K is for Kronos – Mythic Mondays

Rubens saturn

Saturn, Jupiter’s father, devours one of his sons. – Painting by Peter Paul Rubens

Kronos is the King of the Titans. The Titans were not so much worshipped as feared. They are the primeval forces of nature. A few are benign – Metis, Thought, becomes the mother of Athene, and Themis is the personification of Justice – but most are terrifying and dangerous. The Sea, the Sky, The Sun and Moon, concepts like war and destruction, and assorted local fire-mountains (remember, the Eastern Mediterranean area is volcanic) They cannot be wholly tamed, merely overruled by the Olympian gods.

The Titans may well represent the lingering deities of the Phoenician culture that inhabited parts of what is now Greece before the Mycenaeans, which we think of as the Classical Greeks.

Kronos himself suffers from confusion with the Roman Chronos, who is Old Father Time. There’s no kind of clarity whether they’re the same deity or two different ones, because different Classical writers treat the matter in one of three basic forms.

He’s either Cronus or Kronus or Kronos (as with many periods of history, spelling in the alphabetical systems was inconsistent – most things weren’t written down so those who could write had to work out certain words for themselves) He is the husband of Gaia, or her son, or both. I’ve gone with the son version, because it fits with most of the common tales, and makes the following story make more sense.

Story of the Titan – Beginnings

In the beginning was Chaos, and Chaos brought forth Gaia, which is the Earth, and she brought forth Uranus, which is the sky.

And Gaia and Uranus married, and had many offspring – giants and monsters of all kinds. And the greatest of these was Kronos, and Rhea was his wife.

Uranus displeased his wife however, for he did not care for all of her children. The Hekatonkheires and the Cyclopes displeased him with their strange forms, and he threw them into Tartarus where he would never again have to look upon them.

Kronos was the only of Gaia’s children both strong enough and brave enough to fight against the tyrant Uranus, and so he freed his imprisoned brothers and sisters and marched against his father, striking him down and castrating him with a great stone sickle.

Kronos was not content however – he knew that the Cyclopes and Hekatonkheires were willing to fight against their lord, and he was now their lord. And so he repeated the actions of his father and imprisoned them in Tartarus.

It was this act that led his mother Gaia to prophecy that as he had repeated his father’s crimes he would repeat his father’s death – Kronos’ son was destined to overthrow him. So as his wife Rhea gave birth to each child he swallowed them whole.

When Zeus was born, Rhea could take it no longer and so she bundled a stone in swaddling clothes and handed it to Kronos, hiding the boy on Crete.

Zeus grew until Crete could no longer hold him, and Zeus went to rescue his brothers and sisters. He wrestled with Kronos until he could force an emetic on him. His disgorged brothers and sisters then launched a vast war to overthrow the Titans, armed and equipped by the Cyclopes. When the Titans were dead or subdued, the Olympians carved up the universe between them.

Zeus became King of the Sky, and his brother Poseidon became Lord of the Sea. The third brother Hades became Lord of the Underworld. Their sister Hera became queen of marriage and childbirth. Demeter took the growing of crops for her domain, and the last sister Hestia claimed sovereignty over the Hearth.

Kronos was imprisoned in Tartarus below the earth. There he waits, scheming revenge against his son, and the mortals who are ruled by him.

In your stories and games

Summoning the Big Bad Thing is a favourite of cultists and sorcerers everywhere. Whether a Titan, a Great Old One, or a more earthly monster, the Big Evil is usually a ritual to be interrupted. For an excellent example of this kind of titanic struggle (sorry) in gaming, take a look at the Age of Mythology: Titans expansion.

On the other hand, what if the party are trying to get rid of a god? It’s possible that summoning such Things might be necessary if the aim of the plot is deitycide. Of course, one you’ve summoned it, there’s no guarantee that Kronos will do what you ask – he is a force of nature. And how does one breach the walls of Tartarus anyway?

Some of the myths provide another reason one might wish to bring back the Titans – During their rule humanity was stronger, freer and more moral than the people of the modern world. The Titans, unlike the gods, felt no need to interfere in the lives of mere mortals and their power flowed more freely into the world.

The Titans don’t have clerics or paladins, but some settings might see them as the granters of elemental magics. Kronos is majestic, and so might indirectly grant spells of mastery or even metamagic. But he is unlikely to commune directly – more likely there is some quality of the power that binds him that allows his power to be siphoned.

If you’re looking for some new deities and primordials for your world, you may want to pick up this month’s Jigsaw Fantasy – The Royal Panoply of Annem Ka

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J is for Juno – Mythic Mondays

Juno and Jupiter together, by Annibale Carracci

Juno and Jupiter together, by Annibale Carracci

 

Juno is the Eevee of Roman gods, constantly evolving in different directions. She started out as Hera, Greek goddess of marriage and childbirth. But when adopted by the Romans she collected titles – Capitolina reflected her role as patroness of the Roman State; Moneta from her connection with the moon – the word money comes from this root, as the Roman mint was part of the temple complex.

The differences between the two goddesses reflect differences between Greek and Roman women. Greek women were often required to stay virtually imprisoned in the gynaeceum – the women’s house. Athenian women had limited rights to property, while Spartan women had much more developed rights. The Romans adopted the Spartan model – women could own property, and often had considerable social influence.

Juno has a martial aspect – protecting the vulnerable – and hence appealed to by those law officers who protect and serve. Anyone whose role is defined by those whom they serve – from PAs to social workers to viziers – might have cause to call on Juno.

Because of her role in childbirth, no knots were permitted anywhere in the temple – a problem if you had no belt! Knots were believed to hinder a woman’s birthing – and hence wearing any would negate any favour from Juno.

 

Story of the God – Hatred

Hercules was the result of one of Jupiter’s many affairs, and incurred Juno’s hatred by the very fact of his existence. She resolved not to let this one grow up, to confound her vengeance. So, she sent a pair of serpents to his cradle. The infant Hercules strangled one in each hand, doubtless while burbling and giggling. To try to protect him, his mother sent him away to be raised by peasant strangers.

Hercules grew big and strong. He married and had two children. His life might have been peaceful. But eventually Juno found him, and sent a fit of madness such that, when he saw his wife approaching, he perceived them as enemies and slew them.

As penance for killing his wife and children, he was made to serve his half-brother, the cowardly King Eurystheus. He slew many monsters, captured others, and last of all borrowed Cerberus the faithful hound of Pluto.

He settled down with a new wife,Deianira. Once, she was attacked by a centaur. Hercules drove him off with his poisoned arrows, soaked in the blood of the Hydra. As the centaur lay dying, he told Deianira to soak a shirt in his blood and give it to her husband if he was ever unfaithful

Hercules was drinking and telling tales with his friends, and Juno caused Deinira to think that he was with another woman. She gave him the shirt, thinking it a magic charm to restore his love. But the shirt was a deadly poison, and unable to remove it, Hercules threw himself into a river, in an attempt to cool the fire, and drowned.

His deeds were so great that Jupiter declared that he would be received onto Olympus. Even Juno had to be reconciled to his divine self. She didn’t like it much, and he spent much time away – appearing in the dreams of heroes to inspire them to greater deeds.

 

In your Games and Stories

Juno the jealous has more reason to turn up as the patron of adversaries than protagonists. She might support an order of police-ly paladins, but she’s more likely to be called on by the duke’s right hand man – or his wife. She would likely grant clerical powers of protection – or perhaps poison as vicious as her temper!

As demonstrated in the above story she also had a tendency to use underhanded means and illusions to punish those she disliked, often tricking their loved ones into betraying them. Those who have angered Juno have cause to fear their allies as well as their enemies.

Geese guarded her temples, which were relatively simple in plan. Other buildings might be supported by the temple nearby – priest houses, farms to raise sacrifices, the mint… add in the location of the temple in the centre of the city, and a raid on a temple of Juno might more resemble an urban heist than a dungeon crawl.

Juno’s holy day – the Matronalia.- was early March. A festival dedicated to respect for all women, and by extension all relationships seen as valid by that society, could be the jumping off point for all kinds of intrigue stories – by defining and celebrating what is proper, we also define what is taboo. Taboo means secrets, and what will people do – or have adventurers do for them – to protect those secrets?

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I is for Isis – Mythic Mondays

Isis caring for Horus.
An ancient statue of Isis caring for Horus, creator unknown.

Worshipped as consort to Osiris, she is more than merely a beautiful trophy. Queens in Egypt were supposed to be wise counsellors to Pharaoh – their coronation title “She who Sees Horus and Set In One Being” suggests how important the Queen was to Pharaoh’s magical duties.

Isis is the model of queenship and motherhood. She is often depicted suckling her son Horus, who is usually portrayed as a child rather than an infant – representing his strength, and her devotion to him beyond the usual. Several depictions of the Madonna and Child are based on earlier works showing Egypt’s Great Queen

The Romans adopted Isis as another mother-goddess; it’s probable that the temple commissioned by Caesar in honour of Cleopatra was dedicated to Isis.

Story of the Goddess – The Source of the Nile

Set was always jealous of his kingly brother, Osiris. Once, to trap him, Set fashioned a box of rich acacia and cedar, and measured it to fit Osiris perfectly.

Set then gave a banquet for all the gods, and proudly displayed the box. He proclaimed that whomever it fit would get to keep it. Dwarfish Bes was too small, and great Sobek the crocodile god was too large. Set’s wife Nephthys was too slender, Hathor the hippo goddess was too wide. When it came to Osiris’s turn. Set slammed the lid, making the box into a coffin for Osiris.

Set threw the box into the Nile, and it drifted away. Isis spent a long time searching for her husband, and at last found the box with Osiris’s body. She brought it back to Egypt so that he could have a proper funeral, and be interred in a pyramid.

As he lay in state amid the drying desert sands, Set found the body and in his rage at seeing Osiris again, tore the body into 14 pieces, and scattered them all over Egypt. As far as Set was concerned, his hatred was such that his enemy should not even have a proper burial!

Once again, Isis set out to search for her husband. Try as she might, she could only find thirteen pieces of him – the last piece, his phallus, had been eaten by a great fish.

She besought Thoth’s aid, and he helped her to craft a golden phallus, and attach it to Osiris’s body. Such was the power of Isis’s magic, she was able to become pregnant by her dead husband, and she conceived Horus to be his father’s avenger.

With his body restored, and properly buried, Osiris became king of the Land of the Dead. The great fish who ate the last piece of him, swam to the end of the Nile, and there died. The phallus is there still, the source of the great fertility of the mighty river, and the author of the wealth of the land of Kem.

In your Games and Stories

Isis is patron of magicians. Her temples might be schools of magic, and her devotees and priests likely favor policies of educating peasants and universal literacy. She’s unlikely to have orders of paladins; such priests as she does have are likely to be heavily involved in politics.

As a deity of female power, the goddess might be followed by Queens and noble ladies. In any world where women have less status than their male counterparts, she might be seen as the embodiment of the power behind the throne. She could also be invoked in her motherhood role to protect youngsters.

Defunct temples are unlikely to be gem-filled dungeons – the Egyptians favoured simple open courtyards. But the magical aspects of such a place might make it an ideal location to cast large ritual spells – and even possibly be a nexus for interplanar travel.

Such a nexus might well attract The Wandering Tavern – and serve as part of the quest to anchor it once more.

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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.

For more help building fantasy worlds, buy us a cup of tea at the Jigsaw Fantasy Patreon!

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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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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

Continue reading →

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