From it’s first written appearance in 1.A.D to the present day we have never lost our morbid fascination with this most changeable of creatures. Almost every established culture features tales of Werewolves, simply replacing the ‘wolf’ with the dominant apex predator of that society. The Egyptian God Anubis for example had the head of a jackal and there are Chinese legends depicting cursed individuals transforming into tigers at will.
Despite our familiarity with the Werewolf, our contemporary understanding of a creature transforming with the full moon howling at the night sky, is very different to the perception of the Werewolf in the 15th-17th centuries. During this period Werewolves were not a fairytale, but a real and present threat- unnatural beings associated with Satan in a time when religious persecution was rife. The accounts of the Werewolf Trials, which ran parallel to the Witch Trials, present us with insight into a politically unstable world shaped by religion, politics and fear.
This is a bit more highbrow than I usually want to get around here, but I’ve recently become aware of a couple of interesting posts about the supposed meaning of Abracadabra.
First, Steve Caruso of The Aramaic Blog sets out to refute the idea that the term is originally Aramaic and means something like “I create as I speak.” This has been the dominant assumption for the past fifty years or so, but Steve sees little to commend it. Along the way, he shades into Harry Potter territory by noting Stephen Jay’s 1977 conjecture that the term “may be from the Aramaic: Avada Kedavra, ‘May the thing be destroyed.'”
Next, Jim Davila of PaleoJudaica writes a brief note to caution us against so quickly dismissing the Aramaic hypothesis:
Technically [Steve] is correct, but I think it’s a little more complicated. Steve acknowledges that the first part of the phrase, “Abra,” could come from the Aramaic word “to create,” although it is badly pronounced (but ancient Greek-speaking magicians were less than rigorous about such things) and that the middle part, “ca” could be a preposition meaning “as” or “like.” The problem is the last part, “dabra” which looks like an Aramaic form (with the emphatic ending “-a”) of the Hebrew (not Aramaic) word davar (דבר), “word” (not “I speak”). As far as I can tell, this Hebraism is not attested in Aramaic, but we should be cautious about this, since the Hebrew root was borrowed into Aramaic, as we see in the word dibbura (דיבורא), “speech, “utterance,” etc., in Rabbinic Aramaic (Jastrow, 295; Sokoloff, Palestinian, 144; Sokoloff, Babylonian, 326). If we allow for the possible similar (and otherwise unattested) borrowing of davar, Abracadabra could be a badly pronounced rendition of “I create according to the word” or the like. It seems entirely plausible to me that an ancient Jewish or Greco-Egyptian magician could have come up with this sort of cool-sounding incantation.
Magicians in the Hellenistic world seem to have frequently adopted words of power from other languages. That is how the Hebrew name for God became mixed up with Greco-Roman magic in a number of different forms and spellings. I think Jim is right that this is at least a plausible explanation for this almost archetypical magic word.
Fifty thousand years ago or so, there were multiple species of humanoids on planet Earth. There were, of course, biologically modern humans: good old fashioned Homo sapiens sapiens. There were also, we now know, Neanderthals in northern Europe, Denisovans from Siberia to southeast Asia, and, most recently, the “hobbits” (Homo floresiensis) of the island of Flores in Indonesia. Sometimes these various groups traded with one another. Sometimes they fought one another. Occasionally—and the genetic evidence for this continues to mount—at least some of them *ahem* socialized with one another and produced viable offspring.
Some of this complexity is captured in a number of fascinating articles that have appeared recently at io9:
- How Did Neanderthal Genes Affect Humanity? Here Are Some Answers
- A Long Anthropological Debate May B on the Cusp of Resolution
- New Evidence Points to the Flores “Hobbit” as a Dwarf Species
I think the makings are there for a really interesting way to understand and depict the various races one encounters in fantasy fiction. How do these races differ from one another physiologically? What strengths and weaknesses do each possess? In fact, that is exactly how I went about fleshing out the various inhabitants of the Wonder: the true fae, dwarves, trolls, and little folk such as the yunwi tsunsdi.
For cultural/ethical characteristics and magical capabilities, I of course leaned heavily on mythology and folklore. I’m not trying to “explain” dwarves and the rest in anything like a scientific way, after all. But when looking for a bit of extra color, I was very happy to see what paleoanthropologists could tell me about some of humanity’s nearest kin.
Here is an awesome collection of online resources for Newfoundland faery traditions compiled by Dale Gilbert Jarvis and Nicole Penney.
Nicole Penney and I have been busy little elves this morning, working on a project we both love: Newfoundland fairylore!We have had some requests from people about the tradition of fairies in Newfoundland and Labrador, so we’ve pulled together some links to online material that we think might be useful to people doing projects or heritage fair displays on the faerie folk, fairy belief, tradition and superstition.
Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.
Jinn is a catch-all Arabic term for a variety of beings that, in Muslim doctrine, are neither humans nor angels but something in between. Whereas Adam, the first man, is said to have been created from earth and angels are beings of pure light, jinn were created from “smokeless fire.”
There are a couple of terminological traps that need to be addressed before we go any further. In Arabic, the singular masculine form is jinni. The singular feminine is jinniyah. Jinn is the plural form. Sometimes the words are spelled with a “d” in it (for example, djinn). Jinni is sometimes rendered in English as “genie,” but this isn’t technically correct. The “genie” spelling creates the false impression that the word is related to Latin genius, meaning “spirit.” In fact, jinni (and related forms) comes from an Arabic word meaning “hidden.” These beings are thus more or less “the hidden folk.”
Also, the jinn of the Arabic world have a close counterpart in the peris of Persia (modern Iran). It is a matter of speculation which came first, but the two mythologies clearly cross-pollinated each other throughout the Middle Ages. Both groups are said to live primarily in Koh-e-Qaf, the Mountains of Qaf (i.e., the Caucasus Mountains).
The image of jinn as magical slaves trapped inside lamps or bottles is largely derived from the Thousand and One Nights. What is often overlooked is that these stories depict individual jinn who have been reduced to slavery by powerful magicians. Jinn are naturally free beings that may be either helpful or malicious toward human beings.
Jinn are not immortal, though their lifespans far exceed that of humans. Like humans, they marry, have children. Sometimes they even marry humans and produce hybrid children with characteristics of both parents. (A Syrian legal treatise from the fourteenth century condemns such marriages.) They eat and drink as mortals do. They can also be killed either by other jinn or by mortals.
Even so, jinn are decidedly magical beings. They have the ability to travel quickly from place to place, and they are especially known as accomplished shapeshifters, often appearing in the forms of snakes, vultures, dogs, cats, or other animals. They can also take on human form, although evil jinn often appear hideously deformed.
In stories, jinn inject a note of unpredictability. They might reward the protagonist or unfairly punish him or her.
There are more than a few points of connection between the faery lore of Europe and the jinn lore of the Middle East. Both types of beings possess great magical powers, including invisibility and shapeshifting. Both are sometimes said to intermarry with humans—although jinn, like the elves of Scandinavia, seem to have a better track record in this regard than the Fair Folk of the Celtic nations.
Finally, like the faeries of Celtic folklore, jinn are vulnerable to iron. If anything, they are even more frightened of the substance, and in some legends can be put to flight by even the threat of iron.
There are many varieties of jinn within Middle Eastern folklore. In addition, under Muslim influence, many cultures outside the Middle East have adjusted their own indigenous beliefs about supernatural beings to conform to jinn-lore, often explicitly equating these previously existing entities with jinn. Some of these “hybridized” jinn types are: the asaid or zar of Ethiopia, the bori of northern Nigeria, the gnena or guinné of West Africa, and the bidadari or bediadari of Malaysia.
The best known dwarves are the dvergar of Norse myth, although cognate beings are found in all Germanic cultures. Norse dwarves are associated with rocks, earth, metalworking, and mining. They are subterranean and nocturnal beings. The are sometimes depicted as having pale, chalky skin. At other times, they are said to be blue-skinned, suggestive of a dead body. Death and decay seem to be prominent themes in dwarf-lore. It is even said that they made from the maggots in the body of Ymir, the world-giant.
Dwarves are master craftsmen. In Norse mythology, they fashioned many of the magical items used by gods and heroes, including Thor’s magic hammer Mjölnir and the chain that bound the great wolf Fenrir. They are also ill-tempered, greedy, miserly, and grudging. They are known to curse objects they are forced to make or that are stolen from them. They almost never willingly teach their magical knowledge. They can be highly distrusting of outsiders.
At the same time, these beings can be surprisingly friendly and loyal to those who treat them kindly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, dwarves are not particularly illustrious warriors in the original mythology.
Dwarves are by nature subterranean and nocturnal creatures. According to some accounts, sunlight even has an adverse effect on them. One legend has it that the god Thor entered into a riddle contest with Alvíss, a dwarf, which lasted until dawn. Exposed to direct sunlight, the dwarf was promptly turned to stone.
It is not at all certain that dwarves were originally conceived as being any shorter than humans. This detail only arises in the 1200s and later, and usually adds a note of humor to their depiction. Another later development is that, in later legends, dwarves are sometimes depicted as accomplished healers as well as smiths and craftsmen.
I don’t read Old Irish (the shame!), but it looks like the new archive Irish Sagas Online (University College Cork) also has scholarly articles in English as well as English translations of at least some of its content. It could be worth a visit for those of a historical bent. (H/T: Celtic Myth Podshow)
The most recent installment of Faith M. Broughan’s series on monsters in Greek mythology focuses on the Ophiotaurus. There is only one extant reference to this creature in all of Greco-Roman literature, but it does feature prominently in The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan.