Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Kynthiad: The Witches

Hecate, the witch goddess
With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I'd devote this week's column to that theme and talk about witches. Not just any witches, mind you, but the witches featured in "The Kynthiad," the Greek mythology solo campaign that I run for my wife Erika. Her character, Kynthia, is a champion of the goddess Artemis, who travels about the world on quests given to her through visions or other messages from the gods. The witches who Kynthia has encountered have proven to be some of the most memorable recurring characters in this campaign.

The witches of Greek myth were always powerful and terrifying. The ability to wield magic was rare, but was dangerous because it was capable of nearly anything, though each witch had her own particular area of expertise. A strong will was necessary to wield such power, and in the ancient world, such independent women were almost universally feared and hated. They were typically described as beautiful enchantresses, who wielded their sex appeal as proficiently--and as wantonly--as their spells. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful witches were demigoddesses in their own right: Circe and Medea were descendants of Helios, Titan of the Sun, and received their first instruction in magic from that god.

Medea (Jolene Blalock)
The first witch that Kynthia ever met was Medea herself. By that time, Kynthia had met and fallen in love with Anahodios, the handsome winged grandson of Boreas, the North Wind, who accompanied her on her quests ever since their first meeting. While seeking out Prometheus in the Causasus, the two took shelter in a cave. Kynthia woke during the night to find a mysterious woman sitting by their fire, while Anahodios had fallen into an abnormally deep sleep. Medea quizzed her about her business in this part of the world, then departed. Kynthia was left shaken by the encounter, knowing Medea's reputation all too well--Anahodios was, after all, the son of an Argonaut (Zetes).

Later, when traveling across northern Africa, Kynthia and Anahodios were captured by a band of women warriors who took them to the camp of their mistress, Archemora. This witch attempted to seduce Anahodios and nearly succeeded. Kynthia managed to break free and rescue her beloved, then they (literally) took flight before the witch had another chance to weave any more spells. After this encounter, Kynthia was justifiably paranoid about witches stealing her man!

While traveling near Sicily and the Strait of Messina, Kynthia learned the story of the nymph Scylla, who had been cursed into monster form by Circe. Of her own initiative--and encouraged by Scylla's mother, the goddess Hecate--Kynthia set herself the task of restoring the nymph to her proper form. This required visiting Circe to ask the witch to lift her curse. Kynthia's knowledge of the voyage of the Argo allowed her to approach the witch as a suppliant who could not be harmed without angering the gods. Naturally, Circe was loathe to release her victim, so she set Kynthia three impossible tasks in order to get the necessary ingredients for the antidote: an Erinyes's tears, a kiss from the nymph of the pool of Lethe, and the caul from a virgin birth. This required Kynthia to enter the underworld, a harrowing journey that still haunts her. But to Circe's surprise, she succeeded--returning with Lethe's newborn son Scotius, marked by the kiss and tears, and his caul. Because Kynthia was woefully unprepared to care for a chthonic goddess's ill-omened child, she left him with Circe and took the cure to Scylla.

Kynthia met even more witches in the Tin Isles (modern Britain). She discovered that the Hyperborean princess Thaleia (an old rival for Anahodios's affections) had led an invasion of the island and taken control of the Atrebates, one of the Celtic tribes there. This led to a clash with two other tribes, the Silures (who Kynthia made peaceful contact with) and the Dumnonii, that was decided by a contest of seers at the Giant's Dance (Stonehenge). This contest was orchestrated by Luscina, a Dumnonii sorceress, whose plans failed when Kynthia took the place of the Silures tribe's witch and divined the answers to the tests she posed.

Archemora (Kelly Hu)
Both Archemora and Luscina became recurring villains who Kynthia grew to hate more passionately with each encounter. Archemora next showed up in the mountains near Hyperborea (Kynthia's new home after marrying Anahodios), but was left stranded there after Kynthia shot down her pet griffin. The witch later appeared in Cimmeria, where Kynthia's distant cousin Ophiophane was waging war to claim her late father's throne. Archemora had insinuated herself into the usurper's court (and his son's bed), so while Ophiophane faced off against the king in the final battle, Kynthia and Anahodios took on their old enemy. The witch escaped thanks to her magic cloak, which allowed her to take the form of a flock of crows--which made it impossible for a single arrow to kill her. Years later, Kynthia encountered her one last time, near the witch's original home in Scythia. This time, her target was the king of the Medes (and Medea's grandson). When Kynthia and Anahodios discovered her there, they pursued her doggedly until they had shot every crow in the cloak's swarm, which finally killed the sorceress. At this point, Medea arrived on the scene and thanked Kynthia for disposing of the other witch, as she had other plans for who her grandson should marry to carry on the Heliad dynasty.

Luscina (Christina Hendricks)
Unlike Archemora, Luscina still lives, and Kynthia has yet to engage in actual combat with her. A vision of Thaleia in childbirth dying sent Kynthia back to the Tin Isles. The people of Thaleia's consort's tribe spend a few days of each year as wolves, but this "gift" normally doesn't manifest until puberty. Thaleia's child had been cursed to be born in wolf form, and only Kynthia's miraculous healing powers allowed her old rival to survive the bloody birth. They determined that Luscina was responsible, so Kynthia went in search of the witch in order to force her to lift the curse. Along the way, Anahodios fell prey to a wasting curse, which also proved to be the Dumnonii woman's fault. It was also the only reason that Kynthia didn't shoot her on sight, because (as with Circe's work) only the witch who bestowed the curse could lift it. Luscina demanded a terrible price for Anahodios's cure: a night alone with him, and he would have to do his best to please her. This ordeal left both Anahodios and Kynthia traumatized...but he lived. If Kynthia and Luscina ever cross paths again, the witch will not.

More recently, the campaign has taken a new turn, with Kynthia trying to find allies against the danger posed by the impending return of the monstrous god Typhon. Most of the Olympian gods are currently distracted by an unfortunate little squabble known as the Trojan War, so Kynthia has had to seek help elsewhere. An Egyptian sorcerer revealed to Kynthia much of the secret history behind Typhon's first war against the gods, and suggested that she help him seek out other magicians for help in determining how to avoid (or if necessary, fight) a second one. As a result, Kynthia has introduced Hori to Medea--a very momentous occasion, given how little trust there is between practitioners of magic. But even with Medea as an apparent ally, Kynthia was grateful to part ways with the witch again--the woman still unnerves her like no other, except maybe her aunt Circe.

Meanwhile, Kynthia has learned that the baby she helped deliver in the underworld is actually Typhon's son. Scotius has grown to adult size in just a few years, and has developed powerful magical abilities of his own. Kynthia now has to determine what part Scotius is destined to play in his father's return--and what to do about it when she does...

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