Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (now with leaked material!)

Forget leprechauns and banshees … here’s your St. Patrick’s Day adventure!

Fortunatus, we are told, had heard in his travels of how two days’ journey from the town, Valdric, in Ireland, was a town, Vernic, where was the entrance to the Purgatory; so thither he went with many servants. He found a great abbey, and behind the altar of the church a door, which led into the dark cave which is called the Purgatory of S. Patrick.  In order to enter it, leave had to be obtained from the abbot; consequently, Leopold, servant to Fortunatus, betook himself to that worthy, and made known to him that a nobleman from Cyprus desired to enter the mysterious cavern. The abbot at once requested Leopold to bring his master to supper with him.  Fortunatus bought a large jar of wine, and sent it as a present to the monastery, and followed at the meal time.

“Venerable sir!” said Fortunatus, “I understand the Purgatory of S. Patrick is here; is it so?” 

The abbot replied, ” It is so indeed. Many hundred years ago, this place, where stand the abbey and the town, was a howling wilderness. Not far off, however, lived a venerable hermit, Patrick by name, who often sought the desert for the purpose of therein exercising his austerities. One day he lighted on this cave, which is of vast extent.  He entered it, and wandering on in the dark, lost his way, so that he could no more find how to return to the light of day.  After long ramblings through the gloomy passages, he fell on his knees, and besought Almighty God, if it were His will, to deliver him from the great peril wherein he lay. Whilst Patrick thus prayed, he was ware of piteous cries issuing from the depths of the cave, just such as would be the wailings of souls in purgatory. The hermit rose from his orison, and by God’s mercy found his way back to the surface, and from that day exercised greater austerities, and after his death he was numbered with the saints.  Pious people, who had heard the story of Patrick’s adventure in the cave, built this cloister on the site.”

Then Fortunatus asked whether all who ventured into the place heard likewise the howls of the tormented souls. The abbot replied, ” Some have affirmed that they have heard a bitter crying and piping therein whilst others have heard and seen nothing.  None, however, has penetrated, as yet, to the furthest limits of the cavern.”

(From Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious myths of the Middle Ages)

Via Wikipedia, here is a map of Station Island. Click to Embiggen. “Caverna Purgatory,” noted between the two large buildings, denotes the site of the cave.

St. Patrick features rather prominently in my book, Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity: The poor pilgrim’s almanack. Some excerpts follow below in italics. He was a very important saint, and had several hagiographies written on his life and miracles. Unsurprisingly many different places claimed to house his remains or other relics important to him. The disputes began right after he died:

In cases of disputes about the proper home of a relic, ordeals might be held to settle them. After the death of St. Patrick, the churches of Saul and Armagh both claimed his body. To settle the dispute, two untamed bulls were yoked to the cart which bore his body and left to go where they would. They stopped at the spot where the church of Downpatrick was built and Patrick buried.

(From the chapter “Furta sacra” (holy theft))

Here are three pilgrimage sites in Ireland from the chapter “Whither Pilgrim”?

 

St. Patrick’s tomb
Location: Downpatrick, Ireland
Miracles: Sticks to Snakes, Snake Charm, Speak with the Dead, Dispel Magic
Downpatrick is the most likely of the several claimants to St. Patrick’s tomb; he is also said to be buried with St. Briget and St. Columba. When Downpatrick wasn’t being looted and burned by Vikings (as happened at least seven times), it was one of Ireland’s most popular pilgrimage spots. But since most of Ireland was usually being looted and burned by invaders anyway, it was still a top attraction even in the “off season”.

Croagh Patrick (Mount Patrick, also called The Reek)
Location: County Mayo, Ireland
Miracles: Dispel Magic, Silence 15’ Radius
This was a pagan pilgrimage site for the summer solstice for thousands of years. But as a Christian site, it is said to be where the Saint fasted for 40 days. The best time to visit was the last Sunday in July (Reek Sunday), when the pious celebrated the time Patrick killed a witch by repelling her spell back onto her. Pilgrims, usually barefoot, circle the mount clockwise seven times saying seven prayers.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory
Location: Lough Derg (a lake island, also called Station Island)
Miracles: Detect Magic, True Seeing, Plane Shift, Speak with Monsters, Resist Fire
Restrictions: Visitors must convince the shrine keepers to unlock the door over the cave, and then spend a night inside. They will face various demons and devils inside.
Supposedly the cave was created when Patrick asked for a visual aid to convince sinners of the reality of Hell.

He also has a tomb in England:

Glastonbury Tor
Location: Glastonbury, Somerset, England
Miracles: Holy Word, Commune
Restrictions: Must approach with peas in shoes (-2 to Dex for a week afterward); possibly guarded by fairies or knights
This mound was the site of an ancient monastery, but in the 12th century, in legend it grew into “ground-zero” of Christianity on England. So in 63 CE, Joseph of Arimathea arrived with the Grail. The Chalice Well provides healing waters. His staff grew into a hawthorn tree — the Holy Thorn Tree or Glastonbury Thorn. The Thorn blooms every Christmas. Many minor saints, as well as King Arthur, Guinevere, and St. Patrick are said to be buried here, and Christ spent some of his missing years here, building a church.
Pilgrims used to walk the 512-foot-high Glastonbury Tor with peas lining their shoes for penance.
The tor or hill also has pagan associations (as a fairy mound and entrance to the Otherworld, and abode of the king of the fairies) and later with the Arthur legends (the tor is known was the Isle of Avalon to the Britons and the final resting place of King Arthur).

“Appendix I: an index of saints, spells, and relics” mentions a few more spots to visit if you need some relics of St. Patrick.

St. Patrick (Snake Charm, Dispel Magic, Speak with Dead, Snakes to Sticks) [crosier, tooth, and bell: Dublin; lower jaw: Derriaghy]

This appendix lists nearly 200 saints and Biblical figures with miracles associated with them. Each entry in Appendix I follows the format: Name (Miracles) [relics: places], so every miracle associated with a given saint is in one place, and any relics of the saint not mentioned in “Whiter Pilgrim?” are also indicated. These matter because the book also gives a couple of systems whereby clerical magic requires either relics for casting, or pilgrimages for learning, spells. Off to fight the snake cult? Better stop by St Patrick’s tomb to learn Snake Charm, or possibly swipe one of his bones to take with you.

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Published in: on March 17, 2017 at 9:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack now on Drivethru RPG!

I don’t mind admitting I’m kind of psyched that my book is now available on DriveThru RPG. The Lost Pages store is the place to get the hard copy, shipped from Scotland (I also hear some copies may be showing up at the better conventions too). But obviously Drive Thru RPG is an important distributor, and I’m glad people might be able to stumble upon my book even if they’ve never heard of it.

What is the Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack? (And here I begin just quoting the blurb:)

An historical supplement on pilgrimages, relics and religion in the European Middle Ages.

The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack is filled with painstakingly researched essays on religious life (and death) in the middle ages. It lets you use relics and pilgrimage as the basis of an alternative conception of clerical magic. Also included are details on travel, burial customs, catacombs, and the business of relic theft. A travelogue of shrines and other pilgrimage sites, detailed rules for relics and reliquaries, and a listing of historical miracles (corresponding to familiar clerical spells) make this 128 page sourcebook a treasure trove of inspiration. Dozens of adventure seeds and tables for generating encounters on the road, graves and grave goods, and randomized catacomb generation and stocking round out the contents. A new class, the Palmer, provides a novel take on religious adventurers. 
But wait! Don’t take my word for it. Here’s something someone said:

An excellent and necessary supplement if you’re wanting your campaign’s religious culture to feel more European Medieval and less the polytheistic/pantheon style used in mainstream D&D

– James Raggi, Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Published in: on February 26, 2017 at 8:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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Research mathoms III

I’ve been noting what’s NOT in Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity : The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. But what’s in there? Here’s a screencap of the table of contents. It doesn’t list sidebars, but it does drill down to the section headings within the four main essays: On the road (which covers travel generally); Death, Burial & Grave Goods; Furta Sacra (all about relics and their theft); Into the catacombs (all about catacombs); Whither pilgrim? (a gazetteer of shrines, holy wells, tombs, and other pilgrimage destinations); and Relics & Clerics (which offers a revised clerical spell casting system and a completely different kind of cleric that is dedicated to pilgrimage). Click to embiggen.

toc-screenshot

 

Here’s one more mathom.

Beheaded martyrs

If you read much about martyrs, you will quickly notice that a large number of martyrs went through multiple executions before being really, sincerely martyred. They might be broiled, beaten, shot with arrows, crushed, hung, trampled by animals, or have any number of brutal treatments and still survive until they are finally beheaded. While we might be tempted to imagine the persecutors shouting “There can be only one!” scholars speculate that the beheadings are often later additions to the stories, because by the Middle Ages, only beheading was considered an appropriate execution for high-status individuals. For the saints to be killed by lesser — even common — means was incongruous with their status as God’s elect, so the hagiographies were amended to end with a more aesthetically pleasing (to the generally noble or high-ranking patrons of the scribes) death.

More fancifully, the trope of saints being beheaded also spawned another category of saints: celaphores. These were saints who are depicted — visually in icons and statues, or narratively in their hagiographies — as carrying their own severed heads. Celaphores are often said to have carried their severed heads to their burial places, in some cases preaching as they walked; most famously, St. Denis of Paris did this, but folklorists have counted more than a hundred cases. Apart from making memorable miracles and dramatizing the saint’s power over death, this behavior helps legitimize the final resting place of a saint, and discourages further translation.

 

 

 

Published in: on December 13, 2016 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Research mathoms II

Here are few more sidebars, etc., that didn’t make it into The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. (#shamelesscommerce) The illustrations here and in the other Research Mathoms post were not necessarily meant to be in it though — we used only black & white or greyscale images that were in the public domain or under CC license.

The incorruptibles 

Many saints were found to be “incorruptible” when exhumed. In a few cases this meant that the corpse remained largely untouched by decay for a very long time — perhaps perpetually. The bodies are often displayed under glass. But most incorruptible bodies eventually decay. The designation that a saint’s body was “incorruptible” required only that the corpse look fresh when first exhumed. Decay may set in almost immediately. The relics would be encased in reliquaries, or possibly chased in gold, or covered with wax to represent the appearance of the body when it was exhumed.

St. Cuthbert being exhumed and found incorrupt (image from Wikipedia) — 

Note that “incorrupt” is a relative term. Here’s an incorrupt saint, St. Zita. Not too bad for a 750 year old corpse.

Image result for incorrupt

***

Fantastic relics

In addition to the relics of saints and Biblical figures, some collections at shrines included unusual items such as Griffin’s claws, phoenix feathers, unicorn horns, and other parts of monsters — collected by pilgrims in foreign lands, sent as rare and valuable tributes, or even as trophies from the ordeals of saints. One church boasted that it had the tip of Lucifer’s tail, lost in a fight with a Syrian hermit. Some such objects were reputed to have their own occult power to heal, but most were simply exhibited along with the fine clothes, jewelry, and other valuables offered in honor of the saint.

Alicorns — the supposed horns of unicorns, most often in the form of narwhal horns or vessels carved from rhinoceros horns — were a highly valued item both because of their intrinsic worth (princes would pay up to 20 times their weight in gold for them, and a large narwhal horn could weight over 12 pounds) and for their supposed magical properties. St. Denis cathedral near Paris had a 7 foot long, 13 pound alicorn among its treasures; St. Mark’s in Venice had two alicorns, each about a meter long and supposedly looted from Constantinople in 1204, plus another of a later date that was two meters long; other impressive specimens were in cathedrals and churches at Milan, Raskeld, St. Paul’s in London, and Westminster Abbey. Alicorns were thought to cure or prevent poisoning and pestilential disease. Unscrupulous guardians might sell filings from the horns for quick cash, and there are records of alicorns being gilded or chased in silver to prevent this. Griffin claws — the horns of ibex or buffalo — were thought to neutralize poison too.

There were also an array highly unusual items with supposed supernatural origins in various church collections. A ray from the star of Bethlehem, objects given to saints by angels ranging from clothing to clocks, body parts from angels, the foreskin of Jesus (as well as many other unlikely mementos of his infancy and childhood), feathers (!) from the Holy Spirit, and even fire from the Burning Bush were all inventoried in various collections.

 

Corpse Roads and Lych Gates

The local parish church held funeral rites and everyone who could afford the fees would prefer to be buried in the parish graveyard. However as small villages sprang up further and further away from the central parish church, it became necessary to establish roads leading from the villages to the church. These roads would be used solely for transporting the dead for burial, as the presence of a corpse was unlucky at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Moreover the ghosts of the dead were thought to wander the corpse road for as long as the soul was in purgatory — potentially many years. For these reasons the corpse road was always laid out in unwanted and otherwise untraveled land. The corpse road was also kept as straight as possible, even if it meant cutting through difficult terrain or crossing streams, because it was thought the ghosts traveled only in straight lines, and no-one wanted the ghosts to wander off the road. Corpse roads always led to a Lych Gate, the gate to the burial yard (“lych” meaning body or corpse).

Lych Gate at St. Mary’s, Wendover (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on December 9, 2016 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Research mathoms I

Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity comes in at 128 pages. I wrote a fair amount more that did not make it in to the final version, because of space limitations (essays too long to be sidebars or boxed text and too short to be appendices), because they didn’t quite fit in the flow of the work or ramble a bit off topic, and in one case because a table was far too complex to fix in the page layout. Maybe some day an expanded edition will be possible (and I’d probably add some revised bits from Burgs & Bailiffs 1 and 2). But in the meantime I’ll post some research mathoms here on the blog: tidbits too good to leave on the cutting room floor. (The last one I thought made it in, so my apologies if anyone was thrown by the December 6 post. Having looked at the final draft I can confirm that it DOES detail fun stuff like the saint whose miracles include striking down his own family and making a pope crap out his intestines, the “code” used by funeral bells, and more. But here are some mathoms:

Jinn shrines

There are a number of sites in the Moslem world where the jinn are appealed to for intercessions. Illnesses, especially mental illnesses, are often attributed to evil jinn, and supplicants visit sacred places where the jinn congregate. In Baduan, India, for example, the shrines of several sufi mystics are visited for this purpose because the king of the jinn is said to hold court in a nearby banyan tree. Those suffering from mental illness are brought by their relatives, who make offerings to the jinn and hope to elicit their mercy. As unorthodox as this sounds, the jinn are thought to have mostly converted to Islam in Muhammad’s time, so there is nothing heretical about appeal to them.

(See Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven On Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. Farrar, Strauss, & Giraux, 2013. The introduction describes the author’s visit to such a shrine in Baduan and the place of jinn in shari’a law. Mostly excerpted here)

Animal catacombs

The Egyptians rather famously mummified various animals and placed them in human tombs. However perhaps less well-known are the animal catacombs under certain temples. One temple at Saqqara has a so-called “Sacred Animal Necropolis” with separate catacombs for falcons, cows, ibis, dogs, and baboons. The baboon catacomb has three levels with hundreds of mummies of olive baboons and Barbary macaques. These primates were raised at, and kept in, the temple for their entire lives. Similarly the falcons and cows were kept at cult sites for ritual purposes. The cults eventually abandoned the site some time under Roman occupation. The “Dog catacombs” — sacred to Anubis — include burials of foxes, jackals, cats, and mongooses.

Who stole Santa Claus? 

In the Middle Ages, Saint Nicholas of Bari (now known more popularly in the English-speaking world as Santa Claus or Father Christmas) was revered by sailors in particular because he once calmed a storm at sea while on a voyage to the Holy Land. The 4th century holy man and bishop lived and was buried in Myra, Lycia (which later would become part of Turkey). His tomb became a popular pilgrimage site. In 1087, after the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, Italian sailors and merchants from Bari rescued one half of his skeleton (despite the resistance of Orthodox monks at his shrine), ostensibly because of fears that the Turks would interfere with pilgrims or desecrate the shrine. During the first crusade, a party of Venetians rescued the other half of his skeleton and set up another, competing shrine in Venice. But the relics at Bari continue to excrete myron as they did at Myra, while those in Venice do not. The faithful would attribute this to St. Nicholas’ desire to be in Bari, while skeptics and Venetians might point out that the myron is actually water, exuding from the marble of the tomb which is, in all fairness, below sea level.

Some of St. Nicholas’ bones in Antayla, Turkey (from Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on December 7, 2016 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The poor pilgrim’s almanack

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To no fanfare, my first game book — Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity : The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft —  has become available via The Lost Pages! So you can get it now in PDF, or pre-order the printed version and get the PDF along with it.

Paolo Greco, proprietor of the Lost Pages, did a bang-up job laying out the text, which was sort of complicated because the original manuscript had dozens of footnotes and sidebars, as well as some really big tables. Not everything could make it into the final product, so once I see the final product myself I’ll post some of that material here. I’m thinking of some of it as “research mathoms” — stuff I found or created that’s too good to throw away entirely but which didn’t fit in well enough to keep, either in terms of flow or formatting, like the giant table of carrying and pulling capacities for animals ranging from rats to elephants (if you need to know how much a goat can carry, how heavy different types of camels are, or how much traction a moose can pull with, it was in there!). So watch this space for research mathoms…

I eventually envisioned this as a sort of source book like the ones Steve Jackson has been producing for GURPS — chapters of informative text that is as well-researched as I could manage with gameable material (rules). I tried to keep it as system-neutral as possible, but really it’s meant for the, ahem, World’s Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game, in the B/X or first Advanced edition. Thus the sidebars, dozens of brief “adventure seeds” like the GURPS sourcebooks, and so on. I’m not an historian by training but I do read a lot, and did my research at one of the largest public research libraries in the US, where I was also working.

I’m not sure what else to say about this, and as I’m on my lunch break now I don’t have time to get long-winded anyway, but for what it’s worth here’s an excerpt from my foreword, which really explains the project:

Although I’ve always been a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, another game has long haunted me: Fantasy Wargaming, by Bruce Galloway (and others). That infamous rule book has haunted me because of its unfulfilled promise — the idea of an historical, logical setting for adventures like those in D&D. In part FW failed to fulfill its promise because it was a haphazardly presented system of rules, and frankly the rules seemed unnecessarily complicated. But the real failure was that the game focused strictly on recreating medieval legends and sagas, which while interesting, were too esoteric for someone used to simple generic fantasy to get a handle on. My forays into running FW were pretty disastrous — I subjected my players to retreads of Viking sagas and Beowulf, which were OK for what they were but did not deliver the exploration and adventure we expected from a fantasy game. What I didn’t know then was that all the elements of dungeoneering could be realized in an historical setting. There really were adventurers who entered subterranean mazes, seeking treasure and braving dangers (real and imagined). They could be rogues, warriors, holy men, or magicians, just like in D&D. They might be seeking gold and gems, but they might just as well be seeking items with supernatural powers: the relics of saints. To find these underground complexes — catacombs — the adventurers would undertake long, perilous journeys: pilgrimages.

While this supplement could be used simply to rationalize dungeoneering in historical or pseudo-historical campaigns, the medieval superstitions and practices detailed here should also inspire new and interesting adventures, over land, at sea, and in town and city. Pilgrimages to shrines and other holy sites, whether for secular or sacred purposes, invite all manner of encounters and obstacles that will create exciting adventures. Lastly, the veneration of shrines and relics suggests a new conception of divine magic and clerics: the pilgrim miracle-worker. Paolo and I are excited by the idea of clerical magic which is grounded in historical beliefs, completely different from the usual wizardry and spell-casting that games use for secular magic-users, and which provides a justification for adventuring holy men and women. We hope that you will find ideas you can adopt in your own games, whether you follow the historical precedents herein or reskin them for your fantasy world.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coming soon…

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Published in: on November 17, 2016 at 7:38 pm  Comments (3)  
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Badasses of the old west

Badasses of the old west : true stories of outlaws on the edge, edited by Erin Turner

6920854

Man, the title and cover really oversell this book. It’s actually a collection of short profiles of criminals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I’m not sure I’d have counted coastal Oregon in the 1920s as part of the “old west” but one of the longer entries chronicles an escaped convict who spent weeks on the lam there, forcing people to cook for him at gunpoint whenever he stopped at a house. Other criminals that are included don’t really seem to rise to the level “outlaw” status — a burglar who murdered a sleeping woman with a meat cleaver, a man who went on a drunken rampage robbing some railroad employees and shooting his brother-in-law, and several other cases of murder. There are a few bona fide famous outlaws mentioned — the James brothers, the Apache Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as infamous killers like John Wesley Hardin and William Quantrill. A few of the less well-known characters are pretty interesting too — Old Tom Starr and Dart Isom, for example. But all too many seem to have been selected for their evocative nicknames rather than their deeds: “Bad Eye” Santamarrazo’s crime was trying to poison a miner, and “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter murdered and dismembered an eccentric old man in order to take over his farm; in both cases these were the only crimes the subjects committed. Worse, a lot of them seem to be included simply because the writers found a lot of details about their trials and executions, which make for pretty uninteresting reading when the criminals were spectacularly inept. So it’s really a very mixed bag, some of it entertaining and some it boring.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly; maybe tales of men who were “badass” by some standard other than simply being killers. Really the vast majority of the people profiled sound like sociopaths and bullies. Most of the killings are ambushes or surprise attacks on unarmed men. I know that this is the reality of most crime generally and most of the killings in the Old West. I guess I was hoping they would be enough true stories where a gunslinger did something that actually was “badass” to fill a book. You know, stuff like this. Evidently not. I know, I know. Most of the people from history who we think of as “badasses” were actually sociopaths and bullies. The “most badass” warrior cultures — Vikings, Romans, Spartans, samurai, knights — were basically sociopaths and bullies who won more by surprise, material wealth, and ruthlessness than courage or toughness. That’s pretty much how human history works. Still, the Old Western idea of a tough individual dies hard, and maybe if we pretend the intent behind this collection was demythologization, it works. Except that the obviously amateur and amateurish articles don’t really address the question, and it’s more on the editor for pretending these are about badasses rather than a collection of crime stories.

I also wish the articles were signed, rather than just having a list of contributors on the copyright page, because the style and tone of the articles varies a lot. I get the impression that the publisher or editor just wanted to cash in on a great title and classic photo for the cover (a cowboy standing on the saddle of a horse and aiming straight for the camera with his gun), reprinting chapters from various “Outlaw tales of…” books in the publisher’s stable. If this is meant to be a “best of” collection, I’ll skip the books they’re excerpted from.

Published in: on February 27, 2016 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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A 7th century D&D party

A cleric, a thief, and a fighter (or possibly an assassin) set out to slay a dragon (or a “Gargouille,” depending on your source).

From Ebenezer C. Brewer’s A dictionary of miracles (1910):

“What renders the name of St. Romanus [aka St. Romain] especially memorable in all France, is his victory at Rouen over a horrible dragon, of a shape and size hitherto unknown. It was a man-eater, and also devoured much cattle, causing sad desolation. Romanus resolved to attack this monster in his lair; but as no one would assist him in such a dangerous enterprise, he took with him, as assistants, a murderer condemned to death, and a thief. The thief, being panic-struck, ran away ; but the murderer proved true steel. Romanus went to the dragon’s den, and, making the sign of the cross, walked in, and threw a net over the beast’s neck. The murderer, then taking the net in his two hands, dragged the monster through the town into the market-place, where was a huge bonfire. Into this bonfire he led the beast, there was it burnt to death, and then thrown into the Seine. All the people thanked the saint for delivering them from this pest, the murderer was set at liberty, and Romanus appointed a day of public thanksgivings. — Propre de Rouen.”

No word on the dragon’s hoard, but the murderer was pardoned for his part in slaying the dragon, and after Romanus’ death there was annual procession of his relics ending with the pardon of a convicted criminal.

A surprising number of saints took an active role in slaying or banishing dragons. A pretty good list is here.

Published in: on July 8, 2015 at 8:47 am  Comments (5)  
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Spartacusploitation

So I’ve been watching some of the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and sand (actually each season seems to have a different subtitle…).  I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that it kind of veers between frenetic splatter-action and soft-core porn. I’ve read they intentionally emulated Zack Snyder’s 300 film in the first episode or two, and it shows. The action sequences also owe something to Tarantino’s Kill Bill — geysers of blood, a bit like old samurai films, and crazy stunts, more like the Shaw Brothers’ work, only less of it. The special effects are not always convincing but they certainly out-splatter pretty much any other film in the “peplum” genre. The sex scenes — and there is clearly a quota that each episode must meet, with four or five topless scenes for the lead actresses and full frontal nudity for at least one actor or extra — are a little off-putting, juxtaposed as they are with ultraviolence. In fact about half of the sex scenes are intentionally repulsive, and this actually works in the show’s favor. The decadence of Rome is meant to be shown in a repulsive light. Moreover, despite the exploitation levels of sex and violence, the show is not that bad. Some of the acting is quite good — John Hannah and Lucy Lawless tend to steal the show in their scenes, but the whole cast is reasonably good. The plot is melodramatic and violent, and kept my interest. It also really works as an indictment of Imperial Rome. You can’t help but hate the Romans. They are portrayed as relentlessly decadent, greedy, venial, lustful, and basically evil in every way. A show about a bloody slave revolt probably has to dehumanize the Romans some in order to make the rebels into heroes. It’s too bad the show has to get so much history wrong.

Actually it gets a fair amount of the history right, in terms of the Roman world. Rome really was very dependent on slavery (a fact that Hollywood has usually been unwilling to depict). The show emphasizes the horrors of slavery pretty well, though I’m not sure if slaves were quite so callously killed on a whim as the show suggests. The sets are convincing. The costumes of civilians and nobles are generally accurate, and military kit looks right too (hell, the Romans’ shields are oval rather than the usual later imperial rectangle we see in every movie).  The gladiators’ equipment is mostly correct too, in so far as they depict mostly depict real gladiator styles. (The axe-men I’m very dubious about — the show keeps depicting guys with a huge battle-axe like something you’d see in a video game, and they also have several gladiators fight with a pair of double-bitted axes. Granted they look awesome, but like the guy with a medieval flail in the Russell Crowe Gladiator film, it is just Hollywood being Hollywood. The hoplomachi are depicted as fighting in melee with their spears rather than casting them — that seems possible but it’s not how I usually see them depicted.)

I like the very formalized manner of speaking the nobles usually use — I’m not sure if it would really be common in private conversations but it does class up the dialogue, even with the occasional gratuitous but hilarious cursing.

The main things I think the show gets wrong, unfortunately, are pretty central to the plot. First, the show depicts Romans as being pretty shameless about sex. Every party involves live sex shows. This helps establish the ruling class as decadent. But Caligula, Tiberius, and Nero actually shocked the Romans with their orgies; the show suggests everyone in Rome was pretty much on their way to a brothel or stumbling home drunk from a party out of the movie Caligula. Yes, the Romans had a pretty open attitude about sex and fewer hang-ups than we do in the U.S., but I don’t think they were all voyeurs and exhibitionists as the show suggests. Also, while slaves could be used for sex, it was considered somewhat shameful for a free citizen to do so, while the series suggests it was normal and acceptable.

Secondly, the show depicts most gladiatorial bouts as being to the death. Historians who have studied the actual records of the Roman games have concluded that very few bouts ended with the death of a gladiator. Certainly there were times when there was massive loss of life, but those would be the “re-enactments” of battles (staged by condemned criminals) and executions by beasts or gladiators (the latter of which do figure occasionally into the show). So we see death after death in the arena and almost no defeated gladiators being given the chance to submit. I suppose that helps elevate the drama too, but the arena was terrible enough without exaggerating the lethality for gladiators. In reality the gladiators more often “fought” animals or prisoners than other gladiators, and they rarely killed other gladiators.

Now I know that most “historical” shows and movies are terribly inaccurate and I’m not someone who can’t appreciate them as drama. In fact, Spartacus does a pretty good job of creating really compelling characters. The bad guys are interesting. The good guys are interesting. The situations they find themselves in, or create, are interesting. If you can accept that this is a drama which plays up the exploitative elements, you will find this show pretty enjoyable.

 

Published in: on June 10, 2015 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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