Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Religion

One of the interesting implications of the Wand Spells, Ring Spells and Potion Spells found in the Scroll Magic Items table in Holmes is that divine magic is a recent phenomenon. Holmes states:
The spells written on scrolls can be read only by magic users, except the protection spells.

Thus, all of the various spell effects in Wand Spells, Ring Spells and Potion Spells that emulate Cleric spells fall under arcane magic, not divine magic. The implication is that divine magic did not yet exist. Given that Holy Symbols in Holmes are not generic pseudo-pagan symbols but crosses, divine magic finds its source in a pseudo-Christianity if not in Christianity itself. Thus, the transition from the implied ancient civilization of the powerful arcane knowledge found in Wand Spells, Ring Spells and Potion Spells to the current civilization where much of that arcane knowledge is lost and divine magic is present is a transition from paganism to Christianity.

I also find it interesting that so many of the arcane spells available to this ancient arcane civilization are Control spells (Control Dragons, Control Giants, Control Plants, etc.). This implies a kind of Tower of Babel, found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

One of the keys to understanding this story is to understand the phrase "they had brick for stone." When understood metaphorically, the Tower of Babel is a story about a society that not only turns its back on God, but tries to replace God. Therefore, "they had bricks for stone" refers to the human condition. Stones are free individuals, none of whom are exactly alike — each has a unique place in the world. Bricks are uniform. Therefore, people become disposable as society forces all people to be exactly the same. Everyone must conform and be interchangeable. The Tower of Babel is a vision of slavery.

Given the amount of Control spells available to the implied ancient civilization in Holmes, it is very easy to imagine a culture built upon a slave-economy. Thus, while this ancient culture had access to immense arcane power, in trying to exercise that power sans God, it became oppressive and evil. In doing so, they doomed themselves.

It is very easy to imagine a slave revolt led by dragons and giants that brings this ancient civilization to a very abrupt and violent end.

The Quondam (or classical) civilization that existed between this ancient civilization and the current one implied in Holmes could take on several different forms:
  • A Christian civilization who is rescued from the dark era of dragon and giant domination through the coming of Christ. This civilization, for a variety of reasons, is in decline. The current game takes place when the outward regions of empire have been abandoned.
  • A pre-Christian civilization that tries to turn back to God but repeats the same mistakes as the ancients. The coming of Christ marks the end of this classical period — He comes as this civilization is in collapse.
  • A pagan civilization that purposely seeks to regain the power and splendor of the ancients (possibly either lead by dragons or giants or lead by those that see these monsters as liberators). Christ comes to rescue humanity from this slavery. With this version, the current civilization would have pockets of Christians in a sea of pagans still trying to hold on what once was.
Despite the appearance of a negative outcome, the end of the Tower of Babel story is actually a happy ending. As human beings we are properly stones, not bricks. We are meant to have distinct and unrepeatable shapes, sizes and colors. Each of us is called to add something truly unique to the world.

Personally, I find this to be a beautiful image from which to understand and appreciate the OSR. Each of us has a unique way of doing this hobby that we all love. I find it interesting that Holmes — the edition that introduced me to this hobby — so powerfully implies this vision of the game.


  1. Hmmm, that's an interesting take on the whole stones/bricks thing. I had always just assumed that was a minor detail about geography.

    My take on the Tower of Babel is that it was a response to Noah's flood, and thus, to God's judgment. I figure they were trying to build a tower big enough that they would be immune to God's judgment, had He ever sent another flood. Thus, man was trying to lift (exalt) himself above God.

    If you wanted to continue with this theme in your game, I guess you could see arcane magic as being developed by man to try to thwart and even overpower God. Perhaps you already see it that way. That wouldn't require all PC magic-users to be "pagan," since all this merely says is the impetus for developing the arcane was such, not that it need only be used in such manner.

    Nothing is inherently evil, all was created good. Anything can be used correctly (for good), or incorrectly (for evil).

  2. Just to clarify, are you saying that the line "The spells written on scrolls can be read only by magic users, except the protection spells" is a "powerful implication" of how all D&D players are unique? o_o?

    Love your interpretation of Control spells, though, and how they may have led to the rise and subsequent fall of civilization. Real cool.

  3. @BreeYark!
    In my view, arcane magic is a bit like science. While all pagan spell casters would be arcanists, not all arcanists need to be pagan. As you observed, the good or evil of a tool depends upon how we use it.

    The quote was to demonstrate that all the various spells implied by Holmes having Ring Spells, Wand Spells and Potion Spells in his Scrolls Magic Item Table are all arcane magic as opposed to divine magic, despite the fact that many of these spells emulate Cleric spells.

  4. Now, this is a terribly interesting way to see soemthing very specific from a few vague descriptions. Nice work.

  5. Wow, this is one of the most evocative posts I have read in a while. Take this idea of one language, and the tower of babel and combine it with the le Guin notion of power residing in true names (also echoed in the recent Rothfuss series, The Kingkiller Chronicles, though in a much more prolix manner). (Incidentally, I would be interested in knowing from what mythology le Guin drew from for the Earthsea books.)

    For present-day adventurers (from the perspective of the campaign world), the arcane arts are a pale imitation of the past true language of creation, which man lost access to due to his pride.

    I am thinking of situating my campaign world in a sort of melange of post-Empire but pre-Christ time where many clerics in the past used to worship the one true God, but now most believe that the one God has abandoned creation (or dissipated into nothing, or been destroyed, or originally nothing more than a spirit or demon pretending to omnipotence), though some clerics continue to keep the monotheistic traditions alive, waiting for the messiah. Most clerics (of the kind that have supernatural power, at least) derive their skills from saints/angels (holdovers from the past religion that have come to be treated in an almost polytheistic manner), demons (these clerics are often called warlocks), or witch-kings (I have always liked the ambience of the templars in Dark Sun).

  6. @Brendan
    Thanks for your kind words. Just so you know, the whole concept of names having power is a Judeo-Christian thing. God allows Adam to name the animals in order to allow him to be a co-creator. Moses asks for God's name (to which he gets the ambiguous and evocative answer I AM). Abram is renamed Abraham when God makes His covenant with him. Jacob is renamed Israel after he wrestles God (the literal meaning of the name). Places are named for revelation, etc.