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I’ve just finished recording some Ancient Egyptian folktales for Librivox, and I’m particularly interested by the story of Naneferkaptah, in which he steals the spellbook of Thoth, who is the god of wizardry. He does this using various spells that allow him to create the sorts of living statues which haunt so many dungeons. He also defeats a vast, regenerating serpent by rubbing sand in its wounds, to create a physical barrier that prevents the pieces reuniting. All lovely stuff, proving that some gaming tropes are older than the Pyramids.

The thing which interests me is that it takes Thoth a couple of days to become aware that his magic book has been stolen.  He then goes to Ra, who says “Sure, you can kill him, and his family” which Thoth does by a sort of magical compulsion. The compulsion is carried by a spiritual agent, rather than Thoth himself.This is, as the translator notes, unexpected for people who are used to Jeudo-Christian conceptions of the Divine. Egyptian gods don’t know what you are doing, the vast majority of the time. To know things, they need to either perceive them, using the limited perceptive capacities of their bodies, or be told by minions. These are limited in number: there is not an angel by every blade of grass in this conception of the Divine.

The scene above is famous: it’s the Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead. The heart is in the little urn on the left, the Feather of Truth is on the right, and if you fail the test, the crocodile-faced thing in the center right consumes you. The test is necessary because the Gods don’t actually know if you are guilty or not. They don’t have omniscience. Your sins have changed you, in a spiritual way, and that change is detectable, but not by casual observation.

The text we are looking at above is a spell, and its function is to wreck this test, so that the human always passes on to Paradise, regardless of the state of the heart.  The Gods are fooled by this, even Thoth, god of magic, who is standing there on the right with his pen, ready to write down the result. Thoth’s strangely limited, for a God of Cleverness. Our way around this in Ars Magica is to have the gods as powerful faeries: they care about the emotions generated by the ritual, not the actual ritual itself, so they don’t mind if, superficially, you are conning them.  Well, the Eater of the Dead may care: but no-one asks her.

 

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3 replies on “Gods can’t see you in roleplaying games

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