It was 106 years ago today that Robert E. Howard was born in the tiny town of Peaster, Texas. In recent years, there have been celebrations in either Cross Plains or Austin to mark this anniversary, but this year the mood is more subdued and a gathering is not in the picture. Everyone is still mourning the passing of Glenn Lord and not feeling in a partying mood.
Howard himself did not make a big deal out of his birthday; perhaps it was the hardscrabble times he lived in where putting food on the table took precedence over throwing a party. He only mentions birthdays a few times in his letters, making one reference about getting a book for his birthday. And he did make this comment in a letter to Harold Preece, postmarked September 5, 1928:
Today at town I saw the hang-over of some old and lascivious custom — a girl had a birthday and her girl and boy friends pounced upon her and indulged in a spanking debauch. I have never been able to find just how that custom originated, but have an idea its roots lie in the old superstition that spanking a woman or whipping her with a switch makes her bear children oftener and easier.
Howard was likely referring to an ancient tradition the Romans practiced called Lupercalia. Each spring young girls would be switched so that they would live longer lives and be fertile. This ritual was also carried out by the ancient Germans and the Druids.
Another possible origin the tradition is based on is the slap on the bottom newborns used to get at the time of birth. Physicians used this practice to cause the infant to cry, allowing breathing to begin. Nowadays they suction out their mouth and nose to remove any mucus to clear the airway.
At one time, it was considered bad luck if the birthday celebrant was not spanked because it “softened up the body for the tomb.” This idea has its roots in ancient Egypt where they were obsessively preoccupied with the afterlife.
Of course, the tradition of a birthday spanking exists all around the world, rooted in the idea of delivering some form of physical torment to the person whose birthday it is, in order to drive away evil and to attract good luck. A wide variety of torments are used from beatings, punches, earlobe-pulling and “The Bumps.” An extra “one to grow on” swat is usually added as a show of good luck to your health.
I don’t know if anyone was brave enough to give Howard a birthday spanking — particularly after he bulked up, but he seemed to enjoy writing about spankings and whippings, notably in his Conan yarns appearing in Weird Tales. Speaking of Conan, to commemorate Howard’s birth, I’ll be reading one of my favorite Conan stories today — either “Beyond the Black River” or “Red Nails” — I haven’t decided yet. Either way, it will be one heck of a ride.
Happy Birthday, Bob and thanks for all the yarns.