“As the spell takes hold, you feel your physical sensations drop away from you. The world goes silent. There is no sense of touch or temperature. You are surrounded by a gray, featureless void. As your magical senses adjust, you begin to notice some variation in the gray, though. Like a fog, thicker in some places, thinner in others, and distant dark shadows drift at unknowable distances away from you. You are in the ethereal plane.”
The word ether – actually, let’s give it the correct (Greek) spelling since the pronunciation is the same: aether. Yes, I said the same. Sorry to disappoint, kids. EE-ther. Not AY-ther. Not AYE-eth-er. Not AYIEEA..umm…ther. EE-ther.
The word aether (or ether) is an enduring word. It has the staying power of a Duracell-powered luchadore. It just keeps cropping up. In D&D, we refer to ethereal beings and the ethereal plane. But we also talk about radio and wi-fi and even space signals as “coming from the ether” and remember how we used to call computer networks “the ethernet?” Aether is something intangible and otherworldly. But it is transitive. It fills the space between. Shocking as this is for a nerd word, that’s pretty close to the original meaning.
Once upon a time, people like Aristotle posited that the world was made of four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Right? Nothing you haven’t heard before. But, just like in a certain awesome movie with Bruce WIllis and Milla Jovovich (MEE-la YO-vo-vich, not AYIE-ther), there was actually a fifth element. The terrestrial (Earth-bound) elements only existed below the moon. Above the moon, the heavens were filled with something and that something was aether. See, the Greeks (like most people, as we’ll see) hated the idea that there might ever be nothing. There has to be something. And once you get up into the celestial spheres (and the spaces in between), you have to have a celestial element: ether.
Incidentally, the Romans called aether “quintessence” which roughly means fifth element (LEE-loo DAL-lass MUL-tee-PASS).
Thing was, this celestial element was found in trace amounts among the terrestrial elements, especially the base metals like lead, iron, tin, copper, and so on. And one of the primary pursuits of the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy was the isolation of quintessence. It was believed if you could get a hold of some of that divine element, you could cure diseases, transmute metals, and even live for a very long time. I could bring up the philosopher’s stone here, but that would just lead to a slew of Harry Potter jokes.
This was all spelled out by alchemists many ages ago. Perhaps most famously in the writings of someone named Hermes Trismegistus (which literally means Hermes is three kinds of awesome… I s$&% you not, look it up). Thing is, no one is quite sure who Hermes T. actually was. People claimed that he was actually part Hermes, Greek deity of wisdom and magic, and part Thoth, Egyptian deity of wisdom and magic (TOTE, like a tote bag). See, the neat thing about the Greeks and the Romans who adopted their religious views was that they accepted their deities didn’t have an exclusivity thing going. They noted similarities between their deities and other culture’s deities and just assumed that they were the same deities with a different name and symbolism. So Hermes was Thoth and Mercury too. Of course, the writings of Mr. T. (Hermes T., no relation) are real, whereas Hermes and Thoth appear not to have been (but who knows?). So that leaves a big gaping question about who wrote what.
Meanwhile, the idea of aether stuck around filling voids. See, physicists ran into a problem when they discovered that light and electricity and magnetism and heat are all the same thing and that they are a wave. Basically just a vibration. Well, light and stuff has no trouble moving through space which begs the question: just what IS vibrating. Until two physicists in 1887 (Al Michelson and Ed Morely) disproved it, scientists figured that there had to be something in the universe for light to vibrate. And they called that something “the lumoniferous ether.”
Other imaginary mediums have also been named ether to explain how gravity moves through space, as a metaphor for the cloud of particles that spontaneously spring into existence in empty space continuously according to quantum physics, as an alternative name for the mysterious dark energy that seems to fill the universe even though we can’t see or detect it.
So, if there is one thing the history of science has taught us, it is that we refuse to believe in nothing. Everywhere we see nothing, we try to imagine there is something. And that something is aether.
And how does this help your game? There’s actually a lot of meat here. Obviously, the idea of aether as “filling the void” is a neat world-building element. Actually, it is so neat that D&D often feels the need to do with twice with both an Ethereal and an Astral Plan (future Word of the Week: Astral?). And the idea of aether/quintessence as the ultimate goal of alchemy could give you some great fuel for a powerful artifact. Heck, you could probably build a neat, cerebral campaign around an “arms race” of alchemists and alchemical guilds to unlock the secrets of the quintessence. And the writings of a dude like Hermes Trismestigus could serve as the MacGuffin that touches off that adventure or campaign. And finally, you have the neat idea of cultures accepting that they all worship the same deities with different names and symbols. Actually, I want to give a shoutout to Keith Baker’s Eberron campaign setting here because this was one of the defining aspects of the Sovereign Host religion. At least, in 3.5 era Eberron. But I don’t give a crap about steampunk psychic dinosaur halfling pulp adventure, so I didn’t follow it for long after that. If you do, more power to you.
And if all of that fails, just rip off The Fifth Element. It was a good movie.