Posts Tagged 'History'

MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician

Calming a Storm - Wiliam Hole

If I were to tell you, devoid of any other context, about a man who could command demons, cast curses that caused living things to wither and die, or control the weather, then you might be reasonably forgiven for thinking I was talking about a wizard. Of course, these are all actually miracles of Jesus. The line between magic and divine power is a concept you see a lot in fiction—the powers of the gods and the powers of a human sorcerer do not spring from the same source. This distinction has not always been present in human beliefs, and is in many ways somewhat rare.

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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 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.

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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.

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LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: Dead Cities of the Desert

Location can be a very important thing to a given story. Set it in a city, and you have a vast array of interesting things to do. A chance meeting at the museum, a shady encounter at the harbor front, an important business deal at an office firm—sometimes once you’ve picked a location, the story can unfold from there. So this new feature of the blog will be all about exploring particular locations from myth and legend, places both real and imaginary, to see what sort of story ideas might be lurking about.

For the first installment, let’s talk about the Taklamakan desert:

800px-Taklimakanm

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Modern Monsters (Better Late than Never)

Mythical creatures are strange creations. They can be metaphors for human fears and desires, representations of the forces of nature, a commentary about the human condition, and so on. At the same time, they’re much more complex than that. Sure, at some point back in the day one man must have created each of them, but most of them are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. As a result each one is the sum of many parts, reinterpreted by many different cultures, filtered through many traditions, and reinterpreted by billions of people who have come before.

Except when they’re not.

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