I thought Dagon was a D&D monster and a Lovecraftian horror, but if I had looked deeper I would have found so much more meaning. Here’s the whole story – the deeper story.
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This is a bonus episode following up on episode 7 of Making a Monster. You don’t have to listen to that episode to enjoy this one, but it does contain a lot of information we’re not covering here. Click the image to listen to that episode:
Lucas: Hey Alex! Welcome back. have you listened to the episode?
Alex Clippinger: Yeah.
Lucas: What’d you think?
Alex Clippinger: Good, it came out great.
Lucas: I’m excited to have you back, because there is more that needs to be said about Dagon and, I wanted to have you here to, work through it. So, at the risk of going beyond the limits of our own expertise, let’s get into it.
So when we did our episode, we talked about how Dagon is one of these legacy monsters that’s in Dungeons & Dragons that the company has tried to make a bit more Dungeons and dragons in each subsequent iteration. and I thought that was a really interesting point. and it was well-made and I’m glad it’s part of the conversation now,
So I was satisfied. I was like, excellent. Now people will hear this podcast about thinking more deeply about your monsters and not forsaking the history that’s behind them. And then I put it on Reddit.
Alex Clippinger: Which is always a mistake.
Lucas: Reddit pointed out to me my own shortcomings.
The Lovecraft Mythos in D&D
Lucas: Actually, before we get into that, I’ve done some research. And by that I mean furious Googling. I want to trace Dagon’s journey as we discovered it so far. So, first came out. In, 2006 Fiendish Codex 1, Hoards of the Abyss, that was published in June. And then after that James Jacobs, who was an editor and writer for Paizo started publishing a series of articles in Dragon Magazine. He called them the Demonomicon of Iggwilv and they were supposedly excerpts from that fictional book. So we got Dagon in issue 349, that was November 2006 was when we got Dagon in Dungeons & Dragons. Cthulhu, the eponymous cosmic deity, appeared first in First edition.
I think I have the title of that book as well . . .
Alex Clippinger: Was that Deities and Demigods?
Lucas: It was!
Alex Clippinger: Yeah, that’s actually, I know that little bit of trivia, cause I know that’s a controversial thing that he was originally in that book, and then in other editions of that book was removed because there were some, I think some copyright clash? Maybe? With the people who make Chaosium? They pushed back a little bit sometimes on big companies using Cthulhu and some other stuff, since they’re like the Call of Cthulhu people, they’re very protective.
Lucas: that’s how Lovecraft got into Dungeons and Dragons. So we’ve got your book, Ezmerelda’s Encyclopedia of Evil for 5th edition, we’ve got Fiendish Codex I: Hoards of the Abyss and the Demonimicon of Iggwilv for 3.5, and we have Deities and Demigods in First edition. and that’s the whole story back to Lovecraft. It goes deeper.
Alex Clippinger: Oh, no.
Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft
Lucas: Dagon was not the first story that Lovecraft published. There was one before I think it was called the Alchemist. but this one was the first one to really embrace the themes that he became known for. it’s in the public domain, it being 1919, so you can find the full text online: https://hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/d.aspx
Alex, I didn’t read this story before I published the episode!
If I had, there’s a couple of things that I would have found. In brief, this story is about a castaway who is lost in a storm and comes on this Island in the middle of the Pacific. that is impossible to find again, but on which is a huge, obelisk carved with images of Protean men worshiping something, and then he sees it. This is what he writes about the creature that he sees:
“With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters, vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms. The while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.”
Alex Clippinger: That’s a Friday night for me.
Lucas: Polyphemus is the son of Poseidon who was a Cyclops, which is where I think we got those, giant clawed arms that we saw in that portrayal of Dagon. So already we’ve got like the same things you described – this undersea monolith, these grotesque carvings, these arms, blurring the line between human and fish creature, this vast size – and I thought, all right, we’ve got him. That’s where he came from.
Alex Clippinger: Right.
Lucas: It gets deeper.
Alex Clippinger: It’s like the Marianas Trench of origin stories.
Dagon the ancient Canaanite deity
Lucas: It really is. It really is. One of the last lines in this story, and this is where I should have really picked up on this, it says:
“Once I sought out a celebrated ethnologist and amused him with peculiar questions regarding the ancient Philistine legends of Dagon the fish god.
This is the moment. This is the thing that I missed. I can’t let this go because they can’t introduce Dagon into this Pantheon and say he’s a D&D creature but also a Lovecraft creature, without recognizing that Lovecraft has stolen this idea of a primeval fish god straight from ancient Canaanite religions. Now we have to talk about that.
I’m hoping to get someone who can speak a little bit more to Canaanite religion. Obviously not a topic for a layman.
James Harrington: My name is James Harrington. Did my undergrad in the Victoria Honors College at Biola University. My major is history – European history. Went on to do a master’s degree in history at California State University Fullerton, focusing on the ancient world and the colonial world of Southeast Asia and China. Also, I guess you could add, I got Bible minor. Aside from that, I’ve been a high school teacher for 12 years now. That’s kinda how I come by my chops.
Lucas: I’m working backwards from Dagon’s publication history in Dungeons & Dragons, which is a – Yeah! Do you play?
James Harrington: Yeah, I used to. Just haven’t had anybody to play a game with in a while, but yep. TSR, I can remember being at camp and we all play Dungeons & Dragons and I’ve had some fun playing in all their different worlds.
Lovecraft’s first story about Dagon, called Dagon, was written in 1917 and saw print in 1919. So you have to remember, he’s only a generation away from a lot of the great Indiana-Jones-type archeologists of the 1900s. Heinrich Schliemann had just discovered Troy in the late 1800s. Arthur Evans was doing his work on Crete. The whole era of the Greek bronze age was all supposed to be fictional until Schliemann went around with a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey and just dug where those places were supposed to be. The golden age of biblical archeology was going on when Lovecraft was in his thirties and forties and even later, so if you can imagine all that swirling round, that’s one of the reasons he could leap on a figure like Dagon and bring it out of the pages of the Bible and out of, obscure temple inscriptions.
This is something about the way ancient religion works. We way too systematize this thing the big thing is we’re used to pantheons of gods, right? We know that the Greeks have 12: Zeus, there’s Hera, there’s Apollo, there’s Artemis. They all have these, these themas is the Greek word for it. These honors, these boundaries that writers like Homer and Hesiod set for them. Artemis is the goddess of the moon and the hunt.
Lucas: Dungeons & Dragons would use the word “domains” for the same idea.
James Harrington: Yeah. And that’s a good translation of thema.
Lucas: What would have been the themas, or the domain of Dagon at the time?
James Harrington: Now here’s where it gets tricky. So as Sumerians, remember that there are just a whole bunch of city States. and they’re a successive culture. You’ve got the Babylonian empire, you’ve got the Assyrian empire. these emperors are destroyed and rebuilt in the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and they’re never connoisseur. we can’t really say a lot about Dagon. Dagon may be Lord Fish-for-a-butt. Have you seen those pictures? Like children’s Bibles with the Ark of the covenant and all that.
So we don’t know if Dagon is Lord Fish-for-a-butt or not. To one of these cultures, he may have been, to others not. And it’s really frustrating because you know, we want an archetype. One of the reasons we use the classical model, of a Pantheon of gods each have distinct domains, we really like that sense of order and archetypes, we like that. It’s nice and orderly. those were what you do when you don’t believe in the gods anymore.
Polytheistic culture has many different ways of interacting with the divine or the spiritual. Only one of those is going to be written down in the formal mythologies. And that may tell you absolutely nothing about what people actually believe about the gods. It may tell you a lot about their ideals. It may tell you a lot about state religion.
And that’s the point. Lovecraft could pick up a god like Dagon, who hasn’t gone through the machine of literature – this is where Gregory Nosh comes in the gods of Epic. The gods of literature should not be confused with the gods of everyday worship, just because they have the same name. they’re different functions in society.
Lucas: so then it would be fair to say that, he chose Dagon in order to maximize his ability to embody the fear of the unknown.
James Harrington: Yes, and remember, can you see the racism behind that? Remember that this is a Semitic deity. So it doesn’t come from Western culture. It has terror to it. That for the racists of that time period, is associated with racial stereotypes about Semites being spiritual versus rational, emotional rather than analytical. decadent, money-loving instead of self-controlled.
Reading racism in H.P. Lovecraft
James Harrington: So if you see that underlying racist angle there, if you know how to read the code to there is another sinister element to choosing a Semitic deity. It’s a Rorschach test – Lovecraft can put whatever he wants on Dagon because he’s not as formalized, but he can also insinuate a lot in the racist, colonialist culture of his day.
Lucas: So by making Dagon not just a monster but a god of monsters, he’s declaring it. And all things that he associates with it to be other and outside and to be feared or rejected.
James Harrington: Yep. And remember that this was a time, especially in 1919 you have to remember that Woodrow Wilson, who was president then, he had actually segregated the federal government. Prior to Woodrow Wilson, the federal government was racially integrated. Woodrow Wilson being a southerner and ardent, ardent, ardent believer in racial science and eugenics as a progressive. I mean, that’s why his name’s no longer on the Woodrow Wilson Institute of Public Policy at Princeton. I mean, the guy was sick. He came in and segregated these civil services and had everything separate for whites and for blacks. Again, the fear being that people who were not like you might have diseases that you could get and it would wipe you out. This is why you had a swimming pool for “coloreds” and the swimming pool for whites, they would’ve said.
For guys like us, you know, this is just staggering. Our country has a lot of work to do, but we’ve also made some changes, since our parent’s generation or our grandparent’s generation.
And if we go back to our great grandparent’s generation, which would be Lovecraft, you can just see how toxic these things were and that’s one of the reasons to read Lovecraft. He can help you, through story, get your mind into the warped, sick headspace that was really just our, great grandparent’s generation. I mean, coming from Connecticut, I still know more ethnic slurs for different kinds of white people than to admit. we used to trade them like baseball cards when I was growing up. so if you look at Lovecraft, you really remember where this is coming from, and that maybe you and I can laugh at it. To my mom, it wasn’t funny. I mean, she got made fun of at school for being Quebecois.
Dagon in the Bible
Lucas: Dagon shows up in at least three places in the Bible. One is in Judges 16:23. We’re told that he’s a god of the Philistines, who were constantly at war with the Israelites in the old Testament. He is in 1 Samuel 5, which is a fantastic story where the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, which is meant to be a symbol of God’s presence among his people, the Israelites, and they treat it with a lot of respect by bringing it to the temple of Dagon. And then their image of Dagon is found face down with its hands broken off in the morning. Honestly, it’s great comedy by biblical standards.
It’s also in 1 Chronicles 10 – there’s a mention of a temple of Dagon in which the head of King Saul was fastened.
So not only is Dagon “a” god of the Philistines, he’s kind of “the” god of the Philistines. He’s, he’s the one to which they give the, best things that they get from battle,
Alex Clippinger: King Saul’s head and the Ark of the covenant are pretty, capital-B capital-D “Big Deals.”
Lucas: Here’s the other place where he’s not mentioned specifically, but archeologists tell us that there were temples of Dagon and the fish goddess Nanshe in the city of Nineveh, which was the Assyrian capital a little bit later in the Bible. Nineveh, of course, is the city to which Jonah was sent as a prophet. And on the way, he is swallowed by a great fish. Everybody knows that part of the story.
The thing that I missed that this taught me, is that after his three days in the fish, he was spat up by that fish onto the dry land within sight of the city, to which he was to be a prophet, a city that worships a great fish, a prophet. Now that has been carried by a great fish by the icon of their God, to their door. You think people are going to listen to this guy.
Alex Clippinger: I mean, I’m not going to go maybe so far as to say, Jonah, Great Old One warlock pact, but . . .
Lucas: it’s like, you don’t get that from a Sunday morning flannelgraph. And with this, I thought, for sure, surely now I have found the bottom. This must be the great truth at the bottom of Dagon.
Alex Clippinger: Don’t say that, don’t say the line. Are you gonna, you’re about to say the line, aren’t you?
Lucas: It goes deeper.
Alex Clippinger: Come on. No.
Lucas: I’m going to go to the very end of the Bible. There’s a scene in Revelation 13. At the end of time, in the prophet John’s account of that, a beast rises up out of the sea to take dominion over the earth,
This is where we start to realize why. The Canaanites and the Israelites may have been so diametrically opposed because the sea in this instance represents the separation between the Hebrew God and “shalom“, and the Abyss and all that is not part of shalom.
Tiamat, the great dragon of the Abyss
Lucas: Am I way off?
James Harrington: No, that’s totally true. And Semitic religion, especially as it’s used as a metaphor in Genesis and later in the Hebrew Bible all the way through to Revelation, the sea is a symbol of chaos and you’re going to see, you know, like tiamat being the great abyss in some of the Semitic.
Lucas: Wait, hold on. I’m sorry – tiamat?
James Harrington: Yeah, Tiamat from D&D? You know, the dragon?
Lucas: And that’s the word?
James Harrington: Yeah. This is huge in Semitic culture, that the sea is driven back by one of the gods, take your pick, who slays the great dragon Tiamat or Rahab or a Leviathan, and thus brings order.
Lucas: So here we’ve got – surely this is the basest meaning we can find. It gets deeper.
Alex Clippinger: Cut that out. Stop.
Lucas: If we go clear to the other end of that book in Genesis 1, the creation account given there is that “The earth was without form and void and the spirit of God moved on the face of the deep.” The word for deep there is also translated Abyss.
Alex Clippinger: Nice. Nice. Nice. Just, just hand it just now, just hand it to me with a little bow, nice little bow on top.
Lucas: And that I think is about as far down as we can possibly go to the beginning of time itself.
My whole thing here is to, I consider it a conservation effort. For people who only know Dagon or Tiamat from Dungeons & Dragons, we’re losing access to all of this rich meaning and context. if we never look beneath that, and that’s what I’m trying to bring back with this project.
Alex Clippinger: just like a, Hey wow. There’s like a whole second pizza under this pizza.
Lucas: yeah. Bonus pizza.
Alex Clippinger: man. That was wild. That was, that was a journey.
Lucas: Well, thanks for taking the time to go on that with me. I appreciate it.
Alex Clippinger: Yeah, absolutely.