Drow Society

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on sexism in the Drow society, how it reflects on our own prejudices, and specifically, how certain authors ignore the set world in order to better be able to relate with the society.

For those of you unfamiliar with drow society in Forgotten Realms, a quick overview. The Drow have a matriarchal society that is principally Chaotic Evil, but often tends towards Lawful Evil in practice. They are led by a cruel goddess who speaks to her followers and demands things of them, and she knows their thoughts. Disloyalty to the spider queen goddess Llolth is met with death, torture, and eternal torment in the after life.

The loyal sometimes fair little better.

Because of this, the society is cruel and dangerous, without love or affection or any softness whatsoever. The women are taller and physically stronger than the men, though most women become priestesses while the men in their society become mages or warriors. There are relatively few mages and warriors that are female, as females are typically relegated to the priestesshood caste that reigns over society. Why women rarely become warriors is poorly explained as a result of most women being priestesses, and it seems to have been an out of character decision, as women are physically stronger and trained as fighters, even through the priestesshood.

So this brings me to my first issue with the sexism in the drow series of books and how the authors perceptions of reality have influenced the lore. Drow women are taller, stronger, and more powerful than the male characters. Male authors, however, tend to write their male characters to be taller than the females, as well as stronger and more physically capable.

This is also seen in a lot of drow fan art, especially by fans of Salvatore’s series and Drizzt Urden (the most popular drow character in the Forgotten Realms franchise) in particular.

So let’s talk about Drizzt.

In a world without love, where the Drow don’t have a word that means ‘trust’ or ‘love’, where priestesses are trained to have sex with demons, where orgies and nudity is common, where men are taken and raped and beaten and killed. There’s a phrase for when a woman has sex with a man and then kills him – the Spider’s Kiss. Men do not have the option to refuse a woman.

But Drizzt did. Drizzt didn’t feel that someone should have sex without being in love.

Nowhere in Drow society has sex been linked to love, as the concept simply does not exist; this is explicitly stated by Salvatore himself, the author who created the character. Drizzt somehow survives living with the drow, refusing sex without love. Because it’s Drizzt.

So how much of this could possibly be written with the drow world in mind, and how much of it is written with the idea that our society is the default and deviations of it slowly move back towards our own?

Surely there’s plenty of evidence in the novels that men seem to feel as if they naturally should have the power and prestige in the society. And they succeed. These themes tend to be stronger in books by male authors, and focus more on this idea that men being in charge is the ‘natural’ order.

Men in drow society have every right to want to stop the women from being in power – they are downtrodden, abused, assaulted, and killed for no other reason than a passing fancy of a woman. That’s a pretty strong reason to rebel, to want power for yourself so that these women can’t hurt you, to want to not be in a position of weakness any more.

But where did this idea of men being in charge ‘naturally’ come from? Vhaerun taught ‘equality’ between men and women, as did Eilistraee, the two other deities often worshiped in drow society, but both the men and women warped this idea to their own ends. The male worshipers of Vhaerun often felt women were beneath them, and the Priestesses of Elistrae didn’t allow the men to join in their rituals.

It struck me as curious reading through the series I did, and just finding this idea of men naturally being in power as off-putting, not because I didn’t sympathize with the male’s plight, but because it just didn’t seem to fit in with the lore of the society.

It’s really important to be aware of these natural prejudices we all face, especially when writing or creating our own fiction. It’s easy to subconsciously give characters traits that they might have if they were in the real world, rather than their own fictional one, but that’s why it’s so important we remain conscientious about it so that our works can be properly interpreted and discussed according to the lore and not our biases.

(Lolth Image Source | Drizzt Image Source)

10 Comments on Drow Society

  1. The excuse that all drow women were priestesses seemed so cheap. How many clergy can a society support anyhow?

    The dull result of most every bit of fiction about this made-up society was that all the stories revolved around exceptional men, who just happened to be taller and stronger than the women around them, and who dared challenge the conventions.

    I’d love to see more of the reverse. Stories that somehow always revolve groups of women in male dominated societies, challenging conventions and so on.

    • Reading through, it just bothered me how dominant male characters were in so many of the stories. Why am I reading a story about a matriarchy just to hear about how awesome and talented men are? I mean, yes, I want men in the story as well, but I don’t understand why women only have one choice for a career where as men have two, especially since one of those careers (warriors) rely on physical strength – something that women are supposed to have more of in this society.

      It just felt as if people were writing a ‘what if humans suddenly turned into a matriarchy!’ with this idea of getting back to the ‘natural order’ of things and the gender roles.

      -Spoilers from War of the Spider Queen – Book 1-

      There was this one scene where Phaerun goes down into the basement of a bar to a brothel that has chained up and beaten women, captured from other cities or civilizations. There were kept in what amounted to be a torture den for men to take out their sexual and physical aggressions.

      This seems far more like something that we have in our society, as. Women are, by far, the dominant gender of the sex slavery rings, after all. There aren’t very many women in human society who seek to take out aggression on males, despite the patriarchy being dominant throughout our history.

      This book was written by a man.

      -Spoilers from Starlight & Shadow – Book 1 and the Lady Penitent Series – Book 1 or 2-

      Rape against a female is the most taboo thing that one could do in drow society. Even patriarchal members of Vhaerun’s court talk about it in frightened whispers. The illicitness, the terror is evident to the males who discuss or think about raping a female.

      Both of these books are written by two different women.

      It’s impossible to discuss drow society without discussing how male privilege shaped the creation of their world and the culture that they’ve brought to it.

  2. A point of correction. Salvatore did not create the Drow. They first appeared in the Greyhawk setting (which by the way has the female be whatever they want, many of the wizards and warriors, but always in a position of power) by Gary Gygax. He took them from Nordic mythology especially from the underground dwelling “dark elves”. Salvatore simply expanded on the notion with Drizzt.

  3. I think that your analysis is spot on. I think with the drow and Salvatore, a lot is being driven by the fact that Salvatore is, regardless of his success, not a terribly good or terribly creative writer – a lot of what he adds to preexisting drow ideas is the Drizzt archetype of the Biologically Good rebel and the “sadistic lesbian priestesses minus the lesbianism” stock characterization of the drow power structure, without doing a lot of thinking about the implications, by extension, to primary world reality – matriarchy as male D/s paranoia fantasy. As a result, Salvartorean conceptions of the drow miss out on an opportunity to look at primary world sexism by highlighting through inversion. It ends up as either a lost opportunity, or, maybe worse considering how it can play into real world sexist tropes.

    (An nice example of doing this right is found in Greg Stolze’s Reign – all the secondary world cultures agree that riding astride makes a man impotent and/or infertile. This is, of course, not the case in the primary world. It is included as a completely obvious sexist false belief that is include to highlight the primary world’s own arbitrary sexism)

    I also wrote some more stuff about different conceptions of the drow in various TSR/WotC products, but I realized it is probably excessive, but one can trace somewhat different versions across the years and different game lines. Basically, the Menzobarranzan of the novels is probably one of the more extreme (read: silly) versions of the drow matriarchy.

    • Reading the bulk of the works about the Forgotten Realms drow does have a way of making you constantly dwell on how much better it could have been done. Change it in only subtle ways and it could’ve been vastly more fascinating.

      And you see evidence of that with certain writers. Lisa Smedman and Elaine Cunningham are both excellent writers, and their novels set amongst the drow manage to inject some intriguing ideas. One thing I found especially interesting was the mention in a Cunningham novel that drow women had complete personal control of their fertility. Some little bit of insight like that enriched the world for me greatly.

      Though perhaps that was a symptom of just how devoid the world as a whole is of any insight or significance beyond being a reflection of some males insecurities.

      • Two observations: First, I think the actual RPG books do a somewhat ( somewhat better job than the Salvatore books. I’ll admit that I don’t own and haven’t read the Menzoberranzan boxed set or the Drow of the Underdark books, or whatever their 3rd ed FR equivalents are, but the creepy sex elements in is (blessedly) censored out of existence. FR’s Vhaerun (info from the Demihuman Deities book) is portrayed with a theology that can be taken as either poorly written (at a meta level) or interestingly self-contradictory – it promotes the destruction of the Lolthite matriarchies so that they can be replaced by a sex-egalitarian society, but it also has strong male-supremacist reflexes. Demihuman Deities falls down badly with Elistraee, requiring her priests to be only women, and then just not discussing the implications of the only good drow deity, and apparently only nexus of non-evil drow replicating the form of the Lolthite hierarch in this most key of ways.

        The second is that it is interesting that the original Drizzt was clearly a compelling character to some people – and it is actually not to hard to tell why.
        Drizzt is a obvious outcaste – escaping from an evil society into a hostile world and responding to it with (wangsty) sensitivity. It is easy to see why he was much more popular among young, nerdy, male gamers than Wulfgar, who is easily caricatured at the star quarterback.* Still, the Dark Elf Trilogy are pits of world-building fail – which has been baked into the FR cake for the past 22 years.**

        *It’s interesting to note that there is an idea that you need a white, male, human, beefy, fighter focus character to attract the target audience. I can, unfortunately, buy the first two, but the latter just seem odd. I know this is anec-data, but does anyone really have trouble getting people to play demi-humans or non-fighters in their RPGs?

        ** Salvatore is kind of an interesting case, because he was with TSR for a long time as both a game writer and fiction writer – despite the fact that he is just not a good writer or world builder. And he has the worst names in the business. Damn are they terrible.

        • I’ve only read some of the Forgotten Realms novels, and not the gaming books, so I can’t really comment on the comparison. You did make a good point about Vhaerun’s followers, and I think that when it’s done well, it’s a really effective example of ‘double speak’, but too often the subtleties aren’t handled well.

  4. Vhaerunites teach gender equality. Vhaerunites also teach ideals of elven unity of all things, Vhaerun’s worship is actually about taking the thrones of both of his parents, and he uses every single asset he could to attract supporters, including promoting half elves and half drow.

    That said every single Vhaerunite cult differs from the next, the same way Lolth cults differ on themselves a lot as well thorough the Underdark, but overall the official instance of Vhaerun is that females and males are equal o the eyes of the masked Lord and overall the Vhaerun dominated cities and factions tend to have a healthy ammount of both genders priestessess, and in the case of Clan Auzkovyn, there are also a lot of disfranchised wood elves amongst their ranks.

    The faction that wants to reverse the gender roles is the Jaezred Chaulssin, which links with the Church of Vhaerun are unclear, and they don’t promote actively the worshipping of any drow deity in particular, they just don’t seem to care about religion too much, they are more into revolution and genocide it seems.

    Another side note Eiliastree DOESN’T promote gender equality. In order to become a High Ranking priest you must be female, that she doesn’t codone drow women beating and raping their males doesn’t mean she promotes gender equality, she just assumes a maternalistic role instead of establishing a power relation between male and female.

    To be honest as a male reader and fan(-ish, I prefer duergar actually) of the drow since Mr Gygax, Rest In Peace, created them I haven’t found this “male must be in power” thing. In fact in most drow societies it seems that the natural order for them is for the females to be in power and it seems more natural than…what the Chaulssin are doing (like establishing rape camps and stuff), there are some cities where the most powerful person is a male, but overall the drow reset to the mindset of having a woman at least being the public face…

    They remind me strongly of the Moon Elves in that sense, they are also quite matriarchal in their outlook of life, not to the point of the drow, but when a male moon elf is in charge of anything it just doesn’t feel right, and it usually ends up in disaster in the books and source books, with the drow is the same, the only society that tries to reverse the gender roles is abhorrent and behaves in a more psychotic way than the usual Lolth based societies…in stark contrast of the Sun Elves.

    People judging drow societies with only a minimal part of the info tend to judge Drow society as a “reverse of human medieval society”, it isn’t, it is a reversal of Sun Elven society in fact, in every single way, and they are intended to be, the same way Lolth is a reversal of Corellon Larethian.

  5. The only knowledge I gleaned from Drizzt’s first trilogy series is matriarchal societies – bad. Leave women in charge and look what happens. Haha!

    Drow society is consistent within the fictional universe, as long as its evils are contrasted by the other patriarchal societies; humans, dwarves, elves etc, and realize that not everything in patriarchal society is all good, not all things in matriarchies are all evil. There are characters in drow society with redeeming good qualities that are repressed, albeit reluctantly, by said characters. In secret, they hold these virtues in their heart. Drizzt points this out several times amongst his own family members, both male and female, during the trilogy and it’s apparent that the oppressors in drow society are the demon “gods”, not the drow themselves.

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