Thursday, March 31, 2011

April is the Cruelest Month for Lazy Bloggers

 ...and perhaps for overtaxed readers.

I have accepted the A to Z Blogging Challenge for April 2011 (see badge in the right side panel).  This means I will be blogging on subjects, and often a confluence of subjects, according to the alphabet and my mythopoeic interests each day of April, Sundays excluded.  I've had a loose plan in place for almost a month (it's tighter in some places), but I might consider reader requests if I get them with enough lead time and they strike my fancy.

What is he rambling on about?
Maybe this is a good time to say what I consider the (rather rambling, of course) territory of my blog: anything that touches on mythic themes or features.  Art, music, literature, religion, philosophy, psychology, popular culture -- I don't consider anything out of bounds if I think I can find grist there for my blogging mill.  They might be right out there in the open or hiding in the nooks and crannies, but if I see them and I can use them to pull a reflection together, you can hear my thoughts on them.  While I write them on one level for the joy of my own exploration and talk, I offer them here to contribute to your own cognizing or cloud-castle construction.  I'm certainly interested in hearing readers thoughts on either my reflections or the objects, occasions, or excuses for my reflections, so feel free to comment.  Over time, it will become clearer who my influences are, but let me name several biggies: Carl Jung, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton.  Maybe Origen, Philo, and the Alexandrian tradition deserve a shout-out, too.  I'll let you judge when it comes to T. S. Eliot.  Does it depend on how obscure I truly am or whether you like Eliot?  As a member of the guild of religious studies, I actually did my work in a more philosophical field, for those who are curious.

Yeah, you know academic types.  We love words.  Especially special words.  Words we make up are especially special (sorry though, most folks need a license to do this, unless you're Shakespeare or something).  Mythopoeic means "having to do with myth-making," and thus applies to both the analysis and the creation of "lies breathed through silver tissue."  Compelling lies that are sometimes also knowing and complex, of interest for the sake of the truths they may hide as well as the fun and satisfaction that they offer, are my aim.  Maybe they offer fun and satisfaction because they're the truest lies of all.

Many years ago, when Jung was terra incognita to me, I watched Joseph Campbell's Mythos on PBS with a friend who had been in Jungian analysis for years.  She drew me this handy little guide which I will now share with you.  Maybe it will be of use to readers who are unfamiliar with Jung's view of the Self (the circular diagram in the middle of the page).  I'll eventually see about getting a graphically savvy person to put it into a clearer format.

TOMORROW: April Fools and Apollo

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Feminist Interlude: Sometimes Even Goddesses Have to Sing the Blues

Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues is an animated film that retells the Ramayana from the viewpoints of Sita, the aforementioned artist, and arguably also the great jazz singer Annette Hanshaw.  It is almost five years old now and so hardly new, but it is so wonderfully creative that I hate to think anybody might have missed hearing about it.  I use it in my Major World Religions class (a freshman-level introduction) to give students a glimpse into Hindu cosmology and hopefully to hook their curiosity so they will go learn more about the film and the Ramayana.  The film has been released at the website for free viewing and downloading.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 28, 2011

DiTerlizzi's Essay on The Lost Sendak Hobbit

L.A. Times, Friday 25 March 2011

In the not-to-be-missed category, be sure to catch Tony DiTerlizzi's essay on Maurice Sendak's adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit from Friday's L.A. Times.  No anxiety of influence here, people, just one awesome mythopoet writing about another awesome mythopoet's work on a third, perhaps most awesome of all the mythopoets -- together with a warning to editors everywhere not to screw up awesome things.  Pass the Kleenexes and the laurels and a copy on to friends.  Thanks for this bit of archaeology, Tony!

I hope to have more on the relevance of the L.A. Times to our interests in the near future.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Archetypes of Duality: Janus, Haga, & Co.

"Two heads are better than one."  An English proverb, in print by 1546.

1. Having two faces or surfaces.
2. Hypocritical or double-dealing; deceitful.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

The Strict Janus Face vs. Other Two-Faces
The image above is a reproduction I own of a herm.  Most herms appear to have been of Hermes, as the name would lead you to expect, and were blocks used as markers topped by a head scultpure (of Hermes or another figure) and were ithyphallic.  The one I have is less usual, appearing at first to be an image of Janus.  In fact, it is two different faces, however, rather than two identical Janus faces.  Seemingly, this herm is Hermes on one side and Dionysios on the other.

What is the meaning of the Janus face?  Most basically, it is a figure of duality.  Moreover it is a doubling, an intensification.  Janus, the Roman god of gates/doors, gives us the name for our gateway month: January.  Thus he faces both sides of the gate.  It is natural that Hermes would attract characteristics of Janus since he's the liminal god the Greeks, presiding over roads and travel, even travel between the world and the underworld.  He shared the crossroads with Hecate.

Familiarity with the caduceus, or herald's staff (shown above) with the entwined snakes may call to mind a similarity with the Janus face, but these are two faces of two different snakes* facing one another: the role that a herald plays.  Still, the intermediary character is present in both, if not the same degree of duality-in-unity.

But whereas the simple Janus-type gives Janus both the view one direction and the view the other, this herm gives Hermes the view one direction and Dionysos the other.  Hermes plays an import role in the story of Dionysos, so perhaps this is the reason for the pairing.  (If we knew the location of the original, this might shed further light.)  Hermes, as psychopomp or Soul Guide, may be leading us from our world into the celebration of the Dionysian Mysteries.  We still know little of these rites, and are left with later evidence and much speculation.  But as Dionysos stood as savior figure to his devotees, it make sense that his own savior, who, among other things was the messenger of the gods and the guide of souls, would guide initiates into the ecstasies of the divine union.

What about "hypocritical, double-dealing, deceitful"?  Why do we make this association rather than "two heads are better than one" in the case of Janus?  One clue might be the fore noted fact that for Janus, they are the same face.  But note the further character of Hermes: he's the god of thieves, and took up cattle-rustling almost immediately on birth, in his steps to becoming a full-blown wheeler-dealer.  He's a classic example of the Trickster archetype.  Dionysos, on the other hand, is the god of wine, which is well-known for its own deceitful effects, likely linked to his being the inspirer of divine madness.

The two-faced figure also makes an important appearance in another combination with Hermes: his son Hermaphroditos, which is half Hermes his father, half Aphrodite his mother (different versions of the story exist), the origin of our own term hermaphrodite.  Representations of this figure, especially in alchemy, fascinated Jung as they fit his theory of a transgendered archetype in each personal unconscious, men's anima and women's animus.  Here again, what's important is the difference, the compounding.

The Haga or Double-Headed Imperial Eagle
My fondness for this figure is seen in the Hittite blog entry (02-19-2011) and the heraldic shield by my name. The earliest known uses are Hittite, and they in the same region as the later center of the Roman Empire, Christianized and re-centered on Constantinople.  Here the Romans pick up the image and make it their own, and it is from here that it spreads to the Holy Roman Empire in the West and its descendants, Imperial Russia (which called itself the third Rome), and the Seljuk Empire. It is given a single crown, emphasizing one Emperor and one Empire, though it faces both east and west.  This was both geographical (the east-west axis was the longest and most important one for the Empire) and political (difficulty in holding together both halves of the Empire was not just a worry: eventually it produced two cultural-linguistic spheres and split the Imperial Church as well. 

Now, Jung did know a version of the image that emphasizes compounding or hybrid, as opposed to duality-in-unity in its bi-directionality.  Instead of one crown there were two and, unlike some representations with two identical crowns, there was a papal tiara on one head and the crown of the emperor on the other.  Thus instead of representing East and West, it represented the spiritual and temporal powers of a (theoretically) united Christendom.

A Jungian Meditation
The figure of duality, with two identical faces or heads, faces two directions.  It is one, and therefore a good candidate for an archetype of the Self.  Having identified a Self that faces two directions, we now look for the identity of the two directions.  The past and the future are good candidates, this would yield a figure of Wisdom that has learned the lessons of the past yet looks forward with foresight.  But for a specifically Jungian meaning, the most obvious reference, in the absence of gender difference, is the Conscious and the Unconscious.  A more awakened Self has larger vision than the Conscious Self, which faces out only into life through the Ego.  The realization of Janus looks also back into the Unconscious, so that the Conscious Self is not dominated by unseen psychic forces.  This is a particularly Jungian version of Wisdom, larger even than the temporal self.  It is well represented by this kingly image:
This figure does not have the connotations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Wolfman, Two-Face, or the Norse goddess Hela -- the shadow, Jung might say, of the two-faced Self or the unintegrated hybrid or compound of two disparate selves or natures.

The divided figure: the negative usage or conception of the person with two faces is more prominent, so I will not dwell on it as long.  Whenever we call someone "two-faced," we are not complementing them on their complexity.  We have seen one face that we trust, and then learned to our sorrow that another personality just as real, if not more so, lurked out of sight which harmed us once we let down our guard.

How do we know the difference between the two kinds of figures on mere sight?  Can one always tell the god from the monster?  The healthy whole person from the pathologically divided person?  Not all will always agree in concrete instances.  For example, later history judges the Rome of the double-headed Eagle to be not the Roman Empire with its positive value of the two heads, but the Byzantine Empire, another beast all together, a grotesque and degenerate hybrid.  So Edward Gibbon would have us believe, and therefore we find a derivative, negative usage of the adjective, byzantine:

4. often not capitalized a : of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation {a Byzantine power struggle} b : intricately involved : labyrinthine {rules of Byzantine complexity}
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2011. 

While I may have picked up on some clues that will help in our visual discernment, more practical kinds of discernment will only improve with continued reflection and practice.  The images that make a more obvious distinction for us may, however, give us points of reference for us to build on.

So What?
The potential of this powerful image, or images of its kind, for art, play**, and greater self-knowledge are rich.  First, ask yourself, what kind of duality am I exploring?  Is there a basic unity that seems most important?  Or is the difference the most important?  This will lead one to search for different types of images to contemplate and experiment with.  Then, if you have a clear answer, you are ready to settle on images that fit the feature, idea, or value you are exploring, whether it is the threshold between two realms, two features of a single society, or a flaw or division in a character that has both creative and destructive potential, depending on how it is integrated into the conscious Self...or not.  Exploring such characters, situations, representations, and themes will make ourselves and our creations deeper, more meaningful, and more likely to change for the better.  After all, pairings are as important in action as they are in dining or color schemes.

*Although, perhaps two mating snakes. 
** For attempts to use the Haga in a gaming context, see David Posener's concept of the Haga and Chris Mortika's attempt to stat it in Paizo's RPG Superstar 2010 contest.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Luminous Beings and Crude Matter

"Luminous Beings are we...not this crude matter." Yoda to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back

"It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.'"  Jesus to the devil in Matthew 4:4

It is perhaps not mere coincidence that these two lines resonate for me.  Presuming that the Hero's life follows a common pattern, note that Yoda speaks on the wild planet of Dagoba, where Luke has gone to train under the great Jedi master.  It is here that he is tempted: he fails.  He fails to recognize Yoda; he fails to lift his ship; he fails the trial at the cave; he fails to live with the tempting vision of his friends and leaves with his training incomplete.  In the gospels, Jesus speaks in the wilderness of Judea, where he is fasting and being tempted by the devil.  There is a certain parallel between the journeys of the two heroes.  It's been widely discussed that Lucas was, at some point, strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell. Taking theories like Campbell's, or the earlier attempt by Lord Raglan, one must proceed with caution.  The specific details of a hero's journey are at least as significant as the broad pattern in which any Hero's journey falls.  In the crafting of a heroic journey, one must ask not only about the path, but the destination, whether in the telling of a story or in the living of a life.

More important than Campbell's influence, Campbell was influenced by Jung.  Yoda's retort to Luke when he doubts his ability to use the Force to pull his ship out of the bog is, perhaps, Lucas' objection to a strict materialism that is tempting to many in our time.  This calls to mind the attraction of Jung to gnosticism.  Though always objecting that he was forming his psychology on an empirical basis, Jung clearly valued something metaphysical beyond its physical ties and manifestations: the Self.  Is the Self beyond bodies?  Expressed in bodies?  Or is it hidden and trapped in bodies?

The assertion as it stands gives us a classic case of the false dichotomy: either we are matter or we are not-matter (candidates here are such as spirit, soul, or mind).  If our essence is matter, then we turn to the lower tiers of Maslow's hierarchy: matter calleth unto matter.  If our essence is not-matter, then we must look beyond the material realm for a meta-motivation to satisfy the human heart, as for example Augustine of Hippo does in his Confessions.  But gnosticism tended and tends to make an absolute dichotomy between crude matter and the true essence of humanity, unlike classical forms of Christianity which posit a union between matter and spirit.  So the one that Christians take for the divine Logos incarnate does not say that human beings do not live by bread, but that they do not live by bread alone.  There's a struggle between the two to be sure, but it is not a struggle that is to result in the elimination of matter.  There must be cooperation and even a transformative union between the two for traditional Christian systems to work.  Maybe Lucas moves closer to this position in the later prequel trilogy, where he creates a physical correlate for the Force: the midichlorians.  Maybe he was already struggling in that direction with all his talk of the immanent Force:  "Here, between tree...the rock...everywhere!  Yes, even between this land and that ship!"  And yet, are we betrayed back to body-denying gnosticism by the ghostly specters of the dead Jedi at the end of Return of the Jedi?  It is hard to be sure.

The key issue is this: Does the agon of the hero overcome crude matter in favor of the divine spark trapped within it?  Does the hero strive against the illusion of something other than matter?  Or does the hero strive for some kind of synthesis between the divine and the mundane?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Werewolf Killed with Fingernails!

Yes, you hate me for spoiling Red Riding Hood.  But now that you know that Catherine Hardwick's stinker has the lamest death of a werewolf ever, you will rightly divine that there are many other problems with the movie, and you will not waste your money and your expectations on it like I did.  Believe me, I just saved you from a greater hatred.

If you still must see it, wait for it to go to the cheap seats, Netflix instant viewing, or the cheap/previewed movies bin.  Great source material, nice sets and costumes, good actors, striking imagery, nice eye candy.  Too bad the plot is filled with holes you could pull a 747 through.  And maybe a tanker.  What a waste.

And to think people criticized Joe Johnston's The Wolfman (2010)!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Guest Post: Ptolus as Mythic Underworld

The licit pleasures of the Internet are myriad.  Among them for me has been, as for many, the making of friends one might have otherwise never known.  One of my online pals is Allen Taliesin. (I mean, with a name like that, how could we not have become friends?)  Allen is a gamer and a gifted fantasy cartographer who is making the move from blogger to publisher.  This was the right move for Allen and will add to the trove of materials available for the discerning gamer in these days of plenty.

The move did involve a significant sacrifice, however: a piece he had written on Monte Cook's epochal game setting, Ptolus.  (Anyone who has been paying attention to game publishing since the close of the 20th century surely needs no introduction to Mr. Cook.  It would be nice if someone updated his Pen & Paper bibliography, in spite of his serial "retirements!")  Allen builds on Philotomy's Internet classics dealing with the Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld, found here and here.  He extends and applies the conception, while bringing his own insight to bear in this analysis of Ptolus.  Further, he suggests an area of underdevelopment in Ptolus and how it might be nourished to bring Ptolus into full chthonic flower.  A big fan of Philotomy's original articles, it pained me to see this extension of it from its old school roots into new school territory being pulled after such a brief time.  So I was thrilled when Allen agreed to make his essay available again on my blog.  Enjoy!

The Mythic Underworld and the Megadungeon in Ptolus
by Allen Taliesin
Before we begin it is important to note that this work deals with a number of major secrets from Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire.  If you are a player in a campaign that uses the Ptolus setting or otherwise would like to remain ignorant concerning the details it is recommended you stop reading now.  To do proceed further would spoil the surprise and ruin the excitement of uncovering the truth through the course of play.

This article deals with the Ptolus setting as detailed in Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire. As such, there are certain details that are important to an overall understanding of text.  In the deep and forgotten past a group of fiends called the Galchutt rampaged across the multiverse, their ultimate goal being the total destruction of all reality. Known as the Ntharl'nacna and the First Demons, the Galchutt are the embodiment of pure chaos and unrestrained evil.  Darker and more dangerous than the demon lords that would come after, the Ntharl'nacna consumed the worlds of the material plane with little opposition, plucking them from existence the way a mortal might pluck a grape from the vine. Desperate to stem the rising tide of entropy, the god Praemus created a trap for the First Demons in the form of a particularly alluring planet by the name of Praemal.  Drawn by a sense of great magic, the Galchutt arrived and made ready to devour their newest prize.  It was then that Praemus twisted space and time around the world of Praemal, crafting a prison that not only trapped the Galchutt but drained them of their potency.  Praemus then seeded the world with mortals to act as unknowing wardens in the hope their sense of self preservation would insure the Galchutt remained shackled. Too weak to simply break the dimensional walls that hedged them in and failing at other plots designed to win release, the First Demons sank into the earth and entered an uneasy slumber.

The city of Ptolus, a major port on the frontier of a crumbling empire, sits on the spot where the Galchutt currently sleep.  In the thousands of years that have passed, many historic events have transpired in the region.  While reviewing them in detail is outside the boundaries of this essay, it is important to note that many of these moments in time were orchestrated by the lingering wills of the Galchutt and have led to the construction of a massive labyrinth beneath the city of Ptolus.  Called the Dungeon by locals, it is also the primary subject for this work.  So without further delay, let us explore the relationship between the Mythic Underworld and the megadungeon environment popular with players of fantasy roleplaying games and especially how those concepts apply to the legendary metropolis of Ptolus.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
--Plato, The Republic

For a majority of delvers in Ptolus, there is one place to find the kind of wealth and glory they seek.  Known collectively as the Dungeon, this complex network of tunnels, chambers, and caves that stretches beneath the city is vast beyond imagining. Not only does this subterranean realm spread under the city and even past the city walls, it also stretches incredibly deep into the earth.  Few residents of Ptolus comprehend the sheer size of the Dungeon, and even delvers have difficultly conceptualizing the dimensions of this place.

There is no question about the danger of the Dungeon.  Horrid creatures dwell within this realm, and the complex itself contains the ancient sleeping places of the Galchutt.  Their whispering voices echo throughout the world, drawing the evil and malign to the haunted halls of the Dungeon.  Some of the world's most dramatic events involved the Dungeon, and some of the foulest figures in history have a close relationship with the complex.

This raises a question: is the Dungeon under Ptolus more than it appears?  Can it be that the Dungeon is, in fact, a Mythic Underworld filled with creatures antithetical to the civilized races above? Once you start to consider these questions in depth, the Dungeon can be viewed in a new light.  Suddenly it changes from just a series of treasure-laden chambers and tunnels into a mythical location that hosts the source of all evil present in the world. It becomes a place where the fate of the world is decided every time a delver takes a step within its harrowing depths. True heroes are born here and they might eventually find their end in the darkened halls of the Galchutt.

Throughout this article, I will present details on why I believe the Dungeon is more than just a maze of  rooms beneath the earth.  I will pull information from Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire and compare it to the concept of the Mythic Underworld.  Additionally, I will introduce some new ideas and assumptions that exist in my home campaign.  These will also be explored in depth and I will provide justifications for them and why they work in my conception of Ptolus.

I suspect most of us are familiar with the Mythic Underworld, but I will give a brief overview to help set expectations.  Even the most casual study of Greek mythology touches on Hades, the ultimate template for the Underworld.  As the name implies, the Underworld is a subterranean location, often existing as a location overlapping with our own world.  It is always a dangerous place filled with gods, demons, and monsters that seek harm against mortals.  The Underworld  has close associations with death, often serving as a form of afterlife or a passage for the soul's journey.  This last quality is absent from the Dungeon of Ptolus, but one I will address later in this article.  Finally, the Underworld figures prominently in the hero myths of many cultures.  You can look to the stories of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, Orpheus, the Maya Hero Twins Hunaphu and Xbalanque, Ji Gong, and Odysseus to see how important the Underworld can be for the development of heroes.  It should also be noted that the Christian Hell shares many similarities with the Underworlds of various cultures.

For the purposes of this article I will focus on the following topics:
  • A Mythic Underworld is a subterranean location.  While it exists in close contact with the real world it may exist as it own plane, a location closely aligned with the material world.
  • The Underworld is ruled by powerful demons and/or gods.  While this control might not always be direct, the will of these beings helps shape the nature of the Underworld.
  • Mortals find the Underworld to be antithetical to their existence.  While mortal heroes might travel the depths of the Underworld, it does not welcome their presence.
  • Normally the Underworld is either the home of the dead or is closely aligned with death and the afterlife.
Of course, this article presents but one way the Dungeon can be interpreted as the Underworld.  Many other options exist and can easily be adapted to the conception or the ideas I detail here.  Let your imagination run wild.  The Underworld doesn't follow the rules and guidelines of our rational world and some of the most amazing ideas can seem right at home in a place know for its mythic strangeness.

Finally, it should be noted that inspiration for this article lies with Philotomy's OD&D Musings site.  In particular, he first posited the idea that the megadungeon of D&D might be a good stand-in for the Underworld. I suggest going to the Dungeon as the Underworld link before continuing here, as his concepts are the foundation on which this article stands.

Deep Gates and Shadowed Halls
"Moria! Moria! Wonder of the Northern world! Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear."
--Words of Glóin from The Lord of the Rings - The Council of Elrond

Obviously, the Dungeon of Ptolus is a subterranean location.  While creatures of the Dungeon occasionally wander to the surface, they are most often encountered beneath the earth. What areas are included when I use the term “Dungeon?”  For the purposes of this article the Dungeon includes everything below the earth except those locations designated as the Undercity in Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire.  The Undercity is composed of places, claimed by city residents, that often serve as homes, businesses, temples, etc.  There is a distinct difference between a castle cellar and the Dungeon.  Just to clarify, I include the sewers of Ptolus in my definition of the Dungeon.  They are full of adventure, provide homes to nasty creatures, and form an integral part of the Dungeon despite their utilitarian purpose.

In most traditions, the Underworld has multiple levels that grow more terrible as one descends.  Not surprisingly, “megadungeons” or “campaign dungeons” function in much the same way.  You see something similar with the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. As the Fellowship moves deeper into the mines the danger increases, culminating in a confrontation with one of the greatest evils of Middle Earth.

The Dungeon of Ptolus isn't so clearly defined. Delvers can easily find highly dangerous (in game terms: high level) areas close to the surface.  But the general idea still exists.  As an adventurer descends, coming closer to the slumbering Galchutt, the risk increases.  Yet even the chambers of the Galchutt do not sit at the lowest point in the Dungeon.  Moving deeper brings a delver in contact with the drow cities and the various Galchutt servitors who act as their allies.  While the side view map of the Dungeon ends near that point, who can say how deep those tunnels truly go?  Perhaps there are even greater dangers lurking in the madness-inducing depths.  The Galchutt are incredibly powerful and their foul call attracts the attention of even the most insular creatures of the deeper darkness.

The Hungering Darkness
“They have taken the bridge and the second hall. We have barred the gates, but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes, drums... drums in the deep. We cannot get out. A shadow lurks in the dark. We cannot get out...they are coming.”
--Gandalf reading from the Book of Mazarbul in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring

But what makes the Dungeon a Mythic Underworld instead of a complex network of mundane tunnels just waiting to be plundered?  It is a fair question.  Not surprisingly, dungeons are an important part of the world's oldest roleplaying game. This importance, by virtue of association, is present in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.  Not every dungeon is an Underworld.  As I said, there is a distinct difference between a cellar and an Underworld.  Small dungeons and cave systems that consist of no more than two or three levels don't fit the qualifications.  They might contain demons, evil gods, and bloodthirsty monsters, but they don't have the kind of scale needed to qualify for Underworld status.  In comparison, the Dungeon of Ptolus, when viewed as a whole, is something different entirely and has the kind of scope, in both size and importance to the world, to be considered an Underworld.

However, simple scale is not the only indicator of status. Indeed, what really matters is how the dungeon environment compares to the commonplace, predictable, and rational world that lies above.  The Underworld of myth simply does not operate under the same rules mortals come to depend upon for their daily existence. Often these supernatural laws seem capricious or born from madness.  They rarely make sense and are unlikely to benefit those mortals who brave their depths.  The Dungeon under Ptolus has the same trait.  There are many points where the normal laws of the reality are not present, most notably in places that lie near Pits of Insanity or where large concentrations of Chaos can be found.

[Moreover], even the normal portions of the Dungeon are inimical to travelers.  A delver never knows when he might stumble upon a hideous trap or the hidden laboratory of a legendary wizard.  At any moment a creature spawned in some ancient age might rise to feed on the flesh of explorers.  Beyond that, natural forces might cause portions of the Dungeon to collapse or change in the midst of an expedition.  A normally safe passage might suddenly become a deathtrap or prevent escape back to the surface world.

While those who leave the Dungeon alive are the lucky ones, none may return to the surface without bringing a touch of their harrowing place with them.  Without a doubt, the Dungeon corrupts.  This corruption might take the form of simple curiosity or greed, or the more complicated desire to bring the light of good to such a terrible place.  Either way, those who delve into the Dungeon are never left unmolested by the experience.  The corruption of the Dungeon touches delvers in varied ways. Some go mad, others find death, most are injured in some significant way, and nearly all delvers gain a healthy appreciation of the danger that lies just below the surface of the world.  Even those who escape with barely a scratch will never forget what they saw down there.  For some the memory of their adventures will drive them to delve deeper and for others the terror will convince them that the risk is not worth the reward.  Once a person enters the Dungeon, it will loom large in that individual's mind for the rest of his life.  There is no escaping the influence of the Dungeon once you have been there.

It is this influence over the minds of mortals that causes most sane individuals to fear the Dungeon.  However, the stories that filter from the raucous taproom of the Ghostly Minstrel touch the thoughts of others who might not otherwise brave that horrid place. Commoners and nobles alike are mesmerized by the thrill of such narratives, which grow bigger in the re-telling. Tales of the riches, adventure, and glory that can be found in the Dungeon have become a significant part of the folkloric tradition of the Empire.

Gods and Monsters
“The other shape,
If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
For each seem’d either,—black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell,
And shook a dreadful dart; what seem'd his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.”
--Paradise Lost. Book ii. Lines 666-673

The Dungeon plays host to a number of inhabitants, most of them evil or somehow opposed to the civilized races who live above the earth.  The greatest of these inhabitants are the Galchutt and their servitors.  Like all Underworlds, the Dungeon is a home to significant, supernatural entities in the form of the First Demons.  They are like gods in power, even if that power has been limited due to their imprisonment.  The Galchutt represent everything that is wrong with the world and their home reflects that perversion. The Dungeon was built through their will.  While they rarely had a direct hand in its formation, it was their influence that determined its construction and location.  Evil permeates the walls, floors, and ceilings.  The Dungeon calls out to those who hold evil in their hearts, beckoning to those who wish to align themselves with darkness.

The Galcutt themselves qualify as the masters of the Dungeon, though they have very little direct rule.  Instead,  creatures summoned by their alluring call and servitors created specifically to serve the First Demons are responsible for what transpires beneath the earth.  However, the constant vile whispers of the Galchutt have a powerful effect on those who dwell within the Dungeon, twisting their will to serve the ultimate goal of the Galchutt.

What is this ultimate goal?  They seek nothing more than the total destruction of reality.  A common epithet used for the Galchutt is Lords of Chaos, though a better phrase might be Lords of Dissolution. What drives them towards this goal is a mystery, though it isn't unusual for the multiverse to produce entities with a metaphysical version of a one-track mind.  Ultimately, the reasons for their desire mean little in light of what this kind of goal means for reality.

It might be said this desire to destroy the entirety of reality is somewhat incongruous when compared  to the desires of gods and demons in our own world's Mythic Underworlds. In some cases this is true. For instance, Hades of Greek mythology is simply part of the natural cycle. Death is a state many fear, but few would debate its place in the mortal experience.  Nonetheless, destructive entities that dwell within an Underworld aren't without precedent.  For instance, the concept of Satan ruling in Hell is a strong one for many Christians, and it can be said that Satan has less concern over the dead (except damned souls of course) and more concern for destroying the works of man and God.

Having securely enshrined a core group of entities as the rulers of the Dungeon, we are beginning to truly define the exact nature of Praemal's Underworld.  It is ruled by the most vile and evil creatures in existence.  These creatures have influence over the Dungeon, even if that influence is indirect.  The Dungeon itself is inimical to mortal explorers and heroes, a situation that ultimately has its roots in the Lords of Chaos as well.  All that remains is the final point, the connection of the Underworld to the nature of death.  However, that might be more challenging than it initially sounds.

Into the Breach
“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
--Winston Churchill

So we come to the final point, the Underworld's connection to death and the afterlife.  This is a difficult point to tackle as the Ptolus book doesn't really give us anything that might remotely suggest the souls of the dead are somehow connected to the Dungeon. Indeed, the book doesn't really address what happens to the souls of the dead at all.  Most of this section will be based on my suppositions and details derived from a home campaign.  As such, it is not an official interpretation of the subject, but one that helps flesh out the driving ideal of this essay.  These imaginative theories help fill out the picture, but more than that, they are presented to help fuel your own imagination on the subject and provide impetus for further expansion.

Perhaps the Dungeon of Ptolus could still qualify as an Underworld without a strong connection to the afterlife. Indeed, the Dungeon does have a close association with death, as the majority of delvers who descend beneath the earth rarely return.  The concept will work just fine and this tack requires very little work or alteration of the setting.  But for those who wish to go further and provide a bond between the Dungeon and the death cycle, the following might work for you.

Our first task is to settle on the idea of where souls go when they die, at least broadly.  Praemal is a prison world and the setting book insinuates that deities who ascended to godhood after the creation are just as trapped as the Galchutt.  This makes sense because the prison is powerful enough to hold some of the most potent evils in the multiverse.  Gods who ascended to their positions later in history shouldn't have any more control over the prison than the original prisoners.

What does this mean for the souls of the dead?  While it could be imagined that the extradimensional prison walls of Praemal might allow for souls to escape, such a situation seems unlikely.  Thinking of the barrier as an impenetrable force is the most logical option and insisting that spirits must remain within the world supports that choice.

However, this doesn't fully explain what happens to the dead.  The gods are assumed to live within the physical world, either directly or within one of the many demiplanes that sit within the prison.  Do the souls of the faithful dwell with their gods after death?  Nothing in the Ptolus book supports that supposition, though assuming this is the case isn't outside the realm of possibility.  For many years, that idea had been the default assumption for the World's Oldest Roleplaying Game.  There is nothing wrong with declaring this to be true and calling it a day.

For all that, let us assume the souls of the dead do not travel to the realms of their respective gods.  Perhaps the gods just aren't that powerful.  They can't attract significant numbers of the dead to their service (outside of saints and other servants) due to a more significant natural cycle already in place.  In this situation, the souls either linger in the world or travel elsewhere.

In gameplay, a universal treatment of dead souls doesn't really benefit anyone.  Cultures that believe in reincarnation should experience reincarnation.  Cultures that practice ancestor worship should recognize that souls linger to further aid the community in death.  Diversity makes for better stories and should be embraced for that reason alone.  However, let us assume that most souls (at least in certain areas) don't reincarnate, become ancestor spirits, or travel to the realm of their god.

So, where do these souls go?  To the Underworld of course.  And here is where we start to truly stray from what is presented in Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire. The souls of the dead travel to the Dungeon beneath Ptolus.  But if we accept that statement as truth, what about all of those delvers who explore the Underworld?  They don't seem to notice the dead, or if they do, they don't report their activities or function.  The latter idea opens up some interesting ground to explore.

The ethereal plane surrounding Ptolus and its Dungeon isn't explored in any depth within the setting book.  We know the prison which holds the Galchutt extends to nearby planes, effectively closing off Praemal's ethereal plane from the rest of the multiverse. While the dead likely drift into the ethereal plane upon death, that is where their journey ends.  But something more happens when the souls find their way to the ethereal version of the Dungeon.  A new journey and a new life begins in the mist-filled labyrinth, just ever-so-slightly out-of-phase with the well-trodden halls of the material plane.

So what does the ethereal plane around the Dungeon look like?  We can make a few assumptions based on precedent.  The Dungeon would appear roughly as it does on the material plane, just a bit shadowy and filled with the standard ethereal mist.  It would be evenly lit, as the ethereal plane appears to have its own ambient light source.

But what else would we find there? Well, if we assume the dead travel to the Underworld of the Dungeon, we can assume it would be filled with the souls of the dead.  Once they arrive, the dead would find themselves in a huge community of the departed, as souls from all over the Empire and from every time period would drift here eventually.  The Dungeon's ethereal plane would be a metropolis of sorts, a vast city with a population that surpasses any attempt to properly measure it.

The dead would likely congregate in smaller groups or communities based on various traits or the beliefs they held in life.  Some might ally with others of the same alignment while other souls would attach themselves to those they served with in one of the many organizations found within the Empire.  Life in the Underworld would mimic life in the world above, though the basic needs of the dead are distinctly different than those of the living.

It might be imagined that trade would still exist, as it is possible the dead still value things they loved during their days as a living creature.  In turn, conflicts would still arise and wars would likely break out on a regular basis.  These battlegrounds would be eternal, as the souls of the dead might not be able to truly die again.  In this case, grudges could last centuries and each side would have a regular influx of troops at their disposal.

However, there is one major flaw in this idea: population growth.  The Dungeon is vast but it is not infinite.  While the ethereal place is significantly larger, if we are to continue with the assumption that the souls of the dead travel to the Underworld after passing on something needs to be done to account for the huge population and overcrowding that would be seen in the Dungeon.

This is where those other concepts of the afterlife would dovetail nicely with these ideas about the Underworld.  Perhaps the souls of the dead only spend a period of time in the ethereal halls of the Dungeon, wandering until they can find release to another place.  It could be said the Underworld is something of a test, a path that must be puzzled out completely before the soul can move on to its reward or punishment.  Once the goal has been achieved the soul might then be reincarnated back into the world or join the gods in whichever domain they claim.  All of that would depend on belief.

There is a real world precedent for such a place.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead details the various realms, known as bardos, that the soul must travel through before reincarnation.  These bardos are filled with a variety of entities both malign and beneficent.  Some of these beings judge the dead while others tempt them to stray.  During this journey a soul might end up in another realm, a hell of sorts, to help cleanse them of their sins.  Unlike the Christian Hell, this situation is temporary, more like a Christian purgatory.

This opens up a number of fantastic ideas for those seeking to create an Underworld in the Dungeon of Ptolus. Most of this would exist out of sight of mundane travelers.  Even those who enter the ethereal plane while still living might find a confusing place filled with souls that are acting in a confusing manner.  The nature of the afterlife doesn't make sense until you actually enter it as a disembodied soul.  The living cannot know all the secrets of the soul's journey.

Let us assume that the Underworld is part of the soul's journey to a more complete afterlife.  In that case, why do the souls travel to the Dungeon?  What purpose does that serve?  Is this something that the gods require or is it something they have no control over?  Well, if we continue the idea that the Galchutt are the masters of Praemal's Underworld then it would follow the Galchutt are the ones behind the soul's journey to the Dungeon – a terrifying proposition to say the least.

According to the history found in Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire, the Galchutt tore the veil between life and death, creating the first undead.  When this occurred, they also gained a marginal control of what happens to the souls of the dead once they pass into the ethereal plane.  With this mastery they began luring souls to them so they might be devoured, providing the Galchutt with a small portion of the soul's power.

It was then that the Elder Gods and Praemus intervened, with both sides agreeing the situation was dire enough that breaching the contract would be acceptable, so long as all of those involved kept their attentions directed to the problem at hand. They set about providing the tools needed for the souls to find release rather than oblivion in the gullet of the Galchutt.  While they could not stop the souls from traveling to the area where the Galchutt slept, they could aid the souls in their journey, allowing them to escape the Underworld into a new afterlife.  In time the minions of the Galchutt discovered new ways to tempt souls, while the Elder Gods developed new paths of release, all of this escalating until the task was taken over by the younger gods.

As the Elder Gods once again retreated from the prison, the new gods took on the mantle of saviors for the poor, misguided souls of the dead.  Even the evil gods aided the effort, as they did not want the souls that were properly their own descending into nothingness.  The spiritual war being fought in the Underworld is one of singular importance, not only to the souls who face extinction but to the gods who benefit in various ways from the existence of devoted souls.

All of this is just a framework of development upon which other ideas might be hung.  Whole mythological systems can be developed around the deceased soul's journey, each one colored by the culture and faith in which it originated.  Some might see the journey as a chance to expunge the soul of sins committed in life.  Others would see it as a test, one in which the soul proves its worthiness to continue on.  There could even be those who perceive the whole process as punishment for their transgressions. While such a belief is similar to the Roman Catholic idea of expunging sins, those faithful that hold it take a much dimmer view of the journey than do real world Christians.  Finally, there are the madmen and chaos cultists who believe that oblivion is the natural state of affairs.  In their minds, the gods are the ones transgressing against the ultimate law of chaos.

However it is interpreted, the process is generally the same.  Souls move to the Dungeon's ethereal plane and face the challenges set forth by the greedy Galchutt.  Some succeed and find release while others end their existence in those haunted halls.  Now we have the final element in the quest to define the Dungeon of Ptolus as a Mythic Underworld.  While this option has taken us far from the official confines of Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire, it still fits in nicely with what we know about the Dungeon and the world.  Everything interlocks, providing us with a clear picture that is still open to development and interpretation.

So it is Done
“A project is complete when it starts working for you, rather than you working for it.”
--Scott Allen

As I stated above, the material I detailed here is really just one of many options available to those interested in defining the Dungeon as a place of mythic splendor and horror. While you might choose to use my ideas verbatim, I hope this article inspires you to come up with new options or solutions to the question, “Is the Dungeon under Ptolus a Mythic Underworld?”  When I first came across the concept postulated by Philotomy, I found it revolutionary.  Not only did it change the way I looked at my favorite roleplaying game, it also provided me with an abundance of ideas about how I perceive the nature of Ptolus.

Perhaps this article, or Philotomy's piece, has done the same for you.  If so, I would love to hear about it.  As gamers, we grow when presented with the ideas of others and it is that growth that makes for some exciting games.

I hope you agree that the article is a compelling analysis and an inspiring creative development.  (Just one example: I’ve already started giving major thought to the place of ancestor worship in my own worlds, thanks to it.)  It is a further indication of how mythic themes are taken up in fantasy gaming, and how such gaming may provide gamers with means for exploring the perennial questions of myth.  Further, they lend the game that depth of an “inner self-consistency of reality” and psychic power that make for unforgettable campaigns.

A big thanks to Allen for sharing his work and for giving a longer lease to the online life of a worthy essay.  I hope the gamers among you will stop by Clockwork Gnome Publishing, found in my links below, and ogle the setting he is creating and the products forthcoming, by way of some nice freebies.  

For the latest excursions of Monte Cook into the Mythic Underworld, see his project.