Worldbuilding Wednesday 11/29/23: Magic Items of Ancient Greece

Jason and the Golden Fleece. Illustration by Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone.

Greek myths were chock-full of magic items, most of them made by the gods; and with a few exceptions, most of the humans who meddled with them came to a bad end. Take the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. It’s a very long and involved one, but the gist goes like this.

Disinherited Greek prince Jason, wishing to reclaim his father’s throne from his usurping uncle, agrees to take the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes, not knowing the enormity of the task means certain death. (The fleece is that of the magic flying ram Chrysomallos, who carried the twins Phrixus and Helle  to safety on his back.) Medea, King Aeëtes’ sorceress daughter, takes a shine to Jason courtesy of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and agrees to help him. After several impossible trials set by Aeëtes — plowing a field with fire-breathing bulls, sowing dragon’s teeth, and defeating the warriors who grow from said teeth — Medea brews a  potion to put the ever-wakeful serpent/dragon guard of the fleece to sleep. The two then grab the prize and flee so Jason can reclaim his throne.

The longer tale is told in the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen, a stop-action animation pioneer; it’s still entertaining to this day.

But, pride goeth before a fall, and when reality hits Jason decides to upgrade to a younger wife who is heir to the kingdom of Corinth, a much richer kingdom. Medea then curses him, kills the children they had together, and flies off in a chariot drawn by dragons. So even in this brief excerpt we have fleece from a flying ram, fire-protection ointment, warrior-growing teeth, sleeping potion, and dragon-pulled chariot, none of which gave Jason or Medea much happy-ever-after.

Other magical items from Greek myth include Pandora’s Box, which held all the sorrows of mankind, Eros’ arrows which made mortals fall in love, Hades’ cap of  invisibility, and the Aegis of Athena with the gorgon’s head that turns men into stone.

For ordinary citizens, magic was a part of life, but seen as something unseemly, risky, and dangerous. Those suspected of magic use were well-patronized, but also shunned. Common folk paid to have blessing and curse tablets inscribed and philtra — love potions — created amongst many other concoctions, some purportedly deadly. Amulets were also popular for both protection and to draw a certain kind of luck.

If you’re setting a campaign in Ancient Greece, here’s some randomgenned magic items that may be of use.


Magical Items of Ancient Greece

Axe of Hecate: Hecate is the Greek goddess of night and witchcraft, so this double-headed war axe, or labrys,  strikes at +1 against good-aligned beings.

Cymbals of Artemis: Used by priestesses in magical rites in which only young women participate, these induce in them an uncontrollable urge to dance when combined with other instruments like the pipes or cithera. By themselves, the cymbals have no effect.

Earrings of the Icthyocentaur: These dangling earrings made of pearl and shell let the wearer transform at will into an icthyocentaur, a humanoid water being who is a hippocampus from the waist down. They gain the ability to breathe under water and swim in their new form.

Foam of Tethys: Contained in an ornate glass bottle, this white, frothy substance is from the first ocean that was ever created. It can be used as a component in marine-oriented spells.

The Four Humours of Eros: Eros is the personification of Love, or Cupid, in Greek mythology. He is portrayed as handsome youth with a bow and arrows. This set of four potions comes in a wooden bracket. They are colored, red, white, yellow, and black, each corresponding to the essence of the sanguine, phlegmatic, angry, and melancholy temperaments. Eros dips his arrow in them to make people he shoots fall out of love. The red causes the victim to fall in love with another; the white, to become distant and indifferent; the yellow, jealous and angry; and the black, depressed and full of unworthiness.

Loincloth of the Persuasive Playwright: When this undergarment is worn by a writer, they gain a 75% chance of having their next play underwritten and performed, no matter what its quality.

Polydeuces’ Iron Talisman: Bestows the skills of a Greek boxer on the possessor.

Poppies of Charon: A beautiful red flower that grows in the depths of the Grecian Underworld. To smell it once is to fall into a deep coma that lasts for many days; take a deeper sniff, and one dies. Used as an ingredient in death and sleep spells.

Serpent Bread: A magical bread baked in the form of a snake. When a piece is eaten, it lets the person understand the language of any kind of snake or monster that has a snake component.

Spell-storing Wristcuff of Apollo: A beautiful golden cuff said to have been created by the god himself. It stores a maximum of 12 different spells relating to light, music, archery, healing, and poetry. Only good beings, or clerics of Apollo, can wear the cuff. It will seriously burn any others who try to put it on.

Spindle of Darkness: This magical spindle lets the user give darkness and shadow a physical form and spin it into a wool-like thread, which can be woven and used to make magical garments such as a Cape of Shadow. The “wool” is always midnight black and never fades.

Thalassa’s Mythic Tonic: Induces a longing for the Sea in the drinker. If they are a sailor or explorer, they will want to immediately set sail no matter where they are. If they have never seen the sea they will begin asking questions and want to go there, leaving off what they are doing.


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