Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bird of the Sun

Today's question asks: Tell us about the various myths about phoenixes that is around the world! Actually, this is a trick question (so don't think you got us, question-asker): there is only one Phoenix, which is a Greek mythological bird with particular qualities representing life and rebirth. But I think what you're really asking here is about various other mythological birds that are similar to or related to the Greek Phoenix, and we can do that, too!

The Phoenix of Greek mythology is a borrowed creature, but we're not entirely certain when it was borrowed or from whom. Herodotus first mentions it in his histories and claims that he learned about it in Heliopolis (Junu) from the Egyptian people who lived there in around 5 B.C.E., but Hesiod also mentions a few centuries earlier, when he uses its long lifespan to illustrate that the gods live longer still. It really became popular around the first centuries B.C.E. and A.C.E., after which it became a favorite symbolic creature in Greek and Roman mythology and eventually a well-known symbol in medieval texts.

The earliest descriptions of the Phoenix stress its great age; Hesiod, describing how long the nymphai can live, claims that the Phoenix lives three times as long as a raven, which in turn lives three times as long as a stag, which in turn lives four times as long as a crow (and then goes on to say that since the nymphai live ten times as long as a phoenix, they are long-lived indeed). Herodotus sets the bird's age at five hundred years old, claiming that every half millennium it returns to its nesting place to die, and that lifespan stuck and was repeated by various other Greek and Roman scholars all the way down to Ovid. Herodotus is the first to actually describe the bird other than its age, and he says it has red and gold plumage and resembles an eagle, and that it creates a beautiful funeral egg out of myrrh in which to encase its forbear, which it then carries to Egypt and leaves there to be burned (a feat he found particularly impressive, since he believed it flew all the way from Arabia in order to do so).

Later writers exaggerate the Phoenix's virtues even more, claiming that it is incredibly wise and understands all mathematics, that it is made of gold or shines with the golden rays of the sun, that it consumes only rare spices and fragrances such as frankincense, that it can never become sick and doesn't need to eat or drink to stay alive, that it is surrounded by a halo of fire, and even that it lives as long as the gods themselves (which of course means forever). The tale of the Phoenix's death and resurrection is also embellished and refined across the centuries by these writers, until it becomes the familiar version that became popular in the Middle Ages in Europe: the Phoenix lives for five hundred years, then returns to the nest where it was born, where it sings itself a funeral song and burns alive, only to be reborn anew as soon as the flames cool.

The point of the Phoenix's mythology is to use it as an allegory for the sun specifically, and later for light, life, and warmth in general. The Phoenix's journey from east to west (Arabia to Egypt) before it dies and then arises again mirrors the sun's journey from east to west each day, and its "death" in the evening only to return at the next dawn. The light, gold, and fire connotations it often has in various versions are linked to the sun originally, although they later become regarded as simply attributes of the bird itself as its mythology becomes more indistinct.

Obviously, the Phoenix is a pretty ingrained image in the western world - its origins and mythological imagery may not necessarily be common knowledge, but most people know the general idea of the immortal bird, and we name all kinds of businesses and brands and even cities after it, as well as having colloquial phrases based on its myth as normal parts of our speech ("from the ashes" is the most common, meaning something that resurges or returns after a disaster or setback). In fact, it's so ingrained that we tend to think of other mythological birds around the world as "types of Phoenixes", like this question-asker did, even though many of them probably have nothing to do with the Greek Phoenix. Which brings me onward to these other birds!

The Phoenix's closest cousin is the bn bird, better known to modern people as the Benu or Bennu. The Bennu is an Egyptian mythological figure, the embodiment of the ba (or personality-soul) of the sun-god Ra, which was said to be self-created and therefore an assistant to the major gods in their own acts of creating the world. It was considered immortal and often associated with Osiris, who was similarly deathless thanks to being resurrected as the god of death through his wife Isis' intervention, and sometimes appears in Egyptian art wearing Osiris' white crown. Unlike the Phoenix, which was described as a fanciful gold-and-red embodied sunset, the Bennu usually appears in Egyptian imagery as a heron, possibly because of a linguistic pun - bn seems to have had several potential meanings, one of them being "heron".

The Bennu is definitely related to the sun, as Ra's ba, and similarly eternal and undying, so it's understandable that it is often related to or outright conflated with the Phoenix, especially during the periods of history when Greek and Roman influence was strong in Egypt. We don't have any Egyptian sources that suggest that the Bennu ever dies, to resurrect itself or otherwise, but later Greek writers did recognize its similarities to the Phoenix and decide that this must be the Egyptian version of the same bird, and therefore wrote about the Bennu dying in flame on their own regardless of what it was doing in Egyptian myth. There's a healthy scholarly debate over whether the Phoenix influenced the Bennu or vice versa, thanks to Herodotus' writings about learning about the Phoenix in Egypt; some scholars think that he simply fancified or misunderstood Egyptians who were trying to describe the Bennu to him and thought they meant the Phoenix of his homeland's myths, while others insist that while the Bennu might originally have been more important as Ra's ba, later Greek influence over Egyptian religions functionally merged it with the Phoenix and its myths should be considered the same.

Of course, who did what and influenced who is an eternal Phoenix-and-egg situation in Greece vs. Rome vs. Egypt, so no one should really be too surprised.

To range a little farther north and east, there is also a fantastic immortal bird in the myths of Persia, the mighty and most holy Simurgh. The Simurgh is definitely a bird, and is in fact referred to as the mother or ruler of all birds, but she also has features of other animals, including often the head and/or paws of a dog, and sometimes the claws of a lion. The Simurgh is as eternal as the other birds on this list - she has supposedly outlived the universe itself several times, living through its birth and eventual destruction, and as a result is considered the wisest being in existence (outside of Ahura Mazda, of course, who she often appears as a symbol of). The Simurgh's immense age and wisdom mean that she knows the answers to all secrets and the cures to all ills, and she also guards the Tree of Life, which contains the seeds of all plants in existence and can create elixirs that heal any wound or sickness, so Persian heroes often set out to seek her to ask for advice or beg for some of the tree's seeds. Of course, they usually aren't up to the task of finding the Tree of Life and managing to impress the oldest non-god being in existence into giving them what they want, but that's heroing for you.

The Simurgh is generally considered to be much larger than the Phoenix or Bennu, capable of carrying off an elephant to snack on if she feels like it, and is usually described as being covered in beautiful bronze or gold feathers that reflect the colors of the world around her. Unlike the previous two birds, she's not really about the sun, though; she's a symbol of wisdom and purity, and is considered to purify the world and to protect it against the evil influence of the daeva and their minions. She's still strongly tied to a god as his representative, however, in this case the all-powerful Ahura Mazda, and she sometimes appears to let people know that he has sanctioned a particular place or act, or is used as a symbol of the god himself when depicted in art.

There are a very few mythic mentions of the Simurgh dying in flame, but they tend to be later ones and have never been incorporated into the wider body of myth about the Simurgh, so it's likely that they represent Greek influence filtering over from the Phoenix to occasionally color the Simurgh's myths. The Slavic version of the Simurgh that appears in Slavic areas that bordered on the Persian empire, the Simargl, has completely lost any such connotations, and is representative only of justice and protection.

Speaking of Slavic myths, though! The Zhar-Ptitsa, commonly referred to in English as simply the Firebird, is a Russian mythological creature that is often related to the Phoenix and other magical birds. It primarily appears in folktales, fairy tales, and heroic quests, where it is described as a bird with glowing eyes and fiery plumage, which brings great power but also generally great problems to anyone who is able to capture and keep it.

The Zhar-Ptitsa appears in many Russian fairy tales, but it's most famous in the modern era for being the subject of Stravinsky's incredibly popular ballet named after it, which retells the story of the heroic Prince Ivan and his quest to marry the daughters of the terrible Koschei the Deathless, a feat he attempts to accomplish with the help of the Zhar-Ptitsa, which he has caught. In this particular story, there are no negative consequences for Ivan from capturing the firebird, which helps him avoid Koschei's attempts to kill or confuse him and eventually gives him the secret to defeat him, but most often control of the Zhar-Ptitsa is a mixed blessing; Ivan Tsarevich is killed and dismembered by his brothers who covet the bird in one tale, and the wicked king who demanded the Zhar-Ptitsa be captured for him was later tricked into boiling himself alive once he owned it. Some stories caution against even picking up the firebird's discarded feathers, which are beautiful and alluring, but will almost surely bring trouble along with them.

(Incidentally, you can watch full versions of Stravinsky's The Firebird online, so go get you some ballet if that's your thing!)

Finally (at least for today!), we have the fenghuang, the immortal bird of Chinese mythology. Resplendent and multi-colored with connections to various Chinese astrology practices and imperial symbols, the fenghuang is a creature of symbolism, combining in itself male and female (literally - early forms of the bird during the Han dynasty had a male, the feng, and a female, the huang, but they were combined over time to become fenghuang, a single being), mercy and judgment (when it decides whether or not the current emperor is doing their job correctly but is also the imperial symbol of the empress and her kindness), and the connection between sky and earth. It's most often seen in imperial imagery and decoration (and is called the Ruler of Birds, similar to the Simurgh, as a result), but also commonly appears as a wedding symbol, since it represents harmony between men and women, and as a symbol of good luck on temples and at religious ceremonies.

The idea of the Phoenix as the template bird is so ingrained in western thought that the fenghuang is frequently referred to in the West as "the Chinese Phoenix", even though it has next to nothing to do with the Phoenix or anything it stands for. The fenghuang does occasionally have symbolic ties to the sun, and it is considered to be eternal and never-aging, but that's about as close as the two get.

Enthusiasts of the Four Celestial Beasts in Chinese mythology, incidentally, may also have heard about the Zhū Què, called the Vermillion Bird in English, which is one of the four guardian constellation creatures that dominate much of Chinese star lore. These two aren't actually the same bird, although they are usually represented similarly in art and therefore confusion occasionally arises between them, and the Zhū Què is even further from the Greek concept of the Phoenix than the fenghuang is.

There are more ancient and long-lived mythological birds out there, but I think that covers the most famous!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Production: Casebound Hardcover Books!

Hey, this is a quick production question from somebody out in the field, who wants to know: Many RPGs have suffered from poor quality bindings in the main rule books [GURPS 4th edition particularly comes to mind], so are you guys going to make sure the printer does top-quality and enduring books for us faithful fans?

Heck yeah, we are. Trust us, we know your binding pain; we've lost many a beloved book to too much wear and tear, and John has personally complained at various gaming companies when he encounters something substandard. We don't want our core book to fall apart on you six months after you get it (at least, not unless you're using it to beat off zombies or sled down the hillside or something), so we're working to make sure we get something that looks snazzy and lasts for a good long gaming life.

It's about 95% certain that these books will be coming from DriveThruRPG, with whom we will be partnering later to provide downloadable and POD options. It's only 95% because we are still doing a few last-minute checks with some local printers and publishers in our area; we've been through most of them and DTRPG is still our best option in terms of price and quality (and they are the option we based our KS projections around), but it's always nice to work with folks locally if we can and we don't want to accidentally pass up something awesome, so we have two more printers to visit before we make a final choice.

DTRPG has a pretty great track record of quality hardcovers with quality binding, and we've always found their printings to be sturdy, sexy, and as useful for gaming as we could wish. So, you know, don't hurl the HJ book off of a moving moped or anything, but it should be just fine for reading, pondering, and pulling out during rules discussions!

I'm sure several of you have encountered DTRPG hardcovers before, but in case you haven't, we'll be posting photos of our advance copies in the future so you can see exactly what these'll look like. Until then!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Wintry Afternoon Post!

Hey, everybody! Did you miss us?

We've been "gone" for quite a while, which really just means it's been radio silence here on the blog as we spend every waking moment working on finishing Hero's Journey and the zillion tiny things associated with it. I'm writing and editing and vetting research, John is running systems projections and probability tests and balance comparisons, Royce is building enormous intricate graphics for literally hundreds of Blessings while also fielding our last-minute "hey sorry we changed this so the graphic you made needs to be changed too!", Alex is finalizing maps and meticulously labeling features and parsing through art options for eventual layout, Jess is rereading the same giant sections of text over and over and asking us if we really meant what we said in X, Y, and Z dimensions and what that means for continuity, and Stephen is designing website upgrades and fancy gadgets like a pro.

So basically, we are doing all the things! And so we stopped blogging for a little while, because that's a couple of hours per week that we needed for work pursuits. But now that things are starting to wrap up (in that way where they're not done, per se, but we can see the day when they will be and it's glorious), we're back. We missed you, y'all! It's been too long since we got to talk about neat stuff and hear your thoughts!

We'll be trying to get some blogs rolling in the next weeks, so that it won't be quite the empty desert it has been (except for Cameron, of course, who is a champion about prodding us to keep all of you updated). And speaking of blogs and missing all of you, we're going to be enabling comments on the blog here as well as the forums, so you can engage with us directly if you want, or talk about stuff amongst yourselves on the forums when you don't want.

So we'll be back on our horses in the coming weeks, and you'll see some fun mythology posts and answers to the questions you've sent in (we have them, don't worry! we didn't lose any!) when we are. Cameron will keep handling news and updates, and we're looking forward to hanging out with everyone.

Until then, have a great winter holiday - we'll see you when we all come back!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Weekly Update 12.19

Disclaimer: This is being written about a project that is in progress, what is an attempt to give you a glimpse of the process of making the game and abilities and powers discussed in this blog my not work as described here.

Here at the Hero’s Journey we’re still going full steam ahead to finish the core book, however holidays, travel, and time zones have made it difficult to meet. So this will most likely be the last update until the new year unless something huge happens.

This week John, Anne, and the Graphics team are continuing to grind away at the layout for the book along with finalizing Blessings. If you've been following us on Twitter, John got had his turn battling illness, so the finalization of blessings got delayed as he went down for the count for part of this week.

If you've signed up for the Hero’s Journey Gift Exchange, you should have a PM from Kekzakallu (Me) with your gift target. There is a forum thread where people are sharing their interests and will be posting their gifts as they arrive. Thanks to everyone who signed up! Please try to make sure you send your gift by December 31st. If you have any issues, please PM me directly.

There were no questions this week, so that’s it for me. Thanks you for being an awesome community and I look forward to talking with you all in the New Year!


Friday, December 12, 2014

Weekly Update 12.12

Disclaimer: This is being written about a project that is in progress, what is an attempt to give you a glimpse of the process of making the game and abilities and powers discussed in this blog my not work as described here.

Hello! So I checked the count again and it's still totally at zero.

So what happened this week? John has been doing his read through and edits. It's his favorite thing in the world to do, he told me. If any of you need anything edited in the future you should send them to him. He also has approximately sixty pages of blessings to review and edit to go through.

In other fronts, over half of the Talent Webs are completed.

The novel, which I haven't mentioned for a while had a slight setback. Part of the file unfortunately got corrupted and several chapters were lost. Anne had her notes, though, and while losing progress is a disappointment, she was able to get back on track.

John also went to the printer's this week to get many of the Kickstarter non-book items printed. Things are moving towards shipping!

I only caught one question this week.

John and Anne have often said that they have many ideas for future spheres once the core is out...could we have a glimpse into a few of those ideas?

This is a tricky question because we're super happy that you're excited for future releases. But right now everyone's focus is getting the first book out the door. We want to get it to you so we can all talk about the core rules, systems, and the heroic stories that you're going to tell.

Once the first book is out and John and Anne have taken a short breather, we'll be able to start talking about the next steps.

That being said... they have some solid ideas for two additional spheres per domain, but that's all that I can probably get for a while.

So that's it for this week, have a great weekend! If you're still thinking about the gift exchange, we've had ten sign ups so far, and you have until December 15th to join in.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hero's Journey Gift Exchange

Hello Everyone!

I mentioned in the Friday update that there would be a post this weekend, which promptly got away from me. So here at literally the 11th hour I'm here to announce this year's Hero's Journey Gift Exchange!

Last year, John and Anne launched started a gift exchange for the community on their old site. This year, they've got their hands full finishing the core book. So I'm taking over the duty of running it this year.

So what is the Hero's Journey Gift Exchange?

Pretty simple really, it is a mythological gift exchange. You get the contact information of another person participating in the exchange and find a mythology based gift. Something that interests you, or you think someone else might like, so long as it's mythology based. But maybe there's some cool folklore from where you're from that you might want to share.

How do you participate?

If you want to participate send me a PM with the following information:

  • Your address: Where you want you gift delivered to
  • Also, let me know if you willing to ship your gift internationally. I put this out there because it can be VERY expensive to ship internationally. 
  • Additionally, if you would be comfortable receiving a gift digitally. 

  • I'll be collecting information This week, from December 8th to the 15th. I will send out reminders on the forums.

    On the 16th and 17th I'll PM you your gift target. You've then got two weeks to go out and find some cool mythology gift for your target. Send out your gift by the December 31st. Then sit back and wait for your gift to arrive, if all goes well you should get yours in early January (accounting for shipping times).

    That's it! As with last year John and Anne want to make sure everyone that participates gets something, so we'll act as insurance in case something happens and your gift doesn't arrive.

    Have a great week, talk to you on Friday!

    Friday, December 5, 2014

    Weekly Update 12.5

    Disclaimer: This is being written about a project that is in progress, what is an attempt to give you a glimpse of the process of making the game and abilities and powers discussed in this blog my not work as described here.

    So this week, the countdown is …

    … Still at 0.

    This week the graphics team has continued work on the Web of Fate. In fact, I have something to share from that work. Below you will find the latest draft of the Sovereignty portion of the web, offered here with no further explanation. You are welcome to speculate though...

    Anne is deep in writing, and she let me know that soon there might be an excerpt from the novel on the blog. Other than that, all that remains is finishing the Blessings Chapter. This is the last thing that needs to be worked on and will probably be dominating updates for all remaining weeks.

    So on to your questions! A couple got answered in the questions thread but I’ll repeat them here.

    How freeform are Spheres? Do they have multiple Paths to follow?

    Spheres are more like trees than a web. They are self contained, but will have branching paths. (puns!)

    Could a Thunder user buy just lightning powers without having to touch rain?

    As the blessings chapter and spheres are still being finalized, I cannot give a definitive answer to this.

    Will Spheres also have passives?

    The answer to this comes down to semantics. There will be nodes in the Spheres that will give stat bonuses, but they’re not being called passives, but you could consider them stat buffs.

    Will the PDF have clickable bookmarks?

    The answer to this is a definite yes.

    Will PDFs be sent out ASAP or will they be on hold until the dead tree format is shipped out?

    The print and PDF versions will be released simultaneously, but given the realities of shipping you will probably get the PDF first, but the print versions will arrive on their heels.

    That's it for this week, although there will be another post this weekend in response to question that's been asked behind the scenes but needed a little bit more work to answer. Stay tuned...