Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval Russia

Khutulun and the warrior women of the Mongol Horde — July 23, 2022

Khutulun and the warrior women of the Mongol Horde

“A CHILLY NIGHT SETTLES ACROSS the grassy knolls of the Mongolian steppe. Then, all at once, the thunder of galloping horses pierces the quiet. Screams erupt as the cavalry charges Kublai Khan’s unsuspecting forces. Khutulun’s horse rears, desperate to join the fray. But Khutulun holds the mare back—not yet. Even before Khutulun was born in 1260, her father, Kaidu, hated Kublai Khan. In their eyes, Kublai was a traitor shunning Mongolian traditions while adopting Chinese ones. But, if this raid goes according to plan, Khutulun and her father could deal a crucial blow. “Now, Khutulun!” Kaidu bellows. Kicking her horse into action, Khutulun flies at the enemy. Deftly as a hawk, she narrows in on her prey, the camp’s commander. She looses a bone-tipped arrow and it sails through the commander’s shoulder. Khutulun hoists his bleeding body onto her saddle and races back to her father’s side. Unceremoniously, she drops the enemy at Kaidu’s feet. “And this she did many a time,” wrote the globe-trotting Marco Polo, who spun Khutulun’s feats far and wide.”

So begins a rather nice piece in (the excellent) Atlas Obscura, on Khutulun, great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, who may have been an unusual case (and made rather larger-than-life in the retelling) but who nonetheless was not unique, as Mongol women were as badass as the men and also did their share of rulership too, as this separate Atlas Obscura piece discusses.)

(And Mongol warrior women might have inspired the Disneyfied legend of Mulan, something discussed here)

‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’: Mythic Russia at Continuum 2022, really — June 17, 2022

‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’: Mythic Russia at Continuum 2022, really

Originally meant to run in 2020, now at least COVID has receded to the point where real, in-person gaming conventions are back, so this excursion into how the HQ/QW Mythic Russia game engines handles really powerful characters – and antagonists – will be running at this year’s Continuum gaming con in Leicester. And while I’m at it, let me whole heartedly plug this con, if you happen to be interested in a nice mix of tabletop RPGs, freeform LARPs and general conviviality, 6-8 August…

OK, this is looking a little too real… — March 19, 2022
Mini-Podcast: Kulikovo, 1380 to 2021 — January 11, 2021

Mini-Podcast: Kulikovo, 1380 to 2021

There’s a minipodcast in my In Moscow’s Shadows series now up looking at the battle of Kulikovo and exploring some of the ways and reasons why it is important today for Vladimir Putin’s efforts to create a new narrative of Russia… You can listen to it on your usual podcast app (and why not subscribe to In Moscow’s Shadows while you’re at it, if you’re at all interested in a personal take on today’s Russia?) or directly here.

The Long Road to Sarai – going to pay homage to the Khan — October 12, 2020

The Long Road to Sarai – going to pay homage to the Khan

A reconstruction of Sarai

The Russian history magazine Diletant has an interesting article (in Russian – but Google Translate does a reasonable job) on the journey princes had to make to Sarai to get the approval of the Golden Horde, something even Ryurikids had to do, even often after Donskoi’s victory at Kulikovo. After all, you never know… Still, there were sufficient dangers, from sickness or bandit attacks while on the road (or the river!), to falling foul of the Khan, that princes would typically write their wills before setting off. Russian chronicles tend to downplay this, and especially the wealth the princes would take with them as tribute: gemstones, fine fabrics and elaborate weapons were especially prized.

This lends itself to all kinds of scenarios, from accompanying a prince and experiencing the exotic life and intrigue of Sarai, to raiding such a mission for the tribute being brought.

The article can be found here.

‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’: Mythic Russia at Continuum 2020 — January 14, 2020

‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’: Mythic Russia at Continuum 2020

BtD-banner copy.jpg

Edit: Sadly, of course, Continuum didn’t happen this year for reasons pandemic. But there will be other conventions – eventually!

Although I’m on the Committee as Freeform Tsar, I still am making sure I have the time to run at least one game of Mythic Russia on the Saturday afternoon at this year’s Continuum gaming convention (7-10 August in Leicester, UK – details and sign-up here). It’ll be a nice opportunity to let the players field very powerful characters against ridiculous odds, exactly the kind of over-the-top situation at which the HeroQuest system excels. It’s a great con, not least as a very friendly and welcoming one, so if you have the time and the interest, do come!

Continuum 2020: 7-10 August, Leicester, a gaming convention I can thoroughly recommend — January 1, 2020

Continuum 2020: 7-10 August, Leicester, a gaming convention I can thoroughly recommend

dragonA quick plug for this thoroughly excellent, friendly and inclusive weekend-long gaming con, now annual, with which I am involved. It runs 7-10 August at Leicester University and has a mix of RPGs, freeforms, board and miniature games, as well as a soupçon of its own distinctive silliness. It has a particular bias towards Chaosium games and settings (Glorantha, HeroQuest, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu) but is by no means confined to them and, yes, there will be some Mythic Russia there, that I can guarantee! Registration opened today, and tickets and accommodation can now be booked, so go along to its website here, sign up, and maybe even pitch a game or two to run!

Mythic Plastic Surgery? — November 17, 2019

Mythic Plastic Surgery?

Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov

A fascinating story from the Siberian Times, about evidence of idols being modified over time to show different ethnic characteristics. You can read the whole piece, with extra detail, images and diagrams, here.

2,400 year old Ust-Taseyevsky idol ‘underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages’, losing his European looks.


But why this medieval plastic surgery? And the next puzzle: how come he had Caucasian features almost two millennia before the Russian conquest of Siberia?

An inscrutable face stares at us from the deep past. This idol – in fact a cluster of idols – has been gazing precisely east-southeast from a crest on a sandstone hill since several centuries before the birth of Christ, even if modern man only chanced upon him in 1975.

The main stone sculpture visible today shows a man with widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and ocher-coloured pupils.

He has a massive nose with flared nostrils, wide open mouth, a bushy moustache and a beard. And yet all is not quite as it seems, for this sculpture, the most northerly of this genre in Asia, underwent an historic version of plastic surgery perhaps 1,500 years ago to give him a less Caucasian and more Asian appearance, according to experts.

2,400 year old idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks
An inscrutable face stares at us from the deep past. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov

Archeologist Yuri Grevtsov said: ‘Analysis of the sculpture’s micro-relief showed that the original image went through some improvements. The first ‘edition’ was made by knocking, charring and the polishing the lines. Most likely it was all made by one person who seemed to have a very strong hand and a good taste.’

‘Finds of ancient tools, weapons and bronze mirrors  in grottos surrounding the sculpture suggest this and other more weathered and fallen idols were hewn out of the sandstone as a place of worship between the second and fourth century BC.

‘But in the early Middle Ages a ‘less experienced sculptor’ got to work on the idol and  ‘sharply delineated and narrowed the sculpture’s asymmetric eyes. The nose bridge was flattered with several strikes. The nose contour was altered to form ‘two deep diagonally converging grooves.

‘The moustache and the beard were partially ‘shaved’.’

2,400 year old idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks

2,400 year old idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks
Ust-Taseyevsky ritual site, and the idol. Pictures: Yuri Grevtsov, Anna Kravtsova

So the original European look of the idol was changed to a more Asian countenance. Why would this happen?

‘Judging by archeological finds found inside the grottos, this anthropomorphic idol was made during the Scythian time,’ Yuri Grevtsov said. ‘The first change came when the more European looking face was transformed to make it appear more Mongoloid was likely to have happened in the early Middle Ages with a shift of the population in the Angara River area,’ he said.

In other words, incoming ethnic groups preferred the idol to be more akin to their own looks.

2,400 year old idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks
Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Anna Kravtsova

Senior researcher Grevtsov said the stone idol is the only one of its kind in the taiga so far north: the closest analogues would be 500 kilometres to the south in Khakassia.

Why, though, would the original face have distinctly European features – seen by some as Slavic – when modern-day native Siberian groups have a more Asian appearance?

The answer may be that the Scythian peoples –  a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads who held sway in many Siberian regions at this time – did indeed have this more European visage.

The so-called Ust-Taseyevsky Idol (or Taseyevsky) is on the left bank of the Taseyeva River, some 4 km from its confluence with the Angara, and 10 km from the village of Pervomaisk, some 300 km north from regional capital Krasnoyarsk.

In all there are four sculptures, along with a ‘carving table’ and a spot where sacrifices of bears and elks were made. It lies 480 metres from the river bank, and 104 metres above the water level, a crest on a 300 metre hill.

2,400 year old idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks
Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Anna Kravtsova

2,400 year old idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks

Scheme of the site and its location marked on the world map. Pictures: Yuri Grevtsov, The Siberian Times


Explorer Maksim Fomenko who visited the site this year with a Yenisei TV film crew said: ‘A compass dances frivolously with its needle going as much as 20 degrees off course. Locals also say that the hills act like a magnet to lightning bolts during storms. I wonder if this was the same in earlier times and if people that lived here saw it as a good sign to choose the site for their rituals.’

‘There was a path leading up the hill. One of the rocks that looks like a table was used to carve carcasses of bears and elks. Judging by the bones we found, they cut off bear paws and heads, then separated jaws from the rest of the skull and performed some procedure in between the rocks.

‘Then they had a meal and burned the skulls and paws inside a different pit.’
‘I couldn’t sleep for two nights, so strong was the feeling of excitement’, archeologist Yuri Grevtsov

In fact, the idol that is so visible and striking today was not the main figure in the complex. The central character worshipped by the people of the past is in the middle of the composition, above all other stones. It has one eye, a nose and something looking like a beard.

There is disagreement about what it shows: some see the face of a man, others an animal, perhaps even a bird, most likely a raven. It is surmised that the idol that is prominent today was a ‘helper’  and probably not the recipient of  ancient  offerings.

Next to the helper there is a round-shaped rock which researchers refer to as the ‘helper’s wife’.

The carving table is to the left of the helper and his wife.

Behind the main sculpture there is a ‘guard’ – the biggest rock of all on the site – whose role was seen to be to overlook the ritual site.

After each of the rituals, the offerings were hidden in niches between the rocks and piled on top of the remnants of the previous offerings.

The ‘guard’ stone stood by the richest of the niches that had the most intriguing finds.

Interestingly, the hierarchy of how the idols were set on the site is similar to the ways of the Khanty and Mansi peoples, whose geographical location is some 2,000 kilometres to the north east.

Their idols were made of wood but the order they were arranged was similar – the main idol was in the middle, a helper and his wife were to the left, a guard was to the right.


From a Mythic Russia gaming perspective, this raises an intriguing question: would changing the physical forms of icons and idols change the spirit or deity they represent? Clearly it’s not as simple as just chiselling off a beard or changing the shape of the eyes, but perhaps if done as part of a ritual, or if the item in question was brought into the Otherworld, there could be some kind of feedback. I

t raises the prospect of an Orthodox expedition heading into Siberia to Christianise the idols in the hope that this would affect their spirits and thus lead the Sibiryaks into the light.

Or Teutonic Knight infiltrators trying to get at especially important Orthodox icons, either to try and purge them of their corrupt and schismatic ways, or else to excise them of Christian symbolism, to push these so-called Christians back into their pagan ways and make them fair game for a fully-fledged crusade…