Category Archives: Alternative Mythologies

Mythology Monday: Trapping A Leprechaun

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).

Just one problem for you: they’re trickster spirits, and they’re not about to go down willingly. Continue reading Mythology Monday: Trapping A Leprechaun

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Romans, Romance, and Roaming Dates

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.

Just one problem: it would appear that the connection doesn’t really exist… Continue reading Romans, Romance, and Roaming Dates

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History of the Holidays: Saturnalia

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?

Shepherds would not be wandering around in the winter.

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.

So, just one question: what the hell was Saturnalia about? Continue reading History of the Holidays: Saturnalia

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Jack, Gourds, and Trolls

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.

vintage-halloween

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.

Because, you see, I believe we’re looking at the result of massive generational Trolling… Continue reading Jack, Gourds, and Trolls

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History of the Holidays: The Winter Nights

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.

Because this was also the time of the Norse New Year, the Vetrnætr, the “Winter Nights”… Continue reading History of the Holidays: The Winter Nights

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Altternative Mythologies – Brazil

The Fantasy Genre has long been dominated by the religions and customs of countries touched on by the Crusades. While this makes sense, with the familiar image of a knight wandering foreign lands being key to the genre itself, there has been stagnation in recent times. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to look into the cultures of the world and find fascinating details about other mythologies often overlooked by the genre we so love, seeking out Alternative Mythologies.

The cultures of Europe and Africa have had some interactions with each other in the past, especially along the Mediterranean coasts. Egyptian mythology influenced Greek, as did Berber, and the same could be said the other way around. Many have known of the influences of Christianity on modern day Voudou and related groups. But that blend is rarely so complete that it would be difficult to know the origins of which belief came from what group. Though sometimes the details get lost to history, like with Poseidon being part of the Berber mythology long before being introduced to the Greeks, there is still some evidence from long ago that makes it possible to separate the two.

But what happens when that blend is a lot more complete and a mythology starts to form after the blending?

Behold, the beautiful mess of the mythology that is Brazil. Having been settled by the Portuguese during the colonial period, Brazil’s culture was heavily influenced from not one direction but rather three fully unique sources. The first, of course, was the indigenous people of the region, the Tupians in particular – a race of people defined by their language group, Tupian, which includes 70 different dialects. Then, as the Portuguese arrived, they did what Europeans generally do and tried to convert the country, introducing a whole new language and their culture. And, as the Portuguese arrived, they also brought along slaves, as the Europeans tended to do at the time, and introduced the unique flavors of the Western African cultures covered in earlier entries of this series.

The result was a wonderfully complex blend of the cultures of three different continents playing off of each other and creating something new. While the origins of some ideas are easy to identify, most are a gestalt which has grown greater than the sum of its parts. A creature shaped like something from the Amazon could behave like an African deity, be associated with a Christian concept, and have a name based on the Portuguese translation of a Tupian word.

So, while it would be impossible to cover the whole of such a rich culture in the space of a lowly blog like mine, it’s a time to give a brief look into the world of… Continue reading Altternative Mythologies – Brazil

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South African Cryptids

The Fantasy Genre has long been dominated by the religions and customs of countries touched on by the Crusades. While this makes sense, with the familiar image of a knight wandering foreign lands being key to the genre itself, there has been stagnation in recent times. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to look into the cultures of the world and find fascinating details about other mythologies often overlooked by the genre we so love, seeking out Alternative Mythologies.

According to legend, the people who came to South Africa did so in pursuit of a fleeing god. Annoying the deity with their mimicry, destructive ways, and inability to take a hint – the first human left his creator with little alternative but to escape into the heavens. Unable to follow, the first man in South Africa stayed and laid the foundations of civilization and culture in those reaches.

But what exactly was he left with? The region was not without its peculiar creatures which dwell both in the sky and under the waters of its great rivers and waterfalls. This was a place of surprising danger where they had been left to remain, where creatures of unusual origin roamed and threatened to kill the people of this fledgling civilization. And, while spoken of and depicted in legend as far back as possible, several of these creatures are sometimes thought to still wander those lands to this very day…

Continue reading South African Cryptids

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Mythology Monday – Easter Eggs

Ah, holiday traditions. As has been pointed out many times before, even here, a lot of the traditions we hold for holidays are rooted back to unrelated but similarly timed events. Yule logs root back to Yuletide, lucky clovers were a Celtic charm throughout history, and the Easter bunny was part of Eostre’s posse. But sometimes you have to ask – why were the Christians so eager to adopt it across the board?

The answer changes depending on the element in question. Some traditions were adopted over time because of the proximity between different groups. Some traditions remain regional forever, some start to get adopted over time as neighbors share their traditions together. But others are just so ubiquitous that you’d have to wonder how they spread so fast. For those the answer is convenience – sometimes traditions had a parallel across both, and rather than one side adopting traditions from the other, both brought a similar tradition to the table and gradually merged them together.

Need an example? Easter Eggs.

Continue reading Mythology Monday – Easter Eggs

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Mythology Monday – Lucky Clovers

As of this writing, St. Patrick’s Day is once again on the horizon. A festive but rarely understood holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is a colorful combination of the Catholic faith, Celtic traditions, and American love for an excuse to drink. Truly the child of multiculturalism, the American version of St. Patty’s is generally full of traditions no one understands but will eagerly follow regardless.

Most people have no idea who St. Patrick actually was aside from a story where he drove the snakes out of Ireland (an island which never had a native snake population in the first place). No one’s particularly sure why they have to wear green, or why you’re required to pinch someone who doesn’t. Very few people who follow it have any idea what the actual Catholic traditions are for the day. And other elements are just generally a complete mystery.

For instance: why the hell are shamrocks and their four leaf cousins lucky? And, for that matter, why would they represent the… Continue reading Mythology Monday – Lucky Clovers

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Alternative Mythologies South Africa – The Lozi

The Fantasy Genre has long been dominated by the religions and customs of countries touched on by the Crusades. While this makes sense, with the familiar image of a knight wandering foreign lands being key to the genre itself, there has been stagnation in recent times. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to look into the cultures of the world and find fascinating details about other mythologies often overlooked by the genre we so love, seeking out Alternative Mythologies.

Long controlling the land in the floodplains of the Zambezi river, the Lozi people are a group with close ties to the religions of the religions of West Africa. Many of their beliefs, some of the creatures, and several of their stories are shared with those living north west of them, and they even share some of the same gods. In fact, because of these traits, the most defining element of Lozi mythology is that their stories focus less on the actual creation of the world and more on how it is that their creator god (either directly or indirectly) founded their nation in their ancestral homelands.

Why would this be the focus of their unique tales? Well it’s because their creator god is Nyambe, also known as Nyame, the god of the Akan and Ashanti – and the story of the Lozi is the story of how he led them to their home by the river. More accurately, the story of the Lozi is how Nyambe fled to the river in an attempt to escape his most dreaded creation…. man. Continue reading Alternative Mythologies South Africa – The Lozi

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