The Dryad Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
If you had never heard of a tree spirit before, what do you think it would look like?
Wikipedia tells us that dryads are nature spirits that live in oak trees (drys = oak in Greek) and later, the term referred to any tree spirit. Dryads take the shape of lovely young women. As any fan of Greek Mythology can tell you, this has been the cause of lots of drama over the years (Syrinx, Daphne, etc.) I’m skeptical.I know it may be somewhat foolish to ask, “Is this view of dryads realistic?” in a game of high magic, but come with me on this journey.
I love Greek Mythology, flawed as it is. But, as a redheaded girl of the 1990s, the idea of a nubile young thang, chained to her tree, just waiting for some (male) hero to come by so that she can share her knowledge (and hotness) with him, rubs me the wrong way. I can’t help but think about who was literate when those original Greek stories were written (men) and see the dryad as a hetero-normative male fantasy of rooted, forever young, female perfection. She doesn’t get old! She can’t leave you! She’s so wise, yet lonely...
Because, let’s face it, there is no way a tree spirit would look like a humanoid. Trees themselves have roughly radial symmetry, and it would only make sense for their sentient spirits to be the same way. Think less like Mary Magdalene and more like biblically correct angels. If we use the naturally occurring shapes and senses of a tree to guide us, a dryad would look a lot more like the picture to the right - walking on many spider-like roots, with arm appendages where large branches would be. There would be no mouth, as trees drink through their toes, and communication would be root to root, or through telepathy. Not to mention, they’d have 3600 vision!
With the new dryad concept in hand, I confronted what my players thought they knew about dryads and created a weirdly alien, yet logical set of NPCs. When I started thinking about how to talk to a tree spirit, I didn’t do so thinking about smashing the patriarchy. And yet, here we are.
Our next set of players can come to the table with more distance from the male gaze that permeates so many monsters - succubi, sirens, Medusa, Lloth and the Drow, the witch kept young by evil means, etc., etc. It makes our tables more inclusive, so that everyone can be the hero or the villain. The princess doesn’t always have to be in another castle, awaiting rescue ... or tempting unsuspecting sailors to their doom. Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t have any of those tropes, but I, for one, like my NPC monsters less sexy and more logical in intended purpose.
It leaves me thinking… What else can we reimagine in this space? Whose story or fantasy is being told, and why? And most importantly, how can we shake off inherited sexism that is baked into our stories? Then we can focus on what is really important...how darn creepy dryads really are!
Check out more of Culliope’s Cauldron at rollforkindness.com