The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths
Saints and Sinners: Twisted Visionsby Hilary Doda
September 25, 2001
Edited by Drew Meger
The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths
Saints and Sinners: Twisted Visionsby Hilary Doda
September 25, 2001
Edited by Drew Meger
First and foremost, my apologies if this is somewhat more incoherent than usual. I am, of course, editing and polishing at the last minute, and my mind has been elsewhere. My heart goes out to all those touched by (by the time of this posting) the tragedy of two weeks ago. By the grace of G-d and the incredible generosity and kindness shown by people all over the world, we will all make it through this.
Prophecies and deity-chosen intermediaries have played a large role in the development of human mythologies and religions, and have been included in roleplaying games since the beginning. Whether granted visions of hail and hellfire or commanded to spread the Gentle Word, prophets and the religious faithful serve up some fantastic fodder for plots, characters and world-building. Western history has provided us with some remarkable examples of real-world miracle-slingers, one of the most remarkable of which was the 12th century Abbess St. Hildegarde of Bingen.
Born at the close of the 11th century, Hildegarde was chosen, as was customary in that time and place, to be dedicated to the church from a very young age. Parents of large families (Hildegarde was the tenth child, although we don't know how many of her siblings survived their first years of life) usually made this sort of 'donation' in order to show their piety - and reduce the number of hungry mouths they had to feed. Sent at the age of eight to become the servant of a local anchoress, Jutta, in order to receive the bulk of her religious training, Hildegarde began to display the visionary traits that would define her life.
The young girl received visions all of her life, but afraid of censure or punishment, confided only in her teacher and the monk who became her closest colleague. From an early age onward, she saw points of light which danced before her eyes, cloaks of blackness which descended over the world, along with celestial music. She interpreted these visions as signs from heaven, though she could not determine what path they were pushing her towards.
When she was in her early 40s, she received the first of her 'directly divine' visions, which she decided were sent directly from the Angel Gabriel, during which, in her own words, "the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books... " 1
Hildegarde, true to her devout upbringing, ascribed divine origins to this vision and those which soon followed, most of which contained interpretations of holy texts and new revelations from G-d, but spoke of them only reluctantly. The time in which she lived was a time of upheaval for the medieval church, and those who set themselves up as prophets could attract large followings. Unwilling to create her own sect, Hildegarde was desperate to have her visions sanctioned by the church itself. Receiving the papal blessing from Pope Eugenius, she wrote her first book on visions and prophecies, entitled Scivias, in the late 1140s, following it up with many more similar epistles.
In addition to writing texts that are still studied today, Hildegarde parlayed her new fame into the basis for an elaborate power structure. She moved her convent up the Rhine to Bingen, away from the direct influence of the local monastery, and founded a second one across the river. She wrote plays, liturgical music, painted scrolls depicting her visions, taught and accepted students - and the fees they brought - from the wealthiest families in the area. She is unique among educated religious women of her time for her unabashed delight in writing about sexuality, and one of her books even contains what may be one of the first Western written descriptions of the female orgasm!
Ruling her convent and her students with a steady hand, Hildegarde established herself as the foremost female mystic of her time, her writings displaying a quick intellect and strength of will. Standing up against popes and bishops, she managed to get her voice heard in a time when nuns and anchoresses were intended to remain weak and pliable, forgotten brides of heaven.
In the Service of Heaven:
The nature of prophecy in historical campaigns requires an affiliation with a deity or other-worldly being from which the visionary's visions and prophecies stem. Hildegarde saw her revelations as coming from the archangel Gabriel, a mouthpiece for the divine host of heaven. This ethereal sanction made the visions worthy of study, instead of fancies to be derided or hallucinations sent to tempt or beguile. Fantasy and science-fictions games which include clairvoyance as a potential ability can avoid the prophetic connection to deities of devils, of course, but the fact remains that our models stem from specific religious traditions, shaped by the cultures in which they formed.
Hildegarde's visions were originally dismissed due to her sex, the church hierarchy at the time finding it difficult to believe that divinity could descend upon a woman, no matter how pious, due to Woman's plight as the prime receptacle of Original Sin. Through her letters and teachings Hildegarde was able to convince Rome that her prophecies were legitimate, but the overwhelming majority of those known as prophets in the middle ages and beyond are male.
From the biblical Isaiah through to Zarathustra, Mohammad and Joseph Smith, charismatic male leaders have been the ones to hear and transmit the divine word, the biblical women who were once the equals of their male counterparts pushed aside, stigmatized or forgotten.
The major monotheistic religions of our world -- Judiasm, Islam and most dramatically in Christianity -- seem to give rise to the bulk of the world's prophets and seers, male and female. Other faiths do consider some adherents and teachers to be prophets of a sort, such as the Hindu-connected (though not considering herself linked solely to one faith) spiritual leader Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, but these women tend to be few and far between. When recording and interpreting the words of women, many texts may become skewed, attention diverted away from the links to divine revelation. Miriam, for instance, the only sister of Moses and Aaron, considered a prophetess and receiver of the divine word in her own right, is overshadowed by both of her brothers and labeled a foolish gossip. Instead of the strong woman whom we can glimpse between the lines, she is remembered as a sour sister-in-law with a grudge to bear.
True prophets, those who receive messages or revelations from a divine source or clairvoyant powers, can be of any gender. Unless a world-specific deity has gender preferences (a goddess choosing women to preach, a sexually-ambiguous or hermaphroditic god/ess selecting the asexual or ambiguously sexed), the revelations can be directed at whichever PC or NPC is the most useful in terms of drama or plot.
In a more scientifically-based campaign, however, where the signs of prophetic reception are considered (or are proven) to be symptoms of mental illness or chemical imbalance, you would most likely see a slightly greater number of female than male prophets, due to the uneven gender spread between sufferers of various illnesses and syndromes.
Chronic migraines, a condition associated with blinding lights and visually intense auras, even mild hallucinations, are more common in women (about 2/3rds of sufferers are female)2, and some have speculated that this was the affliction which caused Hildegarde's visions. Serious chemical depression can cause hallucinations, delusions and even psychotic episodes, and it, too, is more common (about two times more frequent) in females than in males.3 Illnesses such as schizophrenia subject the afflicted person to severe visual and auditory hallucinations, and appear equally in both sexes,4 although the onset tends to be about five to ten years earlier in males (early twenties).
This is, of course, not even going into the various edible or otherwise ingestible substances which can lead the user to create their own revelations; a decent listing of these can be easily found on the web, or in any junior high school's drug awareness program.
From Sanctity to Signboards:
The prophet is an incredibly versatile character that can be put to great effect in any game setting. Whether played as a buffoon, devout believer or divinely inspired, a visionary can be a great addition as a PC or NPC, although one does require a bit more work than the other. The era or style of game you're running will determine at least some small portion of how a prophet will fit into your campaign, so let me take a minute to examine some of the basics.
In biblical times, prophets were generally derided, dismissed and disbelieved. Only those with royal sanction, such as Huldah5, in the court of King Solomon, had any real power behind their words. Only Jonah, who has no interest in prophesying in the first place, made any real difference in the behavior of those to whom he preached. Medieval Christian prophets were sometimes revered, usually pressured by the established church hierarchy, but were left alone as long as they went through proper religious channels (were a nun or priest or monk) and preached things good for the church as a whole. Any would-be prophet who preached against church doctrine, of course, was quickly denounced as a heretic.
In the modern day, scholars tend to look back and try to redefine those known as prophets as mentally ill or delusional, comparing their visions to symptoms of mental illness or some kind of reaction to trauma. On the streets of the western world, anyone who displays behavior similar to that of ancient or medieval prophets - claiming to be a mouthpiece for a deity, preaching destruction on the street or attempting to establish his or her own new sect - is likely to be seen as deranged, ill or at the worst, dangerous, and remanded to psychiatric care.
Dark games such as Call of Cthulhu can use these modern prophets as true visionaries or lunatics with a touch of genius. Lighter modern or futuristic games may use them as troublemakers, or pawns in games far larger than themselves; it depends on exactly who would benefit from the prophecies being delivered.
In the future, and in 'soft science' games, anything can happen! Has the existence of a deity or two been proven? Make prophets into official mouthpieces of their gods. What would happen if two prophets from the same deity disagreed? Have deities been disproved? The prophet is suffering from a new disease, has gained clairvoyant powers, or the gods have returned to prove the scientific establishment wrong. The possibility of psychic powers make this one interesting; has the seer been blessed, or is she clairvoyant? If her prophecies are proven accurate, how long will it be before various groups try to get their hands on her? Have fun with this one - the possibilities are truly endless!
Toying With Destiny:
Hear, Oh Israel: A friend of the PCs, or a PC herself, not normally a religious person, has had some kind of revelation and has begun to speak in tongues, prophecy and preach the word of a given deity or pantheon. Based on the role which prophets play in your world, will she be hailed as a teacher, tested for the truth of her statements, or hunted as a false messiah? What will the other PCs do when their friend seemingly goes mad?
There Shall Come A Sign: In a world where clairvoyance and/or divinely granted prophetic abilities can be found in one person in every million or so, many of them band together in order to prevent the unscrupulous from forcing these visionaries to act against their ethereal patron's interests. This union or freelancing professional group has the potential to become extremely powerful, if their visions are as accurate as they claim. Who has the wherewithal to hire them? Who can join them? If deities are not involved, who, precisely, is creating these visions?
In The End Times: After generations of silence, prophets and visionaries are emerging in great numbers, each telling a similar tale of upcoming destruction and war, if certain conditions are not met. How do those in power treat these warnings? Are the prophets seen as posing these threats themselves? Will the PCs allow their home nations to give in to this divine blackmail, or is there more to all of this than there seems?
2. Migrane information can be found at The Migrane Association of Canada.
4. Information taken from publications of the National Women's Health Information Center, US Department of Health and Human Services. For more information on this disorder, contact:
National Mental Health Association
Recommended Reading and Resources:
Hildegard of Bingen, a Visionary Life, by Sabina Flanagan. (Routledge, London, 1989).
Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the "Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum, trans. and commentary Barbara Newman (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988).
Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990).
Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, text by Hildegard of Bingen with commentary by Matthew Fox. (Santa Fe, N.M. : Bear & Co., 1985).
Hildegard of Bingen : the Book of the rewards of life (Liber vitae meritorum) , translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. (New York : Garland Pub., 1994).
The letters of Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Joseph L. Baird, Radd K. Ehrman. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994).
Sister of wisdom : St. Hildegard's theology of the feminine, by Barbara Newman. (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987).
The "Ordo virtutum" of Hildegard of Bingen : critical studies edited by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1992).
Hildegard von Bingen : Mystikerin, Heilerin, Gefahrtin der Engel, by Ingeborg Ulrich. (Munchen : Kosel, 1990).
German mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein : a literary and intellectual history, by Andrew Weeks. (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1993).
Taken from lists compiled by Kristina Lerman and N. Fierro
"Canticles of Ecstasy" . Harmonia Mundi. Harmonia Mundi 12/94 Sequentia; also, "Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy" DHM 05472 77320 2
"Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum" Sequentia. two disc set. Harmonia Mundi. 77051-2-ng
"Ordo Virturum Vol 1" Harmonia Mundi 4/90 1:29 DDD Sequentia - a bit weird, not for the faint of heart.
"Hildegard von Bingen: Symphoniae: Spiritual Songs" Sequentia Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
"Antiphons and Songs" CHRYSALIS 11/93
"Hildegard & Her Time" CHRYSALIS 3/93; also, "Hildegard von Bingen Und lhre Zeit" Christophorus Digital. Includes music by Hildegard's contemporary Peter Abelard.
"Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God." Sequences and Hymns. Gothic Voices. Hyperion CDA66039
"Hildegard's Lauds of St. Ursula" Focus. Indiana University Press Recording.
"Columbia Aspexit." Gothic Voices. Hyperion
"Voices of Blood" music by Hildegard of Bingen. Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
"Vox de Nube" includes some chants by Hildegard with other Gregorian chants. Sung by the monks of Glenstal Abbey with Noirin Ni Riain, Celtic singer. Available from Sounds True Audio.
"Hildegard of Bingen Meditations Chants" sung by Norma Gentile SKR Classical CD.
"Unfurling Love's Creation" Norma Gentile, soprano. Lyrichord LEMS 8027
"Hildegard von Bingen: Heavenly Revelations." Early Music. Naxos 8.550998
Hilary Doda grew up in Toronto, but managed to escape to Montreal following the HentaiCon Tentacle Disaster of '97. Slaving away in the RPG sweatshop known to insiders as Dream Pod 9, she divides her time between managing the Tribe 8 game line and scribbling desperate cries for freedom on smuggled-in sheets of paper towel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org