Forgive me. This is a favorite subject, and I have been putting it off wondering how to do a direct, to the point article about D&D. Turns out, I don’t want to.
Wade through all this or not. I will get to the subject at hand, but I am going to wax for awhile.
Whether or not there is reason to believe in a group of gods, or a single god, the conception of polytheism was a technological revolution, one which happened certainly before most of the physical evidence we have from Neolithic society. The association of things, forces and creatures with god-beings allowed humans to conceptualize their universe, prior to any conception of biology or physiology beyond the fact that living matter consisted of pieces that could be divided (some of it edible, some not). In a culture where virtually nothing about the culture changed from the beginning of one’s life to the end, it was believable that rocks and trees, rivers and sky, things which everyone related to in the same manner, were somehow entities with which mere humans could not easily communicate. Humans were mortal. Nature was not. That was evident.
At first we can presuppose that these entities were not ‘gods’ as we view them. The Romans retained the belief into the Christian era that all things had within them a ‘genius,’ a spark that enabled it to intrinsically hold the parameters of existence. The genius of water allowed it to flow; the genius of cattle allowed them to reproduce, and some of that genius was transferred when one ate certain parts of the cow. Most polytheistic cultures have similar such entities ... a sort of pre-god concept.
Through cultural explanations of the gods to themselves, humans steadily built up characterizations – usually anthropomorphications – to describe the gods. This is, of course, the first representation of gods as ‘persons.’
The first sustained representation of human-like characteristics in gods (that we can know of) made the obvious connection that all things come from the earth – just as humans come from a mother. The obvious extrapolation was based upon the periods of earth’s seasons: that first everything is new; that then everything is birthed; and that finally everything dies.
Newness became represented by the Virgin, the woman who is a child and has not yet been impregnated. Birth is the Mother, who tends the child and brings the child to adulthood. Finally, Death is the Crone, the old woman who is barren and can no longer bring forth children.
These three goddesses have led to a poorly researched belief that early human culture, prior to historical references, was matriarchal in construct. For four decades historians, classicists, archaeologists and anthropologists, many of them substantial giants in their fields, have struggled to prove this theory, as it helps explain the early human’s fascination with women as something other than a sexual fetish. Sadly, they have yet to provide any defacto factual evidence of this so-called pre-patriarchal culture. But they keep trying.
Part of the argument presented relates the demise of the three goddesses following the rise of regimented civilization, about the 3rd millennium BCE. Following this period the two best documented polytheistic cultures – Egypt and Mesopotamia – develop dominant patriarchal gods who have been traditionally seen as ‘leading’ their pantheons. Marduk of Sumeria’s most famous myth tells of his slaughtering Tiamat, the chromatic dragon from the Monster Manual, and using her body and blood to fashion the earth and the sea. Male slaughters female, patriarchal exploitation of women replaces matriarchal society. But it bears as much relation to evidence as the sea’s relationship to blood.
To return to the characterization of the Mother: the name that most commonly arises is that of Ana, who was the Grandmother Goddess to the Sumerians, who predates Sumerian history by about six millennia. From our perspective, this seems an obscure god – it is likely that you do not associate the name with a particular god from your readings of Greek, Roman, Norse or Sumerian religion.
But now I’d like to blow your mind and make a few connections you’ve never made. This is assuming, of course, that you have at least some structural understanding of history, our world, and our culture.
Goddess Anna of Sumeria would also be named Anah in Egypt, who was the mother of Meri-Ra (the Hebrew Asherah), the feminine principal of water from which came all life. In Syria she would be called Anath, the destroyer; in Canaan, the Jews would call her Anat (from the Ras Shamra texts, which reveal Canaanite foundations of the Bible). The Canaanites would call Ana the ‘Grandmother of God,’ specifically the grandmother of Yahweh, the god the Jews would worship as the one god. The Egyptians believed that Ana’s daughter Meri-Ra was the consort of Yahweh.
Remember as you read this that human culture, prior to the ‘discovery’ of the one true god, created multiple myths to explain the rise of new gods and how they interrelated with one another. Long before Yahweh became monotheistic, he has a long history of existing as part of a complicated pantheon associated with Syria and Egypt, predating Abraham’s vision circa 2300 BCE.
For the record, Ana was also Di-Ana, ‘Queen of Heaven.’ Diana’s shrines throughout Europe would later be identified with the Christian Madonna, and often even the image of Diana herself would be co-opted by churches. Ana was widespread – the Celts would call her Anu, the cult spreading through central and northern Europe. In numerous Black Sea cultures she was Nana, and ultimately Nanna, the incarnation of the Norse goddess Freya within that culture’s belief that Balder’s wife (Freya) was also Balder’s mother. Similar myths would be associated with varying Celtic cultures – that the mother gave birth to the son, who later married the mother to enable crops to grow before she murdered him.
Western Celts would yield up the name Morg-Ana, or the Goddess of Death, or ‘Invincible Queen Death.’ Attacking the name of Ana among pagans and devil worshippers, Christians would commonly attack Black Annis, or ‘Anna of the Angles’, in describing the cults of witches.
However, at the same time, Christianity would also sanctify Ana, as ‘St. Anne,’ who was the mother of Mary and therefore the Grandmother of Christ (and therefore of God, get it?). Note that St. Anne’s daughter Mary has the same name as Anah’s daughter Meri of Egypt, who was the consort of Yahweh and also the mother of the Jewish ‘god’. Does it not seem obvious that the Jews, steeped in Egyptian myth, having been taught the cult of Yahweh, would of course know of his wife? Why assume that ‘Mary’ mother of Christ was a real person? Because you are told that she was a real person? You need to take a course in Religious studies. All myths are always invented after the fact.
The parallels get complex and profound – but it pretty much breaks down to this. The cultural significance of a mother goddess was developed, and thereafter stolen by multiple western cultures who spread the word through trade. Where and when these terms were first used is anyone’s guess – our only evidence comes from when we happen to find an artifact that has happened to survive the 40 to 60 centuries from whence this Goddess Ana came.
In terms of D&D (at last!), the fault lies in the rather bland portrayals of the gods as glorified monsters, along with the assumption that these varying gods from their varying pantheons are isolated individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inanna, who is yet another incarnation of Ana from later Sumerian culture, is the same fertility deity as Ishtar – they are one and the same. Ishtar is merely the later Babylonian equivalent, who is also Isis (the Egyptian ‘Oldest of the Old’), a later Egyptian incarnation of Anah combining elements of Meri-Ra. Isis is also said to have given birth to a son (Horus) who matured to become Osiris, whom she married and then devoured in order to give birth to Horus again – thus perpetuating the seasonal cycle. It is said that the Nile flood begins as a teardrop from Isis at the death of Osiris – the death she is responsible for. But then, the ‘devouring’ was not done with the mouth.
Oh, and while I’m here, it is ridiculous to imagine that the gods represented by stats in the Deities and Demigods are anything like their namesakes. How many hit points has a god whose teardrop begins the Nile flood?
Inanna, Diana, Isis, Hel, Hecate, Ishtar, Astarte, Kali – all the same goddess. The same is true for Zeus, Ra and Odin, and for Pan and Loki, and right on down the line. The principal failure in depicting gods in the D&D universe has been the effort to depict gods who have no religion whatsoever. As I said, as monsters.
It is an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance that the gods depicted in the Deities, and indeed throughout most of D&D, have little or nothing to do with the cultural period in which D&D is supposed to be taking place: the middle ages. Even in China, Japan and India the pure worship of the demigod systems in those places has been pre-empted by Buddhism, Taoism and the Upanishads (proposing a monist-pantheist system), all prior to the 9th century. Thus, the makers of D&D ask you to play out the period of knights and witches, but no Christianity, please. Certainly, no Judaism, Islam or Zoroastrianism – though these religions represent the bulk of belief by the time knights began to joust.
As such, we’re left with a bunch of meaningless sacrifices which are meant to take place at certain times and in certain places (based on a Celtic-Druidic experience, for the most part, dating from before 400 BCE) ... and that’s it. At best, a few myths are dragged out for the purposes of creating a hook for an adventure, but most, particularly the unpleasant life-structuring models, are deliberately ignored. Characters and players dwell in a 21st century mindset surrounded by capitalism, atheism and liberalism, none of which requires of them any social or moral responsibility whatsoever – except that most campaigns usually retain a dictatorially imposed politically correctness.
It wouldn’t be popular to suggest that in a campaign that incorporated actual deities of incomprehensible power, every action and step of a party would have consequences of Gilgameshian or Beowulfian dimensions (Beowulf having been conceived of when the Norse were not yet monotheistic). The principal theme would be fate. I’ll repeat that for those of you at the back who are not paying attention: FATE.
Hundreds, even millions of entities (if Hinduism is to be taken as a template), possessing powers on a magnitude unrepresented in D&D, not limited by the mortal’s conception of time and space, could only see intelligent entities within the Prime Material plane as pawns, to be marched out and sacrificed as necessary. Only imagine a chessboard with a thousand sides, marching pawns forward from a thousand directions, with some gods possessing many pawns and some gods possessing very few – and each god marking babies upon birth as best they are able. This one will grow to be a mage, and this one a fighter, and this one’s death from a trap which will separate his head from his body at twenty-two will feed blood to the insects whose actions over the thirty hours that follow will certify their reincarnation into powerful titans whose loyalty to this god will enable him to win these squares on this portion of the board.
How does one run that as a DM? How do you explain to your party that it’s not you that has decided they will die before they reach Ragnard, but the entity who is called Gragnoth in these lands north of the Sewwar River? That they only manner in which Gragnoth will not clamour for their deaths is if they cease to use leather, leather in any form, to appease the Goddess Usarion, who hates Gragnoth and will use her influence to see to it his 30 HD dire wolves are diverted at the critical juncture. Yet once they’ve renounced leather and all its evils, who is to say that Orswidth, God of Cattlemen, will not stir up the ire of two massive cattle butcherers at the very next tavern the party enters ...
Where does it end? You want hooks? You’ve got infinite hooks. Gentle reader, you cannot help thinking in terms of gods as make-believe. Every religion has explained the absence of gods by the argument that the gods really don’t care that much. But we know the gods don’t care that much because there are no gods. Can it be true if there ARE gods, and they have access to your world?
Last point: I follow the principle that the gods were invoked by intelligent humanoids, and that obedience and worship of the gods creates stronger, more capable gods. People believe in the gods, who gain power from that belief.
Thus the motivation for gods to interact in the business of the world. To gain believers, to gain power, to crush opponents by crushing their believers. So the technology of Polytheism, in my world, is the creation of gods who will actually make life easier (as they actually exist and can actually answer prayers) – but the price that is paid is the conflict that follows.
Bringing me to a small teaser, to be handled later: the gods, I argue, believe in me. I am thus the DM, and the most powerful being. I did, after all, create the world. Monotheism is therefore the discovery of ME.
But that is for another day.