Unearthed Mundana: Superstitions, Monsters and D&D
This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Two on 31st July 2019.
Killer DM (tinkering): That’ll do I think.
ROSTRO: Your assistance is appreciated. I believe we can now conclude the matter at hand.
Lennon: Does the matter at hand have anything to do with the research beholders doing laps between here and the Candlekeep annex?
ROSTRO: Surprisingly astute observation
The rules of Dungeons and Dragons enumerate an extensive bestiary of creatures benign and belligerent. Fifth edition currently has a comparatively tiny collection of creatures when compared with previous incarnations. Many of those editions had at least three monster manuals in addition to ancillary materials collating collections of fauna, easily bringing the total number of creatures to a count of multiple hundreds.
I’ve been working with ROSTRO here to figure out where they all came from. I’m obviously a master at inventing new ways to terrorize and mutilate players but I didn’t think I could come up with this many. Now obviously most of the D&D creatures are recycled at this point. The fact that the Ooblex showed up as a completely new nightmare was a big deal at the time, but when you go back to earlier editions they didn’t have a back catalogue.
Fortunately for the lives of everyone involved, it turns out that I didn’t have to worry about people who have more creative energy than me. The truth is most D&D creatures are actually stolen.
Now, that’s overstating it a bit. While a lot of the creatures have been borrowed from other resources, none of them are violations of copyright, or at least they aren’t anymore. You have to remember the origins of D&D was that Gary Gygax and his pals wanted to do wargaming with fantasy settings, and obviously the first things they went to were the fantasy settings they knew, most notably Tolkien’s. From there, ROSTRO’s research suggests that cultural mythologies were the next obvious targets. We’re going to go through a couple of examples of where things came from here.
Due to the original author’s scholarly background, there is extensive information on the mythological origins of materials sourced for the Lord of the Rings and ancillary materials related thereto. Concepts such as elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins are present in multiple mythologies and folk tales, however the specific realization of them in Dungeons and Dragons can be attributed to the works of Tolkien, as can the existence of the Ranger class and halflings, a term only currently used due to a legal challenge from the aforementioned estate requiring Dungeons and Dragons cease and desist from using the term “Hobbit.”
Tolkien got a lot of his ideas from Norse mythology so it’s possible Gygax and his pals continued using things from those sources for inspiration. The term “Frost Giant” if nothing else is definitely out of Norse mythology as are some aspects of trolls. Dwarves as miners and forgers is a norse idea too, but as we said it’s more likely that came from Tolkien’s interpretation rather than independent research. Gamers tend to be a lazy bunch, after all.
The next obvious source for D&D creatures is actually Jewish folklore and mythology. Golems are the most obvious thing that was lifted from that source, but also some of the demons such as Succubi and the Dybbuk. The names of some of the demon lords also have Jewish origins, specifically Belial and the big one, Asmodeus.
Asmodeus and Belial can be traced to Jewish Folklore but many of the other demons and demon lords are difficult to definitively source as they are brought up in multiple locations in medieval demonology, where classification of demons and their abilities was something printed and reprinted approximately every century from several authors. The names Mammon, Beelzebub, Belphegor, and Mephistopheles can be confidently sourced from such works, as can the representations of Incubi and Cambrions.
Of course if you want creatures taken from mythologies you can’t stay in the middle ages, you have to go back to the western masters of it; the Greeks. Centaurs, Minotaurs, Cyclopses, Chimera, Gorgons, Griffons, Harpies…okay speak and spell, I’m not reading this whole list. Suffice it to say that even if you only watch a movie that’s based on Greek mythology you’re going to find the sources for at least a half dozen D&D creatures. It is worth mentioning some of the ones people might not pick out unless they’re linguistics majors, like the Erinyes, Unicorn, Lamia, and Tritons, all of whom came from Greek. Technically vampires and zombies can be traced back there too, but the way D&D talks about them goes back to how the poor sods in the middle ages thought about the creatures.
Despite the rich mythological histories of the cultures there, not a lot of creatures were taken directly from the mythologies of China or Japan. The Oni are the only example lifted directly from one of the mythologies and they do not function the same way. The Kenku race is believed to be a partial retranslation of Tengu, humanoid bird creatures also from Japanese mythology.
By contrast, Hindu mythological figures feature prominently throughout the bestiary. Naga, Rakshasa, and Deva are taken almost directly from Hindu lore in most cases. Though considered a unique creation legally, the Yuan-Ti race exhibits much of the behavior that Hindu Mythology attributes to Nagas.
On the subject of things where part of it was taken and then re-written, I want to talk about Tiamat and Bahamut, the wonderful dragon gods. Both those names originate in Middle Eastern mythology, but they are wildly misrepresented in D&D. Tiamat at least was a woman, but she was a sea god that got cut in half by her husband, and she was described as a “glistening woman”, so possibly some moisturizing issues there. And Bahamut was a whale. Its only job was to sit in the wings of an angel and let a bull stand on it so the bull could hold up the earth. Definitely a winner in the size category but nowhere close to what D&D has him doing. Though in fairness to Ryu, Dungeons and Dragons and a lot of other popular media have basically made Bahamut synonymous with a big dragon by this point in time.
Going the other way, D&D didn’t take anything from the works of H.P. Lovecraft directly, but a lot of concepts and creatures either heavily reference or mimic the ideas and feeling of things drawn from what most people call the Cthulhu mythos. Mind Flayers, Aboleths, Star Spawn, and the Elder Evils listed in MToF are all themed around similar concepts such as the idea that hugely powerful beings exist outside the normal planes of existence, small examples of incursions and cults do sometimes break through, and the most common signs of such incursions are widespread madness. Most of the creatures involved also have a sea theme to them, which is probably more of an adherence to popular media around Cthulhu specifically.
Despite the Killer DM’s assertion earlier in this exercise, a statistically significant sample of creatures from D&D are unique in name and function, or at least the specifics of the creatures’ monikers and behaviors cannot be located in common media. Nevertheless, an effort was or is routinely made by the caretakers of the game to employ similar morphemes in naming creatures that should be associated functionally. Consider: the Merregon, Abishai, and Tanarukk creatures are all fiends unique to Dungeons and Dragons, however the names are audibly and orthographically similar to those in Jewish folklore that were appropriated for the names of other fiends. Furthermore, the Elder Evils Lennon mentioned as being inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft bear labels such as Dendar the Night Serpent, Zargon the Returner, and Ragnorra the Mother of Monsters, many of which have a feeling and theme functionally similar to the Lovecraftian deities envisioned for the source material.
So what’s the point of all of this? D&D has monsters from old myths and stories but unless you’re trying to impress an anthropology professor how does that help? Well, if you need to come up with something on your own, knowing where other D&D monsters came from gives you a leg up in a couple of ways. First of all, as the overthought mirror ball just said, if you’re making a new creature that’s similar to other creatures that already exist, you know how to make them sound the same. Most of the demons are from medieval Christian and Jewish demonology, so go find a name they haven’t used yet; I promise you there are some.
In that same vein, some people have actually modified name generators for that very purpose, so you can specify “make this sound like it came from Jewish Folklore” when it generates a name. A lot of the fantastic but otherwise mundane beasts in D&D are from Greek mythology. Finding a mythological Greek creature that hasn’t already been given D&D stats is hard, but again, if you can find a source for naming things with Greek morphology you can play around with that.
Additionally, the mythologies mentioned, as well as multiple others, contain numerous creatures that remain untapped for use in D&D. Japanese folklore alone contains dozens of demons and spirits with malevolent or mischievous intent, and the mythological creatures of Eastern European cultures have been successfully appropriated for use as antagonists in entertainment media collectively labeled with the title “Witcher”. Other cultures too numerous to expound upon at this juncture would also provide bountiful menageries of life forms for use in antagonizing characters.
So if you somehow ran out of things to use from the sourcebooks or if you’re a player who’s already memorized the D&D bestiary and wants a new horror to try to eat your face, point yourself or your DM to some of the sources we mentioned and start plundering. Though I’m supposed to tell you that if you use Korean creatures and pronounce them wrong, Ryu’s going to send me over for a chat.
Killer DM: Speaking of chat, how’re those new pipes working for you?
ROSTRO: I do not detect any addition or alteration of hollow cylindrical structural members on my chassis.
Killer DM: Right, well everything sounds fine but I think we need to give them a test with the listeners…
Lennon: No. You are not coming to the Scrying Pool. Even Ryu’s with me on this.
Killer DM: I do a good Ryu impersonation. I bet I could make it in there and you’d never be able to tell.
Lennon: That’s why I’m going over to the Scrying Pool, then I’m having RaeRae watch the door. How much do you want to bet she’ll be able to tell if you’re around?
Killer DM: Drat