebook of Sulla, who was serving with Catulus. His story is that Marius missed his way in a dust-storm that suddenly swept over the plain, and that he wandered about vainly seeking the enemy till the battle had been practically decided by the courage of the troops commanded by Catulus and his lieutenant, Sulla.

she-devil1However, while the Roman History website agrees the Cimbri met with the same fate as the Teutones, it differs regarding the number of barbarians killed stating that the death of the Cimbri warriors, along with the women, and children, who like the Teutones, put an end to their lives, resulted in the annihilation of a whole people.

The UNRV website gives hope that some of the Cimbri survived:

It was a devastating defeat and both the chieftains Lugius and Boiorix died. The women killed both themselves and their children in order to avoid slavery. The Cimbri were annihilated, although some may have survived to return to the homeland where a population with this name was residing in northern Jutland in the 1st century AD…

Whether they were annihilated or not, the Cimbri were worthy opponents. If they had decided to conquer Rome instead of migrating into Spain, their fighting skills might have changed the course of history.

In “An Echo From the Iron Harp” Howard takes us back to the time when the Cimbri clashed with the Roman legions.

The poem, told in the first person, also describes the tragedy of Cimbri’s final defeat, and the battle between the Roman soldiers and the girl “with the hair of gold and eyes like the deep grey sea.”

It is a vivid example of Howard’s ability to ‘be there’ in his writing:

We came from the North as the spume is blown
when the blue tide billows down;
The kings of the South were overthrown
in ruin of camp and town.
Shrine and temple we dashed to dust,
and roared in the dead gods’ ears;
We saw the fall of the kings of Gaul,
and shattered the Belgae spears.

And South we rolled like a drifting cloud,
like a wind that bends the grass,
But we smote in vain on the gates of Spain
for our own kin held the Pass.
Then again we turned where the watch-fires burned
to mark the lines of Rome,
And fire and tower and standard sank
as ships that die in foam.

The legions came, hard hawk-eyed men,
war-wise in march and fray,
But we rushed like a whirlwind on their lines
and swept their ranks away.
Army and consul we overthrew,
staining the trampled loam;
Horror and fear like a lifted spear
lay hard on the walls of Rome.

Our mad desire was a flying fire
that should burn the Appian Gate—
But our day of doom lay hard on us,
at a toss of the dice of Fate.

There rose a man in the ranks of Rome—
ill fall the cursed day!—
Our German allies bit the dust
and we turned hard at bay.
And the raven came and the lean grey wolf,
to follow the sword’s red play.

Over the land like a ghostly hand
the mists of morning lay,
We smote their horsemen in the fog
and hacked a bloody way.
We smote their horsemen in the cloud
and as the mists were cleared
Right through the legion massed behind
our headlong squadron sheared.
Saddle to saddle we chained our ranks
for naught of war we knew
But to charge in the wild old Celtic way—
and die or slash straight through.
We left red ruin in our wake,
dead men in ghastly ranks—
When fresh unwearied Roman arms
smote hard upon our flanks.

Baffled and weary, red with wounds,
leaguered on every side,
Chained to our doom we smote in vain,
slaughtered and sank and died.
Writhing among the horses’ hoofs,
torn and slashed and gored,
Gripping still with a bloody hand,
a notched and broken sword,
I heard the war-cry growing faint,
drowned by the trumpet’s call,
And the roar of “Marius! Marius!”
triumphant over all.

Through the bloody dust and the swirling fog
as I strove in vain to rise
I saw the last of the warriors fall,
and swift as a falcon flies
The Romans rush to the barricades
where the women watched the fight—
I heard the screams and I saw steel flash
and naked arms toss white.
The ravisher died as he gripped his prey,
by the dagger fiercely driven—
By the next stroke with her own hand
the heart of the girl was riven.
Brown fingers grasped white wrists in vain—
blood flecked the gasping loam—
The Cimbri yield no virgin-slaves
to glut the gods of Rome!

And I saw as I crawled like a crippled snake
to slay before I died,
Unruly golden hair that tossed
in wild and untamed pride.
Her slim foot pressed a dead man’s breast,
her proud head back was thrown,
Matching the steel she held on high,
her eyes in glory shone.

I saw the gleam of her golden hair
and her eyes like the deep grey sea—
And the love in the gaze that sought me out,
barbaric, fierce and free—
Then the dagger fell and the skies fell
and the mists closed over me.

* * * * * * * * * *
Like phantoms into the ages lost
has the Cimbrian nation passed;
Destiny shifts like summer clouds
on Grecian hill-tops massed.
Untold centuries glide away,
Marius long is dust;
Even eternal Rome has passed
in days of decay and rust.
But memories live in the ghosts of dreams,
and dreams still come to me,
And I see the gleam of her golden hair
and her eyes like the deep grey sea.

Like many Howard readers, I have “fought” beside his strong women as they used sword and pistol to carve out their place in a world dominated by men. Yet none of their brave deeds have been as haunting as the image of the Cimbri warrior woman in Howard’s heroic tale of brave deeds and a love that transcends Time.

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Sarah Avery

Thank you for an illuminating essay. The poem really does shine more for its historical context.


Great post tying together the history, Howard’s understanding of it, and his poem. As for the vexed issue of the Cimbri themselves, I had to glance back at my dissertation to both see what I thought and whether it was what I still think 🙂 but I was and am inclined to believe that it is probably simplistic to try to classify them as either “Celtic” or “Germanic”. The evidence in terms of onomastics, etc., is a bit mixed, but I’d guess there’s a reasonable chance we have some sort of multi-ethnic oversized war-band of the sort that we may also sometimes see banging around in Late Antiquity/Migration Age scenarios …. Not that that’s really either here or there as far as getting to grips with Howard’s interpretations and inspirations 🙂 but, anyway …. 🙂


a very good and interesting article as good as the Keith Taylor’s history oriented articles on the cimmerian and REHTGR, Barbara we want more articles like that on BG


like this

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