Sometimes there are elements in the real world which are too ripe with material to pass up for a fiction writer. As many often say, the truth can be stranger than fiction. But sometimes there are things in the world we can’t exactly define as truth or fiction which can be even stranger. Urban legends and the fields of cryptozoology are full of stories like these – stories where it sounds like bullshit, but something about them makes it feel more tangible. Sure, these things are only really believed by people on the fringe, but they seem to be based on something and every once in a while a creature jumps from legend to reality when they’re confirmed. So, while such a thing still existing in the modern age seems pretty unlikely, there are always some true believers. Plenty of people will swear to the existence of Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Chupacabra and there are a lot of people who will believe in UFOs well into the future. Each of these is of questionable validity, but is trying to explain something people have actually seen, and speaks to something of the human experience.
And for regular visitors to the blog you’ll know I included an urban legend in the alternate history of my books just last Friday. The “men in black” have long been part of pop culture and have been at the heart of conspiracy theories and ufology for at least 70 years now. But for most people the term is inseparable from the charming franchise of movies based on the legend. For the people most familiar with that depiction and the basic idea of where the stories came from, it may be strange that I included them into a world centered more on creatures from folklore.
As a speculative fiction writer, I spend a lot of time looking into the roots of mythology and the ways that our genres have evolved over time. It’s easy to see a straight line that can be drawn from the stories of our ancestors to the stories we tell today – especially in fantasy where some of the same elements remain in circulation. And it’s certainly easy to see how some things we have today are derived from things that came from antiquity. Superheroes, though wrapped in contemporary trappings, are obviously comparable to the heroes of the ancient stories. In fact, frequently these heroes are so similar that you can slip those mythological characters into the mix and not have them seem out of place at all.
So it’s not too surprising that we often hear someone define comic books and fantasy stories as the “new mythology” that we create today. These statements, comparing the traits of the heroes of old to the stories of today, essentially say that today’s mostly secular culture has adopted superheroes to fill in the place that characters like Hercules had filled before. And this makes sense on many levels. It’s true that we make great productions about these heroes and that someday they’ll sit comfortably next to each other in the historical records of future generations. But one chief difference has always jumped out at me and makes it feel like the statement isn’t entirely accurate:
Speculative fiction, being that it is purely speculative, is an evolving set of genres. Science fiction and fantasy are generally meant to be fluid and will reflect the times they were made in quite often. And because of this a great many variations will appear within the genre for things that everyone happens to share. What are the differences between Orcs and Orks? How many kinds of vampires are there actually? How distantly related are Legolas and the Keebler Elves?
Sometimes these differences are pretty profound, other times they’re almost non-existent. But what I’ve found most often is that the differences are generally discouraged if a specific work has reached an iconic status. Vampires have had dozens, if not hundreds of variations over the years, but many of the traits which are accepted as “canon” were originated either within Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the movie adaptations to follow. This is strange, because it means the original source material, the folklore, is generally forgotten in favor of variations on a theme of Dracula. It’s because of this that I personally went out of my way to include several variations of vampire in my stories and bring back old bits of lore that are often forgotten – like the fact a vampire can’t cross certain materials without counting every grain in their path.
The funny thing is that, in my world of sci-fantasy reinterpretations of the mythological as biological creatures, I’ve had a few run-ins with people who felt that I had somehow been “wrong” to change the lore. As one person said to me very early on, “I prefer my version”. It’s not the only feedback you get, but it’s one that you realize is quietly prevalent. Though some books and movies get away with it because they’re popular, if something has flaws, it will be immediately criticized for getting the lore “wrong”. Hell, at one point even I took part in doing this before realizing the flaw in my thinking.
The fantasy genre, for all of its common tropes created in the modern day, draws its roots from mythology the world over. Though rarely depicting the stories as they were originally, these mythologies have formed the backbone of what we use today to craft our fictional worlds of magic and supernatural creatures. And, the thing about it is, when you look at what’s in the fantasy works of today and then look into the origins of the creatures in the past, the differences can be stark. Even figures known to the mainstream population are somewhat different than what they’d originally been.
The Leprechaun is one of the easiest changes to point out to people. Their clothing, general demeanor, and place in the lore have changed dramatically overtime. And with the Leprechaun we even see how fast it can happen as the creatures themselves didn’t show up in the folklore until relatively recently in cultural terms. The root stories, the ones that inspired the wee folk in the first place, are actually so different that you would barely recognize them at first glance. But the Leprechaun is far from being the only one. For instance, did you know the word”Dobby” is actually another term for “Brounies“?
And one of the things you’ll realize when you look at it close for a while is that there are pretty specific evolutionary paths for some of these mythical creatures. Especially in Europe, a single effect becomes more and more obvious as many creatures of the past were somewhat more innocent in appearance and gradually became more inhuman. Essentially the old trope of “good is pretty” and “evil is ugly” started to become more common over time. Though some creatures have always been evil and ugly, even downright terrifying (looking at you, Celtic and Germanic folklore), other creatures were a lot less dangerous looking at first glance. And, now, those creatures tend to look like something fairly different.
Recently I wrote about the potential drawbacks of immortality and, funny enough, I haven’t stopped thinking about mortality since. We’re the only animals on this planet that understand we’re here for a finite time. From the day we first learn what death is, we know on some level that it’ll eventually be our turn. When we’re young, it doesn’t quite occur to us day to day, but we still feel it on some level. And when we’re older – well some of us can’t stop thinking about it. The fear of death, in one way or another, shapes our very lives as we decide how we want to spend what little time we have here.
And a result of this, as I mentioned last week, is that the very idea of religion is often an attempt at finding a way out. Mythology has often dealt with the ideas of the natural world and explaining what’s around us. We have gods of thunder to explain why lightning streaks across the sky and the world rumbles like the clash of a mighty hammer. We tell stories of how all the world’s ills came from a box opened in a moment of curiosity or eating the wrong fruit. It’s in our nature to personify the forces of the world around us. But your religion, if you’re honest with yourself, is almost always about your mortality – a fact I forgot to mention when writing on how to go about treating the faith of fictional characters.
Many would say that your religion is what you believe in, but there are systems of belief out there which are fairly anti-religious. Others would say that a belief in a god of some sort is required, but there are forms of Buddhism with no gods to speak of. And, of course, some would say the rites and rituals are what make a religion and that you’re otherwise just spiritual – but once again I don’t quite agree. I’ve personally interacted with people who aren’t Wiccan but will still practice some of their rituals. To them, it’s simply a mythology, even if it’s a religion for someone else. And we’ve all known people who hold a religion but don’t stick to the traditions. In fact, many think that someone who does try to stick to all of their traditions zealously is not of sound mind.
So, while these religions may have all of those beliefs and rituals, the one thing holding them above simple mythology is that people believe in their version of the afterlife. And the funny thing is, because it’s so important to these belief systems, that afterlife says a lot about the people that believe in it. Continue reading Monday Musing: What Our Afterlives Say About Us→
As spring time rolls around and certain holidays come to pass, a few questions inevitably start popping up. Our modern holidays, inspired long ago by more ancient traditions, don’t make a lot of sense to us in our modern frames of reference. For instance, the Easter Bunny references a spring hare that traveled with some old European deities. Coloring eggs for Easter is part of an old Norse tradition representing the dawn. And, as for St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a whole lot we don’t fully understand about these little bastards.
The Leprechaun as we know them today have been changed repeatedly over the course of centuries. Beginning as part of Irish folklore, they’ve since become entwined with Irish stereotypes and traditions that have long since lost meaning. With even the origin of their name not being entirely clear, with some sources citing “little people” and others saying it was referring to their jobs as shoe cobblers, it makes sense they didn’t stay firm in all that time. Even the color they wear and the way they behave has been altered to suit contemporary mindsets over the ages. By this point, they’re essentially an inkblot test of how you feel about the Irish – for better or worse.
But one thing that hasn’t really changed much about Leprechauns over the ages is the fact that they are magical, lucky, and generally holders of great wealth. Some stories say this is due to their workaholic nature, acting in a miserly fashion and hoarding every coin they could possibly get. Others say that it’s due to their magical nature and ability to do things no human could. And some even say they found the treasures lost or buried by people and simply kept them. But all variations of this story generally have one unifying detail: If you can capture the little shits, they have to bargain their way free – potentially even giving you the location to their treasure (which is one of the few things they’re bound to tell the truth on).
As of this writing, we’re all of one day away from St. Valentine’s Day. A day of lovers, romance, and bitter singles – many wonder just how the day came to be associated with such warm or contemptuous feelings. Saints are generally chaste and unrelated to such things, so the idea of one being associated with young lovers is a bit hard to grasp. This is particularly true because the Catholic Church tells you to be ashamed of most emotions in one way or another and even defines a couple of them as cardinal sins. The only emotion the Church doesn’t seem to look down on at some point is guilt, which is probably why they so mercifully give you a shot of wine on Sundays. Of course, whenever such contradictions happen to come up it’s a good time to check for some sort of pagan holiday behind it all. Surprise, found one.
A quick google search for the origins of Valentine’s Day will no doubt produce dozens of articles talking about the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility celebration held on February 15th. And this makes sense, the most common of Catholic celebrations started as a pagan tradition of some sort. Like Christmas, Halloween, and Easter, Valentines is said by many to be lifted from the traditions of the pagans. And, of course, you can’t spell Romance without Roman – the people who literally originated the “romance languages” and gave us the very words we need to express our deepest desires.
Ah, Christmas, a wonderful little paradox. A religious holiday long ago reduced to a secular celebration, draped in traditions few people understand, and generally agreed to not make a lot of sense when you think about it long enough. I’ve already covered once upon a time why Santa was introduced into the concept, and mistletoe, but so much else still doesn’t quite make sense. Like, for instance, why are we getting wasted and feasting on the day when Jesus’ parents were supposedly camping out with animals? And, more bafflingly to some, why are people celebrating Jesus’ birthday when a lot of sources indicate the guy was probably born in the summer?
And the answer to that question, often cited by the guy trying to pretend he’s above holiday cheer (or guys like me, who think it’s neat), is that Christmas as we know it is the amalgamation of several pagan holidays and festivals. Though long forgotten by the people celebrating the season, these events were gradually assimilated as new converts were brought into the fold. The time of Jul, the Winter Solstice, and many others all came to become a part of the celebration that we know today as the religion spread across Europe. But the one thing that started it all was a little festival called the Saturnalia, the Roman Festival of Saturn. And most people know about Saturnalia, they’ve heard the term thrown around, and they’ve probably had at least one person bring it up as a smug bit of trivia.
As October rolled around and the blog calendar begged to be filled with topics to write, I penciled in what seemed like a good topic for a Mythology Monday. Many people have long known the story of Jack O’Lantern, the poor condemned soul who would wander the world. But, thinking about the nature of the story and the usual way folklore twists and bends from other traditions, I wondered where that story originated. Was there a cultural significance to turnips? Were there stories from older cultures that reflected the story of Jack, maybe putting light to why you would mimic his carving and stick a candle into it? There were a lot of possibilities, so I thought, surely, this would be a cute entry for the Halloween season.
But what I found was actually kind of amusing in a whole different sort of way. Because what I found was that the story of “Jack O’Lantern” specifically didn’t seem to have an origin. First being told in the mid 19th century (a little after the practice of lantern carving became most common), the folktale appeared a little late to the party to be credited for the practice. Other stories of similar nature have appeared across Europe, all to account for the origin of what is most commonly known as the Will-O-Wisp, but the actual act of carving a turnip and using it as a lantern seems to be somewhat unique. Essentially, while you could find the origins for other versions of the will-o-wisp stories across the continent, “Jack” didn’t really seem to have one.
Now, that’s not to say that the name itself was just pulled right out of a hat. “Jack” has also long been a character used in many stories about borderline (and sometimes not so borderline) tricksters. Like the trickster spirits of other cultures, “Jack” is generally a clever but troublesome fellow who’ll use his wits to get out of situations. But as I was considering that, something occurred to me about why so many articles just could not figure out the when and how for Jack’s inclusion on the gourd carving practice in Ireland.
The time of year has come once again, the world has turned autumn shades and winter is coming. A season of holidays, ranging from thankful to solemn, now begins to stretch over the dark months. And to open these we celebrate Halloween, the days of the dead, or variants thereof. Long made a family friendly holiday, there was once a time that All Hallows Eve was seen as a very serious and solemn time, marked with a time of worship and reflection that would help the Catholic Church convert the pagans in Northern Europe and give them an opportunity to celebrate their own rituals within the framework of Christianity.
Of course, many people today know of Samhain, the Celtic festival devoted to the time when the veil between this world and the next would be thinner. Every year, you’ll hear at least one person tell you of how Halloween was all based on this one holiday, that the various traditions we’ve lost the meaning to once held an important place in the Celtic celebrations. But few people actually take time to make note of the fact that Samhain was also the celebration of the New Year, a time when one year was coming to an end and the next year was about to begin. And fewer mention the fact that the Celts and Gaels weren’t the only ones with a celebration this time of year.