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D&D Monster Origins

Monsters (A–C)

This is a part of a collection of monster origins. See the main monster origins page for more.

Athach

Like so many other creatures, this appears to be made whole-cloth from the suggestion of a dictionary's entry.

athach a giant, Irish fathach, athach; root pat, extend?

Alexander MacBain, An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language (2nd edition, 1911)

Balor

The balor comes from the balrog in the Lord of the Rings. By the final printing of the original D&D boxed set, the name was changed to Balor at the behest of the Tolkien estate. The new name comes from Celtic myth, although the character of Balor has no relation to the D&D creature.

Legolas turned and set an arrow to the string, though it was a long shot for his small bow. He drew, but his hand fell, and the arrow slipped to the ground. He gave a cry of dismay and fear. Two great trolls appeared; they bore great slabs of stone, and flung them down to serve as gangways over the fire. But it was not the trolls that had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.

Ai! ai! wailed Legolas. A Balrog! A Balrog is come!

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), The Lord of the Rings (1954). Book II, chapter 5.

Lugh and Balor of the Piercing Eye met in the battle. An evil eye had Balor the Fomorian. That eye was never opened save only on a battlefield. Four men used to lift up the lid of the eye with a polished handle which passed through its lid. If an army looked at the eye, though they were many thousands in number they could not resist a few warriors. It had a poisonous power. Once when his father's druids were concocting charms, he came and looked out of the window, and the fume of the concoction came under it , so that the poison of the concoction afterwards penetrated the eye that looked. He and Lugh met. Lift up mine eyelid, my lad, said Balor, that I may see the babbler who is conversing with me.

The lid was raised from Balor's eye. Then Lugh cast a sling-stone at him, which carried the eye through his head while his own army looked on. And the sling-stone fell on the host of the Fomorians, and thrice nine of them died beside it, so that the crowns of their heads came against the breast of Indech son of Dea Domnann, and a gush of blood sprang over his lips.

Ancient Irish Tales, tr./ed. Tom P. Cross and Clark Harris Slover (1936)

Barghest

Brand says that in the northern parts of England, ghost is pronounced gheist and guest. Hence bar-guest, or bar-gheist. Many streets are haunted by a ghost, who assumes many strange appearances, as a mastiff-dog, &c. It is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gast, spiritus, anima. Brand might have added that bar is a term for gate in the north, and that all the gates of York are named bars, so that a bar-gheist is literally a gate-ghost…

The Barguest, or Barn-ghaist of the Teutons, is also reported to be a frequent visitor in Lancashire. The appearance of this sprite is considered as a certain death-sign, and has obtained the local names of Trash and Skriker. He generally appears to one of the family from whom Death is about to select his victim, and is more or less visible, according to the distance of the event. I have met with persons to whom the barguest [bar-ghaist, i.e., gate-ghost] has assumed the form of a white cow, or a horse; but on most occasions Trash is described as having the appearance of very large dog, with very broad feet, shaggy hair, drooping ears, and eyes as large as saucers. When walking, his feet make a loud splashing noise, like old shoes in a miry road, and hence the name of Trash. The appellation Skriker has reference to the scream uttered by the sprite, which are frequently heard when the animal is invisible. When followed by any individual he begins to walk backwards with his eyes fixed full on his pursuer, and vanishes on the slightest momentary inattention. Occasionally he plunges into a pool of water, and at times he sinks at the feet of the persons to whom he appears with a loud splashing noise, as if a heavy stone were thrown into the miry road. Some are reported to have attempted to strike him with any weapon they had at hand, but there was no substance to receive the blows, although the Skriker kept his ground.

Lancashire Folklore (1867), ed. T. T. Wilkinson and John Harland.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797).

Basilisk

The basilisk pictured here is a small snake wearing a tiny gold crown.

Historiae Animalium (1551), tr. as Thierbuch (1563), illus. unknown. Public domain; thanks to Treasures of Keio University for the photo.

The basilisk and the cockatrice were originally understood to be the same monster, one which could kill by breath or glance. It was thought to come from Cyrenaica (northern Libya).

The like propertie [that is, killing those who look upon its eyes] hath the serpent called a Basiliske: bred it is in the province Cyrenaica, and is not above twelve fingers-breadth long: a white spot like a starre it carrieth on the head, and setteth it out like a coronet or diademe: if he but hisse once, no other serpents dare come neere: he creepeth not winding and crawling by as other serpents doe, with one part of the bodie driving the other forward, but goeth upright and aloft from the ground with the one halfe part of his bodie: he killeth all trees and shrubs not only that he toucheth, but that he doth breath upon also: as for grasse and hearbs, those hee sindgeth and burneth up, yea and breaketh stones in sunder: so venimous and deadly is he. It is received for a truth, that one of them upon a time was killed with a launce by an horseman from his horseback, but the poison was so strong that went from his bodie along the staffe, as it killed both horse and man: and yet a sillie weazle hath a deadly power to kill this monstrous serpent, as pernicious as it is (for may kings have been desirous to see the experience thereof, and the manner how he is killed.)

Pliny the Elder (23–79), Natural History, tr. Philemon Holland (1601). Book 8, chapter 21.

Beholder

Terry Kuntz came up with the beholder after he had been playing in my campaign for about two months. Where he got the idea I have no idea, but I latched onto it immediately, and with his kind permission made it an integral creature in the D&D roster of ugly customers to encounter.

Gary Gygax (1938–2008), August 17, 2003, EN World Q&A IV

Booka

The booka and kilmoulis are "fairie folk" from books of folklore from which I devised the creatures of the same nemes for the AD&D game.

Gary Gygax (1938–2008), December 3, 2005, EN World Q&A IX

Bredthralls

Like the thousandtooth, this was created by Sean Reynolds for The Scarlet Brotherhood.

Several sources hinted that the ancient Suel race created the derro, and it made sense that their racist xenophobic descendants would continue the practice of creating slave races, tho with lesser success. Thus, the komazar (stunted human-dwarf crossbreeds bred to work in mines, short legs make it hard for them to run away, mouth mutations make it difficult for them to speak), kurg (herbivorous minotaur-like humanoids bred for heavy labor), and rullhow (a crossbreed between humans and lemur-like creatures, fearful and meticulous, used to keep cities clean).

Sean K. Reynolds, personal communication, November 28, 2006.

Brownie

Gary Gygax confirmed that the pechs and brownies are based on early English folklore depiction of the Picts (EN World Q&A XI, July 21).

Bugbear

The word suggests a monstrous sort of bear, with the former part of the word tracing its roots to either the Scottish bogill imaginary creature, malign spirit, goblin (presumably also the root for the D&D-only bogun) or the Welsh bwg, ghost, goblin, ultimately meaning fear.

Bulette

The bulette and rust monster were originally plastic toys owned by Gary Gygax, but he credits Tim Kask for giving them names and abilities. Gygax's name, however, is on the article introducing the bulette, in The Dragon #1.

[T]he name and stats were created by Tim Kask, then editor of Dragon Magazine.

Gary Gygax (1938–2008), February 12, 2005, EN World Q&A VII

Carrion Crawler

I just needed something nasty for the "clean-up crew, so thought this one up.

Gary Gygax (1938–2008), March 10, 2003, EN World Q&A II

Because of the large and varied ecology of the D&D dungeons and underground, it was necessary to have scavengers of all sorts, so I made up the gelatinous cube, carrion crawler, ocher jelly, etc. There was no particular inspiration save for nature--amobeas, insect larva, and imagination.

Gary Gygax (1938–2008), June 19, 2005, EN World Q&A IX

Catoblepas

According the Pliny, this was an Ethiopian monster that killed by glance.

Among the Hesperian Æthyopians, there is a fountaine named Nigris, the head (as many have thought) of the river Nilus, and good reasons there be to carrie it, which we have alleadged before: neere to which spring, there keepeth a wild beast called Catoblepes, little of bodie otherwise, heavie also and slow in his limmes besides, but his head onely is so great that his bodie is hardly able to beare it; hee alwaies carrieth it downe toward the earth, for if hee did not so, he were able to kill all mankind: for there is not one that looketh upon his eyes, but hee dyeth presently.

Pliny the Elder (23–79), Natural History, tr. Philemon Holland (1601). Book 8, chapter 21.

Centaur

So passing through Pholoe he was entertained by the centaur Pholus, a son of Silenus by a Melian nymph. He set roast meat before Herakles, while he himself ate his meat raw. When Herakles called for wine, he said he feared to open the jar which belonged to the centaurs in common. But Herakles, bidding him be of good courage, opened it, and not long afterwards, scenting the smell, the centaurs arrived at the cave of Pholus, armed with rocks and firs. The first who dared to enter, Anchius and Agrius, were repelled by Herakles with a shower of brands, and the rest of them he shot and pursued as far as Malea. Thence they took refuge with Chiron, who, driven by the Lapiths from Mount Pelion, took up his abode at Malea. As the centaurs cowered about Chiron, Herakles shot an arrow at them, which, passing through the arm of Elatus, stuck in the knee of Chiron. Distressed at this, Herakles ran up to him, drew out the shaft, and applied a medicine which Chiron gave him.

Apollodorus, Library and Epitome (1st cent.?), tr./ed. James George Frazer. Book 2.

Chimera

[Ekhidna] was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Her did Pegasus and noble Bellerophon slay[…]

Hesiod (8th or 7th cent. BC?), The Theogony, tr. H. G. Evelyn-White (1914).

Cloaker

Well, what I thought I saw as this: a crowd of men wearing big black cloaks—they looked like Northerners—came rushing out of an opening of some sort. There was something odd about them: the light by which I saw them didn't seem to have any source. They aved the big black cloaks around as if they were fighting with them or doing some sort of a dance … I told you it was very foolish … and then they got down on their hands and knees and covered themselves up with the cloaks and crawled back into the place from which they had come.

Fritz Leiber (1910–1992), Swords Against Death (1970), chapter 6: The Sunken Land.

Couatl

Quetzalcóatl is pictured on this Aztec manuscript page, holding a snake and a child.

Codex Borbonicus, leaf 22, inset. Public domain; thanks to Early Written Records of Mesoamerica Aztec Códices for the photo. Quetzalcóatl is on the left.

The couatl is named for Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent of the Aztecs.

Crypt Spawn

This creature was designed by Sean Reynolds for Magic of Faerûn.

I created a spell that you'd cast on yourself, and if killed while it was in effect you'd rise as a revenant-like creature to kill whoever killed you, and then continue existence as an undead. I didn't want it to have any special abilities (otherwise you'd cast the spell and kill yourself to get the goodies), so there's nothing really unusual about this template except that you become an undead creature.

Sean K. Reynolds, personal communication, November 28, 2006.