The latest in modern magic items includes the +2 sweatpants of sloth, which resist activity and encourage relaxation.
The latest in modern magic items includes the +2 sweatpants of sloth, which resist activity and encourage relaxation.
All mythologies have a trickster. Loki pulls one over on the Norse gods. Native American cultures see Coyote fooling around. And for China, Sun Wukong (or the Monkey King) plays many a trick.
In Ancient Greece, Prometheus was the sly one. His trickery often was to the benefit of us poor humans. His name means “forethought” as opposed to his brother Epimetheus, meaning “afterthought”.
To understand the mischief Prometheus pulled off, we need to understand the role of sacrifices to the Greek gods.
The Greeks believed that the gods on Olympus demanded sacrifices as part of their worship. Usually this entailed killing a common farm animal, like a goat, pig or cow. Often the sacrifice was linked to a request of the god. Do this for me and you get this meaty sacrifice.
The more important the request, the larger the sacrifice. Sometimes the gods required a hecatomb (hekaton = 100 and bous = bull), meaning 100 bulls. In actual practice, only twelve were slaughtered for the gods.
Sometimes the gods demand even more. When Agamemnon and the Greeks tried to sail to Troy to rescue Helen, the winds had died down. The only way for Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis was to sacrifice Iphigenia, his own daughter. He lured her to the port town of Aulis by saying that she would marry Achilles. It didn’t go so well for poor Iphigenia.
Later, thanks to Prometheus’s quick thinking, the gods no longer feasted on the meat of sacrifices, but only the smoke that wafted up in the sky. Playwright Aristophanes makes it clear, albeit in a jesting way, that the gods need this sustenance. In his plays the Birds and Plutus, the sacrificial smoke is blocked and the gods end up starving.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, mortals and gods once feasted together. They gathered in Mecone (now the village of Sicyon outside of Corinth) to decide who got what part of a sacrificed ox. You would expect the gods to take the prime bits, but Prometheus knew that humans needed every morsel of food to survive.
He piled the good and nutritious portions under the stomach of the animal. In a separate pile, he stacked the bones and wrapped them in glistening fat. Prometheus invited Zeus to choose. The king of the god was taken in by the more appetizing fatty bones.
This explains the practice of sacrificing only the bones to the gods. Experiments to recreate Greek sacrifices found that the fat would sizzle and light on fire, the flame burning for several minutes.
Some say that Zeus saw through this ruse and simply wanted an excuse to get angry. In any event, the king of the gods deprived humankind of fire, leaving them shivering at night.
Prometheus took pity on mortals and wanted to steal fire. Easier said than done. His plan involved starting up the Trojan war and getting the gods distracted with the battle. He then snuck down to Hephaestus’s workshop and nabbed fire, transporting it in a hollowed out reed.
When Zeus discovered the deception, he was infuriated. He ordered Hephaestus to chain Prometheus to a rock on Mount Caucasus. Everyday, an eagle would peck out his liver, and every night it would heal again. He lived this way for eons until Heracles freed him.
The moral here, don’t piss off Zeus.
Marvel Comics would have us believe that Thor’s hammer was forged in a collapsed neutron star somewhere in the far reaches of space. The actual myth is a bit more terrestrial (or Asgardian…?). The Dwarves were, indeed, responsible for the creation of the mighty Mjölnir, but the job was botched. And like most mistakes in the Norse pantheon, this one can be traced back to the god of mischief, Loki.
Loki was constantly pulling pranks on the other gods (and then attempting to extricate himself from blame). Loki knew knew that Thor loved his wife, Sif, and her golden hair. On a lark, Loki waited for Sif to be asleep, took a pair of shears and snipped her golden off, every single lock.
Naturally, when Thor learned of this, he seized his brother and threatened to break every bone in his body. Loki, always quick on his feet (and wanting to save his own skin) promised he could return Sif’s golden hair.
Loki journeyed to the land of the Dwarves, Nidavellir (the dark fields, also sometimes called Svartalfheim). He pleaded with the two sons of Ivaldi (never named on their own) to fashion a new head of hair for Sif. These master craftspeople ended up creating three stunning treasures to please the gods:
The items were so wondrous, Loki declared the sons of Ivaldi the most skilled crafters in the realm. However, two brothers, Brokk and Eitri overheard the boast. Never one to miss an opportunity, Loki taunted the brothers, claiming they lacked the skill to create anything equaling the creations of the Ivaldi brothers.
What’s a wager without a prize? Loki was so sure of his victory, he bet his own head as the prize. The brothers promptly accepted.
Loki now had to make sure he won the bet or he’d lose his own head. He transformed himself into a fly and heard the brothers talking. Eitri worked the forge and reminded Brokk that the bellows must be worked without pause to ensure the required heat.
As Brokk pumped the bellows, Loki buzzed around his head, tormenting him as only a fly can. The dwarf was able to maintain focus through the first two items, Gullinbursti (a golden boar) and Draupnir (a golden arm ring).
The last item was to be Mjölnir, a war hammer for Thor. Loki, determined to keep his head on his shoulders, dived into Brokkr’s eyelid and bit so hard he drew blood. The dwarf stopped for a moment to wipe his eyes.
The hammer emerged from the forge, a weapon of unsurpassed might, able to always hit its mark and then return to the owner’s hand. But it was flawed. Most warhammers were meant to be wielded with two hands. But Mjölnir’s handle was too short and could only be held with one hand.
Despite the mistake, Brokk was certain he and his brother had won the wager. Together with Loki, they traveled to Asgard. They laid their works before Odin.
All the gods concluded that Brokk and Eitri had won the wager and Loki owed the dwarves his head. Ever the cunning one, Loki agreed to give over his head. Except, he had never promised his neck.
Brokk decided that since Loki’s head was his, he could at least shut the god up for a while. Using Eitri’s awl, he sewed Loki’s lip shut with a leather thong. Satisfied, the brothers returned to their forge.
Every culture fears that the dead will return to haunt and terrorize them. Throughout the centuries, different superstitions regarding death and burial arose to help keep the dead in their graves, where they belong.
The religion of voodoo is a mixture of several different practices originating in Africa. The main fear is that a deceased person might rise as a zombie. This isn’t the flesh-eating ghoul introduced by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. These are bodies animated by a sorcerer (bokor) and forced into an eternal slavery.
One common practice is to sew the corpse’s mouth shut. A bokor could only raise the dead by forcing the deceased to answer its name. Thus, sewing the lips shut prevents the dead from speaking.
Another way to keep the dead from talking is to bury the corpse face down with its mouth against the earth. A dagger is also given to the deceased so they can stab any bokor who disturbs them.
Finally, you can distract the dead with trivial tasks. Leaving an eyeless needle that can never be threaded or sprinkling a handful of sesame seeds to be counted will keep the deceased busy so they won’t hear the bokor call their name.
In Eastern Europe, many corpses were found buried with a sickle or scythe positioned across their necks. The idea here is that if a corpse rose from its grave, the sickle would slice the head off.
People finding these bodies in the Middle Ages associated the sickle and scythe with the apparition of death.
The reason we see burial stones in the shape of a cross is yet another way to keep the dead where they belong. The sign of the cross was thought to deter an evil spirit. Even a sword, with its cross-like hilt, stabbed into the he grave soil will do the job.
One superstition, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is to place a coin in the mouth of the deceased. The name for this offering is “Charon’s obol”. An obol is a measure of currency. The Greeks believed that the dead spirit traveled to the underworld where it needed to cross the River Styx. Charon was the ferryman tasked with taking souls across the river. But he didn’t work for nothing. The coin was a bribe to make sure your loved one reached the afterlife. Otherwise, they might return as an evil spirit.
Greeks are obsessed with the idea of keeping at least one coin on their person at all times. Your pocket or purse should always have at least one coin. Even your bank account needed a little something. This superstition was meant to ensure that you always had money.
Apparently it’s a difficult journey from the grave to the afterlife. The Chinese believe that a soul travels through the ten Magistrates of Hell, where they face faces trials and torments (one for each sin they committed in life). To ease this journey, monks chanted around the deceased to get them through the Courts of Hell as quickly as possible. There would also be a group of people gambling. The idea being that the corpse must be guarded day and night and the gambling kept the people awake and alert.
The color red signifies happiness. After a death, all statues of deities in the house should be covered with red paper, to protect them from the corpse. Mirrors are also removed because to see the reflection of a coffin means that you will shortly die.
The deceased is never dressed in red because this will cause the corpse to return as a ghost.
In Turkey, gum chewing is perfectly fine so long as it happens during daylight hours. If you chew gum at night, it transforms into the flesh of the dead. The color of Turkish gum is very similar to skin tone and can be mistaken as flesh.
Additionally, you are not supposed to trim your nails at night otherwise a djinn will paralyze you.
Mortals aren’t the only ones who can manifest dissociative identity disorder — many deities from ancient times had multiple personas. People with dissociative identity disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder or incorrectly as “split personality”) have a system of individuals all working within a single host (or body).
The core is the original child and the first identity born to the host. Some view the core as the owner of the system and is often the part with the most power. There are multiple alters (or other personalities) that fulfill specific roles, such as Protector, Persecutor, and Memory Holder. A Gatekeeper often allows the different alters to front (or take control of the host).
Different deities from across the world’s pantheons have different aspects that front for various purposes. In Celtic mythology, there is the Morrígan, who has three aspects all related to war and death. In Hindu belief, the trimurti has three gods in one body each in charge of one aspect of creation.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these personality swapping gods is Dionysus — the Ancient Greek diety of wine, drunkenness, frenzy, suffering and madness.
Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) is known for having a dual persona. He is a bringer of joy and merriment, but sometimes goes into a blinding rage to terrorize hapless victims.
Dionysus was born twice. Zeus, always the player, seduced Semele, a princess of Thebes. His wife, Hera, was naturally not pleased and planned revenge. A mortal could not view a god in their true form. Thus Hera, in disguise, convinced Semele to make Zeus prove his godliness by revealing his true form. You can guess what happened… Semele made Zeus promise to do as she wished and then asked to see him in all his glory. Zeus was honorbound to comply and revealed his true form, blasting the pour mortal woman to ashes. However, the unborn Dionysus, being part god, survived. Zeus sewed the baby inside his thigh, allowing him to gestate until birth. Since Dionysus was born from a god (in this case, Zeus) he was granted immortality. This could qualify as the traumatic event that often ushers in dissociative identity disorder.
Dionysus was portrayed as beautiful and joyful. He discovered the cultivation of vines and taught others how to ferment grapes into wine. His worship is often connected with the idea of partying and having a good time (under the influence of wine, of course). He was connected to such mythological creatures as satyrs and centaurs. Dionysus was depicted riding a panther or in a chariot pulled by pumas (way to make a grand entrance).
Some Greek cities attempted to ban the wild rites of the maenads (followers of Dionysus). The most notorious case came with King Pentheus of Thebes (written about by Euripides). The king attempted to imprison Dionysus, but the prison doors would not close and the shackles simply slipped off.
Despite fearing this new worship, the king was also fascinated by it and wanted to learn more. His own mother, Agave, had been lured in by the rites of Dionysus. The wine god allowed Pentheus to observe the secret rituals firsthand, but only if the king disguised himself as a woman. Pentheus did as instructed and spied on the maenads from behind a tree.
Dionysus had driven the women into a frenzy and they seized upon any small animal they could find, ripping it apart. Soon they discovered the king and, thinking he was a lion, the maenads tore him limb from limb. Even his mother, Agave, carried off his head thinking she had slain a lion. Thus the Thebans were punished for having resisted the rites of Dionysus.
The terror-frenzy that Dionysus creates in his followers feels very much like the protector alter of the dissociative identity disorder. A Protector might lash out to defend the host from physical or other kinds of abuse.
Dionysus remains a complex deity with many facets. He was beloved by the Greeks and went on many more adventures. Whether the Greek myths utilized him as a way to explain individuals with different personas remains to be seen. One thing is certain, if you upset Dionysus, you would suffer the consequences.
Consider the last lines of the Homeric Hymns to Dionysus
“And the Nymphs followed in his train with
him for their leader; and the boundless forest was filled with their outcry…”