Edit: I want to thank all of the people on the Iris Network Messageboards, who were gracious enough to take the time to critique the original draft of this blog entry. Based on their insightful feedback, I have made several changes, in the hopes of clarifying my original thoughts and ideas on these issues.
Elder Evils is one of the newest Dungeons & Dragons supplements released by Wizards of the Coast. Contained within its pages are descriptions of powerful, sinister beings of the most despicable evil. As the authors stated in a recent interview “Elder Evils sets out to cap your campaign. It provides a memorable and potentially destructive end that gives DMs the tools to tie up all the threads in one truly cataclysmic event.” While Elder Evils is sure to inspire terror in the hearts of players everywhere, it is important to understand what these elder evils represent in terms of feminism and the patriarchal society. This article will examine two of these elder evils- Atropus and Kyuss, both of whom are listed in excerpts on the Wizards website- from the feminist perspective. This analysis will draw heavily from essays, written and compiled by Jane Caputi in the book, Goddesses and Monsters. This article will then try to examine how the ideas of feminism can be introduced into an Elder Evils game in a way that maintains the terror of such characters, but in a way that ultimately restores power to the feminine divine. It is the hope that this analysis will make DMs more consciously aware of the patriarchal messages being transmitted in their games, so that those messages can be transformed into ones that are more respectful of their female gamers.
Atropus is the original “prime mover,” the creator of all things. By sacrificing himself, he created the cosmos, as well as the gods. This sacrifice was not selfless, but rather the mistake of a selfish, terrifyingly powerful being who, in death, has no desire other than to consume the cosmos that were created from his body.
This is not the first time that the name Atropus has been attributed to a powerful entity associated with death. The original bearer of the name is a female goddess from Greek Mythology- one of the three Moirae, or Fates. She is known as the fate that cannot be avoided, the one who is ultimately responsible for determining the length of a person’s life. In some myths, even the mighty Zeus is subject to her decisions.1 In that sense, Atropus, or Atropos, as she is sometimes called, is also a ‘prime mover,’ for all things are subject to the ultimate fate that she has determined for them. What is different about the Atropus from mythology and the Atropus from Elder Evils is that while the Atropus from mythology has power over life and death, this power is ultimately a creative force; a necessary step in weaving of the tapestry of life. The Atropus from Elder Evils, on the other hand, has taken the goddess’s portfolio and perverted it into a wholly destructive force, one whose only purpose is to create death.
This is not the first time that the portfolio of the goddess has been subsumed and perverted by a male god. The shark from the movie Jaws, for example, is a male sea monster enacting the role of Tiamat, from the Babylonian epic, the Enuma Elish. Like Atropus, the shark only represents the destructive aspect of the goddess; a fearsome power with no motive other than to consume. It’s no coincidence, either, that both Atropus, and the shark from the movie Jaws, are portrayed primarily as giant, devouring mouths. In patriarchal mythology, the symbol of female power is that of a devouring, or castrating womb. This symbol, frequently portrayed as a mouth bristling with teeth, is seen as a castrating threat to patriarchal society, that must first be destroyed before civilization can begin. In the Enuma Elish, this theme of creating the patriarchal society from the destruction of the devouring womb, is represented in Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, and creating the heavens and the earth from her dismembered body.2 This theme is also present in the story of Atropus, whose body was destroyed in order to bring the cosmos of the patriarchal society into being.
In patriarchal society, the mythological defeat of the feminine divine must be continuously reenacted in order to affirm male dominance. If the ritual is not reenacted the repressed power of the feminine divine will eventually be allowed to return. As Jane Caputi puts it, “Men must ceaselessly maintain and ‘prove’ manhood by ritually repudiating and defeating the feminine.”3 This ritual defeat of the feminine occurs in the epic of the Enuma Elish- a story which was retold annually on the fourth day of the Babylonian New Year. It occurs in the movie Jaws- a movie that spawned a series of sequels, where the killer shark repeatedly returns, only to be killed again. Finally, it occurs in Elder Evils, where the only hope for continued existence is the ultimate destruction of Atropus, the feminine power from which the cosmos were originally created.
Kyuss is a mortal who sacrificed his followers in a ritual designed to elevate him to the status of godhood. Having had a long history of publication in D&D history, most notably in the Age of Worms Adventure Path, he is a terrifying entity, whose ultimate goal is to herald in the coming of the Age of Worms, an age, foretold in prophecy, of darkness, decay, and writhing doom. However, to truly understand the terrible power that Kyuss represents, it is important to understand the origins of that power; a power which springs from the mythos and archetype of the serial sex killer.
In 1888, Jack the Ripper brutally murdered his first female victim, and created a new category of criminal known as the serial sex killer. Unable to find real world equivalents to describe the murder, the media of the time used traditional horror images and formulae to describe both the murderer and his crimes. It was from these comparisons to literary monsters, criminal geniuses, and terrifying, immortal beings, that the myth of Jack the Ripper was born. This character served as the inspiration and archetype for both real and fictional serial killers, such as Freddy Kruger, “The Boston Strangler,” Jason, and the “Son of Sam.”4
Now admittedly, it is difficult to see how the Ripper mythos applies to the character of Kyuss, from Elder Evils. For starters, Kyuss kills both men and women, while Jack the Ripper’s victims are all exclusively female. However, keep in mind that Jack the Ripper didn’t just murder women, he also grossly mutilated their bodies.5 Also, keep in mind that there are many fictional, serial killers that murder both men and women, but who still fit the serial sex killer profile because of their brutal, often sexualized murder of women. In the novel, American Psycho, for example, when Bateman kills male characters, the scenes are typically quick, public, and asexual. Compare these scenes to the horrifically graphic ways in which Bateman murders his female victims in private, long, drawn out, tortuous scenes.6 Another thing to keep in mind is that the serial sex murderer doesn’t just kill women, he also seeks to utterly consume them, phyically or spiritually. In many cases, this consumption is not just through the homicidal act. It often takes the form of marriage, as well. In the case of Ted Bundy, for example, it is only after he has committed the Omega Chi murders that his wife decided to make the ultimate sacrifice of marrying him. In the Silence of the Lambs, the character of Clarice, an agent who investigates the crimes of serial killers, sacrifices her soul to Hannibal Lecter by revealing the memory she has of the screaming lambs from her childhood. Then, in the novel, Hannibal, she completes this sacrifice by marrying him.7 The final thing to keep in mind that all of these acts are performed by the serial killer in order to claim and ultimately incorporate feminine power. For example, in the movie Psycho, the character of Norman kills his mother and then incorporates her, using her persona to murder other women.8
With these things in mind, it is much easier to see the parallels between Kyuss and the serial sex murderer. Taking a look at the Age of Worms Adventure Path, in “Encounter at Blackwall Keep,” Kyuss recruits Ilthane, the black dragon, and uses her eggs as a destructive force, designed to corrupt the eggs of the lizardfolk, a symbolic mutilation of female, reproductive power, as well as a symbolic incorporation of that power.9 Meanwhile, even though Kyuss has slaughtered hundreds in his efforts to become a god, it is the bodies and souls of his female victims that are ultimately the most violated and ravaged. Lashonna, for example, from the adventure “The Prince of Redhand,” is a female character who, initially, allies herself with a group of druids to fight against Kyuss. Ultimately, however, Lashonna is captured, tortured, and is forced to sacrifice her soul, by being transformed into a vampiric servant of Kyuss.10 There’s also Maralee, Balakarde’s sister, from the adventure, “Dawn of a New Age.” Like Lashonna, Maralee is captured by Kyuss, tortured, deprived of her soul, and ultimately transformed into a undead servant, known as a Kyuss Knight. In this last example, the murder of Maralee is so wholly destructive, mutilating, and disfigurative, that her eyes are replaced with worms, her face replaced with a metal faceplate, and her body, emaciated to the point that it’s hardly apparent that she was once a woman.11 These acts of depravity and cruel disfigurement of Lashonna and Maralee are the indelible mark of the serial sex murderer, who seeks not only to kill, but to utterly destroy the female.
Now some may argue that women are not the only ones that are ultimately tortured and/or perverted by the Worm God. In the adventure, “The Spire of Long Shadows,” there are two male characters- Kelvos, a ghaele eladrin, and the Angel of the Worm, a sword archon- who are tortured and corrupted in ways reminiscent of the torture and corruption of Lashonna and Maralee.12 However, even here, we see the mark of the serial sex killer, who often expresses his misogynistic hatred for women through crimes against feminine, or feminized, men and boys.13 In the case of Kelvos, the ghaele eladrin are described as resembling elves, a race that is often described and portrayed in fantasy as slightly effeminate. Meanwhile,the sword archon, with his long, flowing hair, and beautiful, feathered wings, appears as an angel; a mythological creature that is also associated with effeminate traits. Because of this, these characters serve as feminized substitutes, and their corruption by Kyuss is simply a continuation of the serial sex killer’s attempt to obliterate the female.
One last, interesting thing to note about the serial sex killer. In modern myth, the imagery of the serial sex killer is often inextricably, and analogously, linked with ecocide. Here, the earth (Mother Nature) is often cast as the female victim, while, acts of deforestation, pollution, etc., are compared to the homicidal acts of the serial killer.13 This link between the serial sex killer and ecocidal destruction is perhaps best exemplified in the movie, Dr. Strangelove, where the primary character, Jack D. Ripper- a character whose name is an obvious homage to the serial killer- rides a missile on its way to complete and utter nuclear annihilation of the world. This destruction of nature, in the form of a powerful, phallic symbol, reinforces the patriarchal message that the ultimate goal of the sexual act for the serial sex killer is to destroy, rather than to join with, the feminine. It also reinforces the message that while this act is ultimately self destructive, it is also considered an inevitable, and even preferable, fate for patriarchal culture. As Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor state “The atomic or nuclear blast is man’s final identification with the Sun God, the final annihilation of matter/mother- and that is the ultimate goal of all patriarchal religion.”14
I have noted the serial killer’s mythological connection to ecocide, because even here, Kyuss continues to symbolically represent the mythos of the serial sex killer. Like Jack D. Ripper, Kyuss’s ultimate goal is also the destruction of Mother Nature through apocalypse. Also like Jack D. Ripper, Kyuss is associated with destructive, phallic imagery- this time in the form of a worm. The primary difference between Kyuss and Jack D. Ripper is that, while the nuclear missile completely destroys everything it ‘couples’ with, the worm ultimately transforms its victims into mindless, undead, worm driven automatons, whose only goals are to destroy. In other words, the destructive power of the sex murderer is infectious, perpetuating, and dehumanizing. It says that with each victim, the power of the sex murderer only grows stronger, and ultimately, will bring about the destruction of the world, or the feminine divine.
Restoring the Feminine Divine
“My terror seemed to implode and compress until it was like a hard, dry seed. Once I was free of this devouring fear, a cold, even calculating awareness took its place, illuminating everything all at once and destroying all capacity for emotion… In this detachment, a state I reached the moment I knew I could not physically escape, I experienced his rage as if it were a separate entity, a shadow self to his physical being. I understood that this entity was hungry, and that it was feasting on something from me- my terror, my physical and psychic pain. It got energy from me and in the initial moments of the attack, when my terror was uncontrollable, it had gained strength.”15
The above is a quote from Nancy Venable Raine, a woman who was attacked in her home by a stranger. I quote it here, because it emphasizes what is so often overlooked. So long as we continue to feed the elder evils of the patriarchal society with our fear, awe, and praise, they will continue to grow in power, and thus, will remain immortal. When we stop feeding them, when we remove the source of their power, the monster ultimately fades away. In fiction, the idea of the mythic serial sex killer being denied power is evident in the original script, written by Wes Craven, for the movie Nightmare on Elm Street. In the moment that the character Nancy turns her back on Freddy, refusing to acknowledge him, and withdrawing all of the power that she ever gave him, Freddy fades into oblivion. Unfortunately, the producer Nick Shaye, wanted sequels, and so decided on a more cliché ending, where the audience realizes, in a final ‘plot twist,’ that Nancy and her friends are still trapped in the nightmare, and subject to Freddy’s terror.16
In Dungeons & Dragons, stories are not subject to the decisions of a producer. Rather, the story, not profits, is the ultimate bottom line. As such, adventures that perpetuate the mythos of the patriarchy can be rewritten in a way that restores power to the feminine divine. Take, for example, the Age of Worms adventure path. This is an adventure series that perpetuates the patriarchal myth, because while the PCs might be able to defeat Kyuss in combat, there is no satisfying sense, that the Worm God is truly destroyed. Rather, Kyuss’s corruptive power endures, retreating into the dark caverns beneath the Writhing Tabernacle, serving as a dungeon for generations of adventurers to come. This ending is in no way satisfying from the feminist perspective, because even in death, the mythos and power of the serial sex killer lives on. Nevertheless, this adventure could easily be rewritten in a way that ultimately diffuses the power of the patriarchal myth, and reestablishes the power of the feminine divine. Consider, for example, these alternate endings to the Age of Worms adventure path.
-“A deity must have faithful followers in order to exist, and once the new age begins, there will be no shortage of faith to fuel Kyuss’s potency. At this early point, however, Kyuss is forced to draw upon lesser energies than faith to aid his emergence into the world. Just as he drew upon the faith of his cult 2,000 years ago to become a god, he now draws upon the fear and despair of Alhaster’s citizens to empower his triumphant return.” This quote comes from Dawn of a New Age, the final adventure in the Age of Worms adventure path. As part of the adventure, the PCs must defeat three of Kyuss’s minions, in order to “generate hope to oppose the despair Kyuss needs.” Imagine for a moment, though, that Kyuss is not only feeding on the fear of the city, but also on the emotions of the PCs. This has been evident from the very beginning, for as the PCs continue to engage Kyuss’s minions, the Worm God continues to grow in strength. As they draw closer to the Writhing Tabernacle, and engage him in combat, Kyuss’s power grows in strength. Only by dropping their weapons, and refusing to engage the Worm God, are they able to ultimately defeat him and drive him back into the monolith. Perhaps this truth could be revealed to them in a cryptic prophecy discovered by Manzorian?
-In the aftermath of Kyuss’s defeat, the PCs discover that the prophecies of the Age of Worms are still unfolding. After some investigation, they discover that the ritual enacted by Kyuss to establish his divinity was designed to bind the power of a goddess from an alternate plane of existence to him through a series of magical seals. Now, the PCs must travel to this alternate plane- a realm that is populated by the undead, and aberrant creations of Kyuss- and undo the seals that bind the goddess to Kyuss. With the seals finally broken, the goddess can undo the damage done by Kyuss, and bring the Age of Worms prophecy to a close.
The patriarchal archetypes embodied by characters like Atropus and Kyuss are ones that should terrify players whenever they are introduced into a game, and there’s no reason that DMs shouldn’t feel free to use them. However, it is important to understand why these beings are terrifying, and how they maintain their power of terror over us, lest we allow the frightening and subversive messages of the patriarchal society to penetrate our game world.
1. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities edited William Smith (1870). http://www.ancientlibrary.com/smith-bio/
2. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pgs. 25-28): The University of Wisconsin Press.
3. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 185): The University of Wisconsin Press
4. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 120, 124): The University of Wisconsin Press
5. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 123): The University of Wisconsin Press
6. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 146): The University of Wisconsin Press
7. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 197): The University of Wisconsin Press
8. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 196): The University of Wisconsin Press
9. “Encounter at Blackwall Keep.” Dungeon Magazine #126 September 2005
10. “The Prince of Redhand.“ Dungeon Magazine #131 February 2006
11. “Dawn of a New Age.” Dungeon Magazine #135 June 2006
12. “The Spire of Long Shadows.” Dungeon Magazine #130 January 2006
13. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 186): The University of Wisconsin Press
14. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 245): The University of Wisconsin Press
15. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 196): The University of Wisconsin Press
16. Caputi, Jane (2004). Goddesses and Monsters (pg. 135): The University of Wisconsin Press