Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Brazen Head of Zenopus

Friar Bacon and the Brazen Head, 30 More Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin
     I previously mentioned the talking mask in Room I of the Sample Dungeon as a possible example of a magical creation of Zenopus the Wizard (per the OD&D rules for magic item creation). Desert Scribe commented that he thought the mask a relic of the older pre-human city on which Portown is built. This is a possibility, as the room description doesn't give any other information on its origin. However, because the mask is described as being "bronze", I think it is version of the "Brazen Head" of medieval lore. These constructs were said to be made by wizards and could answer any question, and are sufficiently well known to have their own Wikipedia entry, which begins:

     "A Brazen Head (or Brass Head or Bronze Head) was a prophetic device attributed to many medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any question. It was always in the form of a man's head, and it could correctly answer any question asked of it. However, depending on the story, it could be cast in brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and it could answer freely or it could be restricted to "yes" or "no" answers."

      The most famous one was that said to be possessed by Roger Bacon (1214-1294), and which has appeared numerous times in literature, including John Bellairs' 1969 fantasy novel, "Face in the Frost", which was later reviewed by Gary Gygax in Dragon #22 (pg 15, Feb 1979) and included in the inspirational reading list in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (Aug 1979). I haven't found any specific connections between Holmes and any of these books, but he read widely so I wouldn't be surprised if he was familiar with the brazen head.

     One other possible clue is that the sundial that activates the talking mask is labeled in Roman numerals, which suggests a human rather than pre-human origin. Holmes' writings are peppered with references to ancient Earth cultures; for example, in his novel Maze of Peril the clerics cast spells in Latin.

The Honorable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Robert Greene (1630 edition), title page woodcut


  1. There's a famous artifact in the Call of Cthulhu game based around the Brazen Head too - it features in a popular short adventure called The Auction, where a number of shady occultists are all trying to win it. I'll see if I can dig up the Cthulhu game effects later - it's a cool idea for a magic item.

    1. I didn't know about that, thanks. I'll look into The Auction.

  2. Thanks for the post--anything that adds depth to The Sample Dungeon is a good thing to be sure. And the other cultural references for the Brazen Head listed in the Wikipedia was eye opening: besides Face in the Frost there's William Gibson's Neuromancer, and books by Philip K. Dick, Avram Davidson, Robertson Davies; I'm amazed at how many of these I've read.