A Paladin of the Blue Dragonflight

With Dragonflight on the horizon, I’ve been messing around with some dragon-themed transmogs. Hopefully the next expansion will give us some great new dragony appearances, but in the meantime, here’s my set for a paladin of the blue dragonflight.

The shield even breathes fire! Here’s the Wowhead dressing room link if you want to look up any of the pieces.

Image: World of Warcraft screencap

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Thoughts on Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer

We recently rewatched the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s been a fair few years since we last saw it, which is long enough to forget a lot of details, so there was pleasure in rediscovering some of what made the show so good. A few random thoughts inspired by our rewatch.

To begin with, we can’t avoid the fact that Joss Whedon has now been exposed as an entitled sex pest who created a hostile and unsafe working environment on his shows. This knowledge casts a pall over our enjoyment of the show and gives an ugly tint to some of the character interactions. Xander’s puerile lusting after Buffy or Buffy’s teen crush on a two-century-old vampire are harder to stomach knowing what Whedon was up to behind the scenes. It’s not impossible to enjoy the show now, but we have more than the usual amount of disbelief to suspend.

There are other things that require a little indulgence as well. The series is twenty years old, and it shows. The special effects don’t hold up particularly well, the stunts are a bit obvious, and the pop culture references have not all aged gracefully. Still, that’s par for the course when going back to something older, and we can’t hold it against the show.

Other things date the series, too. It is a clear product of third-wave feminism, with its insistence that girly girls can be strong and don’t need boyish boys to protect them, but the series still can’t fathom the idea that girls don’t need to be girly or boys boyish at all. The overwhelming whiteness of the cast is also hard to ignore—it takes seven seasons before we get a person of color as even a side member of the cast. The show was notable at the time for showing a happy, loving queer relationship; it is notable now for crushing that relationship for the sake of drama.

Those things being said, though, Buffy is much better than I remember. The early seasons hold up quite well. The characters are well developed, the dialogue snaps, and the jokes mostly land. The central conceit of taking the challenges and frustrations of young adulthood and turning them into literal demons is just as much fun to watch now as it was then. The idea of a young woman who needs no saving but can kick monster butt all on her own is not as revolutionary now as when the series first aired, but it’s still satisfying to see a woman whose heroism is not the product of overcoming weakness but of embracing strength.

I find it hard to remember how good the first few seasons are because my memory of the show is tainted by the failings of the last few seasons. The show lost something when it turned away from the monster-of-the-week-as-coming-of-age-metaphor formula in season five and went hard into dramatic arc territory with the mystery of Dawn, Glory, and Ben. Season six has its good and bad points: the good point is the musical episode “Once More With Feeling;” the bad points are everything else. The early episodes of season seven recover some of the magic of the early series by focusing on the friendships of the main cast, but those are soon sacrificed to the First Evil arc that drags on for most of the season.

Many fans have their own personal cutoff points where they choose to mentally end the series. The end of season three is a popular one and makes sense; there is great satisfaction in watching the senior class of Sunnydale High School pull together to slay a powerful demon, and the end of high school makes a natural end point for the show. The end of season five is also a popular contender, with Buffy sacrificing herself to save her sister and the world. For myself, I choose the end of season four. The season has its weaknesses, but I enjoy the early episodes that take the monster-of-the-week approach to adjusting to college life. The ending that sees Buffy and the Scoobies tap into the primal power of the slayer brings a nice conclusion to the themes of friendship, courage in the face of life’s horrors, and Buffy’s ambivalence about her calling that animated the early seasons. In fact, I now wish that the geek trio of season six had been the villains of season four instead of Adam and the Initiative. The trio’s overt goofiness was always an odd fit in the bleak season six, and their refusal to grow up could have made for an interesting counterpoint to Buffy and the gang’s rocky but earnest transition into adulthood. Ah well—these are such things as fanfic is made of.

When we were packing up our house for our big transatlantic move last year, I was considering getting rid of our Buffy DVDs. Now I’m glad we didn’t. It was a pleasure to rediscover the joys of the early seasons, despite all the show’s other problems.

Image: Buffy cast photo via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: The Things We Have Had on Our Minds During the Day

People have long been fascinated by dreams and seen them as potential sources of meaning and insight. While today we focus on dreams as potential windows into our unconscious minds, ancient peoples often thought of dreams as a potential channel to the supernatural. Ancient Greeks produced complex manuals for interpreting the symbolism of dream images as a way of understanding the gods and predicting the future.

In that context, it is interesting to see evidence for a more rational, grounded approach to dreams. This passage comes from Herodotus’ account of how King Xerxes of Persia decided to invade Greece. After debating the merits of the proposed campaign with his court and deciding against it, Xerxes repeatedly dreamt of a shadowy figure that demanded he carry on with the attack. When Xerxes brought up this dream to his uncle Artabanus, Artabanus offered a level-headed interpretation:

Now when you have come around to a better way of thinking, you say that although you have decided to abandon the expedition against Greece, you are visited by a dream from some god forbidding you from giving up on the plan. But there is nothing divine in this, my boy. I have many years on you, so I’ll teach you what recurring dreams like this are about: the things we see in our dreams are usually the things we have had on our minds during the day, and in recent days we have been concentrating on this campaign.

Herodotus, Histories 7.16b

(My own translation)

Now, in Herodotus’ narrative, it turns out that Artabanus was wrong and Xerxes really was being visited by some divine force prompting him to carry on with the invasion plan, but the fact that Herodotus could put that argument into Artabanus’ voice tells us that the idea was part of the contemporary conversation in the Greek world. Indeed, Artabanus generally figures in Herodotus’ work as a wise and perceptive counselor whose advice Xerxes would have done well to heed. Giving this argument to Artabanus gives it a significant weight as an idea, even in a cultural context where people were inclined to see dreams as messages from the gods.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Pyramids of Kush

The pyramids of Egypt may be famous, but they’re not the only pyramids to serve as royal tombs.

The region of Nubia lies along the upper Nile in modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The kingdom of Kush flourished here for a millennium and a half, even dominating Egypt for a century as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Kushites had a long history of war, trade, and diplomacy with Egypt, including incorporating elements of Egyptian art and architecture into their own culture. Like all such cultural borrowings, the Kushites did not simply imitate what they had seen in Egypt but reimagined and innovated on those ideas to suit their own needs.

Pyramids at the northern cemetery at Meroe. The larger pyramids in the background are in ruins, but the two smaller ones in the foreground have been restored in modern times to give an idea of the original shape. Photograph by UNESCO via Wikmedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

In Egypt, Kushite visitors would have seen the massive ancient stone pyramids of the early kings still famous today. They would also have seen small, steep-sided brick pyramids that were popular in later times as tomb markers for wealthy families. In their royal cemeteries in Nubia, Kushite rulers combined these forms to create stone pyramids much larger than the private monuments in contemporary Egypt, though not as large as the great pyramids of early pharaohs. These pyramids had steep sides, rising high over narrow bases. Many also had passages leading inside at ground level marked with monumental gates, a feature not found in Egyptian pyramids. While the major pyramids of Egypt were almost all built for kings, some of the largest Kushite pyramids were built for queens. These tombs drew on Egyptian ideas, but interpreted those ideas in a new way, marking the kings and queens of Kush as both connected to Egypt but also distinct.

Another view of a partially restored pyramid at Meroe. Photograph by Michael Walsh via Wikimedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

The custom of building tombs in this style took hold in Nubia. Despite the depredations of modern treasure hunters, there are, in fact, about twice as many Nubian pyramids still standing today as Egyptian. They are are a remarkable piece of world heritage and a fascinating example of the adaptation and reinvention of one culture’s ideas in the hands of another.

Pyramids at Nuri. Photgraph by Vit Hassan via Wikimedia (Nuri, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE; stone)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Colorful Ancient Statues at the Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a fascinating new exhibit featuring reconstructions of some ancient works of art that show how they might have originally looked when they were still painted in bright colors. Sadly, I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic now to go and check it out myself, but there’s an excellent online gallery of examples. Here’s a comparison of one original sculpture with its reconstruction to give you an idea of how amazing the work is.

Sphinx finial, original and reconstruction via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Originally Athens, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; c. 530 BCE; marble. Reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkmann)

It’s always wonderful to get a chance to glimpse what the ancient world may have looked like when it wasn’t yet ancient.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Epitaph for a Pig

Carved gravestones with images and short poems celebrating the deceased were common in the ancient world, but it wasn’t just people who got them. This one commemorates a pig who apparently died in some kind of traffic accident. Like other Greek epitaphs, this one is phrased in the first person, as if the pig were narrating its own story.

A little pig, everyone’s friend, a young quadruped, I lie here, after leaving behind the land of Dalmatia to be offered as a gift. I walked through Dyrrachium and Apollonia in my longing, and passed through the whole earth alone untouched. Now, by the violence of wheels, I have left the sunlight behind. I longed to see Emathia and the phallic chariot, but now I lie here, and my debt to death is cleared.

Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecarum 25:711

(My own translation)

The story seems to be that a pig was bought somewhere in Dalmatia (the Balkans) and driven overland toward the plain of Emathia in Macedonia (west of modern-day Thessaloniki), to be offered as a sacrifice in a festival for Dionysus (which often involved a large decorated phallus carried in a procession). The stone was found in Edessa, a city right at the edge of Emathia, and it seems that here the poor pig got run over by a cart.

It’s certainly unusual for an animal to have a gravestone like this. There was a custom of writing joke epitaphs for animals, but few people went to the expense of actually getting them carved in stone. Perhaps this pig was special, or perhaps the gravestone represents a kind of substitute for the religious act of sacrifice that was no longer possible once the pig was killed on the road.

Whatever the case may be, that was clearly some pig.

Image: Copy of pig stela, photograph by Philipp Pilhofer via Wikimedia (Edessa; 2-3 c. CE; carved stone)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Atlantis Is Not a Myth

Atlantis is not a myth. And I don’t mean it’s real, either. Atlantis is something neither mythic nor real: it’s fiction.

Atlantis is an old Greek story, but not all old stories are myths. Myths are stories passed down and retold over time as part of a culture’s collective tradition. They have no identifiable author and no original, canonical form. Every version of a mythic story is a retelling of something older and usually already familiar to its audience. The stories of the Trojan War, for example, are myths. They were part of the common oral tradition of ancient Greece, reimagined in particular versions by the Homeric poets, Athenian dramatists, the Roman poet Virgil, and countless other storytellers and artists in the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. Every version of the story represents just one person’s imagination playing with existing ideas, characters, and motifs.

Modern attempts to find some truth behind the story of Atlantis often approach it as if it were a myth, something from deep in Greek history with an unrecovered truth behind it. It isn’t. There is no myth of Atlantis, no long tradition of reinterpreting a shared narrative like the tradition of the Trojan War. Stories about Atlantis appear in only two ancient texts, Timaeus and Critias, both written by Plato.

Plato was a philosopher who liked to create thought experiments and fictional stories to illustrate his ideas. He told a story about people chained up in a cave watching shadows on a wall to describe minds unenlightened by philosophy. He imagined a magic ring that made its wearer invisible as a way of talking about how people behave when they have the power to do what they want without fear of consequences. He made an analogy between the human soul and a charioteer trying to manage unruly horses. None of these stories were myths; they were invented to get philosophical ideas across. There was no deep oral tradition about people trapped in a cave. Plato just made it up.

Atlantis is the same. Plato made up a story about an ancient rival to Athens as a vehicle for philosophical discussions about law, society, and human nature. There is no deeper history behind Atlantis. No writer or artist before Plato had ever depicted the city; no one after him told any stories about it either. Some later authors discussed Plato’s Atlantis story and its meaning, but no one in antiquity independently told their own story of Atlantis the way that Greek poets and playwrights created their own versions of the Trojan War. Folks today looking for some historical reality behind Atlantis are missing the point just as much as if they were to go looking for an actual cave with people chained up watching shadows.

Now, this does not mean that Plato’s imaginary city has no connection to the real world. When people make up fictional stories, they often draw on actual things they know about. When Tolkien invented Middle Earth, he based the Shire on his childhood memories of the English countryside, the Dead Marshes on the horrific battlefields of the Great War, and the Riders of Rohan on his knowledge of early English history and legend. Elements of the real world found their way into Tolkien’s imaginary world, but these do not make Middle Earth real. You could go out and explore English villages and country pubs, even the very same ones that Tolkien knew from his youth, but that doesn’t mean you’ve found the Shire.

The same is true of Plato’s Atlantis. When Plato was imagining his fictional city, he probably drew on details of the world and history that he knew. Plato described Atlantis as the home of a powerful empire based in a circular city with concentric rings of land and sea that was ultimately destroyed by earthquakes. The idea of a powerful empire was not much of a reach for an Athenian; in the century before Plato, Athens had fought against the expansion of the Persian Empire before becoming an imperialist power itself. The idea of a city with a circular plan suited Plato’s philosophical allegory, but it might also have been suggested by real-world settlements he had seen or heard about (possibly translated through the imagination of other Greeks, such as Herodotus’ rather fantastical description of the city of Ecbatana). The idea of concentric harbors may have been suggested by the island of Thera (modern Santorini), which has a core island nearly surrounded by outer islands. The Greek world in Plato’s day had plenty of experience with earthquakes, landslides, and coastal floods from which he could imagine a land sinking beneath the water. Given Greek trade connections with the eastern Mediterranean, he may well have also heard flood myths from the Levant or Mesopotamia that he drew on for his tale of destruction. While Plato’s fictional Atlantis may have drawn on some preexisting real or mythic features for its details, that does not mean there is any more substance to the story. Thera is not the “real” Atlantis any more than a house with a green door is the “real” Bag End. We can’t use the Atlantis story to learn anything about actual history any more than we can learn the history of England from Tolkien.

Our desire to find a truth behind a myth can lead us to dismiss the intelligence and creativity of people in the past. Ancient people were just as complicated and imaginative as we are. Every story we tell does not have some shadowy reality behind it; sometimes we just make stuff up. So did they. In the case of Atlantis, we’re not even dealing with a mythic tradition handed down from previous generations. It’s fiction. Plato just made it up. There is no reality to find behind the story. There isn’t even a myth behind it.

Image: Fictive map of Atlantis from Mundus Subterraneus via Wikimedia (1664; engraving; by Athanasius Kircher)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Writing Prophecies

Prophecies are a staple of fantasy fiction, and for good reason: they are a convenient way of providing the heroes with information to get the plot moving while also imparting an aura of ominous mystique. How do you write a good prophecy for your story or game? Let’s start by looking at how prophecies worked in historical cultures.

Nearly every people in history has believed in some way of communicating with supernatural forces in order to gain special knowledge or insight, but the methods, purposes, and results of that communication could vary widely from culture to culture. By “prophecy” we usually mean something more particular: statements about specific future events which impart the necessary knowledge for the recipient to avert, influence, or at least cope with the effects of those events. Numerous cultures in history believed in some way of gaining these kinds of insights.

The problem that historical oracles faced, of course, was that predicting the future doesn’t actually work. The priestesses at Delphi or the authors of the Sibylline Books at Rome had no special insight into the future any more the authors of modern horoscopes and fortune cookies do. Nevertheless, many people believed in the power prophecy. The Histories by Herodotus, a work which makes frequent references to oracles, gives a useful view of the ways in which people coped with the unreliability of prophecy.

Reasonable guesswork. Prophets may not have special knowledge of the future, but they can make reasonable guesses about what is likely to happen, the same as anyone else. When the small Greek city of Miletus led a rebellion against the powerful Persian Empire, it didn’t take much special foreknowledge to predict that things were going to go badly for Miletus. The Delphic oracle produced this prophecy: “Miletus, you who scheme at evil deeds, will be a feast and splendid gifts for many. Your wives will wash the feet of long-haired men. Strangers will tend my shrine at Didyma.” (Herodotus, Histories 6.19, my own translations) This prophecy turned out to be true, but plenty of other Greeks claiming no connection to the gods also knew that things were going to go badly for Miletus, and so refused to join the revolt.

Vagueness. The standard dodge for prophets from Delphi to Nostradamus is to give an answer vague and cryptic enough that it will seem to suit whatever actually happens. The most famous example is perhaps the Delphic oracle’s response to the Lydian king Croesus, who asked whether he should invade Persia. The oracle replied that by doing so, Croesus would destroy a great empire, neglecting to mention which empire would be destroyed. As it happened, Croesus’ attack on Persia led to the Persian conquest of Lydia, but if things had gone the other way, the oracle would still have been right. (Herodotus 1.53)

Unspecificity. Some prophecies, like the one given to Croesus about his war with Persia, gave vague information about a specific event; others gave detailed information without specifying what event it related to. For example, a little-known Athenian seer named Lysistratus predicted that “The women of Colias will cook with oars,” which came true when wreckage from the naval battle of Salamis washed up on Cape Colias and was used as firewood by the locals. (Herodotus 8.96) This prophecy is unambiguous about what will happen, but says nothing about when or why. Colias was downstream of an important harbor and shipping channel; it was not hard to predict that wreckage from some significant event would wash up there and be salvaged sooner or later.

Selection bias. People tend to remember things that confirm their beliefs and forget things that don’t. People who believed in the power of oracles accordingly tended to remember prophecies that turned out to be true or could be interpreted to be true. Almost all the historical prophecies we have recorded were written down only after they had apparently come true. A number of recorded prophecies from the Delphic oracle begin with the word “But,” suggesting that some preceding part of the oracle has been left out, possibly because it turned out to be wrong or not relevant, such as in another Delphic reply to Croesus: “But when a mule becomes the king of the Medes, then flee, soft-footed Lydian, by the pebbly Hermus, and do not be ashamed to be a coward.” (Herodotus 1.55) This part of the prophecy was interpreted after the fact to refer to the Persian king Cyrus, whose ancestry was both Persian and Median, analogous to a mule, which is the progeny of a horse and a donkey.

Intrigue. Sometimes prophecies were manipulated in order to achieve the results some party wanted. It was an open secret that the priests at Delphi could be bribed to give particular answers. Other oracles and seers were no doubt similarly open to influence. The Alcmaeonid family of Athens were known to have bribed the Delphic priests to encourage the Spartans to help them against their rivals in Athens. (Herodotus 5.63) Another kind of manipulation is exemplified by Onomacritus, a collector of oracles who tried to encourage the Persian king Xerxes to invade Greece by sharing only those prophecies in his collection that seemed positive for him and hiding any that seemed negative. (Herodotus 7.6)

Now, as an author with full control over the world of your imagination, you don’t have to resort to any of these dodges. If you want your ancient prophecies to come true, then they will. The problem with prophecies in fiction, though, is they risk undermining the agency of the main characters. If prophecies predict the threat or its resolution too reliably or in too much detail, opportunities for drama are lost. If your work is for a game or some other setting where other people will have input to the plot, you can bet your dice that as soon as you hand them a prophecy they will try to exploit, invalidate, or weasel out of it in some way.

Uncertainty is a source of drama. When your audience already knows how everything is going to end, it’s harder to keep them interested in the story. Prophecies risk diminishing drama by introducing too much certainty. How do you keep the uncertainty in a story when there’s a prophecy involved? The techniques mentioned above are a good place to start because they serve the same function for a different reason: historical prophets had to keep uncertainty in their predictions because they didn’t actually know what was going to happen. You can use the same ideas in order to avoid tipping your hand too much to your audience or players.

Reasonable guesswork. If an in-story prophecy confirms something your heroes already suspect or adds useful detail to a picture that was already becoming clear, it can add impulse to the plot without dominating it. Conversely, a prophecy that doesn’t provide answers but spurs your heroes to ask important questions can be a good way to get things moving.

Vagueness and unspecificity. Both these techniques are good ways of keeping a prophecy from overwhelming the agency of your characters. If the prophecy refers to a specific event but doesn’t give clear details about it, or gives a clear prediction without specifying when, why, or how it will come about, there’s more room for your characters to work around it.

Selection bias. Lean in to the fact that prophecies can be wrong. If your characters (or their players) are aware that prophecies are unreliable or only seem true after the fact, their doubts about the truth or usefulness of the prophecy they’ve received can be a good source of drama.

Intrigue. There’s even more drama to be mined out of the fact that a prophecy might have been tampered with or invented, or that an authentic prophecy might have been delivered to your characters in such a way as to influence their understanding of it. Such puzzles open up interesting possibilities for side plots and interactions with antagonists.

As an author, the future is in your hands, a power that historical prophets never had. Still, you can learn from their examples how to make your prophecies sufficiently portentous without overwhelming your characters and plot.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Venthyr Shaman Transmog

I’ll admit, Venthyr is not one of my favorite covenants. The gothic vampire vibe just doesn’t do it for me. But when I saw that the Venthyr mail set has candles on the shoulders, I knew I had to have it for my Tauren shaman.

Here’s a transmog set based around those shoulders. For obvious reasons, I call the set Playing with Fire.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.