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Monster of the Week: The Illithid 'Mind Flayer'


An Illithid feast... Wizards of the Coast (dnd.wizards.com)
An Illithid feast... Wizards of the Coast (dnd.wizards.com)

If you've ever ventured into the subterranean madness of the Underdark, then you've at least encountered tales of the Illithids. Also known as Mind Flayers, this alien race of cephalopodan bipeds earned its foul nickname through the relentless psychic (or psionic) domination of intelligent lifeforms.

The Body Illithid

Biologically speaking, the Illithids differ vastly from most surface or subworld denizens. Their octopus-like heads boast four, cranium-grasping tentacles and their asexual reproduction underlines their inherent parasitic nature.

In other words, here's where baby mind flayers come from:

According to "Volo's Guide to Monsters," an Illithid lays eggs in protected pools and larval, tadpoles hatch. Next, in a process known as ceremorphosis, adult Illithids place a viable tadpole inside the skull of a captive, psionically-subdued humanoid. The tadpole consumes the host's brain and then attaches to the brain stem in an act of unnatural parasitism reminiscent of the natural world's own tongue-eating isopod Cymothoa exigua. The tadpole becomes the host body's new brain, and the body transforms into the slime-covered purple flesh of an adult mind flayer.*

Elder Brain A.I.

With their alien bodies and terrifying psionic abilities, you might well find the Illithids thoroughly inhuman. Yet if you view them in the right light, they have quite a lot in common with natural-world humans. They might even prophesize our future.

The Mind Flayer
Wizards of the Coast

While the mind flayers have truly forgotten more technological wizardry than humans have yet to claim, their chief technology is their inborn psionic power for mind control and telepathic communication. This system of communication and dominance once connected their interplanar empire -- and took even stranger forms after the fall.

That's the thing about twisting countless species into your mind-shackled thralls: They eventually rise up against you. Thus, the Illithids were forced into hiding, seeking the darkest and most secluded corners of the multiverse in which to avoid Gith hunters from the Astral Plane. Oh, they endlessly plot the restoration of their empire, but they have to maintain a perfect balance of secrecy and exploration -- ever clawing out the shortest, safest path (much like the Spacing Guild in "Dune.")

To survive and make the necessary meta-calculations, the Illithids either evolved or developed their Elder Brains. These giant, immobile thought organs float in tanks of brine, serving as a mind flayer colony's library of knowledge, history of past lives and a nexus of meta-cognition for the individuals in the colony (and each individual may employ non-Illithid thralls).**

The entire system resembles, in many ways, human information networking systems and the ever-evolving supercomputers that manage it. As we drift ever closer to the technological singularity (when computer superintelligence truly eclipses that of humanity), do we approach the age of our own Elder Brain rule? What is the Internet, in its current form, but an Elder Brain of sorts? It stores our collective information, connects us and serves as a place of final remembrance for our dead -- just as the brains of deceased Illithids become one with the Elder Brain.

Unlike humans, of course, the Illithids knew better than depend on a single system. Instead, they sustain themselves in numerous, Elder Brain-powered colonies -- all calculating the safest path to imperial restoration.

Embrace Psionic Enslavement

Despite the similarities between modern humans and otherworldly Illithids, you're probably none too thrilled at the prospect of psionic dominance. After all, any given Mind Flayer is liable to stun your brain and suck it out of your skull -- and that's often the best case scenario. Other humanoids suffer complete enthrallment and perhaps a visit to the tadpole chambers.

But would it be that bad?

In his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, humanist scholar James Croft discussed Mind Flayers in his examination of human freewill. He proposed that psionic domination would boil down to one of two scenarios:

  1. The Novice Mind Flayer (NMF) scenario, in which the Illithid commands its thrall's actions but not their thoughts.
  2. The Ultimate Mind Flayer (UMF) scenario, in which the Illithid commands not only its thrall's actions, but also its underlying thoughts and desires.

Both forms of mental enslavement are, of course, repellent. But while the NMF thrall would stroll obediently toward the tadpole pools with inner screams of terror, the UMF Thrall would simply desire that dark pool and the parasitic larva within. The UMF Illithid would simply rewrite memories and personality as needed to align a host with the colony's needs. Croft goes on to write the following:

"This is not to say that in the normal course of events, when unburdened with a Mind Flayer, we are at total liberty to select what we value or desire. Our values and desires are frequently an outcome of our experiences, and we cannot change them through conscious effort. But to be autonomous, I argue, we need not be in total control over this aspect of our mental furniture: rather, we must learn to examine the values and desires that we, for whatever reason, have developed, and consider to what extent we wish to indulge them, resist them, or seek to change them if we can…"

Croft discusses this argument in greater depth -- and I urge you to read his dissertation if your Illithid masters allow it. But it all raises the question: Would psionic domination by an ancient, alien species be all that bad -- at least if the domination followed the full UMF model? Might one find liberation in walking the shortest, safest path alongside domineering masters fused to the metacognition of an Elder Brain?

I suppose it wouldn't be very heroic, but as a great bard character (at least 13th level) once said, "You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed."

* In a process that resembles the larval cannibalism of the tiger salamander, tadpoles in abandoned pools will consume each other until one mutated survivor known as a Neolithid emerges. This monstrous worm poses a danger to Illithids and non-Illithids alike. One can only assume the Neolithid morph once served an evolutionary purpose, allowing a tadpole pool to survive in times of chaos or abandonment, absorbing the nutrients of its fellow tadpoles with economic ruthlessness -- just like the cannibal morphs of tiger salamanders in our world.

** If you're wondering, Volo tells us that crowded Illithid colonies produce an Ulitharid morph -- a superior mind flayer who departs with followers to found a new colony, and transform into a new Elder Brain to sustain it.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.


About the Author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and host at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind. An avid science enthusiast, he boasts a deep love for monsters and a hankering for electronic music.