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The Man, the Myth, the Atlantean: Kull

In the annals of fantasy literature, few names loom as large as Robert E. Howard. From the mist-shrouded peaks of Cimmeria to the opulent halls of Aquilonia, Howard’s tales of sword and sorcery have captivated generations of readers, shaping the very foundations of the genre.

And yet, for all the enduring popularity of his most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, it is in the lesser-known saga of Kull the Atlantean that we find the true wellspring of Howard’s genius.

In this deep dive into the saga of Kull, we will explore the myriad connections between the Atlantean’s adventures and those of his more famous successor.  So join us as we embark upon a journey through the mists of time, to an age undreamed of, where the fate of kingdoms rests upon the edge of a blade, and the line between barbarism and civilization is as thin as the blood that stains the sands of Atlantis. 

Too Long, Didn’t Read: The Scoop on Kull of Atlantis

Kull, the legendary barbarian king of Atlantis, is the lesser-known predecessor to Robert E. Howard’s iconic hero Conan the Barbarian. Created by Howard in 1929, Kull’s adventures lay the groundwork for the sword and sorcery genre, introducing themes, characters, and a rich mythological world that would later be refined in the Conan stories. 

While Conan may have eclipsed Kull in popularity, the Atlantean king remains a crucial part of Howard’s canon, offering a complex and philosophical hero whose struggles against tyranny, tradition, and the supernatural continue to captivate readers. 

Exploring the tales of Kull not only provides insight into the evolution of Howard’s craft but also reveals the deep connections between these two legendary barbarians, making the Kull stories essential reading for any fan of sword and sorcery or those seeking to uncover the origins of the indomitable Conan.

General Overview of Kull of Atlantis 


Kull is characterized by his introspective and philosophical nature, setting him apart from the more boisterous and hedonistic Conan. As a king, Kull is a thoughtful and just ruler, often grappling with the weight of the crown and the responsibilities it entails. He is fiercely independent and resistant to the stifling traditions and customs of civilized society, preferring to rely on his own moral compass and sense of justice.

Despite his contemplative nature, Kull is a formidable warrior, known for his strength, courage, and skill in battle. He inspires loyalty in his followers, as evidenced by his ability to lead a successful revolt against the former king. 


Kull is a master swordsman, having honed his skills through years of combat as a soldier, gladiator, and pirate. His strength and endurance are legendary, allowing him to face seemingly insurmountable odds and emerge victorious. Beyond his physical prowess, Kull’s greatest asset is his keen mind and philosophical bent. He is a deep thinker, constantly questioning the world around him and seeking to unravel the mysteries of existence.

One of Kull’s most unique qualities is his lack of romantic entanglements. Unlike Conan, who is known for his many dalliances, Kull remains focused on his duties as king and his personal journey of self-discovery. This sets him apart from many other sword and sorcery heroes and adds to his enigmatic nature.


In Howard’s narratives, Kull is initially presented as a towering, muscular figure with dark hair and, most notably, gray eyes. Originating from Atlantis, his early days see him clad in the simple garb of a barbarian—often just a loincloth or basic tunic, with a trusty sword by his side. This attire underscores his raw, primal essence and his roots in a wild, unforgiving world.

However, the majority of Kull’s tales unfold during his reign as king, a period in which his attire undergoes a significant transformation. As a monarch, Kull dons robes and armor that signify his royal status, a stark contrast to his more primitive appearance. 

Despite this evolution, artistic depictions in Marvel and Dark Horse comics have faithfully adhered to Howard’s description, capturing Kull’s muscular and intense demeanor, whether he’s wielding an axe in his early adventures or adorned in the regal vestments of a king. His iconic look, whether as the bare-chested warrior of his youth in Atlantis or the armored sovereign, has become emblematic of the character and the sword and sorcery genre at large.

A Deeper Dive into Howard’s Earliest Creation: Kull of Atlantis

The Origins and Evolution of Kull

In the misty epochs of the Thurian Age, long before the Hyborian kingdoms rose to power, a legend was born amidst the savage tribes of Atlantis – Kull, the barbarian who would one day ascend to the throne of mighty Valusia. But Kull’s path to kingship was no easy road, marked by tragedy, exile, and a fierce struggle against the very traditions that sought to define him.

Kull’s tale began in blood and sorrow, his tribe in the Tiger Valley of Atlantis destroyed by a cataclysmic flood while he was still a mere babe. Orphaned and alone, the young Kull survived as a feral child for years, his primal existence forging him into a warrior of unmatched ferocity. Eventually captured by the Sea-mountain tribe, Kull found himself adopted into a society where rigid customs and ancient prejudices held sway.

Yet even as he grew to manhood among the Sea-mountain people, Kull chafed against the stifling bonds of tradition. In a defining moment, he chose to grant a woman a swift death rather than see her burned alive for daring to love an enemy of the tribe – an act of compassion that saw him exiled from Atlantis, cast out into a world that would test his mettle as never before.

Through trials and tribulations – as a slave, a pirate, an outlaw, and a gladiator – Kull’s indomitable spirit and keen mind set him apart from the common swordsman. His was a soul that yearned for something more than the base pleasures of the flesh or the simple glories of combat. In Kull, we find a barbarian hero of unparalleled depth, a figure who grapples with the very nature of existence, identity, and the weight of the power he would one day wield.

It is this philosophical bent, this ceaseless questioning of the world and his place within it, that distinguishes Kull from his more famous successor, Conan the Cimmerian. Where Conan’s appetites and ambitions drive him ever onward, bedding wenches and smiting sorcerers with equal gusto, Kull’s journey is one of introspection and self-discovery. The Valusian king is a man apart, burdened by the responsibilities of rule and the realization that the true enemy often lies within.

And yet, for all their differences, Kull and Conan are cut from the same cloth – raw, primal figures who challenge the decadent civilizations they encounter, even as they rise to rule over them. In the Atlantean’s tale, we see the seeds of the Cimmerian’s saga – a glimpse into an age undreamed of, where the line between barbarism and civilization is as shifting and ephemeral as the mists that shroud the lost continent of Kull’s birth.

A Tale of Two Ages

The Thurian Age, the primordial epoch in which Kull’s saga unfolds, is a realm steeped in mystery and antiquated wonder. Though the term itself never appears in Howard’s original Kull tales, it serves as a vital link between the Atlantean’s world and the later Hyborian Age of Conan. In the Thurian Age, civilization clings to the edges of a vast and untamed wilderness, where ancient sorceries and primal horrors lurk in the shadows.

Central to this realm is Howard’s vision of Atlantis, a land that bears little resemblance to the utopian paradise of popular imagination. Howard’s portrayal of Atlantis diverges sharply from the idyllic paradise typically found in popular culture. Instead, inspired by the arcane teachings of theosophy and the conjectural ideas of pseudoarchaeology, he presents Atlantis as a brutal and merciless land, dominated by barbarism and dark sorcery. This grim setting serves as the perfect backdrop for Kull’s development, a hero tempered in the harshness of his environment. Yet, as Kull confronts the dangers of his era, his story becomes a precursor to the saga of Conan the Cimmerian, his spiritual heir.

In stark contrast to the savage realm of Atlantis, Howard introduces the advanced civilizations of Valusia and the Seven Empires, which align more closely with the conventional imagery of Atlantis as a pinnacle of progress and enlightenment. These realms offer a glimpse into a world where sophisticated societies flourish, serving as a juxtaposition to the primitive and chaotic nature of Kull’s Atlantis. This dichotomy not only enriches the narrative landscape but also highlights the diverse cultures and epochs within Howard’s universe, underscoring the complexity of the world in which Kull and, later, Conan navigate.

Keep in mind that the connection between these two titans of sword and sorcery is no mere fancy, but a thread woven deep into the tapestry of Howard’s mythos. In fact, Howard’s seminal worldbuilding essay – The Hyborian Age – indicates that the refugees of Atlantis become the Cimmerians of the Hyborian age – a revelation that adds new depth and resonance to the tales of both heroes. 

It is this vision that finds its purest expression in one of Kull’s most iconic tales, “By This Axe I Rule” – a story that would mark a turning point in Howard’s career and lay the groundwork for the creation of Conan himself. In this sweeping saga of political intrigue and personal revelation, we see Kull at the height of his powers, grappling with the very nature of kingship and the bonds of tradition that threaten to shackle his reign.

From Atlantis to Cimmeria, the Genesis of Conan 

In “By This Axe I Rule,” Kull faces a web of treachery and deceit, as a cabal of conspirators seeks to overthrow him and restore the old order. Beset by enemies without and within, Kull must navigate the labyrinthine intrigues of Valusian politics, even as he grapples with the very nature of the kingship he has claimed.

Yet it is in this conflict that Kull forges his legacy, shattering the ancient tablets of law and declaring himself the living embodiment of justice. “By this axe I rule,” he proclaims, all at once shaping the destiny of a genre and a literary titan yet to come. For in the pages of this seminal tale, we see the seeds of Conan’s birth, a glimmer of the Cimmerian’s savage grace and indomitable spirit.

Years later, Howard would return to “By This Axe I Rule,” transforming it into the first published Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” In this masterstroke of literary alchemy, Howard distilled the essence of Kull’s saga, refining it into something new and exciting. Gone were the introspective musings and philosophical depths of the Kull tales, replaced by a fierce and primal energy that crackled with unyielding ferocity.

And yet, for all the differences between the two tales, the core of “By This Axe I Rule” remains. In both versions, we see a hero grappling with the burdens of kingship, facing down the forces of chaos and corruption that threaten to tear their realms asunder. Through their trials and triumphs, Kull and Conan stand as avatars of Howard’s own creative journey, reflecting the author’s growth and mastery of his craft.

Today, Kull’s influence in literature is resonant, his legacy etched in the very foundations of the sword and sorcery genre. From the pages of Marvel Comics to the silver screen, the Atlantean king has inspired generations of creators and fans, his tales a wellspring of raw, primal power. In the 1997 film Kull the Conqueror, Kevin Sorbo brought the barbarian to life, capturing the fierce spirit and indomitable will that have made Kull an enduring icon.

And yet, for all his enduring impact, Kull remains forever linked to his successor, Conan the Cimmerian. In the Atlantean’s shadow, the Hyborian hero rose to unparalleled heights, eclipsing his predecessor in the annals of popular culture. But without Kull, there could be no Conan – a truth that speaks to the indelible mark Howard’s first barbarian king has left upon the realms of fantasy.

Kull’s Enemies and Supporting Cast

As we delve deeper into the saga of Kull, we find ourselves drawn into a world where the lines between friend and foe are ever shifting. At the heart of this world stands Brule the Spear-slayer, a fierce Pictish warrior whose loyalty to the Atlantean king transcends the bitter hatred between their peoples. In Brule, Kull finds not only a steadfast ally, but a true friend – a bond that will be tested time and again as they face the myriad dangers of the Thurian Age.

Chief among these dangers are the insidious Serpent Men, an ancient race of sorcerers and shape-shifters who seek to overthrow the kingdoms of men from within. Cloaked in illusion and guile, the Serpent Men infiltrate the halls of power, assuming the guise of trusted advisors and beloved companions. In “The Shadow Kingdom,” Kull must confront this sinister threat head-on, pitting his indomitable will against the eldritch magic of the Serpent Men.

It is a battle that will echo through the ages, as later authors and creators weave the Serpent Men into the vast tapestry of the Cthulhu Mythos. For while Howard himself never revisited these enigmatic foes, their enduring menace has captured the imaginations of generations, a testament to the raw, primal power of the Atlantean’s adventures.

And yet, for all the terror they inspire, the Serpent Men are but one facet of the rich and vivid world Howard crafted for his hero. From the wise and ancient Ka-Nu, Pictish ambassador to the court of Valusia, to the brooding and sinister Thulsa Doom, a sorcerer of great power and malice, the stage of Kull’s saga is populated by a cast of characters as memorable as they are iconic.

But it is in the figure of Chief Councilor Tu that we find perhaps the most poignant embodiment of Kull’s struggle against tradition. A loyal advisor and a staunch defender of Valusia’s ancient ways, Tu represents the very order that Kull seeks to overthrow – and yet, in his own way, he too is a prisoner of the past, bound by the same chains of custom and law that Kull must shatter to forge his destiny.

Through these characters and the challenges they pose, Howard weaves a tapestry of sword and sorcery that is at once timeless and utterly unique. In Kull, he created not only a hero for the ages, but a lens through which to explore the very nature of civilization and the primal forces that shape it.

In the end, the saga of Kull remains a treasure waiting to be discovered by many. For those who have yet to delve into the Atlantean’s adventures, there has never been a better time to explore this cornerstone of sword and sorcery. From the seminal “The Shadow Kingdom” to the masterful “By This Axe I Rule,” the Kull canon is a wellspring of wonder and excitement, a testament to the raw, primal power of Howard’s storytelling.

But where to begin? To truly appreciate the scope and grandeur of Howard’s vision, one must delve deep into the sagas of both Kull and Conan, from the haunting “The Cat and the Skull” to the epic “Exile of Atlantis”

So let us raise a sword to Kull, the Atlantean, the barbarian, the king. May his adventures continue to inspire and captivate us, as they have for generations past and will for generations yet to come. And may we, like Kull, never stop seeking the truth that lies beyond the veil of tradition and legend.

Written by Heroic Signatures
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