Dark Elves: “Race” in Dungeons & Dragons

So I recently came across this article comparing how Vampire: The Masquerade and Dungeons & Dragons have tried to change their previously problematic approach to the issue of race.

The gist of it is: Vampire good, D&D bad. In a more sophisticated assessment, you could say the article’s author, Kiran Trivedy, feels VTM more or less got it right, while WOTC’s attempt has been underwhelming and unsatisfactory.

This is by no means the first time the issue of racism has reared its head in the world of Tabletop Role-playing Games (RPGs). Though we’ve all been understandably distracted by the global pandemic and the political unrest in the United States, shortly before those issues took all the prime real estate in our heads, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), official publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, had been dropping announcements that it would be revisiting how D&D presented certain Races (as in, the gaming term). The issue was that certain classic races, often, but not always used as “monsters”, either constituted a negative racial stereotype (as in, not the gaming term), or were too close to doing so for everyone’s comfort. These races apparently included Orcs, who are green-skinned, violent humanoids, and the Drow or Dark Elves, who are evil elves with coal-black skin and bone-white hair.

Predictably, these announcements drew immediate criticism from the kind of people who actually believe that white people are the most prejudiced against in modern society. By the way, I make no apology for how critical the above statement is of that opinion. Racism is real. Racism is wrong. Speaking out against racism isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, and it certainly isn’t “white genocide”. It’s just a matter of having compassion and empathy for your fellow human beings, regardless of what they look like or where they come from, and believing that all human beings are entitled to peace, safety, and equal rights.

When these rumblings first emerged, I refrained from adding my voice to either side. At the time, I doubted my voice mattered. After all, who the hell am I? Oh, I had opinions. But everyone has opinions. What makes mine more valid or valuable than the next person’s?

In a word, nothing. But on the other hand, fuck it. Here are my thoughts:

“Race” is not original

“Race” was not originally a term used in RPGs, at least not in the sense of “playable race” such as Elf, Dwarf or Halfling. The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the three “Little Brown Booklets” published in 1974, list what we would now call three Classes (Fighting Man, Magic-User, and Cleric) and four Races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) under the heading Characters, but the terms “Class” and “Race” are not used. In fact, “Human” isn’t really defined at all, but rather a default option, only mentioned when specifying that only Humans can be Clerics and only Humans can progress to unlimited levels in any class (Elves, Dwarves and Halfings all had severe limitations as to what Class they could be and how far they could go, with Halflings limited to being Fighters and allowed to go only up to Level 4).

By the way, this stops short of being the so-called “Race-as-Class” approach, where you can’t be a Halfling Thief, you have to just be a Halfling (which is basically an underpowered Fighter). That began with the blue “Basic Dungeons & Dragons” boxed set, edited by J. Eric Holmes (and referred to as Holmes Basic D&D), and continued through the B/X and BECMI product lines.

To be honest, if Gary Gygax (the man most directly responsible for the publication of Dungeons and Dragons) had had his way, Human would probably have been the only choice of “Race”; he only included Elves, Dwarves and Halfings to please “the Tolkien Crowd”, whom he correctly expected would form a large part of the game’s fanbase. That’s why Halfings were originally called Hobbits (until the Tolkien Estate served Gygax with a Cease and Desist letter). And that is probably why neither “Race” nor any other term is used to describe what type of humanoid creature your character is. Gygax’s rules really pushed you to just be human, especially if you wanted to have the full choice of roles (what we would call “Classes”), you wanted to progress beyond the arbitrary level limits, or your stats forced you to play a Cleric. Singling out the Elf and other humanoids under a heading such as “Races” draws attention to this choice as part of the character creation process, and would probably encourage players to play a non-human, as it does today.

As far as I can tell, the first use of the word “race” in an official D&D product is in the Blackmoor supplement of the original edition, published in 1975. This booklet includes several new monsters, and the word “race” is used in the descriptions of two of them: the Sahuagin and the Ixitxachitl. In both these cases, the word “race” is not used in the gaming sense (again, as “playable race”) but rather more like when we say “The Human Race”, meaning all humans, collectively. The Ixitxachitl, for example, are “a race of Chaotic Clerical Philosophers”. They are not a playable character “Race” with certain “Racial” traits such as stat bonuses or extra abilities.

The First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, published in 1978 (four years after the original version of the game) seems to be the first product to use both “Race” and “Class” as we gamers use them today. And this usage continues right into Fifth Edition D&D. But that does not make it “correct”.

Race was never the right word

When I say “correct”, I don’t mean “politically correct”, though that is certainly a valid issue. Rather, I mean that “race” is literally the incorrect word for what the gaming element actually is, both scientifically and sociologically.

Let’s start with hard science, biology in particular, where “race” isn’t a thing. That is to say, there is no scientifically determinable cut-off point where one “race” ends and another begins. This isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as black people or white people. It merely means that where, precisely, we draw the line between who counts as black and who counts as white will vary, sometimes widely, from time to time and place to place.

For example, in US culture, if you look black, you are black, regardless of who your parents, grandparents, or ancestors are, as exemplified by such famous black Americans as Tiger Woods and Barrack Obama. By contrast, in South Africa, under Apartheid, there was a legal distinction between “Black” people (who had exclusively black African heritage) and “Coloured” people (who had a mixture of black African and white European heritage). I would like to point out that the use of the C-word above was the literal and legal term used in South Africa during Apartheid and not intended to be a slur; I apologize unequivocably for any offense caused. I should also point out that Apartheid no longer exists and I have no idea what the state of race relations in modern South Africa is. I certain have no reason to believe it is an inherently racist country or culture at the present time.

The Apartheid distinction is one that would never occur to Americans to make, and shows how two countries with a similar mixture of ethnicities can perceive those two ethinicities differently.

What this means is that the concept of “race” doesn’t belong to “hard” biological science at all, but rather to the “softer” social sciences. “Race” is a social construct.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that “race” doesn’t have a real effect on our daily lives, especially if we aren’t white. A black American man being brutalized by a racist cop cannot escape the situation by calmly pointing out that “race is a social construct”. Money, after all, is also a social construct, and we all know how thoroughly that effects the world.

Largely for this reason, if you look up “race” in a dictionary, you’ll find something like “a group of people with a common ancestry and certain distinctive physical features”. And that isn’t because that’s what “race” really is; it’s because that’s usually what we mean when we say it. 

I’m neither a biologist, nor a sociologist, nor an anthropologist. But I am a lexicographer (a dictionary editor), and I know a lot about what words mean and how definitions work. On more than one occasion, a dictionary I worked for has been approached by an academic asking us to change our definition of race to the scientific one, or remove it altogether. And we always said no. Because the definitions in a dictionary are not necessarily what the words really do (or should) mean. First and foremore, definitions are what people mean when they say the words. And when we say “race”, we mean a type of human that looks similar to others of the same “race” but different to humans of a “different” race.

And the D&D use of “Race” is incorrect in this sense as well. No one who has ever played D&D or a comparable fantasy RPG thinks that an Elf is a type of human. In fact, the whole point of playing an Elf or other fantasy “Race” (like a Tiefling) is to avoid playing a Human.

Like Gygax, my gaming tastes run to the low-fantasy, low-magic, human-centric, and in my ideal world, all my players would play humans, and Elves and Dwarves, etc, would be occasional NPCs. But I have largely given up on this, because we all know players love to play non-humans. And it’s easy to see why. We all have to be humans every day of our lives. When we’re sitting down at the table to play a fantasy game with our friends, why would we still be human when we could choose to be something else, something exciting and different, and maybe a little bit magical? I’m running two games of D&D currently, and neither group includes a human PC.

So what is an RPG “Race”?

What Elves, Dwarves, etc are in your typical RPG is not a kind of human with a common ancestry and distinctive features. They are different species altogether. I have no idea why Gygax chose the word “Race” in 1978. Perhaps he felt “species” was too scientific (to be fair, it’s not a word you find in a lot of fantasy literature). Perhaps he was influenced by the ongoing struggle for racial equality, which made “race” a common buzzword. Or perhaps he never put much thought into it in the first place. Gygax was meticulous about game mechanics, but not so much about wording, and he was a notoriously bad writer. (Compare the First and Second Edition AD&D Core rulebooks to see how much more clearly the rules were laid out after Gygax left TSR.)

With this in mind, the easiest way to address the problem of “Race” in D&D is just to change the word. Use “Species” instead. Though it isn’t mentioned in the Dicebreaker article, Pathfinder Second Edition has done something very similar, opting for “Heritage”, which avoids the negative connotations (and inaccuracy) of “Race”, while still sounding like a word that belongs in a Medieval–esque fantasy world.

The best solution (?)

So we now have three potential options when revising how an RPG presents “race” or something similar. Two are detailed in the Dicebreaker article. The favoured one is, again, the Vampire: The Masquerade approach, which is to keep the word they used (“clans”) and even the clan names, but rebuild the clans from the ground up, keeping the features that made players want to play them in the first place, but leaving out any negative racial stereotypes.

The second is what WOTC apparently did, which is keep the word “Race”, but cut all the bonuses and features, so the existence of, say, black elves no longer implied something physiological about black people. The Dicebreaker article is critical of this approach and points out that is hasn’t played well with fans.

And the third is the Pathfinder approach, which is to stop using the word “race” for fuck’s sake. I have no idea how well this has been received, as I’m not really a Pathfinder player. I am, however, very impressed by Paizo (the publisher of the Pathfinder RPG) for taking this step.

Beyond terminology: is D&D actually racist?

I’m a white person, and as a white person, I don’t think I’m best qualified to judge what’s really racist. What I mean is, I have no idea what it’s like to live as a person of color in a white-dominated and historically racist society. So when people of color call out something I take for granted as racist, I’m inclined to defer to their experience. And any opinions I have on whether a certain RPG is “really racist” must be taken with that caveat in mind.

But, for what it’s worth (and that may be nothing), this is my take on racism in RPGs.

A problematic handling of race in role-playing games, often goes beyond the words you use. Consider, for example, the above-mentioned Vampire: the Masquerade. They use the word “clan”, which has little to no negative connotations (as long as you spell it with a ‘c’). It was the descriptions of the clans that was problematic. One clan was regarded as an obvious stand-in for travelling people (the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community); one clan seemed to be based on North Africans; another seemed to reference Muslims. And the features and mechanics of these “stand-ins” were both based on and reinforced negative racial stereotypes. (All of this is based on the cited article, rather than my own research.)

This sort of thing is not new to fantasy fiction. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which were a huge influence on Gary Gygax, are full of it. The Stygians, for example, are clearly an analogue to Ancient Egyptians. There are numerous black human tribes, who are routinely evil and primitive. There are derogatory stand-ins for Jews, people from the Indian subcontinent, and even Indigenous Meso-Americans. All of these fantasy peoples are clearly and demonstrably based on real-world human cultures and ethnicities, and nearly all of them are depicted negatively and portrayed using stereotypes that, at the very least, make the modern reader very uncomfortable.

Tolkien, too, is not immune, especially if you know your medieval literature. Orcs have dark skin, and regularly carry “scimitars”. In the popular film adaptations by Peter Jackson, they made these swords hooked instead of curved, but in the books, the references to Arab warriors (or “Saracens”) is clear, and almost certainly intentional. Think too, of the “swarthy” (which means “dark”) humans from the South who fight on Sauron’s side against Gondor. And don’t forget the Dunlendings, who joined Saruman to fight Rohan. “Dun” means “dark” in Old English, and the Dunlendings were described as having darker hair and complexion than the blonde, “Nordic” Rohirrim.

In short, in Tolkien’s writing, “dark” people are usually evil, while fair-complexioned people are usually good. Perhaps this is nothing more than a literal interpretation of Light vs Darkness, but it sets up an uncomfortable dichotomy which is at the very least insensitive to people of color.

When WOTC began discussing revising some of their problematic “Races”, I noticed two in particular that dominated the conversation: the Orc, and the Drow.

Repeating the above point that, as a white person, I don’t get to decide what’s racist and what isn’t, I have to admit that I, personally, don’t see the issue with D&D orcs. I know that, just a few sentences ago, I argued that Tolkien’s orcs are racist, but D&D orcs are a different creature entirely.

Old School D&D orcs are basically pig-people, and the current incarnation are green-skinned, muscular humanoids with tusk-like teeth and a penchant for violence. I find it difficult to imagine what real-world ethnicity this would represent, and I doubt it refers to any. Orcs are just another type of baddie the players have to fight. However, I am willing to listen to people of color who find this offensive and make any necessary changes at my gaming table.

It’s unfortunately not the same case for the drow. The drow, or “dark elves”, are basically the same as elves except for three things:

  • They live underground
  • They have black skin
  • They’re EVIL!

It’s all too easy to imagine a person of color, new to D&D and excited to play, cracking open the Player’s Handbook and finding out that the black elves are the evil ones. How would this person feel, and could you blame her?

If you wanted to mount a defense of the drow, you could point out that their skin is coal-black, and not anything like real black people. You could also point out that their hair is bone white. But to be honest, this is a pretty weak defense, and I wouldn’t expect it to fly.

I haven’t read Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, where a solution for this is presented, but according to the article, WOTC’s big idea for redressing this issue is cancelling the stat bonuses for people who play drow. These stat bonuses are increased darkvision (to 120 ft, rather than the usual 60 ft), a Charisma bonus, and the ability to cast certain spells, even if you’re not a spellcaster.

There’s nothing really derogatory about that. No white supremecist ever accused African Americans of being exceptionally charismatic or have good eyesight. So it’s hard to see how this move helps the situation at all.

If you really want to make the drow less offensive, you’re going to have to change the lore. This is a difficult move, because a lot of drow lore is “canon”, and a lot of people will complain. But, stat bonuses or no stat bonuses, as long as “the black ones are the evil ones”, there’s going to be a problem.

What’s up with the Drow?

So, again, is D&D racist?

Whenever I hear a white person respond to being called out for racism, or complaining about a thing they like being called out for racism, I hear a very angry, upset and defensive person. I hear a person who doesn’t want to be racist and is desperate to refute the accusation and clear their name.

This is a good thing. It’s good that white people are desperate not to be racists. But unfortunately, this desperation often causes us to miss two very important points about racism.

The first is that racism isn’t an either/or thing. It’s a matter of degree. A lot of white people think of racism as wearing klan robes or nazi uniforms and going out in groups to visit violence or murder on people of color. And while this certainly is racist, it’s not the only kind of racism. If the only thing you need to do to not be racist is not join a group dedicated to killing other races, you’re setting the bar very low.

In fact, the extreme, uniformed Klansmen/Neo-Nazi thing is only one extreme of racism. At the other end of the spectrum are small things, like double-checking your car is locked when you see a black person walking toward you.

Does checking your car is locked make you as bad a person as Hitler or the Grand Dragon of the KKK? Absolutely not. That’t the point of degrees. But it also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to overcome whatever it is that makes you want to check your car is locked.

The other point is that we all have been brought up in a racist society (even people of color), and therefore we all have some beliefs and habits and assumptions that are racist, whether we want them or not. I do not excuse myself from this fact. And we may never get rid of all of this background racism, but we can try, and we can keep trying. So when someone points out that this thing you like is a little bit racist, it’s worth listening to them, considering their point of view and their feelings, and what life has probably been like for them, and seeing what you can do to improve the situation. We can’t change how we were raised, but we can change how we think and act every day.

(I know people often point out racism in a very aggressive and accusatory way, that doesn’t lead to conversation and compromise, and certainly not to forgiveness and growth. But you can’t make other people not be dicks; you can only try not to be a dick yourself.)

Gary Gygax didn’t invent the drow to be racist, or to offend black people. The word “drow” comes from the “trow”, an old English mythological creature that lived underground, and most of the details of the drow came from the Old Norse svartalvar or “dark elves” (literally “black elves”). All Old Norse elves were suspicious, but the dark elves were particularly dangerous .

But while Gygax may not have been trying to be racist, he also wasn’t trying not to be. Most likely he just didn’t consider how black people would feel about the drow. At the time, African Americans didn’t form a large part of the RPG gaming community, or of the wargaming community that preceded it. This is probably a case of insensitivity, rather than overt racism. But that’s no reason for us to continue the insensitivity. Especially if we’re in a position to know better.

Can the Dark Elves be “fixed”?

An important thing to remember about early D&D is that all monsters were one-dimensional. When the Player Characters entered the dungeon, or the vast, labyrinthine caverns, or any other dark and dangerous place, they met creatures who wanted to kill them. These were “monsters” (even if they were actually evil humans, or slimes, or mushrooms). And if everything went well, the PCs would kill the monsters instead, and then take all their stuff.

That was the essence of D&D in the beginning, and this style of play is still present in the game. And if you need to use drow as this kind of straight-forward, unambiguously evil monster the PCs can happily kill and loot, altering them could present quite a challenge.

But in the 40+ years that D&D has been around, the game has evolved beyond its hack-and-slash roots, with an increasing focus on story and role-playing (in the sense of “acting”, as opposed to the “in-character tactical decision-making” sense implied by the earlier editions). In this light, if you’re using drow as your monster, you must have certain themes in mind for your campaign. You must have a reason for choosing drow, rather than goblins or undead or any other creature you could have given to the PCs to beat up on.

As the game of D&D has developed, so has its monster lore. We now think of the drow as a culture, with distinct characteristics. They are matriarchial. They worship spiders and an evil spider goddess. They regularly scheme against their superiors in order to advance.

But if the drow are a culture, with a large, subterranean civilization, how likely is it that all drow are the same? Even if most of their society was “evil”, surely there would at least be a significant minority of dissenters. There may even be enclaves, or entire settlements of drow who reject the wicked ways of the majority .

And if this is the case, your PCs could learn to recognize the differences. Look for signs that a group of drow are Lolth-worshippers before attacking. This changes things from being a matter of “Black elves! Kill them!” to “They’re wearing spider insignia! Kill them!”

And consider also the nature of “evil”. D&D usually relies on a fairly simplistic view of good and evil. The bad guys are bad because they’re bad. They know they’re bad, and they like being bad, and doing bad things. But real “evil” isn’t like that. Hitler is widely regarded as one of the most evil humans ever to exist. But he thought he was the good guy. Most people view themselves as the hero, regardless of whether they really are.

So even if the majority of your dark elves are “evil”, think about what that means to them. How do they view themselves? What goals or higher purposes do they think they’re serving? Do they think they’re the real “good guys”? This is a great way to add nuance to your campaign, and can provide a lot of opportunities for role-playing and non-combat solutions.

And of course, at your table, you don’t have to make dark elves evil at all.

And finally, going all the way back to the point that dark elves aren’t black like humans: who says non-dark elves are white? Maybe the elves in your game run the gamut of human skin tones, and it’s the unnaturalness of the drow, not their blackness, that marks them out. Or maybe your elves have lilac skin, or blue, or hot pink. If we blindly assume that all elves look like Legolas, that only serves to exacerbate the offensiveness of having black elves be the evil ones.

And the point is…

So, to sum up: D&D isn’t an intentionally racist game, but it does suffer from an unfortunate choice of terminology. More importantly, certain creatures, most notably the dark elves, can be highly offensive to people of color. While none of this offense was intentional, it shouldn’t be left as is once we become aware of it. Some things WOTC might do to change this (that they haven’t yet done) is stop using the inaccurate term “Race”, and, more importantly, revise some of lore and mechanical features of certain “monsters” and playable “races”. Other publishers and games have already taken similar steps, so there’s little excuse not to take action on this.

As Game Masters, we can revise the lore ourselves. We can change how certain creatures function in-game, and give them more nuance or a broader spectrum of behavior and characterization, even if they remain more or less villainous.

I would like to reiterate for the third time that white people aren’t qualified to be the final arbiters on what constitutes racism, and we shouldn’t discount the feelings and experiences of people of color when racism is under discussion.

For decades, the RPG community was almost exclusively white and male. This was the case even when the hobby was at its previous peak popularity, in the 1980s. However, over the last 5-10 years, the hobby has enjoyed unprecedented success, and is gaining a following among demographics that either did not or were not invited to participate in it before, for example women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether changing the dark elves is a case of “political correctness gone mad”, but whether we want our hobby to be an open, inclusive place that thrives with the participation of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. And I certainly answer yes to that.

Cacophonous Conjugations: the First Power (a-stem verbs)

If you’re reading this, you can speak English. And English basically has three kinds of verb: regular verbs (usually distinguished by having the past tense end in -ed); irregular verbs (usually distinguished by having the past tense not end in -ed, but rather some change to the stem, like the vowel change in sing, sang, sung); and modal verbs, like should, would, will etc, which tell you something about how an action was or will be performed, rather than being an action in their own right (there’s a difference between I do it and I should do it).

Latin has regular, irregular, and modal verbs as well. But the main way of categorizing Latin verbs is by the main vowel in their infinitive inflection, which will usually appear in most of the present-tense inflections and many of the other inflections as well.

If you’re worried about what “infinitive” and “inflection” mean, don’t worry. All will be explained. But first, the fundamental difference between Latin verbs and English verbs: Pronouns; or, more properly, the lack thereof!

What are your pronouns?

My pronouns are they/them, but Latin’s pronouns are usually nothing. Latin does have pronouns (is means “he”; ea means “she”; and id means “it”). But Latin doesn’t always use pronouns, because it doesn’t always need them. And this is because the form of any given verb changes based on who is doing the action of the verb.

The following are six short sentences in English:

I die.

You die.

He dies.

We die.

You all die.

They die.

In these English sentences, we need the pronouns, or we wouldn’t know who’s dying. This is because the form of the verb “to die” is the same in all the sentences except the third one: “He dies.” (We potentially could understand the meaning of “Dies” without the pronoun, but, in practice, we wouldn’t know which pronoun was being omitted (she, he, or it), and also we’re just not used to understanding verbs without a defined subject.)

But Latin isn’t like that. Because, in Latin, the verb would be slightly different in each of those sentences. If fact, it would look something like this:

Expiro

Expiras

Expirat

Expiramus

Expiratis

Expirant

Latin actually has many verbs that mean “to die” (and even more that mean “to kill”), and expirare isn’t the most common one, but it is an a-stem, and it’s the root of modern English “to expire”, which can mean “to die” in certain contexts.

In any case, each of those six words is the direct and literal translation of the corresponding six English sentences above. But what English needs a verb and a pronoun to do, Latin accomplishes with just a verb. An inflected verb.

What I hope everyone sees is that the ending of the verb is different for each “sentence”. Two more things worth pointing out: expirat doesn’t give us a clue as to which pronoun we should use in translating the sentence. Only the context of the entire piece of writing would tell us that. When translating such a sentence, I always write “s/he/it [verbs]”. (And I pronounce the pronoun “shee-it”.) The other thing is that there is an ending for addressing more than one person (that is, there’s a plural form of “you”). Latin even has a pronoun for this: vos. We have no equivalent of this in English, unless you come from Texas or the American South (y’all) or Scotland (youse).

Why A-Stems?

I’m beginning with A-Stem verbs, because that’s how I was taught to do it. The verbs are called A-Stems, because they have an a in the infinitive form. The infinitive form of a verb is the form it takes when it is not actually being used in a sentence. English infinitives are usually proceeded by the preposition “to”, as in “to die”, “to kill”, etc, but this is because the main present-tense form of English verbs is identical to the infinitive, so you need the preposition to understand how the verb is being used, just like you need the pronouns when the verb appears in a sentence.

When most people learn Latin, they start off with a lot of boring a-stem verbs like:

laudare (to praise)

amare (to love)

cogitare (to think)

dare (to do)

errare (to make a mistake)

vocare (to call, summon)

These are important verbs, to be sure, but I like to add a little “bite” to my lessons, so we’re going to take our examples from the generic Latin verb “to kill”: necare.

So, necare is the infinitive form, which we know because of the infinitive inflection: -are. An inflection is an ending added to (wait for it) the end of a verb stem, to tell us how the verb is being used. The stem of necare is “nec-“.

All Latin infinitives (except deponent verbs, which we’ll talk about in the far future) end in -[vowel]re. The vowel that comes before the -re is usually how the verbs are categorized, grouped together. When a verb has the infinitive inflection, it usually means the verb isn’t “doing” anything in a sentence. “Necare” just means “to kill”. To put it in a sentence, you have to get rid of the -are and add one of these inflections (or “endings):

-o (I)

-as (you)

-at (s/he/it)

-amus (we)

-atis (youse/y’all)

-ant (they)

Using this pattern, we can take a verb like necare, and change it to mean whichever of those pronouns is doing the killing:

neco (I kill)

necas (you kill)

necat (s/he/it kills)

necamus (we kill)

necatis (youse/y’all kill)

necant (they kill)

And you can do this with basically any Latin verb whose infinitive ends in -are (even those Flanders-esque Christian verbs like laudare).

To change a verb’s ending so you can use it in a sentence is called “conjugating” it, and the a-stem verbs are often called First Conjugation Verbs or The First Conjugation.

Now, I would love to teach you how to kill something in Latin (not in real life, though, because I’m a pacifist). But, unfortunately, verbs aren’t the only words that change their endings in Latin. Nouns also change their form, based on whether they’re doing or receiving the action (or functioning some other way). However, the pronoun id is the same whether it’s doing the killing or being killed, so I can teach you how to kill “it”. (Note, Latin doesn’t need the pronoun as the subject of the verb – the person or thing doing the killing – because of the inflections; but it does need a noun or pronoun as the object of the verb – the person or thing being killed.

Id neco (I kill it.)

Id necas (You kill it.)

Id necat (S/He/It kills it.)

Id necamus (We kill it.)

Id necatis (Youse/Y’all kill it.)

Id necant (They kill it.)

Latin usually puts verbs at the end of the sentence, so even though the “id” part comes before the verb in the above examples, we still know “it” is the thing being killed, because of the verb inflections. The third sentence, “Id necat”, certainly could simply mean “It kills” (it’s not wrong to use subject pronoun with a Latin verb, just unusual and unnecessary). But, in real Latin, the context would, hopefully, make the sentence more clear.

We’ve only covered the present tense, here. This is also because that’s how I was taught. The past tense (and other tenses) are more complicated and will come some other time.

For now, that’s enough boring grammar. Join me next time, and we’ll discuss the worst metal band name in Latin ever. Until then, knowledge is power, so keep sinning.

How NOT to hail your dark lord and master

In my last post, which was also my first post, I examined the various ways you can say (or write) “Hail Satan” in Latin. And I also addressed a couple common Latin errors.

For this post, I want to discuss one sentence I see sometimes, which I believe contains quite a lot of errors.

Before we begin, though, I want to say that I am not calling anyone out or trying to make anyone feel stupid. Latin is a complex language, especially compared to modern English, and without formal instruction, it’s difficult to get it right. In pointing out Latin mistakes, I’m actually hoping to accomplish two things:

  • Enable people to use the correct phrases
  • Inspire people to learn more about Latin, so they won’t need help from people like me

So, onto the main event.

Sometimes, when I’m trawling the internet, looking for Satany stuff, I see people writing something like this:

*Avete omnes Satanam, Dominum Magistrumque Atrum Meum

You’ll notice I marked the above with an *, which means I think you should never say or write this phrase. When I first encountered it, it took me about five minutes to work out that the intended meaning was something like “All Hail Satan, my Dark Lord and Master”.

It doesn’t mean that.

Now, for me, Satanism is about following my own lead and making my own choices and believing in myself, so the idea of hailing “my dark lord and master” doesn’t resonate with me. I’m not in this to have a master.

On the other hand, I’m also not trying to be an authority on how to do Satanism “the right way”. Avoiding the endless bickering about orthodoxy is one of the benefits of leaving Christianity behind. And the sentence does sound pretty cool.

So if you want to say or write “All Hail Satan, my Dark Lord and Master” in proper Latin, scroll to the end of this post and have a nice day.

For all you language nerds who want to find out why I believe my version of this sentence is correct and the other one is not, strap in, because we’re gonna fisk this phrase within an inch of its life.

What does “All Hail” mean?

This may seem like a stupid question, but actually the first problem with the incorrect version of the sentence is that it gets the “hail” part wrong.

In my last post, we learned that the ave in ave Satanas is literally a command for Satan to “be well” or “be healthy”. Whoever made up this “dark lord and master” phrase wanted to change “Hail” to “All Hail”, and rightly clocked that they needed to make the verb plural; hence Avete (the form of avere when you are commanding more than one person.

“How many Romans?”

The problem is, that’s not how avere works. Ave Satanas isn’t a command to someone else to do something to Satan; it’s a command for Satan to “be healthy”. So avete would be commanding multiple Satans to be healthy.

But in English, “All Hail Satan” is a command for multiple people to do something (we’ll get to that “something” in a minute) to Satan. And there’s just no way to express that concept using avere. People want to use avere, because it’s familiar from phrases like Ave Caesar and Ave Maria. But it just won’t work here.

So you have to ask yourself: What do you mean when you say “All Hail”? And I would suggest you mean that others should pay some sort of vocal homage or respect to the person or entity you’re asking them to “hail”.

There are a number of Latin verbs that will do this, but the two I think work best are laudare, “to praise”, and salutare, “to ‘salute'”. And of the two, I prefer salutare, because laudare is pretty “basic”, and salutare appears in the apocryphal but fun phrase morituri te salutamus (“we who are about to die salute you!”).

Once we change the verb, using the plural imperative (the command to more than one person works just fine, and the form is

Salutate

Who is “all”?

This seems like another stupid question, but it’s actually kind of important.

One of the first things I learned about Latin style, way back in the halcyon days before the start of this dark century, was that Latin tends to avoid possessive pronouns and adjectives if the thing they describe obviously belongs to or includes everyone there.

This is especially the case for “big” things like patria (a homeland). You would not specify patria meus, “my homeland”, unless you were speaking to someone who didn’t share your homeland, and you wanted to draw attention to that fact.

Now, omnis (“everyone”) is not a possessive, but I feel the same logic applies, both because of the grandness of the concept of Satan as “dark lord and master”, and especially because the inflection on salutate already makes it clear that you’re addressing more than one person. Both these facts, I feel, make including the inflected form omnes redundant.

So if you imagine you are writing or speaking to a bunch of Satanists (perhaps you want to use this sentence in a Black Mass or other ritual event), you don’t really need to add the omnes (“all” or “everyone”) part. However, if you want to shout it out in mixed company, then adding omnes makes it clear you’re including everyone, even those who may not to be inclined to praise Satan. Neither adding nor omitting omnes is “incorrect”, but keep that stylistic consideration in mind.

More Greek!

Now that we’ve swapped the intransitive verb avere for the transitive verb salutare, Satan can be a direct object. You are commanding others to salute or praise Satan, and Satan is “receiving” the praising or saluting. This is one of the things the incorrect sentence gets right: putting Satanas in the accusative case (the form a noun takes when it is the direct object of a verb): Satanam.

In my last post, I discussed how the word Satanas immediately came into Latin from Greek Σατανᾶς (Satanas), and advised against using the Greek-derived vocative inflection, even though you could. Well, now I’m doing the opposite with the accusative inflection.

Once again, Latin is not required to preserve Greek inflections when it “borrows” a word from Ancient Greek. One of the first Latin nouns I ever learned was nauta (“sailor”), which comes from Greek ναύτης (nautes) – another α-stem, like Satanas. But the accusative singular of nauta is nautam, like any other Latin first-declension noun.

Still, if you really want to show off your etymological guns and impress those Classical Antiquity nerds (like me), you could render the accusative of Satanas according to the Greek paradigm, which would be Satanan.

Unlike with the vocative, Satana, there would be no chance of confusing this with another Latin form, as Latin doesn’t use final -n for noun inflections.

Lord and Master

Another thing the erroneous version of the sentence gets right is the “and” part.

The basic Latin word for “and” is et, as in

Et tu, Brute!

(“And you [too], Brutus!” – notice the vocative inflection, because “Brutus” is a second-declension masculine noun.)

But another way to say “and” (especially common in poetry) is to add the suffix -que to the last word in the phrase. Most people will have seen this in SPQR, which stands for

Senatus populusque Romanus

(“The Senate and the Roman People”)

When I see something domimum magistrumque out there in the wilds of the internet, my dorky Language-nerd heart goes pitter-patter. Well done!

Fifty Shades of Dark

If you ever want your mind blown, take a good look at another language’s colour terms, especially those of an ancient or non-Indo-European langauge.

Old Norse, for instance, describes gold, the metal, as “red”. There in an African language which uses one word for the colours English knows as red, yellow, and orange. Russian has two separate words for dark blue (sinii) and light blue (goluboi), and because these two words are unrelated, the implication is Russians do not see them as variations of one colour, but two distinct colours.

Latin does a similar thing with the colour “black”. There are two kinds of black: ater, which is a dull, “matte” black; and niger, which is a shiny or glossy black, and is also the root word of the worst racial slur in the English language. Which is probably why the translators of this sentence chose ater. I myself feel awkward writing the other Latin word for black, and am loathe to do it again, even though it is perfectly innocuous when used in Latin. (The Romans were many things, but they weren’t racists, as Mary Beard poinst out in her book SPQR.)

But the thing about both these colour terms is: neither of them is the basic word for “dark”!

If you want command people to hail your “dark lord and master” don’t write *domimum magistrumque atrum. Use the adjective obscurus instead: dominum magistrumque obscurum.

Word order

Just as in Senatus populusque Romanus, the one adjective may apply to either of the nouns, or both of them, as long as all three are the same case and grammatical gender (which they are). I have, for instance, seen this well-known phrase translated both “The Senate and the Roman people” and the “Roman Senate and people”. Obviously, both the Senate and the people are Roman, in both versions. But what about Satan?

Is Satan both your “dark lord” and your “dark master”? Or is he your “dark lord” but just your ordinary “master”? If both “lord” and “master” are dark, then definitely leave the adjective after magistrum (though be aware one could understand this to mean “lord and dark master”).

Personally I prefer to keep “dark lord” as a separate phrase, and add “master” to it, so I would write dominum obscurum magistrumque. But these are mainly stylistic issues.

Whose Lord and Master?

What I said earlier about avoiding possessives for big, shared concepts applies even more here.

Firstly, I just feel there is a discrepency between the “all” of omnes and “my” lord. “My” is singular; “all” is not only plural, it’s literally “everyone”. It could hardly get more plural. Again, this is potentially explained by the possibility of saying this sentence to “mixed company”, including non-Satanists.

But consider this: when Christians talk about Jesus, they say “our Lord and Saviour”. Doesn’t Satan deserve the same consideration?

So I would either omit the possessive adjective entirely, or substitute the plural: nostrum, “our”.

And now, at long last, I can give my proposed correct version of the sentence “All Hail Satan, my (our) Dark Lord and Master”. I’ve included some of my proposed variations in round brackets, but added the version with laudare separately:

Salutate (omnes) Satanam (Satanan), dominum obscurum magistrumque (nostrum)!

Laudate (omnes) Satanam (Satanan), dominum obscurum magistrumque (nostrum)!

Don’t forget what I said about where to put obscurum!

Now, if you haven’t died of boredom by now, join me next time, when I will be attempting to give an actual lesson in Latin: the first conjugation a-stem verbs! Woo-Hoo!

Until then, valete, sorores fratresque in Satana!

How to hail Satan in proper Latin

The new-and-improved “progressive” Catholic Church recently decided to throw a shit-fit about Satanists on the the internet. And although it is laughable that such a large and influential organization is ignoring climate change and the return of extreme right-wing politics (both of which are real, serious threats to humanity) in favour of harping on an imaginary goat-man and some harmless inverted pentagrams, one result of the increase in alleged Satanists on social media is that more and more people are hailing our fictitious dark lord in Latin.

And, because Latin is a hard language and they don’t teach it in schools (shut up, Eton!), we don’t always get it right. 

Therefore, I thought I’d offer up, as my inaugural post, a quick run down on how to say “Hail Satan” and its variants in proper Latin. 

AVE SATANAS

The Latin for “Hail Satan” I encounter most “in the wild” is Ave Satanas, and this is basically correct. If you’re just looking for a simple way to say “Hail Satan” in Latin, this phrase will do the job, and you can stop reading now and go about your business.

Deeper dive

But for those who want a little more info, let’s examine the heaven out of this otherwise simple phrase.

Ave, meaning “hail”, is no doubt familiar to most readers from things like Ave Maria (both the Schubert composition and the Roman Catholic prayer, rendered in English as the “Hail Mary”).

Another instance of Ave with pop culture recognition is the apocryphal cry of the Roman gladiators:

Ave, Caesar! Morituri te salutamus!

(Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!)

(BTW, no gladiator ever said anything like that.)

Ave is a form of the verb avere, whose original meaning was “to want/desire/long for”, but came to mean “hail”, at least in set phrases like Ave Caesar.

Hail, in English, literally means “to be well/healthy” (it is cognate with heal and with the Scottish word hale, as in “hale and hearty”). And the same is true of avere: when you use ave to “hail” someone, you are literally telling them “to be well”.

In form, ave is what we call an “imperative”. That means it is the “command” form of the verb: the form you use when you’re giving someone else an order.

But “Romans go home” is an order, so you must use the imperative!

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in a phrase like Ave Caesar or Ave Satanas, you are “commanding” Caesar or Satan to “be healthy”.

Ave Satanas!

(Hail/Be healthy Satan!)

Variant: Ave Satana

Though less popular, you also see some people writing Ave Satana. Not only is this also correct, but kinda-sorta “cooler”, if you’re a big language dork who thinks declining Classical nouns is cool, like me.

It’s all Greek to me

One thing we notice about the word Satanas is it ends in -as. But most “famous” Latin nouns end in -us. So why isn’t is *Satanus?

(BTW, when I put an * in front of a word form, it’s because that form is incorrect, hypothetical, or non-existent. So when skimming my posts, make sure you never say or write anything marked with an *.)

The word Satan ultimately comes from Hebrew, where it means “adversary, opponent, or antagonist”. It did not exist in Latin until St Jerome translated the Bible from its original languages into Latin, creating the version known as The Vulgate (which is related to the word “vulgar”, meaning “of the common rabble”, because at the time Latin was the “common” language, not the prestigious intellectual one).

Most occurrences of the Unholy Name in the Vulgate are merely spelled Satan, with no attempt to map the word onto Latin morphology. No inflections, no Latin-style word endings. But you do get some occurrences of Satanas, which is a direct transliteration of Σατανᾶς, from the original Greek of the New Testament.

Unlike St Jerome, the Greek authors of the New Testament did attempt to map the Hebrew word onto a Greek noun paradigm: specifically the “first declension α-stems”. And in Ancient Greek, words that end in – ᾶς (-as) in the nominative case (the basic “name” form of a word) drop the ς (s) in the vocative case.

WTF is the “vocative case”?

The vocative case is the form of a noun you use when you are directly addressing it or calling out to it. “Vocative” comes from the Latin verb vocare “to call”, and is related to English words like vocal, vox, voice, vocation (which is a “calling”), invoke, and evocation (the school of magic from Dungeons & Dragons).

When you’re “commanding” Satan to “be well”, you’re addressing him directly, so you should technically use the vocative case, and change Satanas to Satana.

So why not always say “Ave Satana”?

Well, Latin isn’t Greek, and when Latin imported words directly from Greek, Latin speakers and writers didn’t always feel compelled to use the Greek inflections. (And sometimes they didn’t know them.)

Also, Latin has, or at least had, a vocative case of its own, but it is only preserved in the “famous” words that end in -us. In all other classes of noun, the vocative is identical to the nominative, and thus nonexistent. So we can extrapolate a tendency of Latin to lose the vocative case over time. (This tendency is realized in the absence of a vocative in the Romance languages, which descended from Latin.)

So at the very least, you shouldn’t feel compelled to say or write Ave Satana. But there’s another good reason to avoid it. People who haven’t studied Latin, which is most people, won’t know about this vocative inflection. Which means “Satana” will look like a first declension feminine noun. The a hypothetical “girl-version” of Satan. It’s liable to create confusion.

Variant: hailing the Lord of Hell

But sometimes we don’t want to hail Satan. Sometimes we want to hail “The Lord of Hell”. And I have seen the following attempts to do this “in the wild”:

*Ave domine inferne

Ave domine inferni

*Ave domini inferni

Only one of these is correct (spoiler alert, I’ve already marked the incorrect ones!).

In this phrase Ave functions exactly as above, so there’s no need to revisit it. Instead, let’s concentrate on the two nouns: dominus and infernus.

The “famous” Second Declension

The pattern of endings a Latin noun gets, depending on how it is used in a sentence, is called a declension. The good news about dominus and infernus is they are both part of that “famous” group of Latin nouns that end in -us, properly called the “Second Declension, masculine”. The bad news is, this is the only declension in Latin that still has a vocative case, so we have to use it. (The second declension also contains grammatically “neuter” words, which end in -um, and don’t have a separate vocative.)

When you are addressing a second declension masculine noun, such as dominus, you have to change the -us to -e: hence domine.

The word dominus, “lord”, is related to words like dominate, dominion, the Italian titles don and donna, and of course, Dame (both the French and English titles, and the American derogatory slang for “woman”.

There is nothing like a Dame

Abandon all hope

We probably think of an inferno as a ball of fire or something, but that is purely the result of Abrahamic religious influence. The Latin word infernus, from which inferno is derived, simply refers to a place that is “lower”, either literally or figuratively, and is related to words like infra and inferior, both of which come into English from Latin, virtually unchanged.

Like dominus, the word infernus is a second declension masculine noun. But what grammatical case should it be? What is its function in the sentence?

The phrase “Lord of Hell” uses the preposition of to indicate possession, ownership, or belonging. This is called a periphrastic genitive construction, and while it is the only way to indicate possession in the Romance languages (from which English adopted it, thank you very much, Normans), it was not used in Latin.

I’m possessed!

Latin indicates possession with an infection on the noun that “possesses” the main noun. This is called the genitive case. English still does this by adding ‘s to a noun: the lord’s house. In second declension Latin nouns, you create the genitive by changing the -us to -i: domus domini. So to say or write “Hail Lord of Hell” correctly, it’s:

Ave domine inferni

(Hail Lord of Hell)

Note that, although inferni is best translated as “Hell’s”, I have rendered it “of Hell” above, because of Latin’s tendency to place the genitive noun after the noun it modifies (or possesses).

One thing most people know about the “famous” -us nouns is that the plural ends in -i (think fungi, the plural of fungus). And it’s true: in second declension masculine Latin nouns, the genitive singular is identical to the nominative plural. Only context can determine which case is correct. “Hail (the) Lord (the) Hells” wouldn’t make any sense.

Regarding the two incorrect ways to say “Hail, Lord of Hell”, the first one, *Ave domine inferne literally means “Hail the lord from below”. And because inferne is an adverb, it modifies Ave, not domine, so you are hailing “from below” your lord.

The second incorrect form, *Ave domini inferni, looks like it has two plurals: “Hail the Lords the Hells”. If you get caught using this one, you could pretend you were trying to write “Hail, Lords [plural] of Hell”, and argue that Hell has many fictional “Lords”, but I think we’d all know this is straining to do some explaining.

So there it is: Ave domine inferni: “Hail, Lord of Hell!”

If you see any other version of this phrase, it’s probably an error.

Now, if there’s anyone left who isn’t angry and bored, join me next time, when we discuss how not to hail your dark lord and master!

Until then, valete, sorores fratresque in Satana!