Mortuus De Deorum; On the Use of Deities in the OSR Pt. I of MCLXVIII

Following a series of excellent posts by Jonathan Becker ruminating on the use of deities in classic AD&D and the way that use seems to have mutated in the OSR (he would say to the detriment), after my belligerent exhortations, I think it is only fitting that I offer a companion piece, for the greater glory of the OSR.

The prompting for the Piece is mr. Becker’s annoyance with what he perceives to be an increasingly common trope in OSR adventures, that of low-level or relatively low-level adventurers going toe to toe with fallen deities, godlings, quasi-deities or otherwise hampered specimens of full divinity. As Palace of Unquiet Repose seems to be ranked among the offenders, I must offer a spirited commentary!

In his first piece, Sir Becker seeks to level a charge at the idea that it is not uncommon for the protagonists in the Sword & Sorcery novels of the appendix N to come to grips with, flee from, foil and indeed occasionally defeat the minor godlings and demi-deities that inhabit their world. In his defense he subsequently points to a major problem with the categorization of any such events; the fact that S&S stories hold to no universal standard of what does or does not constitutes a god. In his treatment, he looks at staples of the S&S diet; R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, C.A.Smith and a nod to the great C.L. Moore, whose work he had not perused and therefore could not comment upon. Also taken along in this consideration are the works of J.R. Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson, but as these authors are by no means Sword & Sorcery authors, I will omit them from my addendum [1].

One important point that is brought up is that at times in S&S, creatures are worshipped or described as Gods but these turn out to be no more then mundane creatures, be they ancient technological machines, or great primordial creatures. As counting these among the confrontations with the Divine would be against the spirit of the inquiry, we are compelled to narrow down what constitutes a god according to a series of fairly robust terms;

* The creature must be a self-described God or Goddess or akin to one, either by locals, or perhaps more definitively, by the omniscient voice of the author. Various titles like Chaos Lord, Demon Prince, Faerie King, Elemental Lord or other titles indicating rulership over some supernatural realm can in some rare cases suffice for the purpose of this exercise, being counted as minor godlings depending on the context
* The creature must have a clear link to the supernatural. No merely mundane creature, no matter how powerful or monstrous, like a thousand year old giant worm, can properly be termed a god unless it has some unearthly or mystical properties.
* The author recognizes that the boundary between minor godling and powerful spirit, faerie, nymph, elemental, demon or whatnot is a vague one (as it was in the Mythology) and hopes that the discretion that is exercised beforehand will curtail any splitting of hairs, antfucking, kvetching and lawyering that is the doom of comments sections everywhere.

Let us Dig In! Sir Becker considers Conan first and foremost in his analysis, as is only proper.

First up, everyone’s favorite barbarian: Conan. One gets the impression that the gods of Howard’s Hyborian age are fairly mortal (much like the Norse gods)…if Conan stuck Crom with 3′ of  good, Hyrkanian steel, he’d probably die. However, we never encounter Crom in Howard’s stories, perhaps because Crom is an actual deity. Conan kills some godlike frost giants, an ancient “god in a bowl” (appears to be a naga, much like the one in module N1), and an alien time-traveller that resembles a small elephant. These aren’t gods: they’re monsters. In the bluntest of D&D terms, they are meant to be slain and looted. 

Conan is probably the strongest case for the fact that S&S heroes do not meet their gods as the very existence of Crom is left ambiguous, his only gift to the Cimmerian people their courage. I don’t particularly disagree that the bulk of the Gods in Hyborea appear to be merely powerful monsters, extra-terrestrials or in the case of ‘the Frost Giant’s Daughter’, Frost Giants. It would have been worthwhile to consider the sub-par ‘The Devil in Iron’ and it’s superior companion ‘Iron Shadows in the Moon’ but I think it is fair to state that while Conan’s antagonists do in fact make up the lesser inhabitants of the higher spheres, none of them can be properly termed gods, possibly a reflection of R.E. Howard’s pronounced atheist convictions, which were fairly prevalent among the intellectuals of the time.

Next up, we’ll look at Moorcock’s albino sorcerer, Elric. He fights all sorts of gods. The “Burning God.” Balo the Jester of Chaos. In the end, he is responsible for the death of ALL the chaos lords (gods) including his own patron, Arioch. Except that, actually, he’s not doing the killing. It’s his Most-Powerful-Artifact-Weapon-In-The-Multiverse (Stormbringer) that is doing the actual soul-sucking, not Elric. In the final battle he does a one-shot spell that summons a multitude of Stormbringers (Stormbringer has siblings), and they fly around killing all the gods. Stormbringer, as an artifact, was forged to slay gods (and to “keep in check” higher powers). It’s a plot point of the books. Do your D&D characters carry such an artifact weapon? 
Conversely, Elric is one of the clearest anti-patterns and the rationale around its discrimination is flimsy. The non-human Elric, through his sorcery and the pacts made by his ancestors, continually calls upon Supernatural Powers to aid him against…well, other Supernatural powers. The battle between Law & Chaos, with at their apex, the Lords of Law and the Lords of Chaos, is an overarching theme. His will commands the Lord of the Lizards, begs favors of Straasha, lord of the water elementals, and he fights no merely Baalo [2], but slays Pyaray, the Whisperer of Impossible Secrets[3], crosses swords with multiple Chaos Lords (they are indeed destroyed by a one-time magic calling upon all of Stormbringers brothers and sisters), thwarts the attempts of the sorcerous shapechangers Agak & Gagak in feeding off of the multiverse [4] and there are numerous other examples. That he would need to resort to artifact-level weaponry is no disqualification surely? One would expect that in a battle between the divine and the mortal, the mortal is on the defensive and would have to resort to some sleight, aid or device to even the odds [5]. At the highest echelons of mortal ability, conflict with the Divine becomes somewhat more feasible.

Okay, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Haven’t read as much of them as I’d have liked, but I can’t remember them KILLING any gods. Running afoul of them, getting mixed up with them, fleeing their wrath or being cursed by them…sure, all that. But mortal combat (i.e. the hit point draining kind)? No, I don’t think so.

Sir Becker is correct that nowhere in their adventures on Nehwon do Fafhrd and his companion put a god by the roadside, make him dig his own grave and then do him in the neck execution style but who can forget their theft of Death’s Mask [6] or the invasion of the Sea-King’s private quarters [7] while he was out? It shows that encounters involving the gods, the apex predators of the supernatural food chain, are not just conceivable, but occur more often then not. This point of them making no KILLS is no admonition against would be heroes going toe to toe against false gods, but indeed supports such a practice. After all, were they genuine deities, one would expect the conflict to have a lethal outcome for the hapless adventurers that would take upon themselves so foolish and possibly suicidal an endaevour. It makes more sense to have any would-be antagonists of mortal PCs to fall short of true divinity when looking at the source material, not less.

Karl Wagner’s Kane…well, I’ve only had the chance to read Bloodstone, and it’s been a while. If memory serves, Kane “kills” a super computer masquerading as a deity. Machines break…they are mundane/mortal, not supernatural. Maybe. I get a little depressed thinking about Wagner; he died so young (age 48, alcoholism). 

I would suggest Mr. Becker has been missing out on the other stories, they are quite good, if only obtainable at considerable expense. Dark Crusade has Kane face a common bandit, possessed by the Elder God Sataki, and invested with supernatural ability. This falls short of a direct manifestation of the God (indeed, to bring him into the mortal world is his goal) but it does constitute yet another (indirect) confrontation with the divine. Then there is the monstrous Spider god Ysisl, from whose extradimensional lair Kane barely escapes.   

I don’t remember any hero versus god action in Clark Ashton Smith, but I probably haven’t read enough of him. I have C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry ordered from Amazon, so apologies if she kills a bunch of godlings and I failed to mention it…haven’t yet had the chance to read her stories

C.A.Smith’s inclusion into a discussion of tropes as applied to D&D might fall into the same category as Wagner in that they are unquestionably in the S&S canon but not explicitly mentioned in Appendix N unlike say Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword. Nevertheless, C.A. Smith is unquestionably a father of Sword & Sorcery and his influence can be felt far and wide. Maybe more so then Lovecraft, C.A. Smith’s short stories are not so much about fighting gods as they are about getting eaten by them. The fate of the thieves’s failed attempt to steal a great jewel from the accursed jungle temple of Tsathoggua [8], the thief attempting to steal back his love from the temple of Mordiggian the Eater of Corpses [9] or the band of warriors trying in vain to grapple with the half-divine bandit Knygathin Zaum make it clear that the fate of those who attempt to do so on even semi-even footing is more often then not a shallow grave. The divine and their children, if they are faced, should not be vulnerable to mundane weaponry.

C.L. Moore’s collection Jirel of Joiry is featured in Appendix N and I had the immense pleasure of reading it just this year. Initially the lady Jirel is equipped with the dubious blessing of a soul-destroying kiss by the unknown Black God, but she does in her journeys face the nebulous Pav of Romme, the scion of some otherworldly realm or demi-plane that she is imprisoned in [11]. Ultimately this being I defeated not by swordplay but by willpower.

H.P. Lovecraft isn’t really an S&S writer, but there’s no denying his writing’s had an impact on D&D and many OSR offerings. Lots of extreme, alien gods walking amongst men in HPL’s stuff. But people don’t fight them. They get killed and eaten by them, or possessed, or driven insane. It’s not really mano-a-mano. Well, except for a certain Norwegian sailor, who’s ship-to-kaiju combat was absolutely NOT stolen by Disney for the climactic battle in The Little Mermaid against the giant octopoid entity. Nope, no way…that scene is straight out of Hans Christian Andersen. Regardless, it’s one exception to a multitude of non-combats.

Like C.A. Smith, the deities of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos are horrible monsters, abominations so alien to us that the mere sight of one is enough to drive men to madness or death. Their otherworldly nature is beyond question. Their followers and spawn often to seek to bring these gods into our world, thereby ushering in the end times, and it is these followers that can be thwarted. This with the exception of legendary Cthulhu, Ole 1d6 Investigators per round himself, who is at least temporarily defeated by ramming him with a steam boat.  

There is an interesting anomaly to consider. In the sublime Viking-Saga the Broken Sword by Poul Anderson there is a passage where Skaffloc, on his voyages with the elf-earl Imric meets with a most dangerous foe. p.31 “Their hardest battle was with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and mad and shrunken in loneliness but wielding fearsome powers even so. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor.”

Then follows interesting speculation r.e. the origins of the nature of the divine in S&S stories which I highly recommend people to read. A takeaway is that the pseudo-pagan pantheistic approach to divinity in S&S is actually fairly rare (not false!) but that the nature of the Divine in D&D can be traced back to the 3 major influences of Leiber, Moorcock & Lovecraft [12].

 That being said, I think in [Leiber, Moorcock & Lovecraft’s] cases a major takeaway from their stories is: the gods are NOT to be futzed around with.

You don’t fight them. You’re not going to kill them. You certainly don’t loot their bodies.

Which I would amend accordingly:

In the considered works we have seen the Gods represent the APEX of the supernatural food pyramid. For those lacking sufficient mettle, encounters with deities are terrifying affairs that can quickly lead to ruin or death for the persons involved if the Deity wishes serious harm.

We see that, like the heroes of the myths that inspired them, the protagonists of these S&S tales do draw the ire of gods, encounter minor godlings, will occasionally attempt to steal from them [13] or are otherwise compelled to evade their wrath. While no mortal man is ever going to go three rounds against Asa-Thor, we see that at the highest levels of mortal ability, a man of exemplary ability suitably endowed with powerful ultra-mundane weaponry, may indeed cross blades with the Minor Lords of the Higher Heavens and come away the victor. It only makes sense that he would require some sort of aid, that the deity be hampered or of especially humble status, or that some other factor is introduced (like a Steamboat) to even the odds. I hearken back to the Illiad, where brave Achilles is eventually forced to give way before the wrath of the Scamander, a River God, or where Diomedes cuts down Ares [14] after being invested with divine might by the Will of Athena.    
The proper approach that seems to be implied is to have the divine be a noticeable factor even in games where the characters are not of immense power, and indeed, if any hostile confrontation is to take place, it is far more likely the characters will be left holding the short end of the stick and will have to flee or run then it is to be an ultra-powerful smackdown with a demon-lord at the end of the campaign, which should probably be the capstone of a successful campaign. After all, once you beat up Orcus, where do you go from there? In short: It is unlikely your first encounters with gods will be on a level playing field and involve a balance of power.

Join us next time for a continuation of this series.

[1] If the good Professor will forgive me posthumously, it is certainly not because his fantasies on the divine are inadequate to the task. Au contraire, if we were to include the Silmarillion and looked at the heroic exploits of the Sons of Feanor, we would see an age where the supreme evil walks the earth in human form, and is scarred by the efforts of the Eldar, or thwarted by the efforts of mere men.
[2] The Vanishing Tower
[3] Stormbringer
[4] Sailor on the Seas of Fate
[5] This is also hardly unprecedented. Consider Diomedes going toe to toe with Ares in the Illiad, but only after he is wreathed in divine glory by the hand of Athena. Is there any doubt that in a straight up fight, Ares would likely dispatch him? But this is the very point! No one said you’d have to fight the gods fairly, indeed if anything the opposite is true!
[6] The Price of Pain-Ease, Swords Against Death
[7] While the Sea King’s Away, Swords in the Mist
[8] The Tale of Satampra Zeiros
[9] The Charnel God
[10] The Testament of Athammaus
[11] The Dark Land, Jirel of Joiry
[12] This omits the influence of Mythology and Faerie Tales, or consideration of works like The Broken Sword, or Abraham Merrit, or the Compleat Enchanter series by Fletcher Pratt that derive heavily from mythology. That being said, when it comes to the divine in the works in Appendix N, the 3 aforementioned authors are more salient then any other
[13] One vaguely recalls a Native American Myth of Two heroic brothers sneaking into the house of the god of the sun and facing discovery.
[14] Who is subsequently spirited off and must heal his injuries in some sort of divine hospital on mount Olympus. In Greek Myth, Gods cannot die, but they can be horribly wounded, crippled and bound.


23 thoughts on “Mortuus De Deorum; On the Use of Deities in the OSR Pt. I of MCLXVIII

  1. “Salient” is an excellent word, and I must endeavor to use it in my own writing!

    A few points of clarification:

    1) When I wrote the first entry in the series (nearly a month ago) I had not yet read any Jirel of Joiry; I have since received her compilation volume in the mail via Amazon (what do you know? They still sell books!) and am slowly making my way through it. Consequently, the above quote should be SLIGHTLY revised.

    2) Elric is an exceptional character in many ways, and not just because he’s a nonhuman (Melnibonean simply reads “elf” to my jaundiced eyes). Most player characters will not be the 428th emperor in an unbroken line stretching back 10,000 years (though that would be fun to put on a random background table 5E!) nor be inheritors of the Ring of Kings, material symbol of the royal line’s sealed pact with various extraplanar entities. While Moorcock’s stories feature a multitude of interactions with gods and godlike beings, the extraordinariness of the his protagonist renders such encounters merely “par” for an Elric yarn.

    3) My ignoring of mythology in the series is intentional. While I acknowledge mythology to be a general influence (both on the authors of the D&D game AND on the authors on the various fantasy works) it seems clear that the scope of D&D is not one of mythological proportions. True, PCs might confront Medusa, ride Pegasus, or strive against a Lernaean Hydra, but such creatures are not deemed unique or immortal scions of power by game writers and the PCs are neither demigods themselves, nor likely to be concerned (pre-Dragonlance) with obtaining any sort of heroic legendary status, being mainly preoccupied with such mundane concerns as money and staying alive.

    Besides which, the task set before me was not one of “portraying mythological style deities in D&D.”
    ; )

    Anyway…looking forward to your further examination, analysis, and commentary!


    1. 1) It’s pretty good, different from the mainline S&S but strangely compelling. It think mainly its use of alien realms with odd inhabitants is something that made it into D&D. It’s rules and hierarchy feel very elastic, almost dreamlike, the only thing that comes to mind for comparison is We Were All Legends…
      2) It’s true Elric is no ordinary mortal and is perhaps one step closer to the realms of the divine, in the manner of Tolkien’s elves, but this serves as a good benchmark, a way to measure the interaction between mortals and gods at various levels of intensity. A supremely powerful half-mortal sorcerer deals differently with the gods then two street thieves. The extraordinary pedigree of the protagonist is not suitable justification for exclusion from consideration surely?
      I do recognize and champion that D&D does in fact NOT have its protagonists be the scions of some extraordinary bloodline but average joes, a very American addition that adds a lot to the game.
      3) I must disagree. Even pre-dragonlance D&D has at the top of the Monstrous manual pyramid ancient dragons, demon princes and liches, surely the stuff of legends? And what of the name level, attracting followers, travelling to other worlds to fight daemons, devils and other champions of the supernatural forces that make up the very fabric of the universe? Mythology and D&D are interwoven and to exclude one from the game is to do it a disservice.
      BUT! that was not the contention. The contention was that by your article the nature of deities in D&D were shaped to a large extent by these 3 authors, which, I said, is true in the sense of Appendix N, but it seems to me obvious that these work are informed by a much broader mythological basis.


      1. RE #3

        Hmm. My assertion (perhaps poorly stated in my introductory post) was that D&D itself (the game) was shaped to a large extent by those three pulp authors (Lieber, Lovecraft, and Moorcock), and so it was worth examining how gods were treated in those works.

        [yes, ERB’s Carter books provides immense influence and the magic system would not exist without Vance’s Dying Earth; however, I consider them outside the realm of a discussion of S&S pulp. Also, I understand if folks wish to quibble about it and call me an asshat. Do the protagonists face deities in those books, though?]

        I think that’s a bit different than me saying the nature of deities in D&D were shaped by these authors, as D&D clearly draws from a WIDE gamut of possible religions, not least of which is the usual Judeo-Christian faith that permeates Midwestern America.


  2. Re: Conan. IIRC the elephant god-thing wasn’t even killed by Conan, but by some other Aquilonian schmuck.


    1. Poor guy, he wasn’t really a god at all, just a very put-upon shipwrecked sailor. All that being said, if Tower of the Elephant isn’t #1 on the list “stories that influenced OSR D&D” I’ll eat my hat.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I disagree, in different ways and to different degrees, with both articles. Disclaimer: I didn’t read Becker’s full series; just the summary article you linked to.

    A big difference between the vast majority of S&S writings and D&D tropes is the existence of clerics. In S&S stories, there are occasionally individuals who obtain power from higher supernatural entities, but these are usually either coerced (i.e. summoning and binding demonic entities) or one-offs, whereas D&D clerics are a frigging institution. This means that the question of whether (and how much) power a cleric can obtain from his or her deity is practically a “test” of the being’s true divinity.

    The reason this is important to me is that I reject the idea that many of these sorts of worshipped monsters and demons are not “true” gods. If we define gods as something that people worship, then these qualify. Whether they belong to the same “order” as gods that create the universe or represent abstract ideals isn’t necessarily important, since there isn’t much difference from the perspective of the characters. We don’t always know if some of these “true” deities really exist (much as in our own world).

    I think the tendency to nail down a specific idea of what is a “true” god is a very modern idea that doesn’t have a place in tales of yore (or pseudo-yore). There is no taxonomy, there are no rules. FRPG’s tend to pull the curtain back too much on magic, so why extend the same tendency when it’s unnecessary? Keep some of the mystery and avoid the tendency to systematize every aspect of your game setting.

    Are the gods real? How do their powers work? Could Thor beat Anubis? These are questions for Quora, not D&D. If you really want to have some explanation that allows for a wide range of gods, we can consider an abstract divine essence that is invested in anything or anyone that is worshipped, to a degree proportionate to the intensity and prevalence of the worship. Maybe all such “gods” are really avatars of this godhead that can never be experienced directly. That’s just an idea if you really need one.

    In any case, if the party ends up killing a massive toad the size of a main battle tank, and the locals worshipped it as a deity, the GM doesn’t have to come out and say “yeah, it’s wasn’t REALLY a god.” Let the players wonder. “What is a god, anyway?,” they should ask. Don’t answer.


    1. Another contender!

      I don’t a priori disagree with keeping the true nature of the divine a complete mystery to the players, but the question I was aiming for was ‘How are encounters with the divine portrayed in Sword & Sorcery’ with the aim of tackling the overarching question ‘Is killing faux god things at lower levels in the spirit of Old D&D’ or more generally ‘How do we handle encounters with the divine in ‘Old D&D’.

      In order to answer the question meaningfully I must look at the Sword and Sorcery stories but I must use a definition or interpretation of Deities that more or less overlaps with the one that ended up being used by Dungeons & Dragons, otherwise the conclusion would be ‘there is no point to using Appendix N, as D&D’s interpretation of deities conforms to no work therein.’ I don’t think that that’s entirely true, thus we grapple.

      So for players I think it is absolutely vital that they regard the gods as mysterious and possibly all-powerful but for a rule-system some sort of attributes or guidelines are going to have to be put down, no matter how vague, and those attributes will form categories.

      In Mythology they often play fast and loose with heredity or biology but there is still a definite order or hierarchy and there are rules, albeit crude ones. Gods do not give birth to mortals, and mortals do not give birth to gods, for example. Occasional leaps across the animal kingdoms are certainly allowed, and what exactly a Rakshasa is is highly mutable depending on what region one is in, but there is still a crude hierarchy to things.


      1. Well, I’m not JUST talking about keeping the nature of gods mysterious. What I am suggesting is specifically that you don’t need hard and fast rules for divinity. Tendencies, sure.

        For instance:

        “…otherwise the conclusion would be ‘there is no point to using Appendix N, as D&D’s interpretation of deities conforms to no work therein.’”

        There’s a middle ground, which is that we can use them for guidance, but depart from them as needed. I’m always in favor of looking back, but I don’t believe in being limited by past interpretations.


        “So for players I think it is absolutely vital that they regard the gods as mysterious and possibly all-powerful…”

        If we’re using Appendix N as a guide, then the “all-powerful” part is not always true. I’m always in favor of mysterious divinity but omnipotence is optional.


        “Gods do not give birth to mortals, and mortals do not give birth to gods, for example.”

        I’m not sure whether these rules are always observed by Appendix N, but I can say that in the case of real-world mythology, they are definitely NOT always followed. Gods can certainly birth mortals, such as your mythic heroes like Perseus. And mortals can birth gods, such as god-kings or jesus. Certainly Appendix N was inspired by mythology…perhaps we should refer to that as Appendix M?

        At the end of the day, I’m a DCC stan, so I’ll always support Goodman’s right to throw first level characters smack in the middle of a war between Marvel’s Celestials and Moorcock’s Lords of Chaos.


      2. I disagree r.e. your description of mythology. Perseus and his other hero-kin are the result of a coupling between a mortal and a god, in his case Zeus and the princess Danaë. The result is a man with almost preternatural, and in the case of someone like Heracles, downright supernatural abilities. There are no mortal offspring resulting from the coupling of two gods and there is no divine offspring from the coupling of two, or even one mortal. Heracles is an interesting exception because he becomes wholly divine after his immolation.

        In Christendom Mary does indeed give birth to Jesus, but the abilities of God are much greater then those of Zeus or Odin. It is more akin to the Hindu myth, where gods reincarnate themselves so they can walk the earth garbed in mortal flesh. Between mythologies there are certainly inconsistencies, but within mythologies there are most certainly fixed ideas of what Gods can or cannot do, albeit it much more elastic then we would consider plausible today. One recalls the birth of the 1000 Kaurava siblings from jars in the Mahabharata for example.

        R.e. Goodman’s Right
        Yeah I’m down too. I hope to make a case for including gods at whatever level one sees fit at the end of this series.


      3. “There are no mortal offspring resulting from the coupling of two gods and there is no divine offspring from the coupling of two, or even one mortal.”

        I can’t think of any counterexamples to this, but I’ll point out (a) you’ve narrowed your argument a bit here (which is fine) and (b) I bet I hat could find a counterexample if I really tried. The idea of universal rules to divinity is so monomythic that I can’t accept it on principle.

        “I hope to make a case for including gods at whatever level one sees fit at the end of this series.”

        Ah, that’s all that matters! As long as we aren’t in the business of making rules for gods (the temerity!), then I’m good to go.


      4. [narrow]

        Nothing I have said contradicts my earlier assertion that in old mythology has rules, albeit less hard ones then contemporary storytelling. The idea that there is a pedigree or a hierarchy that runs from divine to mortal is nigh universal surely? I had hoped I was really fantastically clever by having the Weapon, a monsterous Anti-deity in the Age of Dusk, begotten by mortals and Slow Daemons, showcasing its evil by having it upturn the very laws of nature.

        Rules or no rules, the difference between mortals and the divine is explicit in all mythology (that I know) that recognizes the concept.


  4. It really is a pity that for all Lewis’ Narnia has undoubtedly influenced D&D, his much more mature “Till We Have Faces” doesn’t seem to impact it much at all. His take on Cupid and Psyche is good enough as it is but the eerie portrayal of Venus as a primordial being both real and mythical has frequently come in handy when my players hit forgotten shrines and shadowy cults. It’s not a book for going mano-y-mano against any being with even a fraction of the divine, however.


  5. I am looking forward to the rest of the series. You mentioned it about Howard, but it is worth repeating that all S&S is derived from a a very small subset of frontier tales, written in a fundamentally American, individualistic and atheist perspective. Not to sound too much like our Uruguayian friend here, but even those stories that don pseudo-medieval clothes are as removed from actual medieval mentality as it is possible. Individual exploits in the Matter of Britain or France always raise questions of collective responsibility and transcendance, and modern authors nourished by chivalric romance (Lewis, Tolkien, even Anderson) very seldom produce anything close to S&S. This puts an interesting tension at the heart of early D&D, due to EGG’s jehovism, something that has been all but erased in recent iterations of the game, but nonetheless makes Appendix N an endlessly fascinating objet of study and/or nerdfuckery.


    1. Excellent point, very true. I was on the Aaron the Pedantic Podcast and someone made a point that S&S doesn’t really resemble anything in history as far as the motivation of the heroes are concerned. I had only made the leap that Gary Gygax was strongly influenced by stories of the great american frontier, but by the same reasoning all of S&S also exempifies that mindset.


  6. I think the frontier tales observation best fits Howard’s Conan stories, and indeed the atheism in Conan’s relationship with Crom, grim, gloomy and distant, whom Conan only sacrifices to with the fear that he has “gone religious in his dotage” (Return of Conan, not a Howard tale though).
    I suspect we’re going to start finding that S&S is broader than we originally thought, and that our Platonic ideal of a S&S tale is a mere mirage when viewed through the lens of the spectrum of the genre.
    My archetypal S&S would be written by Moorcock, but Lieber seems closer to what readers expect in S&S. Certainly the treatment of the Tuatha De Danann in Anderson’s The Broken Sword seems appropriately mythological.
    Exploring Appendix N further, Saberhagens’ Empires of the East features God’s and Demons aplenty contesting directly with the protagonists, including one Orcus! Try The Black Mountains for size. Lord of Light by Zelazny is a veritable theomachy, throw your PC’s in the middle of that.
    The great American mythos of superhero comics is also notable in it’s influence in how much of D&D is and was actually played. Try Our God’s Wear Spandex by Chris Knowles if you’d like to go deeper.


    1. I will die on any hill that lists Anderson’s Broken Sword and Three Hearts & Three Lions among the S&S pantheon, but Lord of Light is to me merely spectacularly good fantasy. Empire of the East might qualify, I have the omnibus but I have yet to read it.

      My thanks for the recommendations. Always more to read.


  7. This is a very belated comment and apologies for that, but I’m surprised that neither you nor JB appears to have noticed that Mitra actually speaks to one of his worshippers in the Conan story Black Colossus.

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    1. I don’t recall ever reading Black Colossus. That’s why I didn’t mention it.

      Reading the adaptation of the story on-line (from Savage Sword of Conan #2), Princess Yasmela seems pretty ambiguous of whether the voice she heard at the oracle was an actual god or “the trick of a priest.” Yes, it all works out in the end which *could* be a sign of true prophecy, but it’s hardly what I’d call divine visitation.

      [I don’t mind using SSoC for this kind of thing because they were generally faithful in their adaptations. However, I’d like to read the original story and see how much it differs]

      A pretty good Conan yarn regardless.


  8. I only just read this post. however, when I did, it reminded me of a Conan story where I thought he defeated a god in battle. I went back and found the reference. I the story “The Slithering Shadow” Conan fights hand-to-“hand” with Thog, the god of of Xuthal.


    1. True! Although this will likely run into Becker’s initial objection that many of the supposed ‘gods’ in Conan are either natural creatures or some sort of Demons, hardly comparable to Zeus, Odin or Indra.


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