Monstrous Myths: The Mara

The following is a continuing collaboration between Folklore consultant Ruth Gibbs and the author of this site.

Welcome back to monstrous myths everyone! Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear from nightmares? Have you ever felt a crushing weight on your chest as the darkness closes in on you and something slowly, slowly, creeps over the floor towards your bed? According to the Slavs, you might’ve had a run in with a Mare.

Art by Tumblr user @ain-individual

Just the Lore

It is fairly safe to say every person who is reading this has either had a very bad nightmare or knows someone who has had a very bad nightmare. It is part of being human, overactive brains stressed from a long day or week filtering all that pent up emotion, finding a way to release it all in a relatively harmless way. These range from a slight dread and no memory, to something that haunts your waking hours for years to come. We have brain scans nowadays. We can see what the brain is doing when it is asleep, and while the substance of a dream is open to interpretation, the mechanism of it really isn’t anymore.

However, if you lived in ancient Germany, Norway, or various parts of Eastern Europe, that stress nightmare would likely have been caused by a Mara, a small demon creature who sits upon the chest of sleeping people, “riding” them and causing asthmatic fits, thrashing, injuries during the night, and horrific nightmares that awaken the afflicted person with apoplexy and screaming…if they wake up at all. These sleeping-demons tend to be lumped in with the likes of succubi and incubi, but they don’t appear to actually do anything to their victims beyond terrorize, while those other, more well known monsters have serious consequences.
These little beasties didn’t limit themselves to humans, though. In Sweden and Norway they were known to ride horses to sweating exhaustion, causing horrible frustrating knots called marflätor (mare-locks) or martovor (mare-tangles), or ride trees that cause the knots and gnarls in bark. If something looks twisted, exhausted, and upset in the morning… the usual source was a Mare having a fun night out on the countryside. 

Physical descriptions of Mare vary from place to place. Mare’s cousins in Romania, the Moroi, are said to be the resurrected souls of the dead seeking revenge on the living for poor burial, while over in Catalan the Pesanta takes the shape of a huge cat or dog. Mare’s can be anything from foot-tall fuzzy gnomish things to ghoulish gangly things with heads scraping the ceilings. Whatever your brain creates that is the most strange, and terrifying, the Mare is, providing whatever it is you are frightened of is humanoid.

In Russia, the Mara are said to be relatives to the more friendly but no less odd looking Domovoi. Normally the Domovoi are benevolent house spirits who help with housework and scare away mice, and can get a little uppity when left without milk or a little food. However, if the Domovoi goes without appeasement, it will retaliate with more and more violent outbursts, sometimes even killing people. In some parts of western Russia Mara are corrupted, twisted Domovoi who have been separated from their homes or families long enough to forget their nature of helpfulness. 

It is worth noting that in Germanic lore, Mare are specifically female. They only cause strife and misery, but they do have a slightly more charming male counterpart, the Alp. Where Mare appear to be doing what they do for pure entertainment value, the Alp seems to gain some sustenance from his nightly terrorizing, drinking blood from the nipples of men, women, and young children in the night, and even stealing milk from nursing women’s breasts. 

Relation to Simon’s Species

Many people who experience night terrors of sleep paralysis and make the mistake of opening their eyes during this debacle, often describe strange, wriggling things at the corners of their vision, crawling closer and closer every time the sufferer blinks or moves their eyes. Any observant or clever creature could take advantage of that and use the opportunity of a terrorized awake-but-immobile person to have a little fun at their expense. 

For the most part the terror that is Mare’s and their ilk can be attributed to sleep paralysis and the ensuing hallucinations that occur, though I believe not all. If we link all these similar creatures by what they do…we can then look for a more distinct description that may tie in to some footing based in Simon’s physicality. The mare, lietuvens, moroi and pesanta as a “familial group” have striking physical similarities. While the Mare do have a very wide range of possible ways they can look, the other three do not.

Always gaunt, always pale, usually wearing the clothing of the deceased relative they’re meant to be, they are otherwise borderline unrecognizable, similar in many ways to the emancipated zombie in one of Simon’s earlier articles in this series, the Obur.

Simon has told stories of grave robbing sometimes being a necessity to obtain clothes and sustenance, so it’s not entirely infeasible that other Cousins might do the same to avoid having to prey upon living people, thereby avoiding arousing suspicion in local communities. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if some managed to survive decades on freshly buried corpses alone,  assuming the cousin in question correctly scheduled their nighttime grocery collecting and didn’t take too frequently from the same cemetery. 

It’s also worth noting that all of the listed creatures in this article also tend to correspond with similarly-timed animal attacks. Missing or dead livestock stripped to the bone is a popular and common sign that a pesanta has been roaming your farm, and the wild-eyed, sweating horses probably were positively terrified at the predator sneaking past them and into the home of whoever it was they were hunting. 

Anything that scares humans could be the inspiration for the Mara. Simon’s species has spent millennia creeping into the corners of our psyche, inspiring and being blamed for the deepest and darkest of our fears. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the shape our brains decide is the most frightening when we are paralyzed with terror looks strangely like the creatures that live in the forest and sometimes eat human flesh. Or, just maybe, it’s a little bit of primordial fear left over from a time when we weren’t actively ignoring the threat hiding in the trees. 

Simon’s additions 

While the above draws inescapable similarities between creatures of previous articles, I would like to point out the dissimilarities. In the case of the Mara, the creature appears to be something of a trickster. It likes to torment and instill fear. Now while I may be a “nice” creature now, as some have so often framed me, I would like to say that I have not always been.

I know it seems terribly silly to humans, who judge an ancient and secretive species dwelling in secret alongside their own with human eyes and human standards, but allow me to give you a notion from our perspective.  For a moment, strip back all your human assumptions of what is odd, what is timely or “worth it”. Imagine you are perhaps somewhat on the border between sentient and insensible. I’ll make a comparison, because I know it happens to you humans often – have you ever been about to say a word, and forgotten the word itself? Have you stood there mutely unable to speak further because you were looking for that one word that escapes you? Imagine living in that place, when all your thoughts are wordless and everything is an uphill approach without the corresponding gravitational pull toward self-expression, or indeed, any closure of an idea at all.

Now imagine you live on the border of a tiny village. In the ancient areas of Eastern Europe farming communities were usually clustered around rivers upon the edges of forests, and we’re overseen by some sort of land baron. These plots were scoured for resources, the families on them eking out a living while tithing their goods. Imagine you are watching these creatures live out the strange lives, pulling their livestock in and out at different times of the day, dragging metal through the ground to make rows, chopping wood, riding animals, singing songs…

In that hazy in between state of mind…what might you make of them? Would you come closer? Would you wonder why they hang things over their lintels? Would you find their little babies fascinating? Would you be amused and take a dish here, a tool there, and then amuse yourself with their reactions? And the closer you got, the more they stimulate thought, and the more that happens…

The hungrier you get.

Man creates the monster, just as stress creates the nightmare. Perhaps in some tiny little village, a Cousin watched, was tempted, stole ever closer. Perhaps he found reason to be angry. I don’t like to pattern my own psychology onto those of my species, but I know whereof I speak, and I know that I have always been protective of certain things – trees, smaller creatures. I despise injustices on a deep level, such that it feels integral to my nature. 

It seems easy to imagine, for this not-to-creative soul, a Cousin of mine, waiting until nightfall, when the man habitually went indoors, stealing inside and having a look around, disturbing a man from sleep at just the right moment to interfere with the paralytic of sleep, to spring him to uch a degree of fright and confusion so as to utterly paralyze him, and then to lean over his prostrate and petrified form with a menacing and prophetic leer.

“Don’t cut down anymore of my trees, Mr. Human. I am not to be trifled with.”

On a more amusing and personal note, to go back to the oft heard argument “if you’re really that old, then none of those things would matter to you,” I would like to say that I am a trickster. I have many times taken revenge on humans I find insufferable. And to my doubters I say, I  bored! What else am I going to do besides toy with you mayflies? A man beats his horse? How much will I enjoy stacking every single piece of furniture from the roof while he is off in town? He cheats at cards? Well…how much will I enjoy replacing all his coins with pebbles? He abuses his fellow man? How much will I enjoy watching him sleep…while I pluck every hair from his powdered wig and strew it over the floor?

Is it petty? No. I view is as as much a natural force as you are, and all things in Nature achieve an equilibrium. Where would human character be without its tricksters? Where would you be without your nightmares? You would would be flat and two- dimensional without your shadows, my friends.

We’re only helping.

Reflections

Here it is, or rather, here I am, in all my “glory”. In the late seventies I took one single polaroid photo, and kept it in my box. To avoid the meta data and photo recognition software (as well as other problems associated with displaying my image on the internet), I sent the photograph to an artist somewhere in Europe. He took some liberties, in an effort to make it more “artistic”, but I think the finished product is rather good. I do worry that it has not captured the eyes quite right, but then again, artists seldom do manage the distant stare of a malign intellect.

And before you scoff at me, I am malignant. If you knew how many times a day I peel the skin off of passers-by with my thoughts, you would never wish to come face-to-face with me, I assure you. Unless, of course, you fancy looking like an anatomical model of yourself.

Simonportrait.jpg

If you find me unsettling…good. It is as it should be. If not…see how easily you are fooled? The image will remain up for some time. I may at some point lock it. If I do, I will put the password somewhere or other, and you may hunt around for it. I apologize, but this may become necessary.

Combustion

“I hate it.”

I stare at him. How can he hate it? It is my face. I can understand not liking my face, certainly, but he has never said that he does not like my face, in fact quite the opposite.

“Don’t put it up.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to.”

“Again, I say why?”

He stomps away and before I can turn from this latest recording of my reflection, he is up the stairs and on the roof, forming an alliance.

“Did he show you that shit?”

Rebecca is caught mid-mouthful and mumbles incoherently. I join them, still caught in a tangle of confuse emotions. I have never found myself completely human, that is true, but my face is as balanced as any other: two eyes, nose, mouth – all slightly odd, but all in place. It meant a great deal to me to take that photo out into the light of day, to digitize and disseminate it to an artist so far away there would never be a risk of discovery. But here he is, hands on hips, glaring down at Rebecca as if he is my father, she my mother, and I have been caught smoking cannabis behind the Seven Eleven.

She dabs the corners of her mouth. “Um…You mean the picture?”

“Yeah, duh! I mean the fucking picture.”

Her gaze swivels to mine as if to imply one of her usually onomatopoetic rejoinders, like “Whhhhaaaaaaa?”

“It’s his book, his face, his life.”

The muscles in his neck tug as he scowls. “You’re okay with this?”

Jimmy, silent at the barbecue, flipping his hamburgers with purposefully stooped shoulders, finally glances backward. “Yo! Wanna relax?”

“No! No I do not want to relax!” He looks around him at every face, young or old, until finally, he realizes that no one feels nearly so strong as he does. In that instant, his ire is redirected to me. “What the fuck are you thinking?”

“Language!” Porter grumbles. The children look up from their table in the open greenhouse. Katherine’s face peeps above the window sill. He turns abruptly and latches onto me with an iron grip. I am dragged bodily from the roof, and down the stairs, following behind him in a shocked silence.

You know me, friends — if I may be permitted to call you that — and you know how much I dislike being given ultimatums. Quite possibly, you also understand that while I am willing to make enormous allowances for the sake of those in my care, I respond to anger in kind.

However, Chef is different. When he is upset with me, something happens to my organs, that results in a complete and utter shutdown of my nerves, tongue, or capacity for greater reason. I wither, in an entirely embarrassing fashion.

I apologize. This is again one of those times when I am acutely aware of the divide I traverse by discussing events out of chronological order. You see, since the publication process began, I have had to develop a system with my editor. I send all my diary entries to her on an almost daily basis. She reads them and tells me whether or not they are “plot”. I have no idea what “plot” she is referencing. Usually I do not have the slightest concept of what any one volume of my life will be “about”, until she has curated the entries. She scrubs detail, alters names, transforms the events so that they do not match any newspaper articles or news programs, and then arranges the entire thing so that it at least has some adherence to the standard publishing models of the industry. For this, I pay her a substantial salary and my literary agent sings her praises, but there are unfortunate side effects, such that when I receive Kristina’s emails (some half dozen a day), I am often told what I can and cannot discuss with my readers directly, as those details may arise in further sequels.

Why am I telling you this? So that you understand that the relationship I now have with Chef is a very different one than is detailed in my first novel, and do not think that in some way, I have misled you about my character. Believe me, I do not enjoy having multiple personality disorder, or frankly disorder of any kind, but this is the only way I am allowed to keep my dear website intact, concurrent with the published works.

When Chef pulls me to the car and steals the keys, I am surprised by the violence of his feelings. While he drives, I sit quietly, staring at myself in the wing mirror, wondering what I have done to earn his distemper. He does not ferry us very far; we end up at the river docks, parked facing the bridges.

“You can’t put it up.”

“Why?”

He closes his eyes and covers his face with his hands. “You know what they told you. They said no pictures. No evidence of any kind.”

They are not in control of my life. Nor does one commissioned portrait constitute a declaration of war. It is a drawn image, based upon a photograph. It is not documentation.”

“Simon, please…”

I cross my arms stubbornly. He makes a series of sounds and throws himself out of the car, pacing up and down its flank like a puma. I slowly unfold and emerge, barricading myself behind my door, arms draped over the roof.

“Explain to me what is really at issue here! You have never once seemed to care about them. Why all of a sudden?”

The metallic gaze slices up the bridge of my nose, and runs me through. “Really? With all the times I’ve had to stuff food down your throat and stitch you up with cooking twine to make sure the skin closes properly? Really?”

“You exaggerate.”

“I am not exaggerating and you damn well know it!”

“Chef—”

“I won’t allow it! I’m telling you not to.”

The air thickens around us as the full weight of what he has said settles. Never in all our acquaintance, not even since discovering all the many facets and implications of our partnership, has he ever seen fit to leverage my actions with that old magic. It is a betrayal, of all that we are, and as I look him in the face I see that he knows it. He knows I will not forgive him, and is willing to pay that price, if only to rescue me from a fate he believes I am ignoring.

“Is this a command?” My voice is a hiss, and comes out more sharply than I intend, but I cannot hide the disgust that I feel at the very notion of being anyone’s slave.

“Please, Simon. Do not post that picture.”

“And if I do?”

“I can’t watch you get hurt again.”

“Nothing will happen to me.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

I close my eyes, and think that if something did happen, it would merely be one in a long line of new things, new adventures that have made the last five years bearable.

“I just do. Far be it from me to once again cite my age and experience—”

He snorts. “Yeah, but here we go.”

“I am older and more knowledgeable than you. They will not bother me, and if they do, I will handle it. Stop manufacturing ancient clandestine cults out of a few stragglers who communicate by smoke signals.”

“Now you’re exaggerating.”

I slip around the car. Somewhere nearby a fishing boat trades its grateful use of the first month since the fisheries reopened, for the more lucrative task of tugging civilians out onto the water for the festivities. As I wrap my arms around his neck, the brine and anxiety mingle. He tastes of Hemingway burgers. Gunpowder wafts on the breeze as the fireworks displays are arranged.

“Nothing will happen to me,” I soothe. “Please stop worrying.”

“I can’t.”

“I know.”

He tugs on my hair and smashes his face to mine. “You can put it up, but please take it down if they ask you to.”

“I will,” I say, but in all honestly, I am disgusted at the thought of being at anyone’s behest. They know this. They know I will not bow out so easily, and they are right to fear my reply should they argue.

“Let’s stay here. This is a good place.”

The lot has begun to fill with other onlookers carrying lawn chairs and children. The sun has dipped below the water and the sky has darkened. Soon there will be sounds that put the canon fire of my youth to shame.

Strange that humans should celebrate their unions by blowing something to pieces.

Imagery

“Writing is collaborative. You’re not just perfectly rendering a world. You’re making a pact with the reader, and it’s a new agreement, every time the book is read, even with the same person. Also…If you’re still worried about your personal safety, IMHO it’s better that you don’t do it, since the readers’ image of you is always fuzzy and changes all the time.”

I stare at the words for a long while. I wonder if I can agree.

I often wonder this. Every time I confront an opinion on the internet with which I strenuously disagree — modern political discourse comes to mind — I stare at it and project forward several decades. I contemplate the world, still carrying on, after the offending individual is little more than a pile of dust. And I like Kali-ma am treading the bones on the battlefield and smiling that somewhere among all the putrid rubble of humanity, my editor is being crushed underfoot.

Chef glances at my stern face and lowers his ordering paperwork. “What’s she nit-picking now?”

“My face.”

“How can she do that from two states away? She’s never even seen you! You haven’t started putting up photos have you?”

I would never do something so rash. He knows my fears about facial recognition software, databases, and meta-data. He knows I value his privacy as much as my own, and while he will sometimes steal my phone and annoy the readers who converse with me, he prefers to keep his distance. This is my experiment or personal search, and while he respects it, he is only a tertiary part of it.

“I have considered commissioning a portrait.”

“Why the hell would you do that?”

I stare at him narrowly as I swivel my chair. “People continue to ask for pictures of me.”

“Fuck them.”

While succinct, his criticisms are not quite perspicacious. “Kristina’s argument is a trifle less derisive of my fans. But I disagree with it similarly.”

His mouth falls open and he regards me blankly. “You’re still pissed about all those big words she made you change, aren’t you? Whiny Emo kid.”

Stretching as I rise, I surreptitiously roll my eyes upward. “You only say that because you have no idea what those big words mean.”

“Like trying to suck face with a god damn thesaurus,” he mumbles. “Mouth full of paper cuts.”

“Self-inflicted, you overgrown infant.”

I wander into the bathroom and stare into the mirror. I glance over my features, those odd things I cannot seem to capture when I attempt a self-portrait. I stare into my dark eyes and let the white light sculpt my cheeks and chin.

“Would it augment their experience, or detract from it, I wonder?”

He appears behind me, arms crossed. I know the look on his face; he worries any time I change the rules. He treats it as if he will be one of the things excised by the press of time as I squeak through.

“You don’t owe them anything. They paid for the book, that’s all. Next thing I know, you’re going to be making an appointment on some national television show to have your guts exposed.”

He is adorable in his distress, his eyes shimmering and his face like alabaster, but he needn’t be so concerned. I have no intention of being the first to step forward. It would be betrayal to my cousins, who choose to live in anonymity. It would make their masquerade impossible, our disagreements notwithstanding.

“Even if I did, it would be considered a massive hoax, or did you not hear of the Alien Autopsy debauchal?”

“Yeah, but with inconclusive non-human DNA and an X-ray of your weird ass organs?”

“David Blaine can fly, and before him, Dan Brown could read minds, and oh, yes, there was Houdini and his water tank. I doubt anyone would even take my call.”

I open the plastic case for my eyebrows and lashes. They are handcrafted of mink and cost as much as a new laptop. Their application would be daunting if I had not done it a thousand times. The glue becomes tacky as he stares at me with those uncannily penetrative eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“For a drive.” But that is a half-truth. He follows me down to the car. As I extricate myself from the eager mutt, and slip into my seat, he scrutinizes me. After I have driven away, I receive a text. In my car’s female voice, it sounds strange.

“I love it when you lie to me.”

I shake my head. I know what the next message will be. Chef enjoys being lascivious whenever the opportunity presents itself. You might be tempted to think this is because he cannot accept me and is overtly compensating for my dearth of emotion, but I know that this is not true. I think perhaps, foremost on this earth, he is a person who truly understands me.

“When you come back I’ll be waiting for my apology.”

I park in front of the bank and fish the tiny key from among its many fellows. The manager jumps as I knock on his door jamb. Whether or not he realizes it, I have been a customer of this bank since its founding. I have funneled my assets from place to place for centuries, turning them over like one tills a field, rotating stock and bonds, planting wealth in fertile soil. I am here often, and the entire staff knows me by name.

“Mr. Alkenmayer! Do we have an appointment?”

“No, forgive me. Today I’d like to visit.”

He sees the key in my hand and raises his own in salute.

I almost never come to my safety deposit box. Most of my belongings are more secure in a safe in my own home. Only a few get shoved away, put in the hands of mortals. Only a few things would ever mean anything if they were found to be in my possession, but if hunters ever do come to my door, they will miss me. I will be here, collecting these few things, readying myself to move along.

I follow behind him, my mind tracking his peculiar lumbering gait. I knew his grandfather. The man was stocky, built like a lion, but with the most graceful sea legs. He could run across a heaving deck in the slick of a storm and pull a full net better than a pack mule. That his lineage have become skip-stepping bankers is an interesting development.

“Your diet is doing you good.”

“Thirty pounds!” He looks back at me. “I’ve started jogging!”

He removes my box from its sconce and gives it to me with a curious and eager smile.

“Please tell me you’re about to pull out another ancient promissory and make my week.”

He can count the number of times this has happened upon one hand, and finds my constant, dragon-like obsession with my wealth to be amusing. That is because he has no idea I have witnessed the rise of banks and still find them terribly bizarre and untrustworthy. I haunt them lest the numbers dwindle, a kind of fiduciary phantasm.

“I’m afraid not.”

With a shrug, he vanishes, but I know he will be hovering right outside.

I open the lid. The book is on top, tightly wrapped in gauze. The leather binding is nearly a century old, and the paper is yellowed with age. I crack the spine and leaf through the pages, falling through time.

My fascination with technology is as old as the subject. From the tinder box to the electric coil, from the fire iron to the washing machine, from the telegraph to the internet — I have tinkered with them all. Photography has not escaped my notice.

I stare down at the turn of the century hat, the unused side arm, the beaded ballgown I wore to a local charity event in the mid thirties. Me after me, in many forms, all assiduously collected and curated, for no one other than myself.

In the Old Age, certainty was easy. I could control exactly how and when I was seen. Now it is almost impossible, and I have given up the fight, or rather, taken it to a different front. Now I cheat time with makeup and prosthetics, human assumptions and easy gender transformations, such that even should I walk right into the manager’s grandfather, the salty dog would never know me.

The photograph I seek is on the last page. I remove it carefully and tuck it away.

Monstrous Myths: Rå

Deep in the forests, mountains, and fjords of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark dwell a secret race of wardens, the rå. This myth is often conflated with the alfar or elves of German folklore, but they are markedly different. While the elvish appear to be aloof and supernaturally beautiful (at least, as far as the Medieval writer was concerned), unencumbered by the minutia of human life, and just as likely to smite as to assist, have an almost paternal awareness of mankind.

Pardon a short digression — a moment to explain why I will not be comparing my race to the elves.

I do not believe they exist. They are simply what happens to the hidden when the imagination of man takes over. Perhaps there are some particularly handsome members of my species, and perhaps they truly are ambivalent to people, but honestly, I do not think this is true. More than likely, pockets of humanity (towns and villages used to be quite isolated, especially during the colder months) met one or two of my species and learned that the only way to coexist was to pay homage, engage with care and deference. Given enough time and veneration, anything can me made godlike. Look at Gnesha, the elephant-headed many-limbed god of luck of Hinduism. He is not terribly attractive, but he has devotees the world over.

So for you fans of Tolkein, I am sorry. There will be no elves, just as there will be no vampires. Now please allow me to return to the myth at hand.

come in many forms: huldrå of the forests, the sjörå of the lakes, havsrå of the sea, bergsrå of the caves. Their duty, as perceived by man, is to protect and care for the particular natural element they inhabited. When you look closely at their descriptions, however, I think you will find that they are one species, a kind of nexus of all the previous myths we have addressed. One race, living on the outskirts of the remotest regions, fending for themselves, camouflaged or clothed, crossing paths with man to varying consequences.

You say, “But they have tails, don’t they, Simon?”

Not necessarily. Some tales have tails. Others do not. And the fact is, someone could merely have misinterpreted a dead animal hanging from a belt as a tail. When you live away from humanity, and have a tenuous grip on sentience, spinning wheels are not so common. You get what you steal, and often that means you don’t get anything. Not to mention the fact that clothes often interfere with our movement. a belt is the only thing worth making really.

huldra_by_timswit

Hulderfolk, or ”hidden ones”, dwell in the woods, and while the “female” of the species are supposedly comely, the “male” are quite ugly, with rather prominent noses. I think it safe to point out that there probably are no gender distinctions to be made. The more attractive ones were merely much more approachable, and thusly, equated with femininity. So too is it possible, as one image from the 1800’s suggests, that the “females” were simply dressed as women. Keep in mind also, the standards of beauty for the region: pale skin, lustrous hair, strong muscle. Dark eyes and hair would have been exotic, perhaps even lovely. Thus, the myths of beautiful forrest-dwellers can probably be distilled down to an encounter in the twilight of the North with a thin, pallid, creature in a dress, who looked nothing like anything the poor sod had ever seen before. She smiled demurely, and he was smitten. So, let us take these distinctions with a grain of salt, for all the in all their masculine and feminine forms.

What is important to note, is that the humans who worked the kilns would often leave huldrå gifts of food, in exchange for their assistance in guarding their fires at night. In ancient Germanic folklore, the holda was a witch, her festival celebrated during the “dead time” of winter when corpses were thought to roam: “The Twelve”. You may know it as The Twelve Days of Christmas…

The havsrå are an analogue to the mermaid, in some respects. Like any myth that has persisted for a lengthy time, they have many descriptions and forms. The most common image is a lithe and naked woman, combing her unwieldy, seaweed-like hair atop a rock. They too will provide their services in exchange for provisions. Similarly, the freshwater variety appear to float up from the depths and stare at passers-by, eat fish at them, or capsize craft and rob the struggling swimmers. But they too have a kindly streak, often guiding drowning men to safety.

Bergsrå of the mountains are cave-dwellers, and while they usually spend most of their time driving miners mad by stealing their tools, eating their food, and scaring the holy breath out of them, they are also known to kidnap the odd wanderer, spend an evening acquainting themselves with him, and then setting him upon the path home.

Who can really say if any of these tales are factual? I find it more likely that men capsized their own boats while staring at the eerie, nude monster along the shore, who was doing nothing more nefarious than eating lunch. Perhaps the wayward travelers were understandably exhausted and woke to find their fires being tended by creatures they’d rather befriend than antagonize. I have done many things for humans, including tend kilns, and so long as payment was received, my teeth were never bared. Once home, these humans told wild tales, and forevermore, any passing bird that cawed at the sound of thunder was thought to be a transformed sea nymph, any woman who crossed paths with you in the forest was a witch, and any odd sound from an unstable mineshaft was probably a troll.

Who can say? What I do know is that there were many men who never returned home, and their stories are much darker. Better to meet a than his hungry counterpart.

Image by timswit of Deviantart

Monstrous Myths: The Draugr (or Haugbui)

You have perhaps been asking for some time why I persist in ignoring the “most obvious” comparison of myth to my species – the Vampire. Aside from the fact that I despise the modern imagery of the charismatic but hissing womanizer, my reasons are actually much less petty and infinitely more well-educated.

There is no one source-myth; the “vampire” does not exist. That is to say, every culture on earth has a tale of a walking corpse-figure that eats blood, or babies, or some appending piece of anatomy, and there are as many names as there are legends, all blending into linguistic obscurity. There are a host of ghouls, goblins, demons, skin-walkers, and mischievous forest dwellers that have, when all mashed together, given rise to the popular blood-drinker.

Thus, I will never compare my race to that infernally generalized caricature, and to ask me to do so, you are in fact being quite rude. I can compare it to the soul-maligning comment: “all [insert race despite vast cultural differences] look alike.”

To that end I have tried to give you more foundational myths – ancient stories that have, over time and following the migratory patterns of humans, been overtaken by the infamous vampire and swallowed whole.

So it is that today, we discuss the Draugr of Old Norse. This creature is of course, a flesh-eating zombie creature with magical powers, because of course, it’s far more likely that a human would be so pernicious in life that he, with the aid of sorcery or demons, would reanimate from death just to terrorize the living and guard his interred treasures.

Yes, that was sarcasm.

My point is, that when reading mythology, if one really is determined to ascribe it a place in the factual annuls of humanity, one really must look for the most likely explanation. Aukum’s razor.

Is it more likely that these poor gray-skinned, insatiably hungry, treasure-hoarding creatures are the walking dead? Is it more likely that because a cat jumped over them, or a body died sitting up, or they refused the help of the Church, they somehow transcended mortality? Or is it more likely that another species walks among you, making historical appearances from time to time, being exaggerated out of proportion by horrified human onlookers?

I will leave it to you to infer what my answer might be.

There are some notable traits of this lovable revenant that are of interest. They can supposedly increase their size. I attribute this to bleeding, defeated heroes who would rather say “I was overtaken by a giant, swollen beast!” rather than “It was about average height and size, but royally effed me up,” as the saying goes.

You may be asking why I included the haugbui in this narrative, and that really is very simple. He is the poor cousin of the Draugr, and as such, is the one I think most closely linked to fact. His title, you see, derives from the Old Norse word haugr, meaning “hole” or “hollow”. He is a cave-dweller, or a burial mound skulker and he is exceptionally territorial, often refusing to attack unless a person comes too close for comfort. Sometimes he is seen as a seaside monster, lurking near the water’s edge like the gorgon, blending in with the seaweed through some ridiculous transformative magic that I prefer to call a “hair-do”.

Norse mythology is some of the oldest of which humanity has record, and so of course, we are also there, lurking as usual, eating as usual. Not so bothered by the humans who continually try to exorcize, vanquish, or bottle us.

We are as pervasive in your tales as the wayward traveler, the chivalric hero, and the wizened old hag. Without us, you are not you.

Monstrous Myths: The Ghoul

Modern man has a highly unflattering image of the ghoul. That is to say that his impression is rather more like a zombie, mindlessly haunting a graveyard and stumbling around without fine motor skills. That is a very dangerous perception, and the Caliphates of the 14th century would shake their heads at you. The Sumerians would shun.

blightborn_ghoul_by_yanzi_5-d5lhkzz

The ghoul is an ancient demon. In fact it is one of the oldest myths that the continuity of human history can supply. Its origins date back to the first written stories, and it is not something with which one trifles.

Much like a hungry Yours Truly.

The gallu of Cuneiform lived in hidden places: ruins, burial grounds, and mountain tops. They hovered around the outskirts and “dragged the souls of the dead to the underworld”. I set that last line in quotation for a reason – to draw attention to the fact that that phrase bears a very close resemblance to the modern one as a euphemism for committing murder. For a very very long time, humans have said “I shall send you to your maker” rather than “I will kill you.” – which of course, no one would shout within earshot of people who might stop them. It would not be too far from the mark to suggest that the primary occupation of the gallu is not in fact in service to a deity, or a divine order, but that they were simply killing folks because they felt like it. The author who set down their myth in clay was merely being artistic.

That aside, gallu hang about, weaving into the folklore of Judaism, Islam, and Christian. From the gollum to the ghul of One Thousand and One Nights, they haunt the desert, the outskirts, finding ways to tempt the unwitting out into their territory so that they may consume them in peace. It is said they also eat recently deceased corpses, devour children, drink blood, and hoard wealth by rifling through pockets, graves, unguarded houses. This insatiable hunger, like that of the obour, makes their name synonymous with greed, even in the vernacular of today’s Middle Eastern cultures.

Whatever your particular vantage on the myth, the ghoul is certainly a creature that prays upon human misfortune and is crafty, if only in its ability to ensnare humans and rip them to shreds.

The behavioral comparison to my species seems evident. What is less so are the physical descriptions of such creatures. They can apparently change shape, but as I have upon many previous occasions, I will argue that this is simply a human way of explaining some other catastrophic event, for which the ghoul is not to blame. If you are stupid enough to leave your infant unattended, and it is snatched away by a large and fearless hyena, of course you will not wish to blame yourself. Instead the hyena is not a normal hyena – the sort you have outsmarted a dozen times before, the sort your infant has cooed at and giggled over. That hyena must be a demon in disguise. You rage against heaven or chaos, instead of taking responsibility, instead of killing hyenas, one of nature’s most hideous and malevolent creatures, you instead target me and mine.

Perhaps the human mind must find reasons to blame us, if only to muster the courage to destroy their only natural predator. Perhaps your desire to blame us for all your misfortunes is simply an adaptation. Perhaps you need it. I will not argue that it is vestigial, like the appendix. Instead, I will absolve you of guilt, and say that while I find this annoying, I do not take offense. You cannot help it.

I digress.

In all other ways, the ghoul is a perfect analogue to the obour, the classic wendigo, even the more exotic sounding gorgon. They are all one monster, fast, strong, in love with shiny things, sharpening their intellect by hunting the sentient. Most importantly – they are ravenous.

The image used here is a painting entitled Blightborn Ghoul  by  yanzi-5 of Deviantart