H is for Hades – Mythic Mondays


L'Enlèvement de Proserpine par Pluton, Sculpture by François Girardon; photograph by Evan Lawrence Bench

L’Enlèvement de Proserpine par Pluton, Sculpture by François Girardon; photograph by Evan Lawrence Bench, used under CC-SA

Hades is King of the Underworld, and brother to Zeus and Poseidon. Although in popular literature he’s been painted as a Bad Guy, the Greeks didn’t see him as evil – more as a part of Nature. He was worshipped as both the Lord of Death, and as giver of the wealth of the earth – miners and smelters revered him as Master of Metal.

We might imagine that sacrifices to him would be a dark act, but the Greeks – and Romans, worshipping him as Dis or Pluto – saw nothing wrong in feeding the god with the smoke of animals. In most myths, he is portrayed as vicious, but not really cruel – merely a product of his nature.

Cerberus -The Three-headed Hound at the Gates of Hell – translates as “spotted”. So, Hades named his dog “Spot” (a fact that has become much better known since Jim Butcher used the idea in Skin Game, one of his Dresden novels)

Story of the God – The Reluctant Bride

Persephone, the young daughter of Demeter, was picking flowers in a field with her friends and playmates, the Oceanids. From a nearby cave, up out of the earth, came the fearsome Hades, Lord of the Underworld, riding a chariot drawn by two giant dogs.

He was immediately smitten by her beauty, and attempted to carry her off to his realm to wed her. She screamed, but there was no-one who could hear and come to her aid. So Hades dragged her beneath the earth to his palace, and set guards about her, so that no-one else could come near her.

When her daughter did not come home, Demeter left her place on Mount Olympus and came to earth. She searched throughout the world, neglecting her work which was to make crops grow and cattle breed. Eventually, she found one of the Oceanids hiding and crying. When Demeter heard where her daughter was, she went to Persephone’s father, Zeus, and begged him to intercede with their brother Hades for Persephone’s freedom.

“I can only free her if she has taken no food. If she has eaten in the Land of the Dead, she has become a part of it, and even I cannot overcome the will of the Fates” said Zeus

They descended to Hades court, only to discover that Persephone had that day eaten six pomegranate seeds from the orchard outside Hades’s palace. As she had not eaten a true meal, but only part thereof, Zeus and Hades agreed that Persephone could split her time between the realms of the living and the dead, thus mollifying Demeter so that the earth would be made fruitful again, .

So, now Persephone spends six months of the year with her grim husband – one for each seed -, and six months in the light with her mother. In the Spring, she still plays and dances in the meadows, and where her footsteps fall, flowers grow.

The parallels between this story and Ereshkigal’s tale are interesting – both explain Summer and Winter through the kidnapping of a loved one by the god of the underworld. Whether the tale of Persephone is descended from that tale remains an open question.

In your Games and Stories

Hades is the Lord of the Underworld – the land from which riches come. His grandest temples will be filled with monstrous guardians – but might well be worth an adventurers time for the vast wealth such creatures might guard, or the possibility of recovering a loved one.

As the richest god, with a known love for music (as seen in the tale of Orpheus) Hades might be the patron of bards and entertainers. He is also a suitable deity for merchants and nobles, who keep his gold and trade his silver.

Hades has a debatable relationship with undead. On the one hand, the dead belong in his realm and he is loathe to let them go without recompense. On the other, some undead might be his subjects – even his agents – in the mortal realm. You’ll have to decide whether he loves or hates the vampires and liches of your world – and whether his wife agrees with him.

Persephone’s cycle of death and rebirth might also allow some kindred souls to travel with her, resulting in a form of resurrection that only allows the recipient to remain alive for the length of the summer – a temporary respite, but perhaps long enough for one last epic adventure.

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G is for Gwydion Gwyn – Mythic Mondays

Gwydion Conquers Pydreri by Edward Wallcousins

Gwydion Conquers Pydreri by Edward Wallcousins

One of the oldest forms of his name is Guidgen which means ‘Born of Trees’, and his historic origins may well have been as a forest deity. The Celts saw their gods as personifications of aspects of nature. After the Christianisation of Ireland and Wales, these spirits of land and water became mischievous fairies.

Like many of the Children of Danu – the main family of Celtic Deities – Gwydion is a magician. His exploits feature in many stories in the Mabinogion, which is also where we meet some of his more famous peers – Gawaine, Taliesin and Arthur.


Story of the God – The Son of Arianrhod

Arianrhod was to become the wife of a great chieftain. As was the custom at that time, she was tested for her virginity, and it turned out that she failed.

“But I lay never with a man, save for a dream I had, that the light itself became a human shape and stayed the night with me” she said.

This was taken as that the Lord of Light, Lleu himself, had slept with her, and that made her no fit wife for the chieftain.

Ashamed, Arianrhod ran to the door, but on her way out something small dropped from her. Gwydion took the token, wrapped it up and placed in a chest at the foot of his bed. Some time later, he heard screams from within the chest, and opened it to discover a baby boy.

Seven years later, Gwydion accompanied the boy to Caer Arianrhod, and presented him to his mother.

“Arianrhod, here is your son”

“If that is my misbegotten child, then I lay a geas on him that only I may name him”

So Gwydion took the child and disguised himself and the boy as cobblers. His skill was such that all the people of the castle came to have their shoes made, and at last Arianrhod came to the courtyard where the two were working. Whilst the elder cobbler wielded the sharp knife on the leather, the bored child threw a stone at a nearby wren. He struck it so accurately that Arianrhod remarked “it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it” and so the boy was named Lleu Llaw Gyffes, which is Fair-haired one with the Skillful Hand.

Furious at having been so tricked, Arianrhod placed another geas on the boy, that only she should arm him.

Gwydion went and borrowed a pack of hounds, and by enchantment caused them to seem as Irish raiders, tall and cruel. He set them on the gates of Caer Arianrhod.

“Woe unto us, that we are beset! Who will drive back the raiders?”

Lleu, disguised this time as one of the serving folk, came to the gate and volunteered to defend the castle “save that I have no arms nor armor”

In desperation, Arianrhod clothed the servant in a fine suit of mail, and gave him a spear and shield. And he went out and single-handedly drove off the pack of hounds. He returned to the castle in his own form, wearing the armor and wielding the weapons his mother had given him.

Seeing that she had been tricked once again.she laid a third geas on him: that he should never have a human wife.

To counteract Arianrhod’s third curse, Gwydion and his brother Math took flowers from each of the forest trees and conjured a maiden from them – Blodeuwedd, meaning Maid of Flowers.

Of course, with no soul, she could not be faithful, and caused nothing but grief. But that is hardly the fault of Gwydion Gwyn, whose part in this tale is done.


In Your Games and Stories

Gwydion can appear as his own self, as a guide and teacher of magicians. His magic tends towards the transformative – turning hounds into people, and the illusory – disguising himself. He also, elsewhere in myth, is a master of certamen – the wizard’s shapeshifting duel, chronicled in both “The Sword in the Stone”, by T H White (filmed by Disney) and in the song The Twa Magicians (recorded many times in different ways, for instance Damh the Bard’s recording of “The Two Magicians” which differs greatly from Steeleye Span’s “Two Magicians”)

The Celts didn’t really do temples in the Classical sense, but any place sacred to the Fair Folk could be a portal to their world – either the Underworld, or Fairyland (the Celts didn’t distinguish) Pools and fountains are good for this, as are caves and hollow hills. Even a simple crossroads at midnight on the full moon could become a road to faraway places.

As a god of magic and craft, Gwydion’s name might be invoked by talismongers and smiths alike. His influence might be sought in Ogham, or chanted over a quenching pool, or sung whilst weaving a baldric. As a forest deity, he might especially be patron of carpenters and fletchers – guiding the selection of the proper wood, and used as a meditative focus to carve smoothly.

For a fantasy setting that lets you more easily weave in the gods, try Jigsaw Fantasy

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F is for Frigg/Freya – Mythic Mondays

The goddess Frigg sits atop a throne while holding and threading a distaff. To her bottom right perches a stork and two human babies. In the foreground before the throne mull two cuddling rams.

Frigga depicted on her throne by H A Guerber

F is for Freya. Or Frigg. Or possibly Freyr, although he tends to be a masculine counterpart – and possibly Freya’s brother.

She’s the goddess of fertile fields, of fruitful forests, and of love – although rarely invoked in marriage, such legal importance was more generally reserved for Thor. She tends to orchards and forests, but more importantly she weaves and spins – not just weaving mortal fabrics but also altering the weave of the web of fate. This form of magic possibly learnt from The Norns (a trio of giants akin to the classical trio of The Fates) is tied very strongly to femininity – even Odin, the All-father himself, was seen to be sacrificing some of his masculinity in adopting the art when Freya taught it to him – but its usefulness is sufficient that many men were willing to make that sacrifice.

Where does she fit in the family tree? Frigg is the wife of Odin, Freya his daughter [and bride of Odr]. She is usually described as one of the Vana – the earth-spirits who intermarried with the Aesir and provided some of their power. Like so many of these deities – the goddess we think we know is the aggregate of many cults across the Northlands. She’s often depicted as the mother of both Thor and Loki.

Her compassion, and the influence it grants her, is in some ways her greatest source of power – as seen with the two cats, Bygul and Trigul that draw her chariot. As any cat-person knows, it’s near impossible to get cats to wear a leash, never mind a bridle, but these two magical animals willingly do so for Freya as thanks for her care for them.

Story of the God – The Brising Necklace

Frigg was a beautiful, blue-eyed, blond Vana, and was wed to handsome Odr, the sunshine, and bore him sons and daughters. They lived in her palace, Folkvanger, in the land of Asgard. But despite her many virtues, and the grandeur in which she lived, she had a weakness for jewels.

One day, Frigg was out for a walk along the border of her kingdom. This was the boundary of the kingdom of the dwarvish Svart Alvar. As she walked she saw that some of the dwarfs were making a beautiful necklace. It glistened as golden as the bright sun and Freya stopped to admire it. Frigg was told this treasure was the Brisingamen, or the Brising necklace and of great value to the dwarfs.

“Oh, you must sell me the necklace. I will give any treasure of silver or gold for I cannot live without it. I have never seen one as beautiful.”

The dwarfs told her that all the silver and all the gold in the world could not purchase the Brisingamen. Unwilling to leave without owning the necklace, she asked: “Is there any treasure in the world for which you would sell me the necklace?”

“Yes, you must buy it from each of us.” answered the dwarfs, “the only treasure for which we would trade it is your love. If you are wed to each of us for a night, Brisingamen shall be yours.”

Bewitched by the sparkle of the beautiful necklace, she agreed to the pact. No one in Aesir knew about these weddings of barter except the mischief-maker Loki, who seemed to always be around when trouble could be found.

After four nights of these unlawful unions, Frigg returned to her palace feeling shamed. She hid the necklace she had given her honour for, wearing it only in the privacy of her own chamber. But Loki came to Odin in inform him of what had taken place in the land of the dwarfs. Knowing that Loki was prone to deception, Odin demanded proof of this wife’s infidelity. To provide evidence, Loki set out to steal the necklace, but he found that Frigg’s chambers were well sealed against him.

Turning himself into a flea, he flew into Frigg’s chambers intent on grasping the necklace, but he could not remove it without awakening her. Scheming as always, he bit her upon the cheek – causing Freya to turn so he was able to remove the necklace.

Loki went to Odin and showed him the evidence of scandal. Odin tossed the necklace aside, left the kingdom of Asgard, and travelled to Midgard – the adventures he had there are a tale for another day. Frigg woke the next morning to find both her necklace and husband gone.

Weeping, she went to Valhalla to confess to the Aesir. The council of the Aesir, ruling in Odin’s absence, forgave Frigg for her misdeeds, but demanded a penance. Taking the Brisingamen from Loki, they commanded Frigg to wear the necklace for eternity as a reminder of her shame. As she wanders the world she weeps for her lost love. The teardrops which land on soil turn to gold in the rocks, those which fall in the sea are turned to amber.

In your games and stories

Freya is the patron of druids and clerics of the ‘actually quite nice” variety. Her strong association with love – especially doomed lovers – means she might be invoked in magics of beauty, but she she might even grant her followers mind control ‘befriending’ powers. Meanwhile her influence over fate, while subtle, may grant the edge needed to ensure that every encounter ends to her follower’s benefit – with unlikely coincidences occurring regularly.

Her temples could be brimming with treasure, or robbed out and now the lair of thieves. Her connection to the svart-alfar – which are not quite Marvel’s Dark Elves, nor Tolkien’s dwarves, but the ancestor of both – suggests that her worship may have attracted crafters and smiths. Who knows what wonders they might have fashioned deep within the earth? Or what cunning traps?

As a Norse deity, she has a warrior aspect, and might actually be the patron of your enemies. In a more blue and orange morality gameworld, she easily might be supporting the opposition. Her fiercer form is suited to witches – both the wiccan and warty kinds. Powerful femininity, using herbs to create potions, spells and curses – that could easily be Warrior-Freya. Cross her – or any adventurer devoted to her – at your peril.

If you are looking for more setting ideas, or ways to tie real myths into your games/stories, check out Jigsaw Fantasy

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E is for Ereshkagel – Mythic Mondays

A talloned and wing goddess stands atop cats and between owls.

The Burney Relief is believed to display either Ereshkigal or Ishtar. Photograph by Babelstone

Moving away from the more familiar gods, this week we’re exploring Sumeria – and more generally the ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Most mythologists don’t make a clear distinction between the Mesopotamian cultures – that is, the dozen or so cultures that ruled much of the area now known as the Middle East (approximately Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Israel) – as their religions all share clear developmental relationships.

From at least 3500 BC (their earliest known writing) until about 50 BC (when the Romans advanced into the province) there were a whole string of empires – the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Sumerians and the Persians. From our point of view, they can be considered together just as the Greeks and Romans can, because they broadly shared a pantheon. Looking from one to another you might find that Ishtar becomes Inanna or Astarte – but the powerful female fertility deity is similar throughout.

The Sumerians feared their gods – rather than the kindly parent figures of Classical myth, or the very human Norse pantheon, the Sumerian Gods are chthonic forces of nature, and most often of water – for people living on desert flood-plains water is by far the most important part of nature.

At the core of the pantheon is one family – a father, Ea, god of sweet water; and two sisters. Ishtar rules life and fertility, and Ereshkigal rules death and winter. Their story is a take on the winter tale.

The version I present is but one of many translations – very little record has survived the millennia, and thus the story as I tell it will inevitably differ from any of the versions that the Sumerians wrote.

Story of the God – The Waters of Life

Ereshkigal, Queen of the Great Earth, was alone and in mourning. Her husband Gugulanna, The Wild Bull of Heaven, was gone from the world.

Her sister meanwhile was happily celebrating her life, and courting a new lover named Tammuz (god of food and vegetation).

Ereshkigal was angry that Ishtar would not share her mourning – and so she captured Ishtar’s lover and trapped him in the Underworld. Ishtar would not let this affront stand, and thus she approached the gates of the underworld and demanded that the gatekeeper open them, threatening to burst them open, so that all the dead would be loosed on Earth.

As Queen of the Underworld Ereshkigal could not risk her domain being destroyed, and so she ordered that Ishtar be let in, but only “according to the ancient decree”.

The gatekeeper let Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar was required to shed part of her jewelry and clothing. When she finally passed the seventh gate, she was naked.

Ishtar spoke then with her sister, asking her to release Tammuz from death, but Ereshkigal refused. Enraged, Ishtar threw herself at Ereshkigal, and so Ereshkigal ordered her servant Namtar to imprison Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her.

With Ishtar imprisoned in the underworld all fruitful activity ceased on earth. When the king of the gods, Ea, heard of this, he created a being called Asu-shu and sent it to Ereshkigal, telling it to invoke “the name of the great gods” against her and to demand the bag containing the waters of life.

Ereshkigal was enraged when she heard Asu-shu’s demand, but she had to give it the water of life. Asu-shu sprinkled Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then Ishtar demanded Tammuz as payment for her time. Ereshkigal refused – as Tammuz was dead he could not be allowed to leave – but Asu-shu suggested a compromise: Tammuz and Ishtar could share their life, spending half of each year together among the dead, and the other half together among the living.

Thus it came that they passed back through the seven gates, getting one article of clothing back at each gate, and were fully clothed as they exited the last gate.

In your Games and Stories

From Narnia to Anne Rice, we’ve had a lot of Evil Winter Queens, and Ereshkigal is the grandmammy of them all. As herself, she makes an epic implacable adversary. Give her powers over cold and control over death, perhaps the ability to return revenants, and you can make her a good old fashioned out-to-rule-the-world villain

As a patron, she grants the power to both enter and return from her realm. Liches and necromancers might sacrifice to her to replace their own souls with that of others. This is reminiscent of the Dark Eldar of Warhammer 40K, who sacrifice souls to She Who Thirsts, lest She quench her thirst on the Eldar. This plays to her unknowability – beyond the gate of death.

As a winter deity, it is possible that she is a necessary part of a greater cycle. The oak seed sleeps under the snow, and the quenching of the heat of summer (see Shamadan in Concept Cards – Epic Characters for the evil desert sun) – D&D’s Raven Queen is an example of this kind of beneficent winter deity.

Winter need not be evil, merely hard and testing. For examples of these kind of winter spirits, some of Empire LRP’s Eternals display this aspect of Winter – the trial to temper the quester against greater challenges.

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