Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Minotaur and Medusa: The Commonest of Proper Nouns?

The monsters of D&D have, for the most part, been drawn primarily from folklore and mythology.  Of course, today, with the emphasis on branding, there is a trend away from traditional mythical creatures in favour of creating brandable intellectual properties, but in the old days, at least, the monsters of D&D were the enduring creatures we were familiar with from the stories of our childhood.

When I first started playing D&D, I was not well-read in the fantasy genre.  The only fantasy novels I'd read were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so my understanding of the game was heavily influenced by mythology, and Ray Harryhausen movies.  Consequently one of the very first monster miniatures I ever bought was this Citadel Minotaur, from their Fiend Factory line, which I bought in the winter of 1981.

I've recently been spending a lot of time organizing my old miniatures and when I found this one in the basement, I was immediately struck by how the imagery of the Minotaur has changed over the years.  This miniature is a classical depiction of the Minotaur; a man with the head of a bull.  In scale, it is no bigger than any other 25 mm man-sized miniature.  This is the Minotaur of myth, garbed in Greek robes and probably lurking in his labyrinth, waiting for Theseus to come run him through.

Compare this miniature to more modern depictions, such as this Reaper Minotaur:

Here we see a more bestial monster; a humanoid bull rather than a man with a bull's head, and he's gotten a whole lot larger (see the severed human head on the base for scale).

Here, now, is the Citadel's contemporary depiction of the Minotaur, which has changed considerably from their 1981 version:

This is even more bestial, and larger still, than the Reaper model above (again, note the human head on the base for scale).

And, finally, Citadel's 'boss' minotaur, the Doombull (there is a human skull in the right foreground of the base for scale):

Lining them up together really brings into focus how much the concept of the Minotaur has changed over the years:

There has been widespread escalation of scale in gaming iconography, as I've discussed previously, with respect to dwarves, and the upscaling of minotaurs is just part in parcel of the contemporary focus on the big and the bad-ass.

But I can't help wondering if the concept of the Minotaur has been diluted and bastardized because of their use in D&D as a common noun rather than a proper noun.  As far back as the original Monsters and Treasure book D&D has referred to minotaurs as a race rather than as the Minotaur, the 'Bull of Minos,' of mythology.  The reason for doing so is clear.  We want to use these great monsters of mythology in our campaigns, but we'll soon run out of things to fight if we make them all unique individuals.  And so Minotaur becomes minotaurs, even though the name doesn't make sense any more.  Perhaps it would have been better to call the race of bull-headed men homotaurs ('man-bulls') and consider the Minotaur to be a specific individual of that race, but of course everyone knows what a minotaur is while a homotaur would be just plain confusing.

The problem is that D&D has become self-referential and new generations of writers and artists look to D&D, rather than the original source mythology for their inspiration, and so we get a gradual but steady change of concept into something that bears little semblance to its forebear (kind of like 4E is to D&D).

The case in point would be this minotaur illustration from the 3E Monster Manual:

This illustration has gone to such ridiculous extremes of 'kewl' that it contains no bovine features.  Had I been shown this illustration without the context of the entry in the Monster Manual, I would never have known that that is what it is supposed to depict.  If forced to guess, I probably would have said it was supposed to be a Yeti, or something.

While I understand Gary's decision to turn proper nouns such as Minotaur and Lamia, the child-eating demon queen of Libya, into common nouns,  I'm less sympathetic towards medusae.  As most of us know, Medusa, along with her sisters, Euryale and Stheno, was a gorgon.  The gorgons were terrifying female creatures with snakes for hair, and the name derives from the Greek, gorgos, meaning grim or terrible.  Unlike the Minotaur, there was no need to turn Medusa into a common noun since we had the term gorgon to refer to the group.

Yet, in D&D, as far back as the original Monsters and Treasure, we have entries for both medusae (snake-haired women whose gaze will turn you to stone), and gorgons (scaly metal bulls who exhale poison gas that will turn you to stone).  Why the separation into two different types of monsters?  If Medusa the gorgon can be separated into medusae and gorgons, imagine what we could do with Sauron the Dark Lord.  "You open the door and are set upon by half a dozen saurons and your only escape is to fight your way through the pack of dark lords you left behind you in the last room."

I'm genuinely curious as to what was behind the creation of the bull-like gorgon monster of D&D.  If anyone knows or has a suspicion, please leave a comment.


Dennis Laffey said...

A Medieval bestiary apparently mixed up the Catoblepas and the Gorgon. It listed a bull-like creature with a huge head and poison breath called the "Gorgon."

The metal scales, as far as I know, came from either Gygax or Arneson.

Or at least that's what I read on the internet once. Take it for what it's worth.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks, Gwydion, that's more than I knew and it sounds like a reasonable explanation!

Lasgunpacker said...

Is it wrong that I would like to see a group of Saurons at a table together, eating or plotting or whatever, and then when our crew of murder hobos bursts in the door, the saurons bring out their maces and start bashing?

And yes, turning unique monsters into races of monsters can be very silly.

Niccodaemus said...

Don't forget what I consider the biggest offender of this type, "the" Pegasus. Pegasus of course, is the name of an individual, not a species.

Also, the unicorn is no more a horse than a platypus is a duck, but tends to be described as a "horse with a horn".

Shane Mangus said...

Thanks to Keep on the Borderlands I suspect the Minotaur was one of the monsters that most old-school players had to face on their very first adventure. I still remember the sense of doom that washed over me as we realized we had come face to face with one! We did more running than fighting, and if memory serves two of the five members of our party died in that encounter. One kid almost started crying because his fighter died! My thief was able to hide in shadows as the beast ran by without noticing, and I landed a backstab! It didn't kill him, but hurt him bad enough that we suddenly had a fighting chance. Those were simpler times, as illustrated by the comparison of the array of 'taurs you have on display.

ravencrowking said...

I am almost 100% certain that the metal scales for the gorgon come from a Medieval bestiary as well. When I first came across a "real-world" reference to what I had believed was a "D&D-only" monster, I was flabbergasted, I can tell you.

The degree to which Gary Gygax was well-read never ceases to astound me.

Trey said...

I had no idea there been such a "minotaur srms race" in miniatures, but it makes sense with a ever-developing sense of badassery. Of course, now that I say "minotaur arms race," I think it has possibilities. ;)

Sean Robson said...

@Lasgun: yes, it is wrong. Very wrong, but in the best possible way!

@Niccodaemus: Pegasus is another good example of a singular mythological creature pluralized, but I've actually used or seen one in a game. Given how rarely they are used, if one were seen it probably would be unique.

@Shane: Yep, I remember that minotaur, too, but from the other side of the screen. I believe I bought that Citadel minotaur at the top specifically for use in Keep on the Borderlands.

@Ravencrowking: Thanks for the confirmation; it sounds like a reasonable explanation to me. Gary was too well-versed in mythology to have made a mistake.

@Trey: Yep, D&D monsters have, indeed, been supersized. That first minotaur looks like a baby compared to the modern models. I think baby minotaurs running around with little axes, chopping at adventurer's ankles has possibilities, too!

Anonymous said...

Time Bandits!!

Best Minotaur ever!

JDJarvis said...

I had book of greek mythology as a kid that described the gorgons (Medusa and her sisters) as having scaled skin and horns growing from their cheeks as they were so hideous.

Talysman said...

@ravencrowking: The medieval bestiary was probably mixing up the gorgons with the metal bulls from Jason and the Argonauts.

ravencrowking said...

I am pretty sure that is not the case. Of course, memory will be what it is, but I did once come across a reference to a gorgon as a bull from a bestiary reference. This was a number of years ago, more than 20, so it is entirely possible that I am mistaken.

Giants, Monsters, & Dragons (author: Carol Rose) says:

"This is an alternative name for the Catoblepas as described in the seventeenth century by Edward Topsell. Its description had been much modified from the original image of the Catoblepas, and he described the beast, which he called a Gorgon, as covered in scales, having wings like a dragon, enormous blood-shot eyes covered by a long mane, gigantic teeth, and hands instead of paws or hooves. It was said to browse only on poisonous plants, by which its breath was also made poisonous, as well as having eyes that could petrify any mortal thing, if it ever looked upon them."

Hope that is of some help.

ravencrowking said...

Googles "Topsell Gorgon" and found a number of links. Look at the image on the bottom of this page: