Monday, August 15, 2011

Mythic Monday: Old Gods Never Die...

...They just become demons.

The past few "Mythic Monday" columns have looked at the origins of demons in Dungeons & Dragons and ways to incorporate the theme of demons as 'unclean spirits that perform demonic possessions' into your D&D game.  We've looked at rules for modeling demonic possession and exorcism, and more recently the origins of demons - from whence comes those disembodied spirits?

Recent mythic posts have looked at a few of the historical explanations for demons - fallen angels exiled to Hell, or the disembodied souls of the Nephilim (after the flood).  This week I'm taking a look at a meta-explanation for demons - by answering the question, what happens to old gods?

Pan or Satan?
In real world mythology, the demons of a newer mythology are often derived from the older religions and myths that were displaced; the act of supplanting the old order often involves demonization.  Depictions of Satan in art are often the spitting images of Pan.  Dispater and Orcus were gods of the Roman underworld - associated with wealth and oaths.  Geryon was the cattle monster in the Hercules story, demoted by Dante to Hell.  Dagon was an agricultural deity turned into a fish monster god by HPL.  Perhaps one of the more egregious demotions was Baal, a Semitic god of the sky that competed directly with the pre-Christian version of Yahweh.  Baal got turned into Baalzebub (later Beelzebub - from Lord of the Skies, to Lord of the Flies).

So what would the D&D cosmos be like if the nature of godhood worked in a similar fashion?  The heavens would become a big game of "king of the mountain", and the gods that get to stay on top are the ones with the most followers and believers.  Fall off the mountain, and you keep on falling, and falling, and falling - until you land in the Abyss or the 9 Hells or are exiled in the Prime plane as a disembodied spirit.

Clerics would feel quite a bit of pressure to get the word out for their gods, and evangelism would literally become a life-or-death mission for the cleric.  On the mortal plane, a religion that loses the cultural war falls to obscurity and fades away, but on the spiritual plane, those old gods slide from Law into Chaos and become something no longer divine.  This is a common enough theme in urban fantasy nowadays; it's been explored in a number of works by Neil Gaiman.  The gods and their roles are defined by the believers, and not the other way around.

The practical application in your D&D game would go like this:  you pretty much get to use the various demon princes as they are, but each one started as the echo of an old god, worshipped by a previous culture or a dead race - fallen and demonized by the march of progress and giving way to the new gods.  Existing religions would be militant and expansionist, to ensure the current set of deities don't get supplanted by even newer ones.  These gods would have to take an active hand in the world or encourage a militant following of clerics.  An interesting story line could involve the overthrow of a religion through conquest and the creation of a new demon when the old temples fall and the last believers are slain.

But there's another implication to the thesis "belief defines the gods".  If the premise is that mortal belief defines the nature of the gods, wouldn't it be true that new gods get created by new beliefs?  Could a mortal that declares himself "god-emperor" of a vast realm achieve sufficient fame or notoriety to ascend to immortality after death?

Hope these provide some interesting ways to twist, turn and mangle the cosmology of your game!


  1. I might suggest that it isn't solely a popularity contest, especially given the Law/Chaos context.

    Law implies, to me, not just order, but purpose and place and right relationship. Chaos is being outside this order. So, a deposed god hasn't just lost pride of place, he's been kicked outside the system of Law.

    So, what if there are a limited number of divine roles? What if there are only twelve thrones on Olympus (or whatever fits your world), and only the top twelve get to be gods?

    Beelzebub used to be Ba'al, lord of the skies. But that young Zeus whipper-snapper came along and unseated him. Not only does Beelzebub want to be a god again, he wants to be lord of the skies again. Instant rivalry between the cult of Beelzebub and the temple of Zeus!

  2. The Marvel Universe works somewhat similar to this. At least, old forgotten gods can degenerate and become demons/devils.

  3. Uncle Dark - there are a lot of good ideas there that could be developed. You could go with the "usurped portfolio" idea and have natural rivalries between the fallen and the divine usurper, or make it even more pointed and have the limited number of divine roles - as you say - so it's even more competitive. Good stuff.

    Trey - I consider myself a Marvel-phile but can't think of any god-to-demon sob stories off hand, you gotta set me straight.