One problem I’ve been struggling with since when I started working on the Old World setting is creating a clear concept of what spirits are and how they behave. Since shamans and animistic religion are a major focus of the setting, this issue is a pretty big deal. I’ve been doing a lot of shuffling around and recategorizing of my creatures over the years but never really got to a satisfying conclusion. The last set of categories I had been using was people, beasts, undead, and everything else was a spirit. They are all inhabitants of the Spiritworld after all.
But looking back, this only seems to have caused more confusion than clarity. And I now think this is because there are two fundamentally different types of beings that are all said to live in the lands of spirits, at least in the way we think about these beings today. The fey people of celtic myth, or at least their modern interpretation in the British-Irish tradition are not animistic beings. They are people. They are generally human in shape, talk in human languages, dress in human clothing, live in human dwellings, cook their food, and are apparently born and age. But they are the people of a parallel world that obeys diferent rules, which makes their behavior seem very strange and gives them powers that are for all intends and purposes magic. This is not unique to the British Isles, though. You find many similar creatures in India and Japan as well.
But the spirits of nature are fundamentally different beings. They can appear in human form, but that’s not their real form. They are not born and do not age, they do not need to eat and you can not kill them with a blade. They do not live in a river or in a tree. They are the river and the tree.
When you lool at original descriptions of supernatural mystical beings, I don’t think this distinction holds really up and doubt people actually saw them this way. But when creating stories for modern audiences, I think it’s a quite important distinction that we take for granted, even if we never really think about that.
Taking these things into consideration, I don’t think my shie, naga, raksha, and giants really qualify as spirits anymore. They have supernatural powers and they are native to the spiritworld, but they are all people who were once born and who can be killed with a blade. While I think the execution of creature types in the RPGs Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder is a total mess, I think it is the right idea. There needs to be a category of creatures that are magical instead of mundane mortal, but also clearly different from immortal spirits of the land, angels, and demons. So I will be expanding the categories in my creature document from four to five and add the Magical Creatures group. Hopefully this will help me get a better grip on the supernatural in the Old World.
This week my worldbuilding efforts for the Old World have been spend mostly on trying to develop the role and nature of demons and the Underworld. And the unfortunate conclusion that I’ve reached is that my original ideas really don’t work for the kind of setting the Old World has become.
Lovecraft Horror in the Bronze Age is a cool idea, but the focus of the Old World lies somewhere else, and it just doesn’t fit in. I really, really like the six types of Underworld creatures I had planned, but they are just way too much like space aliens. (Partly because five of them are straight up adaptations from sci-fi videogames.)
But it just doesn’t work. The Old World will be a much better setting without them confusing things. In such cases there really is no point in dragging along dead weight that will only be a burden. So they just have to go.
Perfection is not reached when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left that can be taken away.
But I think I might still be able to at least salvage the aboleth archetype. Instead of being some eldritch being from before time, it can still work as simple one big ass evil fish. This picture is just too cool not to do something with it.
The Old World is a world that is intended to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and wonder, but at the same time be relatively easily accessible with no need for long exposition. A good way to do this is by using familiar things that the audience recognizes as a shortcut around unelegant infodumps. Possibly the best example of this method is Star Wars, especially the first movie. Everything you need to know you learn in the first two or three minutes with just a few words from C-3PO. The Rebels are running away in a cool looking ship with very big engines, the Empire pursues them with a ship that is just totally fucking humongous! Then the door explodes and through it comes a hord of guys in skeleton armor shoting everyone. And then this guy in black armor, a black cloak, and a black skull mask follows behind them. And he is accompanied by officers wearing Nazi uniforms. Barely any words have been said yet but you already know everything you need to know about this conflict.
I am using a similar approach to presenting the wildlife in the Old World. It’s different from the animals found in Europe and Northern America, but mostly these are animals that are very similar to what we are already familiar with on Earth. For that reason I am drawing heavily on prehistoric animals like dinosaurs and early mammals. They are very much like normal animals, but they also don’t look like anything we’re used to, which matches my overall approach to the worldbuilding for the Old World. Distinctively different, but not too alien.
In addition to being a convenient shortcut to create a plausible and easy to grasp ecology, basing these creatures on real animals also helps with establishing a clear difference between natural beasts and supernatual monsters. An important element of making things both fascinating and unsettling is a good amount of uncertainty what you’re actually dealing with. In settings in which the natural world is mostly identical to life on Earth, it is very easy for the audience to tell the difference between what is normal and what is alien. When you populate a world primarily with fictional creatures, this becomes a lot more difficult. Is something supposed to be threatening or not? The audience has to understand that to get into the thoughts of the characters who are dealing with it. By keeping the natural beasts of the Old World to animals that did exist or could very well have existed on Earth in the past, I am hoping to make this distinction more clear and easy to grasp.
There are no stats for any roleplaying game attached to them at this point, but to help getting an impression about their strength, each is given a threat class ranging from 0 to 6.
The arag is a predator about the size of a large dog. Their appearance is somewhat similar to reptiles and weasels and they are covered in sleek gray and brown fur. They have a very wide range and are found in almost all parts of the mainland, but are rare on smaller islands far away from the coast. Arags usually stay away from settled areas, but have little fear of single travelers in the wilderness and will sometimes even attack small groups. (Class 2)
A draga is a big reptile about the size of a lion but of a more slender build. It’s tough hide is a deep emerald green but tends to be more brown in regions where forests are less dense and there is less vegetation and shadows. Arags are usually solitary but sometimes hunt in groups of three or four, which are able to kill almost anything they come across. (Class 4)
The droha is a big reptile found in all the tropical and temperate forests of the Old World, except on smaller islands. It’s about the size of a camel and has been domesticated in many areas as the main beast of burden. Drohas often live in herds of one to three dozen individuals. (Class 2)
The garai is one of the largest predators found in the Old World. It’s a huge lizard bigger than the largest crocodiles and found throughout most of the southern regions. They are not terribly fast and rarely chase their prey far, but are surprisingly adept at hiding in the underbrush despite their enormous size. (Class 4) Continue reading “Old World Animals”
I have always been a big fan of monsters and are regularly disappointed by the lack of them in most modern fantasy books. It’s always about wizards, soldiers, and assassins fighting to protect an empire. Which sounds like the most boring thing ever to me. I want monsters!
Writing about monsters has turned out to be not quite as easy as I thought. When working on the Ancient Lands setting, one of the first things I started with was making a list of cool creatures I want to inhabit it, most of them coming from videogames and RPGs. But eventually I realized that monsters in narrative stories work very different from monsters that are fought in games. You can’t just have a dozen different hostile creatures in various locations throughout a castle or dark forest in a story and then have the protagonist run into them to have a cool fight. In games this works great. There’s anticipation any time you come around a corner or open a door and every fight is different. But when writing a story that just doesn’t work at all. Any fight scene needs to have some narrative function and that means whatever monster the protagonists encounter needs to have a function in the plot as well. Having a fight scene just for the sake of having a fight scene or making the story longer just leads to terrible results. In movies you can at least show off some pretty special effects, but even then it’s noticable when a fight scene has no point. When writing stories you don’t even have that luxury.
So before I went ahead with making a new list of monsters for the Ancient Lands, I first set down to try figuring out what kinds of roles and functions monsters can have in a story. And the ones I came up with are really not that many:
Wild People: These creatures are pretty much people, but they are as foreign as it can possibly get. Trolls, giants, lizardman, fish people, and the like. Not only is their culture incomprehensible and their morals loathsome, they are almost always also very much sub-human. They are stupid and violent, but generally very strong, which makes them a threat. They hate our Freedom and want to steal our stuff!
Fair Folk: Like the wild people they are basically people, but instead of being fearsomely sub-human, they are incomprehensibly super-human. They are very intelligent and have magical powers and often live very long or are outright immortal. If they wanted to they could easily destroy and conquer all mortal people and the only reason they haven’t already is that they don’t really care. Normal humans are usually insignificant to them and the best way to stay safe is to keep it that way. When they are around, everything you do can spell your doom because their minds are so alien that it’s impossible to really know what they want and what might provoke them. And they can be very cruel, simply because they don’t really think of humans as actual people but more as talking animals.
Guardian Spirits: These creatures are being tied to the land they inhabit and serve as its guardians. Nymphs, ents, some dragons, the sphinx, and so on. Their main motivation is usually simple to get any intruders to leave and stay away. However, they might be convinced to let some people pass through their territory or to grant a request, which requires the observance of strict rules. Their direct interactions with people are usually very limited, but their real role is to serve as a threat what happens when the rules are not observed. Struggling to not break the rules is the real obstacle the characters are facing.
Maneaters: These are the most simple monsters. They are really just pimped-out carnivorous animals that will eat people when the opportunity presents itself. The only interaction with characters they have is attacking to eat some of them. Their main role in a story is to be nearby but unseen, posing a constant threat that keeps everyone on edge. They don’t talk, they have no complex motives. They just jump out from behind some trees and disappear again once they grabbed a few people or have been badly wounded. While they behave like animals, they still can look very human-like. Ghouls are one example and some versions of Medusa.
Soul Stealers: These creatures are predators as well, but they are usually very much like people and instead of wanting to eat you, they want to make you theirs. These are vampires, succubuses and some other demons, rusalkas, and sirens. They are manipulators who want you to join them, which at that time they make sound a pretty attractive offer. But the true fate of anyone who gets caught by them is much more horrific. Their role is to tempt characters and make them lose their hold over themselves and submit to their own doom.
Deathbringers: This type of monster only wants to kill. They are not looking for food, they don’t want to leave, they don’t want anything you have. All they do is kill and continue to kill until they are destroyed. These are zombies, barrow-wights, some demon hords, and darkspawn. Sometimes they want to harvest the bodies of their victims as a resource to make more of themselves, like the Flood, the Reapers, or the Borg, but every place they visit they just kill and destroy everything. They aren’t not even like ammoral forces of nature, because they will target you and try to come after you.
Troublemakers: A usually small creature that doesn’t attack people directly but instead damages and destroys things and makes life hard for them. Though when they destroy food or set things on fire they can still be a very serious and deadly threat. Usually they don’t have any real motivation and do it simply out of spite.
Fictional Animals: Some creatures are like ordinary animals in every way but don’t hunt and eat humans. From a narrative point of view, these aren’t actually monsters. They are just animals like any other.
By looking at the subject of monsters from this perspective I realized that I had a lot of redundancies on my list. You don’t need seven different types of giant crab-spiders that all fall under the maneater category. Two are already more than enough. And some creatures I had added just because of their looks. There really wasn’t any point to harpies and giant hyenas. I ended up cutting the monster list down from about 110 to 46, which really looks a lot sleeker and more tidy now.
When I got back into fantasy books a year or so ago, I noticed that there seems to be a quite pronounced scarcity of monsters and nonhuman humanoids in the vast majority of works. When you talk with people about Sword & Sorcery, many have a very firm stance that it has to be human-only and that you can’t maintain the structure, dynamics, and themes of the genre if you include elves, trolls, or dragonmen. Today I came across a short article on another site which I’ve read and very much liked a while back, by a person whose opinions and understanding of the workings of fantasy I usually very much agree with and respect. The main thought was that monsters should be very rare and be limited to the truly unnatural, with a very distinct separation from normal wildlife. And I very much agreed with it, since it helps to ensure that the encounter with an actual monster will be something special and that the audience feels like there’s really an extraordinary danger.
I now very much think that I was wrong about it. Much of contemporary fantasy could be accused of being mostly a fictionalized version of the middle ages with the occasional sprinkle of magic here and there, but very little fantastic elements as far as the plot is considered. But even that would not be correct as many of these worlds are really more like 20th century societies in fictional lands that use technology that superficially looks medieval. I mentioned the relationship of humans, nature, and the divine in my review of the academic book Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, but I am going to lay it out again in this article that is directly at fantasy writers. The idea that nature is something that surrounds human cities and is separate from the human world, and that the divine aspect of the universe is located in a completely different place or dimension is very specific to modern western thought. It has been argued that the foundation for this is already found in the myth of the Garden of Eden, when humans were instructed by God to rule over all animals and plants, but it really developed to its current form through the ideas of Enlightenment and Humanism. (Which since the late 19th century got exported throughout the whole world together with the western education system and the modern principles and procedures of science that were based on that conception of the world, so it’s not strictly a European and North American thing anymore.) But in the kinds of societies after which almost all fantasy lands and cultures are modeled this whole concept fairly alien. Even in medieval Christianity, where the distinction between humans and animals was pretty clear, God was generally assumed to work directly in the everyday world, either actively or through agents. And the believe that there were other human-like people living in distant parts of the world was very widely spread. The land of the dog-headed men was a frequent topic among explorers and even the church had serious debates about what to do with them once their land is found. A quite common opinion was that they should be baptised and integrated into the church, just like all other humans. Assuming they are not already Christians.
Fantasy is obviously something you can’t do wrong. Pretty much every world imaginable can be well suited to be the setting for a certain kind of story. But lots of writers, and especially fans, make a pretty big deal of these worlds accurately portraying the technology of various historic periods and places. And often having fictional creatures around is perceived as being too fanciful and unrealistic. But at the same time there is generally no effort made at all to even somewhat approximate the way these people saw the world. We’ve had an interesting discussion at Fantasy Faction a while back about the possibility of “mythic fantasy”, and another one just last month about fantasy books in which religion and religious believes play an important part. (In both cases the search for existing works came up almost blank.) When you look at epics from antiquity and the proto-historic periods before it, it is very easy to see how very mucg similar they are to modern fantasy books, which have of course been very much inspired by them. But in those epics, the borders between human, nature, monster, and gods is often so thin and blurred that it’s not really there at all.
The book I mentioned above examines a small number of 20th century fantasy writers who went against that and deliberately set out to tie human concerns together with nature and the affairs of the gods. The gods don’t make any appearance in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s always clear that there are higher powers at work and that Sauron, Gandalf, and the elves are all major players in a conflict that is much greater than the kingdoms of man. In The Hobbit, Beorn is both a man and a bear, but different from either. You have eagles who are taking direct action in the struggle between mortals and immortals, and trees who walk and talk like humans. And of course all the talking spiders. Pretty much everything that Tolkien did was mindlessly copied countless times without understanding why he did it and what their purpose was. But this dissolving of the boundaries between humans, nature, and the divine was almost universally ignored, perhaps because it was too subtle to even notice without understanding it. There’s not really a lot of different creatures in Middle-Earth when you compare it to most roleplaying games and videogames, but all of them do not exist to create contrast between the natural and the unnatural, but to make such a distinction disappear. In European myths about fey beings, they always are as much part of nature as they are divine, and most of the time they also look very similar to humans. Even the classic fairytale witch is not just a regular old woman who knows a bit of magic, but also a monster. (Maybe I write an article about how the witch is the female counterpart of the ogre one day.) In any attempt to create “mythic fantasy”, the path into the world of spirits and magic should not lead through the wardrobe or the rabbit hole, but instead it needs to be identical with our own. In many mythologies, the Underworld is not another dimension, but an actual cave system that can be entered through any deep enough cave. To have fantasy that is in any way inspired by myth and tries to capture its essence, I think monsters are not just permissible, but mandatory. Without them and the dissolution of boundaries they present, any work can not go beyond the scope of pseudo-history.
I am as big a Star Wars fan as you can get before it gets insane and embarassing. But I am also highly critical of it and more than just willing to recognize its many flaws. And, oh dear, there’s so much of them. But one of the biggest ones is one I’ve almost never see discussed anywhere.
Star Wars, at it’s very essence, is fundamentally racist.
And this has nothing to do with Lando Calrissian or even Jar Jar Binks. People have complained about the Neimodians talking in a Japanese accent and being show as ruthless conquerors driven by greed, and I can understand that to some degree. And really, the makeover of Watto in Episode II is indeed the most racist shit I’ve ever seen outside of Nazi propaganda cartoons.
But no, I am not talking about that here. The problem I want to adress is at the same time less controversial but also much, much farther reaching. Many worlds in science fiction often get accused of being Planets of Hats, where the whole population really has only a single defining trait. Star Wars does that too. And very hard. And all the time. Even ignoring the accents of Neimodians and Gungans and any resemblance they may have to those found in some parts of the world, the entire worldbuilding of Star Wars is based on a way of percieving people and cultures that has a clear and unambigious term: Racism.
Racism, at its very core, is not specifically about discrimination or hatred or limited to any minorities. These are issues that result from racism. Racism itself is the idea that a group of people who share a common ancestry can easily be defined by a few traits that are shared among all of them. So if you have seen one person of that group, you know not only everything about that group, but also everything about every single member of that group. Racism is the idea that shared biological ancestry makes all people of that group the same in several fundamental traits.
And nowhere in fiction have I ever seen this principle applied so consistently and agressively. Though I think it neededs to be added, that this is primarily about the Expanded Universe, all the novels, comics, and videogames that build upon the movies. The movies themselves are relatively free of this since it is rare to ever see more than a single individual of any species other than humans. But in the EU it’s really bad. If you have one character of a species appearing in the movies, even in a really tiny role, that character is almost always turned into the universal archetype for the entire species in all subsequent works.
Take for example the Bith. The Bith really only appear for a few seconds and have no relevance to the plot. They are these guys.
The bar in which Luke and Obi-wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca happens to have a band of Bith playing during the few minutes they stay at that place. Do we learn anything about these guys at all? No, nothing. Except that these are in a band that plays in a bar. As the EU is concerned, this is everything you need to know about the Bith. Because in the EU, the Bith are a species of performance artists and musicians. All of them. That’s what they are known for throughout the galaxy. When musicians get mentioned, very often they are Bith. It’s like the Bith have a monopoly on playing music for the whole galaxy.
Here we have a group of Jawas. In their natural environment. Shoting at droids to repair and sell them. Jawas have many appearnces throughout Star Wars, but in the movies themselves I believe they really only have one significant appearance. (Other than background dressing.) And they are always surrounded by metal scrap and working on salvaged machines. Most often traveling around in their huge brown, angular trucks. Because in the movies there was one group of Jawas who had such a big brown truck, wore brown robes, and apparently salvaged broken droids to make a living. One group of 10 or 20 individuals. And what they did on that one day instantly became the template for the entire culture and nature of the whole species. You have seen one Jawa, you have seen all Jawas.
And there are virtually no exceptions to this rule. Chewbacca can fix shapeships and droids and in his backstory he used to be an imperial slave. Pretty much all Wookies you’ll ever see are good with machines and the entire species has been enslaved by the Empire. And not just the empire. In the days of the Old Republic, 4,000 years before the Empire, they were being enslaved by the Czerca corporation. Once a slave, always a slave. The whole species.
All Sullustans are good pilots, all Bothans are spies or politicians, all Verpines and Sluisi are great mechanics, all Twi’lek women are strippers, all Trandoshans are bounty hunters, Rodian culture is all about hunting, all Gamoreans are mercenaries, all Hutts are criminal businessmen (…slugs), all Chiss are military geniuses, all Noghri are super stealthy assassins, all Ithorians are pacifistic, all Corellians are roguish pilots with a problem for authority, all humans from Tatooine are farmers. It goes on and on. (And, being Star Wars, on, and on, and on, and on…)
In the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, the basic concept of racism is an actual fact. If just see one member of a species for a few seconds, you know everything there is to know about the entire species and every single individual. I can understand how it happens on a single episode of Star Trek that visits a planet only once, which then is never appearing again. But when it happens over decades and is done by dozens of writers in completely different stories, I find it rather inexcuseable.
Honorable mention goes to my favorite Twi’lek Nawara Ven, who has the distinction of being not some sly gangster but a starfighter pilot/lawyer of unquestionable integrity. But then, being a lawyer does kind of put him into a similar niche as smugglers and spies. It’s just their nature, I guess…
One of my favorite parts about roleplaying game is the creation of new monsters. Sometimes you look at a monster and think “I want to do something just as great”, but since there are already literally thousands of fictional creatures that have been made up by writers in the past 100 years, it always seems very difficult to come up with something that doesn’t look like an almost-copy of something else.
I’ve been looking over a lot of monsters from RPG monster books, videogames, and movies over the last years and found that really outstanding monsters are no accidents. If a monster becomes popular with fans or even a famous part of culture is not entirely up to luck and there are some things they pretty much all have in common and do not actually require being a creative genius.
The first discovery I made is that great monsters are never about their looks or their abilities, but about their behavior. Perhaps let’s call this Yora’s First Law of Monsters:“Monster behavior is more important than appearance or powers.” Yes, the alien from Alien looks really cool and it certainly helps for making it famous, but what makes it so great in the movies is not what it can do, but how it acts. The actual powers are not very interesting at all. It is fast, kills with a bite, and its blood is acid. As monster abilities go, that is very basic and even rather bland. It becomes a great monster because of the way in which the characters of the movies interact with it. It climbs on ceilings, sneaks around silently, and waits in the dark for the perfect opportunity to strike. It doesn’t actually fight very well and is quite easily killed in a direct confrontation. But it doesn’t allow you to face it in a direct confrontation and that’s what makes all the difference.
Going through some Dungeons & Dragons monster books again yesterday, I discovered Yora’s Second Law of Monsters: “Great monsters have a backstory.” With monsters in movies and novels, a great part of the plot is about revealing the story behind the monster and discovering its origin. It’s not very pronounced in Alien, but it’s still there. The eggs in the derilict ship, the dead pilot, the attack on Kane, and the eventual emergence of the alien are all clues that are hinting on the creature to be much more than just a regular alien animal. Someone once transported a whole shipload of those eggs and must have been aware of what they are, but was still unable to contain the threat. That hints at something more going on and that in turn makes the creature itself much more interesting. At the Mountains of Madness introduced two of Lovecrafts most famous creatures, and it’s really all a big mystery story about revealing their parts in a much larger picture. A a counter example, Robert Howard had Conan fight a lot of big dangerous monsters in his stories, but none of them ever really made it big. They are just scary looking things with teeth and slimy tentacles. They work for the stories, but they don’t inspire at all. Worms of the Earth is often mentioned as one of his best stories and the worms work well for the plot, but it doesn’t really seem as if there would be much more to them than that. One creature that Howard created did make it big. The serpentmen from Kull. The yuan ti from Dungeons & Dragons and the naga from Warcraft are among my favorite monsters, but they are really just remakes of Howards serpentmen. Other than taking the shape of humans with the lower body of a snake, they have almost nothing in common with the creature from Asian myth. And what makes the serpentmen different from most other monsters Howard created? They have a backstory. They have goals, they have motivations, and they are integrated in the history of the world.
This seems particularly important to me when creating new monsters for roleplaying games. When you read through monster books, the vast majority of the creatures are just very bland. They have an appearance, some abilities, and very often that is it. Two sentences about the kind of environment in which they live does not suffice to make them cool or interesting. Because there’s no plot hooks in that. What are you supposed to do with a big flying white snake that makes ordinary objects come to life? It has a look, it has powers, but what does it do? When it comes to having players confront a monster in a game, I made the observation that very often reputation makes a huge difference. A telepathic monster that can stun people with its mind might be interesting and challenging to fight. But that’s usually nothing compared to “Holy Shit! It’s a mind flayer! We’re so screwed…” Surprising the players with something completely unexpected is nice sometimes, but just as often you’re getting a lot of excitement if the players are already aware of the creatures reputation. If you create a new creature that is yet unknown, try to put a lot of hints about what it can do and make the other people of the game world be terribly afraid of it. Nobody is going to get super exited about the news that there is a pack of weird critters at the edge of the village that is known as a nuisance. Have the villagers get into a total panic because they have heard many stories about the creature and they don’t believe anyone could possibly save them. That is going to get the players a lot more excited as well.
Naming things in a fictional world is a terrible and most unenjoyable task. It’s bad enough when you do personal names and place names, but when it comes to more abstract things like organizations or types of creatures, finding a name that is reasonably acceptible (it’s never good) can take a very long time. I think I wanted to have a kind of creature similar to the abominations from Dragon Age from a very early point in working on the Ancient Lands, over 4 years ago. In the meanwhile, I added more ideas from other creatures, like folding the roles of both lichs and vampires into this new creation, and taking some elements from the Inspired from Eberron and the Eternal from Spears of the Dawn. But when it came to naming these things, nothing ever came close to fitting. But now I sat down and clicked my way through a thesaurus (they are actually good for something) and came on this wonderful word:
A word that probably most people interested in fantasy have come across once or twice. Probably always refering to something blasphemous and unholy, and just the sound of it sounds ominous, even if you don’t know what it means. I had to look it up myself and it turns out to be ancient Greek meaning “offering”. (In this case, the a- at the beginning is not a prefix meaning anti.) However, in early Christianity it was used in the sense of “offered to the devil” or “devoted to evil” and referred to an early form of excommunication. Even though I made some efforts to weed out technical and religious terms that don’t really make sense in the world of the Ancient Lands, which is very different from a standard western-christian universe, anathema seems to be a word that still works.
So what is an anathema exactly? You might recognize some of these guys. That’s what you have to expect.
Anathema are mortals who have become possessed by a demon from the Underworld, their own spirit consumed in the process and all their memories, knowledge, and much of their personalty absorbed into the demons mind. While the mortals mind still exist in some way, all the ideals, values, and desires it once had become irrelevant as the demons original personalty dominates the mind of the anathema. It usually has very little interest in the good of the mortals clan or family, but may often retain some affection to people who were close to it in its previous life. Most anathema are greed, desire, or sloth demons and almost immediately set out to some ambitious plan to sate their craving. Usually with very little reagrd to those around it, but often enough cunning to keep their new nature a secret. At least for the time being. Demons can possess any mortal whose body and spirit have been corrupted by demonic magic and all anathema are very dangerous creatures. But the most terrible ones are those created from sorcerers who willingly summoned a demon to join with it and gain immortality and great magical powers. Many anathema note that their new nature is very different from what the sorcerer expected it to be, but at that point whatever the mortal once wanted is longer of any real relevance. The demons desire to visit and explore the physical world overrides any plans the sorcerer might have had and they never feel any remorse or despair about their new nature.
So even though there are no Gods and no church in the Ancient Lands and not even true afterlives, anathema are still creatures that have turned away from mortal life and society and now exist entirely to pursue their demonic craving. They are “devoted to evil” and in the case of sorcerers “offered themselves to demons”. And they also “excommunicated” themselves from all mortal communites and their spirit will not join the clan shrine to give strength and courage to future generations. So the name fits in both its literal and proverbial meaning and it also sounds cool and ominous. What more can you want for a big bad monster?
When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.
However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.
Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
Bound by Flame (videogame)
Dark Sun (rpg setting)
Dragon Age II
The first three Drizzt novels.
Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
Rune Soldier (anime)
I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.