T is for Tiamat – Mythic Mondays

T is for milk-and-two-sugars – no, T is for Tiamat, Sumerian goddess of primordial chaos.

Austen Henry Layard's 'Monuments of Nineveh, Second Series' plate 19/83, London, J. Murray, 1853

Austen Henry Layard’s ‘Monuments of Nineveh, Second Series’ plate 19/83, London, J. Murray, 1853

The Mesopotamian worldview is obsessed with water.One can understand why – in a part of the world where there is limited fertile land, and therefore control of water supply is the definition of power, the gods are going to be wet. Tiamat then is the personification of the primordial waters of the sea – uncontrollable and frequently angry.

She does have a role as a creator – mating with the sweet waters to create the younger gods, but this is as an adjunct to her primary role. For most gods, I would add something here about their worship, but Tiamat wasn’t worshipped so much as feared. Avoided. A turn- round- three- times- and- touch- wood if you mention her name kind of fear. And yet, the myths have her die at the earliest age of the world, so why should she be feared now? Perhaps because she is such an imminent personification, she can never really be fully banished from the world.  

I’m going to be a bit D&D specific for the next bit… TSR got Tiamat all wrong. The Monster Manual gives her alignment as Lawful Evil, so she can rule over chromatic dragons. She only shows herself as a dragon if she feels like it – she’s more likely a sea serpent or even a waterspout (see, there’s that Sumerian obsession with water again) But you can’t stat such a changeable creature, so I guess she was always going to be D&Different.

As usual, today’s tale is a blend of myth and fiction. The original has many more characters, whose role is to be the different kinds of destruction. I’ve simplified the story – and omitted the dozens of interim stories about how Marduk gets his names – partly because such tales are often an excuse for ‘we conquered you, so your god is our god now’ Most of the gods we recognise benefit from, or are victims of, such syncretization. This would be in part because the characters we know are only those that were recorded – in many cases, long after the tales were formulated.


Tiamat is the serpent and the sea. In the time before men ruled the world, when all was new, she and her children created and destroyed at a whim, and the world cannot stand such chaos,

Of the younger gods, the bravest was her grandson Marduk. And Marduk resolved to gain from her the Tablets of Destiny, which gave her much power to destroy. But he knew that she would not give up the tablets short of death.

And Marduk went from place to place to collect the things he would need to kill the serpent. In each place where he stopped to rest, he performed some feat that won him a name. Fifty places he slept, and this is why he is called Marduk of the Fifty Names. Each settlement gave him a name, and with it a little of their power.

In a place to the North where all is cold, he was given shards of ore to make a sword

In a place to the East, on the edge of the sea, he gathered water from a spring that sprang from the depths of the earth

In a place to the West, in the deep desert, he learned the art of making a sword whistle through the air

In a place to the South where all is hot, he took the shards to a volcano, and made himself the sword, and quenched it in the water, and he named it Shu Hada Ku, the Supreme Bright Weapon.

So Marduk went to the centre of the earth, where Tiamat raged, and there he fought to control her. For three days and nights he fought, until Shuhadaku pierced the monstrous throat of the goddess.

He took the sword and carved her into pieces. He placed her ribcage overhead to support the heavens. Her blood became the thrashing seas, and her eyes he placed nearby, to weep forever down to the sea. The left eye was called Tigris and the right eye was called Euphrates. Her great tail he placed in the sky, and we now call it the Milky Way.

The Tablets of Destiny he took with him, and went we know not where. Some say he walks the world still, using the power of his names and the power of the Tablets to right wrongs, destroy monsters, and banish evil.

In your games and stories

Tiamat does have a historic connection with dragons, but the mythological goddess is ruler over (and probably mother to) all kinds of monsters. Expect a place blessed by her to be very well-guarded by fierce creatures – many of which could be chimeras. From snake-lion-goats to scorpion-centaurs, chimerae (the form of the plural is debatable depending on your adherence to classical language forms) are monsters with a mix of parts.

Chaos is an excuse for cultists! Since Tiamat doesn’t really have priests or paladins, her followers are likely to be insane cultists, looking to bring the end of the world. Not so good for protagonists but great for opposition.

Of course, she’s not a current goddess, but a dead one. My spell checker objected to the word “deicide”, but it’s a perfectly valid way to describe god-murder. Under what circumstances might one be able to kill a god? Does one need to create disbelief in it? Must one use a particular weapon? Does one need to be another god? And why do your protagonists feel it necessary to go to such lengths, upsetting the cosmic balance, and leaving a domain with no god….

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S is for Sedna – Mythic Mondays

Image of Sedna by Leann Fraoigh released under CC-BY-NC-SA

Image of Sedna by Leann Fraoigh released under CC-BY-NC-SA

This goddess is another composite, from the First Nation tribes of the far North. She appears in various forms from Alaska to Greenland, amongst the Inuit and Aleut peoples. Other names for her translate as “Mistress of Sea” or even “Big Bad Woman”

She appears in one of three guises – as a purely human form, as a half fish, and as a half seal. She has strong associations with sea mammals – in some versions she is the mother of them all, in some she merely has control over them. She frequently has long ratty hair – reminiscent of seaweed. In some versions she is beautiful, in others she is an old hag.

The principle creator for that part of the world is Raven who makes many things with his powerful gaze. So, I have chosen him to be the spirit whom she marries to gain her divinity.

Story of the Goddess

Sedna was a mortal woman who lived with her father, who was a good hunter. She never lacked for food or warm furs, and so was very comfortable at home. Many Inuit men came to ask her hand in marriage, but she refused them all.

One day, a handsome stranger came to the village, who had black eyes and black hair. Eventually, Sedna agreed to marry him, and went with him to his house, which was on an island with no one else but seabirds for company

“Now, I will care for you and love you in this house. There are but three rules here. You must eat only the food I bring you. You must wear the clothes I have provided for you. And lastly, but most importantly, when I leave the house, you must not follow me” said the husband.

For a time, Sedna was content. Each day, Husband left the house, and she stayed indoors so that she did not see where he went. Each day, he returned with food for her – sometimes the fish and meat she was accustomed to, sometimes exotic foods from far away.

In time though, Senda became jealous. “I’ll bet he has some mistress somewhere – that’s why I must not spy on him” she said to herself, and she resolved to follow him the next day. She had learned a little magic from her father, and used it after breakfast to make herself invisible.

Husband left the house and Sedna crept after him. When husband reached the shore, he didn’t climb into the little boat, but went to the clifftop and bowed his head. Great black wings sprouted from his shoulders, and he swooped away, leaving Sedna to recoil in horror, that she was married to something that wasn’t human.

When Husband returned that evening, she was standing on the steps of their house waiting

“What are you, that you grow wings and fly away from me?” she howled

“Ah, my love, I am Raven. The food I was feeding you was to turn you into a goddess to live beside me and help me to make the world. But now that you know, I cannot turn you. You must forever live as part of this world and part of the next. So I will set you to rule over the sea, where you can be both divine and mortal in parts. The souls of those who pass on at sea will be your people, and the animals of the sea will be your servants. And sometimes I will come and fly over you, and renew you, and will still love you, despite you disobeying me.”

And Sedna sank into the sea, and became the ruler of it. Sometimes, when she is content, the sea gives up its bounty easily, and men prosper. But sometimes, when she rails against her fortune, the sea tosses and turns as she wails, and men die to feed her despair.

In your Games and Stories

Sedna does not have temples per se, but there might be shores where she is particularly reverenced. Perhaps underwater grottos house creatures loyal to her, who guard all the treasures lost to the sea. Given the right access, one could even explore her ocean-bed palace.

Sedna is not so much worshipped as feared, She might not be followed by many living folk, but ghosts and undead might well constitute her ‘people’ She might also be appealed to by those who have lost loved ones to the sea – to whom she might conceivably grant spells, from sea creature control to invisibility to necromancy.

The story here features a mortal becoming a god. Does your storyworld allow for such apotheosis? Perhaps your protagonists are seeking to become gods – or to stop someone else from achieving this? Do the current gods welcome help, or are they jealous of their divinity?

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R is for Raijin – Mythic Mondays

The god of thunder, Nitenmon Gate, Taiyuin-byo Shrine Photograph by Michael Reeve

The god of thunder, Nitenmon Gate, Taiyuin-byo Shrine
Photograph by Michael Reeve

R is for Rajin – or as you probably know him, Raiden.

Japanese god of thunder and lightning, he is one of the children of the divine pair Izanami and Izanagi, who birthed many gods, and the eight original islands of Japan. He carries drums from which he conjures lightning, and his more human form is of an old monk with a straw hat

Japanese parents sometimes warn their children to guard their bellybuttons from this god. Apparently he likes to eat them, although this is more likely a characteristic of his demon counterpart, Rajiu, who appears as a wolf or fox.

Japan has a weird relationship between the spirits of Shinto – in which faith everything has some kind of animus, called a kami – and the later Buddhism – in which even demons can find enlightenment. Rajin has an important job, issued by Siddartha (‘the’ Buddha, or more accurately the first Enlightened One) – guarding the Dharma – a collection of poems, parables and discourses, which comprises one of the major holy texts of Buddhism. How effective is the lightning god as such a guardian? Well, the texts haven’t been lost yet…

Raiden turns up in all kinds of pop culture – dozens of cameos in video games, animes, even in a female form in Joss Whedon’s Angel – but he’s probably best known for his starring role in the Mortal Kombat series. Again, this week’s story isn’t original myth, but has its roots in the mythical character, with a lot of influences from pop culture images.

Story of the God

Raiden sat in the centre of the Todai-ji temple, straw hat pulled far over his eyes. However much he meditated, he could not change the truth. And he could not see a way forward.

The Lord of Outworld had stolen the Dharma. Without it, men would find it much harder to achieve enlightenment. Some would never be able to without the guiding counsel, written by the first of the 28 Buddhas.

The abbot of the monastery came to the god as he sat before the altar. “You have been here for three days, what troubles you?”

“I cannot ask the eight gods of elemental forces. We have already failed. I cannot ask the spirits of small places. They do not have the power. And I cannot ask the parents, for they are sworn not to meddle in the affairs of Earth.”

“Then, Lord, there is nothing for it. You must seek the aid of men.”

The Lord of Lighting raised his head, and quirked a white eyebrow.

“All men feel pride, if they are skilled in martial arts. Appeal to their pride, and you will find the most skilled warriors.”

So it was proclaimed that there would be a tournament, to find the most skilled warriors in the world. Many came from China and Japan and even from far-off America. There was even a woman. As they fought under the watchful eyes of the Lord of Combat, some won, some lost, and some died. At last there were but eight left.

And the Lord of Lightning cast an enchantment, that the whole force was transported to the demon-infested Outlands. And because they could not otherwise return, they fought the demon-folk.

There was the demon Shan Chi who was a sorcerer and caster of illusions;and he was beaten by the American Johnny

There was the demon Okame who was a succubus; and she was beaten by the woman Sonja

And there was the demon Orochi who was a many-headed dragon; and he was beaten by the Shaolin monk Liu Kang

And there were many other demons, each with their own form, and the Eight Warriors fought and defeated them all.

At last they came to the palace of the Demon King. And in the centre of his palace was a combat arena. On the one hand were the Holy Eight Warriors and the Lord of Lightning. And on the other hand was a demon horde, led by their King

“Dishonourable cur! Will you not fight one-on-one?” screamed Lord Raiden

“I’m a Demon – what exactly did you expect?” boomed the Demon King

And seven of the eight fought, with Lord Raiden. And the eighth, seeing that all were distracted by the fight, drew on the way of the ninja, and stole the book of the Dharma from the throne where it was. And the ninja read aloud from the 7th Discourse, where it says that Man is the last life before Nirvana, and man who dies with honour ….

The floor of the arena opened, and became a portal to the Realms of Men. And because of the inspiration of the book, the demons could not pass through.

So came home triumphantly the Warriors of Men. But Lord Raiden was to get no rest, for he must ever guard the Dharma from demons and evil men, who seek to turn its power to their own ends.

In your Games and Stories

Many settings have the god of lightning and thunder as evil, or at the least neutral but violent. A benevolent lightning god is the perfect patron for fighters of evil forces; whether armed with swords, bows, or even arcane magics. He might even bestow elemental magics on his followers.

Shinto shrines might feature a statue of Rajin, but they would be unlikely to be full of treasure and guarded by monsters. Monasteries on the other hand, might have ancient holy books, special weapons or armor, or finely crafted artworks; and be guarded by little old men with brooms.

What is the Dharma? When you need to consult it, how do you choose to defeat Raiden, and whatever other guardians he is currently employing? You could fight him, try to persuade him, or even sneakily steal it. When you have it, who else is seeking it – and will now pursue your protagonists?

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Q is for Quetzalcoatl – Mythic Mondays

Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the 16th century Codex Magliabechiano .

Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the 16th century Codex Magliabechiano .

The Feathered Serpent is god of the wind and learning. He serves as a messenger between worlds, and as the guide for vision questing.

As with many of the Mesoamerican faiths, Quetzalcoatl is a composite of disparate local gods. Some of his assumed roles are then parcelled out to his close relatives. His twin brother Xolotl takes his role as messenger to its logical conclusion, as a psychopomp – a guide of souls to the afterlife.

Rather a lot of what we know about the Mesoamerican faiths – principally Aztec, Tolmec, and Mayan – is extrapolated from limited archeological evidence. Much useful data was deliberately eradicated by European conquerors.

The latter part of the story is now believed not to actually be Aztec myth, but to be a misinterpretation, written later by European scholars, who were inclined to see the Aztecs as brutal savages. Politeness on the part of the king was, in that society, a show of dominance – think of an extension of ‘cool guys don’t look at explosions’ – or the icy politeness of the classical Bond villain. So in calling Cortez divine, Moctezuma was actually insulting him.

Story – the Herald of the End Times?

When the world was made, the gods needed a great source of energy to power the world. So they made the sun, but it was incomplete. It needed a god to go into it to give it his lifeforce.

There was the First Age, and that sun was the Jaguar Sun Tezcatlipoca

During this age the people were giants, and ate acorns.There was a fight, the sun was damaged and Tezcatlipoca in his rage sent jaguars to kill all the people.

There was the Second Age, and that sun was the Wind Sun Quetzalcoatl

During this age people were made again, in the size they are now. But in one of his rages, Tezcatlipoca turned all the people into monkeys and Quetzalcoatl send a hurricane to blow the monkeys away.

There was the Third Age, and that sun was the Rain Sun Tlaloc

During this age they tried again to make people. But the king stole Tlaloc’s wife, and in his grief Tlaloc refused to send the rain, and drought killed most of the people.

There was the Fourth Age, and that sun was the Water Sun Calchi

During this age, Tlaloc’s sister tried to be the sun, but she was too heavy, being gravid with many children. So the sun fell out of the sky, and flooded the earth, and most of the people died.

And there was the Fifth Sun, which is the sun we now have. This is the shy god Nanahuatzin. He nearly didn’t become the sun, but his naughty brother Tecuciztecatl pushed him, and fell after him, and got badly scorched. Now he lives in the moon, still burning, and nursing his burns.

At the beginning of the Fifth Age, Quetzalcoatl chased the demon Huitzilopochtli away into the sky, with the promise that he would return to aid his people when he was needed.

And the sign of the ending of the Fifth Age was the return of Quetzalcoatl, not in his form as a feathered serpent, but in the form of a man with pale skin. In the meanwhile, the people should do all they could to sustain the Sun in his great labours. In particular, they should cover their great places in gold to reflect the sun’s light further, and they should sacrifice lives to sustain the sun in his work.

The city of Tenochtitlan had been successful in its wars, and had sacrificed many enemy warriors to strengthen the sun, and their gold was taken and clothed the city, and the king, and the priests.

And one of the warriors was scouting in the forest, and he saw in the distance a group of half-men half deer – or so he believed them to be. We know that the men were Spanish, and riding horses, and that their leader was called Cortez. And the warrior brought the pale man to the king Moctezuma.

The Aztec people welcomed the Spanish, thinking that they were the people of their god. The Spanish explained that the Aztecs. So the king set his scholars to work to learn the language of the god people. The scholars soon gained understanding of the meaning of the Spanish demands.

And when the Spanish asked for gold to be brought, a mighty pile of the precious metal was assembled in front of the Temple of the Sun. What more natural than that the god’s people would require his substance in the world?

In celebration of the return of the god, Moctezuma held a great sacrifice. But the Spanish, not realising the importance of sustaining the sun, slaughtered the Aztec people and priests and lastly the king, butchering him on the top of the temple.

And the Spanish took the gold and sailed away, leaving behind them the ruins of the city Tenochtitlan. We call the place Mexico now, but there can still be seen the site of one of the greatest misunderstandings of all time.

In your Games and Stories

The mythical city of El Dorado, the bustling metropolis of Tenochtitlan – temples to the Aztec gods were vast and grandiloquent. Whilst not literally built of gold (it’s too soft) they would likely be gilded and filled with treasures. Exploring them could be either whilst they were operational – in which case be careful not to be caught and offered as a sacrifice, or as ruins – anyone for Indiana Jones?

The other thing the Aztecs are renowned for is their ball game. They used it as a means of selecting the best of their warriors to sacrifice, but it could equally be a war-substitute, or a selection for some dangerous mission. Are the gods invoked in the arena, or is the one place they cannot influence – and why?

Quetzalcoatl as a patron could grant all kind of sensory spells, from darkvision or echolocation, to clairvoyance, to vision questing. He is likely to be worshipped by mystical scholars – particularly those of the Things Man Was Not Meant To Wot variety.

An interesting set of adventures could be set in the times of one of the other Suns. What are the people like? Could you save them from their catastrophe  – and should you?

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