Y is for Yoruba – Mythic Mondays

Statue of Ogun shrine at the Sacred Grove Of Oshun - Photo by Yeniajayiii

Statue of Ogun shrine at the Sacred Grove Of Oshun – Photo by Yeniajayiii


Strictly, Yoruban is the name for the people, not the faith, but I’m stretching to it in order to show an interesting worldview that would otherwise be missed. We’ve looked exclusively at polytheism, and assumed for storytelling purposes that gods are immanent and not omnipotent, omnicognizant nor omnipresent. A god that does not intervene makes for a dull character; a god that can solve every problem without effort makes for a dull story.

The Yoruba worldview has a single powerful god, whom they call Olodumare. But this god is distant, and works mainly through proxies – the Orishas. There are dozens of these, each with their own specialisation. They often include the ancestors of the supplicant, and are not supplanted by conquest – the new orishas supplemented the old ones. Each babalawo (priest) would have his own array of favoured spirits.

As people from sub-saharan Africa were exported in the slave trade, they took their beliefs with them, and syncretised them with the dominant Catholic faith. After all, the Christians were powerful – did it not follow that their spirits were powerful too? The daughter faiths found in the New World are often incorrectly described as voodoo; more accurately Santeria, Candomble, or Voudoun – dependant on both the African root and the Christian variant.  

Be clear, none of these faiths are demon-worship, any more than a faith in Odin or Apollo or Raijin. The orishas – be they locally referred to as ancestors, loa or saints – may require some kind of sacrifice to entice their blessing, but the black cockerel whose blood is spilt over the altar is no more devilish than the calf which the priests of Zeus would sacrifice, and use for divination. The desires and motivations of these spirits run the whole gamut of human experience, so some could be viewed as evil – but this is judged in the actions of individuals, and does not reflect on the faith as a whole.

Because many of the best stories have been lost or exist only in fragmentary form, this tale is more fiction than usual.

Story of the Pantheon

Olodumare looked across the face of the waters, and saw that this place was rich for the making of life. So he conceived in his thought and whistled three of the orishas to come swim in the sea

Obatala the Maker took a mollusc shell and swam to the bottom of the ocean and dug out a piece of the sea floor. When he brought it to the surface, Shango the Flame breathed his fire on it and cooked it, so that it did not dissolve as sand, but came to be rock. Then Elegua the Walker took his big feet and walked over the new land, and made hills and valleys with his walking. And so the world grew.

But all this land was barren.  So the first three orishas whistled for help. Yemoja of the Water took her littlest finger, and began to poke holes in the land. Where she worked, sweet springs came to be. And Oya the Wind blew across the land and the seeds that were hidden came into view, and began to sprout. And so the world grew.

Oshun the beautiful took some of the plants and lent them her grace, that they might move of themselves, and so all animals came to be. And Shango gave some of them fierceness that they might be hunters, and Oya gave some swiftness that they might be prey. And so the world grew.

Eshu the Trickster was sad, because nowhere in this paradise was there room for his mischief. So he went here and there and took a little mud for flesh and a little wood for bones, and he made himself manikins. And he animated them like puppets to dance for him.

When the other orishas saw the things Eshu had made they were worried for their creation, that Eshu’s puppets would spoil it.

Olodumare said that all things have the place in this world, and that these men should govern and guard the world, and someday become orishas too. So each of the orishas gave the puppets gifts, to help them be the best guardians.

Shango gave them warm blood, and the desire to make their world warm and safe.

Yemoja made them virile and fertile and gave them a desire to mate.

Oya gave them swiftness and a desire to look always elsewhere – to the horizons, and up at the stars

And Ogoun gave them the power of making – in wood and metal – and the desire to transform that which they saw as not good, and improve the world.

Olodumare smiled on all these things, and gave them his blessing, that they might grow and develop of their own accord. And Olodumare saw that the making went well, and left the world in the care of the Orishas

And so the world grew, and grows yet. And wise men know that this world is a gift, and that we were meant to guard and govern it, not to ruin it.

In your games and stories

One aspect that distinguishes orishas from other types of spirit or deity is their habit of possessing worshippers. Whilst this can make for a powerful story device, it needs to be otherworldly and alien, otherwise the impact of being so directly touched by the supernatural is lost in the mist. Does the mount know what the spirit does in his body? Can he direct the spirit at all?

More than any of the other faiths we have examined, followers of the Sub Saharan and Diaspora faiths are likely to call upon multiple orishas (loas, saints)  for aid. Spells to control fertility might implore Oshun for aid, whilst divinations call upon Orunmila. Pick spells first, and then decide which spirit grants that spell, and what they require in exchange. Perhaps some only desire song or dance, or a promise of regular attendance at a worship ceremony. Others may require a chicken, a dollar, or some other sacrifice.

Given that following these faiths was for many years illegal (and still is in some places), a temple would either be hidden in wilderness, or constructed and deconstructed for each faith ceremony.  Either way, the adherents are unlikely to view the intrusion of a treasure-seeking adventuring party in anything other than a hostile light. If the punishment for taking part in such a faith is harsh, the faithful have little to lose by fighting the intruders. Protagonists would be better served cautiously courting such congregations if they have need of their help.

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X is for Xerces – Mythic Mondays

By H.A.Guerber (The story of Greeks) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By H.A.Guerber (The story of Greeks) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“God” Emperor of the Persians

Whether Xerces should be included in an array of gods rather comes down to how one defines god. In this case, divinity is defined as “can do anything he likes, regardless of the sensibleness or otherwise”

Historically, he’s your basic emperor. Mythologically, he’s a megalomaniac with supernatural capabilities at the least. Calling your elite troops Immortals, and your bureaucracy a priesthood will sow the idea that you think of yourself as divine. We can’t be sure how he thought of himself; only the propaganda he allowed to be circulated about him. There are suggestion that he may in fact have been a Zoroastrian.

Story – the Hot Gates

The Persians sent an envoy to Sparta. “If we conquer your province, your gold will be ours, your cattle slaughtered for our feasting, and your women will fill the hills with their lamentations”

The spartans returned a single word

Because of the boldness of the Spartan land army, and the strength of the Athenian Navy, Xerces was counselled by his advisors not to invade Greece. Because he was headstrong, and considered his armies invincible, he invaded anyway.

Sparta was far from the front lines, and most of the Persian threat fell upon its ancient rival Athens. Sparta’s damos, its council of citizens, voted not to fight.

King Leonidas saw further than his fellows, and knew that sooner or later, the Persians would need to be fought. It was better to fight with allies on ground of his choosing, than alone before his city.So he went to fight with his 300 personal guard. And they marched to Thermopylae, which was a pinch in the mountains. The Spartans and their allies need to hold the Hot Gate mountain pass for long enough for the Athenian navy to come up with reinforcements.
Two days passed and the thousands of troops, including the Elite Immortals were blocked there.

On the third night, seeking the wealth the Persians so vicariously displayed Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, and showed the Persians a hidden route through the mountains.

With troops both in front and behind him, Leonidas and his 300 warriors could not hold, and all were killed. The death of their king goaded the Spartans into war with Persia, and they began their march.

With little to impede them, the Persians overran Greece, and burned Athens to the ground. Once the Greeks had united their scattered forces, their combined might pushed back the Persians back to the Hellespont, and the straight to Asia.

Shortly after, the assassination of Xerces diminished the Persian threat.

In your Games and Stories

Xerces is a powerful human but not truly a god – so he can’t directly exert divine power or grant spells. However, he and his bureaucracy are experts in the more mundane ways of making it appear that divinity is at work – why do you need Befriend if anyone in power is ordered to treat you with respect? Can fireballs be substituted with weapons of war? Remember here Arthur C Clarke’s Law of Technological Superiority – any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. High priests might in fact be studied wizards – or engineers

True followers of Xerces are likely restricted to the most fanatically nationalistic Persians. There may be many knees forcibly bent, but few who truly believe. Therefore, anyone who is outside the Empire likely has some ulterior motive in declaring themselves a devotee of the God Emperor.

Within the Empire, public holidays dedicated to the Emperor are likely to disrupt travellers’ intentions. If you need to buy food, but today is a fast day; if you don’t fall to the ground as the statue of the Emperor goes by – you’re likely to upset the locals. They may even decide to denounce you to the priesthood as a heretic…

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W is for Woden – Mythic Mondays


Odin, der Göttervater, Carl Emil Doepler, 1880

Odin, der Göttervater, Carl Emil Doepler, 1880

We haven’t deliberately left kings to the end, it’s just that the tail end of the alphabet has less names – and Woden, or Odin as he’s better known, graciously stepped aside for Osiris.

Woden is ruler of the Norse gods, the Allfather. He is the master magician amongst the Aesir, and leads them in battle. His servants, the Valkyrs, choose those dying warriors who are honored with a place in Valhalla. Where there is fighting, feasting, and apparently, opera.

The varied names come, as by now you will have figured, from the local interpretations. Wotan is more German and emphasises his role as a war-god, Odin more Saxon and more a god of knowledge, while Woden is both Saxon and English and is a name connected especially with royalty; although all the name variants come from the same Proto-Germanic root.

Almost any part of Norse society could be found following one of the aspects of Woden, and many of the Norse royal houses claim descent from him – he seems to have taken a leaf out of Zeus’s book here. He was patron of skalds, protector of travellers and healers, and the last appeal of justice.

Whilst we’re with the North-folk, a quick language primer. Viking is a verb – to go raiding by sea. Whilst the first invaders on British shores were Vikings, that’s a descriptor no more racially indicative than saying they were soldiers. The settlers who came later were of the Angle, Saxon, Jute or Dane races, and were generally not Vikings.

Although the Tarot isn’t really from the Northlands, Woden has a strong association with the 12th Arcana – the Hanged Man. Suspended from his feet to gain inspiration, the Hanged Man’s tale and Woden’s are virtually the same.

Story of the God – Gaining Wisdom

Woden knew many things about the world, but the thing that he most knew was how incomplete his knowledge was. He knew that Ragnarok – the end of the world – was coming, but he needed details to plan his fight. So he set out to seek wisdom

He walked and he walked and he walked the whole length of Midgard, until he came the the edge of Niflheim.

There was a branch there of Yggdrasill the World Tree and Woden tied his feet to it.

He hung there for nine days and nine nights, and at the end of his meditation, he had conceived of the runes, so that man could communicate and cast magic.

And he knew almost all of the past, and almost all of the present, and the ravens Hugin and Munin came to him and went about seeing all things for him. But still the future was dark to him.

So he walked and he walked and he walked, until he came to a deep pool. And this pool was called Mimir’s well.

There lived the Norns with their father Mimir – Wyrd, Verdandi And Skuld. Of the threads of the lives of men, Wyrd would spin it, and Verdandi measure its span, and Skuld would cut it off with her shears. And between these tasks they would take water from the well and water the root of the World Tree which grew there.

The knowledge they had of past and present and future, the Norns would not give up lightly. They told Woden that he would have to trade for it.

He had nothing to trade but himself, and so he gouged out his eye and dropped it into the well. And because he had damaged his mundane sight, he was granted visions of the future. We can still see his given eye in every pond and puddle, whilst his good eye shines in the heavens to give us light and heat and hope.

Now Woden was better armed to protect gods and men from the ravages of Ragnarok, he returned to Asgard to contemplate what he had seen.

In your games and stories

In any political game, it is not easy to tell by looking who is a Follower of Woden. Disciples of Freya might wear a wheatsheaf, Children of Thor wear his hammer, but there is no clear sign that someone worships the King of the Norse, given how varied his followers are. He protects and guides everyone, unless you commit the crime of Not Being Norse

As a master of magic, Woden’s priests and paladins might wield all kinds of spells, but the most common would be divinatory or sensory spells, and some devotees, most commonly women, would be likely to learn Seidr – the art of reweaving fate. Woden traditionally wields a spear, and rides an eight-legged horse, so that might influence the weapon choices of his adherents – and as the weather-god, Woden is a likely god to grant lightning bolts.

Temples to Woden frequently featured shrines to the other Aesir, and even to heros like Siegfried and Beowulf. So guardians of such places are more likely to be fierce warriors than fantastic beasts – particularly given that many shrines to Woden would be within the mead-hall. So not only fierce warriors but drunk fierce warriors.

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V is for Vulcan – Mythic Mondays

Vulcan. Marble, reception piece for the French Royal Academy, 1742 by Guillaume II Coustou

Vulcan. Marble, reception piece for the French Royal Academy, 1742
by Guillaume II Coustou


It may be cold, but Vulcan would never let that slow him down, so we haven’t either.

More than just Hephaistos reskinned, the Roman version of this god owes a lot to the Etruscan god Sethlans, and also to the Cretan god of the natural world Velchanos. As usual,it looks like as the local peoples are conquered, the Romans take aspects of their gods and weld them onto their own deity. This may be rather the other way about, hence the name sticking around.- Hephaistos is more about the beneficial aspects of fire; Velchanos is the master of natural disasters. Prayers to Vulcan – particularly on his feast day, in mid- August – tended to take the shape of ‘please don’t let my house burn down’ than any appeal for aid with construction.

His principle forge is located beneath Mount Etna, but all volcanoes are his domain. Temples to Vulcan were typically located outside the city limits, since most featured a forge and hence the risk of fire. The biggest was within Republican Rome, but had been outside the gates of the rome of King Titus, who is supposed to have built the temple.

As usual, the tale is adapted from the original – I’ve incorporated elements of a different myth to show how Talon was made. Few tales mention Vulcan, despite his importance to the pantheon, and even fewer feature him as a major participant.

Story – The Bronze Man

The Olympians held their collective breath, as Hera bore Zeus another son. Three days and three nights she struggled in labour, and the child when finally born was crippled in one leg.

Horrified at what they had produced, Zeus cast the infant Hephaistos down from Olympus, and he landed on the island of Lemnos. When he was launched he was an infant god; by the time he finished landing, he was the size of a small child.

A fisherman had sailed away from home to trawl the rich fishing grounds near Lemnos. With the storm and earthquake of the god’s landing, he had caught no fish, so had room for a foundling child. The fisherman took Hephaistos – who could say nothing but his own name –  home to the island of Crete, and handed him into the care of the king, Minos.

Because of the volcano that had sprouted at the core of Lemnos, they called the child Vulcan, and he lived in the palace with the royal children. From the very beginning, he learned all the smith-lore that the Minoans had, and all their craft.

When Vulcan was grown to a man, he decided to make a great work to thank his foster family. The Minoans were great sailors, but they had little by way of an army. So Vulcan resolved to make a force whereby the Minoans could safely sail away, leaving Crete in the hands of the Bronze Man.

He began with bones like the bones of the hills, carved from granite.

The bones he covered with flesh of the finest bronze – copper from the mountains, and tin from the edge of the world.

Into the veins of the creature, Vulcan poured living lava, to warm and to animate.

He inserted the heart of a bull, so that his creation would be strong and vigorous.

Lastly, he told the automaton to wake, and gave him the name Talos. And Talos woke, and went to guard the beaches of Crete.


The Argonauts had sailed far when they came to the coast of Crete. As ever, the great bronze man patrolled the beaches, and they could not land. Cunning Medea went in a little boat to shore

“Hail Talos, faithful servant! I am sent by the gods to reward you with immortality. This vial contains ichor, which flows through the veins of Zeus and Apollo, and Hephaestus your father. All I need do is pour it into your veins and you will live forever”

“My veins are sealed by a single bronze nail, in my right heel” said Talos. And he lay down on his front so that the witch could take out his nail, Perfidious Medea let out all the lava within, but did not replace it, and the bronze man lay dying on the beach

The Argonauts not only took advantage of this treachery, but took the body of the bronze man onto their ship, as trophy and as plunder.

Without their staunch defender, the Minoans were quickly defeated by the boatload of heroes. One of their number, Amphidamas, stayed behind to rule Crete, and so the crew was diminished by their victory.

After they sailed away, the people of Crete rose up in revolt against Amphidamas. The new king declared that each home should make a statue of Talos, and bury it beneath their threshold. In this way, the spirit of Talos would continue to defend the people of Crete.


In your Games and Stories

Spells granted by Vulcan are likely to fall in three broad categories. Instant making – creating weapons or armour; superior crafting – creating magically empowered items; or burning things – hands, enemies, cities.

He is almost certainly followed by blacksmiths, but other crafters might pay homage too – especially any who use fire, from cooks to shipwrights. Seers who inhale volcanic gases might also be amongst his worshippers, but these would likely be rarer. Strangely, there might be a handful of bards in the congregation, playing brass instruments, since Vulcan is supposed to have made the first trumpet as a gift for Apollo

Temple complexes to Vulcan are likely mostly protected by their environment, featuring lava and fire trenches that are both numinous and protective. Creature defenders tend towards salamanders who can withstand heat, or magically protected strong beasts – lions, bulls, or bears.

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U i for Uenuku – Mythic Mondays


The Te Maori Exhibition, with an image of Uenuku. Click for source.

The Te Maori Exhibition, with an image of Uenuku. Click for source.


Uenuku is the Maori god of the rainbow

The Maori word for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which is the Land of the Little White Cloud. Many gods, and the myths we tell about them, are shaped by the environment of the people telling those stories.

Norse myth has the world emerge from ice and fire. Classical myth has the world born from a watery Chaos. For the Polynesian Island people, gods are often either mountains or clouds. If you look at images of the island groups, they appear out of the sea as mountains shrouded in clouds. Some of these gods are grumpy – which is not surprising when you recall that this whole area is volcanically active.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Maori had no written language, so all of their stories were passed down orally. As such there is no canonical version of their stories – modifying the tale to suit the listener is very much in the tradition of these bardic people.

Story – the Mist Maiden

Uenuku had sailed far in his canoe when he saw a magnificent island. He paddled into a convenient bay and drew his canoe onto the beach

“I wonder what the fishing is like here” he mused

And he set lines and caught a large fish, so that he ate very well that day, and he slept in his canoe.

When he got up in the morning, he looked at the sunlight and thought it would be a good day for hunting. So he went upstream, where instead of game, he found a pool where a beautiful girl was washing her hair.

“Come eat with me, pretty girl” said Uenuku. They sat and ate and talked for a while, and then the maiden told Uenuku that she had to leave, but that she would return the next night.

And so he went and slept in his canoe, and returned to the pool, where the maiden was waiting for him.

The pretty girl explained that she was a mist maiden, and she was only free when the mist rose – at night, or early in the morning. And so for some time Uenuku fished the evening tide, and spent his nights with the mist maiden, and they came to fall in love.

She consented to marry on the condition that he not tell anyone about her. So they lived in harmony, each night Mist Maiden would return, and each dawn she would leave. When a little girl was born to them, Uenuku realised that he had been away for a whole year, and that his tribe would likely think him dead. So he resolved to go home for a visit.

When he beached his canoe in his home village, everyone gathered around to welcome him. They had given him up for lost.

When he told them all he had married, the tribe were excited.

“So, you must show us this wife of yours”

“But her home is in the sky – each dawn she must go”

“She cannot know that it is dawn if you block up the windows. Then you can bring her her to us, and we will all know your happiness”

Uenuku went home, and to please his tribe, he blocked up the windows. But Mist Maiden knew when the sun rose and escaped through the keyhole, which he had neglected to block.

All alone, Uenuku set out to search for his wife and child. After many years of searching, when Uenuku was bent with age, Rangi the Skyfather took pity on him, and changed him into a rainbow. Now he lives in the sky with his family. But the rainbow does not come down to earth to visit, since the only people he might want to see would be his tribe, and he doesn’t want to visit them anymore.

In your games and Stories

The Maori carved wooden sculptures to house spirits, and Uenuku is housed in a spiral-headed post, which could be carried with the tribe as they migrated from island to island. Perhaps in a more fantasy version of our world, floating temple ships bearing such sculptures ply the seas. They would be likely guarded by tribal warriors, and be a storehouse for the treasure they had accumulated – more likely books than gold. Whilst in our world the Maori relied on oral tradition, in a fantasy world they are just as likely to be literate as any other population.

If any god in this collection were to grant the Befriend spell, Uenuku is a good candidate. He might also make available sensory spells, which he might have developed to help him find his lady-love. Conceivably, he might petition the Skyfather for weather control, but that’s more likely to be a direct appeal.

You might meet Uenuku earlier in his story than his divinity – as a fellow questor. He is the kind of character whom one meets in computer RPGs with an exclamation point above his head – the beginning of story arcs. Perhaps he needs the protagonist’s help, to aid in his search, or perhaps he has seen things in his travels that will help with the current quest.

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