Monday, August 1, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Nephilim and the Watchers

When men began to multiply on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw how beautiful the daughters of man were, and so they took for their wives as many of them as they chose. Then the Lord said: "My spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is but flesh. His days shall comprise one hundred and twenty years." At that time the Nephilim appeared on earth (as well as later), after the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of man, who bore them sons. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown." (Genesis 6:1-4)

The theme the past few Mythic Monday columns has been around demons - demonic possession, named demons from folklore (like Azazel), and now the origins of demons.  The goal has been to see what kind of ideas can be gleaned from real world myth and folklore for making demons more interesting than big bags of hit points (the D&D approach); lately that's involved looking at some potential origin stories.

Last week we looked at the War in Heaven theme - demons are what happens when one side loses; it could be rebel angels getting cast out of heaven, or the titans being thrown down by the Greek gods; the losers become monsters and go to hell, literally.

The related theme this week has to do with a group of angels called the Watchers, and their offspring, the Nephilim.  In the quote above, the phrase 'sons of god' was interpreted by later Jewish writers to be referring to a sect of angels they called "Watchers".  The term Grigori is used for the Watchers in some of the texts as well.  Sent as stewards of creation, they watched over humanity and the world as caretakers.

You can see what happened.  "Holy smokes, earth women are hot!"  The angels defect en masse, lead by a rebel called Samyaza, and their antics give rise to a generation of demigods; semi-divine "great" men, the "giants in the earth" - referred to in the passage as Nephilim.  The Nephilim take charge and plunge the world into war and debauchery.  In the Biblical story, the world is eventually swept clean by a great flood, in part to reset the mortal world after all the destruction wreaked by these amok demigods.

The apocryphal book of Enoch takes up the narrative, and describes how the spirits of these semi divine Nephilim don't die when their bodies are killed, but instead become the evil spirits of the earth.  It goes on to describe what they do while they hang around in spirit form:

"And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offences. And these spirits shall rise up against the children of men and against the women, because they have proceeded from them. From the days of the slaughter and destruction and death of the giants, from the souls of whose flesh the spirits, having gone forth, shall destroy without incurring judgment".
(1 Enoch 15:9-12)

So there you go.  Disembodied spirits that hang around the earth and cause problems are the remnants of these ancient hybrids.  Demons.

These stories offer a lot of inspiration for gaming, because they support a couple of different classes of antagonists and players.  You've got the heavenly group (the angels), you've got rebels from that group (fallen angels), and you've got the offspring of fallen angels and humans, hanging around as evil spirits (demons).  Factions create interest and conflict.  I imagine most gamers are familiar with the idea of the Nephilim; someone even mentioned them in the comments of the Neanderthal column the other day.  And if you're not comfortable with Judeo-Christian folklore in gaming, you can transplant the actors to other pantheons and myth cycles; I've been pointing out how Greek myth has parallels to the War in Heaven and there is plenty of crazy god-on-human sex, love and rape happening in the Greek myths; most monsters in those myths are the off spring of the gods.

Next time I'll go in another direction.  In folklore, one culture's demons are usually the previous cultures divine beings.  I'll ask the question, what if the cosmology really worked that way?