If you told me to read progressive science fiction without giving me any context, I’d run, not walk, away from you. You already know that I believe that messages often ruin things, and that including a message in any type of fiction is a fine line to walk. The risk of doing it badly is severe enough that I actually steer clear of most of the modern science fiction published, and I haven’t read a Hugo winner in a decade.
But I made an exception for the Jubilee Issue of The Future Fire. Why? Because it was gifted to me by the editor himself at WorldCon in Dublin, but much more importantly because said editor, Djibril al-Ayad seemed very cool and extremely smart apart from being very pleasant. I suspected that if anyone could navigate the current political quagmire of the genre, it might be him.
And I’m delighted to have read it.
First, let’s get to the obvious stuff. Yes, there are a few things in here that will offend the easily offended–homosexual relationships, zoophilia in the fairy realm, non-traditional gender roles and the like. Since this doesn’t bother me in the least, it made zero difference to my enjoyment. Most of the book is not centered on pushing any particular viewpoint, but in telling stories about people who happen to be gay, or deadly female soldiers, or whatever, without stopping to question or pontificate. Included that way, these characters are not annoyingly didactic but interesting and dynamic… very easy to enjoy.
As for things I did stumble over, the only one present in this one is an invented pronoun. I understand the arguments for this, but it threw me out of the story every single time, which is unfortunate because the story in which it appeared was otherwise excellent. Unless the author is specifically trying to be openly activist here, I’d recommend dumping the inexistent pronoun (but keeping other progressive elements exactly as they are) because the rest of that story was excellent (Names withheld to protect the guilty) and there was no real need to slash the people who’d enjoy the story that way. If a reader like me gets thrown out every time, you’re really limiting your readership to a small, extremely woke crowd by doing this.
Okay, we’ve dealt with the obvious. What about the stories?
For most of the stories in here, I’ll limit myself to the observation these are excellent tales written by supremely talented people, and I’m delighted to have read them. They run a gamut of different styles and voices, so any given reader will enjoy some more than others, but they are uniformly of high quality and, save that pronoun in an otherwise good story, most readers looking for a good story will enjoy them. There is little attempt here to convert the unwashed.
But there’s one story that stood out not just in this book but as one of the best stories I’ve read in a really, really long time. It’s called “Goodbye Snow Child” and the author is Jo Thomas. Wow. Just wow. The plot is very simple–a woman wakes, wearing a hood that keeps her from seeing anything, and knows nothing about what’s happening to her except what she hears from certain voices–but the execution is nothing short of genius. The last time I had this feeling of genius in a short tale was “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, which I read back in 2008 or so. Yes, it was THAT good. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what Thomas did, but it’s wonderful. Track this one down and read it.
So I’d give this issue of The Future Fire high marks. Does the excellence extend to the others? I don’t know, but judging from this small sample size and what I saw of the editor, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His most recent full-length collection of short fiction is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As the title implies, this one stays away from traditional genre settings in North America and Europe to focus on other interesting places while reminding readers that humans, at their core are more alike than different. You can have a look here.
Post-apocalyptic fiction comes in many guises, most of them dark. You’ve got experimental books in which one of the points made appears to be that the breaking of the world will change everything–even the way we think and interact with reality. You’ve also got the standard fare where everyone is a zombie or a vampire and the heroes have to blow them to pieces in order to survive. There are other recipes, too, but each has been trodden a million times before, and that goes for both the hyper-literary, the socially justice rage story and the straight action-adventure tropes.
So when you come upon a truly different take, you sit up and take notice… or at least I do. And when a post-apocalyptic collection ends on a hopeful note… well, that’s icing.
The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir is a wonderful book which, to me is pretty much the definition of a slow-burn collection with unexpected depths. When I started reading it, I thought it was a straight story collection, one that brought together tales related in no other way than the fact that they’re all genre stories.
Eventually, however, I came to realize the tales are linked together, intertwining the post-apocalyptic fates of four young people in a world that is at once harsh and indifferent (and cold–the setting is basically a Viking area, Greenland and Svalbard) but also contains moments of kindness it one knows where to look. And though action and death are present, they aren’t the central tenet of the work. Rather, the way the world creates and modifies the characters themselves is paramount.
Although I only saw her for a few days in 2019, I consider the author, Margrét, a friend (and before that, she bought one of my stories for an award-winning anthology series). With this book, I found something that, despite being friends with several other authors, had never happened to me before: I felt like this book could ONLY have been written by Margrét. Only she could have given a story set after the fall of civilization as we know it the specific viewpoint that is expressed in this book: the hopeful thread that runs through even the darkest chapters, the deep-seated kindness in certain people and the calm, measured pacing, all reflect the Margrét I know.
It’s highly recommended, and those of you who’ve never met the author will certainly feel like you know her after reading it.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own collection of linked stories is not a genre work but falls firmly in the literary camp, focusing on moments of complete transformation in the daily lives of people just like you and me. It’s called Love and Death, and you can check it out here.
Most people of my generation who grew up reading science fiction know there are exactly three great SF magazines out there (this isn’t necessarily correct, because there are many more new and old, but this is what we know in our bones). Those magazines are, in chronological order of launch: Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s.
Two of these are deeply tied to specific immortal colossi of the genre – Analog is Campbell’s magazine, Asimov’s is… well, it’s pretty obvious if you think about it).
F&SF is not so intimately linked to any specific figure which, ironically, allows it to be linked with almost everyone who was ever anyone in the field. So when I saw a book entitled The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume Two, I had to snap it up and immediately began searching for volume 1 (I still don’t have that one, BTW).
As I started reading this one, it quickly became apparent that F&SF is one of the greats for a very good reason. Of the first twelve stories, I’d read ten or so before in one or another “greatest” or “best of the year” compendiums. SO this isn’t just a magazine tooting its own horn–independent editors have been selecting these stories for “greatest” volumes for a long time. And remember, this is volume TWO. These are the stories that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the first volume. The fact that they’re among SF’s acknowledged greats is mind-blowing.
But the thing that stunned me the most is that the immortal Ellison tale “Jeffty is Five” got held over to volume 2. This is one of THE greatest stories ever according to pretty much everyone. That gives you some idea of the quality of fiction that F&SF has published over the years.
As we got into the more modern stories, from the eighties on, I found work that I wasn’t familiar with. Another thing that is lovely about this book is how the style changes as the years go on. All the stories that made it here are obviously well-written with excellently drawn characters, but in the early stories, the idea is front and center while in the later ones, you get a more character-centric vision. Some people (like me) will marvel at the Golden Age stuff, while others will admire the newer work, but everyone will be treated to the most pleasant way to see the evolution of the genre: by reading wonderful stories.
Of the newer ones, I’d have to say that George Alec Effinger’s “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” was the one I enjoyed most. It’s funny without being slapstick and memorable besides.
Of the old ones, I have to admit that, despite my love for idea fiction and Golden Age SF, I love Zenna Henderson’s “The Anything Box”. It’s just so well executed that the slightly weak concept is saved. Beautiful story.
For the record, I hate the ending of “Jeffty is FIve”, but it’s certainly a must-read.
And now, off to search, again, for Volume One. There are probably copies on Goodreads.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collection Off the Beaten path does exactly what the cover says. It collects work outside the obvious settings of the US and Europe to uncover the fantastic (and science fictional) in the rest of the world. You can check it out here.
Those of you with incredible memories and equal measures of patience will recall that, in 2019, I was in Dublin for WorldCon. Since I spent most of my time in the dealer’s room signing books (or talking up other writers’ books at my publisher’s table), it’s not surprising that I also bought a lot of books from other tables.
It’s the kind of thing I really enjoy, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt despite the fact that the interior design didn’t inspire me (there’s nothing wrong with that cover, though!). Looking at it now, I’m not entirely certain why I didn’t like it visually when I picked it up. Perhaps it was the clinical white that dominated the text or the circular inset images. Or maybe it was that a lot of modern imagery (especially from films) was used in place of pictures of original book versions.
Whatever it was, I was wrong to doubt and very right to buy this one. The text erases any graphic design failings (whether real or only existent in my imagination) and tells the story of horror and fantasy simply but effectively, with a certain preference for the darker end of the spectrum. And while I admit to being a bit of a geek, I couldn’t put this one down because it’s more a narrative that shows the development of the genres than a dry reference book. Another plus is that this one is written from the British point of view, making it a good complement to the books from Collector’s Press.
Only a tiny thing jarred, but I suppose that’s down more to having to write to the era than any fault of the authors: at times, the role of women in the genre was a bit forced. This is unfortunate because it was unnecessary: Fantasy and Horror are two genres in which you don’t need to force this issue. There are colossal women in these fields, giants of literature who stand without the need to make a separate section for them… they don’t need a special category for themselves. It’s actually counterproductive, as if the contributions of women are somehow lesser. In these genres, no one would ever believe that.
But that’s a minor nit in a thoroughly enjoyable, well-researched work which will entrance fans and educate newbies. While it doesn’t try to be an encyclopedia, it’s much more enjoyable to read than a true reference book would have been.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres including fantasy and horror. For a good look at his work in these last two, you can check out his dark fantasy collection Pale Reflection. Here’s the link.
I found Volume III to be truly well-written, action-packed and just plain fun. Volume IV veers in a different direction, being a little more pensive and experimental, although I’m not certain that’s what the writers of the short stories actually intended: it may be because a larger number than usual of the stories are either translated or written by authors whose first language isn’t English.
The reason this feels a little more experimental is down, I think, to three things: pacing, word choice and sentence structure.
The pacing issue is probably the easiest to spot. A couple of stories (both by Italian writers) were extremely slow and convoluted. If Lovecraft were writing today, that’s probably what he’d been doing. I don’t know much about the state of Italian literature today (my latest Italian reads were Eco and Bassani), but I hope that’s not where fantasy writers in that country are today, because they’d have eighty years of catching up to do.
Word choice and sentence structure are also off in some places, which certainly didn’t help my own reading pleasure. I know a lot of people believe the influx of foreign voices into the English canon is a wonderful thing. I agree… to a certain degree. Sometimes, you don’t want a chore, you want a bit of entertainment, and that means being comfortable with the text in order to enjoy character development and story. So foreign writers, in order to have a wider readership in English, need to learn to create prose that works for typical readers… and translators need to understand that the differences in structure are not wonderful pieces of the author’s voice but things that are intrinsic to the structure of the language of origin; there’s no need to inflict them on readers in other languages.
I read in English primarily, but I also read at a high level in Spanish and Portuguese – I will never read a book in one of those languages in anything but the original, because translators often make the mistake of bringing the things that sound fine in one language into the other… where the reader stumbles over it.
Fortunately, there are a couple of stories in this one that not only don’t suffer from the language ills mentioned and also aren’t slow, bizarre pieces which I find pointless. “Me and Septimus: In Extremis” by Kain Massin is a novella length piece which I absolutely loved. Fun, historical and with excellent monsters, it felt a lot shorter than it was. “The Story of Mynheer Reinaerde and the Purloined Tails” was not only fun, but also proved that authors Tais Teng and Jaap Boekestein have a pitch perfect ear for the English language (either that or their translator doesn’t suffer from delusions of artistry, which is a wonderful thing). Wonderful, memorable tales, both of them.
For the record, my own tale in this one is called “Summerland”… For obvious reasons, I won’t review that one.
The rest of the book certainly wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite as good as Volume III in my opinion. I’m pretty sure modern critics will disagree strongly with that, so to each, their own!
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest major collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As its name implies, it brings visions of a world far from the usual European and North American haunts. You can check it out here.
Guest columnist Richard H. Fay is back today, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store, and artwork referred to this piece can be found here.
Art: An Invitation to Elfame by Richard H. Fay
Writers of prose fiction do not necessarily write in voices that are their own. Narrators of works of fiction need not be the authors themselves, oftentimes they are personae, fictional characters distinct from the authors This is true in both works of general fiction as well as works of genre fiction. It is also true of poetry, especially when it comes to speculative verse (poetry with fantastical, science fictional, or mythological themes). Characters speaking or thinking in poems need not be the poets themselves. Heck, when it comes to speculative poetry, the narrators need not even be human!
Speculative poets often speak through an imaginary or historical narrator. It seems doubtful that most speculative poetry is meant to be confessional verse, at least not it the usual sense of the term. Speculative poets frequently take on the voices of others, and these others might be aliens, or fairies, or demons, or mythical beasts, or mundane animals, or even objects traditionally seen as inanimate. It should be obvious to those either reading such poetry or hearing it read that the poets haven’t actually turned into such things. It should be clear to all that the poets used their imaginations to speak in the voices of beings or things distinct from themselves. However, the notion that ALL poetry MUST be confessional has muddied the waters a bit. The line between imagined and real might not always be clear to all readers or listeners, especially when speculative poets speak with voices all too human.
In my own brand of speculative verse, both dark and light, I’ve used this idea of persona again, and again, and again. I’m certainly not a brain-eating demonic serpent (“Serpent of Storms”), or a cosmic fighter pilot facing his own demise (“Last Thoughts of a Cosmic Fighter Pilot”), or a life-draining vampiric entity (“Life is the Life”), or an Earthling married to a furry alien (“Marriage of Earth and Antares”), or a killer being driven to madness and suicide by visions of the face of the lover he killed (“Your Bloody Face”), or a fairy inviting a mortal to Elfame (“An Invitation to Elfame”), or a bleak haunted island (“The Haunted Isle”). However, in the respective works, I spoke as if I were a brain-eating demonic serpent, a cosmic fighter pilot facing his own demise, a life-draining vampiric entity, an Earthling married to a furry alien, a killer being driven to madness and suicide by visions of the face of the lover he killed, a fairy inviting a mortal to Elfame, and a haunted island. I think the ability to speak in the voice of another is just as important to fictional poetry as it is to prose fiction. It is also one of the creative techniques that can set speculative verse apart from more mainstream poetry.
Contrary to what some believe, not all poetry need be confessional, at least not personally confessional. Unfortunately, it seems some poets and poetry readers believe otherwise. They apparently think poetry is, by its very nature, confessional. This can lead to a misunderstanding of speculative verse, especially when speculative poets write in personae.
During one of the Poet’s Live Corners I attended at a local library, after I stated that I had some dark speculative pieces to read, one of the other poets present mentioned the time they had a poet show up and read poetry about murder and mayhem. I got the impression that the group had been shocked by this other poet’s material, as if it were almost confessional in nature. Did they truly have a murderer in their midst that day? I doubt it. I had to smile, knowing the dark and often diabolic nature of much of my own verse. Does that mean I’m a dark and diabolic person? Of course not!
Just because a poet writes about bloody murder doesn’t make that poet a bloody murderer. That’s the whole point about writing in persona – it’s imaginative versus outright confessional. However, I think my experience at the Live Poet’s Corner exemplifies the lack of understanding speculative poets writing in personae may face within the broader literary community.
One of the first things a reader or listener of speculative poetry must understand is that such verse is imaginative verse. The poet is speculating about other places, other times, other beings, other thoughts. They are imagining more than confessing, although confession may still be buried beneath the imaginative trappings. Unfortunately, if a reader or listener operates under the notion that poetry is confessional by default, they might misunderstand the concept of personae in speculative poetry. They might not fully realize that the speculative poet is speaking as someone or something else, that they are imagining. They’re missing the point of what the poet created!
Only a couple of months after that review came out, I learned that Robert had taken his own life. I’ve now read the next book in that series, Volume III, and it was another wonderful look into three genres I love. But more than that, it was a reminder of just how good a sense Robert had for a good story.
Unlike a lot of anthos of this type, particularly from small presses, there wasn’t a single dud in the lot (which I suspected – I tried to send Robert a trunk story for this one and he told me to try harder… the man knew his stuff), and some of them were really, really good.
This volume contains everything from monks besieged by demons to superheroes to Poe-based science fiction. It truly does what it says on the cover, and it’s obvious Robert received a bunch of good stories for this one, because it’s a thicker volume than the last.
My own favorite was the wonderfully offbeat “A Particular Skill Set” by Julie Frost that deals with fairy queens in a very different way, but also has fanged bunnies. Weirdest one was “Even Souls Sleep” by Jay Hellis, in which a man who checks cargo manifests on trains full of dead souls finds an anomaly…
But, as I said before, there isn’t a true dud in the lot. Some have endings that I didn’t like, but that’s to be expected (and something deliciously ironic, considering how many people have taken me to task for my own endings on occasion).
Like I said last time, there’s something in here for everyone, and this one was truly strong.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collected fiction appears in many places. His most recent full collection is Off the Beaten Path, a mix of light and dark, fantasy and SF that takes place far from the usual, overdone settings. You can check it out here.
As we mentioned on Monday, guest columnist Richard H. Fay will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store. Additionally, the artwork referring to the creatures discussed in this article can be found here.
A legendary monster that bore many names (Manticore, Manticora, Mantichora, Manticory, Manticoras, Martikhora, Mantiserra, Memecoleous, Mancomorion, and the Satyral), the fearsome Manticore featured in the lore, bestiaries, and creative works of various lands and cultures, from ancient Asia to medieval Europe, and beyond. However, the Manticore legend first took root in ancient Greece and Persia. A garbled account of man-eating Bengal tigers of India may have been the seed that sprouted all subsequent tales of this strange and ferocious hybrid creature. Despite its dubious origins, the legend of the Manticore persisted and developed over the centuries.
Ctesias, Greek physician to the Persian King Artaxerxes II Mnemon (reigned 404 to 358 BCE), penned what seems to be the first written account of the Manticore. Even though Ctesias never visited India, he wrote that a lion-sized man-faced monstrosity prowled the sub-continent. As preserved in later works by the Roman writer Aelian (c. 170 – c. 235 CE) and the Byzantine scholar Photius (c. 815-897 CE), Ctesias described what he called the Martikhora (derived from the Persian mardkhor, meaning “man-slayer” or “man-eater”) as possessing pale blue eyes, three rows of sharp teeth, savage claws, a cinnabar-coloured pelt, a scorpion’s tail, additional stings on the crown of its head and each side of its tail, and a voice that sounded like a trumpet. Ctesias also claimed that the creature could, to defend itself, shoot regenerating foot-long stingers both forward and backward a considerable distance. One animal alone could withstand those poisoned quills; the thick-skinned elephant had little to fear from the Manticore’s otherwise deadly sting. To hunt such a formidable beast, Indian natives rode upon elephants and attacked their prey with spears or arrows.
It seems likely that the man-eating Martikhora of Ctesias was based upon tales of the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). The Romanised Greek Pausanias (c. 110 – c. 180 CE) believed this to be the case, and wrote about his thoughts on the matter in the ninth book of his ten-volume travelogue entitled Description of Greece. In his section on fabulous animals, he suggested that the red-hued pelt described by Ctesias could be explained by a tiger appearing to be a homogeneous red in colour when observed running in full sunlight. Pausanias also put forward the opinion that the more fanciful traits recorded by Ctesias, such as the lethal stingers and three rows of teeth, arose from natives exaggerating the deadly characteristics of a man-eating beast they dreaded. According to what Irish naturalist Valentine Ball wrote in his 1883 paper “Identification of the Pygmies, the Martikhora, the Griffin, and the Dikarion of Ktesias”, these two traits dismissed by Pausanias as false may have had a basis in fact. Ball argued that the Manticore’s three rows of teeth might have been derived from the tiger’s trilobate molars, while the tail-borne stingers might have been a distorted account of a horny dermal structure he asserted exists at the extremity of a tiger’s tail.
Regardless of the reality behind Ctesias’ account, other ancient writers helped propagate the legend of the Manticore. With the sceptical qualifier of “if we are to believe Ctesias”, Aristotle described the Martichora of India in his History of Animals of 350 BCE. He included most of the characteristics already mentioned and also said that the beast’s call sounded like a combination of pan-pipes and a trumpet. The Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia of c. 77 CE, displayed little scepticism over the creature’s actual existence when he echoed Ctesias and Aristotle, although he placed the creature in Ethiopia. He added that the triple-rowed teeth fit into each other like a comb. He also claimed to have been informed that the man-faced monster could mimic human speech.
Inspired by the writings of ancient Greek and Roman naturalists, the compilers of medieval bestiaries included the Manticore among their compendia of beasts, both ordinary and fantastic.
The exact appearance of the creature varied from work-to-work, although all variations displayed a feline-body with a human face. One 12th century bestiary featured a Manticore wearing a Phyrgian cap. An English bestiary of the early 13th century portrayed its Manticore as possessing a particularly savage countenance and prominent stingers all along its tail. Another mid-late 13th century English bestiary depicted the Manticore with a visage that was merely a rough approximation of a human face. Yet another 13th century bestiary, this one from northern France, portrayed the beast as having a distinctively human head, but no stinging tail. This particular depiction also deviated from the standard reddish coat colour, in this instance (assuming the colour hadn’t faded or altered drastically over time) the illuminator had instead opted for a greyish hue.
Besides its frequent presence in bestiaries, the Manticore also made appearances in medieval sculpture and even, on rare occasions, medieval and Tudor heraldry. The Manticore carvings found in some medieval churches stood as symbols of the weeping prophet Jeremiah. The late medieval Lord Hastings adopted a tusked Manticore (or mantyger) as his heraldic badge. The Tudor-era Lord Fitzwalter had, for his badge, a purple-hued Manticore. At times, the head of the heraldic Manticore would be adorned with spiral horns.
Over time, the Manticore became associated with other fabulous creatures and served as inspiration for other legendary monsters. In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, the heraldic Manticore helped shape the imagery of the female-faced chimaeric creature that stood as a symbol of the sin of fraud in “grotteschi” (grotesque decorative elements) and some Mannerist paintings. Edward Topsell, in his 1607 work The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, copied the description of a Manticore as given by Ctesias, but then equated the man-faced beast with the badger-headed cloven-hoofed Leucrocota and the hyena. In Spanish lore, the Manticore transformed into a kind of werewolf that kidnapped and preyed upon children. Tales of the Manticore told by sixteenth century missionaries to the New World may have formed the basis for the Cigouave, a human-faced feline-bodied beast, of Haitian Vodou tradition.
As the ages progressed, the Manticore of art and popular culture gained additional attributes. Along with the spiral horns added by heraldic artists, others tacked on scales, udders or dragon’s wings. A scaly Manticore sporting horns, udders, and wings featured in a 17th century bestiary. In modern times, a bat-winged Manticore has numbered among the monsters that adventuring characters may encounter in the fantasy realms of a certain well-known role-playing game. The Manticore in Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 work The Temptation of St. Anthony spoke of possessing screw-like claws and the ability to spew plague.
Interestingly enough, although it seems likely that distorted tales of man-eating tigers served as the basis for the man-faced scorpion-tailed stinger-flinging Manticore of ancient natural histories and medieval bestiaries, the legend lives on. In Indonesia, some villagers today tell tales of a man-eating Manticore that prowls the jungle and kills its human prey with a single bite or scratch. It just goes to show that the Manticore has endured, in human imagination if not necessarily in reality.
As we mentioned on Monday, guest columnist Richard H. Fay will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store. Additionally, the artwork referring to the creatures discussed in this article can be found here.
Featured in the lore of many human cultures, merfolk were said to be people of the sea, although some resided in freshwater. In their most usual form, these beings appeared humanoid from the waist up and pisciform from the waist down. However, some chronicles and tales presented variations from this standard. At times hostile, at other times helpful, merfolk interacted with land-dwellers in various ways. Certain stories even spoke of marriages between merfolk and mortals, unions that could produce lines of human descendants. With potential links to ancient gods, goddesses, and monsters, merfolk have been a fixture of human legends for ages, but some accounts suggest that they are more than mere creatures of legend. Surprisingly enough, various historical records describe actual encounters with these aquatic entities, According to some reports, such encounters have even persisted to the present day.
The origins of merfolk lore might be as murky and difficult to plumb as the ocean depths themselves, but possible precursors to the merfolk of later chronicles and tales may be found in ancient myths and legends. Oannes, god of wisdom who granted the ancient Babylonians the gift of culture, appeared as a human-fish hybrid (Sykes & Kendall, 1993). The Philistine god Dagon and the Syrian goddess Atargatis were also depicted as prototypical merfolk (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Mythographer Robert Graves traced a connection between mermaids and sea-born goddesses Aphrodite and Marian (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The Greek scholars Nicholas Polites and Stilpon Kyriakides argued that the mermaid of modern Greek lore, the gorgona, shares features with the siren of Classical Greek myth (Simpson, 1987). Notwithstanding the fact that medieval authors did conflate the sailor-luring siren of ancient lore with the northern mermaid, Classical depictions portrayed the siren not as half-woman, half-fish, but as a monster that possessed a woman’s head and torso atop a bird’s body (Rose, 2000).
Although the true nature of alleged links between ancient gods and merfolk of later times may be doubtful, there is no doubt that such beings feature in folklore and legends around the world, from Ireland to New Ireland, New Guinea. The usually peaceful Irish merfolk known as merrows wore magical red caps that allowed them to shape-shift and travel back-and-forth between their undersea realm and dry land (Rose, 1996). The Manx mermaid ben varrey exhibited two conflicting natures, one a benevolent finder of treasure, the other a malevolent enchanter of men (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The handsome Danish merman havmand treated those mortals he encountered with kindliness, while his female counterpart havfrue could be either helpful or harmful (Rose, 1996). Like the sirens of ancient myth, the alluring Swedish mermaids called sjörå entranced boatmen at sea and destroyed both mortals and their vessels (Marriott, 2006). The cannibalistic mermaids of Portuguese tales went one step further and devoured those lured into their watery abode (Marriott, 2006). The far more benevolent ningyo of Japanese lore brought peace and dispelled bad luck (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Clad in cowrie-shell jewelry, the bonito maidens of the Solomon Islands acted as caretakers of both bonito fish and lost ivory fishing hooks (Rose, 1996). The singing ri of New Ireland tradition resided among the mangroves and along the strand (Rose, 2000). On the east coast of Canada, the halfway people of Micmac legends alerted courteous fishermen of impending storms (Rose, 2000).
Merfolk through the ages and across the globe have traditionally appeared as humanoids with fishy tails, exemplified by the beautiful-but-deadly comb-and-mirror-wielding sea maiden of the English folk song “The Mermaid” (Briggs, 1978), but there are variations to this tradition. The 1st century author Pliny described mermaids as being completely scaly head-to-tail (Rosen, 2008). The medieval Irish Annals of the Four Masters told of a truly monstrous mermaid said to have measured a whopping 160 feet long (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Another oversized mercreature featured in a report made to Bishop Pontoppidan of Bergen in 1719 that described a human-faced seal-like beast 28 feet long (Rose, 2000). Male merrows appeared downright hideous in aspect, possessing green-coloured hair, teeth, and skin, pointed red noses, and piggy eyes (Rose, 2000). On occasion, the Danish havmand was said to have had blue skin (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Instead of looking like a human woman from the waist up, the Japanese ningyo could appear as a huge fish with a woman’s head (Rose, 2000).
Along with the varying physical descriptions of merfolk, different human cultures expressed different views regarding what merfolk symbolised. In medieval Europe, mermaids represented deceit and were believed to be in league with the Great Deceiver himself, the devil (Rose, 2000). Additionally, the medieval church considered mermaids to be symbols of vanity, lust, and the soul-endangering aspects of femininity and sex (Rosen, 2008). In Tudor times, the word “mermaid” became synonymous with the word “prostitute” (Franklin, 2002). Conversely, the Afro-Brazillian Batuque cult saw their aquatic jamaína and imanja as intermediaries between mortals and angels (Rose, 1996). The Japanese thought of their ningyo as a positive entity, a protector of the land (Matthews & Matthews, 2005).
As has been touched upon above, merfolk in various locales and circumstances sometimes dealt with land-dwelling mortals in a less-than-beneficial, or even outright malevolent, fashion. The otherwise friendly male merrow named Coomara captured the souls of drowned sailors in cages in the mistaken belief that he was performing a good deed sheltering the souls and keeping them warm and dry (Croker, 1882). Mermen of a more baleful nature were believed to conjure terrible storms and sink ships (Rose, 2000). At times, the female of the species also acted in a destructive manner; the subject of the folk song “The Mermaid” sent a ship of doomed souls to the bottom of the ocean (Briggs, 1978). The Norwegian havfine herded the waves and wrecked vessels foolish enough to be caught asea when storms rolled in (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The Scottish lake-dwelling mermaid encountered by the youthful Laird of Lorntie proved to be a downright bloodthirsty creature that would have feasted on the young laird’s blood had his loyal servant not pulled him from the loch’s waters (Briggs, 1979).
Of course, not all merfolk treated humans poorly; some had favourable and even intimate dealings with humankind. According to Danish lore, a prophesying havfrue foresaw the birth of Christian IV of Denmark (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In one Scottish story, a young man learned how to cure his ailing love with an infusion of mugwort when a mermaid surfaced and sang of using the herb to prevent the girl’s death by consumption (Briggs, 1978). A mermaid that rose from a Renfrewshire pool as a funeral procession crossed a stream advised the mourners how to use both mugwort and nettle to ward off fatal illness (Briggs, 1978). In the tale “The Old Man of Cury”, a stranded mermaid rescued by an old man granted her saviour the gift of healing (Briggs, 1978). The title mortal of “Lutey and the Mermaid” was rewarded with similar benefits when he aided a mermaid, but found himself lured into her watery abode nine years later (Briggs, 1978). Along with knowledge of healing herbs, rescued mermaids could also warn of impending storms (Rose, 1996). On occasion, female merrows wedded mortal men and gave rise to a line of human descendants who possessed webbed fingers and scaly legs (Briggs, 1979). A mermaid was said to number among the ancestors of the McVeagh clan of Scotland (Franklin, 2002).
Apart from marriages and other relations between merfolk and mortals, some stories told of humans transformed into sea people. According to a popular Greek legend, Alexander the Great’s sister Thessalonike turned into a mermaid when, grief-stricken by the death of her conquering sibling, she attempted suicide by throwing herself into the Aegean Sea (DocumentaryMakedonia, 2013). Lí Ban, the pagan subject of a 12th or 13th century Irish tale, underwent a magical metamorphosis from human woman to mermaid after the majority of her kin were drowned in a flood (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). According to a certain Irish legend, pagan crones became mermaids when Saint Patrick expelled them from the land (Franklin, 2002). In the Samish story of Ko-kwal-alwoot, a maiden became enamoured with a merman who insisted on taking her as his bride and who eventually transformed her into a sea-dweller like himself (Matthews & Matthews, 2005).
Beyond the myths, legends, and folktales about merfolk told over the centuries by many different storytellers around the globe, sailors and fishermen across the ages have reported real-life sightings of fishy-tailed humanoids. Christopher Columbus wrote that he spied three less-than-lovely mermaids off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic in January 1493 (Salaperäinen, 2016). In 1560, the bodies of several mermaids netted off the coast of Ceylon underwent dissection at the hands of a learned physician who concluded that, externally and internally, the anatomy of the merbeings resembled that of humans (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Henry Hudson recorded that two of his crewmen spotted a white-skinned black-haired mermaid in 1608 (Cohen, 1982). In 1723, a Danish Royal Commission tasked with proving that merfolk existed only in myths and legends ended up running across an actual merman near the Faroe Isles (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In 1830, residents of the isle of Benbecula in the Hebrides found the body of a small dark-haired white-skinned mermaid with “abnormally developed breasts”, perhaps the same creature that had been seen and injured at Sgeir na Duchadh a few days earlier, washed ashore at Culle Bay (Munro, 2016). Three years later, natural history professor Dr. Robert Hamilton described the capture of a short-haired monkey-faced mermaid offshore of Yell in the Shetland Isles (Munro, 2016). During a few notable summers around 1890, hundreds of eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the so-called Deerness Mermaid, a black-headed white-bodied creature that appeared like a human when swimming in the waters of Newark Bay, Orkney (Towrie, n.d.).
Believe it or not, in certain regions of the world sightings of and belief in merbeings have persisted right up to the present day. In 1947, an elderly Hebridean fisherman reported sighting a mermaid combing her hair near the shore of the Isle of Muck (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In June 1967, passengers aboard a ferry travelling past Mayne Island, British Columbia, observed (and one snapped a photograph of) a blonde-haired dimple-faced mermaid with the tail of a fish or porpoise sitting upon a shoreside rock (Obee, 2016). In January 2008, several South Africans who had been relaxing near the bank of the Buffelsjags River at Suurbraak claimed they encountered a river-dwelling mermaid with white skin, black hair, and hypnotic red eyes known locally as the Kaaiman (Pekeur, 2008). In 2009, dozens of eyewitnesses caught sight of a mermaid porpoising and performing aerial acrobatics off the beach of Kiryat Yam, Israel (“Is a Mermaid”, 2009). As recently as 2012, workers at a dam in northern Zimbabwe insisted that mermaids were to blame for mysterious malfunctions and refused to continue their work until the harassing entities were appeased with a traditional beer ritual (Conway-Smith, 2012).
Merfolk number among the most widespread of legendary beings. Diverse cultures around the world have told stories of aquatic humanoid beings with piscine tails. Tales handed down from generation to generation attest to mankind’s relations with merfolk, for good or ill, throughout the ages. Perhaps such lore is merely the product of human imagination, but what are we to make of reports of actual sightings? Historic and more recent claims of seeing mermaids or mermen could be chalked up to mirages, misidentifications, hoaxes, or even mass hysteria. For instance, Columbus might have spied a trio of manatees. Witnesses who saw a mermaid on Mayne Island may have actually seen a human girl posing with a fake mermaid’s tail. Men who refused to continue work on a dam in Zimbabwe due to interference from mermaids might have fallen victim to mass hysteria. Whatever the truth of the matter, belief in merfolk has endured over time and continues to endure, in some locales, to this day. Regardless of the reality, merfolk continue to have a place in the hearts, minds, and imaginations of their land-dwelling mortal counterparts.
Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: fairy lore and legend. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Briggs, K. (1979). Abbey lubbers, banshees, and boggarts: an illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. New York, NY: Pantheon Book.
Cohen. D. (1982). The encyclopedia of monsters. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company.
Conway-Smith, E. (2012, February 12). Zimbabwe mermaids appeased by traditional beer ritual. PRI. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org.
Croker, T. C. (1882/2008). Irish fairy legends. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.
Pekeur, A. (2008, January 16). Mysterious ‘mermaid’ rises from the river. IOL. Retrieved from https://www.iol.co.za.
Rose, C. (1996). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: an encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. Rose, C. (2000). Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Rosen, B. (2008). The mythical creatures bible. London, England: Octopus Publishing Group. Salaperäinen, O. (2016). A field guide to fantastical beasts. New York, NY: Metro Books.
Simpson, J. (1987). European mythology (library of the world’s myths and legends). New York, NY: Peter Bedrick Books.
Sykes, E., & Kendall, A. (1952/1993). Who’s who in non-classical mythology (Rev. Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
We’re delighted to announce the return of guest columnist Richard H. Fay. He will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store, and artwork referred to this piece can be found here.
Most folks, when you say the word “dragon”, envision a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, reptilian monster. In actuality, although many dragons of both modern popular culture and traditional lore fit snugly into this description, draconic creatures of European myths, legends, and folklore exhibited an amazing variety of forms. Some bore wings, while others went wingless. Some crawled on four or even six legs, while others made due with only two or none at all. Some sported scaly hides, while at least one surprisingly hirsute beast wore a shaggy, stinger-laden coat. Some breathed fire, while others exhaled poisonous fumes or spewed water. The majority possessed just one head, but a few had several.
The English word “dragon” ultimately derives from the Latin draco and the Greek drakōn. The Greek drakon and the Roman draco displayed decidedly serpentine traits such as legless bodies, flickering tongues, and ever-gazing eyes. At times, the eternally watchful monster serpents of ancient Greek myths guarded sacred locales or fabulous treasures. Derived from these Greek models, Roman dragons retained the serpentine appearance of their forebears. Roman artists depicted their draco as an enormous bat-winged serpent. Such depictions would occasionally show the draco breathing fire. A mid twelfth-century bestiary gave the draco the additional attributes of a crest upon its head and the ability to emit a dazzling luminescence. In the astronomical realm, Ptolemy (AD 100?-170?) immortalized the serpentine-style Greco-Roman dragon when he named a sinuous northern constellation Draco.
Moving from the sun-drenched Mediterranean to the mist-shrouded north, draconic creatures of serpentine form featured in Germanic folklore and beliefs. The Old English wyrm, Old High German wurm, and Old Norse ormr, all translate as “snake”. Norse mythology spoke of the Midgardsormr Jörmungandr, the great serpent that, with tail-in-mouth, encircled the middle world of men. The Teutonic epic poem Das Nibelungenlied contained the story of Fafnir, a greedy dwarf metamorphosed into a hideous wingless dragon. Scandinavian sagas and Germanic epic poems also told tales of heroic warriors facing monstrous winged serpents called lindwurms. With hides armored in radiant green-gold or green-silver scales, these draconic beasts of northern Europe guarded golden hoard or beautiful maid. It seems accounts of encounters with lindwurms were not restricted to Germany and Scandinavia, however, since Marco Polo claimed to have sighted such serpents during his journey across the Central Asian steppe.
Medieval bestiaries and psalters frequently contained images of loathly worms, wingless oftentimes two-footed serpentine monstrosities that spread blight and devastation. One such beast of northern England, the Lambton Worm, was said to have had the ability to wrap its loathsome body around its victims in the manner of a constrictor. As described when first found by the truant John Lambton, who was fishing when he should have been attending mass, this worm possessed the rather unique characteristic of nine holes on each side of its mouth. This sounds akin to the seven holes used for respiration found in the eel-like lamprey. A relative of the Lambton Worm, the Wode Worm of Linton, ravaged the northern English countryside until slain by a hero who thrust a blazing block of peat down the worm’s throat and burned it from the inside out.
Another draconic creature depicted in the illustrations of medieval bestiaries, as well as emblazoned upon heraldic arms, was the rapacious wyvern. Looking much more like what most people nowadays think a dragon should look like, the wyvern had a dragon’s head, a bat’s wings, two feet equipped with a raptor’s talons, and a serpent’s body and tail. Oftentimes the tail was tipped in a venomous barb. This particularly nasty dragon breathed poison and spread destruction wherever it went. It also became, according to the language of heraldic symbolism, a representation of might, envy, pestilence, and war.
Austrian tales told of unlucky alpine travelers meeting the fearsome tatzelwurm, a draconic resident of high mountain crags. Cat-faced but otherwise reptilian in appearance, the tatzelwurm was described as having four legs, or just two, or none at all. Descriptions also differed regarding the tatzelwurm’s pelt, which might have been smooth, or lumpy, or scaly, or even hairy. One attribute that seems to remain consistent throughout the accounts is the tatzelwurm’s terrible aggressiveness; it was said that the beast attacked humans without provocation. Swiss traditions featured a similar cat-faced mountain-dwelling wurm known as the stollenwurm, while lore from the French Alps contained a comparable creature known as the arassas It is remotely possible that tales of encounters with the tatzelwurm and its kin arose out of real-life sightings of an alpine cryptid reptile.
In the minds of many people today, the most familiar form of European dragon must surely be the four-footed winged kind as exemplified by Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon displayed on the Welsh national flag. However, a certain legendary she-dragon of the Rhône river valley, the Tarasque, was said to have prowled about on six legs! This six-legged wingless river monster also possessed a lion’s head, a bear’s paws, a serpent’s tail equipped with a lethally-sharp barb, and a tough leathery carapace adorned with formidable spikes. According to medieval legend, the ravenous Tarasque was the terrifying product of an unholy union between Leviathan (the enormous primordial sea monster described in the Old Testament) and a bonnacon (a mythological horned bovine said to have been endowed with the ability to expel prodigious amounts of scorchingly-hot excrement).
Surprisingly enough, beyond a varying number of legs, draconic creatures of European myths and legends also had a varying number of heads, from one to one hundred or more. In Greek myths, the multiple-headed lava-spewing Typhon acted as a monstrous foe to the Olympian gods. The hundred-headed fiery-eyed Dragon of Ladon served as guardian of the golden apples of the Hesperides. The many-headed dog-bodied hydra poisoned the air and despoiled the land around the Lerna marshes in Argolis. In later times, the Greco-Roman hydra became analogous to the biblical apocalyptic beasts and came to be depicted as a wyvern with several heads. Romanian folk and fairy tales featured Balaur, a finned-and-footed dragon that had as many as twelve serpent’s heads.
Although steely scales formed the typical integument of most dragons of European lore, one rather hirsute beast of medieval French legend bore a shaggy coat. Said to have been a monstrous survivor of the Great Flood, the hair-covered serpent-headed Peluda (also known as La Velue, “the hairy one”) terrorized villagers, destroyed crops, and devoured maidens. To protect itself from attackers, it had the ability to launch lethal stingers from its hairy green pelt. Incredibly invulnerable, the Peluda could only be killed by cutting its serpentine tail in two.
Another dragon of medieval French legend, in this case, one that spewed water, gave its name to ornamental gutter spouts carved in the likenesses of grotesque monsters. The Gargouille of the Seine marshes would churn the waters and create waterspouts to overturn fishing boats and feast on drowned fishermen. It would also drag off and consume livestock. According to the legend, Gargouille’s depredations were ended by Saint Romain, Bishop of Rouen, who cowed the dragon with his crucifix and bishop’s stole and then led it into town to be slain by the townsfolk. As for those grotesquely carved gutter spouts, they came to be called gargoyles.
Draconic creatures of European myths, legends, and folklore, certainly came in a wide variety of forms with a diverse array of traits. Most did share one key attribute, however; whether it be a serpentine head (or heads), body, or tail, they all seemed to have something of the serpent about them. Of course, it could be said that they all shared another characteristic. Whether they had six legs or none, whether they were winged or wingless, whether they had one head or one hundred heads, whether they were scaled or furry, they were all truly awesome beasts.
Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, And Other Mythical Creatures by Ernst and Johanna Lehner. The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts by Joseph Nigg. Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth by Carol Rose.The Mythical Creatures Bible by Brenda Rosen. A Wizard’s Bestiary by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Ash “LeopardDancer” DeKirk.