Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Memento Mori

Perhaps as a consequence of my getting older, over the last few years I've become increasingly fascinated by memento mori artwork. Granted, this fascination is deeply rooted in my psyche, going all the way back to childhood, but it's intensified in recent times. The phrase memento mori itself is very old, predating Christianity, which adopted it with great vigor, particularly during the High Middle Ages. Something like this phrase was reputedly whispered by a slave into the ear of a Roman general receiving a triumph and, of course, every Ash Wednesday, I'm reminded that I am dust and unto dust I shall return. There's also the tradition of the danse macabre, which carries off prince and pauper alike.

I bring this up primarily because I've noticed that my Dwimmermount campaign has included lots of little references to mortality and attempts to escape it. The cult of Turms Termax, sees death as an obstacle to be overcome, following the example of its founder. So far as anyone knows, no Termaxian adept has succeeded in achieving what Turms reputedly did, unless one counts the numerous undead beings devoted to the cult. In the campaign, many of D&D's familiar undead creatures are the result of mortal beings attempting to achieve immortality through some despicable means, often at the urging of demons, who tempt Men by reminding them, like those slaves in Roman times, that they are mortal. Ghouls, for example, are human beings who have achieved immortality -- and eternal hunger -- by indulging in cannibalism. It's not a pretty sight.

The player characters have bumped against the issue of mortality in other places too. With the exception of Vladimir the dwarf, no dead character has ever returned to life and he remembers nothing of "the other side." Speak with dead was once used, but I've ruled that the spell doesn't enable conversation with the dead person's soul at all. Rather, it simply grants limited access to the memory of the deceased, which lingers within its corpse. That's why the spell only works if there's a body and only a fairly recently dead one at that (as per Supplement I rather than later versions). The question of mortality and the afterlife came up too during the characters' meeting with Xaranes, who mocked the notion that "the Great Maker's handiwork should be as perishable as your kind seemingly suppose."

Dwimmermount's just a D&D campaign; I don't intend it to be a "deep" meditation upon the human condition. Still, these little elements have added some nice texture to our sessions, making them both enjoyable and memorable. They also add mystery, as the characters now have lots of contradictory evidence to support all kinds of perspectives on the matter of mortality -- just like real life.

11 comments:

  1. James,
    Am I just paranoid, or did you throw in the ghouls because of me?

    Also: amazing image--where's it from?

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  2. You've almost certainly seen pictures of the Sedlec Ossuary, but just in case:

    http://www.sterf.be/photos/sedlec-ossuary

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  3. "As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer."
    Great post, with all the funerals I do in real life, thoughts of mortality are never far away. Our Cathedral is St. Louis has a very humbling All Souls chapel. The art work points to death and the hope of eternal life.

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  4. For my campaign, I envisioned vampires and werewolves as immortals. Both types were magic users who had willingly allowed themselves to be possessed by a type of demon. Of course the price was that one type of demon had a blood fetish that had to be satisfied daily, the other had a craving to kill and eat man flesh every full moon.

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  5. The sculpture is L'écorché, by Ligier Richier. It is displayed in St. Etienne Church, in the Ville Haute of Bar-le-Duc, France.

    I would know, since this is where I lived most of my life in France. :-)

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  6. " Gentile or Jew
    O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
    Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you."

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  7. Am I just paranoid, or did you throw in the ghouls because of me?

    Not just because of you -- it's something I'd been meaning to mention for a while now -- but your recent post on G monsters reminded me of it.

    Also: amazing image--where's it from?

    It is, I am given to understand, a sculpture gracing the tomb of René of Châlons, Prince of Orange, and depicts the prince as a decaying corpse offering his heart to God. It's a really powerful image on multiple levels.

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  8. You've almost certainly seen pictures of the Sedlec Ossuary

    Oh yes. There are lots of "bone chapels" throughout Catholic Europe. I'm most familiar with the Capuchini Crypt in Rome, thanks to a friend who'd visited there and brought back all sorts of books and pamphlets about the place.

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  9. "...they ceased not from friendship and fellowship, abiding in all cheer and pleasures and solace of life until there came to them the Destroyer of delights and the Sunderer of societies."

    I once played a hermetic mystic in a Vampire Dark Ages game who had been interrupted on his putative path to throwing off the influences of the planets by being turned into a member of the undead. It was refreshing to be able to play the part without the usual Christian guilt gloss, as a surprising turn to be investigated, rather than a definitive fall from the arc of potential grace.

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  10. This is the kind of I most appreciate about D&D-- "deep" meditation without the discomfiting indigestion.

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