The Jewish and not-so-Jewish Monsters of Classic Dungeons & Dragons

Anyone who played Dungeons & Dragons during its golden age from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s will know that the most nefarious villain was not, as television’s Stranger Things now has it, Demogorgon, but another demon lord.

In a widely played (or at least owned) series of adventures published during this period, players were to proceed on a series of missions against the evil giants who were ravaging the human kingdoms of Greyhawk. Players had to infiltrate the giants’ strongholds, their steadings, halls, and glacial lairs, along the way discovering clues that revealed the sinister power behind the giant armies. This puppet-master was a demon lord—or, more precisely, demon queen. She ruled one of the planes of the demonic homeland in the Abyss, from whence she spun her plots, secretly motivating her minions to wreak destruction on the lands of men. Fittingly, she was known sometimes as the demon queen of spiders, and often took the form of a giant spider when not that of a beautiful, black-skinned elf.

Russ Nicholson’s illustration of Lolth in the 1981 Fiend Folio. The featured illustration of this post is by Erol Otus.

I don’t think it’s any accident that Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax named this entity Lolth, which so closely resembles Lilith. Gygax was widely read in mythology, history, and fantasy literature, and would certainly have come across references to the Jewish demoness. I have no explicit proof that Lolth is based, however loosely, on Lilith. I suppose that Clotho, the spinner of the thread of fate in Greek mythology, also sounds a bit like Lolth. But Lolth and Lilith are both female demons, and royalty, and were driven from their realms above the surface into the darkness below.

I hasten to assure anyone wondering if there is some anti-Jewish resonance here, given the Jew-and-spider connection in antisemitic propaganda, that nothing of that sort is involved. Giant spiders do make good villains. Just ask Tolkien.

Not Lolth.

Indeed, the only specifically Jewish touch in classic Dungeons & Dragons that I am aware of is quite positive. The 1977 Monster Manual includes four different types of golems for use in the game: the flesh golem (basically a Frankenstein monster), the iron golem (based on Talos from Greek mythology and the stop-motion colossus in Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 Jason and the Argonauts), the stone golem (an animated statue); and the clay golem.

The clay golem is based on the golem legend, as the description and illustration make clear. In a noticeably philosemitic touch, we are told that the “clay golem can be created by a lawful good cleric of 17th level or higher.” So thanks to Gygax, we know the Maharal had an alignment of Lawful Good and was at least a 17th-level cleric. (Not a magic-user, interestingly.) Of course, as in the legend, the clay golem can go berserk (1% cumulative chance per combat round). I can only wish that we had stat blocks for other rabbis. I bet the Besht was Chaotic Good.

David Sutherland’s somewhat Wegeneresque illustration of the Clay Golem in the Monster Manual.

But wait, you say. What about the lich? The terrifying lich is an extremely powerful undead sorcerer, a lurking skeletal figure in robes and jewels that possesses enormous magical capabilities. And, as the Monster Manual informs us:

A lich exists because of its own desires and the use of powerful and arcane magic. The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, non-living existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery. (my emphasis)

A phylactery? Is the lich, then, an occult Jew? (And, if so, are we talking head or arm phylactery?)

Dave Trampier’s illustration of the lich in the Monster Manual.

No. The creators of D&D used the term phylactery not to indicate tefillin, but in the sense of the Greek root word that means an amulet. From what I gather from the interwebs, the roots here appear to be pulp fantasy, with no reference whatsoever to Jewish prayer-boxes.

Gygax credited a story by Gardner Fox (better known as the creator of the Flash and other comic book characters) that has a powerful undead wizard called a lich, and the term lich applied to undead creatures can be found in earlier pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. A number of early- and mid-twentieth century sword-and-sorcery and weird fiction writers (Howard, Moorcock, Lieber) have stories with dead wizards who exert power through magical artifacts, not to mention Tolkien, whose Sauron has his life essence bound up in a magic ring. Indeed, the name of the most famous D&D lich is Vecna (also referenced in Stranger Things), which is an anagram of beloved fantasy writer Jack Vance.

Skull of the lich in the classic D&D adventure Tomb of Horrors.

Over the years and under its current corporate ownership, Dungeons & Dragons grew distant from its sword-and-sorcery and classic fantasy roots, resulting in game versions and products that are sometimes tepid. Fortunately, over the last ten years or so, there has been in some corners of the gaming world an “Old School Renaissance” that favors the early iterations of the game, and restores much of the pre-corporate creativity, energy, and idiosyncrasy of its early years. It’s nice to see a return to the classics.

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