My afternoon today found me spending time comforting my oldest daughter who had a rather nasty spill on the playground this morning. One of her requests was watching an old episode of Secrets of the Dead with me. She, like me, is really interested in how scientists can reconstruct events of the past through the study of bones, ruins, artifacts, etc. The episode in question was an investigation of the disappearance of the Minoans.
According to the show, we don’t know a lot about the Minoans. We just recently deciphered their written language (Linear A) and most of what we know is from myth. The Minoans had a cult based upon the bull and there is evidence that they made human sacrifices which were then eaten. This, of course, is strongly associated with the Greek story of the minotaur — the bull headed man who ate his victims alive.
The Minoans also likely had a female priesthood associated with some kind of snake goddess — among the various Minoan artifacts is a statue of a woman holding snakes in her hands. I couldn’t help but wonder if this weren’t the origin of Medusa or some other serpentine monster.
This also made me call to mind another episode which detailed how the Aztecs not only ripped the heart out of their human sacrificial victims, but took bones from their victims as trophies to hang in their homes and even ate them.
All of this reminded me that while we who are fond of fantasy and play FRPGs tend to associate such behavior with the mythological and the monstrous — the scene from Two Towers where the orcs are arguing over whether or not to eat Merry and Pippin comes immediately to mind — all of this nasty behavior can be traced back to human beings.
Not surprisingly, in both the case of the Minoans and the Aztecs this sacrificial cannibalism is justified via a twisted combination of religion and politics. Continuous sacrifice is made necessary to both appease the gods and keep various populations under control. This is a pattern, by the way, that Christianity shatters. Rather than demanding sacrifice, Christ gives Himself up as the ultimate sacrifice once and for all. It is also a pattern that keeps popping up once Christianity is pushed to the side — the Jews under Nazi Germany and the Bourgeois under Communism, for example.
Although one of the primary uses of RPGs in general is escapism, I cannot help but believe that RPGs (particularly FRPGs like D&D) can be very good at holding up that mirror to the fallenness and brokenness of humanity. Personally, I am forced to ask the question every time I play — are the monsters sin personified (and therefore unsalvageable) or are they human in some way fashion or form (and therefore worth saving)? This is particularly true when I have a group of players that enjoys talking to monsters as much as fighting them.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: one of the reasons that D&D is as successful and enduring as it is has to do with the fact that it is a pastiche. This allows a tremendous amount of freedom for we as players to explore (or not) just about anything we want to bring to the table. It can be both pure escapism and the horror of looking at the monster that is fallen humanity.
By the way, scientists have determined that the Minoans were wiped out by a combination of natural disasters. The island of what is now known as Santorini is a volcano that erupted with a Krakatoa-like force causing not just one tsunami comparable to the one that decimated Asia in 2004, but at least three of them. As a result, given the mythological connection with the minotaur, the show wondered if this destruction weren’t the source of the story of Atlantis. Food for thought for anyone who wants to include some version of Atlantis into a campaign...
19 hours ago