Thursday, 23 June 2022

We need to be churning more oceans!

We need to be churning more oceans! We need to be fisting more demons! We need to be killing more sons! We need to be hurling more weapons!

Part three of a short series about the elements of Proto Indo-European Mythology that haven't made it into the fantasy noosphere, or haven't made it as much as one would think, or have made it quite a lot but still a look at the reconstructed "originals" can be illuminating.


"Although the concept of elevation through intoxicating drink is a nearly universal motif, a Proto-Indo-European myth of the "cycle of the mead", originally proposed by Georges Dumézil and further developed by Jarich G. Oosten (1985), is based on the comparison of Indic and Norse mythologies. In both traditions, gods and demons must cooperate to find a sacred drink providing immortal life. The magical beverage is prepared from the sea, and a serpent (Vāsuki or Jörmungandr) is involved in the quest. The gods and demons eventually fight over the magical potion and the former, ultimately victorious, deprive their enemy of the elixir of life."

Already something of a failure because this concerns not an element of PIE Myth that hasn't been covered by the Genres but one that fits almost too-well into D&D specifically.

Elixirs and potions are happily set within the D&D cosmology so the idea of a super, super super divine level potion fits right in. After all if you can make a potion of this or that of various strength and effectiveness then why not have there be a potion of immortality which made the deathless gods what they are? And a highly interpretable boundary between powerful mortals and gods is something D&D handles pretty well.

I can imagine a 'potion of ageless immortality' being a super-high-level item, combine it with a potion of eternal regeneration and boom, you've got yourself a god.

BUT, one element that’s missing is the potions cosmological nature; it’s not just some potion that came from wherever - it was made through the combined efforts of a super-serpent, plus the beings we now call gods, plus the beings we now call demons - they made it together through some incredible process that neither group could have done alone.

And then the gods stole it, or tricked the Demons into not drinking it, and that’s where 'Gods' and 'Demons' come from, the trickers and the tricked.

Gods as original adventurers indeed.

Of course if we view this from inside the resulting mythos then the Demons were very bad and the Gods HAD to do what they did - BUT THEY WOULD SAY THAT WOULND'T THEY??? Reading back the difference between what would be gods and what would be demons looks more like the difference between two street gangs

What does it mean, or what would it mean in an imagined world, this war between the deathless trickers and the, not-quite-mortal, but definitely not deathless or ageless, tricked?

While the sacrifice myth gave the roots of reality as a kind of annihilation of self/twin, the churning elixir myth gives the roots of divine order as a kind of scam, in which we applaud the scammers because they were more clever and because they were/are sort-of on our side, or at least more on our side than whatever 'Demons' are.

The benefits of this crime being an escape into deathlessness, into eternity.

I suppose the requirement of the unified action of Gods and Demons explains why they are no longer making the 'good' version of the immortality potion - that lot will never work together again. yet at the same time it suggests a way of making more; by some third party, (the adventurers or main character of the story) tricking both groups into once again churning the cosmic ocean.


"In the Ulster Cycle, Connla, son of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, who was raised abroad in Scotland, unknowingly confronts his father and is killed in the combat; Ilya Muromets must kill his own son, who was also raised apart, in Russian epic poems; the Germanic hero Hildebrant inadvertently kills his son Hadubrant in the Hildebrandslied; and the Iranian Rostam unknowingly confronts his son Sohrab in the eponymous epic of the Shāhnāmeh. King Arthur is forced to kill his son Mordred in battle who was raised far away on the Orkney Islands; and in greek mythology an intrigue leads the hero Theseus to kill his son Hippolytus; when the lie is finally exposed, Hippolytus is already dead. 


According to Mallory and Adams, the legend "places limitations on the achievement of warrior prowess, isolates the hero from time by cutting off his generational extension, and also re-establishes the hero's typical adolescence by depriving him of a role (as father) in an adult world"."

It might be bad to be a PIE hero but if you are the son of a PIE hero.. run! Run for the hills! Except don’t because you will fall over and lose your memory, be raised by hill people and become their hero, try to free them from the tyranny of the river-valley lord and fight him in single combat only to die and fall over again, mooning him, revealing the birth mark on your arse that confirm that yes, he just killed another son, sky-father damn it!

A key point for us is that killing the son, in Indo-European terms, is like 'killing the parents' in children’s fiction; it enables the adventure.

Sane parents stop their children going on adventures so for the story, or game, to happen, and for the Hero to happen, they need to be missing, powerless, incompetent or dead. (Like most Disney parents).

Likewise the D&D adventurer will ultimately 'age out', (though in practice they remain near-psychotic self-driven loners in otherwise communal societies), but if they were real they would probably gain families and embed themselves in a socio-political milieux, as people tend to do as they age.

How then may they adventure? You can do socio-political court dramas, but how can they meat-and-potatoes, risk-and-exploration adventure?

Clearly by accidently killing their son and/or heir in tragic and fated circumstances, this then ending their 'family line' (assuming a patriarchal society) this disconnects them from the world of line-building, politics and embedded power structures - a good time then to go on a grief-stricken old guy adventure.

How to do this with an entire adventuring party? Simply have them ALL accidentally kill each others children in the same fated event and/or situation. It’s an utterly batshit idea but not that much more batshit than the sheer number of accidental son-murders in the Eurasian mythos.

Alternate versions could be the accidental but fated self-destruction of whatever it was the adventurers invested in that bound them to society - a fort, wizards college, thieves guild or whatever.


I am sorry I could not find any examples of Jamshid fisting Ahriman, I feel as if I have let you down

"In both accounts, an authority figure forces the evil entity into submission by inserting his hand into the being's orifice (in Fenrir's case the mouth, in Ahriman's the anus) and losing it"

Firstly people aren't being swallowed by monsters enough, instead of just killed.

Secondly the idea of immobilising a way too high level being by SHOVING your hand UP INSIDE IT (an ex-friend once told me if I was bitten by a Pitbull, "just shove your finger up its arse and it will let go", I never had a chance to try it out), allowing the creature to be bound or the victim extracted.

Then - disastrously but perhaps predictably, it goes (slightly) wrong, resulting in the loss of only one hand. This feels like a good and appropriate mythic level beginning for a low level hero, a level-one adventure even. You get a major win over a too-high-level foe but at the cost of a major sacrifice and a big name-imbuing mythic incident to start of your career.

"leprosy hand guy who bound that monster that time"

"stank hand who fisted a demon and trapped it"

Combine this with the arrival of a fated weapon, with some truly exciting powers but probably also a doom (almost certainly involving killing your own son by mistake), and you have a very nice set up for a P.I.E hero - one hand, magic mace or sword, binder of monsters, fated doom.

Furthermore, investigation of the binding of Fenris myth (where Tyr got his hand bitten off), lead me to another mythic fragment; 

"The Gods had attempted to bind Fenrir twice before with huge chains of metal, but Fenrir was able to break free both times. Therefore, they commissioned the dwarves to forge a chain that was impossible to break. To create a chain to achieve the impossible, the dwarves fashioned the chain out of six supposedly impossible things:

  • The sound of a cat's footfall
  • The beard of a woman
  • The roots of a mountain
  • The sinews of a bear
  • The breath of a fish
  • The spittle of a bird

Therefore, even though Gleipnir is as thin as a silken ribbon, it is stronger than any iron chain. It was forged by the dwarves in their underground realm of Niðavellir."

And this reminded me of a half-memory of something from Hinduism which I remembered as being a hero binding a demon with sea-foam. I searched for this for literally minutes and found that actually it was Indra, and not binding but a weapon;

"In the epic, there is a very brief description about the story of Namuchi and Indra. According to the story, once Namuchi hid himself in the rays of Surya due to fear of Indra.

Indra then promised him that he will not kill him in day or night, or with any weapon which is wet or dry. However on a foggy day, Indra chopped off Namuchi's head using foam of water.

From that day onwards, Namuchi's head followed Indra reminding him that he was killer of a friend. Indra then went to Brahma to find solution for this problem.

Brahma told him to bathe in the holy water of Aruna river which was purified due to confluence of river Saraswati. Indra then did the same and got rid of this sin."

The concept and gameability of the impossible binding is not something I remember seeing much in fiction or games. (It feels familiar, but, like with early wizards towers, when I look in my memory for specific examples I can't find much).

This also seems like it would be a good fit for D&D, for the 'paradox binding/assembly' the collect-these-impossible-things is essentially a fetch quest which could range from very high magic to cunning folk trickery depending on how you approached it. For the sea-foam equivalent impossible natural binding, you need to find a wonder-worker, or super-smith (who probably stole their powers from a devil or demon, that’s another possible PIE myth), who can bash together the wind and rain or whatever it is you need to make your thing.

I am interested if anyone in the comments has any other versions of the impossible binding motif or ideas about how it could be used.


"In the Ossetic Nart saga, the sword of Batradz is dragged into the sea after his death, and the British King Arthur throws his legendary sword Excalibur back into the lake from which it initially came. The Indic Arjuna is also instructed to throw his bow Gandiva into the sea at the end of his career, and weapons were frequently thrown into lakes, rivers or bogs as a form of prestige offering in Bronze and Iron Age Europe."

More magical weapons should be loaners imho, you get access to them by completing a quest, or by fulfilling some other strange circumstance, and get to keep them till thy work is done - this also means you can have more hot babes levitating and emerging from water. Probably the clear reflective water is a gate to the Otherworld and as somewhat god-imbued things, many weapons both come from and return to that place.

In-game the fact that it’s a 'loaner' limits the PCs freedom, but hopefully in a specific and self-selected way so that it’s still interesting.

The question of when to 'throw back' the sword, in game, is interesting. In legend it seems to happen around the point of death; the heroes whole life was the mission and it wasn't just one thing, like "kill this dragon/monster" but a more-grand 'restoration of order' deal, like with Arthur, or Arjunas taking part in the Kurukshettra.

The quest of disposing or returning the magic weapon of a hero, (without using it), is an interesting one, and the idea of the heroes super-weapon turning into an adhesive cursed weapon if it is kept too long or mis-used.

And of a PC being given a way too powerful weapon at the start of their career, which they have to 'grow into' and which they can only keep so long as they fulfil its purpose, which will also lead them to some sort of doom

really every magical weapon above a certain level should have a specific end that it has to have once it has fulfilled its purpose

"Reflexes of an ancestral cult of the magical sword have been proposed in the legends of Excalibur and Durandal (the weapon of Roland, said to have been forged by the mythical Wayland the Smith). Among North Iranians, Herodotus described the Scythian practice of worshiping swords as manifestations of "Ares" in the 5th century BC, and Ammianus Marcellinus depicted the Alanic custom of thrusting swords into the earth and worshiping them as "Mars" in the 4th century AD."

Should our heroes be worshipping their swords? If they all have a bit of the war-god, or death, the Twin, inside them, and if they are related to the Otherworld and made by the power of the Smith who tricked the Devil, then are they not themselves sacred things? And is shoving one into the Earth-Mother then not essentially making a kind of shrine? A sword is after all a kind of boundary between this world and the Otherworld, opening the gate between here and there, it surface shining just like the lake you will one day throw it into.


  1. Just to address the sword point (ahah). Many if not most fantasy readers know about Excalibur (certainly after the John Boorman film, right?) and the emphasis on that as something that is returned, is part of the sacred apparatus of kingship, &c.

    What gets in the way? The sense of empowerment given to players by their own magic swords? Perhaps it is Tolkien: Anduril is always Aragorn's sword (and is less a sign of Kingship than the white tree and healing hands and so forth), the Hobbits take ancient blades from the barrow-wights and keep hold of them until forced to relinquish them.

    The trouble treasure/plunder and especially magical treasure does is well known via the Gold of Andvari and the Ring of the Nibelung. Cursed weapons that must be cast off or set aside enter the picture with Elric (if not earlier). Even if an RPG player will not set the cursed blade aside, then social consequences may still result - better not wear the Eldritch Skull Amulet when the Inquisition of the Church of Stern Feudal Monotheists is in town.

    ' every magical weapon above a certain level should have a specific end that it has to have once it has fulfilled its purpose' - indeed, every miracle as a whole, perhaps. The Manna gathered by the Israelites in Exodus rotted if kept (unless kept for the Sabbath).

    1. GM: You can take this weapon, but know that you will not be able to gain any levels while you possess it. You will still earn XP, but you don't get the levels until you finish the quest and relenquish it.

    2. Oops, I forgot to add: you earn +25% XP if you complete the quest before returning the weapon.

  2. I do like the idea of all the magic things coming from the underworld and with time passing (and especially if the wielder no longer follows the reason / deal that got them this thing, it becomes more and more cursed as the world of the dead affinity becomes too strong and dead start to call to the living.

  3. Many years ago, back when we still played AD&D 2nd edition, the party wizard reached the level where he could create magic items and presented me with a list of items he wanted to make. I responded by providing a list of all the material components he'd need - some were straightforward, like 'elf brains', but others were more abstract, like 'a fragment from the Rock of Ages'. I didn't have any preconceived ideas about how the PCs would obtain the items on the list: they were high-level PCs with a wide array of abilities, so I trusted they'd figure something out, and for the most part they did. (I remember they solved the 'Rock of Ages' one by going to the Elemental Plane of Earth.) For some of them I thought their solutions were a bit rubbish and so the resulting magic items didn't work - sadly my memory of the details has faded with time. Anyway, it made for a good, open, player-led fetch quest, with lots of creative thinking on the part of the PCs!

  4. Accidentally killing your son is one thing, but if you try to kill your son and fail, they will grow up somewhere else (raised by nice rustic folk) and come back to not only kill you but trash your whole society. Kronos didn't kill Zeus, and when he came back he overthrew all the Titans. Laius didn't kill Oedipus, and he came back and things went a bit shit for Thebes.

    Romulus & Remus aren't quite as egregious a case, but share a bit of the same theme. They were sons of Mars, but their mum's uncle tried to kill them. They later killed him and restored their grandfather (er, their mum's dad, anyway) to the throne of Alba Longa. Alba Longa survived another 150 years before beng conquered by Rome.

  5. Wait. This is how it's already done in fantasy and D&D. It's the (few and far between) deviation from these archaic myths that's actually interesting. Why dig yourself deeper?

    I'll try to do the opposite as an exercise.

    There was no creation. The world is a waveform. At one point Zeus tried to kill Cronus by telling him about the Underworld and the Dog that guards it, which was a lie. Cronus entered the cave, went too far down, and died. Zeus thought that maybe Cronus found some sort of treasure, or perhaps his fantasy proved real and there really was an Underworld, and, wishing to see the Dog, entered the caves, descended too far down, and died as well.

    What remained was the Demons. Their trait was transformation. Daughters of the Crocodile did not want to transform, so they remained what they were. Daughters of the Whale hated the sun, so they hid in the sea. But daughters of the furtive Juramaya had a quadrillion brothers and sisters and everything in between. Nobody was sacrificed, because Zeus was long dead, his body fermenting so deep underground that it couldn't even decompose (even the little demons who ate corpses were too afraid to go that deep).

    When winter came, the Juramaya dug to hide from the cold and, by sheer accident, stumbled upon the old gods in the form of flammable black goo—and burned them for warmth. The old gods turned into poisonous smoke, as they would, and the goo that was Zeus used the opportunity to combust into a pillar of fire. Right away he said that there is an underworld and that it's guarded by a dog and that he, someone who spent infinity underground, would know. But the Juramaya have already dug through the earth and knew better. The Dog, their companion, barked at Zeus, and he died of fright. What remained of Zeus was used as fuel for a big engine that flew the Juramaya to the stars.

    1. Are you familiar with a modern period game or story that includes immortality as a product of mixed effort between gods and demons - ultimately stolen by the gods?

  6. There are many ideas to take away from studying PIE myths, legends, society, etc. I always use these in my games. My primordial language has been reconstructed PIE for a while now (I did my master thesis on indo-european kingship). I even started (but never finished) a series on it to try and make it "useable" at the table: It's very nice to see your take: good food for thought.