Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Dance of Death

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, via Wikipedia

The Great Plague was an indiscriminate killer.  Certainly it affected the poor (especially the urban poor) the most, but the wealthy, the nobility, and the clergy were not spared.  Nowadays there are differences in the quality of medical care that the wealthy would have access to, but 600 years ago the only advantage they had was being able to flee an outbreak.  It was a great leveller: rich and poor alike could be victims to it.

This gave rise to image and tales of the Dance of Death: Death leading leading people of all walks of life, from emperors and popes to peasants and children, to the grave.  Frequently it would show living people being taken by the hand by skeletons, as if in a dance, while Death plays a flute.

Image from Antiquarian Booksellers Assoc.

One thing that’s striking about these images is that the tone is not altogether morbid.  The message may be “no one will be spared, death is inevitable”, but the skeletons seem to be laughing, positively jubilant.  Even the victims don’t see terribly upset; perhaps when it’s time for you to go, it would be best to have one last dance before the end.

So here’s an option to add to our games: a death-cult with a sense of humour.  So many times the death imagery that appears in a game is of a very simple sort – everything’s bleak and horrible, the clergy are all sombre and/or insane.  Instead, they could have a rather dark sense of humour, that they “remember that the last laugh is on you” (and they could be insane and have a sense of humour).

For that matter, the Danse Macabre was a Christian image used to encourage people to prepare themselves for death.  They weren’t worshipping death, just reminding people that it was inevitable.  So take a look at the pantheon in your favourite setting and ask which of the gods might want to remind people that “death comes as an end”.

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