March 28, 2022

D is for Demonic

         (My A to Z Blog Challenge theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.)
        In nature, animals are morally neither good nor bad: they all just do what comes naturally to eat, breed, and keep themselves alive.  But in unnatural history, creatures are almost always labelled as good or bad, and the really bad ones are often actually demonic.  Mythology and folklore are full of strange and magical monsters that originate in hell or actively align themselves with pure Evil.
        Mythology of many cultures around the world deals with forces of evil, although there is wide variation in how the whole cosmology of good and evil works.  Are demons subservient to God; does God use demons for heavenly ends?  Can one demon serve as protection against another demon?  Do demons have free will?  Can humans summon and command demons using magic?  Were demons created evil, or are they fallen from a divine creation?  Despite all the various ways these questions can be answered in different cultures, there are some common threads that show up with some frequency: demons are often seen as forces of disease, and also forces of sin (ie negative behaviors and disorders).   They are often believed to be able to possess humans, rather than merely acting on them.  It is also the case that “demons” is frequently considered a general category including many undifferentiated individuals.  Still, there are some particular demonic monsters I can highlight today.
        The incubus is a kind of male demon who seduces/rapes sleeping women, while the succubus is the female equivalent.  Usually they are portrayed as gorgeous humanoids, but often they have unsettling characteristics such as claws or tails.  The Trauco (a dwarf with no feet) is an incubus who lives on an island in Chile, and the lidérc (who can take the form of a will o’ the wisp - or of a naked chicken!) lives in Hungary.  Incubi and succubi are ever-popular in folklore, because sex.
        In South Africa the impundulu or lightning bird is a vampiric demon that summons lightning, serves as a familiar of witches, and can also behave as an incubus.
        The Balrog of The Lord of the Rings is a winged demon of fire and shadow, armed with a flaming sword and a many-thonged whip.  Tolkien gives the etymology of the name as Orcish for “cruel demon.”  The giant spider Shelob also seems to be classed as a demon, rather than a mere monster.
        The batibat of Tagalog folklore is a huge, obese tree-spirit demon, who becomes vengeful when her tree is cut down, and may suffocate people, or torture them through dreams.
        In Bali Rangda is a demon queen who eats babies and brings disease, and is eternally battling the forces of good.
        One of the most famous Judeo-Islamic-Christian demons is Asmodeus, who, depending on who’s telling, ranges from “the worst of demons” who murders anyone he gets his hands on, to one that can be bound by Solomon to build the temple and do other odd jobs.  He’s often said to be a demon of lust, but also gets credited at various times with vengeance and gambling.  Sometimes he’s portrayed as a handsome man who limps due to one rooster foot.  Other times he’s a little more interesting: in addition to the rooster leg, he has a serpent tail and three heads: a sheep, a bull, and a man spitting fire.  He appears as a character in tons of modern stories, but I won’t even get started on all the demons of modern fiction, D&D, and various computer/video games.
        Ammit (introduced under the letter C) is also often classed as demon, although in ancient Egypt the distinction between demons and gods could be fuzzy.  The wendigo (introduced under A) can also be classed as a demon.  Plus, you can check back in previous posts for snippets on Bartimaeus, the tormentors of St Anthony, imps, Tibetan demon Mara, Persian demon Falud-zereh, Japanese oni, and the Alpine Krampus.
        Because this is the last post of the month, let’s spend a little time on etymology.  The word demon appeared in Middle English around 1200 from the Greek
daimōn.  The Greek word referred to a minor deity, a divine spirit lower than a god, or a guiding spirit.  It had no negative connotations.  Its English meaning of a spirit of pure evil arose because Greek translations of the Bible (both Christian and Jewish) used the word daimōn for “heathen gods and idols,” and “unclean spirits.”  So as the word was absorbed into English, it came with that connotation.  But around the mid-sixteenth century English went back to the Greek and re-borrowed the word in its original sense of a guiding spirit.  It’s usually spelled daemon or daimon when it’s used that way.
        This etymology helps illustrate that your views on demons (even taking the modern English definition of “a spirit of evil”) will be influenced by your culture.  Lamashtu is a 
dreadful demon of ancient Mesopotamia.  With a lion head, donkey ears, hairy body, and talons for feet, Lamashtu particularly loves to kill babies and pregnant women.  On the other hand, she can be warded off by invoking other demons, particularly Pazuzu, with a canine head, horns, a scorpion tail, and two sets of wings.  Pazuzu is certainly a scary and dangerous being, but he obviously has his uses.  (Also in Mesopotamia, Gallu demons dragged their victims down to the Underworld, and the demon Asag was so monstrous that his presence made fish boil alive in the rivers, which I think is a marvelously horrible description.)
        The obvious moral of demons is that you must stay strong and vigilant to withstand the temptation to evil.  A Pro Tip for exorcists is that sometimes you can summon one demon to get rid of another.  On the other hand, sometimes that strategy ends up like The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly: she died, of course.  It’s probably wise to have bell, book, and candle at the ready just in case things get out of hand.  A shofar and Thibetan Guthuk soup can also be efficacious.
        The nature of Good and Evil - that really is THE question, isn’t it?

[Pictures: Incubus (The Nightmare), oil on canvas by Henri Fuseli, 1781 (Image from Detroit Institute of Arts);
Balrog, film still from “The Fellowship of the Ring” directed by Peter Jackson, 2001 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Impundulu, illustration by Ken Wilson-Max, 2013 (Image from the artist’s web site the Illustrationist);
Rangda, wooden mask from Bali (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Asmodeus, engraving by M.L. Breton from Dictionnaire infernal by Collin de Plancy, 1863 (Image from Library of Congress);
Lamashtu amulet, carved stone, Babylonian, c 7-6th century BCE (Image from Met Museum);
Divs, illumination attributed to ‘Ali Quli, from the Khamsa of Amir Khusraw Dihlavi, c 1598 (Image from The Walters Art Museum).]

March 23, 2022

C is for Chimeric

         (My A to Z theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.  I’ve started early, but I promise that I’ll end with Z on April 30, just like everyone else in the April A to Z Blog Challenge.)
        The chimaera of Greek mythology was described as having parts like three disparate animals: a lion in front, a serpent in the rear, and a goat in the middle.  I would have thought this description implied a snake tail in the same way that a mermaid has a fish tail, but instead the chimera is usually depicted as having a full lion body, with a snake head on the tip of its tail and a goat head poking out of its back.  Quite early in English (late 14th century) this hybrid creature gave its name to any sort of creature composed of various parts of other animals, and later to any sort of wild fancy.  In fact, the most common and universal way to make a magical creature in cultures all around the world is to describe it by the resemblance of various traits to other creatures.  Indeed, the mythical creature that can’t be described chimera-fashion is the exception.  You can read a previous post on chimeras here.
        Loads of famous mythical beasts are chimeric.  The centaur is half man half horse, and the faun half man half goat.
        The Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu (c. 220 CE) described lung dragons with “the nine resemblances…: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.”
        The Egyptian demon/goddess Ammit has a crocodile head, foreparts of a lion, and hindquarters of a hippo.  She eats the impure hearts of those people who, after death, fail the judgement of Osiris.
        The Mesopotamian lamassu has the body of a bull or lion, a human head, and avian wings.
        The basilisk, although originally a mere serpent, eventually developed into a chimera with the front half of a rooster added to its snake tail.  (It also may have poison breath suitable for the letter B.)
        The hippogriff is a chimera combining the hindquarters of a horse with the front half of another chimera: the griffin.  Of course, the front half of a griffin is just the front half of an eagle.  There’s also a creature called the hippalectryon that looks the reverse: front half horse, back half eagle.
        The magical Himmapan Forest in the Himalayas is populated by many magnificent chimeric creatures, including the Kunchorn Waree, which has the front half of an elephant and the back half of a fish.
The Persian simurgh is sometimes depicted as a peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion.  But some chimeras can be a bit variable.
        A creature with lots of options is the yali or vyala of India, which can combine its feline-ish body with lots of different possible heads, including elephant, lion, bird, horse, or dog.  But whatever kind of head it has, it's always strong and fierce.  (This illustration is one of mine.)
        You can find lots more chimeric creatures in previous posts, including malacomorphs, ypotryll, and welwa, as well as the jackalope and a host of similar rabbity-chimeras.  There are even chimeras that are mixes between beasts and objects, such as the umbrellaphant and the capybureau.
        The moral of these conglomerate creatures is that the easiest way to make something new is to mix up a few old things.  A Pro Tip for mad scientists is to get yourself a lab on a secluded island where no one asks awkward questions about why your pet ant-lions need their grain feed supplemented with gazelle meat.
        What creature traits would you most like to combine?  Do you have that mad-science hankering to create your own chimeras?  Try the Hybridizer, and tell us about your favorites!

[Pictures: Chimaera, Greek votive platter, 590-570 BCE (Image from Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien);
Ammit, illustration from Egyptian Book of the Dead papyrus, c 1250 BCE (Image from the British Museum);
Basilisk, wood block print by Jost Amman from Thierbuch, 1592 (Image from Library of Congress);
Kunchorn Waree, mural from Wat Gangaram, Ratchaburi, Thailand (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Simurgh, silver platter, Iran, 9th-10th century CE (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Yali (Fierce Guardian), rubber block print by AEGN, 2018;
Monster with the head of an ass (among other things!), wood block print from Monstrorum historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1658 (Image from DFG viewer).]

March 18, 2022

B is for Breathing Fire

         (My A to Z theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.  I’ve started early, and it’s still not too late for you to join in the Challenge with your own blog HERE.)
        There are no real-life creatures that breathe fire (although a few come surprisingly close!) so who was the first to imagine a creature that could?  Most likely this strange and marvelous - and scary - thought occurred to multiple people in the history of humanity, since the trait appears in folklore around the world.  Fire is one of the most magical forces humans know, simultaneously beautiful and potentially deadly.  The most famous mythical fire-breathers are dragons, but they are far from the only ones.  
        In classical Greece the chimaera and the Mares of Diomedes (already seen at the letter A) were known to breathe fire, and Persian mythology has fire-breathing horses with asses’ heads called conopenii.
        The basan is a Japanese creature that looks like a rooster but breathes bright red ghost-fire.  Interestingly, its fire may be cold and doesn’t burn.
        The catoblepas is a beast known to the medieval naturalists, which looks like a buffalo but with a shaggy head so heavy that it can’t hold it up.  This is lucky, because according to some authors it breathes fire, while according to others its breath is poisonous (but all agree that its stare is deadly, as well).  So let’s expand today’s category and include all sorts of breath weapons.  
        The French Lebraude (or Souffle, which is an awesome name for a monster!) is a large lizard or salamander which breathes only once per day, but when it exhales its poison, everything around dies instantly.
        The olgoi-khorkhol (or Mongolian death worm) can spit poison or discharge electric shocks.
        The Physeter (or Prister) of the Atlantic Ocean is an enormous sea monster that spouts violent streams of water and steam.
        In Jamaica there are dangerous duppies, which are ghosts or spirits, including Rolling-Calf, which breathes fire, and Three-foot Horse, which breathes poison.
        The modern mythology of Dungeons & Dragons categorizes its dragons into whether they breathe fire, poison, cold, acid, or electricity.

        Or read the previous post on Spring-heeled Jack, who breathed blue flame.

        Finally, I would like to mention the bonnacon, a beast of the medieval bestiaries, which has a lethal weapon it can spray, but not by breathing.  Its weapon comes from the other end.  The bonnacon looks much like an ox, but its horns are so tightly spiralled that the sharp ends don’t stick out to offer it any protection, so instead it sprays caustic, burning dung for a quarter mile behind it.
The moral of breath weapons is, of course, that no one wants to be a dragons’ dentist.  A Pro Tip for knights: try offering hostile dragons an enticing suit of armor packed full of high explosives.
        What's your best dragon-slaying strategy?

[Pictures: Dragon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out);
Basan, wood block print by Takehara Shunsensai, c 1841 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Catoblepas, wood block print from The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes by Edward Topsell, 1607 (Image from Folger Collection);
Physeter, wood block print from Historiae de gentibus septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1557 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);
Bonnacon, illumination from bestiary, 1201-1225 (Image from Bodleian Libraries).]

March 14, 2022

A is for Anthropophagus

         My A to Z theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.  I always start early, but I promise that I’ll end with Z on April 30, just like everyone else.  Be sure to check out the list of other participating blogs HERE.
        Anthropophagus is a fancy word meaning “eats humans,” and that’s the number one quickest and easiest way to make a monster.  Of course real animals that eat humans, such as tigers or crocodiles, are scary enough, but a man-eating horse becomes an insta-monster, a baby-eating crone becomes a wicked witch, and the problem with giants isn’t that they’re big, but that they’ll grind your bones to make their bread.  I don’t need to go into any deep explanation of why we find this trait monstrous, or why, if we want to tell stories about monsters, we give this trait to the villains to make them even scarier.
        Of course it doesn’t take magic for a creature to eat humans, but the anthropophagus trait is often given to creatures that wouldn’t normally be carnivorous, thus turning them from ordinary animals into something outside the bounds of the natural world.  The Mares of Diomedes and the Stymphalian Birds which Hercules had to conquer are classical examples, and a more modern example is the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
        Furthermore, for all the dangerous beasts in the world, there are few that really hunt humans as a first choice.  So when you tell stories of a monster that deliberately favors human flesh, that makes it more than an everyday carnivore.  The manticore is particularly known for its voracious man-eating nature, and indeed its name derives from the Persian for “man-eater.”  It has the body of a blood-red lion, but the head of a man, and a tail with poisonous quills or a scorpion stinger.  It has a triple row of super-sharp teeth, and it devours its victims bones and all.  A single manticore will hunt people up to three or four at a time, and chomp them all down, leaving not a trace.
        Ogres are cannabalistic humanoids who consider human babies to be a particular delicacy.  They’re usually large (sometimes basically giants), hairy and clumsy-looking, with great strength, but the eating of humans is their primary trait.
        The wendigo of Algonquian-family First Nations peoples is also defined largely by its insatiable desire for human flesh.  It looks like an emaciated walking corpse.  It is a spirit of both gluttony and famine, as its cannibalistic hunger merely increases, the more people it devours.
The isiququmadevu of Zulu folklore swallows not just individual people, but entire armies and entire villages, men, women, children, cattle, dogs, and all.  Luckily, in a trait shared by a number of anthropophagus monsters, if you can manage to kill her, you can let out all the victims in her belly, and they will be none the worse for wear.
The Hidebehind, a Fearsome Critter, hunts loggers and other humans in the woods, and particularly favors eating their intestines.  It’s impossible to see one stalking you, because no matter how quickly you turn around, it’s always able to hide behind a tree… or you.
        A couple other anthropophagus monsters you can read more about in previous posts are the Ninki Nanka and the rakshasa, and of course many of the monsters we’ll run into throughout the rest of this year’s A to Z may also eat you if you don’t watch out.  It’s easy to see why people all around the world and throughout history have told stories about creatures that are more than ordinary man-eaters.  They serve as warnings, nightmare fuel, and most excellent antagonists for our heroes.
        The moral of these monsters is that  no one likes to be someone else’s dinner.  But folklore from many traditions gives us a couple of Pro Tips for monster-slayers: 
1. Try to gain access by making friends with the monster’s wife or granny, and 
2. If you do defeat it, cut open the stomach to release any survivors before destroying the body.
        How would you pass the time waiting for a hero in the belly of a monster?

[Pictures: Manticore, illumination from bestiary, 1226-1250 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);
Mares of Diomedes, illumination from Recueil des histoires de Troi by Raoul Le Fevre, c 1470 (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
Ogre, wood engraving by Gustave Doré from Les Contes de Perrault, 1862 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Hidebehind, ink by Jessi Jordan, c 2021 (Image from artist’s web site]

March 9, 2022

A to Z Challenge Theme 2022 #AtoZChallenge

         It’s time once again to announce my theme for the April A to Z Blog Challenge in which bloggers all around the world post a piece for every letter of the alphabet throughout the month of April.  This year I will be looking at How to Make a Fantastical Creature.  In other words, I’ve picked 26 characteristics that, when applied to a creature, turn it fantastical and mark it out as more than ordinary.  Around the world and through time, humans keep coming back to some common themes in the stories we tell and the magical, mythical monsters we imagine.  If you’d like to consider those themes, come along with me for the next month and a half to look at what traits we seem to find particularly entrancing and why.
        Of course many of the creatures I’ll be sharing this year will be ones you know and love (or love to hate), and ones I discussed back in 2016 and 2019 when I also had mythical creature themes.  Still, there will be some new ones, plus this time we’ll be considering just what it is that makes these mythical beings so… special.
        As always, I’ll start early so that I can take a few days off during April, so having revealed my theme I’m going to dive right in.  You can come back next week for A if you want to get a head start on the alphabet with me, or you can wait until April, when I’ll include links to get you to the proper letter for each day.  Having already posted about lots of these creatures, I’ll provide plenty of links for those earlier posts, as well.  You can also go to the List of Participants to see what themes other bloggers have selected for the year.  There’s always a great variety.
        So, what’s your favorite magical being, humanoid, or beast?  Let me know and I’ll try to make sure it’s included!

[Pictures: Portrait of the Artist, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.  (Read more about the making of this piece here.)]

March 4, 2022

Samella Lewis Relief Prints

         Samella Lewis (USA, b. 1924) may not be a household name, but she has been a towering figure in studying, collecting, promoting, and educating about African American art for over half a century.  But of course I’m looking at her not in her role as collector, scholar, teacher, or advocate, but in her role as an artist herself.  I have for you today four of her relief block prints.  The first is my favorite, and was made in 2005 when Lewis was already more than 80 years old.  I hope I’m still making block prints at 80!  I love everything about this piece, from the expression in the person’s eyes to the textures of the gouge marks that create the shading.
        Second is a group of children playing, and this one is more abstract, with the children formed from very plain, geometric shapes.  There is no shading in the human figures, being pure, stark black and white, but there is a bit of texture in the background.  I never tire of the motif of people holding hands in a circle, and apparently the world never stops needing the reminder that we should all be joining together in one dance.
        I think this third, even more abstract piece is quite unusual for Lewis, whose work almost always features human figures.  Even with the abstract shapes, however, Lewis is seeing people, and titled this piece “Family.”  I think the pattern of shapes is pleasing, and I especially like the way the shape on the left evokes a hand making a gesture of support or blessing.
        Finally, another recent piece that’s very dramatic.  Unlike today’s other pieces, this one has Expressionist vibes.  It represents a “Prophet,” and although this prophet is clearly male, it’s not a stretch to call Lewis a prophet herself.  She said, “Art is not a luxury as many people think - it is a necessity.  
It documents history - it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.”

[Pictures: I See You, linocut by Samella Lewis, 2005 (Image from Hearne Fine Art);

Child’s Game, relief block print by Samella Lewis, 1968 (Image from Scripps College);

Family, linocut by Samella Lewis, 1967 (Image from Hammer Museum, UCLA);

Prophet, woodcut by Lewis, 2006 (Image from Hearne Fine Art).]