Little about gnollish history is known, as the gnolls have in recent millennia suffered a severe period of historical revisionism due to the domination of the demon lord Yeenoghu. Those records that do exist are often sketchy, in part from age and in part due to most being unwilling to risk the ire of that figure.
What is known is that long ago, Gorellik was the sole deity of the gnolls, often referred to as the Father. Surviving myths place him as the creator of the gnolls, as well as having a position of some importance in the bugbear pantheon. However, at some point he was supplanted by a growing cult of gnolls faithful to the demon lord Yeenoghu. Some theorize that Yeenoghu may once have been a mortal gnoll himself, but such tales are unsubstantiated and believed to have been spread by his faithful so as to solidify his claim.
Over time, this cult grew in importance, until it had replaced the worship of Gorellik almost entirely. As a result, the deity suffered severely, losing his realm and most of his power thus casting the early history of the gnolls into even deeper darkness; these days, Gorellik wanders the Lower Planes in an endless hunt, followed by a small retinue of flind still loyal to his name.
Gnoll society is largely matriarchal, with females filling most positions of prestige and power within gnoll tribes. While males can rise to power or importance, such instances are rare and often challenged. Males are most often instead relegated to caring for the young and the slaves, such duties seen as especially well-suited for the gender in gnollish eyes. However, even males are seen as above manual labor; most gnolls, as encouraged by Yeenoghu's faithful, believe in the principle that there is no use doing something you don't want to do if you can force someone weaker to do it for you. This labor is thus most often performed by either captured slaves or animated ghouls. This is seen to perpertuate a cultural separation both from other intelligent races, and from the ancient ways of Gorellik (who believed both slavery an anathema and ghouls a waste of food), aiding in the solidification of Yeenoghu's domination over the species.
Amongst Yeenoghu-following clans, gnolls tend not to consider the desires of others when deciding a course of action. Rabid individualists, gnolls work together only as necessary for survival, most commonly in hunting bands, as each knows that their kin will act similarly. Even the desires of other gnolls hold little merit in their eyes — though slightly more than the desires of non-gnolls. A lack of respect for even the authority of their own tribe is a common minor offense, and spitting at or cursing a leader is almost accepted behavior amongst their people. For many tribes, it is only the rule of Yeenoghu's shamen that manage to hold such tribes together, largely through the distortion of rituals once used to honor Gorellik.
One of the first such distortions, and one of the few rituals to persist from that period, is that of the totem beast. Each gnoll clan holds one creature in highest merit as a target of sacrifice above all others; originally used as a means by which gnolls could unite against a common foe or goal, in order to demonstrate their love for he who watched over them, today they instead serve as a means of encouraging intertribal competition so as to reduce the likelihood of individuals banding together for a common cause against the priest caste. For some tribes, the totem beast is an animal such as a deer or zebra common to their reagion. For others, an intelligent humanoid; humans, elves, and even gnolls are common. (This is seen largely as a facet introduced by Yeenoghu, and is believed to have been far less common prior to his influence.) A small few even hold an especially dangerous creature such as a troll or ettin as their totem. A gnoll is not considered an adult until they manage to kill one of their totem beast alone, and a sacrifice to Yeenoghu is not considered worthwhile unless it is of the clan's totem. The size of a tribe and the strength of its members are both almost directly related to the strength of the totem beast as a result; larger clans tend to be those with weaker totems, while the smallest yet most powerful clans are those with the most powerful totem beasts, such as the ettin or giant hunter clans. Commonly, those few clans still devout to Gorellik will take a fiend as their totem beast, so as to represent their eternal opposition to the malign rule of Yeenoghu.
A gnoll clan is divided into a large number of tribes, each tribe usually holding about 20-200 adult females apiece, about twice as many males and children, and a dozen slaves. Tribes of the same clan tend to get along as well as any two gnolls do, but tribes of differing clans will almost always set against one another in minor skirmishes when they encounter one another, unless one is obviously much larger and/or more powerful than the other. These battles rarely reach the level of all-out war, as the goal is not extermination but rather subjugation and domination. Occasionally a weaker tribe will simply pay tribute to a stronger in the form of slaves or goods, should they desire to avoid a combat they know they are likely to lose. In fact, gnolls are well-known for nearly always honoring an apparently honest desire to surrender; most gnolls believe the ultimate purpose of combat isn't to kill your opponent, but rather to demonstrate your own superiority over them, and most feel a surrender satisfies this goal appropriately. Conversely, if a gnoll falls near death, they will almost always surrender rather than risk dying, acknowledging (if grudgingly) their opponent's superiority over them.
Such surrendered individuals are usually taken as slaves for the tribe, but not always. Rarely, a prisoner will be taken to replace a slain member of the tribe. Even more rarely, a non-gnoll will be taken in in such a manner, but only in extraordinary circumstances, and usually only amongst Gorellik-devout tribes. The captured prisoner will be considered a new pup and treated as such, instructed on the ways of the tribe if necessary, and raised in the violent manner of all gnoll pups for a full generation. At this time, they will be exiled from the tribe on their totem hunt as all gnolls are, and should they successfully return, they are considered as a full adult gnoll and equal member of the tribe.
As this aptly demonstrates, amongst gnolls, strength and guile are the most significant measures of worth of a person. This unfortunately places many gnolls into the somewhat uncomfortable state of holding fealty and reverence to a people that utterly despises them; the flind. A subspecies of gnoll, flind are on the whole both stronger and more intelligent than their kin. While gnolls respect and in fact honor flinds for this, modern flinds tend to loathe gnolls for their weakness, considering them only barely better than slaves due to their relation. A gnoll tribe with flind will almost always place the flind as chieftain or other similar positions, a situation that flind enjoy as it allows them to order the gnolls around to their own whims. In fact, the largest flind clan holds gnolls as their totem beast, a fact grudgingly acknowledged and accepted by the gnoll tribes that serve members of this clan. As a result, whatever meaning it might once have had (most believe it to have merely been the name of an especially strong clan), the word "flind" now translates in Gnoll to "cannibal" or "gnoll-eater". Some Yeenoghu-devout gnolls today who dare to speak of Gorellik claim the flind to be the last "gift" of Gorellik bestowed upon the gnolls, created as vengeance for betraying him. However, their position in Gorellik-devout clans suggests otherwise. In such clans, the mutual loathing between flind and gnolls is all but absent. Instead, flind are seen as those granted strength in order to allow the clan to better thrive.
While most all gnolls revere Yeenoghu, and an increasingly-small minority still honor Gorellik, two other powers are noted in smaller communities. Karaan, a recently-rising demigod, is growing in popularity, as is Erythnul, to the point that the shamen of Yeenoghu have started looking upon both flocks with concern, wondering if perhaps they need to be dealt with.
Like the hyenas they resemble so strongly, gnolls prefer the recent dead, finding the taste of cooked meat burnt and disgusting. Occasionally gnolls will even raid cemeteries or battlefields for the recent dead, something perhaps spurred on by Yeenoghu's connection to ghouls and his influence on their culture. Gnolls themselves are not immune to this, and a dead clanmate will often have little more than a brief word of prayer before given the final honor of a clan feast upon her corpse; once a person dies and their spirit passes on, their body is believed to hold no more significance, with no dishonor or discomfort seen in consuming them or raising them as undead aid. It's often said by outsiders that a gnoll thinks solely with her stomach, and many gnollish alliances have broken down because the gnolls could not resist their hunger.
Gnolls are usually born in litters of 4-6 pups, and watched over by males or, more rarely, slaves within the tribe. There is no one male given the duty of watching over litters within a tribe, and there's little concern given to specific family relations; any one gnoll is considered a child of the entire tribe, and cared for appropriately. A gnoll reaches adolescence at age 6-7, and it is at this time that they are sent out on their totem quest, not allowed to return without evidence of having successfully slain one of the clan's totem beast. For those clans with especially powerful totem beasts, groups of adolescents will be allowed to head out together and credit for a kill will be granted to the whole of the group, but this varies from tribe to tribe. Either way, however, such an adolescent has one generation (another 6-7 years) to succeed. If they do not return by this time, they are hunted down and slain. If they succeed, however, they are allowed to return, having earned their adulthood. Should they survive to old age, a gnoll has a life span of about 35 years.
Gnolls are amongst the larger humanoid peoples, with females standing about 7 to 8 feet tall on average and weighing around 300 pounds, and males slightly (but not much) smaller. They have many features in common with the hyena: the head most strikingly, but they also possess the long tail and short fur of that animal. Their coats tend to run from dull yellow to a short reddish-gray, with a long main lighter in color reaching to the small of their back. Though most possess animal-like legs and feet, their hands are as capable of grasping as any humanoid. Gnolls will usually be found wearing ill-fitting hand-me-downs stolen from other peoples, as they have no inclination to either make their own clothing or watch their slaves make it for them.
Flind tend to be slightly shorter than gnolls, but broader. They are nearly identical to gnolls to the inexperienced, but can be identified by their more rounded ears and less-sloped forehead. Flind are always found with the weapon that bears their name, the flindbar — a weapon vaguely resembling the nunchaku, but slightly smaller and less damaging — and most flind will not deign to use any weapon but this honored device.
- Dragon #63 - ...but not least: The humanoids, pg.27
- Dragon #173 - The Sociology of the Flind, pp.77-84
- Monster Manual (3rd Edition), pp.130-131
- Monster Manual III, pg.62
- Monstrous Manual