Tag Archives: mythology

Werewolf Origins: Stalking the Wolf

Werewolves in myth and legend were indistinguishable from wolves
Last month I talked about the origin myths behind the modern day vampire as part of my mythical creatures series (previous posts  can be found here – dragons, fantastical horses, mythical creatures of the sky, saltwater spirits – Part 1 and Part 2freshwater spirits, and spirits of the desert). This month we’re looking at the origins of the werewolf. 

The myth seems rooted in the notions of ancient man about wolves; man both feared and admired the wolf, and in some ways the wolf was the ultimate enemy man wished to emulate. Some of the earliest suspected origin myths include:
  • The Sorcerer of Trois Freres – this shamanistic cave drawing depicts the “Sorcerer”, a curious animal/human hybrid;
  • The story of Romulus and Remus, the founding fathers of Rome, supposedly raised by wolves. Apparently it seems probable there were such instances, and it’s believed tales of feral children, raised by wolves and behaving like wolves, strengthened links between wolf and human in our mind;
  • The Greek legend of Actaeon, turned into a stag for spying on Artemis bathing, and the older Akkadian legend of a shepherd transformed into a wolf by the goddess Ishtar;
  • Viking berserkers (and similar in other cultures) – warriors who went into battle berserk and ravening, mad ‘as wolves or hounds’ and biting their shields. They may have been clad in animal shirts;
  • The Lykaian Zeus – it was believed a ritual of sacrifice to this sky god involved one participant being transformed into a wolf for a period of nine years, unless they ate human flesh, in which case the change became permanent.
Links to the moon and the lunar cycle may have arisen from the behaviour of wolves baying at the moon, and the belief that moonlight robbed the human mind of reason – hence the word lunatic, from the French lune meaning moon – though it was never part of the werewolf legend that they would transform in the light of the moon. However, in these early beliefs we can see the beginnings of the werewolf legend. 

The first use of the word ‘wehrwulf’ was in the Ecclesiastical Ordnances of Cnut, a Danish king. The word appears to have been used to mean either berserkers, or wild, animal like people, in the sense that he described unchristians as wild, ravening animals. This attitude may have derived from early Christian observations of animalistic, fertility rituals and other pagan customs. Later the word wehrwulf referred to an outlaw or outcast – people associated with viciousness and bloody slaughter. 

The first written, werewolf legend appeared in Ireland. The writer was Giraldus de Barri, a churchman and Normal aristocrat, and his book was written around 1187. Giraldus may have been too credulous, accepting as truth many old tales, and he was particularly fascinated with an old werewolf tale he heard.  

Supposedly a priest and his boy companion came across a wolf in the forest, which spoke to them, saying he was a man of Clan Altan, and the clan was cursed by the Abbot Natalis. Every seven years, two members of the clan (a man and a woman) were forced to take the shape of a wolf for seven years. If they survived, they would resume human form, and two others would take their place. The wolf wanted the priest to minister to his companion wolf, who lay dying. He completed the rites without final communion, then cut through the skin of the wolf, peeling it back to reveal the face of an elderly woman; and so he offered the Blessed Sacrament. 

The tale is similar to the Lykaian Zeus myth, and also an Irish/Scandanavian tradition whee St Patrick turned rivals into wolves for nine years, and a fragmentary tale from what is now Germany, where St. Willibrod turned godless people into wolves for seven years. 

The Norman writer, Marie de France, also wrote an epic poem about a werewolf. Her protagonist, Bisclavret, is a knight who admits to his wife he is a garwaf, a man who becomes a wolf for three days each week. His wife betrayed him, trapping him in the form of a wolf by stealing his clothes, to marry a former paramour, but the treachery was later discovered by the king and the knight restored. Although Bisclavret was treated sympathetically, the writer made a point of emphasising the terrible and savage nature of the garwaf.

The later wolf-man hybrid werewolf
 In the later 16th century and all through the 17th century, belief in witches increased; one of their supposed magical powers was to transform into animal forms.  The forms they could take were endless, and one of them was the wolf. Many werewolf cases thus arose out of suspected witchcraft.

Peter Stubb, the werewolf of Cologne, Germany, was said to transform via witchcraft. He was tried in 1589 for a variety of crimes, including witchcraft, incest, and murder. He allegedly transformed by use of a magic belt, which was never found. He was sentenced to horrific tortures, followed by death by decapitation.  Around the same time, several Frenchmen were also tried for lyncathropy. Stories circulated, fuelling the werewolf panic. Several of them were burned alive, usually for crimes of witchcraft and heresy. Some may have been cannibals. 

In 1697, Charles Perrault, a collector of such supernatural tales, published a collection of folkore tales, including one wolf-themed one which caused a stir. It was about a pretty young girl who journeys through a dark wood to take some groceries to her grandmother wearing a red cloak. Yes, Little Red Riding Hood contributed to the werewolf legend, although in this original version there is no happy ending. Since the girl experienced no surprise at a talking wolf, it was suggested it was a werewolf, which she met first in human guise, then in wolf guise when it devoured her. The Grimm version, published in 1812, has the more satisfying end.  The story played its part in keeping the wolf, and the werewolf, prominent in the rural mind. 

Despite later attempts of scientist and psychiatrist to explain the 16th century werewolf cases, including Freud’s own theories about sexual abuse, the werewolf continued to hold a dark fascination – so much so that when cinema became popular in the early 20th century, and Dracula and Frankenstein were big earners at the box office, the film industry searched around for a new horror – and found the werewolf legend. With no well-known book for the movie to be based upon, the studio had to ensure the movie could stand on its own. 

The screenplay of The Wolf Man passed off certain inventions of the writer as gypsy tradition, such as limiting the werewolf to Eastern Europe (consistent with the vampire and monster movies), and the werewolf used no magic to transform himself, but was transformed unwillingly by the rays of the moon. Another invention was the notion a person could be ‘infected’ by the werewolf’s bite, which had no precursor whatsoever in the folklore, and the use of silver to kill a werewolf. The film also originated the concept of the werewolf as a human-wolf hybrid. While the folklore reflected a transformation completely into a wolf, indistinguishable from others of the species, now the werewolf as we know it was born. 

So while the werewolf has roots in very old folklore and legends, the modern-day werewolf, made popular in film and TV, which changes at the full moon, infects with its bite, and is susceptible to silver, is almost entirely a construct of the film industry.

 
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Source Material: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Cannot Rest In Peace – Encyclopedia of the Undead by Dr. Bob Curran 

Islammic Mythology – Desert Spirits

Islammic mythology
Today we’re crossing over to the Middle East to take a look at some of the spirits lurking amongst the sand dunes of the trackless deserts. This is part of a series of posts on mythical creatures. Previous posts  can be found here – dragons, fantastical horses, mythical creatures of the sky, saltwater spirits – Part 1 and Part 2, and freshwater spirits. 

Iblis – A fallen angel of Islam, and the spirit of doubt. Like, we don’t have enough doubts of our own, right? As if that’s not bad enough, this guy is also a type of djinn with, wait for it, an army of djinn to command!

This guy has a real egotistical thing happening, since he refused to bow to Adam when Allah commanded it, saying ‘I am better than him. Him, you created out of clay. Me, you created out of fire’. OK, I paraphrased. The way he said it was more pompous, and in fact the Quran describes him as ‘puffed up with pride’. Funnily enough, that was enough to get this guy tossed out on his ear.

He pleaded for clemency, so Allah was merciful, and he wasn’t sent immediately to hell. Instead of being grateful, Iblis then lurked in wait for humanity, hoping to tempt them into evil. Spirit of doubt indeed!

Djinn – Invisible and illusion-casting, this lot can appear as anything they like and pretty much anywhere they like. No wonder everyone wanted the genie in a bottle! I suppose the magic lamp myth may have been one way to ensure all your brass stayed shiny. ‘Here, polish this – if you rub it hard enough, a genie may come out and grant you three wishes and then you can wish to never have to polish anything again!’

Djinn are spirits, neither human nor angel. The Quran says they were created from smokeless fire, and so they have no bodies of their own. Although they are masters of disguise, the tell-tale betraying them every time is their flaming eyes. As they are made from flame, their eyes, apparently, cannot be disguised. The fact that the eyes are set vertically (instead of horizontally like ours) is a mere detail and hardly conclusive in identifying them a non-human of course! A djinni is believed to exist for every human, with the djinni seeking to tempt his human into evil. If a djinni is hurt by his human, the human also hurts himself, the result being insanity.

Djinn were believed the be the cause of violent sandstorms, whirlwinds and shooting stars. Like fairies, they steal babies (or swap them), push people down stairs, spill their milk and give them nightmares, but this is small-time stuff compared to some of their other acts – epidemics, convulsions, insanity and death. Their preferred residence was the desert, with every place having its own resident spirit which must be appeased before a traveller could pass. It was necessary to respectfully seek permission – and if greeted with a spinning pillar of sand, the best advice was RUN!!

The standard advice for avoiding the wrath of djinn is not to throw water on a fire (djinn like to rest in the ashes), don’t throw stones in the desert (you might hit an invisible djinni), treat black cats, black dogs and snakes with respect (djinn like these forms) and never sweep at night , apparently for ‘obvious reasons’, but this one has me stumped! Salt, loud sounds, and strong odours (especially tar) keep them away, as does pins, needles, silver, iron and steel. 

Shaitan – A type of djinni that is invariably evil and tempts humanity into evil by creating illusions to tempt the human into sin. They are said to be endlessly imaginative, and therefore, I expect, rather successful. For this reason, they are closely associated with inspiration, poetry and art, and often a Shaitan was said to be responsible for the work of an artist or composer. I feel the need to check under my bed to see if a Shaitan is responsible for my novels now!

The Shaitan seems to be the (or an) origin of the genie in a bottle myth, as Shaitans were trapped in bottles with the seal of Solomon on them. A fisherman who pulled up a lead-sealed bottle opened it to release a dark smoke. Forming into a malevolent presence, it promised to grant him one wish – that he might choose the manner of his death! Gruesome, and quite some way from the traditional three wishes. The Shaitan had, in fact, upon his imprisonment resolved to grant the man who released him riches, some kind of monarchy, and three wishes, but after three hundred years without surcease he downgraded his generosity. 

The fisherman was quite clever, refusing to believe the Shaitan had ever fit in the bottle, as huge and as grand as it was, unless the Shaitan would re-enter the bottle, whereupon  the fisherman sealed him inside once again.

Shaitan eat dirt and excrement (ew! Someone needs to introduce them to a proper menu!) and they dislike water. One nasty piece of lore suggests if you don’t wash your hands after supper, you may wake to find them licked to bloody stumps.To protect yourself against Shaitans, use fresh water, the bone of a hare, or a white cock. Also, they can’t open doors, so if you keep your doors shut at night, you should be good.

Ghoul – A most malicious species, often sporting matted, shaggy hair hanging over his eyes. He shapeshifts constantly, but watch for hooves as feet – they won’t change, no matter the form! Ghouls often prefers horses and oxen (perhaps because it hides their feet) and camels (go figure). 

Ghouls can also appear in human form, lighting fires and calling out to human travellers. As ugly as they are, ghouls can sing as sweetly as  siren, thus luring humans into their camp to be devoured whole. Bizarrely, if you offer to cut a ghoul’s hair so he can see, he’ll go out of his way to help you. So it might be useful to keep some barber’s scissors handy.

Ghouls also have a female version, Si-lats. They are much the same as the males, except she don’t want her hair cut, she wants you to nurse at her breast, and then she will treat you as her own. Just. Ew. 

It is possible to kill a ghoul with one blow, but if you then strike it again it will return to life.  So I recommend you don’t hit it one more time ‘just to be sure’.



Devalpa – This one is sneaky! Often appearing as a decrepit old man standing by the side of the road, sighing and weighed down by life. He pleads with the passers-by to carry him on their shoulders. If anyone does, he shape-shifts immediately, snakelike tentacles emerging from his stomach and wrapping around the human. The devalpa commands the human to ‘Work for me!’. The human may choose to live and be the devalpa’s slave – or die. Talk about a disincentive to be a good samaritan!

The devalpa features in the story of Sinbad the Sailor. Sinbad was captured by a devalpa who prevailed upon him for assistance. After weeks of unbearable servitude, Sinbad fermented grapes into wine so that drunkenness might ease his misery. Seeing the effects of the wine, the devalpa commanded Sinbad to pour him some. As the devalpa grew drunk, his grip on Sinbad loosened. Escaping from it’s grip, Sinbad dashed its brains out with a rock. I can’t say I would have felt any differently!


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Beasties of the Deep: Mythological Creatures of the Sea – Part 2

Mythological Creatures of the Sea

Welcome to Part 2 of Mythological Creatures of the Sea. If you missed Part 1 you can find it here. Previous posts i the mythical creatures series can be found here (on dragons, fantastical horses, and mythical creatures of the sky). Today we’re dealing with other beasts of the deep!

Hippocampus depiction in ancient art
Hippocampus – Still no hippos….

Common to Phoenician and Greek mythology, the hippocampus is typically depicted as the front half of a horse with a fish’s tail. 

Poseidon, god of the sea, but also of horses and earthquakes (talented chap!), was described by Homer as drawn by “brazen-hoofed” horses over the sea’s surface, whereas Neptune (the Roman name for Poseidon) has a sea chariot drawn by hippocampi, gicing the god slightly different depictions in each culture. 

Neptune’s horses do appear as hippocampi in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. I’ve seen this fountain in the flesh…er, stone… and didn’t realise the horses were more than just horses! In my defence, it was a little crowded at the time. And I had sore feet. 


You don’t see this one much in fantasy, I’m afraid. So if you’re looking for something a little unusual… consider the poor, forgotten hippocampus!
The Trevi Fountain in Rome

Kraken – Oh, giant octopus!

OK, that’s some octopus. The kraken, of truly giant proportions, probably had more than 8 arms and was reputed to live off the coasts of Norwayand Iceland.

One tale goes that the Kraken was sometimes mistaken for an island, and the real danger to sailors is the whirlpool left in its wake. Other tales more commonly have the kraken wrapping its tentacles around hapless ships and dragging them to a watery grave. It was said if the kraken were to seize hold of the largest man-of-war, it could be pulled to the very bottom of the sea. 

The myth may have grown from sightings of the giant squid, estimated to grow to 13–15 m (40–50 ft) in length (including tentacles). Although giant squid usually lives at great depths, they are sometimes sighted at the surface and may even have attacked ships.

The kraken makes an appearance in The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The monster that drives the Fellowship of the Ring into the mines of Moria may also have been a kraken or kraken type creature. 


Man o’ War

Kraken
















Each Uisge – Beautiful Horse!

 Pronounced Ach (rhymes with Bach, the composer; the “ch” is a gutteral sound, caught in the throat, almost as if you are choking – if you’ve ever heard a Scot say ‘Och!’ you know what I mean) ishkeh (like “shish kabob”, without the first “sh” and “bob” at the end). Yes, as far as I can see, there is no logical connection between the spelling of these words and their pronunciation!

Considered a relative of the Scottish kelpie, or waterhorse (which is not a Loch Ness Monster type-creature – we’ll cover waterhorses ina  future post), the Each Uisge of the Scottish Highlands is reputedly the most dangerous water-dwelling creature in the British Isles. 

Unlike the kelpie, the Each Uisge lives in the sea, sea lochs and fresh water lochs and is far more vicious. It often appears as a beautiful horse or an incredibly handsome man. In human form, the Each Uisge can be recognised only by the water weeds in his hair. Highlanders tended to be wary of lone animals or people near the edges of lochs for fear it was the Each Uisge. 

If a man or woman mounts the Each Uisge while in horse-form, they are safe so long as they remain out of sight or scent of water – although this may be difficult in Scotland! For if the Each Uisge scents water, his back becomes sticky, preventing the rider from dismounting. The Each Uisge then drags his rider to a watery doom, diving to the very deepest part of the loch. After the rider has drowned, the Each Uisge devours his victim, except for the liver which floats to the surface. Presumably the poor soul has unstuck from the Each Uisge’s back at this point….

One tale of the Each Uisge recounts a blacksmith from Raasay who lost his daughter to the Each Uisge. In revenge, the blacksmith and his son made a set of large hooks, then roasted a sheep and heated the hooks until they were red hot. A mist appeared from the water and the Each Uisge rose from the depths of the loch, seizing the sheep, and the blacksmith and his son rammed the hooks into its flesh, killing it. Nothing remained in the morning except a jelly like substance.

The Each Uisge makes an appearance in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

Selkies – Seal People

Selkies, also called silkies or selchies, are also Scottish in origin (also Faroese, Icelandic and Irish folklore). A selkie is a magical seal which can take the form of a human. When in human form, the selkie sheds its seal skin. Without the skin, it cannot return to seal form. 

Unlike many other mythological creatures, the selkies lend themselves to romantic tragedies. A human might take a selkie for a lover, not knowing their lover is not human, and wakes one day to find them gone. In other’s, knowing their lover is a selkie, the mortal takes and hides the selkie’s seal skin, denying them the ability to return to the sea. This is the only way a human can keep a selkie lover, for if the human does not hide the selkie’s skin, the selkie must wait seven years before they may make contact with their human lover again. 

Male selkies are very beautiful and seductive to human women, but prefer dissatisfied women, such as those at home waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to call a selkie, she must go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea. Then the selkie will come to her. 

If a man steals a selkie’s skin, she is in his power and forced to become his wife. Female selkies supposedly made prized wives, but they often gaze at the sea, missing their home. If she can find her skin, she will return to the sea, even if she has mortal children. Often it is one of her children who unwittingly finds her skin and allows her the opportunity to escape. How sad! Such escaped selkie women usually avoid their mortal husband but may return to visit their children from time to time. 

In the Faroe Islands there is the story of the Seal Wife. A young farmer goes to watch the selkies dance on the beach. Hiding the skin of a selkie maid, he forces her to marry him, and hides her skin in a locked chest to which only he has the key. On the day he forgets the key, she takes back her skin and escapes back to the sea, leaving behind her husband and children. 

Although selkie lore tends to romantic tragedies, not all tales are about faithless lovers. The fisherman, Cagan, married a selkie and sailed against his wife’s wishes into dangerous weather. His selkie wife shifted to seal form and saved him, although this meant she could not return to him or her happy home for seven years. 

I find the selkie folklore very sad. Nothing ever seems to go right for selkies who love mortals or mortals who love selkies. Doomed from the start!

Selkies also appear in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

That’s it for our mythical creatures of the sea. I’ve been asked to cover undines and rusalkas (other types of water creatures, although more typically associated with fresh water) so if you have any special requests, do let me know!

You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here – Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Part 1, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

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Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Siren Song of the Deep – Part 1

Mythical Creatures of the Sea

So she poured out the liquid music of her voice to quench the thirst of his spirit.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Welcome to the March mythical creatures installment. You can find the previous posts here (on dragons, fantastical horses, and mythical creatures of the sky).

I have too many mythical creatures of the sea to cover, so I’ve split it into two posts. Don’t worry, I won’t make you wait until April! The second half will be up next week. 

Mermaid

We’re probably all familiar with the contemporary depictions of this mythological sea creature, a female human from the waist up with the tail of a fish. A male version of a mermaid is known as a ‘merman’ and collectively they are known as ‘merfolk’ or ‘merpeople’. But what is the origin of the myth?

As it happens, mermaids are depicted in many cultures, far too many legends to cover here.
In British folklore, mermaids are considered unlucky omens, either foretelling disaster or causing it. Mermaids may also be a sign of approaching bad weather. 

A popular Greek legend has it that Alexander the Great’s sister turned into a mermaid after she died (can I have this afterlife?). When she encountered a ship, she would ask the sailors ‘Is King Alexander alive?’ If the sailors replied ‘He lives and reigns and conquers the world’ she would be pleased enough to calm the sea and bid the sailors farewell. Any other answer enraged her and caused her to raise a terrible storm, dooming the ship and every sailor on board. 

Mermaids typically live in the ocean, using their beauty and charm to lure sailors to their deaths. They have also been described as being capable of swimming up rivers or streams to freshwater lakes. One legend recounts the Laird of Lorntie going to the aid of a drowning woman, only to be dragged back by his servant. Uncharitable man! But no, the servant warned, the woman is a mermaid, whereupon the mermaid screamed she would have killed the laird if not for the lucky intervention of the servant. Whew! Close escape. 

Traditionally the mermaid was depicted unclothed, but censorship in modern culture has resulted in mermaids shown partially clothed or with hair covering their breasts. Interestingly, some mermaids are described as 2000 feet long! That is not a fish I want to have an argument with…

Most lore deals with the female, with mermen described as uglier and wilder than mermaids and having little interest in humans. Looks like us gals are safe from this creature!

The mermaid appears frequently in popular culture. There is, of course, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and quite recently, mermaids made an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Or were they sirens…

Sirens

The sirens come from Greek mythology and were depicted in later folklore as mermaid like, and thus often confused, but they are not the same thing at all!

The sirens were originally described as ‘winged maidens’, but later portrayed as ‘fish-like’, thus creating the confusion with mermaids. Early Greek art shows the sirens as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. This transformed to female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, and playing musical instruments, most often harps. Later, Sirens were sometimes depicted as beautiful women, whose bodies, not only their voices, are seductive. Lastly, the mermaid-like depiction appeared. 

As mentioned, mermaids used their beauty and charm to lure sailors to their deaths (often compelling the men to jump overboard to drown in the mermaid’s arms) but sirens instead used their singing to lure sailors toward rocks, thus sinking the ship on the rocky coast of their island. The siren’s song is beautiful and irresistible, described as:

‘Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.’

From this legend comes the expression ‘siren song’ referring to an appeal that is hard to resist but, if heeded, will have terrible consequences. 

One version of the legend goes that sirens ate their victims. Another, based on the depiction of victims with rotting flesh, suggests the sirens do not kill sailors for food. Instead, the sirens lure sailors to be their companions but, with their feathers lost, cannot feed their new companions, who starve to death when they refuse to leave. I like that version better myself. 

Dangerous seductresses, the sirens were considered the daughters of the river god Acheolus and their number ranged from two to five. The Greeks did not regard them as sea deities, although the Romans more closely linked them to the sea as daughters of Phorcys (primordial sea god of hidden dangers of the deep – now isn’t that a mouthful?). The sirens did not live in the sea, but in a flowery meadow on their island. 

One tale has the sirens as companions of a young Persephone (daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess, Demeter) and given wings by Demeter to allow them to search for Persephone when she was abducted by Hades to become queen of the underworld. An alternative version of the myth has Demeter cursing the sirens for failing to intervene in Persephone’s abduction. The sirens searched for Persephone but eventually gave up and settled on their island home. Later, they were provoked by Hera (wife of Zeus) to enter a contest with the Muses and, defeated, were deprived of their wings.

Sirens are fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs could pass on by. In Homer’s classic The Odyssey, Odysseus plugged his ears with wax so he could not hear the siren’s song and so the sirens cast themselves into the sea and drowned (or turned into rocks, or so says the alternative version… go figure!). 

According to the mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, they were not sirens, but did the  bidding of sirens. 

The sirens are not truly creatures of the sea, but I have covered them here because they are sea-related and so often confused with mermaids. 

Tritons

Triton is a Greek god, son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Amphitrite, goddess of the sea, whose herald he is. He is most often represented as a sea-coloured merman

Over time, Triton’s name and image came to be associated with mermaid-like creatures, the Tritons.  Tritons were both male and female and formed the escort of marine divinities. Tritons were a race of sea gods and goddesses born from Triton.

Tritons are often considered the aquatic versions of satyrs. We haven’t covered satyrs yet – we’ll get to them in a  future post, but think Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Another description of Tritons is that of the Centaur-Tritons, also known as Ichthycentaurs, depicted with two horse’s feet in place of arms. 

Tritons are the trumpeters of the sea, using great trumpets of conch.  Blowing the conch would calm the waves, or stir them up. 

Triton (the god) appears in The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. He helps his father fight against the Titans of the sea, and is very rude to Percy Jackson, who is his half brother. In the book he is described as a young-looking merman with two fish tails instead of one, green skin, black hair tied into a ponytail, and wearing armour studded with pearls.

Nereids

Another one from Greek mythology! Those Greeks sure did get around. The Nereids were the nymphs of the sea, daughters of Nereus, god of the sea (how many sea gods are there, I ask you?). He had fifty daughters, so he sure knew how to party. 

These lovely ladies were friendly folk. Finally, a mythical creature that wants to be my friend instead of eat me, drown me or kill me! Nereids were known for helping sailors through rough storms and lived mostly in the Mediterranean. Too bad if you’re sailing across the Atlantic when a storm blows up…

The Nereids also often accompanied Poseidon (another sea-god if you recall…) and lived with their father in a silvery cave. The most well-known is Thetis, mother of Achilles. Who knew? First time I heard Achilles was half-sea-nymph!

Other notable Nereids included Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife (who else would a sea-god wed than the daughter of another sea-god?) and Galatea, who had the dubious honour of being the love of Cyclops.  

I’m off to consult my mythical creatures bestiary for next week’s Part 2 – Beasties of the Deep: Mythical Creatures Beneath the Waves. 



 
You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here – Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter.
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I Say Gryphon, You Say Griffin – Mythical Creatures of the Sky

Gryphon

Welcome to my third instalment about mythical creatures. The first two are here, on dragons and fantastical horses. Today we’re looking at the fearsome beasts populating our fantastical skies. 

If you’re a fantasy writer you probably spell this ‘Gryphon’. 

Is there a fantasy writer alive who can resist the lure of replacing an ‘i’ with a ‘y’ or an ‘f’ with a ‘p’? It just looks so much more mystical! I’m guilty as charged, so I am here to introduce you to the gryphon (or griffin, maybe griffon, if you’re nota fantasy writer!).

The gryphon has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The gryphon inherited a certain amount of status from the traditional belief the lion was king of the beasts. As such, the gryphon was considered powerful and majestic and itself a king of creatures. It was also the symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.

Traditionally, gryphons were found guarding treasures and priceless possession. That’s some heavy duty guard dog! 

Gryphons appear in a number of fantasy books but the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Mercedes Lackey’s ‘Valdemar’ books. Oh yeah… and those weird War of Power books. That was possibly a genre confusion between ‘fantasy’ and ‘erotica’. 

Sphinx – Greek not Egyptian!

In the Greek tradition, the sphinx is part lion, part woman and part eagle. Yep, always a woman. Sorry guys, you lucked out on this one, no lion and eagle bits for you! The sphinx has the head of a  woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird and was the guardian of the city of Thebes. Visitors were only permitted to pass after they answered this riddle:
 “Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?”
If you didn’t give the right answer, the sphinx strangled and devoured anyone who couldn’t answer the riddle. Eww! Certainly discourages hasty answers. I wonder how long you could think about it and if you could just decide to leave instead of answering?

The riddle was ultimately answered by Oedipus. Apparently devastated, the sphinx threw herself from a high rock and died. Seems a bit strange for something with wings, but it’s preferable to the alternative ending, which is she devoured herself. Double eww!

The death of the sphinx was followed by the rise of the new Olympian deities.

I can’t think of a book I’ve read with a sphinx, but I’ve got one featuring in my book The Blood Infernal. They also cropped up in some of the really old Dungeons & Dragons computer games, the Forgotten Realms ones I think. True to form, they asked riddles!

Phoenix – Holy Smoke!

The phoenix is a bird described with colourful plumage and a tail, most traditionally, of gold and scarlet (like Fawkes in the Harry Potter movies). Some legends describe the tail feathers as blue, green or purple, but really red and gold makes more sense. It fits with the fire theme, yeah? It’s so important to make an impact! The phoenix also has a beautiful song.

The phoenix lived anywhere between 500 – 1000 years before bursting into flame. OK, it builds a nest first, and then ignites. Close enough! It burns to ash and a new phoenix is born (or reborn) from the ashes (or sometimes an egg). I’m not sure why the nest is important. Legends differ as to whether the new phoenix is the offspring of the old phoenix or the old phoenix itself reborn. If the latter, this is one immortal bird!

The phoenix appears in Egyptian and Greek legends, but is described differently. To the Egyptians it was a stork or heron type bird, to the Greeks a peacock or eagle. In Greek tradition, the phoenix lived next to a well (in Phoenicia… surprise surprise). Each dawn it would bathe in the well and the Greek sun god, Helios, stopped his chariot to listen to the phoenix sing. Naturally, his chariot was the sun… your preferred vehicle of choice is the sun too, isn’t it? No? Time for an upgrade, Helios style!


Fawkes of Harry Potter fame is likely the most well-known phoenix currently, but phoenixes also appear in many other fantasy books. 

Hippogriff – Is That A Hippo Griffin Hybrid?

Actually the hippogriff has nothing to do with hippos! Supposedly it was the offspring of a gryphon and a mare (female horse). That tends to make it a little rare since gryphons look at horses more as, well, lunch than lover! Interestingly, it’s been suggested this gave rise to the expression  “to mate griffins with horses” – or in modern language, “pigs might fly!”. 

It probably comes as no surprise, then, to know the hippogriff was a symbol of impossibility and love. Oh… how sweet.

Hippogriffs do all right for themselves, apparently being faster, stronger and smarter than their fathers (sorry guys, looks like Mum holds all the cards in this one!) and able to travel at the speed of lightning. On the other hand, hippogriffs were easier to tame than gryphons, I guess because they were half domesticated animal to start with. I want me a hippogriff!

The most well-known hippogriff of the moment is Buckbeak from Harry Potter. I can’t think of another book featuring a hippogriff, but they also appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons computer games. 

What mythical creature would you like to see in future instalments? Or do you have a burning, unanswered question about a mythical creature? Let me know in the comments!

 






Photography by Erin Janssen Photography © 2012

You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here – Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Part 1 and Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

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