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The Horror! of Living Skeletons

The Dungeons & Dragons skeleton has long been a low-level foe for novice adventurers. With its archery and lawful evil alignment, it hints at a life of discipline. But in medieval lore, its roots are considerably more chaotic.

The_Triumph_of_Death_by_Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder.jpg

Picture by Pieter Brueghel the Elder - Museo del Prado, Public Domain

It's perhaps not surprising that D&D incorporates a variety of mythological approaches to the living dead into its diverse supernatural ecosystem. The skeleton, itself associated with the grim reaper, is one of the more recognizable, but its origins are more complex than a mindless monster. Indeed, the skeleton was originally positioned as a scathing attack on inequality in medieval times.

Danse Macabre

The skeleton have been a metaphor for death going back to medieval woodcuts. Their origins harken back to the Danse Macabre:

The Danse Macabre consists of the dead or a personification of death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and laborer. It was produced as memento mori, to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life. Its origins are postulated from illustrated sermon texts; the earliest recorded visual scheme was a now-lost mural at Holy Innocents' Cemetery in Paris dating from 1424 to 1425.

If the skeletons of old were more interested in mocking the living and reminding them of the fragility of their positions in life, things would take a darker turn with The Triumph of Death.

The Triumph of Death


The 1446 fresco in Palermo shows death as an archer (shades of the D&D skeleton) killing the living of all social levels, but it's The Triumph of Death in Madrid in 1562 turns things truly apocalyptic. This Triumph of Death portrays the mass slaughter of the living by an army of the dead:

The painting shows a panorama of an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape. Fires burn in the distance, and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. A few leafless trees stud hills otherwise bare of vegetation; fish lie rotting on the shores of a corpse-choked pond. Art historian James Snyder emphasizes the "scorched, barren earth, devoid of any life as far as the eye can see." In this setting, legions of skeletons advance on the living, who either flee in terror or try in vain to fight back. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls; in the upper left corner, others ring the bell that signifies the death knell of the world. People are herded into a coffin-shaped trap decorated with crosses, while a skeleton on horseback kills people with a scythe. The painting depicts people of different social backgrounds – from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal – being taken by death indiscriminately.

And thus we come to our army of blade-wielding killers that skeletons are known for. But there's a more recent portrayal that likely cemented the skeleton as a robot-like adversary.

Ray Harryhausen's Skeletons

The skeletons best known in modern fantasy can be attributed to the stop-motion magic of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen, who featured seven armed skeletons as the "children of Hydra's teeth" in Jason and the Argonauts:

In the latter film, 7 skeletons are spawned from the teeth of the slain Hydra by King Aeëtes of Colchis, as revenge for Jason and his men stealing the Golden Fleece. After Jason uses the Fleece to heal a wounded Medea on top of a cliff, Argos takes Medea back to the Argo as Jason and two of his toughest men fight all 7 skeletons that arise from the ground; five are immediately spawned with swords and shields and another two are carrying spears. After Castor and Phalerus are slain in battle, Jason realizes that the only way of defeating his undead foes is to jump into the sea, where the skeletons "drown" and Jason and his crew return with Medea to Thessaly.

Christian Lindke on Topless Robot says it best:

They are the skeletons to beat all skeletons, and they are what will help us decide whether Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the most D&D movie of all time. Weapon-wielding skeletons aren’t a commonplace feature in a lot of fantasy stories, and according to the recent Osprey book on the Argonautica the classical version of the Children of the Hydra is as “mud men” that are comprised of actual flesh and blood. This leads one to believe that the skeletons of D&D are Harryhausen Skeletons. Another dead giveaway regarding the origins of the D&D Skeleton is the fact that in AD&D, Skeletons only take half-damage from bladed weapons. Only blunt weapons do full damage. Watch these two sword fights and tell me that Gygax and Arneson weren’t thinking about these fights when they made that rule.

Although there's a one-on-one battle in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts cemented fighting skeletons in kids' imaginations everywhere. And judging by their similarities to D&D skeletons, that included Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca



John R Davis

Explorer
Skeletons are a fav monster of mine. (The shields are very cool as well......each could tell a story of how the warrior came to be ultimately slain by the hydra)
 


Coroc

Hero
Great post with historical references.
I always thought it might be something originating from the real world zombie mythos. So you have the zombie as an animated mindless creature, but you want different undead as well and what comes to mind? Skeletons, ghosts, ghouls and vampires and mummies.
It might be as profane as that, the grim reaper is an unique creature, and it is far from mindless. Death has often been depicted as skeleton, but the standard d&d skeleton is in no way comparable to a personification of death himself, don't you think?
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
Oddly enough, skeletons rarely seem to be used to depict death in world art. I certainly don't know of anything like it from ancient Greek or Roman art and not even from the death-obsessed Ancient Egyptians. The only cultures that I know of to use the skeleton to represent death are those of Western Europe (beginning in late medieval times), the Aztecs, and Tibetan Buddhism. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
Btw, the concept of zombies appears to be fairly recent, except perhaps in West Africa.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
One thing I really liked in 5e is how clear the distinction is between a zombie and a skeleton. The zombie is a lot tougher, but it's dumb as a doorknob. In my Yoon-Suin campaign, my players created an illusion of a bridge, stand on the bridge (flying), and they got rid of over half a dozen zombies that way as they mindlessly chased the "standing" PC and fell 50 feet below.

A skeleton? Sure the first one would have fallen, but the others would have stopped. They are much more useful, and can wield weapons (including bows!)
 

Harryhausen's skeletons are still amazing. For all the advances in technology since then, they're still pure movie magic. How they interact with real actors goes a long way to selling them as fearsome undead adversaries. Sinbad's fight against the skeleton would not be half as exciting without Kerwin Mathews' selling of it in his performance.

Skeletons are the workhorse monsters of D&D. They can fit in just about anywhere as low-level antagonists. And those bones have style. Cover them in moss, rusty tatters of armor, fungal growths, give them a cool battered helmet, a jagged shard of a blade, a keepsake locket from their living days, or even a robe to make the PCs worry a little that they did something to make the DM mad enough to throw a lich at their tier 1 group.

The Skeletons RPG also springs to mind as perhaps the only game about playing said skeletons as they guard their tomb in eternal vigilance.
 

Superchunk77

Explorer
One thing I really liked in 5e is how clear the distinction is between a zombie and a skeleton. The zombie is a lot tougher, but it's dumb as a doorknob. In my Yoon-Suin campaign, my players created an illusion of a bridge, stand on the bridge (flying), and they got rid of over half a dozen zombies that way as they mindlessly chased the "standing" PC and fell 50 feet below.

A skeleton? Sure the first one would have fallen, but the others would have stopped. They are much more useful, and can wield weapons (including bows!)
I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you on this. I always liked how in 3.5 there were clear rules around Undead and what they can or cannot do. In 3.5 both zombies and skeletons were considered mindless undead. Zombies were tougher and slower and skeletons were faster but more fragile. However, the undead type made them immune to mind-affecting spells, which includes most illusions.

In 5e it is all open to DM interpretation, but for stuff like that I would rather have a ruling to fall back on personally.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you on this. I always liked how in 3.5 there were clear rules around Undead and what they can or cannot do. In 3.5 both zombies and skeletons were considered mindless undead. Zombies were tougher and slower and skeletons were faster but more fragile. However, the undead type made them immune to mind-affecting spells, which includes most illusions.

In 5e it is all open to DM interpretation, but for stuff like that I would rather have a ruling to fall back on personally.

Not following this, there's a clear distinction in the text.

Skeletons
Obedient Servants. Skeletons raised by spell are bound to the will of their creator. They follow orders to the letter, never questioning the tasks their masters give them, regardless of the consequences. Because of their literal interpretation of commands and unwavering obedience, skeletons adapt poorly to changing circumstances. They can’t read, speak, emote, or communicate in any way except to nod, shake their heads, or point. Still, skeletons are able to accomplish a variety of relatively complex tasks.
A skeleton can fight with weapons and wear armor, can load and fire a catapult or trebuchet, scale a siege ladder, form a shield wall, or dump boiling oil. However, it must receive careful instructions explaining how such tasks are accomplished.​
Although they lack the intellect they possessed in life, skeletons aren’t mindless. Rather than break its limbs attempting to batter its way through an iron door, a skeleton tries the handle first. If that doesn’t work, it searches for another way through or around the obstacle.​

Compare that to zombies
Mindless Soldiers. Zombies take the most direct route to any foe, unable to comprehend obstacles, tactics, or dangerous terrain. A zombie might stumble into a fast-flowing river to reach foes on a far shore, clawing at the surface as it is battered against rocks and destroyed. To reach a foe below it, a zombie might step out of an open window. Zombies stumble through roaring infernos, into pools of acid, and across fields littered with caltrops without hesitation.​
A zombie can follow simple orders and distinguish friends from foes, but its ability to reason is limited to shambling in whatever direction it is pointed, pummeling any enemy in its path. A zombie armed with a weapon uses it, but the zombie won’t retrieve a dropped weapon or other tool until told to do so.​
 


Dausuul

Legend
As I understand it, the animate-skeleton motif in Western European art became widespread during the Black Death. Thus the theme of "leveling high and low"--no matter who you were, beggar or king, you could be carried off by the plague.
 


Blue Orange

Explorer
Great mythological summary! The skeleton is indeed a classic symbol of death.

There were so many other takes on it even within D&D--the animal skeleton, giant skeletons, both simple animated bones of giants and the Ravenloft variety that could throw the fire in their bellies at you, the huecuva with the diseased touch, the skeletal warrior that was tougher than a vampire and practically immune to magic...
 


Von Ether

Adventurer
My very first D&D homemade monster, and first homemade monster every, was a cackling, two-headed and four-armed skeleton. It had double the attacks and double the hit points.
 


Ravenbrook

Explorer
I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you on this. I always liked how in 3.5 there were clear rules around Undead and what they can or cannot do. In 3.5 both zombies and skeletons were considered mindless undead. Zombies were tougher and slower and skeletons were faster but more fragile. However, the undead type made them immune to mind-affecting spells, which includes most illusions.

In 5e it is all open to DM interpretation, but for stuff like that I would rather have a ruling to fall back on personally.
As I understand it, zombies and skeletons can also be charmed in 5e. That wasn't the case in 3.5e.
 


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