Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zoomorphic Angels

Sphinx. Phoenician, 899–700 B.C.  Ivory.*

Zoomorphic entry from Merriam-Webster.

zoo·mor·phic adj \ˌzō-ə-ˈmȯr-fik\

1 : having the form of an animal

2 : of, relating to, or being a deity conceived of in animal form or with animal attributes

zoo·morph noun

Origin of zoomorphic: International Scientific Vocabulary. First Known Use: 1872

Wikipedia notes with helpful brevity the breadth of zoomorphism's usage.

Zoomorphism is the shaping of something in animal form or terms. Examples include:
  • Art that imagines humans as animals
  • Art that portrays one species of animal like another species of animal
  • Art that creates patterns using animal imagery, or animal style
  • Animal-deities, such as exist in Egyptian mythology
  • Therianthropy: the ability to shapeshift into animal form
  • The tendency of viewing human behaviour in terms of the behaviour of animals, analogous to anthropomorphism, which views animal behaviour in human terms

The word derives from the Greek ζωον (zōon), meaning animal, and μορφη (morphē), meaning shape or form.

In the list above, we see many issues to attract the mythopoet and keep him or her busy for periods of time that will mystify spouses and frighten co-workers, but for today I want to exorcize a spirit that has been stuck in my craw for as long as I can remember.  I mean the evil that is Chubby Angel Babies, known to the experts as putti.  I loathe them.  The Italian Renascence (IR) generally brought us many good gifts, but unfortunately, the putti, who by some evil asexual reproduction reached disturbingly high numbers during the Mannerist and Baroque periods to follow, and were not stamped out by Neo-classicism by any means, is among its most enduring and ubiquitous.  In the Neo-Gothic Apocalypse that I pray for, they will be remembered only in nightmares and perhaps bad horror movies.

Note that I am using the word "angel" in its popular usage to cover "all heavenly servants of God."  They are popularly pictured today as humans with wings.  Even such angels and putti are, strictly speaking, zoomorphic: they have bird-wings.  But I do not think that angels are ever described as appearing like anything other than "men" in the Bible when the term "angel" is explicitly used.  Further, the two kinds of angels I am discussing today, Cherubim and Seraphim, are never called angels in the Bible.  They are called "living creatures."  (And yes, in the Septuagint or Greek OT, ōn is the word for living creature.)  But whereas winged humans are okay, and winged babies or baby heads (eww!) are terrible, winged composite creatures are awesome.  Let this be our guiding principle: More Zoomorphic = More Better.

Cherub (s), Cherubim (pl)
Instead of the revolting little rosy-cheeked, bare-bummed cupids that the God of the IR employed, imagine being confronted with a sphinx or a shedu.  The God of the OT is a kick-ass deity who means business.  This God is not saying, "Burp my messenger," but "The playing field is not level; watch your step."  Or "Danger: God at Work Ahead."  Given the archaeological record in which Egyptian-style sphinxes were popularized from Judah and Samaria (Israel) to Assyria by Phoenician and Syrian ivory artists on furniture and household items, the use of an Assyrian cognate of "cherubim" to refer to the category of representations to which the shedu belonged, and the descriptions given in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, scholarship seems pretty unanimous in offering images like the sphinx and the shedu as confidently close to the ancient Hebrew imagination of the cherub.  (And if you have never read Ezekiel, by all means, correct that ASAP!)

Even when the Greeks make the head a woman's and add breasts and shrink the sphinx down in size, it's just a devious strategy of distraction.  Putti are going to shoot you with nerf arrows and giggle and moon you.  Cherubim are going to tear you up.

Gustave Moreau's Sphinx

Seraph (s), Seraphim (pl)

Literally, "the fiery ones," it is difficult to know whether the ancient Hebrews imagined them as being flaming figures or whether they envisioned them to be like poisonous serpents.  (In the Hebrew Bible, poisonous snakes are regularly referred to as "fiery," likely due to the burning sensation of poison.)  They are described as being six-winged.  They are in God's presence in Isaiah 6, flying with one set of wings, and of the other two sets using one to cover their faces and the other to cover their feet (which may in Hebrew indicate their feet, but could also be used euphemistically to refer to their private parts.)  So only their bodies are showing, but we get not description of those bodies other than the their multi-wingedness and the possible hints of flame and serpent.  Their covering of their faces and their angelic privates indicate humility before YHWH, whom they are praising.  They deal in purifying fire.

Being the kind of mythopoet that I am, my tendency is to decide that indications call for both fire and scale, on the More Better principle invoked above.  it is ashamed that it is so difficult to find interesting images of seraphim online.  Early Christian and Byzantine iconographers felt the difficulty, and while giving us the six wings in red, they contravene their own source material and give us the face uncovered.  Below is a modern example that gets this detail right, but follows the contemporary trend of imagining angels to dress like ancient Israelites or monks.  We need flames and scales, people!  

The above source material gives us the bases upon which to mythopoeisize.  Noting that in medieval tradition, they are strongly identified with love (caritas), we can make a connection with the covering of the "feet."  No wonder they are covering up -- their impressive equipment is not meant for human eyes!  Hey, let's also give them a gaze attack: they've beheld glory in heaven that they've assimilated through their gaze.  If they uncovered their faces, the radiance would have unfortunate consequences for frail mortals.  They carry tongs (a pair of arms hidden underneath the middle set of wings?) that hold a coal of purifying fire from the heavenly altar.  Also in the medieval tradition, they are of a higher rank than cherubim (obviously a higher hit dice/CR monster, for the gamers among us).

I hope today's post offers some inspiration and initial ideas for zoomorphic angels in your world-building.  I also hope that the next time you think of biblical angels (broadly speaking), you see that many of them fit better among Tibetan angry gods or gargoyles than they do with the contemporary images of angels.  How much better angel art could be if it saw them as God's monsters, ready to kick evil's ass, than the insipid new age angel images that has been so popular for the past decade or the putti of Western art.  If those are the choices, then I'd rather just forget such pseudo-angelic banality and look at this:

A Victoria's Secret Angel

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for Yggdrasil

Originally, I envisioned dedicating today's entry to two mythic creatures: the yale and the yeti.  For you see, this is one of my secret wacky plans!  I will open a chain of pubs.  A chain with exactly two locations.  In New Haven, Connecticut, I will open the Yeti & Yale pub with a Himalayan theme.  Meanwhile, in some Himalayan country (not Tibet, sadly.  Damn Commies!), I will open a Yale-themed pub called the Yale & Yeti.  Wouldn't you like to see a stuffed yeti dressed in Yale blue at the door?  Maybe be waited on by Yale students doing their semester in Asia?  But I wasn't able to get original art lined up for the blog in time, and I already had gotten into this setting-building trend here towards the end of our A-Z project, so maybe I should do more with that.  Thus we have Y is for Yggdrasil, but if I find a way to work yales and yetis into the world-building...well, I make no promises.

Link: A Collection of Attempts to Diagram the Norse Cosmology

There is uncertainty about the origin and meaning of the name of the Norse world tree.  The dominant hypothesis at the moment seems to be that it means "Ygg's horse"; Ygg being another name for Odin meaning "terror" or "terrible one".  The name may be intended to be a colorful term for gallows.  The tree seems to be either an ash or a yew.  This gives rise to a particularly grim thought: If the name of the world tree is Terror's Gallows, it seems that the nine worlds were hung there to die.  This fits nicely with the conception that all these worlds are temporary, to be destroyed on the day of Ragnarok in the final battle.

Here's a quick review of the Nine Worlds, by Norse name, as I have begun to organize them.
  1. Ásgarð – Home of one group of gods, the Aesir, and their hall for heroes
  2. Vanaheim – Home of another group of gods, the Vanir.
  3. Álfheim – Home of the elves
  4. Miðgarð – Plane of humanity and mundane beings
  5. Jötunheim – Home of the giants
  6. Svartálfaheim (or Niðavellir) – Home of the dwarves and lower faeriedom
  7. Hel – Home of the Dead
  8. Niflheim – Plane of Water
  9. Muspellsheim – Plane of Fire
1-3 Are the upper planes, 4-5 are the middle planes, and 7-9 are the underworlds.  Six could be a problem, let's come back to it.  In keeping with my work so far, I am beginning with Norse inspiration and then taking them in whatever direction they need to go.  There will probably be a tendency to go next to Judeo-Christian sources next, but I will also be drawing heavily from the D&D pastiche, whose sources are listed in suggested reading lists or appendices.

Let's start with the three upper worlds.  I like the idea that the elves are other-worldly, and that they are an alien presence in the middle world of men.  Drawing from the old D&D books, I will take the idea of alignment, and particularly of a conflict between Law and Chaos (thank you, Michael Moorcock!)  I like the pulpy feel that this can give a setting.  This has the advantage here of fitting with two different groupings of gods in Norse cosmology, the Aesir and the Vanir, the latter who had been largely displaced by the time of our sources, who at one time warred.  A lot of folks identify elves with Chaos, so that would leave gods of Law and gods of Neutrality or Balance.  I would go in another direction, however, and identify the Elves as the beings of Neutrality/Balance in a struggle between the Law-beings, centered on a renamed Asgard (Loggard?  Ullgard or Ullurgard?) and the Chaos-beings, centered on Freehome (or a requisitioned and similarly renamed Vanaheim).  The Law-beings have obviously succeeded in appealing to humans, promising their heroic allies a place of reward in an afterlife hall of the brave.  I also want to resist the equation of Law with Good and Chaos with Evil, and keep morality and righteousness as potential separate issues from this struggle.

Middle world is dominated by humans, but also the crux in the struggle between the two opposing alignments of higher beings.  This decision is good for adventuring.  Initial research suggests that "gard" means "farm."  Is farming a part of what distinguishes Midworld from the surrounding realms?  On the edge of Midworld is Giantdom.  Are the mountains the home of the giants?  The barrier against giants or humans?  Or do the mountains just get progressively higher and more inhabited by bigger giants?

The sixth realm is starting to look like a problem to me.  Let's just call it Faerie.  Clearly, it's related to Elfhome in the Overworld.  Let's take the old idea that elves can't be resurrected, but that they can be reincarnated.  Is it a cycle?  Is there a progression, like in Hinduism?  Are elves the top of the fae reincarnation ladder?  This seems likely to me.  Maybe some elves have abandoned the cause of Balance or maybe that is something they have to evolve towards, and that when they finally attain it, they becomes elves.  Does this lower Faerie fit as part of the Underworld?  Or should it become part of the Middleworld?  If it is a part of the former, then that gives a reason for elves to be visitors to Middleworld: to help guide their less evolved kin toward Elfhome.  I think I like this idea, plus the symmetry of three levels and three realms in each is nice.  Up to this point, I have not dealt with where halflings would fit in this setting.  As it is developing, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to drop some of the Tolkienesque associations and make them a fae race.  Otherwise, they are farmers and more like little humans.  It is possible, of course to have a mundane, miniature human race. One could look to pygmy peoples and the mythological portrayals of them for further inspiration.

I have already given the Underworld the most extensive treatment, so let's step back and see how things look at this point, and let's start by strengthening the three tiers and drop the divisions of worlds between them:

The Overworld:  The Dominion of Law, the Fields of Freedom, Elfhome.

The (Middle) World: The Cultivated Lands of Man, The Uncultivated Lands of Faerie, The Giant March.  As I describe it so, I begin to think that the giants and the Chaos-beings are in league: on the side of Chaos to minimize access of Law, on the giants' side to have an opportunity to enslave the smaller races.

The Underworld: In this setting, the Underworld is largely of primordial elements, the main exception being the realm of the dead.  An important question to address next would be, to what extent does the struggle between Law and Chaos extend to the Underworld, and how do the three realms below fit in it?  Are the dead unaligned?  Are the other two realms internally divided into camps of Law and Chaos?  Fire giants and hellhounds (L) versus Efreet, Salamanders, and Red Dragons (C), for example?

Ygg's Tree
As I look back over the experimental structure delineated so far, I wonder if more could be made of the image of the tree.  In what way could we now go back and view the Overworld in terms of the canopy, Middle World  as the trunk, and the Underworld as the roots?  By a continual process of zooming in and dealing with very concrete details and zooming out to see how things are coming together in the big picture, I keep returning to what is accounted for, and what is left to be accounted for.  In this way, questions multiple.  Are clerics both of Law and of Chaos?  In this setting, should they turn different kind of outsiders based on their alignment?  Where does magic come from?  Is it a feature of the Tree itself?  Should treants (=ents) and dryads be given special treatment in this setting?  Maybe the fae races were the original races of this world before some outer power chose it as a prison for these warring factions of Law and Chaos.  Is this outer power Ygg?  Or is Ygg the original of the fae races?  I like the pulpy feel of the name, Ygg.  Maybe this universe should be called Ygg's Tree.  Maybe when one looks up from Middle World at night, instead of seeing the Milky Way, one see a nebula that looks like the foliage of a celestial tree, giving the tree identification a visual focus.  In the threefold world of Ygg, an intelligent race of tusked, magical caprids discuss philosophy, while in the mountains, clerics call yetis to protect their shrines against the ravages of marauding giants...

See Collection Linked Above
EDIT: Broken picture fixed.  Seems like this has been happening recently.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X Marks the Spot!

Original Art by Katy Salvo
Upon first hearing, I immediately identified with the boy, being one myself at the time.  He worked for his family in their little seaside inn.  All that it took to change his life forever was the arrival of an old, shifty guest soaked with sea-salt, rum, and paranoia.  The traveler dies in mysterious and violent circumstances and a search of his belongings turns up a map.

There's nothing to spice up your adventure like a map, as old gamers know.  (Can I get an "Arrr-men"!?)  Maps are enormously helpful in getting imaginary landscapes into one's mind.  But they should not be underestimated as artefacts and plot elements in and of themselves, either.  We live in a world where maps are common to the point of being cheap and even free.  We expect maps to be available, up-to-date, and accurate. In this way as in so many others, it is our contemporary world that is utterly exceptional.  Before the 18th century, maps were rare and expensive, and the more recent and accurate they were the rarer and more expensive they were.  Finding a map is practically finding a treasure already, not to mention introducing a major plot element.

Maps can (1d12 Table!)
  1. Be the object of the quest itself
  2. Show the way there
  3. Show the way home
  4. Show the adventure location
  5. Mislead due to accident
  6. Lie purposefully!
  7. Be at the center of a dispute between two kingdoms
  8. Be stolen property
  9. Bear a curse
  10. Allow one to use a well between worlds
  11. Be the product of the adventure
  12. Lead to buried treasure
Fantasy Cartographers
The two pictures below link to my two current favorite fantasy cartographers for your browsing pleasure.  Also, if you draw like me (read: like a spaz), then you might also enjoy playing around with Hexographer's map-making software.  It produces clear and usable, detailed hex maps.

Atlas of the Flanaess Project by Anna B. Meyer
The Wealdland by Allen Taliesin

Oh, and before you respond to me by quoting Indiana Jones, remember that line is a purposeful set-up for this scene below.  Hey, a lightly marked Roman numeral ten is still an X.

EDIT: Link added from below for convenient navigation.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Wells

Norns at the Wyrd Well by L. B. Hansen
Wells, springs, fountains, sources -- places where water comes bubbling up from the depths into the upper world to support human life have been identified as holy places from time immemorial.*  This is true of the Norse sources we have been drawing as well.  In the Marvel diagram of the Nine Worlds I linked a few days back, three wells are shown: Urðarbrunnr, Mímisbrunnr, and Hvergelmir.  These wells or springs have suggestive, even mysterious places in Norse mythology that we only have a very partial knowledge of today.  But they provide a powerful mythic image -- conveniently appropriate to the letter of the day! -- for us to continue our exercise in world-building.  Keeping the original names is probably a little much for my preferences, so I would bring them over something like this:

Wyrd's Well (Urðarbrunnr) Running between the Home of Heroes and the Home of the Dead, attended by the three Norns, though named for some reason after only one of them, Wyrd.  This well is connected to the fate of all who are born and die in the Nine Worlds.  I'd hate to think what a sip from or a dip in this well might do...but it might be a likely preparation for a descent to the dead.  This raises the questions of who the three norns are, and the relation of other fey water women (nymphs, nixies, swanmays) to this trio, Bygone, Necessity, and Wyrd.

Mimir's Well (Mímisbrunnr) At the farthest roots of the World Tree, reaching down to depths no one knows (into the chaos of the void?).  This well demands a significant sacrifice for access to its wisdom.  This sounds like the perfect magnet for a magic-user who wants to lay it all on the line for access to a secret or great power.  If you keep the association with Mimir's head, wouldn't you like to see the well bubbling forth from his mouth?  Further inspirational images would be of the great stone heads in Angkor Wat and Mesoamerica that are entwined in tree roots, as Mimir's head would be in the roots of Yggdrasil.

Mimir by Trishkell

Boiling Springs (Hvergelmir) Between the Plane of Fire and the Plane of Water, it is the source of the clouds and mists over the Plane of Water.  Doesn't sound inviting, does it?  Perhaps it is simply the passage between the two planes and the armies of fire and water elementals flinging themselves into combat and dying create the boiling spring.

Such mythic locations as these wells could be the object of a quest, the gate to a quest, guarded by terrible guardians or a dungeon, or a location in a megadungeon; in any of these, a nexus between the elements of the setting and the characters' plot-lines promising an unforgettable gaming experience if utilized to their potential.

The Norns by J. L. Lund

*For Jungians, these are symbols of the Unconscious itself, welling up into Consciousness.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for the Veneration of Ancestors

Photo by Mitch Young

Given the importance of ancestral rites for ancient societies such as the Egyptian and the Roman, and the widespread persistence of them in African and East Asian societies, as well as the form that it takes in the cult of the saints, I am dissatisfied with the ancestors' almost total absence from religion in role-playing settings.  Yesterday's work on an Underworld (here and here) made me think about the destiny of the dead in that incipient setting.  Hel assumes Valhalla: one place for those who die as heroes, another for those who die of sickness or old age.  The fact that my mind has been in the native Chinese religions in recent weeks (and perhaps my own Christianity) creates some dissatisfaction with the majority of people being ignominiously consigned to hel.

For this setting, I would introduce a division in hel for the mediocre majority from the miserably damned: the Valley of the Shadow of Death for most dead, and the Pit of Perdition for the wicked.  While the heroic dead could be called upon for aid like patron saints, the mass of the dead could be placated with ancestral rites.  This would be an explanation for the rites, and neglect of the rites that would reconcile them to their fate would be one major cause of the curse of the undead.  Perhaps the appropriate rites could even insure an eventual reincarnation for the mediocre dead to give them another shot at glory.  There could also be occasions where spirit possession would be part of the rites.  This cosmological detail could give rise to interesting ties with certain spells in the game and new possibilities for adventuring plots.  In short, it is full of world-building and role-playing potential.

For a very elaborate and public practice of ancestral rites, see the Korean festival of Jongmyo Jerye.

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Underworld II

Part II: Denizens of the Underworld

Looking at the Norse Nine Worlds,* four seem to clearly fall into the realm of the Underworld:
  1. Svartalfheim: Home of the Black Elves
  2. Hel: Home of the Dead
  3. Niflheim: Home of the Mists
  4. Muspelheim: Home of Fire
Turning to the creatures listed in the Moldvay and Cook books, I've sorted those that seem to obviously fit into these four, though a few may call for further comment.

Svartalfheim is identified with the dwarves explicitly in Norse mythology.  We might also stick the gnomes here, as relatives of the dwarves.  But all the other creatures that traditionally have a connection with the elves, that fit in an Underworld setting better than a higher concept of Elfland, arguably belong here: bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, and orcs.  These traditional enemies of dwarves and gnomes suggest an underground realm that is full of conflict and warfare.

Hel is the realm of the dead who are not great heroes.  It is also where one would expect the undead to originate and generally dwell.

Niflheim is wet and cold, a realm of mists.  Here the white dragon, water elemental, and frost salamander would best dwell.  Though there is a an over-world location for giants, the frost giants would also fit well here.

Muspelheim, the realm of flame, is the natural home for fire giants, efreet, fire elementals, red dragons, hell hounds, and fire salamanders.

What does an Underworld divided into such regions suggest?  For one, the further down one goes in the Underworld, the worse things get.  Svartalfheim, one might be tempted to call it the Underdark, the Feydark, or Underfaerie is a realm that is dominated by evil humanoids, but still has dwarves and gnomes in it (although, the dwarves are more morally ambiguous or even evil in Norse literature than they are in traditional high fantasy).  Hel is the realm of the mass of the dead, but also of the evil undead.  To avoid later associations with Hell, one might rename it the Kingdom of Death or the Deadlands or the Hollow or the Valley of the Shadow of Death or some such.  It could be ruled over by a Queen like Hela or Persephone.  Niflheim sounds like an elemental plane of water, but the best that one can hope for in sea with lands and mountains of ice, covered by mists, is moral neutrality: the giants and dragons are evil.  Muspelheim is the elemental plane of fire, where again the neutral elementals seem outnumbered by very evil races.  Passages between these domains would perhaps be by means of wells, which were significant in Norse mythology, or by means of the roots of Yggdrasil, itself.

A megadungeon complex might well cross through multiple of these Underworld domains, which hardy adventurers  would brave as they trace surface evils to their sources or seek treasures of the Underworld, but Angela's comment on part I brings to mind another possibility that has often been overlooked -- very strangely given its prominence in the myths.  In games that have allowed the resurrection of characters, this has often been the availability and affordability of the spell for the raising of player characters of major NPCs.  But what if the spell was just one component that was necessary?  What if the party had to make a trip into the realm of Death to reunite body and soul with the spell?  Keep in mind that the god Pluto and Plutus, or the god of wealth, were often identified as the same god.  This would keep resurrection from being too common in game and also work character death and resurrection into story in a more direct way.

An initial identification of four regions of the Underworld in this way marks the beginning of the (sub)creation of a distinctive campaign setting, suggestive of further elements, such as the purpose of quests and the way that certain magic works.

*There is no universal system of imagining the arrangement of these worlds in Norse literature.  This one makes sense to me.  There might be an argument for locating the realm of the giants (Jotunheim) as a whole in the Underworld, but it does not make sense to me to put giants of hill, stone, cloud, and storm there (not to mention ogres and trolls), as much as to put the home of the frost giants in Niflheim, just as the fire giants are in Muspelheim.

U is for Underworld I

Part I: World-Building from the Underworld Up

One of the most important elements of world-building for my money is the Underworld.  Rich treasure troves of traditional material await the mythopoet here: demonic hordes, devilish hierarchies, hungry shades, imprisoned spirits -- on and on the list goes.  All this can be mined, no matter where you fall on the re-usage continuum from pastiche to alchemical transformation.  For today's  mythopoeic experiment, I will draw on recent mythological elements brought up on this blog, so Norse and Judeo-Christian elements will predominate.  To populate them, I will confine myself to creatures from the Moldvay and Cook D&D books.  This will give us some more perimeters to structure our creativity.

Since for the purposes of this experiment I am drawing on gaming materials, we'll assume that this is an Underworld for an RPG campaign.  Starting with the Underworld is especially a good beginning for a fantasy RPG world because of the traditional importance of the dungeon, which is where the World and the Underworld start to blend together as one slowly descends into the Underworld.  (For more about this, see the resources linked here.)  We'll assume a traditional three-tiered universe of Overworld, World, and Underworld.  Since we already have the World Tree (Yggdrasil) in play, the three worlds will be joined together by this cosmic tree, which will allow for heroes and monsters to travel between planar locations. 

With part II, we'll jump right into building the Underworld by rummaging around in our inspiration hoard.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Interlude for Paschal Greetings

Christos Anesti!

Wishing you a Happy Passover, Happy Easter, and Happy Spring.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for the Tree of Life

Detail of the Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt, 1909

In the mythic art and literature of many times and cultures we find versions of the Tree of Life.  (As always in instances of comparative study, I caution against ironing out the differences between the versions we find: we should not prejudge whether it is the commonality or the differences that are the most important.  We should start, if anything, delving the differences and then only slowly work our way towards the common.)  For this subject, I will take samplings from three sources: the Judeo-Christian, the Norse, and the Green movement under the influence of the contemporary physical sciences.

Most readers, I am guessing, were first exposed to the Hebrew version in Genesis.  In the center of the Garden of Eden, are a pairing of trees, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.  These trees have the distinction of being planted by God, rather that simply commanded into existence.  Under the influence of the story, there is a strong tendency to focus on the taboo tree and not the Tree of Life.  Once the taboo is violated, Man and his wife are driven from the garden, and access to the Tree of Life is closed.

The Tree of Life motif is picked up once again by a Jewish sect, who's teacher is put to death on a Roman built tree of execution.

We have representations of the cross as the Tree of Life, as the epitome of the Christian paradox or eucatastrophe, such as the one above.  Just like Aaron's dead staff, the dead wood of the cross, the instrument of Christ's death, has flowered with life.  Thus at the return to the Garden of Eden at the end of the Bible (Apocalypse 22), access to the Tree of Life is for all peoples.

Any knowledge of Norse mythology, so very different from this Semitic religion, immediately prompts us with fascinating parallels.  The nine worlds are encompassed by Yggdrasil, the world tree.  Odin, Father of the gods, god of both knowledge and the gallows, hangs himself from it for nine days and nights to gain knowledge of these worlds.  To connect with my earlier methodological warning, how different the sacrifice of Odin is from the sacrifice of Christ.  They are both divine, on wood, and have cosmic implications, but their specific motives and outcomes are quite different and must be respected.

Finally, we have an emerging use of the Tree of Life as a metaphoric diagram for the relationship between all life forms.  It is this use that has recently been given form in one of the most impressive pieces of public art I have seen in recent years: the massive sculpture at the heart of the Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida.  Having seen it last year, I can assure you that pictures do not do it justice in scale, beauty, and complexity.  The roots, trunk, and branches of the tree contain the shapes of animals of all kinds.  It's message is the unity of life in all its diversity by the analogy of a single organism.

Detail of Disney's Tree of Life by Charles V on Picasa

For mythopoesis, taking samplings of this kind are a first step.  Having identified these three basic strands, I then ask myself how much I want to deepen any of my understandings of the samples.  Generally I do, because I find the research that it demands to be enjoyable in and of itself.  But moreover, this also keeps me from making easy identifications or uses that anyone could make.  After study of each example, then I look for the points of similarity and tension.  Providing fictional or speculative explanations for why these points exist will allow for something original, but something that has the feel of depth and antiquity, to arise in my subcreation.

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Sacrifice III: Gaming

Part III: Sacrifice in Role-Playing

In this installment of "S is for sacrifice," I explore two ways in which sacrifice can contribute to your gaming: sacrifice proper and the sacrifice of characters by your players. 

Religious Sacrifice
Before the loss of the Jewish temple and the substitution of the bloodless sacrifice tied to the blood of Christ, religion everywhere was dominated by the immolation of victims as an offering to the numen or numina.  I'm sure this happens in your games, but I bet when it does, it is usually something like this:

Frank Frazetta, Sacrifice, 1980 - Cover for a Conan book
Now, there's nothing wrong with this as far as it goes.  Villains that are unholy are especially villainous, and saving beautiful innocents from their clutches is hitting about eleven fantasy buttons at once instead of just one.  But beyond its cliche, and potentially chauvinistic, use, it ignores the fact that sacrifice is and has been a dominant practice in religions that are not summoning devils or waking Cthulhu.  To give the religions in your game setting some substance, look into adding sacrifice, whether as background world-building, plot elements, or even mechanics.  But the characters sending their sweet-smelling sacrifice of some quality barbeque heavenwards is nothing compared to them offering themselves.

Heroic Self-Sacrifice
Above all, I am thinking of the players sacrificing their characters, and the characters sacrificing themselves in-game.  Note I'm not talking about taking a risk that the player-characters recognize could result in character death: they do that all the time in the game, and they generally do it for character gain.  I mean making a decision for the good of others, which the player-characters enact in the knowledge that death is likely or even certain in the attempt to bring about the altruistic outcome.  Being saviors, rather than simply the greatest achievers, is the height of heroism.

Why would anyone want to do this in a game?  To achieve the pinnacle of heroism is obviously a motive on the player side of he equation, more than the character side.  It could be the denouement of the player's character development.  It could be the attainment of some great goal that they have long been gaming towards.  Experienced gamers know nothing is as dramatic as death, so this will make your game dramatic like nothing else will.  I should say, death that is not stupid--experienced gamers have also seen some pretty lame deaths in their days, as well.  But just imagine the possibilities when the players have been empowered to achieve meaningful deaths for their characters.  In all the creative and exciting things I have done in my (cough, 30) years of  gaming, I've never done this intentionally, and I owe the idea to my college DM, who discussed the idea with me on the phone recently.  (Commendations to you, K.A.)

I hope I don't need to argue that suicide for escape, dramatic effect, or for religious reward is not heroic self-sacrifice, but selfish acts that at best on masquerade as heroic self-sacrifice.  If done well, I'll wager players will never forget their heroes' deaths, and it can then be folded into the world-building so that it is an ongoing part of their new characters' experience.  Just don't make the mistake of role-playing Valhalla.

ST2: The Wrath of Khan.  "The needs of the many..."

S is for Sacrifice II: Tangled

Part II: Sacrifice in Tangled

A French version of the movie poster, because I like it.

A potential problem with the shift in the way we use the word "sacrifice" is that it is now becoming just another word for "trade."  In baseball, a batter sacrifices something that will appear on his record to get another runner home.  He hardly sacrifices himself in any significant way.  That is, his act is only sacred to baseball fanatics in a stretched sense, and there is no immolation of a victim.  Because of the inherent importance of the theme of sacrifice, and the challenges that if faces, including ones from the shift of language usage, I was happy to see the theme taken up by the animated film Tangled.

{Spoiler Alert}

I quite liked Disney's retelling of Rapunzel, but there is one area that I found it unsatisfying.  The film begins with a narrator identifying himself and other characters as he sets the story up, and he mentions that he died.  The viewer immediately begins questioning, "How did he die?  How is he speaking to us?"  This is good story-telling, and it saves the kiddies the shock of dealing with Flynn Rider's death later.  Of course, now you have the problem of how a dead character is narrating the film, but I'm more willing to simply accept that the dead can cinematically address audiences from faerie land than I am the nonsensical resolution that the film offers for Flynn's Easter.

You see, Flynn, the charming rogue, actually comes to care for Rapunzel, for her life and her freedom and happiness, more than for himself.  In the final conflict, he offers himself to violence so that Rapunzel might escape the tower.  Rapunzel herself was a victim to her false mother's quest for continued life and beauty, and Flynn's intervention substituted himself to Mother Gothel's violence so that Rapunzel could finally escape her fate and gain the freedom of self-determination in the outside world and reuniting with her true family.  Flynn should have been allowed to make this sacrifice.  He was robbed and so were we.

My objection is not that Flynn was raised from the dead: I could not make such a claim on this day, nor even as a rambling disciple of Prof. Tolkien.  It is the way in which Flynn is raised.  For Flynn takes up the priesthood not only in his heroic self-intervention, but in the moment of inspiration when he sees that by sacrificing Rapunzel's magical hair, she will be set free.  At the crucial moment, he seizes her hair and cuts it off.  Rapunzel loses her magic, then Flynn looses his life to the witch's rage. 

Eucatastrophe* in fairy-tales leads us to expect the happy reversal at the end.  If that reversal is to be Flynn's resurrection, it cannot come at the price of the inner consistency of reality that allows the fairy-tale to exist in the first place.  Or to switch from Tolkien to Chesterton, Faerie must obey its own Law.  In Tangled, the magic was in the hair and cutting the hair killed it.  The magic that could hold back death has died.  There either has to be some other magic or some way of restoring the magic.  Tangled resorts to the canard of the true love tear bringing back the dead.  If there's magic there, it has got to operate by established Law.  Verisimilitude is broken and so our belief is sacrificed for Disney's bottom line.  Tangled kicks us out of Faerie for the price of a happy ending.

Perhaps this could have been remedied with deeper thought and better story-telling, but the simple answer is to have let Flynn die.  Instead of emphasizing the romance between the two characters, emphasize the moral growth of Flynn from his self-centered, immoral use of his freedom to his appreciation of what it would be like to be robbed of one's freedom.  Emphasize Rapunzel's desire to be free and the negative consequences of her victimhood.  Maybe even introduce the temptation to Flynn of profiting from Rapunzel's hair as something he has to overcome.  Then when Flynn sacrifices the magic hair and himself, we cheer and mourn the hero, but the movie ends with Rapunzel's free life and gratitude to a thief who redeemed himself by saving her from a greater thief.  This would have put Tangled among Disney's darker animated features, but it would have also made for a truer tale.  I think there is a good chance that Tangled's success will get Disney executives to reverse their decision to move away from fairy tales, but hopefully they will learn from their mistake and produce better retellings, rather than simply reaffirm a happy ending at any cost.  If children can deal with a story with death, and have to learn to deal with death in real life, then they can learn about the nobility of sacrifice.  It's not so much that Disney needs to get out of fairy-tales, as it needs to get deeper into them and to get out of their formula.  Not ever fairy-tale has to end in couplehood and not every fairy tale death has to wake from true love's kiss.  Fairy-tales are, in fact, more tangled than Disney has made them out to be.  But however they end, they cannot break the Law without breaking the Enchantment.

*Coined by Tolkien in this work.

Part III: Sacrifice in Gaming

S is for Sacrifice I: Terminology

Part I: Terminology

Samaritan Priests Sacrificing Lambs on Mt Gerizim at Passover.  Source.  See also.

I have a number of posts that I want to make throughout today on sacrifice, which is appropriate given that today is Good Friday.  I think I will start out with terms, because most of us are so far removed from this act in its traditional practice that the terms have moved around on us and become rather vague.  Definitions are taken from from The Online Etymological Dictionary.
sacrifice (n.)
mid-13c., from O.Fr. sacrifise (12c.), from L. sacrificium, from sacrificus "performing priestly functions or sacrifices," from sacra "sacred rites" (prop. neut. pl. of sacer "sacred," see sacred) + root of facere "to do, perform" (see factitious). L. sacrificium is glossed in O.E. by ansegdniss. Sense of "something given up for the sake of another" is first recorded 1590s. Baseball sense first attested 1880. The verb is first recorded late 13c. Related: Sacrificed; sacrificing.
early 15c., from O.Fr. oblation "offering, sacrifice," from L. oblationem (nom. oblatio) "an offering, presenting, gift," in L.L. "sacrifice," from L. oblatus (see oblate (n.)).
1540s, "to sacrifice, kill as a victim," originally an adj. (1530s), from L. immolatus, pp. of immolare "to sacrifice," originally "to sprinkle with sacrificial meal," from in- "upon" + mola (salsa) "(sacrificial) meal," related to molere "to grind" (see mallet). Related: Immolated; immolating.
late 15c., "living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power," from L. victima "person or animal killed as a sacrifice." Perhaps distantly connected to O.E. wig "idol," Goth. weihs "holy," Ger. weihen "consecrate" (cf. Weihnachten "Christmas") on notion of "a consecrated animal." Sense of "person who is hurt, tortured, or killed by another" is first recorded 1650s; meaning "person oppressed by some power or situation" is from 1718. Weaker sense of "person taken advantage of" is recorded from 1781.
altar (n.)
O.E. alter, altar, from L. altare (pl. altaria) "high altar, altar for sacrifice to the great gods," perhaps originally meaning "burnt offerings" (cf. L. adolere "to worship, to offer sacrifice, to honor by burning sacrifices to"), but influenced by L. altus "high." In M.E., often auter, from O.Fr. auter. Reintroduced from Latin 1500s. As a symbol of marriage, by 1820.
An example of using these in a sentence in this way would be: "When it was time to perform the sacrifice, the priest immolated the victim on the altar as an oblation to his deity."  The later usage to mean, "giving up something for something else" would seem to derive from the earlier, technical use of the word sacrifice.  The self-sacrifice, the vicarious sacrifice, looms large in our consciousness because of the impact of an interpretation of an event that occurred in the first century of the common era.

Crucifixion - Cano Alonso, Spanish, 17th Century
~Coming up~
Part II: Tangled

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Ricardian

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger
The Controversial Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare

The men you see above, a secular hero and a religious saint, have filled your head with Tudor propaganda, aimed at legitimizing the Tudor line against the heirs of the House of York.  They were both beholden to Tudor monarchs when they produced their works.  An important part of the Tudor strategy was to portray the last Plantagenet king, Richard the III, as a physical and moral monster who murdered his nephews in their boyhood.  Somebody, in short, like this:

Richard III, portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen
Who wouldn't want to be delivered from medieval Hitler?  What?  You say you have some historical questions about the evidence for all this?  Why, we'd hate for you to be a supporter of a bad person we had to get rid of...accidents tend to happen to such people.  Here, watch this play or read this history, and I'm sure you'll be convinced.

Not to worry, my friends.  The eccentric faerie land of England has people that still care about the truth, once such causes are long given up as lost.  I give you the Richard III Society!  And don't worry, my American compatriots, there is an American branch for us as well.  All this too much for you?  Your head is swimming with the possibility that all you knew about the murdering, lecherous, deceitful hunchback could be wrong?  Why not start in the shallow end of the pool, with this wonderful fictional detective story that presents the main lines of the Richardian reconstruction of good King Richard.

Soon, you will join our ranks, my friend!  Long live the truth!  God save King Richard!

PS.  Just for good measure, here are two more Ricardian societies: 1 and 2.  Web searches may turn up branches or organizations in your part of the world not linked here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Queenly Quest

No, I'm not just being cute, nor showing off that I can think of more than one Q word, nor kicking up my consonantal alliterating heels, nor suffering from the inability to choose a subject.  I actually have something in mind here: multiple relationships between queens and quests, two classic mythopoeic elements, and if one puts any stock in Jungian theories, two archetypes in and of themselves.  What are these combinations?
  1. The Quest to find a Queen.
  2. The Quest to become Queen.
  3. The Quest on behalf of the Queen.
  4. The Queen going on a Quest.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

The Quest to find a Queen
Every king needs a queen, so goes the traditional assumption.  It seems to be generally desirable that a king be of a providential temper, and so that he exercise forethought to have a queen-to-be at the ready before his ascension to the throne.  Thus all the stories in history, legend, and literature about the prince finding a princess against the day that he takes on the crown and all that pertains thereunto.  According to the global media reporting enthusiastically on upcoming nuptials between a certain William Mountbatten-Windsor and his fiancée Kate Middleton, I am lead to believe that such fairy-tale countries as the United Kingdom still observe this nicety.  If Jane Austen had written fairy-tales, we might have had this:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single prince in possession of a good kingdom must be in want of a princess."  So Hans Christian Anderson gives us "The Princess and the Pea."  The concern in this story is the test to identify a real princess.  Is she the genuine article?  Does she have the potential to become the queen?  Perhaps princes are poor judges of such an important matter.  Using the principle "it takes one to know one," the queen mother is the one who can discern the young lady who's got the right stuff, and the critical test of the pea underneath a score of mattresses neatly sorts the gentle lady from the look-a-likes.  Whatever form the quest to find her takes, the queen is a figure highly desired, and finding her is something quest-worthy.

Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland in the Robes of State by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1859

The Quest to become Queen
Your mind might first go to the all the historical stories of the strong women who set out to rule, but I have more in mind the young lady who sets out on her quest not knowing that it will end with a queenly crown.  Maybe it's the extent I've been influenced by fairy-tale thinking, maybe it is just a personal preference or something about my own worldview.  Often fairy-tale retellings end with the heart-shaped close-up of the happy couple and a Happily Ever After caption.  This seems to me a practical necessity at best, and a damn shame at worst.  Even if this the moment she becomes or is revealed to be a princess, this is just one initiation before the ultimate one.  The heroine has yet to graduate to queen!  I would like to explore the trials that the noble young woman overcomes to achieve her queenship.

Miniature of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, the Queen's Champion, by Hilliard, c. 1590.
The Quest on behalf of the Queen
I'd be willing to bet that this what comes to most people's minds first.  My memory is dominated by scenes of favors and jousting, of Sir Lancelot du Lac riding to Guinevere's defense in trial by combat, and of Ivanhoe serving the same for Rebecca the Jewess.  But even when queens don't need saving, they are first and foremost a medieval Lady and therefore have a Knight who goes forth at her bidding (see the code of courtly love).  I'm tempted to speculate about how women could improve their life and the life of their husbands based on exalting the Honey Do list, but I think I shall steer back towards safer waters.  One cool thing about the latest Alice in Wonderland film was seeing Alice appear as the White Queen's Champion.

Queen Amidala of Naboo, property of Lucasfilm Ltd.
The Queen going on a Quest
This would seem to be the rarest of all.  I'd love to hear of examples people may have of the queen going questing, but all I can think of is Amidala in Star Wars Episode I.  First, a queen has to change into a more practical questing outfit, obviously.

As Jungian Archetypes
If the Jungian take is correct, the Queen represents the fully individuated, fully realized female self.  She is the embodiment of the ideals and virtues of female wisdom and power, of female maturity and achievement.  In other words, she is the goal of the ultimate, lifelong quest for a woman.  (Individuation or self-actualization is the quest itself.)  That she is worthy of the quest, whether to find her or become her, that she is worthy to command quests in which she takes various parts, is obvious upon accepting this view of her.  Perhaps the strong tradition of female domesticity counteracts having lots of stories of the queen going questing herself, but I expect that this will change, if it hasn't already.  I mean, who's going to stop her?

Monday, April 18, 2011

P is for Paladin

Emperor Charles the Great by Albrecht Dürer
Roland, the most famous of Charlemagne's Paladins.
And you thought I was done after blogging about Knight Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table!  Not when Charlemagne had his Twelve Peers, who were also known as Paladins (literally, "of the Palace").  But the term paladin has come to have special freight in our day.  It started with this guy, seen below.

The titular character of Have Gun--Will Travel was simply known as "Paladin."  The connection between the Western hero (or cowboy) and the Knight (chevalier or cavalier) is made explicit with his calling card.  Not convinced?  Give the ballad a listen.

It's no surprise that the hero on the white horse moved from Medieval Western Europe to the 19th C. Western United States.  The translation will also be made back and forth with the Samurai in Japanese movies, particularly those of the great Akira Kurosawa. Then along came the Dungeons & Dragons phenomena in the 70s and 80s.  Little boys who'd never heard of Charlemagne were suddenly pretending to be warriors who were not only noble, but even holy and righteous.  It was Lawful Good or bust!

A Paladin in Hell by David Sutherland
This iconic hero thus spread throughout everything touched by D&D, including the MMORPG behemoth World of Warcraft, and children's cartoons.  Behold today's paladin, adventuring weekly on Cartoon Network!  (If you've been following me previously, you know he's one of my current favorites.)

"I'm a righteous boy!  I can't do that, it's against my alignment!"
The way we picture the righteous, noble warrior may change, but this iconic hero is here to stay.  Let's close with Paizo Publishing's take on the paladin.  Though clearly within the tradition, in this case it's no stretch to say...

Illustration by Alex Aparin.

You've come a long way, baby.

EDIT: Just found this site.  Hopefully it will be expanded.

O is for Orphan


I shouldn't have prided myself on being relatively unique in my choices for the Mythopoeic Abecediary of April, knowing that I was setting myself up for a Fall of the Ninja Kind.  Blast you, Archmage!  Well, the train is too far down the track to call it back now, so I'm sticking to it like gruel to a spoon.  His post, after all, takes the subject both coming from and heading in a rather different direction.  He also focuses on the orphan in role-play gaming, while my reflection only starts with role-playing.

"Please, sir, I want some more." Illustration by George Cruikshank

There was a period of time where I was getting to do a lot of one-on-one gaming with my daughter, and our gaming circle couldn't keep up with our schedule in group play.  The result was that she made many characters during this time, and got to explore lots of class, racial, and gender options in mechanical terms, as well as in story potential.  All this character generation can be rather time consuming, especially when you want to get down to the actual play, so I fell into a habit when she was working on back story.  "You're an orphan," I apparently said one too many times, from the heights of Mount Game Master Dad.  She finally complained.  "Da-a-ad...all my characters are orphans, except one.  And she was a foster child who didn't know her parents."  "Oh," I responded, I am sure unconvincingly.  While likely there was then a part of me that was a little nervous about family-of-origin issues coming into our games, the main reason beside getting things going were these: 1.  orphans aren't tied down and can haul off and go adventuring whenever they want, 2.  it introduced unknown elements that we could uncover later in gaming, without creating more on the spot, and 3. the orphan is a sympathetic character.  Obviously this habit had become a crutch and a cliche by that point, and my daughter wanted to address this in her share of the world and character building.  Bless her heart, she wanted "some more."

Still, used with discretion and temperance, I find a lot to be said for the figure of the orphan, in terms of freedom and sympathy.  Her unknown parents provide a blank slate upon which creativity may sketch, and whose surface may hide a mystery.  If she takes up a quest, we say to ourselves that orphans don't have a place in the world and so must go out and find or make it for themselves.  And seriously, who is going to root against an orphan?  They're the ultimate underdogs, economically and emotionally.  And any ties they have are made all the more precious, like Chestertonian treasure saved from Crusoe's ship.  Frodo Baggins, after all, was an orphan, and the anxiety that the Pevensies will end up that way are in the background of the first few Narnia novels.

What is the defining issue or issues at the heart of the orphan?  Abandonment, bereavement, want, identity, belonging.  These are powerful human issues; perennial, yes, but I think that belonging and identity may be among the biggest concerns of our time, even in parts of the world where abandonment and want are less pervasive.  Choosing the orphan allows the story to explore this cluster of issues, so we shouldn't be surprised if the choice is timely.

It looks like there are at least eight TV tropes associated with orphan at the eponymous website, so I am not the only one who has overused this character feature.  Being encouraged by the new visitors, comments, and followers of the blog, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.*  What do you think?  Is the orphan overused in certain genres?  Do you have a story about a cliche that you got stuck on in your writing, playing, or other creative outlets that you'd like to share?  Do you have other reflections on orphan characters?  I'd love to hear from you!

*Or indeed, any of the matters on which I have blogged.