The Alexandrian

Before scientific experimentation disproved it, most people believed in the spontaneous generation of life (also known as equivocal generation). For example, it was believed the maggots spontaneously generated out of rotting meat. That places of darkness spontaneously generated all manner of crawling things (as could be seen upon lifting up a rock). Worms arose from dirt and even frogs were once thought to come from the mud.

This was a universe literally teeming with life energy.

For the purposes of fantasy, I find it particularly fascinating how many of these theories revolved around places of filth, putrescence, and decay giving rise to vermin: Maggots from rotting flesh, rats from excrement, and so forth.

So when we look around our fantasy milieus and see monstrous forms of vermin — dire rats, giant spiders, and the like — could we use such theories of creation as their basis? I think we can. In the vile places of the earth — the places were the very form of the world itself has begun to decay — such creatures are given form out of the darkness. And thus our dungeons teem with life.

Another interesting facet of the theory of the spontaneous generation of life is that, like many pre-scientific beliefs, it was not extinguished by scientific thought — rather, it retreated before it. Once it was proven that maggots are the larvae of flies, for example, the theory simply moved to become the spontaneous generation of bacteria out of the “life force” of the air. It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur rooted out the last of its hiding places that the theory finally died.

I bring this up to suggest that we can just as easily turn the dial in the opposite direction. We can even add a metaphorical (or perhaps metaphysical) component to the theory.

For example, John Wick’s Orkworld postulates that orcs are actually photosynthetic. But we could just as easily say that the orcs spontaneously arise wherever civilization is not: When empires fall, tribes of orcs appear in the ruins.

And we could elaborate upon further upon the themes of this theory: Mice were known to physically reproduce, but they were also thought to spontaneously generate out of moldy grain. Ergo, our orcs can both spontaneously generate out of the lack of civilization, but also reproduce.

Further, we could build upon this by considering the ideas of Lamarckian evolution — that life, once spontaneously generated, strives to become more and more complex. Thus we could postulate that all humanoid life has its origins in the primordial generation of orcish life from the absence of civilization — orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, and beastmen of all sorts appear spontaneously, but then some among them will breed and improve.

This doesn’t even necessarily need to be true, but it would certainly be an interesting religious belief. For example, your dark elves might believe that orcs, humans, elves, and dark elves all exist along a continuum of improvement. (It might be even more shocking if you made this a secret belief among the elves: They look at humans the same way that humans look at orcs… they’re just too polite to say it.)

You could root all of this cosmology in the apeironic weave of creation. Where that weave becomes weakened, spontaneous generation occurs. When weakened by decay, filth and vermin appear. When weakened by the loss of civilization, orcs appear. When weakened by vile death, undead appear.

Such a cosmology could have interesting implications for how summoning rituals or the creation of undead work. For example, Jean Baptista von Helmont had a receipe for mice: “Place a dirty shirt or some rags in an open pot or barrel containing a few grains of wheat or some wheat bran, and in 21 days, mice will appear.” Magical spells likeĀ create undead could directly manipulate the apeironic weave in order to cause undead to appear; but you could also open things up by allowing non-magical manipulation of that weave (through ritualistic murder, for example).

You could also flip the whole conceit of “weakening the weave” on its head. Perhaps clerics and living saints appear in those places where the weave has been strengthened. Perhaps the gods themselves are nothing more than those places where the weave has been unnaturally strengthened through the power of belief or sacrifice or chance.

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One Response to “In the Vile Places of the Earth”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Jon Crew
    Not unlike the Arthurian Fisher King, then? IIRC, linking the health of the monarch and his realm goes back a long way: I seem to remember a Greek example, and there’s the old eastern Mediterranean concept of sacrificing this year’s King to ensure a good harvest and so forth in the coming year.

    That’s also an interesting path, but I was originally thinking of possible fantasy variations of social development: the obvious examples would be an invasion/war that could only be achieved with the aid of divine or arcane power or real deities leading their people to a new land (the Hebrew Exodus). What would it be like to actually live just down the road from a deity and would having a wizard in the neighbourhood drive property prices up or down?

    I think I’d still stick with an idea I had for a fantasy sitting looking something like the Gangs of New York, with mobs of human apprentices attempting to drive dwarven newcomers out of town.

    In the meantime, you have to stop inspiring my fantasy brain – I’m supposesd to be working on WW2 gothic horror Smile
    Tuesday, November 17, 2009, 6:50:02 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Re: Social sciences. That’s an interesting thought. I’m currently directing Macbeth for the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare, and in that play — like many of Shakespeare’s plays — the health and quality of the monarch has a real and meaningful impact on the environment of the kingdom: Macbeth’s corrupt rule literally results in the dead rising from their graves and the natural order of the world being disrupted.

    It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to extrapolate from there.
    Monday, November 16, 2009, 5:58:27 PM

    Jon Crew
    (Better late than never.) This is absolutely brilliant!

    I’ve been taking more of a historically-informed fantastic approach to physics and chemistry (rather than having fantasy built on real physics), but it hadn’t occurred to me to apply that to biology.

    I wonder if we can apply it to the social sciences?
    Sunday, November 15, 2009, 3:46:07 AM

    Justin Alexander
    And because humans have become distanced from the fairy realms, they’re capable of a dominance in the mortal realm that the other races are not.

    I’ve often said that fantasy should be just like reality except where magic is involved. I think some people assume that means that it is a localized imposition — magical lampposts and dragon flight. And maybe I thought that way once, too. But over the past few years I’ve begun to appreciate the magical rewriting of natural law to be a little bit more pervasive.
    Wednesday, March 11, 2009, 2:16:16 AM

    Gareth Wilson
    On a similar topic, in 4th edition DnD elves are just eladrin who have spent too much time in the material world and have lost the intelligence bonus. I have a theory that humans are just a more extreme case. Given how vague the books are about the origin of humans, it can’t really be ruled out.
    Wednesday, March 11, 2009, 12:24:06 AM

    Justin Alexander
    That sounds nifty! Thanks for the pointer.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 4:36:22 PM

    Kobold Quarterly #4 had an whole article on this topic: “Dragons without Belly Buttons: Spontaneous Generation in Fantasy Campaigns.” It includes a dozen or so “recipes:” for example, “A Recipe for Gelatinous Cubes:
    Take the broth remaining from
    tannery and add the liquor derived
    from invisible stalker blood,
    and pour the whole into a cesspit.
    Wait for the dark of the moon to
    pass, then three weeks more.”

    Might be worth a read.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 2:51:04 PM

    Haha, this a great idea for a campaign setting element!
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 12:58:59 PM

    A fascinating concept, this. Makes me want to work up a new game, maybe in an urban city/megacity type thing?

    Anyway, there’s a lot of design space here, and oodles of flavor just waiting to be used. Thanks for the cool idea, with any luck I’ll get a chance to do it justice someday later.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 12:16:54 PM

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