Zothique is an imagined future continent in a series of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith. Zothique is also the title of the cycle of tales which take place there. In terms of number and extent, the Zothique cycle is the largest collection of stories written by Smith. The cycle belongs to the fantasy genre, and more precisely to the Dying Earth subgenre.
Clark Ashton Smith himself described the Zothique cycle in a letter to L. Sprague de Camp, dated November 3, 1953:
Zothique, vaguely suggested by Theosophic theories about past and future continents, is the last inhabited continent of earth. The continents of our present cycle have sunken, perhaps several times. Some have remained submerged; others have re-risen, partially, and re-arranged themselves. Zothique, as I conceive it, comprises Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, India, parts of northern and eastern Africa, and much of the Indonesian archipelago. A new Australia exists somewhere to the south. To the west, there are only a few known islands, such as Naat, in which the black cannibals survive. To the north, are immense unexplored deserts; to the east, an immense unvoyaged sea. The peoples are mainly of Aryan or Semitic descent; but there is a negro kingdom (Ilcar) in the north-west; and scattered blacks are found throughout the other countries, mainly in palace-harems. In the southern islands survive vestiges of Indonesian or Malayan races. The science and machinery of our present civilization have long been forgotten, together with our present religions. But many gods are worshipped; and sorcery and demonism prevail again as in ancient days. Oars and sails alone are used by mariners. There are no fire-arms—only the bows, arrows, swords, javelins, etc. of antiquity. The chief language spoken (of which I have provided examples in an unpublished drama) is based on Indo-European roots and is highly inflected, like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.
Darrell Schweitzer suggests the idea of writing about a far future land may have come from William Hope Hodgson's novel The Night Land, noting that Smith was an admirer of Hodgson's work. However, this theory was conclusively disproven by Scott Conner's "Dust and Atoms: The Influence of William Hope Hodgson on Clark Ashton Smith" in Sargasso #2 (2016), the scholarly journal devoted to Hodgson.
The "Zothique Cycle" consists of sixteen completed short stories, a one-act play, and assorted incomplete story-fragments and story-sketches. The Tales of Zothique was also referenced in other mythos stories such as Derleth's "The Dweller in Darkness" and in Ramsey Campbell's "The Tomb-Herd" (an early version of "The Church in High Street", published in Crypt of Cthulhu #43).
In chronological order of writing, the short stories are:
- "The Empire of the Necromancers" (Weird Tales, September 1932) — EN
- "The Isle of the Torturers" (Weird Tales, March 1933) — IT
- Setting: The city of Faraad in the realm of Yoros, and the island of Uccastrog. Characters: Fulbra, king of Yoros; Vemdeez, the king's astrologer; Ildrac, king of Uccastrog; Ilvaa, woman of Uccastrog.
- "The Charnel God" (Weird Tales, March 1934) — CG
- Setting: The city of Zul-Bha-Sair. Characters: Phariom and Elaith, travelers from Xylac; Abnon-Tha, a necromancer; Narghai and Vemba-Tsith, his assistants.
- "The Dark Eidolon" (Weird Tales, January 1935) — DE
- Setting: The city of Ummaos in the empire of Xylac. Characters: Zotulla, emperor of Xylac; Obexah, his concubine; Namirrha, a necromancer.
- "The Voyage of King Euvoran" (The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, 1933; Weird Tales, September 1947 (abridged) as "The Quest of the Gazolba") — VE
- Setting: The city of Aramoam in the realm of Ustaim, and a long sea voyage through the islands of the orient sea. Characters: Euvoran, king of Ustaim; Naz Obbamar, a shipwrecked sea-captain.
- "The Weaver in the Vault" (Weird Tales, January 1934) — WV
- Setting: The dead city of Chaon Gacca in Tasuun. Characters: Yanur, Grotara, and Thirlain Ludoch, henchmen of King Famorgh of Tasuun.
- "The Tomb Spawn" (Weird Tales, May 1934) — TS
- Setting: A lost city somewhere in the north of Yoros. Characters: Milab and Marabac, jewel-merchants from Ustaim.
- "The Witchcraft of Ulua" (Weird Tales, February 1934) — WU
- "Xeethra" (Weird Tales, December 1934) — X
- Setting: The Mykrasian mountains in the east of Cincor; the city of Shathair in the realm of Calyz. Characters: Xeethra, a goatherd of Cincor; Pornos, his uncle.
- "The Last Hieroglyph" (Weird Tales, April 1935) — LH
- Setting: The city of Ummaos in the realm of Xylac. Charactes: Nushain, an astrologer; Mouzda, his servant.
- "Necromancy in Naat" (Weird Tales, July 1936) — NN
- Setting: The port city of Oroth in Xylac, and the island of Naat in the west. Characters: Yadar, prince of Zyra; Dalili, his beloved; Agor, ship's captain; Vacharn, Vokal, and Uldulla, necromancers.
- "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" (Weird Tales, March 1936) — BA
- "The Death of Ilalotha" (Weird Tales, September 1937) — DI
- Setting: The city of Miraab in the realm of Tasuun. Characters: Xantlicha, queen of Tasuun; Thulos, her lover; Ilalotha, former lover of Thulos.
- "The Garden of Adompha" (Weird Tales, April 1938) — GA
- Setting: The city of Loithé on the island of Sotar. Characters: Adompha, king of Sotar; Dwerulas, court magician.
- "The Master of the Crabs" (Weird Tales, March 1948) — MC
- Setting: Mirouane, a seaport of Xylac, and the island of Iribos. Characters: Mior Lumivix, a wizard; Manthar, his apprentice; Sarcand, a rival sorcerer.
- "Morthylla" (Weird Tales, May 1953) — M
The publication date does not always follow the date of composition; some stories were rejected, but accepted at a later date; others were simply held for publication for a protracted period of time.
Belonging to the period following the publication of "Morthylla" is a one-act play set in Zothique, "The Dead Will Cuckold You" (DC). It was not published during Smith's lifetime, but appeared in In Memoriam: Clark Ashton Smith, the Anthem Series in 1963.
In addition to these, two fragments of unfinished Zothique stories, each amounting only to a couple of pages, survive: "Shapes of Adamant" (SA) and "Mandor's Enemy" (ME). A never-written Zothique story, "The Feet of Sidaiva" (FS), exists as a one-sentence plot sketch. A planned Zothique novel, The Scarlet Succubus, only exists as a title.
Several maps of Zothique have been drawn;[by whom?][example needed] all, however, include a fair amount of imagination on the part of their artists, which are either not derived from the Zothique stories or are actually inconsistent with them. Among the more common cartographical errors are:
- Omitting the "immense unexplored deserts" which bound Zothique to the north, and instead giving Zothique a coastline not far north of Xylac.
- Placing Cincor in the southwest and giving it a coastline, although it's supposed to be an inland desert region, directly south of Tinarath (EN), which is east of Xylac (DE) - though misplaced west of it on at least one map.
- Threading a series of lands and mountain ranges (Zhel, Istanam, Ymorth, Dhir) taken from the story "Xeethra" between Tasuun and Yoros, even though in the stories Tasuun borders Yoros directly to the north (IG, CG, TS).
According to Smith's stories, the future continent of Zothique is bounded by sea to the west, south, and east, while its northern boundaries are dubious.
West of Zothique lies the island of Iribos (MC), and, at a great distance, the necromantic isle of Naat (NN). Beyond Naat an oceanic current, called the Black River, is said to sweep all travelers to their doom beyond the world's edge (DE, NN, MC). Many notable necromancers and sorcerers come from Naat, including Mmatmuor and Sodosma, sometime rulers of Cincor (EN); Narghai and Vemba-Tsith, the assistants of Abnon-Tha (CG); Sarcand, the rival of Mior Lumivix (MC); and the necromantic household of Vacharn, Vokal, and Uldulla (NN).
South of Zothique is the Indaskian Sea, in which are found the islands of Cyntrom and Uccastrog, the latter also known as the "Isle of the Torturers". Uccastrog's king, Ildrac, and the other inhabitants of the isle were known for their brutality and sadism against arriving travelers. They were wiped out by the "Silver Death" plague brought upon by Fulbra. (IT)
East of Zothique lies the island kingdom of Sotar, whose capital is Loithé (VE, GA). Beyond it are the island of Tosk and the atolls of Yumatot; after that are the scattered islands of the Ilozian Sea, mostly unnamed, save for Ornava, the island of birds. (VE)
The northernmost known realms of Zothique are Ilcar (BA) and Dooza Thom (WU, SA), whose royal seat is Avandas. North of Dooza Thom is only the desert of Nooth-Kemmor. Better known than these are four great realms that repeatedly appear in the stories: the empire of Xylac, and the kingdoms of Tasuun, Yoros, and Ustaim.
Xylac is a major state of northwestern Zothique, governed by an emperor. Its principal city is Ummaos. It has a western coastline which includes the port cities of Mirouane (MC) and of Oroth, from which one can sail to Yoros. (NN) Land routes lead southward from Ummaos through the Celotian Waste and past the city of Zul-Bha-Sair to the kingdom of Tasuun. (CG, DE)
Zul-Bha-Sair is a city-state on the south-west of the red sands of the Celotian Waste, between Xylac and Tasuun. It is best known for its ancient temple of Mordiggian, god of the dead, to whom "it is the law and the custom" that all who die be given to his priests and offered to the deity as a sacrifice. (CG)
Tasuun, famous for the number and antiquity of its mummies, lies due south of Xylac. Its chief city is Miraab. Ninety miles north of Miraab lies the long-abandoned capital of Chaon Gacca, site of the ancient palace of the Kings of Tasuun. Some legends about its abandonment refer to mysterious shadows which menaced King Agmeni, driving him insane or causing his hand to rot. The mummy of Avaina is buried there alongside a magic mirror. (WV, WU)
Yoros, known for its wines, lies to the south, facing the Indaskian Sea. Its chief city is Faraad (also spelled Pharaad), situated on the river Voum, which flows south into the sea. Also in Yoros are the cities Silpon and Siloar (IT), the river Vos, and the demon-haunted wasteland of Izdrel (BA).
Tinarath lies "far to the east" of Xylac (DE) and immediately north of Cincor (EN). It is a "gray country", whose people abhorred necromancy.
Ustaim is a kingdom on the eastern shores of Zothique, east of Xylac, looking toward the island of Sotar. Its chief city is Aramoam (VE). From here, one can travel to the dead kingdom of Calyz (X), or by a roundabout way to Tasuun (TS).
In Zothique, where the dead vastly outnumber the living, many kingdoms have risen and fallen. The abandoned cities of these lost kingdoms can still be found by the unwary traveler.
One of the most ancient of these was the kingdom of Emperor Ossaru, who ruled half of Zothique. His capital lays in a desolate region near the northeastern borders of Yoros. (TS)
Cincor was the home of the fabled Nimboth dynasty, and its capital of Yethlyreom. It once suffered a plague. It's now a "drear and leprous and ashen" desert (EN). The situation of Cincor relative to the other kingdoms of Zothique is uncertain, but it apparently lies east or southeast of Xylac. It was thought by some that Ossaru's capital might be located there. North of Cincor lies the land of Tinarath. The eastern bounds of Cincor are the Mykrasian Mountains, beyond which the way leads through fruitful Zhel, many-citied Istanam, and the desert of Dhir, until one comes at last to Calyz. (X) Smith described Cincor as "drear and leprous below the huge, ember-coloured sun [...] peopled only by the bones and mummies of a race that the pestilence had slain."
Calyz was an ancient kingdom on the eastern shores of Zothique, within traveling distance of Ustaim. For a thousand years, its chief city had been Shathair. Long abandoned, Calyz enjoyed a brief but evanescent return to glory when the long-dead King Amero, son of King Eldamaque, entirely possessed the body and mind of the young Prince Xeethra and, through him, reclaimed his former rule. (X)
The historical sequence of events in Zothique cannot be securely determined, not only because the stories cover events only sketchily, but also because in Zothique history is non-directional. Kingdoms rise and fall, and are rebuilt, in a seemingly endless cycle; and whether a particular event took place before or after one of the catastrophes that punctuate the cycle is often a matter of conjecture.
The oldest of the kingdoms of which myth tells is that of Ossaru, the wizard-king who, together with the extraterrestrial monster Nioth Korghai, ruled half Zothique. The very name of this land is forgotten, and its capital is lost in a wilderness peopled by the cannibal Ghorii. (TS)
After Ossaru rose the Empire of Cincor, which lasted for two thousand years, from its first emperor, Hestaiyon, to Illeiro, the last of the Nimboth dynasty ruling in Yethlyreom. Illeiro and all his people perished in a plague, and Cincor remained blighted and deserted for two hundred years after that, until Mmatmuor and Sodosma, necromancers of Naat, revived its people to an undead half-life. This empire of the dead, with which the necromancers planned to conquer the northern land of Tinarath, lasted only a brief time before the dead, led by the first and last of their ancient rulers, overthrew the sorcerers and brought themselves to oblivion. (EN)
After Ossaru, and perhaps overlapping with the Nimboth dynasty, the kingdom of Tasuun was founded by King Tnepreez in Chaon Gacca. His successors included Queen Avaina, and the Kings Acharnil and Agmeni. (WV) The disasters that befell the latter prompted the movement of the capital of Tasuun to the city of Miraab, where Mandis and Archain reigned, the latter dying at the hands of his wife Xantlicha (DI). The fifty-ninth king of Tasuun, Famorgh, surpassed all the others in luxury, and his wife Lunalia (of Xylac) and his daughter Ulua were known for their experiments in sorcery. It was during his reign that the city of Miraab was destroyed by an earthquake; nonetheless, his son Mandor ruled after him. (WU, ME)
The Empire of Xylac was contemporary with Tasuun. Of its emperors, the names of Caleppos (CG), Pithaim, and Zotulla are remembered. The last, known for his pomp and cruelty, suffered at the hands of the sorcerer Namirrha, who had borne him a grudge since childhood. Namirrha's vengeance brought about the utter destruction of Ummaos, chief city of Xylac (DE); but a later Ummaos was built on the ruins, where the astrologer Nushain dwelt in after days (LH).
The Kingdom of Yoros was ruled under many kings of uncertain date, of whom Smaragad, son of Famostan (DC) and Hoaraph (BA) are known. The last king of Yoros was Fulbra, son of Altath, in whose time at least two lands—first Tasuun, then Yoros—were devastated by the Silver Death, a plague that killed its victims instantly and left them with a frosted appearance. Fulbra survived by magic, but only long enough to transmit the plague to the torturers' isle of Uccastrog (IT).
Religion and deities
Zothique is a polytheistic society, where many gods and goddesses are worshipped. Some of this worship is open, with temples and priesthoods; other deities or even demons are worshipped secretly, service to them being either forbidden or at least not spoken of. Some deities are known throughout Zothique; others have their worship confined to a small area or even a single city.
Vergama, or "Destiny", is an ancient deity whose attributes are much disputed, though he is often believed to be almost omnipotent, ruling both the heavens and the earth. Vergama has no temples, idols, or altars, but is sometimes invoked in prayer, especially by sorcerers. When seen, he appears as a colossal "cowled and muffled figure" seated on a marble chair. The hieroglyphic writing in his book preserves the forms of all things that have ever been. (BV, LH)
The Moon-God has a temple in Faraad, capital of Yoros, formerly known for its wealth—especially in books of magic --- before it was plundered by the pirate Omvor. (MC)
Ililot is a goddess of love known across Zothique. On the western coasts she is a gentle goddess, "caring alone for love and lovers' joy"; she is depicted with a moon between her eyebrows. But in Yoros she is "a darker goddess", whose worship has a tinge of blood. (DC)
Basatan is a deity of the sea, who exerts power over the winds, the sea-currents, and the creatures of the deep. His signet-ring, shaped like a Kraken grasping a gem in its tentacles, was a powerful magic talisman that allowed its possessor a share in Basatan's powers. (MC)
Ojhal is a virgin goddess, originally worshipped in Ilcar. Ojhal's priests formed an order of celibate monks. When the worship of Ojhal was banned by Ilcar's emperor, a group of monks fled south to Yoros, and founded a new monastery in the wastelands of Izdrel. (BA)
Yuckla, "the small and grotesque god of laughter", is deemed to exert a beneficent and somewhat protective influence. His shrines, unattended, could be found by the roadside in Tasuun. Worshippers sometimes sought his favor by pouring a libation of wine upon his altar. (WV)
Yululun is a deity whose office is to protect the sanctity of tombs. (WV)
Geol is a "terrestrial god", worshipped in the realm of Ustaim. He is the chief deity of the capital city of Aramoam, where his temple is. Geol is depicted in the form of a pot-bellied man reclining on his back. Worshippers in the Temple of Geol can sometimes hear the audible prophecies of the god emanating from the navel of the idol. These oracles are deemed to be infallible. (VE)
Mordiggian, the Charnel God, is worshipped nowhere but in the city of Zul-Bha-Sair, where his low, windowless temple is found in the city center. All those who die within the city are his rightful property, and are delivered to his temple in the care of his semi-bestial priests, where, it is said, the god devours them. These priests are always clad in purple gowns, their faces hidden by silver masks in the shape of skulls. Other than the private rituals of the priests, no other rites in honor of Mordiggian are practised. (CG)
Of the less licit deities and demons known in Zothique, Thasaidon "black god of evil", "the archfiend", "lord of the seven hells beneath the earth" is the chief. He is depicted in the form of a warrior in full armor, wielding a spiky mace; he is also said to have "dark horns" and to sit on a "throne of ever-burning brass". Thasaidon gives help and power to those necromancers who put themselves at his service. He gave aid to the ancient king Ossaru who dominated half Zothique (TS); he aided the sorcerer Namirrha in his projects, until he projected the destruction of Xylac,(DE); he lent his power to Xeethra, in whom the spirit of the long-dead King Amero was revived, and allowed him to restore the kingdom of Calyz, for a time, to its former glory. (X)
Thamogorgos, "lord of the abyss", is a devil to whom the wizard Namirrha turned to destroy Ummaos, chief city of Xylac. His 'macrocosmic' horses were so gigantic that their hooves could flatten the city. (DE)
Other, nameless deities include the god represented as a clay image in the palace of the Nimboth dynasty in Yethlyreom (EN); the goddess represented by an ebony figurehead on the royal barge of the kings of Yoros; the demonic god represented by a brazen image in the palace of the kings of Uccastrog (IT); the "dim, fatal deity" of the nomads of Zyra (NN); the 'fabulous goddesses' depicted on the tapestries of the royal palace in Tasuun (WU); and the gods to whom temples were built in Xylac (DE) and Calyz (X).
- Jim Rockhill, "As Shadows Wait Upon the Sun: Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique." in Scott Connors, ed. The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0976159254 (p. 277-292).
- Schultz, David; Connors, Scott (2003). Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith. Ann Arbor, MI: Arkham House. p. 374. ISBN 9780870541827.
- Darrell Schweitzer, "Introduction" to The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson. Wildside Press, 2005, ISBN 9781557424099 (p.9)
- Cawthorn, James; Moorcock, Michael (1988). Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 95. ISBN 0-947761-62-4.
- "The introduction to Tales of Zothique" by Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Will Murray and Steve Behrends, and published by Necronomicon Press.