Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

18 June, 2012

Welcome to My World: Gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Continuing on the general theme of gods, I’m going to shift from the factual to the fictional, and talk a bit about D&D gods. This post will have a pretty different tone than the previous Welcome to My World posts, being a bit more meta and not really directly related to the other posts in subject matter, but should you want a look at them anyway, you can find them all here.

I just wrote an exam paper on the definition of gods – problems of definition are a pretty central concern in religious studies – and throughout writing it I was distracted by thoughts of how I could apply this to fiction. This post is part of the result. One of the core set of terms used when discussing definitions in this kind of field is emic and etic. An emic definition is an internal definition, a subjective and personal one. When you ask a Christian to define the word “god” you will get Christianity’s emic definition – or more accurately, this person’s emic subset of Christianity’s definition. An etic definition, on the other hand, strives to be objective and neutral, capable of spanning all variations of – in this case – gods in various religions. A purely etic definition is of course as impossible as a pure objectivity in the humanities, but the point is to get as close as you can. The guy who coined the terms based them on phonemic and phonetic, and they have a similar relationship of culturally determined versus universal.

To bring it over to the game, in the core D&D 4th edition, there are several gods listed in the Player’s Handbook as suggested options for divine characters. In my own world, I have kept this core pantheon pretty much as it is so far, but that may change in the future – perhaps even in the writing of this post. Several of these core gods have also been given statblocks – that is, they have stats of the same kind as any other monster, and can be fought and defeated in battle by the players. I have seen, on several occasions when this has been the topic in various forums, people who are downright angry about this. The gods should not be statted out, they say, they are embodiments of eternal concepts and therefore indestructible. It is basically a case of these posters’ emic definition of gods not fitting well with the game’s definition – nor indeed with several religions’ definitions, but that’s beside the point here.

Within the game, however, there is a definition of god that for the game world is completely etic. D&D is after all a world where many rules are a great deal more solid than they are in the real world. The Dungeon Master’s Guide defines gods by their abilities and limitations. They are “powerful but not omnipotent, knowledgeable but not omniscient, widely travelled but not omnipresent. They alone of all creatures in the universe consist only of astral essence. The gods are creatures of thought and ideal, not bound by the same limitations as beings of flesh.”

This is still a very vague definition, being more poetic than practical – only the bit about consisting of astral essence is concrete. In the Draconomicon, however, there is a more definite and rule-bound definition for the word “deity”, found near the stats of Tiamat. A deity, within this universe, is a being who:

  1. Rolls saving throws when an effect is applied, rather than at the end of their turn, AND
  2. Is completely unaffected by player characters below level 20, AND
  3. Speaks the magical Supernal language, AND
  4. Discorporates when it is reduced to half its hit points, leaving it weakened, but not dead.

I think it is safe to say that the “god” spoken of in the DMG and the “deity” of the Draconomicon is the same category. It is very much a game’s definition, which makes sense, as this is a game. “God” is a word that is as narrowly defined within the game as the name of any other monster – and D&D famously has different monsters under names that in the real world are synonyms. It is all about carving out specific niches.

When it comes to making up the cultures of the world the game is set in, however, I am tempted to return to the vaguer definitions of real life. My paper wasn’t just on gods, it was on supernatural, or rather superhuman, beings in general. Now, within a D&D world, it doesn’t quite make sense to talk about superhuman beings as the core of religion, because there are oodles and oodles of superhuman beings in D&D, and chances are the players characters are among them.

I am tempted to, within the game world, expand the word “god” to include anything that is worshipped – so that what are in the game’s technical terms primal spirits or primordials, are called gods by the common citizenry who happen to belong to their cults. I worry that this might end up being just confusing, though, since the game has a built in etic definition of the word already. Some of life’s complexities are not worth reproducing in a game, simply because it becomes boring or confusing rather than fun, and the problems of definition faced by religious studies seems like such a one.

So let me focus on the beings which meet the game’s definition, then. Without going into specific deities, I’ll instead tell you a bit about how I do deviate from the standard set-up in my view of them.

The standard cosmology posits a universe where the two poles of the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos stand opposed. Somewhat inspired by Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I’ve taken this one step further, and decided that somewhere in the Elemental Chaos there lies a core, a heart, of pure change. A single point of unending change, which is never the same from one instant to the next. Likewise, in the Astral Sea, there lies a heart of pure permanence, a place of absolute unending stillness, where nothing can live or move or breathe. These are the poles, the cores of the universe, two equal opposites locked in eternal balance, radiating change and permanence and creating all things as they touch.  A tiny speck of change seeps into the area around permanence, and you have the Astral Sea, a place of serenity and preservation, but where change can still occur. On the other end you have the Elemental Chaos, where the merest touch of permanence seeps into the shores of change, enough that there can be things for more than an instant.

From the astral essence, then, you get gods – beings of permanence with just enough change in them to be beings at all – capable of thought and movement and will. Their counterparts, the primordials, are beings of change with just enough permanence to be beings at all, to have will and a semblance of form.

It follows then, that the gods are at heart conservatives. It is not in their nature to change their ways, or to change at all. Even the ones who claim change and invention and progress as their domains, are in the long view conservatives. They are creatures of permanence. It is no coincidence that those among them who flirt the most with change and chaos are the ones that have lost their sanity.

Though they are credited with feats of creation, they are not, as a group, creators. They are preservers. It was the primordials who created the world; the gods merely preserved it, locked it in its shape. The gods did not create souls, they do not know where they come from or where they go, they just bound them in flesh. Gave them that bit of permanence that keeps them in the world, for a time. The inhabitable universe is a mix of chaos and permanence; the gods merely represent one of the extreme points of the axis. They are powerful beings, very powerful beings, but being nonetheless, who can indeed be killed.

Because, really, what is the point of having evil gods in your game if your player’s can’t face them in the climactic showdown?

14 June, 2012

Of Gods and Men

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I have an exam tomorrow. I also need a post for tomorrow. In a beautiful union of rocks and birds, I’m going revise and write a post at the same time. I’m afraid the result might be a bit disjointed, lacking an overarching unity, or indeed point, but I’m going to risk it.

Gods crop up in plenty of religions, and certainly in all the ones I’m currently studying. They all have some different ideas on how the relationship between gods and men work, however.

Ancient Mesopotamia is probably the most pessimistic in its outlook: Humans were created as slaves for the gods, so that the gods wouldn’t have to do any work themselves. Tilling the soil, building irrigation channels, growing food and building temples are all really boring tasks that the gods didn’t feel like doing themselves. Serving the gods meant performing labour, and giving them its fruits. Prayers and rituals were about warding off misfortune, and keeping the god-kings happy. Such a cheery time.

The ancient Egyptians were also big on serving the gods, but with a less pessimistic outlook. The creation of Man wasn’t elaborated on much, but humans were part of the ordered cosmos the gods maintained. The gods also held back the chaos of the barren desert and lifeless night, maintaining the constant cycle of birth and rebirth in the universe. Priests, a special class, performed daily rituals of service and sacrifice in the temples, on behalf of the king, whose job it actually was. The king was both divine and human, the point of intersection that linked the two spheres.

The ancient Greeks were a bit unclear on the creation of Man, though the Orphic cycle held that human were created from the ashes of the titans that devoured Dionysus. What is more clear is the creation of woman – Zeus sent woman to men as a punishment, forcing them to endure them if they wanted to procreate and have their families live on. Zeus was a bit miffed at having been tricked into taking the useless bits of the animal as his share in a sacrifice, and then shortly thereafter having fire stolen from him by Prometheus. Here, the gods were rulers of the cosmos, who had shaped the world order and had great power over people’s lives. When an animal was sacrificed, the bones and fat were burned, while the people performing the sacrifice ate the meat in a feast – sharing a meal with the gods. Prayers were almost contracts – Man honoured the gods, in exchange for blessings.

The Romans took this further, there’s a reason do ut des is in Latin. There were gods all over the place, and if you honoured them properly, but not excessively, they’d smile on you. The Romans figured the reason for their prosperity was their great piety. They resembled the Greeks in their ritual practice, in many cases at least. They also imported gods and cults from all over their empire, so there was obviously some variety.

Making a leap north, and ahead a millennium or so, we get to the Vikings. Here, too, we have the gods as beings of order, holding back the forces of chaos – and doing an ever worsening job of it. Seriously, they keep giving away weapons and losing members and in general weakening, all leading up to the big collapse to come. Anyway, humans are in the middle, between the realm of gods and the realm of chaos, and can use all the protection they can get, and therefore sacrifice and hold festivals in the gods’ honour. Meanwhile, Odin collects dead people to boost his forces for the last battle – great plan, Odin! An army of all the people who didn’t survive their battles! Cream of the crop, I’m sure. Can’t go wrong.

I think I’m going to stop here. This did end up feeling a bit disjointed and rushed, but meh. I have an exam, what do you want from me?!

19 April, 2012

Words, Words, Words: Siren

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Picture a siren.

Now, chances are that you’re imagining one of these two things:

"The Siren" by John William Waterhouse

Possibly more mermaidish.

Fire engine siren.

Probably also involving an auditory dimension.

Those are certainly the two things I associate with the word “siren”: Pretty women luring Greek sailors to their deaths, and loud noise makers heralding the arrival of emergency services. Because this is the way my mind works, I suddenly started wondering yesterday how that word came to mean both.

I mean, obviously the mythological sirens came first, but how did the concept of evil temptress women singing an irresistibly beautiful song develop into the word for obnoxious and penetrating howls of hideous noise? Speculating wildly, it might have something to do with the idea of a sound that cannot be ignored, that demands attention and reaction, but that seems a bit high concept for a common word.

Of course, words change meanings in weird ways all the time, and diving into the etymologies of  the most innocent terms can lead to some amusing discoveries, but this one seems so strange to me because we still have the original meaning with us. Maybe it’s not the everyday usage, but I think most people will have heard of the sirens Odysseus escaped. Time for some cursory research.

The sirens of mythology, which incidentally are the main “Siren” article on wikipedia, were female creatures with hypnotic voices who got their jollies by tricking sailors into wrecking their ships. As in the painting above, they then presumably had a good laugh while the sailors drowned. They’re often depicted as mermaids or other sea-dwelling creatures, but in the original tale they were women living on an island, not in the sea itself.

What of the noisy siren, then? Where did that get its name? Wikipedia’s article, this time under “Siren (noisemaker)” claims that the first sirens were used as musical instruments, and the first model to be given the name, from 1819, got it because it “could produce sound under water, suggesting a link with the sirens of Greek mythology”. Ah, see, now it all makes sense. It was made for music, and the mythological sirens made music. The noisy version must have come much later. As for the underwater part, it would hardly be the first time something was named based on a misunderstanding of source material.

The Online Etymology Dictionary (what, you haven’t added that as a custom search in your browser?) says that the first recorded use of “siren” to mean “device that makes a warning sound” comes in 1879, sixty years after the instrument version, so it apparently took people a while to realise that this maybe wasn’t the best sound to listen to for fun. Or maybe it was?


5 March, 2012

Five of a Thing: Graeco-Roman Gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Yes, it’s that time again, where the deadline haunts, and I need something useful and easy to say, and I turn to a list. Seeking to avoid a repeat of last time’s debacle, I’m aiming for a safer subject. My head is currently full of Greek and Roman mythology, both from reading through course literature and from a recent re-watch of HBO’s Rome. Great show that. Rather than try to sort out something coherent on this topic right now, I’m going to give you my favourite gods. Yes, and ranked this time, by my interest. You heard it here first folks, the final and definitive mythological popularity contest! (Hubris? What’s that?) So here we go, top five Graeco-Roman gods!

5 – Janus

The only really Roman god on the list, and at the end of it at that. Janus is one of those gods who seem like they should be hugely important, what with controlling doors and such, yet somehow don’t figure to much. The reason he gets on my list right now is because I really like the concept of one of his temples in Rome, the one with the gates of war. Whenever Rome was at war, the gates were open – this was most of the time. Augustus apparently bragged that he managed to close the gates a whooping three times in his reign.

4 – Zeus

Head lecher of Olympus, but he only reaches the number four spot on my list. Sure he’s big and strong and kingly and all that, but he’s not terribly interesting. Where he really shines, though, is in his, ahem, sexual escapades. There’s really nothing else to call them. This is the guy who seemingly slept with at least half of Greece, and never as the same animal twice.

3 – Dinoysus

Zeus may be a party dude on paper, but Dionysos is the real Michelangelo in the dodecatheon, at least when he’s counted among them. Sex, drugs, women, wine and song – no wonder this guy was popular. My interest in him comes more from his foreign status, though – something I had never heard about until I began reading about this for my course. Dionysus was a god who came from somewhere else, in his fundamental conception an outsider that invaded Greek order with his man bacchanalia. That’s worth a number three spot for sure.

2 – Hephaestus

Who got a rawer deal than Hephaestus? His whole reason for being is to prove the point that women aren’t any good at doing stuff for themselves, and he goes on to be the Olympian butt monkey. Even when he does smithing well, he gets no respect. There’s something eminently loveable in an underdog like that, but not enough to outweigh the sheer cool-factor of the number one spot.

1 – The Erinyes

Well …

We are the skilled, the masterful,
we the great fulfillers,
memories of grief, we awesome spirits
stern, unappeasable to man,
disgraced, degraded, drive our powers through;
banished far from god to a sunless, torchlit dusk,
we drive men through their rugged passage,
blinded dead and those who see by day.

Then where is the man
not stirred with awe, not gripped by fear
to hear us tell the law that
Fate ordains, the gods concede the Furies,
absolute till the end of time?
And so it holds, our ancient power still holds.
We are not without our pride, though beneath the earth
our strict battalions form their lines,
grouping through the mist and sun-starved night.

– Aeschylus’s Eumenides

‘Nuff said.

1 March, 2012

In the Beginning

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

In the beginning, there was nothing, only a great void, empty and lifeless. Then, at either end of it, two realms were created; one of smoke and ashes and ever-burning fires, the other of cold and snow and never-melting ice. The ice from the cold realm spread into the void which remained between the two, and there it met sparks from the realm of fire which melted it, and from the meeting of the two forces, a giant was born. And a cow. The cow provided him with milk, and fed itself on the salt stones from the cold realm. As it licked at a stone, a man appeared from within it, and came to life. He had a son, presumably with one of the creatures created from the giant’s sweat, who again had three sons. These three killed the great giant, plopped his corpse down in the void, and created the world from it – mountains from his bones, soil from his flesh, and the sky from his skull, that sort of thing. Finally, they took two logs of lumber, and made them into a man and a woman, and got the human race started as well.

I am currently reading a book which contains creation myths from various cultures all over the world. Not full holy books or epics, just salient excerpts concerning the creation of the world, the world order and mankind. The one I just recounted, as I’m sure you sussed out somewhere around the second sentence, is the Norse creation story, taken from Gylfaginning, a charming tale of a Swede getting swindled – just the sort of reading we like here in Norway. Though it would have been even better if he was a Dane.

In the beginning, the Plough married the Earth, and they had the Sea and the Cattle God. Then the Earth seduced the Cattle God, who killed his father and married his sister, the Sea, and had the God of the Herd, who also killed his father, and then married his mother (the Sea), who then killed her mother (the Earth), and they had a son who married his sister, the River, and killed both his father and his mother, and had the Shepherd God who married his sister, Graze-and-Poplar, and I think you see where this is going.

Ancient Babylonia was a bloody soap opera. I’m not really sure what lessons that particular tale of a generational bloodshed that puts the House of Atreus to shame imparts, but I am sure the ancient Babylonians saw their society reflected in it somehow. Mythology fascinates me, both the phenomenon as an expression of human culture and what it says about both the culture and humanity in general, and frequently also as stories in their own right. And what story could be more intriguing than the start of everything? As someone who endeavours to write his own stories, getting under the skin of the oldest and truest ones can only be a good thing.

In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.

OK, that one’s not in my book, that’s a Pratchett quote, and while I don’t mean to say that the scientists who work with this particular area don’t know what they’re talking about, I do think that the idea of the Big Bang has become a pretty much mythical event in the popular conciousness. Pop culture is, in a way, the mythology we produce in this day and age. I doubt there are many outside the labs who actually understand everything  about the theory; I am certainly not one of them.

In the beginning, the Earth fell from the sky – stones and mountains and soil and water plummeting down from the great Above to settle down here and into the shape of the world. From the soil, plants grew, and people too sprouted from the earth as little children, feeding of the soil. A man and a woman appears to give them clothes. As they grew up and became many, they cried out for dogs, and dogs appeared from the earth as well. Then people learned how to die, and society could get started.

That tale from Greenland is so refreshingly straightforward and unconcerned; I think it is my favourite so far, but there’s no guarantee it won’t have to share the limelight. I’m not very far into the book yet. I’m still at the beginning.


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