Archive Page 2

LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy

Profanation de l'hostie lors d'une messe noire

The idea of a fantastical school where people are taught magic is an old cliché in fantasy literature, and with good reason. A writer could hardly ask for a better setting. You can humorously juxtapose the mundanity of schoolwork with the wonders of magic, or write a parable about the responsibilities of power, or just tell a rollicking adventure story as people learn (or fail) to tame the supernatural. These days the most famous example is the Harry Potter series, but the concept goes back a long way—a very long way, in fact.

The earliest example I know of is from medieval Spain, in the city of Salamanca. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134. According to legend, though, there was another school nearby, of a considerably different nature, that certain students sought out. This school was inside of the Church of Saint Cyprian, or rather in a cave beneath the church. This cave, the Cueva de Salamanca, was a school of dark sorcery, taught by a mysterious headmaster who would answer any question imaginable regarding witchcraft, necromancy, summoning demons, or any other black arts. Only seven students could attend his dark academy at a time, for a period of seven years. At the end of this period all the students could leave save one; his soul was a sacrifice to the headmaster, who was truly Satan. Continue reading ‘LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy’

DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests

Art of a medieval German mine

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot Men of the Mountains

PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Last week I talked about how in certain parts of Europe, the belief in dwarves introduced by the Vikings blended with pre-existing local beliefs in fairies, but that was hardly an isolated incident. Europe is host to many, many spirit-beings that are similar to dwarves. In some cases, a Norse influence is clear. In the first article of this series I mentioned a British dwarf called a duergar, a hostile being generally regarded as some sort of fairy or goblin, whose name is linguistically derived from the Norse term for a dwarf. In other cases, though, there’s no relation. The ancient Greeks believed in beings called dactyls, little men created by the titan Rhea, who lived under the mountains and taught humanity the art of metalworking. They sound very similar to dwarves, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of them being culturally related. Two different cultures just happened to come up with similar ideas.

There’s a lot of grey area between these two extremes. When a belief is introduced to a new culture, it can become almost unrecognizable as it fuses with other beliefs or gets spun off into unprecedented variants. Without direct linguistic or historical evidence, it’s hard to say which dwarf-like beings in European folklore evolved from dwarves, and which ones, like the dactyls, were created independently. Still, in Northern Europe, where the Norse influence was strongest, we can reasonably assume that similar traditions are probably related. Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests’

DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Dietrich fängt den Zwerg Alfrich by Johannes Gehrts

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to adopt Christianity, and even then it was a slow process. It was a top-down conversion, with kings and lords embracing the new ways first (often for politically advantageous reasons), and while their subjects might nominally do the same, they frequently did not do so in practice. The old ways endured, but they were altered. Saints were mixed up with old gods or heroes, priests changed the dates of holidays to work with existing pagan festivals, and so on. A lot of compromise and practicality was involved, as well as the occasional burning-at-the-stake.

The same process applies to mythical creatures as well. Spirits and monsters didn’t tie directly into the religion, so it was a little easier to hang onto them than the old gods, especially if a Christian rationale could be created. For example, supernatural spirits who were once probably elves or landvaettir were explained away as the descendants of children of Adam and Eve, who an embarrassed Eve hid from god after forgetting to bathe them. Evidently God was feeling a bit dickish that day, and he turned the children invisible. The hidden people were created. This probably included dwarves, though we don’t have a specific Christian rationale for their origins. Regardless, the pagan Scandinavians might have once imagined dwarves as human-sized earth spirits, with ghostly pale skin and a tendency to explode in sunlight, but that concept evolved.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)’

DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

King Svafrlame Secures the Sword Tyrfing

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

In Norse mythology, the world was created when the primordial giant Ymir was murdered. His blood became the oceans, lakes, and rivers, the dome of his skull the heavens, his bones the mountains, and his flesh the earth and soil. There are two different accounts of how dwarves came into being during this violent rebirth. The eddic poem Völuspá says they sprang from the blood of Ymir and the bones of another giant named Bláin. Snorri Sturlusson, however, says that dwarves were originally a sort of maggot, who burrowed through the earth-flesh of the dead Ymir. The gods decided, for reasons of their own, that these maggot-beings should gain awareness. They became dwarves, and continued to live in the remains of Ymir’s corpse, dwelling inside rocks and beneath the ground.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains’

DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dwarfs_at_Work.jpg

Like elves, dwarves have become a staple of modern fantasy literature. Also like elves, this is largely due to the influence of JRR Tolkien, and it’s his version that dominates. These dwarves, despite being short, are brawny and tough, with big beards and big axes.  They are champion smiths, miners, and architects, living far beneath the earth in underground cities. That’s the common version, but the history behind it is more complex.

Elves and dwarves both have their roots in Nordic mythology, but where Tolkien mainly based his elves on Celtic lore, his dwarves are very Norse indeed. Tolkien’s dwarves use Nordic runes for writing, often use axes as weapons (very popular amongst the Norse, especially the Danes) and epitomize a certain gruff manliness commonly associated with Vikings. Beyond that, they stick very close to their mythic predecessors in that they are master smiths and craftsmen, sometimes have an unpleasant greedy streak, and live underground. Still, there are significant differences as well, and Tolkien (as well as many other writers) have drawn on dwarf traditions that evolved through the centuries.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men’

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales

In this series, I’ve talked a lot about books that are purely reference material, providing overviews and general information about their chosen topics. While these sorts of books are fine, if you really want to plumb the depths of folklore you need to read the actual folktales, and I’d like to introduce you to some good collections of them. I’ve talked about fairies a number of times on this blog, including in last week’s list of defenses against the supernatural, so let’s start with a book about them.

Continue reading ‘BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’