We first heard about the Road of Skulls when refugees from the northern fiefs began to stream into Furyundy. They claimed that “Iuz had constructed a road paved with skulls between the Howling Hills and Dorakaa, his new capital. The watchtowers guarding the road were said to be fueled on the flesh of living men.” So says The Official History of the Greyhawk Wars.
The rumors were, by and large, ignored. In hindsight, it would have been prudent for King Avras to send an expedition of seasoned adventurers on a reconnaissance mission to verify or dismiss the outlandish claim. On the other hand, what exactly are we talking about here? What is “a road paved with skulls.”
Objections to the Road Plan
King Avras scarcely knew what to make of the rumors. What strategic value could such a venture represent, and what threat might it pose to the south? He consulted his engineers and trusted experts.
“Paved with skulls? Nonsense! Skulls don’t make for pavers. How you gonna march an army overtop skulls? By Heironeous! All those skulls under the wheels of their wains and the hooves of the horses! Mark it. That fool will learn why here in Furyundy we use limestone for pavers!” said the engineers.
“The math doesn’t work,” the wizard said. “He can’t have enough skulls. They’d have to slaughter the whole population, and all his goblins too.”
“You can’t trust the tales of refugees!” the Great Lords said. “Don’t these same northerners claim that the Old One’s necromancers covet the bones of the dead and collect them to serve in an army of undead? Well, which one is it? Is he using bones to make an army or to pave a road?”
An Idiom for Massacre
Despite the cynicism, reports about a road made of skulls persisted through the Greyhawk Wars and also after the war. From the Ashes clarified the strange description as something of an idiom. It wasn’t that the road was literally paved with skulls. Instead, this referred to massacres from the Howling Hills to Dorakaa. All along the road, the beacons of the watchtowers were fueled with “human fat and flesh.” But the report from the Living Greyhawk Gazeteer insisted that the rumors were true. It was no idiom. “Iuz was building a road of human skulls from the Howling Hills to his capital, Dorakaa.”
An Idiom for Corruption
The original equivalent of the Road of Skulls is credited to Saint Athanasius, the fourth century Christian Bishop of Alexandria. There’s some debate about whether or not Athanasius really said this, but he allegedly complained, “The floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” In other words, the wickedness and corruption of the church leaders earned them a permanent ornamental place in Hell. It was an idiom for corruption. Saint Chrysostom, fifth century bishop of Constantinople, repeated that sentiment and expanded on it. He is quoted as saying, “The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.”
Therefore, the original meaning of the term “paved with skulls” should be understood idiomatically to refer to the wages for religious hypocrisy and abuse of office in the form of the divine punishment. The bones of corrupt and hypocritical priests pave the road to Hell.
Obviously, the refugees from Furyundy took the idiom in a different direction. To them, the meaning of the term “paved with skulls” seems to have been the idea that the road was being constructed through the slaughter of the local populations–a completely different sense from the original church idiom.
Lamp Posts on the Road of Skulls
Yet, there’s a further connection between the words of Saint Chrysostom and Iuz’s Road of Skulls. Chrysostom says that the road is paved with bones “and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.” This sounds much like the description of the Road of Skulls in the sourcebook Iuz the Evil which explains that the skulls are mounted impaled on posts at regular intervals along the road:
The primary Road of Skulls runs nearly 300 miles from Dorakaa to Kendragund. The highway is 60 yards wide and composed of utterly barren and blasted earth. At intervals of 60 yards along its entire length, a skull is impaled on a six-foot blackwood staff on each side of the road, firmly rooted at the margin. Littered in between these impaled skulls at random intervals are small cairns of other victim’s skulls left there by Iuz’s forces. The skulls are all humanoid types, but are predominantly human. Many are weathered and yellowed. Some have jawbones missing. Many issue wisps of smoke from time to time, with slowly drifting curls rising from them. This is but a petty magic, but it adds to their sinister quality. The impaled skulls are the important ones, since many are magical … Any individual impaled skull has a random magical attribute. (Iuz the Evil)
The definitive sourcebook on the land of the Iuz goes on to provide a table to determine the magical properties of each skull.
The magical impaled skulls mounted on blackwood staffs sound similar to John Chrysostom’s “lamp posts that light the path.” That imagery also seems to hearken back to the cottage of Iuz’s grandmother, Baba Yaga. Her wondrous dancing hut was surrounded by a fence made of human bones, and lighted skulls with magical properties illuminated the yard. (Read the story of “Elena the Fair and Natasha the Dark.”)
Just how many skulls does Iuz need to finish his road? To post a pair of skulls every sixty yards along the road, the road builders would need fifty-eight skulls for every mile, a total of 17,600 skulls to complete the three-hundred mile road. That’s a lot of skulls, but not an unreasonable number for Iuz to obtain. The skulls, many of which are goblin skulls, are inexpensive compared with the magical assets tied up in them. Sixty percent of the skulls have magical properties. That represents a significant investment of dweomercraft to serve a primarily ornamental function, but Iuz is into that type of thing.
The Second Northern Crusade
Now that we know what we are dealing with, we are just waiting for His Pious Majesty King Belvor IV to put together a new alliance for the Second Great Northern Crusade. The time is long past due for heroes to march up the Road of Skulls, dismantle those wretched watchtowers, bless and bury the bones of the victims, and lay siege to Dorakaa. Of course, that’s not likely to happen in my lifetime. Not until we rid the Flanaess of the real power behind the politics. The road to Dorakaa is paved with the skulls of defenders of “the balance.”