Signs. Spirits. Sigils. Secrets. For my first blog post on Otherworldly Incantations I want to open with a longer-than-average series in four parts on Western Esoteric and Occult traditions, their relation to Dungeons & Dragons (particularly D&D 5e), and topical Plot Hooks to inspire Dungeon Masters, worldbuilders, and D&D players to incorporate Occult themes. Let’s learn about Therianthropy, the Old Norse Magickal Tradition, Apotropaic Magick, Hermeticism, and Alchemy!
Reminder: don’t forget to click on the “+” sign to expand the Plot Hooks sections. Tip: monsters and lore from the 5e Monster Manual bear a “1”, from Volo’s Guide to Monsters bear a “2”, and from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes bear a “3”.
A couple provisos. First, this series only covers Western traditions, though most of them have origins elsewhere. Future series may cover other areas. Second, I have decided to skip two Western Esoteric tendencies people may mention: Nazi Occultism, which I do not wish to validate with written space and find unfit for gameplay, and “the Illuminati”, a dead horse who others have thoroughly beaten to pulp.
Ok, so what will I include then? Many traditions, progressing somewhat chronologically.
PART ONE: Therianthropy, the Old Norse Magickal Tradition, Apotropaic Magick, Hermeticism, Alchemy.
PART TWO: Gnosticism, Thaumaturgy, Kabbalah, Cunning Folk, Theosophy.
PART THREE: Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Ceremonial Magick, Luciferianism, Anthroposophy.
PART FOUR: Thelema, Reconstructionist Neo-Paganism, Wicca, New Age Spirituality, Chaos Magick.
ESOTERICISM & OCCULTISM: A QUICK INTRO
“Esoteric” comes from a root word meaning “internal”, whereas “Occult” implies “hidden”. Whereas Esotericism corresponds with a more patient, disciplined approach toward mystical matters, Occultism has an association with taking the shortcut…at a cost. “Occultism” basically refers to a subset of “Esotericism”. Both can have mystery schools, initiation bodies, secret societies. Both espouse a worldview of hidden paths to empowerment or perception, enlightenment or salvation. Both believe in a universal but secret dimension of reality purported to exist objectively. Historically perceived as heretical, irrational, and obscurantist, these traditions nevertheless strongly shape Western notions of magic, including D&D.
Scholar Antoine Faivre defined Four Primary Principles of “Western Esotericism”:
1. “Correspondences”: impacts reverberate between macrocosm and microcosm.
2. “Living Nature”: a singular or plural lifeforce or will imbues the universe.
3. “Imagination & Meditations”: progression through imagination and meditation, with rituals, symbols, and spirits as tools to access modes of being and levels of reality.
4. “Experience of Transmutation”: personal spiritual transformation, such as through “Gnosis”.
Additionally, Two Secondary Principles:
1. “Practice of Concordance”: world spiritualities share a common unifying principle or root.
2. “Transmission”: gurus transmit teachings and secrets to disciples via progressive initiation.
In contrast, scholar Kocku von Stuckrad described Western Esotericism more broadly as “the claim of higher knowledge”. Superior wisdom to the common sense. A “master key” to the hardest questions. These definitions both have value.
Magic Versus Magick
The famous 20th century Occultist and Ceremonial Magician Aleister Crowley contrasted “Stage Magic“, such as the magician’s trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat, from “Witchcraft“, or “magick” with a “-k” at the end. He defined the latter as causing “Change in conformity with Will”. Esotericists and Occultists claim practicality as their measure of validity, not mere performance. So throughout this work I use the proper term “magick”, to distinguish these traditions from those of the magician. Because respect.
Runes, Glyphs, and Sigils, Oh My!
I need to introduce a couple more details. “Runes” refer to writing from the Old Germanic or Anglo-Saxon alphabet, whereas “Glyphs” mean more pictographic symbols. Do either inherently imply a “magickal” nature? No. But “Sigils” do, they specify symbols used in magick. Imagine a pictorial signature of a demon or other entity (as in Goetia), or a symbolic representation of a mage’s desired outcome (as in Chaos Magick). Often in D&D, wizard spell art includes “Sigils”, or arcane geometry. You often see it when Wizards of the Coast wants to make something look especially epic. And it works. For a reason.
Occult Magick & D&D Cosmology
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s 16th century Three Books of Occult Philosophy divides the Occult broadly into three strands: “Natural“, “Celestial“, and “Ceremonial“. “Ceremonial Magic” includes “Goetia” and refers to conjuration, while “Theurgy” refers more to divination. “Natural Magic” referred to tendencies like the yet-undivided astrology and astronomy, alchemy and chemistry, wortcunning and pharmacology. Agrippa also mentions “Enchantment”. These typologies, and the traditions chronicling them, influence the Eight Schools of Magic in D&D. Agrippa’s “Elementary World” inspires D&D’s Four Elemental Planes, and the “Celestial World” inspires the Outer Planes, where outsiders and deities dwell. D&D’s Ethereal Plane and Astral Plane also have clear origins in the Esoteric and Occult, as we will see.
Why deal in secrecy?
There exists a complex relationship between these traditions’ persecution by dominant institutions, the ability for would-be gurus to gain power in fringe groups through Illuminism and Obscurantism, and the legitimate belief that hidden paths more accurately describe the nature of reality. This tension certainly proves ripe for storytelling, worldbuilding, and gameplay. Let’s take a look.
Forward, into the Æther!
#1. THERIANTHROPY: MONSTROUS TRANSFORMATION
PERIOD: Paleolithic; Classical Antiquity; Middle Ages; Renaissance.
SOURCES: Paleolithic cave art; wolf-warrior totemism worldwide; Ancient Greek commentary on Scythian tribes; Middle Ages werewolf panic.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Therianthropy” refers to folklore on “shapeshifting”. Tales of beastly transformation. Most commonly the werewolf curse “lycanthropy”, but also others. It can invoke animistic beliefs in animal ancestry, totems, and tutelary spirits too.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: Druid Wildshape, the Barbarian Paths Ancestral Guardian & Totem Warrior.
1. Diplomacy & Dinner. The Druid Brys Redpad has taken up residence with a pack of Wereboar1 down by the river, attempting to build diplomatic relations via Wildshape. Locals trust Redpad, but definitely have their suspicions about the shapeshifters. She usually returns to town each week for a family dinner, but this time, is nowhere to be seen. A hunter soon informs the party that he had heard loud squeals near the treeline earlier, and a voice like that of a Troll1, shouting “bacon”…
2. Cave Mother. The snowstorm slows the party’s travel considerably. As they round the cliffside, a cave entrance appears. Refuge from the frosty winds. Looking closer, a campfire light flickers inside just long enough to illuminate an old shaman quaffing an elixir. Her skin soon rips and mats over with fur. Bones thicken, and a snout protrudes. Below the beast, little cubs sit, shivering and bloodied. The Werebear1 turns her eyes at the party, leering, as she steps in front of the cubs. Her roar echoes across the cave walls…
3. Blood Bond. Dusk approaches on the day of the Full Moon as the Barbarian clan leads the party to the grove where they believe the Lycara Cult will hold the Blood Ritual. Just as the final light of the sunset recedes, the party pass canopy and copse and see hooded figures bearing blood-anointed daggers. The cloaks howl and press hands together, their horrendous Werewolf1 forms emerging. Distracted, the party now notices their Barbarian scouts have disappeared. Bear traps now stand behind them, and as well: a trail of blood…
4. Lizards & Wizards. The Lizardfolk1 Rangers are not used to speaking to food, but things have gotten strange lately. They inform the party that one of their kind recently ate a Dragonborn Wizard brewer and fell gravely ill after. That night, their body corrupted and became a Yuan-Ti Abomination1, slithering off into the marsh’s depths. The Rangers ask the party to hunt it down, as Lizardfolk1 do not eat such creatures…
5. Tiger Tango. The Barbarian brushes her tiger totem, walking briskly toward the party. With desperate eyes, she beckons them to the alley. There she explains that her mate Nekesa has gone missing, and she worries for her safety…and the safety of others also. Nekesa recently contracted the Weretiger’s1 curse, and she fled to the veld to find solitude. The Barbarian begs the party to help her track and subdue Nekesa before the Hunger threatens the delicate peace pact between her clan and the townsfolk. Suddenly, a shadow passes the rooftops. Someone has heard…was it her?
#2. THE OLD NORSE MAGICKAL TRADITION: RUNES & RITES
PERIOD: Scandinavian Iron Age.
SOURCES: Old Norse inscriptions, runestones, sagas; Icelandic Sigil staves.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: The Old Norse Magickal Tradition covers several different aspects: dweomer and runes, Seidr and Galdr. In D&D, “dweomer” refers to a magical aura emanated by enchanted items. This comes from the Norse word meaning “Dwarven magic”, Dwarves being associated with smithing. Runes used as Sigil inscriptions function as blessings, divinations, and spellcraft. Seidr refers to Norse shamanism, women mediums, and communal ritualism associated with many domains. Sign, soothsaying, sorcery, string magic, sex magic, seething. Seidr has connotations with Elves and witches, circular dances and wool-spinning charms. It emphasizes incantations (Galdr) and singing meter (Galdralag).
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: Bardic, Dwarven, and Elven magic; D&D’s magic item system (3.5’s Analyze Dweomer); 4e’s Primal Magic; the Divination and Enchantment Schools of Magic.
1. Sea Shanty. The party hears rumor of a seafaring Elven Bard called Galdora who can safeguard childbirth and inflict madness, raise storms and sink ships, blunt swords and weaken armor, even bless battle. Perhaps they can enlist her aid before the pirate slavers make landfall…
2. Seething Spiritcraft. An outsider’s careless remark has broken taboo for a Half-Orc Barbarian. Anger, then rage, then seething rage. The party has taken notice, and so has the Spirit World. The ancestors have grown angry, with the incorporeal form of a Wraith1 or Specter1 beginning to flow out from the Barbarian’s quavering brow…
3. Desert Dwarves. The ornate axe the party brings back to the Dwarven Cleric holds the runes of Tad-il’ra, the Dwarves of the Desert Sun Tribe. With a little guesswork, the spiritworker determines that the axe glows in proximity to the Scorrow1-Drider, the wicked scorpion Drow…just as the glyphs glow now in fact…how strange…
4. Sigil Stave. The Duergar Warlock3-Mind Master does not trust the party, but he has greater concerns at present. As they pass him the Sigil Stave, it begins to hum. He plants it in the ground and reads aloud until an inscribed sphere emanates outward, protecting these unlikely allies. As the Hook Horrors1 creep out of the Underdark cavern, the sphere keeps them at bay. But the Horrors1 sit down, waiting. The staff sits unmoving too. Now what?
5. Revenant’s Revenge. The party made a wise choice in consulting the Dwarven medium on the matter of the relentless Revenant’s1 target. Clairvoyant, she reaches into the Æther and traces the Silver Cord link until it reveals its origin. A shimmer envelopes the medium. She gasps, “No, it cannot be, I already buried you!” A scarlet aura points at her. An accusation?
#3. APOTROPAIC MAGICK: PROTECTION FROM EVIL
PERIOD: Aegian Bronze Age.
SOURCES: Egytian and Anatolian influence on Greece.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: Apotropaic Magick specifies spells and superstitions aimed at deflecting jinxes, harm, and evil spirits, through protective wards or offerings. Some practices include crossed fingers and averting the “Evil Eye“. Use of talismans, such as the rabbit’s paw and horseshoe good luck charms. Knocking on wood. It can also include grotesquerie, such as gargoyles, gorgons, jack-o-lanterns, or sheela na gig. It also includes amulets, like dreamcatchers, crucifixes, garlic, mirrors, or hamsa.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: the Abjuration School of Magic; D&D monster lore.
1. Batty Business. Rumor has it that Vampires1 have descended upon the noble kingdom of Kamelil. Citizens go missing, and bat populations explode. Some nights the deceased show up in alleyways with pierced necks. A telltale sign. The party gets a lead that further raises the stakes. A man reveals he’s found a note hidden inside a coffin. It implicates the Garlic Guild, whose coffers have filled as of late. A racket? A diversion? Simple opportunism? The party must get to the bottom of this…
2. Magic Mirror. The party meets the Dealer at the Lighthouse and acquires the Magic Mirror, said to detect Vampires1. Just as they complete the trade, a menacing shadow looms. As the Magic Mirror points at the figure, no reflection shows. The Vampire1 laughs, unconcerned. The Dealer laughs, also unconcerned. She pulls the cord of the Lighthouse ignition. The Magic Mirror reflects the blinding beacon’s beam, amplifying it intensely. It incinerates the bloodsucker on the spot. And it burns a hole through the tower wall too, drawing a hungry swarm of Vargouille2 over…
3. Hedged Bets. The party has escaped the inner sanctum and made it to the outer hedgerow, where grim statuary guards the grounds. Suddenly, the statues spring to life as Gargoyles1. Standing among the hedges, the party’s guide immediately knocks on wood. The Gargoyles1 collapse. But an angry Wood Woad2 rises…
4. Shady Salesman. A mourning widower brings a sad warning to the party that an unscrupulous merchant in the bazaar has sold cursed wares as protective trinkets. His wife took one whiff of her new perfume, and turned to stone. The merchant was last seen heading toward the Old Town Sewers, where a Gorgon1 is rumored to dwell. The party requires strong wards to stave off a similar fate..but does the merchant have accomplices?
5. Pumpkin Punk. Torches burn and merriment fills the air as the All Hallow’s Eve Festival continues. Costumes, pranks, and prizes amuse the party as they travel the town’s lanes. But they happen upon a scene of slaughter: humanoid bodies, torn to ribbons. A figure riding a Nightmare1 flies off into the sky, cackling. Blood falls from the hooves. Just as the party takes in the grisly sight, a Halfling Paladin in a studded vest bursts from a large pumpkin, and smites the Nightmare1 down from the sky. The Halfling urgently points to the Jack-o-Lanterns nearby, “Quick, put these on. The Oni1 can’t see you with them on…”
#4. HERMETICISM: SUN, MOON, AND STARS
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Hermeticism” marks one of the most important strands of Western Esotericism. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus purportedly reveals the three Occult gifts of Alchemy (“Operation of the Sun”; on perfecting the material), Astrology (“Operation of the Moon”; on influences from planetary motion), and Theurgy (“Operation of the Stars”; on angelic magic). Its Alchemy contributions include the airtight glass tube (“hermetically-sealed”), chemical distillation and fermentation, and “spiritual alchemy” studies. Its Astrology spawned the now-common Rider-Waite Tarot Card Deck. Its Theurgy practices include The Seal of Solomon, the Enochian Alphabet, and the Alphabet of the Magi.
Hermeticism includes the Four Classical Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. It makes use of magick tropes like Sympathetic Magic and Ritual Magic, Geometric Magic and Instant Runes. Its vast breadth encompasses both laboratories and horoscopes. Later on it influenced Renaissance magick via Agrippa, and the Hermeticist text The Kybalion partially founded New Age spirituality beliefs with its principles on mentalism, correspondence, vibration, polarity, rhythm, cause & effect, and gender.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: the Transmutation and Divination Schools of Magic; Elemental Magic and Warlock Pacts; Casting Components and Ritual Casting; Arcane Magic & Divine Magic aesthetics; Cleric & Paladin classes.
1. Riders Await. The Kenku1 fortune teller shuffles the cards silently, her long hours of practice apparent. She deals them out one by one to read the party’s horoscope. Her eyes widen with shock. She pulls a necklace from under her robe, opens the amulet, and retrieves an elaborate key. She quickly scribes a note and hands it over with the key. Her voice crows in the tone of the party member closest to her: “the vault”. They can’t help but notice the first word of the note: “Armageddon“…
2. Deva Divination. Dazzling light fills the party’s faces as the Human Cleric Anok falls to the ground, writhing, speaking in tongues as his imperfect form struggles with the Divine Alphabet. His eyes burst from his head as the ritual summons three Devas1 from among a celestial choir. They set a halo of light around his face and speak to the party, with words that flow like song on the winds, folding back on themselves: “you may ask us / ask us / but one question / one question / ask us / you may / what is it you wish, mortal?”
3. Ghost in the Machine. Legend has it an Elven Wizard and Human Witch loved one another with their full hearts, building their study together in the hollow beneath the city. They studied night and day, day and night. But the Witch’s kind are want of years. She, too, passed on. The Wizard widower could not accept this; he knew his love would refuse death. For hundreds of years he continued his experiments, searching. A complex Relay of Contingency and Glyph of Warding and Symbol all built together. Eventually the Wizard, too, passed on. He had not seen that the Relay had given the Witch’s Ghost a new geometry. It improves itself, but can only do so much. The party will do its bidding…or else.
4. Cosmic Choice. The animals behave erratically. The plants twirl, as if dancing. The tide swells and crashes. On this rarest of days the sun, moon, and stars have all reached precise Cosmic Alignment with the planets. The party stands at the center of the trinity of Soul Gate Stones, just as the old Hermit approximated. Lightning strikes each one in succession, granting the party a Wish spell. But all things have their cost…
5. Balor’s Bargain. The party awakens to the smell of sulfur and brimstone. The sound of lamentation and woe surrounds them. A mammoth Balor1 stands before them, its vile summoning spell had finally succeeded in bringing them to the Ring of Captivity. It marks on its scroll and grins. But the experiment requires rigorous testing. Oh, it will release the party this time…if they can bargain.
#5. ALCHEMY: METAMORPHIC MATERIALS
PERIOD: Classical Antiquity; Early Middle Ages; High Middle Ages
SOURCES: North African, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and European texts and traditions; Western texts include the writings of Zosimos of Panopolis and Paracelsus, as well as Aurora Consurgens, Fasciculus Chemicus, Theatrum Chemicum, Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, Musaeum Hermeticum, and The Mirror of Alchimy.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Alchemy”, a philosophical, protoscientific, and magickal system, aims at purifying, maturing, and perfecting objects and materials. It gradually expanded as a spirituality. Originally influenced by Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Stoicism, and Gnosticism, it later shaped other Pagan, as well as Jewish and Christian, strains. China and India had parallel developments in Alchemy, and the Islamic World introduced more scientific rigor, plus Numerological mysticism, into Western Alchemy, after the fall of Rome. Alchemy’s cosmology includes a World Soul, First Matter, and Æther. And also Seven Elements, adding Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt. Plus essence states: Hotness, Coldness, Wetness, Dryness. Alchemy emphasized detail.
Some crucial discoveries Alchemy tried to make include:
+Chrysopoeia: the transmutation of “base metals” (like lead) into “noble metals” (like gold) via the “Philosopher’s Stone“. And the “Alkahest“, a universal solvent.
+Spagyrics: an “Elixir of Immortality“, a “Panacea” (a cure-all), and various “alchemical medicines” like ashen tinctures.
+Alchemical Devices: The Aludel: a sublimating pot. The Crucible. The Alembic: a tubed-beaker still. The Retort: a condenser glassware still. The Mortar & Pestle. The Cupell: an ore assaying mini-cup. The Athanor: a uniform constant furnace. The Bain-Marie: a double-boiling water bath. And the Sand Bath, sweet.
+Alchemical Processes: the “Four Stages” of Blackening, Whitening, Yellowing, and Reddening aimed to break materials down to the First Matter then progress them into the Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemists used such techniques as Calcination, Ceration, Cohobation, Congelation-*deep breath in*-Digestion, Distillation, Fermentation, Filtration, Fixation-*deep breath out*-Multiplication, Projection, Solution, and Sublimation. What a mouthful!
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: the Transmutation School of Magic; D&D magic item, artifact, and alchemical crafting systems; the Homunculus 5e creature.
1. Apocalyptic Alkahest. Deranged cultists of Juiblex3, Demon Lord of ooze and slime, have nearly completed the Stella Signata, an Alkahest that promises to dissolve all matter into a crude wasteworld. Only sacking the Four Temple Laboratories of Melanos, Leucos, Xanthos, and Ios can put an end to this perilous solvent…
2. Goblin Gunpowder. A Half-Elf Ranger brings word to the party that after repeatedly dredging their own refuse piles, the Goblins1 of Grishelheim have invented a black powdery substance that ignites into an incendiary flare. They’ve begun attaching fireworks to kites to watch them go BOOM. She fears that once the Hobgoblin1 squadron returns from the war campaign down South, they’ll help the Goblins1 concoct more dangerous uses. Will the party intervene before it’s too late?
3. Cauldron of Conquest. Through the scrying orb the party sees the Orc Warlock look down at the metal and ironwood body before him with a sickening smile. He pours into it his disgust and his hatred. Oh, how the Elves will pay, he mutters. The Warforged Paladin’s eyes open, and it swears its Oath of Conquest. But even from afar, the party can see its heart holds reservations…
4. Prophecy & Profit. The Gnomish Alchemist Ohanzee has really done it. He has completed the fabled Pharmacopic Stone, an artifact that converts platinum into Panacea. As the news of this miracle spreads, the sickly rabble who barely survived the Sewer Plague bring him baskets and bouquets to honor him. But the Dwarven Kingdom will not allow this threat to their metallurgical tradition to grow unchecked. What’s more, the Gnomish Lords too have labeled Ohanzee a heretic. Will the party pick a side?
5. Alchemical Advantage. The party has discovered the last known copy of an Alchemical treatise written by the late Dwarf Zain Runestone. A thesis the local magistrates censored and burned long ago. In the eyes of King Whitehead, simply possessing such a text should mark the party as Enemies of the State. Page one alone details a protracted process for distilling a liquid that purportedly enables one to dissolve the locks off the Royal Vault. But page two details a cure for baldness! Perhaps the King can be reasoned with?
Well folks, that’s the first five Esoteric & Occult traditions covered. All you DM’s, worldbuilders, and D&D players stay tuned for parts two, three, and four! Maybe take a moment to share the article if you liked it, and let me know in the comments what you think. Next Tuesday I’ll cover Gnosticism, Thaumaturgy, Kabbalah, Cunning Folk, and Theosophy. In the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. And if you want to stay up-to-date on all my posts, look down at the bottom for my newsletter sign-up. And thank you to my first Patron on Patreon, helping keep this project alive: Rudy. Thanks for the support, Rudy!