Around world mythology in D&D minis: Bahamut and Tiamat

And now for something completely different…

Welcome to my new blog series (to go with my currently running Overlooked Awesomeness series) called Around world mythology in D&D minis. The point of this series is to examine various creatures and characters from the well-known fantasy RPG Dungeons and Dragons (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), and use that as a jumping off point to look into the mythology of that creature within the D&D universe, as well as their roots in actual world mythologies (primarily Greek and Norse, for D&D.) I thought it would be fun because a) I love D&D, b) I love looking at the minis and c) I adore studying mythology. So, with that explanation out of the way, lets begin the first installment on two of my favorite minis:

Bahamut and Tiamat

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I’m going to give you two for the price of one on this first entry. Originally the plan was just make this article about Bahamut, but the more I studied and read, the more I realized that he is inexorably linked with his antithesis, Tiamat (linked in everything from D&D lore to Final Fantasy lore to the original Arabic and Jewish myths), and that I might as well just write about them both at the same time.

In the lore of Dungeons & Dragons, Bahamut is the lord of the good, metallic dragons. In most editions he is presented as an actual deity, and is revered by nearly all metallic dragons. He is presented as boundlessly kind and compassionate towards anything but evil, which he will seek out, fight and destroy without mercy. According to The Draconomicon (page 32), “in his natural form, Bahamut is a long, sinuous dragon covered in silver-white scales that sparkle and gleam even in the dimmest light.” I have to say, his (Aspect) mini does about as good a job as plastic can do of living up to that description; its honestly the most beautiful mini I’ve ever seen in person, and certainly my favorite among the ones I own. Tiamat, by contrast, is Bahamut’s direct antithesis: she is the queen of the evil chromatic dragons, and is likewise worshiped by them. As you can see from the D&D mini above, she has multiple heads, one mirroring each of the five chromatic True Dragons of the D&D universe. Tiamat is a plotter; although she will not back down from a fight, she would much prefer scheming and lurking to direct confrontation.

The roots of these characters can be traced all the way back to ancient Sumerian mythology, to two…things for lack of a better term, Tohu and Bohu, or Depth and Expanse–what existed before the time of Creation. The Bible picked up on this, and the original Hebrew translation uses the term “Tohu wa-bohu” (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) often translated as “formless and empty” to describe the condition of the world before God’s proclamation, “let there be light.” (Its fascinating to me that these two D&D dragons that are polar opposites begin their evolution in Sumerian and Hebrew as essentially the same thing–that is to say, Nothing, with a capital N.)

According to Ahron over at Aharon’s Omphalos (if you ever want a mind freak, try wrapping your head around some of the posts in that blog–and I mean that as the highest praise.), Tohu and Bohu are two aspects of the same idea–the Lower Waters, and the Upper Waters (Depth and Expanse, like we said before), and that they were so closely linked together that creation was impossible until they were divided (the second thing God does in the Bible, you’ll remember, after making light.)

Later in the Bible they make another appearance, this time as great creatures, ones perhaps slightly more akin to the fearsome ones we know from our role playing (both the tabletop and computer varieties.) Bohu becomes the land-monster Behemoth from the book of Job: “Look at the behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. He ranks first among the works of God…”(Job 40:15-19). Similarly, Tohu reappears as the great sea serpent Leviathan (another familiar name to us Final Fantasy fans), who appears several times in the Bible in passing as well. Leviathan is also linked to a deity of Babylonian mythology, a sea godess who gives birth to dragons and serpents (among other things) and personifies chaos (specifically, once again, the pre-creation primordial chaos that existed before God spoke.)

The first evidence of an actual creature called “Bahamut” specifically is actually from Arabic mythology–1001 Arabian Nights to be specific. In these stories, Bahamut is a giant fish, and not just any fish–a giant fish who may or may not have the head of a Hippopotamus or Elephant depending on the translation, and who also supports the Earth on its back. (Try getting THAT image out of your head now!) Now, this isn’t actually all that odd in terms of ancient mythologies–the Chinese, for example, have it that the Earth is supported on the back of a turtle. (And don’t ask what the turtle is standing on! Everyone knows its turtles all the way down!) What’s most interesting to me about this is that Bahamut’s lineage is fairly clear and makes sense up til now, and suddenly his portrayal goes from land beast to a sea creature (not unlike Leviathan/Tiamat.) For further, far more in-depth reading on the subject of this dichotomy, check out Aharon’s article on the subject.

D&D, then, took these basic concepts, names and ideas and ran with them, using Bahamut and Tiamat–irrevocably linked yet opposing forces since before Biblical times–to form the basis for their entire Draconic pantheon. While they serve as the extremes, there are of course many other Draconian deities in the D&D universe, some good, some evil, but all interesting. We’ll save that discussion for another time though, seeing as I’m already coming up on a thousand words for this article, and you’re probably sick of me prattling on!

Its worth noting before we conclude, though, that D&D isn’t the only one to borrow these two characters–as previously noted, the Final Fantasy video game series has made Bahamut a staple. In the first, he was presented as the Dragon King (apt, no?) who sent the heroes on a quest to test their courage, and rewarded them upon its completion. He has since made an appearance in most other games in the series, usually as a summoned creature who breathes fire at the player’s enemies. For the most part the series has depicted him as nothing more than a very large (and inexplicably dark looking) dragon. Until Final Fantasy X, of course, when they decided that, for some reason, what this game needed was a giant Aeon-Zord:


Not my favorite imagining of him, I have to admit, heh.

Tiamat also has a long-standing relationship with the series. She appears in the first game as the second to last boss, a multi-headed dragon who controls the element of Wind. (While that doesn’t really fit with Tiamat’s accepted mythology, it DOES make sense in the game world for a dragon to rule the sky, and they already had Kraken as the de facto ruler of the sea.) This is fairly consistent; she remains a boss, and depicted as a multi-headed female dragon, in every appearance in the series. I think its fairly obvious from this that the creators of Final Fantasy did their borrowing from D&D directly, and didn’t decide to independently use the mythology. Tiamat as a multi-headed evil dragon, Bahamut as the kind but stern ruler of good dragonkind…it just fits. And, as the series progressed, Final Fantasy really did incorporate these characters into their cosmology in a very cool and unique way.

So, that’s it for this installment. I don’t usually beg for comments, but if you read this far, I really am interested in your feedback. Well I always am–I love comments!–but especially so for this one. Did you like the idea of this article? Did it interest you? Bore the crap out of you? Were there some things you liked that I didn’t focus on enough or glossed over, or was there something I droned on about for too long while you shouted “get to the good part!” at the screen? Be honest. I really do want to know if people are interested enough in this sort of article to put more like this up. Thanks guys!

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6 responses to “Around world mythology in D&D minis: Bahamut and Tiamat

  1. Pingback: Around World Mythology In D&D Minis: the Chimera « Soldierhawk's Pop-Culture Emporium

  2. very interesting, hawke!! please keep doing this stuff, i love it!! it’s intresting to think that things like this were involved with the bible, and hebrew language and all that. you’re a great writer, wich makes it SO much easier to read. i wouldnt be able to stand it if you wrote like me- im not good at all. the only reason i get good grades in school is cuz im the only polite one :/
    but please keep up the good work. you’re doing beautifully!!

  3. I really liked what you’ve put and the link to real mythology making it more interesting and in my opinion I find the lore on Tiamat and Bahamut far better than most of the other deities in D&D and the mini of Tiamat is probably the coolest one going. Good job! 🙂

  4. Out of the depths of old blog posts, I just wanted to let you know I’m running a D&D campaign set in Ancient Sumeria and found your post on Tiamat & Bahamut. Great info, I love it!!

  5. Extremely detailed and well explained, although you’re missing the fact that bahamut is also mentioned in eastern mythologies as the son of Io.

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