The following was trimmed from Rival Magic, in part for length, but also because I didn’t sufficiently express it as an opinion of the Soqotrans, rather than a definitive statement of a truth of the setting. Long term players will notice links to the previous edition of The Mysteries and Houses of Hermes : Mystery Cults.
Magi who study Alexander the Great may be able to explain the potent local magic of Soqotra: it is a well of the “dragon forces”. Alexander was not merely a man: he was born of the coupling of his sorceress mother with a mystical serpent sacred to Zeus. He was trained by Aristotle, an ancient pioneer of magic, and became aware that if he conquered certain sites, he could channel an energy left over the time of the Titans into his body, making him a living god. As he conquered each site of the “dragon forces” he built a city and dedicated it to himself. Each city contained an altar which channelled these primordial forces into Alexander. On his return from India, Alexander detoured to conquer Soqotra, so far from the rest of his empire, because it was such a powerful wellspring of the dragon force. This fountain of magical force explains the extraordinary number of powerful, accessible spirits on this island, and the island’s high aura, which is 2 in all places not influenced by another Realm.
The Ptolemies, who ruled from Alexander’s greatest Alexandria, ensured that the dragon force of the island remained tied to their dynasty. After the Ptolemaic cult vanished or was absorbed by the Soqotrans, the local spirits regained control of this wellspring of power. They ration it out to their allies in the indigenous traditions.
The local sorcerers access the dragon force in three ways. Scholars of magic, including Hermetic magi, may access the dragon force in a limited way, using their own understanding of the way magic works to gain Realm bonuses. Most Soqotran sorcerers have a local spirit that acts as an ally and it allows them to access the dragon forces. Senior sorcerers develop even closer bonds with their spirit, and once it becomes their constant aide they have deeper contact to the dragon forces. The council that governs the island is the descendant of the ancient ruling caste of the Ptolemaic temple, and access to the dragon forces is invested in these priestly roles. The ceremonies that permit ascension to the Council are administered by the King of Serpents. The King knows, although he has never told any of his current generation of followers, that there is no particular reason there need only be eight members of the Council. There is an effective limit, based on the power of whatever is in the altar the King holds closed during council meetings, but eight is far below this limit.
Indian mystics speak of a second force, the Elephant Force, stating that the current state of the world is due to the tension between these two forces. The origin story of the dragon trees of the island reflects the existence of this second force. This story is similar to the stories told by Criamon magi, who see the world as the result of a struggle between the forces of Love and Strife. The Dragon force is Strife, which is, they say, the force that allows magic and encourages destruction.
The first mention of Socotra I found was in Marco Polo. It’s a single line, saying that the most powerful magi in the world live there. “Oh,” I thought “now that’s interesting. Perhaps I can use that.”
There are not a great number of books about Socotra. In part this is because after the game period, the island was invaded by a religious group which systematically destroyed the historical records of the people there. This means the Socotra chapter is a collection of fabulous fragments, welded together in a way which would not be recognised by any person in the period from the island.
That being said there were some books which were a great deal of assistance. The main two are:
Douglas Bottling, Island of the dragon’s blood. Bottling was on the island while it was an English Protectorate. It has a fair amount of folklore.
Catherine Cheung, Socotra: a natural history of the islands and their people. This is a modern book which contains a little folklore, but also provides a lot of geographical and cultural information.
Others of some use:
Issac Balfour, Botany of Socotra Note this work is online. A Victorian botanist’s expedition to the island.
Vitaly V. Naumkin, Island of the phoenix : an ethnographic study of the people of Socotra A Communist sociologist, who examines the structure of Socotran folklore.
The Periplus Maris Erythraei A brief Greek works which is the first mention of the islands.
After I’d finished the draft, I accidentally stumbled upon the following book, which contains the original version of the origin story for the island’s inhabitants. It’s called “The shipwrecked sailor”. A version of it appears in other sources, so I used that. In hindsight, the complete version is even stranger than what I worked with, and so I’m sorry I didn’t see it earlier. The uraeus in the upper-left of this page is from Flinders Petrie, and is the king of the island.
W M Flinders Petrie, Egyptian tales translated from the papyri.