The untold history of slimes

Slimes! From a classic enemy in Japanese roleplaying games to the source of a 1950s media scare, what's their deal, anyway?

For many adventurers, they are the first victory. Millions die every year to help plucky young farm kids reach level 2. But what do we really know about slimes?

Despite their iconic status, the humble slime does not have the same recognizable cultural background other roleplaying game staples such as the dragon, the vampire, or even the goblin have. There are no slime fairy tales, no viscous rogues and heroes we can all name, and yet they are almost always present in fantasy games. It is easy to assume the slime sprang fully formed from Akira Toriyama's head into the RPG consciousness like a gooey Athena. But the slime does indeed have a rich history within our world and our imaginations.

Screenshot from Dragon Quest (1989). Screenshot from Dragon Quest (1989).

Of course, it cannot be overstated how much Dragon Quest solidified (in a manner of speaking) the slime's current role. Very few games have had such an explosive impact on fantasy games as Dragon Quest has. While Dragon Quest's impact is inarguably felt strongest in Japan, its success there has meant that its DNA can be found on games made in countries far away from its direct influence. The prevalence of slimes as RPG's favorite punching bag following Dragon Quest's success is such an example.

The perpetually smiling, tear-shaped blob that first greeted adventurers is undoubtedly the most successful slime in history. With its big eyes and vacant grin, its delightful dollop-shape, the implied easy victory promised to new players, it’s not hard to see how this creature won so many hearts. While it was Dragon Quest that would make it famous, the slime was not chosen arbitrarily, and by tracing its lineage we can see deeper roots.

Pan-Pacific Origins

Dragon Quest was unapologetically inspired by the Western RPG Wizardry, and the slime in particular was chosen from Wizardry's bestiary to represent that ancestry. Wizardry's slimes are a very different breed than Dragon Quest's, however. While they have faces, they are not nearly so pleasant, and the texture they imply is less supple and jiggly and more molten and mucous.

Wizardry's slimes are, in turn, directly lifted from Dungeons & Dragons, which has featured slimes since the Basic Edition was released in 1974. These slimes are mindless, faceless monstrosities that melt flesh from bone and are based on two sources. The first is a natural phenomenon, a colony of single-celled bacteria known as 'snottites'.

Snottite cluster in Cueva de Villa Luz, Tabasco, Mexico (Kenneth Ingham, 2002) Snottite cluster in Cueva de Villa Luz, Tabasco, Mexico (Kenneth Ingham, 2002)

Snottites were first named in the 80s, but had been encountered by spelunkers long before. Named for their resemblance to stalactites made of human mucus, snottites can be a dangerous encounter for real world adventurers. They produce highly acidic wasteakin to battery acid, which drips down from above. This acid may have helped formed the huge caves they are found in, such as the famous Cuela de Villa Luz in Tobasco, Mexico. It is this dangerous acidity that inspired the subterranean, flesh-eating oozes of D&D.

The other ancestor of the D&D slime comes from classic sci-fi. The most famous sci-fi slime is, of course, 1958's The Blob. The titular slime arrives on a fallen meteor, and then proceeds to digest and devour a small Midwestern town. By the end of the movie, the creature is a gargantuan mass of blood-red digested organic matter, and can only be temporarily stopped by freezing it in the Arctic Circle. Similar slimes that fell from space to wreak havoc have appeared in sci-fi and horror literature before, including Lovecraft's The Colour Out Of Space, but The Blob was specifically inspired by a real world event. On September 27, 1950, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that four Philadelphia policemen described an unidentified object falling to Earth. When they investigated, they found "a domed disk of quivering jelly, 6 feet in diameter, one foot thick at the center and an inch or two near the edge." The jelly dissolved at their touch, handily leaving behind no evidence, and the story became a minor media frenzy.

Written in the Stars

While never as popular as Bigfoot or UFO sightings, "star jelly" events, where a meteor crash leaves behind an unidentifiable goo, are a relatively common occurrence. 20th century sightings are nearly always associated with the cultural zeitgeist of UFO sightings and alien abductions, but unexplained star jellies (occasionally given such wonderfully evocative name as astromyxin, star shot, caca de luna, and witch's butter) can be traced much further back. Scientific debates about the origins of these unexplained slimes can be found from the 13th to 19th centuries.

The most popular theories identified star jellies as a fungus or half-digested frog spawn vomited up by birds or polecats, but other scientists and philosophers got more creative. Scandinavian folklore considered them to be the familiars of witches, or sometimes the vomit of other such beasts. Medical texts from the 13th century describe star jelly as the remains of fallen stars and suggest using it for treating skin conditions. The English philosopher Henry More wrote in 1656 "That the Starres eat... that those falling Starres, as some call them, which are found on the earth in the form of a trembling gelly, are their excrement."

Star jelly, it was decided, was the excrement of passing stars, which proved that the stars were not only alive, but also ate. Many other poets and philosophers agreed, and wrote extensively on the phenomenon indicating that life must exist outside of our own planet. Where there was slime, there must be life.

A 'Dog Vomit' slime mold photographed in Tasmania (Wikimedia Commons, 2002). A 'Dog Vomit' slime mold photographed in Tasmania (Wikimedia Commons, 2002).

This connection between slime and life is built into the word itself. "Slime" comes from an old Germanic word for 'mucus,' which itself is derived from the Latin for 'mud.' Greek philosophers, and later medieval alchemists, believed that the slimier parts of our anatomy (mucus, blood, bile, and semen) were what gave life to otherwise inorganic bodies. When Aristotle observed insects emerging from the wet earth, he puzzled as to how life could spontaneously arise from nothing. He adapted the ideas of earlier philosophers including Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Empedocles who all agreed that some form of primordial slime must have been the catalyst transforming not-life into life. In The History of Animals, Aristotle gave this slime a name: "pneuma." Pneuma is the vital heat, the coming-together of the five elements that allowed life to exist. The fetid, rotting ooze of the swamp or compost heaps that insects "spontaneously" birthed from was not pneuma itself, but its by-product. Slime was both the origin of life, and the result.

Aristotle's writings helped give rise to one of the wackiest eras of natural history, when the scientific method was still being developed and alchemists played fast and loose with observations. During this time, many natural philosophers became obsessed with unlocking the secrets to life itself in the form of artificial lifeforms called humunculi. The ultimate goal of these alchemists was to become closer to the divine by accomplishing the same feat God did when creating humanity. The secret, they all thought, must lie in slime. Texts written by those who would later be considered the fathers of science describe such horrifying recipes as mixing feces and human semen in the womb of a horse to create pneuma capable of generating new life. Various combinations of organic slimes were mixed into jars and tubes in hopes of generating tiny beings capable of divining the future and unlocking the secrets of creation. Even when the humunculus fad died down, the associations between slime and life would live on in those later poets like William Somerville, who stared down at the mysterious slime that had no doubt come to Earth from beyond:

Swift as the shooting star, that gilds the night
With rapid transient Blaze, she runs, she flies;
Sudden she stops nor longer can endure
The painful course, but drooping sinks away,
And like that falling Meteor, there she lyes
A jelly cold on earth. (The Talisman, 1740)

Pod People

Of course, the true origins of star slime are far more terrestrial. Slime molds are a loose collection of 900 species, many of which are only vaguely related to each other. Originally thought to be a kind of fungus, today we know slime molds to be various protists, a diverse and ancient kingdom of life that had long ago given rise to the kingdoms of plants, animals and fungi.

Gelatinous Cube, as depicted in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium Volume 1, 1989 The Gelatinous Cube, as depicted in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium Volume 1, 1989.

In general, slime molds can be divided into two groups: cellular and plasmodial. Cellular slime molds spend most of their time as single cells, not slimes at all. When something in the environment forces them to act, such as a lack of food, many of these cells will form together to create a single mass. In this state, they are more easily able to detect food via airborne chemicals and move towards it like a giant amoeba. The Gelatinous Cube, perhaps the second-most famous slime in games, is a perfect example. A creation of Gary Gygax, the cube was originally a tongue-in-cheek explanation for how ancient dungeon corridors could be so pristine and littered with gleaming treasure rather than rotting corpses. This cube would've originally been a collection of single cells that came together out of desperation and now moves through the dungeon to pick it clean of everything from mosses to halflings.

Where the D&D slime is an example of a cellular slime mold, the Dragon Quest slime would be plasmodial. Rather than a collection of cells joined together, a plasmodial slime is essentially one giant cell. Encased within a single large membrane is the cytoplasm and nuclei of many cells. The adorable, unblinking eyes of a Dragon Quest slime may in fact be nothing more than specialized nuclei we've been projecting a face onto all along.

Most people do not consider slimes to be intelligent, thinking creatures. However, slime molds are capable of amazing feats of cognition, despite not having a nervous system. Tests have shown that slime molds are capable of solving mazes, finding the most effective distance between two points, and even finding the best way to facilitate movement between multiple points. In 2010, oak flakes were spread out on a map to represent Tokyo and surrounding cities. When a slime mold was added, it created an efficient network of slime between the food sources that eerily resembled a map of the existing train routes between the cities. Slimes are even shown to possess a kind of memory, able to learn and anticipate patterns in their environment. The results of these experiments have led to new theories about the evolution of intelligence, and how "lower" cognition may predate the evolution of the brain. These cognitive feats are not just useful for scientists, but have also been used by artists to create "living paintings" where slime molds are dyed different colors and then coerced into taking various shapes and patterns.

Slimes exist to effectively fit whatever shape they need to survive. It is no wonder that the fictional slime did the same, finding its way into a mold that would ensure its cultural survival as effectively as possible.