D&D vs History: The Magical Staff

Today’s article is about the Staff. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, my knowledge of D&D is largely confined to 1st and 2nd Edition, although I’m now running two historical fantasy campaigns using 5th.

D&D loves its magical staves. My personal favourite is the Staff of the Archmage (because, arguably, it’s a bit overpowered)  although various Staves of Healing (aka “nobody wanted to play a Cleric”), Staves of the Python/Adder, and once a Staff of the Woodlands came into my possession.

I originally intended this to be a continuation of the ‘Things D&D Got Right’ series that I’ve been doing on and off for a few years now. Unfortunately, I’ve sort-of been running out of things that D&D did get right, or at least things where D&D was more right than wrong.

Thus, I’ve decided to begin a slightly different type of article: ‘D&D vs History’, where I’ll be looking at historical and folkloric trends and examining how their portrayal in the game varies from the beliefs of real people living at times when magic and the supernatural were aspects of daily life.

It’s also worth saying that I have no intention of these articles being places where I somehow show my superiority by holding up examples of where D&D did something ‘wrong.’ While D&D, in its early days, was more concerned with the medieval supernatural and martial worlds, the game never fully set out its stall as such, and so I’m not ‘winning’ by showing that citizens of the myriad settings in D&D think differently to our real-world ancestors.

Magical Staves in Myth and Magic

Certainly, there are some sources, although very few, that give us some evidence of enchanted staffs in history. Interestingly, though, the majority of are in the form of magical tools rather than empowered objects given to mythical figures.

An example that straddles the line comes from the ruins of Ugarit, the ancient city whose remains are commonly known as Ras Sham. The source comes in the form of a tablet inscribed with four columns of text containing a ritual invocation to enchant a magical staff. The incantation itself depicts the God Baal being given a magical staff by the artisan-God Hayin to attack an enemy called “Prince Sea”. What effect the staff was supposed to have for the consecrating magician is unclear, but the words for enchanting it have survived:

The Skillful One – a staff he fashions,
And pronounces its design:
“Thy name, yeah thine, is ‘Ah, He-Will
-Force-Out! Ah, He-Will-Force-Out!”
Let him force out Sea!
Let him force out Sea from his throne,
River, from the seat of his reign!
Thou shalt swoop in the hand of Baal,
Like a vulture in his fingers!

This scene holds a marked similarity to the Enuma Elish, where Ea fashions himself a magical weapon and recites a ‘most holy incantation’ before using it to destroy the evil god Apsu and his attendant Mummu. Likewise, when Marduk goes to fight Tiamat, he is provided with an unstoppable magic weapon.

In terms of non-mythical magician, there is some evidence for magical staves being used. In the Demotic sections of the Greek Magical Papyri the God Anubis, in a similar vein to the invocation of Baal in the Ugarit passages, is instructed “Give your iron staff which is in your hand to the spirit!” as part of a spell to influence a target of the magician’s choice. Later, as a part of a scrying spell, the magician is instructed to “Hold an ebony staff in your left hand…”

For more recent magical manuscripts, the role of the staff seems fairly minimal. Wellcome MS 4669 of the Clavicle of Solomon describes a procedure to create a ritually consecrated staff:

“The Staff and the Wand must be made from wood of the Hazelnut tree of one year’s growth, and cut with one single stroke on the Day and Hour of Mercury and the following characters should be written upon it with the pen and ink of the art…”

Although there is an illustration that MAY be a staff or rod in Folger MS V.b. 26, one of the only other magical manuscripts (that I could find) depicting the consecration of a staff comes from the sex-obsessed Cambridge University Library MS Additional 3544. Similar to the procedure from Wellcome MS 4669, it directs:

“If rods or wands are needed it does not matter which woods the wands are made of; and cut it with one blow with a knife at the root in the hour of Mercury. And let the same characters be written on the wand with the aforementioned colouring, which are written in the experiment of preparation of the iron instruments, as of the knives, etc. Afterwards let these words following be said over the wand…”

However, all of these depictions of the staff in real esotericism and folklore lead us to the problem with mythical staff in general…

Biblical Origins of the Magical Staff

Unsurprisingly, for a game based in the myth of the European Middle Ages, two of D&D’s largest early influences were the North European sagas, and Christian mythology. Perhaps one of the most obvious items is the Staff of the Serpent: available in both Adder and Python varieties.

Unlike the magical staffs of other mythologies, Moses’ staff has many of the qualities of a magical item as we would imagine it from D&D — a magical weapon with powers in its own right:

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’

‘A staff,’ he replied.

The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.’ So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. ‘This,’ said the Lord, ‘is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Issac and the God of Jacob – has appeared to you.’”

Moses’ brother Aaron’s rod also transforms into a serpent, devouring the serpent-staves of the Pharoe’s magicians. In The Koran, Aaron’s staff brings forth almonds as part of an illustration about loyalty. In Hebrews 9:4 it is depicted as not only bringing forth blossoms and fruit, but being preserved in the Ark.

However, there remains question as to whether Moses’ possesses qualities in its own right, or only as a conduit for the powers of God. Just as it changes from staff to serpent and back at God’s command, Moses uses the staff to part the Red Sea at God’s command, and likewise brings water forth from the stone at the Lord’s command too.

The question begs asking, then, is the staff a magical item in its own right (as the ones depicted in the manuscripts above would presumably be) or simply a focus for the supernatural power of a greater being?

Magical Staves in Literature: Circe and Prospero

While many translations give Circe’s magical focus as a wand, a number of Classicists including Trinity College’s W B Stanford argue that linguistically ‘Staff’ is a better word-choice than wand or ‘long wand’ as I have seen elsewhere. For the purposes of this article, I agree.

The staff of Circe is used very much in concert with her other skills: seduction and drugging. When Odysseus’ men come upon her island, full of suspiciously friendly wild animals, Eurylochus describes how the sorceress worked her magic:

“She brought them in and made them sit on chairs and seats, and made for them a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey with Pramnian wine; but in the food she mixed baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land. Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her staff, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before. So they were penned there weeping, and before them Circe flung mast and acorns, and the fruit of the cornel tree, to eat, such things as wallowing swine are wont to feed upon.”

There is no evidence from Circe’s appearances in the Odyssey as to whether her staff is magical in its own right, or a conduit for her own power, but from the skills she shows with potion making it would seem that the latter is more likely – when Hermes comes to protect Odysseus, his concern is providing an antidote to her potion rather than avoiding being struck with the staff. Stanford went so far as to suggest that the staff is entirely inert, just a stick for shoving the transformed sailors into their new sties.

Likewise, Prospero’s staff is hardly depicted as the source of his magical power. He has learned the secrets of his mystical island from Caliban and can work various wonders thanks to the power that he seemingly borrows from Aerial, but until the final scene where Prospero vows to break his staff and drown his books, the text of the Tempest more or less fails to mention it.

And here we have the problem with the magical staff as depicted in D&D: the mythological staff simply had a different function. We see the followers of Dionysus show their kinship, and their lord’s power, by fashioning staves. Hermes and Anubis both show their office by carrying staves, and various mundane positions within Hebrew society would have been marked by the carrying of a staff – however, it is the man/God who bares the power, not the item itself.

A final example is that of the various depictions of Thor: after losing his usual regalia due to the actions of Loki, Thor borrows Gríðr’s staff – literally, the staff of the giantess Gríðr – along with a few other useful gewgaws and goes along his way. In the course of his adventures he uses to staff to part a river and break the backs of two giantesses, but ultimately the power to do that comes from Thor himself.

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2 thoughts on “D&D vs History: The Magical Staff”

    1. Ah yes! I saw Monkey’s staff while I was doing my research, but I felt it was more club-like in the end (like Dagda’s staff from Irish mythology). It *is* a lot more D&D like than staves from Western Mythology, and there are a number of Hindu ones that are just like something you’d see in D&D games.

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