The Real Tiamat

In video and tabletop RPG games, there are many fantastic creatures. One of these is the tiamat, usually depicted as a dragon of some sort. This, like many other of the seemingly original fantasy creatures found in games, is actually from very old mythology. The tiamat, for instance, is a concept which is over 3000 years old!

To find out the original concept behind the tiamat, we will go to ancient Babylon. In the creation story of the ancient Babylonian religion, Tiamat was not some relatively tiny dragon who you could ride around or sic on things (as in Ogre Battle), nor was she multiheaded (as in Dungeons & Dragons). In fact, she would probably have been very insulted at that whole idea. What would be so insulting about the idea of being a dragon who worked for an army? Well, when you are a dragon that is at least twice the size of the Earth, and a goddess to boot, being depicted as a trainable animal must be quite a come down.

According to the Babylonians, Tiamat was one of the two original deities. She personified the saltwater ocean, while the other one, Apsu, personified fresh water. Taking Apsu as her mate, she gave birth to the first generation of other deities. One of these newborn gods was Ea. Ea went on to father the thunder god, Marduk. Marduk later went on to become the supreme god. For some reason, Ea battled against Apsu and killed him. This angered Tiamat very much! So, she declared war on all the younger gods, using hordes of fierce monsters as an army. The younger gods elected Marduk to be their champion for their defense.

Marduk then went on to battle Tiamat. In this battle, Marduk sliced Tiamat right in half. One half of Tiamat’s corpse became the Earth, and the other half became the sky.

At no point in the religion is Tiamat depicted as a multiheaded dragon, despite such portrayals by the game Dungeons & Dragons. And, unlike Ogre Battle’s depiction, she is not merely three times the size of a man, nor is she simply a minor cog in a big army. And, far from being a big winner, she ended up dead!

Still, it is always interesting to know the original story behind creatures and places depicted in games. Often, it turns out there is a bit of truth, or at least a much older story, behind what is often presented as a game company’s concept.

February 10, 2012
Posted in Mythological and Semi-Mythological Creatures — Knowledge Buff @ 11:21 PM

Cockatrices and Basilisks

The cockatrice appears repeatedly in games and fantasy literature. This mythological beast is often, if not always, depicted as evil. Its gaze can kill a person or turn them to stone (depending on the source). Its body is a combination of a rooster’s torso, a snake’s tail, with possibly other animal parts thrown in, depending on who’s doing the drawing or storytelling. But where did the original idea for this creature come from? Was it always called it a cockatrice?

It seems that this creature is actually a depiction of another creature known as the basilisk. Pliny’s Natural History described it as a duplicate of the basilisk, only with wings. But, the name first actually came about due to a mistranslation. Apparently, in 1397, a man named John Trevisa mistranslated the word basiliscus into cockatrice when he was working on the text De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomeus Anglicus.

The mythology surrounding this fantastical creature says that it was born from an egg laid by a cock (yes, that’s a male chicken!) and then incubated by a snake or a toad. Among its magical powers, it can turn someone to stone or kill them just by looking at them, and in some versions, by touching or breathing on them. And, to make it even more dangerous, it could fly.

Killing one of these things was no easy affair. Stick a sword in it? Shoot it with arrows? Naw. Too easy. Try making it hear a rooster crow. Or tricking it into looking at itself in a mirror. Or maybe it would lose in a fight with a weasel, the only animal which was supposedly immune to the cockatrice’s deadly gaze. And once it was finally dead, the cockatrice was still dangerous — its gaze, even from dead eyes, could still cause petrifaction.

Its cousin, the basilisk, is a creature from Greek mythology. Its body is made of rooster, snake, and lion parts. It too can turn someone to stone just by looking at him. Its name comes from the Greek word basiliskos, which means “little king” in English. But unlike the cockatrice, there is a real life version of the basilisk. Real basilisks are lizards which naturally live in a range including Mexico and Ecuador. These lizards are similar in appearance to salamanders. The real ones do have one outstanding feature — they can run on water for a few feet. Also, when they finally fall in and have to swim, they trap air bubbles under their feet which allow them to maintain an upright posture. Completely contrary to the evil reputation of the mythological versions, this water walking ability has given real basilisks the nickname “the Jesus lizard.”

As for where people come up with these myths of creatures made up of parts of other creatures, it has been suggested that the ideas result from misinterpretation of fossil remains. Some say that what the ancients thought were cockatrices were actually the remains of feathered dinosaurs. The fact that some real animals do appear to be combos of other animals lends a bit of credence to this theory. The platypus, for instance, appears to be a combo of a duck and a beaver. This would make it seem less likely, in an unlearned person’s view, that an ancient scholar’s theory was wrong if it was suggested that the bones he found were from a snake/chicken/lion “thing.”

Whatever the origin of the idea, game makers, players, and fantasy writers love it. They appear in all kinds of games which have a fantasy or even a medieval motif. They make fun characters when they on your side (who wouldn’t love turning the enemy to stone?), and can be challenging when they are on the other side. It is a bonus that there are real versions of their cousins. A basilisk for a pet would definitely give that “hard-core gamer” effect to your portfolio.

Posted in Mythological and Semi-Mythological Creatures — Knowledge Buff @ 11:17 PM