Masks of Legend

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 GodThe 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.

The Windling Flowers of Love

An Earthdawn Legend

Oh yes, my large friend, we Windlings have our sad tales. They are not the same as those that your people have, but something that shows how foolish we Windlings can sometimes be, especially in the name of love. So, listen and hear about the origin of the winged flowers of the jungle…

Long ago in the Land of Barsaive, before the time of the Scourge, there lived a windling tribe in the depths of the Liaj Jungle. They were a prosperous and happy people that dwelled peacefully in their jungle home, with little contact from outsiders. They lived on the plentiful bounty of nature and never went unstatisfied for it.

The rulers of the tribe were a wise and happy couple, revered for their wisdom and kindness. They had a son named Kaile, who was their pride and joy and that of everyone else in the tribe. Kaile was a fine child, smart and happy and fair of face and form. Kaile was especially well known for his wings, which were perfectly and delicately formed and always tinted with the shades of the most beautiful blossoms of the jungle. As he grew older he became a very handsome young man.

His parents looked forward to the day when he would find a mate and settle down, but Kaile showed no interest in the heartfelt sighs of the windlings maidens and youths who found him so attractive. He was satisfied with his own company and did not feel a need for companionship. He was never cruel to his suitors, but broke many a heart nonetheless with his polite refusals of their company.

One day, the young prince happened to be hunting in the jungle alone, as was his habit from time to time. He wandered a distance from his home following the trail of the brightly colored jungle birds that provided fresh meat for the windling village. Landing on a branch to rest for a short while, Kaile heard a terrible sound and rushed to investigate. As he peered through the thick foliage from the treetops, he beheld an amazing sight. A stranger, the first that the young price had ever seen, was locked in combat with a fierce sabre-cat. She was a human, clad in strange armor and wielding a flashing sword that she used to fend off the great cat. But her armor and clothing were torn and stained with blood from the great hunter’s attacks and Kaile wasn’t sure if she would hold out against it.

Suddenly, the two were locked in fierce combat, rolling upon the ground. Kaile quickly nocked an arrow to his hunting bow, took careful aim and let fly into the flank of the great beast. The tiny arrow was of no concern to a creature such as a sabre-cat, but the poison coating the arrow worked its way quickly into the cat’s veins, slowing it with its paralyzing effects. The warriors used the last of her strength to drive her blade into the cat and slay it before herself falling to the ground.

Kaile rushed back to his village to get help for the fallen warrior and it took the work of several windling magicians to bring her back to the village. The windlings treated her injuries, which were not fatal. Kaile stood nearby and watched the whole time as the windling healers and magicians worked to aid the fallen warrior and for the first time he felt the stirrings of love in his heart, for the warrior woman was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.

When the healers had done their work, Kaile still remained and kept watch over the fallen warrior, so that he was the first person she saw upon awakening. As the warrior recovered, she and the prince spoke often. He learned that her name was Shara and that she was a warrior an adventurer who traveled the land. As the weeks passed and Shara continued to heal from her injuries, the two became inseparable and Kaile’s love for the human woman deepened. He dreaded the day when she would be well enough to leave his village and never return.

Kaile wished to take Shara as his, but he knew that he could not be a proper mate to her, so different were they, Windling and Human. A dark cloud seemed to hang over him and the people of Kaile’s village grew concerned for him. Days passed and Shara healed quickly until Kaile knew that it would soon be time for her to leave. He thought that he would surely die if Shara were to leave him and so came upon a plan.

Kaile sought out Nazor the Mad, an powerful Ork wizard who dwelled deep in darkest part of the jungle. He left the village late one night and set out without a word to any for the place where the solitary wizard lived. He travelled through the darkened woods with only the light of the pale moon to guide him, carefully avoiding dangerous beasts and twisting undergrowth until he reached the deepest and darkest area of the jungle, where the moss-hung trees blocked out all view of the sky and the world beneath the jungle canopy was always night. Nazor’s hut was decorated with skulls of many name-givers and painted with strange rune and symbols and pictures that seemed to writhe underneath one’s gaze.

Kaile was afraid, but his love of Shara was his passion and he called upon Astendar to strengthen him. He made his way to the hut and was confronted by the wizard Nazor himself, a twisted old Ork, bent and gnarled like an ancient tree. He asked the Windling why he had come so far from his home and Kaile told the sorcerer his tale, of how he loved Shara, but could not take her for his mate. The Ork wizard told Kaile that he could use his magic to make the Windling a proper mate for the beautiful Shara, but that there would be a price: in return the wizard wanted the gifts that were unique to the Windlings, Kaile’s astral-sensitive sight and his beautiful wings. Kaile agreed to Nazor’s terms and the wizard cast a powder made from dried roses and lover’s tears over him, while chanting a powerful spell.

The young Windling grew and grew to the size of a human, like becoming a great giant, but gone were his gossamer wings and dimmed was his windling sight of the magical world. Kaile was saddened by this loss, but Astendar still filled his heart and soul and he did not think twice about what he had lost before he rushed to be at Shara’s side.

What Kaile did not know was that Shara had many enemies that she had made in her adventuring career. When the human-sized Windling prince burst into her tent, eager to declare his love, the warrior reacted with all of her training and struck him a blow with a dagger she kept hidden with her. It is said that the young prince died of heartbreak before his wound could prove fatal. Realizing her mistake, the warrior woman wept bitter tears over Kaile’s fallen form and where her tears and the prince’s blood mingled there sprung up a flower with petals like Kaile’s lost gossamer wings. The Windlings call these flowers kailes after the lost prince and belive that they are symbols of love.

The village was lost during the Scourge, the Liaj Jungle forever changed by the ravages of the Horrors, but it is said that in some isolated patches of the jungle kailes still grow. Legend says that they contain the essence of what the windling price sacrificed for his love and that the flowers are special blooms blessed by Astendar as gifts of true love.

Adventure Ideas

If the tale of Kaile and Shara is true, then the flowers known as kailes may indeed possess magical powers. If the flowers are blessed by Astendar, one might serve as an Enchanted Gift that inspires love as if it were created by the Questor ability of the same name (see The Earthdawn Compaion for more on Questor abilities). The adepts, in the role of matchmakers for some destined couple, might seek out the blooms in the depths of the jungle or be send to find a hapless, lovestruck youth who has traveled into the jungle seeking them. A questor of Astendar might also seek out the legendary blossoms as an act of devotion to the Passion.

The tales of the love-inspiring blooms might also attract the attention of less scrupulous merchants, profiteers and wizards, any of whom would be interested in acquiring some of the flowers for experimentation and possible resale as a valuable love potion or spell component.

The Thief Who Stole from Death

Hmmm, a tale, you say. We nethermancers are not as prone to tale-telling as other adepts and Name-Givers, we prefer the value of silence. However, I do have a tale that I believe will interest and enlighten you. It was given to me by a spirit I spoke with some time ago. As you might expect, it is a tale about death, but more importantly it is about an adept-a thief-that followed the path of her discipline into the depths of Death’s Domain.

Once, long ago, before the Scourge, there lived a thief adept named Josara, who lived in the human kingdom of Landis with her people. Josara was a hero who performed many daring deeds and who advanced far in the ways of her discipline. She was a thief to her very core, and it was said that she could steal the sun and the moon from out of the sky if she chose to.

Of all of the many treasures that she stole in her long career, the one that Josara always said she was the proudest of was when she stole the heart of her husband, the air sailor Orlan Windrunner, himself a figure of daring and adventure. The couple loved each other deeply and they traveled the land of Barsaive in search of excitement and adventure.

And what adventures they had! Plundering the ice caves of the gray ogres in the Tylon Mountains, unraveling the riddle of the tomb of the troll wizard Golthek’Nor and capturing a ransom in orichalcum in a daring raid on a Theran vessel during the Orichalcum Wars. Tales of the adventurous couple spread across the land and their names became part of legend.

The legends seemed to be at an end when Josara and Orlan undertook their most daring adventure: an exploration of the Spider Dens of the Liaj Jungle, wherein spiders the size of ponies spun their webs in the eternal darkness of the jungle overgrowth, forming a vast cave-like network of silken tunnels where many unwary travelers and would-be adventurers. Stories told of many years of lost and accumulated treasures within the dens of the jungle spiders and Josara and Orlan sought to discover the truth of those tales and come away with a handsome collections of trophies for the effort.

But the dangers of those silken halls proved too great for even skilled adepts such as they. Orlan was bitten and fatally poisoned by a shadow spider, one of the deadliest spiders of the lair. He and Josara managed to escape from the dens, but the master air sailor died from the deadly poison not long after, for there was no cure for the shadow spider’s venom. Josara used the bulk of the treasures that she and Orlan had earned throughout their career to commission for her husband a fantastic tomb that floated high above the mountains and could only be reached by air ship or through the cooperation of a bound wind spirit that protected the tomb from would-be looters.

Gathering what few possessions she had, Josara set off on a quest that led her far and wide across the land of Barsaive. She spoke with many sages and scholar and magicians and always her questions were the same. The thief adept seemed to have become obsessed about Death and she sought to learn all that she could about that mysterious force of the universe. She even sought out some of the most vile and corrupt of individuals, like the legendary Keys of Death, those who proclaim to be Death’s Questors, to learn from them or wrest their secrets from their dying hands.

Rumors grew that Josara was mad with grief at the loss of her beloved, that she had become obsessed with revenge and that her studies followed some dark and unknown purpose that threatened danger to others, but that was not so. Josara did not desire revenge against unthinking creatures following the dictates of their natures, nor did she want knowledge for the sake of power. Josara was a wise woman and like the nethermancers she began to see Death like a clear pane of crystal – not a barrier – but a window into another side, another phase of existence. She saw Death as a force that hoarded lives like a miser hordes gold, and as a master thief Josara knew nothing so well as how to relieve a collector of their valuable baubles. During her studies Josara decided that she would take the ultimate challenge: she would steal Orlan back from Death.

After gathering a vast and diverse store of knowledge, Josara made her way to the shores of the Death’s Sea, where she prepared a special ritual magic. Her human versatility served her well as she made use of the many arcane secrets she had unearthed in her travels. For nine days and nights she worked and prepared in the rocky badlands along the shores of the fiery sea.

Finally she was ready and by the darkling light of the new moon, Josara drank a vial of a special poison concocted from some of the most toxic creatures and plants of Barsaive, including some of the venom of the shadow spider that killed Orlan. She lay upon a blanket embroidered with magical runes and symbols as she felt a terrible cold overtake her limbs despite the fierce heat of the Death’s Sea. A lethargy crept over her, but Josara fought to keep control of her wits, for she would need them in her journey if she was to be successful.

Josara passed into the realm of Death. She felt herself pulled below the raging fires of the Death’s Sea into an endless maze of underground passages, tunnels and caves. They were all lit by the flickering reddish light of the burning sea of lava above and, most amazingly, were filled with all manner of treasures and valuables, scattered all about as far as the eye could see. There was gold and silver, gems and fine weapons, even orichalcum coins and valuables enough to ransom a kingdom. Josara’s thief nature quivered at the sight of such wealth, she could feel the fingers of greed brush across her soul.

But her will held fast. She had not come into the realm of Death to seek treasures, only the life of her beloved Orlan. Josara moved through the dim tunnels like a silent shadow, looking for her love, but she saw no one. There was no living thing, not a Name-giver, nor even the smallest mouse or insect in those tunnels and they stretched on and on like they might go forever. Josara began to despair in her heart that she would never find Orlan and that she might be trapped forever in those forlorn tunnels with untold wealth as her only companion.

“Passions!” she cried out in frustration, “I would give all of this wealth, all the wealth in the world, if only to be with Orlan once again.”

Just then a man appeared before Josara in the tunnel. He was a human, broad and fat and dressed in the clothing of a wealthy merchant. He wore all manner of expensive jewelry and the purse at his belt bulged with coin. He was well-groomed and everything about his appearance and manner said that this was a man of great wealth, just the kind of person who cried out to Josara to be given the gift of theft.

“Would you indeed, Josara?” The man said and reached into the folds of his rich cloak. He withdrew a ruby the size of a child’s fist, the deep color of blood, which gleamed seductively in the dim light of the tunnel. Josara felt her heart leap, for she had never seen so fine a gem. “Would you surrender all of this wealth that could be yours?”

Josara’s thief magic called out to her, she knew that she could take all that this merchant had and much of the wealth all around her, she could be the richest thief in all of the world and live in luxury for the rest of her life. She grappled with the way of her discipline in her heart, her eyes fixed on the beauty of the gem before her. But Josara’s love for her husband was greater than her faith in her path. She turned to the strange man and said, “Yes, I would give up any wealth for my love.” The merchant nodded and smiled and in an instant Josara found herself on the shores of the Death’s Sea with Orlan in her arms, reunited once again.

Because she had rejected the way of her discipline, Josara was no longer a Thief. She believed that the stranger she encountered in Death’s domain was Death himself, who bargained her magic for Orlan’s life, which Josara considered a fair trade. In the later years of her life Josara was content with a quiet home life with her beloved and she became a Questor of Garlen, still stealing from Death at every opportunity she had.

Adventure Ideas

The following elements of the legend of Josara and Orlan could be used by gamemasters in their Earthdawn campaigns. As always, gamemasters should feel free to tailor the details of these adventure hooks to suit their own campaigns.

Josara’s Ritual

The magical ritual Josara used to enter the realm of death might be something that player characters could go in quest of in order to follow a fallen comrade there and attempt to rescue them. The ritual would be known only to a few wise sages or nethermancers (and perhaps a Horror or two) and there would of course be no guarantee that the characters would be able to return to the land of the living after using it.

Josara’s Healing Balm

In her later years as a healer, Josara developed a healing ointment of special herbs and other secret ingredients. This balm had the effects of a healing potion (Earthdawn, p.258) with the additional effect of eliminating diseases and poisons in the system, but the formula for it was lost many years ago. Perhaps the player characters might discover the recipe again among some of Josara’s lost papers or journal or perhaps they might set off to find the lost formula in order to use it to cure some malady.

The Spider Dens

The mysterious Spider Dens of the Liaj Jungle still exist and their silk shrouded tunnels hold many treasures and secrets that brave adventurers might go in search of. The tunnels are inhabited by numerous dangerous arachnids, including the mysterious shadow spider. Rumors also say that a spider-like horror may well have taken up residence in the dens since the Scourge and may have transformed many of the spiders living there into dangerous constructs such as Jehuthra (Earthdawn, p.305).

Orlan’s Empty Tomb

Josara and Orlan lived a simple life following their return to the land of the living and Orlan’s floating tomb over the mountains was all but forgotten. The tomb still holds many treasures that Orlan won during his career as a daring air pirate, including a wealth of plundered orichalcum and one or more magical treasures. The location of the floating tomb is lost and characters might discover some clue to it among ancient legends or documents telling the tale of Orlan and Josara. The tomb is guarded by a bound air spirit of great power that attempts to keep all potential tomb robbers away. It is also possible that the tomb might have been breached during the Scourge and become the lair of a Horror or even the base of skyraiders, air pirates or aerial monsters.