WTF is "cold iron", and why's it so special?

Mike R

Explorer
"Cold iron" is not about physical temperature, nor about forging.

It is about the things the fae are sensitive - emotional/spiritual/magical content, or the lack thereof, and symbolism. Iron is cold in the way that a person who lacks empathy is cold. It represents mankind's separation from the natural world, or humans taking command of their own fate in defiance of the magics of the past. Iron, and the technologies that come with it, are what allows people to no longer be subject to the whims of the world, and the whims of the fae.

Humans are natural, so anything they make is also natural.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Humans are natural, so anything they make is also natural.

That's a very modern notion, and the "cold iron" thing is very old, based in an earlier view of human's place in the world.

And, while this is true in the very basic "cannot be in violation of the laws of the universe" sense, it is not true in the "what mankind makes is automatically compatible with the normal operations of the natural world around us." We make and do thing highly inimical to the bioshpere in which we live.
 

Mike R

Explorer
That's a very modern notion, and the "cold iron" thing is very old, based in an earlier view of human's place in the world.

And, while this is true in the very basic "cannot be in violation of the laws of the universe" sense, it is not true in the "what mankind makes is automatically compatible with the normal operations of the natural world around us." We make and do thing highly inimical to the bioshpere in which we live.

It is neither modern nor old, it simply is. Human beings are made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe, obey the same laws, and use the same processes. Also, the properties of any given substance, such as iron, are not affected by any views of our place in the world. Iron was magnetic before we existed, and it will continue to be after we are gone.

Nothing is compatible or incompatible with nature. Again, nature just is. It has no desires or goals. If humans cause the extinction of all life, that is nature. If life goes extinct for some other reason, that is also nature. A barren world like Mercury is natural, as is a hellscape like Venus. Nothing can be inimical to nature; everything is the result of nature. It's really kind of a meaningless term, it would be more precise to replace it with "the fundamental physical constants and all properties, fields, particles, and interactions that arise therefrom" but that's a little wordy to type out every time.
 

SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
It is neither modern nor old, it simply is. Human beings are made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe, obey the same laws, and use the same processes. Also, the properties of any given substance, such as iron, are not affected by any views of our place in the world. Iron was magnetic before we existed, and it will continue to be after we are gone.

Nothing is compatible or incompatible with nature. Again, nature just is. It has no desires or goals. If humans cause the extinction of all life, that is nature. If life goes extinct for some other reason, that is also nature. A barren world like Mercury is natural, as is a hellscape like Venus. Nothing can be inimical to nature; everything is the result of nature. It's really kind of a meaningless term, it would be more precise to replace it with "the fundamental physical constants and all properties, fields, particles, and interactions that arise therefrom" but that's a little wordy to type out every time.

While what you say may be accurate, it does not change the mythological origins of the customs and legends of "cold iron", nor their influence on D&D.
 

Mike R

Explorer
While what you say may be accurate, it does not change the mythological origins of the customs and legends of "cold iron", nor their influence on D&D.

Any mythological treatment of iron that depends on it being natural or unnatural is affected by whether it is natural or unnatural, so yes, it does matter.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Any mythological treatment of iron that depends on it being natural or unnatural is affected by whether it is natural or unnatural, so yes, it does matter.

Mythological treatments are fiction, and thus do not have to depend at all points upon what we think of things in the real world. The one thing we can depend upon in our fictions is that somewhere it deviates from reality, rather than clings to it. Most D&D is played as a high fantasy, meaning that it takes place on a world, and probably a universe, that is not our own. The ideas of "natural" and "unnatural" that any particular person thinks apply here may not apply in the fiction.

If a person were to do a revisioning of fae creatures today, they might wish to base it upon a modern philosophy relating to the position of mankind in the universe. But for the moment we are (admittedly implicitly) speaking about a version of the fae based on older views of the world.
 

Mythological treatments are fiction, and thus do not have to depend at all points upon what we think of things in the real world. The one thing we can depend upon in our fictions is that somewhere it deviates from reality, rather than clings to it. Most D&D is played as a high fantasy, meaning that it takes place on a world, and probably a universe, that is not our own. The ideas of "natural" and "unnatural" that any particular person thinks apply here may not apply in the fiction.

If a person were to do a revisioning of fae creatures today, they might wish to base it upon a modern philosophy relating to the position of mankind in the universe. But for the moment we are (admittedly implicitly) speaking about a version of the fae based on older views of the world.
While you rightly criticize [MENTION=6966901]Mike R[/MENTION] for being unable to put down a particular philosophical lens when evaluating a fictional fantasy game, I have to muddy the waters a bit. The naturalism he is espousing has a very long pedigree in philosophy, with origins in Classical India and Greece. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics were naturalistic, making naturalism arguably the dominant view among thinkers in the West until Christianity changed the game. In contrast, this...
It represents mankind's separation from the natural world, or humans taking command of their own fate in defiance of the magics of the past. Iron, and the technologies that come with it, are what allows people to no longer be subject to the whims of the world, and the whims of the fae.
...is a quite modern perspective. Technology as separation from nature is not a theme you see a lot (at least in Western thought; the Taoists were sort of in the neighborhood of it) until the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement. In general, the understanding of technology as a thing, and the progression thereof, was historically slow to emerge.

Yes, "cold iron" plays a prominent role in European folklore warding off fairies. But a nature-vs.-technology conflict does not satisfactorily explain why. Remember, too, that iron also supposedly wards off evil spirits, witches, bad luck, and so on.

So it's a bit less obvious why this is the case than you seem to be claiming.
 

Mike R

Explorer
Mythological treatments are fiction, and thus do not have to depend at all points upon what we think of things in the real world. The one thing we can depend upon in our fictions is that somewhere it deviates from reality, rather than clings to it. Most D&D is played as a high fantasy, meaning that it takes place on a world, and probably a universe, that is not our own. The ideas of "natural" and "unnatural" that any particular person thinks apply here may not apply in the fiction.

If a person were to do a revisioning of fae creatures today, they might wish to base it upon a modern philosophy relating to the position of mankind in the universe. But for the moment we are (admittedly implicitly) speaking about a version of the fae based on older views of the world.

A thing is natural if it is the result of natural processes. Humans are the result of natural processes, and so anything that is the result of humans is also a natural process.

You can either agree with this or explain when, why, and how a natural thing stops being natural. For example, is an iron atom selected at random natural? If it is, does a natural animal interacting with it cause it to stop being natural, even though the iron atom is unchanged? If so, why, and what is the mechanism which causes it to stop being natural? Also, given any iron atoms, how shall we distinguish between an unnatural and natural one? That is, what must be true about an unnatural iron atom, and what must not be true about it? What do we expect to observe, and not to observe? If these questions can't be answered, then the word "unnatural" fails to convey any information.
 

Mike R

Explorer
While you rightly criticize [MENTION=6966901]Mike R[/MENTION] for being unable to put down a particular philosophical lens when evaluating a fictional fantasy game, I have to muddy the waters a bit. The naturalism he is espousing has a very long pedigree in philosophy, with origins in Classical India and Greece. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics were naturalistic, making naturalism arguably the dominant view among thinkers in the West until Christianity changed the game. In contrast, this...

...is a quite modern perspective. Technology as separation from nature is not a theme you see a lot (at least in Western thought; the Taoists were sort of in the neighborhood of it) until the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement. In general, the understanding of technology as a thing, and the progression thereof, was historically slow to emerge.

Yes, "cold iron" plays a prominent role in European folklore warding off fairies. But a nature-vs.-technology conflict does not satisfactorily explain why. Remember, too, that iron also supposedly wards off evil spirits, witches, bad luck, and so on.

So it's a bit less obvious why this is the case than you seem to be claiming.

I am not particularly concerned with any specific philosophical tradition. I want to know exactly what we mean by "unnatural", and why this should matter to a substance's properties.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
It is neither modern nor old, it simply is. Human beings are made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe, obey the same laws, and use the same processes. Also, the properties of any given substance, such as iron, are not affected by any views of our place in the world. Iron was magnetic before we existed, and it will continue to be after we are gone.

Nothing is compatible or incompatible with nature. Again, nature just is. It has no desires or goals. If humans cause the extinction of all life, that is nature. If life goes extinct for some other reason, that is also nature. A barren world like Mercury is natural, as is a hellscape like Venus. Nothing can be inimical to nature; everything is the result of nature. It's really kind of a meaningless term, it would be more precise to replace it with "the fundamental physical constants and all properties, fields, particles, and interactions that arise therefrom" but that's a little wordy to type out every time.

This is not what is meant by unnatural, though. A car is made up of things found in nature. A car itself, though, will never be found occurring naturally. Hence it's an unnatural creation.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
A thing is natural if it is the result of natural processes. Humans are the result of natural processes, and so anything that is the result of humans is also a natural process.

You can either agree with this or explain when, why, and how a natural thing stops being natural. For example, is an iron atom selected at random natural? If it is, does a natural animal interacting with it cause it to stop being natural, even though the iron atom is unchanged? If so, why, and what is the mechanism which causes it to stop being natural? Also, given any iron atoms, how shall we distinguish between an unnatural and natural one? That is, what must be true about an unnatural iron atom, and what must not be true about it? What do we expect to observe, and not to observe? If these questions can't be answered, then the word "unnatural" fails to convey any information.

It stops being natural when it fails to occur all by itself in nature. If something requires humans to create it in order for it to exist, it's unnatural.
 

Mike R

Explorer
This is not what is meant by unnatural, though. A car is made up of things found in nature. A car itself, though, will never be found occurring naturally. Hence it's an unnatural creation.

A car occurs naturally when humans make one. The natural process in this case is amino acids > proteins > cells > humans > car. (a lot left out for conciseness, of course.)
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
A car occurs naturally when humans make one. The natural process in this case is amino acids > proteins > cells > humans > car. (a lot left out for conciseness, of course.)

That's a load of philosophical BS, though. You wanted to know when the car stops being natural, and that's at the point where it doesn't occur in nature all by itself. That's how the world defines it outside of philosophy. You know the, practical, real world.

Amino acids occur in nature all by themselves. Proteins occur in nature all by themselves. Cells occur in nature all by themselves. Humans occur in nature all by themselves. A car doesn't. Full stop. It's unnatural.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Is an anthill or a beehive unnatural?

An anthill is just a pile of dirt. Piles of dirt are natural. A beehive is a construction and isn't natural. It can't occur in nature outside of being built by the bees or perhaps humans trying to make one.
 



Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
While you rightly criticize [MENTION=6966901]Mike R[/MENTION] for being unable to put down a particular philosophical lens when evaluating a fictional fantasy game, I have to muddy the waters a bit. The naturalism he is espousing has a very long pedigree in philosophy, with origins in Classical India and Greece. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics were naturalistic, making naturalism arguably the dominant view among thinkers in the West until Christianity changed the game.

Well, Stocism, at least, does not serve you here. "Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature," is a basic Stoic tenet. However, this admits that human will can be in *disagreement* with nature.

Similarly, with Epicurians, we have the idea that there are three kinds of desires: the natural and necessary, the natural but not necessary, and those that are neither natural or necessary. This, again, admits to humans having unnatural desires - there is something about humans that is not natural.

So, I say both of these early philosophies fall rather short of the idea that anything that humans do is natural, by definition. Rather, both accept that humans have issues when they step away from their natures - though they have *major* disagreements about what those natures are :)

In general, once we've hit the Christian era, we have the three major religions of Europe and the Middle East all claiming that humans, as created by the divine, have a special place in the universe, outside of the natural order. And, since the highest accomplishment of these cultures was iron, that iron becomes symbolic of mankind's special status. The Western World doesn't make major steps away from that until after Darwin, IMHO.

Yes, "cold iron" plays a prominent role in European folklore warding off fairies. But a nature-vs.-technology conflict does not satisfactorily explain why. Remember, too, that iron also supposedly wards off evil spirits, witches, bad luck, and so on.

Iron is seen as anti-magic at least as far back as Pliny the Elder, in the First Century, AD. We may note that it is during Pliny's life that the Romans come to the British Isles - bringing with them wealth and relatively advanced technology. The idea that iron and human works are inimical to the fae powers probably has a lot to do with Roman occupation of Britain. Romans were all about taming the lands around them - roads, aqueducts, and so on....
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
T Humans occur in nature all by themselves. A car doesn't.

Um....

Humans only occur by action of humans. We do not spontaneously generate and spring forth from spoiled meat, or something - it requires human action to create a human. And even more human action to craft another human that talks and does mathematics and engineering...

Cars only occur by action of humans....

I agree with the general posit that there is a practical dividing line between natural occurrences and the actions of sentient beings. But this logic doesn't hit the mark.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Stop feeding the troll.

It's a philosophical troll, but a troll nevertheless.

If he can't see that D&D cold iron is a pop-culture appropriation of an ancient mythical concept, he's either arguing in bad faith or genuinely new to role-playing.

Given his eloquent argumentation, I'm inclined to guess the former - hence the troll label. (It is at this stage a good-natured conversationalist removes his fake troll costume and says "You got me; yep, I was only trying to trigger y'all with philosophy. Ha ha. No harm, no foul."

If it is the latter, my apologies. Then my answer becomes: "Because. Next question?"
 

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