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.

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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.

Azerothvision Song Contest: Shadowlands

Have you ever asked yourself: “I wonder what it would be like if there were a Eurovision-style song contest in Azeroth?” No? Just us? Well, okay then.

If you’re not familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest, it’s an annual competition in which countries around Europe (and a few beyond) present songs in a wide variety of styles and genres. It’s good for inventive songs, wild stage shows, and good-spirited competition among nations. What if we had the same thing in the lands of World of Warcraft? Here are our ideas of what songs might represent the various realms and lands of the Shadowlands.

Oribos – La Forza by Elina Nechayeva (Estonia, 2018)

Elina Nechayeva – La Forza – Estonia – LIVE – Grand Final – Eurovision 2018 by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

An ethereal, soaring, operatic melody from Estonia in 2018 befitting the mystical city surrounded by The Inbetween. (Probably helps if you like opera.)

In English, the Italian lyrics start something like “You know in the night for me / There is a star / It lights up my way / For eternity / It is my guide / In the immensity / That never leaves me” (someone else’s translation). Very apt!

Bastion – Visionary Dream by Sopho Khalvashi (Georgia, 2007)

Visionary Dream, Sopho Khalvashi, Georgia, Eurovision 2007 via OkazakiYoko on YouTube

Georgia’s Eurovision contribution from 2007 is a hypnotic song. Among its lyrics: “I will fly away / To reach the heights I’ve ever dreamed / Beneath the sun / No sense of time and space.” Sounds like Bastion to us.

Maldraxxus – Hard Rock Hallelujah by Lordi (Finland, 2006)

Lordi – Hard Rock Hallelujah (Finland) 2006 Eurovision Song Contest Winner by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

Finland won in 2006 with this hard rock song. It’s got monsters, pyrotechnics, and a head-banging beat. What else could you hope for from the Necrolords of Maldraxxus?

Ardenweald – Spirit in the Sky by KEiiNO (Norway, 2019)

KEiiNO – Spirit In The Sky – Norway 🇳🇴 – Official Music Video – Eurovision 2019 by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

Norway’s song from 2019 has a magical fairy-tale feel and features a yoik performance evoking the spirits of the northern lights. It feels like something the Night Fae of Ardenweald would be into.

Revendreth – It’s My Life by Cezar (Romania, 2013)

Cezar – It’s My Life (Romania) – LIVE – 2013 Semi-Final (2) by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

In 2013, Romania blessed us with this levitating falsetto vampire drama king. If that’s not right for the Venthyr of Revendreth, I don’t know what could be.

The Maw – Hatrið mun sigra by Hatari (Iceland, 2019)

Content note: The Icelandic group Hatari is described on the official Eurovision site as “Award-winning, anti-capitalist, BDSM, techno-dystopian, performance art collective”. The music pretty much matches that description—in English, the song name apparently translates “hate will prevail”. Be warned.

Iceland – LIVE – Hatari – Hatrið mun sigra – Grand Final – Eurovision 2019 by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

The lyrics start with “The revelry was unrestrained / The hangover is endless / Life is meaningless / The void will get us all” (someone else’s translation), and the stage show includes chains and spikes. Yep; as bleak as playing through The Maw.

Torghast – Warrior by Nina Sublatti (Georgia, 2015)

Nina Sublatti – Warrior (Georgia) – LIVE at Eurovision 2015 Grand Final by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

Representing Georgia for the 2015 contest we find another Eurovision song where the lyrics and stage show seem to fit WoW uncannily well (Sublatti’s outfit certainly does!) and certainly suit the desolation of Torghast.

Korthia – Higher Ground by Rasmussen (Denmark, 2018)

Rasmussen – Higher Ground – Denmark – Official Video – Eurovision 2018 by Eurovision Song Contest on YouTube

A pensive Danish song from 2018 about departures and the potential of either victory, failure, or passing seems appropriate for Korthia.

Zereth Mortis – Sanomi by Urban Trad (Belgium, 2003)

Eurovision 2003 22 Belgium *Urban Trad* *Sanomi* 16:9 HQ via 2000ESC2003 on YouTube

The Belgian entry from 2003 is sung in an imaginary language and also has a bit of an otherworldly quality to it, making it the perfect song for Zereth Mortis.

Finally, as an honorable mention, if there is a Eurovision song for the Shadowlands expansion as a whole, it’s Sweden’s Heroes from 2015.

Shadowlands – Heroes by Måns Zelmerlöw (Sweden, 2015)

Måns Zelmerlöw – Heroes (Official Video) by Warner Music Sweden on YouTube

Any favorites among these or other Eurovision songs, or suggestions for additional WoW zone pairings? Do share!

P.S. The 2022 Eurovision Song Contest semifinals are finished, and the final is held this Saturday, May 14, in Turin, Italy, should you want to follow along.

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

Roman Leather Toy Mouse from Vindolanda

The Roman fort at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in Britain has been a source of many remarkable finds. The unusual conditions at the site preserved many examples of the kinds of organic material that usually disappears to decay, including wood, textiles, and leather. When the onset of the covid-19 pandemic delayed the start of the excavation season, researchers at Vindolanda used the time to reexamine some leather scraps that had been turned up in earlier seasons and came across an unexpected find: a toy mouse!

Toy mouse, image via Vindolanda Charitable Trust (Vindolanda; 1st-2nd c. CE; leather)

The mouse is cut from a flat scrap of leather and has markings on the body to indicate eyes and fur. Mice would have been a common sight around the fort and the nearby village, a constant nuisance to a community that depended on stored grain to survive through the winter. Since we know there were families and children in and around the fort, this mouse might have been a child’s toy. Or perhaps it was made to be slipped into some unsuspecting legionary’s bedroll for a practical joke. Whatever the original intent for this mouse, it’s still cute two thousand years later!

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

Gold and Silver in Fantasy Coinage

Are your fantasy characters in the market for a loaf of bread? A new suit of armor? A mercenary army? Then it’s time to think about how people in your world buy and sell things. Of course, the beauty of fantasy is that you can do anything. Do you want to write a world where the common currency is bolts of silk and songs of youth? Go for it! But if you want your world to be more grounded in the familiar, coins stamped out of gold and silver are both historically accurate and staples of the genre.

Gold and silver are both relatively soft metals that were easy to work using pre-modern technology. They are unreactive and resistant to corrosion, so coins will not lose weight over time and use. They are also metals that are rare and highly valued for creating objects of beauty and prestige, which gives coins struck from these metals intrinsic value not dependent on confidence in the state that issued them, unlike modern paper money. Gold and sliver coins were worth something no matter where you carried them, even if just to be melted down as bullion.

In the modern economy, with prices driven by industrial demand and market speculation, the relative values of gold and silver can vary widely. In pre-modern times, the values of these metals was more stable, shaped by the productivity of mining and refining on one hand and cultural demand on the other. Geological research has found that silver and gold ores occur naturally at a ratio of about 19 to 1, which is to say that for every 19 grams of silver in the earth waiting to be dug up, there is about 1 gram of gold. Ancient mining techniques were of limited efficiency, however, and it is likely that the ratio of metals actually put into use was closer to 10 to 1. Where we are able to compare the historical values of gold and silver coins in use by the same culture, we tend to find them falling within these brackets: one gold coin was typically worth 10 to 20 times its weight in silver coins. Bear in mind also that gold has about twice the density of silver, so a gold coin will weigh about double what a silver coin of the same size weighs. When gold and silver coins are struck at the same size, that means that we would expect one gold coin to have a value of anywhere from 20 to 40 silver coins.

Assigning an actual value to an individual coin is a trickier proposition. Pre-industrial economies are hard to compare directly with the modern world. Some things are much cheaper in real terms for us today than for our ancestors, like clothes and books; others are much more expensive, like labor. We rarely have good, comprehensive evidence for what a given amount of money could buy in any historical context (and when we do, it is often hard to tell whether the values and prices quoted are realistic or an expression of what someone in authority thought things ought to be worth).

In many cases, our best way of estimating the worth of a coin is to put it in terms of daily wages for a soldier. Military pay was a pressing matter of state finance that was important to get right—you definitely don’t want to forget to pay the people hanging around your castle with swords. That leaves us with reasonably good evidence for soldiers’ pay in many historical contexts (of course, not all soldiers are paid in money).

Gold coins are classic standbys for fantasy currency, but historically gold was too valuable for everyday use. The value of any specific coin depended on its weight, with heavier coins naturally worth more, but even a small gold coin was typically worth a great deal. Examples like the Persian daric or the Roman aureus had a value of approximately a month’s wages for a soldier or a skilled crafter. Most people in their daily lives would never even have seen a gold coin, let alone had occasion to spend one.

Silver was the standard metal for coinage in most places and times. Silver, like gold, could be minted at whatever weight the issuing state wanted, from large, high-value coins to tiny small change. Often, however, the basic silver coin in circulation, like an Athenian drachma or an early Islamic dirham, amounted to about a soldier’s daily wage.

The difference in value between gold and silver helps explain why gold coinage was rarely debased (issued at lower purity by mixing precious and base metals or applying a precious coating over a base metal core), but silver sometimes was. Gold coins were used for major state expenses and usually only came into the hands of people who could cause real trouble if they felt stiffed; silver was used for routine purchases and changed hands among people with limited recourse except to treat their debased coins as being worth less than face value.

Now, if you remember your classic Dungeons and Dragons coin charts, you may be wondering “What about platinum, electrum, and copper?” All of those metals do appear in pre-modern coinage, but they all have their limitations.

Platinum is extremely rare and hard to work by pre-industrial means. At least in the eastern hemisphere, it was not identified as a distinct metal until the 1500s. There is some evidence that metalworkers in pre-Columbian South America created alloys of platinum and gold, but the process is poorly understood, and they weren’t making coins with it. Traces of platinum are found in some ancient and medieval gold coins, but only as impurities not refined out of the metal. Moneyers in any pre-industrial world are unlikely to have the technology to deliberately produce platinum coins, and even if they did, the expensive and labor-intensive process would make it impractical.

Electrum is an alloy of gold and silver, either naturally occurring or produced by smelting. Some early coins were minted out of electrum, but a problem arose: because the ratio of gold to silver in a particular batch of electrum coins could vary, it was hard to be confident of its real value. Too much silver in the mix, and people might be reluctant to accept a coin at its stated value; too much gold, and it would be more profitable to melt coins down for their bullion value than to spend them. Most monetary systems moved away from electrum to pure gold and silver for the sake of stability.

Copper, usually in alloyed form like bronze or brass, was used for low-value coinage in many places. These coins could be useful for paying wages to ordinary workers or buying everyday goods like a mug of ale or a loaf of bread. Since copper is a much more common metal than silver or gold, its intrinsic worth was much less by weight. As a result, for copper alloy coins to have enough worth to be useful, they had to either be made much larger and heavier than contemporary silver and gold coins or else be issued at a face value significantly higher than their worth as raw metal. Most states that issued copper alloy coinage chose the latter route, making their copper coinage essentially a token whose value was guaranteed by the state’s promise to accept it at the issued value for taxes and fees rather than its metal content. For this reason, copper alloy coinage rarely circulated beyond the reach of the state that originally issued it, while gold and silver were useful as international means of exchange.

As always, you have the flexibility in building your own worlds to make the money work however you want, but for historical verisimilitude you can’t beat gold and silver for your coinage.

Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)

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