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Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Three Burials of Dark Lord Zergathrax

I have written on my proper history blog about the crazy shit that people have historically been willing to do to a dead body. Some of these have pretty good monster potential from a gaming standpoint. You not uncommonly find burials that have had some kind of "protective" measure applied to them -- buried with a big rock on them, feet cut off, head cut off, something jammed in the mouth (at least, this is a common explanation for these practices; obviously you can't say with total certainty). But these, to me, seem like things that happen at the end of the scenario -- our heroes beat Dark Lord Zergathrax and make sure he's buried with a bucket on his head or whatever.

Consider the following story:
“That very same day on which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, at Drakelow, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. … When these astonishing events had taken place … for some time, such a disease afflicted the village that all the peasants fell into desperate straits and within a few days all except three … perished by sudden death in a remarkable way.
… they received permission from the bishop to go to their graves and dig them up. They found them intact, but the linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood. They cut off the men's heads and placed them in the graves between their legs, tore out the hearts from their corpses, and covered the bodies with earth again. They brought the hearts to the place called Dodecrossefora … and there burned them from morning until evening. When they had at last been burned up, they cracked with a great sound and everyone there saw an evil spirit in the form of a crow fly from the flames.”
- Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna
Or this one!
“At this time in the county of Buckinghamshire … a certain man died, and his wife, an honourable woman, and his family took care to bury him with full customary rites on the feast of the Lord's Ascension. But the very next night he entered the bedchamber of his sleeping wife. … When the dead man came back, he was greeted by the alarmed shouts of the watchmen, and, unable to cause any more mischief, went away. Repelled in this way by his wife, he became a nuisance to his brothers … 
Still the dead man arrived each night, making as if to seize those who were sleeping, but the vigilance and strength of those on watch kept him away. Then he took to prancing among the animals in the byre and the fields around the house … 
The bishop was just as amazed as everybody else, but was told by some of his advisers that such things had often happened in England (emphasis mine), and that the usual remedy (which gave comfort and reassurance to a frightened community) was to dig up the body of whichever miserable person was causing the nuisance and cremate it. 
Such a solution seemed to the bishop both unseemly and sacrilegious, and so instead he prepared a scroll of absolution and gave it to the archdeacon with the instructions that the dead man's grave should be opened, the scroll placed on his chest, and the grave closed up again. … All was done according to these instructions, and with the scroll placed upon the cadaver … the dead man never wandered again … “. 
- William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum
This one's my favourite:
“... the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death. A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster. But those precautions were of no avail ; for the atmosphere, poisoned by the vagaries of this foul carcass, filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath.
… While they were thus banqueting, two young men (brothers), who had lost their father by this plague, mutually encouraging one another, said, "This monster has already destroyed our father, and will speedily destroy us also, unless we take steps to prevent it. Let us, therefore, do some bold action which will at once ensure our own safety and revenge our father's death ..."
... hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig … they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. ”
- William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum
Not all weird burials are to do with stopping someone from coming back to life. For some people, they were just a matter of practicality. For instance, Richard the Lionheart's guts were buried where he died, but his body was transported from there to be buried next to his father, presumably because they wanted to preserve him for the journey. However, his heart was also sent to be buried in Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Similarly, Robert the Bruce had his heart removed from his body; it's buried at Melrose Abbey.

Richard I's heart in lead casket. 
Some hearts were kept in heart-shaped reliquaries or cists: here's an example from Ireland, now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. If you're interested in hear burials in general, there's a fun article here.

OK, so people were sometimes cut up and had different bits buried in different places. You can read more about it on my history blog. But what can you do with this in a game? I think there are a couple of interesting options.

  • Robert the Bruce's embalmed heart was supposed to be taken on crusade to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to fulfil a vow he'd made while he was alive. It never actually made it, because the guy who was supposed to take it died along the way. But in a game, a heart like this could make a fun quest object -- deliver the heart to such-and-such a place (or prevent it being delivered), particularly if the vow is punished or rewarded in some supernatural way. I quite like the idea of finding a party of paladins or whatever who have all died and this heart in a casket is among their belongings. 
  • Of course, in a modern horror game a mummified heart in a heart-shaped reliquary makes a great item, particularly because you're going to have the absolute hell of a time explaining what it is and where you got it. Obviously, if it's the heart of a saint or something it makes a great weapon against the forces of darkness, but you could also have some evil cult types going around murdering people to feed the reliquary. The PCs are sitting there looking at the grave of Zergathrax, totally baffled about why he's getting stronger when they've been guarding it the whole time. 

Reliquary containing the heart of St Vincent de Paul, Lyons.
Baller cleric weapon: you could club a vampire to death pretty good with that thing!



  • I'm particularly enamoured of the idea of some guy getting resurrected, only he's in pieces -- so you have his head somewhere telling blasphemous secrets, his body stumbling around looking for its head, and his entrails ... probably not doing a lot. I guess that's arguably the guy from Re-Animator. Or Vecna. 
  • To kill a vampire, you destroy its heart, but an interesting variation would be a creature where you actually have to restore its heart in order to kill it -- like a mummy with its organs in canopic jars or something, or anything where the restoration of the heart sort of rehumanises it. 

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