Some months ago, a role-play-gaming friend of mine invited me to take part in his next project. I was going to work as an illustrator/character designer for his new Dungeons and Dragons game campaign. I quickly grew out of that role.
See, I’m a hoarder. I hoard information. I see a shiny bit of trivia, I keep it. So when my Game Master friend set out to develop a complete new world of his own, my random and sundry knowledge made me a valued voice in this endeavour. Currently I’m not only his illustrator but also his worldbuilding consultant on everything from genealogies to map making and from comparative linguistics to theology.
Yes, theology. Since this is a fantasy setting, the Game Master has designed his own pantheon of deities. One of them is the deity of lies. Let’s call that deity Zuul. Zuul, like most deities both fictional and real, has an associated symbol — originally, it was “an eye which looks as if it were made of pyrite”. I took issue with that description and it sparked a long and turbulent discussion about what exactly makes a good symbol — or even a symbol at all.
Let’s talk about symbols
The Game Master, as you might have guessed, had a certain metaphor in mind: being “fools’ gold”, pyrite seemed the perfect attribute for the deity of deception — it looks like gold but isn’t. The trouble was that an attribute is not exactly a symbol, and neither is a metaphor.
So what is a symbol? Well, in this case — a religious symbol — it is an easily recognisable image associated with a certain deity (or concept). Meaning-wise, it tends to have roots in that deity’s mythology, but since I’m not allowed to discuss potential game spoilers, I’m going to focus on the name and the form of the symbol.
(I can discuss the form because it has changed since. This is just a case study.)
The Pyrite Eye
The main problem with “an eye which looks as if it were made of pyrite” was that it was unnecessarily complicated. A good religious symbol should be easy to wrap your head around: a crescent moon, a flower, a star. “An eye which looks as if it were made of pyrite” adds a frankly unhealthy amount of complexity: it’s an eye (presumably made of something, like wood), which looks like pyrite, which looks like gold, which signifies— That’s too much mental effort. Let’s make it the Pyrite Eye. That’s both conceptually easier and fits well with other religions’ naming customs (golden bough, diamond realm, etc.)
The Pyrite Eye is of course easiest to imagine in a temple, actually made of pyrite. But what if there’s no pyrite ore nearby? Or if the worshippers want to recognise one another in secret? (Think: early Christians drawing fish in the sand.) If all we’ve got is wood, how do we make it look like the Pyrite Eye and not any other eye? Mind you, there was another deity in the Game Master’s pantheon whose symbol was also an eye. I’m going to call it the Other Eye.
To my mind, a good symbol should be A) scalable, B) recognisable regardless of medium and the artist’s skill level, and C) easily distinguishable from other symbols. A and B rule out a realistic depiction of pyrite as a lumpy mineral roughly the colour of gold but with a colder sheen to it. C makes us consider the relationship between the two eyes in the pantheon. I suspected that the Game Master (or rather the people in his world) wouldn’t want the two symbols to be easily confused. Especially seeing as Zuul is a deity of lies, accidentally mistaking the Other Eye for the Pyrite Eye (or vice versa) sounds like a recipe for a holy war.
The “pyrite” part of the Pyrite Eye should therefore be as schematic as possible. Pyrite is a crystal, so maybe the eye could be angular, as opposed to a rounder, more organic Other Eye. You can see one of my early concepts on the right.
The Eye of Zuul
But perhaps we could take one step backwards in defining this Eye.
See, one notable thing about any symbol is that it’s primarily a shape (a wheel, a trefoil) and secondarily a colour (white in a white flag). But it doesn’t have an assigned medium. A cross drawn in the sand is a cross as much as a cross carved out of stone. It remains itself both as a fresco and a silver charm. Some beliefs might suggest a specific material (the sun was often believed to be gold), but art usually doesn’t bother. A sun disc made of granite will be golden in the eyes of its followers.
What’s more, what a given instance of a symbol is made of might carry additional meanings within the overarching meaning. For instance, a cross generally equals Christianity. Within that meaning, a cross drawn on a map will signify a church; a cross made of gold and diamonds may represent the brilliance of god’s grace; and a wooden cross may refer directly to the crucifixion of Jesus.
In that vein, I say we can ditch the “pyrite” part completely. We can absolutely still have myths about people being deceived by the Eye, we can have the Eye traditionally rendered in pyrite on Zuul’s altars, we can have worshippers wearing little lumps of pyrite as a way of showing their devotion… But the symbol’s name and primary form would just be the Eye of Zuul. (Which, by the way, doesn’t even have to be an actual eye. In ancient Egypt, the Eye of Horus looked like an eye, but the Eye of Ra didn’t.)
And perhaps — to continue the theme of deception — it would be customarily called something like the Golden Eye, with only the faithful knowing the truth (that is, the lie) about it.