Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Czech "Witch-Burning" night is thinly-Christianized Pagan ritual (and excuse to party on hilltops)


April 30th is the eve of the festival of St. Valburga, called Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht by  Germans.  Hexennacht means "Witches' Night".  As noted by Tim S. Brannan   and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  on this night, evil witches are supposed to convene their Sabbath on the summit of the Brocken in Thuringia.  

The Church was eager to establish a feast day for St. Valburga (Walpurgis) close to the time of this opposing holiday, on May 1st, because the saint was a staunch missionary among the still-pagan Germans of the 8th Century and because of her reputed efficacy in battling witchcraft.

In the Czech Republic, the sometimes-celebrated holiday is called Čarodějnice ("Witches") or Pálení čarodějnic ("Burning of Witches").  Crude effigies of witches are burned in large bonfires on hilltops.  Supposedly the bonfires ward off witches and associated evil spirits. Of course, up until the present day many young people celebrate this holiday just as an excuse to meet in natural areas, drink, and party.

It's easy to see a pagan ritual with a thin veneer of Christianity covering it.  The "witch" effigy is actually Morana the ancient Slavic goddess of winter and death.  Burning her effigy is symbolic triumph of Spring over Winter and Life over Death, a drama which Czechs have been enacting seasonally since long before conversion to Christianity.

During the Nazi occupation in World War II, and under the Communist regime of 1948-1989, Čarodějnice activities were suppressed.  My first host family in Prague described how unstructured, youth-driven sports like skateboarding were anathema to the old regime. Imagine how incensed the authorities would be toward these rowdy ancient traditions that involve nature, huge bonfires, effigies, and Christian and pagan elements.

Often the hilltop sites of today's bonfire celebrations, such as Petřín hill, were formerly "pagan paradises" where the ancient Czechs kindled sacrificial fires amidst clearings in the groves.  Centuries after Bohemia was converted, these fires were supposed to spontaneously ignite at random times.  People peered into the flames and saw the faces of their pre-Christian ancestors, or pagan deities dressed in ancient clothing, or devils.  Old people felt their rheumatism improved if they warmed their bones around the mysterious fires.

Image result for neprakta prag voller
There's a better picture by Neprakta of the devilish faces in the fires, but I'm too lazy to scan it
I don't know if you are inspired to create gaming content out of all of the preceeding, but I hope you'll be inspired to get life-content out of the following: May 1st, besides the Labor Day meaning emphasized from 1948-1989, can be a powerfully pagan-ish (or just fun) holiday for Czechs.  If they are willing and able, they smooch under blossoming cherry trees.  Like getting smacked in the butt with a pomlazka switch, getting smooched under the flowering trees is supposed to "keep women from drying up" and "keep them feeling young and beautiful" in the coming year.

Image result for polibek 1 máj
The original Karel Hynek Mácha wrote the most famous Czech romantic lyric poem starting with "It was late in the evening on the First of May/An evening in May - the time of love..."


Monday, April 22, 2019

Czech Pagan Rites of Spring Underneath Layers of Christianity and Atheism

Inline image

Pomlázka... Easter Monday
The Czech Lands, especially the countryside, quietly simmer with thinly-Christianized pagan traditions that survived centuries of religious turmoil and Communist promotion of atheism and sports.  Easter Monday is a beautiful hot mess of these traditions.

Boys buy (or make) plaited willow pomlázka switches and go from door to door, especially in small, long-established villages. 

Very young boys go around with their parents like Halloween trick-or-treating and politely chant a doggerel poem, threatening hitting with their switches unless eggs are handed over: "Hody, hody, dobra vody!  Give me some eggs, painted or at least white."

When I lived in a big apartment building soon after arriving in Prague, I answered tentative knocks on my apartment door: some kids and their grandmother were going door to door on Easter Monday.  I thought: "Oh, yeah!  I've heard of this!  This is that folk tradition thing!" So I listened to their unison-chanted doggerel spiel, thoroughly confused them by asking them to tap my wrist with their switches (I hadn't heard or understood the tradition correctly), and gave them apples (didn't have any eggs in the apartment at the time).

High school and college-aged boys, however, chase young women around in earnest.  They demand eggs or a shot of schnapps and spank the girls' butts with their switches if they don't get any.  This is a Freudian field day, these thinly-veiled pagan fertility rites of spring: the long willow switches, the girls' surrender of eggs.  Supposedly, getting hit with the pomlázka switches makes girls prettier and rejuvenated ("omladit") for every time they are smacked on the butt. My Czech ex's mother used to ask me to smack her on Easter Monday, as well as my girlfriend, for this rejuvenating effect.

Neuteče. Koledníci z kyjovska na lovu. | na serveru | aktuální zprávy
This photo came from an article in the Lidovy Noviny newspaper site: "Is Pomlázka a Cute Tradition or Barbaric Custom?" Photo credit: Jiří Salik Sláma of Mafra media
In many villages, the young women get revenge by soaking the boys with buckets of water, thus "wilting" their willow switches.  "Ahem!  Dr. Freud... Dr. Freud... Paging Dr. Freud!"  In some villages, girls chase boys back with their own switches, either on Easter Monday or the next day or in a leap year.

Photo by Dušan Skala at
 So anyway, I hope you, dear readers, and your families have been doing well on Passover and/or Easter and are doing well on Easter Monday and/or Earth Day.

As for gameable content- that's up to you to sift out of this post!  Maybe something in a general folklore or folk horror or Dark Pastoral vein. Neoclassical Geek Revival did the Krampus-inspired adventures.  Chris Kutalik did Slumbering Ursine Dunes .  What folk tradition beautiful weirdness can you write up?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Non-Sequiturs and then Meaning

Made by me with substantial help from G. B. Piranesi's Carceri; additional inspiration from Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now
Pardon me for the fuzziness and non-sequiturs - I don't feel that great, have to work second shift soon, and the rain is making a sound like slow chewing and swallowing outside.

I just finished reading my friend's 177-page novel-in-progress.  It's very difficult to focus and give decent critique.  My hat is off to those who can and do: Bryce Lynch , Melan , Prince of Nothing , Ynas Midgard among others. 

I am also grateful and amazed at the energy and sincere interest people like Zach of Zenopus Archives , Jeremy Frothsof of Thought Eater, Alex Schroeder who compiles Old School RPG Planet bring to spotlight other people's creative work.

James Smith  of  Dreams of Mythic Fantasy was one of these people with a true enthusiasm in encouraging others' creativity.  As of April 2019, his family needs help with funeral costs.  Like me, and many people I know, he had no life insurance or decent savings.  See this post from his family on his blog for a link to Paypal where you can donate if you are willing and able.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Late Night Free-Styling Free Association

The hour is objectively not that late here, but I am flopping around in the slow-pouring liquid concrete of subjective much-later-night tiredness. 

My wife's face is lit with a blue glow. She has slid down a Wikipedia and YouTube rabbit hole because I named for her the childhood feeling she got watching Bob Ross paint on public television: ASMR.  She had never heard the label, or even known that the weird sensation wasn't unique to her.

Meanwhile, across the stretched-out cats, on the other side of the hilly blankets, I'm reading Goodberry Monthly - the latest post is a whimsically creepy list of spells for necromancers titled "Necrom- Antics."  Thoughts of the New Romantic Movement of the '80s well up unbidden from the depths of my murky night-mind.  So I have to make this:

Fronted by NecroDandy Le Bon, DeadmanDeadman is the latest dark ripple in the NecRomantic wave. Le Bon is assisted by 3 Taylors, of whom only 1/3 carry on more than a semblance of life.

But on a different note, in another time and another genre, NeuroRomantics:

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Otto's Dance of Death

That could be the name of a spell.  But it's also the title of a post on 50 about German painter and woodcut-engraver Otto Wirsching (1889-1919) featuring a series of Totentanz pictures he created.

Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village, though...

I couldn't help manhandling the great Wirsching's work, which, like Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, is public domain now.

Which cover for my upcoming revamp of The Lost Lush is best?

Which imparts a better "urban picaresque" (badass term to describe the adventures I like best, coined by Tom of Fear of a Black Dragon podcast - apparently he's a British expat in Hong Kong who speaks Portuguese, lived in Brazil, and is a capoeira enthusiast) tone?

Even if it is misleadingly too dark and not comic enough, is it just too awesome to pass up as a cover?

I'm trying to channel David A. Trampier, who kicks Larry Elmore's tuchus 1000 ways to Sunday.

This is one of the older ones I made (using work from a MUCH older, even MORE public domain artist) which commenting folks liked, due to the black background:

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Play Report: Holmes Basic Intro to Gaming for Post-Millenials

(Depicted: Severed goblin ears or maybe dried mangoes)
Two weeks ago, my friend A. sent me an email saying his kid wanted to learn how to play D&D, and asking if she had to buy expensive 5e books and equipment.  I pointed A. toward free basic 5e pdfs, but asked if his daughter would be OK with the older editions of D&D.  He replied that his daughter and her friend would be fine with something Old School, and asked me if I would do the honor of DMing a game for his nuclear family and his daughter's friend from school. 

So, on Saturday, the weather warmed up a bit and I drove out to A.'s house.

My wife was kind enough to take care of our own kid solo at our house for the majority of game day.

A., his wife, his nearly-teen daughter and her same-aged friend met me at their door and helped me unpack my dog-eared B2 Keep on the Borderlands and worn but well-appreciated blue Holmes Basic rulebook onto the kitchen table.  Character sheets and cheat sheet rule references from Zenopus Archives were to prove handy.

The daughter's friend had seen D&D played on Stranger Things and was a big fan of Legolas from the Lord of the Rings movies.  Both kids were able to relate to the idea of D&D races, classes and levels.

For the sake of jumping right into the adventure, I usually like to provide pre-generated characters for which players can optionally change the fluff/backstory/nomenclature, but I thought the kids would like to have the experience of rolling 3d6 in order and deciding what their potentially very flawed and interesting 1st level character would be good at.  The daughter's friend named her character a Tolkien Elvish name (no, not Legolas) but found his stats would be better for a human or dwarf.  So he became a dwarf.

The other players rolled up a human magic-user, a human thief, and another dwarf.  They gave them wacky names.  Nobody was interested in playing a cleric.  I thought: You'll be sorry when you get to the Temple in the Caves of Chaos!

The kids really got into drawing their characters and choosing age, height, weight, etc.

The green dried mango picture above alludes to the fact that I can't resist DMing anybody's adventure without customizing it. The PCs visited the Tavern soon after entering the Keep and extracted a hefty pile of rumors.

My addition to the rumor chart: You can "harvest" ears and hearts from goblins - the Keep military will pay a good bounty on each of them - and it's said that if you can stand the disgusting taste, they are extremely nutritious.  The PCs also heard this when they chatted with the Guildsman at the Guildhall, and learned that he would also pay for these items.

The Party also heard and noted the infamous "'Bree Yark!' is goblin language for 'We surrender!'"

Two mornings later, the PCs, once they had found the U-shaped ravine, headed into the goblin caves on the southwest lower level.  They were surprised when the goblins didn't give up after yelling "Bree Yark!" and reinforcements showed up instead. The goblins, snarling and whining, inflicted some damage on the intruders.

 My buddy, the family man's family man in real life, had his character wear the stink-eyed vulture from Gary Gygax's read-aloud around his neck as a grisly trophy (he had shot it.)  A. was also brutal in the goblin caves, drenching the humanoids with the oil he had brought and setting them alight. The PCs quickly harvested charred goblin ears and hearts when the combat was over.  They ran deeper into the caves as noises echoed from elsewhere in the complex of the remaining goblins mustering and bringing the roaring bribed ogre with them.

Injured party members who ate the goblin ears and hearts restored 1-3 of their hp.  Generous? Yes, but these were 6th Graders playing their 1st ever RPG. Gruesome?  Yes, but the parents were OK and the kids didn't think too much into it.  Besides, goblins, hobgoblins, etc. are big on eating humans. This is indicated by, among other things, the "Come in!  We'd like to have you for dinner" sign.

The party's thief rolled a lucky 12% and picked a locked door at the otherwise-dead-ended top of a staircase.  The party burst into the hobgoblins' common room.  Oil and torches were thrown.  Conflagrations ensued.  The party ran out the opposite door, spiked it shut, and the magic-user fired off his single spell of the adventure: hold portal.  As quickly and quietly as they could, the PCs searched for a way out.  They finally saw daylight oozing in under the oaken entrance door of the hobgoblin lair.

Agitated hobgoblin survivors of the Common Room Massacre broke through the spiked-shut door as the Hold Portal spell quickly faded.  They ran howling up the corridors and stairs, rousing the entire tribe to pursuit. Guards near the entryway hacked at the party, who took heavy damage.  The magic-user was reduced to zero hit points.  The party retreated under the afternoon daylight toward the forest, then the road, then the Keep.   

Goblin ears held aloft to the soldiers manning the Keep gatehouse earned the battered party congratulations and an invitation to dine, a few nights after they recovered, with the Castellan in the Inner Bailey.  The Castellan was pleased with the intelligence the party gave about the location of the Caves and about some of their inhabitants.  The party gave him several goblin ears and hearts as a gift, which also impressed him (thanks to the thief's canny suggestion, they seemed to offer the Castellan all of the goblin pieces, but actually retained several pieces to sell elsewhere or eat themselves later).

At this point, the kids were getting jokey and restless, so I adjourned things.  We all talked and ate snacks a bit, the daughter's friend's dad showed up to get her, and I left not long after.

Some observations:

  • It was always fun to read Gygax's module, but to run this verbose, text-heavy material at the table I would have appreciated more Bryce Lynchian bullet point design.
  • The read-aloud background, etc., is a wee bit long.  That "after 3 sentences, players stop listening" advice really holds true with kids.
  • It takes a lot of energy to DM with a mixed group of kids and adults with somebody else's material (in somebody else's house.)  It would have been easier using my own material which I know inside and out.
  • Maybe immersion of kids in a generic medieval fantasy world was easier in the cultural moment of the mid 70s to early 80s.   The generic medieval Keep didn't seem as fascinating to the youth of today as it had been to me and my peers.  Maybe they would have preferred something like Middle Earth Role Playing which could have the full force of known Tolkien characters, situations, and locations behind it. Seeing the Peter Jackson LOTR and Hobbit movies on the screen looms large in their cultural milieu.
  • It was slightly interesting but not very surprising that nobody cared about the implications of using violent force in a hobgoblin common room filled with families and youngsters, nor about the implications of cutting out goblins' ears and hearts and eating them.  Everybody was secure with fiction. 
  • The kids (and the adults, to a lesser extent) really hated having to make their own maps.
  • I have never used miniatures because I'm cheap and I like to avoid hassle, but maybe the kids would have liked them (and scenery) to visualize combat better.