Wednesday 9 May 2018

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 14: Divs of the Desert

In Zoroastrian tradition, Divs are spirits of evil, the children of the Druj, or cosmic lie. In Persian folk-tales, they often lurk around in wild and dangerous regions, looking for victims to deceive and devour - and, as a result, they're just the kind of creatures you might run into if you leave the relative safety of the Iranian plateau for the deserts of Central Asia. My take on them here is heavily informed by their appearance in the twelfth century Persian poem Haft Peykar, where - in C.E. Wilson's 1924 translation - they are described as follows:
Innumerable demons seated there, exchanging shouts through valley and through plain.
All of them, like the wind, were scattering dust; rather, they were like leeches black and long.
Till it got so, that from the left and right the mirthful clamour rose up to the sky.
A tumult rose from clapping and the dance; it made the brain ferment in (every) head.
At every instant did the noise increase, moment by moment greater it became.
When a short time had gone by, from afar a thousand torches (all) aflame appeared;
(And) suddenly some persons came to view, forms cast in tall and formidable mould.
All of them “ghūls” like blackest Ethiops; pitchlike the dress of all, like tar their caps.
All with the trunks of elephants and horned, combining ox and elephant in one.
Each of them bearing fire upon his hand, (each) ugly, evil one like drunken fiend.
Fire (also) from their throats was casting flames; reciting verse, they clashed the horn and blade.

So: tall, black, fire-breathing, desert-dwelling monsters, with trunks like elephants, horns like oxen, and fires and blades in their hands, who go around laughing, and clapping, and dancing, and reciting poetry. Like you do.

Here's a fifteenth-century illustration of the scene.
My suspicion is that these particular divs are basically anthropomorphic representations of the perils of the desert. They're associated with heat: thus the fires that they carry in their hands and breathe forth from their mouths. They create sandstorms; indeed, in some sense, they may actually be sandstorms, which would explain why they dance around in circles filling the landscape with clouds of dust. They create mirages - thus the recoil of the guy in the picture as his horse suddenly turns into a seven-headed dragon beneath him - and they themselves, with their monstrous beast-faces, resemble the kind of hallucinations someone might experience while stumbling around a desert half-dead of sunstroke and dehydration. But at the same time, they seem to possess art, language, even culture. They aren't just whooping and gibbering: they're reciting verse. It's that combination of primal destructiveness with apparent knowledge and intelligence that interests me.

So - if you go too deep into the desert, if you are lost and dying and desperate, then you may meet the divs. The base daily chance of a group encountering them is 0%, modified as follows:

  • Group has only the vaguest idea where they are: +10%
  • Group is completely lost: +20%
  • Group has no food: +10%
  • Group has no water: +20%
  • Many people in the group are sick: +10%
  • Many people in the group are wounded: +10%
  • Many people in the group are suffering from sunstroke: +10%

When encountered, they come whirling over the horizon, leaping and dancing and singing, clashing cymbals and horns and blades. They breathe out gouts of fire. They kick up great clouds of dust. They conjure up frightful illusions of people and animals turning into monsters. What they're looking for is a terror reaction: they want to see people flee in panic, abandoning the supplies and the pack animals that they need to survive in the desert in their desperate scramble for safety. The divs think that kind of thing is hilarious. They'll be laughing about it for weeks.

If you hold your ground, then they'll come stalking up to you, waving swords and snorting flame. They'll try to intimidate you, uttering blood-curdling threats, and demanding all the food and goods and water you have in exchange for letting you live. They don't need those things: they just think it's funny to send people staggering away to die of thirst and starvation. They'll probably burn it all as soon as you're out of sight.

Faced with sturdy opposition, however, the divs will waver. They admire bravery, and for all their threats and bravado they will be reluctant to strike the first blows, although they will fight back fiercely if attacked. They hate showing weakness, and will curse and bluster to the very end, but travellers who demonstrate both courage and respect may be allowed to pass in exchange for a mere token payment of tribute. (The divs are incapable of telling direct truths, though, and will come up with all sorts of absurd lies about why they are letting you live.) If they are particularly impressed with you they might even drop some broad hints about the way to the next oasis, although if questioned about it they will of course deny doing anything of the sort. 

Despite their ruffianly ways, the divs are great lovers of music and poetry. They will immediately warm to anyone who can answer them quotation for quotation, and prefer gifts of song and verse above all others. They know many old secrets, and the locations of all kinds of ancient ruins, and sorcerers and scholars sometimes deliberately seek them out with the hope of bargaining with them - although this usually involves deliberately getting lost in the desert first. They also have considerable respect for Dahākans, who they regard almost as their kinsmen. They view the Cruel Ones with utter contempt.

  • Div: AC 15 (super-tough skin), 4 HD, AB +5, two attacks, damage blade (1d8+1) and flame (1d6), FORT 10, REF 12, WILL 12, morale 9. 
Divs resemble large, brutish humanoids with elephant faces and the horns of oxen. They carry swords and flames, which they can call forth from their hands at will, and wield like lashes: they can also breathe forth gouts of fire once per round, causing 1d6 points of fire damage per round to one target within melee range unless they pass a REF save. While leaping and dancing around the desert, the dust clouds they kick up are so thick that all ranged attacks against them are at -2 to hit. They can conjure threatening illusions, which last for as long as the div creating them maintains concentration. These illusions are visual-only, and can only take the form of monsters, distortions, fires, sandstorms, and other intimidating sights. 


  1. Great stuff, as usual!

    I'm curious, where do you get your inspiration? I assume you were not just casually reading Haft Peykar and thought "Oh, these guys would make great D&D monsters", were you?

    1. In this case I started with the picture above, which I came across while gathering images for my recent 'art of the silk road' post. Then I looked up and read the text it was an illustration to, to gain some context for the scene and the monsters depicted in it. Then I thought, 'hey, I can use these guys', and wrote this blog post. I'm not sure there was a whole lot more to it than that, other than relief at finally finding a version of divs which seemed interestingly gameable...

      (The divs of proper Zoroastrian theology, as opposed to Persian folklore, are kinda abstract and difficult. What does it even mean to be built entirely out of falsehood? If Ahriman embodies Druj, the Lie, then does he actually *exist*, or is he a kind of cosmic delusion or deception? I'm not keen on travestying other people's religious beliefs, so I'm always happy to find more down-to-earth folkloric versions instead!)

  2. Awww yeah, finally someone decided to tackle the Div.

  3. Finally? Divs have been in Pathfinder for years. They were collected in the 3rd Bestiary. Of course they are a different interpretation from yours, but that is the awesome thing about mythology- it is like art and everyone can have a different view after reading it.

    1. Pathfinder did them. DCC did them too. DCC just made them generic demons, though, while Pathfinder made them the ghosts of evil genies, which is exactly the kind of religious and mythological mangling I try to avoid in my own writing. If I was an observant Zoroastrian, I'm not at all sure I'd be OK with some game book declaring that Ahriman 'sprung from the creation of the first genies'...

  4. The divs can, of course, be defeated by commanding your warriors to slash div...

    1. You can make all of them disappear at once by closing up a folding table.