And the red suns and ashen moons went westward over Xylac, falling into that seldom-voyaged sea, which, if the mariners' tales were true, poured evermore like a swiftening river past the infamous isle of Naat, and fell in a worldwide cataract upon nether space from the far, sheer edge of Earth.”—The Dark Eidolon, Clark Ashton Smithdark fantasy genre, and the Dying Earth subgenre. The tales possess elements of cosmic horror, sword and sorcery , sword and planet, and sword and sandal.
Clark Ashton Smith himself described the Zothique cycle in a letter to
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 The chief language spoken (of which I have provided examples in an unpublished drama) is based on Indo-European roots and is highly inflected, like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.
Further, Zothique is part of the Cthulhu Mythos, or in a broader sense, the shared universe that includes H.P. Lovecraft's precarious alternate Earth of alien gods, Robert E. Howard's pseudo-historical Kull and Conan tales et al., CAS's own Hyperborean, Poseidonis, and Averoigne cycles; and more besides.
It is important to note that this site, if stumbled across, should in no way be considered a faithful source for CAS's Zothique. While using Zothique for its foundation, this site's author has shamelessly expanded, extrapolated, and included elements from across history, fantasy fiction, gaming, movies, and his own preferences; to build a more complete setting for roleplaying. This is our (mine; & my players') slightly gonzo pastiche of Zothique, and if this project should ever evolve into something more than a backdrop for my own games, I'd love to see how others might trim back or ratchet up these elements to make their Zothique.
In Zothique, humans will rediscover many of the gods revered in past civilizations and worship them once more. Also, some of the world’s most powerful wizards will live during this age. The magical energies present in this entire continent as the result of experiments with time travel will cause fluxes to form in the space-time continuum, leading to the formation of interdimensional gateways in which the unwary might become caught.—The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, Daniel Harms "Zothique"
He who has trod the shadows of Zothique
And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,
Henceforth returns to no anterior land,
But haunts a later coast
Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand
And dead gods drink the brine.
Imagine an Earth tens of thousands of years in the future, where we humans as a species cling to a dying world wracked by cataclysms both natural and man-made. As observers with our 21st century eyes, we can look down upon ZOTHIQUE as its recrudescent gods do. We see an uneven continental landmass of mostly dry desert, grand canyons, craggy hills and mountains, and no major inland seas. Ocean surrounds Zothique on its west, south, and eastern sides. Amid these heaving black waters are countless islands and archipelagos of various size and ecologies, tropical in the south and west, much colder in the extreme northeast. By sea, far to the west is an infamous ocean current known as the BLACK RIVER. The current is so extreme is is visible from the air as a deep scissure as if the surface of the sea itself dipped into a riverine canyon. Like rapids, the Black River jets northward and is impossible to cross save by sorcerous means.
To the north, the borders of the Last Continent become especially dubious. From our stratospheric perspective, we note with alarm that the landmass edges near a titanic precipice. The crevasse plummets endlessly, for it has almost cleft the Earth in twain. The world as we know it is no longer globular though it aches and rumbles in it its futile throes to return to sphericity. Alas, this transformation will take the planet far longer in geologic time than the cosmos has allotted.
In a forgotten age, forces unknown carved a great wedge of the world away. Though the resulting cataclysm was mitigated by the super-sciences of the time, it produced a deformed planet and caused a mass extinction event. Great natural disasters still occur due to the planet's unstable geology. This is but one of the many things preventing humankind from reaching the lofty technological heights where it once perched.
To the inhabitants of Zothique, the continent's extreme northern boundaries are dubious. Cartographers and explorers returning from these far barren reaches report contradictory and maddening sights of mountains that touch the stars. Those who have pressed on despite fear and frost, describe a precipice called the WORLD RIM. The closer one gets to this northern rim, the more alien the environment becomes.
"The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells."—The Abominations of Yondo, CAS
In the aftermath of the disaster that produced the World Rim, the vast majority of humanity devolved into savagery. Perhaps, in the æonian ages, humankind has risen and fallen several times, each time failing to recall the historicity of the previous civilization. Some populations of humans have reached levels of technological and social civilization akin to our later Bronze Age. If we are to be more specific in our comparisons, the age is eerily analogous to the Bronze Age Collapse. It is an era of war, desperation, fear—and for heroes—opportunity.
Zothique's nighttime sky would be unrecognizable to an astronomer transplanted from our 21st century. The stargazers of our time once portended that a neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, would collide with our Milky Way. It has, or to be more precise, it is. Perhaps it started sooner than predicted, but astrophysicists were correct in their assumptions that the collision wouldn't be catastrophic. More a gradual absorption than a volatile crash, the dark matter between individual suns is so vast there has been little contact between heavenly bodies of either galaxy. From Zothique, the heavens appear crowded with double the stars, so innumerable that their radiance compensates for the gloom the Last Continent would otherwise be subject by virtue of its carmine sun. Stars without name or number pierce the daylight even in the afternoon, astronomy has accorded new constellations, and the radiation of many near astrological neighbors bombards the Last Continent.
In this far future world, the moon has fared better than the broken planet anchoring it to precarious orbit, though it is much further out than it once was. To the eyes of a 21st century observer, the satellite looks smaller and its rotational pattern differs. Strange geometric patterns riddle the lunar surface, and we might guess that these are signs of bases or cities; remnants, ruins, or perhaps still inhabited by unknown agencies. The present folk of Zothique have their own ideas why the moon shews these patterns, depending upon whether the satellite is—to them—a place, a thing, or a god.
Astrology is popular in Zothique. Most dabblers in sorcery devote a portion of their study to the heavens, analyzing charts and calculating the movement of celestial bodies as they prepare the day's magics.
CAS describes his setting in sweeping swaths—with a few contradictions—his focus being their inhabitants, cultures, and stories. These broad-stroke descriptions require expansion. Like the ancient world, the "countries" and "kingdoms" that follow represent areas of people connected by language and culture rather than unified nations as we know them in the present. Most of these have rough parallels in Earth's history, giving us a shorthand means to understand or sum them up without a lot of exposition (a regular practice in Weird Tales-esque fantasy yarns, especially RE Howard's). From humankind's dawn until its dusk, civilizations endlessly echo the rise and fall of their geographical precursors.
Zothique's northwestern realms are ILCAR, AZJAM, and DOOZA THOM. These lands appear analogous to the Horn of Africa, dominated by arid savanna, dry thorny forests, and windswept highlands.
In Ilcar, primitivism butts against civilization before a backdrop recalling Kush and Aksumite Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan). Rebellious warlords rule the cattlemen of the frontiers while fierce tribes patrol the far fringes. Civilized lands see fortress compounds where bloodthirsty kings oppress their poverty-stricken subjects.
Azjam is a paradisiac island of
palm trees and waterfalls. Here we have our warrior women, a fusion of
the Dahomey and
refugees from Ilcar's patriarchy who ferociously defend their
strongholds and take no quarter.
Dooza Thoom, rising far above their neighbors in majestic windswept plateaus, represents prehistoric Ghana of the Mandé, a wealthy, enlightened and isolate kingdom. However, their prosperity comes at a steep price.
The northeast of Zothique offers up a vista of stone deserts and frost-bitten steppes called the NORTHERN WASTES. This land lays on what once was Central Asia/southern Russia and leads to the frigid ashen plains of alien YONDO and the World Rim. The burly barbarians and mammoth-driving nomads that live here are dour and rough, suspicious of travelers and scornful of their civilized southern neighbors.
Better known than these northern frontiers are great realms that appear often in CAS's stories: the empire of XYLAC, and the kingdoms of TASUUN, YOROS, and ISTANAM.
Xylac is a major state of northwestern Zothique, one of the few domains governed by an emperor. Its principal city is UMMAOS. The realm lays upon what we know in the present as the Anatolian plateau—Cyprus and Turkey—and has a Mediterranean biome. Its embattled old culture features the largest, most complex cities on the Last Continent and the has made the farthest progress in art and science. Too, the land is incredibly ancient, having remained above water since at least the Hyborian Age (10-100 thousand years BC). It has a western seacoast that includes the ports of MIROUANE and of OROTH, from which one can sail to Yoros. Land routes lead southward from Ummaos through the red CELOTIAN WASTE and past the city of ZUL-BHA-SAIR toward the kingdom of Tasuun. Zul-Bha-Sair is a city-state on the south-west of the crimson sands of the Celotian Waste, between Xylac and Tasuun, its people nominally of Xylac stock. It is best known for its 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 food.
Tasuun, "famous for the number and antiquity of its mummies," lies due south of Xylac and is our ersatz ancient Egypt mirroring the age of pharaonic decline. Its principal city is crumbling MIRAAB. Ninety miles north of Miraab is the centuries-abandoned capital of CHAON GACCA—haunted and ruined.
The realm of Istanam offers a conundrum, described by CAS as being in either the west and the east of the continent. Fortunately, the extreme span of time Zothique has and will exist justifies the discrepancy. Kingdoms have risen and fallen and populations have migrated. Pilgrims have a tendency to dredge up ancient names for their new settlements in vainglorious hopes of reconstructing their golden days. For this campaign's purposes, I have located Istanam in the west, an offshoot of the Semitic Zhelites in central Zothique. We can draw comparisons between the city-states of Istanam and the Levant or Canaanite Syria.
Yoros lies to the southwest, on a peninsula jutting out into the INDASKIAN SEA. Its civilization is a Phoenician analogue, as it was during the time of their struggles against the mysterious Sea Peoples (the latter represented by the inhuman torturers of UCCASTROG). Yoros's capitol is FARAAD, on the river VOUM, which flows south into the sea. Also in Yoros are the cities SILPHON and SILOAR, the river VOS and the demon-haunted wasteland of IZDREL.
USTAIM is a kingdom on the eastern shores of Zothique looking toward the island of Sotar. Its main city is ARAMOAM. The realm sees both an ancient Afghan-like culture amid its snow-capped highlands of YMORTH; and fabulous redoubts of gold-capped towers in the northern tablelands and steppes belonging to an Iranian-Punjabi analogue.
From Ustaim one can east travel over the mountains to the dead realm of CALYZ, where a savage jungle reclaims a once-advanced civilization. Within, folk say baleful divs and depraved rakshasas hold court in treasure-laden palaces now ruined and overgrown. Its chief city was SHATHAIR, though few recall its fantastic glories. Long abandoned, Calyz enjoyed a brief but evanescent return to glory under the rule of the goatherd XEETHRA who was possessed by the spirit of its long-dead KING AMERO.
Despite CAS having a keen interest in Middle Eastern history and myth—he set some of his best yarns there—Zothique touches only tangentially on its Arabian parallels.
ZHEL, with its meadows and temple cities, is akin to ancient Mesopotamia. Surrounded by arid wastes to the west and north by the forbidding MYKRASIAN MOUNTAINS, waterways make this fertile crescent verdant. Zhel's folk are devout and bow to ancient extraterrestrials not seen in the flesh since antediluvian days, though now they call these gods by different names. These towering aliens, collectively called the NEUNNAKI, rule their city-states from atop looming ziggurats of fired-brick clay.
ZYRA is to Zhel as pre-Islamic Arabia is to Mesopotamia. Tribes of desert nomads roam the dunes and wastes and have variable beliefs and temperaments. Zyra's savanna-lands contain the majestic city of QAYYOOM, overseen by a puppet emir. As influential and proud as he is, the emir, like all Zyra, is beholden to the economic power represented by the SLAVE SULTANS of SHA-KARAG, a city to the east. Above all, the fire god LAAKASH rules supreme. Secular authorities allow the Fire Bleeder's votaries fantastic autonomy. Ever-increasing are the fire-priests' demands for sacrifice and the disposal of infidels inside the brazen crucibles of the Living Flame.
CINCOR is an enigma. It is a dead, sorcery-blasted land of broken crags and crumbling metropoli amid a drear, ashen desert. Nearly encircled by mountains, Cincoriana was the seat of an empire that received tribute from across Zothique: the fabled NIMBOTH dynasty. Its capital was YETHLYREOM, now half buried in sand and infested with the restless dead. An arcane cataclysm wreaked havoc and devastated the realms of Cincoriana, forcing its scant survivors to seek shelter in the Mykrasian Mountains. There they dwelt in sunless isolation for millennia, delving into the uncanny depths and carving out ulterior cities.
TINARATH lies far to the east of Xylac and north of Cincor. It is a gray country, whose people abhor necromancy. CAS didn't say much else here, so I've chosen to make it a cold fusion of historical Cimmeria (Crimea) and Robert E. Howard's Cimmeria; grim, gray lands of volcanoes, treacherous hills and gorges, inhabited by clannish barbarians with a distaste for sorcery. Occasionally these brutal folk join and form hordes that threaten neighboring nations.
Past the southern Myrkrasian Mountains, south of the duneswept deserts of Zhel and Zyra, one ascends to a nameless region of high, green tablelands, simply called the CLOUD JUNGLES. The region is hot and retains much of the runoff water from the mountains, engendering a biome overflowing with unrestrained life. The land is jagged, humid, and almost entirely enshrouded by cloud forest and bog. Here, the monstrous reptilians and reptavians of past epochs, resurrected by some prior civilization's vanity-driven science, thrive in abundance. Despite these threats, a rough culture of cannibal bushmen and headhunters calls the Cloud Jungles home.
Further south one comes to the floodplains, vast rice paddies, and mangrove swamps characteristic of ULLOTROI. A great river bisects the country, distinguishing somewhat the early Burmese-like culture (as the Pyu city states) of the west with the agrarian Indo-Micronesian peoples to the east. Serpentine motifs distinguish the many stone shrines of Ullotroi's folk. Despite a past of racial and religious strife, the Ullotroi united to retain control of their country's lucrative resources — spices and rice, precious metals and gems. The demand abroad for these goods forged Ullotroi into a wealthy naval power. Now the twin cities of the great delta, called PSIOM and UMBRI, are inundated with decadent citizens; and tourists attracted to their exotic offerings.
Ocean bounds Zothique to the west, south, and east.
West of Zothique lies the island of IRIBOS, and, at a great distance further on the necromantic isle of NAAT. Many notable necromancers come from Naat, though these ghoulish magi are not quite human. The cannibal beast men who prowl the forests around their cities even less so. Beyond Naat is the Black River said to sweep all travelers over the world's edge.
South of Zothique is the Indaskian Sea and the islands of CYNTROM and UCCASTROG. Colonists from Yoros and Ullotroi sparsely inhabit Cyntrom. Uccastrog's inhuman inhabitants are known for the brutal and sadistic tortures. Their galleys are amongst the toughest and swiftest of the age, and Uccastrog raiders incessantly harry the coasts and prowl the seas for victims.
Sailing eastward, one comes to the island kingdom of SOTAR, whose capital is LOITHÈ. Sotar is an island of mixed-race buccaneers, reavers, and sorcerous gangsters who've cobbled together a functioning culture based on syndicate rule and might make right.
Beyond Sotar is TOSK and the atolls of YUMATOT; the latter inhabited by savage pygmies. After that are the scattered islands of the ILOZIAN SEA. Most go unnamed, save for ORNAVA, the island of (sapient?) birds.
Regardless of country, most people dwell in small villages or compounds. Just as many are nomadic, living off their herds or the meager fruits of the land. Cities are few and far between, and vary in their ability to control nearby territory. A hereditary monarch rules the typical city, but settlements are now and again seized by tyrannical wizards, monsters, or otherworldly entities. Some engineering ideas from forgotten eras persist, but material and equipment scarcity keeps most constructions simple affairs. Still, monarchs love to build monuments reflecting their own greatness, and lofty spires still rise above Zothique.
The erstwhile traveler can find myriad all-but abandoned cities of lost kingdoms. The vast continent is littered with the ruins and bunkers of ancient powers human and otherwise, though few in this savage age have the wherewithal to seek them.