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

Monstrous Myths: The Gorgon

Among the multitude of questions received by this humble monster, are an assortment of hypotheses on the nature of my “monsterhood” — “personhood” not quite encompassing the meaning I intend. That is to say, they have embraced my argument, that my species are the root of every monstrous folktale the world over. Some point to North American and draw comparisons between myself and certain native ghouls. Some point to the Bible and say, “Now see here! You could easily be one of Satan’s demonic horde.”

Forgive me, they don’t actually use my particular parlance, but the gist is all that matters.

Because so many of you have taken to this idea, I have decided to run a small series. I will list a new monster every entry, give you its characteristics, and then explain to you how I believe it can all be tied to one of my cousins, no doubt doing something undignified, like swooping, or hissing, or flapping his arms…

I detest such displays and never indulge. It does little good to frighten a person away from your lair. I’d rather eat them so that they have no time to retreat to their village. Better that he never return and the others come to fear the forest itself.

Before you ask: yes, that has happened.

For my first monster: The Gorgon

o3kjW

You might know the tale of the Odyssey, and the frightful guise of Medusa, but she is actually merely one version of this fearsome creature. Historians cannot agree upon its origins in history, but it is quite old, and most renditions share similar traits. They are usually “female”, with wide, strange eyes, sometimes fangs, dwell in caves, and are crowned with a mass of writhing tentacles. Homer claims Medusa’s stare can turn a man to stone, and that she is the mortal in a sisterhood of three, but Homer’s depiction is quite recent in the dread mythology.

It can be traced back much farther, linked to other monsters of similar description, but that is not my goal. I am here to convince you that the Gorgon is my long lost cousin.

I have given you a description of my biology, and perhaps, now that I have sketched the Gorgon, you can see the comparison and say to yourself, “Well, that is quite trivial.” And so I will not belabor the twisting hair, bizarre eyes, gender ambiguity, or teeth. My comparison will go much deeper.

Their name, you see. I cannot come away from that, as I am a linguist in my soul. It derives from the Greek word for “terrifying”. So you see, the Gorgon was not a type of monster. It was merely something frightening, encountered in a cave. Some erudite experts of long dead languages link it back to the Sanskrit word for the growling sound an animal makes. And now we see how the fiction evolves.

A man, alone in a dark cave, hears a growl. What is more terrifying than that? The sound becomes the idea, and the idea takes a shape, looming out of the darkness to glare down at him. That is most definitely a Gorgon. No doubt about it.

This is all metaphor, of course. The man in the cave is a stand-in for all of humanity, but I think you take my point.

Homer saw fit to link their origins to Poseidon, the god of the sea, and I think this bears a striking resemblance to my own theory, that we originated in the water and have more in common with squids or sharks, than we do mammals. He could not know biology, per say, but it turns out that the observation that things with four hoofed legs might be related, has proven to largely be true. Observation is a type of data, and should not be discounted out of hand!

Ah, but the stone! you say, gentle reader, and you are right. There is the freezing stare of the Gorgon, but allow me to suggest that you are taking this much too literally. Petrification has been a theme in many of the most ancient tales. If you do not believe me, look to Lot’s wife. I believe in many ways, the idea of petrification was merely an explanation of fossils, of strange rock formations, and thus, a fitting consequence for bad behavior.

Instead, I will offer another hypothesis.

I believe my ancient relatives were experimenting with tarichos, an ancient form of salt pork. If you take a human body and allow it to desiccate in a vat of salt, or soil that is high in salinity, you will succeed in preserving it. It may ferment slightly, be colonized by some bacteria, but that will only make it more tender. It will smell earthy and delicious, but not of putrefaction.

A man, alone, walks into a great cave. The shadows breathe, the air becomes thick. He discovers several humans in a row, lined up like statues, or suspended like prosciutto, covered in waxy adipose or caked in white salt. He staggers backward, his torch flame guttering with his sudden, horrified movements. The monster growls from the depths…

And a myth is born.