The Kobold Blues

Eric Lis

Today, an object lesson in how illness and mythology come together to shape our perceptions and our language, with the help of the twenty-seventh element on the periodic table, cobalt.

Cobalt is a metal which has been around since ancient times, although like many elements, its nature and usefulness has only recently been understood. For most of human history, cobalt was used as a dye; although it’s silvery in its pure form, impure forms and salts have been used for well over three thousand years to create blue glazes and glass. Despite this useful and lucrative application, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century or so that cobalt was actually identified; prior to this the useful blue colour was often believed to be a property of co-occurring minerals, and the cobalt itself was believed, not merely to be useless, but to be outright harmful. You see, though a curious quirk of chemistry, natural cobalt ores tend to contain arsenic and other poisons, smelting the ore would produce deadly gasses. Even simply mining the ore could be hazardous, as cobalt dusts and various purification techniques could lead to miners and other workers being unknowingly exposed to dangerous toxins. Miners in Europe working with cobalt identified that their workplaces were hazardous and they related this to the malign influence of goblinoid races which legends said lived in those mountains: the kobolds, from whom the anglicized word “cobalt” is itself derived. (From a certain point of view, whenever you call something "cobalt blue," you're really saying, "as blue as a kobold.") For most of history, therefore, this metal, which has important industrial applications and which is, in fact, necessary within our bodies in small amounts, had an unfair association with curses and misfortune.

What we can learn from this story is that when we have enough insight to identify that something is dangerous, but not enough insight to figure out why, it’s always tempting to go with an easy answer. Throughout much of human history, this easy answer has been “goblins” in one form or another, which is profoundly unfair to us (and not very nice to the goblins, either!). Of course, in a fantasy setting, where dying miners really might be the fault of goblins, it’s a lot harder to judge for certain; if anything, your average fantasy world probably has many more things named after goblins, rightly or wrongly.

Cobalt also reminds us of another universal truth which our characters tend to be more aware of than we are: just because you don’t know what use something has right this moment doesn’t mean it’s entirely useless. Cobalt is phenomenally important stuff, but humans were totally oblivious to this for a long time. In part, this was perfectly reasonable; like aluminum and a number of other very useful substances, cobalt couldn’t be properly isolated and purified until quite late in human history, when we developed not only the appropriate advanced technologies but also figured out how to apply them. In a magical setting, where spells like prestidigitation may make the need for dyes largely irrelevant, the useful properties of cobalt could easily never be discovered, in which case it might forever remain a material tainted by its association with the forces of darkness, an object of fear and superstition, used to add beautiful filigree only to the armour of the most perverse yet tasteful dark lords. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on October 25, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system