Sunday, January 19, 2020

How Admu the Sorceress acquired the Spear of Nergal

Last year we ran a few different one-shot scenarios as part of a larger play-testing process for Mythic Babylon. These one-shots were designed to test particular aspects of the system, as well as to generally make sure the game was fun to play. One of those playtests was a combat encounter that pitted one group of player-characters against another. This is how it played out.

Scenario Back Story:

One year, in the drought of summer, a group of priests in the service of the temple of the plague god, Nergal, traveled up the Tigris River from their home city of Mashkan-Shapir. Their purpose was to attend a festival in honour of the Divine Twins in the vicinity of the town of Mardaman. They brought with them the Spear of Nergal, a divine weapon, which was to be used as part of the ceremony. Before they reached Mardaman, the weapon-bearer started behaving erratically, then ran off into the edinnu (steppe) - where he was snatched by a Griffin and carried away with the spear still in hand.

At the head of this group was a Baru (diviner) military commander, who was able to perform a quick divination to determine where the weapon could be found. Armed with this information, they set off in pursuit.

Meanwhile, a Turukkean sorceress named Admu was camping nearby with her posse when they saw the Griffin fly through the sky with a human in his claws. Obviously an omen, the sorceress perceived this to mean that 'she would make acquisitions'. So she, too, set off in chase.

The scenario begins when the group of priests crests one bank of the river (Point P), and the sorceress' group crests another bank (Point S), and for the first time they have the potential for conflict.

Below them lies the river valley. The body of the dead priest – with spear still in hand – lies on an eyot in the river. The griffin splashes in the water nearby, jumping up and down while trying to catch fish. It seems to be having a hard time of it. A muddy oxbow lies nearby, surrounded by reeds and populated by a flock of long-legged waterfowl.

The Characters:

The priest group consists of:

Ibbi-Adad, a Baru, or professional diviner, who also happens to be a military commander in the army of Larsa.

Abdi-Ili, an Exaltation Priest.

Ea-Nasir, an Exorcist.

Turum-Nakti, an Archer and military escort.

The group of Admu the Sorceress consists of:

Admu, a Turukkean Sorcereress.

Ninildu, a Gutean Snake Charmer.

Zutlum and Sudam, two Turukkean Tribesmen hired as escorts. 

How the session played out:

When the two groups arrived at the top of their respective banks, they paused to assess one another. Neither knew who the other people were.

Admu the Sorceress and her group acted first by descending the embankment and approaching the shore opposite the island. They noticed that there were Lion-fish swimming in the water. No wonder the Griffin was having a hard time catching its meal! One of the two tribesmen shot at the griffin and hit it, a mighty fine shot leaving it sorely wounded in its hind-quarters.

The griffin, angered by the arrow, flew into the air and began dive-bombing the two Turukkean archers. Not realizing their danger as it flew into the sky, they wasted an action shooting at the lion fish, but when the griffin screamed out of the air in a dive-bomb they gave it their full attention.

Meanwhile, the group of priests also started to approach, still uncertain as to whether the unknown people were friend or foe. They tried to make peaceful overtures, but the sorceress turned toward them and cast “Hateful Augury” on them. This caused a large flock of marsh birds from a nearby oxbow lake to fly toward them and attack! In a panic, most of that group scattered and fled in various directions - except for Ea-Nasir the exorcist, who cast an incantation of his own: “To Tie a Fly” (which repels vermin and bad omens - we decided it applied here). He cast the spell successfully, but failed to overcome the Sorceress' spell-casting roll, so he was attacked mercilessly by the birds. He tried again on his second action and this time was successful.

The snake-charmer from the sorcery group also tried to get into the spell-casting action by reciting an “Incantation of Nirah” and directed his snake toward the exorcist. His snake was never able to approach, though, because the “To Tie a Fly” incantation repelled it, too.

Once his bird spell was broken, the sorceress cast another spell, “Voice of Kinshaba,” on the exorcist, causing him to be very angry with his own ally, Turum-Nakti the archer. The exorcists chased after the archer, berating him. They ran around until the griffin became the obviously bigger threat – at which time the archer shot an arrow at it.

The two Turukkean tribesmen were meanwhile not faring well against the griffin. After a couple of bad rolls, and no luck points or fortune points to use, they didn't really have a chance They were killed one after the other in two successive rounds, arms torn off by the claws of the griffin. Seeing the trouble, and having scared off the party of priests for now, Admu the sorceress cast “Crippling Pain” on the griffin as it flew above. The spell was successful - but unfortunately hit the left front leg of the creature rather than a wing, chest, head, or abdomen - so it was able to keep fighting from the air. With his magic points now all used up, the sorcerer hid behind a bush, and the snake-charmer slunk down the river bank. The griffin went the opposite way toward priests because their archer had just shot an arrow at it.

Now the priest group, recovered from their fear and sorcerous effects, fought the griffin. The exaltation priest sang an “Exaltation to Erra” liturgical song to boost the entire team by 13%. The baru priest similarly cast buff spells, mostly on the archer. The exorcist tried to draw the attention of the griffin away from the archer and became its next victim. His arm was pulled off in the thing's beak and he collapsed and bled out in the mud. The other three fought on, taking turns drawing the beast attention and diving out of the way. This fight lasted several rounds.

With the griffin occupied elsewhere, the snake charmer saw an opportunity. He drew his second pet snake out of his basket and sacrificed it as a decoy, throwing it into the water as bait for the Lion-fish. Their attention drawn away, he waded across to the eyot and reached the dead body which still grasped the spear. When he tried to pry the dead hand off the spear, though, he was attacked by the passion spirit that had been possessing the priest - and thus found himself locked in spirit combat for the rest of the session.

The sorcerer, now emboldened by the actions of the snake-charmer, also came over to the island. She threw the body of one of the Turukkeans into the river as a decoy and safely crossed over. She reached the spear and grabbed it, ignoring the snake-charmer who was still locked in spirit combat.

By now, the three remaining Nergal cultists had dispatched the griffin (knocking it out with head-shots) and came to the shore opposite the island just in time to see the sorceress grab the spear in triumph. So the exaltation priest cast “Breath of Girra” on the spear, causing it to glow red hot. The sorceress dropped it and ducked down to quench her hand in the water. The exaltation priest was bold enough to cross at this time, but when the others tried, they jumped back out of the water as a lion fish approached. As the exaltation priest was crossing, the sorceress grabbed the spear (taking 4pts of damage to the hand) and flung it across to the far side of the river. The exaltation priest didn't notice this, so when he arrived the sorceress said "keep your spear if you must", and she was able to get away by crossing the river to the far shore while the exaltation priest looked around for the spear. Too late he noticed a small brush fire on the far side where the sorceress had thrown the spear. He watched as the sorceress picked it up (it was no longer red hot, the spell having expired) and ran off, dodging arrows, over the hill.

And that's how Admu the Sorceress came to acquire the Spear of Nergal.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Great Serpents of Old

The Great Serpents of Old

We think of wyrms and dragons as iconic medieval monsters, and so they are. For sea monsters we turn to ancient instead Greece, the Bible, or the dark ages But the great serpents of legend have very old roots - going back at least to Babylonian times, and probably earlier. They are creatures of such import that they are given individual names, and no two are really alike. But perhaps, like in the story of the blind men and the elephant, they are really all the same creature and we can only appreciate one part at a time. Whatever the case, here are a few Great Serpents whose names you may not have heard before. They come from deepest antiquity.

Sumer and Babylon

Three great horned serpents are known to us from Akkadian literature, their names in some cases coming from Sumerian roots. Though there are several written descriptions, it can be hard to tell them apart as the texts don't always make it obvious which serpent they're referring to.

One of these was Ušumgallu (from Sumerian UŠUMGAL - “The Great Dragon”) who was considered a monster or a demon. Where humans and hybrid creatures were thought to have been made by the gods, monsters and demons had older and more obscure roots. The great serpents were usually thought to have been of offspring of the primordial goddess, Temtu, who in later myth was herself described as a sea monster and given the name Tiamat. Temtu was the encircling salt sea, a mother goddess who gave birth (in some myths) to the lesser gods after mating with the Abzu (subterranean fresh waters). She was later depicted as a sea monster in her own right.

Ušumgallu was counted among the 'warriors' said to have been slain by the god Ninurta, the champion Enlil, king of the gods, and defender of the city of Nippur. The myth recounting this slaying is lost (if it ever existed), but the deed is listed among the god's past exploits in a myth known today as 'The Exploits of Ninurta'. In that myth, Ninurta was also credited with slaying the six-headed wild ram, Anzud the thunderbird, and more. Of his various enemies, only the enigmatic Palm Tree King seems to have escaped.

Ušumgallu can be equated with the lion-dragon - a great horned snake with forelegs and fierceness of a lion. The word 'UŠUMGAL' was sometimes used as a metaphor for a king or a god in order to speak of their greatness. 

The following verse comes from a myth of the god Tišpak, the warrior god and protector of the city of Ešnunna, and translated by Benjamin Foster in Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature.

“The sea produced the serpent.
Enlil has drawn the image of the serpent in heaven.
Its length was twenty leagues, its height was one league.
Its mouth was six cubits, its tongue twelve cubits,
Its horns were twelve cubits.
At sixty cubits it snatches birds.
It draws nine cubits of water when it swims.
If it raises its tail, it darkens the sky
All the gods in heaven fear it.
Go, Tišpak! Kill the lion-serpent!”

A seal depicting the slaying of Ušumgallu or perhaps Tiamat: Source: Wikimedia

Bašmu (Venemous Serpent) was another of the three great horned serpents of Babylonia. Bašmu was said to have two forelegs and wings, and to be sixty double-miles long. Bašmu lived in the sea, and devoured fish, birds, onagers, or humans with equal zeal. It had six mouths, seven tongues, and seven eyes on its belly. The following two texts describe Bašmu - or perhaps the third great serpent called Mušmahhu (Exalted Serpent), about whom little is known but who may have been the seven-headed serpent who was also slain by Ninurta.

“I seize the mouth of all snakes, even the viper,
Serpent that cannot be conjured:
The alabaster burrower,
The fish-snake with rainbow eyes,
The eel, the hissing snake,
The hisser, the snake at the window.
It came in by a crevice, it went out by a drain.
It struck the gazelle while it slept.
It secreted itself in the withered oak.
The snake lurks in a roof beam, the serpent lurks in wool.
The serpent has six mouths, seven tongues,
Seven are the poisonous vapours of its heart.
It is bushy of hair, horrible of feature, its eyes are frightful.
Bubbles ooze from it's maw, it's spittle cleaves stone.”

“The Idiqlat* bore it,
The Ulaya raised it,
It lies under the rushes like a serpent.
Its head is like a pestle,
Its tail is like a pounding tool.
Adad gave it its roar,
Nergal, the descendant of Anu, gave it its slither.
I conjure you by Ištar and Dumuzi,
Not to come near me a league and sixty cubits!”

(Both texts from Before the Muses by Benjamin Foster)

*For context, the Idiqlat is the Tigris River; the Ulaya is the ancient river upon which the important Elamite city of Susa rested. Adad is the Babylonian storm god, Nergal the destructive warrior and king of the Underworld, and Anu is the father of the gods. The goddess Ištar and the shepherd god Dumuzi were famously married until they had a falling out so spectacular it sundered the seasons from one another. 

Bašmu as he appears on the cover of the forthcoming Mythic Babylon setting for Mythras

Hatti and Mitania

In the lands north of Babylonia, another giant dragon-like monster lived. He is called Illuyanka and referred to in both Hattian and Hurrian myths. There are a few different versions of his story, but in one myth, Illuyanka took the eyes and heart of the weather god, Teššub, thus depriving him of his power, but as with so many of the great serpents he was ultimately slain by the god. Some scholars believe that Illuyanka was a metaphorical construct meant to evoke the Gašgaeans, who were a rival people to the Hittites. The name 'Illuyanka' comes from two proto-Indo-European roots - hillu and henge, both of which mean 'snake'. The latin word 'Anguilla' shares the same roots, but written in reverse order.

"The serpent defeated the Storm-god and took his heart and eyes." Source: Wikimedia


Yet another legendary great serpent is Poubi Lai, a lake serpent from Manipuri mythology. Poubi Lai is said to have been the embodiment of the spirit of Loktak Lake in northeastern India. In ages past, he was awakened as a manifest spirit of the lake when over-fishing threatened the balance of nature. Poubi Lai ravaged the local villages, so the local king took to appeasing him by offering one basket of rice and one living person for his daily meal. But the people found this situation untenable, and one of the villagers went into the hills to find the great shaman, Kabui Salang Baji, who fashioned a great javelin from an aquatic plant with which to tame the serpent.

Carving of Poubi Lai by Karam Dineshwar Singh. Source: Wikimedia

All these stories make it clear that Great Serpents can be slain by those with special powers, be they gods or heroes. But the task won't be easy, and who will suffer in the meantime? Your own giant serpent quest might require the help of dread shamans, greedy kings, or blind gods. Keep in mind, too, that snakes are said to be immortal - shedding their skins every so often to re-acquire the vigor of youth. What is the secret of that power, and is it shared by the Great Serpents of Old?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Four Thousand Year Old Wisdom

I've been compiling a list of Sumerian proverbs for a project I'm working on. Sumerian culture thrived in what is now Southern Iraq for 2000 years from about 4000 BCE to 2000 BCE, after which the principle language of the period changed to Akkadian, After this, the Sumerian language lived on as a literary language, much like Latin in the Middle Ages.

Knowledge of the Sumerians and their language was lost for over a thousand years, and only rediscovered again in the 1800s AD.

It's difficult to date these proverbs exactly - they were passed down through generations of scribes and recorded in collections on clay tablets. Some are likely very old and may even pre-date writing, others might be much younger (say, a mere 2500 years old). Many of them have obscure meanings, their idiom being lost to us. Others, though, are quite pithy and still resonate - though maybe not for the same reason they once did! I've put together twenty-five of the most interesting ones here for your pleasure. The more I read about the ancient world, the more I think that people haven't changed all that much across the millennia.


1. Into an open mouth, a fly enters.
A caution against the dangers of gossip?

2. There is commerce in a city, but a fisherman caught the food
The original 'Farmers Feed Cities' bumpersticker.

3. One does not return borrowed bread.
Literally true, I suppose.

4. A heart never created hatred. Speech created hatred.
We aren't born cruel, after all.

5. Like an ox with diarrhoea, he leaves a long trail behind him.
I love the imagery...

6. A goat says to another goat: "I, too, butt my head".
That's one woke goat.

7. When a burglar makes a hole, he makes it narrow.
They didn't have pianos, yet.

8. A shepherd's sex appeal is his penis, a gardener's sex appeal is his hair.
Not sure what to make of this, but will cultivate both to hedge my bets.

9. Your worthiness is the result of chance.
This one needs a modern equivalent, I feel, as modern worthies seem completely oblivious to the fact.

10. No matter how small they are, they are still blocks of lapis lazuli.
Lapis lazuli was one of the most precious materials.

11. There is no baked cake in the middle of the dough.
It's not over till it's over?

12. He is fearful, like a man unacquainted with beer.
Speaks for itself, really.

13. What is in one's mouth is not in one's hand.
Actions speak louder than words?

14. To be wealthy and demand more is an affront to a god.
This one doesn't seem to have made it to the modern western world.

15. In the reed beds, the lion does not eat his acquaintance.
I should hope not.

16. If the one in the lead is being consumed by fire, those behind him don't say:
"Where is the one in the lead?"
Unless the leader is Mark Zuckerberg.

17. Here I am in a house of brick and bitumen, and still a lump of clay falls on my head.
Planned obsolescence?

18. You should hold a kid goat in your left hand and a bribe in your right.
The goat is to make an offering to a god at the temple, the bribe to get somewhere with the government at the palace. The temple and the palace were the two prongs of government. So this is basically a guide for how to get ahead in life.

19. 'Give me' is for the king. 'Be so Kind' is for the cupbearer's son, 'Do me a favour' is for the administrator.
Diff'rent strokes... different ways to get things done.

20. The lives of the poor do not survive their deaths.
This one needs some explanation. Sumerians believed that after death, people went to the underworld where they had a miserable existence toiling, eating dust, and wearing garments made from old bird feathers. This could be improved by giving them burial gifts and by honouring the dead with offerings of food, water, and prayer. Those who didn't get a proper burial, or who weren't properly honoured after death, could come back as malicious ghosts. So, what what this may be saying is that the poor couldn't honour their dead properly, so they had no existence in the underworld. Or possibly they are referring to the lack of an inheritance for their children.

21. My tongue, like a runaway donkey, will not turn back.
I guess you like the taste of flies, then?

22. I looked into the water. My destiny was drifting past.
Timeless, really. The Queen Street bridge over the Don River here in Toronto bears the words "The River I Step In Is Not The River I Stand In" which is a paraphrasing of Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice”, all of which compare the flow of life to the flow of a river.

23. A sniffing dog enters all houses.
Kind of like the flu.

24. If the lion heats the soup, who would say "It is no good"?
Hopefully a whistleblower will step forward.

25. My donkey was not destined to run quickly; he was destined to bray!
The older I get, the more I want to embrace this sentiment.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Book Review: Mesopotamian Chronicles by Jean-Jacques Glassner

Book Review: Mesopotamian Chronicles 
by Jean-Jacques Glassner, 2004, 365pp

This issue from the Society of Biblical Literature is a translation and update of a previous work by the author published in French. It's a survey of the published chronicles (a particular genre of literature that concerns itself with the documentation of events over time) which were originally written in the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian languages. Their writing spans a period of about 2000 years from the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2100 BC) to the Seleucid period (c.300 BC). The time periods these chronicles purport to cover are the same, but in some cases they stretch back to the dawn of humanity, before the mythical flood.

About two-thirds of the book is devoted to the translations and transliterations of some 53 unique texts, most of which are fragmentary - many extremely so. The remaining third is devoted to a discussion of the nature of the texts (how they're classified, what characteristics they share, who wrote them, and why), and to a discussion of Babylonian and Assyrian thought on the nature of origins.

Most interesting in this first third of the book, though, is the author's thesis on the Babylonian view of the nature of history, and why they considered it valuable. According to Glassner, Babylonians didn't see history as linear, but cyclical. Their chronicles, and especially the earliest, the Chronicle of the Single Monarch, which attempts to relate for the first time the earliest history of the people going back thousands of years, is predicated on the idea of cycles.

The greatest cycle was that of the 'flood', for which original Sumerian word apparently refers to a 'meteorological event that is a weapon of the gods' and could relate to both a great storm or an invasion. 'Deluge' might be a better translation. In any case, it refers to a wiping clean of the land by something of divine origin that flows over the land. The mythical 'Flood' is one example. The invasion of the Gutians at the end of the Akkadian era is another.

Within the flood cycles are dynastic cycles, in which the high kingship of the ruling city is passed to another king of the same city. When the dynastic cycle ends, rulership is passed to a new dynasty in the next city. Within each dynasty is another another nested cycle - that of individual of kings. Kings rule for cycles of years, which are made of a cycle of months, which are made of days, which are made of hours.

Babylonian linear history therefore looks something like this:
Hours are nested within
Days, are nested within
Months, are nested within
Years, are nested within
The Reigns of Kings, are nested within
The Dynasties of Cities, which are nested within
Divine Deluges.

The purpose of knowing the cyclical history (which is more important than the linear history) is so that any given king can figure out if he's going to be the one at the end of a cycle or not. Because nobody wants to be that guy.

As usual when I review these books on ancient history, I like to provide a few excerpts to show what I find so fascinating, and to illustrate how I might apply them to games and world-building. Here are some things that particularly caught my eye:

From the discussion of page 87:

"The Replica of Babylon: Two chronicles explained the tragic end of Sargon of Akkade by reference to a sacrilege he had committed by removing soil from Babylon and reconstructing a replica of the city elsewhere. Should we see here an allusion to the Assyrian practice of transporting soil from conquered territories to be trampled daily under the feet of its conquerors? Rather, the comparison with Nabonidus seems more likely, as he was reproached for wanting to construct at Tayma, in the north of the Arabian peninsula, a replica of the palace of Babylon."

Both of these suggestions are compelling to me. The former is basically the epitome of the act of what we would consider an evil empire - adding injury to defeat. The latter is interesting in a society where cities belong to their gods - for a human king to want to build a replica of a divine city would be seen as the height of hubris. Maybe, in your homemade world, it's the latter act that causes the 'deluge' which takes the form of the invasion of someone who would trample your soil daily - that's an interesting cycle in and of itself.

Here's an actual chronicle entry. This was written in the late Babylonian period (7th century) but refers to a much earlier event in the 20th century BC. This instance, which takes place during cycle of the first dynasty of Isin, describes the practice of the substitute king, in which a king receives a warning by omen or prophecy that he will die, and so places a courtier or some other poor sap on the throne for a short time, while he takes the position of 'gardener'. Usually, if nothing happens naturally to the substitute king, he is killed and the prophecy is fulfilled. Then the rightful king retakes his place. In this instance though, events unfolded otherwise:
"King Erra-imitti ordered Enlil-bani, the gardener, to sit on the throne as royal substitute and put the crown of kingship on his head. Erra-imitti died in his palace while swallowing soup in little sips. Enlil-bani sat on his throne, did not resign, and was elevated to the royal office."

In this case, the rightful king died while he was playing the gardener. The substitute refused to step aside, and kept the throne. I have no idea what the significance of the 'little sips' is, but I love the detail. This would make a superb set up for a one-shot game. Imagine if the player-characters were sent on a diplomatic mission, only to find that the king they were supposed to treat with had been replace by a temporary substitute. Would they treat with the substitute, or try to find the real king, who is hiding as a 'gardener'. Then, when they do find the real king, he dies, choking on soup - maybe right in front of them. Imagine the look on the player's faces.

In another late chronicle, we are treated to the events that chronicle the mental or moral breakdown of a king of the Chaldean dynasty of Babylon, Nabu-shuma-ishkun. He commits all kinds of acts that would be considered atrocities today - maybe they were then, too, but people felt powerless to stop them.

"Unshaven, he mutilated (the fingers of) his apprentice scribe, and, wearing fine gold, he entered into Bel's (Marduk's) cella of offering..."
"A leek, a thing forbidden (taboo) in the Ezida (temple), he brought to the temple of Nabu and gave to the one "entering the temple" (a temple functionary)."
"In (only) one day, he burned alive sixteen Cutheans (citizens of the city of Cutha) at Zababa's gate in the heart of Babylon."
"The man Itagal-il of the town of Dur-sha-Karhi , which is on the banks of the Euphrates, came into his presence and swore agreements and oaths, but he committed insult and unspeakable slander that are forbidden of princes against him and counted his town as booty."
"In the sixth year, he turned his attention toward the Esagila , the palace of Enlil of the gods, with a view to restoring it, but the possessions of the Esagila (as much as was there, that earlier kings had donated) he took out, gathered them into his own palace, and made them his own: silver, gold, choice and priceless stones, and everything that befits a deity, as much as was there. According to his good pleasure, he made offerings of them to the gods of the Sealand, or the Chaldeans, and of the Aramaeans. He would adorn the women of his palace with them and would give them to the kings of Hatti and Elam as signs of respect."

Stealing from the gods, cursing, and bringing leeks into the temple! Now there's a king just asking for a deluge!

Like so many books that survey ancient literature, this book holds some serious gems. You have to sort the wheat from the chaff, but here the author helps us do that and gives us some synthesis. He could have just presented the chronicles as they were and left us to draw our own conclusions, but he didn't. His analysis really brings the chronicles alive and reveals the wonder of the ancient world.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Bet you didn't know... About Those Crazy Elamites!

Elam (Haltamti, in their own language) was a kingdom of ancient Iran, active before the Medes and Persians arose. Their kingdom lasted about 2000 years, from 2400-539BC. During that time they butted heads with the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Indus Valley people, among others. 

Elam was a kingdom in two parts. The highland portion to the southeast, Elam proper, was ruled from the city of Anshan. The lowland portion (called Susiana) to the northwest was ruled from the already ancient city of Shushan, also known as Susa.

During their middle phase, Elamites had an unusual succession system by which there were three rulers:
The Sukkalmah (High Regent), was the highest office of the three - effectively the king.
The Sukkal of Elam (Regent of Elam) who was based in Anshan, and the Sukkal of Susa (Regent of Susa) were his co-rulers. 

The Sukkal of Elam was away the brother of the Sukkalmah.
The Sukkal of Susa was the eldest son or nephew of the Sukkalmah.

When the Sukkalmah died, the brother in the position of Sukkal of Elam would become the new Sukkalmah, and the next brother in line (who may not yet have held a position) would become the new Sukkal of Elam. The Sukkal of Susa did not change. Only when all the Sukkalmah's brothers died would the son (or nephew) in the position of Sukkal of Susa become the new Sukkalmah, and his brother would become the new Sukkal of Elam, his son (or nephew) the new Sukkal of Susa.

So, in effect, whole families became joint rulers of this land. Family ties were obviously very important.

In later years this system would morph into something different, but the importance of family ties remained, and family drama would grow to George R.R. Martin-esque proportions.

From the Encyclopedia Iranica:

The inscriptions of [king] Šutruk-Nahhunte and his successors have revealed the practice of incest within the royal Elamite family.

The principal member of this family was Queen Nahhunte-utu. This altogether exceptional woman in Elamite history, and even in the ancient history of the Near East, bore ten children from four different fathers, who followed one another on the throne of Elam. From her father, she had at least two children, a son Hutelutuš-Inšušnak and a daughter, Inšnikarab-huhun. When he died, she married his elder brother, Kutir-Nahhunte, from whom she had two or three children. Shortly afterwards, the king was killed, and she then married his second brother Šilhak-Inšušinak, from whom she had 4 or 5 children. Finally, she gave birth to Melir-Nahhunte, a princess she had had from her own son, Hutelutš-Insušnak, whom she had had from her own father.
(F. Vallat, “Nouvelle analyse des inscriptions néo-élamites,” in Collectania Orientalia, Neuchâtel and Paris, 1996, pp. 385-95.)
This dynasty lasted a surprising 200 or so years.

Wikipedia: List of Rulers of Elam

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Book Reviews - Two Books by Brian Bates About Anglo-Saxon England

And a game in which to play them!

This post collects two short book reviews about Anglo-Saxon mystical thought by University of Sussex professor of psychology and shamanic studies, Brian Bates, a respected authority in the field. 
More about Brian Bates from Wikipedia 

The Real Middle Earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages 
by Brian Bates, 2003, 292 pages

This is a survey-level book about the mystical aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture and it is just loaded with interesting little bits of mythical Saxon lore. Here's a look at some of what it covers:

  • Saxon cosmology
  • The people of the dark ages (the author sees the Celts, Germanic tribes, and Norse as part of a pan-European culture)
  • How they lived
  • Their perception of forests
  • Their reaction to what the Romans left behind
  • Dragon and their lairs
  • Treasure hoards
  • Elf shot
  • Herbalism
  • Spirits
  • Wells and waterways
  • Corvids
  • Omens
  • Shape changers
  • Voyaging to the spirit world
  • Wyrd, and those who weave it and can read it.
  • Giants
  • Dwarven craftsmanship
  • Magical bonds
  • Shamanic initiation (and spiders)
  • The journey of the dead.
That's a lot of ground, as you can see, but it's given to us in lively and pleasant prose and is quite accessible. It also appears to be well researched - there's an extensive bibliography at the end. The book takes the approach of trying to define Anglo-Saxon culture from all sides, looking at the writings of Romans (especially Tacitus), Christian monks, and later Scandinavian and Icelandic texts, and of course Anglo-Saxon texts, too. From this, we get a rather broad but impressionistic feel for the zeitgeist of the time. It takes some liberties with history, as many more knowledgeable reviewers than I have pointed out on Amazon and elsewhere - but if what your interested in is the stuff not captured by history - a peek into the mind of a Saxon shaman , there's a lot to chew on. 

If your a gamer looking to play, for example, Mythic Britain: Logres - you'll probably find this book to be a wonderful companion. If you're familiar with the Mythras game system, you'll find yourself nodding your head a lot as the author describes the ways of the Shaman, and you'll find some new things to think about too. I can also see it being useful to Ars Magica players interested in older magic traditions, perhaps for giving your Ex Miscellanea mage or a local hedge wizard a bit of flavour. 

If you're coming to this book because of a love of Tolkien, however, I should provide a few words of caution. The title is clearly a gimmick to tap in on the popularity of the movies, which were being released when this book was published. The author does mention Tolkien and how he was inspired by Saxon lore, but maybe only once every 2 chapters - just enough to make sense of the title. Tolkien is obviously not the thrust of the book, though Tolkien fans would still find it interesting, I think, as long as their expectations are properly set.

I recommend it as a starting point for anyone interested in reading up on the spiritual thinking of past people. Lastly, it strays from time to time into self-indulgence, enough to make me wince, but not enough to mar the overall book. As a companion to running a mythic role-playing game, it's just about perfect.

The Way of Wyrd: Tales of an Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer 
by Brian Bates, 1983, 237 pages

This book was recommended to me by my friend Paul as a follow-up on The Real Middle Earth.

The Way of the Wyrd is a fiction that follows the fortunes of Wat Brand, a scribe in a Christian mission in Saxon-era Mercia, as he is sent into deepest, darkest Sussex to learn the ways of the pagan Saxons who live there. He's told that a guide will meet him, and that guide is Wulf, a Saxon sorcerer, who takes him under his wing and teaches him to open himself to the spirit world.

It's easy to see how this book influenced the later Real Middle Earth, which is much more like a concrete survey of Anglo-Saxon mystical thinking. In this book we encounter many of the same ideas, but here presented in a much more dreamlike story format. It is very much as if the teaching in this earlier book is intended to be from heart to heart, while that in the latter book is from mind to mind. Personally, I respond much more strongly to the latter, and TWoW had me often asking myself "why is this happening, exactly?", but Bates is an eloquent writer and the prose zips along so, despite confounding the rationalist in me, it was a pleasant read.

Recommended for anyone into spiritual customs. Prepare to be baffled if you run mostly on logic, though.

As an aside, this book has inspired several pieces of music, including the thrash metal album Dreamweaver by Sabbat and many much more mellow pieces. There's definitely something to be said for a book that can inspire so much creativity.

Mythic Britain: Logres
Since I mentioned this above as a sourcebook for playing a Saxons campaign, I thought I'd say a few more words about this product.

Mythic Britain: Logres is a supplement by Paul Mitchener for the Mythic Britain setting (itself written by Lawrence Whitaker) for the Mythras game system. It takes the setting of Mythic Britain, rolls it over, and gives it back to us from the viewpoint of the Saxons. Logres, by the way, is the Brythonic name for the "lost lands" that the Saxons now control.

The book contains chapters on Saxon culture, spirits and magic, character creation, Saxon lands and settlements, and key personages acting in the Saxon lands. There're are also 4 scenarios that link together into a short campaign for 4-8 sessions of play (or, if your group is like mine, 12 sessions of play).

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Hbyt - A Campaign about Friendship and Greed

Today on his blog, Paul Mitchener was musing on how he might revisit his Hunters of Alexandria game. This gave me an idea.

I think there's a lot of scope for expanding with a sort of 'city breaks' book that gives adventurers a wide variety of places to visit on travels from Alexandria. There are a lot of very interesting but less famous Egyptian locales that would really lend that feeling of wonder and mystery to an adventure. And in this case I'd certainly include the Fayyum city of Arsinoe in Arcadia - aka Crocodilopolis. From Wikipedia: "The city worshiped a tamed sacred crocodile called in Koine Petsuchos, "the Son of Soukhos", that was adorned with gold and gem pendants. The Petsoukhos lived in a special temple pond and was fed by the priests with food provided by visitors. When Petsuchos died, it was replaced by another."

That's very cool on its own, but let's take this a step further and turn it into an RPG campaign.

Pataikos, or nmw


The Hbyt

A bunch of Egyptian nmw, or Pataikos, servants of the cult of Ptah, wish to reclaim the treasures of their ancestors, unjustly robbed from them by the cult of Petsoukhos generations ago. On the advice of a priest of Thoth, they arrive for an unexpected party at the house of an unlikely burglar in Alexandria, whose door the Priest of Thoth had marked with a hieroglyph. The burglar is surprised by the intrusion, but politely provides many festive offerings to his guests. Before he knows it, the burglar agrees to set off on adventures with them and leaves Alexandria for the first time.

On their journeys they are nearly eaten by sphinxes, then captured by Troglodytes from the Erythrean Sea or Upper Nile area, and while trapped in the troglodyte caves the burglar meets an ancient mummy and wins a treasure from him - the Ring of Gyges, which turns the wearer invisible.

Eventually they all get out of the caves, only to be hunted by jackals, and then rescued by griffins and deposited on an island in the river where they meet a man who can change into a hippopotamus. They next traverse the great reed beds and nearly run afoul of giant water striders.

Finally they make it to Crocodilopolis and discover the secret way into the lair of Petshoukhos by moonlight. He lies within, encrusted in gems. Using the Ring of Gyges, the burglar steals the Eye of Osiris, which angers the great reptile, who then goes on a rampage in the city of Arsinoe where he is eventually killed by a local archer - but not before the town is nearly destroyed. 

While the local residents deal with the great croc, the patraikos move into the lair and reclaim it and its treasure for themselves, as their heritage. The burglar finds he must mediate between the two groups that want the treasure in payment for past wrongs. And to complicate matters, the angry troglodytes, jackals, and some bird pals show up seeking revenge.

Now, what could you call this campaign? Maybe name it after the unexpected party that starts it all. Looking up the Egyptian word for festive offerings in the dictionary, that gives us Hbyt, so we'll call it The Hbyt. Sounds about right.


The Ring of Gyges
Ancient Egyptian Dictionary