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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Saints and Sinners: There's Something About That Apple

by Hilary Doda
April 17, 2001  
When approaching a topic as large and packed as full of significance as 'women in history,' it's vitally important to pick a beginning point that makes some sense; what better beginning than the Judeo-Christian concept of Genesis?

As a quick point, this column deals with material taken from the Judeo-Christian texts and some basic doctrines, focusing on medieval ideas of sin. I really don't want to see religious flames on this column. Please. I know various denominations have different ideas about the issues presented here -- that's not the point. If you're interested in debating theology, please drop me a line privately. I'm happy to discuss anything presented here with all and sundry; it's just too sensitive and off-topic for a gaming site to bring up here.

Your Desire Shall Be For Your Husband

In the beginning, quoth the Hebrew Bible, there was darkness. After God created the heavens, the earth, and all sorts of geographic and faunal specimens, He turned His hands to the creation of a being to rule over this new world. Two conflicting stories exist within the same text: the first chapter of Genesis details a procedure which describes a divinely mandated equality, when "In His image, man and woman, He created them." The second story, however, in the second chapter of Genesis, has God pulling a rib from the body of the Man, His first creation, and forming a 'helpmate' for the Man -- a theoretically subordinate creature whose life would be dedicated to ensuring the Man's success.

The Woman is a direct and forward creature, curious and exploratory. She is confronted with temptation in the form of fruit which she is forbidden to eat, or even touch, and not comprehending the difference between good and evil, she succumbs. This moment, when the Woman eats the fruit and convinces the Man to join her, is defined by many as the moment when sin entered the world. God comes thundering down and demands to know what's going on; the Man blames the Woman, the Woman blames the serpent who tempted her, and the serpent tries to pin the blame on God Himself. The Almighty Father gets annoyed at the level of tattling that's going on, and gives the whole lot of them a swift kick out of paradise. To cap it off, He curses all three: the Man, now known as Adam, shall spend his life in unceasing toil. The Woman, now named Eve, will lust after men, but is condemned to be eternally subordinate to all males. The serpent is cast down to crawl on its belly in the dust.

This creation story, an odd and contradictory myth of temptation and shame, is an ancient attempt to reconcile the idea of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God with the simple fact that evil exists in the world. Pinning the blame on woman as the bearer of sin probably made sense to many in the ancient world, a time when woman's barely-understood bodily cycles and the mysteries of childbirth placed her far closer to the world of the spirits and of the awesome powers of nature than men, whose regulated bodies reflected the controlled ideals of urban life. The myth carried on past its original context, however, becoming codified in a way that ensured that its message would be reinterpreted through time by those with the literacy to absorb it themselves and the authority to convey its message to the masses.

Over time, and with the application of an immense amount of theological discussion, the concept of original sin became doctrine within the churches of the middle ages and renaissance. On a very basic level, the concept states that humankind enters the world in a state of sin because of the sin of Eve, a state which can only be wiped away by accepting salvation in the form of the martyr Jesus Christ. By accepting the rite of baptism a man can be washed clean, but a woman is sinful by her very nature, as it was woman's weakness that caused the Fall from grace, and she will always be an unclean thing in the eyes of God.

By presenting woman as weak-minded (because she disobeyed God's command and allowed herself to be tempted by the serpent), and as an instrument of temptation in and of herself (both because Eve inspired Adam to sin and because woman's bodies were thought to inevitably tempt men into the mortal sin of lust), church fathers and theologians had created the perfect excuse to attempt to keep women silent, obedient, ashamed and passive. It didn't work as well as was hoped, of course, which is the topic of many more columns to come, but the ideas were pervasive and insidious in their strength. Many of the texts are still called upon today to attempt to stem the rising tide of the equality movement, particularly within organized monotheistic religion.

And He Shall Rule Over You

"Why on earth does all of that matter?" I hear you cry -- those are holy writings/outdated texts/ancient myths that have nothing to do with the thoroughly modern hobby of gaming! Oh, ye of little faith...

Eve's story is a specific tale from a specific culture, a group of desert nomads who roamed the Mediterranean basin more than 4,000 years ago, but the power of the story was such that it molded and informed attitudes towards women across most of the world for that same 4,000 years, and that influence shows no sign of waning any time soon. Suffice it to say, the fact that so many of the cultural attitudes we face today stem from the same source gives our world a consistency that is rarely, if ever, matched by the fictional worlds we read and play in.

Female characters in RPGs have often been relegated to subordinate or inconsequential status, getting rescued or sacrificed with abandon. But in universes which don't follow the Judeo-Christian texts, what justification is there for that status? The existence of women as a cross-cultural underclass in a universe with a vast pantheon (or no deity, or a female deity...) demands some solid explanation. If woman is not seen to be the reason for sin entering the world, why is she given the places she has within the game's cultures?

If you wish to keep that hierarchical medieval structure, including the subordination of women as an entire group, then it is vital to come up with an explanation which fits within the world you've chosen. If you wish to have female characters act as equals to the male characters, then it is equally vital to create a cultural basis which does not show a preference for one over the other. When we step into the fore to create a world or adjust one to our liking, it is our responsibility to ensure that our creations are as consistent and true to themselves as they can possibly be, something that demands thought and careful consideration of the impact of our decisions.

Into the Void

I've taken the Genesis creation story and broken it down into its core components. Each one is nothing more than a starting point, a useful springboard for discussion and thought about using the core of the myth within your games and game worlds.

And He Saw That it Was Good: What do the inhabitants of your world believe was the order of creation? The importance placed on each position will certainly differ between those created out of step with each other. Modern feminists have interpreted Eve's appearance at the end of the list as an assertion that woman is more important than man; some male interpreters have placed Eve back behind man, in the position of afterthought. In a world with more than one race of sentient beings, they may develop conflicting and contradictory creation stories, giving different motivations to the creator(s) involved. How do they view each other's myths?

And Adam Slept: In the second variation of the creation story, Eve is described as being created from Adam's rib, as a helpmate. She is taken from Adam's side and created in his image, one step removed from the divine image which molded Man. This theory of 'copy degradation,' with each subsequent creation becoming less and less perfect as it is further removed from the original, has been a staple of cloning discussions for years; can the same concept be applied to a person's soul or inner self? Is a child or a clone somehow mentally or spiritually less than its parent or predecessor?

Lest We Die: Tempting the characters is nothing new; it generally goes over far better than railroading them into a situation. The consequences, however, can often be far more deadly than any of the players can imagine. Eve expected the consequences of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to be death -- hers, perhaps Adam's as well. Instead, what they got was expulsion from their home, and an eternity of pain and toil for themselves and their descendants until the eventual arrival of a redeemer. Because of the actions of two people, Paradise was closed to humanity. What would have happened if there had been more than the two of them alive at that point? How would an entire race or civilization react to being told that, because of the actions of one person, all of them were to be punished?

Towards a Proof That Woman is Not Human: Texts and scrolls and ancient stories can tell us a huge amount about the world and what our duties in it should be. The only problem is that most people never see or read those original texts! Whether they be in a lost language, uncopied or locked away, throughout the vast part of European history, direct knowledge and interpretation of the Bible lay in the hands of the clergy, often the only literate people in an area. Who holds the sacred texts of a culture? Does everyone have access to copies? How are those texts commonly interpreted, and by whom? How can you be sure that the way a text is interpreted by today's clergy is in any way related to what the writer intended, all those years ago?

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What do you think?

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The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

Other columns at RPGnet

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