Universal Mythology and the World of Earthdawn
Many modern mythologists, such as Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, have written theories about the universality of human mythology. There are many overarching themes in the mythologies of many human cultures, cultures often separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles. Despite this distance, certain themes, ideas, and images seem almost universal in myth and legend, known in one form or another throughout the world. Anthropologist Adolf Bastian called these things elementargedanken, “elementary ideas,” common in one form or another to all peoples. Experts speculate about psychological archetypes, the universal unconscious, the universality of certain human experiences, and even genetics as an explanation for these commonalties.
In the world of FASA’s Earthdawn game, we have an additional explanation for these things. Perhaps the great myths and legends of human culture are based on somethingreal, that occurred long, long ago in an age now lost in the mists of time and nothing more than a dim, subconscious racial memory for modern people (such as the 21st century folk of Shadowrun). Earthdawn speculates, what if there actually was a time when giants walked the Earth and those bygone times we know of in legends were once true?
This idea gives Earthdawn gamemasters a unique opportunity for adventure- and campaign-building: the ability to draw upon common myths and use them in new and different ways in the Earthdawn world, to create (or re-create) the Fourth World legends that will form the underlying basis for modern (Fifth and Sixth World) mythology. In this article, I would like to outline some possible interpretations of certain mythological motifs and how they could be used in an Earthdawn campaign. These suggestions are but one possible set of interpretations of what is a rich and virtually bottomless well of mythological themes and images and readers are invited to do their own researches and come to their own conclusions.
The Creation of Nature and Life
The most important myth of all is the First Myth, the origin of all that is. Creation myths are in many ways some of the most universal, and all cultures have wondered at the origin of life and the cosmos. Many of these stories fit well within the cosmology of Earthdawn. One of the more common creation themes is the world being spoken or sung into existence. “In the beginning was the Word” says the Gospel of John and the world of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels is described as being spoken into existence by the True Language.
The other major theme in creation myths is the formation of the world from the body of a divine being: such as the Earth being the body of Gaea the mother goddess in Greek myth, or formed from the flesh and bones of the slain giant Ymir in Norse mythology.
In Earthdawn, how the world came about has little bearing on the actions of a group of adventuring adepts, but it can form the basis for a cosmology that has other legends that do. With the importance of True Names in Earthdawn cosmology, it is likely the name-givers of Barsaive conceive of the Universe as spoken or sung into existence; perhaps a kind of cosmic self-awareness which named itself and created order out of the primal chaos of creation.
Adventure: A wizard is performing experiments to learn the origin of the Universe. Terrible forebodings gather when it appears that the wizard is mad enough to ally himself with a Horror that claims it can provide him with the knowledge he seeks.
Worlds Above, Below and Within
Ancient cultures recognize the existence of many worlds. In addition to the physical world, there is a spirit world or higher plane and often a lower world or underworld. These worlds are accessible to certain people (like adepts in Earthdawn) who can travel there, perform heroic deeds and return to share what they have accomplished. Earthdawn has the spirit world of astral space, as well as the distant netherworlds that exist in the far reaches of the astral. There are spirit realms, elemental planes and the strange and terrible depths from which the horrors come.
In many such tales, the worlds are united by some sort of cosmic axis; a universal center-point like the world-tree Yggdrassil, the home of the gods, the great ladder. Such a place is often considered a gateway from one world to another, and might be the sort of thing that a group of adepts might travel to in order to make their way into the netherworlds.
Adventure: A group of adepts must travel on a quest into the netherworlds to reach the Citadel of the Worlds, which sits at the hub of the elemental planes. There they must find the purest of orichalcum to forge a magical blade.
Bringers of Magic and the Arts
Many myth talk of a time before the development of civilization. In each tale there is a figure who brings knowledge and power to humanity. Prometheus in Greek mythology stole divine fire from Earth to give it as a gift to humanity and was punished for it. Thoth is believed to have given the Egyptians letters and learning. Raven the Trickster stole the sun and placed it in the sky where it could shed light over the whole world. Each of these figures is a friend and ally of humanity who faced difficult odds for their benefit. Perhaps in the world of Earthdawn, the tales of these champions might well be based on the actions of heroic adepts who have liberated life, light, learning and hope from the darkness of the horrors and the long night of the Scourge.
Lost Worlds and Legendary Lands
What are the possible Fourth World sources of our legends of many “lost” lands such as Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu, Avalon, Lyonesse or Shangri-La? Could Coranado’s El Dorado, the “Lost City of Gold,” have truly existed in the Americas? What of the Fountain of Youth? Perhaps Earthdawn adventurers can visit the places that inspired these many myths. For example, gamemasters can use materials about legendary Atlantis, a powerful island nation with mighty magic to design adventures in Thera, a powerful island nation with mighty magic.
Giants of the Earth
Many legendary heroes and figures might be based on true people from Earthdawn’s Age. A gamemaster can take that legend as a basis and build a figure who is slightly familiar, but not quite what the players might expect. For example the Russian legend of the witch Baba Yaga who lived in the dark woods in a dancing hut surrounded by a fence of skulls lit from within by her magic. She rode through the air in a mortar and pestle and captured children for her supper. Surely the basis for an Earthdawn NPC! Or Hercules the archetypal strongman, Vainomien the master wizard of Finnish myth or Isun-bushi, the Japanese hero who was only one inch tall (a Windling warrior perhaps?)
Animals, Monsters and Mythic Beasts
Earthdawn gamemasters in need of monsters need only turn to the mythology books and consider how some of the creatures therein might have existed and how their tales might have changed as they were passed down over millennia. Change the players expectations of the myths they have come to know by throwing a little twist into things. The Creatures of Earthdawn sourcebook gives some examples of this with creatures such as chimerae and unicorns.
Lovers and Bearers of Divine Seed
As I mentioned in my “Earthdawn Love” article, Love is a powerful mythological theme and motivating force. Legendary tales of love are many in various cultures. Important themes include love between mortals and immortals (perhaps a tales of a tryst between a name-giver and one of the Passions?), and love that is foredoomed from the start, such as an affair between members of two different name-giver races.
War in Heaven and Earth
Tales of divine battle and conflict are common. From the Twilight Battle of Ragnarok to the Trojan War, legends have been built around great battles and conflicts. What wars in Earthdawn could these stories be based around?
Death and Rebirth
A final great theme is the journey into the underworld and the return of the Hero: Orpheus, Balder, Eskrigal and many others. Earthdawn heroes can travel into Death’s Domain and perhaps even bargain with that Power. The risks will be great and the heroes will be faced with a journey into their own souls. Only the greatest can make such a trip and return, but then that’s the sort of legends Earthdawn characters are supposed to be building, right?
Adventure: A journey into the afterlife to bring a companion or important NPC back to the world of the living. What bargain will the adepts need to make with Death to succeed?
Anyone interested in building on these themes should consider reading some of the following books: anything by Joseph Campbell, especially The Hero’s Journey andMasks of God, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places is an excellent resource for legendary lands and its companion The Dictionary of Imaginary Creatures, is likewise a great source of monsters. Any good book on mythology from any culture can provide much inspiration. I also recommend GURPS Religion for some excellent material on the themes and images found in myth and legend and how these can be used in adventures.