Monday, December 20, 2010

Mythic Monday: Santa Claus, Lord of the Hunt






Introducing Mythic Monday:  Mythic Monday is a series of articles adapting elements of folklore, myth and legendry into your D&D game.  Why recreate the world when we can take concepts your players are already familiar with and change them up to make an interesting and compelling story?


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays - what better way to kick off this new column than take a look at the beloved figure of Santa Claus?

The modern image of Santa Claus is really a mash-up of a number of different folklore stories coming together.  There's the story of St. Nicholas himself, the generous Christian bishop that gifted a man with gold (down the chimney) so he could afford to keep his daughters.  And there's illustrations in the 1800's depicting Father Christmas in England - a portly fellow with green, fur-trimmed robes.  (Eventually Coca Cola marketers would rebrand Father Christmas with Coke's red & white colors, creating Santa's modern look).

But what about the reindeer, the sleigh, and the journey across the night sky?  These elements descend from the myth of the Wild Hunt; the bearded Wotan (Odin) leads a spectral host  across the night sky on an annual hunt, riding his eight-legged horse Sleipner and sounding the hunting horns.  The spectral host itself is made of the dead, or fairies, or ghostly hounds.  What happens to someone that encounters the hunt varies amongst the stories, but it's generally bad - they either become a part of the hunt or the prey.  To appease the hunter, offerings of food were left out for the huntsman, and gifts were left in return.  Germanic customs had these offerings left in boots/stockings, and consisted of carrots, straw, and sugar to feed Wotan's horse.

How to use this in your game?
On the darkest night of the year, the midwinter solstice, the rural folk gather in their cottages and halls and burn yule logs to ward off the spirits of the dead and protect themselves against evil; they pray for the Huntsman to pass them by.  It's bad luck if the log burns out before the night is over, so it's traditional to find the largest log the hearth can accommodate.  The children leave out gifts of food (in stockings) to feed the Huntsman and his horse as he soars over head, in hopes that their house will be passed.

Many of these rural villages continue the pagan practice of offering a sacrifice to the Huntsman; a criminal or foreigner is lashed to an evergreen deep in the woods, to draw the hunt away from the village.  Beware the sounding of horns on the darkest night!

Player characters visiting the pagan north country will be warned to stay indoors on the winter solstice; those that ignore the warnings could be transformed into animals and forced to join the hunt.  The tasting of flesh in such a state might curse them with lycanthropy; some of the anthropologists suggest the hunt myth was a form of 'berserker initiation'.

If your mind tends towards a darker bent, perhaps the villagers have no one to offer the Huntsman this year, and are looking for patsies to become the prey...