D is for Dionysus – Mythic Mondays

Photograph of a Grecian statue of Dionysus riding a Satyr taken by Haiduc

A statue of Dionysus riding a Satyr, photographed by Haiduc

Back to the Classics, for an often-misunderstood god of wine. And fertility. And romance – like most major gods, his areas of influence don’t neatly fall into clerical domains.

The worship of Dionysus was a mystery cult – which is to say, the details were never written down, so we know little about it. We do know that a central tenet involved descending into caves and enduring a second birth – the Dionysians were perhaps the first ‘born-again’ faith. We also know that followers of the god were held in suspicion – Alexander the Great was said to have suppressed the cult on more than one occasion.

Most of the Greek pantheon transferred to their Roman counterparts largely intact. Dionysus did not – he transformed from the patron of wine to the drunken Bacchus, and the ceremonial rebirth became the Bacchanalia – a wild revel, the Roman orgy.

Story of the God – the Twice Born

Dionysus was conceived to a mortal mother, Semele, and the divine King Zeus. Not long before the birth, an old woman, who was Queen Hera in disguise, came visiting. She would not believe that the father was Zeus, and taunted the young mother.

“Make him show you his full glory. Then we’ll know for sure!” cackled the crone.

So the next time Zeus visited, Semele begged and cajoled him to show her his divine form. Eventually, Zeus relented. But mortals are not made to see the divine, and Semele perished.

In sorrow, Zeus gathered up the unborn child from her womb. Having nowhere else to hide him, he sewed him into his great thigh.

As he was heading away, he met with Hera, who had lurked to see the results of her scheming. Because the babe was concealed, she did not hear him, and he was protected from the jealous queen’s wrath.

Zeus took little Dionysus to a grove in Asia, where he was born from Zeus’s thigh and entrusted to a group of nymphs. The child grew to be a great god, and the nymphs who raised him became his followers – the Maenads.

In your Stories and Games

As an adversary, Dionysus makes for a suitable patron for panderers and peddlers of all kinds of illegal goods. Imagine Gotham’s Scarecrow – only instead of madness, he’s got religion. Whilst this is less true to the original god, the modern perception of him is colored by the medieval portrayal of all the pagan gods as their least acceptable – their most demonic – aspects.

The caves in which the Dionysians worshipped could become a suitable setting for a dungeon. The Oracle at Delphi was almost certainly under the influence of gas vents found in volcanic Greece – such vents might make entertaining traps, and the caves might be home to vicious satyrs or crazed maenads – not evil, but enraged by unexpected disturbances.

Modern day followers of Dionysus could adopt a very Buddhist attitude of “There are many paths and this is mine”. Think of the stoner with a twist – taking a variety of consciousness-expanding drugs, because such an altered state really does allow him to commune with his god.

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C is for Chulyen / C is for Crow – Mythic Mondays

Still image from Chulyen, A Crow's Tale, by Agnes Patron and Ceris Lopez

Still image from Chulyen, A Crow’s Tale, by Agnes Patron and Ceris Lopez


Crow is a trickster throughout Native American mythology. His name in the Alaskan Nootka or Tanaina tribes is Chulyen – it’s important to remember that the body of myth described as Native American (or Amerindian) is from dozens of tribes originating from Alaska to Texas. Some stories are peculiar to one tribe, some are shared by dozens. Chulyen, as with many incarnations of Crow the trickster, can be interchanged with Raven the wise teacher. In either form he appears throughout the myths of many tribes.

Generally speaking, the animal spirits – Bear the healer, Beaver the builder and crafty  Old Man Coyote – are not gods but helpers to mankind – or sometimes his enemies and rivals. The world is full of evil creatures, like the winter spirit Wendigo and the water spirit Uktena, and without the aid of good spirits it is hard for Man to battle them.

Story of the Spirit – Sun and Moon

Once, not far away, there lived a very powerful and rich chief who had a beautiful young daughter. Somehow, the chief captured the sun and the moon with a powerful magic, and he hung them up in his house.

Everywhere else there became darkness. Because of the darkness, the people could not hunt or fish. The plants would not grow and the animals had nothing to eat. Crow learned that the great chief had taken the sun and moon, so he went to the chief’s house. He asked the chief if he would return the sun and moon, but he would not. Crow saw that it would be hard to steal the sun and moon, for they were well guarded, So the cunning black bird devised a plan.

He saw how the chief’s daughter went to a small stream to get water every morning, so Crow hid near there and waited for her to return. When he saw her coming down the trail, he turned himself into a fingerling, a tiny fish, and jumped into the water. After the girl arrived, she filled a bucket with water. Then she dipped her drinking cup into the stream and Crow-fingerling quickly swam into it. She did not see him and drank the water. So the girl became pregnant with Crow’s spirit.

After a short time the daughter gave birth to a baby boy. The baby grew fast and was soon a young boy. The grandfather was very fond of his grandson and would do anything for him.  One day the Crow-boy began crying.
The chief asked him, “What do you want, grandson?”

The boy pointed to the pretty lights – the sun and moon – hanging from the ceiling. The chief decided to let him play with them if it would make him stop crying. So the boy took them outside and played with them for a while, but then he threw them high into the air. When the old chief ran out to see what had happened, Crow became himself again and flew away. The chieftain is still angry and sometimes he tries to throw a blanket over the sun or the moon to catch it again. But Crow will not let him.

In Your Games and Stories

Crow tricks everyone eventually – even Death on occasion, when he feels the world needs to learn a lesson. It is this aspect that the Crow comic series, created by James O’Barr, has taken (The comics have spawned films and novels; the first film starred Brandon Lee.) If you are telling gothic or horror tales, this aspect of Chulyen as a psychopomp (a guide of dead souls) can be useful, especially for explaining the metaphysics of the world to characters, and readers. For a comedy example of this in action, Quoth the Raven in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music parodies this narrator role.

Players of Werewolf: The Apocalypse will doubtless recognise the ‘monsters’ above as tribe names – if you choose to play one of these characters, it is always worth trying to read a few of the (human viewpoint) stories the tribes are named for. In the World of Darkness, Crow himself has his own people – the Corax. Play all the animal spirits with a measure of seriousness – your players will provide the comedy if that’s what your troupe are looking for.

In more real-world games, Crow or Raven might be used as a warning symbol, in the sense of ‘think carefully, all is not as it seems’ Crow might signify death-places, although these are more likely to feature human names. He is a common spirit guide, and might be appealed to when vision questing. Poe’s Raven has this kind of oracular insight.

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B is for Balder – Mythic Mondays

Balder lies dead surrounded by other norse deities.

La mort de Baldr by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1817

So, having introduced a Classical god for A, I figure we could have a Norse god. There might be some repetition of culture later, but for now, we can do a new pantheon every week…

Balder is a God of Light. Most of the Norse gods have variant spellings, so may also appear as Baldr or Baldur. Usually worshipped alongside Odin, since he is Odin and Freya’s son – Sky and Earth making Light. His twin brother is Hoder, God of Darkness.

All the Scandinavian gods have an unavoidable Fate, and Balder is no different. His Fate is to be the spark at the beginning of Ragnarok. Loki in this tale has grown from a mischievous trickster to a truly evil god:

Story of the God – The Beginning of the End

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A is for Artemis – Mythic Mondays

Artemis relaxing with her animals

A 1687 sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Tuby I

So, the Boss has decided that we here at Artemis Games have to write something every week: Something at least tangentially related to fantasy. I have persuaded him that this would be an ideal space for me to geek out about mythology. So, I’m going to use this new spot, Mythic Mondays to work my way through an alphabet of gods.

My choices might not be yours – I’m going for a spread of different belief systems. For anyone who follows Norse or Greek paganism – or any of the other faiths I discuss – rest assured that when I say ‘myth’,  I mean ‘cool stories involving gods’

Reality is Complicated

Fantasy gods usually have one or two domains, because they are designed to be the power behind clerics and paladins. Real world gods are not nearly so neat. Often the deity we know is a composite of different cults. For the classics, this is exacerbated when the Romans imported the Greek gods – and added modifications of their own.

Artemis is a nice example of such a goddess – she claims dominion over forests and the chase, the moon, hunters and their prey, wilderness and woodsmen. Eternally virginal, but also goddess of protection in childbirth.

Childbirth? Well, Hera would likely be your patron in the eastern islands, especially around Samos. But if you were Spartan, you would likely pray to Artemis to help you birth fine warriors. If you burned charcoal, or were a hermit, you might ask her for protection from wild beasts. She is, however, best known as a huntress – we’ve chosen her as our patron as the protector of game.

Tale of the God – Rules are Rules

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