First Look At Theros

After the discussion of Theros at the San Diego Comic-Con and PAX Australia panels this past weekend, JDB takes a look at the Greek mythology-inspired next set.

Thanks to the San Diego Comic-Con and PAX Australia panels over the past weekend, there’s lots more publicly available information about Theros. While the panel-goers and Twitter were saying “ooh,” I was saying “whew!”—as in “whew, now I can actually say certain things about Theros without getting into trouble for breaking my non-disclosure agreement with Wizards.”

The single best gathering point for the combined information—that I’ve found at any rate—is this post on MTGSalvation. I’ve cross-checked it with time stamped Twitter posts from the official Magic: The Gathering Twitter account (where Brian David-Marshall was live-tweeting the proceedings with a few preloaded pictures) and the #mtgpaxaus hashtag attendees used to live tweet Aaron Forsythe panel, and everything on the page is fair game.

I’ll approach this as I would if I had no knowledge of the Theros style guide, using only my research into Greek mythology and pairing that with my public perception of Magic. (Granted, I boned up on Greek myths as preparation for my work with Wizards, but I was pretty solid beforehand. Four years of Latin class in high school will do that.)

Let’s get to it!

La Vie en Theros

Theros in a nutshell is “Magic meets Greek mythology.” From that small core, there are elaborations: gods in a pantheon, monsters like hydras and minotaurs, heroes and their journeys. What is meant by “Greek mythology” isn’t as simple as it may seem, though, because many versions of myths sprang up in the different city-states that lasted in Greece until the full Roman conquest in the first century BCE. (Though Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon conquered most other Greek city-states, they avoided Sparta.)

For one thing, when petty rulers wanted to reinforce their justification for reigning, sometimes they claimed descent from one god or another—and since the gods generally were married to one another, that meant affairs and lots of them. The king of the gods, Zeus in Greek, was the most prestigious ancestor, and so in the collected myths of the Greeks, Zeus got around.

There are several good basic compendia of Greek myths out there, products of their time but valuable nonetheless. Bulfinch’s Mythologyfrom the 19th century is semi-sanitized, as author Thomas Bulfinch meant it for a broad audience and things like strong violence and certain Greek gods’ penchants for beautiful male youths went unmentioned. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, originally published in 1942, is more frank but still suitable for high school students (which is where I first encountered it).

Nowadays, Wikipedia offers plenty of detail—too much so for some audiences, particularly Human Resources, who probably wouldn’t appreciate the amount of classical nudity on the basic “Greek mythology” page, and there’s far stronger elsewhere. Any Wikipedia hyperlinks I offer are safe, but I wouldn’t go clicking around on them at work.

The other complication? It’s been two millennia since Rome conquered Greece, and boy howdy have two millennia changed things.

For one thing, Rome basically “Phyrexianized” the religions it encountered, coopting the Greek gods along with those of the Etruscans and the Gallics in modern-day France among others. There’s a reason it’s called “Greco-Roman” mythology so often, the way Zeus was mashed up with Jupiter and other gods found themselves melded together.

The Greco-Roman stage with its Aeneid and Metamorphoses, among other works, only takes us up through CE 400 or so, when the switch was flipping from the various paganisms to Christianity. The Renaissance, particularly in Italy,  “rediscovered” the Greek god works and their Roman counterparts and copies, sometimes adapting them to Christian subjects (think Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, linked in cropped form) and sometimes returning to the Greco-Roman subjects (think Raphael’s Sibylartworks, where the Sibyls themselves were coopted by Christianity).

Even earlier, on the cusp of the Renaissance, Dante’s Inferno takes Virgil, author of the Aeneid, as his guide through the levels of hell, where punishments range from “now you know what Heaven is, too late, but that’s your only suffering” (Virgil’s punishment) to fire, tar pits, and freezing ice later on. (Among other Greek heroes, Odysseus is shown wrapped in forever flame for the Trojan Horse and other deceptions.)

After the Renaissance, embellishments continued. Think of Neoclassical art like Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatiiand the Romantics’ fondness for Greek themes (“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats). Then there’s the American Renaissance in arts; played straight in its time with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, among other artists, and less so with the Founding Father statues in Bioshock Infinite. The goofy thing is that there’s an actual statue of George Washington as Zeus carved in marble at the Smithsonian.

(That’s only one of several ghastly manglings of Greek mythology in American public art. Cornelius Vermeule, one of my personal heroes, scorned the Littlefield Fountain on the campus of University of Texas-Austin in one of his best books. The fountain’s heart might have been in the right place, honoring the students and alumni who died in World War I, but look at the figure on the right—between the tin-hat, the breechclout, and the sword and feathered shield, the sculptor really lost the plot.)

And silly me, I mentioned a video game when I hadn’t mentioned movies and TV at all! Wikipedia has a nice fat list of ’em. Just in the past decade: Troy, 300, that Clash of the Titans remake (which is why Wizards decided to release the krakens, which originally came from later Norse mythology—the same people who want to deny this probably also thought Twilight kept its cooties away from Innistrad), and so on. As for video games, God of War and the sequels say hello.

Any property like Magic: The Gathering has to take into account the surrounding cultural currents, understanding what’s out there and what customers have been conditioned to want. There’s a lot more than straight-up Greek mythology at play here, but “Greek mythology” as 95% of Wizards’ customers will understand it? Oh yeah. They’re good.

Name Games

So Wizards took this witches’ brew of Greek mythology and ran it through the Magic filter. As noted in this tweet, the pantheon has been fitted to the color wheel, and the hero’s journey is run through a strong Joseph Campbell filter—a return to more “classical” storytelling after so many “the baddies win” sets like Rise of the Eldrazi and New Phyrexia perhaps. So far the naming conventions seem to be rooted in Greek myth, sometimes directly borrowing and sometimes tweaking a bit. The trick is that these names come from primordials and Titans, not the familiar “Twelve Gods of Olympus” like Zeus, though it’s not hard to see certain artistic resemblances to the Olympians.

HeliodThis guy. Bearded, age-ambiguous, carrying a spear and wearing a half-crown, half-halo. The name seems to be a tweak of Helios, a sun god often conflated with Apollo. Helios is almost always clean-shaven, though, while Heliod has a beard.

ThassaThis gal. Sort of merfolk-looking, more than a little “maritime monster,” a little Medusa in the hair coils perhaps, god of the sea, and unfortunate recipient of non-mammalian mammaries. “Thassa” brings to mind Thalassa, the sea personified as goddess. The Olympian god of the sea, Poseidon (Neptune for the Romans), usually is depicted as wielding a trident, a three-pronged fishing spear. Thassa, however, carries a bident, with only two points. In classical myth, this is more associated with the Underworld’s Olympian Hades (Pluto to the Romans).

Erebos – Speaking of the Underworld, this guy. Looks friendly, carries a whip—he and Gideon Jura should hang out sometime. Erebos is a sometimes-seen-in-the-real-world variant of Erebus, the god-personification of darkness and shadow born of Chaos and brother to Nyx (see below), with whom he sired such lovely children as Thanatos (death)—among Greek gods, brother-sister incest happened even more often than in A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones.

NyleaThis gal. God of the hunt, so an Artemis adaptation or Diana in the Roman. She looks really stripperiffic in this image—I think the archery bracers on her wrists give more coverage than the rest of her on-body outfit combined. (At least that much of her outfit is practical.) I can’t find an adaptation from Nylea to Greek myth, primordial or otherwise, and the few stories I know about her are not mine to tell. Of note is her helm, which appears to be made of wings—shades of Hermes, perhaps?

[Fifth cycle-completing god] – Not pictured or discussed except in absence. If the pantheon fits the color wheel, five gods each rep a single color of Magic. Folks were invited to guess Nylea’s color, and she’s a hunter in a forest, so green’s pretty safe. Erebos, Underworld, black. Thassa, seas, blue. That leaves white and red. Heliod with those rays of light and that glowing body sure looks white to me. So only red’s left, but as above I can say no more about the red god.

Nyx – Where the gods chill out, the night sky. In Greek myth Nyx is a primordial goddess, personification of the night.

Hydras, minotaurs, etc. – Wizards is not alone among cultural properties in multiplying monsters that originally were one-of-a-kind in Greek myth. There was only one Hydra, only one Minotaur in his prison Labyrinth. Taking a cue from Dungeons & Dragons, though, Minotaurs were multiple in Magic from the days of Homelands and the Anaba.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

– Satyrs are going to be interesting, though potentially awkward, in their artistic execution. The Wikipedia page for “satyr” is chock-full of ribald classical nudity, and clicking around made things worse . . . much worse. Satyrs in Greco-Roman myth basically are defined by lust in overdrive, lack of clothing, and perpetual arousal. How is that going to fit into Magic’s box?

– Of all the Wizards employees working with Theros, I think Jeremy Jarvis had or is going to have the hardest time. I’ve had to be really careful in not linking to classical nudity throughout this article, and between all the idealized statues, muscle cuirasses, 300, and so on, this set could have the highest man-candy quotient in quite some time. As for the women, will the art go as far as Blinding Light, or will Jarvis rein it in?

– I had no idea the sparkle frames were coming on the gods. Early rating: subtle but effective.

– Until more public information emerges for Theros, this is all I have to say about the block, so please don’t try to get any scoops from me. In time I’ll be able to discuss more, but it’s not my place to reveal anything unless Wizards decides it should be so. They put their trust in me, and I’m not going to wreck that. I love y’all, but not that much.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this mythologically nerdy early look at Theros. I don’t know what’s coming in the first set mechanically or artistically, and I’m ready to embrace the new discoveries as they arrive.

Until next time, as always, thanks for reading.


@jdbeety on Twitter