Pantheons of the Multiverse: The Babylonian Pantheon

Writing this series has highlighted just how much D&D’s “generic” pantheons – those pantheons that, for the most part, are based on real-world religions and mythologies – have been downplayed in the game’s presentation.

This can largely be attributed, I think, to their lack of ties to any specific campaign world. Since so much of D&D is written with specific campaign worlds – worlds with defined pantheons – in mind, this has essentially locked these deities out of a large amount of D&D products. Obviously, this is more of a generality than an absolute; just look at Planescape, after all. But it’s still a point worth considering.

Perhaps the area where this is most notable is with regards to D&D novels. If you’re a D&D aficionado, stop and think to yourself about how many times you’ve heard an Earth-based deity get name-dropped in a novel. There were instances of this out there, but they were few and far between.

Instead, most D&D novels were written for the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, which have pantheons of their own. As such, it’s unsurprising that the divinities from Deities & Demigods/Legends & Lore would be so notably absent.

Of course, some pantheons have weathered this better than others…

Original D&D

I was surprised to discover that the Babylonian pantheon first appeared in AD&D 1E’s Deities & Demigods, rather than OD&D’s Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. In fact, they’re one of the few pantheons here not to have that particular pedigree. Instead, the Babylonian deities are presented as a conglomerate with the Sumerian and Canaan deities as part of the “Near Eastern Mythos” article in Dragon #16.

Separating out the names used for Babylonian deities, it consists of Anu, Marduk, Ea, Sin, Ninhursag, Shamash, Ishtar, Tammuz, Ereshkigal, Nergal, Namtar, Tiamat, Apsu, Kingsu, and Nebo. It also has the mortal heroes Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Utnapishtim. It also lists a few monsters and artifacts, and even name-drops several other deities, albeit with no further exposition beyond what they’re the gods of.

As expansive as this article was, few of these deities would make the transition to the next incarnation of the game. I suspect that this has more to do with AD&D’s expanded stat blocks than anything else, but it’s interesting to see this as being a “winnowing” of the pantheon as it moved into the modern age (with the caveat that some of these gods, such as Tiamat, made a home for themselves elsewhere).

AD&D First Edition

First Edition gave us a much reduced Babylonian pantheon. The nature of the gods, at least insofar as what they demanded of their worshipers, was now much more austere.

The rules for how priests of the Babylonian gods must conduct themselves in 1E seem incredibly harsh, to the point of being almost crippling. While I’d expect “helping enemies of your sect” to be a major transgression, “communicating with intelligent creatures or demi-humans” seems like a good way to destroy party cohesion before the game even begins. And if you do happen to say hello to an elf, the penalties include not only excommunication from your religious order, but a complete loss of all spells until you complete a quest to give your order a boost.

…I suppose that’s not as harsh as the Aztecs, at least.

There’s also an interesting note that the high priest must be a cleric/magic-user, which is a distinction I wish was expounded upon further. It’s at least somewhat intuitive to say that the high-priest will often be the king, but why do they have to know clerical and arcane magic both?

The gods themselves are rather few in number, consisting of Anu, Anshar, Druaga, Girru, Ishtar, Marduk, Nergal, and Ramman. There’s also a listing for Gilgamesh and Dahak, the latter of whom is “just” a monster, which ran counter to my expectations. Beyond that perfunctory presentation, there’s very few instances of the Babylonian deities in First Edition.

I should mention that the Forgotten Realms’ Untheric pantheon – which was already described as extinct when the first boxed set came out – was composed of Babylonian and Sumerian deities. As with the Maztican gods, the Untheric pantheon is different enough from its ancestor that I’ll set it aside for its own article.

AD&D Second Edition

Having started with AD&D 2E (by way of Basic D&D), I didn’t realize that the Babylonian deities were even part of the game. After all, they weren’t in Legends & Lore; eventually I learned otherwise, and started to think of the Babylonian gods – along with the Sumerian and Finnish deities – as “lost pantheons,” since the updated edition of the game had seen fit to leave them behind.

…except that it sort of hadn’t.

The Babylonian gods were given a new lease on life in Planescape’s On Hallowed Ground (which saw fit to keep the same eight deities). Although Planescape had been matter-of-factly talking about the Babylonian deities where it made sense to do so, this was the first time it had put them (along with many, many other deities) front and center. The premise was quite clear: they were and always had been part of the default background assumption of AD&D’s greater multiverse. (In fact, this book postulated a new origin for the Babylonian gods: that they collectively sprang into being, fully-formed, as the cast-off “desire for civilization” from the Sumerian gods.)

This presumption somewhat annoyed me, mostly because it felt like it was putting the cart before the horse insofar as “lore before game stats” was concerned. It was nice to see the “lost pantheons” being brought back, but the lack of information on specialty priests for these deities made this information largely academic. That was particularly true since the setting kept putting forward that two of the Sumerian deities – Nergal and Anshar – had recently slain Enki, a Sumerian deity.

That sort of plot, which underpinned the simmering tension between the two pantheons, would have served as great fodder if a PC were a priest of a god from one of those pantheons, since that kind of rivalry carries over to all associated persons. While I suppose they could have used clerics (which were generic to all deities), I’m still baffled that nobody ever wrote up specialty priest information for these gods.

Beyond Planescape, there’s very few instances of the Babylonian pantheon in action. Return to the Keep on the Borderlands made the bad guys worshippers of Nergal and Ereshkigal. Likewise, DMGR5 Creative Campaigning had AD&D 2E stats for Gilgamesh, along with Enkidu and original character Ahlkish.

D&D Third Edition

It’s somewhat fitting that the Babylonian pantheon would make their last appearance in D&D the same way they did their first: as part of a conglomerate pantheon in Dragon magazine. Specifically, in the “Mesopotamian Mythos” article in Dragon #329.

Similar to their presentation in Dragon #16, the Babylonian gods are subsumed, along with the gods of Sumeria and other ancient near-eastern civilizations, into a single pantheon. While it lists several aliases for most of them, the basic list of gods is Adad, Anu, Belet-ili, Ea, Enlil, Ereshkigal, Ishtar, Marduk, Nergal, Ninurta, Shamash, and Sin. A basic overview of each deity is given, including their clerical domains, making them playable for interested PCs.

I enjoy thinking of this as something akin to the “Twilight of the Gods” for the Babylonian gods and their related pantheons. Here, with many of their members now gone, the remaining deities have been forced to work together to remain relevant and survive. To that end, they’ve subsumed the aspects of their fallen brethren or simply decided to merge (re-merge?) before they died, hence the myriad aliases.

It’s a strategy that’s worthy of the Babylonians, doggedly working to make a place for themselves in a harsh and uncompromising world.

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3 Responses to “Pantheons of the Multiverse: The Babylonian Pantheon”

  1. AuldDragon Says:

    The Babylonian and Sumerian mythos in all editions seem to have some very strange choices made about which deities get included. Some of it may be because the original source appears to be a less reputable book on the matter. In addition, they should really be merged together, with the different pantheons essentially just incorporating a different subset of a greater Mesopotamian mythos (while Dahak should be removed from that overall set, and Druaga, as a very strange interpretation of a Persian entity/force should be rendered an independent entity, as the draconic Tiamat should be). It’s one thing I would eventually like to work on.

    • alzrius Says:

      Maybe that’s why those were the pantheons (along with the Finnish pantheon) to be let go when it was time to write the 2E Legends & Lore.

      Of course, I suspect that the real reason the cuts were made had to do with issues of page count, font size, greater amounts of illustrations, etc. But at some point someone had to decide what would be cut due to the reduced space.

      But overall, the sheer number of connections (and the arbitrary nature of the distinctions) between the two pantheons do suggest that they shouldn’t be any more separated than the Norse pantheon should be divided into two different pantheons for the Aesir and the Vanir.

      • AuldDragon Says:

        Oh, I’m pretty certain page count and the overall level of familiarity with the pantheons accounted for their removal, although to be honest, I think eliminating them in favor of the Arthurian and Nehwon material is a real shame.

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