Posted on October 27, 2018, 10:37:44 PM by Jubal
Bosch, Breugel, Beelzebub and Baphomet
Bosch, Breugel, Beelzebub and Baphomet
It’s nearly Hallowe’en, so let’s talk about some of the darker creatures of myth and legend – in this article, specifically, demons! I’m here using demon as a general category for evil magical creatures associated with hells and punishment – I’m not for example differentiating demons and devils in the way some specific settings do. One of the most important influences on modern ideas of hell is the work of Heironymous Bosch, an late fifteenth to early sixteenth century painter whose bizarre, horrific, and chaotic scenes created a grotesque, absurd, terrifying image of the hereafter. As well as his own contributions he practically started a genre, with Pieter Breugel being perhaps the most famous follower to create a number of works in a similar style. Rather than the emphasis being on punishment or sin per se, the emphasis of Bosch and Breugel’s hell seems to be chaos, the warping of real and everyday things into disconcerting and unfamiliar combinations, busy pictures showing a mass of uniquely crafted tortures and creatures scuttling around.
The Prince of Hell, from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights
Given their already notable impact on the genre, can these eccentric painters of the sixteenth century teach creators of fantasy anything today or add anything new to how we treat hellscape-style subjects? I think they can, especially when it comes to our depictions of demonic creatures. The dazzling variety of beasts in the works of the two men is one of their crowning achievements. Their demons are not regimented or regular, even when they appear in armies – they are the unique horrors of unique contraventions of the moral order of the universe.
Despite this, depictions of the demonic in fantasy media have settled to some degree. Horror demons have a lot of variation, but primarily down the lines of body horror and lovecraftian tentacles: meanwhile fantasy imps, devils and demons have in many cases settled into the goat-horned, satyr-like devil depiction, or at least some other form of humanoid. Tabletop gaming perhaps further builds on this perception, by presenting regular ranks of, to take two Warhammer examples, ‘bloodletters’ or ‘plaguebearers’, all of whom are essentially similar in style and function. If I say “demon” to you, you probably expect a pointed tail, red skin, perhaps a prodding weapon like a trident. Whilst it’s great to have such an evocative image available, it feels like there’s more that could be done to play around with those ideas.
Reintroducing a much wider conception of flat out weird demons and what they look like has a bunch of advantages for any creative work that touches on the subject. As such, here’s three key ideas for how to use Bosch-style demon ideas in your creative work. Firstly, ditch the humanoid body plans. Some of Bosch’s stuff may be more body horror than you want in a fantasy campaign, but there’s plenty that isn’t, especially among the smaller demons he depicts. There are a few broad categories here it’s worth thinking about: firstly, chimera-type demons, with animal heads, bodies, or both; secondly, blemmye types, where the order and number of humanoid body parts is edited, but in a way that is grotesque rather than horrific; thirdly, combination types, where a demon is heavily associated with a non-animal item, such as a walking helmet or a creature with knives for feet; and finally, a particular specialism in the bosch oeuvre, cavity types, where a creature’s body is hollow and actually contains something else, be that a smaller demon or a useful/important item or similar. Many of these are also great from a storytelling perspective compared to a ‘standard’ demon. Chimera-types create an interesting mix of absurdity alongside malice, especially those with animal bodies and human heads. Their animal parts might be meant to exaggerate the extent to which they’re a reversal of the norms – a fish or a chicken attacking a human, for example – or they might give clues as to a demon’s character or goals (a conniving fish-demon or a cowardly chicken-headed demon might be fun for example). These things are done best when they’re done with the most every-day things possible – there’s something much more unsettling about a demon with spoons for feet and forks for hands than one with giant iron maxes for feet and swords for hands, because the former demon takes things we associate with normality and safety and puts a twist on them, rather than things we associate with danger already. Different body forms can also make a big difference to what you want players to think about a creature – a small creature, such as you might get from having a walking head with feet and a tail, is going to feel inherently less dangerous to the extent that it might almost be cute. Enlarging human anatomical items for example, like making the mouth of part of hell the literal mouth of a monster, is gross and definitely fully into the demonic idea. Finally, the demons-with-cavities idea that Bosch and Breugel both used is well worth considering: if a demon visibly is, say, carrying a vital artefact inside their body space, then the characters can get a visible reminder of what they’re doing without encumbering the demon with having to waste a hand carrying it.
Demons need something to do - this sad guy from Breugel's Dulle Griet at least has a hobby!Second, give demons things to do! The concept of demons as generic servants of some greater evil who basically just obey orders is not at all borne out in sixteenth century illustrations – these guys might be peons of the lowest kind, but they still have both personalities and specific roles/functions, even if that work is magically dangling food above the hungry or just something bizarre like stealing eggs from geese and laying beetles in them or whatever. Even smaller demons ought to have personalities and hobbies, ideally – the idea of a strict typology where “type X demon has powers E, F, and G” can work with demonic creatures, but typology of characteristics shouldn’t necessarily create complete conformity of character, especially among the more chaotic sorts of demons.Third, link demons to what they’re doing in form. This is an area where the D&D alignment system has done more harm than good, by promoting a subdivision of demonic creatures where the primary differentiating feature is their attitude to . This then encourages demonic beings to be presented first within that framework and then given other attributes secondarily, whereas ideas like the classic deadly sins, or the circles of hell, might be significantly better organising principles. Beside the iconic idea of the succubus, there are surprisingly few demonic creatures that spring to mind that are really designed as a direct representation of other sins, despite the fact that these by definition lend themselves to interesting plot-hooks and visuals: imagine an avarice demon with a cavity body into which it pours money, an envy demon that takes on the visual form of the strongest enemy present, or a gluttony demon with two extra arms devoted to stuffing its face full of meat. Breugel's sin of pride - note the bizarre buildings that form the background.Fourth, remember that demons reflect the concerns from a human reality. Take the seven deadly sins, which whilst famously generic in some ways do specifically showcase the preoccupations of the time. Two sins excluded from the modern list were used at times in the past (acedia, of spiritual indifference, and vainglory, the sin of boasting). Gluttony makes the traditional list, but there’s no deadly sin related to lying – those priorities might be different in a society less concerned about food supplies and more concerned about information access. The tools and creatures that the demons use to make up themselves should reflect the world the characters and/or the users of your work know. Are there particular professions thought to be mysterious or magical in your setting? Breugel alluded to superstition about tightrope walkers by putting a demonic one in his Fall of the Magician. Particular creatures associated with certain virtues or vices in this world (Breugel associated pigs with gluttony)? The fact that a standard devil has goat hooves and horns is simply less interesting in a world that doesn't actually have any obvious goats in it!Finally, give demons a suitable environment. The thing that really hammers Bosch's hell into place isn't the demons so much as the fact that they're living in such a rich environment that has all the same upended madness that they themselves embody. We're perhaps too used to just thinking of hell/underworld locations as grim and firey and full of things that kill you. In fact, hell doesn't need lots of things in it that kill people, for the simple reason that most people who get there are decidedly past the point where that would be a significant concern to them. Rather, hell is about messing with their immortal souls - a place of buildings jumbled together in utterly wrong ways, clocks running backwards and forwards alternately every time you look at them, people living in bottles and the open mouths of giants and ships on land and castles in the sea. The overall theming of a hellscape is often done well, but the richness and maddening detail of these fifteenth and sixteenth century depictions is something that could be very usefully brought into more fantasy writing and settings as well.
So there you have it. I hope that this has given you some good ideas for demons - let me know if you liked it, or if you know any good recent examples of Bosch-style demons in fantasy settings, by commenting below!