2018/06/18

OSR: Miscellaneous Alexandrian Monsters, Part 1

The Wonders of the East is an Old English miscellany written in ~1000 AD. It's not quite an itinerary or a bestiary. Unlike Benjamin of Tudela's factual account, this text is mostly fantastic nonsense. You can read a translation here. I've pulled it apart and sorted it into a few useful categories.

It's a perfect source document for the Alexandrian Dark Souls setting I'm working on. Rather than doing something productive with my time, here are stats for some of the creatures from the text. I'm not sure how many of them will be used in the final setting.

Side Note: Medieval Telephone

In The Wonders of the East, we get the following mysterious description:

28. By the ocean is a breed of wild animals that is called Catini, and they are very beautiful animals. And there are people there who live on raw meat and honey.

29. On the left-hand side of the kingdom in which there are wild animals called Catini, there are hospitable people, kings who have subdued many tyrants. Their boundaries border on the Ocean, and from there, from the left-hand section, there are many kings.
An Old French abbreviator summarized the text as:
There are men called Catius, just and handsome, who live on raw flesh. The inhabitants of the region neighboring the Catius are a kingly people called the Reges.
And who knows? There could be other texts based on the Old French abridged version that add new details and new inventions, and the game continues. 

Side Note: Common Elements

Medieval "books of wonders", especially books from France and England, tend to focus on specific supernatural elements.

Size: creatures much larger than local ones.
Fire: creatures who can breathe fire, dwell in fire, or use fire.
Serpents: serpents held a peculiar fascination for medieval authors, especially their deadly venom.
Intelligence: creatures which are as intelligent as people or people who behave in very strange ways.

The Dragon
possesses all three elements in many accounts.


Part 1: Beasts and Birds

Wild beasts are also born there. When these wild beasts hear a human voice, they run far away. The beasts have eight feet, and valkyrie-eyes, and two heads. If anyone tries to touch them, they set their bodies aflame. They are extraordinary beasts.

Flame-Wreathed Jackals

HD: 5
Appearance: a tan-furred hound with two heads. Each head has one glittering eye.
Wants: to hunt the weak, evade the strong.
Armor: as leather
Move: 2x normal
Morale: 5
Damage: 1d6 bite. If struck, they ignite, dealing 1d6 fire damage to anyone who lands a successful  melee hit.

They fear speech and flee from words. Their minds at least as sharp as a man's, possibly more. They pad through the desert on eight feet, hunting mice and wounded camels and burst into flames when in danger. Each ice-crystal eye is worth 100gp, either as a gem or as a scrying stone. Crush glass in the desert to call them; they might eat your camels in the night, but they keep away the desert ghosts on moonless nights.

GM Notes on Flame-Wreathed Jackals: As far as I can tell, "valkyrie-eyes" means "sparkling" or "bright". Not lantern-bright, but glittering, like ice. Purser says other texts "emphasize the eyes of the wælcyrge as the seat of her monstrosity". How eerie would a creature like this look; two heads, but one eye each, looking down on your from the top of a dune? These creature are background flavour and something for the PCs to hunt while traveling if they need a challenge... or something that could hunt the PCs if they are weak and isolated.


Ants are born there as big as dogs, which have feet like grasshoppers, and are of red and black color. The ants dig up gold from the ground from before night to the fifth hour of the day. People who are bold enough to take the gold bring with them male camels, and females with their young. They tie up the young before they cross the river. They load the gold onto the females, and mount them themselves, and leave the males there. Then the ants detect the males, and while the ants are occupied with the males, the men cross over the river with the females and the gold. They are so swift that one would think that they were flying.

Giant Ants

HD: 2
Appearance: a black-and-red striped ant the size of a dog.
Wants: to acquire gold, protect eggs.
Armor: as chain
Move: normal
Morale: 10
Damage: 1d6 bite

Giant ants are found in roving groups of 2d20. In some areas they mine gold nuggets, which are stolen by desert raiders using camels as bait. Some people think the ants are trading gold nuggets for delicious camels.

GM Notes on Giant Ants: I already have several picnics worth of ants in my settings, so I'm a bit tired of ants. I doubt I'll use these guys, but the idea of desert people thinking they're so cunning in using camels to "trick" ants, and ants thinking they're so cunning in using gold nuggets to trick desert people.
In these regions are born great multitudes of elephants.
Medieval authors loved elephants. They were often illustrated with wildly inconsistent details. The ever-delightful Pliny the Elder devotes twelve chapters to them. Since many medieval bestiaries quote Pliny (and through him, Aristotle, etc.), I've included a few relevant sections below.
Let us now pass on to the other animals, and first of all to the land animals. The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon... They are supposed to have a notion, too, of the differences of religion; and when about to cross the sea, they cannot be prevailed upon to go on board the ship, until their keeper has promised upon oath that they shall return home again. They have been seen, too, when worn out by disease, (for even these vast masses are liable to disease,) lying on their back, and throwing the grass up into the air, as if deputing the earth to intercede for them with its prayers. As a proof of their extreme docility, they pay homage to the king, fall upon their knees, and offer him the crown.
[...]
Nor, indeed, ought we to be surprised, that an animal which possesses memory should be sensible of affection: for the same author relates, that an elephant recognized, after the lapse of many years, an old man who had been its keeper in his youth. They would seem also to have an instinctive feeling of justice. King Bocchus once fastened thirty elephants to the stake, with the determination of wreaking his vengeance on them, by means of thirty others; but though men kept sallying forth among them to goad them on, he could not, with all his endeavours, force them to become the ministers of the cruelty of others.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus has an absolutely excellent Elephant vs. Dragon fight in his encyclopedia. You can read it here.


Elephants

HD:10
Appearance: a great grey beast, with broad ears, legs like tree trunks, and a long nose as flexible as a snake.
Wants: to live a peaceful life
Armor: as plate+shield
Move: 1/2 normal
Morale: 10
Damage: 1d8 stomp / 1d6 tusk swipe

Elephants are peaceful, intelligent beasts. The legends say they were used in Iskander's army, and by his enemies, but no armies now use them. They are wise, religious, and can be taught writing and other simple crafts. They are locked in conflict with dragons.

GM Notes on Elephants: Consider replacing a faction in your setting with elephants. Not fancy elephants with carriages and cities. Just regular elephants. They are certainly smart enough to qualify. Your average elephant can probably out-think your average PC.
As you go towards the Red Sea there is a place called Lentibeisinea, where there are hens born like ours, red in color. If any one tries to take or touch them, they immediately burn up all his body. That is extraordinary magic.

Fire Hens

HD: 0 (1 HP)
Appearance: a bright red chicken.
Wants: conquest, domination, bloodshed. A tiny cluster of neurons filled with unfathomable hatred, limited only by their short attention span, love of food, and shocking idiocy.
Armor: none
Move: normal, fly in 10' hops.
Morale: 12
Damage: 1d8 fire. Fire Hens catch fire under the mildest provocation. They also swarm.

Do not taunt the chickens. Everyone in this land fear the chickens. They roam untroubled, eating grain right out of a farmer's field or the fresh-baked loaf from his table. Poultriarchy - rule by chicken. They aren't great legislators but they are definitely in control.

GM Notes for Fire Hens: There is a village with solid, stone-walled buildings, frightened people, and fat and happy chickens.


Part 2: Serpents

Dragons are born there, who are one hundred and fifty feet long, and are as thick as great stone pillars. Because of the abundance of the dragons, no one can travel easily in that land.
A dragon should be a boss fight.


...because of the multitude of snakes called Corsiae which are in those places.  They have horns as big as ram's. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies.

Corsiae, the Horned Snakes

HD: 3
Appearance: a cluster of horned snakes. A full cluster has 3 HD and fights as one creature.
Wants: to eat eggs, grow fat, and protect the other snakes.
Armor: none
Move: 1x normal
Morale: 8
Damage: on a successful hit, Save vs Death. Touching the snakes also requires a Save vs Death unless thick impermeable gloves are used.

The Corsiae snakes are widely feared. Areas they infest are abandoned by all animals, save for nervous-looking perching birds. Every part of their body is hideously and immediately toxic. It is said the Assassins raise these snake and slowly become immune to their poison.

GM Notes on the
Corsiae: "Save vs Death" serpents aren't terribly interesting on their own.  Put them in context.

This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.
These serpents don't need stats, but they do provide an interesting alternative to torches. Keeping a serpent happy is more difficult than buying lamp oil but it's much more impressive.
In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee from the high ground into the earth; because of this the pepper is black. The place is barren because of the multitude of the snakes.
Again, these serpents don't need stats. Instead, imagine the PCs cresting a hill to encounter a wildfire and a huge swarm of serpents, or discover that they can get access to heaps of valuable spices just by killing a few serpents.


Part 3: General Background Creatures

Things that don't need stats but could be used to provide some background details.


Rams born there as big as oxen.

In one land there are born donkeys which have horns as big as oxen's.

In the same place is another kind of bird called Phoenix. They have crests on their heads like peacocks, and they build their nests from the most precious spices, which are called cinnamon; and from its breath, after a thousand years, it kindles a flame, and then rises up young again from the ashes.


Part 4: Trees, Plants, and Places

In this place there are kinds of trees which are like laurel and olive. From these trees the most expensive oil, balsam, is wholly produced.

Then there is a golden vineyard near the rising of the sun which has berries of 150 feet. On them, berries are produced like pearls or jewels.

Then there is an island, which is in length and breadth in the lesser measurement that is called stadia 360, and in the greater called leuuae 90. There was built in the days of Belus the king and Jove a temple made from wrought iron and brass. And in the same place there is east from there another temple, sacred to the sun, in which is ordained a fine and gentle priest, and he governs the halls and looks after them.

There is another kingdom in the lands of Babylon where there is found the biggest mountain between the mountain of Media and of Armenia. It is the biggest and highest mountain of all. There are decent people there who have power and dominion over the Red Sea. Precious jewels are produced there.

Then there are kinds of tree from which the most precious stones are produced, and upon which they grow.

Then there is land in which very many vineyards grow, where there is a couch of ivory. It is 306 feet long.

Then there is a mountain called Adamans.

Part 5: People

There is a land called Ciconia in Callia, where people are born of three colors, whose heads have manes like lions' heads, and they are twenty feet tall, and have mouths as big as fans. If they see or perceive anyone in those lands, or if anyone is following them, then they take flight and flee, and sweat blood. They are thought to be men.
"They are thought to be men" is a very curious statement. No matter how strange a people might be, medieval authors generally gave them the benefit of the doubt. Friedman says that some of the "races of men" mentioned by medieval authors may have actually existed, at least in some form. I'd say that the Mursi people of Ethiopia could (after a few rounds of medieval telephone) fit the description above.

I probably won't include any of these specifically, but they're too good not to list.
In one land people are born who are six feet tall. They have beards to their knees, and hair to their heels. They are called Homodubii, that is 'doubtful ones', and they eat raw fish and live on them. [...] There are born there Homodubii, that is 'doubtful ones'. They have a human shape to the navel and below that the shape of a donkey, and they have long legs like birds, and a soft voice. If they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they run far off and flee.
There are people born there, who are, fifteen feet tall and have white bodies and two faces on a single head, feet and knees very red, and long noses and black hair. When they want to give birth, they travel in ships to India, and bring their young into the world there.

Beyond the River Brixontes, east from there, there are people born big and tall, who have feet and shanks twelve feet long, flanks with chests seven feet long. They are of a black colour, and are called Hostes. As certainly as they catch a person they devour him.

Then there are on the Brixontes wild animals which are called Lertices. They have donkeys ears and sheep's wool and bird's feet.

Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.

Then there is another place with barbarous people, and they have kings under them to the number of 110. They are the worst and most barbarous people, and there are two lakes there, one of the sun and the other of the moon. The suds lake is hot in the day and cold at night, and the moon's lake is hot at night and cold in the day.

Then there is an island in the Red Sea where there is a race of people we call Donestre, who have grown like soothsayers from the head to the navel, and the other part is human. And they know all human speech. When they see someone from a foreign country, they name him and his kinsmen with the names of acquaintances, and with lying words they beguile him and capture him, and after that eat him all up except for the head, and then sit and weep over the head.
I'm not sure if "grown like soothsayers" is an accurate translation or a reference I'm missing. Donestre were fairly common in medieval bestiaries, and are usually depicted with... very strange heads. Examples of lion-headed and snake-headed Donestre can be found in medieval manuscripts. Evidently some illustrators didn't know what to make of them either.
Going east from there is a place where people are born who are in size fifteen feet tall and ten broad. They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think that they flew.
Then there is an island on which people are born whose eyes shine as brightly as if one had lit a great lantern on a dark night.

Around those places there are born women, who have beards down to their breasts, and have made clothes out of horse's hide. They are called great huntresses, and instead of dogs they breed tigers and leopards, that are the fiercest beasts. And they hunt for all the kinds of wild beasts which are born on the mountain.

Then there are other women who have boar's tusks and hair down to their heels and ox-tails on their loins. Those women are thirteen feet tall and their bodies are of the whiteness of marble. And they have camel's feet and boar's teeth. Because of their uncleanness they were killed by Alexander the Great of Macedon. He killed them because he could not capture them alive, because they have offensive and disgusting bodies.

And there are people there who live on raw meat and honey.

On the left-hand side of the kingdom in which there are wild animals called Catini, there are hospitable people, kings who have subdued many tyrants. Their boundaries border on the Ocean, and from there, from the left-hand section, there are many kings. This race of people live for many years, and they are generous people. If anyone visits them they give him a woman before they let him go. When Alexander of Macedon visited them, he was amazed at their humanity, and would not kill them or cause them any harm.

There is another race of people there of black color to look at, who are called Ethiopians.

Then there is another mountain where there are black people, and no one else can approach those people because the mountain is all aflame.

Also there are born there half-dogs who are called Conopenae. They have horses' manes and boars' tusks and dogs' heads and their breath is like a fiery flame.
The other "half" of a "half-dog" is a person.

Anyway, next time you need some D&D races or factions to fill in the edge of your setting, here you go.

Consider that Saint Christopher was widely considered to have been a dog-headed person. Consider that if the King of Ghana had sent a trade mission to northern Ireland in 900 AD, the local rulers and monks would have been able to fit them into a pre-existing context.


Part 6: Bonus Content

The manuscript ends with a bit of misplaced apocrypha. I've included it for two reasons. First, it shows just how jumbled manuscripts can be. Second, because Mambres and Iamnes are these two sorcerers and they have a song. 
Here it says how Mambres opened the magical books of his brother Iamnes, and to him were revealed the deep mysteries of his brother's idolatry. The soul of Iamnes answered him with these words: 'Brother, I am dead not unjustly, but rightly and justly am I dead, and God's judgment stands against me because I alone was wiser than all the other sorcerers, and I withstood the two brothers called Moses and Aaron, who performed those great portents and signs. For that reason am I dead, and for this am I brought to the middle kingdom of hell, where there is the great heat of eternal punishment, and where there is the pit of perpetual torment from which no one ever ascends. Now, my brother Mambres, take care that you do well to your children and your friends, because in hell there is nothing good, only misery and darkness; and after you are dead, then you will come to hell, and your dwelling-place will be among the dead, down in the ground, and your pit will be two cubits wide and four cubits long.'

2 comments:

  1. I got some good distance from using Pinterest boards of medieval manuscripts (which I wrote about here: http://riseupcomus.blogspot.com/2017/09/random-encounters-with-illuminated-texts.html). I particularly like your medieval elephant stat block.

    ReplyDelete