Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Chaos & Horror of Italy's Myths, Monsters, & Madmen For Your Old School Campaigns

"The honeymooning king of Damascus, Norandino, and his wife, Lucina, are shipwrecked on an Ogre's island and taken to its cave. When they try to escape, Lucina is discovered."

Work has been really busy lately but I wanted to take a moment to talk about one of the more ignored countries of Europe for OD&D games, Italy. Early Dragon magazines covered lots of undead, ghosts, etc. but many of the mythological origin points for various monsters simply got a gloss over. With so many monsters  in the OD&D wood grain books, B/X Dungeons & Dragon sets & the  Monster Manual 1st edition creatures  there were just too many creatures to cover. During the D20 daze of the early 2000's I kept expecting Italy to get a D20 Italy setting book or small series of articles. I ran plenty of Norse, D20 Conan, etc. but there was never a Dragon magazine article or anything on Italian folklore. Sure the ancient Roman Empire got plenty of coverage in Dragon in its heyday but that was it. The Roman Empire gets all of the glory here; "
The history of the Roman Empire covers the history of Ancient Rome from the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 BC until the abdication of the last Western emperor in 476 AD." So let's dive right into the deep end of Italian folklore & talk about one of the more ignored & often overlooked dangers of  Chaos of the urban city environs the fairy godmother.

The fairy godmothers are perfect NPC foils & foibles for dungeon masters to use for adventure hooks. Not only do they grant wishes, but they've been the source of quests in some Arthurian legends in Italian legends. They have the abilities of a tenth level wizard but are answerable only to their Elven royalty or overlords. But should their fairy glamor disguise be compromised they become AD&D hags of dangerous aspect.
Befana is a  St Nicholas or Santa Claus like figure with haggish aspects active from Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) throughout the Feast of the Epiphany.
This creature might be a fallen goddess whose cult still has agents throughout the city & country regions.
In Italian folklore, Befana (pronounced [beˈfaːna]) is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus.[1]
A popular belief is that her name derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Catholic La Festa dell'Epifania. Epifania is a Latin word with Greek origins meaning "manifestation (of the divinity)."[2][3] Some suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strenia.[4]
In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana.[3]
She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.[citation needed]
She is also referred to as the Christmas Witch."
Seemingly a "good" aligned cult Catholic church officials might take umbridge with the cult's origin  should it be discovered right in the heart of the Italian countryside. But they might be taking on far more then they bargained for. Santa Lucia is another partial ghostly fairy god mother with some very weird overtones in her folk lore. A potential hook for all kinds of strangeness for adventurers. "Is a holy woman who delivers gifts to children of Bergamo and province on 13 December, in a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus."

Leon Bakst design for the costume of Carabosse in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty.
The drawing is signed "Bakst 1921".

The rhyme, festival, & satirical plays of the Badalisc (also Badalisk) of Val Camonica, in the southern central Alps might hold far deeper Pagan meanings for the region. "The Badalisc (also Badalisk) is a mythical creature of the Val Camonica, in the southern central Alps.[1] The Badalisc is represented today as a creature with a big head covered with a goat skin, two small horns, a huge mouth and glowing eyes."

"According to legend the Badalisc lives in the woods around the village of Andrista (commune of Cevo) and is supposed to annoy the community: each year it is captured during the period of Epiphany (5 & 6 January) and led on a rope into the village by musicians and masked characters, including il giovane (the young man), il vecchio (the old man), la vecchia (the old woman) and the young signorina, who is "bait" for the animal's lust. There are also some old witches, who beat drums, and bearded shepherds, and a hunchback (un torvo gobetto) who has a "rustic duel" with the animal. Traditionally only men take part, although some are dressed as women. In ancient times women were prohibited from participating in the exhibition, or even to see or hear the Badalisc's Speech; if they did so they would be denied Holy Communion the following day.
In the village square (formerly in a stable) the Badalisc's speech (la 'ntifunada) is read, in which the mythological animal gossips about the community. The Badalisc itself is a dumb creature, so the speech, nowadays written in rhyme, is read by an "interpreter". Once improvised, now written in advance, the speech reveals all the supposed sins and scheming of the community. During the speech the hunchback bangs his stick rhythmically at intervals.
The speech is followed by singing, dancing and feasting. In the evening the community eats the "Badalisc polenta" (a commercial version of this traditional food was launched in 2010).[2] Until recently, village children would beg from house to house during the Badalisc celebrations for cornmeal to make the polenta; a Badalisc salami was also specially made for them. The badalisc has a place of honour at the feasts.[3]
On the second day, at the end of the exhibition, the Badalisc is set free and allowed to return to the woods."
So is there a link between the legendary the Badalisk of Andrista and the mythical Basilisk? 

Adventurers might be the only ones to find out.  Well as a DM in my campaigns there certainly is and perhaps more.

One thing that we seldom think of in connection to Italy is dragons! That's right there are two famous legends of dragons including one that fits the profile for a classic black dragon of AD&D lore. I'm speaking of the Thyrus, the dragon of Terni.
"One of the most famous dragons of Italian folklore is Thyrus, a wyvern that besieged Terni in the Middle Ages. One day, a young and brave knight of the noble House of Cittadini, tired of witnessing the death of his fellow citizens and depopulation of Terni, faced the dragon and killed him. From that day, the town assumed the creature in its coat of arms, accompanied by a Latin inscription: "Thyrus et amnis dederunt signa Teramnis" (English translation: "Thyrus and the river gave their insignia to [the city of] Terni") , that stands under the banner of the town of Terni, honoring this legend."

Thyrus seems to be a classic AD&D black dragon straight out of the Monster Manual first edition. Could there be a chaos  cult connected with the monster? Perhaps in Lion & Dragon the cult seeks to resurrect its dark glory once more.

Black dragon from the AD&D Monster Manual first edition

There is also the legend  of the seven headed dragon near Oltre il Colle (in the province of Bergamo), which might be in fact an allegory of a nasty chaos cult guarding  a fountain of immortality. Or it could be in fact a true hydra or seven headed dragon.

"It was a dragon with seven heads who lived near Oltre il Colle (in the province of Bergamo), devouring livestock and drinking of water that would provide immortality, was attacked by farmers and hunters, in vain, then he was attacked by an army composed of the best soldiers of the armies of the small states of Italy and fled, defeated, in the water, which became muddy and undrinkable water of Oltre il Colle.
It is not the only monster in the area of Oltre il Colle: there is also a wicked maga (sorceress in Italian) to threaten it."
Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra by Gustave Moreau:
The Hydra is perhaps the best known mythological multi-headed animal,
also popularized in many fantasy settings.

There are perhaps micro leaks of chaos from Fairyland into the "real world" from dimensional sieves that let chaos energies into the most unexpected places perhaps even depositing prehistoric or ancient animals of legend into unexpected places. There is a 60% chance that during certain astrological events weird doorways open in ancient pagan temples, dungeons, & ruins. This brings me to the
ferocious beast' of Milan.
The 'ferocious beast' of
Milan legend  from  the 1790s sounds like a werewolf or dire wolf straight out of the AD&D Monster Manual first edition.
"It was an enormous animal similar to a wolf. It ate pets and children and terrorized Milan during the 1790s and the Milanese organized a hunt against it. After months they killed the Ferocious Beast and displayed its body at the University of Pavia. Today it is no longer there and has been missing for decades. Informal sources claim it was stolen, destroyed during WW2 or removed specifically by German actions during WW2."
There were some indications from friends of mine that perhaps there was something very special about the coat of the 'ferocious beast' & that perhaps it was "enchanted" retaining some of the enchanted powers from the beast's chaotic mutation.

'Wolves Attacking a Horse' by Pauwel de Vos and Jan Wildens

The Egg of Coot has its alternative version in the form of the chaos cult in  the Egg of Columbus which has been quietly manipulating its members for its own diabolic ends within the bowels of the catacombs of Rome.
"Refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to a popular story of how Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was no great accomplishment, challenged his critics to make an egg stand on its tip."

One thing that Italy's always had is a long tradition of witch's covens going back to the days of ancient Rome. The Striga has its roots in the Corsican myth of the Stegge & in the AD&D chaos monster of the Stirges.

"A demon or creature, derived from the Corsican myth of the Stegge. It is a witch or sentient beast of mammalian features, and like a woman, bat, dog and rat. It is not an omen but rather a bringer of harm and fear. It is said be a female thing that feeds on the blood and often parasites men and children. It is in a way, a type of bogy beast, like vampires in Slavic mythologies and lore."
Theses horrid things are often found around gateways to Fairyland where they are often used as guardians by the blackest of wizards.

David Sutherland from the AD&D Monster Manual first edition

Finally the fool Giufà, or Giucà makes an excellent NPC as a source of occult country wisdom for  adventurers. He might have been an adventurer himself whose spent way too much time within the bowels of fairyland.

"Giufà, or Giucà as he is referred to in some areas of the country, is a character of Italian folklore.[1] His antics have been retold and memorized through centuries of oral tradition. Although the anecdotes from his life mainly revolve around the southern Italian and Sicilian lifestyle, his character traits are visible in the folk characters of many Mediterranean cultures. In fact, scholars suggest that the character Giufà developed from stories of Nasrudin, a Turkish folk character. It is believed that during Islamic rule of the island of Sicily,[2] stories of this man (known in Arabic as Juha) were absorbed into the Sicilian oral tradition, transformed to exemplify cultural norms and eventually transmitted throughout southern Italy. Although Giufà is most often recognized as the "village fool", his actions and words usually serve to provide a moral message. It is his peers' reactions, rather than Giufà's outrageous behavior, that are judged at the end of each story"
This NPC jester might appear to adventurers during times of extreme stress at pivotal points to offer help & moral support in the form of outrageous behavior.

These pieces of folklore prove that even in the most 'civilized' area the influence of chaos leaks into the most urbane works of mankind. Adventurers & outlaws of the deepest stripe may be the only fools able to deal with the machinations of the darkest and most dangerous of supernatural influences.

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