If you’re a D&D fan and you’re at all keyed in to the news coming out of the Origins gaming convention, you’ve been hearing the word morningstar a lot this week. If you haven’t, but you’re interested, check out http://www.codenamemorningstar.com/ or follow @dndmorningstar on Twitter. Since it is tough for me to keep coming up with new and interesting words every f$&%ing week, I’m not going to turn it down when someone lobs a nice, slow pitch right across the plate. So: morningstar. Or, more correctly: morning star (take note, guys).
Firstly, let’s talk about the morgenstern – the morning star – a weapon that is often confused or conflated with the mace and the flail. A morningstar is a big, iron head mounted on a wooden shaft. The head is covered in spikes and often has one particularly long spike right at the top. And it was a versatile sucker. It would crush bone, crumple and puncture armor, and you could even thrust with the prominent point if an enemy got too close and you couldn’t get a good swing. Or against a downed opponent. And it came in large and small varieties for the footman and the horseman respectively.
Contrast this with the mace, which was smaller and lighter (though it came in footman’s and horseman’s varieties). The head of a mace could be solid, but it evolved into a flanged head over time. Additionally, as time went on, the mace became an all metal weapon: shaft and head alike were made of solid iron.
Finally, you have the flail. The flail was an articulated weapon. It began life as a farming implement: two short shafts connected by a ring used for threshing grain (seperating the wheat from the chaff). Over time, flails became more and more varied. The ring was replaced with a chain. The head became heavier. Sometimes it included spikes. The biggest, two handed flails had bigged spiked balls at the end and were sometimes called morgensterns, or morning stars, which just adds to the confusion, doesn’t it? Flails were great for getting around a shield and because they were easy to come by (at least the modified agricultural ones). But, they are imprecise, very difficult to use, especially in close combat, and couldn’t be used in organized military ranks because tended to be a danger to everyone within swinging distance of you.
But morning stars are not just weapons. Hell, the reason for the name is that the spikey ball looks like a shining star. Sort of. If you squint. And the most famous morning star is the planet Venus. It is so named because it glows so brightly that it can often be seen after sunrise, even after the bright sun has rendered all of the other stars invisible. Actually, in ancient times, Venus was known as two different objects: the morning star and the evening star. Until the Greeks figured out Venus was one thing, they thought it was two seperate planets: Phosphorus and Hesperus. The Romans had a different name for Venus, though. They called it “Lucifer” or “light bringer.”
Which brings us to another morning star. The Morning Star, the Light Bringer, Lucifer, AKA Satan, the Devil. Well, maybe. See, the pop culture version is there was this angel named Lucifer or Satan in Judeo-Christian traditions who rebelled against his Creator and tried to seize the throne of Heaven. When they failed, they were cast down into a lake of fire and brimstone and became the rulers of Hell. Satan/Lucifer/The Devil now tempts mortal humans to evil because that’s what he does.
But the story is actually far more complicated and unclear. There have been so many translations and interpretations and so much ancient and medieval pop-culture was inspired by these stories, that it is now very difficult for scholars to disentangle. At one time, Satan (whose name in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary”) may have been a sort of prosecutor of humanity, such as in the Book of Job where he entices the Lord to visit misfortune on Job to prove Job was only faithful because he had such a good life (spoiler alert: Satan was kind of right in the end). Of course, most of the modern beliefs in the Devil and Hell come from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy (including The Inferno) by Dante Aligheri.
Of course, another great pop-culture version of the story is the tale of the Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition deity Asmodeus who, in ancient times, was an angel in the service of an unknown deity who led a rebellion. Asmodeus succeeded in ascending to deity status and the other deities were so terrified that they locked him and his followers (the devils) away in the ruins of the realm they had conquered: the Nine Hells. I’ve always found this story particularly compelling when you consider other bits of D&D 4E mythology. For example, the history of the tieflings as corrupted humans who pledged themselves to Asmodeus and the fact that humans seem to be the only sentient race in the D&D cosmos that don’t have a single patron or progenitor deity. I’ve often wondered if all of those things are interconnected. Did Asmodeus slay the deity that created humanity (and also who created Asmodeus, the angel)? Is that why humanity is so prone to ambition and corruption? Is that why an entire human empire was willing to give itself over to Asmodeus in return for power?
So, let’s end there, where we began, with Dungeons and Dragons. And a compelling question to use in your campaigns: why don’t humans attribute a single deity (or a small subset of the deities) as their personal deity? What does that mean? Is that why humans are so varied and adaptable compared to other races? Do they lack divine guidance? How else has that shaped human culture and society? What sort of stories can you build from these questions?