Iroquois Supernatural: Culture, Commodity, Sacred, and Spooky

I have great friends. One of them recently found a copy of Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield at a yard sale and was kind enough to pick it up for me as a gift. Bastine is an Algonquin healer and elder. Winfield is a European American who describes himself as a “supernatural historian.”

This is a really neat, informative book. It is chock-full of fascinating tales, keen historical and cultural insights, and a pervasive sense of respect for the Iroquois culture(s) as a whole. I’m mentioning it not to provide a thorough review. My review can be summed up thusly: If you’re the sort of person who is interested in Native American cultures and particularly Native American mythology and folklore, get this book!

I’m bringing this book up, rather, for the guidance it may provide for writers wanting to handle mythological material from outside their culture with reverence and sensitivity. This is a topic that has recently come up in an article at Fantasy Faction by Brian O’Sullivan with respect to Celtic, and particularly Irish cultural artifacts. (You can also read my observations.)

As when I wrote about the uproar over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology, I still believe that there are situations where leaving elements of Native American or African mythology out of a story can be more colonialistic than including them. I’m thinking particularly of stories in the contemporary fantasy genre that are set in North America—which happens to be what I write. Populating North America with unicorns and griffins rather than naked bears and great horned serpents strikes me as a lazy and Euro-centric way to tell a story.

Still, the challenge remains to handle these cultural artifacts with care and not treat them as mere commodities. Here is where Bastine and Winfield’s concerns in writing Iroquois Supernatural intersect with my own admittedly different concerns. First and most basically, writers who want to include these kinds of cultural artifacts need to read lots of books like this one, written from a clearly sympathetic viewpoint.

Second, the authors draw a distinction between what they classify as “the sacred” and “the spooky.” This is a distinction that especially writers from outside a given culture need to keep in mind. In the introduction, they write:

Figuring out what to include in this book has been tricky. Where do you draw the line between miracle and magic? Between religion and spirituality? Between the sacred and the merely spooky? This book doesn’t try to choose. How could anyone? (p. 2)

But then they proceed to explain their preference for the spooky over the sacred:

All religions are at heart supernatural. Throughout history most societies have had both a mainstream supernaturalism and others that are looked upon with more suspicion. The “out” supernaturalism is often that of a less advantaged group within the major society. What the mainstream calls “sacred” is its supernaturalism; terms like “witchcraft” are applied to the others. Someone’s ceiling is another’s floor, and one culture’s God is another’s Devil. To someone from Mars, what could be the objective difference? (p. 2)

This comment reminds me of the privileged place Judeo-Christian supernaturalism has in my own culture. Perhaps it will remind you of something else in your own frame of reference. But the writers go on to admit that within Iroquois society itself there are distinctions between the sacred and the spooky. They conclude,

This book is not about the sacred traditions of the Iroquois. It is a profile of the supernaturalism external to the religious material recognized as truly sacred. This is a book largely about the “out” stuff: witches, curses, supernatural beings, powerful places, and ghosts. (p. 3)

Even so, the authors admit that it isn’t always easy to draw firm lines between sacred and spooky. The fact that one of the authors is a practicing traditional healer within a neighboring Native American community is bound to help in this regard! Later on, we hear Winfield explaining further about their approach to this cultural material:

This is not a book about Iroquois religion or anything else we knew was sacred enough to be sensitive. Not only is that not our purpose, but, as a Mohawk friend said recently to me, “If it’s sacred, you don’t know it.” And coauthor Michael Bastine would not reveal it. (p. 22)

So perhaps we can isolate the following touchstones as the beginning of an approach to including cultural material from marginalized or minority groups within our society:

  • Aim for the spooky, not the sacred. Frankly, I’m not interested in writing philosophical or theological treatises on the spirituality of marginalized peoples. (I will admit to a certain interest in reading such studies.) But I love stories about ghosts, monsters, trickster figures, or what have you. As Bastine and Winfield themselves note numerous times, these sorts of things are common to every culture. That suggests to me that, with suitable awareness, writers can fruitfully explore them. If something gets too close to the lived faith commitments of others, however, I tend to want to shy away from it in terms of worldbuilding and storytelling,
  • If it is sacred enough to be sensitive, leave it out. I’m well aware that one reaches a point of sensitivity sooner in some cultures than others, and with different topics in some cultures than in others. Still, is there a better place to start?
  • Strive to understand as much about the culture as a whole as possible. I don’t want to add a cultural element to a story without a firm grasp of how that element relates to others in its “native” environment. Understanding the ins and outs of a culture and its history is a great inoculation against a grab-bag approach.

Do you think it’s possible for writers to handle other world cultures with sensitivity? When have you seen a writer handle well the artifacts of a culture to which he or she was an outsider?

Pisuhands: Fiery Estonian Household Spirits

By Alb1183 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http:// creativecommons. org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pisuhands are a type of Estonian domestic sprite that customarily assumes the form of a firedrake or small dragon. (Estonian and Finnish are related both linguistically and culturally.) While their Germanic cousins, the kobolds, often live in the hearth or behind the stove, pisuhands represent the fire itself. They are almost always male and with a youthful appearance when in human form. They are often being mistaken for small boys. They tend to wear red caps and white tunics.

Far from simple tonttus (the Finnic equivalent of Celtic brownies), pisuhands can have impressive magical abilities. In addition to their ability to assume the form of firedrakes, they might also turn into black cats or chickens. In some accounts, they appear as a rooster indoors and as a drake outdoors.

Pisuhands perform household tasks such as keeping the firewood dry as well as tending to the stable and barns and making sure that the pantry and money chest are well stocked. They have also been known to bring gifts to the master of the house. Occasionally, they acquire these gifts by stealing them from others. Furthermore, they are sometimes seen guarding treasure.

Pisuhands are often quite patriarchal in their outlook. They tend to form especially strong bonds with the male head of a household. They are very loyal to the families they serve. The master of a house should keep the firedrake well fed and treat it with respect. They can also become revengeful when insulted, and are liable to burn the house down.

They have been known to travel across the world doing chores for their masters, bringing them essential medicine, exotic foods, and gifts, in exchange for being taken care of.

If startled in flight, a pisuhand might drop some of his treasure. In some accounts, one can shout “half and half” or throw a knife at the creature to make him drop his treasure. If two people together see one, they should cross their legs in silence, take the fourth wheel off the wagon, and take shelter. The drake will then be compelled to leave them some of his haul.

Irish Mythology: Culture or Commodity?

Here’s a very thought-provoking article by Brian O’Sullivan on how elements of Irish culture and mythology have been used—and more often abused—in fantasy fiction. His main point is found, I think, in the these two paragraphs:

The problem, however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale, but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic [nonsense] and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades.

O’Sullivan is clearly and rightly passionate about this, and he provides much food for thought. I’m grateful for his raising my awareness of how things things are experienced for people who cherish these mythological elements, even if they don’t literally believe in them.

He later mentions the backlash over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology in her “History of Magic in North America.” I’ve shared some of my thinking on that matter elsewhere, and much of what I say there applies here as well. My fiction is set in the United States of America. To write authentically, I feel I have an obligation to deal with the entire melting pot of cultures that I see around me on my way to work every morning. Therefore, this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity.

Of course, it’s up to you, my readers, to decide whether I’ve met that challenge.

Review of Wonder Woman (No Spoilers!)

On the way to the cinema yesterday, my daughter and I were talking about male and female role models in film. I told her about a YouTube video I had recently found that described Newt Scamander (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as a refreshingly different model for what a male hero is supposed to be like. We both agreed that, though we enjoyed stories featuring the more “traditional” male heroic archetype (Harry Potter, Iron Man, etc.), it was important to remember that there are other ways of being “a man.”

We looked forward to seeing this newest interpretation of Wonder Woman, a character who, from her inception in the 1940s, offered a rather complex role model for women and girls. She is a woman who is at the same time beautiful, kind, intelligent, and willing and more than able to kick butt and take names when the situation calls for it.

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and portrayed expertly by Gal Gadot, measures up and then some! Other reviewers have commented that Wonder Woman doesn’t necessarily feel like a superhero movie. Yes, there are super-powered characters in outlandish costumes, but Jenkins grounds these characters so thoroughly in the real world that I found it quite easy to suspend disbelief and imagine that it would be reasonable for Diana and the rest to exist in my world.

I think a large part of this is that the movie doesn’t flinch from portraying the horrors of World War I. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that the “villain” of this movie is Ares, the god of war. The true villain is World War I itself—the senseless destruction, the loss of life, the social dislocation, and especially the loss of hope that this war, perhaps more than any war that came before it, brought. And, as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor says in a moving piece of dialogue near the end, it was all something we humans did to ourselves.

There is even dialogue that implicates those who would appease the enemy by calling for an armistice are complicit in the tragedy. I don’t know if that is meant to be a cynical note, another gut punch when we the viewers have already been schooled in just how bad war can be. But I couldn’t help hearing that line in the context of Gal Gadot’s former service in the Israeli Defense Force and the many broken cease-fires her country has contended with from enemies all around. Is there a political commentary in there? I don’t know, and at any rate, if it was, it was so exceedingly subtle that it didn’t come across as in any way preachy. (As a side note, this movie could have easily gotten way too dark without the comic relief. It is applied liberally, but never in places that where it detracts from the drama.)

Gadot’s Diana and Pine’s Trevor are both complex and well-acted characters. They are multi-dimensional, and the chemistry between them seemed quite authentic to me. Some of the supporting cast may have come across as more one-dimensional, but their one dimension still added to the overall tone of the movie in important ways.

Are there nits that I could pick? Sure. As visually stunning as the movie is, there are places where Jenkins relied a bit too much on “bullet time.”

Most of my problems (and they are admittedly minor) have to do with the logic of the story world. How can the people of Themiscyra can speak so many modern languages and yet have apparently no knowledge of modern warfare—or indeed the modern world? Who thought flaming arrows were a good idea? How can a proud race of warriors manage not to invent armor for the shoulders or neck? (Yes, that’s directly from the source material, but still…)

Go see Wonder Woman, and take your young teen (or older) children. As I noted above, the scenes of wartime violence and its societal effects are quite intense, probably too intense for younger kids. But beyond that, there is little to offend. There are a few lines of sexual innuendo that will probably go over the heads of most children (and possibly more than a few teenagers!). I don’t recall any questionable language at all, though I may be forgetting something.

In my opinion, Wonder Woman strikes an almost perfect balance of humor, action, and thought-provoking themes. Well worth the price of a ticket.